Editorials — July 27, 2015 12:47 — 0 Comments

Distinctions in Proximity: Quenton Baker and Alex Gallo-Brown

The following correspondence, which took place as part of a series of conversations between artists and activists, was distributed as a free pamphlet to attendees of the US Social Forum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in June. For the project, which was conceived by the Philadelphia-based artist/activist Maggie Ginestra, participants were asked to begin with a question about the other’s work and to go back and forth three times.

Quenton Baker is a poet and teacher whose work operates from the premise that poetry is a vital art, one that can rewrite narratives by naming the storms inside of us all; his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Vinyl Poetry, The New Guard, and Cabildo Quarterly. He is also a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House Fellow. Alex Gallo-Brown is a former union organizer, caregiver for people with disabilities, and farmworker. His writing has appeared in publications that include Los Angeles Review of Books, The Brooklyn Rail, Salon.com, and The Stranger. Both are Seattle-based artists and activists. Graduates of Seattle’s Garfield High School, they have been friends for almost two decades.

Their conversation concerns unions, higher education, the possibilities for individual and communal emancipation, and the importance of making art as well as protest.


Quenton Baker: So let’s begin with unions. Why are they important?

Alex Gallo-Brown: For two reasons. First, because they give workers a voice in the workplace. That means the right (or even the obligation, I would argue, in many cases) to organize a collectivity that can bargain with management about that issues that members deem most important to their lives. So higher wages, better benefits, fewer hours, increased workplace safety—these are all on the table. Without a union, workers are subject to the decisions of management, which is subject to the whims of the market, which, as we know, can be exceedingly cruel to actual living, breathing human beings. The most important function of a labor union, to my mind, is its ability to give workers a substantial, auditory voice in the determination of the conditions of their working lives.

The other important thing that unions can do is influence political elections through campaign donations. In the era of Citizens United, where two billionaire brothers can contribute more than nine hundred million dollars to influence various political candidates and organizations, unions can use a portion of their dues to support politicians, political parties, ballot initiatives, and so on. In an ideal world, all private money would be eliminated from the political system. In the meantime, unions can provide some measure of a countervailing force to the overriding corporate political influence.

Finally—and more metaphysically—I believe that unions can offer an experience of collectivity, of collective action and identity, that is vital in that construction of the kinds of political movements that we want and need.

Why? What’s your stake in the issue?

QB: one of the spaces where we see that market cruelty play out is in higher education, and that’s a space that i have a deep investment in. there’s a seemingly never-ending line of writers and academics, with advanced degrees, willing and able to teach at the university level. institutions take advantage of this surplus, cut costs by filling their faculties with at-will, underpaid, part-time employees, providing a low-overhead education to a large percentage of their students. this has been my life in the past and is almost guaranteed to be my life in the future.

we’ve read the stories (or heard them from half-sleep colleagues in the adjunct lounge) of burnt-out instructors having office hours from trunk of their car, driving hours between campuses to get around the four-class per term limit, breaking themselves apart at multiple universities/colleges to earn something resembling a living wage. it’s dire. and beyond the suffering and stress that comes with low-wage work and living at or below the poverty line, there’s the very real issue of the students, no doubt overpaying and/or going in to debt to afford their classes, being under served.

obviously, there are larger issues at play that unions can’t address (the general tenor we have toward education in this country, for-profit universities, predatory lending, etc.), but i wonder what they can do. we actually had a union where i was teaching. it did nothing of note. not for lack of effort, but they had no leverage. the administration knew there were dozens of people ready to take our jobs. they argued, they fought, negotiated. but when it came time to approve the new round of contracts, aside from some token concessions, everything was functionally the same.

activists and artists have always worked together. artists and teachers have an incredible amount of crossover. there was an event in the bay area recently where artists and adjuncts combined their efforts, demonstrated in the hopes of raising the level of consciousness around what i believe to be a genuine crisis. do you see a way that union-centered activists and artists can collaborate in a meaningful way on this and other labor issues (maternity/paternity leave, wage gap, etc.)?

AGB: That’s a good question. Obviously, unions aren’t as strong as they used to be. They do continue to exert some influence in the public sector, where they represent about forty percent of American workers, including public education, where teacher’s unions are particularly strong, which is why, of course, the Right has made such an effort in recent years to demonize public education, as in the ostensibly liberal-friendly documentary/wolf in sheep’s clothing, Waiting for Superman.

But there is no doubt that unions are weaker now than they were, for example, in the years following World War II. The reasons for that, in my understanding, are complicated and confluent. They include: a near-monopoly of neoliberal thinking among the governing elite; significant changes in technology and the way that people work now; the outsourcing of blue-collar jobs to other countries; a Left that can often be more interested in identity politics than the workers’ rights; a Right that is intent on depicting unions as communist, authoritarian, and corrupt; and so on. What’s strange about that last part is that unions actually aren’t, or don’t have to be, and often haven’t been, all that subversive to business interests. In the current system, labor unions need capital to survive. They need capitalism to function in order for their members to continue to have jobs.

So for those of us who are interested in imagining alternative ways of organizing ourselves, our resources, our economies, our social structures, and so on, it is possible that unions aren’t a good answer. I certainly grew frustrated with the hierarchical and bureaucratic aspects of the union that I worked for as well as a kind of humorlessness and cheerlessness that can be pervasive on Left in general and in the labor movement in particular.

That said, I continue to believe in unions as a force for good, mostly because they meet working people where they’re at—literally, the site of their labor, the place where they make their living—and they ask them to imagine themselves not only as individual producers/consumers subject to forces larger than they control but also as individual human beings who are worthy of dignity, respect, and fair compensation for their labor. The premise of a union is that you can achieve these things only through coordinated, cooperative action with other people. That’s powerful, and almost unique among messages disseminated by our institutions of culture.

I do believe that union activists can collaborate with artists and educators to build a powerful political movement. That doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges, however. A few weeks ago, for example, I interviewed for an organizer position at a union-affiliated organization in Seattle, and one of the interviewers sort of scoffed at me when he found out that I wrote poetry. “Aren’t artists sort of like in their own world?” he asked.

And maybe we are. Maybe we need to be. The world can destroy you if you let it. But in the kind of political movement that I imagine, there is a role for all of us who object to the current corporate-sponsored hegemony, a system that insists that we are free only to work and consume alone in a state of psychic and economic insecurity. That movement includes educators, menial laborers, organizers, accountants, poets, police officers, and artists, among others. All of us have a duty to serve in the way that we are most able.

Where do you identify the intersection between art and activism? Is there tension there for you?

QB: ah, yes. the poet scoff. it once got me disqualified from wiping down exercise machines.

i think your point about unions working to ensure its members dignity is a crucial one. it’s in that dignity, both in the desire for and the pursuit of, that i see art and activism intersect most clearly. freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed guides me here, but i think that art and activism will generally require one another in order to complete the work of restoring/bestowing dignity to a group of people (whatever disadvantaged group it may be). freire says that, to transform reality, both action and reflection are required. art, with its natural tendency toward reflection, and activism, with it’s obvious inclination toward action, become natural partners in this process of transmutation. perhaps we like to think that great art can change the world, or particularly effective activism can stand alone, but i’m of the mind that we need each other more than we know.

claudia rankine’s citizen comes to mind as a recent example of great art. i don’t know if her book, wonderful as it is, can transform the reality of the black/white binary in america on its own. but what it can do is make room in that binary’s domineering supremacy for people to claim the space that they need. the space to (re)discover a lost/forgotten/murdered subjectivity; the space to recover and realize the vastness of racialized whiteness, etc. and it’s in that space that the necessary revolutionary action becomes possible, or at least more likely to occur.

creating that space is what my own work is concerned with. i don’t know how well it succeeds, but that’s the intent. and i think your vision of a collaborative movement is the proper one. i don’t think that my words will change anything, but i do hope that they are part of a larger, directional force that will, at some point, result in something resembling liberation. your anecdote, equal parts amusing and distressing, illustrates the difficulty. how do you get an entity lacking reflection to realize it needs a reflective influence? how do you get white bodies to realize they’re as racialized as black bodies? how do you get people/groups who need each other, and don’t know it, to engage in a meaningful manner?

AGB: Those are excellent questions. I am reminded of Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet when he says identifying the right questions is often more important than finding the right answers. But then, of course, you have to live those questions. You have to carry them inside of you.

I was at Town Hall last month to watch a speech by Chris Hedges, the left-wing author and intellectual. He said something to the effect of, “We resist not because of what we hope to achieve but of who we hope to become.” I found that to be extremely powerful. And hopeful. It’s a good reminder. The revolution has to happen within ourselves most of all.

As for how to awaken something resembling a political consciousness in a population so numbed out, distracted, divided, and violent, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be so sure, however, that your words aren’t going to change anything. Regarding Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, for example, I have seen numerous people, usually, or perhaps exclusively, white, talk about how that book opened their eyes to the realities of black experience: the micro- and more overt aggressions that people of color experience all of the time in this country. That might not be news to you or me, but for many middle-class whites the events in Ferguson, Baltimore, North Charleston, and Texas have come as a real shock. They seemed to have thought, or hoped, or fantasized, that we had somehow moved past such brutish violence and bigotry. Only now are some of us—and I include myself in this category; as a whitish, brownish person of European descent, I find that I am just as susceptible as any other privileged person to succumbing to dominant modes of thought—beginning to realize just how encoded white supremacy is inour cultural DNA.

So on the one hand we need activists to stand up in places like Ferguson, Charleston, and Mckinley and organize people into a movement large and powerful enough to oppose not just our corporate and political overlords but also those of us—our friends, family members, and neighbors—who are too cynical, narcotized, or afraid to challenge the status quo. And on the other we need artists, poets, and philosophers to take a step back and try to make sense of what is happening. We need the latter as urgently as we need the former. How long, for example, did it take Claudia Rankine to write Citizen? Five years? Ten? Think where we would be—maybe not our entire society but certainly you and me—if she had decided that writing books was pointless, that she should spent all of her time protesting in the streets.

So you don’t know. You don’t know how your words are going to affect other people. Maybe they’ll only touch a few. Maybe they’ll send a ripple through the entire culture. In the meantime, the most important thing isn’t what you achieve; it’s who you become.


Both Quenton and Alex are poets.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney