Today we recognize that disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity. “Disaster” is the result of and a catalyst for expansion of oppressive systems. Disasters have influenced movements, fragmenting them from trauma and organizing to respond in new ways. We have a responsibility to understand our role before, during, and after disasters in order to shift from a reactive stance to a history-shaping position. Disasters, as terrible as they are, offer an opportunity to shape political, social, and economic landscapes.
Infrastructure building is a strategy. There are many strategies to grow and exercise power, and social movements require the use of all our tools all the time. Disaster is one area, a growing one, across territories that are massive in terms of geography and temporal in terms of the window of time that opens. Disasters are most certainly not the only urgent problems we are facing. Social movements are contending with generational poverty, structural white supremacy, and political crises on every frontline. People are shaping policies and practices within state and institutional apparatus. People are innovating new economic projects and building independent political power. People are organizing and fighting and surviving. All of these strategies are necessary.
Infrastructure takes many forms
Infrastructure refers to the fundamental facilities and systems required for society to function. On one level that means bridges, roads, gas stations, and telephone lines. On another level it means a web of institutions including schools, hospitals, courts, and banks—systems created to produce and distribute knowledge, information, services, and resources. On a third level it means something larger—the ways we relate to one another, the ways we learn, the ways we communicate, how we take care of our homes, the operating procedures and mechanisms we use to govern ourselves and our environment.
For organizers in the South, we often say that our movement infrastructure is based in relationships. We do not share the same scale of funding and intermediary institutions as other regions. We do, however, have long-lasting and cross-regional relationships. Organizers travel across thirteen state lines, across expansive cities, into river deltas and mountain hollers to work with each other. We share practices, we deepen each other’s capacities, and we share analysis. These relationships, when facilitated to converge, coordinate, and initiate, are vehicles for building social movements.
Processes that strengthen movements
The Southern Movement Assembly is a collaborative, multi-organizational process initiated in 2012 to converge Southern forces and coordinate our diverse efforts across multiple frontlines. Project South is one of the anchor organizations. Groups organize community and frontline assemblies to practice independent political governance. We grow our numbers and leadership across the region through building relationships and cross-pollinating. We facilitate political and popular education to develop and strengthen leadership and experiment with innovative communication strategies. The Southern Movement Assembly organizations implement a shared plan of action called the Southern Peoples Initiative based in our analysis and shared vision synthesized over years of collective work.
The need for new institutions
One of the visions of the Southern Peoples Initiative is the development of Mutual Aid Liberation Centers. These centers are forming in already existing spaces. There is a long history of mutual aid during Reconstruction in the South when free Black folks were displaced from resources but built tens of thousands of schools, churches, and social networks. We are crafting these Mutual Aid Liberation Centers to be widely inclusive and resourced enough to provide many levels of infrastructure during every phase of disaster on every terrain it occurs.
Disaster takes place on multiple terrains. Climate disasters endanger our land, water, and food and alter our ecosystems. Disasters displace us from our physical, cultural, spiritual place. Poverty and violence displace millions of people from their homes and then criminalize migration across militarized borders. The financial systems, largely driven by debt, create both the slow-boil of impoverishment but also the acute disasters of debt bubbles, stock market crashes, and currency crises. Mass shootings, police murders, and public health crises represent systemic violence to our individual and collective bodies. Each disaster reinforces multiple forms of systemic oppression. Hurricanes are not just about water and wind, but reinforce social control through militarized response, financial exploitation through land grabs and privatization, and depopulate areas to diffuse political participation.
The vision of the Mutual Aid Liberation Centers reflects a desire to grow our power on multiple terrains at once. The big vision is a regional constellation of local sites that provide resources, sanctuary, and governance. The Mutual Aid Liberation Centers are places to gather, learn, practice governance, provide health care, support in emergency, and shelter during disaster. To farm if there is land, to distribute food if there’s plenty. In a time full of crises, trusted institutions are essential.
Claiming spaces to make our own infrastructure
A historic Black church in Chattanooga opened one of their small buildings to community education classes, built a garden, and hosted the sixth Southern Movement Assembly when the city (in lockstep with the developers of a recently privatized hospital) would not allow the Assembly to be in a public park. A strip mall adjacent to the largest housing projects in Dothan, Alabama, houses an office, a church, a community radio station, a barber shop, a natural wellness remedy shop, a restaurant, and an organization led by formerly incarcerated people and their families.
A community center built by the Methodist women in 1944 was rescued from irrelevance by community leaders in the 1990s to become a home to an organization working to end hunger in Georgia and an institution growing movement capacity across the Southern region. A small corner of land in rural Hondo Texas was the original site of Mexican mutual aid associations that collected funds for burials, raised food, and supported civic engagement—and is now connected to this assembly of multitudes.
Linking paths through the wreckage
During disasters, these spaces should light up the map. Each center should be alive with all the efforts that people are willing to give during these moments of urgency. We all have a role to play. Teams of researchers, nurses, healers, and regular folks who are moved to respond and support. Trainings for first-responders, street medics, and self-defense. Harm reduction, mental health, and sexual assault counseling. Spaces for preparation before actions and debrief afterwards. Each center is a monument of community infrastructure of land, buildings, and supplies as well as political space for leadership development, education, and decision-making.
The vision is that these centers will grow, offer support, inspire each other, locally and regionally. That they will become more than the sum of their parts. As each site and center develops, the visions and possibilities deepen and spread.
My political life has been shaped and informed by disasters. But I have also been shaped by witnessing the power and tenacity of people carving new paths through the wreckage. I believe that we can transform the patterns and create new arrangements led by social movements. I am 41 years old now, and I look to my own history, the history of social movements, and global examples of growing collective consciousness, creating bold visions, and organizing strategically to achieve what we believe is possible.
Stephanie Guilloud was born in Texas, graduated from The Evergreen State College in 1999, and learned from the Thurston-Santo Tomas Sister County Assn. She works as Co-Director of Project South, based in Atlanta.