Connecting the need to survive to social justice activism

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The first time my mom saw me speak about social justice was on the seven o'clock news. I was speaking about the effects of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on young LGBT people looking for reflections of themselves in society. It was an important moment for my mother and I because it showed us the similarities and differences in how we were each transforming the world.

Over the years, as I've developed my identity as an organizer, I've learned more about my mother's history, and although it's made me appreciate the vast differences in the context of our "activism," it ultimately has made me feel like we're a part of the same revolution -- as movement moms and daughters. 

My mother grew up in Tra Vinh, Việt Nam. In the grade seven, she quit school to work with her mother in the fields. When she was 16 years old, she moved to Sài Gòn, Việt Nam to make a living as a seamstress. She hasn't stopped since. She was struggling with the effects of foreign military occupation and war before I was born: politicized through need to survive. 

When I do organizing work with immigrant, queer and trans communities, I think about this part of my mother's identity and it reminds me that "the struggle" is political even in just trying to survive. Often, we feel that those of us who are "political activists" have no common ground with those who aren't. Really, we are a community together, even if some of us have no time to be "political activists" and focus more energy on "getting by" than "taking down the man."

I have been a witness to how my mother has been able to make it to through the system. I have seen all of the ways she's been forced to bend rules and deadlines, payment plans and other bills to sustain our paycheque-to-paycheque life. And most importantly, I have seen all of the ways she never gave in and never gave up while spending all of her life being pushed around by systems that don't work in her favour.

Part of living without much money was learning to find another source of security. My mother found that security by believing in the power of community to support her in during times of struggle. Her ability to be able to split $20 between multiple days may never have been about undermining capitalism, but when she believes in networks of survival more than in a $20 bill, she does just that. 

Some people might claim that my mother has no idea how systems of oppression work. Some might also claim that her focus on survival means she has internalized the system's logic so that she oppresses herself. But get this: my mom has a different -- but extremely deep -- understanding of how systems of oppression work. She interacts with them daily, fighting to survive despite structural disadvantages.

Working class labourers don't need a physician to know that they're straining their bodies or an economist to know that they're being exploited. Most of the time they don't even need organizers writing articles about "the struggle" to know that it's there and it's theirs. The lived experience of these oppressions is not only real, it's indispensable. No movement is legitimate without it. We don't do justice to mothers like mine when we alienate them by privileging analytical understandings of systems of oppression.

And it's not like my mom is unaware of the theory. She just doesn't deal in principles and structures; she speaks in persons and stories. She has a story for everything that theory describes because she knows what I know differently. One time while having a conversation about why she feels she has struggled so much financially, she told me that she must have been a really mean rich man in her past life because her life as a working class woman today is so difficult. 

My mom recognizes that there exists such a deep power imbalance between the rich and the poor, and that it has existed in all of the worlds she's lived in. So while we never use the words "capitalism" or "class struggle" in our conversations, I can tell that in her core she has a sophisticated analysis of the world and knows that the world needs radical transformation. 

Of course, when I share this with her, first she is humbled and in disbelief about her greatness, and then she tells me that changing the world is my thing and she's got hers.

This idea -- that we could have different valid ways of articulating systems of oppression and acting to fight them -- led me to cultural, and ultimately, "intergenerational organizing." Cultural organizing recognizes that facets of every day life, like cooking, dancing and playing music, are legitimate forms of expression and accessible things to organize around. This helps people coming from different places with different conceptions of "the system" share in a common experience that allows a wide range of folks to contribute. 

This is crucial in intergenerational organizing, since often old and young folks feel so separate. This is especially true when it comes to activism because it demands non-hierarchal power structures, whereas most adults and young people are used to a parent-child power relationship. 

However, it is possible to use shared stories and culture to organize with people of all ages and be part of the same movement. I first learned about this at a Civil Rights Conference for young people. It offered me space to learn about the history of the Civil Rights Movement and how it helped us realized that at the core, our experiences with bullying and conflict were indicative of longer-term oppressions. 

But sometimes it's not like that Civil Rights Conference. Sometimes young folks are not recognized for what they are capable of doing, even in spaces we are told are for us. When I feel the heaviness of being shut out of any space -- social justice centred or not -- I remember the relationship I have with my mom and I bask in the deep legacies and histories of her own survival. 

In those situations, I can't help but think about when my mom is considered too out of touch with the times to offer ideas, too inexperienced to create actions, and too lacking in potential to contribute to a movement. I know if all of those things are untrue when applied to my mother, then they are untrue when applied to me and other youth activists. 

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Still, it's crucial to understand why intergenerational organizing can be difficult.

Although my mother and I share a lot in common, the difference between my mom's experience and mine emerges when I recognize that I receive opportunities to make organizing a pillar of my struggle and survival. 

I commit to cultural organizing in recognition of the fact that my mother does none of the logistical work that I do, but she has and continues to house my comrades, feed revolutionaries, and utilize her sewing skills to make sure we are cool in our summer marches and warm in our winter actions. 

That makes her a part of my movement.

She fills in some of the gaps we can't fill and she does it as a part of her daily grind. With my mother, I am committing to intergenerational organizing by honouring our generational differences and experiences while simultaneously dispelling myths about age being a tool to measure skill level, drive, and wisdom. 

My mom's resistance and survival helps me to acknowledge the value of all types of skills that are brought to liberation work. She also helps me reject systems of measuring engagement that determine what qualifies as "enough" experience and credibility, which often replicates oppressions that operate in our daily lives. 

When we believe in the power of cultural and intergenerational organizing, the skills we bring to the movement nurture the beauty of our deep connections to one another that transcend age and generations. 

The night of my first TV appearance, I watched the 7 o'clock news next to mother. I was a little wounded because I wished that my mom had actually been there with me. But I realized that her absence wasn't about lack of support or lack of belief in my visions. 

A few days after having seen me in the news, my mom was driving me in the early hours of the morning to the airport so I could catch a plane for yet another conference. Halfway there, my mom turned and said to me in Vietnamese, "I believe in you 110 per cent. I believe that everything you're doing is right." 

Of course she does. I'm a part of her movement, aren't I?

Keep up with Loan on Twitter and Tumblr.

Ngoc Loan Tran currently resides in Charlotte, NC by way of Sài Gòn, Việt Nam. A writer, storyteller and organizer, they centre their energy and vision for liberation on migrant justice and an end to interpersonal violence by living at the intersections of multiple oppressions and privileges. In their work, they are committed to keeping the political personal because bell hooks tell us, “without justice there can be no love." Loan is particularly excited about this project because as a queer southerner of colour, daily their work allows them to fulfill the legacy of young people who have been at the core of every social movement and they believe the resilience of young people is transformative, creative and worth documenting.

This article and these photos originally appeared on {Young}ist and are reprinted with permission.

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