Jordan Flaherty's latest book, No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, draws in part from his career as a reporter and TV producer - work that has taken him to sites of grassroots struggle around the world, but it's anchored in his home, New Orleans.
Mixed in with the movement for indigenous self-determination in Black Mesa and sex workers contesting the police state in Arizona are multiple local stories. Flaherty gives us a front-row seat for the cautionary tale of FBI snitch Brandon Darby, one of two white bros who came here from Austin and rose to power through Common Ground, living out the savior complex by launching a career at immense cost to the people he claimed to be rescuing and representing. On a more positive note, Flaherty also tells the story of the New Teachers' Roundtable, a New Orleans collective founded by three former Teach for America participants to push back against TFA and the charter school movement - educational "reforms" which function as a profitable large-scale weaponization of the savior complex.
The crux of this wide-ranging book is finding alternatives to activism's savior mentality, that hero model in which a person of privilege uses their genius or other exceptional qualities to "rescue" the less fortunate.
I came to Flaherty's book with wariness, braced for scolding - but instead found No More Heroes to be full of love and compassion, including towards those who fall into the traps of saviordom.
Flaherty advocates going from "How can I be the single best white anti-racist activist with the sharpest critique / most specialized language / busiest schedule?" to "How can we find ways to bring more and more people into social justice work, from lots of entry points, to grow vibrant mass movements?" To clarify the answers, I sat down with Flaherty to discuss his book, journalism and activism.
How did you come to write a book on this subject?
Flaherty: I'd been seeing the savior mentality come up in a lot of stories I wrote, in people I observed and people I knew - including myself. As a white cisgender male in the world of media I think a lot about what my role is, and one of the answers I've heard is to be critical of tendencies I've fallen into that I see others coming from places of privilege falling into as well. I felt talking openly to other people with privilege would be a useful intervention in this political moment.
When I see the phrase "savior" mentality used in an activist context, I think "white savior." Why not call it that?
It certainly is usually white and usually male, but in the book I speak with an activist who's a black working-class woman, and she talks about how she's fallen into the savior mentality. So I don't want to limit it. The savior mentality is in the society we're growing up in, in our school system, in the films we watch and the entertainment, so while it is raced and gendered it's not exclusive to any identity.
A lot of this book is set in New Orleans. Are we unusual in the number of self-appointed saviors who've descended on our city?
I do think New Orleans is exceptional, not only in terms of people coming here with the savior mentality, but the specific issues we've dealt with: the explosion of Teach for America and charter schools, health care, housing, police violence - before Black Lives Matter was named, New Orleans had a mass movement against state violence that resulted in federal oversight of our police and jail. Obviously there were movements against state violence elsewhere, but there was a lot about that struggle here in New Orleans that was exceptional.
There’s a lot for people to learn from New Orleans' experience. It's not just that the Teach for America members flooded in, but that because of the thriving movements we have here, a lot of those people who came here realized what was wrong with so-called education reform in New Orleans and changed course, which I write about in the book.
Do you want to characterize the December 10 event at Community Books and the other events you've been doing for No More Heroes?
The idea of the events is to try and capture some of the spirit of the book. In writing the book I got to spend a number of years talking to some of the most brilliant organizers and culture makers I know, bringing their lessons out and amplifying their words, so in these events i'm trying to do something similar: bring together some brilliant people for a conversation on strategy and tactics and hope that the events parallel and further these conversations.
I greatly enjoyed the book's savaging of charity and the foundation-funded nonprofit approach to social change. In New Orleans there's been a severe reduction in those resources. Do you see the influence of the nonprofit-industrial complex waning here relative to how strong it was even five or eight years ago?
There was such a major shift after the storm - there really wasn't that foundation money here pre-Katrina. It deeply changed our movements, and I don't think that's changed back. There's certainly less money to go around now, but I think we're still very much under that influence.
When I look at Standing Rock, for instance, I see lots and lots of people from all over the place chipping in digitally to support their struggle. Do you see crowdfunding as a viable movement-funding alternative?
This book was written before Standing Rock got the level of attention it did, but I do talk a lot in the book about indigenous resistance, Black Lives Matter, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street, and lift them up as models where people built movements without foundation funding. That's very real. But still if you look at the constellation of our movement, you still have hundreds or thousands of liberal and progressive nonprofits with staff that make five or six figures and have to raise six or seven figures every year. Crowd-funding isn't going to do that.
One of the things I've seen in your work over the years is that you minimize your own voice and foreground other peoples', but in No More Heroes we also get to hear from you directly, more than I'm used to. Why is that?
I definitely am not comfortable putting myself into things, but I increasingly feel like that's a privilege of people who are white and/or male, that we get to be seen as this sort of neutral avatar. So, in keeping with the subject of the book I felt it made sense to put myself in there, to identify myself and implicate myself.
What are your thoughts on the concept of "journalistic objectivity?"
Journalists should seek the truth, but I think it's a lie to pretend you don't have a point of view. I think it's better if people are more open about views that they're coming with- not that it has to be in every article and every piece but there has to be honesty about the context in which we operate.
Our media failed us in this election, and I think part of what went wrong is there isn't that honesty. When somebody is honest they're attacked for not being a real journalist. Glenn Greenwald's done some of the most important reporting of the last few years, but is honest about his point of view, and some journalists act like he's not a journalist because of that - when in fact that's what they should be aspiring to.
In the book I also lift up examples like Ida B. Wells and Ramsey Orta - people who are doing or have done incredible important journalism. I think we need to look at journalism as primarily something that comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.
I'm a huge Ida B. Wells fan. Her Mob Rule in New Orleans is to me still the essential account of Robert Charles' resistance to police racism and the race riots that followed it.
Ida B, Wells should be taught in all New Orleans schools.
In that essay, she condemns New Orleans newspapers for striving to invent justifications for NOPD attacks on people of color. This and the Greenwald stuff lead me to a bizarre incident a few years back, when NOLA.com ran an unsigned hit piece trying to discredit you as a journalist. I read that as payback for you having criticized their complicity in the post-flood coverup of killings by NOPD. What's your take on it?
That article appeared after I wrote an article deeply critical of reporters at The Times-Picayune for not covering the story of police violence after Hurricane Katrina. Soon after that, a story in The New York Times gave me an "additional reporting" byline. Then the Times-Pic reporters that I criticized came after me, without naming themselves as having been criticized by me. Basic principles of journalism would say they should reveal that conflict of interest.
You've been in the game a while, including doing a lot of web and video work. In the age of social media and livestreaming, when everyone with a smartphone is a potential reporter, what does journalism mean?
I came into journalism as someone who was very critical of it. I was working as a union and community organizer, and it was really in the aftermath of Katrina that local organizers I respected told me it would be useful if I helped get these stories out to a larger audience. I went from having very little idea of how the industry worked to writing for outlets like The Washington Post and producing TV stories for Al-Jazeera. To be honest, since the election I've been rethinking everything in my life. I think everybody - every progressive, especially every white person - should be rethinking their entire lives because clearly whatever we've been doing hasn't been enough, or it's been the wrong thing.
So I've been rethinking my focus. Should I still be doing journalism? Should I go back to organizing? What's needed in this political moment? I don't know what the answer is. I definitely think our media landscape is hopelessly corrupt and failed. I know that there's a need for people to tell these stories, but there's also a lot of need for people to be out in the streets and organizing.
Although it's not the book's focus, the book does contain some honest self-critique.
Specifically, I say I haven't been critical enough of the ways in which other people of privilege have operated, and I think sometimes it's silence that enables this. Part of privilege is being able to be silent, because it doesn't affect me unless I see all these things as connected and affecting all of us.
This brings us to the sacred cow of Common Ground, which to many is still this shining post-flood proof that anarchists can be useful. How do you balance the necessary (and overdue) critiques of scott crow and Brandon Darby, these dangerous white male saviors, with the emotional investment so many have in Common Ground as a touchstone of hope?
I want people to feel hopeful. I think it's possible for Common Ground to be a touchstone of hope and have aspects of it we need to be deeply critical of.
There are aspects of every movement that one could criticize, and the various people I lift up in the book sometimes have serious political differences with each other. Hopefully the book ultimately is more about inspiring accountable organizing, rather than calling out anyone.
In the book you urge activists to ask themselves, “What are the actions for social justice and movement building that don’t center you as a protagonist?” While I think that's a good question, I often see the answer expressed in a gendered way among those assigned female as a drive to self-abasement.
Well, it's a balance.
But does this sound familiar? That women - notwithstanding their white privilege - are told their own problems and identities aren't valid, that they must subjugate their own interests and happiness to the struggles of more "valid" people?
That's why I put in the book this quote from Paulina Helm-Hernandez- "I don't want [white people] to go to those anti-racist trainings where they get de-clawed and told that they should just sit quietly in meetings and then follow people of color around asking them what to do. I want them to have their claws." I do think that's important.
All right. I want to hit you with a quote from a zine out of North Carolina called A Critique of Ally Politics: "Being an ally has come to mean legitimizing a political position by borrowing someone else’s voice ... simultaneously taking power and evading personal accountability. The idea of allyship obscures the fact that hidden choices are being made about who is being listened to."
Is that a valid critique? When you suggest seeking out people more directly affected and centering them - by making those people the "authentic" voice - is that not evading one's personal responsibility?
There's no one way to do this. If there were, maybe we would have ended capitalism or white supremacy by now. I think there are lots of different paths and a lot of ways to interpret this. There's a lot of disagreeements among brilliant organizers about what the best way to approach accountable organizing. I come back to a quote from the Zapatistas: "Walking, we ask questions." I think we should take action, always take action, and then listen to feedback on that action. Look at the results of it, see if it's working, listen to critiques, especially from communities most affected, and be ready to change paths and change directions.
Do you have a prediction about how the recent change in national figurehead will shape organizing and mass movements? Are we going to see more people coming out into the streets?
I do think we're in a scary moment, but I do we are seeing a lot of people getting active, and that's why i hope this book and these strategy discussions could be useful - because we need to figure out how the people who are coming out now can stay involved. We need a loving and inclusive movement.
That said, one lesson all journalists should take from this election is that people in media should stop trying to predict the future.
4 p.m. on Saturday, December 10 at Community Book Center, Flaherty will join Alfred Marshall (STAND with Dignity), Michael Quess? Moore (Take 'Em Down NOLA), Jonshell Johnson (a youth and education activist) and Derek Roguski (New Teachers' Roundtable) for a book release event focused on organizing against white supremacy,
You can learn more about No More Heroes at jwww.jordanflaherty.org/saviors.