In this post, Brian Sarfo explores how Terrell Frazier's work situates the importance of relationships and humanizing the organizer through sociology and oral history. This article is the second in a four-part series exploring Terrell Frazier’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Becoming an Organizer: Narrative, Identity and Social Action.”
At one point in my life, I considered myself to be an organizer. For years, I found myself identifying tastemakers within my community and at the institutions I attended. I worked collaboratively with like-minded individuals with a goal to dismantle systems of oppression that exist to limit the potential of people like myself and others who experience the same forms of injustice and inequality.
A lot of my organizing took place within spaces that I felt did not represent my interest or in which I did not feel safe. These areas of infiltration just so happened to be within academia and institutions.
Although my role as an organizer has faltered within the past few years, while I find myself overwhelmed and distant from that position, I remain very much involved in activism confronting the issues that are near and dear to me. My organizing and activism resurfaced following the untimely death/murder of Trayvon Martin. I felt the proximity there because I saw myself as Trayvon Martin. It was at that moment that my political awakening emerged. This political awakening came about with the other untimely deaths/murders of Black and Brown bodies across the country, including in my city of New York, where Eric Garner was placed in a submission hold and met his fate of death at the hands of a police officer.
Needless to say, a lecture in the Spring 2017 OHMA Workshop Series caught my attention. I knew that I would be fascinated and intrigued by the work being done by Terrell Frazier, as he linked social movements, organizing, and identity.
He his lecture, “Innovation at the Intersection: The Practices and Processes of Effective Organizing, Terrell discussed organizing, intersectionality, and the network context for social action. He informed us that his work is influenced by the oral histories he collected in which he was able to record the stories of how his subjects became organizers, the leadership roles they take on, and their organizing philosophy.
I appreciated Terrell’s acknowledgment and understanding of how identity and intersectionality are significant aspects of social movements that draw upon the relationships formed by individuals. Terrell visually presented to the audience the extensive referral network that he had created from the responses he received from participants. The more a person received a referral by the other organizers, the larger their node became in the network of organizers. Based on the accounts that Terrell shared with us, these networks operated as tools that empowered individuals to see themselves beyond just one identity but working within multiple identities.
The results that Terrell found in his research suggested that the success and effectiveness of an organizer were very much rooted in fostering relationships. As someone who has organized in the past, I understood just how important relationships are when trying to do organizing work. In that research, Terrell brings attention to the fact that relationships do allow for successful actions, but ultimately, some of the networks established by organizers can end up being exclusive and contribute further to inequality.
Terrell’s work challenges us to rethink how we work within our networks. Terrell illustrated his argument by looking at ACT UP when the group infiltrated the New York Stock Exchange to vocalize concerns about the raised prices of HIV/AIDS treatment. While remarkable, those leading the charge were primarily male, white, and from the middle class. Thus, when they succeeded in making the HIV/AIDS drugs available, they were only accessible to those who could afford them. They had succeeded in making the drug accessible, but because poor people were not involved in the organizing efforts, the drugs still remained out of their reach in pricing. By no surprise, this ultimately has resulted in HIV/AIDS being a disease that is associated with the poor because they are unable to receive adequate treatment and drugs to combat the disease.
Terrell left us fascinated by the extensive networks that existed amongst individuals, and challenged us to rethink how organizing networks are utilized and who is involved in those organizing efforts. Once again, he got me interested and recharged in getting involved in the organizing efforts that help cultivate and ignite movements.
To learn more about Terrell’s work, visit to the INCITE website.
Brian Sarfo is an undergraduate student at Columbia College in the Urban Studies Program at Barnard College. His research interests include the emerging sneaker marketplace, formal and informal economies, and observing subcultures. He has concluded his senior thesis in which he assesses how sneaker resellers play a crucial role within sneaker culture and how they have influenced it in dictating how the market fares.