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Message to a younger radical activist: On preparing for organizational leadership

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Message to a younger radical activist: On preparing for organizational leadership

This article first appeared in Pambazuka:

by Ajamu Nangwaya
Dear Comrade Azuka,

I hope this correspondence finds you in good health and high spirits. Please forgive my delay in responding to your question about the things that I would like to share with you as a younger, emerging activist who has committed her life to the humanistic goal of engendering radical change throughout society. 

I have been thinking about your request and believe I am now in a position to share my thoughts. You are an asset to the movement and your age shouldn’t be a barrier to participation in its leadership organs as well as make a contribution as a part of the revolutionary intelligentsia. However, there are knowledge, skills and attitude, which are critical to your role as a radical organizer. There are six issues that I will be addressing in this letter.


The late Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) consistently reminded us during his North American lecture tours, “The reason your people suffer is that they lack organization, and organization is the weapon of the oppressed.” [1] It is through organizations that we are going to mount effective resistance to the different systems of oppression in Afrika and the Diaspora. A casual look at the periods of heightened struggles of our peoples will indicate that collective action was the path to our political advances or victories. The insurrections against enslavement in the Americas, Afrikan women’s fight against patriarchy at the societal level, independence struggles in Afrika and the Caribbean, and the Black Power movements in North America and the Caribbean are examples of us using organizations to break or loosen the shackles of dehumanization. In spite of the strategic and tactical brilliance of an individual Afrikan leader, for example, [url=Marcus]]MarcusGarvey[/url] of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Ella Baker of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Huey P. Newton of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and Toussaint Louverture of the Haitian Revolution, they became marginal political actors without the support of an organization.

In spite of the centrality of organizations as the instruments for effecting collective action, it is important for you to avoid the seductive appeal of being in multiple organizations at the same time, especially those pursuing similar goals. It is not helpful to you and the people to thinly spread the little time that you have in this manner. You are likely to burnout quickly because you have overextended yourself. The work of Afrikan emancipation is a 24/7 commitment but it is a lifetime engagement so you need to pace yourself.

By committing to one movement-based organization, you are concentrating your knowledge, skills and attitude in a way that can have beneficial effects on the lives of the people. If you are a member of a multi-issue, broadly-focused social movement group and it is not working on something in which you are interested, you could get together with a few other members and place it on the agenda. Your organization could also work in a coalition, partnership or alliance with organizations in taking on the desired initiative. 

In taking this approach you would still maintain your commitment to a primary organization, while calling upon the resources of your group and expand the scope of its work without dispersing your limited time, energy and other resources across many groups. As a younger comrade, you would be demonstrating a level of political maturity and dedication in advancing the work of your organization. By resisting the alluring urge to place your organizing effort in more than one organizational basket, you would be cultivating the reputation of a young organizer who is consistently present in doing the work and does not run off chasing seemingly tantalizing political developments all over the place. 


In centring education as a critical issue for the young, radical activist, I am merely being loyal to the Afrikan revolutionary tradition and the examples of the great revolutionaries produced by our people’s struggle. One of the most important revolutionaries thrown up by the Afrikan Revolution during its anti-colonial/independence phase was Amilcar Cabral and he had this to say on the necessity for constant education in Revolution in Guinea:

“Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance…. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning.” [2]

We cannot exaggerate the role that transformative education plays in preparing revolutionaries for the task of organizing the people to resist oppression. As a young activist, your ideological and educational needs and development should be prioritized. People who are in information rich environment should not attribute ignorance on a subject to age or inexperience.

There are folks who are prone to not take seriously the views of younger activists because of their lack of experience or knowledge about issues that come up in organizational discussion. It is a fact that being younger means that you were not around thirty, forty or fifty years ago when certain events took place. But in a literate civilization, the absence of experiential knowledge is no excuse for not being robustly conversant or knowledgeable about the recent or distant past. You are not living in an oral culture where you are forced to be dependent on the elders’ decision to educate you about the history of the struggle for emancipation. Some elders may decide to use their privileged access to vital information in discriminatory ways. The guardians of the oral repository of knowledge could decide not to share it with particular youth organizers, because the latter haven’t shown the necessary level of deference or cower before the “wisdom of age.” I am in no way diminishing the “benefit of highly experienced, politically activist adult mentorship….anchored in, nurtured by, protected by, and disciplined by adult social networks….” [3] However, young people do not always have the benefit of the leadership approach of an Ella Baker who believed in the capacity of youth as autonomous contributors to the struggle. [4]

Age is a basis on which unjust or exploitative power relations may be and has been exercised in organizations and the wider society. Comrade Azuka, as a younger activist you ought to commit yourself to a consistent, rigorous and comprehensive self-study programme, which could be supplemented with study group sessions with other comrades. You would place yourself in a position to overcome the experience-cum-knowledge gap. As an organizer in your early twenties, you obviously have no lived experience of the decolonization and independence struggles in the Caribbean, Afrika and Asia, the Afrikan Liberation Struggle in North America and Europe in the 1960s and 1970s or lived during the period of the Garvey Movement. However, by creating a space in your activist life to engage in a critical, extensive and deep examination of bodies of ideas, political movements, historical events, organizations and personalities, it is quite possible for you to develop a broader knowledge and profounder understanding of these events and people than folks who experienced them. 

Armed with an advanced awareness of the past, the elders or older activists cannot easily pull the lack-of-experience card in not giving due consideration to the things that you propose. They would be more likely to interrogate your ideas based on their merit instead of extraneous or distracting things such as age. Knowledge is indeed power so you need to accumulate as much of that currency as possible to engage in organizational or social movement “transactions.” If you are a member of an organization without a political education programme, you could bring a proposal or motion to a membership meeting that calls for the creation of a study group or circle on subjects that are necessary for the intellectual, ideological, moral and political development of the membership. This project could be a way for younger members to meet their learning needs in a structured and supportive environment. 

One of two things that comrades have consistently say about reading Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth [5] or Black Skin, White Masks [6] when they were younger, “I am so glad that I had older and informed folks around me when I was introduced to Fanon” or “I had no idea what the hell Fanon was really “saying” in those books.” A study group in your organization or one open to anyone in the community is an excellent way to tackle difficult political or ideological materials and to promote collective learning and dialogue. If the study group is structured in a way that encourages different participants to take turns in preparing summaries of the selected readings and facilitating the sessions, it could help in developing your confidence as someone who is able to present ideas before your peers or the wider community. Please note that your political and ideological development in this learning space would be in addition to the self-study work that you have undertaken. Bob Marley was onto something when he declared, “Emancipate yourself from metal slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds.” [7] It can be done through a combination of self-study and group political education initiatives.


Comrade Azuka, while knowledge development is critically important, it ought to be complemented with the skills needed to execute organizational tasks. Oftentimes, our organizations do not set aside resources to train and/or develop their activists to do the required activities, which are necessary to achieve the goal and objectives of our struggle for emancipation. Organizers are left to learn through trial and error, someone informally taking them under their experienced wings as “mentees” or searching out learning opportunities outside of the organization. This approach to the important matter of developing our activists serves to empower older and/or more experienced people. Such a situation is not conducive to teenagers and other younger comrades taking on leadership roles and senior portfolios. Entrenched power has a way of perpetuating or preserving itself and we must break this unhealthy organizational syndrome. If we want to create participatory-democratic organizations, we have to be deliberate about developing or expanding the skills of our activists. 

It is the heights of political irresponsibility to expect our organizers to educate, mobilize and organize the working-class and/or peasantry and the progressive or revolutionary petty bourgeois elements without the essential organizing and organizational skills. According to the Charles L. James, who served in the UNIA, Garvey was committed to the systematic teaching of our people and “He sincerely felt that no one should be held responsible for his action unless he or she is educated or trained to perform those responsibilities.” [8] In August 1937, Garvey delivered a systematic educational programme, The Course of African Philosophy, in Toronto, Canada that covered forty-two subjects; twenty-two of these lessons were preserved in writing [9] and now accessible in book form as Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy. This leadership development programme came after the peak of the UNIA’s activism, but it is a lesson to us about the need for a methodical approach to skill development within our organizations.

Training and education can be difference-makers in our struggle for self-determination as well as for the effectiveness of the work that we do among the people. The armed national liberation struggle that was led by African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) proved the importance of equipping the organizers with the knowledge, skills and attitude to work among the people. The relevant section of Patrick Chabal’s Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War is a worthwhile read on Cabral’s pedagogical and philosophical method and practice in preparing the militants/organizers to educate and mobilize the peasantry in the countryside.[10] The level of preparation of the PAIGC’s militants was definitely a factor in the success of its mobilization of the people as well as the armed struggle. Comrade Azuka, if you are in an organization without a skill and cadre development programme, you ought to take it as a challenge to see that such an initiative is established.


Comrade, I am going to share an observation with you about the way that many radicals respond to my economics- and labour self-management-related posts on Facebook or shared through my e-mail distribution list. There is a noticeable lack of engagement with subjects that deal with building an alternative to capitalism through labour self-management or producer cooperation and other collectivistic economic intervention. If we measure engagement by the number of “likes” and comments, alternative economics resonates the least with my Facebook friends. I have gathered articles on democratic workplaces and cooperative economics and sent them out on my email “listserv.” They also garner few responses from comrades. I have reached the conclusion that in spite of the commitment of my activists to fighting capitalism, many of us are not comfortable discussing economics-related issues or do not that have definite ideas on the development of a anti-capitalist transitional economic alternative. The Great Recession of 2007/2008 revealed to me the extent to which quite a few activists had a low level of economic literacy. We have to create an economic development strategy for the here-and-now while organizing the people for the good and just society of the future.

Cabral reminded us of this obvious but much neglected consideration, “Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone's head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children….” [11] Cabral was not asserting that people are uninterested in ideas or ideological questions. He was merely indicating to us that there are existing practical issues facing the people and they have material expectations of their engagement in political struggles. It ought to be noted that the public display of guns by the members of the BPP was not as threatening to the ruling-class as their Breakfast for Children Program (BCP). 

According to the arch-reactionary and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, the BCP “promotes at least tacit support for the BPP (Black Panther Party) among naive individuals... And, what is more distressing, provides the BPP with a ready audience composed of highly impressionable youths.... Consequently, the BCP represents the best and most influential activity going for the BPP and, as such, is potentially the greatest threat to efforts by authorities to neutralize the BPP and destroy what it stands for." [12]

Organizing around the immediate needs of the people is always an excellent way to turn the oppressed on to radical possibilities. But economic resources are needed to lubricate the machinery of popular mobilization and organizing. Irrespective of where activists are at on the life cycle, they are morally obligated to support or develop an economic programme that addresses the needs of the people. It goes without saying that if capitalism is not working, we ought to organize the people behind a collectivistic or cooperative economic agenda. Militant organizations also need to develop an independent financial base as exemplified by the UNIA and the United States-based Nation of Islam. The forces opposed to genuine emancipation of the people will pull the financial plug when our actions threaten their privileges and power. [13]

Comrade Azuka, I am encouraging you to undertake a study of micro and macro economics topics. It could be done through your self-study programme, in study groups and/or by way of courses in a college, university or continuing education programme. I am recommending a good text on the subject of capitalist economics, Economics for Everyone. [14] We need a precise knowledge and understanding of capitalism and its weaknesses to educate and organize the people against it. 

However, we should not only be experts in what we are against. We need to be just as proficient in articulating what we support. My advice to you is to immediately start reading in the area of labour self-management or producer cooperation. Labour self-management is the idea and practice of workers’ ownership, control and management of their workplace. It is the workers who make the shop-floor and strategic decisions, share in the fruit of collective labour (profit or surplus) and enlist capital as the servant of labour in the labour-controlled work environment. Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, some workers have been striving to free themselves from wage-slavery. An excellent introductory book on an existing labour self-management experiment is Making Mondragon. [15] A good manual for someone interested in starting a worker-owned and -managed business is Putting Democracy to Work. [16] I am also recommending Blueprint for Black Power. [17] It is not promoting a non-capitalist approach to economic development, but it has useful ideas that can be used for our programme of labour self-management and cooperative economics.


I have encouraged you to push a number of propositions onto the agenda of your organization. But it is not always easy for a younger comrade or someone new to a group to take such a course of action. It is just not enough to go to a general membership meeting or an annual general meeting and suggests that the group ought to be doing to this or that project. You and the champions of your idea are going to be taken more seriously if you come to the gathering with an action plan or a proposal that systematically lay out how you intend to get the job done. Anticipate questions or concerns and deal with them if they are raised during your presentation. Of equal important is a strong understanding of the decision-making process inside the organization. You have to do your homework as well as line up support within the organization. 

The advantage of coming up with a plan of action in writing is the greater likelihood of establishing the parameter of the dialogue. The plan’s contents will become the focus of the group deliberation. Members will be placed in the position of trying to make it better, if they have concerns about elements of your proposal. Furthermore, when something is methodically outlined in writing, some people who speak off-the-cuff are usually unable to put forward coherent and well-argued oppositional opinions. Yet if your plan is rejected or radically altered, you should not walk away from the organization or reject involvement in the altered plan. During the stage of fleshing out the implementation plan and the actual execution of the project, you and your allies still have the opportunity to help shape the outcome. By participating in the plan approved by the membership, you are highlighting the fact that you are a team player and not a sore loser.


As a younger activist and someone who would like to take on senior leadership responsibilities in the movement, you should not position yourself as a mere consumer of knowledge. You ought to use all available communication outlets to develop yourself into an ideational leader and give permanency or a leave “paper trail” of your ideas. Given the explosion of online publications and social media platforms, you have more opportunities to put your ideas before into the public square. Women, youth and racialized peoples are not seen as people with anything of intellectual and operational substance to contribute to societal discourse on the creation of the just society. You must strive to disabuse people of this silencing notion. As you develop yourself as a thought leader and revolutionary intellectual, you will start getting invitations to speak at public meetings and in other spaces. 


Comrade Azuka, the above comments are all I have to say at this moment and I look forward to your response, comments and interrogative questions. Angela Davis made the following comment, “It's true that it's within the realm of cultural politics that young people tend to work through political issues, which I think is good, although it's not going to solve the problems.” [18] Based on my observation it is an accurate statement. But your engagement with issues that are relevant to the material reality of the people is helping to push youth activism beyond cultural preoccupation and toward political resistance.

In solidarity,

Ajamu Nangwaya, 

* Ajamu Nangwaya, PhD, is an academic worker in Toronto, Canada, and an organizer with the Network for Pan-Afrikan Solidarity. Ajamu is an advocate for the use of labour self-management and cooperatives to create an alternative economic programme in the movement for emancipation.


[1] Kwame Ture, via Disciples of Malcolm,

[2] Amilcar Cabral, “Revolution in Guinea: Selected Texts,” (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 88.

[3] Stokely Carmichael [kwame Ture] with Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, “Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael [Kwame Ture],” (New York: Scribner, 2003), 663.

[4] Barbara Ransby, “Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision,” (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003).

[5] Frantz Fanon, “The Wretched of the Earth”, (New York: Grove Press, 1968).

[6] Frantz Fanon, “Black Skin, White Masks”, (New York: Grove Press, 1967).

[7] Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Redemption Song,” in Uprising, Tuff Gong/Island, 1980.

[8] Charles L. James, “Foreword” to Message to the People: The Course of African Philosophy, ed. by Tony Martin (Dover, Massachusetts: The Majority Press, 1986), ix.

[9] Ibid, xvi.

[10] Patrick Chabal, “Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People War,” (Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 2003), 60-67.

[11] Cabral, Revolution in Guinea, 86.

[12] Marc Mascarenhas-Swan, “Honoring the 44th Anniversary of the Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast Program,” Organizing Upgrade: Engaging Left Organizers in Strategic Dialogue, January 18, 2013,; J. Edgar Hoover, “Federal Bureau of Investigation – J. Edgar Hoover Memo on Black Panthers’ Breakfast for Children Program,” Rapgenius,

[13] Oba T’Shaka, “The Art of Leadership: The Art of Organizing, Volume 1,” (Richmond, California: Pan Afrikan Publsihers, 1990), 88-89.

[14] Jim Standford, “Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism,” (Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing, 2008).

[15] William Foote Whyte & Kathleen King Whyte, “Making Mondragon: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex”, Second Edition Revised, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

[16] Frank T. Adams & Gary B. Hansen, “Putting Democracy to Work: A Practical Guide for Starting and Managing Work-owned Businesses”, Revised Edition, (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1993).

[17] Amos N. Wilson, “Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political and Economic Imperative for the Twenty-first Century,” (New York: Afrikan World Infosystem, 1998).

[18] Angela Davis, “Interview with Angela Davis,” Interviewed by Frontline, PBS (Public Broadcasting Service),

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Ajamu Nangwaya (Ajamu Nangwaya)
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