Why Are You Still a Revolutionary? How Do You Keep Your Revolutionary Optimism in These Difficult Times?
By Pam Tau Lee. Posted on July 23, 2022.
The idea for this essay, “How Do You Keep Your Revolutionary Optimism in These Difficult Times?” arose during an intergenerational discussion between “Boomers” and “Millennials.” As a Baby Boomer myself (born in 1948), I believe my response to this question will have most relevance in the context of the realities faced today by Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) and Gen Z (born 1987 and later).
I recall reading an article back in 2020 about the state of mental health in the US, and I found the following statement: “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come.” It is now Wednesday morning, May 25, 2022, and as I sit down to write this essay, the whole country is grieving the death of children, adults, and the elderly, victims of yet another mass shooting, this one in Uvalde, Texas. Last night, I watched a TV commentator ask a mom and resident of the town, “How do we respond?” She looked stunned and replied, “Gun control? Maybe more police at the schools? More respect for the police?” Then after a long pause she added, “There were signs. Maybe when we see the signs, when we know something is wrong, we need to do something.” Signs of danger due to mental illness, signs of something else, both?
Gen Z and Millennials
The day after this latest shooting, I spoke with 125 UCLA students attending their last Asian American Studies class before finals. After my short presentation, the students had many questions, among them:
It is not easy to call yourself a radical and a revolutionary today. Did you ever doubt yourself?
How can I be vigilant regarding my mental health?
Looking back on your life as an activist/revolutionary, do you have any regrets?
Can you elaborate and share lessons for us Gen Z students, who will be leaving campus next month?
What was your most powerful movement moment?
I’ll try to address some of these questions in the next section.
How I Became a Revolutionary
From 1969–71, I was a student and very much on the path of activism. I was a student organizer and worked with Louie Lee to form a chapter of the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) on the Hayward State campus, where we organized to fight for Asian Studies classes. I found out much later that our meetings were monitored by informants; I now had an FBI file. [For details, read Spying on the Asian American Movement: The FBI Files 1960-1970s.]
At the same time, I volunteered weekly at the International Hotel (I-Hotel) and worked with other students to rehab the hotel and participate with the tenants at their weekly Sunday brunches. I also did some volunteer work at the Asian Legal Service/Draft Help storefront (a student project of UC Berkeley that my husband, Ben, was hired to start). Upon graduating, I was a student teacher in Oakland, where I organized Asian high school students, and together we formed the Bay Area Asian Student Union. I helped form the Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War and opened a storefront in Oakland Chinatown. Through all of these projects, working collectively and learning how to work and problem-solve together was central; we usually organized study circles to summarize and discuss our work.
One day, I was going to attend a meeting in one of the storefronts located under the I-Hotel building in San Francisco. I accidentally went down the “wrong” stairs and unknowingly ended up in the I Wor Kuen (IWK) storefront at 850 Kearny Street. When I got to the bottom of the stairs, “C” approached me and said, “Hi, you’re Pam, right? Would you like to become a Marxist-Leninist? I’d like to invite you to a study group.” Well, I currently was not in a study group, and I had heard the term “Marxist” from socialist groups and friends on campus, so I agreed to attend. I studied with about four to five other women; we discussed Mao’s Red Book. I started volunteering less at the I-Hotel and more at the 850 storefront. So, when IWK turned over the storefront and keys to the community, I was present for the formation of the Chinese Progressive Association.
Looking back, this may have been part of the IWK training program for identifying and recruiting future members to the organization. I was engaged in study, practice, and integration with the masses. I was leading some level of work and organizing, demonstrating that I was disciplined and responsible and had a basic grasp of radical politics and the revolutionary politics of IWK. I was an internationalist. And I was not put off by the high level of militancy of the political line. I was drawn to the twelve-point political platform of IWK. The twelfth point was ‘We want a socialist society.” (See IWK 12-Point Program.) IWK leadership was predominantly women, and I believe this also played a role in why I and others in the study group decided to join.
After nine years of being active in struggle to stop the eviction at the I-Hotel, on August 4, 1977, at 3:30 in the morning, the police violently broke through the 3,000-person human barricade and evicted the tenants of the International Hotel, including the commercial tenant organizations–Chinese Progressive Association, Kearney Street Workshop, and Asian Community Center. The Kearny Street block was one of the most vibrant political centers for organizing in San Francisco. This struggle had been my life for nine years. The owners demolished the hotel.
Movies have been made depicting the struggle as a loss. But was it? While there was nothing left on the block for 30 years, 45 years later, I no longer consider our struggle a loss. The developers tried like hell to expand the Wall Street of the West into Chinatown. The Redevelopment Agency allied with the developers and resorted to calling Chinatown/Manilatown a slum, not worthy of San Francisco. But today, when you visit the block, you will find that the greedy capitalist developers did not win! Instead, you will find an I-Hotel/public housing unit, a school, and a much-loved Chinatown Community College campus. I am proud of the role many of us played in organizing the citywide human barricade, and I am equally proud of the role of organizations such as the Chinese Community Development Center and others who worked diligently to find programs and funds to construct public housing on the site. This for me illustrates the importance of organizing, building the united front, and developing skills for concrete solutions.
Mental Health and Capitalism
It’s been 44 years since I was 30-something. My personal experience is vastly different from what Millennials and Gen Z face today: issues of housing availability, of affordable rent or mortgage; lack of long-term work opportunities; wage stagnation; deteriorating working conditions; need for frequent relocation to follow the work; staggering student loans; financial instability;monitoring/surveillance of workers; emotional and financial stress of caring for elderly parents. These are issues that I in my 30s did not have to navigate. Added to this are the crises of climate, war, and potential food insecurity. The feelings of frustration, fear, anxiety, anger, and hopelessness were brought home to me recently by my 43-year old son who, after a long day at work, needed to vent. Many Millennials—some in my own family–are finding relief in anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds.
Millennials are often referred to as the “burnout generation.” Because I come from a public-health background, I have sought recommendations for addressing mental health and burnout. I found that the public health community recommends the following:
De-stigmatize mental health.
Seek whole-person care.
Seek practitioners with a holistic approach.
Provide mental health care access to all in need.
Provide affordable care.
Trust that appropriate treatment will be provided.
Expand workers’ autonomy at demanding, high-pressure jobs.
Unfortunately, I feel that these recommendations are a good start but will not go far enough.
Public Health under Capitalism
When I’ve sought help for mental health issues through my HMO, my care usually includes a quick review of my symptoms followed by a prescription and surveys on my mood. When I’ve finally been able to secure a referral to a therapist, friends have advised me not to show any signs of improvement or my treatment could be discontinued.
My acupuncturist comes close to meeting the holistic recommendations in the list above. After listening to my pulse and asking me other questions, we go to the table and she inserts the needles while continuing to ask me questions about my sleep, my moods, any tension. She will remind me to try to take time during the day to be present, see the beauty around me and in people. She explains that ongoing stress puts a strain on the body and suggests what to eat so my stomach can digest better; reminds me to set a bedtime routine to insure I sleep soundly between the hours of 10 pm and 2 a.m.; suggests I not accept too many presentation or writing requests; reminds me to exercise but not to overdo it. She supports the practice of integrating my activism with mindful meditation along the lines of Thich Nhat Hanh; and she emphasizes the importance of my painting as a way to develop my full human potential. My acupuncture appointments range from 60 to 75 minutes. These, along with the herbs prescribed, have helped greatly to address my physical health and, to some extent, my mental health. The downside? Traditional acupuncture is not intended to address mental health issues. I just happened to get lucky and found someone who takes the time to find out how I am doing and provides treatment and care accordingly. The other downside? In addition to the cost of my HMO, these treatments are expensive.
Unfortunately, a basic holistic medical approach to public health cannot be fully met under the system of capitalism. In fact, the root cause of the anxiety, stress, and trauma requiring mental health care can most likely be traced to living under capitalism, hetero-patriarchy, and white supremacy. A revamping of medical school training would be needed to prepare doctors and therapists to practice with an understanding and an analysis of the contradictions faced under capitalism and their impact on health.
Being grounded in hope and faith that a better world is possible and being in community with others from student organizing days to the present, it is obvious to me that revolutionary change away from capitalism is imperative. When young people ask me what that could look like, I often reply that I envision and want to work toward an economic system based on the principle “From each according to their ability to each according to their need” instead of a system based on profits and greed, This is a framework for restructuring how members of society might relate to each other. It would change the way we consume and produce and would support a political system that is focused on dismantling white supremacy.
Optimism: “Natural Energy Properly Used”
My optimism is based on my political training, which included a dialectical-historical approach to understanding the evolution of the natural world and the emergence of new qualities of being at new stages of human evolution. Today, we are living under what Lenin described as “imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.” His book of that title has set the stage for the founding of revolutionary socialism in many countries around the world. In Marx’s words, “Capitalism is pregnant with revolution.” And I have no choice but to organize against authoritarianism, war, and fascism and toward the better world I believe is possible.
In my late 20s, I chose to identify as a revolutionary. As I approach my 75th year, I continue to do so, but with a deeper understanding of what that word means. In April 2017, while attending plenary sessions held during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., a young African American woman called on us adults in the room to become “solutionaries.” Her message resonated deeply. I was fatigued by tense meetings centered more on egos than on fundamental changes needed to address global warming. I was honored to represent the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and Right to the City, and this young woman’s message became the focus of the keynote speech I delivered at the April 29th plenary “We are ‘solutionaries.’ [As solutionaries] we resist with a vision and fight for solutions that are good for the people and not for profit.” #No War No Warming #Keep It in the Ground #One Struggle Many Fronts.
As solutionaries, we also need to be able to expose false climate solutions. False solutions are tricks that give polluters the appearance that they are doing something good for the environment when in reality they are destroying it. This has to stop. I myself have looked to the Indigenous Environmental Network for leadership in advancing knowledge and practices that respect and protect Mother Earth. As a non-Indigenous person, it was important for me to acknowledge and advocate for Indigenous rights and sovereignty and self-determination on native land. We need to transition to renewable energy—i.e., natural sources such as solar, wind, waves). We need to switch to the use of toxin-free products. Companies must be held responsible to make sure they do no harm in production. Pollution from factories poisoning the air, water, and soil and creating sickness must be stopped. If this results in workers losing their jobs, then these workers must be provided with alternative opportunities to provide for themselves and their families.
I have been personally accused by representatives of the fossil fuel and coal industries of trying to take us back into the Stone Age. Though they misrepresent where I am coming from, I find delight in the laughter their words provoke at our side of the table.
For me, I strive to be focused on climate and environmental justice. Grace Lee Boggs states “[We must] redefine our relationships with one another, to the Earth and to the world … finding the courage to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families.” Grace believes that the Principles of Environmental Justice can serve as a basis for a new constitution. Climate impacts everything and everyone. Climate and environmental justice should and can be included in mission statements and bylaws for organizations large and small. That is why I was excited and uplifted to address climate as a keynote speaker at the 2022 national convention of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA).This invitation gave me the opportunity to share my thoughts on how APALA and the broader mainstream labor movement need to include climate in their vision, with solutions for a better world for working people and their families. (See Pam’s speech at APALA Convention. )
Looking back over my 50 years of organizing, I found myself reacting to situations from a place of anger. Over time, and especially learning from beloved peers from my environmental justice family, I strive to move forward from a place of radical love, hope, optimism, and spirituality. My “solutionary revolutionary” optimism is nurtured through relationships and friendships with folks who check in and take care of me when I’m having a hard time. They are “family” who encourage me to keep the faith.
Ben and I were blessed to spend the last few weeks before his passing with our dear friend John Trudell. On our final visit, John said, “Pam, you have to have faith. Keep on doing what you do.” Whenever I feel discouraged, I turn to his poem “Listening.” John writes:
Surge together In resistance
To meet the reality of power
The power of understanding Real connections to spirit Is knowing our resistance
Natural energy properly used
Dr. Vincent Harding was a wonderful friend. During one conversation, he asked, “Pam, what if you knew that when you jumped into the river for justice that, in your lifetime, you might not live to see the ocean?” I learned many things from Dr. Harding, but with regard to being optimistic, he reminds us that we are not alone, that the struggle will continue. We swim in the river for justice with others. Along the way, we will need to swim against the current, and not everyone makes it.
Alex Tom, in his chapter “On Movement Praxis in the Era of Trumpism, in Contemporary Asian American Activism includes a section focused on practicing long-term self- and community care. Alex then asks, “How do we practice self-care and community care in a way to reimagine our revolutionary politics for the current and the future?”
He continues, “A long-term partnership is a deep relationship. The reality is, not everyone has the requisite tools, desire, and/or capacity for an actual deep relationship.” I am blessed to have a partner who supports my revolutionary work. When I was away traveling, which was often, he never complained. When I am struggling over a campaign or an article or upcoming talk, his insights are always most constructive. The point I want to make is that we are not always equipped for the demands of a long-term relationship, and problems can be compounded if there are differences in how we each relate to being revolutionaries.
At a CPA function, one of the members asked Ben, “How come you and Pam always come together?” Her question prompted Ben to understand the importance of what he calls, “the partners’ corner.” Since then, he will often approach CPA members’ partners and suggest they join him at the corner. “Come tag along. Consider it like going on a date.” I have to admit, it is always more fulfilling to be at events together. While we have political unity, it is our commitment and love for organizing in the community that forms the basis of our 45 years together. I cannot offer much more to this topic, but it is one that I feel needs to be considered.
To me, international solidarity is global optimism in practice. Internationalism is vital and has a real impact not only in the world but in our internal transformation as well. Internationalism calls on us to break out of silos. For over 53 years, I have been engaged in international solidarity and networking efforts, starting with the movement against the war in SE Asia. In 2017, I participated in a delegation from San Francisco Chinatown to Standing Rock. A few months later, I joined an exposure tour to the Philippines. There I met with indigenous peasants fighting Duterte’s Build Build Build projects, which were seizing peasant farmlands to build geothermal plants and destroying sacred forest sites for logging and mining. I witnessed firsthand the impact of US imperialism and the hardships and violence the people endure under US semi-colonialism. But where there is oppression, there is resistance. In Manila, I joined hundreds of thousands across the islands who were in the streets protesting Trump’s visit and demanding, “US out of the Philippines” and “Stop the reign of extrajudicial killings.”
During one-on-one chats, I asked people about the People’s Army and its role in the struggle for democratic liberation. Femila, an indigenous leader, responded, “When Duterte’s armed forces come through our towns, they steal food, property, and money and rape women. When the People’s Army comes through, they don’t bother us.” I learned that communists are visibly accepted and play principled leadership roles in the struggle for democratic national liberation. When I returned home, I agreed to chair the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines – US. Organizing support to dismantle imperialism is not only a duty but an act of faith in the people’s struggle for democratic rights.
Maintaining revolutionary optimism takes work, and I appreciate having this opportunity to reflect and break it down. Because we are now striving to carry out our work under COVID conditions, I hope that within these stories there are nuggets that can inform your revolutionary truths.
I would like to close with two quotes. The first is from Frantz Fanon: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill or betray it.” I am inspired by the wide spectrum of young people I am proud to have as revolutionary siblings. In the words of revolutionary elder Happy Lim, “Only if we struggle relentlessly will a free, just, and equal society become a reality. I will follow the advanced youth of today and keep on fighting.”