Interviewing Cynthia Parks, Part One


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Cynthia Parks. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription of their first session together. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.

–Michael Albert

Cynthia, you  were born in 1992. You watched your family lose their modest home in 1998 due to the housing crash of the time. Years later you became an advocate for inexpensive quality public housing. You became, as well, a staunch proponent of what was then called rights for the city and worked within RPS ever since on related programs and organizing while staffing diverse campaigns. A militant activist, a tireless staff contributor to project after project, you were the secretary of housing in the second RPS shadow government. Thank you for this opportunity to interview you for our oral history project. To start, do you remember first becoming radical?

Yes, vividly. When I was six, as you researched, my family lost its home. I can still remember the pain and harm. I can remember my angry confusion. My mom explained the economy was in trouble. We didn’t have funds to pay our bills. The banks were taking our home. And I asked how our not having a home helped the economy, or anyone. My mother told me it helps the bankers. It helps the rich.

I watched my father sink into depression, and what I would later understand to be alcoholism. I saw my mother ravaged by trying to secure the family and protect us from poverty and from my father as well. And at six, I believe my life was mapped out, but it was only years later that I knew what I had become.

Can you tell us what were the most personally inspiring RPS events or campaigns specifically for you?

For me, for the course and direction and content of my life, many many events and campaigns had profound impact, especially those relating to city life like the military and prison conversion to housing campaigns. But if you are asking for the kind of epochal personal event people experience, I can’t even begin to tell you why – I don’t know – but two things that come immediately to mind are quite oddly and unexpectedly when I first used People’s Social Media and when I attended the first talk by Edward Snowden after he was pardoned and welcomed back to the U.S.

I think using our new social media moved me so much because I was doing something natural, nothing special, but I was doing it by way of an institution conceived and built by RPS people that I knew was going to last all the way into a new society. I think it was the first time I felt that level of confidence in our future. What we were doing would last in the way we hoped. Something about that just grabbed me. We were going to win.

And the Snowden talk, it wasn’t so much what he had to say, though that was very good. It was that it felt like a milestone of progress and potential. I felt, just sitting there in the audience, that the divisions that were so often destructive were, in time, going to be bridged and it wouldn’t be by some kind of saccharine make believe smiling and saying have a nice day, but by real understanding that moved everyone forward.

Once the first RPS convention was over what do you think kept things going? There was a lot of conflict in the early growth, wasn’t there?

In any social project some things get easier as time passes, unless, of course things literally go downhill. The hardest part is nearly always just getting started. This is because when first starting anything, one is acting without evidence that one’s actions will have impact. It involves reason and passion, but it also takes a large leap of faith. Since nothing is certain, there is always some leaping into the unknown in any work, but as time passes, there is more evidence and more reason to expect impact. It becomes a lot easier to act when you believe you will have effect than when having impact is more a tenuous wish rather than a secure expectation. And this general picture applied to RPS. We were leaping. We were acting without certainty. We had to manufacture hope and motivation from meager means.

Another factor that kept things going, followed from the first. In the early days of endeavors, poor choices can be fatal. If you are just getting going, and you opt for some action or formulation and it falls flat and fails, that can derail everything. Imagine if the convention had been a bust.

The same applies if you are trying to create a local chapter. But later this becomes steadily less true. Once you are well underway, bad choices will still be bad, but far less decisive. Your project is more robust. Mistakes can be side stepped and corrected, and the more a project embraces diversity, the more it will have flexible insurance against sudden collapse. When one path doesn’t work, okay, you have others ready to pursue.

When we came out of the convention we were just getting started. Fear of failing thrived. Fear of failing caused many people to think each choice was paramount. We vested each choice, often, with too much weight. We tended to defend positions too inflexibly. Imagine meeting with ten or fifteen folks to form a chapter. Your life is changing, it is urgent stuff. You are discussing how often to have meetings, or how to conduct them, or who to invite to the next one. It can seem like everything is at stake. It can seem like get it right, or you will fail. Can you see how you might invest too much and fight too hard for modest or even minor differences, seeing them, instead, as monumental?

At the convention, its scale and our shared excitement thwarted that tendency. But after the convention, in small fledgling chapters, we often got into unyielding arguments between contending views where, were things further advanced, we would have had more relaxed compromises or simultaneous exploration of different possibilities to determine relative merits by evidence rather than by prediction.

Three thousand people attended the convention and then returned to their jobs and homes. We never knew exactly, but a reasonable estimate is that 500 attendees became overwhelmingly committed revolutionaries. Our criterion for decisions was first to contribute to creating the organization and movement, and then, in context of that, to also live our lives with family and do our day jobs. Another 500 attendees became revolutionaries, eager to really help, but with less time to allot. And the remaining 2,000 or so became supporters with varying commitments. They often called themselves revolutionary, but had not yet changed to a point where winning a new world had become the center of their way of thinking and acting.

Okay, but why did RPS persist?

Persisting meant creating a good many local chapters which could in turn work on campaigns, reach out to attract new support, further define the organization, and help existing other organizations and movements. A Catch 22 blocked the way.

The 500 most committed participants were absolutely central. We were the ones who would call meetings of others from the convention in our area, or of friends, neighbors, or workmates who hadn’t yet connected with RPS. We were the people who would do the needed work. We were the glue. Where we were absent, nothing much happened, at least for a time. If that had been everywhere, the whole undertaking would have fizzled. Where we were present, meetings were called, chapters were established. Campaigns were begun. Outreach accelerated.

What was the Catch 22?

It was that those who were most intent on success, and most essential to keep things moving, were also the most susceptible to being afraid of failing, and thus the most prone to fight over details.

So at the beginning we really had two obstacles to surmount. First, we had to depend on relatively few people to carry too much of the initial workload and responsibility. This might entrench them/us with too much relative power and contacts. Second, depending so much on only about 500 people caused us to be so intent on succeeding and so averse to failing, that we often wouldn’t flexibly listen and hear others.

We made it past those difficulties, but honestly, I believe we certainly could have failed. The enormous project that is RPS two decades later, now well on the road to success and with nary a chance of unraveling, could have died at many points, especially in the initial period.

If you want to sing the praises of anyone for RPS succeeding, I would not nominate the famous actors, or the initial conceivers, but the subset of 500 who brought to the early efforts not just great and unrelenting energy, but, also, despite the pressures, enough sensitivity and flexibility to cool down themselves and the hot tempers of others to generate sufficient room and time for enough new people to become involved so we could move from fear of failure producing anxiety and inflexibility to informed confidence of success producing hopefulness and flexibility. To me, that may have been the most basic achievement on which everything else depended.

Was it personally difficult for people?

Absolutely. The convention was over. There was great excitement. People left. Now let’s say you are one of the 500. That is an infinitesimal number in the grand scheme of society. Even on the left, it is a tiny group. On average, ten per state. That meant you maybe knew one or two other people, at the very most, as energetically committed as yourself. And perhaps no one.

So now you are working yourself toward exhaustion, you believe in RPS and its potentials and you fear that the relative lack of effort by many others will torpedo it. Do you see how you could become hostile and bitter toward many? 

You believe that errors could be fatal, and that your commitment and growing greater experience, justify your belief that your views of what should occur are much wiser than the views of others. Do you see how you could become inflexible and even sectarian about your views?

So what do you do to ward off those quite natural trajectories, which even appear warranted – and even were warranted, in some partial sense? 

How do you get yourself to understand that progress and success depended easily as much on the way you interacted with folks, your patience, your willingness to abide what you thought were poor or even wrong choices, as they were on getting some abstractly right decisions made while having fewer and fewer people feeling committed to those decisions?

My guess is people had different means. Maybe there were some saints among us who weren’t susceptible at all to these tendencies, though I doubt it. For most of us, and this was true for me, I think finding one or two people who would keep us honest, who would keep our priorities in order, was critical. I think for many there was also a very conscious step, at some point, toward prioritizing avoiding these ills as one’s own special contribution. I remember myself literally pledging to myself to prioritize that. It didn’t hurt, indeed, it probably helped a lot, that there were some RPS founders and deeply involved folks who saw all this at the time, and who wrote and spoke movingly of it, even as they too struggled to avoid the pitfalls sprinkled across our paths.

I would like to ask another question, perhaps a bit personal. In those demanding times, there was a question, I am sure, for many, about family responsibilities as compared to movement desires. Post convention, tirelessly working on sustaining the emerging activism, you had a young child. How did you think about this choice between family and movement? And how did others? 

For myself, I think I first focused on that face off at the time Trump was elected, or perhaps just a bit after, and then really when I had my first child. Honestly, I felt strange even having a child with his persona and malevolence lurking all over society. I started to think about what it means to serve one’s family, one’s loved ones, even if we leave out, for a minute, concern for the rest of humanity.

It seemed to me that even with the narrow view, to think that the best one can do for one’s kids is about earning as much as possible, or, for that matter, shielding them as much as possible from worrying about the direction of society – this is for somewhat older kids, of course – seemed to me mistaken. I now think it was likely always mistaken, a product of the atomistic competitive character of then social life, but surely when the direction of society threatened to curtail and even stamp them out children’s future lives, to highlight only supporting them in the usual ways as if all would be well, struck me as a kind of magical thinking. Thinking all will be well, one could think usual style efforts on behalf of one’s family, would prove to have been optimal, years later. Again, even forgetting broader social responsibility, which I don’t think we should, but even doing so, that view made no sense to me. It seemed to me, instead, that for one’s kids, as well as for society, one had to seek change.

I later read an interview with David Dellinger, arguably the foremost American civil disobedience revolutionary of his time, done decades earlier. He was asked whether he ever had misgivings, doubts, sorrows, about having spent considerable time in jail away from his kids, but, even more so, about his having not accumulated nearly the wealth he could have to provide them during their childhood and to pass on to them after he died. His reply was that he had no such misgivings, no such doubts, though he did have endless sorrow about it. He felt it was his duty to provide an image of socially responsible, caring, behavior – for them, but also for people more generally as well – and he felt he had done that, and from there on it would be up to them what road they took. He had sorrow, however, that the world was such that being responsible for them and others required him devoting less time to engaging directly with them than he would have otherwise preferred. I was moved by that, and I think encountering his response pretty much completed my thinking about the topic.

As to others’ views, I don’t know but I can guess, I suppose. I think there were over the past quarter century or so, many many pressures for parents, siblings, daughters, and sons, vis a vis their life choices – and much travail dealing with those choices. Should I largely ignore society and mainly pursue my private agendas and my family’s well being? Should I pay peripheral attention to social turmoil, but overwhelmingly address my own private agendas and my family’s well being? Should I give more time and even more so, more focus, to concerns about society, or even elevate attention to that to the prime place in my thinking? Should I shield my kids, keep my home a sanctuary of fun and internal caring, and not address society and the responsibilities it raises? Or should I bring concerns about society home, share them, and hope all will address them?

Different strokes for different folks, I guess. But over time, one thing is certain. If the trajectory hadn’t been toward the more participatory perspective, there would be no RPS, and I think there would likely be not much future, either, by now, and certainly not much dignified and worthy future for the families in question and even for the whole species.

As you went down that trajectory toward greater and greater involvement, were you hostile toward those who didn’t? 

Sometimes yes, to my embarrassment, but mostly no. However, I did try to affect their views. I thought the objective implications of the mainly self and own family oriented approach that denied need to change our choices and priorities as time passed was objectively harmful to future prospects, and that if it was dominant, it would even totally swamp them. So I would try to work to change such views.

But, as to being hostile, how would you react if someone replied to your suggestion that they might demonstrate, or study up, or join a chapter, or whatever, by saying – “why should I, I don’t think you stand a chance. Injustice and degradation will prevail. More, what the hell can I contribute? What can I do that would matter? I don’t think your project has a chance in hell of succeeding, but even if it does, I am sure my adding myself to it will have no significant impact. But I know I can work with considerable chance of some success to make my kids more healthy and fulfilled, my spouse, my sister, my brother, even perhaps, my closest friends. But the whole country? The whole world? Come on. I cannot impact that, it’s a fool’s errand. To deny my kids, my spouse, my family, my friends, to go off on that tangent. Not me.”

Of course, for everyone or even just most people to adopt that stance would be a self fulfilling recipe for disaster. But one person thinking that way – whose fault was that? Was it really that person? Or was it we who understood society and history better, who realized potentials and needs and possibilities, but had not, as yet, effectively made them compelling and believable? And for that matter, was the lone person making that assessment even wrong? If so, in what way? It took a kind of leap of faith to commit to the needed tasks. Luckily enough people made that leap, and then more and more. A large part of why I was so attracted to RPS, was that it acted to help people make that choice, over and over.

Returning to RPS getting going, I assume as people left the initial convention the key next step was forming chapters. Was that so? And why?

Yes, when we left the convention we all knew that RPS success was going to depend on it having reliable, informed, working chapters with face to face trust and exploration. We hoped chapters would emerge in communities, on campuses, and in workplaces. We felt a chapter with ten members was okay, but one with forty or fifty members would be much better. We thought that a chapter just getting going, on reaching that larger scale, should as much as situations allowed divide into two – not a nasty split, but a friendly break so that each half could grow again, and divide again. In that way, on a campus, in a workplace, or in a community, there would be steadily more chapters, each operative in a particular and steadily more focussed region or area but all tied to the rest.

You might start with a few people constituting a chapter for a whole community, workplace or college. Then, that single chapter would reach forty members, say, and divide into two chapters – each for half the community, workplace, or campus. Then it would happen again, and again. In time there would be chapters for neighborhoods, not one for a whole town, say, and chapters for living units, not one for a whole campus, and chapters for divisions of a workplace, not one for the whole plant. As we got more chapters, however, we hoped each would remain entwined with its parent and sibling chapters, so that many chapters in a community, or workplace, or campus, would together constitute an assembly for the whole unit – and then, as time went on, we could also have a federation of those assemblies.

It was an ambitious picture, but then that was the whole point. RPS wasn’t asking what modest thing can we perhaps accomplish and celebrate as our achievement and then go home. RPS was asking what are the big things we must accomplish as part of moving forward to a whole new society.

We knew chapters were essential so the organization would have face to face venues of participation. Chapters were needed to pursue program in concert with one another as well as to directly serve members. Without chapters, RPS would be a cyber organization, with only tenuous connections among its members. With chapters, as long as we could develop them in a way ensuring the tight connection of each to the rest, RPS could be personal, direct, and participatory.

Can you tell us what the steps were, and what difficulties occurred?

It was different for different cases. I left the convention and within a week or two hosted a group of friends. I was still in college and at a dinner party I spoke about the convention, handed out materials summarizing the nature of RPS, and urged those who were interested to return for another session a week later. In the meantime, I urged people to discuss the ideas and read the materials, and I offered to answer questions that might come up.

That part was easy, actually. At our second session, there were twelve of us. We even thought of calling ourselves the dirty dozen before realizing the name would make no sense as we grew. In any event, we began figuring out how we would proceed. We decided on meetings twice a week – on Wednesday and Sunday nights. The meetings would be for dinner and we would rotate who had responsibility for bringing food. We also decided we would have a second, optional cultural/entertainment gathering each week. At each Sunday meeting someone would be responsible for proposing what the cultural gathering would be – perhaps a movie, or picnic, or playing ball together, or whatever.

Beyond those essential steps, for us to get to know, enjoy, and trust each other, we also started talking about what we could do. Here there was often tension. Some thought the thing to do was to get good, ourselves, at presenting the RPS views and vision and then to reach out and grow. Others thought the thing to do was to become active, either joining an already developed campaign on campus, or initiating a new one.

If I remember right instead of endlessly arguing and accomplishing neither aim while burning ourselves out in dispute, we pretty quickly compromised. When we had twenty people, less than one new person per current person, we would continue recruiting, but we would also establish our own campaign to simultaneously pursue. And so that is what we did.

Because momentum was building in many places, it took only ten days or so, if I remember right, to get to twenty. And indeed, we reached forty members, amidst considerable campus turmoil from our first two campaigns in just another few weeks, and at that point we made ourselves into two chapters, and we just kept growing.

What were the two campaigns you settled on? And how did you get people to work well together when they hadn’t seriously known one another earlier and had so many differences among them?

The campaigns were a campus version of the arms manufacturers boycott that was growing nationally, plus our own campaign to rid our campus of violence against women and racist attacks on minorities, which centered, at first, on the behavior of some fraternities and sororities.

Developing trust had two bases, I think. On the one hand, we did, as I noted, pay close attention to actually getting to know one another and to sharing experiences. I think for most of us, and it was more so rather than less so as time went along, the chapter and later chapters became not only the locus of our political hopes and activism, but also a main site of our social lives. Once there were more chapters, we created our own intramural sports leagues, had regular parties, and held classes taught by members who had special skills or knowledge. This included everything from learning tennis, say, to becoming a photographer or learning computer skills. We eventually even had painting classes and the assembly of chapters sponsored plays and street theatre, both for artistic and political aims. A nice thing was that whenever we branched out or took up a cause or developed anything new, we wrote it up and sent it to folks on other campuses, and others did likewise. All this was pretty much without opposition, yet before long it provided a basis for very powerful campaigns.

But I should note, there was a danger in our social connections. We could become insular. We could become a campus group, content in its own virtues, happy in its own social life, and lacking a will and even energy to reach out to those disagreeing with us. But this did not happen. From the start everyone agreed that building our chapters in ways which would not sustain themselves due to internal frustration and alienation would be insane. So we needed the social life commitments. But we also agreed that to become comfortable in our own little universe, getting insular and static because it was more pleasurable to revel in each other’s support and in our joyful activities than it was to go out and talk to people hostile to our beliefs would consign our overall agenda to defeat for want of sufficient support, and would likely also turn us into less than the kind of people we sought to be. So we constantly gave most time to reaching out, and even our social events were always looking to get non RPS participants involved.

And we were quite strategic about it. We approached groups and individuals who we felt could in turn broaden our potentials most. In fact, when we had only fifteen members we literally made lists of individuals to reach, people very popular and visible in various constituencies on campus, including big living groups, sports teams, and the fraternities, and we assigned people to specifically reach out to each, and keep at it, until success.

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