Interviewing Harriet Lennon


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 Harriet Lennon. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. 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

Harriet, you were born in 2001. A grassroots organizer of extreme effectivity to the point of also being a trainer for other organizers, you started your activism in local communities fighting evictions and, at the same time, developing consciousness of housing issues that later merged into larger scale demands and campaigns. You became very active, in particular, with food organizing and delivery, a protector and advocate of the defenseless. But you got involved in housing issue a bit later, is that right, and initially with a different focus?

Yes, as the previously local housing campaigns around the country started to grow and entwine by becoming connected with RPS and through RPS with many other projects, I was in school, thinking about social change but not seeking it. And for whatever reasons, I began to wonder about housing. I think it was initially as much me wondering is there a career here, as it was anything more social.

First, I wondered, what could anyone do about the living situation in large apartment complexes? Everyone was fragmented. There were few or no shared agendas. Landlords dominated renters. There had to be local options worth pursuing.

Second, I wondered if some broad national policy could increase affordable housing in ways equitable for families and exemplary regarding housing production.

What followed?

I and a group of friends started meeting to discuss ideas, and also to visit housing activists and tenants rights groups to learn from them. We encountered many people already in or about to join RPS so I and my friends joined too.

So it wasn’t some major life decision to angst over? 

Not even remotely. Rather, we were sitting around talking, and we noted that the people we liked and appreciated were in RPS. We knew broadly what it was about, so we joined, just like that. RPS’s proximate short term benefits attracted us.

And then?

Two plans for helping people escape from homelessness and weakness into homes and influence emerged from our talks were supported by housing activists and caught on as RPS programs.

The first was a massive expansion of organizing in apartment complexes. The idea was to get renters to see themselves as a collective force able to take steadily more direct control of their circumstances.

This involved many steps. At the outset an organizer or two from RPS would visit an apartment complex, make friends, and hear about issues and problems. She would make tentative suggestions to understand their merits or debits. Typically a few gains were made before others. Sometimes elderly tenants would be on a high floor they had difficulty navigating too and an apartment swap in the name of fairness would occur. Younger more able folks from a more accessible floor would change places with elderly folks on a less accessible floor. Such simple self organized events showed sympathy and that we could seek overall fairness. This changed people’s sense of potentials and their moods, too.

How did you get folks to do it?

Such achievements are more a matter of trying at all, than of overcoming great obstacles. In this case, we started by reaching out to younger student tenants in places where one or more tenants were already in RPS. The truth is, though, that modern life is so fragmented that even a current tenant was typically only marginally known by other tenants. Still, before long we approached families. A bit of modesty, a bit of social engagement, a lot of listening – that was the path.

Gains where residents themselves could enact improvements were excellent because they quickly revealed potentials. Sometimes we sought aesthetic changes in corridors. But once we had some trust and excitement, we helped people set up tenants’ food coops to ease people’s time spent shopping and reduce costs, and we helped set up collective approaches for handling day care and even laundry. Freeing people’s time was crucial to pretty much all gains. Folks who worked double shifts and cared for kids couldn’t participate unless doing so freed up time.

Of course this took weeks and months but folks starting socializing, including with planned parties and events. In time, there arose the idea that perhaps tenants didn’t each have to own things that they would only rarely use but that were important to have available when the need arose. Perhaps people could share. It was a little like setting up a lending library, but not only for books. Car pooling grew. Such efforts not only saved time and money, they built social ties and trust. New friendships brightened lives and paved a path toward future greater gains.

Did you do this type of work? 

Yes, I was a tenant and organized in my complex. Obviously my being a resident made it easier but there were plenty of apartment buildings with RPS member residents. So my situation wasn’t particularly unusual. But it didn’t come easily for me. I wasn’t the kind of person who goes into a room and immediately relates to people. I didn’t quickly create bonds. I was more like most people. Shy, quiet, not well suited to talking with folks I didn’t know.

Add to that, again, very sadly, that like most women I had had grave misgivings about knocking on doors, having a man answer, and going in to talk. But I knew how much it might matter, so I did it. Not wonderfully, I would say, but well enough – though typically we went door to door in teams, especially for first encounters, though going back sometimes meant going one on one.

And not least because of such worries, a whole different dimension for attention arose in many living units once there was some trust among residents. Safety and dealing collectively with reducing drugs and sexual and spouse abuse became a focus. The idea that people could publicly talk about such horrible and personal phenomena and collectively take steps to reduce such violations was at first inconceivable. Yet it didn’t take long for our solutions to simple issues to morph into giving attention to more complex concerns.

As collectivism and mutual aid developed, the need for local governance began to arise to adjudicate disputes, allocate resources, and to win lower rents and timely repairs.

Writ larger, we realized an apartment complex was a small society amidst others, like a neighborhood was amidst other neighborhoods, or a town, city, or even country was amidst other towns, cities, and even countries. And for that reason well established housing activists getting closely connected to RPS was incredibly valuable both as a means to learn of successful choices in other complexes which we could emulate and for direct aid, too.

You also got involved in broader national campaigns, right?

Yes, we wondered how we could build high quality, affordable housing in non exploitative and exemplary ways, and with exemplary distribution. Who would do the work? Why would they do it? With what financing? Who would get the product?

As our group discussed these questions we thought about enlisting participation from people who were currently doing little of great social value and who themselves had great needs and capacities. We thought about building new housing in a manner seeking to be just, equitable, and uplifting for all involved. We thought about housing going to those in need.

It came down to looking for places where large numbers of capable people were not doing socially valuable things so they were available to build new housing at little loss of current other contributions.

This was the beginning of the RPS focus on transforming military bases and prisons to socially useful pursuits. The soldiers and inmates could construct low income but high quality housing. Instead of learning how to kill with blind discipline in the military, and instead of learning to job the system and gain more advanced criminal skills to use after release from prison into a society that stigmatized their reentry, why couldn’t soldiers and inmates learn useful skills, cooperate at work, and make their own decisions while generating a much needed product? Indeed, why not let soldiers and inmates, once they left the military or prison, have first claim on houses they had helped build even as other new houses would go to young people, homeless people, and others in need?

This was a national program that had to be won from the state so organizing began partly in communities, and partly inside the military and jails. RPS members reached out to families, to people working with those constituencies, and via our own people to others inside, as well as to neighborhoods around bases and prisons, and to poor communities.

This was tumultuous, as we all knew it would be, and had so many benefits we didn’t even have a good grasp of that until later.

The last major campaign, which came quite a bit later, was also striking. It focused not only buildings that were already apartments, but on motels and hotels, didn’t it?

We realized the number of empty rooms in hotels and motels, on average, at any moment, was about the same as the number of homeless people throughout the country, about 8 million, a pretty incredible fact.

So we thought about that and decided to build a campaign around the idea that everyone should be housed – full housing, sort of like full employment – before people could occupy dwellings that were not their own, simply while visiting somewhere. This started by saying that all buildings that provided temporary housing for travelers should allot 20% of their rooms to permanent residents at a low income rental rate. There were lots of details, but the idea was clear enough. Luxury had to come after necessity for the population as a whole. Of course, later, everything about hotels, motels, and income for housing would change as RPS progressed and more housing was built, not least by soldiers and prisoners, but short of that, as with other non reformist reform campaigns, the partial opening of various private motels and hotels to low income residency bettered the circumstances of deserving constituencies and elevated values and practices that prepared for winning further advances.

Finally, all these housing approaches had a great synergy that was often typical of RPS program. They benefitted the people doing the activity. They benefitted the recipients of the products. They benefitted society writ large. And they strengthened various constituencies with skills, dispositions, and interconnections suited to winning still more gains as time proceeded.

Can you remember some pivotal moment or moments during the emergence of RPS that greatly personally affected you?

Many, but here is one. It was during my time tenant organizing. I called on an elderly couple in my building to ask if they would be interested in very carefully swapping apartments with someone from the first floor so they would no longer have to walk up two flights to reach theirs. They looked at me, this was after getting me some tea and cookies and while we were sitting, and the gentleman just wept. The woman explained that for two years going up and down stairs to their apartment had been a kind of torture. It was worse for her husband, which meant he did it much less often, but also quite bad for her. He had worked assembly and his legs were bad. She was, as she put it, old lungs on old legs.

So we talked and they told me about themselves and vice versa. But the part that so moved me was that they were utterly incredulous that it had never even occurred to them to see if anyone would make the switch for them. And they felt interested, as well, that no one had ever spontaneously offered, yet now they saw there was no insurmountable reason for a caring person not to offer. After all, here it had finally happened.

I took from it not just new close friends and the pleasure of having helped people, but a deep understanding of the incredible extent to which society twists us all so far from simple levels of human sympathy and respect that we then take for granted incredible callousness and atomistic isolation. We don’t even admit it. We endure or waltz by it.

I realized that overcoming the near universal assumption of inevitable isolation and atomism and passive acceptance of what was often insanely harmful would be central to having strong activism, and that even an act like switching rooms, could foster strong connections and spur important consciousness raising.

Harriet, when RPS project’s emerged, workplaces, communities, what about arriving at connections among all these efforts, and, in particular, new ways to allocate in the economy?

Our allocation question was how should we connect RPSish or fully RPS workplaces to one another. How could we go from competitive market allocation to cooperative collectively negotiated participatory planning? What steps would advance that process?

We realized not far into the development of RPS that the real issue was how do we make changes in the economy that generate not only more just outcomes now, but also a mindset and structures that could melt into the future we desire. We knew every great dream begins with a dreamer. But we also knew a dream you dream alone remains only a dream. A dream you dream with others, can become reality.

On the one hand, various measures like price controls, constraints on competitive behavior, pollution controls and other ecological requirements, minimum wage laws, open books requirements, very progressive taxes, and duration of work laws, could all constrain market operations and simultaneously, if proposed and discussed with the intent firmly in mind, point toward non market possibilities. So all those were typically part of RPS efforts. But I think you are asking more about the initial emergence of participatory planning like structures.

Consider a small scale case. For example, in a neighborhood, consumers – and typically this would be renters in large apartment complexes – start to get together to use their collective power to win better circumstances, but also to share their assets to everyone’s advantage, and to mobilize for all manner of struggles.

So in these cases there would emerge food coops where large groups pooled their buying capacity to extract better rates from suppliers. But then, something even more interesting and progressive would happen. After all, using bargaining power to get better prices helped folks in need, but it didn’t establish a fundamentally new way of operating, just a new balance of power by overcoming disempowering fragmentation.

The more fundamental change came when workers near communities began to negotiate outcomes with one another. Of course sometimes this was pretty easy since the workers in the RPS workplaces, were also consumers, and sometimes lived in the apartments that were organizing. But not always. Sometimes, instead, the apartment councils and the worker councils, often but not only food producers, were some distance apart and didn’t have overlapping memberships. Still new practices spread from neighbors with some trust in workers they knew, to people who had had no prior contact. And these new practices were not to compete in a zero sum exchange based on power, but, instead, to negotiate exchanges taking into account the relative circumstances and impacts on all involved. This was a huge step.

At first it happened only quite locally, but nonetheless, the associated practices and mindsets had more general relevance. RPS’s broad and skeletal vision of cooperative negotiation of economic inputs and outputs began to develop practical substance. People started to have personal experiences of what it could look like and mean. People began to realize the extent they were hindered by their familiar seemingly unavoidable realities.

At the same time, popular movements for oversight of economic sectors – for example, what was called participatory budgeting to oversee government expenditures – had a similar dynamic. Again, those involved consciously decided their preferences based on discussion and negotiation rather than succumbing to competitive bargaining power. Coops and consumer councils networked together to build grassroots dimensions of participatory planning. Simultaneously, restraints on prices and salaries and new ecological practices won by movement campaigns foreshadowed national federations of worker and consumer councils implementing the tools of planning overarching outcomes, like public goods investments.

So now where are we? We still have mostly private ownership. Markets are still in place and operating. But the most dynamic and exciting parts of economic life, the parts that people admire and wish to be part of, are largely RPS oriented. There is, you might almost say, a proud and hopeful RPS economy operating in parallel to a moribund holdover capitalist economy. We are no longer odd upstarts considered more or less weird and hopeless as compared to apparently permanent and sensible corporate actors. No, we are the future and everyone knows it. Everyone is more or less patiently and eagerly carrying through with transforming lives and relations. The change is clearly coming for all.

Of course there is still plenty of fierce opposition. But it has the character of an aging athlete trying to hold off father time. We don’t want to fight to the death with the adherents of the old. We simply want to keep on diminishing their sway, reducing their holdings, and updating their mentalities, even while we also welcome them, whenever they see clear to realizing that it is their only dignified and workable path, to join our endeavors by entering jobs, positions, and roles of the RPS sort.

But I should say that this approach of building the new alongside the old, is not without risk. While there are still owners, they conspire as their natural pursuit to block and reverse our advances. That we know this threat guides us to restrict their options, and continually win new perches from which to fight, leaving them no means to blunt our progress.

This explains, as well, why RPS has given so much attention and energy to growing our own media and contesting old media, and to enlisting our supporters into police forces and the military, and addressing the views of opponent citizens – not owners, but average folks – with continual respectful attention, constantly taking our progress with them as our measure of success, not the stridency or brilliance of our repeating our own virtues while our opponents stay hostile.

2 Comments

  1. avatar
    Michael Albert March 18, 2017 1:01 pm 

    Hi Rafael,

    The proposal is not for eight room places but major hotels, motel chains, etc. Operations that have major profits. If anything like this was ever proposed for smaller places, the burden of costs would not be borne by the places, but by society, or the family getting rooms, once they become able.

    With that clarification, are you okay with the approach – which, by the way, was for the U.S. where there are roughly 8 million homeless, I believe, and 8 million empty rooms nightly – and it accompanied a major proposal for building new residencies, as well, using military personnel, and prison residents, to do the work, and reap the first benefits, as well.

    Thanks for the query, though – I have been quite surprised at the dirth of response to the various interviews…

  2. Rafael March 17, 2017 12:38 am 

    My family owns a small hotel, it has eight rooms. It was my grandparents’ house. I wouldn’t do it: give two rooms for local people. I don’t think small owners should take the brunt of the system change. But I think owning land is an irrational idea brought by the Europeans to this continent , communal ownership of the land was one of the things that was lost with the destruction of the civilizatons of this continent.

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