It’s impossible to tell the story of the Applied Research Center and Colorlines.com without starting with the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO). Gary Delgado, a former welfare rights organizer and also a founding staff member of ACORN, founded both organizations in the early 1980s, just as Ronald Reagan was coming into office on the strength of the “welfare queen” meme, preparing to bust unions, cut taxes on the wealthy, and privatize public services. CTWO’s job was to train people of color in community and labor organizing, and to advance a theory of the role of race in organizing. ARC’s job was to provide analytic resources to that base of organizers. In a world that had gone colorblind in the post-Civil Rights era, our focus on communities of color was anathema to some, and savior to many.
At the time, in 1989, I was a newbie working at CTWO. Gary, who was a great organizer and wonderfully creative intellectual, told me he thought we should start some kind of journal about race in organizing and charged me with figuring it out. We started Third Force, a quarterly journal about how communities of color were making change, and that journal soon becoming a must-read as we gave race a central place in organizing debates. CTWO’s premier program, the Movement Activist Apprenticeship Program, is where several hundred racial justice activists went to become organizers, including Colorlines’s own Jeff Chang (associate editor of the print mag), and Colorlines.com’s own Jorge Rivas and Jamilah King.
In 1990, Gary turned over CTWO’s leadership to me, then 23 years old and Francis Calpotura, then 26, so that he could build ARC into a fully staffed organization with ongoing programs. Throughout the ‘80’s, ARC had been producing occasional papers and tools to help people navigate policy ideas. We published papers on the potential for winning non-citizen voting rights for local elections, on the role of “urban renewal” in pushing people of color out of the city, and on emerging demographic changes throughout the country. When Gary built up ARC, he intended to have a broad social justice focus. But the demand from organizers that would help them deal with the racial questions plaguing their efforts was too huge to ignore, and so we became a racial justice think tank with a vigorous orientation toward action. Over the years, we built things that people clearly wanted, and Colorlines.com is no exception.
Third Force eventually merged with an ARC publication called RaceFile (a quarterly digest of race stories in the news) to create a print magazine known as ColorLines. Veteran organizer and thought leader Bob Wing was the founding Executive Editor, establishing a new vehicle for learning and debate on a huge range of topics. For the magazine’s first five years, he was responsible for its breadth and depth. From the first issue, we did the things that ARC has become known for. We raced up every issue under the sun, we scrutinized social change practice to help people learn and innovate, and we framed with the positive (racial justice) rather than the negative (anti-racist). We ran all kinds of programs besides the magazine too.
We worked closely with education reform groups and welfare rights groups, then with immigrant rights organizations and community-based workers’ centers to pull the theory out of their practice. We piloted the Legislative Report Cards on Racial Equity, which are now published in 10 states and counting, and started the Facing Race conference to gather our community every two years.
In all this time, we’ve learned a few things that appear again and again on the Colorlines.com screen. First, it’s important not to confuse having a particular identity with having an analysis. We can see proof of that as conservatives of color, though still small in numbers, gain prominence in political debates. Second, contrary to popular wisdom, it is possible to talk race from a progressive stance and win. In fact, if progressives don’t talk race, we leave conservatives all the room they need to take apart affirmative action, attack voting rights, and cut off immigration.
Finally, we’ve learned the power of the word “and,” becoming really comfortable looking at the intersection of race and gender, sexuality, economy, national identity, and environment. There are some rules for looking through multiple lenses — it’s not okay to switch to another lens because you’re just uncomfortable with the race discussion — but it is entirely possible, desirable even, to consider all the dimensions of a particular problem so that we can solve the problem for everybody. Through it all, we’ve responded to changing conditions by using new tools and reaching out to new friends.
As we celebrate our 30th anniversary, we are so happy to count you among those friends. We learn from you every day, and we do our best to present those lessons back to everyday people in the form of investigations, commentary, trainings, and gatherings. Facing Race 2012 is the official start of a year-long anniversary party. We hope to see you there, in body and spirit.