“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
For the third installment of the Visionaries Project, we spoke to Sara Gozalo about capitalism, fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
The Visionaries Project is a subsection of The Liberty Project dedicated to highlighting the lives, passions, and work of radical activists currently working towards social justice and liberation from oppression. We aim to uplift the perspectives of diverse voices working in media and activism today—and not just the faces who make headlines, but the real people on the ground every day, working towards their visions of a better world.
Sara Gozalo is an organizer currently based in New Orleans. Originally from Madrid, she describes herself as a "queer immigrant who believes in a world without borders and without jails, where everyone has the right to live in dignity." She currently works as a Unanimous Jury Specialist at the Promise of Justice Initiative, co-founded Students for Peace and Justice, and was formerly the Supervising Coordinator of the New Sanctuary Coalition and a member of the Worcester Global Action Network. We spoke with her about the insidiousness of capitalism, her work fighting ICE and the prison industrial complex, combating burnout as an activist, and her vision of a better world.
LIBERTY PROJECT: I was wondering if you could give an overview of your experience in activism and organizing.
SARA GOZALO: I have been organizing for a long time. I've only been organizing professionally for the past three and a half to four years, but I organized when I was at UMass against the war in Iraq. We did a lot of workshopping and teachings about free trade agreements, and how capitalism was destroying the planet.
It seems like that was such a long time ago, and we're still dealing with the same issues. I think that a lot of organizing is understanding that you're running a marathon, and it's never going to be a sprint. It's going to be a lot of small victories along the way, but you're going to fight the same issues constantly. That can be pretty demoralizing, but it also means you can never stop.
I come from a family that's very political. My dad is an attorney in Spain, and when he was a student he got arrested and kicked out of school for organizing against Franco during the dictatorship. My mom was always very political, and I remember hating that when I was a little kid.
While I was going through my own immigration case, I realized how hard it is for someone with a ton of privilege, and I started to look into what it was like for people who aren't as privileged. I got very involved in the immigration issue. Since I moved to New Orleans, I've seen the same patterns in the criminal justice system.
I think New Orleans brings these issues together. It has been very impacted in terms of climate change. Louisiana has the highest numbers per capita of incarcerated people [in the US], and one of the highest numbers of migrants in detention. The city brings everything together, and ties in all the different aspects that I have organized around in my life. In the end, it is important to remember that they're all related to each other.
Where are you at now?
I moved to New Orleans this summer. My wife was born and raised here. I'm working at the Promise of Justice Initiative, which is an organization that does a lot of criminal justice work.
It's clear that all these issues are very interconnected. Lately it seems that there's been a particular resurgence of anticapitalist sentiment, though that was always there…Is that affecting your organizing at all?
I have been organizing with these anti-capitalists since the late '90s. It feels like the "resurgence" has been a long time coming.
When we were organizing around the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003, we were very much organizing under the capitalist lens. Grassroots movements like Occupy and the movement for Medicare for All have ignited something even bigger now. It's become more mainstream.
The fight against capitalism is decades long, and its roots are in the people who are directly impacted, especially indigenous people all around the world. They have led that fight, because they know in their bodies what capitalism is doing to the world. I think it's important that now that conversation is part of western countries, especially the United States, which in many ways is the belly of the beast in terms of capitalism. Anti-capitalist organizing has been there forever; it just now feels like you can talk about it and people won't immediately discard you as someone crazy.
I want to make sure that [in spite of all the] now-mainstream groups that are taking this fight on—which is super important and necessary—we recognize how many people have been fighting this fight for so long and leading the efforts.
I first met you through New Sanctuary Coalition (an organization that provides legal support to immigrants in New York City). You were doing so much for them at once, and I was wondering what your reflections on that experience are.
NSC is one of the most powerful organizing groups that I have ever known, in terms of the numbers of people who are involved. Post-election, after Trump took power, it became very obvious that immigration was going to become one of the issues that he was going to attack the most. NSC grew because there are very concrete ways that people could get involved, and I think that is incredibly powerful. It's led by people who are directly impacted, but it really utilizes the number of people who want to fight alongside people who are directly impacted. That was a beautiful thing to see.
I've worked with other groups where there isn't a clear way for volunteers to get involved, and I think NSC recognizes that people can fight against the system with the support of others with more privilege. It's a great way to utilize the privilege that US citizens have. The [idea] that the people who are impacted lead, and you're showing up for solidarity—not to help or save anyone—is really important.
The accompaniment work, in particular, was hard for volunteers in that it was so boring, but it's such a good example of how much privilege US citizens have, and how important it is to show up and not feel like they're saving or leading. They're just standing in solidarity, which is an incredible exercise for everyone.
It did feel at times overwhelming, which obviously leads to a lot of burnout and the sense of, oh my God, I am never doing enough, because everything is an emergency.
It felt at times that I was just pouring oil on the machine as opposed to throwing a wrench in it. For instance, if a judge said, I need an asylum application in three months as opposed to the year, we became so good at meeting those demands that it felt like in some way we were contributing to them.
I think that's a constant in organizing. There's a big difference between asking, what can you today to help a person who's going to be deported unless they show up with an asylum application, and what can you do to dismantle the system? Of course you're gonna support the person who's dealing with something today and not think in bigger terms, and so those were some difficult moments.
I don't have the answer. Maybe we need organizations that do more direct impact service work, and other organizations that only do the disruptive work; maybe that's the balance that we could work towards.
When I was leaving this summer, a lot of people finally went out on the streets, and people got arrested by the hundreds. I think that's the energy we need in the streets, while organizations like NSC do the day-to-day work that's helping people stay in the country and not be deported.
Activist Sara Gozalo from @NewSanctuaryNYC tells us about how they're working to empower immigrants during this dar… https://t.co/l1OK0TSFvA— Jezebel (@Jezebel) 1541169069.0
Speaking of those larger systemic changes, are there any visions you have of changes that you would like to see happen on a large scale?
Yeah, so many.
First of all, we need to realign our belief system. Our bones, our insides, are so ingrained with this capitalist system of oppression. We make decisions on a daily basis that are informed by that upbringing. I admire Decolonize This Place and other groups that are really going to the roots of the problem, recognizing that unless we deal with those root problems, we're never going to affect systemic change.
For instance, we can't deal with climate change from a capitalist perspective. My friend was just fired for his job—which was to install solar panels—because they tried to unionize. We can't keep moving forward from the perspective of putting capital before humans and before the planet.
I really would like to see us having very honest conversations in which we start seeing, within ourselves and within our communities, how colonized we really are. We need to look at the root causes of the problem, if we really want to achieve any change that's going to make a difference, for our planet and for the survival of our communities everywhere in the world.
For instance, in Chile, I love to see the women who are protesting with everyone else and also bringing up the fact that the patriarchy is one of the biggest problems we have. Everything we see as an injustice has a root problem that's attached to racism and capitalism, and we need to address those, otherwise we're really not going to achieve the change that we want to achieve. Having these issues come into the light is an important step.
Women in South America sing against gender violencewww.youtube.com
I think I would like to see more compassion in our organizing. I think we're all very angry. We're all very quick to attack each other while not understanding that organizing is hard. Organizing is the hardest thing you can ever do, because there are no models for the world that we want. We have to reinvent the world.
Because we don't have those models, even nonprofits and some of the most progressive groups continue to replicate the systems of oppression that we are fighting against. [We need to ask], what does the world that we want look like, as opposed to fighting against something with means we learned from something we're fighting against.
I've read a lot about how organizations can replicate the systems they're trying to take down—people will be like, let's change ICE, but it really needs to be abolished, and I feel like that's symbolic.
I also really admire abolitionists; their clarity about what they're fighting for could be used by all nonprofits and all other organizing groups.
Do you have any advice as to how to keep going in this long fight?
In your struggle, you have to allow yourself to be led by the people who are directly impacted, because in a way, people who are directly impacted don't have the privilege of giving up. When you surround yourself with people who have to keep fighting, it helps you keep fighting.
I would say surround yourself with a supportive community, with people that you trust and people you can confide in and talk with when things get hard. And I would say be compassionate with yourself. You're going to make a lot of mistakes. That doesn't mean you're a terrible person. Everybody makes mistakes, and learning from those mistakes is the only thing you can do; don't beat yourself up so much that it paralyzes you.
And take breaks. I have been planting trees, I started a compost bin in my backyard, and I am learning how to plant vegetables. Putting your hands on the earth is actually incredibly therapeutic, and it brings everything back to what matters the most, which is life and sustainability and love for each other and our planet. When you bring it back to those core values of what really truly matters, then it allows you to breathe a little bit easier.
An honest look at volunteerism.
This past year, 62.6 million Americans did some form of volunteer work.
The 7.8 billion hours they spent helping those in need, translates into around 184 billion dollars worth of labor, or $23.59 an hour. These numbers are only in reference to charitable work done within the U.S. and doesn't include the work of organizations like the Peace Corps and Red Cross abroad. All things considered, the nonprofit sector makes up a two trillion dollar chunk of our economy, employing one in ten Americans. When looking at these figures, it may feel a bit strange to question whether or not volunteerism actually works. With that much money involved, how could it not? Still, despite the steady rise in our capacity to help, the world keeps churning out wars, genocides, and natural disasters at a seemingly unmatchable rate. In many of these regions, no matter how many volunteers go, the problems are never solved, just mitigated, a constant ebb and flow between destitute and a more manageable form of poverty.
Why does it feel as though we have more volunteers than ever, but the world isn't getting any better?
It's worth mentioning that our material comforts–the ones that make it possible for us to consider building schools in Uganda or digging irrigation ditches in India–were funded, and therefore made possible, by the same capitalistic policies that turned many parts of the world into the kinds of places that we send volunteers. Our contributions to global warming and our stubborn refusal to do anything about it, have already begun to have noticeable effects on the planet. Hurricanes, like the ones that struck Puerto Rico, are getting stronger. And while global warming isn't solely our responsibility, greed, both foreign and domestic, is the culprit behind our collective inaction. On top of this, the U.S. sells weapons to so many different countries, that if you were to point to a war-torn region on a map, it's almost a statistical certainty that American guns helped make it that way. In the same vein, nonprofit work is a livelihood for 10% of the country, and by virtue of existing in the same system as ExxonMobil and Lockheed Martin, runs into its own sort of capitalistic paradox.
Peace Corps in South Africa
It's an incorrect assumption to think that just because charities don't sell anything, the nonprofit industry isn't manufacturing a product. It is.
Charities sell problems, along with the promise of solving them, to their donors. In turn, they use their donations to fund missions and pay employees. Even if an organization is run largely by volunteers, there are still huge costs associated with lodging and feeding those people. Unfortunately, there's a fundamental flaw in this business model. As a charitable organization fixes an issue, demand for their product goes down. For example, if a company sprouted up and its mission was to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia, after a certain point, helping people would become detrimental to the company's financial wellbeing.
The American Red Cross
While microeconomics play a central role in charity's relative ineffectiveness, they're only part of the story.
A lot of this can be more accurately attributed to the way in which we treat volunteerism in our society. For many, volunteering has become more about the perceived psychological benefits of helping others than the actual work involved. It's easy to brush this sort of selfish altruism off by saying the "ends justify the means," but there's something deeply false about it. Many also see volunteerism as a means of padding their resume or college application, instead of something done out of basic human decency. Maybe this point of view is puerile. Maybe people need to see concrete payback for their hard work, but it feels icky, especially considering the ways in which other countries consider charitable giving a civic duty.