Revolutionary groups foster political education through community service programs

By Jason Flynn, Staff Reporter

Community service programming that blends revolutionary political education is seeing a revival in cities all over the United States. 

“You can’t be a revolutionary if you’re starving. You can’t be a revolutionary if you don’t have any clothes on your back,” said Koba, the secretary of For The People – Chicago.

For The People is part of a political party called the Maoist Communist Party Organizing Committee (MCPOC), though it’s not a political party in the typical use of the term

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The MCPOC doesn’t run political candidates or propose legislation, and only exists to provide structure to chapters around the country. 

For The People (FTP) has chapters in Carbondale, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, Bloomington, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia and more. 

The Chicago chapter began organizing community aid programs in the north side neighborhood of Albany Park in January 2020, beginning with an emergency food program in response to a reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. 

“Every Sunday of the week, rain, snow or shine, we make sure to have a food distribution,” Koba said. “We serve about 60 families in that community every week with bags of canned food and fresh produce.”

Since last year FTP – Chicago has expanded their community program to include hot meals, clothing distributions, safe smoking kits to prevent overdoses and medical check-ups through a partnership with The Night Ministry. The organization also operates a storefront that they operated as a warming center over the winter.

Koba said FTP doesn’t start community programs just for the sake of being charitable, but also hopes to find new neighborhood leaders by involving community members in the assistance programs. 

“When we start these ‘serve the people’ programs they’re to address a vital need of the community, and also to capture the imaginations of the masses,” Koba said. 

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua, an assistant professor of African American studies and History at the University of Illinois, said there’s a long history of community assistance programs among revolutionary groups, especially in the Black community, like the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers. 

“You have to have things that attract the people, and you have to try and meet their concrete needs,” Cha-Jua said.  “That’s been a way in which these groups, one, recruit, but also try and lighten the burden on the community.”

Black Men Build (BMB), an organization focused on organizing Black men while challenging traditional notions of class and masculinity, started about a year ago. 

Tef Poe, a co-national field director for BMB living in St. Louis, said the group started in response to an open letter from women organizers calling for more active participation from men.

“A certain class of Black men have not found themselves at the table in political conversations or joining political organizations or feeling as if they’ve had a political voice,” Poe said. “They found homes in some very unhealthy spaces, and we wanted to envision what a healthy space for brothers would be.”

BMB has grown to include eight “hubs” in cities around the country. 

Each hub hosted a national day of service in December 2020, which included a children’s coat drive in St. Louis, a bike assembly in Miami, distributing Personal Protective Equipment in Detroit and a healing circle in Houston. 

Though they’ve done community service programs, political education is the main focus of BMB. 

“The reason some of these vanguard groups were so good for the public in the past is because they didn’t stray away from political education,” Poe said. 

The group publishes a magazine called “Wartime,” aimed at reaching primarily Black men in ways that reflect their personal experience.  

“I think we have to really consider remodeling political education, and thinking about things more concretely in terms of folks’ ability to digest information, where people are grabbing information from, how are people processing information [and] the type of lives that people live,” Poe said. “We’re all trying to figure out a way to steal some time back from capitalism.”

Koba and Poe both see past organizations, like the Black Panthers, United Front, the Young Lords and others, as an inspiration for their current work. 

“I would be lying if I said we didn’t have high motivations and aspirations to eventually become our own millennial version of the Black Panthers,” Poe said.  “But also I realize folks romanticize and crystallize groups in the 60s way too much.”

These numerous organizations are attractive, according to Cha-Jua, because of a distinction between a tradition of protests, where people challenge unfair treatment, and a tradition of organizing, where people build or take control of community institutions. 

“The most seminal innovation of Black Power, and what makes it different from the civil rights movement is not self defense, it’s institution building,” Cha-Jua said.  “It’s building Black controlled institutions.”

Poe and Koba both said their organizations aim to learn from past work and evolve. 

“We want the resources of the community to be controlled by the community, and, [for] the community to be able to have full command over what happens within the space of the community,” Koba said. 

Staff reporter Jason Flynn can be reached at jflynn@dailyegyptian.com, by phone at 872-222-7821 or on Twitter at @dejasonflynn.

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