Richmond, VA: The People’s Survey
The People’s Survey
Background and Purpose
The Richmond People’s Survey is a base-building project that emerged from collaboration among comrades of the Richmond chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Richmond branch of the Organization for a Free Society (OFS) in the winter of 2018.
Because Richmond lacks independent working class organizations, Richmond DSA focuses on popular organizing strategies rooted in mutual aid programs and coalition-building. Similarly, OFS is a cadre organization working to build a popular base for social revolution through grassroots organizing, with a collective praxis rooted in visions of a queer and trans feminist, decolonial, participatory, and ecological communism. At present, Richmond OFS has more than a dozen members organized into five clusters: the Richmond Feminist Collective, Free University, Uprising Cinema, Teachers Inquiry Project, and People’s Survey. Richmond DSA and OFS have collaborated on several projects prior to the People’s Survey, including the International Women’s Strike and the Richmond May Day Coalition.
The People’s Survey aims to assist the construction of an independent, grassroots, and rank-and-file working class organization by combining methods of grassroots community research with people power organizing. We chose to conduct community research because we believe organizers must develop projects and campaigns based on “a concrete assessment of concrete conditions.” In other words, a Richmond, VA: The People’s Survey30program for action must arise directly from the needs and desires articulated at the base.
In addition, militant community research does more than merely furnish “hard data ” on the material living conditions of working class communities in various neighborhoods and institutions. Such research provides a more comprehensive map of our operational terrain, revealing the contours of power structures within and across communities. The methods deployed by researcher-organizers can assist the formation of lasting interpersonal networks rooted in solidarity, comradeship, mutual aid, and common experiences of struggle.
Through the People’s Survey, we believe grassroots socialist/communist organizers can learn from and apply the organizing principles of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista National Liberation Army), a revolutionary movement of primarily Indigenous communities 31based in Chiapas, Mexico. In particular, we have embraced the Zapatista principles of mandar obedeciendo (“leading by obeying” - organizers should follow the needs and desires of the broader working class community); and proponer y no imponer (“propose and don’t impose” - organizers should only propose ideas to receive feedback from the community, with the people ultimately deciding the course of action).
Survey Design, Implementation, and Revision
The initial survey had two sections. Section one posed several Likert scale questions regarding transportation, education, policing, etc. (i.e. “Do you worry about being able to make rent, about maintenance or poor upkeep from your landlord, or about being forced out of your home? Please circle your level of concern.”). Section two posed open-ended questions to facilitate broader conversations on the respondent’s needs and desires (i.e. “What is the most significant issue that you would like to see your community work to address?”).
This initial survey was revised through trial and error, and ultimately proved to be too broad to be useful in the long-term. However, we believe community research is a social and iterative process, necessarily moving from the general to the concrete through multiple rounds of social investigation. In this sense, the initial broad survey helped researcher-organizers develop a common orientation. Once concrete issues are identified, we can assist the process of connecting particular local struggles to systemic dynamics.
To ensure the survey’s effective implementation, we organized educational sessions on local history, research and organizing basics, and digital security for data collection and storage. We also conducted preliminary observational research at various sites (i.e. bus transfer stations, shopping plazas, public housing, etc.) to determine the suitability of potential survey locations. Finally, in order to cover more ground, we conducted survey research in small teams. Over the past year, we have conducted the survey with more than 150 people.
Responses and Impacts
Through our research-organizing teams, we have made new friends and comrades at Richmond’s main bus transfer station, the Southside Plaza shopping center, and the Hillside Court public housing complex. Based on an analysis of our collective capacities, we’ve decided to concentrate our efforts in Hillside Court, whose primarily Black residents (99%) live in Richmond’s largest food desert and lack many basic necessities, such as functioning heating systems, community-controlled public spaces, playgrounds for children, etc. With an average household income of $8,500 and a 70% unemployment rate, Hillside encapsulates many of the core contradictions of racial capitalism within the U.S. empire. Like most public housing complexes, Hillside is geospatially designed to enable the rapid deployment of police occupation forces, and is secluded from neighboring communities.
While Hillside residents were particularly responsive to the People’s Survey, and showed interest in attending mass meetings co-hosted by researcher-organizers at the Hull Street Library, we have had difficulties soliciting resident participation. Following a self-critical assessment, we concluded that we needed to change our strategy, and show we could establish meaningful mutual aid programs within Hillside itself. It was unreasonable to expect residents to attend a meeting beyond walking distance with members of an organization yet to prove its ability to challenge and transform the conditions of everyday life.
Our first step in changing direction has been to shift our primary emphasis from surveying to organizing mutual aid. Rather than conceive of these difficulties in terms of setback or failure, we recognize them for what they are: the limits of the project’s first phase. We started the survey without 33defined objectives, and came to learn that Hillside residents had immediate needs that could be directly met by our group in order to establish lasting bonds of trust and solidarity. Forming these bonds lays the basis for more direct challenges to the local power structure in the immediate future.
As with many organizing projects, the moment presented itself when a sewage line ruptured, filling one residential block with sewage waste and the stench of sulfur. As we mucked through the sewage to conduct our usual survey work, residents informed us that their water was non-potable, and coming out brown from the tap. One resident shared their experience: “With a lot of bleach, I’ll use it to wash dishes. But that’s about it.”
On investigation, it became clear this was a common problem, so we asked if providing free bottled water would be useful. Receiving an affirmative response, we set about distributing free water for the week, and requested for a comrade who works as a chemist to conduct water quality testing through their laboratory. We hope this integration of the social and material sciences with grassroots political militancy will set a methodological precedent for future organizing projects in Richmond.The sewage leak affected 18 units in the housing block, so we purchased and distributed 18 crates of bottled water. Attached to each crate was a leaflet reading:
CLEAN WATER IS A HUMAN RIGHT!
Dirty water is the product of a dirty system - the capitalist system - that concentrates wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many.
This water is provided for by the Richmond People’s Survey, an independent working class organization that believes in housing fit for the shelter of human beings, clean water and nutritious 34food for all, safe and beautiful living environments, and collective control of the decisions that affect our lives and the resources on which we depend.
Based on our survey of more than 100 Hillside residents, it’s clear that RRHA is failing to provide basic services, such as clean drinking water, proper sanitation, and adequate heating. If you are interested in organizing against these injustices and holding RRHA accountable, please contact the Richmond People’s Survey. All Power to the People!
The following week, we again distributed water within the same block, while expanding outward to open conversations with neighbors of the next block over. This second round of water distribution opened space for deeper conversations. Residents invited us into their homes and showed us problems ranging from mold infestation to leaky plumbing. Through these conversations and regular weekly communication, we have solicited more community participants and arranged to have a springtime barbecue and public organizing meeting hosted by a resident community leader.
This work manifests our aim to build people power infrastructure by combining social and material sciences, ethnography, and political organization through patient conversations and mobilization. This infrastructure is cultivating a more comprehensive understanding of the interlocking social, technological, and ecological factors that shape everyday life for Hillside residents, and developing popular political forms that can effectively challenge and radically transform the conditions of everyday life toward greater freedom and equality.
We hope conducting the survey, aggregating and publishing research results, building a network of researcher-organizers and community leaders, and hosting mass meetings will enable us to co-design and co-organize projects rooted in the needs and desires directly articulated by respondents.
By conducting the People’s Survey, we hope to have made a minor contribution toward the politicization of public spaces and the construction of alliances grounded in the principle of autonomy within solidarity. We can continue to help build the power necessary to liberate and defend space for the self-organization of the class to whom the future belongs: the international working class.
To learn more about Richmond DSA, email: DSArichmond@gmail.com