It was the afternoon of December 17, 2016 and it was raining and cold in New York City. I had been running a few quick errands and was heading home. Until I saw a window display filled with anti-Trump paraphernalia. Inside the brightly-lit space, there was art, folding tables, and a stream of people milling around. I went inside. It was a NGO fair sponsored by Forward Union, the girl with a clipboard told me. The acronym “FU” was emblazoned in large, unavoidable letters on the wall, nearby.
The FU fair was a one-day, community and political action event, bringing together panels, topical art, and performance pieces, in an empty, ground-floor retail space on Broadway in lower Manhattan. As explained on the Forward Union website, the initiative was a direct response to Donald Trump’s improbable victory a few weeks before: “In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, many Americans have been asking, ‘What can I do now?’ The goal of Forward Union is to provide practical, action-based resources to help concerned citizens begin to answer this question in meaningful ways.”
The rise of Trump, and the right-wing populism he embodies, has sent tremors through many communities. It has also created an atmosphere where people, from all walks of life, find themselves grasping for active, community-based ways to respond. Forward Union is a byproduct of this impulse.
Its founders, five women working in the art world, are explicit about their own, personal desire to engage in direct action. “A few days after the election I was taking stock of my own resources and trying to answer a personal question about what role I could play that was more meaningful than what I had done before the election. I was definitely one of those people who couldn’t imagine a Trump win and in the face of that was trying to figure out how to get more involved,” Jennie Lamensdorf, one of FU’s organizers and an art curator, told Muftah. “I was so sick of going on Facebook and being asked to sign a petition and I was tired of wondering whether it was going to have an impact,” Holly Shen, another event organizer, observed.
After speaking with her co-organizers, Jennie approached the head of her company, Time Equities, LLC, a real estate developer, and asked to use an empty retail space the company had on Broadway. Her boss said yes.
With a location in hand, Jennie, Holly, and their co-organizers brainstormed ways to most effectively address the challenges a Trump administration will bring. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they decided to reach out to the many organizations already doing great work and invite them to a community fair to share their work.
“We wanted to make it easy for folks like us to get involved and were looking for ways to do it. We decided to bring these groups together and make them accessible, so people could get involved in organizations they were interested in,” Jennie said. “Success will be gauged based on how involved our audience got and what effect that had on the organizations that participated in our event.”
FU’s organizers also wanted to give civic groups an opportunity to network with each other. By bringing together a diverse collection of organizations, ranging from environmental to women to LGBTQ projects, FU hoped to encourage connections and interactions between these initiatives. “All of these organizations are on the same side, fighting the same fight, from different angles. Those fights could be more effective if these organizations were supporting each other,” Jennie noted.
As a spontaneous, grassroots initiative, FU’s future is understandably unclear. Its organizers hope to continue the project’s work in some way, however. “We have an aspiration to keep going, in what form that will take is undetermined. It may not be another fair, but we’ll be focused on direct action,” Jennie said.
It is this sort of participatory, community based, action-oriented activity that has kept FU’s own organizers going, at a time when hopelessness is an easy state-of-mind to adopt. “Working with each other and the organizations and creating a project this big, came out of the need to do something. It has left us feeling like we are doing something that is concrete and positive.” Jennie observed.
This is an important impulse not just on an individual, but also on a community and national, level. In an article for The Guardian, writer Kenan Malik noted the greater social and political significance of collective action, particularly in the current global environment:
Democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot paper. It is fundamentally about the contestation of power. We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy and assert our political voice by acting collectively. This requires a robust public sphere and a democracy that is contested as much in the streets and the workplace as in the polling station. The erosion of the power of labour organisations and social movements has helped undermine democracy in this broader sense.
In my own work, I have explored the central role of collective, grassroots action to supporting transitions from autocracy to democracy in the Arab world. These efforts are no less critical to supporting long-standing democracies. They are also just as necessary as the protests and other forms of demonstrative, street-based disobedience that have been occurring more frequently in the United States, as New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb recently noted. Indeed, as I’ve written about before, they are what sustain these demonstrations and ensure they are more that just a flash-in-the-pan.
As Malik rightly notes, Western democracy, particularly in the United States, has been substantially weakened by the erosion of political and social associations. Among all the terrible consequences the Trump administration will inevitably have, one of its few positive outcomes may, ironically, be to inspire the movements and groups, like Forward Union, which make democracies stronger and more resilient – and the Trumps of the world less dangerous and destructive.