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SOUL Trainers 

A nonprofit school known by the acronym SOUL is working to undermine The System with The System's own money. But does SOUL teach anti-capitalist subversion -- or how to sell out?

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
West Oakland gave birth to the revolutionary Black Panther Party for Self-Defense nearly 40 years ago. The Panthers are long gone, but their spirit lingers on in a falling-down neighborhood surrounding the West Oakland BART station, where the vaguely metallic and rotten reek of a yeast plant envelops a warehouse called Mandela Village, which houses what can aptly be described as a school of rebellion. Co-founded six years ago by two women barely out of their teens, the School of Unity and Liberation, or SOUL, is training a new generation of leaders -- "young women of color, queer youth, and working-class youth" -- to free humanity from the web of capitalism.

The woman-run school for radicals has many friends on the progressive end of the political spectrum. "I was impressed with the wholesome way they came into the neighborhood," says Monsa Nitoto, the middle-aged chairman of the Coalition for West Oakland Revitalization, which owns Mandela Village. "Lots of young people go there. They dance. They do art. They do political things.

"I did a training with them. They took us through outreach, how to do cultural work, how to utilize our own experience, turn it into song. Fine, fine, upstanding youngsters."

Utne Reader agrees. SOUL's "liberation educators" are featured in the cover story of the liberal magazine's October issue, "Young Visionaries Under 30 Who Are Changing Your Future."

SOUL is not without its critics on the left, though, old-timers who are wary of those who feast from the hands they are supposed to bite.

Like the radical left itself, SOUL is a study in contradiction.

Borrowing techniques and language from the corporate business world, SOUL hires itself out as a consultant to left-leaning groups, teaching them how to incorporate as nonprofits and how to seek grants from major philanthropic foundations. In a few short years, the school's staff, and its graduates, have become a force in the arena of leftist politics in the Bay Area, leading activist groups working for welfare and immigrant rights, prison and police reform, tenant protection, affordable housing, and a cleaner environment.

But there is irony to spare in the funding sources that have made those inroads possible: A score of gold-plated, capitalist foundations regularly pump large sums of money into Mandela Village, even though SOUL promotes anti-capitalist ideas -- including redistribution of the world's wealth to the poor -- that, if made real, would mean the end of private property, not to mention philanthropic foundations.

Behind the irony lies the fundamental question: Is SOUL using capitalists to undermine capitalism, or are the agents of Mammon simply paying a new generation of leftists to join, rather than smash, The System?

SOUL was born in response to Proposition 209, the California ballot initiative that banned state universities (among other entities) from making race a primary consideration in regard to admissions and contracting.

"I grew up in Buffalo, New York," Harmony Goldberg, SOUL's co-founder, recounts. "My mom was once a Catholic nun; Dad was Jewish. Mom taught at Attica after the uprising. I was radicalized by my parents' political orientation."

Goldberg's deeply personal variety of left politics -- "We were poor, there was craziness, sometimes we were on the verge of losing the house," she says of her early days as part of Buffalo's fallen middle class -- was invigorated in the Bay Area.

"I got a full scholarship to UC Berkeley in 1993. Racism was on the offensive," she says. "When the regents started eliminating affirmative action, I felt personally responsible; here I was, a white woman on a full scholarship, while others were shut out. It felt like an historical moment; I decided to do social justice work."

Goldberg and fellow student Rona Fernandez (who declined to be interviewed for this story) founded SOUL in 1996 to train young people of color in "get out the vote" work against Prop. 209.

"We had correct information, but it didn't matter," Goldberg, 27, remembers. "I became revolutionized through the course of my experience of trying to change things electorally, trying to change embedded racism. I concluded that to build power we needed to liberate our own people, instead of trying to convince people in power to do it.

"We studied the Third World movements of the 1960s and 1970s, here and abroad: South Africa, Cuba, China, Chile. We studied the [revolutionary] classics, the histories. We decided to commit to an organizing method, not just direct action or ideological organizing."

The women made SOUL a political education center, as distinct from a political party or an issue advocacy group. The school clearly has a left orientation, but the focus of that orientation is less than laserlike. In a delicate ideological balancing act, Goldberg distances herself from the traditional leftist labels of Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, and Trotskyist while acknowledging an affinity for socialism: "I am not an 'ist,' merely a revolutionary, with identity as a socialist."

Goldberg's politics are heavily influenced by Antonio Gramsci, a pre-World War II Italian socialist who believed that intellectuals can free the working class by seizing control of civil society, which, in the modern world, is composed largely of nonprofit organizations. Goldberg also admires Rosa Luxemburg, a communist martyred by German soldiers in 1919, who was highly critical of the Russian Communist Party's "dictatorship of the party, not the workers."

"We grew up in a time of left retreat," Goldberg says. "The fall of the U.S.S.R. was a blow to the older generation of leftists. Socialism was dead, capitalism the only road.

"That [event] did not determine the commitment of our people: oppressed people, working-class people, people of color."

Goldberg and Fernandez started SOUL because, Goldberg says, "There was no viable organization for us to plug into; many were older, whiter, less on the ground. None spoke to our intent and ideas. We wanted to keep women of color at the center of our work, liberate all people, put all movements together and be stronger."

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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