By Clara B. Jones
I spent the better part of my career conducting research and teaching college students, most of them in their late teens or twenties. After retiring, I expected that most of my relationships would be with people my own age, not expecting to befriend confident young women speaking with their own voices and crafting their own, well-considered paths. I am pleased to introduce you to one of them this month.
Charla Schlueter and I first met at Staples where she is an associate in the Copy and Print Center. Because of my own academic work, I use the latter services frequently. Idle chatter during business transactions gradually became more personal, and I learned, not only that Charla is skilled in media, but also, that she is a self-termed “activist.”
Charla has interpreted several of my crude drawings into publishable figures. Her attention to detail is evident in her graphics, and also reflected in her commitment to service guided by her political, economic, and social beliefs, values, attitudes, and opinions, shared in the following interview.
Clara B. Jones: You call yourself an “activist.” How do you define that word, and what does it mean in your life?
Charla Schlueter: When I say that I am an activist, I mean that I want to help bring about a structural change in our society. To be an activist means fighting for quantitative and qualitative change. I believe, fundamentally, that change must come from the masses. People struggle under oppression every day in this country, whether that is as a woman, an oppressed nationality, or from the weight of education and health care cutbacks. It is only from the people who live this struggle that change can come about.
CBJ: Do you view your activism as a political statement?
CS: Activism is at its core political. It has everything to do with mobilizing people to change society for the better. Through mass political action, we not only change society, but also transform people’s ideas about society. This transformation is what is important. An idea of activism that is not political limits us to the “activism” of the “conscious consumer,” believing that we can change the world by purchasing organic food or by driving an electric car. This isn’t to say that our everyday decisions aren’t important. Of course we should recycle and so on. Rather, I am saying that we cannot limit our view of change to a simple matter of approved, isolated, personal consumption. Our actions must come from a point of focused ideology in order to make real gains.
CBJ: Do you advocate a particular ideology?
CS: I’m a socialist. I advocate a view that if we really want to get to the root of problems facing the world, we have to do away with capitalism and build a new society based on the power of the working class in a strategic alliance with oppressed nationalities. Only this strategic alliance of workers and oppressed people can establish a system without exploitation, racism, sexism, establishing social as well as economic justice.
CBJ: What was your upbringing? Were your parents activists or politically active?
CS: My parents weren’t really activists, although they did serve in the Peace Corps (Malaysia) for two years, and I did grow-up in a passive solar home that they built. They firmly believe that one must take responsibility for one’s actions, and that a person’s actions have a ripple effect on society.
CBJ: What was your first experience as an activist?
CS: I first became involved in politics during my freshmen year at UNC-A. It was the first anniversary of the United States’ war in Iraq, and I helped start an anti-war group on campus (SDP: Students for Democracy and Peace). This group really was the foundation for UNC-A’s SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) organization that we later established. We staged a walkout that year and marched downtown. I don’t think Asheville had seen anything like that in years because seven students were arrested, and three Tazered by police.
I do not think that I was fully committed to activism at that point. Commitment really came later. I was raped during my second semester of college. Later, in a class, mugging was being discussed. I brought up my experience of sexual assault, and the professor told me that it was not an appropriate topic for discussion. That experience was the pivotal moment when I came to the belief that our society is sick; perceiving that our society needed, not only to be reformed, but to be changed in a fundamental way.
CBJ: You returned to North Carolina after living in California. Tell us about that.
CS: I lived in Los Angeles and focused on three activities: Education, Immigration, and what I view as FBI oppression.
I moved there the year that California raised tuition for its University System by 57%. UCLA, for instance, had been FREE for decades, but in-state tuition became more than $10,000! I helped Educate people by organizing rallies and taking over a building. We occupied Campbell Hall, renaming it Carter-Huggins in honor of two Black Panthers killed by the FBI in 1969.
I also organized on behalf of immigration rights. I did this on a local level and also traveled to Arizona to oppose SB1070, a law making it legal for police to profile people based on their nationality.
But the main thing that I did in Los Angeles was to work against what I view as FBI oppression. I started a local chapter of the national organization, “Stop FBI Repression.” I do not think I fully understood my mission when I first spoke out against the war in Iraq or when I talked about human rights violations abroad. But in 2010, twenty-three activists that I had worked closely with were summoned to a Chicago grand jury investigating “material support for terrorism.” Under the Patriot Act and the ruling of Holder vs Humanitarian Law, the definition of “terrorism” covers many aspects of people’s lives.
In May of 2011, my friend and colleague, Carlos Montes, was awakened in the middle of the night with a machine gun to his head. My knowledge of the incident indicates that the Los Angeles police department had broken down Carlos’ door and raided his home, taking political documents, his computer, his cell phone, and notes from meetings. Carlos, a Chicano activist and co-founder of the Brown Berets, was charged with six different felonies. Today he’s a leader in the anti-war and immigrant-rights movements.
CBJ: Which of your projects do you consider the most successful?
CS: I think that the struggle to drop the charges against Carlos Montes has been the most successful. I and his other supporters held rallies, packed the courthouse, held national call-ins, as well as publishing press releases demanding that charges be dropped, and, eventually, they were. These successes come only from the hard work and diligence of activists en masse demanding to be heard.
CBJ: Any disappointments that you’d care to share?
CS: The biggest disappointment for me is burnout. It can be difficult to keep pushing. I have seen change and I deeply believe in the power of the masses, but sometimes I want change faster than can be expected. Setbacks are real.
CBJ: What methods do you use to achieve the goals of your work?
CS: I want to change the conversation. My strategy is to start from where people are. We have to actively engage questions practically. In this way people can develop more and more advanced political ideas through practice.
CBJ: Some activists might say that change requires a “bottom-up” approach.
CS: Yes. You cannot count on people in positions of power to act against their own self-interest. The only authentic change comes through the struggles of the masses. We see change from those who are opposed to things like cuts to social services, imperialist wars, environmental devastation, and so on. For me to be an activist in this sense means to organize working and oppressed people to take action in their own interests.
CBJ: I’ve been curious about your outreach work and what you say to audiences when you lecture about your activist activities. Can you tell us something about that?
CS: A huge part of activism is education. I find that most people are not apathetic, they simply are not aware. I have lectured at a few universities as well as many national protests and conferences, using these opportunities to network and delve into structural understanding of our society.
CBJ: Have your interests changed since you returned to North Carolina?
CS: Coming home to the city that first politicized me has been wonderful, but I am still finding my footing. North Carolina is going through a lot of pain right now, and it needs the love of people willing to fight for it. After the Occupy movement, we have Moral Mondays, and a general outcry against attacks on teachers and social services. Did you know that Asheville is among the hungriest cities in the nation?
CBJ: WNC Woman honors women, their challenges and their accomplishments. How do those interests apply to your work and your goals?
CS: For me, politics has always been about fighting for a better life, not just for myself but also for a society as a whole.
CBJ: Thank you for the opportunity to interview you, Charla. I am certain that we will hear more about your work.
Giroud F (1974, translation) I give you my word. Houghton-Mifflin, New York
Miller M (2012) Community organizing: a brief introduction. Euclid Avenue Press, Cleveland, OH
Pekar H, Buhle P, Dumm G (2008) SDS: a graphic history. Hill & Wang, New York
Charla may be reached at email@example.com.
Clara B. Jones is an academic. She can be contacted via e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. Clara is a non-traditional mother, grandmother, friend, and acquaintance whose grounding philosophy is Intentional Living.