An interview with Clarissa Rogers
by Sachio Ko-yin
Since 1991, the A Space in West Philly has served as an anti-authoritarian and community meeting place in a storefront along Baltimore Avenue. On January 5th, 2023, the A-Space Collective announced, “it is with some sadness we are sharing, that the A-Space, as we’ve known it, is closing.”
In honor of this sad and historic occasion, we are sharing an interview we did with comrade Clarissa Rogers back in 2015, about the A-Space and its role in the local community. The original intro and interview follows.
I’ve met with Clarissa Rogers a number of times to discuss anarchist theory. Our conversations have focused on anarchism and community-based organizing, and how to reach outword to the public. A common topic has also been radical “subculture,” which in contrast community-based infrastructure, can tend to be insular and self-referential.
I met with her again in August 2015, to ask more specifically about her work with the A-Space, an anarchist community space in West Philadelphia. We also talked about her recent award and the public reading of her essay “Measuring Distance,” as models of anarchism, community outreach, and a springboard for further ideas.
Sachio- Clarissa, I’m glad you could meet today!
Clarissa- I’m excited about this!
Sachio- Could you explain what the A-Space is, just the basics, so we have some context for the questions?
Clarissa- Basically it’s a small storefront space that functions as an anarchist center, for cultural and political events.1
It’s part of a land trust called The Life Center Association, and that land trust consists of about seven or eight buildings and a garden in West Philadelphia. It was started by Movement for a New Society.2
The A-Space is part of a building called the 4722 Association. That building has two apartments: the organization Books Through Bars, and the A-Space. The A-Space is operated by a collective, and has a rotating delegate that participates in the governance of the 4722 Association. A delegate from the 4722 Association participates in the governance of the Life Center Association, so it’s a bit like a confederation structure, and even a bit like libertarian municipalism.
S- How did you get involved in the A-Space?
CR- I moved to Philadelphia from Vermont in 1998, not long after the big Jericho ’98 political prisoner march in DC. After I was here a while, Scott Lamson, who was active in Books Through Bars, The Wooden Shoe, the Anarchist Black Cross (ABC), and the A-Space, invited me to join the A-Space collective. We were in ABC together doing political prisoner support. He knew I was interested in event planning, free schools, and anarchist theory, so he thought I would make a good addition to the collective. I was really excited and honored to be invited in. I think joining the A-Space Collective was the first thing that truly made Philly seem like home.
S- How many years have you been involved?
C- I think I joined in 1999 and left just recently in 2015, so around 15 years. After being in the collective for about 3 years or so I became the point person for the calendar (I liked to call myself “Clarissa of the calendar”). Then I volunteered to do outreach to bring events to the space, so eventually we named my role “event coordinator.”
S- Since we’re trying to get at the question of anarchism and community outreach, could you describe your own personal vision for what the A-Space is about? And how it presents itself and interacts with the community?
CR- The A-Space has had a lot of evolutions. It stated as a place for anarchists moving into the neighborhood to meet neighbors. Some of the folks who started it hoped that people living in the neighborhood would come in and have coffee with their new neighbors. I’m not sure that was completely successful. So from there it became a very vibrant center for the anarchist community. Having that kind of space is important, and we continued trying to fulfill that role. But we also looked at other ways we could introduce folks outside of our specific community to our politics, if they were interested. We tried to use the privilege of having a space to benefit other radical communities—to treat the space as a commons. Many different kinds of groups use A-Space as a meeting space, and we tried to do lots of arts and cultural events. So while still having specific anticapitalist events, we tried to also have many kinds of community events so that people could use the space and see how our politics function in a concrete way. To me, it was always more important to be an anarchist space rather than an anarchist’s space,
S- That’s a good distinction!
CR- Yes, it’s an important distinction to me. At times we’ve even had non-anarchists in our collective—we had a Maoist member for a while. The idea is that the space is run by anarchist principles: consensus-based decision-making, working to eradicate forms of oppression, free association, etc. So whatever your politics, you have to agree to use anarchist principles to organize the space, and actually, we had no trouble with that. People who didn’t identify as anarchists often put a ton of energy into the space.
We had a brochure with a short definition of anarchism3 that we always tried to make available for people. But most importantly, we invited in anyone who shared our politics about making the world a better place—like getting rid of forms of oppression, capitalism, and war. If people were on board, we invited them in to share the space. Feeling that is important that if we have a privilege—and public space is really a privilege—to share it, as long as those groups would agree to operate according to our principles. Each group would agree to ether clean the space on a rotating basis, contribute money to the space, or otherwise share the work of maintaining the space. In that way, we got to introduce a lot of people to what anarchism is and how it works on a practical level.
We brought in speakers and events to teach about our politics, but we also featured many speakers and events that would teach us about other leftist traditions. One of our big supporters is Khalid Abdur-rasheed, one of the founders of the New Afrikan Liberation Front. He’s done several talks about Radical Black politics and political prisoner support, which as a white anarchist, are things I wanted to learn more about, and wanted my community to learn about. It’s been a great privilege to have a space where that kind of learning could happen.
S- Over the years, I assume you’ve had a range of responses from the public. Walking in, I imagine some people said, “Oh, my god! Anarchists!” and some people walking in and being curious said, “What is this about?”
CR- Yeah, it’s interesting… mostly the responses haven’t been as dramatic as you would think. There would always be people coming in off the street with questions, but I feel like a lot of times it’s people who are oppressed and are dealing with a lot of stuff, and they just kind of take it at face value. And then, we’ve had different engagements with other radicals, like socialists. The people attracted to using the space are usually open to anarchist ideas, so we tend to get more democratic socialists rather than authoritarian socialists. And we definitely have people come in who are skeptical and have questions. People who say, “Well, that can never work.” But I feel demonstrating that it can work on a small scale helps. So instead of being polemical and arguing with people—I mean, that can definitely be fun and cathartic for some people—we recognize that polemics is not the only choice. We also have the choice of just saying, “Let me show you how we’ve been successfully operating since 1991.”
S- Are there any examples of A-Space programs or projects you can point to as good examples of inviting community involvement?
CR- Yes. First, of course, I’m going to go on a typical Clarissa tangent. I studied anarchism a lot with my friend Andrew Dinkelaker, he introduced me to his parents and the anarchist work they did. His mother, Pat Dinkelaker, taught me the term ‘liminocentric” that means ‘empty at the center” (I won’t go off here, on the longer tangent, but it relates to physicist David Bohm’s work about structure, which has greatly influenced my organizing work) and I see the A Space as liminocentric. Because it was usually not the role of the collective to generate events. For most of its history, the collective’s mission was to maintain the space and host and facilitate events. There were shifts and changes in that over time. There were times we invited people in more formally, but I say all that to say—we tried to be open to folks interested in doing events related to collective liberation, even if they didn’t share our political identity.
But back to your question, I have an example of one explicitly anarchist project, and one explicitly not-anarchist project that to me, really represented the A-Space ideals.
And the explicitly not-anarchist project is that we were home to Family & Community United’s (FCU) after-school program. FCU was a New Afrikan organization that did community organizing, especially around prison issues. They ran an after-school program for kids who have loved ones in prison, but they only had a space to meet in three days a week. Two days a week the group leaders were on the road with the kids, in libraries and other public spaces. We had the privilege of space, so we invited them in. FCU was not an anarchist organization, but they were able to experience anarchism as a lived practice.
An explicitly anarchist program was our open mic series that ran on and off for around a decade. It had several incarnations. It started out being called Poems Not Prisons, and was organized by the Philly Anarchist Black Cross to raise awareness of and money for US political prisoners. It started out as a place for folks to share poetry and to share information about their political work; as it evolved, a lot of folks came and performed music too. At different times, it was sponsored by different organizations.
A few years ago we brought it back as a project of the A-Space, without an organizational sponsor. We named it MOSAIC—Movement of Oppressed Sectors Working in Concert, in honor of Russell Maroon Shoatz, who wrote an essay on organizing with that name. Maroon is a US political prisoner who is from West Philadelphia. With MOSAIC we tried to live out Maroon’s vision of bringing all sorts of people from different oppressed sectors to come together to share art, culture and politics.
As MOSAIC evolved, it was organized by local anarchists, some students from CAPA (The Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts) and folks from Institute for Community Justice’s creative writing program (a writing program for folks who have been incarcerated). So the formally incarcerated folks, the group of teens, and members of the anarchist community, all worked together to make the event. Folks from many different ages, ethnicities, and sexual identities shared their work, feedback, and support with each other. People really felt that it was a safe space where they could come and be authentically who they are, and to me there’s nothing more radical than that. That is my vision of what anarchism is.
S- A number of us loved reading your essay, “Measuring Distance.”
CR- Oh, thank you!
S- And we read that it won an award in your home town?
CR- Yeah. I’m really from Rochester, NY but Cape Vincent, NY is my adopted home town—it’s where my mother lives and I spend a lot of time there. Jefferson County Community College, in Watertown, the nearest city, has an annual creative writing contest. I entered my essay, “Measuring Distance” in the creative nonfiction category, and I was very honored to win first prize. I got to go to Watertown and read it at JCC. Students were offered extra credit if they attended the performances and wrote a response paper. So there were these working class, mainly white students, not exposed to a lot of radical ideas, who came and heard me read about being an anarchist!
They wrote responses papers for their teachers, then the contest organizers sent me a packet of positive feedback from the students on my work. Several of them picked “Measuring Distance” as their favorite work. It was really moving to see students engaging with some of those ideas for the first time.
S- So in a way, this is a remarkable example of anarchism getting exposure to the general public, far outside of radical subculture.
CR- Yes! JCC has a week-long celebration of literature each year4 that ends with the awards ceremony for the contest. I stood there and read the piece to community college students, teachers, staff, and members of the local literary community. I don’t know if there were any activists there at all. It’s a narrative story of a personal journey, but in it I reference a lot of radical ideas. I reference Home Depot using old growth forest; why I often chose not to eat at McDonald’s or shop at the mall. It wasn’t to label those things as wrong, or judge people who do them, but to present why they are problematic and why some people choose not to do them. I got to introduce a lot of ideas that were probably outside of the box for that community, talking about anarchism, veganism and a lot of ideas I just don’t always hear communities in Northern, NY talking about in public spaces. And I feel I got to do that in a way that was not threatening, so instead of pushing buttons or provoking debate, it was an invitation so that people could just…walk with me in my journey.
S- It was life sharing.
S- This is powerful. These are great examples of what we’ve been talking about!
I guess my last question for you is, how does this all relates to the ideal of the social revolution? Does a community involvement model imply an evolutionary vs. a revolutionary approach to anarchism?
CR- I think the first thing I’d say, when as an elder I was welcoming new members into the A-Space, was “Hey, we don’t think the revolution is going to happen inside the A-Space.” Something really important to me was making the maintenance of the space as low stress as possible, and as supportive as possible, because what makes an anarchist space really interesting is that the collective members are doing lots of different kinds of work that they can bring to the space. And I never wanted people to feel like they had to prioritize the space over those other projects. Because the revolution is going to happen in the outside world, not inside the A-Space. But I think having a space where different kinds of radicals can come together and think about ideas—that IS revolutionary. And when Maroon started writing about MOSAIC and why oppressed sectors have to work in concert, his analysis (which I agree with), is that oppression is so intense right now that there’s probably no one group that can overcome it alone. That this is a time when it will take many sectors working together to make the revolution.
So back to anarchism. A lot of the specific traditions, philosophy, and practice of anarchism we talk about comes from a european background. Across the world and throughout history there are lots of cultures and groups that have operated on what we, as anarchists, might call anarchist principles. But many of these cultures and groups don’t themselves identify as anarchist. So it’s my belief that we can share and teach what anarchism means to us, why we’re passionate about it, and why we think its revolutionary, but that probably not everyone will become an anarchist. And personally, I’m really okay with that, because to me anarchism means respecting the autonomy of others.
What I think is important about spaces like A-Space is that they demonstrate what anarchism is, and how it works. I don’t think we can unite with other revolutionaries if they just think we’re stinky or dress funny, [laughing] or maybe are interesting—I don’t think that’s enough to build bonds of trust.
When we have a privilege like a space, we can open it up to support other revolutionary work, support other revolutionary events, and be very clear that this is who we are, and this is what we believe. We can identify points of unity, and build trust from there, especially if we’re in the neighborhood doing this work constantly, year after year.
And that doesn’t mean not making mistakes… I’ve made an infinite number of mistakes, and we’re all going to keep making mistakes. But it means being accountable for those mistakes, getting feedback on what our mistakes are without getting defensive, and then working to change, to do it better.
And the A-Space history of mistakes is actually one of the most exciting parts of the work to me. We’ve made a lot of mistakes with the space. Because of them, the space has not felt safe to many people. Many people have not felt welcomed there. We’ve replicated the oppression that happens in other parts of our world. For a long time, we had a reputation as a racist space. We’ve also gotten feedback about not working hard enough to be safe space for trans folks, or for queer folks. We’ve had a lot of events dominated by sexism. The space is not fully accessible. It’s hard to make it family-friendly.
So we’ve had a lot of wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. We listened to that feedback from collective members and the wider community, thought about it, and changed our practices and policies. And I feel like over the years we got to turn some of that around by making sure that when folks are in the space, that they own the space, they make decisions about their own events, and we support the work that they are doing.
And I guess I believe that building trust is revolutionary.
1. From brochure: The A-Space, established in 1991 is an anarchist community space located at 4722 Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. It is operated by an all-volunteer anarchist collective that shares chores, rotates responsibilities, and make decisions by consensus. The A-Space is home to Philadelphia groups such as Books Through Bars, and Philly NORML. It is also used for lectures, meetings, performances, art showings, films, benefits, as well as cultural, educational, and other events that bring people together.
2. From brochure: The building is part the The Life Center Association (LCA), a land trust that owns several buildings in West Philadelphia. Instead of paying rent to a landlord each month, the people living in these houses pay money toward a common pool that is available for the upkeep of the houses. A representative from each building makes up the board, which meets monthly to discuss any needed building repairs and community issues.
3. Definition of anarchism from the A-Space Brochure:
Anarchists believe that decision-making power should rest not with the state, the market, or religious institutions. Instead, they believe people must come together in communities & in the workplace to make decisions about their own lives.
Instead of decisions about governance, community life & the economy being made by corporations, government bodies, or those with the power and privilege to seize authority, anarchism relies on directly democratic processes to make decisions. Forms of direct democracy allow each individual to have input regarding decisions that affect their life. In direct democracy, research is done thoroughly & the wisdom of those with experience is sought eagerly, but all decision-makers have equal amounts of power. Often, decisions are made by consensus.
A consensus process is a directly democratic form of decision making which optimizes participation. In a consensus process a group Jo to create a decision acceptable to everyone. Instead of resting on an “either/or” paradigm, consensus decisions celebrate human creativity by struggling for solutions that can be agreed on by all the participating parties. Consensus is used to protect the rights & freedoms of the individual as well as supporting the cohesiveness & strength of the community.
Anarchists believe in community and sharing. In anarchism benefits and responsibilities are shared equally, and tasks are rotated. People with special skills and talents are encouraged to develop them for the good of the group. No skill, position, gender, ethnicity, job or religion has more power or status than any other.
As an economic system, anarchism is based on a moral, not market economy. Its underpinnings are of reciprocity, communalism, free association, and mutual aid. People take turns, share freely, pool resources and make their own decisions about their own labor and resources. At the core of anarchism is an analysis of domination. Anarchism attempts to eradicate all forms of domination, such as capitalism, sexism, racism & homophobia, believing that all people must have the right to participate in decisions that affect their lives.