My interest in El Salvador began in spring 1980 while I was a graduate student in political science at UCLA. At that time thousands of Salvadoran refugees were arriving in southern California with stories of mass organizing and death-squad violence, while front-page stories told of the killing of Archbishop Romero and the attack on mourners at his funeral.I became deeply involved in organizing work on El Salvador, and since I was not ready to write a dissertation immediately after finishing my Ph.D. exams, I put academic pursuits on a back burner and began to work as a full-time organizer on Central America.
For the next several years I was actively involved in the contentious struggles of the Reagan (and later, Bush) era—on human rights in El Salvador, aid to the contras, and general U.S. policy toward Central America—and spent the years from 1987 to 1991 in Washington, D.C., as political director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.This work taught me more than I could ever have learned in an academic setting about revolution, social change, and the role of strategy within them. I saw firsthand the importance of strategy in our own work—how it made a real difference to our goal of changing U.S. policy in El Salvador whether we put our energy and resources into building a national demonstration in Washington, or generated community pressure on key members of Congress to change their votes on aid to El Salvador, or organized a national media campaign to increase public awareness of the policy.I also came to better understand the role played by the strategies of the U.S. government and its Salvadoran allies, on one side, and the FMLN insurgents and their supporters, on the other, in how the conflict progressed and the way it was ultimately resolved.
I came to appreciate, too, the role of will and belief in processes of social change—how building the belief that you can succeed, even against great odds, and generating the will to make it happen can become a material force in the equation of social change. But I saw the downside, as well—the tendency to confuse beliefs about the rightness