Incidents such as the recent “Blackface” incident at Lehigh University flair a lot of tempers, spark a lot of debate, and start fire storms of he-said, she-said, finger-pointing, heated blame games that try to boil it all down to intention and response to what happened. However, rehashing the past is just that; rehashing the past. How do we move forward? Once we’ve responded and made it clear where we were offended and why, what do we do about it? Simply let each side storm off to our respective corners hoping the other side has heard us and learned the lesson we want them to? Let it go with that?
Well, that’s one way to do it. However, like most arguments, what does that actually accomplish other than some good rants and a lot of hurt feelings? The back and forth “yeah, but” debates are just that. They aren’t discussions, and they aren’t dialogues.
Wait, what’s the difference between debate, discussion, and dialogue?
Debate: Someone/thing v. Someone/thing else; usually a winner and a loser.
Discussion: Some attempt to prove a point.
Dialogue: Bringing as many perspectives to the table as possible to converse with one another, hear, listen to, and learn from one another.
With this incident, as with many if not most like it, what we got was debate. Then some discussion. But what about dialogue?
At this point in writing the draft of this post, I got up from my computer. I went first to volunteer at a local youth organization, then to a meeting of an ally and anti-racism board I’m on, then to a chat with activist David Abbott, and finally to the last moments of a lecture and Q&A session offered by Dr. Temple Grandin. Why am I telling you what I did today? Because it all has me thinking far more than I was at the time I got up from my keyboard. It has me thinking bigger.
Not only “where do we go from here” in regard to the incident at Lehigh, but with any and all activism in general. Where do we go from here? To get there? Where is there? For who?
I say all of this from an ivory tower, as Mr. Abbott would call it. I say it from a place of extraordinary privilege. (Colleges, though also “colossal networks” [again, thanks to Mr. Abbot], are full of privilege.) I type it. You may be reading this having not seen my body in person recently, or perhaps ever. As Mr. Abbott said earlier: “It doesn’t go away because you type something (…); it goes away because you show up in person.” Where do we show up? We can’t be everywhere. Mr. Abbott’s advice? “If there’s an issue you’re feeling really hot about, that’s where you go.”
(I hope I’ve quoted you fairly; as you said earlier, the media is a “hungry monster” that “takes whatever it wants,” and “will write words that you said whether you said them or not.” I don’t really like to think of myself as media, but I suppose I am. In that way, I hope I’m saying what you said, as you said it.)
I’m feeling hot about lots of things. My day started in my Economic Development class in which topics covered included child work, child labor, and child soldiers. From child soldiers abroad, to local youth here, to stories of David Abbott and his fellow ACT UP activists (though he noted that the experience, being a shared one, is hard for one person to reflect upon in a way that represents all of those involved and all that happened), to animal and autism rights activism… it’s been a day. It’s been a day in which I wondered if I can even call myself an activist. For the time being, I’ve decided it’s still an identity that I fit with, but that’s a process of interrogation that did not begin or end today.
Dr. Grandin said: “Activism can soften steel, but the problem is, activism can get too radical and just piss ‘em off.” Mr. Abbott told us tales of his activism, including shutting down the stock market, sealing up the FDA, die-ins… Both activists have made important changes; I’m not about saying which is better or which works more effectively. I’m about figuring how to improve my own activism, taking all I can get from success stories such as these, passing anything on I can to others through networking, and challenging others to do the same.
Right this second, these are the things I am thinking are important to activism: noise, education, dialogue, commitment, passion, networking, funding, risk, safety, and tenacity, not in any particular order.
We need to make noise. About whatever it is that we’re “hot” about. We need to say it. Name it. Call it out. Get it out there. We need to be heard. People need to know someone cares.
We need to educate. People need to know what we care about and why. We need to debunk some myths. We need to break down some social constructs and systems that too many accept as “normal,” throwing progress or change to the side as something too radical to really be considered.
That said, we need to dialogue. We’re going to debate and discuss because we’re all human and we’re all hot and that means it’s gonna get heated. That’s a given. But we need to push past it. We need to get as many voices as we can and talk about it. Not argue. Talk. Chat. Round table style, even just a few people, talking about where they come from, about where they might want to go. We can only learn but so much from people who agree with us; it’s always a good day when you get to talk to someone who has different ideas, experiences, thoughts, and opinions from your own.
We need to be committed. We can’t fall asleep in one world and wake up in another. It’s a process. For some of our goals, it will be a long process. We have to stick with it. It we aren’t committed, who will be?
We need passion. We need to give a damn and then some. We need to love this work. We need to laugh and cry and scream and dream with joy and anger and frustration and celebration and pride and whatever else we may feel and however else we may express it. There will be hard days. There will be extremely hard days. There will be fantastic days. Passion gets us through both. Passion is why it’s worth it to us; passion is what makes us shake, what makes us red in the face, what brings the tears to our eyes and the tension to our throats and chest, passion is what gets us up out of bed in the morning to go take on something we want to make better.
We need networking. And I don’t just mean on Facebook, though that’s an important start. We need to be connected to one another. Especially when it’s a small going up against a big, we need to find our strength in numbers. When our own passion fades because we’re burnt out or scared or tired or fed up, we need friends and peers and mentors pushing and pulling us to keep it going. We need support, shared knowledge, skills, and tactics. We need to be able to travel from place to place and find people who care about the things we do; these issues are everywhere, and (at least I hope) where there is an issue, there’s at least one person who’s at least thinking, “This isn’t quite right.” We need to develop the “this isn’t quite right” in ourselves and others to identify what it is that hits us just so, that doesn’t feel so good, that hurts, that frustrates us, that makes us furious, that confuses us, that stresses us. We need to shake hands and look each other in the face, letting one another know, yeah, friend, I’m here for with, I’m with you, we aren’t alone here.
We need funding. This is where my child-of-two-nonprofit-workers / development-department-intern side comes right out. There’s a lot to be said for people power, but very little anymore is truly free. Marching or rioting in the streets may not cost us an admission ticket, but the day off work, the transport cost, the cost of any consequences, the cost of follow-up, etc… It costs. Ask any nonprofit organization how much of their income is raised by their development department, bringing in grants and donations; we need funding.
We need to take risks. As Ms. Frizzle always says on the kids’ show The Magic School Bus: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Nothing’s perfect and activism is no exception. What works once may never work again. What works here may not work there. What got you that when there may get you arrested here. And so on. It’s not always easy, and it’s often the path less travelled. Part of getting the job done is being brave enough to go out and do it.
That said, we need safety. This, for me, goes back to networking. We need to know we’re not alone. We need to know someone’s backing us up. We need to know someone has some faith in us. This goes back to funding, too. Especially in a non-US context, activists function in hostile environments in which they are often unsafe. Networks and money can be life-saving.
We need tenacity. I’ve touched on it in some of my other points, but I reiterate it because it is so important. We can’t give up. If we give up, who will believe that fight is worth it? Who of the opposition will take us seriously if we’re willing to let it go because we’re too tired?
So, how do we move forward, in whatever it is that we’re doing, in whatever it is that we care about? We find friends with what Dr. Grandin calls “shared interests.” We have a dinner party at our house and see what we think we can do about it. We protest. We write books. We donate to organizations. We do many, many things.
We also seem to forget about other things while we’re up to our things… LGBT groups might not address class or race issues, for example. It’s important here to remember that as we dedicate to whatever we’re hot about, there’s a lot to be hot about in the world. While we can’t take it all on, it is important to remember it, especially in terms of privilege. We can’t get so wrapped up in our own agenda that we fail to see the agenda’s of others. We all want to make things better; we all need to try to grasp as best we can what that means for more than just ourselves.
Right this moment, what I’m doing is asking you to think about all this in terms of your own advocacy. What are you hot about? What do you need to do something about it? Think about it. Go ask for that help. Find a friend or two or twenty who give a damn right along with you. If you think you and I might give a damn about the same things, let’s talk. Who knows what it could become. Let’s see what happens.
Where do we go from here? Hopefully not backwards; that’s the worst. I want to move forward. Forward means a lot of things, and I’m still figuring out where to go and how to get there. However, I feel like I’m off to a pretty decent start. Thank you, Mount Holyoke College, for the opportunities I’ve had today and over the past years; I’m nervous and excited, inspired and challenged, and yet, or therefore, I’m ready.