Towards An Ethics of Activism
Social justice activism has reached unprecedented levels of prominence in U.S. public consciousness in the last several years. Movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, intersectional feminism, transgender rights, indigenous sovereignty, and more have broached conversations in popular culture and media.
And yet, the internal conditions of social justice communities are plagued with messy relational conflicts. Both newcomers and elders are afraid to speak up or ask questions, for fear of being ruthlessly called out or banished. As leftist activists, we have bulked up our muscles for critiquing and tearing down problematic behaviors, but are less practiced in reflection and turning towards one another.
The popular discourse of justice is largely shaped by reactionary think-pieces, inflamed social media posts, romanticized narratives of movement histories, and prescriptive checklists. All of this belies a lack of foundational understanding of the value of relationships, and how to preserve them when conflict inevitably arises. We’ve found ourselves stuck cycling in between blame, fear and shame. It is a stale, stunted plane from which to operate.
In 2017, I published “Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” and “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” in an attempt to revisit this relational crisis that I believe is just as urgent as the myriad political issues of justice and freedom we are all fighting for. I’ve invited leaders in powerful activist movements shaping national and local political landscapes to join me and share their ideas on how to develop a life-giving framework of relating to one another. We ask, as social justice oriented workers, organizers, activists, and community members, how can we treat each other with more care? How do we let our movements flex and morph as the conditions of our struggles shift?
Our reader, “Toward An Ethics of Activism,” acknowledges the ambitious and risky attempt of talking about the need for more love and compassion without erasing difference. I believe in “yes and” methods of justice work; yes, a historical system of oppression operates in our society that results in mass inequity and harm, and, we all have the capacity to recognize the humanity in each other and forge genuine connections.
Rather than generating more academic knowledge to be consumed by the academy and intellectuals, it aims to surface collective knowledge by and for the benefit of marginalized and activist communities.
I have compiled this reader not only from the wisdom of seasoned organizers, but also from a misty terrain of utopian speculation. It ushers us towards a shifted relationality, one that is not so unlike the present one we’ve created together, but exhibits less in-fighting, punishment, exclusion, and essentializing of identities.
The included poetry, essays, stories and comics formulate an expanded vision of social justice activism that is more humble, gentle, and open- for strategic recruiting purposes, but also, for enabling us well-deserved joy and reward in this work.
My wish is for these pieces to sit with you as gentle friends and teachers. After a while, see if they offer you anything useful, new, or refreshing in your political and interpersonal practices. As liberal buzzwords like “diversity”, “social justice”, “oppression” and “intersectionality” become commodified and emptied of radical meaning, I urge you to pause when you find yourself being shaken out of your familiar understandings of what justice means and how to move towards it (however you have chosen to define it). These moments are junctures for learning and revision, as something critical has shown itself to you.
The collection opens with a piece by Seattle University School of Law Professor Dean Spade. With its digestible list format, his piece offers us a toolkit for responding more intentionally to interpersonal conflict. It guides us into deeper self-reflection about our patterns, defenses and assumptions when interacting with someone who has disappointed or hurt us. As we strengthen these emotional and communication skills over time, we can develop a culture of understanding our community members as necessary and worthy of our ongoing forgiveness.
The braided essay by Corinne Manning is boldly vulnerable, and she writes about her (and really, our) profound desire for human connection and community care, and the immense shame that follows when it is unmet. She draws parallels between her chronic illness to the disease of white supremacy and the deathly isolation it demands. Introspecting from a space of multiple raw hurts, she models for us the necessity of radical vulnerability to find authentic, lasting connection with others.
My own contribution is a rumination on our performances of oppression we’ve internalized. Rather than critique this behavior as another problematic marker of activist identity to self-correct, I understand it as originating from our yearning for belonging in the communities we’ve invested in. I draw attention to the long-term effects of always referring to ourselves as damaged people first and foremost, and propose activating other kinds of social performances that reduce the barriers for growing our movements for justice.
Short poems by Maisha Manson are carefully placed throughout this reader. Their poems outline what justice and healing feels like in the body, and graciously orchestrate imaginary work to bring us into their crafted spaces of queer Black belonging and safety. They have also included a poem breathing exercise acknowledging one’s exhaustion that can be practiced anywhere, anytime when rest is needed.
The vignette comics of E.T. Russian come from the perspective of someone who has been organizing for over 20 years. Using a blend of fiction and memory, they look back to consider what it means to stay in community with people you’ve harshly dismissed in the past, humbly welcome the new ideas of younger organizers, and value someone beyond their activism.
The essay by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza is a gift to Black communities in the U.S. who are fighting for Black liberation and for Black lives to matter to this nation. Opening with a personal story of despair and depression as a teen, she talks about the meanness that she has encountered from leading the Black Lives Matter movement. To nurture what she calls a resilient and durable heart, she has developed a robust set of daily self-care practices that create an emotional safety net and pathways to healing.
Organizer J.M. Wong writes from a place of long-term, gritty commitment to and love for liberation movements while examining the life cycle of activism through past activist leaders. She implores us to consider what it means to be loyal to a movement that is constantly shifting and unpredictable, and thus cannot reciprocate loyalty or meet all of our dreams and political goals.
This reader is an incomplete, experimental exploration and exists alongside the many other leaders and organizations already doing this work. At the end of the reader is an Additional Resources list I compiled of further readings, recordings, and books that this reader seeks to be in conversation with. There is also a Discussion Guide available, written by Erin Burrows (Seattle University, Center for Community Engagement), to lead you, your study groups, and your communities into dialogue reflecting on the ideas and approaches presented here.
Readers can download a free copy of Towards an Ethics of Activism here.
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