Even before Trump was elected, more people were asking me for advice on getting involved in something besides electoral politics. After all the questions and chats, I have a few thoughts to add to my earlier post for the Newly Disillusioned.
Take Care of Yourself
I know it can seem selfish and that advice about “self care” has become eye-rollingly ubiquitous. But if you cannot take care of yourself, then you are no help to anyone. If you drive yourself into the ground and need people to pick you up off the floor, you are taking them away from things they could be doing to make things better. If you are in a constant stream of bad relationships (romantic, friend, colleague, comrade…), then you are sucking energy away from yourself and everyone else. You will hurt more than help if you are overflowing with unexamined rage, prejudices, and privilege. None of us will ever be perfect, or perfectly able to take care of ourselves, but personal responsibility and self awareness are prerequisites to useful action.
Help Those Closest to You
The mindset of just “take care of your own” and screw everyone else is part of how we got into this mess. At the same time, if you cannot be relied on to help the people you love, how can anyone rely on you for anything? Besides, when you know someone well, you are in a better position to understand what they might need. When you “help” people you don’t know, it often goes terribly wrong. (Hello nonprofit industrial complex. I’m talking to you.) All of us will need help and support at some point. All of us will get sick, lose loved ones, and have our hearts broken. Most of us will have times where it is a struggle to just get by. We need to be able to rely on each other so that life’s tragedies don’t derail us completely. The more we can rely on each other, the less people can control us through fear of destitution.
Expand Your Circle
Just make sure that those closest to you are a diverse enough group that you are also supporting some of the most marginalized people in our society. Our society is so stratified and segregated that many people don’t have any relationships outside of their own race, class, age, physical ability, religion… Poor people tend to know poor people. Professional/managerial class people tend to know other people like themselves. The further down you are on our societal hierarchy, the harder it is to be able to meet your basic needs. If all the college-educated professionals are only helping each other, we have a problem. For those of us who have had it relatively easy, sometimes the best thing we can do is make it possible for someone else to fight the system that is crushing them.
Let People Help You
I have an amazing group of friends who are all loath to “burden” anyone with their problems. I get it. Taking care of yourself is important. There are always people out there who have things worse than you do. Everyone seems to have so much on their plate. How can we possibly ask more of them? The thing is, we cannot succeed without functioning support systems. And we cannot have functioning support systems if the most reliable people are never willing to ask for help when they need it. Mutual aid requires that we all be willing to both give it and receive it.
Work with People You Like and Trust
It is tempting to think that people who show up for the same protest or organizing meeting have the same values you do. It is tempting to think that people who seem to share your principles can be relied on when it really counts. But experience has taught me that is not the case. Sometimes it is the conservative friend, the one who thinks your actions are foolish, who bails you out after. If you get involved in movements and community groups, you will meet all kinds of frustrating people. There will be racist, feminist women and misogynist, anti-racist men. There will be elitist union reps and homophobic environmentalists. There will be people who say lovely things and show up for every protest, but cannot be relied on to do anything that doesn’t come with fame. Take stock of who you know and what they are trying to do in this world. Think long and hard about who you really think would have your back in an emergency. Keep those people close.
Do Things With Joy
I have a tendency to do whatever needs to be done. Agendas? Sure. Meeting notes? Sure. Collecting money? No problem. It isn’t a bad thing. You don’t want to be the person who is never willing to do grunt work. There are far too many of those people already. But if you find no joy in what you are doing, then you will not keep at it long enough for it to make a difference. We are all so busy. We all have to spend so much of our lives on obligations, especially to our paying jobs. The best way to make sure that our extracurriculars are successful is to make sure that they bring us the joy, community, and sense of possibility that we all crave. There are so many things wrong and so many ways to be a part of trying to change them. It may take a while, but you can find something that won’t feel like another job.
Small is Big
When something newsworthy happens, there is an immediate effort to start identifying the charismatic, (usually) male leader who supposedly brought it into being. When we hear about the bus boycott, we hear about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. We don’t hear about all the people who worked at their job, took care of their family, and then put in just a little extra driving carpools or knocking on their neighbor’s door. We don’t hear about the thousands of people who really make things happen in small ways. Heroic figures can be inspirational, but they can also be paralyzing. If you think any effort needs to be fame-worthy or it is worthless, then you won’t do anything. Besides, the fame seekers are often motivated more by ego and savior complexes than anything else. Don’t undervalue the little things. The little things are more important than they might seem.
There is no end to the struggle for justice. It isn’t as though, if you can just get through a few hundred sleepless nights, we will arrive at utopia. If you really want to work for a more just world, then you just signed on for a lifetime job. We don’t need more people who make speeches all day and leave the child rearing and cooking to someone else. We don’t need more people who burn themselves out after six months and contribute to the constant churn in our organizations. We need strong, grounded people who take care of themselves and others. We need collaborative, organized communities that provide foundation and protection. So just start where you are at, find good people, keep your ego in check, and try a little something.
You may have noticed that I haven’t been writing much lately. It has been hard to prioritize. It isn’t just the full-time job or that I am prioritizing framily and community over the solitude needed to write – though those things play a huge role. It is also because I started to wonder why I was writing.
What I love about writing is how it helps me think things through. It forces clarity and brings up questions I didn’t even realize I had. And I like thinking things through publicly on this blog…sometimes. When it was good, people helped me to see things that I had not thought of. I found a lot of kindred spirits, some of whom became friends that I cherish.
But sometimes I let myself get sucked into debate with people who were not trying to grow or build anything. Sometimes I found myself wasting time being the female opinion for dudes who weren’t really capable of even attempting to see things outside of their own experience. Sometimes I wasted precious time on haters and trolls who just liked to stir up shit. It is so easy to get caught up in other people’s agendas – to wake up and realize you just spent days, weeks, or months being responsive to everything except the things you most want and most value.
I want to write again, but I’m going to be careful to use this blog for the good parts – finding like-minded people, finding people who want to work on similar things, opening a conduit for information about the areas I’m working on, and having genuine discussions with people who have different experiences.
To that end, I thought I would share some of the things I’m working on (or planning to in the very near future).
- A book on Grand Juries
- A creative/community space that is child friendly
- A DMV (District, Maryland, Virginia) media project
- Making things (I’m painting again!)
- Starting a Diaspora pod (or some other alternative to Facebook/Twitter that isn’t for profit)
The grand jury book is the first priority. If any of you know folks who have served on grand juries or have some expertise in that area, please ask them to get in touch with me at mel (at) broadsnark.com
So what have you all been up to?
Someone tweeted David Graeber‘s piece on bullying from last year and, on the chance that there is someone out there who has not read it, I’m going to put it up here with my most heartfelt recommendation.
It’s not that as a species we’re particularly aggressive. It’s that we tend to respond to aggression very poorly. Our first instinct when we observe unprovoked aggression is either to pretend it isn’t happening or, if that becomes impossible, to equate attacker and victim, placing both under a kind of contagion, which, it is hoped, can be prevented from spreading to everybody else.
There are many times that I wish I would not have given people the benefit of the doubt, behavior that I ignored only to have it escalate and bite us all in the ass later. I’m great at removing bullies, abusers, and sociopaths from my personal life. But I’m terrible at dealing with them in groups outside of my personal life. That is something I need to get much better at.
I’m seeing quite a few people in my Facebook and Twitter feeds who have just now realized that the political system is not the path to what they are looking for. They are feeling angry, cynical, and lost.
I get it. I’ve been there.
I was crushed when Bill Clinton gave us welfare “reform,” NAFTA, and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. I was one of those people everyone blames for the 2000 election because they voted for Nader. And, even though I had long before become cynical, I really hoped that Obama at least kinda meant all that stuff he said about civil liberties. Other people maybe picked Howard Dean or Ron Paul, but many of us have had at least one moment of political hope followed by inevitable disappointment.
Of course we have. We have been trained our entire lives to focus our attention on the shiny circus of Big P Politics, especially presidential elections. We are taught it was LBJ and FDR that made things better. It is as if all the people who went door to door, marched, organized strikes, wrote, exposed corruption, and took direct action did not even exist.
The good news is that now you are free. There are millions of things you can do and millions of people who also think things suck. Now that you have safely eliminated presidential politics from your arsenal of tactics that work, you can put your energies towards better things.
I’ve spent a lot of the last decade reading about social movements – from the kids involved in the civil rights movement to the anarchists in Barcelona. And I’ve spent a bit of time, though not nearly enough, participating in them. I don’t have a magic formula for you, but I do have a basic path that has started to form in my head. It goes something like this.
- Imagine how you want your life to be and what is standing in your way. Figure out what you want your world to look like. It doesn’t have to be precise or perfect, but you do need something to reach for.
- Find other people who want the same things that you do. Build communities of trust and support. (That trust and support part is crucial.)
- Plan direct actions. Ideally they should provide for immediate needs and disrupt the systems of oppression.
- Identify the obstacles that you will face and prepare for them, figure out how you will defend yourselves.
- Review the action. Figure out what went well and what didn’t. Reassess. Adjust. Make sure all your people are taken care of.
- Rinse and repeat.
That doesn’t mean that voting can never, ever be a part of what you are doing.
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” – Emma Goldman
All due respect to Emma (and I love her), her statement is kind of a case for voting. After all, it has been and still is prohibited for a whole lot of people (former felons, for instance). And it is not true that voting never matters at all. Voting for someone who is less likely to mow you down in the street is a totally reasonable defense strategy. Voting a terrible prosecutor out of office is a legitimate tactic. If two dudes are running for town sheriff and one is a sociopath, we might consider voting for the other guy.
But then we should go right back to working on ending the position of sheriff or prosecutor entirely. We should learn how to build community for ourselves rather than constituencies for people with their own agenda. We should learn how to resolve conflict ourselves, not empower violent authorities to run systems of oppression and retribution.
It is a lot harder to do those things than to stump for a candidate and vote every couple years. But we can only get out from under these people if we take responsibility and represent ourselves. I screw up every damn day in every way imaginable. But that is why it is called a struggle. And it is so much better to be struggling – to be a better person, to build alternate systems, against oppressive structures, with my community – than to be looking for some kind of savior to come along and make it better.
Now that you are free of the constraints of electoral politics, what are you going to do?
For about five years now, I have been volunteering with an adult literacy program in DC. That is a couple hundred Monday nights that I spent reading (mostly) black history with my “learner.” (The program refers to him as a “learner”.)
I hope I’ve helped him. I know he helped me. There have been times in the last five years when there was not much in my life outside of work. Since my work life is in the nonprofit industrial complex, that means way too much time around valedictorians with hero complexes. But even when I didn’t have time for friends or anything else extra-curricular, I always had that time on Monday night.
Aside from the relief of being with someone who knows that a job is a way to put food on the table and not the whole of your identity, I learned a lot. I know more about Frederick Douglas, Fanny Lou Hamer, and even the history of black wrestlers. (Turns out wrestling is fascinating. Who knew?)
But I’m almost certain that I am going to stop tutoring. The reason is that my “learner” has a goal of passing the GED. So we stopped reading black history and started doing GED prep work. Meaning we stopped reading black history and started reading a bunch of Europeans.
I’m supposed to teach him Emily Bronte and Plato. I’m supposed to help him decipher blog posts by obnoxious, white yuppies. I’m supposed to help him take paragraph-long Dickensian sentences and make them sensical.
And the whole time I am doing it I just keep asking why. Why the hell does a person have to know that crap in order to be worthy to have a job?
I end up trying to teach him test-taking tricks and explaining that, while his answer makes a lot of sense, it isn’t what they want him to say. I end up trying to teach him enough of the white supremacist code to maybe pass a test, to maybe get a piece of paper that tells the world…..what? That he has been socialized sufficiently into European education and won’t shake things up too much?
I’ve been thinking about quitting for a while, but I keep hesitating. I hesitate for the same reason I end up doing a lot of things that I am not 100% in favor of. I don’t think my discomfort should stand in the way of what someone else says they need. So I find myself in this dilemma.
Not helping someone to jump through the hoops that may give them some material advantages doesn’t seem right. But neither does participating in the indoctrination process when I want to be participating in the exact opposite.
So what do we do when faced with choices like these? How do we find ways to help people get by in the here and now without becoming part of an indoctrination process that moves in the opposite direction of what we know needs to happen?
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