“I was searching for a way to be involved with movement work in which my spirit, personality and hope could remain intact. I’ve learned that part of that work is mine alone. But part of it is a shared endeavor: It is about how we treat each other.”
By Ejeris Dixon, Truthout | Op-Ed February 08, 2018
This story is the second in Truthout’s “Visions of 2018” series, in which activist leaders answer the question: “What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?” Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.
This piece has been a long time coming. As a young person, I spent years interviewing women involved in the Black Power movement, reading their letters, poetry and essays. I was researching their experiences and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on their lives. Later on, I realized that I was searching for a way to be involved with movement work in which my spirit, personality and hope could remain intact. I’ve learned that part of that work is mine alone. But part of it is a shared endeavor: It is about how we treat each other.
I was working with groups where their relationships were so fraught that their political work had come to a standstill.
My vision for 2018 is that we dedicate ourselves to addressing harm and repairing relationships within social justice movements. I spent most of 2017 traveling around the US, supporting groups organizing against intense political threats. Some were directly confronting white supremacists, others addressing violence against LGBTQ communities, supporting communities under threat of deportation, or working within Black communities facing state violence. Much of my work with these organizations was highly confidential crisis management.
During these repressive times, people assume that most of the crises in activism and organizing are external. Instead, I was working with groups where their relationships were so fraught that their political work had come to a standstill — organizations where people had stopped talking to each other, where people were being abusive and bullying each other, where issues of violence and theft had arisen. In some cases, folks in the same collective were criticizing each other or their organizations on social media, but refusing to name these critiques in person.
Without shifting our focus to repairing our relationships, our movements will rot from the inside out.
In organization after organization, I saw the same pattern. Folks mobilize through an intense period. They do what we’ve all been taught and save their critique for later discussion. And when there’s a break from the external crisis, they tear each other apart. As an organizer, I was taught to recruit people into the movement and to support them to stay involved. But I wasn’t taught how to repair relationships or to prevent harm. Many of us aren’t taught these skills.
Our campaigns, our base-building and our political analysis cannot and will not save us from this threat. Even worse, our external opponents not only are capitalizing on our fractures, but feeding them. Sometimes, we are our own strongest opposition. Without shifting our focus to repairing our relationships, our movements will rot from the inside out.
How to Ruin Movement Relationships
There are some surefire ways to ruin our movement relationships. Distrust is usually the source of conflict, and distrust can start from how we enter our meetings, actions and other movement spaces. A few causes of distrust that I’ve observed are misalignment, call-out culture, secret maneuvering and relationship neglect.
Misalignment: When Values and Actions Don’t Match
In short, hypocrisy repels people. In the last year alone, so many people have lost faith and left organizations that claim to center oppressed communities and truly don’t. When people feel that an organization or movement promised them liberation and instead they experienced oppression, they feel betrayed. For many people, it’s a gut-wrenching form of heartbreak that leads them to exit our movements. For others, they stay, but retain a level of anger and bitterness that can be toxic.
Another issue is when an organization claims to have a collective or horizontal process, but doesn’t really: Folks with more time and more education; who come from higher-class backgrounds; and who are white, masculine, cisgender, citizens, or have other forms of privilege are truly the people making decisions. When the process for aligning our values with our actions is unclear or keeps changing, it can ruin our relationships to each other and to the work.
Critique for the sake of destruction only serves our opponents.
Living our values while existing in a society that exemplifies the opposite means that we will struggle and sometimes fail in this area. For example, many small community organizations haven’t always had the budget for the staffing that their work required. To navigate this gap, these groups paid people low salaries and they often hired people with class and educational privilege. These groups didn’t need to provide solid benefits or consistent hours because people didn’t need childcare, full-time work or access to quality health care. Yet, if an organization claims to represent or center low-income people, these practices must change. Just because an organization started this way, doesn’t mean it’s OK to continue.
Continued misalignment of values and actions creates distrust that leads to irreparable conflicts. To address this, I believe that we need to explicitly name the struggles that our groups are having early on, and work diligently toward addressing them.
Misalignment often leads to call-outs. By “call-outs,” I’m speaking to a form of political critique designed to publicly name something that an organization, movement or person has done that is oppressive and sometimes harmful. Call-outs are often a form of critique used by people with less power than the organizations or people that they are critiquing, with the hope that the call-out will lead to the issue being addressed. Some call-outs are necessary, and truth-telling is not designed to be pretty. But some call-outs are disingenuous and even manipulative. I’ve worked on several processes to support groups to transform issues raised through call-outs. In some cases, the folks making the call outs are not interested in change. Sometimes this is because people are too traumatized to stay engaged. And sometimes people are actually interested in the demise of the organization or group.
The spirit of the call-out matters. Critique for the sake of destruction only serves our opponents. I’ve seen people use call-outs as a way to be abusive and harmful, or in an attempt to become leaders — not to create positive change, but merely to exploit others. The worst part is when these manipulative call-outs obscure the real issues folks are raising and are interested and investing in addressing. Disingenuous call-outs mean that we see this form of critique as inherently unprincipled and become resistant to change.
If we envision a world where communities work together to address violence and to ensure that our basic needs are met, then our movements can’t operate like secret societies.
Additionally, call-out culture has made it incredibly costly to make mistakes, whether intentional or unintentional. I think about how many times I’ve decided not to speak for fear of call-outs because I didn’t want to be publicly shamed on social media — “dragged” — so I stick to safe topics in which I’m politically knowledgeable. We’ve created a culture of silence where very few people speak their mind. People who do not fear being dragged can be awesome, even inspiring. A movement where the only people speaking have no fear of being dragged is a nightmare.
On the opposite spectrum from call-outs are avoidant secret maneuvers. As opposed to directly delivering a critique or feedback to someone, we maneuver around them. We spread rumors about people we dislike. We block people from accessing meetings, fellowships and gatherings. We even create lists of problematic people to exclude them. We play chess with each other without naming the actual issue or conflict. I’m not speaking about the ways people may maneuver around others due to safety, or how people choose to navigate someone after a series of failed attempts to address conflict or harm. However, sometimes we’re being conflict-averse and divisive, fostering a culture of secrecy and distrust. There are times when people who have lost trust in others or experienced harm want to continue political work, but have trouble engaging with newcomers and strangers. This can work for certain projects, but not for mass-based organizing and activism.
We must ensure that we value our folks beyond what they produce for our movements.
We can’t create the scale or the visionary context that we need under these conditions. We all need to figure out a new strategy — myself included. If we envision a world where communities work together to address violence and to ensure that our basic needs are met, then our movements can’t operate like secret societies.
Conflict also stems from people neglecting each other. Sometimes we are so busy that we forget to acknowledge the sacrifice that people are making for our movements. We don’t say “thank you.” We don’t lift up other people’s leadership. Years of neglect can heighten conflict. For some organizational processes that I have worked on, issues arise from a degree of interpersonal bitterness only built from people feeling unacknowledged for years.
Many folks join movements to feel like they belong somewhere. While we can’t heal that void, we can at least be present with and acknowledge that need. And we must ensure that we value our folks beyond what they produce for our movements. To build the societies that we need, we need to connect with each other beyond whether or not someone is going to be at the next action and get to know each other’s lives to build the kinds of revolutionary interdependence that we’re all seeking.
I’ve also witnessed the particular form of neglect that happens when people pursue celebrity. Social media has created a space where people can build their platforms and brands, separate from building movements. I’ve seen movement leaders get so focused on their next keynote, think piece or television appearance that they neglect their relationships and get competitive with their comrades. The market for progressive celebrity is real. But neglecting or disrespecting others in order to become a “woke” celebrity isn’t getting us closer to freedom.
How to Repair Relationships and Rebuild Trust
To focus on repairing our relationships, we have to shift our practices and deepen our values. Our practices shape our culture.
I was working with an organization on their leadership development strategies. As I was reviewing their trainings, I realized that all of the trainings were designed to increase the participant’s critical analysis. To strengthen our movements, we need people who understand capitalism, neoliberalism, heteropatriarchy, cissexism, criminalization, colonialism and so many other systems and forms of oppression. But building analysis without also giving people the skills to create consensus, build community, facilitate meetings, address harm and adhere to agreements often creates a space where all conversation is critique.
We can win campaigns without healing trauma, but we will lose each other in the process.
To address the toxicity that’s flowing throughout our movement culture, we will have to teach each other how to be trustworthy and build trustworthiness. Recently, a good friend and I brainstormed the values that we thought were most needed (and sometimes missing) in our movement work. Over coffee, we dreamt up a list of core values that, if applied, could radically shift harm, distrust and negativity that people can experience in movement spaces. We came up with honesty, integrity, loyalty, accountability and a commitment to personal transformation.
We must stop lying to ourselves and others. We’ve created a context where people are so fearful of making mistakes or saying the wrong things that people are being silent, lying or exaggerating. Trust thrives on honesty. And lies can cause deep wounds in relationships.
Somehow, loyalty has become a bad word. When I use “loyalty,” I’m thinking about the commitments we make to each other. People need to know that they are wanted and will be welcomed, even when they make mistakes and cause harm. So many of us are looking for people who will be there with us on our worst days. Our relationships have become terrifyingly conditional: We agree to stay in connection with people only when their politics and practices are perfect. We often talk about “commitment” only in terms of romantic relationships and commitment to the visions and issues that we work on. To realize our visions, we have to practice deep, long-term commitments to each other.
We need to stop pretending that it’s ok to call our work “social justice” while treating each other terribly. The integrity of our movements arises from the extent to which we commit to living our values. And as we build the world we want to live in, we’re going to navigate a lot of contradictions. My rules of thumb are: Are we getting closer to our vision? Are we taking the time, finding the resources, and having the hard conversations to be in integrity? For example, if I’m in a space that’s working to center people of color in leadership, my questions are: To what extent are people of color currently leading? How are we dismantling structural oppression and increasing opportunities for the future? Finally, are we remaining vigilantly focused on this goal?
I see accountability as the labor of repair. To truly inhabit this value, we need the ability and willingness to be held accountable, as well as the skillset to hold ourselves accountable. Accountability starts with self-reflection; we must have the willingness to critique ourselves and to see our impact on others. How many of us are actively engaged in the work of repair? How many of us are working to gain training or experience in conflict resolution, trust-building, healing justice or transformative justice? I’m tired of having exhausted meetings with people who do conflict resolution, community accountability and transformative justice. Everyone I know who is skilled at holding space for personal and community transformation is stretched really thin. We need to stop seeing accountability and repair as separate skills that are outside of community organizing. Everyone within our movements needs to learn that building trust, repairing relationships and addressing harm are a core part of movement-building.
Commitment to Personal Transformation
I’ve engaged in all of these harmful behaviors myself, and I am continuing to work to transform. I write this piece not from a place of empty critique, but a deep desire for transformation. Many of the behaviors I name stem from trauma, whether a person has experienced trauma within or outside our social-justice movements. As movements working to center people who have experienced oppression, we’re often working with long-term, deep-rooted experiences of trauma collectively. To truly repair relationships, each of us needs to be committed to doing our own healing work, and to not have our movement relationships be our sole source of support. Healing from trauma is a lifetime journey. Our commitment to personal transformation is the foundation for our ability to show up in alignment with our movement values. We can win campaigns without healing trauma, but we will lose each other in the process.
I think we should all create a list of movement values for ourselves and assess how we embody them. Over time, we can push ourselves to move towards them. What are your movement values?
Toward Repair and Trust-Building
If our goal is to be bitter revolutionaries, communicating from our bunkers, then we’re succeeding. But have you talked to a bitter revolutionary? I’ve laughed and learned from the brilliance of their perspectives, but left the conversation depressed, hungry and anxious. At the pace that we’re going, we will have so many fractures that even if we are able to make the changes we seek, we’ll be doing it all with such bitterness and distrust.
My vision for 2018 is simple: I desire compassion over destruction and connection over celebrity. In these times, it’s our relationships that will keep us together and will keep us alive. I feel firmly that this year, it’s not about the size of our mobilizations, or how strategic our campaigns are, but the strength of our relationships.
Copyright Truthout. permission.
EJERIS DIXON is an organizer and grassroots political strategist with 15 years of experience working in racial justice, LGBTQ, anti-violence and economic justice movements. She currently works as the Founding Director of Vision Change Win, where she partners with organizations to build their capacity and deepen their impact. From 2010 to 2013 Ejeris served as the Deputy Director, in charge of the Community Organizing Department at the New York City Anti-Violence Project where she directed national, statewide and local advocacy efforts on hate violence, domestic violence and sexual violence. From 2005 to 2010 Ejeris worked as the founding Program Coordinator of the Safe OUTside the System Collective at the Audre Lorde Project where she worked on creating community based strategies to address hate and police violence. She is a widely recognized as an expert on issues of police violence, hate violence, sexual violence and intimate partner violence as they impact LGBTQ communities and communities of color. Her essay, “Building Community Safety: Practical Steps Toward Liberatory Transformation,” is featured in Truthout’s anthology Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States.
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