The Movement We Need
How do we build a truly welcoming movement based on calling in rather than calling out?
We have survived, barely, Trump’s first year in office, a year of environmental disasters, horrific judicial appointments, Nazis marching in the streets, a rapacious tax bill and lies, lies and lies. Yet that year has also seen some victories: the thousands who turned up at airports to block Trump’s travel ban, the giant marches starting with the Women’s March after his inauguration, the #MeToo movement breaking the silence around sexual harassment and assault, and electoral victories in Alabama.
We can build on those victories in the year to come. But we have a long way to go — and to succeed in mobilizing the backlash and turning it into a forelash, we need a strong movement that can bring about deep, systemic change. That movement must be strategic, long-term, and above all, welcoming, to build the broad and diverse coalitions that can bring about real change. Only a massive, broad movement can succeed.
That movement exists in incipient form, like a great whale swimming just below the waves that surfaces now and again to blow. But we — and by “we” I mean committed social justice activists of all races, genders, and backgrounds — can do a much better job of expanding it and activating its power.
The movement at present is often not a welcoming place. Confronting racism, sexism and all the underlying structural oppressions of our system is never easy, and taking a good, hard look at our own privilege is inevitably a painful process. But there’s a harshness in the air now that is more intense than I’ve seen in fifty years of involvement in social justice struggles. Well, okay — maybe there were some moments of Maoist self-crit back in the 70s that compare, but there were other places to go. Now social media can spread an attack or a poisonous atmosphere around the globe almost instantly. And we can no longer be sure if a blast is genuine or is coming from a paid troll, or even whether that troll is paid by our own government agencies or some foreign power.
As a result, I encounter more and more long-term activists who are stymied with anguish about what to do and how to contribute. And I see new people reluctant to get involved. When people are afraid to speak freely because they are constantly criticized, they become less bold, less creative, less likely to stay committed over the long haul.
So how do we build a truly welcoming movement, based on calling in rather than calling out? Here’s a few guiding principles:
Being Part Of A Movement Should Feel Good
People have a deep need to belong. At its best, a movement should be something we want to belong to, and identifying as part of it should feed, nurture, empower, excite, challenge, stimulate and entertain us. If activism means a constant state of guilt, anxiety, walking-on-eggshells, and self-flagellation, we’ll lose. All of that feeds the right wing.
We want the woke, at that moment of awakening, to feel a rush of exhilaration, a sense of coming home, of having found our people. And we need the unwoke, those who have not been activists before, those who may even have been agents of oppression or Trump voters or incapacitated by their own wounds or sunk in addictions, whether to oil, money or opiates, to discover the joy and empowerment that comes with being part of a movement for change, to feel: “My deepest longing is to be an agent of justice in this world. These are the people who will welcome me to be a part of this grand struggle to transform the world, and who will help me find my role and make my unique contribution.”
The Perfect Is The Enemy Of The Good
Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, wrote the following in response to criticism of her decision to join the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration:
“I decided to challenge myself to be a part of something that isn’t perfect, that doesn’t articulate my values the way that I do and still show up, clear in my commitment, open and vulnerable to people who are new in their activism. I can be critical of white women and, at the same time, seek out and join with women, white and of color, who are awakening to the fact that all lives do not, in fact, matter, without compromising my dignity, my safety and radical politics.”
Let’s admit it: people drawn to activism tend to be — let us say, judgy. That’s why we’re activists — we’ve looked at what’s going on and judged that it sucks. We have high standards, for ourselves and others. But we need to leave room for nuance, for uncertainty and even for mistakes — especially if we are going to invite in those that have come from different social and political experiences and cultures.
Garza goes on to ask: “Can we build a movement of millions with the people who may not grasp our black, queer, feminist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology but know that we all deserve a better life and who are willing to fight for it and win?
“Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win.”
A Diverse Movement Finds A Role For Everyone
A movement for justice that succeeds must be a truly diverse movement, composed and predominantly led by those who bear the brunt of oppression. It cannot be a house of privilege, into which we welcome the less-privileged. It must be designed and built and inhabited by all those who are most affected by racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression.
And yet to succeed, a movement for justice also needs to include those who do hold privilege — as all of us do in some capacity. If you’re reading this post, if you can read and speak the English in which it’s written, you have more privilege than millions around the globe. A movement big enough to make the immense transformation we need must include those who may not yet be woke to the privilege they carry. We need those who are politically evolved, and those who are naïve, both experienced activists and complete newcomers.
Never Beat A Dog For Coming To You
That’s a principle I learned when training our sheepdog that can serve us here: No matter how long you’ve been bawling out, “Rover, come!” while she chases rabbits, don’t whack her when she finally returns, if you want her to ever come again. Instead, praise and reward her. When someone makes a first step into activism, no matter how long it took them to get there, we’ve got to actively welcome them, to say, “How great that you’ve come to the party!” Not “You’re late — and take those GMO corn chips out of here!” Or “It’s a measure of your privilege that you are only now coming around to our way of thinking!” Or “You’ve never heard of ___________?!?”
We don’t know why someone might not have yet been involved in activism. Maybe they were herding sheep, or raising kids, or taking care of their aging mother, or recovering from childhood trauma, or just never quite met the right people. Maybe the people they did meet turned them off by being snide or judgmental. Even if they were running a hedge fund or a chemical plant, we need to celebrate the fact that they’ve finally emerged and come out to the streets.
Moreover, if part of our task in building a broad-based movement is to reach those who have not yet been reached, concerns and ideas of the newly-reached will be a lot more relevant than the perspectives of the long-committed. If we listen to newcomers, we may gain insights that will help us mobilize those who do not yet agree with us.
Newcomers see with fresh eyes. Political movements are always in danger of falling into group-think and group-speak. Someone coming in from the outside will look at things without our unconscious assumptions and make us see things in a different way.
Create Structures And Rituals Of Welcome
The most powerful and effective movements I’ve been part of had structures for orientation and training, and ways to teach newcomers about the group culture. In the early ‘80s, I was part of a blockade at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Central California. In the lead-up to the action, everyone who wanted to risk arrest was required to take a two-day nonviolence training. The training not only made us aware of our legal rights and potential consequences of the action, it served as an induction into an organizing culture very different from the dominant society.
We were formed into small groups to take action together and support one another — affinity groups. Decisions about the action were made in affinity groups by consensus — and we were trained in how to do consensus. The political culture that resulted was so powerful that decades later activists all over California were still forming groups based on its principles, and it influenced everything from the Latin-American intervention opposition to Occupy Wall Street. But Occupy took some of the model and left out some key pieces that made it work — among them, training, boundaries, and entry rituals.
More recently, at Standing Rock, new arrivals were asked to go through an orientation designed to make people more aware of how to fit into an indigenous-led movement and how to behave respectfully in a very different culture. Nonviolence trainings were again being offered, as well as many other clear ways that people could make a contribution and get involved in the camp.
If an activist setting is modeling a different culture, people need to learn how to enter in, what the expectations and constraints are. Don’t expect them to already know how to behave, because they don’t. Consider how best to teach them.
Practice Constructive Critique And Avoid Shaming People
Constructive critique aims to strengthen relationships, not sever them, to improve the work, not shut it down. It is specific, not global, and about specifically what someone has said or done, not who they are or what you imagine their motives might be. Not “You’re a racist, sexist pig,” but “When you told that joke with the accent, I felt uncomfortable. It seemed to me that you were making fun of immigrants.”
Distinguishing between intent and impact is often useful. When people feel defensive, their response is often to defend their intent. “I was just feeling warm and affectionate when I hugged you.” If we grant their positive intent, we can avoid fruitless arguments about it, and instead focus on the actual impact. “I’m sure that was your intent, but the impact on me, when you grabbed me without asking, was to make me feel disrespected and angry. There’s a history of men’s entitlement to women’s bodies that comes into play, whether we want it to or not. So if you want to hug me again — and I hope you do — just ask first.” Or, we can ask about intent, and that might trigger some deeper awareness. “What was your intent in telling that joke?”
A criticism delivered publicly always risks shaming and humiliating the person who receives it. If we really want someone to hear us and to change, critical feedback is best delivered one on one — ideally in person, next best, by telephone or Skype, worst of all, in written form online when we don’t have the opportunity to sense tone and body language — especially when that critique is made public. There are times when a public critique is appropriate and necessary, when a mistake or an attack needs to be challenged. But whenever possible, give criticism in private and in person, or at least warn the person privately that you intend a public challenge.
Give Praise And Appreciation Publicly
The corollary to constructive critique is public praise and appreciation. Thanking people for their work, appreciating their contributions, offering gratitude for their efforts is one way we can show that we value one another. Expressions of gratitude also create an atmosphere of care and appreciation. We do a lot of unpaid, unsung work in social movements, and receiving appreciation and thanks is sometimes our only reward.
Praise, to be meaningful, is also specific. “You’re a great facilitator” is nice to hear, but “I really learned something from the way you handled that moment when we were deadlocked and you guided us through,” says much more.
Use Language That Speaks To Everybody
Language determines how we understand the world, and shifting our language, learning new words and concepts, can broaden and illuminate our understanding. But language can also be used in another way — to mark out turf, like dogs pissing on lampposts, to say, “This is my territory and you are not part of it.”
Too often, words or concepts that start out as resonant rapidly become more like markers showing who belongs and who doesn’t. Whenever we use words that people aren’t familiar with or can’t intuitively understand, especially in a way which implies that everyone else knows their meaning, there’s a subtext that says, “You are ignorant and not part of the in-group here.” Language that activists adopt from academics is especially prone to function in this way.
Language rooted in emotion and sensation speaks to us all on a deeper level than terms of pure abstraction. There are some words, such as “liberation,” that people are familiar with and understand, that carry an emotional weight. And there are other words, for example, “intersectionality,” that no one can intuitively understand without an explanation. Intersectionality is a crucial concept, the understanding of how race and class and gender and other aspects of our identities intersect and affect us in different ways, and how analysis of one oppression must be informed by awareness of others. Yet no one would intuit that meaning from the word itself. So when we use it, or words like it, we must be aware that it carries a potential subtext, always, that says, “I’m smarter and more in the know than you are.”
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use such language. There are important concepts that sound abstract but may open up new worlds of thinking and understanding. I’m saying that when we use those words, we should be conscious that many people will not understand us if we don’t explain them. Not because those people are stupid or prejudiced, but because if we broaden the movement to include those who are not already activists, they may not have heard them before.
And remember — words are not your jealous lovers. You don’t have to be faithful to a particular term. There is more than one name of God, and more than one way to describe or explain anything. We don’t need a monotheism of terminology. To really understand a concept, generally you must be able to say it in multiple different ways.
Whenever possible, use the language of poetry — language rooted in sensual experiences, that speaks to emotion as well as intellect, that frames issues positively, that carries a rhythm and a beauty. Susan Griffin’s work, which sparked the ecofeminist movement, is one powerful example. Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas was a poet. “One no — many ‘yeses.’” The indigenous activists at Standing Rock consciously name themselves “water protectors” and their marching cry is clear, beautiful, and positively framed: “Water is sacred. Water is life.”
Organizing Is Educating And Educating Is Organizing
A welcoming movement must be a movement that educates. It’s a truism in activist circles that women shouldn’t have to educate men about sexism, black people shouldn’t have to educate white people, the indigenous should not have to educate the non-indigenous, and indeed, that’s only fair and right. It’s an exhausting burden to constantly have to teach people about things they should know or should have learned for themselves, and it’s unfair for that burden to fall on the backs of the already oppressed.
Yet I think now is a moment when we have a great opportunity to educate people — and if we are planning for a long-term, deep transformation of society and politics, education is crucial. So, unfair as it is there are many reasons why we should stop telling people, “It’s not my job to educate you — educate yourself!” For one thing, many people don’t know how to educate themselves. They’ve been badly educated to begin with — either because they went to “bad” schools where the focus was all on discipline and not on learning, or because they went to “good” schools where the focus was all on competing and passing tests, not on learning how to learn.
Secondly, if they go off and educate themselves, you know they’ll be googling away on the Internet and Goddess only knows what they’ll come up with! If we take up the burden of education, we can determine what we want people to learn and how. Yes, it’s tiring and exhausting and we shouldn’t have to do it, but it’s also a chance to consciously create a new culture, to share understandings, to tell the truth about our own lives and experiences, to open minds and broaden awareness.
Whenever possible, people who hold privilege can shoulder the burden of educating their fellows — provided they can do it with respect and compassion and not as a means of displaying how I’m the Good White Person or I’m the Sensitive Male and You’re Not.
We can see actions and mobilizations as learning opportunities, and recognize that the education is one aspect of our victory.
Not necessarily to the oppressors, but at least to your own supporters, friends, co-conspirators and allies. That doesn’t mean to stifle constructive critique, but don’t turn organizing into an episode of Mean Girls. Support people when they are down. Share burdens. Be there for your comrades in jail, in illness or disease or injury or other troubles. Understand that kindness, compassion and caring are the cornerstones of the world we want to create, and they take practice. So begin with one another.
Starhawk is the author of 12 books, an activist, permaculture designer and one the foremost voices in Earth-based spirituality. Her new book on group dynamics, “The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups,” is now out from New Society Publishers. Starhawk directs Earth Activist Trainings. Visit www.Starhawk.org.