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Struggles, Not Sanctuaries

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As I think is probably pretty clear by now, I am not a fan of a lot of how the modern liberal-left operates. There is the performative nature of social media, which includes this comment section often enough, that creates spaces in which people cannot disagree and those who speak outside the norm are seen as pariahs (frankly, the treatment of Balto by commenters when we brought him on to bring a more left perspective on Black politics was absolutely atrocious and for however much you think I hate the commenters, I can 100% assure you that he hates you as a collective far, far more). The call out culture is a disaster for organizing. Solidarity now means “you do what I want you to do when I want it” rather than the mutual support at its historical core. Talking to people who disagree with you is not encouraged. People, and this across the political spectrum, wear their politics like their new sleeve tattoo and if you don’t like this and this piece of the sleeve, even if you like the rest of it, well fuck you. I thought of this metaphor during the Bernie campaign in 2016 when so many of his supporters just refused to vote for Hillary; but now the more hardcore are even turning it on Bernie-supported candidates. My friends, we all neoliberals now, hyper empowered individuals who frame our politics and our response to others through our own individualistic view of a personal politics. This has long been a piece of American liberal-left politics; from Dwight MacDonald to Dorothy Day, this was common even in the peak of American collective organizing. And sure, this almost certainly includes me too. Like everything else, it is easier to recognize the problem and diagnosis the problem than solve the problem within yourself.

All of this is why I think this fantastic essay by the organizing writers Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba has a lot to offer a liberal community like LGM, even if it is not specifically geared to a community like this one. An excerpt, but I really do encourage you to read the whole thing and take it to heart.

Put simply, we need more people. What do we mean by this? We are not talking about launching search parties to find an undiscovered army of people with already-perfected politics with whom we will easily and naturally align. Instead, organizing on the scale that our struggles demand means finding common ground with a broad spectrum of people, many of whom we would never otherwise interact with, and building a shared practice of politics in the pursuit of more just outcomes. It’s a process that can bring us into the company of people who share our beliefs quite explicitly, but to create movements, rather than clubhouses, we need to engage with people with whom we do not fully identify and may even dislike. We can build upon our expectations of such people and negotiate protocols around matters of respect, but the truth is, we will sometimes be uncomfortable or even offended. We will, at times, have to constructively critique people’s behavior or simply allow them room to grow. There will be other times, of course, when we have to draw hard lines, but if we cannot organize beyond the bounds of our comfort zones, we will never build movements large enough to combat the forces that would destroy us.

….

This is not to say that we should seek no respite from the messiness and occasional discomfort of large-scale movement work. We all need spaces where we can operate within our comfort zone. Whether these take the shape of a collective, an affinity group, a processing space, a caucus, or a group of friends, we need people with whom we can feel fully seen and heard and with whose values we feel deeply aligned. In such a violent and oppressive world, we are all entitled to some amount of sanctuary. Many organizers have tight-knit political homes, sometimes grounded in shared identity, in addition to participating in broader organizing efforts.

But broader movements are struggles, not sanctuaries. They are full of contradiction and challenges we may feel unprepared for.

Effective organizers operate beyond the bounds of their comfort zones, moving into what we might call their “stretch zone,” when necessary. No one has to be able to work with everyone, but how far beyond the bounds of easy agreement can you reach? How much empathy can you extend to people who do not fully understand your identity or experience or who have not had the same access to liberatory ideas? How much discomfort can you navigate for what you believe is truly at stake?

These are not questions anyone can answer for you, as we must all make autonomous choices about who we connect and build with, but if we do not challenge ourselves to navigate some amount of discomfort, our political reach will have terminal limits. To expand the practice of our politics in the world, we have to be able to organize outside of our comfort zones. People whose words and ideas don’t yet align with our own often need room to grow, and some people grow by building relationships and doing work—often in fumbling and imperfect ways.

….

Like so many other aspects of organizing, listening is a practice, and at times, it’s a strategic one.

We might need to hear something true that makes us uncomfortable. Listening deeply makes space for that to happen. But even if the person who’s talking is off base, we can often still learn by listening to them. Why do they feel the way they do? What sources informed or convinced them? What influences them? What strengthens their resolve? What makes them hesitant to get more involved or to engage more boldly? If you are in an organizing space together, how has that issue brought them into a shared space with you despite your differences? What points of agreement might you build upon? What is surprising about them? A good organizer wants to understand these things about the people around them, and you cannot truly understand these things about a person without listening.

Organizers will often repeat the maxim, “We have to meet people where they are at.” It is difficult to meet someone where they’re at when you do not know where they are. Until you have heard someone out, you do not know where they are, so how could you hope to meet them there? Relationships are not built through presumption or through the deployment of tropes or stereotypes. We must understand people as having their own unique experiences, traumas, struggles, ideas, and motivations that will inform how they show up to organizing spaces.

Some task-focused activists brush off activities that involve “talking about our feelings.” This is a common sentiment among bad listeners. The fundamental skill of patiently absorbing another person’s words in a respectful and thoughtful manner is desperately lacking in our society. For this reason, it is folly to expect this skill to manifest itself fully formed when it is most needed, such as in a heated meeting, if we are not building a greater culture of listening in our work.

A group culture that helps participants build their listening skills is an important component of successful organizing. Political education can create opportunities for people to practice listening to one another, without interruption, and interacting meaningfully with what others have contributed. For example, during the Great Depression, communist union organizers in Bessemer, Alabama, developed a practice of devoting thirty minutes of each meeting to political education. For thirty minutes, material would be read aloud—creating space to collectively listen while also allowing members who could not read the opportunity to hear the information. Members would then spend fifteen minutes discussing the material, listening to each other’s thoughts in response to the work.

Learning and growing in front of other people can be embarrassing, and even intimidating, particularly for people who have been put down or made to feel diminished in the past. Even seasoned organizers like Dixon often worry about derailing their work with a verbal misstep. “I have a small crew of other organizers where I think our text thread is mostly questions we are afraid to ask publicly,” she acknowledged. “It’s our own little political education circle, where we ask, ‘What does this mean?’ Or, ‘Is this fucked up?’ Or, ‘What is the right way to say this? Because I don’t think this is right.’” Dixon says that she believes “everyone needs that text thread,” but she also hopes that more of our movement spaces can operate in the same spirit and offer opportunities for people to “feel safe in their process of transforming.”

Creating trust-based movement spaces also puts us in a better place to confront harm and conflict, Dixon says.

“The biggest part of the work is how we maintain relationships while navigating harm,” she told us. “Because that’s the thing, that will break your group. That’ll break any project.” Dixon stresses the importance of conflict resolution and accountability mechanisms within groups—that is, group- or community-based methods of confronting harm, such as peace circles and transformative justice. But she also reminds us that in order for accountability mechanisms to serve their purpose, people need room and opportunities to grow. “People need to build skills and mechanisms to navigate conflict. Sometimes we’re not apologizing. Sometimes we’re not accountable. Sometimes we have done harmful things. Sometimes we’re doing things we were never told go against the norms [of the group] and then are being held accountable.”

In an organizing space, accountability should not be about policing or punishment, but our punitive impulses can sometimes twist accountability mechanisms into those shapes. It’s easy to forget how imperfectly we ourselves have shown up in movement spaces and throughout our lives. Sometimes our aggravation with others is rooted in pain or trauma we have experienced; sometimes it is rooted in our uneasiness about things we may have said or done that were equally upsetting because we did not always know what we know now. And regardless of how much we believe we have learned, as the saying goes, we don’t know what we don’t know. Many of us would not be in this work today if someone along the way had not been patient with us.

Even if we never develop a sense of mutual respect and understanding, or even come to like the people we’re working with, we can still build power with them. In many cases, we must. After all, the whole world is at stake. We must ask ourselves, how much discomfort is the whole world worth?

Now, again, most of this applies to actual organizers, which we at the LGM community are not (I am not a good organizer and I know this). But I think there’s a place for useful conversations to be had based around these issues and maybe we can have them here, if I am being optimistic, which is probably misplaced, but we will see.

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