Fissures, Fractures, and The Illusion of Growth

It has happened to you, to me and to just about every activist we know. It keeps happening and we are all complicit. I too have been complicit. Whether I am involved or not, it saddens me every time I hear about it happening yet again. Another group is in conflict. Cracking with clear fissures in its structures. If left unattended, like a crack in a glass window-pane, it grows and ultimately shatters leaving razor sharp shards. What is truly saddening, when this happens, is that we excuse this by believing in the illusion of multiplicity or diversity and growth in our movements

 

The way I see it, these cracks start in places of values and/ or strategy and some times, we believe, principals. How we deal with this mismatch or misalignment makes all the difference between the crack or the growth. Yet most often than not we walk away, confront, or fight but rarely do we resolve our differences in healthy ways. We do nothing to contribute to the larger picture and movement. Instead of communicating through the difficult landscape of misalignment we excommunicate each other and sometimes even ourselves.

 

Until recently, I used to be dismissive of the breaks and think of them in a positive light. Thinking that the more groups we have, then the more people we have working on a particular topic or issue. I believed that in this plurality there were more choices and a richness in how we approached and did our work. I believed that the more groups we had, the stronger and livelier we were. It made us bigger. Naive. Today what I see is not plurality, but a fractured political minefield. We may be growing in numbers but not in a sustainable or healthy way. What I see happening is a growing number of groups and camps that are at odds with each other. Groups that do not talk to each other. And when they do talk to each other, they are wary and distrustful. Cooperation, and conversations amongst these groups suffer. Coalition and solidarity work is ignored. We may be “bigger” but this giant is sluggish and uncoordinated. This giant is easy to take down.

 

We are a limited number of people and our outward engagement leaves a lot to be desired. That is the reality of it. Looking inward, the number of folks engaged in social justice is not as large as we like to think it is. So if we want to keep fracturing ourselves we will be miniature kingdoms and fiefdoms of social justice, not a movement. Each with our own agenda and methodology, built in isolation or in reaction to others, or not. We are however, each our own small independent subset from the larger group.

 

Looking outward, the number of people we are engaging is limited, that is a reality. When we do our outward engagement we look to either recruit or build coalitions and allies. I do not think that we can effectively recruit if we are at odds with each other. No one willingly or knowingly walks into a minefield. And no matter our concerted efforts to grow our numbers and movements, with these fissures and fractures the efforts are weakened and even if there may be strength in numbers, this does not strengthen us. Continuing in our outward engagement to build alliances and coalitions, then the number of other social justice activists from other movements, policy makers, members of parliaments, and religious leaders that we engage will be looking from the outside in and they will see a divided movement. This illusion of diversity, this plurality we believe we are creating is most probably not how they view us and will ultimately effect how we grow our alliances and solidarity. When the people we are engaging with comprehend the landscape and view it in its complexity, ugliness and unattractiveness. When people figure out what has happened. We create camps and cults of personalities and groups.

 

These groups compete for the same constituency, the same community resources, the same funders and donors, the same public spaces, the same alliances, the same everything. We claim to want to change patriarchy and Capitalism and yet we ourselves create the very competitive environment they are both founded on. Each of us trying to outdo the other, to be at the top. I can’t think of much that is positive about this dynamic within social justice (and out of it). I’ve seen some of this first hand, where ridicule, criticism, dismissiveness and downright hatred are lobed against other groups or people creating hierarchy, competition and animosity. No sensitivity or awareness to who this is being done to, or in front of, nor the lasting effects of this are taken into account. It is disheartening and scary. And I feel it is only a matter of time before it will be your turn or mine (again).

 

The flip side of this is internal solidification, cooperation, and coalition building. I’ve spoken briefly about this in my earlier posts and it goes hand in hand with accountability (on which there are a couple of pieces). The article about “calling in” is another piece of the puzzle that flips conflict on is head with a new framing. From these varied angles I keep coming back to a set of questions that I think are helpful in mitigating these situations and dealing with them objectively and constructively:

 

1- For the sake of who or what are we doing the work we are doing?

2- How do we collectively and individually react to mistakes within our movements?

3- Are we working from a place of intention or reaction?

4- Do we have choices we can exercise and what are these choices?

5- How do we move from fractures to bridging?

 

Why bridge the fractures?

 

I want to be clear, when I talk about bridging I do not in any way mean glossing over the divide or mistakes. Bridging is not about cosmetic fixes that deteriorate quickly with time. Bridging is about making choices and having difficult conversations. Choosing to work through the miscommunications and the misalignments. Finding ways to build solidarity and true coalition and collectives where the rules of engagement and conflict are clear. Where the foundational work has been established and we are able to come back to each other and see who we are, with compassion rather than with cut throat viciousness and cruelty. Bridging is about the intention of working within a movement and within alignment. This doesn’t mean we are all doing the same things and clapping each other on the back all the time. Bridging doesn’t mean we are all holding hands and singing kumbaya (even though there is nothing wrong with that). It is about being able to sit together and converse about our work, our strategies, and our challenges and share our successes and frustrations in a respectful and supportive manner. And to mean it.

 

Bridging is about bringing back honesty and trust into our interactions. These are the first things to disappear when we choose to ignore the cracks. However, should we come into bridging, the results can be beautiful and transformative, like a broken bowl fixed in the Japanese method of Kintsugi. Kintsugi is a restorative craft and art form, it takes what it is broken and recognizes it’s history and journey. It then takes all that it was and gives it a new life after applying lacquer and either silver, gold or platinum. The result is something even more precious than what was. It takes a lot of skill, patience, perseverance and care to restore what is broken and THAT is the kind of bridging I am talking about.

 

 

Kintsugi bowl

Restored and transformed

 

 

I know from my own personal experience that it is easier to opt out. To retreat. To build my own utopian frame of reference. And I have done that. This is one of my failures that I reflect on constantly and think about how I could have done things differently. I also think about the cost of this retreat. How many people have I burned along the way, or have I been burnt by to bring me to this point? What kind of movement is this where I stand alone? My retreat has probably been my biggest failing and my biggest learning in my social justice work. It is from this withdrawal that I have been able to see and to write as I do today. It has also given me an opportunity to work on my healing. From this healing I hope to make better choices and exercise them. Which leads me to my next learning: we need start with our internal solidification. Our internal solidification starts from our own selves. If we bring all of us, holistically, into our movements we bring solid individuals into the movement. We bring grounded individuals who are able to create internal ripples or a cascade of growth rather than outward tsunamis of destruction. When we come in from a place of healing, our sense of self and others is heightened. Our sensitivities becomes a different kind of sensitivity, where we are not walking around wounded and angry but more thoughtful, aware and compassionate, and thus more strategic and choiceful. We are more able to deal with the issues rather than the personalization of them. And so we can keep diving deeper and deeper into the repair of the fissures and fractures. We are able to bridge.

 

That is where and how I want to place myself today. That is my choice. And I do this for the sake of strong and holistic social justice movements in my communities.

More on Accountability (from the interwebs)

So as I was catching up on my internet life I came across this posting by Feministing – which brought to my attention the idea of calling someone in instead of calling someone out. It is a continuation of the conversation around accountability. I hope you enjoy the readings too.
Feministing: On Cynicism, calling out, and creating movements that don’t leave our people behind.
 

One Hand Can Not Clap on Its Own

Whether it is a collective, a working group, a team, an organization, any group of people coming together and working together they need to do some foundational work. This has become apparent to me over the years. I have seen, heard and been part of conversations with established groups that come to screeching halts or have meltdowns and break ups because of conflict. Conflict that could have been easily, or clearly, resolved had the foundational work been done. What I have experienced and observed of groups and collectives is their inability to have conversations about choices and decisions once a break has happened. More often than not this conflict is value or strategy based. The first is very difficult to come back from and requires a lot of conversation and trust building that is hard to recover once lost. The second also requires a lot of conversation and skills in strategy and communication that lead to analysis grounded decisions that are not based on ego or personalities but rather sound choices.

But why and how do we get to these stalemates and breakdowns? I believe we get there because as groups and collectives we too often excitedly jump into the work, deal with ’emergencies’, respond and react to whatever social justice ‘crisis’ is happening that we forget to take a moment to see, really see, the people we are working with. We end up working with the people we know and like, sometimes even following personalities instead of strategies.

As we get busy with the work we push aside the foundational work that is essential to the health of our activism and movement. It may seem like we do not have the time to build our internal strength. Building the collective inside out means taking time to look at ourselves as a group and do the work that is relationship building, trust building, and resilience building alongside other structural functions. But my sense of it is that we feel it is not important to know each other so long as we know what is expected of us – work wise and we dissolve the minute the meeting is over. Sometimes we have the informal clique that comes together after meetings, the friends, but that clique becomes a place of contention and social politics of inclusion or exclusion depending on where you stand. Inside jokes, nicknames, informal decision-making structures, all end up causing power shifts. And because the relationships and norms are not intentionally built across the whole group, we lose some people when we come up against an edge, a tension. Break ups happen. Trust is lost. Frustrations rise. Communication falters. People walk away.  

So where do we start with foundational work? There are a lot of resources out there on collective building so I wont be adding another to the fray. But I will say this foundational work is two-fold in my opinion: it’s the relational work and the analytical work.

Relational work is about building our collective internally by having the hard and open conversations about who we are, what are our values, what are our norms and how do we be in conflict with each other and resolve breakages. A lot of times I hear the words ‘i am not here to make friends, I want to make change’. This attitude is counter productive. Social change is so personal and we actually put our bodies in the fight and so whether we want to make friends or not we have to have people who have our back in this struggle. It then becomes an issue of allieship and relationships.The best way to think about this is by looking at these questions and reflecting on them in our struggles and work and apply them to our collective work:
Who are my people, who is my community?
Who has my back as I do this work?
Who do I want to work with?
Who do I lend time and support to?

Collective work starts with the Collective. And the most important thing about collectives is being able to step away from personality cults and step into our collective work. And to do so we may need to make friends and allies and build a strong base of support, resources and commitment. 

As for the analytical work, too many times we work from a reactionary place. This may be necessary in particular instances. But we have to be aware that if we work from a reactionary place then we are not in control of the fight. This also takes away from our ability to build a long-term strategic movement of social change. A deep and thorough analysis, when done, helps steep our reactions in movement goals. It means our actions are deliberate and feed into one reservoir. Analysis takes time and so even if we want to respond to an urgent and pressing injustice we should be working in parallel to analyze and study the intersections of oppression and the opportunities of allieship and collisions, understanding our threats and building both long-term and short-term visions of how we want to grow and what we want to achieve.

The best example of a thorough analysis is The Towards Transformative Justice* booklet published  by a California based group called Generation Five. Their work is focused on Ending Child Sexual abuse. The approach they use is called Transformative Justice. Before launching into the work they spent time developing a deep and aware analysis of the situation that resulted in the publishing of this fantastic document. I would love to build similar research and analysis for various the social, political and cultural movements I am passionate about. And from there look at building strategic goals and build internally and externally our social change. This takes strong collective action. Which takes me back to building the collective. In Arabic we have a saying ‘one hand can not clap on its own’. The more hands we have clapping in unison the stronger we are. Now to find the hands we want to clap with. 

* To download the publication Toward transformative Justice go to: http://www.generationfive.org/the-issue/transformative-justice/

More on Failure

I have been struggling with a piece on the foundational work we need to do in building our groups. And it has been too long since I have posted here. And so I want to offer another perspective on failure.

 

I came across this talk a while ago and it has stuck with me. It stuck with me because it makes sense. We constantly need to examine what we are failing at when we succeed and at what cost this success comes. This was published in December last year and in it the speaker Alok Vaid-Menon talks about success and the status quo. Enjoy the poetry at the beginning and the passion in which he talks about his work and being a professional failure.

 

We are Nothing (And that is beautiful) by Alok Vaid-Menon

What does accountability look like?

If I close my eyes and ask my self “What does accountability look like?” I would see social change take on a different level of achievement. I would see activist and communities that are less fractured and more engaged. People would believe in their work and their leaders in ways that foster more growth and respect and build internal engagement and strategy more effectively. 

Accountability if present and practiced means more transparency.  And with that transparency you have engagement and encouragement. You have forgiveness and learning. But most importantly you have responsibility. With accountability comes responsibility and with responsibility comes accountability.  This causes tension within groups around power and authority. How we deal with this tension whist maintaining all the above qualities becomes the balancing act that we need to practice.

In my previous post I mentioned that accountability is a skill. If this skill were to be broken down into tangible and tenable parts it would include: communication, self reflection, critical thinking, analysis, awareness, empathy, compassion, dignity and assertiveness. These skills are interlinked like a network or web. Their intersections form the foundational structure from which accountability can emerge.  

This structure(s) and these skills would exist not in one person (even though they could exist in one person) but can be spread out within the movement or collective. The structure is also organic. It absorbs by osmosis our habits and skills as individuals and activists.They become our norms,  and so we have to be intentional in how we feed them and our structures. Formalizing these structures and making them explicit gives us all clear expectations as constituents, colleagues and leaders.    

In building accountability structures or engaging in a practice of accountability maintaing safety is key for a sucessful outcome. Creating a safe space of engagement where openess and responsibility surface shift the process dramatically. One of the best ways to hold accountability (and I’ve mentioned this before) is to ask ourselves and the persons being held accountable “for the sake of what are we dong this?” This framing radically changes our approach to accountability from finger pointing vendettas to holistic  processes that maintain the integrity of our values and the dignity of all those involved in the process and make way for safe spaces to emerge. These safe spaces allow us to see the person and create a human context.  

The one remaining question at this point is to ask ‘Who holds who accountable?’ Answering that question is part of the equation when building these structures of accountability. It is not only an issue of skills (as mentioned above) but that of mitigating power too. It becomes a place of speaking truth to power and who doesn’t need that?  

(I want to give a shout out to Shermine and Rawan for allowing me to bounce ideas with them and pick their brains as I was writing this post. Thank you)
  

 

Creating Structures of Accountability

This past month we had our last session in our learning circle on accountability. The session focused on the central idea of creating accountability structures and we looked at the different forms of accountability: accountability within the framework of responsibilities and commitments, self-accountability, and accountability towards shared values. We grounded our conversation in our experiences and situations in which there were tensions around accountability. In this post I will try to summarize some of our key learnings in each area. However, it is worth mentioning that the conversation was far from over at the end of the session we all walked away realizing that accountability offers a sea of learning and musings that we can keep coming back to time and time again depending on the perspective we choose to look at accountability from.

So let’s start with structures of accountability when it comes to responsibility and commitments. In exploring ways to honor commitments and responsibilities our first key learning was about communication. Having a frank conversation about accountability and how we want to be held accountable in a safe space is key. This conversation means that we can build our structures in ways that work for us with the understanding that the structures that are built together are more likely to succeed. In this conversation it is also important to look at power and the juxtaposition of power and accountability. Other ideas that came up were how do we distinguish between commitment, responsibility and accountability. And within that conversation I realized that to build clear structures of accountability you need to build clear structures of responsibility. If people know what is expected of them, what they are committing to and for the sake of what we are doing this work then accountability can fall inline within that framework. Finally, how we hold each other accountable will be different from person to person. We each work in different ways and respond to different approaches. Know what works for you and communicate that and ask people how they want to be held accountable. Customized approaches will more likely be successful.

Self-accountability was a bit trickier. We agreed that self-accountability is grounded in self-reflection. And in our conversation a lot of great ideas surfaced around these two concepts. The first of which is critical self reflection is essential. To help us with our reflection and accountability creating external system of reflections is key. Some of these external systems are having trusted listeners or creating support groups around issues of self-accountability. Another external system is writing and journaling that helps take the conversation out side our heads. Whichever approach we choose suspending judgment is important. In suspending judgment we can be kind with ourselves and take those critical moments of self accountability and make choices to correct, rectify or give attention and take responsibility where it is needed.

 

Finally, and perhaps the most difficult place to apply accountability is within our values systems. When I have witnessed discord around values within groups and movements it is more often than not that these values are not explicit, but assumed. Especially within the realm of social justice. But we don’t all share the same understanding and embodiment of the values we strive for. And when one of us steps away from these values or does something contradictory we have chasms that are so big that they seem insurmountable. Accountability at this point becomes a battle and people take sides, especially if the person/ group who are being held accountable are leaders within their movement. Sometimes this results in the exclusion and marginalization of one side over the other, or the taking of sides by the constituency. Chasms and sides do not serve us in our bid towards social justice and conversations about values need to be on going and explicit. So how do we create accountability structures around values? In our conversation we realized that accountability starts way before conflict. Values are practiced daily. And so to create accountability structures we need to explicitly and regularly define our movement/collective values and make sure they are not abstract ideals but livable values that we can practice and embody. We need to draw clear lines around these values and again juxtapose them with power. Power dynamics must be held up and examined against accountability structures. These conversations go hand in hand in building the framework for when transgression happens. So that they become opportunities for conversations rather than battlefields. It is also important to remember that our work is constantly challenged by external factors and changes within our communities and environments, this dictates the need for flexibility and continuity. Our awareness and practices also change over time and so a periodic review of values that goes hand in hand with strategies and goals is perhaps the best way to stay on top of things. Finally who is in our community and constituency and what are their personal values and how are they in line with our movement/collective values? This kind of engagement is one that is perhaps challenging to us as individuals and as activist, but is essential in building the foundation for social change we aspire to bring about.

 

To be in conversation with our colleagues, ourselves, our collectives and constituencies around our choices and actions and their impact is the cornerstone of accountability and the creation of our accountability structures. But accountability is not just structures it is also a set of skills that we must all acquire. Skills that allow us to critically examine ourselves, our work and our choices and allow us to acknowledge and take responsibility for our actions accordingly. Our movements can only grow with reflection and accountability. Knowing that and practicing it are two things that are worlds apart.

 

Whatever the structures and conversations I invite you to hold this question as you work on accountability “For the sake of what am I holding you, myself, us accountable?” And with this framing bring justice and safety into the equation.

 

Our Readings for the session were:
1- Think. Re-Think. Accountable Communities by Connie Burk
2- The Secret Joy of Accountability. Self-Accountability as a building block for change by Shannon Perez-Darby
3- The Tyranny of Structurelessness by Jo Freeman aka Joreen

Exploring Internal Solidification 2

In my previous post I covered three of the six areas of internal solidification: structures and leadership, strategic goal setting, and coaching and mentorship. Today I will try to expand on the other three: motivation, recruitment, and accountability. And like my previous post I will talk about what I mean by these or why they are important to me.

Motivation

What moves us and pushes us is not static. We continue to respond to internal and external factors and elements and throughout out all of that our motivations and desires shift. How do we capitalize on those forces and make them opportunities of motivation? How do we continue to grow not just from the initial spark but also beyond the frustrations, anger? Beyond the desire and the and excitement for something new? Beyond the achievement and accomplishment even? How to sustain that motivation so that the flame is steady and we are not a flash in the pan nor the heavy dense smoke of burn out?

Recruitment

Our collectives and initiatives need to grow and move from the cults of small groups to flourishing blossoming movements and for that we have to be mindful about growth and how to turn a person who may be interested in our issues into a person who is passionate about being part of that change. This takes leadership, vision and a solid goal that people can rally around to say the least. How we build this and make sure we have not only volunteers or people who show up to protests and demos but people who are willing to be organizers and leaders and help take the movement from strength to strength is something we should always be intentional about. It is not enough to build constituency, but rather an engaged and committed constituency that is not just about following but also about leading. Not just about creating ripples and changes but sustaining them and embodying them.

And finally Accountability

Accountability is such a tricky one. There is so many ways to talk about accountability and so many different types of accountability to explore. When I think of accountability the first thing that comes to mind vis a vis internal solidification is our accountability structures. How we build them, and uphold them. How we make them sustainable and really what does it mean for our movements and our activists to make accountability a priority and thus look at structures and experiment with them. Time and time again I have come across conflicts, actions and issues that boil down to accountability and they do not get resolved and become festering wounds that keep coming up and never fully heal. We need to be intentional about both creating accountability structures and building our personal and internal skills of accountability.

I know there is more to internal solidification than just these six areas. These are good places to start and I will continue to expand and dive into what does it mean to work through our movement building. Until then feel free to share with me your ideas around these concepts and how we can work towards holistic movements.