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.
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.