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It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love and support one another.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
In the wake of November 8th’s election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, it seems as if nothing will ever be the same again. In the summer of 2016, community organizer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown tweeted words that couldn’t be more relevant. She wrote, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.” Behind this veil, is a system, a culture that is deeply invested in upholding racialized capitalism, nationalism and misogyny.
What this election means for black and brown folks, undocumented folks, poor and working class folks, and queer and trans communities, is unprecedented. With a Trump white house and a Republican-controlled Senate and House, we can expect policy that leads to escalated police violence and incarceration for black and brown folks, increased militarization, deportations, what seems like an inevitable gutting of social services including The Affordable Care Act, an assault on the rights and safety of women of all genders and queer and trans folks in particular.
Already, white nationalists and fascists, have been emboldened by the current political climate. We see this in the rise of the alt-right, the uptick in white nationalist activity including propaganda and a surge in post-election racialized violence. This list is not exhaustive, nor is it meant to be. Heeding Brown’s words, what is important, is that we are able to fully grasp the reality of the situation we are facing. In doing so, we resist the normalization of violence that a Trump presidency calls for.
What does all of this mean for those of us on the left? First and foremost, we have our work cut out for us. The years ahead are going to ask a lot from those of us who are fighting for liberation in terms of time, energy and resources. There is so much that we have to defend and so much we have to build. The stakes are high. Given the work ahead, how do we make change sustainable?
Something I keep coming back to over and over again is how we need all of us who are committed to change to be all in with our whole selves. What I mean by this is that each of us is able to keep showing up for liberation, over the long haul. It means that we don’t have to leave parts of ourselves behind to be activists and organizers. It means that we get to show up to movement complete and imperfect and messy. Fundamentally, what this means is that our movements and our movement spaces not only work to defend what’s under assault and build towards a more liberatory future and way of organizing human social and economic activity, but also to support each other. The lyrics from the classic union song, Bread and Roses come to mind, “hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.”
In the midst of an economic and social context that is so life denying, what we truly need is a praxis (theory + practice, or a way of doing things) that moves us towards more life, allows each of us access to lend our unique gifts and talents to movement to the fullest possible extent, and allows us to be whole, complex and imperfect beings, the very things that Trump and alt-right fascists are against.
So what gets in the way of this? Short answer: the very real impacts of trauma and oppression. Now, here comes the long answer. Our movements and organizations break down and are less effective because of the ways that capitalism, white supremacy and heteropatriarchy (our social context) get internalized. This happens in locations where we experience privilege and in places where we are more targeted. Of course, we all hold a mix of locations and positionalities inside this context. In places where we experience more access, this access tends to shield us from the life denying nature of our current social and economic context, as in the case of white skin privilege.
In places where we experience more marginalization, we are left deeply affected. Interestingly enough, our nervous systems actually respond to trauma and the impacts of oppression in very similar ways. I’ll repeat that, our nervous systems can’t distinguish between trauma and oppression. This makes sense given the definition of trauma I tend to use. This definition states that trauma occurs when something is too much, too overwhelming for our nervous system to integrate. Just look at the legacy of white supremacy in this country. I don’t know what could be more overwhelming. Therefore, oppression is deeply traumatizing and undermines our very livingness.
Why is this? Privilege and oppression take away our humanity. They take away our agency. They orient us toward surviving. It is in our nature to do more than just merely survive. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? This model situates safety, belonging and dignity as being core human needs. The problem is that trauma and oppression rob us of our ability to have all three. We can have dignity and safety at the expense of belonging. Or we can have belonging and safety at the expense of dignity. So, what we’re left with is survival strategies that are fragmented. They don’t let us be whole.
Most importantly, they don’t quite get us to who, how and what we want to be. In movement, this looks like burnout and exhaustion, shit talking and call-out culture, splits and factions, endless meetings, low investment, dogma and rigidity around ideas, exclusionary culture, unchecked power dynamics, centralized leadership and lack of leadership development, lack of strategy and vision, cultures of overwork and martyrdom, and overt violence and abuse. That’s just a starting point. What have you seen in movement spaces that just doesn’t work? This begs the question, how free can we get as a people, when this is how our movement spaces often look? Can we carry out a revolutionary political vision and strategy from this place?
We can shift these impacts by centering healing justice in our work. This means holding and enacting a trauma analysis for movement and building concrete skills together that interrupt these breakdowns. I offer up a starting place below.
1. Building cultures of care
If cultures of care were present in our movements, three things would be true. First, everyone who wants to be involved would have a place and a role within movement. Cultures of care foster belonging.They foster getting lots of things done with a spirit of collaboration. It is no secret that our movements have a problem with capacity. Part of this is socialization. We are socialized into a context where we expect lack or not enoughness. This is because for many of us, this is our material reality. However, in this case, a bigger issue is that we underutilize the capacity we have. How many times have you been to a meeting where you were unsure of your place? How cared for did you feel? What happened to your dignity as a result? Did you want to come back? When we foster cultures of care, we decide on what roles are needed to do the task at hand well, we choose and assign roles and adjust accordingly. Structure and determined roles are a profound form of care that fosters agency, ownership over our projects, engagement over the long haul, teamwork and collaboration, and belonging.
Second, leadership would be more shared and decentralized. Skills and skill-sharing would be commonplace. Furthermore, division of labor would be more balanced in general to account for power and privilege as well as skills/talent and ability. Following from what was said above, cultures of care are collaborative and have a high degree of trust among members. Leadership is respected and distributed according to skills, recognizing that everyone has something to offer. Active discussions and perhaps even formal structure around sharing power across race, class, and gender lines would be commonplace. People would feel empowered to make decisions, to act and to forward the group’s vision. When power is shared, when skills are developed, we are enacting care by recognizing and fostering the unique gifts we each possess. Furthermore, cultures of care acknowledge that we are stronger together and that our collective skills amplify and build on one another.
Lastly, folks would have access to movement spaces and movement work. Folks would have the support to actually show up and put in work towards liberation.This looks like lots of things. It looks like accessible spaces. It looks like having nourishing food at meetings and events. It looks like language that is relatable. It looks like childcare. It looks like organizing in such a way as to provide multiple levels of time commitment. It looks like a shared value around time put in not equating to level of commitment. It looks like language interpretation being present. It looks like meeting frequency and lengths being scaled to the scope of the project at hand. It looks like decision making structures that don’t result in hours of process. It looks like room enough for messiness, for imperfection, and for emotions. It looks like people showing up to a meeting after having a bad day and knowing they don’t need to put that part of themselves away in that space, that the whole of who they are is recognized and seen. It looks like supporting each other financially to be part of movement work. It looks like people other than non-cis men, folks of color and queer and trans folks bearing more of this caring labor.
2. Fostering resilience
Resilience is the ability to recover from the impacts of trauma and oppression. When we are able to access resilience we are left feeling alive. We often feel more present, more connected to ourselves, each other and the world at large, and more open to possibility and the unknown.
Just as we have survival strategies that lead us to harmful and difficult movement dynamics, we also have more resilient ways of responding to our social context. There are more conditioned or habitual ways of surviving and there are resilient ways we have survived. Connecting to, fostering, and growing our sense of resilience both individually and collectively is one of the most powerful ways that we can support each other and healthy movements. I like to think of resilience as a vegetable garden. It’s something that we can tend to, we can cultivate it, we can watch it grow. We can play around with it to make sure the conditions are just right to ensure this growth stays on track. Just as we grow many types of vegetables in a garden, there are so many places to source resilience. Resilience can be called on in times of need, just as we harvest vegetables for our dinner when we’re hungry.
Sources of resilience are anything that brings us closer to life and makes us feel more alive and connected to ourselves, others and the world. It could be spending time with a favorite animal or pet. It could look like talking to a good friend or your grandma. It could look like going for a walk in your favorite park. It could look like visiting the ocean. It could look like baking a cake and decorating it beautifully. It could look like art. Collective resilience looks like dance, art, singing, laughing, crying, hugging, taking care of one another.
Imagine a group you’re a part of. What would it be like if you started and ended each meeting by generating resilience together through sharing your own individual resilience into the group or by singing, chanting, or dancing together? What would be more possible?
3. Orienting towards accountability and healthy conflict
Kai Cheng Thom writes, “What if revolution is, in addition to – not instead of – direct action and community organizing, the process of rupture and repair that happens when we fuck up and hold each other accountable and forgive?” Here, Kai asks us to acknowledge the simple fact that we are going to mess up because we are human and wholly fallible.
What is so common in so many of our movements is the myth of infallibility and the myth of homogeneity. In working towards liberation, so many of us adopt an “us vs. them” mentality. We’re fighting AGAINST police violence. We’re fighting AGAINT deportation. We’re fighting AGAINST criminalization of sex work. You get the point. All these are good and incredibly necessary fights. What this does is really set us up in a dynamic where those of us on the against side, are seen as the good guys and those that we’re fighting are bad. In a lot of ways, this is a smart move given our conditions and what we’re up against. The passion that’s present in struggle that’s oriented this way can be contagious, moving and powerful. What gets left out is much room to articulate what we’re actually for and more importantly, there ends up not being much room for nuance. We get stuck in a false dichotomy. We start to get very protective of our ideological line, because what this mentality means is that you’re either in or you’re out. You’re either on the side of liberation, or you’re on the side of oppression. Call-out culture is a great example of this mentality in action. Have you been part of a meeting or a space like this? What gets cut off in the way of dignity and belonging in movement spaces where this is the norm?
When we orient towards accountability and healthy conflict we start from a place of fallibility and pluralism. In other words, we acknowledge that it’s not IF we will fuck up, but WHEN. We make room for more than right or wrong, us vs. them. When we orient in this way, we hold complexity at the center. What happens out of this is genuine learning. We get to be a part of a rich, full and depthful exchange of ideas. Imagine what’s possible in terms of visioning and strategizing when we come from this place instead.
What if we stopped individualizing harm? What if we understood that like everything else, harm is contextual and is mitigated by the conditions we live inside of? What if we understood that harm doesn’t just happen between two people or a small group of people, but there are conditions that exist that actually allowed for that harm to occur? What if we acknowledged the gendered and other violence that happens inside of movement and had powerful, well executed ways of addressing it? I can imagine that our movement and organizational cultures would look much different than they currently do.
In all of this, we must remember that we forward a trauma analysis for movement to fundamentally shift the alienation, the lack of dignity, the lack of safety that our material conditions/social context foster. In other words, we can’t stop and we won’t stop at building cultures of care, fostering resilience and learning new ways of doing conflict and finding accountability. We must fundamentally shift the terrain we are on to realize the full potential for our freedom. Gwendolyn Brooks puts it best when she writes, “Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” Here’s to all of our blooming, individually and collectively. All of us. All in.
Brooke Stepp is a somatic therapist, bodyworker, and human being trying to carve out more and more space for liberation, calm, and connection in the midst of the whirlwind that is life.