Friday, February 3, 2017

The bravery of community organizing

I can't recall a time in my life where I was calm, quiet, patient when witnessing and experiencing hatred, oppression, and pain. I am, and always have been, an instigator, agitator, and rebel-rouser. Given where we are at today (politically, socially...) I am actually surprised at how quiet I have been. 

Last semester, I taught a class on youth organizing. I assigned vignettes from the text Rebel Girls and asked the students to visually draw the girl's toolbox. In a Master's level social work class, at first I got confused looks - I was asking them to draw; to literally color with crayons. It took a few minutes to get going, but then they didn't want to stop! After about  15 minutes, we regrouped. Each group shared what they drew and explained why - bright eyes symbolizing passion, clasped hands for camaraderie, hearts representing kindness, prison bars demonstrating protest. 

"Would you like a heart? We're handing out kindness today."
I asked what was similar between each of the vignettes - "courage and willingness to engage in a cause that the girls identified with and felt passionate about". Then I asked, what makes their tool box different than yours? 


"What do you mean?" I asked. "Well, they were willing to talk to strangers, to take time away from studies and work, to even risk being arrested! I'm not." 

Bravery they all agreed. 

These students ARE passionate, compassionate, dedicated, creative, and in my opinion, brave. They are macro practice social work students. They are learning how to organize their community to create sustainable change for the better. 

The difference I see - we are on information overload. We have so many, too many, causes to care about all at once. Too much to do every minute or every day. How are they/we supposed to choose between Black Lives Matter, North Dakota Access Pipe Line, reproductive rights, LGBT equality, community-police relations, our overarching political system...? We have not decided how to bring our causes together - so yes, I argue that it is a choice. Furthermore, when we "choose" one cause to support, there is an implicit and explicit tension about "neglecting" everyone and everything else. And, in this case (and including myself), we are students. We have reading, papers, assignments, and lectures to attend and be present for. Very often, there is also a job to add into the equation.

Couple this with the inundation from facebook, email alerts, Instagram, blog posts (yes, I know), and there is just too much information to digest. The girls in the text that I assigned did not have this level of information to contend with - this is a first in history. Case in point - we had the Women's March**, rather than continuing that conversation, we are on to protests at the airports. It is not wrong to do so, but we are running too fast and too hard at every cause that burnout and compassion fatigue are inevitable. 

Women's March in Cleveland 
To further this potentially contentious concoction of time-management gone awry, institutions and employers are quick, if not also explicit, about avoiding political engagement - yes, sadly this includes many schools of social work programs* too. These guidelines for what engagement should and may entail often leaves activists one step behind. Let's be very clear, this is not an "opt-out" for lack of engagement. Rather, I am offering a space for a very real conversation: 
Where is the balance? Can social causes be conjoined to create social movements (again)?
Can social causes be conjoined to create social movements (again)?

I have come to realize that this is why I have been more quiet than usual. I am at a loss for how to engage.  The students were right too - the risk of getting arrested is lofty. I had to think and consider the ramifications if I did get arrested at the Women's March. It was more than a fleeting thought... I went, but that does not make me brave. As a community organizer and an educator of community organizing, it is incredibly important to state this in an open access platform. The models of organizing that I was taught do not account for our level of hyper activity. So I am quiet because as I engage in my community** I am thinking, I am challenging the system that taught me how to instigate, agitate, and rebel-rouse others. I refuse to burnout, I refuse to fatigue. I am brave and so are you.  

*Over the past two weeks, multiple schools of social work have come forward expressing their option again the political administration, and specifically the ban. However, as I argued to the NASW-Ohio chapter, this should have been an issue taken on months BEFORE the election.  The president's platform has not changed. If the schools were waiting for NASW's queue to stand against the then candidate, then changes must be with our representing organization AND schools (more to come on that). NASW has since made it clear that words and actions are against our Code of Ethics (specifically 6.05), then they were nearly six months ago as well. We missed an opportunity to stop injustice and oppression. 

**Actively thinking about how to engage is not synonymous with note engaging. 

In front of Cleveland City Hall

Marching through downtown Cleveland 

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