I recently went to leadership training for community organizers, and it was an intense and eye-opening experience. Before this, I have been attending meeting after monthly meeting on important issues such as community policing and ban the box. I’ve heard stories from impacted folks and felt that I had a vested interest. But I was unclear as to why I was there. It’s one thing to intellectually know that there’s injustice and systemic racism that needs to be dismantled, but you can still feel unsure as to what that oppression means to you personally. Especially as a privileged white person who has not experienced these systems first-hand.
Until you can feel your reason for doing the work in your very bones, you are a spectator. You have the luxury to walk away when it gets uncomfortable. And it always does. My lack of clarity manifested in the work I did. I was not as invested as what this work requires. When it gets hard, can you (or have you) backed out? Gone back to your life? I thought I was invested, but I wasn’t willing to take risks to make big things happen. I was waiting for someone else to follow, to navigate challenging the structural powers that marginalize others. Like there was some sort of injustice handbook I was waiting to be given.
I’ve learned as I go deep into my own wounds and stories to uncover my own why– that folks ought to feel safe speaking out against abuse, and that our community needs to build the power to hold those who abuse theirs accountable. That my own personal trauma and violence has me knowing exactly what justice denied looks and feels like. That those who we depend on to do the right thing carry their own biases with them.
I also observed, both in others and in myself, behaviors that prevent us from getting the work done in our communities. There were some that would sit back while others made decisions, others tried their hardest to not make anyone uncomfortable, others would get shouted down and silenced, and we all struggled with needing permission to lead and do what needed to be done. We do not need permission to disrupt the oppressive status quo. We will never get it. If our actions uphold the goal of making everyone comfortable we cannot grow as an organization and people’s lives are at stake when we don’t live our values.
I personally have an intolerance to feeling uncomfortable. I tend to shut down emotionally or avoid the situation. But I cannot be the leader I need to be without that willingness to sit in discomfort, especially with and for the people who are currently being affected by a broken criminal justice system. Being a leader and organizer requires us to look at our behavior, our own biases, and our stories to bring others together.
The most vital impression I have taken, one I’m still unravelling, is the concept of not asking for permission from others. We are trained in school and employment to wait for others to lay out what needs to happen, but in so many ways that thinking is flawed and biased. It diminishes our sense of personal power, something systemic and oppressive forces rely on to keep things the way they are. It tells us we can impact others, but it must be within someone else’s established parameters. I’m no longer satisfied with this, both on a personal or community level. I will not live life or challenge injustice on the terms of those that fear radical change, that thrive on convention and “that’s just how we’ve always done things.”
Justice and anti-oppression work is rooted in challenging oneself as you challenge others. It requires us to question long-held beliefs and how they’re manifested both on the macro and micro level. Even when we feel uncomfortable, it’s important to dig in and seek to understand how we can discover our fuel to keep going despite difficulty and stay in the game. Because people need us to lead. Their very lives depend on it. And we need to accept that responsibility for what it is.