I will learn with you.
An invitation to The Resistance.
Wednesday Words, Week 4, Originally published February 1 2017.
Eight years ago today I was a student in SFU’s Semester in Dialogue program. If you’re a friend of mine, you know that I credit this program with changing my life. That’s not hyperbole. There’s just no other way to put it. Not only was it personally transformative, but it kickstarted a career I couldn’t have imagined for myself working on projects I care deeply about with people I care deeply about.
There is one moment from that semester I’ve been coming back to again and again in recent weeks. Our class was debriefing a dialogue we had hosted earlier that day when the topic wove around to something political. I don’t remember exactly what. The director of the program and our two professors were in the room with us. In that moment 22 people I intensely admired were present.
I took a turn to speak and was quite upset about whatever-it-was and said something to the effect of ‘why won’t the government do something about this?’
Before I could finish the sentence, a woman in the class looked at me and sharply said,
“What are YOU doing about it?”
I wanted the floor to open. I felt like she had slapped me. And in front of all of these people!
I wrote about the exchange that week in the learning reflections we submitted to our professors. I wrote about how it had forced me into some really uncomfortable self-examination. The truth was I wasn’t doing anything about it (whatever-it-was). But I needed to. The next week when I got the reflection back from my professor, it came with a note that said “Have you thanked her?”
By that time, I had already reached out to one of my new friends in the cohort who was working on the provincial electoral reform referendum*. He had been asking us to get involved and so I went to him and said “I’ll do it. Sign me up. Whatever you need, I’ll do it.”
And so he put me to work. He connected me to a field organizer in my neighbourhood and I started door knocking.
I had no experience door knocking or organizing or being part of any kind of politicized action prior to this. I’d always paid attention and was not short on (righteous?) opinions, but door knocking? Who did that?
Buoyed by my newly-sparked sense of personal responsibility to act; the desire to belong in this new community of remarkable humans that were my dialogue classmates (the majority of whom were politically and socially active in some way); and values that made me want to see positive progress in society, I continued on undeterred. But it wasn’t easy. Door knocking in a ‘nice middle class suburban neighbourhood’ turned out to be a little horrifying. It wasn’t the slammed doors that made it that way though, it was the pronounced prejudices that were the hardest to take.
I would show up to people’s homes to talk electoral systems and before I knew it, I was listening to rants on how “they” (in this case, usually meaning South Asian immigrants) were taking over politics. No change in the voting system would fix that, I was repeatedly told. I can still remember one woman calling her husband into the conversation from a different part of the house so they both could get in on it.
I had no tools at that time to respond to their words. I mostly stood there politely and uncomfortably listening, trying desperately to find ways to steer back around to the most-difficult-to-explain-voting-system-ever. Those interactions — and what I wish I had been able to say — still linger with me.
So does the one that catalyzed the door knocking in the first place. I think of Miriam often and the gift she gave me by calling me out so directly. With my ego in protest, and on my professor’s recommendation, I did thank her a few weeks after my canvassing experience. Maybe I would have gotten here without those two, but some days I’m not so sure.
Fast forward to today. That door knocking was the beginning of a way of being. I find myself in a beautiful community of smart, politically savvy, socially engaged, extra-large-hearted humans. Eight years in, my dialogue friends are now my best friends. One of the biggest things that continues to bind us and the larger networks we share, is a common sense of social mission. The world is going to hell in a handbasket, and damnit if we will sit idly by and watch that happen. Or so seems to be etched an unspoken creed on the invisible passports that grant us all entry to these circles we travel in.
As beautiful as this community and its broad, shared pursuits are though, it exists in a bubble. In this bubble, we have our own language and shared worldview. I now know what phrases like White Privilege, White Guilt and White Tears mean. I know I have a responsibility to Do My Work, and what that responsibility entails. I now have some of the tools I wish I had had years ago when I as door knocking. I understand what colonialism and white supremacy are, their legacy, and how they both still benefit me today. I take for granted that I can speak in Theories of Change and use phrases like ‘heteronormative cis gendered people’ or tag a post with #smashthepatriarchy and most people I know will know what I mean; they will know I’m not inciting violence and hatred against men, but am instead protesting a social structure that harms women, transgendered, non-cis gendered folk and men alike. They will know what the fuck a social structure is.
This brings me to the reasons why I’m telling you these stories.
Last week scientists moved the doomsday clock forward. If you’re not familiar with what that is, it’s an indicator of how likely we are to find ourselves in the midst of global catastrophe. It hasn’t been in this position since the height of the cold war in 1953.
It is not hyperbole or alarmist to say we are living through a very, very dangerous moment. Some folks have known this for a really long time. Some are just becoming aware of it.
We are not isolated from this moment living in Canada. We are part of it, as we so devastatingly experienced Sunday night. We cannot turn away and we cannot sit idly behind our computer screens angrily, furiously, churning out our next outraged status update.
This is a moment that calls for all hands on the proverbial deck. And here’s the thing about those hands: some of them are inexperienced AF. You can bet a whole bunch of them don’t know how to tie a bowline knot or what the right name for the lifeboats are. A lot of them are scared. Many are intimidated and insecure about doing it wrong. A bunch of them don’t want to be there. A whole bunch more don’t even know there is a ship in the harbour they need to get on.
Before I loose the thread on that metaphor (analogy?), let me try again and speak plainly: Because this is an extreme time, people are going to be called to action who have never taken part before. They won’t have a strong analysis. They will make mistakes. Their knots will slip and unravel. Their prejudices will show. Shit, mine still show all the time and I’ve been actively trying unlearn them for almost a decade. I make mistakes all the fucking time. These systems live deep inside of us. Social consciousness and political awareness exist on a developmental continuum, and it takes years and years of immersion, practice and education to move on that spectrum. Hell, half of what I’m saying probably doesn’t make sense to half of the people reading this, and it is not because I am so fucking smart. It is because there is an informal schooling that takes place inside progressive movements that got me to this place. And I’ve still got lots and lots to learn. We need to enroll more people into that school; I want more people here learning with me. Trump is not our only issue, in fact they seem to be piling up more rapidly by the day (see: “Justin Trudeau“ and “Electoral Reform” for a less dangerous but pertinent example)
Because of this, I am going to argue this is a really important moment to practice calling in.
If you have relative privilege, a store of resiliency and the capacity to bring new people into this work in a supportive way, please do it. I’m not saying ignore, excuse or apologize for racism or sexism or ableism or any other unacceptable behaviour you may encounter. But I am saying let’s dig deep and be mindful of how we handle it when we do encounter it. Especially and in particular if it is someone who is trying to figure out how to show up. And, I’m largely talking to my friends of similar intersections and privilege here: let’s be mindful of how long it took us to get to the level of understanding and engagement we are at. It is in itself a form of privilege and it comes with a responsibility; let’s extend some generosity to the people around us who are cautiously taking their first steps.
So, to anyone reading this who is ready to answer the question, ‘what are YOU doing about it?’, but equally has no fucking idea how, think of this as my hand outstretched to you. I will learn with you. I will doorknock with you. I will go to your first rally with you. I will help you write a letter to your MP. I will sit with you and figure out what action looks like for you, because it might not be any of these things. I will meet you where you are at. I won’t do your work for you, but I will stand beside you as you do it.
Will you do it with me? I really hope you will because shit is dire right now and we really need you.
All hands on deck. Let’s go.
(*In some strange coincidence I wrote this draft before the announcement today re: federal electoral reform. Jesus.)