Stop asking “what can I do?” Ask this instead.

Since Trump got elected, there’s been an awakening among mainstream liberals that our country may be, to put it nicely, f*cked. “Oh my god, this is real! It’s really happening, like in reality!” And inevitably: “What can I do?”

March with millions! Take an action every day! Target swing congressional districts! I’ve never seen it like this before. Even during the protests in the runup to the Iraq war, it didn’t feel this personal. The energy is wonderful. It’s also overwhelming, because suddenly millions more people have realized that oppression is not abstract. It’s in their face, feeling like a matter of perhaps literal life and death.

I’d like to encourage us all to stop asking “what do I do?” because this is not simply a matter of fitting the right political tactic to the problem at hand. We are living with the abusive reality of racism, sexism, jingoism, homophobia and transphobia unmasked, no longer bothering with the charade of polite company. We are aching with the hangover of the early 2000’s consumerist binge and real estate purge that have decimated working class net worth. We are watching homes wash away as the big storms get scarier, whipped up by a climate in crisis. Yeah, it’s gonna take some work.

Absolutely, call your congressman. Go to those town hall meetings. Vote. It’s your civic duty. Just don’t confuse that with the scale of long-term effort required to Make. Real. Change. (Conservatives regularly trace their rise to Goldwater in ‘64). These things are more like eating healthy. Call it democratic hygiene.

Where does that question come from, anyways? What assumptions must you have to look at a Problem Like Donald and say “well, what can I do?” instead of wondering how your life must now change. I think you must be used to having your opinion matter. Used to being able to make your voice heard. Or at least used to having someone (who you get a lot of emails from) make it really easy for you to “click here to act now!” Part of what is so terrifying about this moment is that those avenues for agency seem to be choking shut.

So rather than ask “what do I do?”, we should ask “with whom am I in relationship?” You figure out which action to take by paying attention to who’s doing the asking. This is not just semantics. Everything from your Facebook feed to your charitable donations flows from who you are comfortable with, who you listen to, and who’s in your social network. Who you trust. What we need is more of us to have the courage to shift who we hear/see/know/understand/trust/love, and to allow the power of that relationship to change the way we live each day.

If you have time, or money, or influence, or any kind of political power, you can use it to shine a light on the voices from the shadows. Show up for the End Police Brutality demonstration. Accompany undocumented folks to their ICE check-in. Honor Transgender Day of Remembrance. My church has a relationship with the Islamic center in our area, and we gave them a call after the election just to let them know they are in our prayers. I pray our Muslim neighbors believe we will show up when (not if) they are targeted by Islamophobic bigotry.

Find who, in your community or your network, is getting the fuzziest end of the lollipop in this era of unabashed white supremacist nationalism and chauvinism. If that’s you, you’re probably already looking for friends in the struggle. Or at least I hope you are, because there are so many ready to join you. If it’s not you, look for a chance to show up for those who are enduring intense pain right now. Then show up the next time. Get to know them. When you build that relationship, there might come a day when you have the chance to do some real good or work together for some real change. You will have enough trust to be asked to show up when it counts.

It takes trust to be asked to show up, to have the chance to do something that matters, because it may not be an easy thing to do. Risking reputations. Chancing violent reactions. Putting a lot on the line. When we invest in a relationship with people who are suffering, it means we are allowing ourselves to be transformed by our recognition of their humanity. We will not be able to accept their suffering when we see them as kin. We will see how our role in the system of injustice denies us our humanity too, and we will understand that our liberation is bound up together. When we talk about the power of love, that’s what we mean.

I was in college when the 2005 Kashmir earthquake killed tens of thousands in Pakistan and displaced millions more. My academic advisor, who was Pakistani, had family in the remote tribal areas where the earthquake hit hardest. He and his wife worked tirelessly to help coordinate humanitarian aid in its wake — often at night, given the time difference. They put together an open-source website for NGOs to register what they had given to whom, since some of the mountain villages were so small they weren’t listed on maps. He gave a lunch talk about this work while it was still going on, and at the end a student raised their hand to say “This was so eye-opening! What can I do to help?” My professor’s response seared itself into my memory because it was so unexpected and profound. He said, not without a note of annoyance at collegiate entitlement, “oh gosh, I can’t tell you that! That’s for you to figure out. I did whatever I could based on what and who I knew. If you care, you need to go find your place to be useful.”

We can’t wait around for someone to organize us. We all have to earn our place in the resistance, and it starts with our relationships.

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