Dear Everyone Who’s Hurting: Please Stop Shutting Down People Who Are Trying To Help

Cianna P. Stewart
Nov 14, 2016 · 6 min read

Since the election in my immediate circle:

— Someone saying they were going to a protest was angrily dismissed by a coworker who said that protests don’t make real change

— Someone about to be interviewed on TV by a female reporter of color because he was holding a sign “Californians Still Believe in Love” got yelled at by a passer-by who said he shouldn’t be in the spotlight because he’s a white man

— People who started wearing safety pins to show they are allies are questioning themselves after reading an article scolding them

— A woman I know who made a card and had it signed by neighbors of a local mosque to show support is fearful of posting anywhere publicly about it because she expects negative comments about “not doing enough” or that her simple generous act was “meaningless”

— Lots of people on Facebook are posting the equivalent of “I told you so”

Look. I know we’re all hurting. And when the world is confusing and we’re feeling lost getting righteous and angry becomes a feel-good release. But shutting people down who are trying to help is not good. It is not helpful. It’s not how we build a movement.

We need all the people to do all the things. Period.

When an anti-gay hate crime was perpetrated on my college campus in the mid-80s, it really mattered that a lot of people put pink triangles in their windows to show solidarity with the frightened LGBT community. It projected a sense of safety and a community of allies that had previously been invisible. Yes, there was still more to do but it helped to feel like we weren’t alone in our belief that homophobia was wrong.

In the early 90s, the red ribbon was promoted as a way to show solidarity with the AIDS community. As quoted in CNN’s retrospective on that symbol, Patrick O’Connell said:

“People want to say something, not necessarily with anger and confrontation all the time. This allows them. And even if it is only an easy first step, that’s great with me. It won’t be their last.”

I know the red ribbon alone didn’t change policy or feed people or create a cure. We also had ACT-UP, and researchers, and public advocates, and legislators, and doctors, and writers, and social workers, and artists, and and and… so many people doing so many things — because it was a complex issue that needed everyone doing all the things.

To achieve a fundamental shift in civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr. led boycotts, organized rallies, encouraged non-violent protests AND met with politicians working on civil rights legislation. He knew it was important to do ALL the things. And he knew that no one could do it alone.

The history of labor organizing is filled with people striking, meeting, organizing, writing, speech-making, legislating. All the things.

Importantly, that movement was founded on solidarity, that each should look out for the rights of all. This sentiment shows up in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the founding documents of the United States, the Bible, the Koran, the writings of Buddha, and pretty much every social change movement ever.

This sense of mutuality and common good has been eroding here in the U.S. We lack empathy and that may be our ultimate undoing. It may also be contributing to our paradoxical behavior rejecting people as “wrong” in the fight for the acceptance of all.

We need all the people doing all the things. And none of this is going to be easy.

When we talk about ending discrimination and hatred, about achieving human rights for all, we are talking about a culture change that has never been achieved anywhere on earth because humans always create hierarchies. We are talking about dismantling infrastructure. We are talking about an ecosystem in which certain parts thrive by stoking hatred of differences, feelings of resentment, and a focus on the individual over community.

What we are talking about is not simple. Taking this on will never be easy or straightforward. Most of the time it won’t even seem like anything is changing. It’s bigger than any individual and the fight will make us feel small.

In order to achieve progress of this complexity, we are going to need everyone doing all the things. And each of us is going to have to start somewhere and then build on that.

For some people, wearing a safety pin is the first time they’re willing to take a public stand. I applaud them for taking this step. And I invite them to consider it more than a symbol. It’s a pledge. A pledge that not only are they declaring themselves allies, that they are willing to actually step in when they witness violence, discrimination, or bullying. It’s a pledge that they are willing to risk their own sense of safety in order to ensure that another person feels safe. Without taking action, the symbol loses its meaning.

And of course it doesn’t end there.

We need people to run for office, and to fix the political system. We need people to write. We need people to rally in the streets. We need people to change legislation. We need people to make art. We need activists. We need music. We need loving homes. We need bicyclists. We need therapists. We need teachers. We need everyday workers working every day. We need funny plays and well-researched papers and handmade signs and sophisticated social-change campaigns. We need people to create discrimination-free workplaces and shops and meeting halls and schools and places of worship and parks and streets. We need all this and more. We need all the things.

And when someone is trying to help in a way that is unhelpful, we need to share our perspectives in a manner that encourages them to keep trying while expanding their understanding of the issues and of the complexities. And we need to have empathy and understanding while we do this. We need to remember that they are coming from a place of trying to help.

We need to stop shutting allies down.

And even if we do all this, it is not enough.

More than anything we need to be willing to learn, to ask questions, and to listen. We need to challenge ourselves, to dig deep, and to be willing to sit with discomfort.

None of us knows everything. No one is doing everything right. Everyone has a lot to learn. And to offer.

Start with asking yourself:

— “How did I contribute to this outcome?”

I’m not seeing this critical question asked often enough. The answers may induce guilt or pride or confusion or… who knows? Ask it openly and honestly and be ready to dig deep.

Questions that should follow it:

— “What assumptions did I (do I) have?”

— “What do I need to learn to change that?”

— “What if I had not done that?”

— “How else could I respond?”

— “What am I willing to do now?”

And:

— “What am I willing to do in the future?”

I don’t yet have my own answers to these questions because answering them properly takes time and effort. My brain is churning. I re-watched “Requiem for the American Dream.” I went back over “A More Beautiful Question” and “Difficult Conversations.” I finally started reading “Rising Strong.” I’m thinking about Between the World and Me, and Harvey Milk, and Erasing Hate, and Bowling Alone, and Nelson Mandela, and Alice Walker, and Susan B. Anthony, and Hillbilly Elegy, and The Politics of Resentment, and The Last Truck, and The Big Short, and Enron, and Citizenfour, and Why We Fight, and Nudge.

My list is long and I expect it will never end. And once I have read/listened/watched all the things, it is still not enough.

Brene Brown quotes Theodore Roosevelt and it’s quite relevant this week (and always):

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood”

It’s time to step back into the arena, and I welcome everyone to join me in whatever way they can.

#getdusty #allthepeopleallthethings

Cianna P. Stewart

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Cianna is the author of “No Complaints: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Joy,” and the founder of the No Complaining Project www.gonoco.com