Anger, Activism, and How to Stay Outraged Yet Remain Sane: A Conversation with Charlene Carruthers

“Find your people. No one can do this alone.”

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This is from Anxy’s February 28th newsletter. Sign up now and never miss a story. We’ll email you every two weeks.

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Dear Anxy Friends,

In the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the lawyer and activist Mirah Curzer published a blog post titled How To #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind, providing “self-care lessons for the resistance.” These included getting away from the news once in a while, focusing your efforts, making activism enjoyable, and, well, basic self-care.

This made us curious about the ways anger can both help and hinder activism, so we decided to ask one expert about it. At 31, Charlene Carruthers can already be considered a veteran activist. The black, queer, feminist community organizer got involved in activism as a first-year student and went on to earn a Master’s degree in social work. After stints at Color of Change and Women’s Media Center, Charlene became the National Director of the Black Youth Project 100, which aims to end the criminalization of black youth by training black teens to be future activists and leaders.

“I don’t organize through anger alone.”

The first month of the Trump presidency has caused a lot of anger and anxiety in many of us. How have you been dealing with it?
I remember how I felt the night of the election and how I felt the next morning. It was a feeling of numbness, of heaviness, of the weight of the work that we have before us and what will be required of us. I have been working through it by community organizing. This is the thing that’s keeping me alive. Also, spending time writing and digging deep into why I committed to doing this work in the first place. Taking that time has been crucial for me.

Would you consider yourself angry?
I would consider myself someone who carries around a healthy amount of black rage — as a result of centuries of violence that my people have experienced on this land and around the world.

Both from a personal and a more universal perspective, do you think anger is central to activism?
The way I was taught about organizing was that there’s a certain level of angst that we can help people identify, which is a part of anger. We can help people use this as a part of what fuels them to do the work, to really tap into it. Not angst or anger for anger’s sake, but how do we transform that energy into something that builds? Something that transforms people’s lives?

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“It is in us discerning what we’re fighting for that we’re actually able to imagine what’s possible and create new realities for ourselves and for our people.”

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How do you do that, transform anger into action?
It’s about taking the time to find out what moves somebody, where their angst lies, and then discerning where those connections are, where we can work together. That’s one part of it. But I don’t organize through anger alone. The role of love and compassion is just as important. We live in a world where we’re taught that, as black people, as queer people, as women, we’re not only not deserving of love but also that we don’t even have the capacity for it. That’s how we’re taught. So for me, anger and love and compassion go hand in hand.

Was anger, or outrage, instrumental to the founding of BYP100?
It’s connected to it, for sure. People had a range of feelings; rage and anger were part of the motivating factors. It was anger about the system reiterating and fortifying the policies and the practices of the oppressive state.

In her Medium piece, Mirah Curzer talks about the importance of making activism fun. She says it’s crucial to enjoy what you do, even if you’re motivated by anger. Do you agree?
I think it’s not always fun. One thing we do with our work is foster black joy. How do you get people to continue to show up if everything you do is done without joy? We look at the black tradition, it’s one that is absolutely about black joy and black resilience through music, through art, through food, through dance. That’s a part of the work. For cultural workers, that is an important piece of black liberation organizing. We don’t just come to meetings. There has to be depth and flavor to the work that we do in order for it to reach black people.

In the face of the structural oppression you deal with everyday, do you ever find yourself subsumed by anger? Does it ever get to be too much?
No.

Do you think that’s simply because of the way you are?
I am who I am. I have never operated in just one way. Humanity means that we can exist with multiple emotions at the same time. There’s never just one thing that drives me. If anything, that’s love. Love for myself, for my people, and for where I come from. That allows me to do what I do.

If people are driven to activism by anger, what do they have to look out for to stay sane?
Hold on to your anger. And look at the things you’re fighting for, not just the things you’re fighting against. It is in us discerning what we’re fighting for that we’re actually able to imagine what’s possible and create new realities for ourselves and for our people.

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“Because everything seems to be going to hell, this is a time where we can think really big. We have everything to gain.”

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Do you have any everyday rules for yourself, like limiting news consumption or taking social media breaks?
I have selective use of social media. There’ve been times when I’ve completely left it because it’s been overwhelming. I don’t engage with trolls or people who harass or threaten me or our organization. And I really try to curate the people I follow and engage with in a way that allows for healthy dialogue. Also, I meditate.

Outrage over Trump, his administration, and his policies is driving many people to activism who weren’t previously involved. What would be your advice for them?

My advice is to find your people. No one can do this alone. No lone wolf can do successful work — work that’s sustainable and meaningful and that lives beyond one individual. Really dive into the question: how do we create a world where safety exists outside of law and order? What is required of us in this moment is to think differently and see the opportunities ahead. Because everything seems to be going to hell, this is a time where we can think really big. We have everything to gain.

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The Anxy Reading List: Stories about anger, activism, and how to choose what to care about.

Welcome to the age of anger by Pankaj Mishra (Guardian)

Mishra traces the historical decline of what he considers the myth of liberal rationalism and calls for a new understanding of the human soul that goes beyond “the religion of technology and GDP and the crude 19th-century calculus of self-interest.”

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“We Have To Resist:” A Conversation with Rebecca Solnit by Cody Delistraty (Longreads)

Solnit, a renowned journalist and activist and one of our idols, talks about the difference between hope and optimism, and the dangers of activism without a plan.

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The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson

The headline of this piece is misleading: Manson doesn’t actually suggest you should stop caring. Rather, he argues, you should care only about the things worth caring about.

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Flip Yr Sh!t! by Love+Radio

Funny, outrageous, sad, and very personal short stories about anger from one of our favorite podcasts.

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The Ballad of Rocky Rontal by Daniel Alarcón (California Sunday Magazine)

A story about anger, struggle, fear, violence — and forgiveness.