American Grief — Activism, Trauma, Relationship and Healing
Trying to summarise what I’ve learnt from the first 2 weeks of our 10-week tour of the US, I made a comment about the shock and grief I’d noticed amongst progressive Americans. I was quickly corrected by Imhotep Adisa, one of the African American elders hosting us at the Kheprw Institute in Indianapolis. He told me, ‘Yes, progressive Whites are in shock, but for Black folks this is business as usual. The oppression we’re experiencing since the election is nothing new.’ (NB Threads of Solidarity: WOC Against Racism makes this point better than I can in their article: “Drop Apocalyptic Thinking and Get in the Streets: On White/Male Voices Stifling Resistance”)
This is my first direct encounter with an African American community, my first taste of how vastly different the Black and White experience can be in this country.
I heard the Kheprw folks talking about controlling space and narrative. Their community space is a site for people to gather, share food and conversation, make sense of the world together and conjure a new reality. They focus on improving the material wellbeing of people in the neighbourhood, with initiatives like this collective food-buying program addressing the chronic shortage of affordable, accessible fresh produce. They control virtual space with a media team producing local stories with local values and vernacular, like this series on gentrification. More than anything, what struck me about their activism is the emphasis on relationship and dialogue, embracing complexity and context.
The elders here are given a lot of respect: we listened to long stories without interruption or distraction. I felt them using that respect almost like a currency or a shared resource. They were always inviting the younger people in with a genuine curiosity: what do you think? how do you feel? what do you want to do about it? I saw a lot of encouragement: that’s a great idea, I believe in you, you can do it. I’m reminded: Maybe the best thing you can do with status is to share it.
This peaceful, joyful inquiry is such a stark contrast to my experience with White progressives so far: White elders seem to be the most in shock. I’ve heard a lot of White folks talk about grief, but frankly I have the sense many of them have barely begun the grieving process. Do we even know what we’re grieving? A lot of these folks are talking as if there was just a bad election: the Democrats mis-judged this one, we need to reboot the party and get rid of this bad President ASAP. But underneath this explicit, spoken layer, I feel a much more massive unease. People are watching their life’s work evaporate, one Executive Order at a time. I wonder if maybe the ‘progress’ in ‘progressive’ has driven us into a dead end. If we’re in a cul-de-sac, how far do we need to back up before we’ll find a new way forward? Do we need to go back to 2016 for a do-over, or is it more like 1960? I don’t think people can grieve properly without knowing the extent of the loss.
We were invited to join From the Ground Up, a monthly series of gatherings to develop relationships and launch and grow local initiatives. In the dialogue circle we asked: “what’s the main obstacle to your activism right now?” The clear theme that emerged was overwhelm. ‘When so much is happening, how can I get the space to stop and think and rest?’ ‘It feels so urgent to take action right now, but there are forest fires burning on dozens of fronts and all I have is this little fire extinguisher.’ ‘I try to switch off the news but when I come back to it there’s another whole series of terrible changes to catch up with.’
In this climate, it’s no wonder the grieving process is incomplete: people are still in shock. I imagine trying to hold a funeral for a murdered friend while the killers are running through the church, breaking windows, spray painting slogans on the wall, and mocking the mourners.
So my first question is: how can we support people to find some space to stop and recover a little? I don’t think there is any nutrition in the daily news diet. Perhaps it’s better to go offline for a few days with a small group and really take the time for a funeral — knowing that there will be more casualties tomorrow. Or if a few days offline is unrealistic, maybe there’s a more accessible gateway to mindfulness, like a daily practice of switching the phone to Airplane mode at 9pm, or a 5 minute grounding exercise, or… or… I don’t know what the method is, but there has got to be a way for people to stop. I don’t believe you can grieve on the run.
If we’re building organisations from traumatised people, I’m wondering: how can our organising be therapeutic? Can we heal the trauma of the past, rather than driving around it?
When people are feeling safe and well, I’m sure they’re more able to tolerate difference. I’m sure we can relate to each other in a way that our diverse experiences and perspectives “add up” to be more than the sum of their parts, rather than some meek and diluted consensus.
If we can do this within a single organisation, can we link with others? Can we build movements that hold multitudes, without being reduced to the lowest common denominator?
I’ve learned that healing happens in relationship. It’s much easier to metabolise bad feelings when someone is with you reminding you that vulnerability is okay, that injustices done to you were unjust, that errors you made are forgiven. You’re enough. We got this.
So the last question I’m sitting with as we clack-clack-clack down the East Coast on the train to Rhode Island: can we bring groups into relationship with each other, therapeutically?