I’ve been engaging in some resistance activities in the last few months, as one does in these times. Organizations, marches, and coalitions are sprouting like Bernie Sanders stickers on Subarus this time last year. People are fired up, doing things for the first time. And that’s great, it really is! It’s so inspiring to see the new energy, the sense of urgency and purpose, because we’re all coming together for the great cause of equality.
Except when it’s not, because we aren’t.
Before you quit reading or accuse me of being divisive, let me explain: many of my colleagues and friends are new to activism. Trump’s election terrified them and lit a fire under their bums to the point where they are finding themselves doing things — activist, things — they never imagined: calling officials, protesting, rallying, writing letters and op-eds, hanging out at Standing Rock or occupying offices. And many folks are joining or starting new organizations to try to Do Something, Anything, Right Now, to Make Me Feel Like it’s All Going to Be Okay (TM).
What’s the problem with that, you might be asking? Isn’t that good? What could go wrong?
The problem is this: When you get a bunch of new people who feel like they’re in crisis mode suddenly energized to effect change, things are going to move very quickly. When things move quickly, folks tend to forget that for some of us, the work of the Resistance is not new. Women, people of color, Natives, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, people with disabilities, and others have been organizing for decades. But all the newly-awakend folks haven’t realized how much effort has gone into the Resistance long before November 9th, 2016.
As a result,most of these new Resistance efforts are starting from scratch. They’re poorly organized, slow to adopt basic decision-making or governance structures, fumble their way through internal messaging and communication, and have big, visible fuck-ups. They leave people out, forget details, collect information and funds they don’t know how to use effectively, and do a lot of redundant work reinventing wheel after wheel after wheel after wheel. And they generally suck at diversity, inclusion, equality, and accessibility.
In my New Resistance efforts, I’ve been told identity politics are a distraction, and we should focus on the real goals (e.g., economic inequality, saving health care, saving science, saving the environment, or insert your favorite Resistance goal here). I’ve been told it’s our fault that Trump won, because we focused on things that don’t matter: we dared to be non-white, non-male, disabled, trans, queer, Muslim, or immigrant, and we did it in public. And not only do marginalized people have to shoulder the responsibility for the apocalypse for the crime of being visible and loud and just existing, we have to stop distracting from, bitching about, and undermining the Resistance because Shhhh, the grownups are talking.
I’m tired of fighting the Resistance inside the Resistance.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As someone who’s been doing organizing and activist work for years (and who listens to friends and family who have been doing it for decades), there are a few things you can do to fail less, or fail better:
1) Before you start your Resistance group, ask around and see if it already exists, especially if you’re trying to help a particular group of people who may already be organized and doing a better job than you could ever do and probably just need your money and volunteer hours and signal boosts.
2) Before you start your Resistance group, talk to people who have been organizing for a long time, so you don’t make the same mistakes they did when it comes to effective communication, governance, and messaging. Creating a Facebook group or a Slack and having strong feelings isn’t good enough: you need infrastructure, and you need to avoid burnout that comes from poor organization.
3) Prioritize Diversity, Inclusion, Equality, and Accessibility. This is important regardless of whether you’re organizing around a “social justice” issue or something “apolitical.” Because first, nothing human beings do is apolitical. You might think a neighborhood group organizing dog park isn’t political. Incorrect! Where are your parks located? What neighborhoods get them? Who does most of the work of cleaning and maintaining? Are they accessible? Are the signs in all the languages they need to be? Does the name of your dog park signal anything about who is welcome there? Are they welcoming spaces? If someone tells you “Your actions are signaling to me that this movement isn’t for me,” that’s a big red flag. By including marginalized people early and often, you’ll not only avoid those issues, but you’ll also trouble-shoot more effectively.
4) Diversity without inclusion does not work: that means just having someone on your team isn’t enough — they need to be included, listened to, and given equal weight in the decision-making process as other members of your team.
These are not distractions: they will help you build a better movement. People with a range of perspectives are going to think of things you can’t even begin to imagine were important. Including as many people as possible can only make your grassroots effort stronger. Listening to those who have gone before you will allow you to hit the ground running and avoid time-wasting, soul-sucking mistakes. Burnout is a real issue: people who have been active in grassroots efforts for a long time have strategies to be in it for the long haul. They can help you (or you can help them) be sustainable.
Ultimately, our movements thrive when we organize with egalitarian principles at the front and center. We have a choice: we can either learn to effectively resist together, or we can doom the Resistance to failure by repeating the mistakes of the past. If we marginalize the people in our movements who are most vulnerable, we are just as much a part of the problem as the people passing the bigoted legislation we’re trying to resist. Brick by brick, we either add to the walls of oppression, or lay the foundation for justice, equality, and democracy.
Where is your wheelbarrow pointed?