The Activist’s Paradox

Shutterstock/Paolo Farinella

I would like to name a problem – The Activist’s Paradox. The Activist’s Paradox occurs when an activist is intentionally trying to affect social justice and they simultaneously recreate historical power relations within their own homes/personal spheres of influence and do not treat themselves with unconditional love.   In my own activism socialization process I learned that activists are generally socialized to believe that their greatest impact on the world will be through their selfless activism for others.  They learn to sacrifice time with their family, time raising their children, and time for their own personal and spiritual health in order spend their energy on trying to change or help others. Since there is more societal recognition and rewards for public activist behavior, while also being the way in which we remember and glorify activist role models,  activists falsely believe that this is the most important thing they can do to affect the world.  This is a result of the dominant paradigm of activism being one of conventional activism. 

Conventional activism is defined within a masculine framework that values “hard” aggressive actions such as marches, protests, and sit-ins, while devaluing “soft” traditionally feminine more relational social change methods like dialogue, intergroup relations, and how we approach our personal and private lives that directly affect social change (O’Shaugnessy, 2010).  It creates a hierarchy of activism that favors and rewards traditionally masculine actions over traditionally feminine actions.  

Relational activism captures the behind-the-scenes, private sphere, community-building work performed primarily by women that makes any real social change possible. It highlights the importance of community, networks, and communication in contributing to long-term social change (O’Shaugnessy, 2010). Relational activism supports the idea that “relationships have greater agency than individual actors”, and values public and private sphere actions equally.  Relational activism honors social change that happens within the daily routine and in daily relations with others.

Since I was young, I feel that I have been intuitively in touch with sensitivity towards other beings no matter how big or small they were.  I was the one who was sad when my friends would kill ants with their feet.  I cried in my mom’s lap when a kid in my 5th grade class was discriminated against because of his race.  I was one to invite the new kid to sit at my lunch table.  I was very in tune with wanting to be inclusive, loving, and accepting, and I was extraordinarily sensitive to the feelings of others.  I think I developed this sensitivity because of the way I experienced unconditional love from my parents and God.

This ability to see myself in others became the core of my social activism, and the core of my activism from birth to about twenty years of age was all about relationships.  I did not lead any stereotypical marches or protests and I did not label my actions as social activism, yet I was leading metaphorical marches with my actions that were a result of my values and feelings about others.  Beginning a friendship with a new student who did not have any friends felt like the greatest activism I could have been a part of at that age.  It felt powerful.  As I grew up, I learned about some of the struggles of the larger world which would mirror themselves in the struggles of my family.  There was conflict, hatred, injustice, division, and un-forgiveness in my family and I inherited the broken relationships and pain of these battles that I had not caused. 

As I got more involved in social activism at the University of Michigan, I became more and more socialized around what activism is and what it isn’t.  I saw that it was about big actions and about helping people that you are not in relationship with.   It had to be quantifiable, yet I felt that the most important things in the world that you can give to someone are not quantifiable.  I felt dissonance yet I felt the pressure and excitement of being of service to the world. I learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela in high school, and I began to piece together what it meant to be an activist and what activism was.

  With these large scale visions of social change, I internalized the feeling that social change did not exist in the everyday actions of normal people, I devalued the impact I had through relationships with those closest to me, and I began to look out of my community to find where the greatest need was. I began to value the time I spent volunteering and working on social change campaigns more than the time I spent in relationship with those closest to me: my family and friends.  I worked with the homeless in Ann Arbor, and with the LGBT Democratic Caucus.  I volunteered at soup kitchens and participated in community organizing in Detroit through a political science course on campus.  I did an Alternative Spring Break trip to St. Louis and worked with children with severe emotional stress.  I then co- led an Alternative Spring Break trip to Detroit to work with a community center called Friends of Detroit.  The following semester I was selected to the Pangaea World Service Team, and I volunteered in a neighborhood in the outskirts of Managua Nicaragua that summer.  The experience had a profound impact on me.

…….An excited and sweaty six year old kid named Carlos hung on to my back like a horse jockey, as I ran him across a garbage littered dirt field in his Nicaraguan neighborhood of Camillo Ortega.  I could feel his weight intensify on my non-saddled shaped shoulders as I came to a delicate halt, a mere nose length away from Carlos’ father.  “It’s time for Carlos to go to work… in the factory”, his father muttered in Spanish while staring at me unabashedly; a stare which melted the inner child within myself within milliseconds.   It was in Nicaragua volunteering as a member of the Pangaea World Service Team through the non-profit ATRAVES, where my heart became plugged into the world’s soul….

New feelings surfaced when I returned from Nicaragua.  I felt overwhelmed and powerless in my ability to affect enough change because even if we “helped “ the community we volunteered in, there were hundreds like it in Nicaragua and millions in the world.  I began to look for support and resources to deal with the dissonance I had in feeling like I could never do enough; that I was not enough.

The next couple experiences in my life led me further along that path of examination.  I was becoming more and more conscious of my socialization and with that consciousness came liberation from its control.  A major experience for me was when I was selected for training in the art of dialogue facilitation by the Program on Intergroup Relations at UM.  After my training and successful co-facilitation of a semester long race and ethnicity dialogue for undergraduate students, I saw a readiness and need for improved inter-group relations at the secondary education level and the importance of this work in relationship to social change.  I felt that the younger people could start learning about the intersection of relationships and social change, the quicker they could overcome their socialization and reclaim their true power to create change in the world.  While maturing my ideas with my faculty mentors, I was chosen to lead the curriculum team to create the Leadership Dialogues on Diversity course, the first course of its kind, for Farmington Public Schools.   I was then selected to co-facilitate and teach the course with a veteran teacher in March 2010. The class has since been incorporated into the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

The combination of my training in dialogue facilitation and seeing the impact of the Dialogues on Diversity course on the students was an invaluable experience for me.  I was refreshingly reminded of the core of social activism and of life; relationships.  My own power to affect change was revealed to me through this dialogue work as I learned to hone my skills in relationship building across differences; empathetic listening, critical questioning, and honest sharing and dialogue about the things that are most important to you.  I started to see my belief grow that relationships are the catalysts of any authentic social change, and this belief was backed by the un-labeled feelings I had from past experiences in which I felt powerful and charged to take on the struggles of the world.  The commonality between these experiences was that social change took place through relationship building.

I felt most powerful when I was building relationships with people for the purpose of building relationships, not as a means to an end.  Within that relationship building process, came an awareness of the assets and needs of the individual I was building a relationship with. As Rachel Naomi Remen says in regards to Helping, Fixing, or Serving, “Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected. Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”  A new belief that was twistering in my heart for quite some time had firmly planted itself in my mind and heart; relationships are the key to social change.

I had taken that for granted; that relationships are the key to social change because if you are reading this closely you would realize that I was acting in accordance with this belief when I was younger without feeling like this was a philosophy.  It was just what felt right.  This is not to say that what is currently considered activism is not important.  It is very important.  The point is that the key to solving some of the greatest social issues of our time is in developing equal power relationships where the tangible needs of all people can be met in ways that are humanizing. And Kindred’s conviction that we are “One Family, One World” honors the truth of our divine interconnected and interdependence.

My process shows the pressures that build on an individual that are produced by the cultural messages we learn from our societies’ experts of what it means to be an activist and to do activism.  It shows the struggle of an individual within a larger system that devalues what they might internally feel is actually the most powerful opportunities they have to create great social change; their closest relationships.

We need what Paulo Freire called “praxis” the intertwining of reflection and action, the balancing of BOTH conventional activism and relational activism.  We need to make sure that the inner work practices such as mediation, prayer, and learning don’t turn into self-indulgent activities that are only about personal fulfillment, and also that our outer work practices are fueled by love and joy. We need to make activism more creative and balanced to affect change simultaneously across all levels of the Ecology of the Child, highlighting the interconnection between childhood and adulthood, inner and outer change and between  conventional and relational activism. Beth Berila, who wrote “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into Diversity Clasrrooms”, discusses the importance of also including mindfulness practices with reflection and action and illuminates the significance of presence for activism.    Mindfulness in social justice work can be a tool to name and understand emotional reactions moment by moment (such as a white student’s inner reaction to hearing a student of color share an experience of discrimination, being able to label that emotion and discuss it rather than shut down).  It could also help students do the work of unlearning the effects of systems of oppression in the present moment, which could accelerate their ability to become allies.   As Teresa Graham Brett has wisely said “the ability to be authentic in our relationships is a direct reflection of our understanding of ourselves. We need to develop a conscious relationship to ourselves in order to be authentic.” 

As I have experienced and been a part of some efforts to affect change in the world, I have come to realize that most people when they are prompted to think about social change work will quickly conjure up images of working in underprivileged areas typically in international settings around issues such as affordable health care, hunger, or access to a quality education.    I personally have been involved in social change work in underprivileged communities in Detroit, St. Louis, Rwanda, South Africa, and Nicaragua and feel strongly that this kind of social change work can be powerful and can contribute to larger societal change.  

However, I am convinced that we need to equally be doing this transformational work in privileged communities if we ever hope to transform our society. If we are only working in underprivileged communities to bring about change then we will fall short of any ideal that we are working towards.  Derek Hodson, who wrote Looking to the Future – Building a Curriculum for Social Activism said that “most educational systems have no mechanism to foster within the privileged the self-defeating notion that they enjoy the benefit of their lives by impoverishing and oppressing others. Injustice is either obscured in the immediate or highlighted in the remote and distant. Education for the privileged is rarely interested in promoting an awareness of the “invasive nature” (Freire, 1970/1990, p. 137) of social injustice. In fact, the privileged are frequently encouraged to see themselves in a positive light, as deeply concerned about the plight of those they are actually responsible, either directly or indirectly, for tyrannizing.”

We need a growing self-awareness of how to put into action both “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and “Pedagogy of the Privileged” to illuminate the intricate bind between the liberation of the oppressors and the oppressed. As Lila Watson has said “if you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.” We need a Teach for America and Peace Corps equivalent in privileged communities that facilitates the awakening of the privileged, facilitates their ability to become allies, and connects them in meaningful ways to the underprivileged. We need to not only define social issues as those that are seen to mostly affect the underprivileged but also those that affect the privileged – spiritual poverty, loneliness, disconnection, and a loss of humanity. 

Julian Rappaport offers “In Praise of Paradox” that the most important and interesting aspects of community life are by their very nature paradoxical. A new generation of activists with an awareness of their own paradoxes and the Activist Paradox will be empowered to eliminate Paradox so that we can have social justice pursuits of integrity. I see the work I am doing as work with the privileged, (adults), so that they can form more authentic and equal power relationships with children, (the oppressed), and their own childhood. I work with young adults who are involved in local and global service to become more authentic allies and to use their privilege in responsible and wise ways to maximize their impact on social justice.  At Kindred, we all are working to illuminate the link between adult development and child development which provides an innovative theory of social change that if we truly have the mindset that we are “one family, one world” then we can transform the entire ecology of the child to bring about true social justice. This work involves adults transforming the internalized oppression from their childhood experiences that they still carry with them and committing to building equal power relationships with children and re-designing a world in which adulthood does not involve power over children but instead we use our power and privilege as adults to liberate children and ourselves as our liberation is bound together.  Each day of my life is an opportunity to eliminate or at least lessen the Activist Paradox; to be whole, to establish the balance between the personal, the public, and the private spheres of life in a way that makes me feel like the embodiment of love across all of my relationships.  That is how I feel fully alive, that is how I have integrity to my pursuit of social justice – by embodying love, by practicing love, by being love.    

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