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January 02, 2007

Lots of REFLECTIONS about my process

I want to share about my journey of the past few weeks, transitioning first from my many years of localized-focused organizing/activism to becoming a full-time networker to taking the step back to reconsider what it means to be an activist in the context of global systems and the overwhelming and contradictory atrocities of humanity and nature.

It's honestly been a very difficult few weeks for me, and I struggle to share my deepest truths about this process... but here goes.

Here's what you'll find inside:

*Authentic reporting as an activist
*World Social Forum
*Navigating the World Social Forum
*My list of questions to ask people
*What can I bring home?
*White privilege
*Goal: human-scale lifelong friends
*“The Struggle”
*Am I doing what I said I would?

Read Jenny's personal outpouring here.

Authentic reporting as an activist

Activism is never just about “the issues” of the day – it is always about the merging between our personal paths with the larger context of justice/injustice/struggle/creation. Sometimes we think we can or need to set aside our own personal stories for that of the community, but the whole point of what I think we are working for is finding ways to live well (personally) and do good (in the world).

My identity is completely bound with my work. I know that I need a break and perspective, but I honestly don't know how to rest when I know that so much destruction is happening around me. I don't know how to separate myself, to "have my own life," to just be a normal person. Especially now that I am learning so much about Africa and various themes that will be at the World Social Forum, I just feel so burdened with the world.

And so I have been a little stuck with sharing about my journey of late, since it has been messy. But then, I also know that this is exactly what I need to be writing about -- this is my journey. This is a journey of a do-gooder U.S.-centric localization/sustainability organizer who is stepping back to question it all.

World Social Forum

So why am I diving into the World Social Forum if I need a break? Well, the only thing that has been clear to me over the last year or so is that I want to go to the World Social Forum. I want to be surrounded by 100,000 global activists. I want to see, hear, listen, and be with this huge diversity of people, representing probably every social and environmental issue out there, and struggling to do something about it. I want to know that I am part of a larger community of change. I want to recharge and possibly redirect my drive for the work. If I don’t stop NOW and see what’s happening, when will I?

Navigating the World Social Forum


In talking with folks who have attended the World Social Forum before, the common experience is that it’s pretty chaotic. With 100-150,000 global activists landing in Nairobi for a week, that’s a lot of infrastructure, planning, and cross-cultural communication that has to come together. And of course, since the WSF is built on the premise that we all create it together, you can imagine what may happen (both beautiful and messy). My friends who have attended previous WSFs have told me to go with no expectations for things happening on time, in the location that may have been posted, in a language I understand, or that they will even happen at all.

My only expectation is to be surrounded by thousands of interesting global activists, and my plan is to go with the flow of the present moment. My agenda is to ask good questions, listen deeply and ponder the role of local and global grassroots movement building. And, I want to meet people at the WSF and then go visit them to learn more about their issues and strategies firsthand over the next six months, to build personal connections that I hope will serve all our of activism work over our lifetimes.

But, my thoughts lead me to two directions from here: should I focus on any particular issue or track? Should I learn the micro to learn the macro? (And, of course, knowing the details of an issue is always important.) Or should I stay on the macro level, focusing on the coalitions and networking people/orgs?

I had dinner the other day with one of the organizers on the WSF International Committee, and when I asked him advice about how to navigate the experience, he said to just choose a track, one issue, and focus on that. The experience is already so disorienting that it’s vital to find your affinity group and figure things out together. When I said, “but I’m a generalist – I want to see where different issues connect” he quickly responded, “ we’re ALL generalists – that’s why we go to the WSF – that’s the point of it.” Oh. Yeah. Ok, so where does that leave me? I don’t think I’m a specialist in a particular issue like women’s rights, water, economic re-structuring, etc., so what am I supposed to do?

If anything, my “issue” would be something to do with civic engagement, neighborhood/community building, public space, sustainability education, localization… but a major aspect of my journey is to explore other issues. There is a theme of “cross-thematic movement building.” Maybe that can be my focus. And maybe I will choose two or three particular issues to learn more about.

All I know is that I want to go to the World Social Forum. I want to see what people are doing, what they’re talking about, what they’re figuring out. I want to feel part of a global community of activists. May the spirits of good flow guide me.

My list of questions to ask people

In struggling with the great questions of activism (How does my work affect the myriad issues out there? How are all of these issues connected? How do I be effective?), I am gathering a list of good questions. Besides the usual slate of questions about people’s own stories, how they got involved with a particular issue, what that issue is about, how it fits in with the local/regional/national/global context, etc., here are some more:

--Who is “the enemy?”—the structure or people or anything that you are working to change? How long has this been a force?

--Who holds power? Why?

--What historic factors have affected this issue?

--Do you know of other struggles (in place or time) that are similar?

--How do you decide your strategy? What has worked well? What hasn’t?

--How do you make decisions?

--How is this issue connected to others in the area?

Once I start asking more questions, I feel like I am in the flow of what I am supposed to be doing right now. I always think of that quote, “80% is just about showing up.” All I have to do is go somewhere and listen, and then the next steps always reveal themselves.

What can I bring home?

Another set of questions running through my mind is, “What are the important things for me to learn? What can I bring back to Portland, or the U.S. in general?”

I know that ultimately, my work must be in my own community, people in my own culture and upbringing. This is for two reasons; first, because I think it is the middle and upper/middle class Americans that are affecting so much of the world, and second because I think it is important to work with people and systems that I know intimately.

But before I dive in and focus so deeply on rebuilding community connections in this country, I know that we need to see ourselves as global citizens… the think globally, act locally thing. In order to think globally, I need to see the globe; a visceral and first hand learning experience is necessary to really grock what’s happening out there. And since things are so preciously delicate (war, disease or natural disasters are at the brink), I want to know if and how we can align forces a little more. How do we act as a movement of movements?

So, what does an activist in Portland need to know about Africa ? What does an average middle/upper middle class person in the U.S. need to understand about Africa? What can we learn from East and South Africa?

White privilege

Lots of people in the activist world know (personally or as a witness) the loops that many white, educated, privileged (in many senses of the world) activists go through, struggling to balance the place they were born into, the doors that privilege unlocks (sometime subtle, sometimes not) with the injustice around them. And so here I am, privileged by an upbringing that has empowered me to feel courageous and supported by the world -- privileged by both the institutionalized support of white, middle/upper-middle class Americans and by my education in navigating many layers of "the system" and to "go for it!" I am so appreciative and grateful for my upbringing, my incredibly supportive parents, my schooling etc. AND it creates an even stronger burden -- I have to do something with it. And I never feel like I can do enough. So I feel guilty and confused. Normal "white privilege" stuff. Just wanted to throw that out there.

And so now I'm going to Africa, and I know that an interesting struggle will be the balance of my tendency to want to just see everyone as a friend, a brother or sister in this world, to meet my comrades abroad and do our work together, with the cold hard reality that for many people I will appear as just another "rich white American" who can travel around the world and not work (so it appears) and who wants to "help." Well, I don't want to "help" in the way that many "aid" institutions "help" (I'll get to that later) -- and I am going to be struggling a lot with how I can share or give back something truly meaningful while I seek to learn and connect. I don't want to just be an activist tourist. I want to be an activist comrade: friend and co-worker in the great struggles of our time.

Goal: human-scale lifelong friends

I want to become friends with changemakers in other countries. I want to spend time with people who see our own community's struggles as connected, whoever fits the old saying:

“If you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

I have a theory and phrase that I call “human scale” (yes, not a new phrase but MY definition may be!). My thought is this: at this moment, most of the people who I will be working with in my lifetime are already here: they are the people 50 years older and 30 years younger than me. I want to have personal relationships with “comrades” in other countries and maintain those relationships over my lifetime. This is my own evaluation of what “think globally” means to me. The human-scale part relates to the actual, literal relationships that I can personally maintain in a lifetime. With such overwhelming overstimulus in the world, it's sometimes hard to connect and know what's "real." So I want to make friends. As things get more complex, I want a global network with whom I know and trust, communicate and connect with, and figure out how to be allies for each other.

I think the best way to make friends is spend time with people in their own element – and since the friends I want to make are also activists (of some sort), I also want learn firsthand what their struggles and intentions are.

That’s one reason to go global for a few months.

“The Struggle”

Another reason it has been hard to write is because of the tricky business of language... as we know, a single word can have many meanings and nuances. I am noticing some shifts in my own language and I am not sure what I make of it... I take transitions very slowly!

One such word is "struggle." I am noticing myself speak of "the struggle" and "people in the struggle," referring to anyone who is working to free ourselves from the corruptive and oppressive nature of our capitalist, individualist economy/social ecology. In many activist circles, the word "struggle" is used commonly and people understand its broader implications, uniting all groups of people who are oppressed in myriad ways. As such, I think the word "struggle" is activist rhetoric, and I wonder how it resonates with others.

At the same time, seeing myself use this word indicates to me two profound shifts in my own life view. The first is that I feel like I am personally part of the "people in the struggle," that even though I come from privilage, I feel that the current dominant paradigm is working against me, oppresing my personal choices and lifestyle, and destroying my life support systems without my consent (air, water, animals, etc.). While others in "the struggle" fight for things like the right to work, the right to a living wage, to a non-toxic environment, to equal opportunity and lots of other very basic aspects of humanity, we are all part of the same massive systems that just aren't working (for the vast majority of the people that is).

I still feel that tinge of white privilage that makes me want to say, "but Jenny, you don't really know what struggle is - you don't know what it's like to be oppressed, hurt, poisoned, not allowed to walk, talk and sing what you want." And so I continue to struggle with struggle. And I know that I'm not alone in this... it's a process that is inherent in our world of many contradictions. We just have to find our own sense of peace and balance.

So, the second shift in my world view as indicated in my use of the word "struggle" relates to the happy, hopeful, beautiful flow that I usually live and work in. If you've ever met me, you know that I am usually a ball of energy, psyched to be building the localized, creative, beautiful world of many of our dreams. But as I have been opening myself more to the global level, I am honestly starting to feel bummed. For the first time, I found myself writing in my journal, "is it hopeless?," thinking about the massive challenges we face to decontruct such complicated systems. Using the word “struggle” for me frames the world in more of a difficult light, as opposed to the idea that our activist work can and should feel good, freeing, hopeful, posivitely energized.

This language shift reveals in an interest aspect of my quest of questioning activism... I am indeed starting to take a differnt perspective on things...

Am I doing what I said I would?

As I float between my cubicle temp job and my worried thoughts about the next step of my journey, I am spending quite a bit of time asking myself if I am doing what I set out to do. I keep going back to the two things that I knew as I set off from Portland last August: I knew that I needed a break from being an organizer in big, crazy, grassroots projects (just a little respite!) and that I wanted to learn from other grassroots movements. More than that, I wanted to see how the many movements can align, support and learn from each other... the idea that what activism today really needs is more opportunities to cross-pollinate, network, build "people power" in creative, ecosystemic ways.

I have spent a good deal of the last month questioning myself. Granted, most of this month has been spent working in a temp job cubicle, but I have been pretty hard on myself. But now that my flight to Africa leaves in ten days, my fears are transforming into excitment. Yes, I AM doing the "right" thing, I AM following a path of activism that feels positive. I am carving out this path on my own, and sometimes that feel really confusing and ungrounded since I don't have anyone or any structure to guide me. But I am being guided, as long as I open to it and LISTEN to what is happening around me.


David x said...

if you weren't asking these questions about yourself and your path i'd be concerned. good on ya! ~David x

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your honest reflections Jenny. I share your sentiments on 'white privilege' and meaningful ways to contribute. I don't think anyone could ask for more than for your empathetic ears and open heart. Peace on your journey! Loki;-)