Writer’s Note: The ideas in this piece were partially created with Tristan Morton while building a workshop together.
When I was first establishing myself as an organizer, I worked with an organization focused on combatting economic injustice in their city. While they had accomplished a fair amount and were working on worthwhile issues, they were doing this in a way that was lacking in stability. The group largely functioned on the labor and knowledge of a few key individuals, letting all other members fall to the sidelines. After working with them for a few months, I could see myself starting to become one of those key people. But while I put in 10 hours of unpaid work a week at minimum I could feel myself getting tired, feeling unappreciated, and at the same time pressured to continue.
On top of this, when I suggested the group put more efforts into becoming more LGBTQ-friendly, specifically speaking to the needs of trans individuals, my words were generally met with uncertainty and silence. After weeks of this, I began pushing leaders of the group harder on the issue and my words were met with either defensiveness or neglect.
In just a few months after joining this organization with intentions to put my whole self into the work they were doing, I left hurt and enraged from my experience there, both as a general member and volunteer, and as a trans activist.
Though painful, this experience of mine was not very unique at all, but instead was part of a larger pattern existent in organizing. The pattern of organizers who either end up leaving the groups they were once incredibly dedicated to fairly quickly, or the groups themselves dissolve shortly after forming is frequent often due to a lack of strategy around the type of movement they’re building and how they want to go about doing this.
Groups, organizers, and coalitions burn out frequently for different reasons, but one common and unfortunate reason is that they are not organizing in a way that reflects the values they are fighting for. Promises they make to themselves and to each other are hollow and paired with inaction. Alternatively, entire movements may grow themselves on the backs of a few key individuals, over-working and pushing instead of supporting and building around and beyond them.
Another common that groups, organizations and movements lose steam, attention, support, and significance is by a lack of inclusionary practices in the spaces, work, and narratives they create. When this happens, many of the people who are pushed out of these spaces are key people to leveraging and achieving long-term goals. Identities excluded most commonly are those who are most heavily impacted by the injustices social justice movements claim to be fighting against, and who would also often benefit the most from changes these same movements claim to be fighting for. But this problem is way more important than its utility.
Without including and prioritizing frontline organizers, community members, and folks of non-dominant identities, the same systems many social justice activists intend to combat in their work are only perpetuated and further ingrained into the ways we interact with one another. And our movements become new spaces for oppressive dynamics to stabilize and root themselves in.
Both of these problems are most quickly formed and difficult to address when movements’ most privileged folks and folks of dominant identity groups lead the work being done. These folks generally don’t obtain leadership positions by the will of the groups they are organizing with but because, due to their privileges, organizing more generally is more accessible to them. They have fewer obstacles, responsibilities, and barriers to maneuver, making it easier for them to achieve these roles. Their achievement of these roles, however, are also achieved by these individuals very commonly by pushing others out of those positions, benefiting from and crediting themselves for work that is not theirs, and stepping on marginalized folks and their efforts to reach positions with the most funding and support, highest levels of visibility, and greatest amount of power and influence.
It can be easy for privileged folks to allow these types of dynamics to develop in their organizing because these oppressive systems are the way our entire social structure coordinates itself. They are so deeply ingrained into how we socialize that we must constantly interrogate the ways we organize ourselves, distribute workloads, and interact with each other to keep them out of the spaces we are trying to build with one another, and even this is sometimes not enough.
But movements cannot be sustainable or actually working towards achieving justice or liberation until privileged organizers teach themselves and each other to take a few steps back, listen, include genuine acts of solidarity in the ways they organize, and offer support before offering solutions.
After all, how outlandish is it to expect a “solution” for our oppression to come from our oppressors and those benefiting from these systems?
More Radical Reads: 6 Ways Your Social Justice Activism Might Be Ableist
To combat these effects and impacts, following is a list of 9 ideas for privileged organizers to keep in mind when organizing to create more inclusive (and therefore more sustainable) movements:
1.Listen and think before criticizing people’s perspectives, work, or words.
Make sure the negative feedback you offer is constructive and given with the intention of building folks up rather than pulling them down. Whenever possible, pair criticisms with suggestions for improvement. If you aren’t sure about whether or not your feedback is welcome, ask.
Often in organizing, rather than being productive, we fall into competitive ways of interacting that become more about who is “most” knowledgeable, aware, etc. This takes the focus away from what is actually productive and respectful to folks and issues we claim to be advocating for when we are really only trying to feed our own egos.
2. When you are first beginning work on a specific issue, or in a new space be sure to get to know who is or has already been doing work on this issue.
See how you can learn from this work and support it rather than trying to build something completely only your own first.
In addition to this, I hope that we can focus on our attempts to act as allies, co-conspirators, etc. These titles will never be static, and will never be easy to achieve. Many marginalized folks question the existence and ability to achieve these types of relationships in ways that do not harm marginalized peoples, which makes sense given the history of many who have called themselves allies.
In attempts to support, we need to make sure that before trying to create something new, or something of our own, we look around and do some searching for the work that already exists to see how we can plug in. When we want to get involved, the first step should generally be to listen, read, research, educate ourselves, converse with each other and with folks in our own communities. This takes a significant portion of work off of those directly affected by the issues we are trying to get involved in.
3. Thank people for their energy/pay for their work.
This means thanking people and their work and efforts verbally, publicly, privately, through the use of their work and acknowledgement of value in their work. It also means we need to be paying people for their work whenever possible, and it means compensating them with more than poverty wages, and with what they need to continue their work comfortable as a goal. Monetary appreciation and compensation is not prioritized enough, especially for much of the work done by people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants and migrants, dis-abled folks, and many others.
4. Do not put the entire responsibility of changing the culture or climate of a group and making it more inclusive to the identities and struggles of marginalized members of the group onto people of those marginalized identities.
This is what it sounds like. Do know acknowledge that a shift in your group or movement is necessary, that oppressive dynamics in your group exist and need to be destroyed, but not offer yourself as a resource or form of support to make this happen.
5. Know the difference between being inclusive and not actively being exclusionary.
We often do not take the time to differentiate between these two things in our actions and movements. Not being actively exclusionary can look like not verbally condemning or excluding folks because of certain aspects of their identity (i.e. transgender, person of color, non-english-speaking, not college-educated), and it can also look like stating these identities will not be excluded or turned away, but not taking any steps beyond this to ensure these folks will be welcomed, comfortable, heard, valued, prioritized, or have access to resources, leadership positions, and roles with increase visibility within and outside of your group or organization. Working towards inclusivity can look like learning about other identities and cultures to make sure you are respecting them, listening and including their perspectives, experiences, stories, and needs in your demands, outreach and organizing, even if it does not directly benefit you, giving them leadership roles if they wish to have them, speaking up for them, and making sure their needs are being considered when they are not in the room, and asking how you can support them and acting accordingly to how they respond.
More Radical Reads: There Is No Social Justice When Some Bodies are Excluded
6. Avoid taking on a perspective of yourself as a “good” privileged person who understands the oppression of others, separating yourself from those who share the same privileges as yourself.
Do not perpetuate this mentality. You do not “get it.” You are not above others who share your identity. You cannot divorce yourself from your privilege, from the systems that support you by oppressing others, or from the benefits you receive from the existence of these systems.
7. Practice enthusiastic consent with your organizing.
Too often when we talk about the word consent, we only talk about it in the context of sexual and romantic relationships, but we also need to talk about it in regards to friendships, work relationships, movement building, and interaction more generally. So much of organizing is all about relationship-building. If we do not take the time to listen to each other, understand what barriers folks are facing, and what resources and support they need, we can not expect them to work with us or want to be a part of movements that we say are for everyone, but organize around ourselves and our own needs.
8. Respect other’s space, need for, and forms of self-care.
(Do not make assumptions about people’s self-care. Do not assume that someone is less dedicated to a movements/org/issue because of their self-care process).
Do not assume that because someone is taking time for self-care that they are not as committed as you, or that because they are not able to be as involved as you at this point that this means they are not as interested and committed as you are.
9. Know that an activist is not just one thing, but a complexity of ideas, passion, action, and strategy.
It’s more than being seen at a protest or sharing a post. Many visible activist and organizing spaces are not accessible to folks for lots of reasons including mental, emotional, and physical ability status, access to transportation, safety concerns and law enforcement presence, lack of childcare, and financial stressors. This means that a significant portion of activism and organizing is lacking in recognition and visibility to the broader public.
It is important to keep in mind that even though we do not always see this work being done, it is being done. Organizing takes place during non-public conversations, in relationship-building, in acts of self-care and self-preservation, through creative work, how we move in the world, who we support and when, and in many more ways.
We should not de-value, under-appreciate, ignore, or not label work as activism because we don’t see it being done, are not paying attention, or are not part of the communities doing certain work.
When organizing work doesn’t connect disassociated forms of oppression and uplift the demands of those who either experience marginalization differently or most severely, we will not achieve much as we cannot without hearing, learning, and fighting to support those struggling due to the same oppressive systems that we hope to dismantle.