Tag Archives: humanity

Activism 101

If you can tell something needs to change, and you are ready to help make that happen, but you feel lost about what to do and where to start, then this post is for you. There are several key components to activism. I am going to discuss four of them. Each one is really just a different form of accountability, and you never stop doing any of them.

1. Self-Education

This is the root of everything. You cannot make a difference at all if you do not know what is wrong or how to fix it. Your choice to read this means you have already started engaging in self-education. Good job!

There are lots of different issues out there and each one has its own nuances. There are lots of things that are similar for activism for all minorities, but there are also key differences in how we go about supporting each minority. Non-visible minorities (such as gay people or transgender people who are passing as not-transgender or Muslims who do not look like stereotypical Muslims) face an entirely different set of obstacles than visible minorities (such as black people, or transgender people who are visibly transitioning their gender). Reading about all of these things will help you help them.

Gay people and tend to like to answer questions about being gay. Black people tend to resent answering questions about being black unless you are close friends with them so they know you are coming from a  genuinely supportive place, or they are working at an activist center and on the clock when you ask. Disabled people seem to have no trends regarding this that I have noticed. “Tend to” means not always; no single group of minorities holds some sort of blanket set of beliefs/needs/desires. That is probably one of the biggest keys to activism: Remember that a person who is a minority is a unique individual first and foremost. And regarding that question thing? Ask first if it is okay to ask questions. The burden of educating others is actually a super heavy one for minorities to bear. Never, ever assume that someone is okay with educating you. Instead, use things like blogs written by minorities, minority-specific museums, and centers designed for activism and education.

2. Peer Education

This is something that overlaps a bit with “holding others accountable.” I sincerely believe that most people do not want to be assholes. Most people want to be nice. That means that the vast majority of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on is purely accidental. As you educate yourself, you will begin to see people doing these things all around you (and notice it in yourself as well). They will not even realize that they are doing it. Part of activism is calling people in (as opposed to calling them out), to let them know that what they are doing is hurting people. If you say “That is actually racist because X,” for example, someone who is already an educated activist will thank you and adjust, but most people will balk at the big scary R word and respond by saying they are not racist. That is why calling people in as opposed to out is, in my opinion, the most successful form of activism when we are talking about dealing with typical individuals on a typical day. “I know you do not want to hurt people, so I thought you would like to know that X is actually kind of mean,” for example, will be more likely to get people to listen to you.

3. Holding Yourself Accountable

Everybody has got a different idea of what it means to be an activist. A lot of people use call outs as their standard form. If someone calls you out, don not get defensive. Or if you do, just let that feeling rest inside you and listen anyway. Holding yourself accountable means listening to people who call you in or out, no matter whether you like the way they are doing it. If someone calls you in or out, take some time – however long it takes, really – to process it. Maybe even go search online for more information about it. Use it as an excuse to educate yourself. Then, make any necessary changes. This can be a long process, and that is okay. Keep with it. You might find more stuff in your self-education that allows you to hold yourself accountable to things before anyone calls you out on them. Every time you do that, it is a triumph because it means that is one less person who had to take on the burden of educating you.

Processing through self-accountability can be an extremely taxing process emotionally. It is important to find a support network for this. If you have close friends who are minorities, it can be okay sometimes to ask first if they’re okay processing this with you. Generally, though, that creates an undue burden on someone who is a minority. Find non-minority activist friends you can process your emotions with. Join activist groups to help you with self-accountability, self-education, and processing related emotions.

Remember: Every person who is a minority has a right to be utterly furious. They may express their anger when calling you in or out, or simply in general. Anger is one of the best triggers for defensiveness. Do not fall into that trap. Let a minority person’s anger elicit your compassion and introspection, and set any defensiveness aside where you can process through it later.

4. Holding Others Accountable

This is the hardest part of activism, and you cannot do it unless you have been doing the first and third parts. This can be educating peers as mentioned above, or fighting for policies/laws to change at work, in your city, in your state, and in your nation, and everything in between. But you will not know what changes to fight for unless you have been educating yourself, befriending minorities, and holding yourself accountable.

Putting It All Together

As you may have noticed, there are two general halves to activism: Internal activism within ourselves, and external activism for educating others and holding them accountable. The first one is the most important because the second one is meaningless without it.

Know that this is a lifelong process. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. You cannot be a genuine activist without risking getting it wrong sometimes because it is a learn-by-doing process. Be okay with mistakes. Own them, apologize, and then make your apology valid by changing your behavior accordingly.

The Smile

This morning in a paved courtyard at a church acting as part of local food bank network, people of all ages were seated on benches, steps, and planters scattered about the edges. They talked quietly with one another while a small band of 3 musicians played live music in one corner. Having danced for as long as I have, I can often spot fellow dancers in any situation with live music. Sure enough, the elderly man who always sits on the same bench every week with a frown on his face and a WWII veteran’s ball-cap on his head gave the telltale signs of a dancer listening to the rhythm. I walked over.

“Do you dance?”

“What’s that?” he said, sounding grumpy.

“I said, do you dance?”

“Yes, what of it?” he asked defensively.

“Would you like to dance with me?”

“No,” he said, quite firmly. I nodded and walked away.

I spotted another probable dancer in the crowd, and went to ask for a dance. This time I got an enthusiastic yes. I hoped that watching us dance would change the veteran’s mind about dancing. I wanted to give a smile to that frowning face.

For the dancers reading this, this dance was one of those dances where the first 20-30 seconds is spent finding a way to match rhythms and differing skill sets. It would have happened much quicker if I had let go of my preconceived direction for the dance sooner. Our connection was mediocre. We had a lot of fun, but dancing together a few more times would probably turn our connection into something much smoother.

The crowd cheered. We traded off leading and following. Every time one of us spun the other, there was laughter. Whenever I took the lead, I could hear folks mentioning it to each other. My partner was having a blast, and so was I. Our dance finally began to respond to the music. A grin slowly spread across my face and stayed there. When the music stopped, we hugged and went our separate ways, as it was time to line up to get our numbers. Each person I passed looked at me with smiling eyes and said that had been a lovely dance to watch. I thanked them each. I was trying to give one elderly person a smile, but instead my partner and I gave smiles to an entire crowd. I was not expecting that with my rusty dance skills.

After I got my number, I wandered across the courtyard to where the veteran was sitting. His friends had arrived and were talking with him.

“You don’t dance all that great,” he said, teasing. We all laughed. “I could show you a thing or two,” he said.

“Show me!” I said, pointing towards the open space in front of the band. “I’d love to learn. Dance with me?”

His eyebrows shot up in surprise and he turned me down again, but this time he was smiling. Mission accomplished.

An Amazing Food Bank Day

Food Bank Food

Saturday morning, I woke with the sun in my eyes, just rising over the hills outside my window. Excitedly, I hurried to dress and fetch my reusable bags. Today was the day I would finally get good food to eat. Food that would not be rotting. Food I would enjoy eating.

I drove across town to the church where the distribution would be. It doesn’t start until 9am, but some folks had already been there for two hours when I got there at 8. I placed my bags on the ground behind the line of bags of those before me, and dashed into the bathroom. Before I got back, they started handing out numbers, so I lost my spot, but I was still #437, and they started that day with #413, so there really weren’t many people ahead of me.

I walked through the courtyard in search of a patch of warm, direct sun. People, mostly 40+ (and probably half of them were 65+) intermingled, laughed together, and partook of free coffee and pastries provided by the church program. That atmosphere was so much more pleasant than the one of the Wednesday morning location – despite a large degree of crossover in the user group – that it struck me once more as being a beautiful bit of social engineering.

When my number was called, I took my place in the food line. I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet, a little “1” for number of people in my household, and “0” for number of children. Every time I do that I pat myself on the back for good choices. Some folks make poverty and children work out okay, but it’s not a thing I desire for myself.

I looked up from the table to see a line of food tables down the middle of the church gymnasium. Each one was piled with food, with volunteers standing on one side to control portions and to help stack more food on the tables as they emptied. A line of hungry people stretched through the gym on the other side of the tables, slowly trickling along.

The first table I came to had two coolers so big I could probably fit inside them – and I am rather tall. Each was filled with packages of raw meat, most of it from Trader Joe’s. As I was only one person, I was limited to one small package, but I got to choose which one I wanted, and that is part of what makes all the difference about this location. I am treated like a person there. Folks address me by name, and ask about my life, and assume that because I am a human, I will have my own tastes and preferences in food, and that this is normal and to be respected. They even refer to the process of going through the line for food as “shopping.” The fundamental ability to choose is really far more humanizing than a lot of people understand, I think.

After meat was the dairy table. Beyond that they had an entire table dedicated to the specialty grab-and-go sort of things that expired that week at grocery stores, but were still good to eat. Sometimes they have sushi. Prepared salads are the most common. After that was the one table in the whole row that has nonperishable food. We are usually given our choice of one small bag of one type of grain, and our choice of one can. It totally destroyed my image of what poor people get from programs like these.

The next three tables were covered in fresh fruits and vegetables. Whatever is in surplus from local farms, or about to expire in local grocery markets, is what we get to eat. This place (unlike the Wednesday place) never gives us rotten vegetables with the expectation that we should be happy we are getting anything at all. Vegetables at Saturday’s location may look a little droopy sometimes, but when that happens the workers all look apologetic, which I find adorable and heartening. Again, this place is humanizing in ways all the others could take a lesson from.

The last table was covered in dessert items. Cookies, pies, cupcakes, even sheet cakes sometimes, and more! The last thing after the tables was bread. There was a set of wheeled shelves that has the freshest bread, and each household got their choice of one loaf from that, but there was a row of boxes along the far wall with the rest of the surplus bread. We are usually asked to take as much as we want from those boxes, lest the surplus be thrown away. The only exception is when there is less bread than usual and/or more hungry people than usual.

When I got home, I took the above photo of the food I had chosen. I will eat very well this week. (In fact, I already have.) Not only that, but the way this place runs their program has boosted my mental health by giving my self esteem a dose of validity, and that is just as valuable to my success in life as is the nutritious blueberries and pork chops. Indeed, it is more likely to boost me towards a life where I don’t need their services than the food itself.