As a follow up to Tuesday’s essay “Lost” that serves as the preamble for our blog Power & Privilege 2.0, I wanted to write this piece as a reflection of my time since I met Kelly and Tuesday leading up to the events that have emerged in Ferguson around the shooting of Mike Brown. In this piece, I will talk about the challenging patterns that have been showing up in spaces where I find myself, organizing in an attempt to hold strategic conversations about transformational systems change. Also, I take the time to share some of the journey I've been on learning about frameworks and practices I have been incorporating to identify and in some cases address some of these patterns (successfully or at times unsuccessfully).
And so where some of the conversation, and debate, and discovery arises is whether or not there is pioneering happening inside of the dominant systems, is that... so we have different ways of relating to this term, so for me I like to say pioneering is happening outside of the system and good hospice work is happening inside of the system. And the question of whether you can transform these systems or whether you can only alleviate the pain and have to abandon and create the new is very rich debate for us.
Deborah Frieze, Two Loops: How Systems Change , The Berkana Institute
I have known Kelly since 2008 through my participation in a fellowship program through People for the American Way Foundation. I met Tuesday at a participatory leadership three day training in September of 2011. During that training was also the start of a movement moment – Occupy Wall Street. I could only attend two out of three days due to a work obligation, but those two days changed my life in how I was organizing and forced me to revisit why I was organizing in the first place. Building my relationship with Tuesday and with Kelly in that moment allowed me to re-think my purpose, intentions, and vision for what a world would look like without institutionalized racism, health disparities, and social inequity. I found out that we were all in the same conversation trying to figure out what was the next level of conversation and action that we needed to have. What were the new processes we needed to be practicing to truly embrace the emerging complex issues of our time with a new perspective?
In my organizing circles I was tired of feeling like I had to have all the ‘right’ answers, analysis, or feeling like I couldn’t say anything if the idea was ‘half-baked’ or not well developed or thought out. I was fearful that people would attack it and/or discuss how my politics weren't sharp, because I didn’t have the ‘right’ solution right away to save the black community. The funny thing about this fear though is that it was something that I did to other people as well. The hypocrisy of calling people out on their politics and ridiculing them for what they did not know, or even worse posturing with a guise of knowing when come to find out they didn’t know much of anything either was not unfamiliar to me in my organizing world and working in the non-profit sector.
By the time Occupy Wall Street was happening I grew tired of this pattern that kept showing up in organizing meetings, planning sessions, and the staff meetings with meaningless report-backs and agendas that would have staff on their cell phones or falling asleep. I was ready to drop this bad habit, because what I found happening was that we were replicating the very same behavior patterns, practices, and long lists of punitive rules that mirrored the very systems we wanted to change. We want a system where racial profiling and police brutality are non-existent, yet we commit acts of interpersonal, institutional and domestic violence, heterosexism, and misogyny. We use the same behavior and practices that the system uses to profile and brutalize black communities and for some reason we expect that our liberation from the systems harmful ways will happen this way. Well guess what? The system never loved us!
The legacy of this debate showcases this hypocrisy of maintaining failed systems that are not serving our best interests. This legacy is held among our ancestors such as, Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X. Martin Luther King towards his death, as recounted by Harry Belafonte states, "And I'm afraid that even as we integrate (into a burning house), we are walking into a place that does not understand that this nation needs to be deeply concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. Until we commit ourselves to ensuring that the underclass is given justice and opportunity, we will continue to perpetuate the anger and violence that tears at the soul of this nation." Here King feels that there is a duty among us to save and transform our failing systems, (represented by the burning house). Malcolm X talks about in his speech “The House Negro and the Field Negro”, that integration has left us worse off in our collective self-determination, because we have not spent our time to hospice the dying systems that have failed to create new systems that can better serve us.
Malcolm X believed that the saving of the ‘burning plantation house’ resulted in black people working against our collective self-determination to eliminate institutionalized racism and in turn has continued to support white power and privilege in this country. He references this dynamics to the behavior of slaves who worked in the plantation houses. These houses and the operation of the plantation are symbolic of the control and power that white masters had over black slaves. Plantation house slaves saw themselves as better off than the slaves who worked out in the plantation field gathering crops, because the slaves in the house felt they were closer aligned with whiteness, which was considered to better than those slaves who worked in the field. Whiteness was associated with the ability to have power over people. In this case, Malcolm X felt that a system that existed with these cultural dynamics did not need saving. In fact, he felt failing systems that were not serving and supporting black communities that were disenfranchised needed to end and new ones need to be created that would support and sustain their well-being. He states, “If the Master’s house were to catch on fire, the Field Negro would pray for a strong wind to come along.”
Where I have landed in my journey, that is reflective of this debate is that I have found it extremely difficult to step into systems and try to transform them when there is distrust, a lack of shared work, collective accountability, acknowledgement and support of leadership, and coordination. If I had to share with folks a guide of lessons I have learned to date in holding the space to have strategic conversations about how to hospice dying systems that are failing us, while creating new systems that better serve us, I would use the current situation in Ferguson, another movement moment, as a living case study in sharing my learning to-date. Let’s use the system of law enforcement as the ‘burning plantation house’:
1. Everyone may not agree, nor may see that the burning house needs to burn to the ground. AND THAT’S OK! I have come to acknowledge that it’s not that people have ultimately failed at connecting the dots in trying to convince all of the American public that our policing practices and law enforcement system has failed. Some will believe you when you tell them that a million dollars exists behind door number 3 and some will not. If people are not provided with a visceral experience of what it means to experience racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, class discrimination, etc. they will be more likely to never know that experience and less likely to be in solidarity with you. If the visceral experience confirms their fears of what oppression is they will remain stuck from experiencing the trauma of oppression -working from fear, deficit, and cultivating environments that produce an oppressive culture most likely filled with toxic stress. Meaning that if they find out in this game that you promised them a pipe dream about a million dollars being behind door number 3, more often times than not people will begin to distrust you, work in their own in their silos, and contribute to divisiveness. The unfortunate part is that they won’t even know it. They will continue to blind and bind themselves to various patterns of oppression, and be perpetrators, victims, and saviors of the oppression they seek to change. Harriet Tubman said it best, “I freed a thousand slaves I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
2. There are roles for everyone to play who are invested in hospicing a dying failed system and envisioning creating a new one. The reality is there will be hurt and pain involved. Some will even be afraid to pray for a strong wind to come, while others will have the courage to illuminate what the future has in store for us. What would it take to create a new system of influence where we create a new normal that is healthy for black communities? We have to name the people who are innovating alternative ways of public safety that are improving the quality of life for black communities. We need to fund, support, train, cultivate, and connect the movement -based grassroots leadership in our communities, so that our relationships are strong and grounded in love, health, wealth, happiness, and understanding. We currently exist in a system that kills our black brothers and sisters, because our law enforcement agencies are based on a belief system that views us as expendable. We need to practice this new way of being that will exist in this new system together, and heal from the trauma we have experienced through our oppression and be empowered collectively. If we don't practice differently around how to be together better, it will be harder to actualize what the new normal will be in our communities.
3. We have to build strategy and organize with creativity, innovation, zeal, adaptability, and long-term visioning with seventh generation thinking, so that our children and children’s children can benefit from the sustainable changes we have implemented. Short term wins are important, AND we should honor our short-term wins by giving ourselves space to imagine a vision for the long-term. What would it look like to not have racial profiling happening in our community? What would it take for us to make that happen? Who is best positioned to begin to support the dismantling and hospicing of the failed law enforcement system? How can we illuminate opportunities for alternative public safety practices, so that those in the failed system who see the opportunity in restorative justice can transition out of the failing system and support those of us who are connecting the dots and creating something better?