Honestly, people could learn these lessons from many different sources. However, I have mostly learned them in therapy, and I have worked hard at therapy primarily because of the extreme abuse I experienced. I’m happy to say that I’ve learned them in my heart, as it’s our hearts, more than our minds, which need to change.
I owe a great deal of my thinking on this to my therapist, Diana Ralph.
1.) Organizers need to be well-fed, well-rested and well-connected
Prioritizing your own health is a recipe for living well, being a good member of your community and participating in movements for social justice in positive and sustainable ways. It’s important to remember that in a capitalist economy, which values individuals by how much they can produce and consume, it is a radical act to value your own well-being.
If you want to make the world a better place, but sacrifice your well-being in the process, you need to re-examine your thinking. Conversely, if you take care of yourself, you will organize more effectively.
2.) Relationships, relationships, relationships
Effective grassroots organizing is founded on good relationships, relationships where people care for, love, trust and respect one another. Organizers need to make the effort -and it really does require effort- to initiate and nurture friendships, as much as they make the effort to organize panels, petitions and demonstrations.
People learn, grow and organize best when they have supportive friendships and communities. It’s not an accident that state and corporate repression invariably focuses on creating and accentuating emotional conflicts between organizers.
3.) Be patient and make time for emotions
Good friendships and challenging oppressive behaviours will require that you make time for people to be angry, sad, scared, overwhelmed, and more. Whenever possible and appropriate, let people express their feelings, as it is these emotions that, if silenced, will really get in the way of their getting close to one another and changing their harmful behaviours.
Be patient with yourself and others, as we all make mistakes, and we all have bad moments. Be patient, as undermining capitalism, decolonizing, and ending oppression are projects that have been underway for hundreds, or thousands, of years, and they aren’t going to end soon.
4.) Learn the difference between thoughts and feelings
People often confuse thoughts and feelings when they speak. For example, they’ll say, “I feel like we have to go downstairs,” but that’s not a feeling. Feelings are anger, happiness, hunger, despair, and so on. Identifying goals, strategies and tactics requires rational thinking. Connecting with people requires emotional literacy.
For example, outrage and anger at injustice are appropriate emotional responses, but organizing requires us to think rationally. Our hearts might want to go and smash Donald Trump, but our organizing has to empower individuals, communities and movements to fight his racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-immigrant agenda.
5.) Learn to recognize triggered feelings
Triggered feelings are feelings that originate from a hurt in our past. One of the main reasons triggered feelings are such a problem is that we often believe them to be reality. When we despair, it feels like we ought to despair, that the present situation is truly hopeless, but the truth is that despair is merely a triggered feeling.
Triggered feelings also drive most of the seemingly irresolvable conflicts between activists. Conflicts not based on triggered feelings can be resolved fairly easily. People ought to be able to put their conflicts aside, to treat one another respectfully, and focus on the important work of making a better world for everyone. When they can’t, they are almost certainly feeling triggered about something.
We are more effective organizers when we are thinking rationally about how to get what we want. Thinking and organizing that is based on triggered feelings, which are a reaction to past trauma, will not be adequate, or even appropriate, to the present moment.
6.) Make time for healing
Everyone has been hurt. Everyone feels triggered sometimes. We all have healing work to do. Make the time to do it. Take the time to rest, make art, walk, be a good friend. Make sure to access the people and programs that are available to help you heal. When we heal, we improve our own lives, those of the people around us, and our ability to be effective activists.
Sincere resistance to capitalism, colonialism and oppression is inevitably met by state and corporate violence. Activists are hurt, traumatized and killed. We need to be prepared, and to have the skills necessary, to care for and heal ourselves and one another.
7.) Everyone makes mistakes
We all make mistakes, and we need to accept this. Punishing people for making mistakes has a corrosive effect on grassroots organizing. We need to be patient with ourselves and others when they make a mistake, to explain to them clearly the nature of the mistake, and to provide alternatives to them.
The perfect is the enemy of the good. The fear of fucking up is a bigger problem than the hypothetical mistakes that it prevents, and we need to be diligent about not feeding this fear in people. Children learn to walk by trying, falling and trying again. Shaming and punishing them for falling would not only be irrational, it would be cruel.
8.) Have fun
Organizing should be fun. I don’t mean that every second ought to feel like your high on cocaine, but overall it should be a good experience. Successful resistance movements have always been grounded in love and joy, as well as fighting oppression.
A friend of mine likes to remind people that life is short. In the words of Chief Crowfoot, “What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is as the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
Life is short. Don’t waste it being miserable and angry.