Clarity and action in Trump’s shadow

Fuck Trump

I woke up on the ninth of November to a living nightmare. US voters demonstrated how scared they are of powerful women, as well as the values I hold dear: difference, change, diversity, multiplicity, and inclusion.

I spent the first 48 hours after the election with the feeling of heavy grief, like a loved one had died. I could distract myself for awhile, but then the pain and the fear crept in. The reminder that the curtain had closed on an opportunity, a certain future will not be possible, and that many communities faced imminent violence crept in hit me in the gut again and again. Not just a threat: I traveled to UPenn to speak at a conference of black collegians for work on Friday the tenth, only to arrive an find that black freshmen had been the target of a cyber attack that threatened death by lynching. I learned that the dorm room of three Jewish women students at the New School, my alma mater, had been vandalized with nazi symbols. The nightmare was real.

After those days the fog of grief lifted and I found an oddly calm sense of clarity. I felt something inside me click into place. The feeling was familiar, like muscle memory from the Bush years. There is no ambiguity to the politics of the moment. Grieve, analyze, question, research, organize, share, protest, donate, speak out, actively practice solidarity, create radical art, and build and participate in communities that reflect a vision of a more inclusive, diverse, and peaceful future.

Subway Therapy 1

I’ve had a fire inside all week. I know how to do this. I make my living by bringing people together and helping to create inclusive spaces to connect with and learn from others. I’ve had years of experience by this point organizing, buckling down, planning, and executing on ideas and I realized that these “soft skills” are often undervalued in our tech and data driven society are exactly the ones i need to use to survive and resist over the next years (and throughout my life). I’ve based my life and my career around building communities that are oriented towards diversity, inclusivity, learning, connecting, and social justice. Now it’s time to use those skills more directly.

The amazing Grace Lee Boggs, who passed away in 2015, said, “We need to do what I call visionary organizing. Recognize hat in every crises people do not respond like a school of fish. Some people become immobilized… and some people begin to find solutions. And visionary organizers look at those people, recognize them and encourage them, and they become the leaders of the future.” This quote is from an interview with her in the newest issue of Got a Girl Crush (which is great post-election reading, by the way). She spent the majority of her 100 year life working for social justice, from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements onward. Reading this interview reminded me of the many ways there are to resist, political protest and organizing being a part, but that we need to have vision and support each other in expansive, innovative, and visionary fashion over the next four years.

I set up recurring donations to the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. I organized transportation for me and a few friends to the January 21 “Million Woman March” in Washington DC. I applied to volunteer at local organizations that support immigrant families, to do clinic escorting, to commute with neighbors who don’t feel safe doing so, to help out at a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. I called my representatives and plan to do so weekly. I invited friends over night of reflection and action planning.

Then I realized, these are all things I should have been doing all along. My rage and burnout from the Bush years, combined with fears about my own economic security during the recession, and the sense that “things were getting better” throughout the Obama administration, let complacency wash over me like a warm bath. This was also a numbing tub of privilege, because things have not been “getting better” for millions of people – the refugee crises in the Middle East and Europe and the continued killing of unarmed Black people by law enforcement here in the states being just two prominent examples. Of course I empathized and felt solidarity with these situations and the movements to address them, but my daily life was not heavily impacted.

I’ve been rereading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark and she reminded me, “When I think back to why I was apolitical into my mid-twenties I see that being politically engaged means having a sense of your own power–that what you do matters–and a sense of belonging, things that came to me only later and that not come to all… despair is more a kind of fatigue, a loss of faith, that can be overcome, or even an indulgence if you look at the power of being political as a privilege not granted to everyone.”

Subway therapy 2

I work on Wall Street, two doors down from the Trump building, with gold letters glinting out that hateful name at me every time I walk by. I work in the shadow of racism and white supremacy, misogyny, and capitalism run rampant. But these specters are always there, have always been operating, whether in the shadows or out in the open. It’s always been there, it’s just that  it was just that some of us like myself had the privilege to see it, and keep walking, keep living our lives as if it wasn’t staring us in the face, thinking the small acts of solidarity we did take time to create were enough. They were not.

Solnit also reminds me that the impact of activism and the arc of history are not linear. “Progress” waxes and wanes, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t keep fighting for social justice, for the environment, for a world that is understanding of difference, but that the future is full of possibility for change. She writes, “The government and media routinely discount the effect of activists, but there’s no reason we should believe them… To be effective, activists have to make strong, simple, urgent demands, at least some of the time–the kind of demands that fit on stickers and placards, the kind that can be shouted in the street by a thousand people. And they have to recognize that their victories may come as subtle, complex, slow changes instead, and count them anyway. A gift for embracing paradox is not the least of the equipment an activist should have.”

Let’s hope that, no let’s ensure, that this is the last stand of white supremacy. That the republicans are dragging out all these old trolls of republican thought past because they are scared. That their vision of an ultra-capitalism, ultra-nationalist, ultra-white, ultra-macho US narrow, limited, and on the wrong side of history. I know that the future belongs to those of us who believe in equity, social justice, inclusivity, and environmental health. That expansive vision is so much larger and so much more beautiful.

I hope that you will join me to agitate, educate, and organize to bring it to life. And if you are on that path too, I hope I can join you.

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To Occupied to Occupy

One afternoon the other week my office was dismissed early from work due to unfounded fears that the Occupy Wallstreet movement was planning to shut down the NYC subway system. Now for my French readers the shutting down of a part of the city’s transit system due to a strike or a protest is a regular occurrence that provokes some grumbling, some shrugs, and, usually, begrudging support. In New York, however, it seemed to be provoke a lot of fear and confusion.  As one of my Facebook friends smartly commented, “Don’t the protesters know that the 1% does not take the subway? They take taxis, sheesh” (or have private cars).

This got me to thinking about my (largely unexpressed) thoughts on the Occupy movement. First and foremost, this fall I’m far too occupied to participate, unfortunately. In this terrible economy I made the decision to go back to university for my master’s degree and continue to work full time. When I began in the fall of 2009 I had the vain hope that by the time I finished the economy would be improved and I would be able to find a leadership position in an arts organization that pays a living wage. Still waiting on that one. However, this leaves me very little time for anything that is not work, school or a pressing concern related to my life or one of the many projects I have going.

But more seriously and to the point: what do I think of the Occupy movement? And isn’t contesting the policies that large corporations, banks, lobbyists and the US government supported that got us into this economic mess more important than my selfish concerns? In short, yes, they are, but…

Overall, I support the Occupy Wallstreet movement wholeheartedly. I think that their biggest victory has been to move forward and reframe the political and media discourse in the United States and world-wide. The movement has brought critique of the United States’ unequal, inefficient and unethical economic, labor and education policies to a mainstream audience. It has brought a more progressive tone to debates around the role of government in the economy and private life, which is a real relief after the rise of the Tea Party movement last year.

For me personally it is very heartening to see this style of protest come back in the United States after it the anti-globalization and anti-war movements (both of which I participated in) were squashed by Bush and the general post-9/11 political climate.  It’s also disgusting (and sadly unsurprising) to see how power continues to react when threatened, whether those are police on a California college campus or on the streets of New York.

However, as a student (soon to be graduate!) of public policy, the Occupy Wallstreet movement has not articulated any concrete list of policy goals. This is a strength, because it allows the movement to appeal to a broad range of people. After all, if you are claiming to represent the 99 percent (or even the 95% or the 90%) that is a huge range of people and opinions. However, this is also a weakness because it prevents the movement from gaining political support in a way that laws can be enacted and policies can be changed.

The Occupy movement has also gained much attention because it is led and fueled by young people. It has captured the imagination of highly educated people who have found no gainful employment due to the economy and have every right to be frustrated. Of course, organized labor, activists of all stripes, veterans and a diverse crowd has also joined in the movement. Many people involved in their early twenties are coming of age politically through their participation. I remember the feeling of being 19 to 22 and protesting, feeling like it could radically shift the way the world was organized. I do not write this condescendingly when I saw that protest is a right of passage and an inalienable right. However, many “occupiers” did not experience the way the Bush administration squashed opposition to the war in Iraq or debate around any number of his policies. I feel in many ways the institutional memory between US protest movements is short (or nonexistent) and the Occupy protestors are learning lessons that those protesting for years, between the 1950s and the 2000s, had to learn again and again.

I think what I feel is important to note is that in the United States we live in an economic and governmental that is incapable of radical change. It was set up that way and that has only become more entrenched. Do I think this is right? No, I think it’s an incredible inefficient, undemocratic system, but I also think that to retain any sense of democracy it will only change gradually. This is again why I am grateful for Occupy Wallstreet for re-framing  political debate, which Nicholas Kristoff wrote about eloquently in the New York Times.

To shift the conversation in the media and the mind of the general public away from “Will their camp be cleared again? Will the protest movement survive the winter? Who are these hippes?” it is high time that Occupy Wallstreet (even though it is leaderless, I know) put forth some policy alternatives for debate and discussion. This may mean that less than 99% of people support what they are trying to accomplish, but it will also increase their changes of having a lasting impact on our policy and not just our political imagination. It’s also important for the movement to grasp some political and economic realities of the political process in the US. Paul Krugman and Adam Davidson have a few important points to consider.

These economic times have produced a lot of uncertainty, a lot of hardship, and a lot of anger. It’s important to have a public place to go with those feelings and to find a place of hope and inspiration. However, it’s also important to construct sustainable survival strategies, to help people in small ways every day, to promote equity throughout society, and to think about economic and personal innovation despite the system we live in. That’s the role I’ve carved out for myself working in education and the arts. It’s not for everyone, but it’s what works for me. It’s small, it’s quiet, but I believe in it and that’s what I will continue to push for, day-in, day-out.