Power manifests itself in so many way. We know this. We know this in our work and in our lives. Even as human rights activists, we sit with power that we either do not acknowledge, or, in some instances, we exploit. Our passion for our work and the rights that we advocate for do not exonerate us from having deeply human moments, where we act within the same oppressive power structures that we challenge and fight against. We have grown up within these manipulative and oppressive power systems and much as we have learned to unlearn these ways of being in the world, we do still find ourselves confronted with our own power struggles. If nothing else, this is often a reflection of our own lives, and our own personal issues that we do not either have the time, opportunity or privilege to introspect on and confront.
Day two of the CAL Feminist Leadership Institute and Media Advocacy Workshop for the ‘[I am] More Than Campaign’ surfaced these issues for many of the participants there.
We are tasked with dealing with other people’s oppressions and struggles, and sometimes the struggles of entire communities and groups of people. Our work sometimes requires us to carry deep seated oppressions and abuse, but somehow rise above the very same abuse and oppression that we have experienced, or we might still be experiencing. Many activists look at the ‘bigger picture’ of collective experiences of the women and men that they serve. We realize that our struggles are not unique to us and that collective action is necessary to advance change for the communities and groups of people that suffer similar oppressions. Taking this decision to work on social justice issues often requires a great deal of sacrifice from the activists. Often, we work in hostile environments where our lives and safety are under threat-so are the lives and safety of our families and loved ones. We do not exist outside of society, much as we experience a lot of exclusion and ostracism. We still come from socio-cultural structures that mean our work influences our immediate environments.
For an activist living and working in spaces where there is imminent danger, this fear of ‘attack’ affects our way of being in the world, in our work, in our relationships and of course in our selves. Several disconnections happen-we begin feeling disconnected to our environments because they alternate between being the source of our suffering and salvation. The same community that accepts a gender non-conforming person as one of them can easily become the same community that persecutes the person. This is a real and present fear for us, especially as people working on ways to reform our gender and sexuality dialogues and structures. We push uncomfortable boundaries and a backlash is often expected. We also feel disconnected in our work-where the work that we do, which is important work when advocating for change, is the same work that puts us in danger. Because of this we can feel disconnected from our jobs because, while we understand the importance of this work we also realize that this same work puts us in vulnerable positions. This can create a disconnect between your work-the importance of advocating for change but at the same time the natural need to belong to and find acceptance in the communities we are born into.
The fear, anxiety and disconnectedness in our lives as activists affect us, and sometimes we have a conscious awareness of these issues, but many times we don’t. Our work lives are often very hectic and leave little time for introspection into how the different power, privilege and patriarchy oppressions are playing themselves out in our private lives. We bring these fears and anxieties into many spaces-even perceived safe spaces with other activists who share the same struggles as we do. Sometimes in these ‘safe spaces’ of and with activists-there is an expectation that our fellow activists will understand our sometimes fragile state of being-and that spaces with other activists will be gentle, nurturing spaces where our collective work creates an unspoken understanding of the work we do and the state we are in. But, unfortunately, sometimes, this expectation is not met in these spaces. As activists, and as human beings, we do have confrontations with fellow activists, when we find that we are confronted or we confront each other with the same power, patriarchy and privilege oppressions that we fight against.
If nothing else-these moments of disruption, these uncomfortable moments when we perpetrate against each other within the social justice movements that we serve-are indications of how our own personal oppressions, traumas and pain remain unaddressed and unsurfaced. We sit with different kinds of discomfort in our bodies and our spirits that we never really have the time or the space to address. Activist spaces often feel ‘safe’ enough for us to confront each other, and in a cathartic way-ourselves on the issues and oppressions that we deal with or have experienced in our lives that we have not yet processed or unpacked. Often, when we have these confrontations as conduits for healing ourselves-and in these confrontations with other activists-whom we expect to have compassionate understanding of our problems-we find a face and a body to direct our anger and frustrations towards. This of course creates tensions in our working relationships as activists, and in some cases makes us very uncomfortable.
It’s important to know that our work, even our lived conscious awareness of sisterhood, solidarity, feminism, collective action and movement building, does not absolve us from having very human moments of anger, judgement, and attack. These moments require us to confront deep seated personal issues that manifest themselves in political spaces. The personal is political. Undoubtedly.
These moments call for gentleness, compassion and graciousness. For ourselves and with ourselves. And for fellow activists to sit with and hold each other through what can be transformative moments of healing and reflection.
The Sexuality and Gender Institute currently taking place created this space on its third day. The space allowed time for processes of conversation and exchange to take place. This helped surface a conversation, that activists present could take back to their work places and help create these spaces of possible healing, spaces of graciousness, spaces of gentleness. This is important for the holistic growth of both an organisations and the people within these organisations.
-Sheena Gimase Magenya