We want movements where we support each other as the people we are right now, while inspiring each other to grow over the long-haul of struggle.
So far in this essay, I’ve been talking about revolutionary politics and the desire for a better world in big terms. Radical visions. Mass scale. Global transformations. If we always stay floating at those lofty heights, we will miss out on what are easily the most critical elements of this whole thing. At the center of any authentic revolutionary project, the absolute bedrock of everything that we are talking about, is something that is actually very personal and intimate: the striving that we each have to be better people, to lead better lives, and to share in better relationships.
When a person looks at the world as it is and still chooses to believe that things could be drastically better, that people could treat each other, themselves, and the planet in drastically better ways, that person is connecting with something inside of them that usually goes beyond cold political calculation. To hold on to radical levels of hope, and to work from that hope even in the face of constant resistance is a highly philosophical, even spiritual stance, which we each have to consciously renew all the time. In Love and Struggle—a memoir of his personal journey from liberal Jewish teen activist, to clandestine revolutionary with the Weather Underground, to political prisoner—David Gilbert talks about how, in the political underground, one of the most effective ways to ferret out undercover government spies was to all take turns sharing the stories of their politicization and radicalization. It was often easy to spot the fakes, because earnest processes of political awakening, of choosing to hope and choosing to fight, are almost always lasting memories full of emotion, and that showed as people told their stories. It’s a soulful thing, to dream of a new society.
Holding all of this hope, and feeling so individually connected to it, then, it’s especially heartbreaking the first time we get hurt by someone in the movement. Harsh criticism, rudeness, rejection, gossip, violence, abuse are all things that we expect out there in the world, but it feels like such a punch in the gut when it comes from within our own groups and subcultures. A fair share of new people just up and leave right there—even if their bodies stick around for a while longer. “How can you talk about changing the world,” goes the constant refrain, “if you can’t even treat each other well in your own little groups?”
It’s a good question, so simple that it feels obvious and rhetorical. But actually the answer is complicated. No, we can’t change the world if we can’t learn to treat each other well, but really the only way that we might all learn to treat each other well is by changing the world. The world is what made us like this. In the mean time, we must come to movement work as we are, and we have to learn and fumble painfully with each other as we grow through struggle.
Nonetheless, I believe that it is long past time for our movements to not only become nicer and more supportive, but also something more. I believe our movements need to help us more effectively balance our outwardly focused political work with our more inwardly focused processes of learning, growing, healing, and striving. While we are working collectively to push against oppressive forces and build visionary alternatives out there in our communities, we also need to be working together to help each other recognize our potential, build our skills, work through our mistakes, pain, bad habits, and shameful acts, and find mutual inspiration in each others’ lives and achievements. Underneath the noise and spectacle, authentic revolution looks like all of us learning millions of things together, and from each other.
It’s not easy work to balance effective public activism and organizing with creating deep spaces for personal growth and mutual care. In fact, the many traps that accompany that balancing act—emergency timeouts from an important campaign to call out oppressive dynamics, declarations that personal needs will have to wait until after some pressing action is wrapped up, community accountability processes that fracture an already fragile community while bringing very little true accountability—have been the undoing of too many movements to name.
But difficult doesn’t mean impossible, and I believe that this is another key area where an approach based on an ecosystem of movements can be a big help. I think one of the biggest causes of friction between outward facing organizing work and inward facing personal work—beyond the gender, race, class, and other identity dynamics that are both quite real and yet also too easily rushed to as the sole explanation for some of these problems—is that we are too often trying to force too many different types of change work into structures that just aren’t made to work like that. Many of us, hungry and impatient for every group to be the embodiment of all our revolutionary ideals, expecting our campaign group to also help heal our depression, or pushing our jovial once-a-month study group to “step it up” and quickly shift to intense activist projects, put too much load onto spaces that just can’t take it, and groups fall apart under the weight. But in an ecosystem of movements, different groups and structures can hold different positions, specializing in different areas of need and playing deeply supportive roles for one another, so long as they all share that critical root structure of mutual solidarity and commitment to a common struggle.
Even with an ecosystem approach, though, I think the need for personal growth, self-improvement, and a robust politics of care is too universal and too important to just be thrown out there to be taken up by just any old small initiative among many, to be self-selected by only touchy-feely process types, while the all-business, hardcore action-heavies stay 500 yards away, uninvolved and unaccountable. That would just be choosing fragmentation and calling it balance.
Instead, I think there is a need to design unique and specialized spaces to populate our ecosystem of movements. These spaces would mingle intellectual growth and political education with revolutionary imagination, with personal growth, and with mutually inspirational relationship building. I believe that these spaces should actually be prioritized as foundational, as hubs, as political home bases that are so vital and vibrant that all movement members are encouraged—not forced, not manipulated, just encouraged—to join, and which serve as the open and welcoming entry points that a mass-based movement needs.
These would be spaces where everyone knows your name and your hobbies, where people ask and genuinely care about how your kids are doing, where you might go for advice about a conflict or a major transition in your life, and where you can trust that the people who call you out for some oppressive act will still be there the next day, sharing the same revolutionary values and wanting to grow toward them with you by their side. These spaces would also just as easily serve as ready-made launchpads for coordinated action whenever a big need—an emergency mobilization, a general strike, a natural disaster—might arise.
These spaces make up the centerpiece of this proposal for a mutual inspiration approach.
I think we’re ready to start diving into that now.