Political Space, Processing Space: Managing Expectations in Solidarity Work

Solidarity Politics for Millennials

I had the good fortune of coming across Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, by Ange-Marie Hancock, a scholar and advocate for diverse coalition politics. Coalition politics describe political engagements that build relationships of solidarity within a majoritarian democracy – the form of democracy we have in the United States – which focus on legal and policy initiatives intended to impact diverse groups of people. Most lasting institutional change has happened in the U.S. through groups coming together across difference to find common ground, requiring that coalition groups negotiate the different concerns they have in ways that strengthen relationships.

While reading, I was forced to reflect upon some of the current barriers to building meaningful coalitions, barriers that, indeed, are not the sole responsibility of a single party or community to address, but instead are challenges that warrant deep and nuanced reflection by all who seek to live and work in solidarity with other groups of people. Having engaged in rigorous solidarity work for over a decade, I wanted to take this moment to highlight one area where we, as activists and community members, might invest more energy: managing expectations and being intentional about self-care when engaging in coalition politics.

What Is Solidarity Work?

Solidarity can be understood as a mutual commitment to collaborative engagement both across and within groups participating in social change work in pursuit of a common political, educational, policy, or social change objective in the short- or long-term. Groups often form with various objectives in mind, and through engagement, these objectives can shift; some groups may be identity-, issue-, location-, or policy-based.

Just this past week, Al-Jazeera America reported on Wisconsin dairy farmers who were speaking out against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s increasingly xenophobic stance on immigration reform, as Walker seeks to court conservative voters in his pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination. Dairy farmers, mostly property-owning or -leasing white men in the Midwest region of the U.S., are dependent on their undocumented Latino workforce, and for reasons both selfish and altruistic, they want to support their workers and their own livelihood, in recognition of their interdependence.

Solidarity work generally involves an acknowledgement of the ways we are indelibly linked to others. While it would be ideal if people could care about social issues out of pure empathy, decades of psychological research shows that there is little connection between experiences of empathy, the impetus to work for change, and the identification of strategic ways to change present circumstances. Given this reality, we cannot rely on utopian ideals of pure altruism; instead, we have to work to build solidary relationships over time and through the charged environment of negotiating the needs of individuals and communities.

Crafting Intentional Solidary Space

Within this context of building alliances, I have been taught that it is important to set two commitments when working across difference: first, to not compare oppressions and to discuss experiences of harm in their particularity (which is not about making all forms of oppression equivalent), and second, to work together with the understanding of unconditional commitment to working together, regardless of disagreement, misunderstanding, micro-aggressive harm, or needing to take time away from the work for self-care purposes.

When writing about solidarity or interacting online, I have seen many writers and activists attacked for not addressing every facet of a given social issue in a single post or comment. Many on the Left expect perfection, a trend that increases the in-fighting that has become heightened on the Left post-9/11, as progressive communities – in defense of important issues – mirror the aggressive protectionism of U.S. military interventions: “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists” is transmuted into “You’re either perfectly radical or wholly oppressive,” a purist logic that also appeared during orthodox Marxist organizing in the 1960s and 70s. While the effects of these two strands of political thought are immensely different, the underlying logic comes from the shriveling space of respectful political and social engagement across diverse perspectives.

It is important to distinguish between our many needs and what we can strategically expect in spaces of political and solidary work, while always working to increase hospitality toward difference, expanding our imaginations of what is possible as we experiment with collective decision-making and group governance. I trust my readership to care for themselves, which includes the shared acknowledgement that we must differentiate between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic settings, in order to sustain working relationships. While engaging with social change work can have many therapeutic effects, it is worrisome to me when people engage in solidarity and activist work as therapy – we must disentangle acts of alliance from affirmative therapies because, sometimes, solidarity work involves asking difficult questions and pushing back against coping mechanisms that have outlived their usefulness. It is important to set up clear agreements and commitments, and discussion needs to happen primarily in person. We can rely on online organizing to share news stories, publicize events, and archive writing, photos, and videos.

The efforts described above can be particularly challenging in groups and communities where social isolation partly informs how and why marginalized people come together to engage in political and solidary work. There may be significant overlap between social, political, romantic, and therapeutic spaces. It is important to call our attention to cultural norms – which inevitably emerge in any community, insular or not – that we should challenge. We need to remain ever-attentive to dynamics that silence people or that preclude their participation altogether, including English language access, education privilege, and urban access to political community and transportation to and from events and meetings. Distinct settings need to be named, shaped, and upheld with incredible degrees of intentionality, remaining ever-attentive to how those born and those socialized female often take on emotional labor for others, to the detriment of their own political sustainability.

The proliferation of popular rhetoric regarding what is commonly referred to as ‘trauma’ can be an important intervention to visibilize experiences of harm that often remain ignored; however, people doing educational or political work, while understandably drawing upon feeling or experience, cannot foreground their personal needs for emotional care in contexts of solidarity work. This means we need to create multiple sites of support (political, intellectual, social, emotional) in order to make this work sustainable. Self-care is important so that political and educational settings are able to focus on urgent and long-term goals, instead of serving as emotional processing spaces, which are crucial to have access to, especially as we commit to ongoing critique of the dominant divisions between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ that have denigrated contributions of women, immigrant, LGBTQ, working class, and Jewish activists through history and into the present.

Alongside this, wholesale therapeutic advice can be a momentary salve at best, violently shaming at worst, and even ethically negligent when proffered by licensed therapists and social workers who have professional obligations to uphold, including boundary-setting. Trauma and triggers are unique to each individual, and even when done with the best intentions, dispensing advice online regarding trauma and coping should be kept to a minimum and ought to be framed alongside follow-up resources for in-person care and support.

Meeting People Where They Are

Focusing on what is proximate to groups and communities is part of this work; for example, it is strategically impractical to insist that all people of color focus on following national agendas, which will inevitably foreground racial justice work that attends to urban anti-Latino and anti-Black racism perpetuated largely by whites. How do we support rural racial solidarity work without inflaming violence through oppositional rhetoric? How do we support communities of color all over as they interrogate homophobia, transphobia, and notions of purity that marginalize mixed-race youth and adults, and others who defy categorical ease of race and gender? This is not to place blame, but to encourage consideration of the unintended consequences our words and actions may have on those more vulnerable than ourselves. It also brings to light the importance of particularity, as each community exhibits and responds to discrimination in unique ways.

To not respond to what is immediate or proximate would be disingenuous, as we would be ignoring people’s experiences. Last year, I was teaching a class on “Healthy Relationships” with high-school aged women of color in a small, drop-out prevention high school in Oakland, California. Part of my curriculum involved linking cycles of relationship abuse to larger social dynamics and cycles of institutional violence against marginalized groups. I introduced a tool known as the Power Chart that shows how different groups are on the upside or downside of social power imbalances in an attempt to open up a discussion about white racism towards people of color.

As important as it was to me to try to convey that larger social forces shape conflict in interpersonal and social relationships, it was equally important to my students to tell me that because of the difficulty of their lives, they weren’t ready to hear all that. These youth – all who would be read as Black out on the streets – wanted to think about the conflicts in Black communities around being of mixed heritage, as the young women had immigrant API mothers, indigenous ancestry, Spanish-speaking parents, undocumented relatives, and a range of other complex social identifications regarding gender and sexuality. For me, as a social justice educator, to force these young women into my own frameworks of solidarity and to not respond to their immediate calls to address the policing of race, gender, and sexuality within their communities, would have been not only irresponsible, but reproductive of the violence that ignores particular experiences of harm that don’t conveniently fit into dominant political agendas, even when those agendas are focused on social justice. Shifting agendas is part of the work of solidarity.

In Closing

It is essential that we have both political spaces and processing spaces, and it is also important to feel freed of the pressure to not have to combine them, to not have one setting bear the burden of providing for all our diverse needs around political and solidary sustainability, especially during these immensely trying social and political times. Confronting disagreement from a place of strength and support – along with knowing our own limits and taking time for self-care when needed – is a practice we must engage from a space of critical self-reflection and unconditional alliance.

My hope is that from this approach, groups can spend less time describing a “good ally” or a “bad ally” and more time practicing solidarity through experimentation, responsibility, and sustainable commitment, knowing that it is both about us, and not about us. We must remain mindful of when and how we engage in a public performance of the right kind of progressive person and when we are engaging in order to create future possibilities for worlds of justice, equity, and shared governance.

Thank you for reading. I will be posting again next week on Monday and Thursday. Monday’s post will address my reintegration back into the realm of Smartphones and Facebook after an extended hiatus, and reflections about this process.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s