Starhawk on building a welcoming movement

Starhawk, author and long-time activist, has published some much needed advice for “building a welcoming movement” more focused on “calling in” than “calling out.” She notes that “we need a strong movement that can bring about deep, systemic change. That movement must be strategic, long-term, and above all, welcoming, to build the broad and diverse coalitions that can bring about real change.” Building that massive, broad movement means working with a wide variety of people we won’t completely agree with.

As activists, sometimes our own critical judgments that drive our activism also get in our way of welcoming and including the others we need as allies in our efforts. As Starhawk notes: “Confronting racism, sexism and all the underlying structural oppressions of our system is never easy, and taking a good, hard look at our own privilege is inevitably a painful process. But there’s a harshness in the air now that is more intense than I’ve seen in 50 years of involvement in social justice struggles.”

Let’s admit it: people drawn to activism tend to be—let us say, judgy. That’s why we’re activists—we’ve looked at what’s going on and judged that it sucks. We have high standards, for ourselves and others. But we need to leave room for nuance, for uncertainty and even for mistakes—especially if we are going to invite in those that have come from different social and political experiences and cultures.

Being welcoming doesn’t mean abandoning criticism of bad behavior, but finding ways to offer that criticism as constructively as possible, so as to further our common efforts rather than drive people away. A spirit of critical solidarity, we might call it (a key principle here at Catalytic Community).

She offers 10 principles for building the broad, welcoming movement we need in order to win.

1. Being Part of a Movement Should Feel Good
If activism means a constant state of guilt, anxiety, walking-on-eggshells, and self-flagellation, we’ll lose. All of that feeds the right-wing.

2. The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good
She quotes one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza: ““Hundreds of thousands of people are trying to figure out what it means to join a movement. If we demonstrate that to be a part of a movement, you must believe that people cannot change, that transformation is not possible, that it’s more important to be right than to be connected and interdependent, we will not win.”

3. A Diverse Movement Finds a Role for Everyone
“[A] successful movement is like an ecosystem—it has a niche for everyone.” She reminds us, for example, that “there are a thousand things a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male can do, other than run the show,” and offers specific examples.

4. Never Beat a Dog For Coming to You
“When someone makes a first step into activism, no matter how long it took them to get there, we’ve got to actively welcome them, to say ‘How great that you’ve come to the party!’ Not ‘You’re late—and take those GMO cornchips out of here!’ Or ‘It’s a measure of your privilege that you are only now coming around to our way of thinking!’ Or ‘You’ve never heard of ___________?!?'”

5. Create Structures and Rituals of Welcome
For example, “at Standing Rock new arrivals were asked to go through an orientation designed to make people more aware of how to fit into an indigenous-led movement and how to behave respectfully in a very different culture.”

6. Practice Constructive Critique, and Avoid Shaming
“Constructive critique aims to strengthen relationships, not sever them, to improve the work, not shut it down. It is specific, not global, and about specifically what someone has said or done, not who they are or what you imagine their motives might be.”

7. Give Praise and Appreciation Publicly
“The corollary to constructive critique is public praise and appreciation. Thanking people for their work, appreciating their contributions, offering gratitude for their efforts is one way we can show that we value one another. Expressions of gratitude also create an atmosphere of care and appreciation. We do a lot of unpaid, unsung work in social movements, and receiving appreciation and thanks is sometimes our only reward.”

8. Use Language That Speaks to Everybody
“Too often, words or concepts that start out as liberatory rapidly become more like markers showing who belongs and who doesn’t. Whenever we use words that people aren’t familiar with or can’t intuitively understand, especially in a way which implies that everyone else knows their meaning, there’s a subtext that says, ‘You are ignorant and not part of the in-group here.'”

9. Organizing is Educating, and Educating is Organizing
“A welcoming movement must be a movement that educates. It’s a truism in activist circles that women shouldn’t have to educate men about sexism, black people shouldn’t have to educate white people, the indigenous should not have to educate the non-indigenous, and indeed, that’s only fair and right. It’s an exhausting burden to constantly have to teach people about things they should know or have learned for themselves, and it’s unfair for that burden to fall on the backs of the already oppressed.

“Yet I think now is a moment when we have a great opportunity to educate people—and if we are planning for a long-term, deep transformation of society and politics, education is crucial.”

10. Be Kind
“Not necessarily to the oppressors, but at least to your own supporters, friends, co-conspirators and allies. That doesn’t mean to stifle constructive critique, but don’t turn organizing into an episode of Mean Girls. Support people when they are down. Share burdens. Be there for your comrades in jail, in illness or disease or injury or other troubles.

“Understand that kindness, compassion and caring are the cornerstones of the world we want to create, and they take practice. So begin with one another.”

* * *

Those are just some highlights. Read her full essay here. Much wisdom for building the movement we need to win the future. As she concludes: “This is a terrifying and challenging time, but it is also a great time of opportunity. If we commit ourselves to valuing the inherent worth in every human being, to using inclusive language and to educating everyone, we can build a broad-based, welcoming movement that will be an enormous force for positive change.

May we find our way to building that movement.

(Starhawk is the author of Spiral Dance, Dreaming the Dark, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and many other books on the intersection of politics and spirituality.)



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