Personal Discomfort and Collective Solidarity

Frequently, part of my job is to amplify calls for solidarity from groups, organizations, and collectives that are leading in various arenas of social justice struggle.  Come to this rally, get trained for this direct action, call this representative, etc.  This morning, I sent out another call to action to offer physical, financial, material and spiritual support to the Water Protectors on the front lines at Standing Rock; specifically, mobilizing people to travel to Oceti Sakowin for the December 4th Interfaith Day of Prayer, as called by Chief Arvol Looking Horse.

Now, although my emails go out to 600+ members of our network, I know that a.) people get a lot of email and very few folks actually read my messages, let alone right away, and so b.) when I get an immediate response from someone to a mass email, I can bet that it’s someone who has a bone to pick with me.

Which is why, when I received a reply about 4 minutes and 37 seconds after I sent the email out, I was not surprised that it was this:

Can’t we come up with a better name than a “Day of Prayer”? Pray to what? Or is this just say [sic] that those who don’t believe in a deity are not welcome?
J——

This was the full content of the email. No greeting, no “I support the Water Protectors and I’m so glad we’re mobilizing to support them,” no “hmmmm, I have a curious question about why you’re using that language…” just this.

The sender, by the way, is a person I don’t know and have maybe only met in person one or two times in a large group context.  He is (I believe) a white, middle-aged, cisgender male who is a member of one of the UU churches here in Minnesota.  I believe he’s been active in several social justice causes, and has done some really excellent work in solidarity with various groups of people in the community. But, the second I read this email, my antennae shot up.  I read in it, as I bet some of you will, a combination of spiritual woundedness and exceptionalism, toxic masculinity, and white fragility.

(Note: For those of you who aren’t Unitarian Universalists, it would be helpful to know that UUs are made up of about 90% people who were raised in some (or no) other religious tradition.  Our folks often come into our congregations yearning for Beloved Community, but nursing spiritual wounds left by the oppressive dogma, exclusionary practice, and harmful theology that is present in too many religious traditions.  As a result, some of our folks are sometimes a bit like trauma survivors — they are easily triggered by even the semblance of things that have caused them injury (like clergypeople, or language like “God” and “prayer” and “worship” and “spirit”), and they have work to do in order to redefine what healthy religious life might look like for them.  And unfortunately, I think we religious professionals and congregations too often do a crap job of helping these folks, but that’s a conversation for another time…)

Anyway. I don’t love spiritual woundedness and white fragility and toxic masculinity.  They are happy bedfellows to one another, but they cause me both rage and distress. So, upon receipt of this email, my immediate reactions were, in order:

1.) F*%k you, dude, and the horse you rode in on.

2.) [Nasty ranting about white fragility and toxic masculinity and UUs thinking we are all unique and delicate snowflakes who deserve to be catered to in every single context]

3.) Can’t I just delete this?

4.) Aw, hell. These are my people. Better get to writing.

I believe that my job as a white person and a clergy person and a person with all kinds of privilege is to collect my people and invite us all to get better together.  I would have much rather ignored it, but I recognize that I have to exercise these muscles of calling in without skirting around the real issues, because I’m going to be asked to use those muscles more and more frequently in the coming times.

I’m posting my response here because it feels important to acknowledge both how much energy this takes, and how absolutely essential it is for those of us who are less directly targeted by injustice to take the time to move each other toward being better and more accountable footsoldiers in the struggle for collective liberation.

I’m also posting it because I rarely see other people — in particular white folks — posting concrete examples of how we’re calling each other in.  Not theoretical musings or self-promotional pats on the back about how we spoke up, but like, actual things we have said to other people in real-life contexts that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.  I don’t know about you, but I wish I had more examples from people I know and trust about what “calling in” really looks like.  Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of being critiqued, maybe it’s because we’re afraid of being seen as fishing for compliments, maybe it’s because we’re not really doing it frequently enough, maybe it’s because white supremacy culture still lives deep within us and tells us that if we’re really good anti-racist allies, we should just know how to do this by ourselves without literally practicing and workshopping this stuff together.

But I’m over all of those versions of the mess, at least today, so here we go:

Dear J——,

I hear in your response a discomfort with the use of the word “prayer,” and your feeling left out or marginalized by that terminology as someone who doesn’t pray, or identify as a theist.

While I fully honor the fact that this language might not work for you personally, and celebrate with you that many of our UU communities are spaces in which we can grapple with the implications of these religious concepts, I want to invite you to think more deeply about what your reaction–and similar reactions from other UUs–might do to prevent us from being culturally competent, spiritually humble, and showing up powerfully in solidarity with indigenous people.

Some context: the “interfaith day of prayer” language comes directly from the indigenous leaders who are on the frontlines of this struggle, who have asked people like me to amplify their call for presence and solidarity. As a white, non-native person, with an understanding the erasure/oppression/cultural genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples now and in the past, I don’t believe it is my place to alter the language that they use when asking for solidarity from non-native peoples.

Your email said nothing about the content of the Standing Rock leaders’ call for presence and solidarity from a broad and diverse movement of supportive people. Instead, you immediately and without context offered a critique of native leadership’s language choices, and centered your own need to feel comfortable and welcomed. I think this reflects a spiritual woundedness and a centering of self and whiteness that will not help the broader movement for justice and liberation.

I am spending my time writing you back now, instead of organizing people to actually show up at Standing Rock this weekend, because your response is not an uncommon one, and you are a part of my beloved community as a UU. I want Unitarian Universalists to be resilient, culturally competent, spiritually humble people who are able to put our own individual needs aside when necessary to be credible partners with other cultures and religious traditions in building a just and loving world. In order to do that, I believe we need to call one another in to greater spiritual maturity, and deeper analysis of how white supremacy wants to distract us from what really matters and divide us from one another.

So, I am asking you to reflect on your response again. Rather than critiquing the language because it doesn’t work for you, why might that language be important to the Lakota spiritual leaders who are asking for our support? What are they asking for, in a language that might make sense and feel inclusive to you? How might you be supportive of their struggle, even when it is framed in a way that makes you uncomfortable or asks you to translate?

I am here for further reflection and dialogue if that’s helpful. While I don’t know you well, if at all, I assume that we share common core values and commitments as Unitarian Universalists, and as social justice activists. I hope you can hear this feedback, then, with an open heart — we need one another more desperately than ever in these times, and we need to be better together.

Blessings and love,
Ashley

So. What do you think?  What else could/should I have done?  What have YOU done in similar contexts, and what has worked and what hasn’t?

Let’s share our stories, folks, and try to train each other up and develop a deep toolbelt of strategies and tactics to build more resilient, more powerful people who are all working in healthy ways toward a more just and loving world.

More about #NeighborhoodLoveNotes

The following post is intended particularly for white people who’ve been participating in the #NeighborhoodLoveNotes project.

Screen Shot 2016-11-15 at 11.46.20 PM.pngSo, this thing happened: I chalked some love messages to my queer and trans and Black and brown and undocumented neighbors in front of my house. Then, I posted about it on Facebook. Post started going mini-viral, my brilliant friend Rev. Ashley Harness dreamed up a plan to do a reverse chalk offering at her church, a person I had never met asked if they could create a Facebook event for it, and now–20k event shares and thousands of photo posts and hashtag mentions and hundreds of participating churches later–#NeighborhoodLoveNotes has become a nationwide thing that is garnering lots of attention and participation from people all over the country.

Unsurprisingly, the media has picked up on this phenomenon, too.  I gave an interview to a reporter from the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the folks from Al Jazeera’s AJ+ (video forthcoming next week, I think).  Several other news outlets have picked it up here in the Twin Cities, and I hear there’s been media coverage of #NeighborhoodLoveNotes in other communities around the country.

Equally unsurprisingly, the reporter I talked to gave a very watered-down version of what I actually said about the project.  She wrote:

“The day after the election I was feeling very upset,” Horan said Monday. “I knew how afraid and hurting everybody was in my community, which is full of queer folks and black and brown folks and immigrants. I needed to do something.”

She believes Donald Trump’s win has “emboldened and empowered” people to speak negatively about Muslims and immigrants, make racist slurs, and put down women and members of the LGBTQ community. So on her sidewalk she wrote things like “Black lives will always matter” and “Ninguna persona es ilegal” (“No one is illegal”).

(My chalking actually says “Nadie es ilegal,” but you get the picture.)

Another local outlet, who basically used the original reporter’s story as their source instead of me, started their article this way:

Upset at seeing the division and anger following last week’s election result, Twin Cities pastor Ashley Horan was resolved to spread harmony to America.

The Unitarian Universalist clergywoman from Minneapolis was inspired to start the Twitter hashtag #NeighborhoodLoveNotes, writing messages of love and peace in chalk on city paving and posting photos of them online.

Friends, I completely understand that reporters write the stories that they understand and want to tell, so I’m not gonna throw any shade at these folks.  But I do want to take a moment to say a few things that I said in the original interview that I think bear repeating:

1.) In the midst of a national controversy about safety pins, I am completely aware that #NeighborhoodLoveNotes has the same potential to be a feel-good, not-really-acting-action that disappointed and disillusioned liberal white folks can participate in without any real risk to or accountability from themselves.  I’ve seen lots of “Love Trumps Hate” and “Everyone is Loved” messages among the thousands of photos, which I think are basically the chalk equivalents of #AllLivesMatter.  As the brilliant Amina Pugh wrote on Black Girl Dangerous:

Perhaps this is why seeing another white person holding a “Love Trumps Hate” sign makes me cringe and nearly ready to go home. It is not hate people of color are facing, its violence, deportation, seizure of land, denied resources, and murder. People of color have always dealt with hatred, that is the reality of our existence under white supremacy. Reducing it to hate is a mischaracterization of our grievances. We are not protesting against hate because hate is a feeling. We are protesting against oppression and domination. We are protesting against the predictably of whiteness–that it will always win, which inevitably means we have lost.

The solution to our president-elect is not love, it is accountability. Love is a Band-Aid solution that allows white folks to continue to evade accountability. To continue to avoid the reality that the overwhelming majority of white folks elected Trump and those who didn’t were at the very least complacent. Accountability is essential to creating these loving and supportive communities that are wrongfully imagined as solutions. Love is only effective alongside working to dismantle white supremacy, it is not a solution in itself. Hushing white supremacy into corners with idealist solutions of love are ineffective, because white supremacy, as evident in the 2016 presidential election, will inevitably re-emerge.

Cosign, agree, close the book on this one. I completely agree. To the extent to which #NeighborhoodLoveNotes has deviated into this territory, I regret it.

2.) My motivations for writing the chalk messages on my sidewalk on November 9 were about responding to the calls I was hearing from friends who embody far more marginalized identities than I do as a white, citizen, able bodied, owning-class, college-educated, queer cisgender woman.  I heard them say that what happened in the election was simply an affirmation of what they had always known to be true about America’s feelings about people of color, immigrants, disabled folks, Muslims, women, and the LGBTQIA community.  I also heard them say that while they weren’t surprised that the kyriarchy had won the day, they still felt alone, betrayed, fearful, and hated… perhaps even more than they had before.

I am blessed in my life to spend a great deal of time working with activists and community organizers, many of whom have modeled for me again and again what it looks like to embody a spirit of resistance while simultaneously casting a prophetic vision for a world that our souls yearn for, even though it has never yet existed.  They–and the movements they have been building–have offered me salvation more times than I can count.  And many, many of these people I’ve been so incredibly lucky to learn from and follow and co-conspire with were exactly the folks who were feeling knocked flat and deeply betrayed by our country last Tuesday.

These mentors and prophets have been in the work of collective liberation for years and generations.  We desperately need them to survive, and to have the spiritual and emotional reserves that will allow them to continue building for the next four years and beyond.  And, we desperately need more and more and more people to join their ranks, moving from cynicism and fear into politicized action and mobilization against all the oppressive forces that make our society unsafe and violent against all but the privileged few.

So I wanted to offer the folks who are already leading the work, and those who are poised to be recruited into it, an affirmation that they are loved.  That their work, their lives, their experiences, their families matter.  That there are so many people who have their backs, and that are willing to throw down to excise the poison of white supremacy and misogyny and xenophobia and trans/homophobia.  And I wanted to write specific messages to the folks whose feet would literally pass over the chalk drawings on their way to work or school or the corner store as they passed our house.

So, basically, screw “spreading harmony to America:” I wanted to contribute even a drop into the well of resilience that the folks from frontline communities, whose lives are undeniably even more at risk now than they have been in living memory, will need to survive and lead us forward in resistance and repair of our broken world.

3.) Given all of that, it seems like I should write some explicit best practices for anyone who wants to join in the #NeighborhoodLoveNotes project.  Here we go:

  • Chalking is not enough, and love is not–it turns out–all we need. For those of you for whom this kind of public act already feels risky, sit with that discomfort and let it propel you to do something else that feels risky, but that also fosters systemic change.  Get involved in the city council and mayoral races in your city; attend a protest or a march organized by people most directly impacted by the issues; make significant financial contributions to grassroots organizations that can’t get big donor funding because they’re led by queer folks and people of color; engage your the family you want to unfriend on Facebook in conversations about racism and Islamophobia and sexism and homo/transphobia even when it feels uncomfortable.  Develop spiritual practices and community relationships that make it possible for you to withstand the discomfort and anxiety that will inevitably come, and that fill you up when the world breaks your heart and everything spills out.
  • Invite people to go with you. Use this as an opportunity to deepen relationships with your neighbors and friends, and spend your time while chalking giving each other courage to make a plan for the NEXT thing you’ll do together to dismantle oppression and halt violence against targeted communities.
  • When you choose a location to chalk, think about it carefully.  DO NOT chalk without permission in front of the houses or businesses or religious institutions of groups that are already being targeted for harassment and violence.  If you want to write messages to those groups and you’re not a part of them, ask permission, and be ready to respect a “no” if you get it.  Try to choose a spot where lots of folks will see it–a bus stop, a public school, a park, a hospital, a busy street corner.
  • Some places, it’s illegal to chalk on public sidewalks, so find out what the laws are in your community, and then assess whether it’s strategic for you to act within or outside of those laws.  If you want to not risk any illegal activity, ask permission from sympathetic business owners or other powers-that-be if you can write messages in front of their buildings.  If you’re willing to risk breaking the law, do it strategically: which businesses are funding the Dakota Access Pipeline, making campaign contributions to candidates that support deportation and increased militarized policing, failing to support and protect women and LGBTQIA people, etc.?  They would be great sites for pointed, specific signs of affirmation that would serve the dual purpose of messing with the business owners’ minds AND loving up the communities they’re targeting!
  • Be as specific as you can with your messaging.  Instead of aspirational “love will win out someday” or “we’re all one, let’s get united” messages, which might ring hollow or erase the specific and painful experiences of particular groups, try for things that positively affirm and embrace people right here, right now, in this world as it is, with all its violence and hatred.  Or messages that reflect a commitment from you to show up and do your best to build relationships and protect the people in your community.  Samples might include:
    • Nobody is illegal/nadie es ilegal
    • None of us are free until all of us are free
    • Black Lives will ALWAYS matter
    • Solidarity with Standing Rock
    • Muslim neighbors, YOU make America great!
    • No matter what they say, remember: you are loved beyond belief
    • We support our LGBTQ neighbors

So there it is. If #NeighborhoodLoveNotes provides a pathway to deeper commitment and more emboldened action for justice for some people, I’m thrilled.  And if it provides some affirmation and reassurance to folks who desperately need to hear that they are loved and valued, I’m so glad.

I think this is a critical moment for moving mass numbers of people–in particular, white liberals–from commentary toward collaboration, from silent assent into strategic action. This project cannot do that on its own, and it’s not enough.  But I hope it can be a powerful “and,” rather than an “or”–that it can be a thing that people do in addition to the thousand other tactics and strategies we must employ, and that it contributes to fortifying the spirits of those who will embody the resistance that will get us free.

Screen Shot 2016-11-15 at 11.50.28 PM.png

#NeighborhoodLoveNotes

A testimonial, and an invitation:

I was terribly unproductive today. I realized I needed to make something, rather than think about anything. Thinking about my queer and trans and Muslim and undocumented and poor neighbors, I realized that I needed to tell them – before doing anything else – that I see them and I love them. So I bought sidewalk chalk, and wrote love notes to my neighborhood.

As I was working, at least seven or eight kids in my neighborhood–none of them ones that I had known before –stopped and talked with me on their way home from school. They told me about their fears, their hopes, their dreams. One of them took the time to stop and create a square of his own.

Tomorrow, I am going to go to other places in the city where I know people are hurting and tell them in this way that I love them, too.IMG_4703.JPG

My unsolicited advice: go buy some sidewalk chalk, and meditate about who you love – rather than who you fear – for a little while. This will certainly not change the world. There is so much other work to do. But it saved my heart today.

 

 

ADDENDUM: Those of you who are part of congregations, religious communities, or other communal spaces where you will be gathering this week, an idea: one of my colleagues had the idea to do a “reverse offering” at her church this weekend, where she will pass out chalk to the congregation and charge people to go out and write notes to folks in their communities wherever they see the need. This is brilliant.

Please, if you do this in a communal OR an individual way, will you take photos and post them with the hashtag #NeighborhoodLoveNotes? Let’s spread the love!

Also, some beautiful soul created a Facebook event page for people who are going to do this action in their community. If you go out to chalk, RSVP to the event and also share photos here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1836572559951373/

I Cast My Lot With You

An open letter to everyone in my extended network of beloved warriors for love and liberation:

cw-832_bigOn Monday evening, I wrote to the people I serve through my job as Executive Director of MUUSJA – Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance and reminded them of a truth that I desperately needed to remember myself:

“You are loved beyond belief. You are enough, you are precious, your work and your life matter, and you are not alone. You are part of a ‘we,’ a great cloud of witnesses living and dead who have insisted that this beautiful, broken world of ours is a blessing worthy of both deep gratitude and fierce protection. Whatever happens tomorrow, our ancestors and our descendants are beckoning us, compelling us to onward toward greater connection, greater compassion, greater commitment to one another and to the earth. Together, we are resilient and resourceful enough to say “yes” to that call, to make it our life’s work in a thousand different ways, knowing that we can do no other than bind ourselves more tightly together, and throw ourselves into the holy work of showing up, again and again, to be part of building that world of which we dream but which we have not yet seen.”

Beloveds, this is deepest reality I know—and these words are as true this morning as they were two days ago. This knowledge emerges from the deep, buoying hope of my faith; from the whispers of all those revolutionaries and repairers who shouldered the burden of justice-making long before us; from the generations that will follow us and inherit whatever legacy of resistance and reparation we will pass along to them.

So what’s next?

First, an affirmation to all of us that it is holy to feel. Human beings have a unique capacity for empathy and emotion, and our hearts were made to swell and break in equal measure. However you are feeling this morning, you’re right. Celebrate what is worthy of celebration, because we have a sacred obligation to gratitude and joy, and goodness does indeed abound all around us. Grieve what is worthy of mourning, because lamentation is a spiritual practice and brokenness can allow us to remember how desperately we need one another, because none of us is whole by ourselves. Sleep if you are weary, seek comfort if you are afraid, rage if you are angry. Whatever you feel today, beloveds, know that it is okay, and that you are not alone.

And second, let us remind ourselves that the work that lies ahead of us is daunting, but it is not new, and it is not impossible, and it is not ours to do alone or without precedent. For all of human history—and all around us in the world right now—brave warriors for justice have fought and are fighting for the liberation of all people and the earth. Those of us who are trans and queer, people of color, disabled people, women, immigrants, poor folks… the very fact of our existence reminds us that humans are resilient beyond measure, and our kin have been stewards of the struggle for generations. They are with us as we feel, and then organize. Those of us who hold privileged identities, we must nurture our resiliency now, and remember that those who are the most at-risk on the frontlines need us to commit to show up; to be faithful followers and bold leaders, to embody and enact the values we espouse, to put our bodies and our spirits on the line because we know deep in our bones that there is no “them” and “us,” but rather that inescapable network of mutuality into which we are all woven.

Here is what I know today:

Our congregations are more important than ever. Our social justice organizations and collectives and coalitions are more important than ever. Our faith and our commitment to one another, and the work that so inevitably springs forth from it, are more important than ever.

Poet Adrienne Rich wrote:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who,
age after age,
perversely, with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Beloveds, I choose to cast my lot with you. It is good to be human together, today and every day. I love you, and I look forward to being with you in body and in spirit as we continue to bend the arc of the universe toward justice for the rest of our lives.

In faith, solidarity, and hope,
Ashley