It has been awhile since I wrote and something important has been weighing on my mind as a result of some of the things I am seeing in the realms of activism, anti-racism work and community organizing:  growing concerns about the effect of classism on our ability to advocate properly and bring about necessary changes.

It took me a long time to realize that a lot of the issues and inertia I have been witnessing/experiencing in community-organizing stem from the fact that many of the people I worked with in the past are upper-middle class or rich. And as a result of their class privilege and other factors, upper class advocates have also managed to avoid experiencing traumatic incidents in their lives one way or another. In fact, being surrounded by non-traumatized, cisgender, heterosexual, middle class men who are the dominant ethnic group in the communities I am serving has opened my eyes to just how stark the disconnect can be between them and the communities they claim to serve. And it has also opened my eyes to see just how out-of-reach power is for the folks who do not embody those social positionalities.

While I definitely and undeniably have my own privileges as a cisgender white woman that I absolutely acknowledge and try to leverage at every possible avenue, I have noticed that my perceptions differ greatly from a lot of folks in community who have the economic leg-up that myself and others lack.

THE PROBLEM

There is a big problem with organizations, houses of worship and other entities that do not hold regular elections for their boards. These groups tend to recruit within their own class and it creates a snowball effect where everyone on a board start to look the same because they have the same privileges. It not only stems from a lack of access to different people, but a general unwillingness to break outside of those bubbles in order to “remain effective.” You see, rich folks recruit other rich folks because they have the resources and the connections they need to do “great things” –  great being relative in the eyes of their immediate peers, rather than in relation to the people who really need great social change.

What follows from this is also a conscious rejection of the term activism/activist for the allegedly more civil moniker of advocate. I myself naively listened to this advice in the past and now reject it for its classist roots. Activists are folks who hold demonstrations, protests and rallies because they may not have access to the same meetings and consultations with power that advocates do. Their approach is not inherently “bad” – in fact, it is historically more effective because it doesn’t rely on politics of civility and respectability while pushing for what amounts to the status quo in the same way that many rich advocates do. As a Muslim, I’m going to have the adverb “radical” applied to me against my will anyway, so why not at least make some real change with it?

The myth that people of lower economic statuses do not have as much time to serve their communities also pervades and perpetuates these practices. In fact, folks with the lowest incomes are often much more acutely aware of social issues tied to structural violence such as systemic racism and neo-liberal economic policies because they actually live it: they know how hard it is to break those systems and how easy it is to be broken by them. They have more experience with issues of labour disputes and exploitation, homelessness, addiction and other related conditions – or they know people directly who do. Such folks can be organizing in their own way but it is less visible because it might be more radical (and therefore less widely accepted) than typical liberal approaches to combating social issues such as pat-on-the-back certified sensitivity training for people who think racism is an individual problem or charity work to combat homelessness (instead of, say, pushing to just give people houses).

The other problem is that class-based issues seem invisible to so-called middle class* and rich folks because how they physically move through the world is different. I can’t tell you how many times upper-class hijabis have told me that they have never experienced Islamophobia when they might be folks who drive their kids to school in their cars, head to their office and then pick up their click and collect groceries – all the while unaware of what people like me have to deal with taking public transit daily. And I have it easier than my sisters of colour or Indigenous folks in public spaces, so that’s saying a lot! To compound the issue, many of these upper class folks are unwilling to hear about the experiences of others or don’t create spaces to do so and as a result, people get exhausted from trying.

*The middle class is largely an artificial social category occupied by poor folks who have accrued major debt to maintain a lifestyle widely-recognized to be the middle way.

SOME POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the answers and this is just an off-the-cuff reflection more than anything. Nothing fancy here, but I do have some reflections based on my experience that I think could help bring some change to our communities in light of this rampant issue.

Active Listening: If you are a community advocacy group and you are not conducting surveys, attending town hall meetings of community groups, or holding listening sessions to hear the grievances of the people you claim to serve in an organized and intentional way, you’re only serving your own interests. Now, kind-hearted folks might come at me and tell me not to be suspicious of peoples’ intentions and my answer to that is: I’m not. Someone from a higher class can want to do the best for their communities, but if they don’t know what their communities actually need, aren’t taking the initiative to find out, and aren’t leveraging their vast amount of privilege to then transmit those needs to the state or other bodies of change and assistance, then it doesn’t really matter what your intention is if your impact is null. Create spaces (with food) for people to come forward and talk about their concerns. Consult key organizers of lower classes doing work within their own communities (and pay them!) Attend rallies, demonstrations and other events where people will be discussing community organizing work and open your ears there.

Giving up seats at the table: No, not just one seat. Plenty of seats. Maybe step back and let someone else take the lead in your organization for a while, rather than just serving as a token poor person for the sake of so-called diversity. Make yourself uncomfortable by giving up some of your comfort and helping support and uplift someone else’s vision of justice for a while, lending expertise and advice where it will help with being more effective, but without taking everything over all the time.

Fund, amplify and labour the work of lower class folks. If you have money and you aren’t doing this, that’s a problem. Period. Redistribute the wealth.

Check your intentions and leverage your privilege. If you are unwilling to listen, learn, leverage and amplify other-classed voices, it’s time to sit back and think about why you are doing what you are doing and just who is giving you permission to do it. It isn’t enough to work behind the scenes without credit if the work you are doing continues to not serve the most oppressed members of society. Activists can easily build their own personality cults, even in the shadows, and obtain tons of funding for work that never gets to the heart of social matters – it is something that must be actively resisted if we are to see our communities actively healing, made safe and ultimately thriving in the long run.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.

Whether you are managing a team in your company, a committee in a non-profit organization, a classroom, or an online space, we have all heard about how important it is to have safe spaces. There is, however, a common misconception that spaces are safe, just because we say that they are. While it is crucial that the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in any given space are announced, it is not enough to state the safety of a space alone to warrant it as such.

Safe spaces are, in fact, carefully and ruthlessly curated.

It might surprise some folks to hear this but I learned this fairly recently from a community member in a space I had built as part of an interfaith circle I co-facilitate. I think it is important for us to mark these turning points because too much of community organizing rhetoric is immersed in people just “needing to know” rather than reflecting the actual (often challenging) process of learning as we go.

At the beginning of the event, I proclaimed that this was a safe space for everyone to feel free to share their experiences, speak their minds, and be vulnerable – and I meant that. What I naively hadn’t taken into consideration was the other people in the space (it was a public event) and that they might not share my acceptance of others or the parameters of what I feel constitutes safety.

In fact, the community member who pointed this out to me made it very clear that her non-binary child would be unlikely to feel safe in a space dominated by members of conservative and orthodox religious communities who were fairly likely to shun them or worse. And she was right. Her kid would not have been safe there, because as soon as she said that, I looked around the room and I did note people who I remembered to be openly discriminatory and hateful towards such folks.

I was in a compassion bubble.

And it was, mercifully, popped. I suspect it has something to do with me never really having good boundaries as a kid and a tendency I have had my whole life to project myself and my worldview onto people around me. I thought I had gotten better at dealing with that but I was wrong.

Since that time, I have paid more attention to spaces I know are also considered “safe” and have taken note of how such a label came to be placed there. Several feminist groups on Facebook, in particular, have a long list of rules to follow and hurtful terms that are prohibited – and every new member of the group is supposed to read through this pinned post and then comment on it as acknowledgment of their having read and understood its terms. It is a social contract that is put front and center. When respected, the rules allow for authentic and vulnerable interactions to take place in a way that might otherwise be challenging or impossible.

It made me realize that not only was I assuming that everyone is as willing to accept other ways of being in the world as I do,  but I also had no safety plan in the event that something went wrong.

A safety plan is essentially a series of actions based on hazardous “what ifs” in any given scenario. This, of course, is based on what we deem to be unacceptable words or behaviours in a space, whether that be in person or online. And ultimately, the plan is in place in order to prescribe our reactions and, I would think, in order to overcome any fear paralysis or inability to act in the event that something very disturbing occurs.

I remember at the first Black Lives Matter – Edmonton town hall meeting, a young Black woman was voicing her opinion about the topic at hand and an old white man from the back of the room started yelling in a degrading manner that she ought to raise her voice and speak up when she’s talking to us. Everyone froze. You could feel how uncomfortable the room was. And without skipping a beat or a moment’s hesitation, one of the co-founders of what would become Black Women United YEG stood up and told that man to keep quiet or get out. She interrupted his very abusive tone and manner with such a fierceness, my mouth literally hung open. She then called out the folks who began apologizing for him, even as he showed zero remorse.

She knew what to do when the contract of the room was violated.

Why?

She had seen it countless times before. She could guess where this might be going and she knew that if she didn’t interrupt it, it might escalate. She knew that the first trespass is a violation of the sacred safety of a space. And she had zero tolerance for that.

I was in awe because I had grown up in a state of bewilderment that had gotten me into some pretty scary scenarios. I, like many others, had been socialized to diminish my intuitive voice, to ignore blatant red flags, and other such concerning self-permeability in the name of not making things awkward. The result was consent and boundary violations to my personhood, again and again. And I was never taught why this was happening or how to defend myself against it. I was confused and let down every time it happened.

Later, I was fortunate enough to take violence de-escalation training with the same amazing woman and one exercise in particular jumped out at me as memorable for the same reasons. We were instructed to put our hand on the leg of the person next to us and they were supposed to tell us to take it off in an assertive and vocal tone. As we went around the circle, all of us were laughing awkwardly and weren’t exactly as assertive as we should have been.

It was our social conditioning showing – the kind of conditioning that doesn’t keep people safe.

Rather than just doing the exercise as we were taught that it can be effective in stopping unwanted behaviour, we shrugged things off, unable to assert autonomy over our own bodies. That is, until it came to her turn. I put my hand on her knee and, again, without skipping a beat, she put the fear of God in me, growling for me to take my damn hand off her knee.

I wanted to applaud. I was in awe again.

But honestly, it just made me realize how let down we all are by what we have been taught and what has been deemed more important for the public school curriculum or for our households. Why isn’t it mandatory to teach folks about behavioural patterns of narcissistic predators and how they groom vulnerable people? Why aren’t we taught the typical behaviours of people with implicit bias or who are overtly racist? Why isn’t economic or labour exploitation taught in school so we can recognize it when it happens? Why aren’t we taught that our safety and that of our children and our colleagues and our community members is more important than anything else? More important than the customer always being right or the benefit of the doubt being awarded to one who just rubs us the wrong way. More important than the reputation of an organization in the event that it needs to cancel a meeting to keep its personnel safe. More important than the feelings of a sorry abuser whose behaviour never changes.

Why have we been taught to put our safety last? Everything comes before it: money, love, the feelings of the ones who harm us – even if they lack basic human empathy.

The answer to these questions is simple: systems that exploit are designed to be exploitative and they are upheld by those who benefit from them.

I have noticed, since drawing up rules and safety plans for the business I run and the committees I chair, that people tend to breathe a sigh of collective relief when the plans are brought out. They know how important these things are preemptively.

And the ones who huff and puff about them? I have my eye on you.

Next time, we will discuss practical steps to creating social safety plans, particularly in community organizing settings.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.