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.

In a recent article by Asam Ahmad, call-out culture was, itself, called out as being inherently toxic, primarily because it does not facilitate rehabilitation through conversation but constitutes a sort of public shaming in which activist egos are stroked and perpetrators are demonized. And while I tend to agree with this sentiment, that call-out culture is abusive far more than it is effective, and especially having seen just how far conversation actually goes to change people – at the same time, there is a pattern emerging for which call-out culture is useful: the most stubborn of haters who dominate in socio-economic, gendered ways over those whom they hate.

It might seem counter-intuitive but there are actually many types of people who hate. It is my understanding that the vast majority of people who have been conditioned to hate fall into two main and often overlapping categories: the fearful and the ignorant. In fact, ignorance is the direct precursor to fear which necessarily precedes hatred, particularly when one’s livelihood, and more importantly, one’s identity and sense of self is held in the balance. Perceived threats to both our livelihood and our self-hood which are exterior to us are often not the subjects of curiosity and genuine interest but, rather, end up being objects of hatred and violence. One need only look so far at how a fearful, phobic individual treats an animal or phenomena they fear to know how they might treat a human being they also fear.

There is, however, another type of person who hates. This person is neither ignorant, nor fearful. I know this is going to make a lot of people I know uncomfortable because we tend, as activists, to buy into the narrative that everyone is redeemable to our worldview when this is, very likely, not a real possibility –  at least not without mass social accountability. Human beings engage with hatred to consolidate power. They hate in order to be in a masterful position over the one they hate and, because of this, are easy to detect. They are the most prone to violence, the most prone to saying flippant and hurtful things, the least apologetic about it. They tend not to offer excuses without masking or hiding their hatred. They shout it from the rooftops, unabashedly, in the name of “not appearing PC”, of reclaiming what they think is owed to them, of making their name and their personhood and their nation great again from whence it came.

These people cannot be dismissed as being “stupid” or unaware of what they are doing. And they often do not respond to criticism. In their worldview, critics belong to the “other” – someone for which they have an ever-present snappy response an undercutting retort that pushes buttons and gets the job of hatred done. They can rationalize things that seem impossible to others. They can excuse atrocious things.

These people are the target of call out culture. These are the people most in need of public shaming if we re-conceptualise public shaming as social accountability and accept that call out culture has some work to do in terms of its effectiveness. “An interaction between two individuals” as a public performance, as Ahmad puts it, is not an academic brand of activism: it is the only option some people have left. Ahmad seems to be under the impression that conversations are, by definition, equal playing fields. That they can even be made to occur at the instigation of victims of oppression…all the while ignoring major power imbalances, not even to mention personal repercussions incurred by the one who initiates a conversation with the one who oppresses them. Putting this onus on the victim of repression is not only unrealistic, it is unsafe.

Call out culture has emerged because “calling in” is not always an option and just because that may be the case, oppression should not continue unmarked. As I previously mentioned in my article entitled “The Internet is the Voice of the Oppressed”, what is important to note for our purposes is that the internet (as the ultimate stage of call out culture) has become a vehicle for connecting liminal, minority groups – for communicative memories to develop in peripheral forums and for connections to be made across geographically disparate spaces. What we are seeing is a dramatic increase in critical awareness for a variety of minority issues – and a territorializing of these groups’ memories on an exponential basis daily. The result is an influx of posts, videos and pages devoted to the causes of those marginalized in regular society, those who were previously unable to “call in”. Almost immediately, people in positions of privilege have criticized these movements as minorities being overly-sensitive or abrasive, rolling their eyes at the proliferation of trigger warnings, or jumping to defend those who have been brought to justice by bringing their injustices to light online. What these individuals don’t realize is two-fold:

  1. These oppressed people have always been around. They just have a larger collectivity now because of the internet and their voice is much louder because of the heavy use and reliance on this technology today.
  2. Oppressed people who cannot find justice in their everyday lives will use every means at their disposal – outside of the collectively prescribed methods – to achieve their justice.

Perhaps what Ahmad was warning against was my own concern, not so long ago: that those who challenge the order run the risk of becoming it.

When the oppressed achieve recognition, their communicative, everyday memories tend to be distorted in the name of their collective, which ultimately has little need for the individuals in this new memory form. As I stated before, this raises further questions about the meaning and even the possibility of true social aggregation, meditations on which will have to be left for another time. So to ask the question again: Is call- out culture always toxic? No. It isn’t. Not always. Oftentimes, it is the only tool we have in sounding the alarm on oppressive behaviours. For now, give pause before you do, then keep wailing that hammer.


nakitaNakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Vice President of External Affairs with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The ease by which we can get sucked into pessimism about humanity and the state of the world these days is startling. Not only do we have more and more continuing oppressions coming to light through the voice of the internet (see: growing vocalizations of white supremacists all over the world, violence against people of color, increased terrorism etc), but we also have pretty unique moments in history arising because of these circumstances – one example being the absolute freak show that is the American election where, frankly, there hasn’t been much hope since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic candidate race. (Although I heard just yesterday that his name is still going to be on the ballot at the Democratic National Convention – do I dare to dream?)

Part of the problem is how we receive our information: particularly through Facebook. A lot of people don’t realize that this particular social media platform operates based on complex algorithms designed to show you what you are most likely to click on. The more doom and gloom you are engaging with, the more you will find in your newsfeed. There isn’t really a way to get around this and stay informed, unless you want to take the time to outsmart your Facebook account. This is my first tip for shifting over to optimism. A lot of people will simply disconnect or disengage from their social media accounts and that’s great if that’s what they really want to do – but for people like me, whose livelihood is connected to being a netizen and whose clients are managed under my general account, that’s not really an option. Every time I have tried to delete the Facebook app off my phone (even without deactivating my account), it takes less than half an hour for a client to message me asking me to post something. Contrary to appearances, I’m not sitting in front of my computer all day and even if I was, I can’t just connect to the internet through magical computer data, so I’m stuck with my phone and with Facebook burning an ever-growing hole of pessimism in my literal pocket.

hope and dreams

What to do then? You can start by liking positive stories or commenting on them. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a content developer and I want you to engage more with the barrage of things people post on the internet. This is not shameless self-advertising (even though it takes place on my business blog haha). Rather, liking positive stories is simply the quickest way to get more of them in your newsfeed – and, by extension, more positive people as well. Surrounding yourself with positive stories and positive people will start to shift the messages that are filtering into your brain every day.

Of course, I am not advocated shutting off completely. At. All. People absolutely have an ethical obligation to stay informed and educated about the issues we face in the world today and they absolutely must keep informed about political movements that will dramatically affect the countries in which they take place, and (in the case of America especially) every other damn country on the face of the earth. I am simply advocating for a little softness in the harshness that is the world, and to remember (or learn) that there really is more good than bad, or at the very least some good and a whole lot of neutral or irrelevant.

hopeful hearts

The other place that I have been finding solace lately will not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me is having faith. I was sitting in a grassy field with a new friend of mine the other night and she was talking about horrible atrocities against Muslim women who have come under the enslavement of various oppressors like ISIS. She was talking about how they had asked sheikhs for dispensation to commit suicide in the event that they will certainly face unspeakable and unending torture until they die. And she also mentioned how a sheikh she knew had gone from a hard-lined answer on this ruling to being unsure and simply stating that “he doesn’t know” if suicide is still forbidden to these unfortunate souls.

Regardless, when she was telling this story to me, she mentioned how this particular sheikh was different than other people – that he had a real kind of faith which, even if the face of hideous and cruel oppression, violence and death, still holds hope about the idea that justice will eventually be served by a Merciful God.

When she said that, I thought of my past self when I first converted to Islam, right up until the time I nearly died in a traumatic child birth in which I was repeatedly assaulted and had my rights violated. Until that time, I held out hope for justice no matter what the world was faced with – constant and persistent hope. Perhaps when I had faced true oppression from another still-unpunished person (and the profound disappointment in humanity that comes with that) and when the veil started lifting on just how much of it is out there, is when I started to operate in a pessimistic framework, I’m not sure. It certainly feels like I am always waffling between the two and some days are better than others.

My friend’s words in that field, however, reminded me what faith can do for people in terms of hope. Militant atheists are probably going to jump all over me for pushing my hope onto a transcendental entity, to which I would reply that hope for future justice need not be in a different metaphysical realm. It can mean hope for justice right here, right now, wrought by over hands – and, as a believing Muslim, that still comes from Allah for me even if it doesn’t for people who don’t believe. The type of justice that can be brought in this life, however, is often not enough and this is where I take comfort in my belief in a Merciful and Just God. One sheikh was talking about how, if Hitler hadn’t gotten away with suicide, and the court had had their way with him regarding the Holocaust, there is still no way to achieve a certain level of justice necessary to account for the six to eight million lives he extinguished (never mind those lost in the war he instigated). Only with Allah can we be certain that, for such an individual, it is possible to be awoken and killed six million times throughout the rest of eternity.

But having faith is not only about hoping that criminals get their due punishments (while, very often in this life, they go free). It is also about having faith that we can garner the strength and energy needed to bring mercy and justice to this life as well. At the Black Lives Matter rally downtown a few weeks ago, I met an amazing couple of sisters who I instantly connected with. In talking with one of them, I was discussing the prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) about the end of time and how many people claim (and have also claimed at other unstable times in history) that that time is now because some of the signs appear to be upon us. How, then, can we be certain that all of this is not in vain and that things just won’t get irrevocably worse as we move towards the Last Day? All of that (I should note) fits into warped terroristic worldviews as they seek to bring about the apocalypse with their apocalyptic atrocities.

One of the sisters, however, was quick to state that even though that prophecy will inevitably be true, it does not have to be now. Doom and total destruction is not necessarily on the horizon for us because we can simply choose to live justly, seeking justice and doing good deeds together. We don’t have to give in to the rhetoric of fear, division and pessimism and, as a result, we can work towards a more optimistic future. Sounds pretty damn hopeful to me and something simple enough to be empowering and therefore doable.

hopefulness

The other inspiring thing I have been up to is working on my thesis. And while, for many disenchanted grad students (I’ve been there!), that can seem like a pretty weird place to find hope for the future (aren’t we all supposed to be procrastinating and eating cheerios while watching Netflix in bed?), it’s actually not that surprising. When you follow your passions, you will certainly find hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people right there with you. And that kind of unspoken community is enough alone to give you hope. After writing a thesis outline the other day, I went through a list of authors whose works I need to compile to inform my theoretical framework. Somehow, writing this book list to get from the library made me positively giddy. I started to literally swoon at my desk just thinking about all of the brilliant ideas that I would find between the covers of these books – all the information and careful thought put into assembling it, all the delightful analysis and discussion that would take place, all the changes in my own patterns of thinking that would take place, and that I would be bearing witness to all the time people had spent developing discourse on philosophical or historical ideas instead of time spent killing and oppressing each other. It was a sober reminder that there are libraries full of books, full of information, full of art, full of poetry, full of life and when we choose to engage with it, we come alive again too.

As of late, I have also been going back to nature to get recharged and renewed. That is not to say that we are somehow separate from nature, nor are we actually going back to it just by sitting in a forest instead of a city somewhere. Nature is not only all around us, it is us. “Going back to nature” is as simply as eating mindfully: chewing your food slowly and really seeing, smelling and tasting it. “Going back to nature” can happen in a concrete jungle simply by watching the ants move, or watching the wind whisper through the grass of your suburban lawn. Constructed nature tamed by humans is still nature and frankly, if you are always waiting for that trip to the mountains to slow down, recharge and marvel in the incredible and insane miracle of life, you’re probably going to fall into despair a lot faster than you need to.

Don’t lose hold of the mundane and sublime absurdity that is this life – the fact that we are water-based beings in hairy sacks of skin, occupying a blue and green planet in space and when we put the stuff that grows on this planet into our mouths, we somehow extract energy contained in it from a burning star to continue living for years. This place is pure magic and totally insane. In the relentless agony that is human politics, it can be very easy to forget that fact which is too bad because it certainly makes all that nasty human crap melt away pretty fast, doesn’t it?

What are your strategies for remaining hopeful?

This article was written by Nakita Valerio and originally published here.

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day (IWD), and many Canadians are celebrating what we believe to be achievements made by women, and the gains made for gender equality, in our country.

It is also a moment for us to remember heroines like the Famous Five Alberta women, whose petition to the Supreme Court of Canada led to women being legally considered “persons.” However, in the midst of our celebration, it is easy to forget that a notion of “inclusive” gender equality, embracing many different demographics of women in our communities including veiled Muslim women, indigenous women, women of colour, and others on the margins, remains an important and necessary goal.

It is easy to forget that it was one of the Famous Five, Emily Murphy, who remarked about Chinese Canadians: “We do not understand these people from the Orient, nor what ideas are hid behind their dark inscrutable faces.”

Divisive debate still triggered by what Muslim women wear

IWD is marked differently around the world. However, as we are celebrating, it shows how much further we have to go. It calls attention to the fact that the question of what a Muslim woman wears (whether the hijab, niqab or burka) still generates such furious, divisive debate among Canadians.

Nakita Valerio

Just last month, a woman wearing a burka was refused service at a North Edmonton business, rallying support and condemnation from both sides of the public debate. It was only recently that the federal government launched an official inquiry into the status of missing and murdered indigenous women.

IWD accentuates the fact that equality for women in this country is still heavily tied to the individual’s background, religious, racial, or otherwise.

Additionally, this inequity is highlighted this year as Women’s Day coincides with celebrations of Alberta’s 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, when Alberta joined Manitoba and Saskatchewan as the first provinces to allow women the right to vote in provincial elections.

Unequal women’s rights

While an important move in the history of the province, such an anniversary further reminds us of the unequal distribution of women’s rights because suffrage was applied unevenly at the provincial and federal levels.

The suffrage provisions of 1916 did not include Japanese and Chinese women who weren’t legally franchised until 1948, nor did it include indigenous peoples, whose suffrage also came unevenly across the country and who weren’t fully franchised until 1960.

I argue that some of the rhetoric surrounding IWD, and other events that are not necessarily promoting a brand of “intersectional” or inclusive feminism, depends on a particular vision of liberation that does not recognize a woman’s own voice.

Nowhere has this been more prevalent that in debates around whether or not head coverings are intrinsically oppressive or liberating, which continue to plague Canadian women of all backgrounds including Muslims, Sikhs and South Asians.

New feminism is based on the understanding that there is nothing inherently liberating about one expression over another. Rather, the liberation is in a woman’s choice and part of modern gender equality rests on the acceptance of diverse womanhood on her own terms, regardless of one’s background.

Edmonton hosts ongoing women’s interfaith discussions

Edmonton, thankfully, is a host to ongoing women’s interfaith conversation groups, Muslim-indigenous education workshops, and public school lectures on the status of women and veiling in Islam.

We are also lucky to have Metro Cinema’s three-night film festival titled, You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down, starting March 8, hosted here in Edmonton and supportive of dozens of local female artists and women’s social justice organizations in the city.

Indeed, local advocacy groups have taken to creating spaces that are safe and welcoming for women of all backgrounds. One such group, the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, views the day as an opportunity to engage in critical dialogue with women across the province.

Ultimately, the critique of International Women’s Day serves to unify the mandate of groups who attempt to celebrate the diversity of women on their own terms and to continue to sound the call for a new, inclusive feminism to take hold everywhere.

Nakita Valerio is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish-Islamic studies (history) at the University of Alberta. She was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s 2015 Top 30 Under 30 and was awarded the QEII scholarship for graduate students. She is also director of public policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.