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. 

This talk was delivered by Nakita Valerio on March 18, 2017 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as part of the interfaith event, Religious Freedoms: A Community Conversation.

Assalamu ‘alaikum, peace be upon all of you.

I want to thank you all for having me here today, especially the organizers for putting together this wonderful day and program.  I want to begin by acknowledging that we are on Treaty 6 territory which is the traditional land of Indigenous peoples who have lived, gathered and passed through here for many thousands of years. In doing this, I want to convey my utmost respect for the dignified histories, languages and cultures of all First Peoples of Canada and reiterate that each and every one of us is a treaty person whether we arrived yesterday, are indigenous to the land, or were born here from settler-immigrant families. We all have a responsibility to uphold treaty values which include mutual respect and working to ensure we all remain here together.

I normally begin all of my lectures with treaty recognition but today it is especially important as I want to start my talk on religious freedoms by reading an excerpt from a different treaty – one written in the year 713, two years after the Muslim arrival from North Africa into what would be Al-Andalus – a Muslim polity in Europe for 750 years, and what is now known as Spain and Portugal. The Treaty of Tudmir was a peace treaty between ‘Abd al Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusair and Theodemir, the local ruler of an area called Murcia. The document is interesting because it counters the narrative that violent military victories are what enabled the conquest of the peninsula. In fact, it calls the entire notion of conquest into question as it suggests that the process of taking over the peninsula was gradual and piecemeal and required mutual respect and cooperation between incoming Muslims and their Christian and Jewish subjects. The treaty itself establishes the local religious communities as protected groups under Muslim rule, meaning a guarantee of their personal safety and allowing them to freely practice their religion in exchange for loyalty and (of course) becoming tax payers.

My point in bringing this treaty as an example is to show several things. Firstly, the idea of and anxieties about religious freedom go a lot further back into history than we think. And secondly, the very preoccupation with religious freedoms has historically been related to Muslim-Christian relations and how to navigate and negotiate our differences throughout our shared history together.

The Treaty of Tudmir is only one paragraph long, in which Abd al Aziz ibn Musa Ibn Nusair agrees not to set special conditions on the local Christians, nor harass them, nor remove them from local power. Christians would not be killed nor taken prisoner and they certainly wouldn’t be separated from their women and children (which was common practice in pre-Islamic conquests). Most importantly, the treaty notes that Christians and Jews “will not be coerced in matters of religion, their churches will not be burned, nor will sacred objects be taken from the realm.”

Much of this sentiment derives from the Qur’an itself, the Islamic Holy Book, believed by Muslims the world over to be the direct word of God, passed through the Angel Gabriel to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) during the 7th century. Chapter 2, verse 256 of the Qur’an clearly states: “There is no compulsion where the religion is concerned.”

According to Islam, everyone has the right to live freely by his beliefs, whatever they may be. Anyone who wants to support a church, a synagogue or a mosque must be free to do so. In this sense, freedom of religion is one of the basic tenets of Islam, whether or not Muslim have been or are currently very good at implementing that.

So, if this has been a continuous preoccupation with religious freedom in Islam, being the most recent of the Abrahamic faiths, where do many of the modern problems concerning religious freedom come from then? Why are Muslims constantly in the news, particularly in secularized European and North American countries, and especially as it relates to their rights to worship, to build mosques, to pray and other rather simple aspects of Muslim life? Why are Muslim women, like me, constantly hearing about how our veils (worn freely for the sake of worshiping God through our modesty) are incompatible with things like Canadian values? When speaking of catastrophic refugee crises, why have many nations including America and at one point Canada, prioritized Christian refugees over Muslim ones because the latter seem incompatible with North American life? (leaving aside, of course, more important questions about the right to life and safety for these traumatized people fleeing terrible horror and tragedy) Why are these tensions continuously arising between Muslims and Christians? And more often and especially between Muslims and secular institutions?

The problem for me is an issue of translation and definition. Our ideas of religious freedom hinges on and differ based on how we define religion. In the verse of the Holy Qur’an that I quoted, about there being no compulsion in religion, I must note the term that God uses to refer to what we now call religion. In the original Arabic, which the Qur’an was sent down in, the term we now, in my opinion, improperly translate as religion is: Deen and this is largely where the issues stem from.

Deen is not the same thing as the current societal understanding of religion. Both of these terms have their historical geneaologies and both of them mean very different things according to those contexts. And our understanding of our terms has not been fully excavated or accurately translated. You know, academics in my circles are obsessed with defining terms because we know that defining them different ways manifests completely different understandings and social realities according to context and time. We build social worlds for ourselves based on how we define things, so it’s natural that when there is continuous issues, we would return to the terms as the root of our discrepancies.

The original Hebrew term, din, meant law or judgment and, in ancient Israel, often referred to governance and the Jewish legal system, as in beit din. In Islam, the term connotes government, law, reward, punishment, loyalty and submission. It is more accurately translated into our entire comprehensive way of life, or even more accurately, a cultural system.

This differs from the modern, especially secularized, understanding of the term religion. The term religion comes from a specifically Christian historical context but through time, has evolved beyond that and has come to relate primarily to one’s private beliefs about the “supernatural”. Because religion has come to mean what we privately believe about God, there is an assumption that we can simply keep those beliefs and our actions around them at home and the public sphere can somehow be a “neutral” space for community engagement whatever our backgrounds. Where Judaism and Islam are concerned first and foremost with practice and governing social behaviour, which is decidedly public, and we use appropriate terms that are reflective of that, the term religion in the definition of private beliefs, when applied to these systems simply doesn’t work.  It is most important to note that the assumption that the public space free of religion is EMPTY is simply a historical falsity. Just because a secular public sphere seems to be empty does not mean that it is and we all need to think critically about what cultural system is invisibly in place – what values are we taking for granted because we are continuously under the assumption that nothing is there?

A famous hadith (or historical testimony from one of the companions of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him at the time he was alive) states that Muhammad said: “Deen is very easy and whoever overburdens himself with it will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshiping in the mornings, the nights.” Here, it is clear that Deen must mean a complete way of life, and indeed, in Islam there are comprehensive guidances for almost everything you can imagine, from how and when to pray to how to brush your teeth, which shoes to wear, how to treat the environment, and what conduct is appropriate for dealing with our spouses, our families, our neighbours, our children and the wider communities. While the first pillar of Islam is, indeed, our declaration of faith, that there is no God except God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God, our way of life does not stop there.

Because Islam encompasses every detail of how we live our lives, it means that there can’t really be a secular, religion-free public sphere how people imagine it, as long as Muslims are around. Now before anyone thinks I am arguing that Muslims cannot live in secular society (which I am not) I want to state clearly and unequivocally, that historically Muslims have lived under persecution for their religion for hundreds of years, they have done so secretly for their very survival and will do whatever it takes to maintain their way of life, even if that mean, forcing it into the private sphere. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Further, does this tension mean that Muslims do not follow local laws as some groups would improperly claim, that we instead only follow shariah and are trying to implement it locally and impose it on everyone? Of course not. Part of the guidance of our way of life is in following the leadership and rule of our local governments as long as they do not cause us to leave our spiritual path. And that spiritual path is for us alone. And if there are local laws against aspects of our way of life, as I said, we are also permitted to acquiesce to those laws, depending on the context and time.

What it does mean, and explains historically, is why Muslims and Jews and many other “religious” minorities have decidedly been the OTHER in secular historical contexts, often with catastrophic results (most notably the Holocaust and colonization). In fact, there are virtually no other religious groups in the world who define their ways of life as privitizable or somehow limited to their beliefs only. There are none. And Christian groups who focus a lot on governing social behaviour are now feeling the same pressure against their ways of life in the so-called “neutral” public sphere, despite the fact that such a concept historically originated in Christian contexts.

While this is only the beginning of a much more complex and deep discussion of religion as an entity, I do want to briefly meditate on what the way forward for religious freedom then is?  I would say, that the first place to start is in definitions and translation, and that begins with education. If Islam, Judaism and virtually all other ways of life were understood for what they are, it would become immediately clear that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere will be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. And if the truth of diversity studies enhancing our shared communities has anything to say about it, it would be that keeping the practices of those ways of life out of the public sphere is also detrimental to our understanding of one another.We have to recognize that historically and presently, we are not incompatible with one another. We have coexisted for centuries. We have to stay firm that it is not an option that coexistence fails. It takes hard work and agreements, and that work begins with the work of translating how we understand our own ways of life and having others learn that too.

Now, lest someone argue that I am against secularism, I need only mention that it not secularism itself which is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings. It is the idea of a homogenized, so-called “empty” public sphere that is at the heart of these social ills and misunderstandings and which I demand critique of. If the public sphere was instead understood as a pluralistic and diverse space for multiple ways of life to coexist in the spirit of treaties from 1300 years ago – Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Brahmanism, the Sikh way of life, many others AND secularism, respectful of one anothers’ differences –  we could move forward in a much easier manner together. That is why I personally and professionally remain committed to protecting the religious freedoms of all ways of life, even when Islam is not part of the picture.

I look forward to speaking more to these issues on the panel.

Thank you.


16265681_10154323322850753_2679466403133227560_nNakita 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 and sits on the advisory committee for the Chester Ronning Center for the Study of Religion and Public Life.  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.