Shinen Wong explores motivations we may bring to social change work, some ways we may be acting out of habit or reactivity, and proposes spaces for deliberation, intentionality, and motivational transparency that can keep us sustained in the long haul.
In my own life, I have noticed a particular evolution in my experiences of engagement with progressive social change work. There are two seemingly polar identities that I straddle. Indeed, I sometimes continue to pendulum swing back and forth between them.
The first is the sense of myself as a hero, a maverick, a lone ranger; someone who has privileged access to an awareness of how this system is broken, and with an arrogant self-capacity to make things better. “If only others could be converted to my own understanding and into doing things my way”.
The second is the sense of myself as a complete fraud, a failure, a has-been, a tragic mistake, a trajectory off of the arc of history diminishing its bend toward justice.
Let me be clear: Both the first and the second senses are understandable personal reactions or responses to the work that we do or have done, or that we need to do or have yet to do. Sometimes oppressive status quo ideals are so entrenched, and most of the rest of society so deeply implicated in enacting and institutionalising oppression, that it is perfectly reasonable to see the need for individual heroism amidst calamity. In tandem with that, sometimes our own doubt, fear, deep co-optation by dominant culture and our own complicity in oppression have become so cancerous that it is worth holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes. By this I mean examining the ways we have been “fraudulent” in our work and how we may have let down the more noble parts of our intention and imagination.
But let me be doubly clear: The self-concepts of “Hero” and “Fraud” are both equally egotistical and any attachment to, or over-indulgence in either, will ultimately undermine our very best attempts at social change. They will mire us in cesspools of either our own self-aggrandisement or self-abnegation, and may thwart the emergence of coalition and commitment that are necessary for sustainability in this work.
I want to reflect on a possible remedy.
Let us nurture a community of practice. I mean this not only in terms of a shared space of political solidarity in which ideas are excitedly exchanged between compatriots in search of comradeship. I also mean a community of activists which prioritises the relationships we have with one another. By this I mean to explore how we are committed not only to a “movement” (or any series of movements) as the basis for our relationships, abstractly speaking, but we are also committed to our relationships being themselves the very bases of our movements!
A community of activist practice, for me, must therefore include moments of both facilitated and organically emergent intentional silence where speech and extroversion become less privileged.These spaces are held for the practice of rumination, digestion and calm consolidation.
“Activist” itself could become a misnomer, in a sense, in that we are willing not only to “act” with one another, but we are also willing to drop our act and enter a space in the vulnerability of “unknowing” and unlearning.
To be a part of actioning social change I propose that we share our uncertainty and curiosity as part of the action, rather than viewing them as the “gaps” in our understanding that require filling. Indeed, that uncertainty and curiosity are themselves types of action. That to fix something, we sometimes must first contemplate in the midst of righteous anger or the subtle joy of being with other like-minded technicians of change, the silence that is all pervasive under the noise of the system that we are all a part of and that we are simultaneously manifestations of.
May we not lose sight of what is possible, and to be mindful of both the tenacious indignation as well as the wise patience and humility that are required of us to achieve this. Dropping our attachments to heroism or fraudulence, may we share moments of contemplative respite with other activists, where the simple recognition of our shared presence nourishes us to continue along the next leg of the journey that we have yet to embark on and the work that we have yet to complete.
What identities or senses of yourself do you carry in your social change work? How could space for contemplation with others help you be more intentional?
If you are interested in exploring some of these questions and creating a space of shared reflection, I would be very happy to hear from you! Contact shinen(at)gmail(dot)com
Shinen Wong has worked for over a decade locally and internationally in HIV education, sexual health promotion, and community development for young people, GLBT communities, culturally diverse communities and communities of colour. He is currently a volunteer and project worker on the Resisting Racism in Victoria Project hosted by RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees in Melbourne. Shinen is passionate about interweaving theory, being, and practice in leadership, adult and organisational development, culture change, and in the enactment of social justice.