There Is No Me in Activism

Photo Sarah Whiting

Over the past year (I wonder what’s behind that timing?), I’ve spent a lot of time discussing big issues with groups of similarly mobilized and passionate people. It can be eye-opening, speech-making fun. It can also be exhausting. 

What nobody tells you about activists is that while we’re smart, bold and generally fantastic, we’re also really egomaniacal. Everyone wants to be the most ingenious revolutionary, so we 
spend a ton of time thinking of something clever to say instead of actually listening to and learning from our colleagues. It’s a debilitating thing to do, and draining to witness.

I came face to face with my own failings in this area a few months ago, while participating in a workshop at Women’s Congress led by local storyteller Rose McGee about sharing and 
listening to personal stories. Being a complete goody two-shoes, I followed the directions to a tee and purposefully listened to each of the other group members as they revealed their  passions, fears, and inspirations. 

I spoke as well, but unlike other occasions, I didn’t try to figure out the coolest thing to say. I left energized and grateful to my fellow participants. It was the first time I’d truly listened to anyone in months.

Since then, by making a conscious effort to become less of a blabbermouth and more of listener, I’ve become a better activist. Crucially, I’ve come to understand that for every person there are issues where they should lead the conversation and ones where they need to humbly listen and learn. For example, as a biracial citizen of the United States, I have some authority to speak on multiculturalism. But as a really, really pale biracial person, I know nothing about what it’s like to experience everyday racism and should listen to people who do. 

Can I have an opinion on topics I don’t understand well? You betcha! Does everybody need to know that opinion? Probably not. 

I urge my fellow activists to rebel thoughtfully. Lead when it’s your turn. Follow when it’s not. Shout and march, listen and learn. If you don’t know something, ask. Use your voice and your ears. Every once in a while, take a deep breath and remind yourself that everything isn’t about you: it’s about us.