By Sica Schmitz
Founder of Bead & Reel, frequent speaker, writer, and sustainable stylist.
One of the hardest thing about activism is….. other activists.
It’s a difficult thing to talk about, but it’s been weighing on me lately, and apparently others too. Yes Magazine wrote a fabulous piece entitled Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists, and last Sunday while at the LA Animal Save Pig Vigil, I heard Moby give a stirring reminder about how the in-fighting among progressive movements is causing more harm than good.
This in-fighting is something I’ve seen an unfortunate amount of, especially the past few months. Vegan brands attacking other vegan brands, ethical fashion advocates accusing other ethical fashion advocates, allies being dismissed for not being “good” enough. While we all want the same thing – a kinder, more compassionate, more inclusive world, right? – and should be on the same side, often times those committed to change spend more time tearing down than raising up each other. The conversations center around differing approaches instead of shared goals, arguments happen over varying definitions of “ethical” instead focusing on the things we all do agree on.
I’m guilty of this too. In the social justice circles I run in – from veganism to feminism to fair trade – there are plenty of people I don’t agree with. There are plenty of people I don’t respect or even like – and, I know some who feel the same about me. But I also know that we need as many people as possible working to create positive change, and I’ve come to realized that I don’t have to be on board with everything a person thinks or says or does, I don’t have to be friends with them, and I don’t even have to endorse their methods or organizations, but I do have to remain supportive of the good work they are doing.
And you do too. So this week I’m sharing some of tools I use to stay focused amidst the distractions.
Side note: this post is about how to remain supportive of people and organizations who have different personalities, approaches, and opinions than you – it is NOT encouraging you to support people or organizations who are abusive or exploitive. We definitely should not be supporting those, and have an obligation as activists to treat those situations with resistance!
JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen incorrect assumptions tear apart organizations and movements and collaborations. So before jumping to conclusions about what someone meant or the way something was handled, just talk to them about it. Uncomfortable and challenging conversations are important – if we can’t have them with each other, how can we ever expect to have them with people who aren’t already on our side?
THINK OF THE BIG PICTURE
We get into social justice because we’re trying to fight for something: equality, fairness, compassion. Don’t let petty squabbles or personality differences get in the way of the things we are trying to accomplish. If an issue is not something that can be talked out and worked out, choose your battles and put your energy into the big changes we’re working on together.
People aren’t always nice. Not even nice people, and not even people who are working towards nice causes. But fighting fire with fire just leaves a whole lot of things scorched (plus, it’s not great for the environment!). So no matter how hurtful or insulting someone is towards you or your cause, react with kindness. This does not mean you have to be a doormat, but, a firm + kind response is always better received than a just firm response.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH ALLIES
We all have to work together to reach social justice goals, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time with people who just aren’t on the same wavelength as you. In fact, you shouldn’t! It’s important to be around people who support you, inspire you, and understand you. Activism is incredibly challenging both mentally and emotionally, and having a tribe who can accept you through difficult times and celebrate with you through exciting times can really helps balance out the inevitable work you’ll still have with people who perhaps aren’t quite your cup of tea.
It would be very easy to become hardened and bitter in the face of injustice, and even more so when the people who should be on your side, aren’t. In order to maintain the compassion needed for the tough road ahead (which is basically every road in activism), we must forgive often and generously. People will make mistakes, they will misspeak, they will do dumb things. You will make mistakes, misspeak, do dumb things. I do all of these all the time. But it’s up to us to forgive each other, to assume the best in each other, and truly be the kind of people we wish to see in the world.