Over the last year, the Carold Institute has made it possible for me to enjoy a sabbatical as the 2017 Alan Thomas Fellow. After 25 years of activism, largely in Quebec’s feminist movement, I was definitely ready for a break.
You see, like many of you, I had been swimming against the current for a long time. My body and mind were tired, injured to be more precise. I had spent the last six years front and centre in some of society’s most divisive debates: rape culture, the Quebec Charter of Values and anti-muslim racism, austerity and neoliberal policy, to name just a few. And I paid the price for refusing to toe the party line. Faced with ridicule, insults, threats to my life, scapegoating, pigeon holing and gaslighting, I withstood the pressures for quite some time, but eventually I cracked.
The fellowship timing was perfect. I needed a different pace, away from the pushes and pulls of everyday activism. Most of my time was spent writing a book (Les angles morts: Perspectives sur le Québec actuel) about the blind spots facing Quebec and Canadian society, regarding feminism, relations with indigenous people, systemic racism, violence against women and rising inequalities.
It was time to take a step back in order to better understand the violence that often comes with breaking the rules. One of the challenges we have is to sustain healthy social movements, able to withstand the pressures associated with swimming against the current, without people burning out. This requires a high degree of thoughtful practice on the part of activists and shift disturbers.
Looking back on my experience both as a career activist and with the benefit of a year of reflection, here is my list of six ways to develop a sustainable culture of rebelliousness:
1. Recognize that you are dealing with deeply entrenched power dynamics
People and organizations will defend their power, their place in the world and their worldview. If you are involved in a movement that gets in the way of a government agenda, be prepared to feel the effects of its power. If you are challenging something that has become normalized in the culture or the economy, you will get a push back. If you are attacking a deeply held belief system, expect resistance, denial, unfair tactics, marginalization, and more nastiness. We can’t afford to be naive.
2. Acknowledge that working surrounded by a lot of opposition can be draining
Burn-out is not the result of individual weakness or failure. It is a result of unhealthy, sustained levels of stress, feelings of powerlessness and overwork. Factor in rest and renewal into the planning of the movement, the campaign or the controversial work. Make sure people take turns taking the hits. Find ways to work consciously with the cycle of life, with its ebbs and flows, births, deaths and renewals. In the spirit of working with these cycles, honour the work of those that have come before you as a way to get perspective and to feed into timeless energy.
3. Develop and sustain a culture of bravery
Many people are afraid to speak truth to power. That’s totally understandable because we are taught very young to conform to authority. We learn to pipe down, to avoid confrontation, to be nice. We are afraid of being punished, excluded or hurt. In order to be able to share the role of shift disturber in hostile climates, we need more people to be ready and able to speak up and take risks in the name of struggles for justice and self-determination. If piping down is a learned behaviour, then so is speaking up. Factor this into your education and awareness work. Encourage people in your movements to practice speaking truth to power even inside your organization and to foster the openness required to hear when we are also challenged to see power dynamics at play.
4. Deepen solidarity
As a shift disturber, know when to ask for help from people and organizations around you. They tend not to offer help and support by themselves. They are too busy to notice that you might need them. Make sure to ask. Be ready to return the favour. In fact, make practices of solidarity a priority. Plan for it. Think about who might need it. Think about which voices are most marginalized and why when making this choice. Take initiative. Decide which struggles you want to pay attention to and which networks you will stay in close touch with.
5. Imagine what a better world looks like and be ready to name it
Many social change actors focus on resisting the unjust or the dangerous. And rightly so. We need to stop terrible things from happening to the environment, to indigenous communities, to public services, to refugees facing deportation. Resistance, disturbing the status quo, strikes and demonstrations, direct action are extremely important forms of action for change makers. The challenge lies in avoiding getting stuck in a defensive position, constantly trying to just avoid the worst. It’s important to make sure to eek out space for imagining and working towards a better future. What is it we want? Let’s name it and work towards it. This is especially important for those seeking a radical reimagining of power and society.
6. Never underestimate the power of social change work
It is highly likely that what we are defending is legitimate and relevant even when the media and key actors don’t take you seriously or even ridicule you. Sometimes, it takes years for what gets held as the truth to get shaken up. The current frame of thought will define what is worth knowing. I have been told so many times that I exaggerated. Now I know that I’m onto something when this happens. You never know when people are ready for a shift in awareness. Keep that in focus when it appears as though we are not gaining ground.
Finding better ways to sustain our movements is a collective, not just personal responsibility. It is also a question of gender justice for, when we neglect to share this work, it befalls far too often on women who pick up the slack at the expense of their own well-being. The politics of care and of self-care have been developed by Black and Indigenous feminist thinkers who know only too well how to sustain life in the face of death and destruction. Most of what I have learned has been by paying attention to the indigenous and Black feminist activists with whom I’ve worked but there are also some important texts that connect issues, organizing and experience.
Here is a small sample of important resources to get started:
- bell hooks: Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, All about Love.
- Audre Lorde: Your Silence Will Not Protect You: Essays and Poems
- Devon Abbott Mihesuah: Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism
- Winona LaDuke: Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming
Curated by the CKX Team and awesome contributors-at-large (Read: YOU), #CKX6 is a recurring series that shares six great resources, tools or insights on a particular topic, trend or issue related to our shared pursuit of social change.