Change is a long game; pace yourself

This month, I will be quietly celebrating my 10th anniversary as executive director of Community Change Inc. No small feat, as we are one of the oldest anti-racism organizations in the United States—founded in 1968, at a time when the United States was in racial turmoil.

Our founding was the direct result of the Kerner Commission Report, which found that the roots of the 1967 race riots across the country were due to deeply embedded racial inequities. In other words, in 1967, Black communities did not have the same resources as white communities and were mad as hell about it. Our founder, Horace Seldon, a white minister, understood that in order to dismantle racism, you had to work on the white problem. Which meant, working with white people to get them to understand how the benefits they received as white people were at the expense of non-white people. 

As I type this, these words seem like a no-brainer in today’s climate (for anyone paying attention to reality). But in 1968, they were radical. Hell, even in 2014, they were still pretty radical. This type of language and thought—this kind of racial analysis—they were not readily accessible outside of activist and academic spaces. 

In the last decade, I have seen a lot of shifts in racial justice work. The intersection of the then-burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, social media as a tool for activism, and greater awareness of state-sanctioned violence against Black people all created the perfect storm for what, at the same time, seemed like real change. 

Trump’s presidency and racism only added to the frenzy of activity as untold numbers of white people started to realize that the United States that they thought existed was less a reality than a myth that had been peddled to us for generations. 

The culmination of the Black Lives Matter movement occurred in 2020 when George Floyd was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer and his murder was recorded by a brave young woman. 

The summer of 2020 was the apex of the Black Lives Matter movement, as corporations declared themselves anti-racist and vowed to create racially equitable workplaces, pledging money and support to such efforts. As I have written before, everyone and their mama who wasn’t white started to declare themselves to be diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) experts. President Biden even declared Juneteenth a national holiday. For a moment, it seemed as if America was serious about its race problem. 

That year ended, memories started to fade and, well, nothing happened. Except that the Racist Right and their surrogates proved to be far savvier organizers in many ways than were the anti-racists and their allies. Hate crimes started to jump exponentially, racist people ran for public offices and won, and—well, we can see now—the backlash to racial liberation is in full swing. 

I can tell you, as the executive director of CCI, we received more money in 2020 than we had ever received. Our revenue jumped from 2019 to 2020 by over $200,000. Which, for a small, grassroots nonprofit is huge. That increase allowed us to expand staffing and programming outside of our primarily service area of Boston. 

Fast-forward to 2023 and revenue has steadily decreased since the end of 2020. To the point that we no longer can afford certain critical staff positions. By late 2023, I had to tap our emergency piggy bank to make payroll. Our annual fundraiser was a bust and as of this writing, our year-end appeal is far from reaching its goal. The truth is, it will take a miracle to ensure our survival past this year, and I don’t say that lightly. 

As for other organizers across the nation, many who were active several years ago have quietly faded away, proven to either be of questionable character or burnt-out from the sheer exhaustion of the work. 

Those of us who have endured and who are still in the work have come to realize that we are playing a very long game on the path to liberation. That means that self-care and community-care have to be a part of our work. 

In the months since the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s unrelenting and brutal retaliation, I have been thinking a lot about the role of self-care in activism, as I watch online activists and content creators work themselves into a frenzied state to lift up the voices of the Palestinian people who are literally dealing with life and death every moment of the day, as Israel attacks innocent people indiscriminately. 

Many Palestinian journalists and others have asked the world to get their message out, which is understandable and the least we can do—until it becomes so dogmatic that it becomes dehumanizing of any who are not Palestinian. 

In recent weeks, it has become popular to bash people who are not continuously using their platforms to talk about the plight of the Palestinians. A few days ago, one of my Patreon patrons canceled their pledge because they felt I was allowing people to make excuses for why they are not speaking out about the Palestinians. 

I responded on the Blackgirlinmaine Facebook page and Patreon with the following thoughts: 

By all means, if you are healthy and have the bandwidth, use your voice and platform to speak out on behalf of what is happening to the Palestinians. Speak out for all who suffer from injustice and cruelty. For all whose lives are lost in this unjust world.

But understand that part of creating a better world is extending grace and care to all. To understand that maybe the people you see posting what seems frivolously online are barely hanging on by a thread and come online to take a breath from the pressures they are facing. We live in a time when many don’t know how to be real about the horrors in their lives, but if you stop for a moment. you will see, many around you are struggling. It’s why I choose to extend grace because damn it, in my work, I know what it feels like to keep showing up for the cause, the campaign, etc, when you barely are functioning. I know what it’s like to fight for justice and our shared humanity, when people are literally disregarding your humanity and treating you like a social change machine, instead of a person working for social change.

What we are seeing in Gaza is heartbreaking, it is absolutely incomprehensible, it is unspeakable. There is no disputing that, as were the attacks by Hamas that killed people who were going about their lives. There is no end to the suffering in this world, we just do our best to make it a little better. Fighting and judging others because they aren’t doing enough though, isn’t going to move the needle. It has taken me years to realize that this approach doesn’t get us free. Grace truly has to be a part of our work. 

In a time when people are overwhelmed far beyond the usual, I stand on my belief that fighting with people who share your values because they are not performing according to your standard is a waste of time. It is also one of the hidden and insidious ways that whiteness sneaks in and takes over despite our best intentions. Whiteness ultimately does not allow grace and is selective in whose humanity gets to matter, though generally it can never be expansive in seeing humanity as a whole. Whiteness also does not grasp the concept of rest. Rest is seen as wasteful; not productive. 

The uncomfortable truth is that no matter how much we use our platforms, attend protests, and write our lawmakers here in the United States, our country has a blind allegiance to Israel and a president who has proudly proclaimed himself to be a Zionist. 

It is going to take a lot more than 80-11 posts on Instagram or TikTok to move the powers-that-be, especially after the Biden administration decided to bypass Congress and approve yet another emergency weapons sale to Israel. 

As Dream Hampton, a Black filmmaker, producer and writer tweeted several days ago on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “We are at the soul crushing stage where we start blaming one another for not “doing” anything to stop the genocide of Palestinians. Black folks in the US know all too well the limits of mass protests as something more than narrative shifting.” 

Dream later added: “Narrative shifts are powerful, but they are no match for the military industrial complex and feckless US leadership that has zero interest in intervening in the kind of ethnic cleansing they taught the world is step one in how a state builds itself into a world power.” 

Dream’s words were a powerful reminder to me of how our organizing and activism must be strategic and balanced. It also moves beyond the moment. In this case, building power to shift the narrative but with teeth to push our elected officials to do better. Looking at the larger landscape and seeing what groups are already knowledgeable and organizing that we can build with. 

One thing that I have painfully learned from the era of Black Lives Matter is that awareness alone rarely creates lasting change. Strategy and working together and being committed over the long run is how we create long-lasting change. When we do this with others, it also allows us to work together and honor our respective limits, knowing that together we are better than as solo voices in the wind. 

The other thing is that a steady diet of violence and injustice takes a toll on our bodies and spirits. If we truly want to be the voice for those who are helpless and without voice, we have to maintain wellness so we can stay in the fight. It means knowing when a break is necessary. 

That means knowing when we need to step back to tend to ourselves and trust that our comrades who are better equipped will stay in the struggle. We are no good to anyone if we are exhausted and barely functioning. Stepping back to care for ourselves is not giving up or retreating, it’s refueling and it’s why working in community with others is critical. Our friends and comrades are often the first ones to notice when we need to tend to our gardens. 

Several years ago, a dear comrade asked me if I had a therapist. I didn’t at the time. She suggested that I consider going to therapy, and I asked her if she thought something was wrong with me. She said no, but she felt that it was imperative that as a Black woman leading an anti-racism organization that worked with white people, I had to have a healthy way to deal with the stress of the work. She was right. I ended up in therapy for five consecutive years and I now do maintenance check-ins. 

Those years of therapy gave me the foundation to stay in my work. It’s why I knew enough to name my recent bout of exhaustion. I know my baseline of emotional and mental wellness and I can feel it in my body. Most of the people in my core ecosystem all have some level of external support because when we activate in community with others, we create the community that holds us through the ups and downs of the work.  Remember this: Despite the story that Rosa Parks was just a tired seamstress who refused to give up her seat, the reality is that she was a skilled organizer who was part of an intentional campaign for justice. She was part of a larger community with a plan and who knew that they faced a hard road ahead to change and that change wasn’t going to happen overnight. In these moments of bloodshed and turmoil, we would be wise to look to the previous generations of change-makers who didn’t burn themselves out immediately but who played the long game.

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