Confronting the (White Supremacist/Hyper-Capitalist) “Frenzy of Activism”

January 22, 2019 7 Comments

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”

– Thomas Merton, from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Image from Charles Patrick Ewing, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0,

The quote above has been cited every now and then over the past dozen years or so that I have been with IISC, including a later line – “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace.” Some combination of these words seem to come to mind and lips more frequently as many of the organizations and networks with which we work are are dealing with oppressive dynamics of overwork and urgency, whether they identify as activist or not.

These dynamics are increasingly recognized as an aspect of white dominant and supremacist culture and hyper-capitalist fervor that reduces many people to “producers” in the workplace and extracts as much labor as they can give. In our race equity and social change work, we see this as part and parcel of the structures that must be named and addressed for justice, liberation and sustainability to be realized.

In a recent workshop with an organization we are supporting through a two-year race, equity and inclusion transformation process, we invited the predominantly white staff into a dialogue circle to unpack their self-identified culture of overwork and urgency, to look more deeply at what they are gaining from this (and who in particular gains most), what they are losing (and who loses most), and what it would take to do commit to creating something different. Here is some of what we have heard, aspects of which are being echoed in various other organizations, networks and communities (curious to know what resonates):

What are the real felt impacts of our culture of overwork and urgency?

  • Deterioration of physical health 
  • Isolation
  • Emotional fragility
  • Vacations become not long enough/just enough time to disconnect from work
  • Cynicism about our work/mission
  • Forgetfulness for why we signed up for this
  • Beating yourself up – belief that you are “not good enough”
  • Undervaluing time for reflection
  • Sadness from missing and misinterpreting one another
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Can’t do justice to our justice work
  • Perpetuation of white supremacy/racism

What is gained from this culture?

  • A tangible sense of accomplishment
  • Profit
  • Easy affirmation
  • Weight!
  • A greater sense of dominant culture success
  • The (false) image of success
  • The feeling of self-importance
  • The accolades of outside orgs
  • Recognition from donors
  • Excuses — for not being present
  • Quantifiable metrics for our work
  • The financial ability to hire more people and hire salaries 

What is lost in this culture?

  • Time with our families
  • Perspective
  • Our authenticity
  • Compassion for each other
  • Creativity
  • Courage
  • The ability to know one another
  • The ability to take risks in a safe space
  • Learning time
  • The ability to listen to selves, other, and constituents
  • Time for reflection and meaningful feedback 
  • The belief that our success is not up to us

What will it take for us to shift to something else?

  • That we do this together
  • Greater awareness
  • Trust one another
  • Walk our talk
  • More maturity
  • Being able to say “no” with grace
  • Calling it when we see it – white dominant culture
  • Becoming more humble
  • Celebrating when we see models of the opposite
  • Checking our egos at the door
  • Willingness to wade through the change pain that will come as we shift
  • Remember the goals of those who have come before
  • Recognize that how we do is equal to or more important than what we do
  • Recognizing we are in a larger culture that does this
  • Seeing it modeled/encouraged from the top down
  • Have patience

With this group and others, we are helping them to develop the courage and collaboration commitment to create more space and spaciousness for something else to germinate. We are doing this through identifying very specific and even small ways, prototypes, to test, connect and grow over time.

And we are eager to hear from others who are being bold about stepping into something else that is an example of the more just, sustainable and beautiful world we know is possible.

What are you stepping out of and into?

How are you doing this?

What is difficult about this?

What is liberating about this?

Image by mckaysavage, shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

7 Comments

  • jim best says:

    Knowing. Stepping out of and letting go of what I “know to be” in my mind through humble inquiry, and into, what others “know to be.” Simultaneously stepping into what I feel and know to be true for me by listening with full body sense to what resonates, and looking to see what is authentically resonating for others. It is difficult to maintain persistent curiosity and continuous learning in the face of my furious sensemaking drive. It is difficult to own what I know amidst the din of voices that tell me what I do not know. There is liberation in floating freely beyond the narrowness of rigid answers and weightlessness, nimbleness, and joy in freshly encountering the new.

  • I am stepping out of a culture of being busy, into a culture of intentionality and slowness.

    I am doing this in many ways. Through practical actions such as uncluttering (my home, my devices, my mind). Through the cultivation of daily rhythms which help me slow down – yoga, reading ‘unplugged’ from all devices, time in sit spots in my garden. Through loads more time in nature. (Much of these inspired and encouraged by brilliant people in the slow living movement, such as Brooke McAlary https://slowyourhome.com, Joshua Becker http://www.becomingminimalist.com and Courtney Carver https://bemorewithless.com.) Through work on myself, my inner landscape and designer’s mind, reading books written by people from different cultures to mine, trying to get my head around decolonisation. Through noticing when my doing things might be taking away power and possibilities from people I’m working alongside.

    It is difficult to shake off 20 years of measuring myself and my work by activity, outputs and ‘outcomes’. It is liberating to step back, slow down and consider culture change, relationships in systems and different scales (of time, networks etc.) It is liberating to spend a lovely amount of time outdoors.

    Great reflection questions, thank you 🙂
    And so helpful to be reminded how all of this relates to white capitalist structures and oppression.
    In relation to ‘what will it take for us to shift to something else?’ I’d like to echo the importance of recognising we are in a larger culture that does this, as well as the other useful responses which ALL resonate.

  • Thanks for this Curtis! I had not seen Merton’s quote! I have spent most of my life stretched too thin and chasing my own tail. I had to retire to get control of my time. But still have too much on my plate. Francoise Mathieu has an excellent exercise called “What’s on your plate” And I had a one day workshop on burnout and trauma in social activits which I often lead for free to NFP orgs in Toronto and Ontario, Canada. Folks can contact me if want. Very best! Bill

    • Curtis Ogden says:

      Thanks, William. Glad to know you got some control and that you are trying to help others to do so. Curious to know what connections you are making between the culture of over-work and social injustice/oppression.

      Best,

      Curtis

  • Thanks for this Curtis! I had not seen Merton’s quote! I have spent most of my life stretched too thin and chasing my own tail. I had to retire to get control of my time. But still have too much on my plate. Francoise Mathieu has an excellent exercise called “What’s on your plate” And I have a one day workshop on burnout and trauma in social activits which I often lead for free to NFP orgs in Toronto and Ontario, Canada. Folks can contact me if want. Very best! Bill

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