Moving from Paralysis to Action

October 29, 2009 6 Comments

I’ve been reading Diana Block’s memoir, Arming the Spirit, and am grateful for the chance to dig into another story of someone whose work for social justice came before me and contributed to where we’re at now. Diana went underground for thirteen years in the 1980s and 90s as part of a collective doing solidarity work with the Puerto Rican independence and Black liberation movements. Diana’s journey represents one group’s choice about how to be effective as white folks challenging racist systems of oppression.

“Our political history was rooted in our commitment as white people to solidarity with Third World struggles around the world and inside this country. That commitment will take different forms today but I think solidarity is still critical for white people who want to make social change. Also, for people who live in America, we definitely need to situate our work in relationship to the efforts of people around the globe who are fighting imperialism or we cannot expect to achieve very much.”*

Diana raises this question of solidarity, which I think about often.

As a person with both class and race privilege, I have participated in several groups set up with the intention to build awareness about how systems of racial and economic oppression operate in the U.S. and to engage in collective action within nonprofit organizations or educational institutions to challenge racism and classism within them. I have noticed that again and again, in these groups of white or owning class people (myself included), there is a common feeling of paralysis. I have both asked and heard questions like these many times in these settings: What are the appropriate roles for white folks or owning class folks in social justice movements? How can we be true allies to people of color and poor people in their struggles for justice? These questions often stop us from doing anything at all.

Recently, I participated in a conversation over dinner about what kind of social justice campaign makes the most sense for and generates the most excitement among a national network of young people with wealth. This campaign is being organized by Resource Generation, and I am excited about the new direction. We have spent a lot of time in this group talking about how to leverage our resources (time, money, or other ones) individually for social change. But think of the potential for young people all over the country taking collective action(s) around an issue like progressive taxes or socially responsible investing! What can be achieved when the people who are financially benefiting the most from our tax and investment systems demand changes that will actually narrow the wealth distribution gap in the U.S.?

I am not advocating Diana’s path as the best one for white people; today’s context is different than hers was. And the Resource Generation example is just one. What I want to know is, how can white and owning class folks move beyond guilt and paralysis into action, into new ways of both building community together and building community across lines of race and class? And, how can we participate in movements that are transforming our hearts and relationships as well as the oppressive systems of our society? Finally, what are some new and effective ways that movements led by people of color and poor folks call on these privileged groups to support their work?

*Interview with Diana Block, March 11, 2009.


  • Chris Toppin says:

    Thanks for this, Jen! I’ve been thinking about this myself lately. I like you inquiry of finding possible new ways of building community together and across racial and class lines and joining in movements that transform our hearts and relationships…

  • Gibran says:

    Thanks so much Jen! I appreciate your boldness in naming the experience of “paralysis,” it is so important to engage this question of solidarity and what it means to live into it. As a person of color I am particularly interested in the evolution of the race conversation, how to tackle what must be tackled in a way that helps us all to become unstuck.

    Incidentally, I am currently reading the book “Commonwealth,” by Hardt & Negri, and I feel like what they are doing for left analysis has strong implications for questions of race and solidarity.

  • Jen – You should blog more often. Your voice has been missing here for too long.

  • Curtis says:


    Love your question about transforming “hearts and systems”! Need to hold onto both and not make it an either/or proposition, in my humble estimation. I for one am becoming a bigger fan of taking risks and making mistakes, and know many of these will come my way as I try to find an answer to your provocative and important questions. Thanks for spurring me on!


  • Linda says:

    Great post Jen – and just the right questions! More! More!

  • April Strickland says:

    A thoughtful response to an experience many, myself included, have shared. Thanks for posting this, Jen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *