When urgency is actually necessary: Making Change at a Human PaceAugust 8, 2022 Leave a comment
“The times are urgent, let us slow down.”
Bayo Akomolafe, The Emergence Network
Thanks in part to the work of Tema Okun, Dr. Kenneth Jones, and DismantlingRacismWorks, we have been leaning into the characteristics of white supremacy culture for decades. I find the sense of urgency particularly challenging. Okun and Jones define it as “our cultural habit of applying a sense of urgency to our every-day lives in ways that perpetuate power imbalance while disconnecting us from our need to breathe and pause and reflect. The irony is that this imposed sense of urgency serves to erase the actual urgency of tackling racial and social injustice.”
I struggle with this regularly. In the early days of the pandemic, IISC wrestled with what contribution we could make. I had to temper my desire to move quickly with a sober assessment of our actual human capacity. Even now, on any given day, our team – and the staff and volunteers practically everywhere I turn – ranges from sick, exhausted, and overwhelmed to joyful, optimistic in the midst of it all, and eagerly seeking new possibilities. I continue to remind myself that we can only go as fast as we can go, even if that doesn’t seem fast enough given the conditions around us.
Therein lies the struggle. The work of making a better, more just world IS urgent. People are paying with their lives every day because of the way our society is constructed. Take health as an example. Healthcare is a for-profit industry and the profit motive drives who gets treated, what kinds of treatments are approved or even exist, and what unhealthy conditions are allowed to persist. Access to healthcare is granted mostly as a privilege for people with certain kinds of jobs, rather than to all people as a human right. People are dying every day because of this. Getting care to people who need it most – people who are unhoused, and/or unemployed, disabled, elderly, or otherwise unable to participate in the paid labor force – is urgent. At the same time, we have to devote attention to the necessary, long-term work of building political will and shifting the political system in the direction of making health care a human right. Otherwise, we’ll be forever doing the urgent work of helping people on the margins to survive. As our friends in public health remind us, we have to “get upstream” to stop the “flow” of people who need urgent support that the system doesn’t provide.
Generations of warriors for justice have taught us that the struggle for justice is costly and urgent. In my earliest days of political formation, my mentors argued (sometimes explicitly and sometimes by example) that I didn’t deserve a good night’s sleep or many creature comforts because people were suffering and dying every day due to racism and poverty. This led me to an unhealthy kind of self-denial and overwork. While my group members saw me as productive and committed, in the eyes of some folks who I was both critiquing and attempting to recruit, I appeared unbearably self-righteous and absolutely no fun to be around.
This posture didn’t win over a lot of new people to our way of thinking and it ingrained in me a habit of ignoring my own needs that has been extremely hard to break. While I can say with conviction to others that “self-care isn’t selfish,” and “it’s essential to find joy in the midst of struggle,” I still have trouble taking my own advice sometimes. I’m making progress, though it’s slow! I still hold onto this quote from George Bernard Shaw: “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.”
One thing I find striking and encouraging about the current generation of racial justice activists is their explicit focus on wholeness, healing, belonging, and restoration – think of emergent strategy and the work of healing justice to name just a few. We are beginning to recognize that we can’t do any of this necessary and urgent work at the expense of people and relationships. And I think we still have a long way to go.
If we want to make change at the scale of an entire society and beyond, we have to find new ways and rediscover ancient ways of doing both the urgent work of survival and the urgent work of structural change in ways that don’t exhaust and exploit the people doing that work and that make space for new more beautiful ways of being together. At IISC, as we take up this challenge and offer what we can share, I’m trying to remain vigilant so that a sober assessment of the urgent need for justice doesn’t push me toward dominant-culture ways of pressing beyond the capacity of our human community.
How are you replacing a dominating sense of urgency with an appropriate sense of urgency that honors and cares for people?