A Case for Putting Down Your Pitchfork: Curiosity as a Tool for Calling People In

Humans are innately meaning makers. Meaning gives us order and order gives us comfort. We are forever sorting people and attempting to make sense of them, the things that happen to us, and the world. We do that through our interactions and unfortunately mostly based on assumptions. All day, every single day, we make assumptions about people based on their words and actions. We make assumptions about their intentions, values, and character - among other things. As Brene Brown says, we make up stories about people. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are reflections of own insecurities, fears, distastes, experiences, etc.

We are often quick to get defensive and grab our pitchforks based on assumptions without extending to other people/organizations the same things we want for ourselves. I am a flawed and broken human who often gets it wrong. When I misstep, I hope that other people 1. assume I had good intentions and 2. give me an opportunity to explain myself. If that’s what I want for myself, shouldn’t I grant other people the same courtesy? The simplest way to find out if your assumptions about a person or organization are correct is to ask.

As Brene models for us, when I find myself frustrated with someone or even an organization, I try to pause to reflect on what is fact versus what is the story I made up about them. This exercise is so telling. Nine times out of ten, my frustration or distaste comes from my assumptions rather than reality. People are nuanced and far more complicated than we give them credit for and sometimes we over-complicate things that actually have a very simple explanation.

Let me give you an example. I recently sent a draft of an essay to an editor. She sent back some notes and edits. I revised and resent it and then I waited. And I waited. And I waited. After a few weeks I started making up a story about what was going on. She hated my revisions. She was going to pull the essay. I was a terrible writer. The piece was bad. You know what was really happening? She was busy. She had taken on some new assignments and was adjusting to a new routine. She also had a sick kid and a trip that pulled her away from work for a few days. What was going on had very little to do with me or my essay, but I had convinced myself otherwise. I should have stopped and sorted out the truth from the story I was making up. My assumptions were wrong and had led me down a rabbit hole of shame and insecurity.

I’ve found this process useful not just in my personal relationships, but also in social justice and advocacy work. I catch flack sometimes from fellow advocates and social justice minded folks for making too much space for dialogue. They think I am negotiating with terrorists. What I am actually doing is trying to meet someone where they are and move them to a more progressive stance. I’m probably not going to convince someone to do a 180 on an issue in a single conversation, but if I can help them move 5 degrees, that’s something. I am often doing elaborate mental gymnastics to help people unpack their problematic views and recognize within themselves that what they believe is problematic. You know the best person to convince someone that they are wrong? Themselves. Dialogue, questions, and curiosity open us up for unpacking things while pitchforks often shut people down and push us farther into our respective camps.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to police emotions or invalidate disruption and pitchforks as effective tools for change. They absolutely have a role in creating effective and lasting social change. Sometimes dialogue is impossible. Having the time and space to put down your pitchfork comes from holding privilege. Change can be incremental when your life or livelihood don’t depend on it. Sometimes we don’t have the time to wait for incremental change that dialogue brings. Sometimes we don’t have the energy for it. In those cases, have the pitchforks ready.

What I am saying is that curiosity is sometimes the most powerful tool in our toolkit when we have the time and space to strategically create change. Perhaps before we act, before we rally the troops, before we sharpen our pitchforks, maybe we take a deep breath and try to get to the bottom of what’s going on. Maybe we take a beat to strategize about how we can be most effective. Maybe we consider whether this is an opportunity to call people in instead of calling them out. Both approaches have value and sometimes the most effective thing to do is grab the pitchfork, but sometimes we miss opportunities to create lasting change because we are reacting out of emotion and based on faulty assumptions.

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Activism 101- Where to Start

There have been a number of times in the past 10 years in working with families in crisis, and the systems that have failed them, that I've found myself thinking "there is no way we're going to defeat this giant". When you think about issues like systemic racism, poverty, domestic violence, sexual assault, etc and consider the many factors that create a context where these experiences are possible, it can be overwhelming. When something seems too difficult or it feels like there isn't much you could do to make meaningful change, we often become paralyzed to act. We don't know what to do so we do nothing. I think disengagement can also be a form of self-preservation- if I don't think about it, if I don't engage with it, then I can't fail and it won't hurt. Unfortunately, disengagement makes us complicit in these broken systems. When you know of an issue and fail to engage with it, you are sort of saying "I'm okay with that continuing to happen". 

So how can you start to engage in activism if you aren't sure where to start? I know it sounds cliche, but start where you are with what you have. You might not have a huge platform or giant audience, but that's okay. Engaging with a social issue and acting within your circle of influence may create meaningful and lasting change. It also may open the door for somebody you know and love to ask for help or to feel validated, allowing them to work through a painful experience of their own. I could do a full day training on this stuff, but hopefully the simple steps below will be a great catalyst. 

Step 1: Check your privilege. We all come to understand the world based on our own social status & experiences. My life as a middle class educated heterosexual white woman is vastly different from other experiences, but that doesn't mean those experiences are not real and valid. I have been afforded certain privileges and protections that other people were not. Acknowledging that helps me to have an open mind and heart as I approach a topic that I am unfamiliar with. We don't all share the same experience and we aren't all afforded the same opportunities. 

Step 2: Learn about the issue. There are a ton of ways you can learn about any social issue. Read about it, contact a social service agency who works on the issue, attend a training, and most importantly- have conversations with somebody experiencing the issue first hand. You can read every book written about racism that exists, but if you do not make an effort to understand what the experience feels like or how it impacts somebody personally, any effort you make to effect change will be mediocre at best and destructive at worst. 

Step 3: Consider small actions you can take today. Activism doesn't have to be some grand gesture. In fact, a TON of change happens when we take small actions every day towards creating change. That may mean changing your language, shopping at different places, challenging friends and family when they say something ignorant or intentionally hurtful. Sometimes showing up at an event or a town hall is a good first step. Be present. 

Step 4: Take action, reflect, & seek feedback. Start implementing the actions you thought about in step three. Reflect on how those changes are either helping or hurting the cause. Ask for feedback from those who are directly impacted by the issue. We often say in the domestic violence world that a victim is the one who has the best understanding of what might keep her safe. I may recommend she gather her things and flee while her abuser is at work, but she may know that he has cameras in the house, watching her every move, and that her best chance at getting out is in the middle of the night when he is asleep. Well-intentioned acts and words do not always have the impact we thought they would and that's okay. Own the fact that you were misguided and commit to doing better. 

Step 5: Rinse and repeat this process forever. I don't think any of us will be done learning. Keep learning, keep engaging with the group you want to help, keep changing, keep reflecting. And do your best not to forget what it was like before you "knew better". Once you know something, it's impossible to unknow it, but it also becomes easier to pass judgement on those who don't act appropriately without recognizing that maybe they just haven't "seen the light" yet. People don't know what they don't know and we can't expect them to act as if they know all the same things we do. Building bridges and meeting people where they are, without judgement or condemnation, can help others come along in their own journey. 

I hope these simple steps can help you get started or grow in your own journey of activism. We all have a critical role to play in creating change and it's amazing what is possible when people commit to doing what they can to help. Have other suggestions for getting started in activism? Share them!