Social justice: Inner work, outer change

07/28/2017 02:43 pm ET

[This blog follows up from the previous one about inner fragmentation and outer fragmentation.]

What does the inner work get us? And how does it address the inner fragmentation and outer fragmentation and injustices? What does looking into our own mind and body, noticing what brings us happiness and what still hurts get us? And what has any of this got to do with social justice?

Many who recognize social injustice must know what it looks like and feels like deep inside. Many who have not or experienced relatively little injustice will not easily recognize inequity, right in front of them. Therefore some of us participating in different aspects of social justice work are experts in injustice: we have experienced inequity ourselves, we have embodied this injustice. Our minds have been impacted from surviving and thriving in spite of injustice. We are more likely to recognize inequity, whether it’s hollering at us or quietly festering under a veneer of ‘social acceptability’. [What happens when we bring together a majority of people who have suffered from injustice and have not had the time or space to heal?] We might even say that many of us who have experienced injustice are drawn to do this work because we were directly impacted: we want to change the systems that cause harm. With this noble intention, how do we not bring the legacy of our traumas, our embodied injustices, into our work of change?

I go to a meeting of activists and organizers addressing housing in the city. There are gatekeepers at the meeting: [people who hold resources not necessarily in funding but maybe even more importantly, in connections to people across the city who know stuff, stuff that organizers and activists need to connect the dots and understand what is happening behind closed doors. Gatekeepers exist because we have non-transparent systems that do not readily translate information to the public, thereby creating hierarchies]. They helped to convene the meeting. Most people know them and they can get folks to come to a meeting. They share the space to some extent but because they have not healed their pain around their own marginalization, their own traumas (as women, black or brown people, abused or bullied people, children of alcoholic households) they still need to keep control in their hands, and they get caught in their ego-protecting selves. In fact their sense of safety comes from being the gatekeeper, having some sense of control. Some people in the room feel unable to share new ideas or they experience the gatekeeper’s control and don’t want to participate. Some are triggered to different negative emotions like anger and rage, fear, anxiety and leave feeling this is not the group to get real things done because of the personalities in the room. Some leave seeing no open lines of communication or don’t want to get into another conflict and feel demonized for asking questions. The newer people don’t come back or stay and assume the role of apprentice to the gatekeepers; maybe one day they too will be in control. Some stay feeling that this same phenomena exists in all the social justice groups with which they are involved, it’s normal: we act out our own internalized oppressions/injustices with each other while we challenge institutions to change their oppressive behaviors and unjust structures. We somehow believe that utilizing similar means justifies our end.

This scenario is not unique to Baltimore or activists, or to housing activists. It’s typical in many group and organizational settings: church groups, foundations, universities, corporations, book clubs. In activists and community organizing circles It’s hard to build trust, build momentum, build across different issues, bridge fragmented groups into coalitions when many of us leading and involved in justice groups need to maintain control. We do this to protect our over-compensating egos that sees each struggle as separate. When challenged we justify our behavior as ‘radical’. The over-acting ego is an obstacle to see and interrogate one’s self. It’s not a leadership skill that builds a sustainable movement for social justice because it sees itself separate from others.

The inner work gets at healing this over-acting ego through healing of the traumas, transforming them into insight. Without this inner transformation we over rely on the external things with little awareness of our own mind. Understanding our traumas liberates us from the past and present pains that compels the ego to assume control, even when it’s not helpful for self or others. The inner work is the stopping and finding stillness, creating clarity to look deeply into who we are, why we think and act the ways we do: we notice our fears and how they arise as anxiety, anger, worry, depression, antagonism. Sometimes noticing is enough, sometimes we may need some more time to look into these formations that have hardened in the mind. The inner work brings us to the work of justice outside: grounded in clarity with non-dualistic thinking and acting, and spaciousness to make decisions based on what is in front of us instead of an old pain that has been triggered. When we can respond from a healed self instead of a triggered self something different happens because we’re not hijacked by our emotions.

Understanding and healing ourselves so we can create a more just world is not new. Gloria Anzaldua, Chicana American feminist, author, and activist said: “I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement—a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society. And yet, I am confused as to how to accomplish this. I can't discount the fact that thousands go to bed hungry every night. The thousands that do numbing …work eight hours a day each day of their lives. The thousands that get beaten and killed every day. The millions of women who have been burned at the stake, the millions who have been raped. Where is the justice to this?''’

Mural painted in the 88-acre Johns Hopkins Biotech Park; uneven development allows corporations/professionals/bureaucrats to
Nether
Mural painted in the 88-acre Johns Hopkins Biotech Park; uneven development allows corporations/professionals/bureaucrats to walk away with inequitable benefit again. Nether

Those of us involved in justice work recognize this conundrum and acknowledge this challenge Dr. Anzaldua describes: “And yet, I am confused as to how to accomplish this.” Perhaps some of our confusion would clear when the mind and body is healed. We would see clearly how to navigate the struggles we face in our liberation movements leading to “a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society”.

When we find stillness through taking time and finding space for rest and reflection, we begin to see all the different parts of who we are, the parts we miss because we are moving so fast. We can question our thoughts, words, and actions before, during, and after we do engage with them. In doing so we are fully aware of what we are bringing into the world. This is the re-creation of the self and the world, emerging from the inner fragmentation we emerge from the external fragmentation.

Many who challenge the need to do this inner work, so our external work is just and sustainable, have bought into the dominant paradigm of justice work: anger and hatred gives us the edge over our opponents, anything else makes us soft on our opponents. Sure these emotions might ignite us to action but left unchecked and spiraling out of control anger and hatred often lead to confusion and violence. Recently in negotiating during a campaign, in the midst of the conversation I knew this white man was lying to me about what the community members had said. I felt my anger rising and knew that if I let my anger cloud my mind I would loose the clarity necessary to interrogate him. The work required clarity not confusion, which is often what power relies on. Unchecked anger violates our integrity because we loose control of ourselves and think and act from emotion. It also violates those around us, especially those to whom we direct our anger: exactly what does this accomplish?

Liberating, knowing, our minds, ushers in true freedom and happiness because we can depend on our thoughts and actions. We don’t worry about our anger hangover and what we did while we were clouded with anger. How freeing is that, to be aware of what triggers us and knowing how to take care of that? Knowing this freedom inside we will practice this freedom outside.

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