Activism and the Gifts of Imperfection
By Anneke Vo
In our individualistic, identity-asserting culture of conditional worth and comparative selfhood, it can feel as though every triumph and tribulation is scrutinised as a defining fault of personal character. As activists and global citizens, we face enough pressure from reigning ideologies and the media telling us how to live and be A Worthwhile Person that it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate when we’re helping the world from when we could be hurting it, and by reflection, ourselves.
I remember being taught that a worthwhile person is one who, deeply and correctly, introjects the dominant values of his or her culture; one who wears a managed heart of unutterable dreams, setting every sleepless alarm to the clockwork grind of cunning success and civil obedience. Those who make a conscious decision to take the path less travelled, to dedicate time capsules for a brighter future they may not live long enough to inherit, suddenly appear to the world as deluded dreamers and maladjusted iconoclasts. As the gap widens between our fearless change-making ideals and the battle cries of our wounded inner child struggling to rise to the challenge, we become truth-seeking veterans, fighting to make peace with our cruelest limitations.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in changing the world somehow, even if you might be a little skeptical that we have the will and motivational resources, collectively, to do so. Determined not to reduce my raison d’être to an existential vacuum of commodified apathy, I was desperate to take control of my own learning and discovered activism in my late teens. I shopped around for like-minded communities that I resonated with, and ended up volunteering with an organisation that did some pretty ground-breaking paradigm shifting at the time. Thursday nights were spent handing out flyers in front of the Martin Luther King mural in Newtown, and setting up a projector screen for free documentary screenings – from The Century of Self to The Corporation, Zeitgeist and The Story of Stuff. I will never forget the heartwarming chance encounters, though they still sadden me to do this day, like talking with homeless street kids who thanked us for our work but were consumed with thoughts of how to get their next liquor fix and a warm body for the night.
Being involved with a genuinely inspiring community meant I wanted to be more like the activists I admired, so I made a habit of sneaking out to co-ordinated meetings. The team was planning a series of
lectures and media artivism events, where the archetypes of confident public speaker, social butterfly promoter, articulate intellectual and the artistically skilled were in highest demand. Of course, there were behind the scenes technical and administrative positions, but on the whole, figuring where I fitted in seemed like the ultimate square peg proposal – “here are all the roles available in taking the world by storm, now pick one” (or as many as you like or can handle). Naturally my reaction was, “well, as a socially anxious, moderately depressed 18 year old with a low pain tolerance for being in the most dim lit of spotlights, I suck at all of these, so I think I’ll stick up posters and frisbee paper cuts at ducking yuppies instead.” Pamphleteer, by The Weatherthans, became my theme song for those restless next few months, “Facing rush hour faces turned around / How causes dance away from me / I am your pamphleteer.” Meanwhile I kept secretly praying, “Please universe, don’t let me attract any argumentative pseudo-intellectroll types. And don’t you dare mistake me, fedora wearing dude with the crumpled tie, for a religious cult evangelist before you read the damn flyer.”
Fast forward three years, and my awkward pamphleteering days are behind me. I’m compelled to think more critically about what works for me and what doesn’t regarding activism commitments, while pensively reconciling why it took me so long to start believing in my potential. I’m happy to leave the sharp-tongued political debating and verbal sparring to the pros, while I go about my business reading, writing, collecting inspiration, learning as much as I possibly can about how the world works, and perhaps attempting to shift the change-making dialogue into something a little more personal.
When a friend opened up to me recently about loved ones who were vilified and excluded from so called activist “safe spaces” on the basis of having a disability, suddenly it hit home that if I felt peripheral and insignificant, imagine how damaging that is for disadvantaged minorities accustomed to universally inadequate representation. You might be familiar with the homogenised stereotype of the ideal humanitarian / bleeding heart philanthropist: able-bodied, highly educated, time and money-privileged enough to afford volunteer commitments, naturally disciplined and consistent with face-of-the-campaign charisma. Never mind the fact that we’re all fundamentally different in our temperamental wiring, inclinations and abilities. Some people are sturdy as a golden pancake when spreading themselves thin with commitments; others are gifted in slower, more specialised settings, oriented towards depth rather than breadth. Neither style of contribution is better or worse, deserving of guilt or preferential treatment. It’s disheartening to comprehend how some people aren’t even being granted basic respect for their contributions, let alone the appropriate guidance and recognition they deserve.
There’s also an unspoken expectation in some activist communities that volunteers should be able to easily assimilate, take on mountains of responsibility, not question how things are run, nor assert their individual needs for support and facilitation. Newsflash: some of the most dedicated, well-intentioned and compassionate of us could never live up to such a lofty ideal. My concern is that change-making communities can easily fall into the trap of standardising team productivity at the expense of individual self-determination. In reality, people are more nuanced, fascinating and complex than the utilitarian embodiment of a mission statement. No one deserves to feel like their best isn’t good enough. Failing to prioritise the integration of greater diversity and inclusiveness means change making organisations are at risk of alienating the very lifeblood of their message: their supporters.
In all fairness, most organisations would willingly make changes if they were aware of the steps needing to be taken. In most cases, it’s left up to minorities to speak up about their needs, which is problematic if they’re new, doubtful or afraid of being judged. Credible organisations have a duty of care to their volunteers to abide by a code of ethics, which includes being accountable to anti-discrimination and equal opportunity principles. It’s the vested attitudes and unconditional acceptance of those personally involved, however, who have the power to shift relational schemas from ‘role culture’ (exclusionary groupthink) to ‘people culture’ (celebrating differences and individual expression.)
Head psychologist and founder of the Indigo Project, Mary Hoang, who has experience facilitating disadvantaged groups, and believes the most important qualities we can use to build rapport within emerging communities are congruence and authenticity, states:
[In my work with disadvantaged youth], kids can tell when you’re not being real with them. They need personable, down to earth mentors, who are relatable because of their varied life experiences. Using mindfulness strategies teaches the importance of being present and in the moment with each other. We’re able to speak more relevantly to people from all walks of life if they know we don’t claim to be living our lives perfectly either.
Change-making communities don’t have to pretend to know everything about every marginalised group, but they do need to sensitively and confidentially open up a dialogue with activists who might have special needs to feel safe enough to talk about it.
The best approach is to treat people as individuals, where everyone is valued and respected for their diverse range of skills and passion for our cause.
Mary attributes her organisation’s success to the contribution of a multi-disciplinarian team of interns, creative professionals and volunteers.
The project is bigger than me now, it’s grown into something which involves entire communities we work with. We want to help people find a purpose they can align with, so life imbues a fresh sense of meaning. I think those who have gone off the well-worn tracks, ventured into uncharted parts of themselves, and got themselves into trouble, tend to have the most interesting things to say about life. When inner fulfilment isn’t about the day to day grind anymore, people have this need to connect with something beyond themselves, to help others along their journey as well.
Her vision is for the Indigo Project to be more than a place to seek psychological treatment, but a place where people can come to hang out, learn more about themselves, and get creative with their values while connecting with those on a similar path. It provokes us to imagine what an ideal activist space and culture might look like, particularly in addressing the root causes of psychosocial afflictions, as opposed to artificially numbing its symptoms.
Maya Angelou once truthfully articulated, “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.” I wonder if the invisible elephant in the room is that we don’t know each other well enough to understand where to begin dismantling structural divisions. We know every argument and counter-argument inside out as to why transnational trade agreements screw people over, but we’re rarely mindful and aware of what makes our fellow activists tick on an individual level. We cannot create a new epochal mythology, which is holistically resonant, as long as we remain black boxed, like wasted, unwanted gifts to each other. Our darkest struggles shouldn’t be treated as character flaws or a burden upon the community, but an outlet for expressing the relatable nature of our fears, complementary motivations, and understated capacities. I’m hoping that earth community leaders will take the initiative to collate priority research into activist facilitation needs; either through comprehensive surveys, skill-sharing, personal development workshops, or friendly orientation meetings. Forgotten activists, particularly those of the ego-deficient variety, deserve to feel confident telling their stories – subverting the standard narrative of ghostwritten selfhood, as though it were radically reimagined in the glossy pages of a centrefold.