Disrupting the Pattern: A Call for Love and Solidarity

shared with Tulane University for their Leadership Speaker Series

Tonight I want to share a piece of writing with you I have been working on called:

Disrupting the Pattern: A Call for Love and Solidarity

This is my emergent strategy thinking on the conflict and attacks happening on and in Black movement right now. I hope it serves us all.

I love you, Black woman.

I have been doing the work of holding movements for radical social and environmental change for over two decades, and I realized this morning that I cannot think of one Black woman leader who I haven’t seen gossiped on, mistreated, disrespected, lied on, and violated at the level of reputation or privacy – all while being overworked and underpaid, or unpaid.

Observing the pattern of Black women under attack is not new, so what’s been unfolding with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors feels devastating in a familiar way. You have probably seen it – white supremacists doxxed her, meaning they shared her address and images of her home, putting her and her family in grave danger. And they spread misinformation that makes it appear she is financially untrustworthy. They were able to do this, in part, because of conflict within Black movement, including disagreements about structure and money and political orientation.

Right now it’s Patrisse. But I’ve observed disinformation campaigns on so many Black women, especially those in executive director roles or positions of visible movement leadership, that if I began to name them we would be here all night. I include myself in this observation.

My general approach has been: find whatever lesson is here, but don’t feed these untruthful narratives with public attention. Because what we pay attention to grows.

But I am learning that what we ignore can also grow, like a cancer or any other quiet, internal dis-ease. This disease of suspicion directed towards Black women leaders has spread and created such a toxic space in movements that it is sometimes hard to remember we are here for liberation, for solidarity against common ideological enemies, for love, for life. I want to bring my, and our, attention to where we need to grow and heal, to where we need to use a shift in our attention to disrupt this pattern of pain.

I, a writer who can express almost anything I think, cannot find words for how painful this pattern is.

I love you, organizer.

Movement can be a balm to systemic wounds, but it doesn’t make those of us in movement immune to the patterns of pain and harm with which those systems function. In fact, all of us move through the world perpetuating these systems in a variety of ways, and if we forget this we can lose touch with a crucial aspect of the work – our self-transformation, and our responsibility not just for what we say, but for how we are. This is why Grace Lee Boggs said we must “transform ourselves to transform the world” – we are in and of these systems.

There are several systems operating within this current complex and painful pattern.

There is the swift and brutal suspicion of Black women, cis and trans, taught to us through the toxic combination of racism and patriarchy that Moya Bailey named misogynoir.

We have centuries at our back of being taught that Black people are not trustworthy. This narrative is so persistent that even today, in every crisis where White people gather supplies, we (doing the exact same thing) are called looters. When the police shoot us, we are the ones put on trial.

We have centuries at our backs of being trained that Black people are naturally inferior, less than human.

We have centuries at our back of being socialized that women lie, manipulate, gold dig, are bitchy and evil when we hold power, and are too emotional, hysterical and inferior to lead.

We have centuries at our back of expecting Black women to mammy and martyr ourselves for the benefit of others. Many Black women leaders ended up in our roles because we continually picked up the work no one else would do – not that we necessarily knew how to do it, but we were willing to hold it and to learn; we said yes when a task needed to be done.

We have centuries at our back of violently punishing Black women who assume we deserve to receive even a portion of what we give, for finding ourselves on pedestals, for being willing to contend for tangible power. Black women leaders get isolated and attacked and pushed out of movement leadership, generation after generation.

These systems of dehumanization weave together and bind us all in the grip of harmful assumptions against each other.

I will not engage in gossip about you.

There is also the violent and envious competition around success taught to us within capitalism. As our impact grows, the pattern of gossip and then attacks grows; where we think we are leading towards solidarity, we find ourselves instead fighting for limited territory. This competition is rooted in a produced sense of scarcity – that there is not enough money or attention or time to go around, so we must fight for everything.

That sense of scarcity has been honed by philanthropy within capitalism – the wealthiest people and institutions pit us against each other for their funds until the majority of nonprofit work can be caught up in generating and sustaining income, rather than doing the organizing and political work we know is necessary.

From a hungry, mission-drifted, competitive space, we envy each other’s success and abundance, rather than celebrating it with pure hearts, because we get bought into the narrative that we are all fighting for the same scraps. I say scraps because the amounts of money for which we turn on each other are chump change to those with real wealth; charitable detritus. Some people in philanthropy are working to change these dynamics, to truly redistribute power around wealth, to think in terms of reparations – but in the meantime we must examine the economic models of movement and find a cooperative path to abundance.

Right now, these systemic patterns of racism, sexism and capitalism are lethal for movement leadership.

We are up against massive systems, massive opposition – we can be so overwhelmed and fearful about the scale of what we are up against that it feels easier to point out the way these systems are functioning amongst us than to go for the source. The work of building something powerful and massive begins small, begins in relationships where we can be ourselves, be accountable for our mistakes, be called into loving changes, be in mutual power. We relinquish relationship for both urgent massive work, and a false sense of individual safety.

Sometimes we are warned about these patterns of pain early in our movement work. We are still surprised when they turn on us. Sometimes we receive quiet, private words of comfort from comrades as we are being attacked, sometimes it is acknowledged that what’s happening to us is wrong. Rarely are we protected, defended, held out loud. Rarely do we experience the solidarity we offer.

I understand. It’s dangerous to protect each other, because it means we are climbing onto the target with our attacked comrades. But I believe it is more dangerous, at a collective level, not to protect each other. When we do not protect each other, we end up leaving our most valuable resources on the battlefield. Brilliant, hardworking organizers and creators and strategists pour the best of themselves, ourselves, into something collective, and are then left alone when they, when we, most need to be flanked.

I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.

We must strengthen and broaden our practice of solidarity until no single organizer or community member can be plucked off and dehumanized, disposed of, made an easy target for those who want to see us fail, destroyed.

Emergent strategy asks us to practice decentralized movement work, where no one ends up on a pedestal in the first place, especially not alone. But because we live inside a capitalist framework that is constantly looking for singular hero narratives and rock stars, some of our most effective organizers do end up on these disorienting, distant and undesired pedestals, and we cannot abandon those leaders. Many of our leaders and strategists, having recognized the inevitability of these platforms when the work they are doing has impact, are trying to figure out how to harness them for the sake of collective liberation. (I know there are some people who show up after the work has been done, wanting just the attention, the pedestal experience – that’s a whole other piece of writing and thinking, I’m not speaking of that here. I am speaking of leaders whose platform emerged because the work they were doing touched so many people, changed so many lives.) We must have a movement solidarity strong enough to protect our leaders and comrades whether we agree with their strategies and methodologies or not.

In nature, we see so clearly how the healthiest ecosystems thrive in biodiversity. There are as many ways of being, growing, processing sunlight and rain into life as there are species. When something threatens the trees, the mushrooms spread the warning and the forest adapts to protect the tree, knowing that each tree is part of the health of the whole – mushrooms flower on the tree’s trunk, sparrows nest in the tree’s branches, fecundity bursts forth in the tree’s shade. No creature or plant in that healthy ecosystem functions as a monopoly, or as an individual. They make it as long and as far as they can grow together.

So far, we in movements for justice only make it collectively as far as our individual leaders can survive the onslaught. We mistakenly operate as individuals when we are already ecosystem – this is keeping us from the growth we and our communities desperately need.

One side effect of this hyper individualization of movement leaders is that the many small parts of our movement – our local organizers and chapters, our youth leaders, our community groups, our collectives – struggle to sustain themselves within our collaborative mass efforts.

We won’t get free if we can’t learn to operate at the scale of collaboration across differences, across platforms and exposure, in spite of efforts to sow dissent amongst us, to develop leaders who know how to disagree and still work together.

Because how can the leaders we need grow in our current conditions? How do we invite the next generation to step into collaborative leadership when it means becoming a future target for takedown from those to whom you give your life’s work?

It definitely takes a peculiar kind of faith to persist in the thankless work that organizing can be (we are trying to counter that by cultivating celebration and gratitude as practices in movement), but even that faith can be tested when the work becomes a perpetual system of gauntlets, where it begins to feel like every forward move is a potential challenge for some unasked-for combat.

We can absolutely critique each other. We must. Principled critical engagement, principled struggle, happens within relationship, within and across formations where we have some shared values and shared vision towards which we are advancing. Principled critique is informed, impervious to click bait tabloid accusations. Principled critique believes that we critique to build each other up, help each other grow, not eviscerate each other, or delight in each other’s downfall.

Some people’s entire life mission, central organizational activity, or primary collective effort is the destruction of other movement workers under the guise of critique. Some people are movement workers who have lost their way and think destruction of their own structures will somehow set them free. Some people are motivated by pain, by a longing to belong, by a need for attention, by a fear of being forgotten or unseen. Some are people who have spoken their critiques and are angry that they don’t see the results, the justice, that they want. Some people are reacting to the ways capitalism is harming us, turning us against each other instead of against capitalism itself. Some people don’t want to commit to organizational spaces where accountability can happen, but don’t know how to leave with grace. Some of us just get pulled into the drama of that destructive tendency because we have not learned how to fight well, fight fair and directly, leave room for difference.

We have to learn to hold serious political differences around how we do our work. To debate, and acknowledge which idea actually moves the majority of the room. To find the places of alignment and move together, even if it is a temporary alliance. We often have to do this within the same formations, in broad coalition and united front efforts. We find the places of common struggle, common need, and organize for success there. We always have to work beyond our singular perspective, and we always will.

Part of what’s happening right now is that, too often, we don’t know how to hold differences well within our formations, when to clarify vision, when to debate, when to go separate ways fueled by divergent visions, how to respectfully disagree, how to understand that each container in movement can only hold so much. We also don’t always know when to sunset a project, and allow other efforts to seed from the resources we’ve generated.

We especially need to attend to how our political differences are experienced and perceived when money is in the picture. When money is in the picture, it becomes much easier to demand transparency from others that we do not practice ourselves. And when money is in the picture, we are often on new ground, because we are trying to lead with an amount of resources we have never actually learned how to manage, grow, invest, cooperate around.

We know we deserve the resources, because our people have given an immeasurable amount of unpaid labor and blood to this country, and because we are trying to do the massive work of liberation. But we are not necessarily given clear, values-aligned guidance on how to handle the resources – they are sometimes dropped on us like a monsoon, flooding all our existing infrastructure and then gone before we realized what the economic equivalent of a water catchment system could look like.

And we are definitely not given space to learn, which includes making mistakes, not when money is in the picture. So the money ends up flowing back into the control of those more experienced with money, which often overlaps with those who hold a less radical position on the work needed to dismantle capitalism, white supremacy and racism, patriarchy and sexism and other systems of oppression.

I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.

We – Black women who lead – are not saints, we are not claiming perfection – we are trying to work. To learn. To lead valiantly on unfamiliar terrain.

We are expected to do so, tirelessly and under-resourced, indefinitely. If we decide to set a boundary, to protect ourselves, to take risks, to ask for compensation for our time, to step back from holding everything, we are eviscerated swiftly, privately and/or publicly.

I say if because so many of us don’t: we fear to do so, would rather work ourselves to death than face the pain of disposal, the moment when those for whom we have generated belonging decide to push us out of the spotlight, or perceived positional power, or political home space.

I see so many wounded leaders, trying to hold our dignity intact under the onslaught, wondering how to give our lives to liberation in these conditions.

I ask you, if you are Black in movement, or a non Black ally, to really think thrice before joining in attacks on Black women leaders; to explore what it would look like to practice solidarity towards Black liberation, rather than against it.

Understand that it is a move against Black liberation and all liberation to engage in this pattern of attempting to destroy Black women leaders.

I am committed to your freedom.

Here are some things for us to consider as we learn to practice solidarity, whether it’s with and amongst Black people, or any other people fighting for right relationship to the earth and each other:

Consider that whenever dehumanization is taking place, someone is benefiting from devaluing another person. Ask yourself who benefits from attacks on effective Black radical women? Who benefits from spotlighting conflict within movements that are changing material conditions for Black people?

Consider who benefits from you thinking that Black success and freedom is dangerous, and particularly that the success and freedom of Black women is dangerous.

Consider that this isn’t a new pattern.

Consider that social justice work is a place where most of us work for years for less than a living wage, subject to the whims of trend and philanthropy.

Consider, when you see the news of some perceived betrayal, some corruption of power, that the least likely option is that a Black woman who has given decades of her life to social justice work, to her people’s liberation, has turned on her own legacy, on us.

Consider that the lie is scarcity. The lie is that there isn’t enough for us to have abundant resources for our liberation work. The lie is that we can’t have multiple leaders shining simultaneously, moving divergent strategies. It’s a lie – we generate what we need and we are always moving divergent strategies.

Consider that there are ways to access abundance that don’t rely on attacking each other.

Consider that it is not an accident that a massively impactful social movement for Black liberation is under this scale of attack – it only looks personal. This is an attack on all our emergent, imperfect efforts for Black liberation.

Consider that you don’t have all of the information. We live in a social media world that profits from tawdry, salacious, divisive misinformation, where power is wielded by those most comfortable with distortion and manipulation. Consider that we don’t have to feed the beast that comes to eat those who inspire and lead us. Consider that this may not be your business, especially if you don’t have time to ask questions, investigate for something true, especially if you are only being asked to leap into judgment.

Consider how you want to be held when you are attacked for things you didn’t do. Consider how you want to be held accountable for things you did do. Do you want death threats, doxxing and other privacy violations, organized harassment and disposal, when it’s your turn? Cause if you plan to lead anything, your turn will come. So consider – what is principled struggle, principled critique, not just when you have a concern, but when you are the concern?

Consider that movement is not just a place of faith in the futures we are creating, but a place where we need to practice faith in each other, in our effort and our learning.

Consider that how you act or don’t act in this moment is part of setting a precedent for how movement responds to attacks on those who love us. If you won’t protect a Black woman leader from white supremacist attack because you also have critiques of or questions about how her movement work is unfolding, examine that. How does that align with the world you dream of?

Most of the leaders I look up to were attacked in their time, and might have been attacked in ours. The common thread amongst them is that they were driven by love for their people, our people, us. The work of the revolutionary is to transform everything that does not align with love, from the personal to the systemic.

Consider what love does in the face of dishonesty, faithlessness, and repression: love tells the truth. Love believes in our best selves. Love liberates us.

Consider that you should not feel afraid to love Black women leaders out loud. In the long run, what Audre Lorde taught us is still true: your silence will not protect you or anyone else. Love Black women leaders out loud wherever you see us attacked and dehumanized.

Love invites us home, love says we belong, unconditionally.

I love Patrisse Cullors, and she is forever home in any movement I am a part of. I trust her. I trust her to lead and learn and make mistakes and find accountability and transform the world with her brilliance.

I also love Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Tarana Burke, Brittney Cooper, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Loretta Ross, Ash-Lee Henderson, bell hooks, dream hampton, Yaba Blay, Sonya Renee Taylor, and so so so so many other Black women who I have seen people attempt to silence, discredit, dox, harass, disrespect, attack, or threaten with death. I love you, and I am sorry for any instance in which I have stayed silent when you needed me to speak up.

Some of these women I know and love personally, and some of them I just love because they are Black women who stepped into this impossible work and stayed. I love them not for their perfection, because none of them have that – I love them because of the effort they have made on behalf of all of us. They are home.

And I love myself and claim my eternal place in movements for liberation. I have made and will make mistakes. I will still be liberation bound.

I love all these Black women and so many more, and claim that all of us deserve to be loved and protected for all we do. I tell them so privately and I declare it here publicly:

I love you, Black woman.
I love you, organizer.
I will not engage in gossip about you.
I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.
I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.
I am committed to your freedom.

And for those Black people so willing to attack us? I love you, too. I won’t stop fighting for you.

Commit to my freedom, my protection, my legacy. Love me.

Commit to Patrisse’s freedom, her protection, her legacy. Love her.

Commit to Black women leaders’ freedom, our protection, our legacy. Love us.

Thank you to the two dozen Black organizers who laid editorial hands and eyes on this writing. I love you.