Since coming back from Urban Retreat 2013, I’ve had a bit of time to think about what mistakes I made and avoided over the weekend.
Going into Urban Retreat, I wasn’t entirely sure of what my role would be as a Campus Organizer, because I had previously resigned from GenderBloc and we had decided another member should take the CO role. This resignation was largely a product of a busier-than-imagined fall semester, and trying to do too many things at once seemed incredibly risky. I had felt comfortable with my decision until arriving at UR.
For such a long time, group activism and building a family around that motivation had been a huge part of my life. From working with Human Rights Campaign throughout high school, to my current (light) involvement with GetEQUAL and other local activist and support groups, my identity had been constructed through its reliance on commonalities with others. As a consequence, it took me a very long time to decide who I was and what that meant outside of my political work.
Perhaps this lack of personal identity is what has contributed to my unwillingness to step back into an area where my only involvement was on the political front, with driving support for LGBT individuals and the issues that face our communities. I remained a staunch supporter of “working alone” for the last two years, with rare exceptions here and there. I let this cloud my mind heading to UR, and mostly saw my role there as “well, I’m here, I’ll get the info for the person taking over, and I won’t get attached.” As much as I hate to admit it, I was pretty successful.
It was not until I got back to Cincinnati, after wasting a weekend of amazing opportunities, that I realized I had blown everything I cared about in the interests of my own insecurities. After having very personal battles with myself last winter, a series of fallouts with my mother as a result, and ultimately revising my entire identity to all who had known me prior to “Micha,” I was anything but ready to work with 150 new strangers. What I didn’t understand was that every single one of those strangers had something they could have offered to me. If I had taken the time, I would have learned 150 new lessons…but I was too busy being scared.
Most of the time, I give a disgusted grimace when I hear the word “ally.” In my world, an ally is always a negative thing – it’s a privileged individual who wants a gold ribbon because they were human enough to be decent. Not because they took it to another level and dedicated themselves to working to confront oppression on every possible level, not because they were someone who routinely reflected on their privilege and found ways to use that to help the oppressed individuals they were allying with…just because they wanted to be our saviors. On the opposite end, though – I have always valued the idea of coalitions above all other forms of political communities. The idea of similarly-oppressed groups – and that is not to say that I am oppressed in one way, you are oppressed in another, so I understand your oppression, because that is simply not the case, oppressions are not equivalencies – that these similarly-oppressed groups could band together to find effective political avenues to change their situations and confront their oppressors and maybe work together to combat multiple forms of oppression – that has always felt like love to me. What Maria Lugones calls “loving perception” is how I imagine coalitions. While we recognize that we are all different, we are able to perceive each other with love and recognize that even with that difference, we are able to help each other climb our mountains. They may not be the same mountains, or even in the same range, but you cannot battle oppression and privilege on only one level. Eradicating one form of oppression is not eradication, it is reduction. A reduction which simply allows other forms of oppression to grow, or new ones to take over – and that helps no one.
What did I learn from UR? I learned that as social justice advocates, it’s our responsibility to give others a chance. Whether they are members of other oppressed groups, allies, or the oppressors, no one is capable of stepping up if we automatically condemn them as something “different” or “wrong.” If we truly want to drive political and social change, we have to actively accept as many willing individuals as we can, even if their methods of helping are not exactly what we want or expect. I know I could’ve done much better at living this on a personal level not only at UR, but at other points in my life. I can only hope that taking this time to reflect reminds me of the importance that friendships, partnerships, communities and coalitions play in our work, and that I learn how to use it to achieve my own goals and assist others in achieving theirs.