Turn on the news today and you will see people in the streets protesting and demonstrating. These movements are activated around the question of race and the role it plays in our society. The question has become personal for me as an opportunity to deepen my thinking and engagement around racial justice. As I have listened to the experience of people of color and reviewed the history, it has become clear to me that racism is a historical fact that can be the occasion for thoughtful response or emotional reactivity. My goal is to be thoughtful as I pursue my convictions wholeheartedly.
This commitment is complex because I do not enter political space in a politically neutral way. Bowen Theory guides one to seek emotional neutrality within relational systems. I have understood this to mean not taking sides. But, in our current moment, my core principles and thinking have led me to join with others in resisting systemic prejudice and seeking new options – they have led me to take a side. So it is an interesting and difficult work to maintain a thoughtful sense of myself amidst the intense group dynamics of political space. I have had to think carefully about how I can define and act for myself where the emotional pull of chants, call and response, and ideology take center stage. Below are the practices I have found most helpful in the anxious space of politics and protest:
Prepare: Engaging in political activism can be more an act of self if I am able to define my intention prior to engagement. Researching facts instead of repeating soundbytes, hearing from experts, and listening to the stories of those whose experience is different than mine help inform the way I choose to live out my convictions. Finding actions and movements that are led by the most mature leaders, keen in their thinking, strong in conviction, and less exploitative in their use of emotion is another important consideration.
Pay Attention: Like going home to visit family, entering intense political spaces requires the practice of observation. As someone whose pattern – set in my family system – is to absorb anxiety, it is important for me to observe the individuals around me and the emotional energy of the group while also keeping an eye on myself. In political space, I work to see how much or little I am absorbing the many anxious signals flying around pell-mell, like popcorn popping in a pan. It is important to be able to see the pressures exerted on me and others to be, say, think, and move in ways determined by the group, and to note my response.
See Participation as a Tool: Politics is anxious. In my experience there is no political movement that lacks emotional intensity. The emotionality of a rally or other political organizing is part of its power. Whether or not my own participation is more likely to be an expression of self is related to my intentionality. As a white male who has spoken at and taken leadership in social movements in the past, doing anti-racist work often means intentionally stepping back, recognizing the quality and potency of voices that have been silenced or ignored. This means that others speak before me and usually instead of me. In a strange way, deferring to the group can become an act of self-definition that pursues my own goals. In this and other ways, my political engagement has been a conscious choice to join the group dynamic.
After a month of protest, it is again evident that creative and powerful movements can spark new conversations and open doors. These outcomes, as well as my own observations, have confirmed the thought that my participation – joining the messaging and dynamic of a group – can be a useful tool ultimately guided by intention and thoughtful conviction.
David Swanson, M.Div.
WPFC Board member