WISCON 34: Activism: When to Speak Up, When to Let it Go

I have to say — every panel I went to was amazing. Some were so good, and had such intense audience participation I didn’t even get to take notes. One of those was the “Tarot Cards for Writers” one, which was EASILY the best writing workshop I’ve been to in a while.

In other news: this panel was also, uh, AMAZING.

Someone recommended How to Save the World in Your Spare Time by Elizabeth May. BC Holmes talked about how sometimes the workd you do as an activist feels more real than your “real” life. Nice subtlety! N.K.Jemisin (who I am fangirlling so hard right now, omg!!) said she considered activism to be working against power in anyway possible. ¬†She charted a personal history that included anti-apartheid sit-ins at Tulane, voter registration at the Million Man March, sit-ins at insurance companies, and a steampunk lesbian story set in Haiti for donating to a charity for Haiti. She also talked about participating in anti-racist fandom, and how she’s influenced by Tim Wise.

N.K. got people talking about burnout. BCH said that she actually wanted to use this an opportunity to interrogate safety, since our (and I think here she meant First World?) culture has a high expectation of comfort. She connected this to her activism projects in Haiti, concluding with this gem: “I think the idea of work-life balance needs to be unpacked. I think there’s something in US/Canada that cues us to find stuff like discussions of neoliberalism and globalization boring.”

Carrie Tilton-James was all, “Women in particular have to be aware of their limits,” since they take on various activist activities. “There has to be space to be nurtured and fed as you act in accordance with your values.” She then criticized the consumer culture of activism in the US, where it’s more life-style than life-changing.

Ian K. Hagemann talked about his work with Bastard Nation, an adoptee rights organization. He said, “I think one of the things that’s incumbent on activists (particularly activists who do emotional work like the ManKind Project) is to have a good and happy life… The more barriers I put in the way of living the life that I want [by being righteous in an unproductive fashion] the harder it is for me to be effective in these different projects.” Basically: decide where it’s useful to expend your energies and where it’s not. That really resonated with me, because I’d gotten the star card in my tarot reading, and it’s important to think about where you pour yourself, and whether you’re wasting your water or encouraging things to grow. ¬†Carrie Tilton James brought up the teaspon metaphor from Shakesville, where enough teaspoons can eventually empty an ocean. But still — when do you engage, and when do you let it go?

BCH pointed out that it’s sometimes easier to engage when you’re not seen as personally invested, and also said it’s good to know exactly what your rights are. The BUST card from the ACLU is useful for this. CTJ said she needed to ask herself the following: “Do I feel safe? Do I have backup? Will they listen? Is there someone nearby for whom I want to set a good example? I’ll only try to teach a pig to sing if there’s someone nearby who might find that song useful.”

IKH said that he asked himself, “Where am I in the power differential? What does my silence mean? It only takes one asshole and a bunch of silent people to ruin a kid’s day. I think empowered people need to be empowered emotionally as well as politically. Finally: what difference can I make? My resources change my options. What kind of wake am I going to leave?”

BCH recommended Mountains Beyond Mountains, and said that one of the things she does when she’s feeling low is recharge. She also urged everyone to think about the importance of the team, saying that on days she’s feeling low, “the team takes up the slack.”

Ian said that the toolkits he’s found the most useful have not come out of activist work. They’ve been emotional literacy, reconciliation with his family, finding people who love him for who he is vs. what he does, and the knowledge that one needs to practice saying what you want to say when you are upset (like, “I need help,” or “You’re hurting me.”) He recommended The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense, as well as guided visualizations.

CTJ suggested practicing empathy, and IKH refined that by saying that you should also know what your desired end-point is. Like, do you want them to agree or to shut up? NKJ highlighted the utility of anger, particularly in light of RaceFail 09 and how racism in SF/F had been talked about for years but it was ignored til there was a critical mass of anger powering it. CTJ highlighted that as a person with privilege, she cautions herself to not take the anger of the groups with whom you are acting as an ally with personally.

BCH concluded with a Molly Ivins quote: Darlings, don’t forget to laugh.

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