Lessons from Alison Hawthorne Deming and Sarah Schulman on hope and organizing during a “disturbance regime”

July 31, 2018 0 Comments

These are just two threads of learning that I took away from Social Justice Week at Fine Arts Work Center in July 2018 among many, many, many. If you were there as well and have reflections, please add your learning and thoughts in the comments.

During Social Justice Week at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts last week, in my workshop on the environmental essay, the writer Alison Hawthorne Deming acknowledged the fear and grief people are feeling as a result of what’s happening in the U.S. and the world. Then she asked folks to make a moral decision, not a rational or emotional one, to be hopeful, write from that place, and then take action. She reminded us we don’t have to be linear or rational in how we go about feeling hopeful.

Deming went on to talk about how in nature, when awful things happen like a flood, earthquake, or forest fire, this is called a disturbance regime. And how after disturbance regimes we see the most resilient new patterns. In communities that have dealt with natural disasters or are living with the effects of them now, one of the most dangerous things to do is to forget to tell stories of renewal, repair, and resilience. People get spooked, she says, if they don’t hear enough of the good things going on, if they don’t hear about creative responses to disturbance regimes. It was wonderful to see living systems thinking show up at a conference for writers and artists.

This morning, like so many, I woke up to news about 3-D printable guns and the fact that immigrant children are being given psychotropic drugs without consent at a government facility in Manvel, Texas. I am afraid not because I don’t think things can get better, but because so many people have already been hurt and killed.

What new resilient patterns to this disturbance regime are you seeing?

Later in the week, Sarah Schulman read from the book she is writing on the organizing strategies of Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the 80s and 90s. She spoke about how organizers focused on “creating the world they wanted to see” through direct creative actions. “Instead of marching around with signs and listening passively to speakers [as their sole focus]… they created elaborate images of the obstacles they were fighting and the world they wanted to live in.” She spoke about Act Up’s “Stop the Church” direct action in 1989 and explained how clear a decision it was for those who went into St. Patrick’s Cathedral to interrupt mass. If the church’s policies were killing people by preventing the distribution of condoms, then it was a simple moral decision to protest with their bodies.

Schulman went on to explain how Act Up campaigns were structured as “a series of interconnected actions” based on the principle of “simultaneity of action, not consensus,” which so often slows us down. In Act Up meetings led predominantly by white gay men, she said people of color and/or women “did not waste their time trying to teach their white male comrades to be less sexist or racist.” They simply focused on stewarding the energy, money, and connections of these folks toward their actions and campaigns. Other people who wanted to fight racism and sexism in the movement did the same.

Which underfunded projects, campaigns, and actions led by people of color and women, particularly women of color, need your support and resources (financial, but not only financial) now?


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