How do we change anything? Anything pertaining to the injustices of this world, in our communities and relationships. Do we take on the system? Do we engage our loved ones? Some of us gravitate toward one or the other; few bridge the political and personal. I’m re-viewing my stages of engagement, which some call activism. Conventionally activism is situated in the political-social realm, pushing at institutions, power structures, as well as individuals occupying influential positions within them.
Between 2002 and 2007 I located myself “here”, rallying against the powers-that-be in the interest of justice and peace – so was my intention. Actions always were personal, on the anti-war front with loved ones who were foreigners and subjected to increased hostility among the public and from the government. At that time, I held the image of loved ones’ relations in places where my government bombed.
Part of this work just now is coming to press in the anthology Activism and Rhetoric: Theories and Contexts for Political Engagement, a project that encountered greater controversy to publish than its editors anticipated (hence the long wait!). My chapter “Intervention and Rhetorics of War: Classical Insights for Contemporary Activists” is a blast from the past, when I took to NYC streets in 2003 upon the US invasion of Iraq. Re-viewing the article six years after its final revision, I read it as someone who’s crossing over, mindful of Gloria Anzaldúa‘s vision for fashioning a new way of being that heals the divide:
- But it is not enough to stand on the opposite river bank, shouting questions, challenging patriarchal, white conventions. A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. […] Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it’s a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes. Or perhaps we will decide to disengage from the dominant culture, write it off altogether as a lost cause, and cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory. [emphasis mine] (Borderlands/ La Frontera, page 100-01)
Looking back, I recognize the sheer force of emotion propelling me, as with the local campaign addressing violence against women in 2007, spurred in part by murders of women late that summer in my town. What else spurred me though? Our actions always draw upon our histories and presents while shaping our futures.
Early in the summer I revised poems that became the collections Blame It on Eve! (2007) and the land, once called DeWitt (2009). Yet due to the community work I pursued, the release of BIE! intended for fall 2007 was postponed until December. Emotion absorbed me as I handed myself over to bursts of action at city hall and writing the media. Again I had set aside poetry, an old habit while pursuing other lives – the dutiful Christian wife or the aspiring academic. (These roles may smack some as strange parallels, but in actuality they have a lot in common!)
Today my work takes another tempo. I focus on creativity in service of community and people touched by violence, who is everyone alongside survivors. My heart calls for justice upon learning of the un-prosecuted rape of a young woman attending my alma mater Michigan State University (see Michigan Messenger Sep. 29 and Oct. 6), while my soul calls for healing as she joins the journey of survivors. Justice may lend to healing but doesn’t guarantee it. As a survivor whose perpetrator didn’t pay legally for his sexual assault of me, I still pursue a path of healing (see my post “Story Survives”).
Past experiences of protest and teaching at university leave me unconvinced that systems of any sort initiate just efforts. I don’t believe in institutions as sources of just social change, but I believe in people pushing at structures that inevitably give at one weak point or another. My decision to vote last week, for instance, was not motivated by the idea that the current electoral system will result in any real change for justice. I voted to honor those who pushed at the system to make it give me a right to vote – a person without property, a woman, a descendant of Cherokees. When I re-view history for instigators of change, I find those who were not represented in the institutions agitating outside of them. Eventually this agitation broke through institutional resistance to change.
Then there are efforts to uphold the law, when people use the system in its own design, like American Indians who continue to press the US federal government to uphold treaties, documents made with sovereign nations upon this continent (see the American Indian Tribal Sovereignty Primer). The outcomes are hard won and long pursued to gain back land stolen and rights to land recognized as tribally owned. In these cases, I don’t place my faith in the system, but rather the people who insist that the system work as it is designed to, pushing pass neglect of authorities.
So despite brokenness in part because of authorities’ abdication of duty, the legal system is obligated to uphold its code as people persevere its purpose. This lesson applies to the prosecution of sexual violators, a pursuit of justice for the assaulted as well as the wider community, who likewise is damaged by this violence. The obligation only will be fulfilled, it seems, when people insist, make noise, maintain vigil.
In the Lansing area, the Coalition Against Sexual Violence based at Michigan State University maintains a public presence to challenge rape culture while calling upon the university administration to fulfill its institutional responsibility (see Nov. 3 letter in The State News). This dual effort is vital, because without change on the ground – the ways people think about, talk to, and treat one another – systematic action will not ensure the healing process nor engage the pervasive attitudes that lead to violence and violation. This work pushes at unjust social practices while giving hope to those facing violence, a two-pronged effort that currently reaches across the US with campaigns like “Give a Damn” and “It Gets Better”.
Day-to-day I am enriched and challenged by one-on-one exchanges when it comes to matters of justice and healing, many times with survivors of violence. At the peaceful protest for justice in sexual assault cases, coming to know a survivor who drove by and decided to join. Seeking audience with a whose perspective on justice in sexual assault leaves me with a lot of questions. Reaching for words in poems to make space for stories of survivors, even when an audience may hesitate to hear, even when advocates question the readiness of a survivor to speak (see my post “Aware” with the poem “Ready”).
I support the peaceful persistence of the CASV and others who demand that our broken systems serve our communities. I share words through poems and other vehicles, part of my healing process that hopefully inspires others in pursuing justice and their own healing. The words and actions of others like Gloria Anzaldúa inspire and encourage me to “cross the border into a wholly new and separate territory.”