God grant me… courage to change the things I cannot change.
Much of what happens in our world leaves us initially speechless. Last year I watched the video of the death of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old African-American boy with a toy gun whom a policeman shot and killed within less than two seconds of arriving at his playground. Less than two seconds. Nothing I could write here would suffice to describe what happened; it has to be seen to be believed and understood.
The feelings that this video provokes have become all too common. They reemerged as I listened on NPR to the story of systemic, multi-year police oppression in Miami Gardens, another shocking story that defies belief. Then again as I watched the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina. These incidents commanding national attention remind us of the local, daily abuses we face when those wielding power use it as an instrument of oppression and injury rather than to promote the common good.
Watching the steady stream of injustice across America makes us want to scream. Like the molten core buried deep within our earth, the insurgent energy threatens instability, eruption, tectonic shift.
When our feelings of anger and loss reach the surface, they often explode in some form of expression: talking, shouting, marching or protesting, often causing damage that serves as a metaphor for our internal trauma. The violence that occurs in response to injustice and oppression is often the external manifestation of internalized pain and anger.
We remember Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and too many others before them, too many already forgotten. They deserve our voices. Their loss, and ours, cannot pass by without notice, without an opportunity to be heard and felt. As Shakespeare said, unspoken grief breaks the heart. When we can no longer bear that heartbreak, our grief finds expression in words and actions.
In the face of the protests that swept the nation last year, and which continue, many feel a profound sense of hopelessness. It is painful to admit: Many people believe that change is not going to come.
At a recent training, I sat in a community circle with a local leader who openly wept. She had been visiting with her parents, lifelong civil-rights activists. Her father expressed his belief that nothing would change, that things would continue to get worse. She was drowning in his despair, as well as her own.
How will we make the future different from the past? Can we?
I have never believed that protest is the best pathway to change. I have always disliked marches and vigils and speechmaking. Why do I feel this way?
Years ago, as a young community leader and activist, I worked with groups of concerned citizens who spent months circulating petitions for submission to their elected leaders. These campaigns begged for attention and urged others to action.
“Stop doing this,” I said. Why? I wanted more. I wanted action. I didn’t want the government to act. I wanted the community to be the direct agent of change. “Our petition is meaningless,” I would say. “Instead of circulating a petition, let’s start a lawsuit.” I did this again and again, channeling community protests into potent legal actions, using each citizen’s legal rights as a hammer to forge change. Don’t get mad; get even. This work led directly to my Kellogg Fellowship.
Later in my career, I worked with community leaders who wanted to organize marches on both City Hall and the State Capitol.
Don’t march on City Hall; let’s march into City Hall. Let’s get one of us elected. Let’s march into the offices of state government. Don’t fight the power. No, become the power. Don’t petition government with our grievances. No. Lead the government from within.
Barack Obama’s campaign thrilled me. A community organizer—Do you remember Rudy Guiliani ridiculing him?—was going to become President of the United States of America. The speech that launched his career was not an indictment of those in power, it was a call to unity.
Six years ago, I finished writing a novel. It was a very important, personal process for me. Something needed to come out from my deepest parts. It was my first novel and, who knows, perhaps my last (although I hope not). Throughout the four-month writing process, I told no one about the work. I made a pact with myself not to tell anyone that I was writing a novel until I had finished it. Why? Because the very words, the very act of talking about it, seemed to release the pressure and energy needed to flow directly into the action, into the writing. If I told someone that I was writing a novel, then most assuredly it would never be finished. I sensed that the words I could speak might serve as a pathetic substitute for the words I could write.
Don’t tell me what you are going to do. Do it.
Protest as Internalized Oppression?
Lately I have been revisiting a subject that I studied many years ago: internalized oppression. What is it? Expressed as simply as possible, internalized oppression is when the oppressor becomes part of us. We believe what the oppressor says about us. If the oppressor says that we are stupid and weak, we believe internally that we are stupid and weak. If the oppressor says that people of our color, ethnicity or socioeconomic status don’t deserve success, then we believe that we do not deserve success. We feel unworthy and incapable. And this feeling makes us be so. We become the oppressive force in our own psyches, in our own souls. We are colluding with the oppressor, doing his work for him.
No one has to dominate us when we dominate ourselves.
In my organization’s work helping community leaders to liberate their creative power, we have another term to describe this internal challenge: structural conflict, which happens when we believe in our hearts that we cannot achieve what we most want. This belief is an anchor pulling us to the bottom of the sea. We want to swim, to reach the surface; we want to breathe, to live, to reach the shore. But the internalized negative belief (it’s inevitable that I will drown) drags us into the cold lifeless depths.
The posture of protest reveals itself as a deep state of internalized oppression. This thought may trigger some anger. Good. The anger that we feel in confronting our own self-wrought psychological oppression may be much more valuable to us than the anger we express to our oppressors. When we fight back, we empower our oppressors, just as banging your head against a wall empowers the wall (turns it into a club) as it breaks your skull. Fight, yes. But don’t fight the power. Become the power. When we spend our time demanding others to make the changes that we want to see in the world, we leave the oppressors in charge and marginalize ourselves. They are the change, we are not. If we have to demand justice from them, then they still have the power. Justice is not to be demanded; it must be created. It is for us to do. We need to walk through the door, out of the prison, into a new structure that we will make according to our own desires and dreams. As Barack Obama likes to say: We are the ones we have been waiting for.
Awakening to Liberation and Action
The keys to our imprisonment are in our own hands. The time for protest is past. How many marches, speeches, vigils are enough? The time for words and demonstrations is past. Now we are called to live in the moment beyond words and symbols, a moment that invites our fully conscious direct action as the only true expression of its destiny. We cannot allow our heartfelt feelings, emotions, drive and determination—in other words, our true potential for change—to be wasted with mere words. No more talk. Unlock the cell and walk out.
Do we really have the power to change the future? We do. We have enough organizing power. We have enough political power. We have enough heart and determination to change these conditions of injustice. We even have enough money to do it. A community organizer became the country’s president. If we will pour everything we have into smart, focused action that leads directly to change, rather than handwringing and pressing others, then change will come. Only then.
The people who perpetuate injustice do not prepare petitions or organize protests. And neither do the people who directly create justice, rather than calling on the powerful to yield.
Organize. Vote. Lead. Create. Own. Change.
The time to speak truth to power is passed. Now it is time to become the power.
I leave you a poem by the Celtic mystic, John O’Donohue, whom I first came to read through an encounter with a Zen priestess and community organizer from Hawaii, Puanani Burgess. Thank you Pua!
For Someone Awakening to the Trauma of His or Her Past:
For everything under the sun there is a time.
This is the season of your awkward harvesting,
When the pain takes you where you would rather not go,
Through the white curtain of yesterdays to a place
You had forgotten you knew from the inside out;
And a time when that bitter tree was planted
That has grown always invisibly beside you
And whose branches your awakened hands
Now long to disentangle from your heart.
You are coming to see how your looking often darkened
When you should have felt safe enough to fall toward love,
How deep down your eyes were always owned by something
That faced them through a dark fester of thorns
Converting whoever came into a further figure of the wrong;
You could only see what touched you as already torn.
Now the act of seeing begins your work of mourning.
And your memory is ready to show you everything,
Having waited all these years for you to return and know.
Only you know where the casket of pain is interred.
You will have to scrape through all the layers of covering
And according to your readiness, everything will open.
May you be blessed with a wise and compassionate guide
Who can accompany you through the fear and grief
Until your heart has wept its way to your true self.
As your tears fall over that wounded place,
May they wash away your hurt and free your heart.
May your forgiveness still the hunger of the wound
So that for the first time you can walk away from that place,
Reunited with your banished heart, now healed and freed,And feel the clear, free air bless your new face.
This piece has also been published by the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance.