By Halena Seiferling
Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
Dear recovering organizer,
Hi. How are you? No, really – how are you doing?
I might not know you, but I know what you have been through, because too many of us have. Maybe you have been silenced or made to feel unwelcome. Maybe you have been kept out from the beginning. Maybe you have been treated as disposable, your needs and experiences unimportant, because ‘the mission’ and ‘the work’ was the most important thing and anything else was a distraction.
I know because I have been there too. I have left and been pushed out of roles I was passionate about because I was not seen as driven enough, narrow enough, willing to sacrifice enough. I have seen progressive leaders say that those who point out harmful practices are ‘being divisive’. I have witnessed organizers be removed from the work because their social media profiles, stigmatized identities, or personal lives were thought to upset mainstream funders or partners.
In both arts and non-profit spaces, I have seen people of diverse body sizes, races, genders, and abilities sidelined for a continued preference for thinness, whiteness, neurotypicality, and ‘professionalism.’ I have experienced white leaders perpetuate cultural appropriation and use of ‘exotic’ ideas or practices without proper recognition or support for those lineages. I have seen toxic environments built on precarious work, low pay, and a culture of scarcity and competition.
In both arts and non-profit spaces, I have seen people of diverse body sizes, races, genders, and abilities sidelined for a continued preference for thinness, whiteness, neurotypicality, and ‘professionalism.’
The gate-keeping and upholding of oppression within so-called ‘inclusive’ spaces must end. It is not acceptable for members of our communities to be treated with judgment, violence, and re-traumatization. If we all agree oppression is wrong, do we not apply our values to our own communities?
In progressive spaces, we let our guard down. We think everyone around us is committed to justice and anti-oppression and we work under that assumption. But there will always be disagreement and conflict, because we’re human, and in those moments we often look to our progressive leaders, assuming they will hold space and facilitate solutions. If we find that our leaders are still clutching onto the same problematic structures that we thought we were trying to dismantle, it can be disillusioning at best and violent at worst.
If we all agree oppression is wrong, do we not apply our values to our own communities?
And now, here we are, with multiple urgent social, economic, and environmental issues to address, and so many of us don’t know where our place is. We’ve been hurt too badly before, when we were younger or more hopeful or trusted that we could be part of a change. Now, we don’t know where to start over again, where we’ll be welcome, where we can build something that can last.
I don’t have all the answers. I am still building a slow and steady recovery myself. But I do know one thing: there is a place for all of us, no matter what you’ve been told.
None of us knows what it’s like to be somebody else. We only know our own experiences and identities, with all the intersections we each hold. We make mistakes when we think we know what other people need without first building a relationship to understand their experiences. Like any ecosystem, we are stronger and more resilient when we are diverse and interconnected.
So we need all of us, with all of our unique skills and abilities, to build a comprehensive and collaborative response to the issues we face today. We need the people who our current leaders disregard and don’t understand and think are ‘too much.’ But to do this, we need to get to know each other, to build relationships, and to actually mean it.
The truth is that our ideal world, the one we always say we’re fighting for, has no space for the sacrifice of our dreams, our identities, or our pleasures.
When I think about the most fulfilling communities I’ve been part of, I think about spaces where members did not prioritize a specific outcome above all else, including each other. Folks said: this is what I care about, and this is what needs to be done about it, and will you help me? And then they said: what do you care about, and what do you need, and how can I help you?
We need to treat each other in the ways we each want to be treated. We need to trust that we each know our own minds. We need to act like we actually intend to be in it, for the long haul, together – like we actually intend to win. Because that’s the only way we will.
So to all the ‘progressive’ leaders who have silenced and gaslit community members, who have forced people out who did not look or act like them, who have created unsafe environments or failed to make spaces safer: I’m so sorry for what you’ve been through, for what made you hard. I hope your heart can still be softened. But for now, we are not giving you any more of our time.
But for now, we are not giving you any more of our time.
And to you, the ones the movements left behind: You are wanted. You are loved. Do not forget what happened, but learn from it, so that you don’t perpetuate the same cycle onto someone else. Seek out others who are also ready for gentleness and care. Find those people who prioritize safety, who respect boundaries, who want to get to know you, and who are committed to slow and steady progress toward a shared vision for our beautiful community.
I’ll see you there.
Another recovering organizer
About the Author:
Halena Seiferling aka Halena Lou when performing on stage, is an artist, dancer, writer, and community organizer based in Vancouver Canada (unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh land). Halena has a Masters in Public Policy and has organized and advocated on sex workers’ rights, climate action, gender equity, living wages, and international solidarity. Halena’s writing has appeared in Canada’s National Observer, Loose Lips Magazine, Eco-Anxious Stories, Briarpatch Magazine, and more. Learn more on her website at www.halena.ca.