Expect a few posts about CSICon over the next few days. It was a good time. It was good skepticism. It was good discussions with the people who are or will end up running our movements.
One type of conversation I had repeatedly this weekend is a discussion I’ve been having a lot these days. It generally starts like this:
I really appreciate what you’ve been doing the last few months. I feel like I should be doing more to help, but…
In these situations, the “but” is sometimes an explicit reason and sometimes left hanging, but it typically all means the same thing: “I’m in a position where I can’t do that and do what I do now.”
There are people who ask what they can do as well, but those conversations start differently. The conversations I’m talking about happen when I’m sitting down with other activists, people already deeply ensconced in our movements. These are the people who always feel compelled to take on more, even when they really can’t fit any more on their plates.
The first few times this conversation happened, I was surprised. Then I realized I have a very similar reaction to everyone who has said this to me. Ever since then, these chats have been much easier.
So if you’re one of the people who are actively involved in the day-to-day operation of our movements–you run activities or groups, lobby, speak, investigate, research, write, edit, design, and all the other things that keep us functioning–you’re doing work that desperately needs to be done. Moreover, you’re doing work that I can’t do. I don’t have your skills, or I don’t have the time your projects require, or I don’t have the temperament that would allow me to keep at your work over the long haul.
I’m envious. You’re making contributions I can’t. I’m also feeling a little guilty, because what I’ve been doing recently has been showy. It gets attention that the nuts-and-bolts work doesn’t. That’s very much not fair. Sometimes necessary for the changes that have to be made, but not fair.
Nor is it any more fair that many of you have to refrain from taking part in a fight that means a lot to you. One thing that has been key to me in being able to effectively criticize movements I’m part of is my independence. A silly petition notwithstanding, other people and organizations I care about generally can’t be targeted in any attempts to shut me up. That leverage doesn’t exist.
The same cannot be said for most of the people who have felt bad over not being able to help. These are movements that rely on donations and engaged memberships to accomplish what they do. When people who otherwise represent the organizations that do most of the work take a vocal stand on a contentious issue, that can threaten both. Since we’re all working with a goal stronger, broader movements, taking those stands may be counterproductive.
There’s an irony here too, in that the people who can’t take public stands are typically making these movements more welcoming places for diverse populations in more direct ways than I can. I can suggest harassment policies, but someone needs to put them in place. I won’t be hiring more women into any positions, much less positions of leadership. I can’t set the tone of meetings or invite speakers or give awards.
I can write. I can articulate nuanced positions. I can explain the bad logic supporting bad arguments. I can stand up for people who don’t have a platform. I can take some pointless but annoying heat.
I won’t tell you those things haven’t been needed, but they are nothing like all or even the most important daily business of these movements. That is done by other people, and I’m incredibly grateful to the people who do it.