-Jennifer Decker, PJC Member

How do healthy relationships happen in movement and political spaces?  The present time has immense potential because so many activists are engaging with this question.  

Healthy relationships rely on curiosity, understanding, safety, delight, play, time, care, affection, space, love and mutual understanding.  Cornel West says “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public”. Yet in politics, we often see injustice and hatred. How can we effectively dismantle a system that relies on discord and the exclusion of certain voices and perspectives?  One way is to be able to immediately perceive the healthy and unhealthy qualities in any interaction and to name them out loud. In order to do this effectively, self-awareness and awareness of one’s impact on others is a necessary precondition.  

As a former mental health counselor who has worked primarily with poor and low income communities for twenty years, I am able to name that the social services system in this country upholds an oppressive system.  Yet the tools of this system can also be put to good use for collective liberation. Audre Lorde’s compelling statement that Audre Lorde’s well-known declaration that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Micah White, co-creator of Occupy Wall St., from the Activist Graduate School frames it this way “We cannot disrupt our oppression using the logic that justifies our oppression.  My only point of tension here is that sometimes creative tools emerge even in toxic environments. And my suggestion is that many of these tools can and are being put to good use in social justice movements.  If they are indeed used for the purpose of liberation, we know because we will feel this in our bodies. Our bodies are reliable sources of information because freedom and love and belonging are felt senses. It’s important to trust ourselves when it feels like something is wrong, or right.  And it is important to trust one another’s voices, even those with whom we disagree in activist circles. It is easiest to trust those willing to do their own personal work.  

Further examples of concepts that are useful in the political sphere are gas-lighting and understanding how defensiveness plays out when people who are privileged are upholding a system that maintains their comfort.  To take gas-lighting for an example, if a Burlington Mayor states that damaging levels of F-35 noise don’t bother him and insinuates that his perspective represents a valid baseline for other people’s bodies, in truth he is gas-lighting thousands of people.  This is where the connection between systemic oppression and individual acts comes into stark relief. The good news is that we can name it. One thing I’d like to name in Vermont politics is that many people in office will make strong calls for civility and respect in the public discourse, but when the conversation creates discomfort for them, they will quickly resort to yelling.  This has happened to me and to others that I have witnessed engaging at every level of government. It is often deployed as a tool to avoid a difficult question. I have also seen politicians defend one another due to personal loyalties as opposed to the correctness of the position they’re supporting. These things can be named and it is wise to name them in a civil manner, and yet, expecting civility from people who are oppressed and whose survival is on the line is in itself oppressive tone policing.  

Other unhealthy behaviors that are common in the political elite include shaming constituents for not falling in line with the status quo, blaming or casting guilt upon activists for taking action in a free society, and judging people based on their actions in tense situations rather than seeking to understand and develop compassion with their concerns.  This sounds heavy but becomes much lighter when you can speak up about it. Any time that an elected official shames, blames, casts guilt, judges, criticizes, shows contempt, stonewalls (such as Sen. Leahy’s unwillingness to meet with constituents over the F-35 basing) or shows defensive/fragile behavior, we can name it. And naming it works, because it changes the situation.  All of us have every right to set boundaries with anyone who relies on such negative patterns to govern. It is their job to listen to us and if they are yelling at us, something is wrong. We understand that the system puts their bodies in tension as well and yet it is not acceptable for them to offload that stress on their constituents or to defend one another over and above their responsibility to serve the people.  

Setting boundaries can be tough yet there is a lighter side to this whole discussion.  That is, how can we treat one another in ways that leave no space for unhealthy emotional habits?  It is heartening to me after years of activism to go to rallies and see so many kind-hearted and caring people.  I imagine that we have all been at marches and rallies where we did not feel the love, and perhaps many of us have been in activist spaces that do uphold the kind of love that Cornel West spoke about.  This is true where human needs for security, survival, care, curiosity, understanding, fun, affection, responsibility, interest, empowerment, mutual understanding, and safety needs are all at the fore.  

What are the kinds of healthy habits that people bring to productive organizing?  Healthy relationships require a core attachment that develops through time and experiences of trust and being seen for the people involved.  When all parties are able to bring forward their humanity in full, there can be the experience of acceptance. Whether in pairs, groups, or collectives, the capacity to feel emotions in one’s own body is essential.  This is a precondition for self-awareness and the ability to accept personal responsibility. Without this, when we are called out, we may become defensive ourselves, rather than curious about the other person’s experience of us.  Another prerequisite of healthy relationships is a willingness to accept our own and one another’s boundaries and limits and demonstrate respect.  

One of many great lessons of non-violent communication is the framework that negative emotions are generated from unmet needs and positive ones from needs that are met.  Individuals have the ability to meet many of their own needs in contexts where material conditions allow that to occur, and of course there are some needs that can only be met in relationship or through collective change.  In order to establish a just world, we do our own internal work and we develop clarity about how to impact the society in which we live. We are very lucky when we surround ourselves with people willing to do the same on behalf of collective liberation.  My meditation teacher says there is no such thing as an individual, and that resonates now. This piece of writing has been influenced by so many people, teachers, and traditions that span generations. I would like to particularly point to John Gottman’s great research on healthy relationships, Marshall Rosenberg, who developed nonviolent communication, as well as Cornel West, and American activist, social critic, philosopher and writer.  My thanks go to Audre Lorde, self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet”, and Micah White, quoted above. Many thanks to those who continue to engage in the challenging and rewarding task of establishing the resilient relationships and community we need to indeed assure a world where human needs are met.