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Hey friends, it’s the Raising Luminaries podcast. This is season 1 episode 1. We’re getting experienced now!
Right now we’re in the Winter Parent Activist Incubator and I’m working on the material for chapter three. So what we’re talking about in this third week of our winter work is why we have such a hard time balancing work, parenting, activism, and everyday life stuff – like getting the dishes done and getting lunch on the table. How that aspiration to ‘have it all’ gets in our way.
And then in the incubator, we’re working together to take advantage of our personal experiences so we can raise more resilient leaders. To do that we need to cover understanding the problem of the concept of work-life balance, and how this mindset perpetuates systemic oppression.
So let’s put that here so we can have time to do the deeper cohort-ish work in the actual incubator.
So what I’ve heard from a lot of our members is challenges with getting distracted by the necessities of daily tasks like work, and preparing meals, and sleeping, and getting outside, and they feel that that’s keeping them from making impactful change for social progress.
I get that too – that feeling of… we’re not doing ‘real,’ validating, impactful work towards justice, if we’re too distracted with the busy-work of life. But what I found over the years is that – this care work of sustaining life, in raising the next generation, being people in the world, and existing through the multitude of identities and obstacles and experiences that we have – are not actually a distraction from radical progress. It *is* the socially transformative work.
If you think about how many years labor activist fought for child labor rights, for labor limits, for lunch breaks, and we just inherited these things right? So when we work an hourly job, we take that lunch break, and we just see that as normal. That’s just a part of the culture and we often feel guilty for not working during that lunch break.
But we don’t realize that by claiming that lunch break – by taking it, by inheriting that work that our ancestors worked so hard for, we’re actually perpetuating the normalization that they dedicated their lives toward.
So this chapter, this week, is really about acknowledging how is the work we’re already doing integrated with our values? Or maybe it’s not integrated with our values, and we need to tweak it. But more importantly, how to get out of our own way?
So instead of getting stuck in a loop of feeling guilty about not doing enough, like we talked about in previous episodes, we take time to retreat, to reorient to reevaluate what’s going on and what’s actually on our plates. Because part of our society is very outward looking. And we’re all focused on what we *should* be doing, what we should be adding, what we’re not doing. Completely ignoring the 24 hours of work and care and survival that we’re already doing.
Which isn’t to say that we can’t be doing more impactful work, or with less friction. But this time is to set aside and just to get a really honest look about – are we actually putting our energy toward the right things or maybe are we putting a little bit of our energy towards just feeling guilty about not doing enough?
So, let me see, what is the problem with that concept of ‘work-life balance,’ and how does it scaffold systems of oppression? So let’s talk about today, the underlying assumptions behind these concepts of these cringe-worthy phrases like ‘work-life balance’ and ‘having it all’ and ‘leaving money on the table’ – like those cliches that people put in webinars. It causes like a little internal cringe and maybe not all of us have put some thought into… why is that? Why is that so gross? Like why does that make us feel like something is not quite right below the surface.
We’re going to talk about what this mindset looks like and how we’re complicit in it. And the harm we do when we perpetuate it – when we buy into it, or even when we let it drive our actions. When our activism and our parenting is guilt- and obligation-based, rather than focused in a sense of compassion and community here.
So let’s stop for a tangent for a second and talk about… there’s a Chinese creation story of the goddess Nuwa, who arrived on the planet (which was created by a guy with an axe) – and she was lonely. So she created people out of clay. And this actually has common roots with the Yoruba creation story Obatala – where on the banks of a river some fancy being a god or whatever fashions humans out of clay.
Through the lens of modern stories as they are presented now, particularly to children, these stories tend to pick up a lot of lenses of erasure on disability, intersex people, you know, when you watch cartoons of these things, these gods are forming fully cisgendered men and women and with completely abled bodies, and then there’s always a tangent about how the people get altered by rain, or the creator got drunk and created disabled bodies and minds. Which is so… let’s throw out that part out. Because we don’t need to take that part with us and we don’t know where that came from, although I suspect it comes from a lot of ableism.
Oone of the nice things about creation stories is it’s a cosmology. It’s not fundamental to scripture. So ignoring that grossness, while also acknowledging it.
Nuwa created these clay beings to keep her company and to create a community around herself. And then, you know, things happen to these creatures. She mourns their death, she mourns their loss. She tries to figure out how to have them perpetuate themselves without constant care. But basically her story kind of comes to a close and as an ending, when there’s this rupture in the sky, where stuff is pouring in. I can’t remember if it’s water or whatever. And she basically sacrifices her body and her labor and her *being* to patch that hole in the sky.
Part of that is a sacrifice – she has to hold for her entire life (or whatever you call the existence of an immortal). This god’s life has to be sacrificed to protect the creatures that she created. And she becomes a pillar in the sky. Holding, holding that flood, and protecting the people.
And the part of the message – from one of the many messages you get from that story is that sense of, there are people in the world who are holding back the flood so you can survive. And maybe you can’t see them. And maybe you don’t know them. Maybe you don’t appreciate them. But they exist and they’re doing that work.
If we think about the people who pave our roads and clean our schools and get groceries from one place to another so we can obtain them. With supply chain problems, that’s really the only time that we notice the hard work and the effort of these people who are sustaining us, so we can sustain the people that we’re caring about.
And so we can all do a little bit of work towards revolution, and justice and common humanity. So when I think about this – as one of the main female-oriented creation stories within Chinese traditional stories – and that there’s different versions of it, but I’m focusing right now on the ones where she creates the humans and then she becomes basically a static pillar to protect them.
And it makes me think a lot about what is ‘care work’ and how do we define it? What does it mean for our labor invisible and what does it mean to be a pillar? To be a pillar of your community. To be a pillar that upholds the world – that we kind of pass by and we don’t notice it until it’s broken or crumbling.
So back from that tangent. Let’s talk about the underlying assumptions behind that concept of ‘having it all’ and ‘work-life balance.’
So first, let’s talk about colonialism. And part of colonial culture is that concept of linear time. It marches forward, at a steady pace from the beginning to the end. And there’s this concept of being ‘backwards’ and being ‘traditional,’ or being ‘pre-civilized.’ And then the inevitable westward expansion, and capitalism, and obtaining more, and doing more, and reaching towards the future.
That’s steeped in to a colonial mindset, that justice comes as a function of time. It’s a concrete act, where there’s a beginning and an end, and it only lasts so long. And it’s constrained to singular moments, as opposed to a more expansive sense of justice, where justice is doing the work to make sure you know, we honor the previous generations before us, and the generations to come. Stewarding the earth , Stewarding our resources responsibly and with reciprocal care.
So another underlying assumption beyond linear time and justice-as-small-events-that-happen-outside-the-norm, is rooted in capitalism and elitism: that justice are results that are visible and quantifiable. You can measure them. You can sense them with one of your physical senses senses. Justice is highly visible, and results-oriented activism work is considered morally better. ‘Good’ justice work is more active, more towards justice than the quieter invisible work and the work of scaffolding that visible work.
Quieter invisible work – preparing for direct action, sustaining the people who do direct action work, provide the materials to make sure that work can be done. Supposedly tis is not active justice work. Like that concept that to be an activist you have to actively, and directly, have your name on a piece of legislation.
So that that both of those are steeped in the concepts of supremacy, right? That large quantity of measurable results are better than the depth or quality of care, or how deeply they ripple out in ways that we can’t really measure.
And invisible labor supposedly is not real valid labor. Which also comes with the other shitty part of that which is – if you do invisible labor, and your your invisible labor is not considered real labor, it does not warrant reciprocity. We live in a capitalist society that is so bent on transactionalism, where we just can’t survive without transactions.
If you’re doing work that is not valued, and you’re doing work that is invisible, then you’re doing work that does not deserve to be reciprocated. Where does that leave the people who have to do the invisible work that keeps us all sustaining and surviving?
So let’s talk about supremacy. That concept of people with some identities owe their invisible labor to other people. As if that is just the natural way of things.
I’m thinking about this impulse that we have – because we grew up with it. Particularly if we are assigned female at birth, we identify as as mothers, or more feminine, that inner- and outer-drive to keep a clean house. To make sure our children are presentable and behaved. And even if we know logically that our kids misbehaving, our house being a mess, us not sending Christmas cards – is not an actual reflection of us as human beings or our worth.
It’s a constant sense of fear of being disqualified and ostracized if we don’t do those things. So that drive that we owe that labor to the faceless masses. Where some people do not experience that, right? There are some people, usually people who are assigned male at birth, who are not raised to believe that it is their responsibility to make sure someone sends in gifts for the teachers on the holidays. Or that the stove burners are clean.
And obviously ‘not all men,’ whatever. But you understand the point. There’s a cultural embedding, starting when we’re really young, that says some of us owe our labor to others. And some of us are entitled to having that labor not just done for us, but also entitled to not having our attention drawn to it. Where it’s almost seen as – we are going above and beyond by noticing people for the labor what they do to keep us alive.
So next let’s talk about that American hero journey – the fairy tale classics, where there’s a highly individualistic journey, where someone starts out with a problem. And then over the course of this story, they end up ‘having it all’ right?
Not only do they get the goals that they were working towards, but everything kind of wraps itself up nicely in the end. And that’s deeply tied in with the American dream. That if you strive, you will achieve, and arrive at a space of happily-ever-after, that perpetual comfort. A place of frequent joy, where you have satisfaction in your goals and pleasure, you know, once you have arrived, right?
Which we all know, when we actually think about, – happiness is not a constant state. That is not something you will ‘arrive at.’ The only thing you arrive at is eventually dying.
So what this story really distracts us from is that premise that individual happiness is the goal in the destination. And this is something that I even struggle with when interacting with some of my loved ones who are raised in that culture of ‘happiness as the ultimate goal.’
Individual happiness – as opposed to say, collective safety, or collective justice.
Where happily-ever-after as a before-and-after state, and it’s just out of reach. If you hustle hard, if you spend wisely, if you tune into the right recipe, if you read enough books on Buddhism and and meditate enough.
This is very much the cultural appropriation of non-white religions to be appropriated and used as a tool to achieve that American dream of ‘happily ever after.’
And then we talk about the erasure of privilege. More assumptions that work, and life, and caregiving, and social justice work, are separate objectives that require us to kind of code switch between different parts of identities. That require those of us who are multiply targeted to fit multiple roles and responsibilities in one time-space-reality.
How many of us have to be a mother in one space, and a worker in another space, and the caregiver for our elders in another space, and a good listening, empathetic friend and another space – and there’s not many opportunities for those to spill over. Particularly when you’re talking about parenting and work. It’s highly stigmatized to carry your motherhood identity, or your fatherhood identity into your workspace as if you’re supposed to leave it at the door. And we even talked about that in terms of our educators, someone said like, I wish that an educator, who had a traumatic reaction to the Rittenhouse verdict, left his trauma behind. Left that part of his identity as a Black man behind so he could be more ‘professional’ at work.
And I’m just like no. If we want all of the benefits and insights and tap into the experience and compassion of a Black principal, he has to bring his whole self to his work – and that includes his trauma. Because to be a person of color, particularly to be Black in America comes with a huge portion of trauma and racial trauma. And to leave that behind is to leave behind a huge identity-shaping set of experiences and reactions.
So where are we leaving space for us to be more porous and more overlapping and show up as our full selves, regardless of where we are, and what roles that we’re showing up in. And more importantly, where are we leaving that space for people we’re working with, and raising families with, and in class, and in community with.
So erasing the privilege of not having to deal with that trauma – because that’s what privilege is, right? It’s not having to deal with those obstacles. Not having to think about those obstacles. Not having to consider those obstacles in your daily life.
And where are we leaving space for people without those privileges – to bring that stuff with them without us discounting and disqualifying them because of the human reactions they have to being targeted for that identity.
And then finally, the last underlying assumption, which is the use of misdirection. Where happiness is achieved by balancing these objectives, work, life, caregiving, social justice work, taking care of our own health needs, with the lie that these are separate things that must be balanced. And it is up to the individual to balance them.
That work-life balance concept suggests that these identities are something that should be separate. On separate plates of a scale almost, and that they are even possible to balance when separated.
And it really directs our attention towards the personal failure of a person who is failing to balance these things, instead of the entrenched systems designed to support oppressors at the expense of the targeted – to keep these people busy trying to balance these things that are completely unbalanceable, and will *never* be balanced
Misdirection so they don’t notice. And they can’t expend their energy dismantling the system that is forcing them to do something that’s impossible in the first place.
So with these underlying assumptions, we’re asking: Who is erased and silenced and disempowered by these assumptions?
So let’s talk about what this mindset looks like ‘having it all.’ Right.
There’s three main categories of what this looks like.
One of them is toxic coaching, a cousin to toxic positivity. Second one is acquisition-as-improvement. And the third one is the moral obligation to engage in a cash economy.
Toxic coaching looks like someone telling you,”Beyonce has the same 24 hours in her day,”
[laughter] No! No she does not!
Beyonce is fantastic, however. What we’re doing when we say that is: we’re conflating the individual, Beyonce Knowles – as a human woman who has vulnerabilities and human needs and probably picks her nose sometimes just like I do. Right? Hopefully? Unless she has staff for that?
We’re conflating the individual with the *phenomena* of Beyonce. The phenomena of Beyonce is not an individual person. It is a constellation of people doing life-sustaining work for the human who becomes a conduit for this entertainment and heroism. Like the American American dream, right?
And some of these some of these people doing that life-sustaining work are paid: stylists, nannies, photographers, staff, gardeners. Some of these people are unpaid. We think about fan ambassadors who hold up her image and reputation as someone who we follow and listen to. And we think about reporters who indirectly profit off of getting information about Beyonce to other people, right?
Beyonce-the-phenomena is… a what do you call a…microclimate? It’s a… what do you call that when you have animals that eat each other? Like a food chain?* It’s like a food chain and, a little environment on its own.
*[The word I was looking for was ‘ecosystem’]
Beyonce does not have the same 24 hours in her life as a single parent with disabilities, who has to work at you know, retail on an hourly wage. It’s a constellation, It’s a community.
So another version of toxic coaching is those broadcast oversimplifications: something broadcasted over social media like Instagram. Text images and calls to action like “GET OUT. DO MORE. SHOW UP.” “Donate until it hurts!”
These calls to do visible, measurable tasks, we have permission to call ‘activism,’ as opposed to more intimate work, deeper work. Such as learning why people default to an action, and what obstacles are keeping them from this desired action.
Like it’s pretty easy, (okay it can be hard, and emotionally draining and not saying it isn’t) to send out these quick broadcasts and get frustrated with people for not showing up and doing the work.
But it’s a lot harder to identify: What exactly does that work of SHOWING UP look like? How do we make it accessible? What are the barriers to getting people to do it? And how can we collectively work together to make sure that the people who want to show up are going to show up?
Because when you’re making a Pinterest image that says “GET UP AND DO THE WORK,” That’s not for the people who don’t give a shit. That’s for the people who give a shit and they’re, not doing the work that they want to do.
It’s kind of like a chain reaction. So this kind of toxic coaching doesn’t actually get people motivated. It doesn’t eliminate the obstacles or the lack of privileges that they have. It doesn’t give them the tools that they need to work. It’s just a shame spiral. That puts the onus on the individual to break through the system on their own. And it perpetuates basically all of those underlying assumptions that we discussed earlier.
Okay, now let’s talk about acquisition-as-improvement where, you know, in the business and marketing community, they talk about ‘pain points,’ Find your audience’s pain point so you can find out what motivates them – because people want to move away from pain. And then once you find their pain point, you can exploit it to sell them things so you can make money.
Ssometimes this can be used to identify genuine pain, and then people can customize their products or services or whatever to actually solve and heal that pain. But most of the time, these are band-aid innovations, right? It’s just people want to make a dollar, and they can exploit people’s pain to do it.
So you think about – instead of funding to support legislation for universal child care and parental leave and eldercare leave, let’s sell multitasking calendars and software to help people in the sandwich generation (taking care of their their elders and their kids) manage all of these different roles, and help them balance them better.
Right. So we’re profiting off of an unsustainable, inequitable system, and masking the fact that this is not something that needs a bandaid. This is something that we need to go deeper into. And we need to to do the deeper work.
Instead of addressing the root problem, we are asking people to take on too much. So anything that says “Buy this to repair the problems in your life” (Which is not ‘buy this to transform the problems in your life’)
“Buy this to compensate for your failure to pull yourself up by your bootstraps! For your failure to keep up!”
Anyone that ever says “leaving money on the table…” It kind of creates a little gag reflex. As if they’re not taking an opportunity to solicit money or create a transaction between you and – I don’t know, someone who needs something you have.
But what you’re really doing when you’re choosing to leave money on the table, or leave resources behind, that’s a decision. Right? That’s a decision to not act. And usually a decision to not-act comes with the discipline to conserve your energy for deeper work. Or refusal to perpetuate that constant sense that you need to acquire more, and build more, and grow more. And it’s always focused on cash, right? Because we’re ignoring the question of ‘what are we gaining when we leave money on the table?’ What are we choosing to leave behind? Maybe we’re gaining peace of mind. Maybe we’re taking less emotional labor and risk because being indebted to people is exhausting.
So that concept of leaving money on the table is just… it’s always implied when someone says it, like, “You’re being so foolish. You’re being so ridiculous, not taking this opportunity.”
When really there’s there’s so much more behind inaction. And there’s so much more behind having the discipline to not just pick stuff up because it’s there. If you’re not picking up that cash, maybe you’re focusing your effort towards something that isn’t gaining capital, collecting cash, hoarding power.
Now, let’s talk about that. Another aspect of what ‘having it all’ looks like – that moral obligation to engage in a cash economy. Where unpaid workers, by that I mean usually – care workers, volunteers.
Unpaid workers must compensate for lack of visible, measurable results. When you think of stay at home parents, or people who are the recipients of state aid due to disability or whatever. There’s this judgement, right? Judgement that comes because they are perceived as having more of what we call ‘free time’, which is not actually free time. It’s labor and time that they’re not exchanging for cash. They’re using it for something else, such as caring for children. Or healing from trauma. Or managing a disability.
And the assumption behind that is that these people, who are not working *for money* must make up for the moral failing of not acquiring more money. So they owe extra work.
They must do more visible, measurable activism. Like when we think of asking a parent who stays home full time with their kids to volunteer at school, and not asking the parents who work – making that assumption of the people who stay home with their kids to do that care work, as opposed to the people who do some other financially compensated work, have supposedly more free time, more emotional energy, more rest, to do volunteer work and other other unpaid activism work.
And that’s just not true. Because choosing whether or not to stay home, or having the ability to choose whether or not to stay home, is very individualistic, and it doesn’t account for things like disability, for the different levels of needs that our children have, that kind of thing.
Okay, so now let’s talk about – within that moral obligation, where we feel obligated to have some sort of cash transaction to make our lives actually ‘count for something.’
Looking at career activists, who support themselves financially. While doing progressive work that they want to do – like movement work. It puts them under kind of a microscope. The assumption is that if they’re not living juuuust under a living wage, if they’re not struggling a little bit to support themselves financially, while they’re doing this work, then they’re sellouts, right? Or they’re exploiting people.
So the people who are working in… what I would consider less desirable industries that are I perceive as harming humanity and the planet…. They’re fine! They can make however much money they want! And they can live in any level of luxury. And it’s not a moral failing.
However, if you’re an activist, and you’re working for a food bank, the expectation is that you should be stretched thin, emotionally, mentally, timewise, and financially. Or otherwise, there there’s a moral dissonance.
So when we’re talking about the problem of work-life balance, and how it’s holding up oppression, let’s also talk about how we are complicit ourselves in the harm that we do.
When we strive towards, or push that narrative of ‘having it all.’ Or imply that we are, or even could, balance these things that are imbalanced in the system that we live in, where there is no support, right? When we devalue and compensate for *our* lack of visible work.
Obviously if we’re judging *other people* and devaluing other people’s lack of visible work, or lack of cash based transactional work, then we’re just assholes. I think we can all agree on this – that people who judge others for that are assholes. We don’t need to address that. So let’s talk about devaluating…. That’s not a word, devaluing our own invisible work
Devaluating…it’s a word now! Whatever. Devaluing our own work when it doesn’t come with financial gain.
The ways that this hurts ourselves, how this devaluation reinforces double standards and normalizes the disproportionate output expected from people with targeted identities like ours compared with people who have power over us. That’s of a fancy way of saying: modeling for others who are just like us that – ‘Yes, this is what someone with my disabilities has to maintain in order to earn a place in the world.’
And ‘This is how much you can expect that I will do for you, in exchange for being treated like a human.’
Which is a form of transactionalism. And it’s silent and it’s pervasive, and it’s harmful to everybody.
And then, eventually, of course, we can’t keep going at that pace. It’s unsustainable. So we kind of deflate. We lose motivation. We get stuck in paralysis, in this loop of feeling guilty. When the initiatives that we tried don’t provide immediate, visible, ‘scientifically proven’ results, righ?
We’re like, “Aaahgh, I am ineffective. Why bother?”
When we direct our energies toward guilt – over not doing enough. We internalize this message that it’s on us. We’re *choosing* to feel guilty, as opposed to like – this was embedded in us in our programming as little kids. ‘Choosing’ to feel guilty is not a choice, right. But yet, we’re still beating ourselves up for putting all of our energy into feeling guilty.
And what it does is – that kind of distracts us. That guilt over feeling guilty distracts us from recognizing the wider patterns. And getting justifiably angry and taking action. This guilt saps the energy from people like us facing similar obstacles.
The concept of tonglen – where you meditate on your pain and use it to connect and feel compassion for other people who might be feeling the same pain as you – that’s one of the first steps in inclusive collaborative activism and action. Because you start to see the patterns of like, “Wait, this isn’t just a personal failing of mine. This is a harm that everyone has. A hurt that everyone is feeling.”
And “Let me meditate on this. Let me let go of my judgment about not doing enough. About feeling….you know, whatever feelings people tell me I’m not supposed to be feeling.”
And then once we can get past that, we can actually take action for collective work to transform it and build a better system that doesn’t leave people open to harm.
Next, of course, we have burnout, when we’re complicit in devaluating…devaluating…There’s that word again. Devaluing our our own work. Of course, we’re gonna burn out. Of course, we’re gonna stretch to do more visible, measurable work that maybe isn’t inside our skill set and way outside of our ability.
And then of course, we’re going to burn out because that’s not regenerative work. That’s exhausting work. And I’m not saying that we can’t, we shouldn’t all take on a little bit of exhausting work. We should never be just staying in our comfort zone all the time. But if if marching in the streets is the only kind of activism that matters, that’s going to leave behind a lot of people who can’t get to those streets.
So naming and reconciling the invisible work, actually taking an account for being – like “What does my day actually look like? How much emotional labor is draining from me as an individual who was drained by different things than other people? How am I mentally emotionally, creatively outputting labor. And why am I not getting the rest I need?” Like, creative exhaustion, right?
Okay, so when we devalue, and try and overcompensate for a lack of visible work, we also hurt the people we love. You know, we turn into that shitty martyr role model. We develop those dysfunctional relationships where our kids grow up either identifying with us and feeling the need to hustle. We talked about this in the last episode – or they grow up thinking that people who identify closer to us owe them that that labor.
It creates a pressure to keep up with our unrealistic expectations. Maybe our kids are neurodivergent. Maybe they have invisible undiagnosed disabilities. Maybe they have trauma. Or maybe they just don’t work the way that the social media horde and the people around us want to see the work done.
So what pressures are we putting on our kids to make their activism look like the activism that we aspire to? Or the activism that our community ‘accepts’?
Next, l let’s talk about perpetuating the attention economy. So when we click, when we share, when we perpetuate these performances – even like if you’re on Tik Tok, and you pause for a moment to look at videos, that’s all data that gets sent back to the corporation. Which perpetuates more of that same post, right?
So when we direct our attention to the more bombastic, discrete time, visible, measurable, emotionally reactive activism work, what we’re doing is we’re telling our community that ‘This is what we value and appreciate. And we value and appreciate the people who do these things.’
Right. And maybe we do value, appreciate the people who make pies and bring pillows to people on the front lines, but we’re not necessarily sharing that because it’s not glamorous and happens every day, all day long. So it’s just doesn’t occur to us to be cheering on the Uber drivers of the world.
So what is the harm done to those people that we’re trying to help if we’re trying to take on less self advocacy and more of an accomplice role?
Devaluating… devaluating(!) our own work as accomplices, when that accomplice work is less visible. When it’s unglamorous. When it’s making the photocopies and doing the accounting and the support work as requested by those most impacted.
This isolates the people that we see as aspirational heroes Places advocates, particularly self-advocates who do direct frontline action on these shaky pedestals. And it leaves them vulnerable and exposed to attack because humans, human society loves to (and works) by knocking people off of pedestals.
We put people on pedestals, we rip them back down. And there’s like a there is some need for that – because we don’t want to have dictators, right? We can’t have people being held up as superhuman. But at the same time, these are real people who are imperfect. And basically as soon as you’re put up on a pedestal, you’re guaranteed to be ripped down. Betty White not notwithstanding.
So how are we placing people on pedestals without their consent, by devaluing our own work and valuing their more visible, measurable, exciting Instagram-friendly work? And setting that community standard that ‘these people are exceptional?’
‘We are not exceptional, and only people who are like *this person* can do *real* activism work. Anyone like us might as well just stay home.’
Which you know, just foments that inaction of many potential accomplices who are too afraid to get started because they might mess it up, or because they might not be glamorous, or they see those people ripped down from pedestals and attacked and doxxed and threatened and who wants that!? I don’t want that. That sucks.
I was just talking with someone about icebreaker questions and someone asked – ‘What’s your ideal level of fame?’ And I cannot think of any level of fame that seems great.
I want my work out there. I derive a certain sense of… ego satisfaction from knowing that my work has impacted people who need change. But I am profoundly uncomfortable with people knowing my name and things about me when I don’t know things about them. And I know this is a part of the work. I have to be open and vulnerable and share honest stories and be transparent about who I am. But it’s it’s very uncomfortable to be out in public and not know… who knows a lot of things about me and I don’t even know their name?
So, where are we creating that? That level of ‘aspirational fame’ and putting people on pedestals. And expecting them to be better behaved than us – simply because they do a different type of more visible work.
Now let’s talk about a narrow model of what it looks like to be an ally or an accomplice, which discounts and disqualifies multiply-targeted allies with less resources than others.
I would like to be an accomplice and an ally to people who are targeted in ways that I am not. But if we’re going to narrow it down to so the only way that we can be accomplices must visible and salacious – you know, getting arrested, and throwing ourselves into the fiery burning buildings…. That’s going to really narrow the pool of people who can be accomplices.
And it also means it discounts anyone who has other work to do – raising children, managing a disability, managing their own obstacles from systemic injustice, and then we can’t form a collective.
So when you think about like the ways that white supremacy culture has weaponized the model minority myth, it separates Asians and Black and Latinx folks. And it separates wealthy Asians from Asians who are not wealthy. Right? That kind of narrowing of ‘what it means to be a hero’ and ‘what it means to be an activist’ and ‘what it means to be an ally’ and ‘what you need to do to perform those roles.’
All that does is divide us and make us easier to put in places with less power. This also disqualifies self-advocates for doing ‘wrong’ or ‘incomplete’ work. Or not having enough experience. Like if we talk about how our work, my work as a anti-oppression educator doesn’t count as much as the work of someone with a PhD in social justice or whatever.
Maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. But that concept of: because that person could afford the time and energy and money it took to get a PhD, their work has supposedly more impact than mine. Maybe it does. I don’t know. But I haven’t seen any evidence of this. So who knows?
But the idea! We even bring that outside of academia, and outside of what we call ‘traditional elitism’ into you know, looking at someone’s Instagram history.
Does this activist have a lot of photos of them speaking at podiums during marches? Versus this other activist who just doesn’t share their stuff on social media, or maybe their work involves feeding and caring for the children of the people who are speaking on those podiums.
So how are we supposed to keep up and direct more attention to the less visible work that has impact that is not measurable? Because we can’t measure those things in clicks, and shares, and accolades, and awards, and medals of freedom, and Nobel Peace Prizes.
So there’s good news and there’s bad news.
Nuwa was a powerful goddess. But she had limits right? She had limits on where she can be and when. And if she is currently holding up the sky and blocking…
(I don’t actually believe this, but follow me on the metaphor.)
She is currently holding up the sky and saving all of humanity from flooding. Which means she doesn’t need to be going on marches. She’s created society. She’s done *some* work. She’s continuing to sustain our invisible safety.
So let’s look at a… less glamorous version – but someone has to make the photocopies. Someone has to pack the lunches.
And the hard truth is, you can’t do more than you’re already doing now. You are literally doing everything you can do right now.
And it sucks because I know you want to do more. And the thing is, you should probably actually be doing less.
Supremacy culture only values measurable work. And sustaining care work, whatever work you’re doing to process your trauma, to get up in the middle of the day, to make sure that you can get accessible clothing, and food, and get health care – that sustaining work is impossible to quantify or measure because it’s intimate and ordinary by nature. We just don’t measure those things. We couldn’t. Ww would we would not survive if we were counting every grain of rice that we feed our children.
It’s impossible to leave our ego at the door when we work in a community. We all kind of need that acceptance that acknowledgement – that sense of reassurance that we belong.
And unfortunately, right now in our culture that’s only coming with culturally approved, measurable, Instagram-worthy work. That sucks.
The good news is in the incubator, we’re talking about how care work is sustaining life and it’s not a distraction from progress. It is fundamentally socially transformative work. And then we’re using integrative reconstructive family rituals to disrupt and redirect our need to ‘have it all’ into social-justice-oriented parenting.
So I’m not saying stay home. I’m not saying do nothing. I think we can make small tweaks so it’s more sustainable, and we can resist that hustle of capitalism and colonialism.
But it’s gonna take some uncomfortable work. Sometimes that uncomfortable work means sitting on your ass and taking a nap. Not sending out Christmas cards to’ keep up’ and make people feel like you’re reciprocating whatever Christmas card they’re sending you.
This is good news because acknowledgement of this system, and finding our part in it is integral to transformation and revolution.
And it’s not an excuse. So we can act. We can integrate activism into our parenting. We just can’t treat it like they’re two separate roles and then be in two places, at the same time, with two different skill sets, and expect anything to turn out well.
Okay, well I will be back. Hopefully I think next week with more ramblings. Thank you for your patience on this very long ramble about the problem with having it all and how it basically makes everything shitty. Okay. Bye
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Drop The Scales
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