A Case for Spending Equal Time in Community Building Activities to Achieve Social Reform
As a late boomer, middle-class, cishet, white male, I understand that my activism around achieving social reform is an activism of privilege. Neither police reform, abortion laws, immigration policy, nor LGBTQ rights will affect me. As one who finds myself in the center of the privileged demographic, I get it. The following words are addressed to others like me, who are activists out of privilege.
Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the small donor revolution has given voters hope for competing against corporate funded PACs. And since then, grassroots activists have been spending their time and donation money primarily in the political arena, coming to a crescendo during the Trump presidency. Candidates on local, state, and national levels, both in our own and faraway districts, sent out a relentless stream of requests for donations, requests often reinforced by local activist groups. “No one can afford to sit on the sidelines any longer” became the rallying cry.
The importance of the political struggle cannot be overstated. This is where we drive the stakes of structural change into the ground, and defend them. Changes that will help us build a society that treats all equally.
I’m a passionate political activist. But political activism has its downsides and its limits – unsavory compromises, the watering down of core values, settling on mediocre candidates, our candidates not delivering – and losing.
What if a majority of voters were in agreement with our values and we didn’t have to fight so hard politically?
What if more of us had deep convictions about the importance of nondiscriminatory policies towards African-Americans? And were in favor of a more welcoming policy on immigration? What if more voters saw the importance of living in a pluralistic society with a firm stance on the separation of church and state?
According to Chris Walker, in a Feb 1, 2021 article published on truthout.com,
Biden has broad support for his early moves as president. More than four-in-five Americans (83 percent) agree with him when it comes to his banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual identity or gender equality, for example. An executive order placing a government-wide focus on racial equality also has wide support, with 77 percent of Americans backing it.
Biden also has backing when it comes to his approach on the coronavirus pandemic, with 75 percent of poll respondents saying they back his order requiring masks on federal property. Sixty-eight percent also support his executive action that extends the moratorium on student loan repayments, while 65 percent said they agree with his moves to restart the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which temporarily allows many young immigrants to continue living and work in the U.S. without the threat of deportation.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the storming of the Capitol Building and the transfer of power to President Biden, with the heightened emotions of political polarization at their peak, the vast majority of American voters are in agreement about the human values of gender and racial equality. But, according to Heather Cox Richardson in her January 29, 2021 Facebook post, ” … as soon as politicians adopt a partisan stance on an issue, voters polarize over it.”
So, how can we diffuse the energy that feeds political polarization and capitalize on the common ground around building an equitable society for all?
I propose that one way is by getting involved in nonpolitical community building activities. I’m convinced that a dual approach of nonpolitical community building activities plus political activism is the most effective way to achieve societal change.
When we take the focus off of political affiliation and put it on our local communities, we have a much better chance of finding our common ground. At the same time, institutions and structures are made up of people. Change the people, change the institutions. There are limitless opportunities to engage non-politically for the betterment of our local communities. Just showing up usually affords an opportunity to engage meaningfully across the full spectrum of diversity that represents our communities.
And for my fellow white Americans of European descent: We represent over 50% of the US population. If we do community building work only in our all white communities, we are missing the point.
I can’t overstress the importance of carving out some time where we get outside of our comfortable groups of whiteness and into groups and relationships where the dominant life experience or viewpoint is different than our own.
It’s here that we’ll begin to develop a consciousness of our privilege, and how our privilege affects those without it. It will take some intention, and might require driving across town.
There are many ways we can do this. Those who attend religious services can set aside one day per month to sit under the teaching of a pastor of color or a Muslim imam – and stay around and chat afterwards. We can volunteer to tutor underprivileged children or serve the unhoused by volunteering in a food pantry or soup kitchen. We can take a weekly shopping trip to a more colorful part of the county and visit the farmers market, and support the local merchants there rather than the national chains in our own communities. Or get involved with assisting refugee families. Definitely show up with a friendly face at the cultural festivals in your area. I can’t think of a better way to begin to break down destructive groupism than to mix it up within the natural diversity that comprises most of our broader communities.
Many of us may not live in centers of diversity like New York or San Francisco, but even a small Midwestern town has diversity – in race, religion, age, ability, economic class, ethnicity, gender/sexual identity – so many human groupings.
SalaamUSA.org has been organizing community building activities in the form of in-group/out-group interactions for close to three years. We’ve brought Muslim speakers into churches, and taken groups of Christians into mosques. We facilitated a queer friendly iftar meal (the evening meal during the Ramadan fast) for Muslims and non-Muslims, we took a nonreligious group to a huge Eid celebration (the biggest Muslim holiday of the year), and facilitated multiple friendship dinners between Muslims and diverse groups of non-Muslims. The San Diego Union Tribune wrote a story about it.
In each case, even though the attending groups were far apart culturally and ideologically, when brought together outside of their in-group comfort zones, they experienced meaningful connection around common human experiences.
When in-person events were shut down due to the coronavirus, we decided to take this idea to the next level using virtual format. We reached out to our diverse network and organized a virtual discussion group. The group consisted of a Hindu/Muslim woman with a disability who also happened to be a talented artist, a turbaned Sikh woman from Canada, a Shiite Muslim couple also from Canada, a young woman who was a second-generation immigrant from Ethiopia, a Sikh woman in her early twenties, and a Palestinian Sunni Muslim woman who wears the hijab.
We wanted to demonstrate that we could find meaningful connection only on the basis of our common humanity. It worked.
We started in mid-September of last year and recently completed our final session. What an exhilarating experience! I smile and tear up every time I think about it. Our sessions included a check in time and a short spiritual practice, but were mostly built around the telling of our stories. At each session, one of us took a turn at sharing their story – and not the “why I’m such a cool person” version. Authentic connection proceeds from authenticity.
Our founder, Steve Slocum, set the tone by sharing his story first, then at each subsequent session another member shared. It was beyond mind-expanding to hear the stories of our human struggles played out against such an array of contrasting backgrounds. After the story time, we took a few minutes to give validating feedback – so important when someone opens themself up so vulnerably.
Within a few short weeks, when we looked at one another, it wasn’t our white, brown, or black skin, male or female genders, hijabs or turbans, old or young ages, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian backgrounds that occupied our consciousnesses. When we looked at each other on the screen, we just saw our friends. We decided to call the program, Real Friends, Real Community.
We’re convinced that this type of connection is important in these turbulent times.
Meaningful human connection is a powerful force, and it can overcome the forces that are pushing us apart.
SalaamUSA.org, is working on expanding Real Friends, Real Community. We’re partnering with a major denomination to help implement our program into their community engagement efforts, and exploring other partnerships.
Real Friends, Real Community
With a successful pilot group now complete, we’ll be starting up a few more groups and are in the process of interviewing potential new members. If you think you might like to be a part of a group, please visit our website (www.salaamusa.org/real-friends/) and send us your information.
Think about it. Equal time between political activism and nonpolitical community building work. Both are important.