Turning Inward, The Next Chapter of Activism

As a result of my work and personal networks, I frequently meet teachers, scholars, lawyers, and non-profit leaders who consider themselves activists in some fashion. Focusing on topics from educational inequity to LGBTQ rights, they are keenly aware of issues of race, class, gender and socioeconomic status that influence the lives of the people for whom they claim to be advocates. Like any good activist, these folks are consistently focused on and, some might say, uniquely sensitive to social, cultural and political statements and policies that carry any level of bias based on a variety of identities and are fervently outspoken when they are standing guard as watchdogs and find the slightest infraction in action or rhetoric.

Regardless of how loud you might think they are, we need activists today, just as we needed them fifty years ago. They hold our nation and our world accountable for ensuring that we are progressing in a way that is truly meaningful for all people and they force us to avoid resting on our laurels because things are simply better than they once were.

Anyone who reads my work or engages in a one hour conversation with me about politics might call me an activist. Though I'm not opposed to assigning that word to my role in some capacity, I feel that the term has been terribly abused and misused and needs redefining.

What I have concluded based on my own personal reflections, is that those of us who have been called or dare to call ourselves activists must prepare to move into the next and perhaps most spiritually radical phase of activism: turning inward.

Yes I am an advocate concerned about the state of Black boys in the American education system and the humanity of Black men in the criminal justice system. I'm also a critically thinking brother of three Black women concerned with the systemic forms of racism and sexism that influence their life opportunities. All of these things are indeed parts of who I am as a writer and thinker, but while I hold views about the external factors that impact conditions for these specific populations, I also hold internal racial and patriarchal views that I need to wrestle with in my own journey.

As someone who is deeply concerned about the biases and hetero-normative policies that shape the experiences of queer Americans, I also struggle to reconcile my own ideas about masculinity and gender roles, just as I see the results of classicism in my own community while still holding what others can reasonably consider classist perspectives.

I can tell you from personal experience, that turning my focus from the external analysis of what bell hooks describes as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy” and seeing all of the mess I’ve been conditioned to hold within me has been painful. It can be heartbreaking if your identity is partially or fully wrapped up in the views you hold of yourself as anti-something only to discover that you are to some extent, no matter how small, also breathing life into the very thing you seek to eliminate.

It can be haunting when you realize that not only do you hold contradictory views and experiences but that you also have no clear understanding of how to reconcile them and what it might mean for your work if the enemy on which you have held a laser-like focus is indeed a part of your very being. Still we must interrogate our own identities in an effort to save both ourselves and others from the social ills we believe to be detrimental to our people.

Who and what are you when you strip away your activist robes? Who and what are you when you step off the stage? When the day is done and you take off every pin and button with some sarcastic, witty political statement written in a color designed to catch the eyes and provoke the minds of others, what can you say for and about yourself? Where is it that you stand when no one is watching or listening?

When the cameras are not near, when your phone is dead and you are walking through what most would consider to be a “dangerous” neighborhood and you hear a little voice in your head begin to speak, what does it have to say?

Activists must continue to be outspoken, but in this time, in the this place, where we find ourselves battling for equality an ever changing world, leaders and thinkers, of all walks, must move from just being outspoken to also being "inspoken," that is we must learn to speak to and from the raw and imperfect person within us who is not concerned with what others on the outside might think about our own terrifying truths.

We have to be courageous enough to see ourselves with the same critical eye we have cultivated to see the world. This is the next phase of activism. It’s the intimate and deeply disrupting act of looking inward and asking ourselves what diseases we carry in our own bodies for which we are also working tirelessly to create a cure. When we fight we, must fight to save ourselves.

An Unknown View of History

When my work affords me the opportunity to travel, I am always grateful. Growing up not having seen much of the United States, I am always delighted to find myself in new states, new cities surrounded by unfamiliar streets, faces and food. This gratitude was present when I flew down to Norfolk, Virginia two Sundays ago for work. Meeting with young, ambitious adults who are interested in addressing the grave educational inequities that continue to plague communities throughout our nation, I heard stories about family struggles, growing up in poverty and what it’s like to enter college and discover your K-12 education has not successfully prepared you.

I departed for Norfolk on Tuesday afternoon and headed to Charlotte, NC—the connecting city in my journey back to New York—and after my flight was delayed by almost an hour I began to pray that I’d arrive back to New York in time for the second presidential debate. Having connected in Charlotte in route to Norfolk and then back to New York, my flight home was the fourth plane I had been on in just over 48 hours.

I’ve never had a fear of flying, but I must admit that when the aircraft is shaky at times, the possibilities of danger sometimes arise in my creative mind. Like other passengers, I always remain calm of course, reading my Kindle until I’m told to turn it off or sipping on a ginger ale wondering if it’s really delicious or if it simply reminds me of being comforted when I was ill as a child.

The flight back to New York was relatively smooth. It was a pretty short flight time and having won the aisle seat—where I am always most comfortable—the only thing left to do to make the day a true success was to snatch a cab and get back to Brooklyn in time to unwind before President Obama and Mr. Romney took the stage. As the seatbelt sign returned, trash was collected and electronics were summonsed to rest.

The sun was just beginning to set and the beauty of the city from way up above was simply magnificent. If painters search for moments to capture a reality that must never be forgotten, surely the scene from the aircraft was the foundation of a profound masterpiece waiting to be discovered. The water, the reflection of the sun from large glimmering windows of tall buildings, bridges connecting the histories of unfamiliar divisions… I was in awe.

Then my feelings of elation were interrupted by the raspy voice of the pilot. The moment he began to warn us about turbulence, I could feel the cabin beginning to rattle. I had felt turbulence before of course, but this was a bit more violent. Passengers beside me leaned forward a bit as the front of the plane tipped and then our bodies were pulled backward as the aircraft began a sudden climb.

For a split second I honestly thought: what if this is it? What if something goes wrong? What if that Facebook update about my breakfast at Cracker Barrel are the last words I leave for the world? Then I began to think about what it must feel like to be on an aircraft and to not suspect, but to know for sure that in a few moments the plane would crash.

The thought terrified me and at the same time humbled me. Living in New York, you still feel a palpable fear and a sense of loss from the September 11 attacks. Perhaps for generations those feelings will remain and certainly they are accompanied by a sense of courage, bravery, and patriotism.

Like all Americans alive during that horrific tragedy for our nation, we’ll always remember where we were that moment history was made. What we will never know, and what I felt on the plane landing in New York on Tuesday evening was the view of a history untold, because the men and women who lost their lives sitting on an aircraft are not here to tell us what they saw and heard. What the felt.

When my flight finally landed I could feel in myself and in the expressions of relief from those around, an overwhelming sense of gratitude that we had made it safely. What I couldn't escape, despite this relief, was a haunting sense of sorrow for the last words and the views of history unknown...

Balanced Thinking, A Much Needed Commodity

In the space of education reform (my primary area of professional experience) there are new solutions to the needs of our nation's children every year which are both endorsed and attacked with great passion. These policies and practices are very political and often times personal for the thousands of men and women who have dedicated their lives to serving children in our country's most disadvantaged communities. Debates are infused with strong language and often extreme positions are espoused in efforts create a sense of excitement and sometimes fear. I suppose in many ways, education reform is not drastically different from other complicated political issues with respect to the sorts of behaviors it drives leaders to demonstrate.

In watching the Republican National Convention (RNC) and Democratic National Convention (DNC), it is clear to me that economic and social issues are at the forefront of many of our nation's leaders. What doesn't always seem present though in the debates we hear in the political arena is a strong appreciation for balanced thinking.

While reading an article last week titled 15 Ways 20-Somethings Ruin Their Twenties  I was delighted to discover the author’s push for us to consider that being a "pessimistic, opinionated hater" likely means that we need to have a better pulse on reality. "Every movie out isn’t terrible, every song isn’t garbage.” Speaking to the kind of pessimistic character who is intent on taking extreme positions, the article suggests that “…this personality type is in for a reality check when eventually nobody wants anything to do with ‘em." Well it turns out that this kind of behavior isn’t exclusive to 20-somethings. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at American politics.

Meditating on the presence of the “pessimistic, opinionated hater” made me think of conversations I have had about my beliefs and opinions at ages twenty-two, twenty-three and now twenty-five. In reflecting on the shifts in my own views and the way I speak about what I observe, I found that I've learned to accept a higher level of ambiguity that is inherent in life while also finding a way to stand firm in my values and opinions without completely ignoring the reality that there's always a small chance I may be completely wrong. I’ve learned to see not just black and white but every color surrounding every issue I encounter.

Today I can fully admire the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and to cite both affirming and dissenting evidence in forming an opinion. This does make sense, right? I mean what good is it for us to talk about our beliefs in a way that does not demonstrate our ability to fully assess a situation? Don’t we risk sounding authoritative and intellectually arrogant to the point that we neglect opportunities to see the forest for the trees? If balanced thinking makes sense (and I know it does) then why is there such a lack of it in the space of public affairs?

Now I will say my ability to think in multiple dimensions has been stretched to its limits over the past month in listening to the Republican Party discuss their views on abortion as well as a number of other key issues. These are views that often neglect the practice of balanced thinking and while I can sit through an interview with just about any conservative who fundamentally believes in dismissing a woman's right to bodily integrity in pursuit of defending the rights of an unborn child or fetus (may I remind you often not discriminating on the basis of how that living being comes about) I do reserve my right to call such beliefs close-minded and replete with unbalanced thought. Still, my strong beliefs won't stop me from listening to others and really thinking critically about what they're saying and attempting to understand not just their positions but how they in fact arrived to those positions in an effort to more fully shape and understand my own.

Balanced thinking involves a willingness to listen carefully, instead of running away from or attacking views that don't immediately fit into our own brains. It's a commodity that is needed in political, professional and personal realms of life. We must strive to avoid the easier path toward forming concrete opinions rooted in what social scientists refer to as cognitive distortion—seeing things in black and white.

Unless we are willing to balance our thinking, chances are we'll seldom see the whole picture and quite frankly life and all of the many important issues we must resolve in the interest of our nation are far too colorful for that.

For more information on common barriers to balanced thinking and cognitive distortions visit 10 Negative Thinking Patters to Avoid