If “This Is Not Normal,” Our Responses Can’t Be Either

image credit: the normal coalition

(A conversation between me and UyenThi Tran Myhre originally published at Opine Season.)

KTM: In arts spaces, we talk a lot about the importance of creating catchy “hooks,” capturing an enormous, complex concept in an easily-digestible soundbite. “We Are the 99%,” for example, is a good hook. “Black Lives Matter” is a good hook. “Water is Life” is a good hook. I’m thinking about all of this in the context of what I would say is this past month’s big hook: “This Is Not Normal.”

UTM: I keep seeing and hearing reminders that “this is not normal,” from tweets, to buttons, to my friends and colleagues repeating it to themselves and to each other. When I open my social media feeds, the headlines and sentiments are full of anger and fear – the latest Executive Order from Trump, stories of real humans being harmed by those orders, and the reminders: “It’s only been one week.” “He’s doing what he said he would do.” “This is not normal.”

KTM: Even though we have to acknowledge that “normal” has meant different things to different people over the history of this country, and that there’s a certain measure of privilege in seeing what’s happening right now as a crisis (when various communities have been in crisis long before Trump), I get why the phrase works as a hook. “This is not normal” affirms multiple things: that we’re living in an important historical moment, that people who agree are not alone in their frustration or anger, and that we, as a community, are not going to be lulled into complacency, assuming that our institutions will “save” us. From the Muslim ban, to the border wall, to having a white supremacist like Steve Bannon at the highest levels of power in this country, it’s on all of us to push back.

UTM: I’m definitely cycling through feelings of hopelessness and despair, fatigue and sadness, anger and wanting to take action. I keep thinking of that Mr. Rogers quote: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

There are a lot of people who care that this is not normal. It helps me to think about what we can do next – what can we do about it?

KTM: Exactly – and I’m thinking that it’s not just about taking action; it’s about taking action that reflects the “abnormality” of the times, action that is fundamentally different, or deeper, or more challenging, than whatever action we’ve taken before. We’ve seen people who have never called their reps before call their reps. We’ve seen people who have been uncomfortable with the idea of direct action, or protest that is “disruptive,” come around to the necessity of these kinds of actions. For activists, this is a real base-building moment. For people who don’t identify as activists (or haven’t in the past), this can be a moment of realization: since things are not normal, our responses can’t be either.

UTM: I know a lot of people who have never shown up to a rally before march in the Women’s March, and go to protests over the weekend to resist the #MuslimBan. There’s this great Twitter thread from Sarah Jaffe, who reminds us that these protests didn’t come out of “nowhere,” but are in fact borne out of organizations that have been planning rapid responses to deportations and bans. This was really helpful framing for me, because I see a lot of people who automatically dismiss protesting as a way to force change, as well as folks who seem to think that “spontaneous protests” are the only thing that we are doing to resist. As Sarah Jaffe concludes in her thread, “If you want to stop Trump, it’s going to take organizing. Join orgs, support them, sign up for email & text blasts.”

KTM: Of course, we all come to activism at different times, from different angles, and I think it’s cool to see both the most hardcore organizers and the most previously apolitical people challenging themselves right now, in different ways. There are so many levels to this. For some people, “action” might be dramatic, like moving to a swing state, changing careers in order to do more social justice-oriented work, or even (for people in positions of authority) refusing to obey unjust orders. For others, it could be a combination of smaller actions.It could be using Lyft instead of Uber, and using unionized cabs when possible. It could be about using a worksheet like this to commit to regularly reaching out to your representatives. If you have the capacity to do so, it could also be about confirming what percentage of your income you can set aside to support the organizations doing so much right now (from the ACLU, to Planned Parenthood, to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to many more), not just through one-time donations, but through regular, ongoing support.

UTM: Right. I’m making a point to schedule donations to local organizations that I support, like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Young Muslim Collective, and The Yarn Mission. As someone who is supremely introverted, I know my strengths are in working with the people I know, in my own spheres of influence. I don’t consider myself an organizer, but I take comfort in the fact that there are organizers out there who are taking concrete actions to resist, and I can support that in different ways. I might not have the physical or emotional bandwidth to attend every rally or march, and at the same time, I know that there are so many ways to make a difference, to feel like I do have the power to do something. Beyond monetary contributions, what else can we do?

KTM: Yes; defaulting to “donate money” can be harmful when so many people just don’t have the economic security to do that. But there’s always something that can be done. Signal boosting activists through social media channels is good. Talking to people in our circles is good. Showing up (whether physically or in other ways) to marches, rallies, and actions is good. But I keep coming back to that phrase: “This is not normal.” I’m curious: for you, how does that realization impact your response? Do you see your work shifting in order to reflect the “not normal-ness” of the times?

UTM: I work with some really dedicated, passionate, and creative people. We started writing “gratefuls” on post-its, that are saved in a journal, at the end of every weekly staff meeting. The “grateful” is a specific moment, or idea, related to our work. It’s from research that shows that taking a moment to intentionally think about gratitude can have a positive impact on our lives. In these times, I think what would also have a personal, positive impact on my life would be adding a weekly commitment to my routine and sharing that commitment with a partner, to help me stay accountable. I have access to spaces where I can help others do this, as well, from my family, to my college roommates, to my peers. I definitely need to keep telling myself that this is not normal, and I know I will feel more hopeful/less helpless if I can be actionable in how I respond in this not-normal time. What about you, considering your role as an artist and educator, and the platforms and spaces that you have access to?

KTM: I wrote about a lot of what I’m thinking in my column last week on how art and artists can support movement-building efforts. But one thing that this conversation is making me think more about is how best to get past the “bubble effect.” If “normal” for me is just creating art that I think is cool, that gets heard by my friends and peers in my city, these not-so-normal times might be a good excuse to think more critically about audience – not just in terms of the art itself, but how it’s distributed, where it’s performed, how much it costs, and how people plug into the experience beyond just being passive listeners.

Like you, I’ve also been thinking a lot about routine. For so many of us, especially those of us with a little bit of economic security or privilege, the daily routine can be really hard to break out of. And I think we need to. For me, that means looking at my to-do list and challenging myself to see the stuff that isn’t on there, because it isn’t a specific action item – the more ambitious projects, the collaborative opportunities, etc. Because it’s so easy – for me at least – to say “yeah, I’m doing good work,” when “doing good work” should be a beginning, not an end. “This is not normal” shouldn’t just be an affirmation; it should be a call-to-action.

UTM: It can be both. Millennial that I am, I found an affirmation and a call-to-action on Twitter that I’ll be repeating to myself, from Valarie Kaur: So what do we do now? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe.” Then “Push.”