“As absolutely vital as it is to practice consent as an individual, it’s also important to understand the systems and cultures we move through, how they impact us, and how we can work to impact them, too.“ –Kyle
Our sixth episode features a whole bunch of thoughts, ideas, and answers to the question, “how do we build a culture of consent?” We look at some great resources for understanding consent as an individual, share some actions people can take on an interpersonal level, and explore what kinds of larger-scale policy & culture shifts we can help make happen.
The whole episode is structured around this zine, which asked that question to advocates, activists, survivors, and other people in many different places. It’s a great way to explore consent, but it’s also a great way to explore activism and change-making; this is an issue that we need to understand at both levels. Some other resources from this episode:
Thanks also to our guest, Haven Davis, from the Annex Teen Clinic! You’ll hear more about Annex before this season is over.
As always, if you like it, please subscribe (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, all the usual platforms). If you really like it, please feel free to leave a review, and spread the word- share a favorite quote, or ask a question, or just share the link; we’ll be using the hashtag #WhatsGoodMan on Twitter and IG. Find our previous episodes here.
We are the codes that our ancestors still speak in.
This is an older poem; I think I wrote this in 2013 or so. But having a new video of it (via Button Poetry) is a cool way to close out 2019. Like “A Pragmatist’s Guide to Magic,” and “A Pragmatist’s Guide to Revolution,” this is something I wrote for myself more than for any particular audience. Hope you like it, or that it can be valuable in some way to anyone else out there.
New over on Button Poetry’s channel: an a capella rendition of my two verses from the song “Matches.”
You may know it from the Sifu Hotman album, or from it being featured as the weather on an episode of Welcome to Night Vale. It’s kind of a personal “mission statement,” something that drives a lot of what I try to do. The full lyrics are available here.
The song wasn’t written about the climate crisis, but let’s talk about it. I’m thinking about this song in the context of today’s Global Climate Strike. Part of the song is about rejecting the narrative of the individual hero or revolutionary, and instead attempting to tap into something larger, something more communal, something more connected. Because when it comes to this work, individual action will not be enough. We need large-scale, sustainable policy change, the the mass movements that can drive that policy change. So that means joining organizations, donating to organizations, voting for candidates with bold plans to tackle the problem, pressuring the politicians who don’t, and dreaming bigger.
And yeah, if I recycle, use less plastic, and pick up litter at the park on the way there, that’s fine. But those actions are not a substitute for organizing. There’s a reason the song ends with “it’s a good thing we brought matches” and not “it’s a good thing I brought matches.”
Here in MN, today’s climate strike is sponsored by a bunch of organizations that are worth a follow, from MN350, to TakeAction MN, to MN Youth Climate Strike and beyond. Check out the “hosted by” list at the event page.
“And there is nothing revolutionary about fatalism. I suppose the question is, are you antifascist? Are you a revolutionary? Are you a defender of decency and life on Earth? Because no one who is any of those things has ever had the odds on their side. But you know what we do have? A meaningful existence on the edge of oblivion. And if the end really is only a few decades away, and no human intervention can stop it, then who do you want to be at the end of the world?”
“How loud do you have to be to put out a house fire with just your voice?”
Yeah, the title is in scare quotes. Hopefully that comes through. As I often do with two poems, I wanted to share a few notes on process, and then some poems by other writers that tackle the topic in different ways.
A Few Notes on Process This is a poem about a specific issue, but it’s also a poem that is exploring a couple different impulses:
I’m really interested in how we, as artists and writers, respond to fascism. I’ve written about this before, but I think ONE thing to think about is the importance of saying something, even when that something isn’t perfect or revelatory or magical. This isn’t a perfect poem, haha. It isn’t the most creative thing I’ve written. But it was important to me to stand up on a stage and say it, as soon as I had the opportunity. The poem might continue to get revised and people might catch a new draft at some point, but to me, the timeliness was more important than the timelessness.
The poem is also the product of a lot of conversations I’ve had with activists, organizers and advocates who work on issues related to gender, feminism, and reproductive justice. The refrain is always “men (especially cis men) need to speak up more.” That can seem super obvious, but it can be easy to forget when you’re “in” that world; for me, I’m around powerful voices who speak out on these issues all the time- that’s just my community. So I’ve often felt a pull to step back- which CAN be a healthy impulse! It can also, however, sometimes be an excuse to not do any work. It’s like, yes, it’s messed up that “men talking about being pro-choice” is still seen as bold or interesting- but that’s not an excuse not to do it.
I’m also really interested in multi-vocal responses, how no one poem has to be “definitive.” Multiple poems can present different angles of an argument, different POVs, etc. There are some examples below, but this framework has helped me as a writer: a poem doesn’t have to be all things to all people. A poem doesn’t have to be the conversation; it can be one piece of a much larger conversation (and different pieces may be able to do different “work” for different audiences, in different contexts). That realization, for me, has been freeing.
I don’t have a lot of faith in the power of poems to changes minds, especially about issues like abortion rights. That being said, poems can do so many other things. They can open up spaces for dialogue, they can provide useful frameworks or metaphors for understanding, they can contribute in ways both large and small to the ongoing push-and-pull of how the larger culture frames and understands complex issues, and they can plant seeds (while watering other seeds that have already been planted!)
More Poems and Resources on Reproductive Justice This summer, I’ve been sharing my lists a lot: poems about white supremacy, poems about toxic masculinity, poems that have been useful to me in educational spaces. The idea is that hopefully, teachers and other educators can use these poems as entry points to dialogue.
A lot of those lists pull from this bigger list of spoken word poems organized by topic. I don’t have a specific list of poems on reproductive justice yet, but this is as good a time as any to start one. If you know of others, please share in the comments! Here are a few:
“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.” –Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
With more and more discourse lately (online and in real life) about how corrupt and out-of-touch the super-rich are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and links related to this song. “You Say ‘Millionaire’ Like It’s A Good Thing” has been around for a few years– the original version of the song is available here, and the lyrics are included in my book. This remix, courtesy of Big Cats, is the song’s Final Form– a lean, focused burst of venom directed at the rich.
As a writer and as an activist, I’m really interested in the power of language to reframe issues. It’s important to write songs and poems that describe poverty, that tell our stories, and that call us to action toward economic justice; this song, however, was an attempt to do something a little more specific: to reframe the accumulation of wealth as something that is not just “an unfortunate side effect of the system,” but rather as something that is *morally* reprehensible.
There are caveats; I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ you’d celebrate the minute you was having dough.” The argument here isn’t that all rich people are “bad” on an individual level (although many absolutely are!); it’s that a system that makes it possible for the distribution of wealth to be so extremely, so obscenely skewed is flat-out wrong. It is directly responsible for the death and suffering of too many people.
And sure, we can have conversations about how wealth is relative, how even working class people in the US “have it better” than x, y, or z other group… but that’s part of the point of the song too– there’s a point where that relativity fails. Maybe it’s not at a million dollars exactly; but somewhere on the wealth spectrum, earning becomes hoarding. Need becomes greed. Here are some articles that go more in-depth; I hope they can be useful, especially as so many of us are watching the 2020 candidates navigate this issue:
Christopher Ingraham: “Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research” (Washington Post): “American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined.”
Farhad Manjoo: “Abolish Billionaires” (NYT): “But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?”
Sophie Weiner: “AOC: A Society With Billionaires Cannot Be Moral” (Splinter): “‘The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,’ Ocasio-Cortez said. ‘What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?'”
A.Q. Smith: “It’s Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich” (Current Affairs): “It is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.”
Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark: “Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that.” (Washington Post): “As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can.”
Emmie Martin: “Here’s how much money you need to be happy, according to a new analysis by wealth experts” (CNBC): “‘The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don’t report any greater degree of happiness,’ Time reported in 2010, citing a study from Princeton University conducted by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman.”
Jesus, in the Bible: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
1. PRESSURE ON THE WOUND It’s so easy to say that voting is “just a band aid.”
A better metaphor is that voting is “pressure on the wound.”
That pressure won’t mend the wound by itself, but it will buy time. It is one small, but necessary, step in a larger healing process.
2. VOTING IS ABOUT POLICY, BUT IT IS ALSO ABOUT CULTURE The single biggest reason that I vote in every election is that the people I know, in real life, who are actively engaged in doing the work of organizing, activism, and building a better world every single day (from immigrant rights activists, to advocates for trans rights, to union organizers, to teachers, to racial justice educators, to survivor support providers, and beyond)– they all tell me that it matters.
They tell me that voting won’t save us, but also say that no single strategy can “save” us anyway, so we may as well use every tool we have access to.
Another thing that I’ve learned from the everyday organizers I’ve had contact with is something kind of nuanced. It’s the idea that we obviously can’t just fight for symbolic victories, but that the symbolic side of concrete victories really does matter. It’s not an either/or thing. Symbols matter because culture matters.
To that point, these kinds of get-out-the-vote posts are often supposed to be “non-partisan.” But nothing ever is. We can say that “both sides” run annoying TV ads, sure, but “both sides” are not engaging in Islamophobia, anti-immigrant fear-mongering, rampant misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, concerted efforts to disenfranchise voters, or dark money-driven disinformation campaigns.
That stuff is ugly, and violent, and will hurt people. We don’t have to love one candidate to want to defeat the other. We don’t have to love one party to understand the necessity of pushing back, forcefully, against the kind of creeping, straight-up fascism that those impulses represent. 3. EXISTENTIAL THREAT This past week, we got word that the world was ending, again. The responses to that, as always, are understandable, if a little predictable: doomsaying (“we’re so screwed!”), calls for more individual responsibility divorced from a larger-scale policy context (“buy a hybrid car!”), and detached acceptance (“I know I should care about this, but it’s just too big!”)
When people say that voting is not the most powerful way to build power and shift policy, they’re right. Real change is driven by mass movements– people organizing, engaging in direct action, and leveraging their power to force the issue. Climate change, though, is a great example of one of the issues for which voting really does matter. Because the issue is so big, and so time-sensitive, getting the right people in office can be a force-multiplier for that movement work.
The argument isn’t “do nothing but vote for Democrats because they’ll save us.” The argument is “build mass movements, and then ALSO vote for candidates who are more susceptible to pressure from those mass movements.”
This relates to other issues too. Voting doesn’t “fix” anything– it helps create the conditions under which more offensive, forward-thinking movement work can happen. The myth is that progressive activism gets “stronger” when bad people are in power; I think the opposite is true. When we can organize offensively rather than defensively, we can really shift both policy and culture.
4. FOR THE “I DON’T REALLY FOLLOW POLITICS” CROWD: I get that. Life is hectic. But with everything going on in this country right now, it’s a perfect time to get in the loop. And it doesn’t have to be that much of a struggle; area publications may have voter guides; even a quick google search for “your city/state + elections” or “your city/state + voter guide” can turn things up.
To use Minnesota as an example, here are a few links that have been useful to me over the years. That isn’t to say that I agree 100% with everything here; just that these links help me get a “snapshot” of what’s going on every election cycle. And if you’re not in MN, the odds are good that there are similar links/resources where you are.
A good first step is to find a sample ballot so you know what’s going to be on there. I found mine here.
Some of the basic info about eligibility, registration, how to vote, etc.
BallotReady.org lets you kind of walk through the process, and includes a bunch of candidate info for people still doing research. Hat-tip to Pollen.
I think another big voter guide is on the way; will be sure to update this post when it drops.
5. FOR THE “BUT I’M JUST ONE PERSON; MY VOTE DOESN’T MATTER” CROWD Sure. But while that can be a disempowering reason to not vote, it can also be an empowering reason to do more than just vote. During elections, voting is the baseline; we can do more: we can mobilize our people: family, friends, networks, etc. Get ten people to vote. Share this post. Share candidate info on social media. Volunteer for a campaign. Donate to a good candidate. “Being involved” is so much more than just showing up to cast a ballot (although that definitely does indeed matter).
For example, I’m just one person and can only provide one vote. I can, however, also spread the word about some of the down-ballot candidates that people may not know about. Obviously, the governor’s race, the two Senate races (here and here), and other big state-wide races are important (and if history is any indication, we should NOT take them for granted; polls may show Walz and Smith ahead, but both are vulnerable, and regressive nightmare Wardlow has just pulled ahead of Ellison in the AG race); but there are also important local races this year:
Sheriff: my county is super progressive (relative to other counties), but we keep electing this ICE-collaborator and Trump supporter Stanek as sheriff. This year, Dave Hutchinson is also running, and is definitely worth checking out.
For County Commissioner, depending on what district you’re in, Angela Conley (district 4) and Irene Fernando (district 2) are both running. Those links go to their respective endorsement pages, which is one of things I look at first when considering candidates. There’s another district race (3: Greene/Redmond) too; an update on that one here.
County Attorney is a position with a lot of power, and swapping out Mike Freeman for Mark Haase can make a real difference. Check out his list of endorsements at that link, plus here’s a big story on him over at Pollen.
If everyone who reads this also checks out those races and spreads the word about them, it can have a real effect. To be even more specific, I know that I have friends who are excited about the opportunity to vote for Ilhan Omar this year (I am too). An easy “ask” is to say “hey you’re already going to be voting, so I hope you know about these other races too.”
6. IF YOU DON’T CARE WHAT I SAY, READ THIS INSTEAD: Mariame Kaba (aka @prisonculture on Twitter) is one of the most consistently smart, principled, and practical voices on the internet when it comes to movement-building. This thread, in particular, is something I wish everyone would take a moment to read:
Just a word before shutting it down for the night… I think a lot about the fact that people spend a lot of time lamenting injustice and much much less time getting actively engaged to confront and challenge it.
I understand why this is. Folks are often busy trying to simply survive. Sometimes it’s that people feel paralyzed because the problems seem so entrenched and so big. Sometimes it’s because folks just prefer lamenting instead of taking action.
In the next few days and weeks, we’re going to be inundated with calls to VOTE. And there will be a parallel track of people yelling about voting not being enough. Both groups will have their own good reasons for positing these points of view.
Here’s what I’ll be doing over the next few days and weeks. I’ll of course vote. I always do. I don’t make a big deal of it. I do it not out of any civic duty. I do it because it’s a tactic that can make some difference at the margins and I believe in using all viable tactics.
I’ll be doubling down on local organizing and continue to build with comrades (new and old). I’ll be focused like a laser on trying to free more people from cages. I’ll be producing more tools to be used for political education to help move towards an abolitionist horizon.
I’ll be continuing to donate funds to projects and groups I think are doing positive work and I’ll continue to fundraise for those groups. I’ll be engaging in conversations with people in different parts of the country to strategize how we build more power.
I’ll be reading books and articles that provide me with mental nourishment and challenge me to be a better and more critical thinker. I’ll be encouraging my friends and family to do their own work to contribute to more justice.
I’ve taken the time to enumerate these things because they are actually unspectacular and mundane actions that anyone can take. They are things that are within our control to do. They are things that if we do them at a large scale every single day will help shift our trajectory.
I get that today has been incredibly tough for many people for many reasons. I understand and more than this I empathize. I want to suggest though that you are needed more than ever. That it is as important as it’s ever been to ACT with purpose and justice.
Those of us who want more justice and some peace in the world are not alone. We aren’t. All around us there are people who want the same things. All around us there are people working towards both. Actively so. Join us if you’re not already in the arena. Join us.
A big part of the work that I do is traveling to colleges and high schools to talk about consent and gender violence prevention. For me, though, that conversation can’t just be about prevention on an individual, “being a better person” level. Of course, that’s an important part of it. But when we talk about sexual assault, we’re not just talking about individual perpetrators, individual survivors, and individual bystanders– we’re talking about a culture. How do we shift culture?
An activity that we often do is to put up three big sheets of paper, and ask the question: HOW DO WE BUILD A CULTURE OF CONSENT? One sheet is for things we can do as individuals, on our own. One is for things we can do in community, with our friends, family, and peers. One is for things we can do to shift policy in a larger-scale, sustainable way. You may recognize this framework from my other zine.
The idea is that the activity becomes a visualization of action ideas– it’s big, messy, and includes steps that experienced organizers can take right next to steps that someone who is having this conversation for the very first time can take. It shows that we have agency. We have power.
For this new zine, I wanted to share some of the results of this activity, some of the action ideas that thousands of students, survivors, advocates, and organizers across the country shared. It’s short, of course, but can hopefully spark some conversations, and some action. Please feel free to share, or even to download and print/fold some zines yourself (here are cutting/folding directions). Full text here:
What Is Consent?
“Consent is a mutual verbal, physical, and emotional agreement that happens without manipulation, threats, or head games.” (Project Respect)
“[Affirmative consent is]” “Informed, freely and affirmatively communicated willingness to participate in sexual activity that is expressed by clear and unambiguous words or actions.” (The Aurora Center)
“The idea of enthusiastic consent is quite simple. In a nutshell, it advocates for enthusiastic agreement to sexual activity, rather than passive agreement.” (Persephone Magazine)
Freely given. Consenting is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Reversible. Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, anytime. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if you’re both naked in bed.
Informed. You can only consent to something if you have the full story. For example, if someone says they’ll use a condom and then they don’t, there isn’t full consent.
Enthusiastic. When it comes to sex, you should only do stuff you WANT to do, not things that you feel you’re expected to do.
Specific. Saying yes to one thing (like going to the bedroom to make out) doesn’t mean you’ve said yes to others (like having sex).
Practicing consent is vital, but ending sexual assault will take more than our just being better individuals. So how do we BUILD a culture of consent? This document shares a few ideas pulled from conversations with advocates, activists, students, and survivors around the US:
As Individuals, We Can Level Up
Learn more about these issues via books (check out the last section below for some recommendations), articles, podcasts, classes, and more.
Especially for men:“unlearning” some of what we’re taught about masculinity and sex can be necessary.
Get plugged in: do a quick online search to find local and/or national organizations (or individuals) doing work to support survivors and end rape culture, and join their email lists, follow them on social media, or attend their events. I list a few examples in the “resources” section below.
Practice consent in your relationships: Be present. Communicate, listen, and ask questions. This video has more.
It isn’t just about sex; practice consent in other areas of your life too: ask before giving someone a hug, taking their picture, etc. Let children know that they can always say “no” to tickling, kisses, etc.
Understand consent beyond the “dominant narrative.” Consent matters in same-sex relationships, for people outside the gender binary, and beyond. While most perpetrators of sexual assault are men, men can also be victim/survivors.
Believe survivors. Listen to survivors. Center survivors.
In Community, We Can Step Up
Dialogue. Join a book club or discussion circle where people can meet up, share their experiences, and build community with one another. If you’re a student, take classes that explore these issues.
Speak out. Post links to good articles or videos on social media. Write blog posts and letters-to-the-editor.
Challenge the myths. From the prevalence of false accusations, to the idea that “boys will be boys,” to all kinds of victim-blaming nonsense: learn to spot these myths, and how to dismantle them.
Especially for men: bring these conversations into spaces where they aren’t already happening. Refuse to laugh at sexist or violent jokes. Call people out. Support survivors. Don’t just “be” a good guy, put your values and principles into action.
Support survivors. For a great list of “dos” and “don’ts,” check out “Supporting a Survivor: The Basics” at www.knowyourix.org.
Create art. Broadcast. Plant seeds. Whatever platform you have access to, no one else has that same access. For example, here’s a list of poems about consent and healthy sexuality.
Remember that it’s not just about perpetrators and victims. We can all disrupt harmful– or potentially harmful– situations. Whether you’re at a party and you witness someone trying to take advantage of someone else, or you’re on the bus and someone is being harassed, or you’re just on the internet and someone is saying harmful things, the classic “bystander intervention” approach highlights three tactics:
Disrupt: Sometimes, the best move is just to step up, be direct, and call people out.
Distract: If you feel like the direct approach might not work, you can still disrupt the situation in a more indirect way– starting a conversation about something unrelated, spilling a drink on someone, etc.
Delegate: If your safety is an issue, or you just don’t feel equipped to do one of the first two points, another option is to get help– find friends or allies who can back you up, or take over themselves. Sometimes, this can involve going to authorities, but remember that not everyone feels–or is– safer when police are involved. Center the person in need.
On that last note, I’d also recommend this video, and this article, which both acknowledge the power of the bystander intervention approach while sharing some necessary critiques; a quote from the latter:
Maybe bystander intervention can be radically re-imagined, not as momentary interference in “isolated” instances of violence but as a consistent, collective effort at victim-centered justice, accountability, and support, one that extends long before and long after any particular “incident” of violence.
Show up. Find organizations doing work to support survivors and cultivate a culture of consent, and support them via donations, signal-boosting, volunteering, organizing fundraiser events, or joining them– you can become an advocate too. Of course, not everyone can “show up” in the same ways. That’s okay. No single individual has to do every thing here. But we can all do something.
Vote for candidates who share your values on these issues. Advocate for them. Volunteer for their campaigns. Get better people into positions of power. Voting alone won’t solve this problem, but it can help set the stage for future work.
If you’re a student, meet up with your advisor to find some classes that might put you on a career path to do this work for a living.
Make sure your business, school, organization, or other institution has effective protocols in place for holding those who commit sexual harassment or assault accountable.
Organize! Here are some specific policies that people around the country have fought for and won:
Campus affirmative consent policies.
K-12 consent education.
Comprehensive sexual education in schools.
More engaging, more critical, more effective consent ed content in first-year orientation programs.
Funding for survivor advocacy organizations and/or student groups that work on these issues.
Resources for holding perpetrators of sexual harassment or assault accountable outside of the criminal justice system, like community-centered transformative justice practices.
A FEW RESOURCES: A few organizations (among many):
“Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape” (Friedman and Valenti)
“Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” (ed. Gay)
“Ask: Building Consent Culture” (ed. Stryker)
“Queering Sexual Violence: Radical Voices from Within the Anti-Violence Movement” (ed. Patterson)
“The Hunting Ground: The Inside Story of Sexual Assault on American College Campuses” (Documentary and Book)
“The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America” (Deer)
“Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture–and What We Can Do about It” (Harding)
“Not On My Watch: A Handbook for the Prevention of Sexual Violence” (Rotman)
“Know My Name” (Miller)
Obviously, there are many more. With the format I’m using for this, space is limited. On here, however, I’d also point people to this list of poems (plus links/readings) dealing with these issues that may be useful as conversation starters or teaching tools. Feel free to add more in the comments.
“This is my disillusionment. Not the absence of hope; the absence of illusion.”
I’m always grateful for the signal-boosts that I get from Button, but I am especially grateful for this one. This is a poem that I’ve been working on for years, through multiple drafts, through my own growth and shifting consciousness. I’m not sure that it would ever win a slam or get published in a big journal, but I know it’s one of the most important things that I’ve written, for myself.
It’s also part of a series of poems really digging into the idea of what activism is– not just what it is on an intellectual level, but what it looks like, and how we can all use the power we have to do right by each other. That series also includes Quicksand, Thoughts and Prayers, and some new pieces that aren’t online yet.
I wanted to use this post not only to share the poem, but to consolidate some of the posts that I’ve been making lately sharing resources and strategies for people who are interested in getting involved in activist work. Because now is the time. I hope you can find something useful in these:
For People Who Want to “Do” Something But Don’t Know What to Do This is a piece I wrote sharing some of the basics of how everyday people can use the power that we have to make a difference. It also features a big list of cool Twin Cities-area activist organizations. It’s built around the phrase: “Just because you don’t have the power to run out the front door and magically ‘fix’ everything, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have power.”
My TEDx Talk: Five Things Art Taught Me About Activism Despite the title, this is not just for artists. This is a talk about how the questions that artists ask often mirror the questions that emerging/aspiring activists ask. The steps that artists take from idea, to concept, to art often mirror the steps that activists take from value, to principle, to action. If you’re looking to dive in, but don’t know where to start, this is for you.
MN Database:MNActivist.com, a snapshot of some of the organizations already doing powerful work where I’m at (the Twin Cities); there may be similar databases where you live. Or creating one could be a project.
This one isn’t mine, but I wanted to share this moving, important piece from Kelly Hayes called Saturday Afternoon Thoughts on the Apocalypse. A relevant quote: Václav Havel once said that “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” I live in that certainty every day. Because while these death-making systems exist both outside and inside of us, so do our dreams, so long as we are fighting for them. And my dreams are worth fighting for. I bet yours are too.
I do not believe the wicked always win. I believe our despair is a lie we are telling ourselves. In many other periods of history, people, ordinary citizens, routinely set aside hours, days, time in their lives for doing the work of politics, some of which is glam and revolutionary and some of which is dull and electoral and tedious and not especially pure – and the world changed because of the work they did. That’s what we’re starting now. It requires setting aside the time to do it, and then doing it. Not any single one of us has to or possibly can save the world, but together in some sort of concert, in even not-especially-coordinated concert, with all of us working where we see work to be done, the world will change. And we have to do it by showing up places, our bodies in places, turn off the fucking computers, leave the Web and the Net – and show up, our bodies at meetings and demos and rallies and leafletting corners.
Because this is a moment in history that needs us to begin, each of us every day at her or his own pace, slowly and surely rediscovering how to be politically active, how to organize our disparate energies into effective group action – and I choose to believe we will do what is required. Act. Organize. Assemble. Oppose. Resist. Find a place a cause a group a friend and start, today, now now now, continue continue continue. (source)
Feel free to add more in the comments! Here’s the full text of the poem:
These are policies that demand a response. And because one thing I’ve learned from organizers is “know your lane and identify what power you have in it,” I wanted to zoom in and share a few thoughts specifically about what that response might look like when it comes from poets, MCs, musicians, and other writers. As always, nothing here is prescriptive, or will apply the same way to every individual. But for those who are interested in how artists (especially poets) might respond to the present moment, I wanted to at least spark some dialogue:
A Few Thoughts on Writing “Political” Poetry I want to be precise with that phrase: “political” poetry. There’s a much longer post one could write about that label and how it gets applied to all kinds of poetry, how the act of creation can be inherently political, and how the identities that we hold impact how audiences hear our work as “political” or not. For this post, I’m talking about poems that intentionally, explicitly engage with specific political issues. Also, these are thoughts on one particular angle of that process. I’m not including some of the more general stuff that we often talk about in workshops (like the power of storytelling, or using concrete vs. abstract language, or thinking critically about structure, etc.), but you can find some of that here.
1. Speak Up, but Speak with Intentionality Fascism thrives on silence, on people seeing something awful, shrugging their shoulders, and assuming it’ll all just work out. So yes, we need to speak up. We need to use whatever platforms we have to spread the word about what’s happening. But just because silence is unacceptable, that doesn’t mean that running around screaming is the answer. So research. Read. Listen first.
The next three points all kind of revolve around a deeper question of who should write about what in the first place. There are valid arguments to be made about how it can be problematic when, for example, white people write about racism, or men write about sexism– just in general, no matter how “good” the writing is. That’s maybe a longer post, but the point I’m trying to make here is largely a contextual one: when we’re talking about creeping fascism, it’s going to take as large a chorus as we can muster to push back; it’s just that that speaking up process needs to be done carefully and intentionally. It’s hard. It’s very easy to do poorly. Figuring out how to do it well takes experience, and community, and critical self-reflection, but it is possible. The next few points offer a few thoughts on that.
2. What is Your Story to Tell? How Does it Connect? Not every poem about war has to be from the perspective of a soldier. Not every poem about human trafficking has to be from the perspective of someone being trafficked. These may be the easiest entry points, and some writers can indeed speak from those perspectives because they have the life experience to back it up. But not everyone does– and part of being a writer is figuring out how to speak up without speaking for or over others. What identities do you hold? What is your story? How does it connect to the issue you’re writing about? It may or may not be an obvious connection.
This can be as simple as: rather than writing about what it’s like in a camp set up for children separated from their parents at the border, you write about the moment you read that story in the newspaper– where are you? What is your body’s reaction? What does it make you think about? You still get to signal boost the information and spread the word, but you’re telling your own story. And sure, a poem about reading the newspaper may not be super engaging; but that same basic framework can be pushed into more creative places.
3. Make Appropriate Connections One reason why poetry is valuable is because it’s a space where we can connect ideas and experiences that don’t always get connected. That process of juxtaposition can highlight new truths about those ideas and experiences. For example, I wrote a poem about my family, Japanese internment, and the current refugee crisis; it’s not a one-to-one, linear relationship between issues, but there are important historical and contextual connections we can make to help us understand what’s going on.
While this relates to the previous point about figuring out how your story intersects with the issue you’re writing about, it also highlights a potential danger: not every connection is appropriate. For example, a poem that compares being bullied for wearing glasses to slavery or the Holocaust would not be appropriate. That’s an extreme example, but more subtle examples pop up all the time. The point here is that there’s a way to make connections without saying “X is exactly like Y” or “I fully understand this horror because I experienced this other thing.” When in doubt, ask others for feedback.
4. Find an Angle Building on the previous two points, this is a note about how we approach the poem. A lot of poems are basically built around the phrase “here’s what I think!” and while it is possible to work with that, a laundry list of thoughts isn’t always the most effective start. How else might you approach a poem about a specific issue? How can you write about something from a fresh angle? What concept or structuring impulse might help the poem “stick” in people’s heads?
Maybe it’s about filling in some historical context that people don’t know about. Maybe it’s about zooming in on one specific detail of the larger story in order to comment on the bigger picture. Maybe it’s about that aforementioned process of exploring how the issue affects you and your personal experience. Maybe it’s about leaning into magical realism, satire, or hyperbole to challenge people to see an issue in a new light. Maybe it’s an open letter (especially to someone the audience doesn’t already expect). Maybe it’s a poem that incorporates a specific call to action.
5. Think About What the Audience Walks Away With This may be a controversial point, but I think it’s at least worth considering. Of course, you never have to think about what the audience walks away from a poem with, but with political poetry, you might want to. This is not to say that every poem has to be inspirational. This is not to say that every poem has to have one specific action item at the end. It’s a broader call for more intentionality.
For example, someone could write a poem about how the phrase “tearing children from their parents is unAmerican” is actually ahistorical, since this country has done just that at many points throughout history. But there’s a difference between a poem that makes that point in order to show how smart the poet is, and a poem that makes that point in order to deepen the audience’s commitment to doing something about that.
Another example: someone could write a poem about fascism and authoritarianism, and how they’re creeping further and further into US culture, policy, and politics. That could be the whole poem– “fascism is here and it’s bad.” But there’s an opportunity there to push the audience further. The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and here’s what we can do about it.” The poem could be “fascism is here, it’s bad, and I’m thankful to the thousands of activists who are pushing back every day.”
Art can be anthemic without being corny. It can cultivate hope without having a neatly-wrapped happy ending. It can call us to action without presenting platitudes and easy answers. That’s all part of the challenge: art can inform, but it can also mobilize. Both are good, but the latter has a special power.
6. It Doesn’t Have to Be a Poem Just a quick final note that as artists, we can still use our platforms to talk about these issues even if we’re not able to figure out a good way to talk about them in our actual artistic work. Get involved on the ground, show up, signal boost, perform at fundraisers, and make noise. A few expanded thoughts on that here.