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What Could Our Movement Build With Trust?

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Detroit Action Organizing Director Jen Disla says, “Trust and authentic relationships are core to organizing.”

It’s March. We have accomplished an inauguration and a fresh new start with a new beginning. With a new set of characters in our political landscape, I am sitting with many thoughts on our movement’s future. I have spent over ten years in movement spaces struggling with building authentic reciprocal relationships and have seen how damaging it can be when trust is broken. To build real and powerful movements, we also need to build authentic relationships with other people, and that requires trust.

Racial capitalism breaks down trust

The capitalist society has taught us we only change the world when we have individual power. Most importantly, the power comes by accumulating money, and exploitation and corruption are the main pathways to accumulation. It is the opposite of pouring into each other and transforming together.

The stories on how trust was broken are endless, hurtful, and hard. For me, the most open wound came from a close colleague spreading a rumor that I was lying about an upcoming job opportunity. I can speculate on intent, but I did what the good books say to do. I confronted the colleague and got a toxic response. The colleague stated, “I only know what you tell me.”  No responsibility, no clarification – no internal struggle or external restoration of the trust broken.

I recently had to look deep within myself on the constructs built to survive a white supremacist environment.  An example of a major construct is fear of going against the majority thinking. It was holding me back in my new position. White supremacy shows us if you are rocking the boat, then you are the issue. I needed to shed light on how lack of trust between me and the executive director was hindering my ability to perform. I was scared about termination, rejection, and mostly losing another movement relationship. I couldn’t be silent and know the reward outweighed the risk. I am happy to report the conversation was full circle and restorative. But capitalism and white supremacy put many obstacles in our way, and it takes hard work to overcome them.

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Transforming ourselves and our relationships

Trust and authentic relationships are core to organizing. We have to be authentic to ourselves first and trust our intuitions. Transforming ourselves allows us to transform our relationships with others. In Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown writes, “Both/all people in the relationship and community are committed to their own self-transformation. We see ourselves as microcosms of the world…We each set the pace of our own transformation.” As individuals, we have our healing journey and its impact on the community is immense.

Some of this work can be even harder for organizers. When I moved from the East Coast to organize in the Midwest, I had to learn new ways to survive. As an outsider organizer, I built the muscle to be authentic and build trust.  I didn’t have instant validators as I went into the Midwest with my East Coast misconceptions.

I was afraid of combatting racist white people. My first campaign, Health Care for America Now, showed me how listening to a person’s struggle and connecting to their power to bring change was the ultimate validator. State Fairs, trailer parks, and rural communities were filled with honest, hardworking people looking to have enough for themselves and families.

The executive director was a white woman who struggled in poverty and knew first-hand the needs in rural Missouri. Her openness and ability to connect with community members as people, not means to an end, played a huge role in my development as an organizer. Also, she brought their voices and experiences into every elite non-profit complex strategic meeting. She battled to ensure the most impacted were centered in the work.

I was transitioned to labor after working as a community organizer.  I was trained to develop relationships with members in a labor setting. These relationships were forced at times to be transactional. Organizations, due to demand on either campaign deliverables or community need, move so quickly and don’t allow for invitation to power.  Leaning on the real experts and their lived experience to guide campaigns brings us wins and true ownership. Establishing such a process calls for trusting relationships. How do we organize from a place with deep relationships as goal?

Curiosity and trust

Deep relationships are built with curiosity, grace, reflection, and healing. In our movements we are focusing on creating new forms of organizing, where we expand the tables of power and invite the real experts: those who are impacted the most. Where we show radical love and tenderness. We must understand the destructive behaviors from leaders in the movement, including ourselves. From a place of radical love and tenderness, we must have restorative practices to heal the community and ourselves.

How does curiosity build trust and authenticity?  Why are authentic and trustful relationships the core to strategy? If we are unable to sharpen each other to understand each other’s language, then how can we bring the best strategy to organize such a mountain that calls for re-imagination? If we are unable to re-imagine for ourselves, our lives and relationships—how can we reimagine a whole society?

Reimagining society

We have to work on ourselves, but we also need to build more institutions that lean into authenticity and trust. The practices of white supremacy I mentioned earlier keep us from being honest, transparent, and vulnerable with each other. I have an elder who continues to ask why are we fighting the same battles? But we will keep fighting those same battles until we can dismantle capitalist and white supremacist norms which disallow for a real reckoning in our society.

Let’s build community agreements that build transformative movement spaces. There are organizations moving towards this direction. The key is being the agitator, the committed force for transformation.  For example, Organization for Black Struggle holds combatting liberalism as a cornerstone to developing relationships with each other.

We don’t just need a new strategy or the utilization of past strategies from the capitalist side. We need a personal and communal transformation within the movement. I have worked on internal barriers to being more inquisitive. Could I ask more questions when talking with people? How can I show up in our transformation as insider rather than outsider?  I am still on the journey. But our white counterparts in this non-profit complex must also demand change and political accountability.

New paradigms based on love and trust

I imagine a movement in 2021 filled with agitation out of love on how we need to be bolder on race and class narrative, deepen relationships with one another, and seek a human-centered economy.

The road to re-imagining a society starts with creating new paradigms. We learn from our history to mold a whole new world. How does a paradigm that allows for human love in the core shape our imaginations? And why is it so hard or idealistic to imagine such a thing? Let’s not make love only a poet’s dilemma. Let’s build love, human love, with curiosity, grace, reflection, and healing. Let’s authentically demand a world with collective responsibility for humanity.


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