We can show support within our community in countless ways. From donating money or resources, to sharing our skill sets, helping with publicity, building collaborations amongst wonderful organizations, problem solving during local events, generating ideas at meetings; everyone has the means to be useful and supportive.
There are times when people offer to do work that they may not be the best at doing – like someone who loves to paint offering to make a mural. There is nothing wrong with this – in fact, I think it’s awesome. That doesn’t change the fact that the person who loves to paint may not be a professional artist. Or that the person was given little guidance and no extra resources. Say that they are shown the concrete wall to cover and like to spray-paint aliens and unicorns. So they create a mural design entirely of these two things using the paint colors they had – pink, green, brown and yellow. There is nothing wrong with any of this, but there may have been better choices. Now the mural is on the side of the organization’s office, along with organization’s name. The leaders of the organization aren’t very happy with it. People who drive by the office from other towns have no idea what that organization does, but they remember its name because of the large and furry pink alien. The officers were hoping the mural would bring more people into the office to utilize their free health care services and help their existing members feel an ownership of the community space. Somehow, everyone’s missed the mark.
Being both a community organizer and an artist, I find myself dealing with sticky situations like this a lot. I understand the intention behind the mural project. I can see the hard work put in by the artist. I can also see the colors used in the mural were not optimal, the aliens are lopsided and the unicorns only have two legs. I see where communication problems started in the project and when it broke down completely between the organization and the artist. I know why there’s now a huge fight about covering up the mural.
While this is an example in which there is less at stake, situations like this happen all the time with projects that have huge implications for our community. People you care about or organizations you like will take on projects (both large and small) that you are not happy to support. It is inevitable. Sometimes the projects will fight against or cover up work you’ve created. It will make you emotional. Here are some strategies for working through situations like this gracefully.
- Know thyself – and own it.
Figure out what specifically it is about the project that makes you question supporting it wholeheartedly. Is it something personal (a dislike of specific members of the project, jealousy or anger over the funding allotted for the work or amounts of publicity the work is getting, similarities in this project to projects you’ve worked on yourself or are currently working on, etc)? Is it something that doesn’t agree with your political or spiritual beliefs? Does the project seem racist, classist, ageist, traditionalist, essentialist, homophobic or able-ist to you? Are you leery of the tribal or organizational affiliations? Are the language choices or costs for the project problematic or exclusionary?
If the problems you are having with a project are not personal, then continue on to the next section. If any of the reasons are personal reasons, tread carefully. Ask yourself, If the personal reasons were not a factor, would I want to support the project? If the answer is yes, then find a way to do so without bringing the negative personal stuff into your support. Own your feelings. They are valid; however, don’t stay in this spot. You’ll stagnate. Progress only happens if you push past the initial emotional response.
For example, if you dislike a member working on the project: Choose ways to be supportive where you won’t have to interact with that individual at all. Or if you are jealous about the funding allotted for the work, find ways to support that will not add to their funding. Focus on helping with publicity, web design or ask about collaborative opportunities. Also, take note of what they are doing different from your projects. Is that funding coming from strong grant writing or more local fundraising? Are corporate sponsorships involved? Sometimes what you imagine to be unfair funding levels turns out to be a whole lot of extra work done by the project founders. Other times it’s corporate underwriters who control their funds, which restricts the types of programming and projects the organization can do.
The key thing to remember: You do not have to expose yourself or others to unnecessary drama in order to be helpful. In fact, many times the added stress from these emotional interactions can suck all the productive energy from a project or make it such a negative experience that many volunteers will not want to help again. No one needs that. Find the ways you can be involved at a comfortable level without taking on a lot of negativity and/or adding to the drama level. It can be done – trust me; I’ve been doing it for years.
If there is too much negativity or drama for you within a project, disengage from the personality stuff while finishing the portion of work/services you have offered to fulfill. Practice self-care and opt not to offer work you have to do collaboratively again unless the energy and people involved with the project has changed for the better. Move on if you can’t help the group move forward. There is so much good work being done, so many projects that need caring people to help bring them to fruition. No need to make yourself (or anybody else for that matter) bitter, angry and burnt out.
2. Give the project the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe the information you have about the project does not accurately mirror the project. It is highly possible, especially with both creative and social justice work, that the intentions of the project are in line with your interests. I have seen publicity and websites that are so contradictory to the project’s intentions it is astounding – just like the lopsided aliens and two-legged unicorns. Why? Because either the publicist didn’t know enough about the project in the first place or the conceptual idea/media strategy they designed for the project was short sighted about its audience from the beginning. Many times the work is done by volunteers and interns – not necessarily individuals that know the project intimately. Also, many of the strategies students and/or professionals in marketing and publicity are taught do not translate as easily to projects that are not selling something to a specific targeted demographic (age group, gender, class and/or occupationally focused). The only way to know for sure is to contact someone heavily involved with the creation of the project. Bring your concerns to those in the know and ask questions. This leaves less room for inaccurate assumptions.
3. Face relevant issues in a professional manner.
When contacting the program offices or the individuals working within the project, be courteous, not confrontational, and honest. Explain your concerns and their point of origin. If your concerns come from a flier or the website, highlight the instances specifically. Many times your concerns will be met by openhearted individuals who did not intend to be exclusionary or negative with their project. No one is able to foresee all the potential limits of their project’s public face.
Starting your interaction with project personnel or volunteers in a dismissive or angry way is a sure means to raise ill will. It’s not easy to stay professional in some instances, especially if the emotional response to what you’ve come across is high or you have personal history with someone involved with the project. It may be best for everyone involved if you wait to open communications until you can be more objective. You can also ask someone else with less emotional investment to bring your concerns to their attention or to accompany you to a meeting in order to help mediate.
4. Offer constructive criticism (and helpful solutions if requested).
There is a gigantic difference between constructive criticism and “calling somebody out.” Constructive criticism sounds like this: “The language in this project advertisement favors Christian white teenage heterosexual cisgendered women. Was that intentional or is the project meant to be more inclusive?” Calling somebody out sounds like this: “Your project is racist and homophobic. This organization is racist and homophobic too.” Constructive criticism may not cause an immediately positive response, but it rarely causes a strong negative response. Calling someone out never causes a positive response. Calling someone out makes them defensive and combative. That makes it so much harder for them to hear your words clearly.
Do not misconstrue my remarks as an endorsement of respectability politics. I do not believe in that. As Roxane Gay has said, “Racism doesn’t care about respectability, wealth, education or status.” What I’m saying is I have never seen a confrontational and aggressive conversation with someone over volatile topics like racism, homophobia, politics and religious persecutions go well. I believe in human frailty, pride, good intentions, and fallibility—especially when it comes to community work. I also believe in treating everyone you meet with respect until they give you reason not to do so. Calling people out has its place, but you can’t expect to get good results every time you do it. Constructive criticism yields better interactions and better results.
When offering constructive criticism, it is polite to have alternatives at the ready. If the person who made the oversight didn’t see the problem the first time, they may not know how to correct it. Be prepared with your suggestions, but do not take it personally if what you offer is not accepted right away. Or at all.
5. Accept the results of this process, whatever they may be. The reasons for doing all of this are to A) be clear about the project’s mission/goal and, B) to help well-meaning projects. If this process shows you that the intentions of the project are in line with other projects you support, then that’s awesome and everyone will benefit from your interactions. If this process shows you the project does not have intentions in line with what you support, that’s fine. Now you know. You can decide how best to proceed. 6. Reassess and follow up with the necessary work.
The way that organizations and individuals interact with you during this process will tell you a great deal about how they work. If the process is positive, you should have little worry about showing as much support as you’re capable. Start by helping mediate the concerns you had at the start of the process as best you can – offer to make new digital publicity or help rework the website.
If the process didn’t go as well as hoped, focus on positives in the interaction (project officer’s willingness to listen, edits made and/or works toward a compromise, etc). Offer to support or collaborate on other work in the future if this project is not for you.
If everything about the experience was negative, extract yourself. Consider requesting group intervention/direct action (negative press, protests, boycotts, etc). Only do this if the infractions are large, the action can lead to a productive outcome and change is necessary. Try to keep the project and organization’s reach in perspective. Direct action can take a long time, several people and a lot of energy to make headway – do you really want to keep that momentum going for a project or organization that has a relatively small audience to begin with? There are better ways to utilize your time.
It may be more successful to channel your energy into creating an alternative project or event. For example, because it has proven difficult to create change in rural secondary schools’ conduct rules for proms (in order to be more inclusive of LBGTQ students), many youth organizations hold their own alternative proms. While they still work to make lasting change at the individual school district level, they build a timely answer themselves. This way current students still have an opportunity to bring their partners and friends to a safe space to celebrate, they can dress in whatever manner appeals to them and they can be true to who they are while doing so. While this isn’t the perfect solution, it has proven more fun for the students than staying home or protesting the school board meetings/prom event each year.
Following these steps will help you mediate those tricky moments when someone wants you to be excited about their work and you have some trepidation, or when organizations bring questionable events or projects into your community. Remember that everyone has their own social justice priorities – some will focus more on language preservation, environmental sustainability, labor rights, immigration, health care access, ending poverty or fighting homophobia than you will. Some will think their focus is the only important one to factor into the project. Most people will not.
Working with each other to make sure we progress as a group is the only way to make lasting (and integral) social change. Creating a false hierarchy of what issues need to be addressed first will not help. We should strive to create work that is intersectional in its efforts within our communities – work that battles poverty and homophobia while empowering Indigenous young women, work that creates professional development opportunities for under-represented groups in the arts while supporting sustainable workplace design. This is the way of our future. This type of progress utilizes the strengths that are our legacy.
Indian Country can be very small – especially when you’re doing work primarily within your tribe or specifically with Indigenous youth. We have to figure out ways to maneuver past our differences and keep focused on the bigger picture, the larger issues and not the petty personal battles. The only way to do that is through balancing your intentions and agendas with those of the people around you. We should stay focused on the future we want to build together and being the role models that future needs to come to fruition.