Em-URGE-ing Voices

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Moving Beyond Breaking News: Integrating Reproductive Justice Into Our Daily Lives

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January 4, 2023

Since taking action when witnessing injustice is motivated by the ability to care and feel compassion for others, Stanford researcher Erika Rosenberg states, “doing something for the benefit of others, is first noticing what something or someone means to you.” This was crucial to my own activism journey as, in the past, I tended to pick and choose which issues I wanted to care about and which ones to ignore altogether. Understanding that they all connect and inform one another was what motivated me to fully strap into the fight for Reproductive Justice. While I felt guilty that it took me only this past year to truly face these issues, I learned that it was never too late to foster sustainable activism. The importance of this type of activism was explained in-depth by Deepa Iyer in The Lily as she explored how to make acts of social change a lifestyle choice, rather than a crisis response. Written in early 2021, she specifically focuses on the sudden racial awakening around the world in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement. I found it apt with the Supreme Court’s decision of overturning Roe v. Wade this past year in terms of the sudden nationwide response to issues that have been going on for hundreds of years. In order to continue sustaining our urgency past “peaks in social engagement” and into every part of our lives and spaces we inhabit, looking to Iyer’s proposed solutions is essential as 2023 begins and we continue to fight for Reproductive Justice. 

A raised fist in front of a black background is surrounded by torn-off white pieces of paper with text of Deepa Iyer’s four-step process in cultivating sustainable activism (image by iStock, illustration by The Lily).

Having developed a social change ecosystem map, Iyer emphasizes that a way we can sustainably commit to a better world is through a four-step process: align your values, map your roles, connect more deeply to your ecosystem, and make it a daily practice. The first two require us going inward and reflecting on our intentions in this fight. Aligning our values means going deeper into what terms like community, solidarity, justice, and equity mean to each of us. Doing this enables us to set intentions towards what we engage with and what/who we support. These terms have unfortunately become profitable buzzwords that get traction towards content and/or material products. This virtue-signaling pulls people in and gets them to engage without understanding what they’re actually engaging with and why. These processes can quickly turn acts, which may be well-meaning on the surface, into a one-and-done thing. Or even just for aesthetics, like buying a t-shirt for gender justice when ironically the t-shirts themselves were made by women in Bangladesh working in inhumane conditions and making less than a living wage. Understanding the full picture is critically connected to our values because we now live in an attention economy where our time, money, and empathy are constantly capitalized upon. Of course companies and organizations require accountability and transparency of their actions, but whether or not they will actually do this is often out of our control. Instead, taking the first step within ourselves and truly digging deeper into what matters to us and why, will help us navigate and filter who else holds our shared values. These are the people, companies, and organizations to surround ourselves with in our own unique social change ecosystem. 

Iyer’s second step is mapping your roles. Each of us have special skill sets, talents if you will, that we can bring into the Reproductive Justice movement. These skills are outlined as roles, such as caregiver, healer, storyteller, and disrupter. We can hold one or many of these roles, as well as, have different roles in different situations. This demonstrates the complexity of our varied skill sets and ability to show up in more ways than one. For instance, Reproductive Justice collective, SisterSong, describes their various roles in the movement, through their own framework, as Thought Leader, Movement Voice, Ambassador, Trainer, Convener, Facilitator, and Organizer. They explicitly explain how they embody each of those roles through their actions. Reflecting on what you can uniquely bring to the movement is essential to sustainable activism because it prevents you from believing you have to do it all. It allows you to tap into what you’re already skilled at and use it as a force for good.

Deepa Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem Map that illustrates shared values in the middle yellow circle and ten colorful circles extending outwards from it that outlines the roles people/organizations can have in their social change efforts.

The third step now propels us to venture outwards and look towards our communities. Connecting deeply with our ecosystem (local, familial, professional, etc) means to reflect on our “critical connections”, as activist Grace Lee Boggs calls it. This is our community care practice where we build momentum and change through coming together and supporting one another. This also extends to the world and systems that we live in. Understanding that we are all part of an ecosystem allows us to practice interconnectedness and move towards nurturing our ecosystem – not just for ourselves, but for future generations as well. As Grace Lee Boggs once said, “You cannot change any society unless you take responsibility for it, unless you see yourself as belonging to it, and responsible for changing it.” Connecting with others in your ecosystem can also bring forth greater accountability, whether it be through conversations or issue-based workshops/training. Having people within your circle to learn from and apply your skills with can uncover biases and areas you may not have expertise in. These critical connections allow us to keep growing and building together.

Quote from Grace Lee Boggs about “critical connections” with the backdrop of a coastline at sunset (image by quotefancy).

Iyer’s last step is to make our activism into a daily practice. If anything, this step challenges us to continuously show up to a point where we no longer separate our activism, like protesting or donating to funds, from our daily lives. It just becomes a natural, automatic act when witnessing injustice. What would our world look and feel like if these actions are so deeply integrated in our lives that by default we’re always aligning our values, playing our roles, and connecting to our ecosystem? To me, we would all become disruptors. Sustaining our activism into 2023 and beyond looks like not settling for the bare minimum, questioning the systems in place, and striving to build new ones that actually serve all of us. 

The events from 2020 that pushed Iyer to create the guidelines explored here (unfortunately) connect to the events that shook 2022, from abortion rights to gun violence to anti-trans laws. America has always been a ground for fear, isolation, anger, and disillusionment, but there has been a shift in recent years in terms of whose voices are being heard and the rise of collective power. The emotions listed above have become valid, and necessary, for they shine a light on actions, systems, and ways of being that never served us in the first place. “Giving these emotions what they want”, and then holding them with compassion is how we continue to do the work that happens in between times of breaking news. Bethany Gordon explains the importance of these shifts in action by breaking down the difference between empathic distress and empathic concern. Empathic distress is an “ego-centric response”, where we are disturbed by witnessing suffering and therefore take action in order to alleviate our own suffering. Empathic concern (a.k.a compassion), on the other hand, is “other-oriented”, where you feel for another person’s suffering and make the ultimate goal be to fix the core problem, rather than your own distress. It is natural to feel empathic distress at first, but the key is to move towards compassion, which can look like practicing mindfulness, such as a loving-kindness meditation. In explaining this, Gordon states, “Gaining a better understanding of the empathy we feel in these moments of awareness and advocacy can help us take a more behaviorally sustainable approach.”

As we begin again in 2023, taking the time to reflect on our actions in the past year and seeing where we can build upon them is an essential step towards moving beyond peaks of public crisis. Cultivating sustainable activism is what enables us to engage in these movements throughout our lifetime. The goal worth taking, and more important than ever before, is to incorporate these actions into our lives daily, even in the smallest ways, even when no one is looking.

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