Catching Fire, Breaking Silence: Addressing Sexual & Gender Violence

By March 28, 2015 August 15th, 2018 No Comments

By Taij Kumarie Moteelall and Diana Marie Lee

Standing in Our Power (SiOP), a network of women of color social justice leaders, is calling for greater integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion among individuals and organizations working for transformative social change.

Many of us who serve as the core leaders and coaches of SiOP came to this network through our personal journeys to reclaim a sense of purpose, wholeness and well-being in our social justice work.  We have been inspired and influenced by the vision of the transformative social change movement over the last two decades to combine personal transformation with organizational efforts to catalyze socio-cultural, socio-economic, political and environmental revolution and social justice.

We are living through tough social and economic times that forces us to connect or contract. Leaders and organizations lack enough energy, time and resources to get everything done. We are tired and stressed, and, ultimately, less effective.  For those of us working to express values of freedom and justice through our organizations, workplace strain, spending cuts, demand on social programs and burnout diminishes our well-being. We find ourselves working for positive social change in more toxic and unhealthier work environments.  Many of us turned to transformative social justice as an ideology and community of practice to find a better way forward and address the personal experiences and conditioning which hindered our ability to be more connected, effective and sustainable.

Yet, our social movements will only build momentum and win through healthy sustainable efforts when we – who are at the helm of transformative social change work – can fully embody integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion.

Integrity is about how we show up in the world, the degree to which we bring our whole  selves to our work and daily lives. To live in integrity, we do what we say and say what we do. Not to sound too cliché, but on a very fundamental level, we are practicing what we preach.  Another dimension of integrity is adhering to one’s values or professional standards through one’s thoughts, words and actions.

Accountability is about taking full responsibility for our intentions, actions, decisions, and the impact those have in the world. To be accountable, we must also report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences of what we say and do, as well as for what we fail to say and do.  Accountability ideally rests on mutual reciprocity and support which enables one to meet one’s goals successfully through trusting, creative, soulful and innovative collaborations.

Interdependence is about our relationship with others in our family, organizations, community and movements.  To be interdependent is to live in deep awareness that what impacts one impacts the other, and in fact impacts all.  Our actions and intentions have direct impact on others and the whole. We are not the rugged individuals that an American capitalist view of society will have us believe. All of our fates are intertwined. When we can connect, build relationships of trust and have each other’s backs, we are a thriving interdependent community capable of changing the world.

Compassion is about having conscious awareness of both your own distress and the distress of others which has built up over many years and having a deep desire to alleviate it with healthy, loving thoughts, words and actions. One’s willingness to heal oneself builds capacity to help others.  It’s about inter-connectedness and  love.

Sounds easy enough, right?  But these practices – ways of being – are among the most difficult things for all, including transformative leaders, to fully embody. Why? Perhaps we are so fixated on the structural realities that our work addresses and being present to the transformative development of our organizations and communities, all while trying to sustain our work, that we fail to personally hold ourselves to the same standards. Possibly because moving beyond self-reflection and awareness to full embodiment of the change we’ve dedicated our lives to, is not enough of a priority.  Maybe we believe that our rhetoric gives us a pass.  After all, we know this stuff.  Heck, we preach it in workshops, through our blogs, with funders, our constituents, etc.  But at the end of the day, can we practice what we preach? Are we living our values? Do we actually believe what we preach?

Ultimately, what keeps us from full embodiment is fear—fear that we are not good enough to make transformative practices a way of being; fear that if we acknowledge mistakes/errors/harm that we will be asked to leave communities, leave leadership positions; and fear that we will be publicly shamed by not living up to the values of integrity, accountability, interdependence and compassion. Too often our movements call for “perfect” leaders. Our fears emanate, in part, from our internalized oppression and trauma.

Standing in Our Power operates from the framework that undoing oppression in the world goes hand-in-hand with undoing the ways we’ve internalized oppression in our hearts, bodies, minds and spirits. This ultimately leads us to behave in ways which foster internal oppression within our organizations and social movements.  One of the main barriers SiOP has identified to the effectiveness of transformative social change efforts is the gender and sexual violence and oppression that is deeply embedded within the very transformative social change movement itself.

Over the past two years since our launch, we’ve seen and heard about sexual and gender violence and oppression in our social movements.  In recent months, it has been brought home with stories of this type of violence and oppression being present in our transformative justice movement.  The purpose of this and subsequent writings is to lift up the voices of women, men and gender non-conforming social justice activists who have been harmed physically, mentally, socially, spiritually and professionally by this dynamic.

As women of color working towards transformative justice, we feel called to raise awareness, amplify marginalized voices, create tools for safety and healing, address the root cause of this issue, and organize for structural and cultural shifts. Our calling comes from a reverence for sacred and safe spaces in our lives, organizations and movements, and the essential need for radical truth-telling, healing and truth-living that can catalyze deep and lasting change.

For too long, we’ve witnessed racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism, and more in our social movements, and felt first-hand how this manifests as sexual and gender violence and oppression.  We know about the history of sexual and gender violence and oppression that has brought down some of our movements from the inside. We also bare witness to it in our present-day work. We’ve held spaces for people to heal, and we yearn to eradicate this from our lives, organizations, movements and world.  As women of color, we often experience multiple oppressions at the same time. These ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ have fired us up, and at the same time they have silenced us.

If we do not undo the ways in which systemic oppression gets normalized, even in our transformative justice community, and in turn lives within us, we are going to continue playing a part in sabotaging or undermining our work towards socio-cultural, socio-economic, political and environmental revolution and social justice.  .

We are catching fire and breaking silence. Through our local and national programs we are supporting those who are most impacted, as well as sharing personal stories, our analysis and tools to shed light on harmful ‘ways of being.’  We want to foster deep and lasting change while helping survivors, victims, targets and perpetuators of sexual and gender violence and oppression to recognize when this is happening and how to get support.

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