constellational thinker. critical scholar. transformative educator.

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Lessons from the 27th Rotation Around the Sun

Reflection and action must never be undertaken independently. 

- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (link)

That's the kind of rebel I want to be is someone who does learn in public and not have my ego so bruised into silence.

- Courtney E. Martin, OnBeing Episode (link)


Today is my 27th birthday. It is also the conclusion of my 27th full rotation around the sun.  I often think I am blessed to have such a "late" birthday (in terms of the calendar year); birthdays for me have always prompted reflection on where I have been and where I am going. This year is no different and I think about how Freire reminds us that action and reflection are never separate processes, that to begin a new year of praxis means to build upon a previous year of praxis; there is a necessity to reflect on what has happened and what is happening to better meet what will happen. This post is about me being the rebel that learns in public, like Courtney Martin models for me. This is about naming how I have learned, unlearned, and re-learned things this past year. [There's also some recommendations on materials I loved to interact with this year]

This post is an amalgam of a few things. It is about things others have taught me, whether through working alongside one another or through books or other thought pieces I have read.  It is also about what I've learned myself and cleared up through reflection with others. It is also about things I continue to wrestle and rumble with walking into this next year.  And often these things blur together more so than have distinctions between them.

One of my biggest lessons this year has been truly naming how the processes of humanization and demonization destroy us. Through the words of Ruby Sales (link to OnBeing episode), the book Trauma Stewardship (link), as well as several conversations (especially with my friend Tiffany Toriumi) and reflections on our current politics (both nationally and interpersonally), I have continued to pursue a definition of justice and equity that depended in small part on demonization. I cannot do that. For if I demonize someone, the moment I make someone less human, it becomes easier to picture their destruction. And the process of demonization, the process to make someone less human, is easy; humanization is harder. My anger never justifies another's demonization. When 49 queer and trans folks of color were murdered in Pulse night club in Orlando, I jumped to demonization. When folks wore/continue to wear MAGA hats, I jumped to demonization. And then I paused to remove myself from those situations to the extent to which I could to be curious about them again. Then, I asked questions about why some of my lifelong friends felt the way they did about our political system. I asked questions of what led someone to commit violence. Both were generally answers around further violence and pain that had been inflicted. And then I came back to the two fundamental questions of social justice Vernon Wall (link) often asks: What does everyone deserve? What does no one deserve? And everyone deserves humanization and no one deserves demonization. Maybe that is too dualistic for now but that's where I am at with that. 

Along with that, though, has been a rumbling with an answer to how to hold people accountable without denying their humanity. How do I seek to confront instances of interpersonal and institutional oppression and injustice without being fierce in my pursuits? And as always, it comes back to a both/and. I have really learned this year the place of both a fierce and tender compassion partnered with curiosity. As one of the amazing students I get to work alongside, Kieran Todd, has reminded me - there is a place in this work for both sets of compassion. What I have often seen is a need for a tender compassion in times where people are burnt out, don't know what to do, and their pain is often on greater display than usual. This is often the compassion many of us recognize and go to when we recognize that need. There are times, especially amongst those who consider themselves or their work as activist, who do not leverage tender compassion for one another. I/we are often about a capitalist, efficient model of social justice that does not check to see how people are doing, even when we believe their is further action to be taken. There is also a fierce compassion to leverage as well. There is a fierce compassion that says "I will not let you do that to me" - it is the compassion that James Baldwin harkens to about loving America more than any other country in the world, which is why he continued to criticize her so perpetually.  This fierce compassion I am trying to leverage more often leads with curiosity, seeking to understand if I already do not, and sometimes saying to others "I just need to disengage from you right now" or saying "let's take this conversation offline because it's not doing us any good here." A fierce compassion is not about avoiding accountability - it is rather, for me, about practicing love when it is its most difficult, when I have investment in another person and want to not write them off in the name of being better/smarter than them from my perspective. 

This year has also hammered home my belief in how social change works. I truly believe it is through genuine relationships that cultivate empathy that social change begins. Because as Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi drive home (link to TED interview) in addition to the work of Angela Y. Davis (link) and Dean Spade (link), social change is a bubble up phenomenon rather than a trickle down one. The movements and resistances we have seen that have driven change in our world have been ones that have started with individuals who believe in their own agency coming together with others within and across identities and drive that change. The end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of de facto Jim Crow segregation in the American South did not come about because of Mandela and King, respectively. They came about from ordinary folks who organized, who stood up, and who said enough is enough. Many of these folks continue to be women/femmes/feminine of center folks of color over time and place (see Marsha P Johnson, Miss Major, Ida B Wells, & Sylvia Rivera for examples). I wonder how much the trickle down/leader-based view of change is why we are feeling such loss for so many popular figures who we viewed as leaders challenging norms and systems in various ways  like Carrie Fisher, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie, and Fidel Castro among others. As Grace Lee Boggs emphasized, we are the leaders we've been waiting for. 

I've also learned I have so much more to learn and so much more listening to do. This year, I think I finally got how much we are all tied into a cosmic pain, at the mercy of systems and structures that were meant for fewer and fewer of us as time progresses forward. While much of this is about our political climate and where people feel the country needs to "go," there is so much I just don't know about others' experiences. 2017 will truly be dedicated to expanding my circle of understanding further. I am looking forward to #Alex2017Syllabus for good readings and materials to engage with. I've attempted to diversify my news content in my social media feeds, to re-integrate folks I may have hidden at one point or another, and to engage. It is time for me to be back in regular service rotation in my local community because that's always been important to me and I have just been using excuses to avoid it. I need to pay for the Lansing State Journal and support more local work than I ever have before. 

Some quick lessons I've also taken away or needed to learn again:

  • I need to write more and share it more. I found over the last year that my writing has been what some folks needed and, more importantly, what I needed.
  • I am smart and I do know a thing or two. I have never taken that word up for myself and I need to do it more often in a way that keeps me in gratitude to others and humble.
  • I have accomplished a great deal this year. I'm getting published in a top tier journal, I have two book chapters coming out, I earned a few awards based on my professional accomplishments, and I gave a TEDx talk. I also made great new friends, deepened relationships with other friends and family, and engaged my own spiritual sense of self in ways I haven't in the last 5 - 7 years of my life. 
  • I am worthy. 
  • Self-care is more about self-treatment than treating myself. I need to do more of the former and more of the latter. 
  • History protects hopefulness. Our local family histories and local and global histories are all important in our work for social change. More about this as it will be a post all on its own.

Above all, I have learned that it is through reflection and action that my imposter syndrome (that is so often imposed on me rather than a natural locus in my body) is best remedied through being in community with and alongside others and not minimizing myself or my accomplishments. I've learned to have as much grace, as much compassion as I muster for others for myself. I've learned that the arc of the universe bends towards justice because we collectively push it towards justice - it is not a natural phenomenon. I've learned that my search, my yearning for justice and equity is more wrapped up in my own sense of spirituality, which is still in the development process (as is everything else), and my belief of interconnectedness. I've learned to protect an enduring hopefulness for a more caring, just, and thriving world while simultaneously being both impatient and restless for it. And I've learned to always center a radical love (link) in doing so <3


Some of my favorite material to engage with in the 27th rotation (in no particular order):

  • Love has failed. Love is the answer via me (link)
  • The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs (link)
  • A Note on Call-Out Culture by Asam Ahmad (link)
  • Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of the Movement by Angela Y Davis (link)
  • Trans* in College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion by Z Nicolazzo (link)
  • The NPR Politics Podcast (link)
  • An Interview with the Founders of Black Lives Matter via TED (link)
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (link)
  • Is America Possible? - Vincent Harding from the OnBeing Podcast (link)
  • Against Being Inclusive by Jeffrey Carlson (link)
  • The Another Round Podcast (link)
  • Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living by Krista Tippett (link)
  • The Matter of Black Lives by Jelani Cobb (link)
  • Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of Law by Dean Spade (link)
  • Ruby Sales - Where Does it Hurt from the OnBeing Podcast (link)
  • Thinking Constellationally: An Intersectional, Integrative Analysis of the Orlando Massacre via me (link)
  • The Immediate Need for Emotional Justice by Yolo Akili (link)
  • Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin - The Inner Life of Rebellion from the OnBeing Podcast (link)
Alex Lange