Editors' Note: Guest blogger Alan L. Bounville is a full time graduate student studying theatre for social change at New York University and is one of the founding members of Queer Rising New York City, a direct action group fighting for queer equality.
Over the past couple of years, as I have woken up and realized my voice is as meaningful as anyone's in this fight for full civil rights, I've found myself many times confronting individuals and organizations within and without our movement. Upon my honest, yet sometimes abrasive sharings, I have found myself over and over shut out of spaces. What I mean is, I've challenged status quos all over the place. I've challenged my family after they voted against my equal rights in 2008. I've challenged groups like the National Organization for Marriage, various elected officials taking action against our civil rights and individuals and groups in our own movement who choose a competitive, censoring approach to social movement.
And in all of that, among all of the people and groups I've pushed away, I've learned quite a bit about what's wrong with the way we are operating as a social movement at present. I've also realized why my challenging stance is, at times not a good use of my energy when looking at the bigger picture. On a meta level, we are trying to build a social movement based on a "no, but" process instead of a "yes, and" philosophy. And if we really want our vision of a better world and a bigger and faster movement to become a reality, a major but relatively simple paradigm shift must take place.
The "no, but" is when we get into conversation with people or groups and instead of embracing our different ideas, thoughts and feelings, we shut out what makes us feel uncomfortable, what challenges the existing structure of how things are. But, the "no, but" cripples growth towards our collective goals. And it leaves those who invoke the "no, but" with a false sense of control over the direction of things.
Gravitating towards this approach is natural for Americans. We are part of a civilization that prides itself on competition at all levels. We compete from very early ages, trying to win games against our peers on the playground, in the classroom trying to be the best we can be, in the workforce, in our social circles trying to look our best, competing with each other literally everywhere we go. We have built a society based on plutocratic values. We feel survial is dependent on being better than the rest.
It is natural then that we take this "no, but" approach right into our organizing work. We build our social movement groups and efforts out of this foundation. Yet, over and over we become exhausted, frustrated, defeated because we don't understand why we can't get larger numbers of people out to our actions, to join our organizations, to help speed up this process towards our big goals. So, we placate ourselves saying things like, "These things just take time" or "We need to be patient" or worst yet, "It's not realistic to think things can change quickly. They never do." We justify using these delusions and self defeating statements because it's been a long time since a lot has changed in our movement really fast.
But, if we tell ourselves the opposite, that there has to be a faster way to build our movement and see our visions become a reality, we can then start to open ourselves up to the energy that will start leading us towards just that. If we come into collaborative planning spaces and build our actions and organizations around a "yes, and" philosophy, there is hope.
'"Yes, and" simply means, staying open to all feelings, voices and thoughts. It's a way to counteract the competitive nature that has led to such extreme compartmentalization in our society. We yearn to be free, but without moving from the "yes, and" approach, we only have the ability to affect change on a small, individual scale. If we truly yearn for liberation we must "hold the truth of different ways, perspectives, and mind states at once, where there is a complete acceptance of the way things are that also holds a prophetic vision of how things could be" (Framing Deep Change - pg 8). And within that, we must put aside the competitive nature that is part of what oppresses social movement growth and embrace our smallness in our epic fight.
So,"no but" is manifested when someone says or does something counter to our way of knowing the world and we say something like, "No, we can't do that because that's going to alienate our supporters." or "But, that would be a bad idea because our members are not interested in civil disobedience. It doesn't work." And "yes, and" does the exact opposite. When someone says something that makes us feel uncomfortable, or is counter to the way we see the world, we have the opportunity to validate their beliefs and build upon them. When someone throws their ideas into the mix, regardless of how we feel about them, we can collaborate with them. We can say, "Yes, that is true to you and if we add my truth to that we can find a place where both of our truths can thrive."
A real world application of building our movement through a collaborative process would be the use of structured brainstorming anytime you sit down with a group to create an action. If your group decides together on its goal, then brainstorms out many ideas of what actions could be taken to meet its goal, the group can together narrow down their wide cast net of ideas to the one(s) that will lead to the action that the group feels best works towards the group's defined goal. Brainstorming can be used to establish the group's goal as well, or any part of the organization.*
Whereas competition separates us, collaborative exercises that validate everyone's feelings and thoughts bring us together. And in that assembling of multiple perspectives, we can together narrow down our ideas to something in which all in our groups can claim some ownership. And with more commitment to the action at hand, more people will do more to shape our world. And in the process of shaping, we will build stronger, more meaningful and longer lasting bonds with each other and naturally find ways in which we internalize what it means to have our destiny tied the whole of humanity. Isn't that really the ultimate goal?
In my journey so far, as a person who now understands the importance of being an active member in our community working towards the big goal of full civil rights, I have recently come to a place where I no longer feel the anger I once did at those who would shut out my dissenting voice. I see now how my many outbursts of the past have come, in part from my own competitive breeding. Though I'm sure I'll fly off the handle again, I can say today I am practicing what I believe to be true. I am moving from the "yes, and" state of being.
And moving forward, I keep my heart and eyes open for others who want to collaboratively build this movement. Every new intersection with such a person is a great gift. Now, this is where selfishness is a good thing. As Ms. Spears sings, "Gimme, gimmie more."
*A word about brainstorming: In the initial round, every idea is written down. Consider giving your group a time limit, say five minutes where everyone is empowered to throw out anything that meets the criteria of the brainstorming exercise. Then, when the timekeeper calls time, review the list as a group and find what works best for your group to narrow the list down. Make sure your brainstorming is always focussed on the goal at hand. The goal drives everything, which isn't to say that the goal won't reshape over time. When we know better, we do better and our goals can easily evolve under new understanding and circumstances.