Susan Raffo

Daily living for change: More than hot air

Filed By Susan Raffo | December 28, 2010 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: child care, interdependence, LGBT families, Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz, movement, neighborhood organizing, social justice

This piece is written in partnership between Susan Raffo and Lisa Weiner-Mahfuz.473 Interdependence Day flag

I avoid grandiose plans. I start with a small piece that I can do. I go to the root of the problem and then work around it. It's building brick by brick. Muhammad Yunus, Visionaries by Utne Reader

What is interdependence? The easiest analogies are ecological: the recognition that every aspect of life is woven into every other aspect of life.

Here's the thing about interdependence: it's not just a theory, it's a practice. We can talk about interdependence for hours on end, understanding its nuances, its implications. We can hold conferences and create websites, perfect our language and our analysis, but unless we are practicing, consciously awkwardly practicing, we aren't changing a thing.

If you are born and raised in the US, then you are born and raised to understand yourself as an individual. Most of our education, our legal systems, and even our language gathers around the idea of the separate individual. Even if we draw from traditions and cultures that carry generations of collective support or if we live in interdependent families and communities in order to support our basic needs, we still in someway respond to the broader cultural force of American individualism.

It affects us, whether we are in resistance to it, struggling within it, or benefiting from it. It tempers our dreams, limits the breadth of what we can believe in. It gets in the way of interdependence.

In school we learn about the food chain and we learn about how lake water evaporates and becomes a cloud which eventually sends rain down to become a lake again. We learn about the animals and humans that depend on that water, about what happens when the river 500 miles upstream is dammed, decreasing the flow of water into the lake, which decreases the amount of lake water available for evaporation which then decreases rainfall which means there is no food for the animals and humans. This is what we learn.

We also learn that full interdependence is kind of like chaos theory: that idea that when a butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand, hurricanes take place in the Gulf of Mexico because everything is interconnected and the many small threads of the pattern are barely visible in the day to day of our living. We can't see the fullness of interdependence from up close, only from far away.

Interdependence is biological: this collective of cellular life responding at a nanosecond to every experience, every stimulus it receives, both internally and externally, each affecting the whole and yet the threads of the pattern often seem invisible when we wonder why our head hurts. When we think it's because we are tired, not paying attention to the fact that it could be our liver or our spleen that is making our heads ache.

At its most basic, interdependence means living together in ways in which your joy and your sorrow directly affects me. It means that if you don't have enough money for bread, I not only know about it, but my own ability to eat bread is affected by your hunger.

For those of us with less access to resources, for those of us living with a disability, or with people who are dependent on us, interdependence is a practice we do as a matter of course. We are interconnected for our survival. But this is a finely etched dance.

Without honesty, without having those hard conversations, without a constantly deepening respect, interdependence can turn into charity models. I am helping you because I have more. You need something from me so you are asking, but the cost of your asking is much higher than the cost of my giving.

So I am alone or I am working with you, we give and we take, but my heart feels heavy. This giving can feel like a burden. This receiving can feel like a burden.

For those of us with privatized lives where, because of our money, our free time or other resources, we don't actually "need" people in that basic needs kind of way, interdependence is how we become more human. To not be involved in interdependent relationship with those around us - from family as the closest in circle to neighborhood and beyond - is to support the systems of capitalism, privatization and the individual work ethic brought to us by the Protestant imperialism that stole the land of the Americas.

Not only believing but actually living with the idea and that practice that we are independent and the master of our own choices increases our use of resources and it supports the ideas of individual success and failure. Our wholeness and our belief in a better world depends on interdependence as a practical thing and not just a place of analysis.

Moving our Movements: Engaging Interdependence

What does interdependence have to do with LGBT communities? Everything.

We want an LGBT movement that is visionary, bold and unafraid of difference. We want an LGBT movement that represents the full breadth and depth of our communities without hesitation or compromise. In the words of Audre Lorde, we want a movement where:

Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialect. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unearthing. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no characters.

First and foremost, a movement leader that is leading from a place of interdependence understands that a single-issue or narrowly defined LGBT political agenda is just not going to cut it. Although Don't Ask, Don't Tell, marriage equality, ENDA and hate crimes are important issues to many aspects of the LGBT community, they are far from the only issues that impact our communities.

The oil spill in the Gulf, environmental racism, reproductive justice, global and domestic economic issues, disability justice, police brutality, immigration, health care and workers rights impact far more people in the LGBT community than the current national LGBT agenda suggests.

To lead in this way means that you are committed to ensuring that all boats rise together and that no community struggling against oppression gets thrown under the bus. This vision of an interconnected 21st century movement would require us to stop fighting among ourselves for the crumbs of "equality" so that we can truly invest in making justice for all central to our work.

This means that our "winning strategy" would not be defined by picking and choosing whose rights are entitled to be won first while other oppressed communities are forced to wait in the back of the line.

As part of movement building, interdependence allows us to work at creating spaces where we don't shut off some of our parts of who we are because can participate fully as we are. It means that our visibility is built into the practical infrastructure of how we work together and not only into the analysis.

It is practical. It is analytical. And it is willing to be honest.

Most importantly, it means that we use our privilege and our resources towards collective wholeness and not just individual gain. The intention of which is to leave less contradiction between what we say and what we do. Interdependence creates a context in which our work is intimate and sometimes harder but it moves us closer to our visions and our dreams.

But it is more than that. Interdependence is not only about how we understand and organize together, it is literally how we live. How we pay attention to each other, or not. And how we remember that ideas are easy things but showing up to plant a garden, paint the walls or help change a diaper is just as important a part of movement building. Without it, we are only hot air.

When we are grounded in the day to day, interdependence requires mutuality and a both/and approach to relationship building that is not about measuring or tracking who did what for whom and when. Rather, mutuality is about having one another's backs in the good and bad times. It's about showing up in whatever ways are possible for you at the time to have the hard conversations, show you care and do what you can. Mutuality cannot be not be quantified, measured, counted or tracked. It's simply about the practice of being present.

Personal and Political Tools for Interdependence

So why is embedding interdependence in movement building particularly important right now?

In this moment in history the economic, environmental and political issues facing the US and the world are huge. Our world economies are interdependent and if we didn't know that already the current economic melt-down across the globe should give us all a pretty major clue.

The oil spill in the Gulf is another example of how we can't contain the impact of an issue to one community or one geographic area. This disaster is damaging one earth and it will have massive ramifications for people, land and animals far and wide for generations to come. These are just two examples that speak directly to why approaching any injustice from an "us and them" perspective gets us nowhere.

The LGBT movement will wither on the vine and die if it doesn't embrace a worldview based in interdependence. The reality is that the national LGBT agenda is resonating less and less with current and future generations of LGBT people who want to be invested in a movement that represents the complexity of the issues facing our communities.

The demographics of the United States are changing rapidly and the impact of the perspectives and activism on the part of People of Color and young people cannot be underestimated. Generationally and demographically speaking, many of us are just not interested in an LGBT movement that sees itself as separate from broader social and economic justice movements. We aren't interested in an LGBT movements that sees itself as separate from the practical day to day issues of our lives.

In response, we would like to offer a "tool kit" towards creating interdependence as part of our movement building work. These are just some ideas that are then discussed briefly. They are practices that the two of us are involved in or are connected to through other people we share our lives with.

This list wants to be added to again and again and again. Literally, this is just a beginning. And nothing written here is new - quite the opposite. It's just a moment of noticing what people all over the world do in order to survive.

These ideas in and of themselves are not necessarily interdependent. But focusing here means creating the process out of which interdependence can arise.

Providing childcare for an event is just providing childcare for an event, but if you keep showing up and organizing other people to do the childcare, and then getting to know some of the parents and then giving your phone number to say, hey, call me when you need someone to help with the kids, and then when they call, you find a way to show up and then over time, your lives are in some way connected through a commitment you've made to those children, that is interdependence.

We can't get there by just thinking about it. We have to get there through practice:


By family, we don't just mean parents and children, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters. "Family" means the upclose circle of people we depend on. These are the people that you can call at 2am when there is suddenly a bat flying around your bedroom. They show up when it's hard, tell you you're being an asshole when you are and still love you even when you get defensive.

Once you claim someone as "family," you enter the interesting realm of choice-no choice. Meaning, even as we can choose who we name as "family," part of being in a family means showing up even when you don't feel like it. This is something that interdependence needs - there have to be some moments when we are willing to show up because that's part of the unspoken contract. We show up for each other.

It's another reason why "family" is not a word to be taken lightly. It's a hard thing to have a group of 100 unconnected people all expecting you to show up when things are hard. This closest-in circle is vital. It can be made up of people you agree with about most things and people you disagree with; people you have long histories with and people you've just met.

Family, like all good growing things, needs to be fed and watered. There are a reason we have terms like "family vacation" and "family celebrations." Organize times when people get together just to get together. Be random and spontaneous and together. Learn from each other and surprise ourselves by asking for support when we didn't know we needed it.

Create rituals, whether it's quarterly potlucks or regular movie nights. Treat those rituals as though they are sacred, because they are. Show up. Bring food. Invite guests, people who are new to town, people who are sad. Stay late to clean up.


Organize a group of households to share cooking. Meaning, one day one household cooks for the other 2 or 5 or 10 households. Everyone gathers together to eat. Or everyone comes and picks up their food and then brings it home. Either way, you share the labor of cooking, have meals made for you and keep it cheap and home-made.

Get a group of people together to cook big pots of food once a month. Put that food up in your freezer or deliver it to people who could use it: people struggling, people with kids, people who just need something lovely to happen.

Have parties where you can and preserve together, call local farmers and going out together to glean leftover produce from their fields for local foodshelves, make a big pot of soup and take it with you when you go to some gathering or action or community meeting.


Have adult volunteers everyday, sometimes parents or guardians, sometimes friends and community members. If you don't do it on a daily basis with small children then do it for after school support, for school vacations, for summertime.

Sign up to be a part of the collective and make a commitment for a year or two years. Keep showing up. It doesn't matter if you don't have children yourself. The next time an action or a conference or a performance is happening, call and ask if you can provide childcare. Help to organize enough people to help with childcare. Make sure it isn't left out.


This is really just another word for neighborhood. It's the physical space you can walk or bike to, it's where you get your food from, it's where your poop goes when you flush the toilet, and it's all of the people and relationships attached to those things.

At its first level, interdependence means knowing your backyard. Who lives here and who doesn't? How is this backyard different at 6am, 12 noon, or 11 at night? Where does your poop go when you flush the toilet? Where does the water you drink come from? What isn't getting water because clean water is coming out of your faucet?

Is there anyone living nearby who can't leave the house? Do they ever get visitors? What about if the geography of your backyard stretches to just include your community as a whole - is anyone housebound? New babies, illness, or not enough money to go out? Who are they and what does it mean to you that they are there?

Instead of Neighborhood Watch, create Neighborhood Care programs: invite neighbors to be resource people for information and support on dealing with the police, on the public schools, on accessible healthcare nearby, on language translation, on community gardening, on being a safe house for youth, for queer people, for women. Support these resource people. Make sure they have time and food, that someone is walking their dog and that other people know who they are.


If you have land, any land, look at it and ask: how many people can this land support? This postage stamp of a yard, what can I grow here? And if I don't grow food, who might want to use this land to grow food? Do I really need this grass front yard that gets all of this great sun? How many people might want to join me in using this land to support us?

Sharing tools and resources

Go ahead, put out a call. Share a computer, hand tools, a supply of paper, transportation to and from work, work clothes, and your money. Create a community savings account and come up with guidelines together for how money is added or taken away.

Look at every resource you currently use to get yourself to and from work, to survive your work, and to take care of your life. Do you need to have all of them only for yourself? How many can be shared? You can share your bike, your car, your pick-up truck for when people move.

You can have a collective yard sale every year and either split up what you earn or use it to buy something that everyone can use together or just give it away. You can share dress up clothes or work clothes or steel toed boots, those things that cost a lot and maybe don't get much use.

Organize a cash or food or clothes drive for someone who is struggling and then don't just drop off what you raised, keep stopping by with gossip and news and a copy of the local paper.

Celebration and Spirit

Then what is left? There is that whole unexplainable part of ourselves that contains the dance of our hormones, our DNA, and the constantly possibility of change and of glory. This is that magic place where we aren't just talking about community or even feeling community, we are community.

Our Mutual Survival

A lot of people are already doing all of this and more. They call it just being alive. Sadly, though, when we do things that we call "movement building" or "social justice work," it is often completely separate from these practical things. Instead, it's too often about ideas and analyses, about strategies and plans, not about the most practical part of how we live.

Our mutual survival depends on building movement and building community that is rooted in interdependence rather than profit. There is nothing easy about this. When our lives are more closely entwined, then your bad moods and good moods, your struggles and your joys, will affect all of mine.

Sometimes, even within interdependent communities, we are lonely. Our own personal work on ourselves, our egos, our beliefs about each other and our historical pain is a big part of doing this work. How we show up for each other includes how we recognize and hold the struggles we carry inside.

Privatization doesn't work. Our lives aren't private. They are bound up with each other in small and large ways. We know how to pretend this isn't the case, to hide within our privilege or rage within our struggle. Now let's practice something different. Together.

"If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mind, then let us work together."

This is what interdependence and liberation are all about!

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