Showing Up Respectfully: As Allies and Accomplices

“What we choose to emphasize will [at least in part] determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”
~ Howard Zinn

One of the most frustrating and difficult things about encountering injustice on a large scale is a feeling of helplessness. To counteract this overwhelming feeling, we often rush toward “helping” in some kind of immediate, tangible way. We want to “do something” to right the wrongs we see in the world. However, particularly when we are strangers to the community we hope to help, moving too quickly toward solutions can often do more harm than good. It can create apparent short-term success at the expense of long-term progress, perpetuate unequal systems of wealth and influence, or undermine local grassroots efforts.

Changing systematic problems requires more than good intentions. It requires that we listen carefully to the people within the community, and learn about the solutions they have already devised. It requires us to understand our relationship to the people we want to help, and to reflect on our own motivations and assumptions. And it requires us to care not only about the harm done to people far away, but to turn around and look at the needs back at home, often right in our own neighborhoods.

For those of us doing justice work in our communities on issues that impact us directly, it is important to remember how spiritual practice and self-care are fundamental; without these, we burn out and continue to internalize the oppression we are struggling against.

For those of us who wish to be more effective allies with communities at home, it is imperative that we continue to strengthen our self-awareness, and that we surface previously unconscious assumptions about the “right” way to go about making change, and the appropriate role we can play as allies to the people who are fighting for their liberation.

For all of us, justice work means taking risks, being willing to be wrong, and then to learn from our mistakes. It invites an open heart and mind as we encounter problems that are much larger than any one person can solve in a week or two. It urges us to sit with uncomfortable truths and questions that have no easy answers, to seek ways to work together without rushing toward judgment.

Perhaps most of all, to be effective activists for justice requires a long-term and sustained response, not over the course of weeks or months, but of years. We need to be willing to put our resources, hands, and hearts on the line to help create a more just and compassionate world.

In this unit we encourage you to:

  • Examine your own thoughts and experiences around “helping” someone from another culture or country.
  • Consider what it means to be in community across differences of ethnicity, culture, and wealth.
  • Listen to the responses of people who have been on the receiving end of help from the U.S.
  • Understand the approach that the UUCSJ takes toward our partner organizations and supporting their work.
  • Consider your justice work at home, and how this immersion-learning journey will influence the choices and decisions you make moving forward.

Opening Meditation
“Risk” by Lisa Colt

My teacher says,
You’ve got to stink first.
I tell her, I don’t have time to stink.
At 64 years old
I go directly to perfection
Or I go nowhere.
Perfection is nowhere,
She says, So stink.
Stink like a beginner,
Stink like decaying flesh,
Old blood,
Cold sweat.
She says,
I know a woman who’s eighty-six,
Last year she learned to dive.

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