(This is my last entry in a series of reflections on the Midwest Social Forum Teach-In, which took place March 27-30 in Camp Lake, Wisconsin)
“When I dare to be powerful—to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether or not I am afraid.” -Audre Lorde
I spend a lot of time being afraid. I am afraid I am not going to be able to pay my bills. I am afraid that I am not going to figure out what it is that I was put on this planet to do. I am afraid that my faults outweigh my worth. I am afraid that the abuse that I survived has damaged me beyond repair. I am afraid that the hurt I have done while lashing out from my own pain is unredeemable. I am afraid of my own power and strength because I am afraid that I am not worthy of that either.
It is moments like those that took place this weekend at the Midwest Social Forum Teach In, where the opportunity to live the famous Audre Lorde quotation is possible. It doesn't matter if I am afraid, if, in spite of my fear, I dare to hold my power in my hands and use it towards the end of justice and liberation. During the entire event this weekend, fear based thoughts were front and center in my mind. Am I prepared enough? Has my work thus far legitimated me standing in front of this room? Are the people in this room getting what they need out of this? Am I making sense? Do I sound stupid? All of these thoughts, consciously went through my mind at one time or another, which means that at all times they were running in an unending powerful undercurrent on repeat in my subconscious. But, ultimately, none of that mattered because I continued to show up.
As I have spoken to folks that were at the event and those that were not at the event, I have come to an understanding of what being a part of the teach in meant to me. For me the benefit did not come from sitting in a workshop. The richness of the experience came from being able to learn as I taught, and to confront the fear of my own inadequacy by being forced to acknowledge my own failures and successes in the context of personal, political, and collective growth towards a vision of justice where inadequate is a term never applied to a living being. It was about looking at the work I have done since my first environmental justice campaign 20 years ago, as a ten year old in the fifth grade at Longfellow School of the Arts, where five children learned about the damage caused to the ozone layer by styro-foam and decided to launch a campaign in South Minneapolis against McDonald's use of styro-foam hamburger containers. It was about acknowledging that this year, as I turn 31, I also celebrate 16 years of continuous organizing and justice work, starting as a youth organizer and now as an organizer around blowing apart our idea of democracy and working for true democratic practice in this country...and...to use another of Audre Lorde's concepts...create new tools that the master has never touched and has no power to resist.
The work that we do as social just organizers is damaging. We, who are the front lines of various segments of the movement for liberation, are constantly taking psychic, emotional, and physical wounds from foes and allies alike. We hear messages aimed at de-constructing our sense of self worth. We are attacked for our beliefs and ideas. We are physically assaulted for living out loud and being who we were meant to be. And, despite our best efforts, some of these wounds sink deep beneath the surface where they continue to bleed and lock into a cycle of self-inflicted pain. But, when we come together, be it across the dinner table or at a formal gathering, there we have the alchemical ingredients necessary to help each other be powerful and in doing so, in being powerful publicly, moving beyond shame and fear, we are able to bring some of our wounds to the surface and have them lanced in the heat and light of our own spiritual and communal glory.
Audre Lorde passed away five years before I would have been in a place and space where I could have touched her physically. But, spiritually, through her writings and through associations with her friends Mandy Carter, Barbara Smith, Suzanne Pharr, and others, I am able to see and touch and feel the essence of who she was and benefit from the work she did and the gifts she left as she moved on to her next great journey. I look forward, years from now, to meeting her on that great shining road and thanking her for being a guardian angel to those of us for whom she prepared a way to live with our fear and still stretch our arms wide and embrace the power that is our inheritance.