How the words we use create the world we are building

Supremacy is about invalidating the humanity of anyone it deems “other.” Supremacy gets enacted in many forms, in many ways, but it is ultimately about categorizing who is worthy of resources. Labels help create and enforce the categories.Words matter to supremacy because as my IG crush James-Olivia Chu Hillman writes,

“Supremacy thrives on contempt in all of its expressions — in our performances of goodness, as well as our apathies and active cruelties.”

And so, during this time of pandemic and uprising, I have been paying a lot of attention to the words being used in our social good sector, from international NGOs’ #BlackLivesMatter statements to how we create more accountability within our organizations.

Words matter because they are our scaffolding of how we make sense of the world around us. Once I started listening for what is beneath the lexicon available to describe social impact within the English language, it was undeniable to me how it has evolved alongside colonizing forces — just like our charity and nonprofit sector. Beyond saviorism, it’s the language that represents the harshness of assuming we know what’s right for someone else (what Chu Hillman refers to as “relational f#$%ery”). With a focus on upholding “the rules,” the words used serve to disconnect us from ourselves and each other. It’s a continuum, you see. It’s a lineage of meaning to interrogate:

It’s subtle stuff. It’s the stuff that people can easily dismiss as something to which only poets like me pay attention. But right now, we are being called to uproot any tendencies towards policing that exist inside of us as individuals, and as organizations. People in our sector are doing this so that we can trust those facing the challenges, those closest to the issues, those who’ve been shut out — recognizing how that harm has impacted them and ensuring it no longer continues.

Ultimately for me, the words we use can communicate in a way that prioritizes relating to each other in service of liberation. Without this attention, it’s very easy to default to punishing or shaming or disposing of each other with our words, which are also used as tools of domination, manipulation, and oppression.

In our sector, and especially in advocacy or organizing work, we are in the business of influencing each other every day. This influence can be rooted in care and caring, or in resource accumulation and power consolidation. When we root communications in care, this feeds us. When I have to “convince the other”, this burns me out, and frankly in my experience, doesn’t transform anything.

So how do I, as a cis white woman, use words that reset damaging cultural notions of what “helping” even is?

As you read the following two lists of words, pay close attention to how they make you feel:

List #1

Achieve
Plan
Perform
Scale-up
Reform
React
Fix
Solve
Certainty
Aspire
Manage
Win
Blame
Mercy

List #2

Align
Attentive
Curiosity
Expand
Devote
Respond
Together
Ease
Balance
Wholeness
Practice
Purpose
Steadfast
Trust

For me, List #1 side brings up being constricted, anxious, helpless. List #2 offers acceptance, patience, possibility. The first list reveals a desire for control. The second offers a desire for belonging.

When I look at the words we use, I am exploring the very basic underpinnings of how we perceive the act of “helping” and how this impedes building accountability and solidarity. I examine the words because I want my life’s work and writing to contribute to building narratives from a space of thriving communities — led by grassroots leaders as the innovators, thought leaders, and currents of change on all continents. Rather than “us” helping “them”, what if we can share with each other what it means to build, repair, lose, mourn, and then organize again in new powerful ways? What if the words we use could open our consciousness from a reactive “do something” to a responsive “learn and share something” approach?

Consider this. As a marker of good character, helpfulness is celebrated in my culture. In the U.S. mainstream, “do good’ers” remain almost universally venerated. Helpfulness was also expected (in gendered ways) in my family of origin, descendents of German settler farmers. From a tender age, most want to help our caregivers. We learn that please the authority gains approval, affection, and favor.

“Put away your toys.” “Get dressed.” “Do your homework.”

From that point on, we learn to “help” in hierarchical, often rigid or strict, and rarely accountable ways. It shows up in our language, but more importantly in our partnership practices. Think about it: How many of the hours you have available to use for the greater good each day are spent and shaped by the need of those with more authority, resources, or positional power to monitor or oversee your work or the work of others?

With my beloved co-conspirators, I want to fully imagine and share a new way of being with each other in this sector, so that people of privileged backgrounds can be freed from old notions of helping, enabling us to lay down policing our partners or colleagues, and fully “show up” for other people around the world in solidarity.

And so that is why I’m going offline in August. It’s time to clear, focus, listen, heal, integrate, balance and just…notice, away from the false immediacy of the news cycle and social media, and returning to the natural rhythms of life.

I invite you to do the same, and please stay tuned for what’s coming in September when we celebrate 10 years of how-matters.org!

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My conflicted relationship to “expertise”

The only way to fight racism in our sector

Time to get uncomfortable

Welcome to the uncertainty

It’s about time

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Where we get crazy effective

(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Poet, writer, coach, and communications strategist. #globaldev #grassroots #philanthropy