Building a Diverse Movement

From a baseline of 30 years’ experience in political activism, Starhawk shares her insights into the obstacles that keep our movement from being more diverse. She offers her perspective on how we can open up to more diversity.

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In nature, diversity means resilience. A prairie that has hundreds of different plants growing together can resist pests or respond to storms that would devastate a field of identical hybrid corn. In social movements, too, we need diversity in order to thrive.

After Seattle, one of the key articles that circulated widely on the Internet was a piece by Betita Martinez, a Chicana activist and author, entitled ‘Where Was the Colour in Seattle?’ She noted how the young activists were overwhelmingly white, and posed the question: ‘How can we can build a racially diverse and anti-racist movement?’

In many of the movements I’ve been in, from the antiwar groups of the sixties and seventies to the feminist movement and the antinuclear movement, this question has been a familiar one. Similar discussions were going on twenty or twenty-five years ago. What often astounds me is how little progress we’ve made in building racial diversity. Other differences have not continued to divide us so deeply. I remember agonizing conversations in, say, 1979 about whether straight women and lesbians could ever actually work together in the same organization. Today that’s not an issue in most of the groups I work with. Issues still arise of course, but they don’t prevent us from working together.

The global justice movement is not a ‘white’ movement — it’s a movement inspired and rooted among people of color around the world from the Zapatistas of Mexico to the insurrectionists of Bolivia who retook their water supply from privatization. From Africa to Fiji to Papua New Guinea to Thailand to India to the US, people of color have been in the forefront of the fight against global corporate capitalism, have faced torture, prison, and death, and have also joyfully pioneered new tactics and new forms of struggle. I have no doubt that stopping the WTO or challenging the IMF is absolutely in the interests of the majority of people of color on the planet, regardless of who does the challenging. But in North America, a large proportion of the direct action movement has been white, and the question of how to build diversity is one of the overriding challenges we face.

There are certain obvious answers and some suggested solutions. As white activists, we can look at our own unconscious racism, at our lack of not just outreach but of real attempts to bring people of color into the central organizing, at our history of not working on the issues that concern people of color and of not recognizing the leadership and organizations of people of color. While the most stunning successes of nonviolent direct action are found in liberation struggles of people of color, direct action poses higher risks for those who are already targets of the criminal injustice system — to face these risks, people need to be convinced that the issues involved are direct life issues. As white activists, we can educate ourselves on the history and contributions of people of color, and learn to become effective allies.

Interlocking Systems of Oppression

Racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all of the related systems of prejudice and oppression are, in reality, interlocking and intertwined. They reinforce and feed upon each other, and to end any one of them we have to address them all. All depend on isolating the individual, on convincing people that their pain is a result of personal failing rather than part of a larger structure of oppression directed at whole classes of people.

Racism is maintained in part by the deep sexual tensions created by a patriarchal construction of manhood. Manhood is identified with power, and that power is systematically taken away from black men, who are literally and symbolically castrated. These power dramas are enacted on the bodies of women. White men have been raping black women continuously for centuries as an aspect of slavery and a general economic and social oppression. Then that sexual violence is projected onto black men, who are feared and accused of raping white women. Racism can therefore not truly be undermined without confronting sexual oppression.

But sexual oppression also is reinforced by racism. Racism leaves the women of the target group doubly vulnerable to exploitation. It separates women from one another. And as soon as one group of women is defined as in need of protection from the sexual violence of some ‘other’ group of men, repression of all women is justified.

That patriarchal construction of manhood — the identification of male sexuality with violence, power-over, and the thrusting piercing weaponry of war — supports militarism.

Any one of these syndromes constricts us all; just as tying a tight band around one leg until it becomes gangrenous will affect one’s entire body. So opposing any and all of the ‘isms’ is a struggle that is in all of our interests if our goal is a world of true liberation for any of us.

The global corporate capitalist system, the latest manifestation of this interlocking system of oppression, is a race thing — it’s a continuation of the policies by which the mostly-white North has exploited the mostly-dark South for centuries. And the ‘lesser developed countries’ are that way precisely because of the history of exploitation and resource extraction that have subsidized the wealth of the industrialized world. ‘Global apartheid’ is another descriptive term for this system.

The global corporate capitalist system is also a sex thing — the aver-age worker in the maquiladoras and the factories of the Free Trade Zones is a sixteen-year-old woman. Women and children are the majority of the world’s poor. Women’s bodies are commodified in an international sex trade. Policies that impact health services, education, and the availability of life necessities such as food and water disproportionately affect women, who are the first to go hungry, the ones who walk the dusty roadsides for miles searching for water, the last to receive education.

Obstacles to Diversity

Pamela, a young African American woman in my affinity group, comes back from the Convergence Center at the A16 action in Washington, D.C., in distress. ‘It was weird,’ she says. ‘People wouldn’t look at me.’

Katrina, another African American woman, a longtime activist and organizer and a powerful healer, anchors our healing space in the Temporary Autonomous Zone in the midst of one of D.C.’s African American com-munities. ‘I had some great conversations with community people,’ she says. ‘But every time I got into a conversation, some young white activist would come up and try to get into the middle of it. Sometimes they made remarks that were so inappropriate that I was embarrassed.’

Even in groups that define themselves as anti-racist, that want to be welcoming to all people and to broaden their diversity, oppressive behavior still exists. The sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, etc. of the society we grow up in become embedded in our personalities. They lead us to respond to people who are different from us in ways that are often unconscious. They create blank spots where we literally cannot see our own behavior. Trying to examine and uproot those behaviors takes us out onto highly unstable emotional terrain, where shame, guilt, hatred, rage, and grief lie only shallowly buried.

In trying to confront that unawareness, people behave badly in fairly predictable ways. Some members of the privileged group — men, white people, heterosexuals, upper-class people — will not see the problem, deny it when confronted, invalidate the perceptions and feelings of the target group, grow defensive, get angry, make predictable excuses and bad jokes, blame the victim, make token efforts at reform, and find new ways to continue the old, offensive behavior. Some will also feel ashamed and guilty — so guilty you can barely stand to be around them — and go overboard trying to please, become wannabee target group members, adopt the hairstyles, slang, foods, and holidays of the target group, and snub other members of their own group while attempting to curry favor with the target group.

Some members of the target group in turn will become defensive, attack people who don’t deserve it, blame everything on the ism in question, refuse to see their own problematic behavior, take offense where none was intended, sulk, get quietly hurt and simply leave without confronting the issue, play the race/sex/class or whatever card, make self-righteous judgments, and feel entitled to insult members of the privileged group.

These behaviors often give rise to the following unhelpful syndromes:

The anguished ally syndrome

The person who is most devoted to being a good ally of oppressed people, who goes to the most antiracism workshops or most fanatically works on his or her own sexism, who reads, thinks, meditates, and lives and breathes support for the oppressed, is often the first person to say something offensive under the guise of being helpful. Excruciating self-consciousness mixed with guilt makes it impossible to simply act like a human being meeting another human being whose color, gender, and ancestry are important but not delimiting factors in the complexity of who that person is.

The language police

Part of changing the syndromes of domination is changing our language, learning new ways to think and speak about the issues. Some words need to be simply banished from the vocabulary of people of conscience, and many concepts and images need to be rethought. But often in groups, someone seems to be hovering like a praying mantis; rubbing their hands in anticipation of a mistake they can pounce on.

I was once criticized, for example, for speaking of the ‘victims’ of the Nazis — ‘victim’ being a word that disempowers people. However, since I was talking at the time about the dead victims of the concentration camps, the favored term ‘survivors’ didn’t actually apply.

The Language Police may be consciously or unconsciously trying to establish themselves as antiracist, but their efforts undermine the work of truly challenging oppression. A group in which people become reluctant to speak for fear of making some error in sensitivity becomes dreary and oppressive. Language can be challenged in ways that draw forth more crea-tivity instead of shutting people down: ‘I wonder how our thinking would change if we used different metaphors, metaphors other than darkness for evil and light for good?’ That way the focus can be kept on the larger goal of creating change.

Activist paralysis

Many white people concerned with diversity have realized that our responsi-bility is not necessarily to recruit people of color into mostly white groups, but to raise the consciousness of the white community.

Over the years, thousands of activists have gone through workshops on diversity, on unlearning racism, on challenging white supremacy. Many, in-cluding me, have gained incredibly valuable insights and new perspectives. But for a long time now, a disquieting observation has been whispered among trainers and organizers concerned with antiracism and diversity issues. The workshops, the consciousness raising, and the soul searching have not noticeably increased the racial diversity among many of the groups in question. What is worse, a certain percentage of the activists involved seem to come out paralyzed, unable to move forward in the work that they were doing.

In order to make space for the voices of women, people of color, working-class people, indigenous people, and people who have street wisdom rather than formal education, members of more privileged groups need to sometimes step back and shut up. It means not always assuming leadership, setting the group’s agenda, or determining its priorities. And if groups want to include people of colour and women, they need to include people at the level of leadership, not just as envelope stuffers or street troops.

But for some activists of conscience, these insights become a paralyzing inner dialogue: ‘If the issues that move us aren’t attracting people of colour, they must be the wrong issues. If our style of organizing isn’t attracting people of colour, we must be doing it wrong. We need to take leadership from people of colour. If they aren’t present to lead us, all we can do is figure out how to recruit them. If we go ahead and act, we’re cutting out the possibility that we could bring more people of colour into leadership.’

But a group that cannot set its own agenda, where people can’t work on the issues that call to them or organize in the style that they find most empowering because they are trying to fulfill some other group’s priorities, is not an empowering place to be.

The issues a group is moved to work on may not be the immediate priority for local communities of colour, but they may still be vitally important issues. Local communities may be overwhelmed by sheer survival and local struggles and may not have energy to put into struggles around global trade agreements or financial institutions. Organizers of colour may already be overwhelmed and not have time to attend new meetings or take on new issues.

But the global struggles are vitally important to people of all colours around the world, and to lay them aside would not be ultimately in the interests of any of the oppressed. We can frame local struggles in a global context and link global issues to the local campaigns that touch on immediate community needs. In fact, the local struggles reflect the impact of the global issues — they are neoliberal policy made manifest. Thus ‘privatization’ becomes the closing of a local hospital, a WTO ruling on gasoline additives becomes increased cancer and asthma rates in a low-income community.

Nurturing Diversity

The global justice movement has to be a diverse thing, if only because the one great advantage we have in the fight against the greatest conglomeration of political, economic, and military power ever amassed on the planet is our human creativity, and we certainly can’t afford to waste the talents andvision of any one of us, let alone of women, people of color, poor, and working people, who make up the vast majority of humans on the planet.

Understanding our recent history and the interconnections of the ‘isms’ can help us see how to move forward. We can nurture the diversity that already exists within our movements, and expand it by consciously deciding how we frame the issues, by expanding our learning, by doing our own deep work, by making our groups and actions welcoming, and by building alliances and coalitions.

Framing the issues

The global corporate capitalist system impacts us in many different ways. For the more privileged, this may happen through the diminishment of space for alternatives, for a true public culture, for a real depth of inquiry and creativity. Or it may happen through the diminishment of wilderness, ecological diversity, or environmental health, or through the lessening of possibilities for a full, vibrant life.

But for the less privileged, the system hits full in the face with guns, bombs, torture, and the prison systems that maintain the authorities’ control. Or it hits through starvation and disease. Environmental destruction may mean a literal loss of land through droughts or hurricanes or rising ocean levels, loss of a traditional seed source, a livelihood, a culture, and a heritage. The commandeering of resources may mean the destruction of ancient sacred lands and ways of life — in effect, genocide.

How we frame the issues affects who is inspired to work on them. The global justice movement needs to be loudly and clearly identified as anti-racist and anti-sexist. Or, to get out of the ‘anti, anti, anti’ syndrome, as a movement for economic, racial, and gender justice.

The global justice movement needs to draw the connections between economic hegemony and military hegemony. Indigenous peoples in their fights for sovereignty are in the forefront of the global justice struggle, and the movement in North America and in Europe needs to acknowledge their importance and be guided by their perspectives.

Expanding our learning

Oppressed groups necessarily learn a lot about the culture of the oppressors, otherwise they won’t survive. People of privilege do not need to learn about the cultures of the oppressed in order to function. But if we want to build bridges and broaden our connections, we do need to make a conscious effort to expand our perspectives, and doing so will give us more ground for understanding and communicating.

Doing our own deep work

Issues of race, gender, and identity involve our core selves. To really change our groups and our unconscious behavior means to examine the constructionof our selves in ways that go beyond political analysis and engage deeper powers of spirit and healing. Confronting our identity means coming to terms with our family — and all the pain and discomfort that may be present in our family history. It means looking at our own wounds and at the ways in which we have wounded others.

In fact, there is no one alive whose ancestry includes only Pure Victims or Noble Heroes of Resistance. Nor is there any group of Purely Evil Oppressors. Every one of us is born of both oppressors and oppressed. Facing those contradictions within ourselves, our families, our heritages is some of the beginning work we need to do to open up to more diversity in our communities.

In a Multicultural Ritual Group, we found that the most powerful tool we had for holding our own contradictions and bridging our differences was to simply sit and tell our personal stories. As a group, telling our stories helped us bond and know each other. Encouraging people to form small groups, to discuss not just race but their own real experiences of the economic and political realities, might move us beyond the barriers.

Making our political culture welcoming

I imagine a person of colour coming into a political action might feel some-thing of the following spectrum of emotions: Who are these people? Are they descendents of slave owners, land-grabbers, exploiters? Have they dealt with it? Are they safe to be around? Is there anyone like me here? Am I consorting with the enemy, betraying my own community? And can I make a difference here? Will I be listened to; will my viewpoint and experience be respected?

In fact, these are some of the very questions that may be brewing inside any newcomer in some form. We all come into a new group wondering: Who are these people? How do I know that I can trust them? Will they accept and understand my differences? Will I be welcome here? Will I be able to make a contribution?

If we want to build bridges across barriers of difference, if we want to show respect for others, there are some fairly simple, tried and true things that work: Look people in the eye. (Of course, in some cultures, this is an insult, so sharpen your sensitivity to body language cues and notice if you are causing discomfort.) Smile. Greet people and make them feel welcome. Pay attention to everyone in a group or a conversation, not just to those you identify as most important. Give everyone a chance to speak. Give respectful attention to every person’s ideas. Don’t interrupt. Don’t jump into other people’s conversations unless you’re invited. Sense other people’s personal boundaries, and respect them.

Katrina taught me a simple exercise that can also be helpful in changing our group culture: Think of a group that has more social power or privilege than you do. Close your eyes and imagine walking into a meeting full of those people. It’s on an issue that’s important to you, and you have a viewpoint that you vitally want to be heard. What would they have to do to make you feel welcome? Open your eyes. Write those things down and share them with the group. Now do them for everyone who comes to your group.

There are many things we can do to make our events more diversity-friendly. But the most important thing we can do is to really be a community willing to openly struggle with these issues. We don’t have to have answers, or achieve perfect political correctness. But we can clearly and visibly be asking the questions.

Building alliances and coalitions

To diversify our movement, we need to be good allies of a broad range of diverse groups and peoples. Many low-income groups are necessarily focused on the immediate local issues that most directly impact their lives. When groups focused on the global picture adopt and support these issues, we not only expand our base but also learn to address the real complexities of the global issues.

· Being a good ally means developing personal, not just political relationships. It means getting to know people in the fullness of who they are, going out for coffee or a beer, hanging Out, inviting people to dinner, not just to meetings.

· Being a good ally means raising the issue of diversity in groups that are not yet thinking about it, noticing who is included and who is not, challenging policies or practices that result in de facto exclusion.

· Being a good ally means sharing resources, media attention, opportunities to speak and be heard.

· Being a good ally means interrupting oppression, challenging racist or sexist remarks, not leaving it up to the target group to always be the ones to defend themselves.

· Being a good ally means offering support for the issues and concerns of others, without abandoning your own.


In the end, the diversity of our movement will be reflected not so much in who turns up for any given meeting, but in the web of alliances we can build.

When groups working on global justice issues are willing to bring their courage, commitment, and dedication to community struggles and can respect local leadership and issues, when white activists can do the hard work of self-education and transformation that leads to the sharing of power, when women activists and activists of color are willing to risk trust, we can begin to build those bridges that can cross barriers. When we identify the interlocking systems of oppression as our opponent, we can begin the work of true transformation that can liberate us all.

Starhawk is the author of ten books on Goddess religion, earth based spirituality and activism, including The Spiral Dance, The Fifth Sacred Thing, and her latest, The Earth Path (HarperSanFrancisco). She teaches permaculture design courses with a focus on earth-based spirituality, organizing and activism: Earth Activist Trainings. A committed activist for global justice and the environment, she travels globally teaching, lecturing and training.

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