Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: Care first, correct later

Published: 11/19/2018 1:55:16 PM

I recently attended a workshop called “Change Happens at the Speed of Trust,” led by trainer Jade Barker. In her description of the workshop, Jade wrote, “We strive to bring positive change to the world, but sometimes our organizations feel anything but positive. Some people joke that social movements on the left have perfected the ‘circular firing squad.’ But does it have to be this way?”

I was drawn to the workshop because of my observation that progressive groups hold meetings and gatherings that can be hard to endure. I have witnessed hyper-criticism, holier-than-thou attitudes, excessive mansplaining and womansplaining, and shaming. I have talked to activists who say they are afraid to open their mouths in some progressive settings for fear of being over-corrected, embarrassed or directly targeted because of their “insensitivity.”

Progressive groups, social change movements and the resistance all have a lot of work to do in the coming years. We are trying to cling to our democracy as it is being shredded daily, and we are working to promote decency, inclusion and compassion.

We have just won back the House and should be busy making strategies for moving forward shoulder-to-shoulder to make the world we envision a reality. But the “circular firing squad” is real, and some activists are retreating from their movement work because they made a minor transgression and were blamed, shamed and bruised.

In a recent radio broadcast, a commentator said that the political right holds respectful, focused, efficient and pleasant meetings and then is brutal towards the rest of the world. Whereas the left holds brutal, angry and alienating meetings and preaches love and justice towards the rest of the world. This feels accurate.

Ask progressive activists about their experiences in planning groups, anti-racism and equity workshops, cross-race and cross-class dialogue sessions, and even nonprofit board meetings: The stories of being isolated, scolded and humiliated will flow quickly and easily. With each incident in which someone is treated in this way, we lose ground. People withdraw when they are hurt, often deciding that the struggle is not worth the pain.

All this is articulated in an article by Frances Lee titled “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” in YES! magazine. Lee, who identifies as a queer, Chinese-American trans-activist, states, “We are alienating each other with unrestrained callouts and unchecked self-righteousness.” Lee says that “callout culture, the quest for purity and privilege theory taken to extremes” are at the root of the problem. Lee states bluntly, “After witnessing countless people be ruthlessly torn apart in community for their mistakes and missteps, I started to fear my own comrades.”

Lee suggests that progressive activists spend some time reflecting on the question: “What might an ethics of activism look like?” In this frank and sometimes jarring article, Lee offers these guideposts: knowing when to be hard and when to be soft; adopting a politics of imperfection and responsibility; tapping into our shared humanity.

I have read Lee’s fine article over and over again because I find it helpful and comforting. Having been shouted at in a meeting, sworn at in front of an entire group, criticized painfully and unjustly on social media, and sent condescending email messages, I too am feeling tender and bruised. Lee’s piece reminds me that I am not alone.

Progressive activists have hard and important work to do over the next two years, and beyond. We need a shared vision, we need to engage in powerful collaborative work, we need to trust each other. And we need to not turn on each other.

Do some people in our circles need educating sometimes, correcting and even redirecting?

Sure. But this can be done with an open heart, a compassionate tone and a desire to keep working together. We need to recognize that winning small battles when we attack each other does nothing to move our agenda forward.

So much is at stake. At 67, having been an activist since my college days when radicalized during the movement to stop the Vietnam War, I know we are living through an extremely challenging time filled with divisions, violence, an assault on science and facts and a twisted sense of right and wrong.

Those of us holding a vision that includes equity, care of the earth, the love and safety of children, honoring elders, health care for all, common sense gun laws, dismantling racism, welcoming immigrants, LGBTQ civil rights and civil liberties, and solidarity with Muslims and Jews, must lay down the weapons of our harsh and critical words, listen deeply, and care first … correct later.

Van Jones, CNN commentator and progressive voice for change, told a group of students in Chicago that he is not interested in them creating “safe spaces.” There are no safe spaces. Because the world is such a profoundly dangerous place, we are all in trouble. “I don’t want you to be safe,” Jones told them, “I want you to be strong.”

I’m with Van Jones. I want progressive activists to be strong. Strong enough to stop attacking each other. Strong enough to call in, rather than call out. Strong enough to not always be right. Strong enough to be humble. Strong enough to be gentle. Strong enough to win.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, is part of the ministerial team of the Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership, which offers free movement-building classes from Greenfield to Springfield. She writes a monthly column on the intersection of faith, culture and politics, and can be reached at

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