Columnist The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian: Make inclusion, not exclusion, the norm

  • Smith College professor Loretta Ross recently led a workshop, “Calling In the Call Out Culture,” for the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

Published: 2/19/2021 1:47:15 PM

It is sobering, alarming, reassuring and gratifying that, as I anticipate turning 70 this year, I recognize that I have been active in social change movements for five decades. Over the course of those many years, I have led or participated in literally thousands of workshops aimed at promoting peace, equity, justice and environmental sustainability.

I recently attended a truly outstanding workshop, “Calling In the Call Out Culture,” led by Professor Loretta Ross. It was one of the 50 virtual workshops during the spring semester of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

Ross describes herself as an activist, public intellectual and professor — that order is intentional and specific. An activist since the 1970s and a public intellectual who speaks, trains, consults and lectures widely, Ross is the author of several books and is a professor at Smith College.

Moving at a fast clip throughout her riveting two-hour workshop, Professor Ross used every nanosecond to teach, guide, redirect, strategize and model how activists can defuse the highly-charged “call out” and “cancel” culture of recrimination that has arisen in many progressive circles.

This quote from Toni Morrison, shared at the start of the workshop, set the tone for all that followed: “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom.”

Throughout the workshop, we were encouraged to hold the pain of this beautiful but broken world while not succumbing to words and actions that cause harm and create ill will. That is a tough balance to create and maintain, and we are lucky to have Ross as a courageous guide.

I found it helpful that Ross took the time to define some terms for us. “Calling out” is public demand for others to change their behaviors, speech, or thoughts; “calling on” is suggesting that others become better people without investing in their growth; “calling in” is developing the skills to have difficult dialogues with others while respecting their human rights and differences.

Ross challenged us to interrupt the “circular firing squad” too prevalent in progressive groups — an environment in which activists turn on one another with stinging criticism, dismissive comments and patronizing tones. She invited us to consider the difference between “punching up” (holding people accountable who have more clout and privilege); “punching down” (taking advantage of your own power and status to harm people who are vulnerable and cannot hold you accountable); and “punching sideways” (taking shots at those at the same status as you to gain some superior standing).

Although I went into the workshop believing that calling out was never acceptable, Ross said calling out is a strategy that can be used effectively if done carefully: to hold human rights violators accountable; to set higher standards for words, behaviors and actions; to articulate what needs improvement or elimination; and to go beyond ineffective legal remedies for the cessation of harm.

Ross asked us to consider the concentric circles that make up our individual spheres of influence to determine where and when we can reach out to those with whom we may disagree. She stressed the importance of extending a hand, finding common ground, and listening more than talking.

I was moved by her insisting that progressive activists should not overstate the harm of the situation, avoid overdramatizing the consequences of someone’s behavior, take the suffering of others deeply to heart, and refrain from weaponizing knowledge or language. All this was eye-opening, and profoundly helpful!

We were reminded of the poignant quote by Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

It is not often these days that we hear a movement leader advise activists to create a culture of accountability through “radical love.” Taking us through the steps of creating a “call in culture,” Ross stressed the need to understand that our processes are as important as our outcomes, and that self-reflection and self-correction are both necessary aspects of movement-building. The message was clear: make inclusion, not exclusion, the norm.

I learned about “cancel culture,” which has been both baffling and upsetting to me. Ross articulated how activists often rush to presume the guilt of others rather than their innocence, as well as the tendency to compete for power and disguise one’s own shortcomings. Shaming and “ousting as punishment” do not move a progressive agenda forward and do not advance the causes of peace and social justice.

Movement building is based on relationship building. Ross repeatedly invited us to call in whenever possible and to “lengthen our fuse cords.” Her explanation of “radical love” was coupled with a deep sharing about the power of forgiveness and the importance of simple and effective conflict resolution skills. I was especially affected by the ways she reinforced and expanded on the value of deep listening, explaining it as “loving listening.”

I find myself remembering the response news commentator, author, and lawyer Van Jones gave to a group of students who asked him to comment on their efforts to create a “safe space” for sensitive cross-race conversations on campus. “I don’t want you to be safe,” Jones told them. “I want you to be brave.”

Professor Ross helped us to be clearer, braver, and kinder while also being fierce about our values and principles.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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