Collaboration is the antidote to despair

Posted on December 7, 2016 by Luz Vega-Marquis

In the wake of this hope-sapping election season, it is all too easy to imagine a starkly divided future for this nation. But to accept that vision– tempting as it may be at this dark and draining moment–would be to give in to the exhaustion of despair.

In the voices of the community activists and organizers I have spoken with in the days since the November 8 election, exhaustion, remarkably, has not been the dominant tone. Self-interest, or self-protection, is not the prevailing sentiment. Instead, I hear a renewed commitment to working together–across boundaries of race, region, ethnicity and issue–that leaves me, paradoxically, more optimistic than I have been in some time.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, as in the tension-filled months leading up to it, I have seen organizers from the communities most vulnerable to the rhetoric of survival of the fittest reaching out rather than hunkering down. I have heard a new generation of organizers pledge to protect not only their own communities but also one another’s. In their voices, I sense a powerful new spirit emerging; a shared vision of a more inclusive America.

The conviction that lasting change is driven not solely by top-down electoral politics but by grassroots movement building and collective action is a core value here at the Marguerite Casey Foundation (MCF). As the head of a foundation that has dedicated itself for the past 15 years to sparking and supporting a movement of families explicitly committed to working across boundaries, I see in this inclusive spirit an important window for moving that movement forward.
In May of this year, just six months before the election, a small group of young people gathered at MCF’s Seattle offices to contemplate and plan for their collective future. I draw on the hopeful energy and of that four-day conversation as I contemplate how, together, we might make the most of the “crisis opportunity” the election represents.

Corleone Ham flew up from Long Beach, CA, where he helps run the Young Men’s Empowerment Program at Khmer Girls in Action and, in his spare time, battles educational disparities. Crystal Sahler represented the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which she joined after her mother’s sudden death left Crystal homeless herself at age 17. Alejandro Guizar Lozano came in from Tennessee, where a successful battle to halt his own threatened deportation led him to join the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition in the fight to halt the deportation of other young “DREAMers.”

All were past or current recipients of MCF’s Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award, which honors young activists for their vision, passion and dedication to improving the lives of families and communities. Each had been recognized for his or her personal accomplishments. Now, they were coming together to test a key principle of MCF’s movement-building strategy. Could they find what Lindsey Harris, co-executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition, called a “common purpose”—a sense that their various struggles were intertwined, and that any lasting solution must encompass all of them?

The group listened eagerly as each spoke of the issues that drove him or her, from a living wage and immigrant rights to school reform and ending youth homelessness. But the conversation truly took flight when they began to plan what they might do together.

Most said their activism was motivated initially by their own experience of injustice and inequality. But they all saw that personal experience as a point of entry, not an end in itself. The issues that touched them most personally inspired their work as activists, but did not define or limit their efforts. Just the opposite was true. The issues each worked on served as jumping-off points for larger conversations about justice and equity–and ultimately, they hoped, for collaborative actions meant to benefit all of their communities.

Jean imagined an exchange program that would allow young activists to learn from one another while experiencing daily life in different parts of the country. Cassie proposed a national network to end youth homelessness. Alejandro suggested starting with a skill-based convening for youth activists from various backgrounds, where they could “mingle outside our own fields and realize that everything is connected.”

When MCF made our founding commitment to cross-issue movement building, these young leaders were in grade school. Fifteen years later, their deep curiosity about one another’s lives, their instant understanding of their potential collective power, and their instinctive zeal to build cross-issue connections both personally and politically offered a living, breathing validation of the ideals for which we have fought since our inception.

“Let’s establish that connection,” proposed Shriver Youth Warrior Cesar Cruz, an advocate with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, “and then start on the work.”

These strike me as words to live by in divisive times. They characterize a new generation of change-makers inspired by, but not entrenched in, the issue-driven movements of past generations. These great movements—the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the farmworkers’ movement, the LGBTQ rights movement—created space for the aspirations of this new generation, but do not circumscribe them.

It is here, in the concertedly collective efforts of this new generation of political actors, that I find a consoling counterpoint to the zero-sum, us versus them, me-first spirit that has characterized so much of this hope-killing election season. In their shared commitment to an America that has space for each and all of us, I find an antidote to the exhaustion of despair.