Does Activism = Not Being Happy? And other concerns.

When I first started going to Valley & Mountain, it was like fireworks went off. I literally went home beaming. I had just made sandwiches in the cool community-hub Collaboratory with a whole bunch of folks I never would have met or spoken to if I hadn’t walked into church (I mean Celebration, they call it Celebration) that afternoon.

I felt like I had finally found my place. It’s cliche, but I had never felt that way about a church before and bam! It happened. It wasn’t like fireworks, actually. It was more like sliding into the seat of a roller coaster and clicking in the bar. It just felt like it fit.

A few weeks later, I was sitting in a plastic orange chair inside the Collaboratory, gazing at the brick walls and listening to a local leader talk about her role as a community servant. She was inspiring and confident. I felt like I could feel her confidence beaming over to my seat. The way she stood tall made me want to stand up taller; her fancy brooch made me want to dress better. She was an activist, but she had total control over her story. She told it clearly and she told it well. This was her thing–she could do it without notes.

After the leader spoke, we split into three groups, like we usually do during the service. I had been planning to go write found poems with my friend Jaime but the speaker was so interesting that I decided to go into a small group discussion with her. We filed out the glass doors from the main room (the “Mixing Chamber”) and into the back room, where there are lots of long tables and chairs and more exposed brick.

Five or six of us gathered around a wood-topped table on rolling plastic chairs and the leader leaned against the wall, holding court in the corner. We could ask whatever we wanted. Another member of the church, Ulysses, who is mild-mannered but passionate, a thin guy who is always doing something to protest or organize, asked what would become of the speaker’s field, which he saw as aging. How were they going to get more young people?

The speaker said, “We need to bring our children to the table.” She meant bring them to the discussions about protests and activism and organizing. “Young people don’t have anything to lose.” They don’t have families and jobs to take care of. She mentioned Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s father. “He was a great activist,” she said, “but he had a lot to lose.” So MLK Jr. was the one who led protests and became a hero.

To answer Ulysses’s question, the speaker reiterated, “Bring our children to the table.” “There’s so much of this,” she said, miming playing a game on a hand-held device, flicking her thumbs. “When I was a kid, we didn’t know what was going on. Imagine how little our kids know now.

I was like…huh?

First of all, anything that smacks of “the kids these days” is a pet peeve of mine. Literally every single generation has complained about the kids these days. It is documented in countless bitchy, ineffective newspaper columns. Do not talk to me about the kids these days.  If you are talking with some kids and explaining to them why you think their way of doing things is wrong, by all means, continue (though I doubt that is the most effective tactic). But if you are talking to a crowd of adults about “the kids these days,” you are not trying to actually change anything. You are trying to get an Amen.

Second of all, activism, to this leader, meant losing a lot, or at least putting it at risk. Your family, your home, your job, your quality of life. I am into all the things that activists care about: equal rights, higher wages, better jobs, better training, better education, more opportunities, radical change, a new system. Does that mean I have to be willing to sacrifice children to get there? Dear Lord, I hope not.

So I left church that afternoon feeling disappointed. I walked back along the sidewalk from Hillman City to Columbia City, past the telephone poles with flyers for a bar’s karaoke night and a survey for women who sell sex stapled to them. I felt kind of empty. This was what I’d been worried about before I joined–that everyone there would be a super-serious hippie, and I would have nothing to talk to them about. There was so much to change in our community–more karaoke, less selling sex, for one thing–and I thought that by joining Valley & Mountain, I would be a part of changing it. But maybe I had to do more. I didn’t know what that meant: protesting all the time, sending angry letters in, making phone calls, writing bills?

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The problem is I care about nice things: I like living in a house with my family. I like spending time doing things like making quilts and decorating my office (and hiking up by Mount Rainier with my friends Mike and Lindsay). I don’t want to pour all of my energy into changing the system. But at the same time, I feel bad that I’m not doing more to change the way things are in my community. The biggest way I’m changing it is by being part of the new wave of young white people who have bought affordable houses in the area, pushing out the mostly lower-income black people. Gentrification.

I walked back down the alley to our house, into the nice little courtyard where the neighbors put up a sign if the kids are playing on their bikes. My neighbors care about doing good things–they spend their time biking and playing with their kids, making dinner for each other. They cleaned up our weed yard before we moved in, when our house was still empty.

I don’t want to have a split personality again, where I feel like I’m living in two worlds. When I went to Restoration, the evangelical church, I felt as though I had to keep some of my interests on the down-low at church, and some of them on the down-low when I was with my friends. I couldn’t tell the nice folks at church that I had taken a shot after I talked to their visiting faith healer. I couldn’t tell my friends at the bar that night that I believed what the faith healer told me.

I turned all this over as I walked into the house–it was burning hot outside, and I was sweating by the time I got home. Andrew was getting ready to grill us some food on our brand-new grill (which is ridiculously large). I poured myself a glass of wine. Maybe wanting and caring about having a nice home could be a good thing. Maybe it gave me something to relate to other people about. I’ve always found activists–real, hardcore activists–to be kind of detached, as if they’re so busy fixing everything, they don’t have time to enjoy anything. As if enjoying anything is time away from fixing other things.

I don’t actually have answers to these questions: what my role in Valley & Mountain is, if I should try to be more of an activist, if the leader was right that the most important thing we can do is educate our children about the problems with the world. But I have made a conscious effort to not try to hide how I feel about all of these things from anyone. We should talk more about how best to change the world–what else could activism look like? Does it have to be lots and lots of time away from your family and the people you care about? And more about gentrification–how can we make places safer, prettier, and richer, without losing the people who already live there?

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1 Comment

  1. Alicia,

    Its a tricky thing finding a balance and place in this world. I just say live life your way. I been around a couple hardcore activist and I too have wondered what they have sacrificed along the way (love) perhaps, and well are they happy? I love being an activist, I find myself empowered by helping others, but I remind myself that I have to find a happy medium, and remember to always be kind to myself. Ask yourself, what works for me? How do I help? In what way am I affecting change? is it through my writting? It is what it is, and life is too short not to live life to the fullest with joy and love in your heart. Tomorrow is sufficient in itself, just live in the moment.

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