Break Away Blog | Read + Act Weekly

Five Years in a Movement, Hundreds of Years in the Making

A couple of weeks ago, our staff attended a lecture at the Carter Center by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, author of When They Call You a Terrorist. Patrisse’s book was released in January, five years after she co-founded the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

We thought we’d share some of the highlights from Patrisse’s conversation with NPR’s Rose Scott (but don’t just take it from us, listen to a snippet for yourself!):

On a movement: A movement isn’t something that is simply declared, it is something that is felt, by many. Its success isn’t always linear - there will be some wins, along with many setbacks. To try and determine impact solely by progress undercuts the soul of the vision. According to Patrisse, the success of a movement is determined by the energy surrounding it. The start of #BlackLivesMatter was both raw and entirely necessary - inciting action and raising widespread awareness of realities that had been present for hundreds of years.

On being a disruptor: In the work of justice, being a disruptor is something to be applauded. To disrupt “business as usual” means interrupting the norm - to question narratives, and subsequent systems, that affect individual people and entire communities. (For example, the disproportionate incarceration rates of black and brown people.) Questioning the status quo means having courageous conversations that increase awareness - paving the way for change.

On prioritizing the people around you: Not unfamiliar to us, Patrisse spoke to the need for prioritizing each other. Sitting on the stage, she attributed her success to being mentored and invested in at the age of 16 by another organizer. What it took (and what it takes) for so many of us, is to have someone see our potential, to experience someone taking the time to support us in our growth and development, and to participate in building a reciprocal relationship.

Patrisse Kahn-Cullors reminded us of the influence storytelling can have: using experiences as power to unite people around a vision. Black lives matter. Our society recognizing that is imperative. In order to feel compelled to act, we need to feel the urgency of this movement.

In some of her final words - Patrisse left the group with a critical reminder to keep asking ourselves, what am I doing for the team around me? And so - how are we, as active citizens, expanding our understanding of the people on our team and what are we doing, every day, for them?

The Difference Between a Firecracker and a Pilot Light

Firecrackers go off in a flash, then leave nothing but ashes. I prefer a pilot light - the flame is nothing flashy, but once it is lit, it doesn't go out. It burns steadily, and it burns forever.” - John Lewis

Many of us spend a notable amount of time anticipating a fresh start: January 1st - 365 days of second chances; a new semester - inviting us to do what we manage to continually put off; our birthday - another year to work on self-progress and growth; Monday - a fresh week to push toward our goals. The construction of a “fresh start” spurs motivation - the external drive to do better, to be better - to take advantage of a new opportunity and hit the ground running. But how long does the sprint last?

We all know the sprint isn’t sustainable - especially when the journey is ongoing or long-lasting. A burst of energy is fleeting, and the urgent motivation eventually deteriorates - leaving stagnant once-venerated goals.

To consider commitments-to-that-fresh-start from another perspective: determination is the “firm or fixed intention to achieve a desired end”. This definition (thanks, Merriam Webster!) implies that purpose will transcend any fleeting sense of motivation. Determination necessitates a mindset of staying committed to building a new habit, reaching a visionary goal, or working toward social change - even when success fluctuates.

To put this notion into action, consider: Are you part of a committed team working to develop a strategic plan that compels members to achieve it? Are you able to keep a vision in mind even though the road toward justice can be circuitous and full of dead ends? When the motivation inevitably dwindles, return to the reasons you’re looking for that fresh start and continue onward.

A Commitment to Inward

A common draw to immersive experiences is to get outside of ourselves - to encounter a different culture, build new relationships, seek the discomfort in which we often find growth. In alternative breaks, we witness the recurring pattern of finding disruption in the world we thought we fully understood. Thereafter, we’re tasked with unearthing new meaning - essentially relearning what we once thought was true.

There’s a catch here: after we experience disruption, it’s dangerous to think our newfound understanding is static. Essentially, if we’ve managed to learn something that has dismantled our previous version of the “truth”, there will likely be something more to learn that challenges our thinking again. For example - at some point, we realize assigned sex has no correlation to a child’s favorite color. We may have felt enlightened when we realized that girls aren’t obligated to like pink just as boys don’t have to like blue, but if we’re not willing to continually be critical of our understanding of gender and gender identity - to push beyond that first new understanding - we’re missing the mark. In a changing world, the (sometimes frustrating) reality is that we never - and will never- be all-knowing.

As much as we ache to look outward and soak up everything around us, the real work is inward - a constant deconstruction of ourselves and what we think we know is essential. The desire for a disruptive experience - like alternative breaks - must be paired with a lifelong commitment to self-evaluation and critique (affectionately known as cultural humility). Without it, what we find while looking outward creates no lasting change because it wasn’t internalized.

As you get closer to spring break, consider: how are you preparing yourself and the participants on each trip to look inward rather than out? In what ways are you educating yourself to challenge your own perceptions of the world, rather than waiting for an interaction or story to disrupt them?

Do We Need Safe or Brave Spaces?

An often daunting aspect of navigating the world of higher education and social justice is attempting to keep up with the ever-changing terminology. We’re committed to the work of being constant learners (and unlearners) - recognizing social justice is a process and goal. But as we work to maintain pace with changing structures and semantics, we must remain both critical and thoughtful in our follow through.

In recent years, we’ve seen the intentional shift within student and academic affairs to advocate for creating brave spaces over safe spaces. There is an arguable difference, considering the implications of each term:

  • A safe space is ideally one that doesn’t incite judgment based on identity or experience - where the expression of both can exist and be affirmed without fear of repercussion and without the pressure to educate. While learning may occur in these spaces, the ultimate goal is to provide support.
  • A brave space encourages dialogue. Recognizing difference and holding each person accountable to do the work of sharing experiences and coming to new understandings - a feat that’s often hard, and typically uncomfortable.

We’d be remiss to simply hear the new term brave space and throw the old one out like a mistake we’d like to quickly forget. The reality is: they’re different spaces, providing different outcomes. And on alternative breaks, we should be balancing both.

Expecting people to only expose their identity and face what may be traumatic for the sake of their own progress (and more often, the progress of others) is unfair, and a poor practice. But on the flipside - for an authentic and impactful experience - there’s a level of discomfort and vulnerability that is necessary. Here, the facilitator plays an important role: to 1) preemptively consider the experience of all participants, and 2) understand how to create both safe and brave spaces to validate and challenge one another.

With that in mind, recall the last time you were in a space where you felt both supported and challenged - where you were both teaching and learning? What did it take to create that experience and how can you do it (or do it better) for others?