Reflections on Feelings of Urgency
Aparna can often be heard reminding those around her "there is no fire, slow it down."
It's hard to know when it comes to anti-oppression work what needs to be treated as a fire, and what needs to be slowed down to do the deep reflection and the relationship building required to ensure mistakes aren't made, and so that responses and actions don't feel tokenistic.
There are two perspectives we've been reflecting on. On one hand, it is clear that the pace of change has been too slow when it comes to anti-oppression. Nearly 60 years ago in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail criticizing the lack of urgency and action in the fight for Civil Rights:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
At the same time, Tema Okun, in White Supremacy Culture, explains that it is problematic to "[apply] the urgency of racial and social justice to our every day lives in ways that perpetuate power imbalance and disregard for our need to breathe and pause and reflect." According to Okun, some of the reasons why a constant sense of urgency is problematic because it
makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think and act long-term, and/or to consider consequences of whatever action we take;
frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of BIPOC people and communities in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community);
reinforces existing power hierarchies that use the sense of urgency to control decision-making in the name of expediency;
sacrifices and erases the potential of other modes of knowing and wisdom that require more time (embodied, intuitive, spiritual);
makes it harder for us to distinguish what is really urgent from what feels urgent; after a while everything takes on the same sense of urgency, leading to mental, physical, intellectual, and spiritual burnout and exhaustion;
As we were talking through these ideas at a recent meeting and reflecting on what issues deserve an urgent response and what issues need a measured response, a few themes seemed to emerge for us.
First, by treating everything like a fire it's hard to really dedicate our energies towards causes that could drive change.
Second, it's important to have people around us who encourage us to take time to reflect. If something doesn't feel right, it's important to take the time to figure out why and to have time and space to be vulnerable.
Third, no matter how urgent the issue, people matter. It's important to take the time to build relationships and not escalate a situation.
The school where Lindsay works has been developing a protocol for how to deal with bias-incidents and has been using ADL's Guide for Responding to Bias Incidents in Middle and High Schools as a guide. One thing that became apparent in developing the protocol was how easy it is to escalate situations because of a sense of urgency. If a bias incident happens, it's easy to feel like you're fighting a fire. ADL lays out the steps for responding to bias incidents with a framework they call P.E.A.C.E. which stand for Prevent and Prepare, Encourage Reporting, Act Quickly and Respond, Communicate, Educate and Heal.
This approach balances both the urgency needed by responding immediately, the slowing down needed to lay the groundwork to encourage students to report incidents, and the healing and education that should follow. That way, when an incident happens, you feel prepared and can help to ensure that firefighting (which has the potential to turn into a disproportionate systemic response) won't be the first course of action.