Thinking about Solidarity
If you have come to help me, don't waste your time, but if your wellbeing and liberation are bound up with mine, let us work together.
Wisdom of Aboriginal Activists of Queensland
Deep Personal Change for Deep Social Change
If what holds the possibility of an alternative future for our community is our capacity to fully come into being as a citizen, then we have to talk about this word citizen. Our definition here is that a citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. That whole can be a city block, a community, a nation, the earth. A citizen is one who produces the future someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future.
Community: The Structure of Belonging
We, Faithful Fools, often ask ourselves, "For what?"
* For what purpose do we do this work?
* For what purpose do we seek personal growth?
One response to that question is "For deep social change." When we see suffering rooted in poverty and injustice, we know change is necessary. But how do we make the needed changes? How do we know what to do? We begin our work knowing that before we begin, we will first have to change ourselves as we seek justice for our community, our city, our nation, the earth.
And we do not stop there. The internal work is only the beginning and it is never finished. There is a constant interaction between personal growth and social change. Neither one can happen without the other.
Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom. Solidarity is horizontal.
the other person.
Theater of the Oppressed Workshop June 2016
Solidarity is a Way of Thinking
For solidarity . . . is able to comprehend a multitude conceptually, not only the multitude of a class or a nation or a people, but eventually all mankind. But this solidarity, though it may be aroused by suffering, is not guided by it, and it comprehends the strong and the rich no less than the weak and the poor.
Hannah Arendt, like Peter Block, teaches us that the change we seek isn't confined to personal change. If we practice solidarity, it is both a way of thinking and a form for action.
In thought, it means moving away from a focus on individual suffering, even if compassion and empathy for individual suffering are what motivated us in the beginning. Compassion and empathy tell us we must be engaged, but they cannot tell us what to do. When we respond to individual suffering, we are acting out of a sense of charity--that the other person "needs" our help. And that is when we listen to the aboriginal people of Queensland. We hear them say don't waste your time if you can't imagine a multitude, if you are not committed to the whole. Solidarity is the ability not only to imagine individual experience but the experience of the many--the 'multitude' as Arendt says. It is the horizontal commitment of the one for the whole, as Eduardo Galeano says.
That is how we become citizens. We see ourselves as part of a whole--a neighborhood, a city, even the whole of humanity.
Evie, Jackie, and Sam discuss the pandemic, spring 2020
Conventional approaches to impoverished neighborhoods and those who live there are thoroughly paternalistic. The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.
Death and Life of
Great American Cities
The Difference between Solidarity and Paternalism
But pity, in contrast to solidarity, does not look upon both fortune and misfortune, the strong and the weak, with an equal eye; without the presence of misfortune, pity could not exist, and it therefore has just as much vested interest in the existence of the unhappy as thirst for power has a vested interest in the existence of the weak.
Solidarity as Fools
See it from Street Level
If paternalism is a preference for superficial solutions to complex problems, solidarity is comfortable with complex and ambiguous solutions. As soon as multiple points of view are included in decision-making processes, things slow down and get complicated. Multiple points of view bring deeper insights, and deeper insights lead to meaningful solutions and real change.
Paternalism is central to hierarchical power structures. It is the belief that some ways of knowing are superior, that an individual making decisions is more efficient than collective decision making, and that certain classes of people are inherently more capable.
Paternalism favors pity and charity over systemic change because they keep power structures in tact. So very often people will say that in acts of charity, they are able to understand the blessings of their own lives. This is an important insight, and it should lead them to ask, "And why is this so?"
If one is moved by solidarity, the question becomes, "What has to change in my life and the larger society so that no one has to live in poverty?"
Paternalism answers, "There will always be poverty and I must take care of those who are poor."
Solidarity says, "How is my wellbeing bound up with yours? What can we do to improve our mutual wellbeing? Let us work together."
Two Practices illuminate Solidarity
Our mission statement says, "We seek to meet people where they are through the Arts, Education, Advocacy, and Accompaniment."
Accompaniment is the practice of engaged empathy. At one time or another, we all need support. Sometimes it's going to a doctor's appointment. Sometimes it's the long process of getting housing. It can also be trying to shift a difficult relationship, getting married or getting a divorce, both can be difficult. When we companion one another through these experiences as equals, we both learn and grow.
Advocacy is the work of addressing policy and practices that impact the community. We engage advocacy through learning and working together, in community. We have engaged housing equity, access to medical care, and voter mobilization through our advocacy work.
How we experience and understand solidarity is informed by both of these practices. Accompaniment, relationships with unique individuals with unique talents and needs, helps us understand how our wellbeing is bound up together with the people around us. Walking into an SRO (single room occupancy hotel), 8 x 6 with no windows, is instructive. How many middle income people would be willing to live the rest of their lives in such a room? How content would we be sharing a bathroom and kitchen with dozens of other people? If we picture ourselves living in such a space, we understand much better the content of our advocacy for adequate housing.
Likewise, when we are faced the imperfections of policy-makers and institutional structures, we can ferret out the invisible but powerful forces of human limitations. Rather than condemn those failings, we work person-by-person and policy-by-policy to find new ways to approach the problem, recognizing our own failings as we seek change.
Human needs, shared through our practice of accompaniment, and human limitations, discovered through advocacy, teach us how we are bound up together. As Hannah Arendt says, it is through solidarity that we strive to comprehend the strong and rich no less than the weak and poor. Our wellbeing is as bound up with the humanity of those making decisions as it is with those whose voices are silenced as policy is made.