Have you ever been part of a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NextDoor, or Yahoo Groups argument? They happen all the time. What might begin as a simply a post about a new stop sign or city council meeting will, 200 comments later, have gone down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theory and Civil War apologetics, or worse. Some people find these arguments hilarious (to watch), some find them thrilling (to engage), some (most, maybe) find them simply annoying. But among social-justice types and armchair conservatives alike, they’ve become something of a sport in the social media/political arena. It can feel good to score a good slam dunk on a racist uncle or a neoliberal classmate, but I would content that this type of anonymous, digital character assassination is not The Work we are called to as community organizers.
Let me be clear. I love the internet. I love social media. I love my phone. I work as a youth pastor and if I didn’t see the worth in digital community, I’d have to disown the lived experiences of my teenagers. But what exactly do you or I think we’re doing when we fight online? Do we think we’ll change somebody’s mind? Do we hope that other people will notice how smart or woke we are? Are we using the engagement to reason out our own convictions in the public sphere? Or are we trying to instill shame in the other person (in the hopes that they will back down, rethink their stance, or to simply make ourselves feel better)? More often than not, both sides of an internet fight come away feeling bad and clinging onto their original opinion.
Heaven forbid the engagement that we seek to cultivate as community organizers ever leave both parties feeling bad and clinging onto their original opinion. What a waste of time! Community organizing, at its best, would accomplish close to the opposite we hope, leaving people feeling engaged and connected and impacted by one another’s experiences. It might feel more sexy and fun (or rather, simply, powerful) to slam dunk on our less woke friends and family members and neighbors and stranger, but does it do what organizing hopes to accomplish? Does it build relationships? Does it respect the dignity of all people? Does it soften us to one another’s experiences? Does it strategically build power and organize us around a common cause? Or is it more often than not a flash-in-the-pan moment of ego satisfaction?
Organizing, at its best, draws the best out of everyone involved, even those we disagree with. A slam dunk is cheap. Taking the time to build trust and relationship with those with whom we agree and disagree is costly, but it’s crucial. Our work is agitation, not assassination. As organizers (or religious leaders, or community leaders, or non-profit workers), we must let go of the idea that we have to prove our worth to one another. My faith tells me that my worth and your worth and everybody else’s worth is established and irrevocable. You have only to show me that you recognize my worth and I, yours. So don’t do the easy thing, do the hard work. (And go schedule your one-on-ones.)
Ethan Lowery is completing the 2nd and final year of his Field Education with Genesis. You can read more about him here.