By Zach Herman
The Creating Change Conference was a whirlwind of experiences that tested the limits of my mental, intellectual, emotional, and physical stamina. My gratitude for the experience is deep and foundational. I got to experience heated protests and hear radical voices, all within spaces that were created to empower those whose lives are constantly being silenced. I watched and participated in spaces of powerful healing and community building, and existed in a flowing, swarming mass of intense and hyper-focused production and discourse.
I walked away from the conference exhausted, energized, and reflective. My reflection focused on two primary concepts, both of which reinforced what I have been learning during my residency. These two concepts were:
- Social justice work is often based in underlying financial privilege; and
- The conversation can no longer be about who is or is not at the table; the discussion must be expanded to address the question, “Who built the table that people are being invited to?”
“Social Justice has become a word of privilege, spoken and used by those with privilege. It’s hard to fight injustice when it will cost you your income, or when you are working to put food on your table” said an undergraduate student intern on the difficulties of participating in social justice work outside of college.
They continued on to say: “Social justice work is for those that are privileged. The CDE paid me to do social justice work, very little, but pay none the less. It’s very easy to work for social justice, but not when it conflicts with your ability to meet the cost of living”.
When I first read that quote, I was shocked out of my pretty bubble of social justice privilege. Though I do not agree with the student’s thoughts entirely (the black lives matter movement was formed out of poverty and often times grassroots work is done with little to no money), the conference was a stunning example of how quickly social justice work can become a world isolated in economic privilege.
The conference was hosted at a hotel that was so far out of my price range that I wouldn’t have been able to stay there without financial support. While it was a “fair hotel,” meaning that they paid their workers a living wage, this was hard to remember as I sat in workshops with mirrored walls and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The hotel was located in the heart of downtown Chicago, across the street from Millennial Park and spitting distance from Lake Michigan. It was neighbors to skyscrapers with art deco facades and personal security. Walking up and down Michigan Ave., I saw expensive shops selling clothing that would cost me a month’s rent and restaurants that could easily cost $100 for just one person’s meal.
The entrance to the hotel had doormen and the doors were plated in bronze. My morning tea, essentially a cup of hot water, cost over $4. These types of extravagances reminded me daily that the conference was hosted in a space designed and built for the owning and professional classes.
Before registering for the conference, I calculated the cost of my attendance and found that in total it would cost me $1,500 to attend the event. The conference registration fee was on a sliding scale, but even at full price, it was by far the cheapest part of the trip. Making only $26,000 a year, had my employer not paid for the registration, flight, and hotel, attending Creating Change would have drained my meager savings account in less than a week. I doubt I will be able to return anytime soon.
“Inviting me to the table is not enough, justice is about giving me space to build that table too. I don’t want you to save me; I want the power to save myself”. – Heard at Creating Change 2016
The most powerful workshops I attended were centered on quotes like the one above. The first workshop was titled Master’s Tools, Master’s House. The workshop focused on turning the ideas in Audre Lorde’s famous quote into action and practice.
“Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support”. – Audre Lorde (http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf)
This workshop could have lasted the whole day and I would have still left with more questions than answers. I left the workshop asking myself, “What are the Master’s tools?” As oppressed communities gain power, they often take on and continue the practices of their oppressors. This workshop helped me to see and understand how the tools used by so many “powerful and successful” grassroots movements and non-profits working to fight oppression, such as HRC and The Victory Institute, have gained their power by using the tools of the oppressors.
HRC and The Victory Institute are two massive, and by all current popular standards, powerful and successful organizations that actively silence people with Trans*, queer, young, poor, and non-white identities. Their silencing is done in a way similar to how gays and lesbians were oppressed in earlier epochs of the movement. Many of the tools we use for revolution and reform are in fact, the tools used by the masters to build and maintain the master’s house.
In the afternoon, I attended a break out session titled Real Talk about Race. This session was filled with heated discussion that was often fueled by, and resulted in, anger and hurt. In the workshop, a white male director of a non-profit fighting HIV/AIDS stood up and spoke about how he was working to expand the work of his non-profit into communities of color. He shared a story of when he asked his friend, the one black person on his board, how they could include more POC in the work of the organization. The workshop attendees responded to his story with pain, anger, and frustration. He was speaking from a place of privilege and unintentionally perpetuating tokenism. He was practicing white savior style justice, and the room was not having it. The response that struck me hardest was from an older black gentlemen, who said:
“I do not want to be called to your table; your table was built into a power structure and with a power structure that holds me down. I will not sit, and should not have to sit, at any table that I did not help build. Inviting me to the table is not enough, justice is about giving me space to build that table too. I don’t want you to save me; I want the power to save myself.”
Stopping to notice who is not represented at the table is no longer enough. Justice requires people of privilege to stop and deeply examine their places and spaces. To ask themselves and each other, not only who is at the table, but who built the table. When deconstructing the master’s house to build a table for everyone to sit at, the tools of white privilege or the tools only used by white people are not sufficient.
I am forever grateful for my experiences at Creating Change. It accelerated my energy for social justice work. I met amazing people and was able to witness and be present in a space where people who were pushed to the margins and denied space to speak spoke, lived fully, were heard, and had the power to take up space.