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Etiquette for Activists

Why do so many attempts to build coalitions across race and culture result in hurt and division? These seasoned activists offer tips on what makes the difference between success and disaster.

Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of 50 Years is Enough. Photo by Langelle/Global Justice Ecology Project
Njoki Njoroge Njehu, director of 50 Years is Enough.
Photo by Langelle/Global Justice Ecology Project

As a teenager, Kenyan national Njoki Njoroge Njehû thought good intentions were enough to work across racial lines and national borders. She thought wrong—and discovered why.

While attending the 1985 UN Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi, her first international experience, she heard Australian aboriginal artist Lilla Watson say: “If you have come to help me, I don't need your help. But if you have come because your liberation is tied to mine, come let us work together.” Those words changed Njehû.

Today, like Njehû, activists are discovering that it takes more than good intentions when it comes to cross-border work. Here are some of the lessons activists say make the difference between effective coalitions and disintegration.

  1. Believe in the possibility

    Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Hate-Free Zone of Washington, was terrified the night before the Justice For All hearings (see YES! Fall 2003), when immigrants were to testify about experiences with post 9-11 discrimination. “How will they know that anything will get better?” she asked. “How am I so sure that the pain they will undergo is worth it?”

    It was. Hundreds of immigrants showed up for the hearings to either testify or lend support. Major media networks took notice. Senator Edward Kennedy and other policy-makers listened.

    “We've been told to fight for ourselves,” Jayapal says. “But you have to believe that the power is in the collective. You have to believe in the possibility that things will get better when we come together.”
  2. Address individual issues

    Many of the immigrants Jayapal works with are skeptical about working with other groups. They want to know if working with a coalition will diminish their ethnicity or their unique issues.

    Build trust by working with them separately, says Jayapal, who was born in India and grew up in South Asia. The Hate-Free Zone of Washington operates a hotline to address individual—not systemic—issues. “You can't take away systemic political advocacy,” she says. “You can't take away the direct support, either.”
  3. Don't impose your norms

    Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an indigenous Ibaloi from the Philippines and executive director of the Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education (www.tebtebba.org), says racist and discriminatory attitudes often divide Northern and Southern activists.

    Tauli-Corpuz cites foreign activists who visit the Philippines for solidarity work. Some, she says, become impatient if processes are not fast or efficient enough by their standards. They impose their own standards, which do not fit the norms and concept of time and space of the communities they visit.

    For example: “Those from the South, especially Asia, have a different way of dealing with a difficult person,” she says. The more direct approach of those from the North can be offensive to Southerners.
  4. Provide interpreters

    English may be the language most often used for international gatherings, says Tauli-Corpuz, but not all English concepts translate well into languages used by indigenous people. Even if they do, translation takes time away from meaningful conversations.

    Portable translation machines can save time, allowing more conversations to take place, she says. “A pool of interpreters who have an understanding of indigenous cultures and contexts has to be expanded. Donors must be convinced that the budget for interpretation is crucial.”
  5. Take time to understand each other

    Roberto Vargas remembers the time when, during a retreat of activists, a person of color related his experience with racism. A white participant interrupted to say, “I already know what your realities are all about.”

    They don't, says Vargas, a Chicano and principal consultant of the New World Associates. “We should maintain the freshness of learning the uniqueness of each person, allowing each to teach us their culture and experiences with racism,” he says.

    To a Chicano, this is called conocimiento—sharing oneself, asking questions of each other that range from Where are you from?, Who are your family? and What is your cultural background? to What is your experience with racism? and What do you expect or need from me to be an ally?
  6. Learn to forgive and forget

    Vargas, who experienced racism as a child up to the time he taught at the University of Berkeley, remembers a time when he was consumed with anger. His brother confronted him, saying, “Roberto, I've always looked up to you, but now I can't listen to you anymore because you're too full of hate.”

    Anger to motivate your activism only takes you so far, says Vargas. “We need to learn to forgive and let go. We need to recognize that we need to work together.”
  7. Ask permission

    “No matter how insignificant or how huge the matter, people need to ask permission and not just assume,” says Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nations Canadian. For example, he says permission is needed to take pictures or to chant during sacred ceremonies just as it is needed to exploit indigenous land and resources. Thomas-Muller says asking permission may sound basic but it builds relationships. Most problems occur because others forget—or refuse—to do so.
  8. Step back

    Asking permission, Thomas-Muller adds, relates to stepping back to allow indigenous people to speak for themselves and lead the movement. “We speak for ourselves,” he says, repeating the slogan of the Indigenous Environmental Network, where he is a campaign project organizer.

    The thought that indigenous people will selfishly enjoy the land and its resources is unfounded. So is the thought that they fear modernization.

    Thomas-Muller cites the Gwich'in Nation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Despite threats from the government, they continue to live around the Porcupine Caribou herd with their sacred rituals and practices intact—and with Internet connection.

    “We do have an understanding about how to take care of ourselves,” he says. “We are not wanting to go back to the tepee. We are also evolving like the rest of Mother Earth.”
  9. Not all groups can work together

    Tanya Dawkins, senior vice-president of the Collins Center for Public Policy (www.collinscenter.org), says different approaches to change can make it difficult or impossible for some groups to work together. The parameters of the relationship must be defined clearly, Dawkins says.

    A natural attrition will occur, when some find that the joint work is not what they are looking for. “This is okay as long as the attrition is not because of the process,” she says, “not because they felt isolated.”
  10. Don't forget gender, class issues

    Dawkins says gender and class issues are often neglected even within the movement. These issues do not automatically resolve themselves when activists of the same movement begin to work together.

    “It's quite the contrary,” she says. As with any endeavor, gender and class issues need to be dealt with consciously in building coalitions.
  11. Don't do diversity for its own sake

    Njoki Njoroge Njehû agrees. She cautions, though, against diversifying for the sake of diversification.

    “If you are a woman of color, you fill in many diversities,” she says. “If you are there to fit a certain demographic, it feels different and people will treat you differently. You are not there as an equal. You are there because of what you look like.”
  12. Pass on the privilege

    Njehû has come a long way since hearing Lilla Watson in 1985. Today, she is director of 50 Years Is Enough, a coalition that challenges IMF and World Bank policies. She is widely interviewed and quoted by international and U.S. broadcast and print media. Yet, she believes in allowing others the limelight.

    “We have the privileged access to the media,” she says. The New Voice on Globalization, a project Njehû is involved in, works to make sure that grassroots activists also have opportunities to be spokespersons.
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