Observations on Social Justice

One of my intentions for the new year was to regularly say “yes” to activities outside my normal scope–ones that challenge me, or make me feel uncomfortable, or force me to confront limitations I wish I did not have. I find this especially hard to do in the area of social justice. It’s easy for me to admit that I don’t know how to use a microscope or code in Python or count stars. It’s less easy for me to own up to shortcomings in my understanding of social issues.

But in those areas as in others, I cannot grow without first allowing that I have room to improve–so I’ve been sucking it up and asking for opportunities to learn more about things I feel sort of guilty for not already knowing about.

Last month, I was invited to attend an event on “Race, Art, and Being Black” that forced me to pry open my mind, take in some seriously abstract art, and listen to a conversation that was just beyond my comprehension. I found that I had to take it all in with the same level of non-judgmental acceptance required in foreign cultures. It was uber-intellectual and, ultimately, incredibly satisfying. One of the panelists read aloud from Alexander Weheliye’s Habeaus Viscusand I could almost feel my brain expanding.

This month, I chose to go on a Social Justice Fund site visit to WHEEL–a self-organized community of homeless and formerly homeless women. Their approach to this issue differs sharply from that of many who we partnered with for Hack to End Homelessness last year, and they currently find themselves lobbying against a legislative change proposed by one of those partners. With my voice exhausted from Superbowl screaming, all I could do was listen, and I am grateful for that forced choice. It was an honor to hear their stories and learn why they do things the way they do.

Krishnamurthi said, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” It was difficult, in both contexts, to simply listen without attempting to: a) synthesize what I was hearing immediately into my broader narratives about what’s happening in society, b) rise internally to defend my past self and the way she thought about things before hearing this information, c) react sympathetically in order to bridge the distance between myself and them, d) decide what I thought about what they were saying, or e) spring my brain into action to try to solve some piece of their problems. All of those reactions, while not inherently negative, are evaluations–in other words, judgments.

I can already feel that I am more easily able to turn those reactions off and simply observe. It is a powerful thing to listen that way. I found myself taking in all the invisible meta-data of the conversations–the power dynamics between speakers, the body language, their own reactions to what was said–much more seamlessly than if I were attempting to speak. I have been so busy recently with my own work and project that I almost forgot what that was like.

Observation is truly a practice. It is possible to fall out of habit, even when you have been trained to do it well. If nothing else, I am grateful for this opportunity to remember how to listen.

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