A few months ago, I watched Professor Joy James (Williams College, Massachusetts) talk to students at Brown University about recent abolitionist history.
How we’re shaped by our environments
As Prof. James explains, wealth, power, and violence flow through both society and social activism. The system shapes those who aim to change it and not only those who benefit from it: we’re all part of our environment, not apart from it.
Sara N. Ahmed has described this a little differently. On the Feminist Killjoys blog, Ahmed analyzes diversity and complaint initiatives in universities like the one that’s been in the news again this year for bungling sexual harassment cases.
Wittingly and unwittingly, Ahmed writes, institutions can undo activism in the very process of responding to it. Procedures, investigations, reports, and policies changed out of view of or without consultation with staff who'll have to abide by the changes—all these are ways that, as Ahmed puts it, “techniques used to redress inequalities can be used by those who benefit from inequalities.”
How, then, does anything ever change? If both activists and activism can reinforce the structures we aim to shift, and if we are also shaped by the realities we hope to transform, how can we secure longstanding change—not only in terms of just ideas becoming part of culture but also in the concrete ways we can experience justice every day?
What makes good change stick
In Prof. James’ account, things don’t change merely because some people with resources choose to donate some of them. Nor do things necessarily change because people who’ve been marginalized move into positions of power.
As the saying goes, “When the axe came into the forest, the trees said, ‘The handle is one of us.'” So simply changing decisionmakers’ social categories without inquiring about their politics, vision, and goals—that doesn’t work. We already have a couple of Supreme Court Justices to prove it.
But things can change for the better when groups of people take hold of a long-term vision for collective well-being; as they and lean into building it out together over time; as they adapt it across the plots of their common lives; as they both practice and hand down that vision and wisdom over generations.
That’s where Prof. James starts talking about blueprints.
Blueprints for social change
“The material conditions are going to be changed by people who actually have blueprints.” —Prof. Joy James
Social change blueprints: Communal designs for the practices of living, loving, working, and being in a given time, in a given space, with a given set of people. I think, though Prof. James doesn’t quite clarify in the session I watched, these designs are partly about ideologies and organizing frameworks and partly about habits and behavior.
In new construction, blueprints are a signal that architects and owners will put struts and concrete where wide-open used to be. Renovations mean moving in a different direction than previous plans implied, and committing to new space plans, or a new configuration of resources, or both.
And in both new construction and renovation, somebody at some point—architect? building manager?—has to take into account the needs of those they expect to occupy the new building. If they don’t, no one will ever know whether the blueprints were sound, and the space will never meet its potential.
Sure, it’s an analogy, and Prof. James has also used the more current metaphors of social algorithms or recipes. There’s something useful about the intentionality and process common to designing and coding: plotting out what you hope to create with others and then persisting with the next right step, and the next, and the next, until you look up and you’ve made a robot dog. (I do believe Boston Dynamics are the Cyberdyne Systems of our time.)
At the beginning of this week, James Greig wrote that as individuals we have to seize whatever agency we have in this world. I’m glad I read his essay on mental health before Russia invaded Ukraine—but it also bears rereading on this side of things.
This is an absolutely beautiful world. And it’s also a world that tempts us all toward denial, fatalism, and magical thinking. When I look at how many crises are unfolding at once—across the US, in the Amazon, in Hawaii, in Ukraine, in the Caribbean—it seems like each successive fortnight exposes a new layer of dreadful realities and none of the previous layers have resolved yet. Simply paying attention can feel overwhelming. We’re about to begin the third pandemic year this spring. The last few years have been wild.
Yet I don’t feel I should diminish or dismiss any of that in the name of being positive or sharing hope. I don’t even think I can achieve positivity, generativity, or faithfulness unless I first acknowledge truth. Greig and I have that in common.
“There must be a way of recognizing that, yes, the world really is this bad, without excusing ourselves of individual responsibility to change it, and to strive for a fulfilling life.” —James Greig
And I define “fulfilling life” as encompassing more than my individual experience. I hope my teams at work and in the organizations I serve will find ways to balance the scale of truth and vision: assessing this moment fairly and faithfully, not stoking delusion, and not ceding our creativity or imagination—no matter how attractive checking out into the abyss or la-la land might be.
Toward the end of the session at Brown, Prof. James lays it out:
“Everything is in its own way dissolving. And a blueprint would have to be able to figure out and stabilize and plant something and grow community and take care of people without [inflicting harm that’s been inflicted on us].
“Your minds are brilliant. Get a task that is worthy of your mind. And your heart.” —Prof. Joy James
A task that’s worthy of our minds and our hearts.
What more could we ask for?
Watch The Architects of Abolition (1:45:57).
5 Things I’ve been reading, watching, or listening to
As I say, there’s a lot going on right now. But check these out:
Chase Strangio and Kelly Hayes: “Trans youth are facing right-wing atacks and a solidarity shortage,” Movement Memos (February 2022)
Adrian Ivakhiv: “Pandemic politics: on disaster capitalism, socialism, and environmentalism,” immanence: ecoculture, geophilosophy, mediapolitics | University of Vermont (March 2020)
Ernest Owens: “The Rise and Rupture of Campaign Zero,” NYMag (January 2022)
J. Khadijah Abdurahman: “Holding to Account: Safiya Umoja Noble and Meredith Whittaker on Duties of Care and Resistance to Big Tech,” Logic (December 2021)
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: “The Fight for Reparations Cannot Ignore Climate Change,” Boston Review (Jan 2022)
A word from Hend: