Mar 1, 2015 - Strategies for Healing Our Movements by Jihan R. Gearon


Since the beginning of the year I’ve found myself in many spaces with awesome organizers. From Navajo organizers working to protect their lands and communities, to national organizers working to support and finance a just transition from the extractive economy (aka capitalism), particularly in the communities that have borne the negative brunt of that economy. Despite being at various scales and stages of development I see very similar and more importantly, very profound needs towards the success of our movements. For lack of a better word, our movements need healing.

The organization I work for, Black Mesa Water Coalition (BMWC), recently finished a year-long strategic planning process. As tedious as strategic planning can feel at times, it was very helpful, especially in pulling our attention back to this need for healing as a necessary step in self-empowerment. An important outcome of this process is three updated goals. The first of these is to heal and redefine our world by reaffirming our power – rooted in our Indigenous teaching of hozho – to ensure respectful, self-determined and engaged communities that will achieve long-term self sufficiency absent all forms of oppression. So healing has been on my mind a lot. I’ve been thinking about and actively working on my own healing (more on that another time). BMWC has been thinking about ways we can encourage healing in our communities. And with these gatherings, I’ve thought about what we can do to heal our movements.

For those of you unfamiliar with the practice of developing “agreements” at the start of meetings, it’s important because it establishes the expectations we hold for each other in the group. For example, the “step up, step back” agreement means those who are usually very shy agree to speak up and actively participate more than they are used to. And those who are usually very outspoken agree to sit back and listen more. Lately I’ve been suggesting a new one: “bitch and pitch.” The general sentiment is that we all have things to bitch about and it’s okay to do so, as long as you’re willing to pitch and brainstorm a solution. This was my way of addressing my/our tendency to hold everything in until it festers and/or explodes, most often in a way that burns bridges and fosters resentment. Other people have offered other ways to say it. Whine and refine. Vent and reinvent. I like that last one.

One way I think we can healthily vent is to address the underlying tensions we ignore and assumptions we make. For example, “local vs. national” seems to be a framing that always puts people on edge. Relatedly, on our “local” level there’s the tension between “grassroots and grasstops” made tenser because of the fast paced onslaught of extractive development. I think this indicates an underlying tension about how to prioritize strategies with limited capacity and funding. Simply put, national organizers organize at the national level. Local organizers organize at the local level. And there are of course other levels in between. All are needed and necessary and valid. How do we also ensure all are equally valued and resourced, especially when the broader movement has an underlying assumption that bigger is better, and quantity is more effective than quality? What does it mean for local level organizing that their efforts to educate their community to make informed decisions is less flashy than 400,000 person marches? Simultaneously, what does it mean for local level organizing when large amounts of people aren’t organized to stop national level policies that would trickle down to local communities’ detriment?

A closer to home example of an underlying tension and assumption that needs to be addressed is evident in the current state of the Navajo Nation Presidential elections. The obvious and oversimplified tension is between those who believe the Navajo Nation President should be required to speak the Navajo language fluently, and those who do not. However, I would argue that the tension is actually much deeper than that – what does it mean to be Navajo? And by extension, what beliefs and qualities must the Navajo Nation President reflect and represent? Should the President be fluent in Navajo? What is fluent? Who decides? We’ve been falsely assuming that we all have the same definition of Navajo-ness. The truth is we are a diverse people: urban and rural; speakers and non-speakers at various fluencies; with various spiritual practices including traditional, NAC, Christian, Mormon, and Catholic. There are many different ways to be Navajo today. And how do we come together in spite of those differences for the betterment of our people, and the protection, preservation and propagation of our language and culture?

These are just two examples of the underlying tensions we’re ignoring and assumptions we’re making, to our own injury. The point is there are important discussions we need to have in order to build and sustain successful movements. How do we determine the correct balance? Back to venting and reinventing…in most of the spaces I’ve been in lately, I’ve observed and participated in a fair share of justified bitching, whining, and venting. At moments it left me feeling emotionally exhausted and at least a little confused, but now I understand that it was needed. The venting gives us the simultaneous opportunity and challenge to reinvent ourselves and our circumstances.

So let’s get started venting and make sure to do it in a healthy way. That would mean investing in more people knowing how to facilitate, encourage healthy conversations, and make peace at various levels. It would mean learning how to debate in a way that allows us to move forward rather than get us stuck. It would mean prioritizing time to purely get to know one another. Lastly, it would mean addressing these vent-able issues, unspoken tensions, and untrue assumptions in the structures of the institutions we’re building and/or upholding. I’m sure it means many more things. I know I’m not the first person to realize or say that our communities and movements need healing. I’m certainly not an expert in how to do it. I’ve simply recommitted myself to it and challenged myself to think about strategies to meet this need. I believe healing work is hard, but also very much worth doing. The end result being grounded, aligned, respectful and impactful people, communities, and movements.

BMWC’s other two goals are: 2) to restore and maintain our relationship with Mother Earth as a sacred being, ensuring our communities make and implement decisions that protect her regenerative ability to provide for the well being of all creation; and 3) to transition away from an extractive economy to a culturally-based, ecologically restorative economy that is determined, controlled, and managed by local communities and which ensures all families are healthy and vibrant.

Jihan R. Gearon is the Executive Director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition

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