Changing the World vs. Changing Ourselves
And why it's a totally false dichotomy
Every once in a while I see someone express something along the lines of “rest is the revolution” and then I scroll a little further and see another take that says “I don’t care about your little reading group, I care about if you’re really organizing people” and then another along the lines of, “change yourself and the world will change around you” and then another, and another, and another.
So today I want to talk broadly, and briefly, about how dualistic thinking is unhelpful and over simplified, and how we need to transcend and complicate it; and specifically and more at length about how the left should not think of inner and outer work (more on defining that momentarily) as oppositional, and not even as co-existing, but rather as mutually constitutive and reinforcing.
To begin with, we’re shown binary thinking all the time. The clearest example is of course the discourse around gender. In the current climate the right is hammering away at the idea of there only being two genders, ignoring the reality of trans and non-binary people’s experiences, and the related mountains of evidence of gender norms and expressions changing across time and place. But for those of us who view the possibilities of gender as more expansive, whether for ourselves or for others, it opens a gateway to thinking of other binaries as not so simple and straightforward. In academic circles, and maybe beyond, queer theory and queer studies talks about “queering” different areas of thoughts, which often looks like tearing down walls between disciplines, moving beyond dualistic thinking, and embracing the gray. And, thinking along these lines can help us break down all sorts of binaries that lead us to oversimplify complex and important topics in the social and political worlds we inhabit and seek to change. I know I’m running through a lot in just a little space here, but I hope that introduction serves to set the tone and the content, and now I’ll get into some examples.
The first scenario that might help ground this is a Buddhism class I took a year or two ago. Our professor was a long-practicing Buddhist, and we were focused mainly on meditation throughout the course. But the class was full of people interested in social justice, so questions related to political activism or organizing or simply events in the world would come up nearly every time we met. And although I have a lot of respect for this professor, the responses would sometimes feel inadequate to me. I’m aware that some of this was my perception and limited knowledge, but it often seemed as though his response was along the lines of either, “focus on your inner life, on cultivating change in yourself, and you’ll see the world start to change,” or, “that which you fight grows stronger, that which you let go of loses power.” And in the context of organizing against dangerous right wing forces these felt so inadequate to me. In fact, some of what he was saying felt like the sort of message that could turn some folks on the left away from spiritual or inner work. An approach that might tell folks the political work we do in the world (outer work in the context of this piece) is secondary to that inner emotional, spiritual, or intellectual work prioritizes the internal world can potentially be harmful, to me. At the least it feels insufficient to meet the current moment.
So I don’t blame people who shy away from schools of thought that tell us to focus our energies inward and avoid outward political conflict. There is a large and profitable industry of far more reductive and simplistic approaches than my professor (who unequivocally meant well) took that tell you in order to change the world you must simply focus your mind, or ask for what you want, or manifest your desires. Because of their vague counter-cultural aesthetic these hollow ideas sometimes pervade our circles. There are other, related, inner-work centric approaches, like some liberal anti-racist trainings for example, that say “the work” is all about challenging and transforming inner biases, without much mention of the material change needed in the world to meaningfully destroy white supremacy. My gut reaction to all of these schools of thought is to engage in a binary thought process that says these approaches are insufficient–that what we need to do is study and organize together. But the inner-work school of anti-racism in particular is instructive in that it’s a prime example of an approach that may be inadequate when taken alone, but when taken alongside organizing and action can be a crucial part of transforming people and society. In fact, that sort of work should be done simultaneously with concrete action in the world, and when we do that we find that inner-work makes us better at outer work with others, and that organizing and taking action in the world works to change us internally. In other words, these approaches are mutually constitutive, mutually reinforcing, working together in a positively reinforcing cycle. We need both, together.
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Just as it’s helpful for me to have some examples of how binary thinking can pervade so many areas of life, and how it can create a false dichotomy between inner and outer work, it’s also helpful to think concretely about what a more symbiotic or mutually reinforcing relationship between these approaches can look like. One case that comes to mind is my first conversation with my advisor at grad school. When I told him I was interested in how the religious and the spiritual connect to politics and the work of organizing, he immediately understood. In fact he told me, unexpectedly, about how he used to do solidarity organizing for over a decade, and most especially how those who lasted for that span or longer all had some sort of spiritual grounding, from what he had seen. This was one of the first times I received clear and strong confirmation of what I had been suspecting for a while, that a solid inner foundation is vital to doing important and difficult political work, especially in a way that allows you to maintain and stick to your core values over the long term.
A year or so after that conversation I met someone coming back to school after a dozen or so years of labor organizing. Learning from them was important, not just because they were coming back to school in order to solidify that spiritual foundation so that they could survive and thrive in organizing for the long haul, but because of what they taught me about work that goes in the other direction. What this wonderful friend had seen over the years of union drives for rural nurses, teachers, factory workers and other folks is that the outer, political work of struggling together to form a union changes people internally. She saw it shift their perspective on coworkers of other genders, their union siblings of other races, and ultimately, in some cases, change people's whole political orientations. Of course this doesn’t always happen, and staunch Trump supporters unionize and remain committed to their guy, but engaging in struggle against the bosses together opens up immense possibilities for people to change.
In my experience, the shift from politics-as-theory to politics-as-action almost inherently brings about some sort of inner change. I majored in political science in college (red flag, I know) and definitely had some great courses and professors. But it wasn’t until I started doing student organizing around climate change my junior year that I started to actually do politics. The following year hundreds of us were marching for Black Lives, and in the wake of that an amazing student organization emerged in St. Louis called “Students in Solidarity.” It was through this work that I started to learn a little about organizing, and today I value those skills and that knowledge infinitely more than what I learned in the classroom.
The action I took out in the world, the marching and organizing and events, and the planned disruptions of certain police and political rallies and speeches, started to change me in some ways. For one, the violence of policing has gone from something more distant and theoretical, for me personally, to something tangible and immediate. This shift, coinciding with other work I’ve done in the past several years, has contributed to more profound inner shifts as well. This could and should probably be a whole essay in itself, but I believe that engaging in action and organizing and friendships and community with people whose identity differs from ours, whether that be people of different races or genders or religions or otherwise, allows us, when combined with political education and other inner work, to loosen our attachments to our own identities in some ways. We of course can and should maintain a clarity and awareness of our position, but we can, over time, have a less intense identification with our whiteness, or maleness or masculinity, or whatever the marker might be. And this loosening of our inner attachments can enable us to better see when aspects of our identities are tied up with oppressive structures, not to then belittle ourselves or be consumed with guilt, which I believe to largely be unhelpful and even harmful in organizing, but rather to be more comfortable working to dismantle these oppressive structures and build ones that are more egalitarian, even if it means that we and people who share our identities will in time not have the same built-in and oppressive advantages we may now enjoy.
None of this is easy, and I would never claim to have done or to do any of it perfectly. But through some years of combining the work of engaging with the world, and taking political action with inner work that is reflective and often spiritual, I feel like some of these attachments have diminished, and my capacity to organize and be helpful to others has increased. Another way I see this manifest in others is people shifting from wanting to feel powerful to wanting to wield power. What I mean by this is that a lot of my friends, and myself, marched in 2014 and 2020 and many times before and after. But after the fall of 2020 in particular I saw New York protesters and new activists make a decisive shift away from frequent marching towards mutual aid organizing, and community organizing. This change came about only when these wonderful people had first taken action, a lot of it, and then thoughtfully reflected upon the limits of their actions, of our actions. Paulo Freire describes praxis as, “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it,” and he makes clear that one must inform the other. They must feed into each other. We must act, then reflect, then adjust our actions, and so on and so forth in order to change the world. This process, this praxis, allows us to build power. It is so tempting for so many of us, myself included, to feel power in the streets as a mass of people, or to get fleeting glimpses of power through our actions without building power sustainably. But that is what’s required to change the world, so our reflection must inform action that works to build real power, collectively.
I want to end with something from organizer Grace Lee Boggs and her husband, James. Actually I’d like to end with many things from them. Their book Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century is fascinating, and Grace’s solo work in The Next American Revolution is incredibly compelling as well. One of the many reasons these two works are a powerful pair, to me, is that they were written nearly 40 years apart, and the change in Grace Lee Boggs’ thinking about how we should organize and what we should prioritize in our movement work is quite significant. Yet both extoll the virtue of learning, reflection, critique, and praxis. One of the memorable lines in the earlier book, with her husband, James, reads:
“A revolutionary movement, a revolutionary organization, a revolutionary leadership cannot develop unless people are ready to learn from experience and teach from experience.” - Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century
And four decades later, decades spent largely engaged in grassroots community organizing in Detroit, with regular trips to speak and learn from others at conferences around the world, she wrote:
“The Freedom Schools of 1964 demonstrated that when Education involves young people in making community changes that matter to them, when it gives meaning to their lives in the present instead of preparing them only to make a living in the future, young people begin to believe in themselves and to dream of the future … imagine what our neighborhoods would be like if, instead of keeping our children isolated in classrooms for 12 years and more, we engaged them in community-building activities with the same audacity with which the Civil Rights Movement engaged them in desegregation activities 50 years ago. Just imagine how safe and lively our streets would be if, as a natural and normal part of the curriculum from K-12, schoolchildren were taking responsibility for maintaining neighborhood streets, planting community gardens, recycling waste, rehabbing houses, creating healthier school lunches, visiting and doing errands for the elderly, organizing neighborhood festivals, and painting public murals!” - The Next American Revolution
I offer only the slightest apology for such a long block quote, but I think it’s so very worth it. Imagine how people would change, and communities and cities and society would change, if our education system looked more like the beautiful and expansive approach Grace describes there. And she wasn't just talking about it – she and so many others in Detroit, from youth organizers to elders, were doing it. They were and are bringing community gardens to schools, creating transformative justice centers, beautifying and organizing their blocks and neighborhoods. I could go on about her, but I’ll simply leave you with one last quote of hers before I conclude:
“There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required. The radical movement has overemphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection.” -Grace Lee Boggs
Grace understood that we must act, and reflect and shift and change and act and reflect and do it all again. Today the challenges I see involve holding the complexity of our struggles; debating with love and reflecting lovingly with those we organize with; building power, not just seeking to feel powerful; engaging in spiritual work and learning and inner growth together as we organize; building loving community with each other as we build power together; bringing more people into the real work of the left, and more. But for now, I hope this piece, and the thinkers with it, help propel you in those directions, and I’m sure those directions will shift and change as we act and reflect and shift and grow.
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