Engagement as Activists
By Elizabeth Lenning
As an activist, my goal is to educate and teach people about my passions and movements I support. However, I have learned that this is easier said than done. I’ve said things that were perceived as very judgmental and offensive, and I have learned the hard way that there is a time and a place to have important conversations. There also is a method to approach someone who says something you feel is inherently wrong, a way to approach a person when you want to ask a personal question, and a way to share something that you feel is important. That method is in a safe space. Here at Kalamazoo College, we can see this “safe space” environment in action when we share our views in discussion-based classes.
When you want to approach someone who does something that offends you, the approach should not be to call him or her out in front of peers or friends or to post on social media, “So-and-so sucks. They are so fill-in-the-blank.” Instead, pull the person aside and say, “I don’t agree with it. Can we talk later?” Then, at a later time, talk with the person. Say why you feel strongly about what they said, but give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they have never had the opportunity to learn about that subject and may have biased misconceptions. Or maybe they are just judgmental, some people are lost causes.
Safe spaces are also effective when asking personal questions. One time I asked a friend what it was like to be a person of color. We had been sharing our experiences and I wanted to learn more because, as a white woman, I have never had that experience. She felt comfortable within the space that I approached her and she answered. Not everyone will want to share their personal experiences, but creating a safe environment will make them feel more comfortable and respected.
The environment is also important when sharing something we feel is important. This could be a political view, a personal story, or a supportive statement as an ally. We must choose a time and place that will educate the most people and offend the least. For example, while social media is a great place to post links, it is a bad place to educate. There is no way to infuse real emotions in comments or 140 character posts. Social media is a huge part of our culture, but we must remember that there is no substitute to personal conversations.
In these safe spaces, we act as both students and educators. As students, we learn gain knowledge from another person’s perspective. As educators, we spread our knowledge and opinions in the most effective way possible. As activists, our goal is to educate and not to be divisive. Attacking people’s views is not going to change minds. We must break down our barriers and be willing to share and listen to experiences in order to be effective as activists and effective listeners.