Passive activism

“Each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness.”

In my last post, I vaguely alluded to the challenges of pride and privilege that have popped up throughout my transition to post-university life. About two months after graduating with my MA last year, I started working relief shifts at the Salvation Army Gateway, a men’s shelter in the east end of downtown Toronto. In addition to being a short (albeit these days, brisk) walk my place in Regent Park, the gig appealed to me as a way to interact with a segment of the city’s vulnerable (in this case, under-housed) population , and learn about the socio-economic struggles that they generally face. From a more theoretical angle, I’ve viewed it as a possible vantage point through which to ponder problems of democratic representation of a marginalized urban community, and try to understand how it could potential gain more influence politically.

More fundamentally, I’m interested in getting to know individuals on a personal level, and trying to offer any type of support I can. As anyone whose worked in a social-services field knows, however, initial notions of being accessible to someone and helping them pursue justice are usually shadowed by questions of power and vulnerability. Although good intentions are certainly a prerequisite to accompanying someone in a meaningful way, the accompanier must consistently reassess what her motives are, determine whether she’s projecting her own experiences instead of listening, and acknowledge cases where she ultimately ends up subjugating the “other,” rather than helping him on the track to empowerment and well-being.

Having been thinking about these questions quite a bit, I was happy to come across a David Brooks op-ed published in the New York Times this week, entitled “The Art of Presence”. In the article, Brooks reviews a piece recently written for Sojourners by Catherine Woodiwiss, entitled “A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma”. Woodiwiss’ piece, notes Brooks, poignantly offers cautionary advice for people seeking to console others who are experiencing stress or tragedy. Summarizing Woodiwiss’ perspective in addition to some of his own observations, Brooks calls for a “passive activism” that gently reacts to the specific needs of those suffering, and resists the desire to “solve problems and repair brokenness”

I was impressed by the degree that Brooks’ take on Woodiwiss’ account resonated with my recent thoughts on accompaniment and service provision. I was especially taken by his elegant observation that “each trauma should be respected in its uniqueness”, and that interveners must resist the urge to compare and relate. This is a tendency that I often exhibit: I think it’s a type of mechanism that I subconsciously revert to in “breaking the ice” in awkward or unpredictable interactions. Although this is fine in the context of conversations with people I’m well acquainted to, it’s a conversational habit that carries the risk of undermining what little authority traumatized people feel they may have in more critical situations. In these cases, I must learn to shed preconceptions, temper empathetic urges, and simply listen.

While I can relate to the guys living at the shelter on many levels – ranging from political opinions, to relationship challenges, to what TV program we should watch in the drop-in lounge – I don’t know what it’s like to live on the street or struggle with a substance addiction. Whatever points of reference I might conjure up to relate to these realities will almost certainly be superficial at best, and vain and insensitive at worst. This challenge of probing diverse perspectives while being careful not to colonize unique narratives is, I think, what Brooks is referring to when he talks about passive activism.

It’s easy to write about this type of resolution in a blog post, or talk about it in a classroom. It’s an entirely different thing to practice it “one one’s feet” in a fast-paced, emotionally charged work atmosphere. If presence is an “art” as Brooks suggests, I’m sure there will naturally be many imperfections along the way.

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One Response to Passive activism

  1. Brian Plouffe says:

    Hi Tom. Good blog! I have found that the power f caring presence ministers Christ’s love in a way that words often fail. When we really care we come along side others where they can see Christ’s presence in us. I’d love to read more blogs…but a reminder facebook post (ie new blog posted today) will probably be what I need to get me there. Hope you are well and enjoying married life my old friend!

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