By Yonit Friedman
Since the first, nausea-inducing moments after Trump’s election, I’ve been struggling with the advice many experienced and trustworthy activists have given me. Don’t try and fix everything, they suggested. It’s impossible, and it’s a guaranteed way to burn out. They’ve advised me to pick a single cause, focus my energies on that, and trust that others will do the same for other causes. While I see the wisdom in this approach, it feels damn near impossible in practice. The entire world is burning, both literally and metaphorically. How am I supposed to focus on just putting out one fire?
Thus, I’d like to suggest a different approach: don’t just pick a cause. Rather, find an activist community. For the past year, I’ve done quite a bit of organizing work with IfNotNow, a new, Jewish-led movement working to end American Jewish support for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. In the age of Trump, we also know that anti-occupation work is inextricably linked to fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia here in the US. With IfNotNow, I’ve learned about the many capacities of activist work, from writing scripts for direct actions, to the crucial minutiae of chopping vegetables for a large, inexpensive, and hearty stew for a day-long organizing training. Fighting the racism, violence, religious fundamentalism, and xenophobia that characterize both Trump’s America and Netanyahu’s occupation is exhausting work. No one could do it alone.
Sharing resources, knowledge, and support—i.e., community—makes this work more possible and more effective. Make no mistake: Trump’s “election” is just as catastrophic as many of us fear it is. However, the oppressions that Trump will worsen are not new problems. Resistance against these oppressions is not new, either. Many brave people have been organizing against this violence long before this past November, and many of these people are experienced in resisting state violence. I want to encourage those of us who are newer to activism to not try and reeinvent the wheel, but rather show up with curiosity and a commitment to listen to the experiences of people who are used to fighting for survival. At its best and most intersectional, movement building can enable this sort of listening. It’s an ongoing process of learning; I am still developing my understanding of when to step up and share my experiences, and when to step back and listen to others’.
Through IfNotNow, I haven’t only phonebanked and written and trained and screamed. I’ve also sung, danced, drank, and flirted with the same people who have taught and pushed and supported me. Activist community makes the work more fun. This, in of itself, is a radical act: when faced with an enemy that wishes to destroy us, we can fight back by asserting our humanity. This fun also makes the work more sustainable. By doing this work in community—by sharing resources, knowledge, and support—we protect each others’ ability to do this work for the long haul. This is essential, because those who would do us harm are hoping that we will burn out, and that resistance will weaken and fade away.
A year ago, when I first got involved with IfNotNow, I knew that Trump’s rhetoric was dangerous, but I didn’t believe he’d actually be elected. Now that he’s been inaugurated, I don’t know how I’d have gotten through the past few months without the skills and support I have from my activist community. Perhaps more frighteningly, I don’t know that I’d have a plan for how to move forward. I’d be lying if I said that I weren’t still grieving and feeling frightened and outraged, but I am less panicked now, knowing that I need never protest alone.
Remembering joy and beauty is crucial and difficult. In times of crisis, many activists, in an attempt to improve themselves and their movements, fall into a more-radical-than-thou trap that treats people as if they were disposable and forgets that all of us, at one point or another, were beginners. Often, it seems that people on the left are terrified of failure and are unable to recognize success. And here’s a hard truth: even the most effective movements will not accomplish everything they set out to do. No matter how hard, or how well, we fight, the Trump administration will kill some people, and damage the world in irrevocable ways. And yet, we must resist and organize and fight anyway, because the present state of affairs, and the future that Trump and his cronies propose, are already intolerably dangerous. Resistance—this refusal to accept dehumanization and bigotry and violence as facts of life—almost feels like a small victory in of itself.
Here, I think, is one place where art comes in. Columnist Molly Ivins, whom I desperately wish were still alive to comment on this horrorshow of a political moment, once said, of this work:
"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was." - Mother Jones
And who better than artists to encourage movements for freedom to remember joy? Most of us work on shoestring budgets, in crumbling performance spaces, for short runs. We know that there is value in mistakes, and in figuring out how best to tell a story, and in the process as much as the product. We know how to turn individuals into collaborators, into community. When we talk about the artists’ role in activism, we often talk about bringing art and song to protests, or creating art that speaks to a political moment. Those goals are worthy and crucial, and I try to work towards them every day. But we should not forget to bring that same spirit of joy and experimentation to the process of creating a better world.
Yonit Friedman is an artist and activist living in Brooklyn.
A collection of pieces by our network
Want to write for this blog?