Sunday, April 10, 2016

Activist Apprenticeship Invitation

I'm embarrassed to say that I started an animal rights club at 13 that didn't accomplish anything. 

I literally feel the same shame I felt then.

When I was 13 I lived in a small, poor, mostly white town in Northern California. I went to a middle school there and started this club. We met at a playground to discuss how we could help animals. I remember I spent an excessive amount of time coming up with words that made a great acronym, but I don't remember what it was.

One girl came almost every week. Her mom said, "This is perfect for her." I want to cry thinking about how I failed. I failed her - and myself. Why does this hurt so bad? It hurt then too. I was ashamed to admit I had no resources. I had no framework for offering this girl, one year younger than me, any more opportunity than myself to help animals in any way.

I talked about going to the animal shelter to volunteer. But I didn't know where it was; or what their volunteer policy was. I didn't know how to look that information up, even though internet did already exist by that time. I didn't look up the number. My mom didn't have a working car. I was too embarrassed to admit to this mom that I had no way of making this happen, this trip to the pound. I just kept talking about it, and the girl kept coming, and we'd play on the playground. It really was more of a club - people who have an interest in helping animals, and meet up to talk about it, but don't do anything tangible - rather than a project, movement, or organization.

I want to help teenagers like me to gain the skills of organizing. I might have an opportunity to do this next year, through my work, but I don't know if it will take off. I could just offer this to the world, but do I even have the space?

I have so many gifts to give to the world, and I have such a hard time keeping them all straight. Well, I'm not straight. (Queer joke. Womp womp.) I have a Capricorn Sun-Mercury-Saturn-Uranus-Neptune. That's a LOT of structure. I've been burning through my entire life on a wing and a to-do list. How many of those things actually get crossed off is sometimes more a matter of my Gemini rising though, or some other nefarious influences I may not know about.

But I'm reading a book right now about making organizations more like people, focusing on emergence rather than pre-planning. Letting things unfold. I wonder, does this include starting projects and allowing them to drop? Or how can I share my gifts in a less structured, more informal manner? Is this even possible? What about the value of structure to making things happen on a larger scale?

These are all questions emerging in my process right now. When I was 13 I needed help making my social justice dreams come true. If you know of any aspiring 13 year old world changers who need mentoring, send them my way. I'm happy to take on an apprentice.

Here's what I would tell my 13 year old self, off the top of my head:
  • Admit what you don't know. When people show up at your meetings, tell them about the vision you have, your ideas, and your resources (or lack thereof). Ask them for help. Be honest.
  • Ask adults for help who seem to have the same values as you. Many of them may be discouraging or patronizing, but some of them will be inspired and supportive.
  • If you are facilitating a meeting, co-create the agenda with whoever shows up.
  • Open up a phone book and get all the numbers of organizations that might have compatible focuses. Call them. Bike to their building. Start a conversation.

On second thought, I did more than I realized. 

It just wasn't organized, it was emergent, like the book I mentioned earlier is talking about. (It's called Anarchists in the Boardroom, by the way.)

Biking to the store one day to get groceries for me and my mom, I found a dog running down the road. In traffic. I grabbed her by the collar, wheeled to a nearby store, and used the grocery money to buy a leash instead. (Good thing my poor mom loves animals.)

I brought this dog home and she lived on the porch of our studio apartment building for a few days. My mom called animal control and it turned out that the dog, who I named Pooch temporarily, lived nearby and had run away. The animal control officer took her home.

But the next day or so, she was back. This happened a couple of times, until finally the officer gave her family our number so we could communicate directly. It turned out that the family had just gotten two new dogs, little hairless purebred creatures that yapped and annoyed Bandit (the name this dog already had). The family said that we could keep Bandit if we wanted, because she kept running away and wasn't getting along with the new dogs. In hindsight, this was pretty irresponsible of them, since they didn't really check us out. We weren't really in a position to care for Bandit that well, but my mom and I did our best with what little resources we had, and a lot of enthusiasm.

At this same time, there was a studio cat named Thomas who lived on the porch of our building. Sometimes my mom and I gave him canned food. He sort of belonged to everyone, and he fathered most of the kittens on that street. I liked him. One day, another resident in the apartment told us that he had called the cops (animal control again) because Thomas bit him. They took Thomas in for quarantine. He would be held for ten days and then probably adopted out.

The year before, my aunt had started a savings account for me. She put $50 in it. I never added to it. I used this money to go get a voucher from a vet proving that I would have Thomas spayed. Then the pound released him to me. Pretty soon he was home, though without his testicles.

We talked a lot of shit about that neighbor, calling him a wuss for being scared of a little cat bite. One day I was feeding Thomas canned food on the porch, and I told him, in a baby voice, "You can bite whoever you want, Thomas." And he chomped down on my hand. I teared up but laughed it off.

Big picture, or interpersonal changes?

While these stories connect me with what I have accomplished, and did accomplish at that time, in service of my values and passions, I see that they didn't change anything at a systemic level. As important as I believe interpersonal kindness are - crucial, essential - I want to change the systems that allow for scores of animals to go without homes, be euthanized, tortured in labs, bred to have deformities and diseases, and factory farmed. (This isn't actually my focus anymore, though I still feel this way.)

Maybe, though, this interpersonal stuff is a good place for beginning activists to get their start. To ground in service, getting to know the populations we care about on a personal level. Our neighbors, in whatever form - humans harassed by police, animals without homes, trees being cut down, rivers polluted.

I don't have all the answers or the one best way. I have this experience, which is valuable. And I am willing to share it.

So contact me if you're that 13 year old (or 12, or 11, or 14...) who wants some support in actualizing your vision for the world, embodying your passion ... and noticing how you are already living it.
Use my current email:

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