Archive | January, 2015

Call me in

12 Jan

I just spent the weekend with fellow members of the board of the Ten Oaks Project — an organization I care deeply about and spend a lot of volunteer hours promoting. We run a summer camp for kids from LGBT families and queer/trans youth. We also put together a radical social justice/leadership retreat for youth under 25 called Project Acorn.

While other organizations might deliver these types of programs using  charitable model, Ten Oaks is an organization dedicated to social change and anti-oppression. We may not always get it right, but working from this standpoint means we constantly need to review our principles and practices to make sure we’re “walking the talk.” Which is why I ended up participating in an anti-racism workshop yesterday morning, despite the fact that I’ve identified as an activist for more than 15 years. We are really never done the process of unpacking our own oppressive practices and seeking to do better.


I remember the first time someone called me a racist and told me I “needed a workshop.” I was 20 years old and the editor of the student newspaper at Concordia. A self-declared activist, I probably had never heard the term “white privilege” before. After a couple of years in journalism school, I was all puffed up with vague notions of “freedom of the press,” but put little thought into how my words could affect others. When I published an editorial featuring an inflammatory image and an egregious error about the Palestinian Occupied Territories, it understandably made a few people angry.

The dynamics of how people sought to hold me accountable for those errors were complicated. It involved a lot of men yelling at me, demands for my resignation and a petition with a thousand signatures to see me deposed. I was “called out” repeatedly, but the calling out process was misogynist and aggressive, with a significant taint of anti-Semitism.

Mostly, it was the product of youth. We were inexperienced activists with heads full of anger and good intentions. But we had no skills to hold each other accountable. We pointed accusatory fingers, stood on points of inflexible principle and spent a lot of time either yelling at each other or avoiding one another. It was ugly and almost made me shrink away from activism completely.

I see a lot of similar rhetoric in the age of social media. A person writes or says something. That thing then becomes a permanent mark on their life and they are excised from activist communities as a result. If we want to build meaningful movements, we may want to consider “calling people in” instead of calling them out. This is what we talked about in the workshop yesterday and it resonated strongly with me.

The process of “calling in” means investing in a relationship with someone by taking the time to explain why their actions are hurtful. It involves (as Jay Smooth points out) telling someone that they did or said something racist, rather than calling them a racist. This may seem like an inconsequential difference, but it’s actually a big deal. Holding people accountable and inviting them to learn from their actions is much more effective and sustainable than condemning them and casting them out. It’s also a harder thing to do.

Obviously, not everyone merits this kind of time and attention. But our organization works with youth, some of whom have just come out and had zero exposure to political movements or the “right” language. The process of calling them in shows them that we embrace them and want to learn alongside them. I certainly wish someone had taken this approach with me when I was 20 years old. It would have made a world of difference.