Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011

How We Treat Each Other Makes a Difference

by Barbara Smith

What I would most like to share with future generations of people committed to working for justice is that how you treat people in the course of doing your work makes a difference. It is true that movement organizers often work under very challenging conditions, and we sometimes lay our anger and frustration at the feet of friends and allies who are much more accessible than the powerful who perpetuate the cruel systems of oppression we oppose. Conflicts and failed communications are to be expected and can usually be resolved with honest dialogue and by sincerely owning one's mistakes.

What concerns me is the type of oblivious and self-involved behavior that becomes so pervasive that it saps energy and even breaks the spirits of those who encounter it. I think that there is a contradiction in claiming to work for a better world in the future while at the very same time causing people a lot of pain because of how one acts in the here and now.

Although I have always believed that how we relate to others is important, my awareness of this has been heightened by the arena in which I am currently engaged. In 2005 I ran for Common Council in the city of Albany, New York, and I am now serving my second term. After decades of working in movements where people shared certain basic values and operating principles, I now work in a political context that is much more diverse and where the emphasis is usually on getting the job done, no matter the personal damage along the way.

My Black feminist principles have been sorely tested, but I also find that these movement values are extremely useful in the very different world of electoral politics and government bureaucracy. Something as simple as making sure that everyone at a community meeting gets a chance to speak once, before an individual speaks repeatedly and monopolizes the discussion, can change the dynamics and make people feel respected and heard.

The women in my family continue to be my role models for how to be in the world. Their kindness, diligence, and integrity gave me a foundation upon which to build. I have found these qualities in many other Black women, including those who have led the way. I never met Ella Baker, but when I saw the documentary film "Fundi," I was struck not only by her political brilliance but by the depth of caring that radiated from her. When I met Fannie Lou Hamer when I was still a teenager in Cleveland after a Civil Rights rally, I sensed the same thing.

Successful organizing depends a lot upon the quality of the relationships we build. We can show how much we value others' humanity by how we treat each other every day.

Barbara Smith has worked for justice since the 1960s. In 2005 she was one of 1,000 women around the world nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is serving her second term on the Albany, New York Common Council.

Source Citation: Smith, Barbara. 2011. How We Treat Each Other Makes a Difference. Tikkun 26(1): 67

tags: Activism, Civil Rights Movement, US Politics  
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