At Tikkun Magazine, of the many posters of quotes and inspirational images on the walls in our office, we also find this passage from Exodus. “Do not oppress the stranger,” it says. This passage serves as a reminder that we must work to know and understand the other as our collective liberation is intertwined with others as well. The mission of this series, Embracing the Stranger, is based on the commitment of activists, changemakers, and visionaries across different causes to create a more inclusive and loving world. Through a series of interviews, we worked to explore the personal and spiritual motivations behind their work. With the many issues present in the world, and much to be done, we wanted to know how people became involved in the activism they dedicate their time to. Would there be any connected ideas? Any connected struggles? Would there be commonalities among people even if they differed in identity and origin story? We at Tikkun feel that it is vital to do all in our power to highlight and support individuals and groups that work to heal the World. We hope to further the Movement of healing, repairing, and transforming the world. Through this project, we aimed to paint a picture of the unified human desire to heal pain and turn our world into one of peace, empathy, and love. By discussing the missions of different groups, we hope to discover possible connections across a variety of causes to show where our struggles can be connected, to further the creation of a world influenced by peace, love, and empathy that creates liberation for the diverse world we live in.
Stay tuned for parts II, III, and IV in this series!
Connected in Difference: Reflections of an Interview with AnaLouise Keating
Inspired by writers and scholars before her, Professor AnaLouise Keating is developing her lifelong work focusing on the possibilities of change in the midst of difference. She is currently a professor of gender studies, however, “If I could rename my field of study, I would name it transformation studies,” she says, “because my work focuses on discovering and inventing innovative ways to effect personal and collective change, in the service of social justice.” AnaLouise is the author of multiple books on women-of-color feminisms, spiritual activism, transformational dialogue, post-oppositional theory, and the work of Gloria Anzaldúa. Knowing the breadth of AnaLouise’s work, she has immense insight into the possibilities of developing commonalities within a world of difference.
Like many scholars, AnaLouise’s research and teaching has been shaped by her experiences and identities; unlike many scholars, AnaLouise is aware of her own evolution and the unique insights that creates. AnaLouise begins discussing her intellectual development by sharing that she has never been someone who fits in well with any specific group. “I’m a person of color but light skinned. I’m not gay, I’m not heterosexual. I wasn’t comfortable with my family’s very conservative Christian Protestant beliefs. So I just read a lot and tried to figure myself out and find myself. […] Then I started reading women of color, especially lesbians of color, to find myself, and I was especially drawn to [Gloria] Anzaldúa, [Audre] Lorde, and Paula Gunn Allen. I think it’s because in different ways they didn’t fit into any monolithic race, gender, sexuality, or social justice group.” As outsiders, they could see the limitations in numerous group identities; they learned from their experiences and developed innovative approaches to building radically more inclusive communities.
Inspired by the writings of these women, AnaLouise’s first book “examines how [these writers] built bridges among multiple different groups and how they negotiated community for a whole lot of different people.” While they experienced marginalization on different planes, they use their writing to create new forms of inclusive community and social change. Now a professor, AnaLouise relies on her understanding of the complexity of identity to build bridges within her own classrooms. Her courses often begin with a discussion about the social construction of race, sexuality, and other identity categories in order “to start questioning the categories [that have been made]. Not to deny them and not to deny the different experiences people have because of these labels, but just to show the historical complexity and the power dynamics that have shaped these categories.” Embracing complexity while not denying the categories is vital to this conversation of difference. This validation offers for people to own their experiences and to feel heard when we enter into conversations about social justice and what it can look like. By having a multitude of perspectives, we can engage in a richer conversation that more fully addresses the ideas, needs, and thoughts of people from many different backgrounds.
Even if difference and commonality can be contradictory in definition, AnaLouise offers definitions of difference that actually allow us to connect. “We can think of difference relationally, rather than as deviation from a single norm; […] and if we think of it relationally, the differences are in dialogue with each other. It’s not like a comparison, it’s not like a hierarchy. It’s those comparisons and hierarchies that can lead to competition. […] I don’t define commonalities as ‘sameness.’ Assumptions of sameness are dangerous: We want things to be the same, [but] they’re not. No two people are the same, but we share commonalities: so how can we think about what we have in common while also acknowledging the differences within our commonalities? Not defining these differences as better or worse, but just to […] understand each other more fully, to see the richness, and to expand and deepen our commonalities.”
An important part of activism is building better relationships with people – this manifests in the building of coalitions, communities, and conversation. Thinking of difference as relational refers to the root of relationship building through radical listening and communication. Leaning into these commonalities can be difficult because we can have different ideas about what social change should look like. Moreover, we do not all share the same ideas about how to create change. AnaLouise describes herself as optimistic, but she stipulates that a crucial component to the success of social-justice work (or of community-building more generally) will be continuing to listen to one another. “If we listen closely and fully to each other […] we can find points of connection. Sometimes, the way to create these connections is by starting with something that we share in common. (In a classroom, commonality might be family, or food (everybody eats!). In social justice work, the commonality might be the desire for progressive change.) […] We then move forward from this commonality. “
Empathy is paramount to these conversations about connection and listening. If we took time to understand the situations of others and “put ourselves in their shoes”, we would then be able to work together more cohesively. Yet, AnaLouise points out that it is also crucial to recognize that we can never fully understand the details and exact feelings of someone else’s lived experience. “When we learn about other people’s lives, we can use imagination to connect with them. However, we also always need to acknowledge [the differences between us]. We cannot literally and entirely feel someone else’s pain or “know” their experience, but we can use imagination and our personal experiences to gain a partial understanding. Empathy can be dangerous if we assume that we entirely understand another person’s experience. I’ve seen this in classes; while a student might be trying to connect with another person’s experience because she believes she entirely empathizes with (and therefore knows), her assumption of complete understanding can disconnect her from the person she’s trying to understand. That person can feel entirely misunderstood! While empathy comes from a place of desiring to connect, we cannot entirely know others’ experiences. Empathy is really crucial, but we have to think more carefully about how we use it.”
In AnaLouise’s classroom, she employs a method she calls “listening with raw openness.” It is a matter of “fully listening; it’s not reacting, or even thinking about how we’ll respond to what someone says as they’re talking. It’s just listening openly and as fully as possible, and then asking follow-up questions to make sure that we’ve understood what’s been said.” With this highly attentive listening comes also the recognition of multiple perspectives and truths co-existing. This recognition of multiplicity is important for social-justice activists: “[P]eople can be so passionate about their one issue that they look down on or feel erased if someone is passionate about a different issue. So the thing is, can we simultaneously think about our issues and other activists’ issues, admire the passion, and work towards creating commonalities- so that we can expand them, address social injustice, and make the change? […] Rather than expect conflict and struggle within social-justice groups, if we can have a different, more positive expectation, then sometimes that kind of upbeat expectation can at least maybe help to make us to make positive change; it can play a role.”
If we have a foundation of these communication practices, we have the potential to find commonalities while also honoring differences; we don’t have to have the same experiences or identities in order to work together to make social change. AnaLouise suggests that spirit offers another approach for building commonalities. “[H]umans have been around a long time, so why are we not wiser? Seriously! Why do we have the problems we have given how long humans have been around? I can’t accept some idea like “human nature is flawed.” I can’t accept that. […] So I just wondered what we think we could do if we really think in radical ways about spirit. And I don’t even know completely what that means, I’m just trying to think in that direction. So at this point, I would define spirituality as the radical interconnectedness of all that exists because I would posit that spirit is in (and is) everything–spirit shapes and informs all that exists. So if spirit is in everything, that means that there’s these connections that we can try to see or intuit […]. So then I think […], what does this spirit-saturated view do to oppositional discourse? We need something different, something less reactionary. So I’m trying to think in these ways to see what that might look like.”
Professor AnaLouise Keating is Director of the Multicultural and Women’s Studies Doctoral Program at Texas Woman’s University where her classes focus on transformational dialogue, spiritual activism, women of color feminisms, and the work of feminist scholar, Gloria Anzaldua. She is the author of multiple books including, Teaching Transformation: Transcultural Classroom Dialogues, Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, and The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. She is also co-editor of this bridge we call home: radical visions for Transformation.
Lauren Bodenlos is a sophomore at Agnes Scott College where she is a religious studies major. Some of her academic interests include christian socialism, liberation theology, and interfaith literacy. Lauren worked as a print editorial intern at Tikkun and was also able to work on an interview series focusing on the connected motivations of activists.
Madeline Cook is a senior at Mount Holyoke College, where she majors in Politics and minors in Africana Studies. Her academic interests include investigating the intersections of political, feminist, and critical race theory and the development of social movements. During her time at Tikkun, she has worked on creating an interview series on the connected motivations of activists.