Embracing the Stranger, Part III: A Place for Compassion in Activism

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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 atTikkunfeel 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.

Click here to read part I in this series, and here for part II. Stay tuned the final installment!

A Place for Compassion in Activism: Reflections of an Interview with Tada Hozumi

In social justice work, the activist communities that are built are a vital component to the success and continuation of movements. The interactions, group dynamics, and relationships activists have with each other can affect the work they do to create a better world for all people. In talking with Tada Hozumi, they explained to me, “[…]Social justice is about relationships – relationships between people on an individual or community level.” Hozumi is the facilitator for their most current project, “Authentic Allyship,” an online coaching program for white allies to explore what it means to cultivate allyship based on self-compassion and self-care, rather than obligation. Additionally, they are the author of an upcoming book, Selfish Activist, describing possible ways to build healthy relationships within social justice communities.They describe that in the work for social justice, our relationships are equally as important if we are to dismantle the systems that oppress ourselves and others. Therefore, they maintain, “[B]ecause it’s a relationship, all the principles of healthy relating still apply.”

Hozumi has more recently stepped away from social justice circles after experiencing the more and more prevalent “burnout” that activists can experience after engaging in the profound emotional, psychological, and at times visceral work of activism. After stepping away and reflecting on the social justice communities they participated in, Hozumi thought about social justice culture and community, and developed their own thinking about allyship in activist circles.

A fundamental aspect to social justice work can be to live in a just society together. In some way, we live in relationship to everyone, whether they are a complete stranger, or our most intimate and close partners. Therefore, in social justice work, the development of relationships is vital. Hozumi explains that, “[…] within social justice communities we’re often forgetting to treat ourselves [and] others like we’re in a relationship. So that to me is […] inherently missing the mark, when this work is about people and their relationships to each other. […] [W]hat I’m focused on is looking at […] what does it mean if we started looking at activist work as relationship work? There’s so much information out there already about how to manage relationships.” Having social justice communities model the kind of relationships we want could be an act of revolutionary thinking and process.

A primary component of being in relationship with each other is how we communicate and understand where the other is coming from. Hozumi described how some of our relationship dynamics are based in our nervous system and its functions. They refer to the phenomenon of emotional contagion – a concept that describes how the emotions of one person can create similar emotions in others because of natural resonance between our nervous systems. They describe: “Emotional contagion is facilitated by many different facets of our nervous system, including mirror neurons. [E]ssentially what it means is that our bodies are built to be empathic. Even on an unconscious level we pick up nervous system shifts in other people always.” Combining this understanding of a naturally empathic nervous system, and the need to build relationships with each other, can help us to understand why activist burnout happens. Hozumi explained that because we pick up on others emotions naturally, the empathic instinct of our nervous system can eventually become exhausted, whether we consciously or unconsciously engage in an act of empathy.

For Hozumi, it is the ability to regulate your own nervous system that allows for activists to sustain themselves. In difficult conversations in social justice work, our ability to empathize is consistently present, but can become eventually worn down. “That empathic function that human beings have can create emotional loops that are quite challenging if not toxic.” The emotions we express such as fear, anger, or sadness can bounce back and forth in this looping process further intensifying emotions. In the work of activism, emotional work is often a requirement of creating change, and it can come in high levels that many people who do activist work have experienced. Knowing this, Hozumi describes how, particularly when working with white allies, they stress the importance of allies to understand what their limits are. There must be consent within allyship, like in any other healthy relationship. “One of an allies first responsibilities is to know what their ‘no’ is. To know their limits. It sounds really strange. It doesn’t make sense, at first. But [the] first step is to know when to walk away from the work. […] Otherwise, you can’t have consent. An ally’s responsibility is to know who they are and what they want and what they desire in a relationship. That runs into, understandably, a fair amount of controversy. And then there’s a whole bunch of other work that comes with that. Like what it means to have boundaries as an ally.” Hozumi admits that they still are looking into what this means, but it leads back to the act of selfregulation, and understanding one’s own limits. Understanding the necessity of these boundaries means having a better chance of sustained activism.

As with others I interviewed, I asked Hozumi how they believe empathy plays a role in the work of social justice. They explained their skepticism of it: “[what] I find when we talk about empathy, is that it doesn’t really work for me. I don’t use it. […] And part of the reason why for me is that I don’t emphasize being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes necessarily […] what I prefer to use is compassion, which has a slightly different tone for me.” For Hozumi, compassion is the combination of empathy, and the nervous system selfregulation they discuss. “And self regulation is the foundation. So self regulation to me is more important than empathy. Because of emotional contagion, it is actually more important to the health of a relationship to be able to regulate yourself, than your ability to feel what somebody else is feeling. When we self regulate, this is also contagious, so it actually helps to soothe others. And of course [E]veryone’s nervous system is a little different, but there’s a healthy range in which we can experience other people’s emotions. ” Having the ability to regulate how you react and process emotions with an empathic nervous system is important to remain active. Often we say that empathy is the crucial component to social justice work because if we can understand the other person, then we can develop systems to meet their needs. The revolutionary aspect of embracing compassion more so than empathy would mean respecting people and their needs even if we can’t particularly understand them ourselves. Do we have to understand someone’s full experience to be an ally to them? Or can we be better listeners and have more trust in others knowing that what they are asking for is truly what they need based on their experience? The use of compassion makes it so we are present to people in their own struggles, even if they have a different experience from our own. Maybe it is the more frequent use of compassion that can create longer lasting movements where we can live into our differences and see the value in them.


For more information on participating in Authentic Allyship Training, please go to: https://selfishactivist.com/product/authentic-allyship-subscription/. For more information on Tada Hozumi, their book, and other projects, please go to: https://selfishactivist.com/.

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.