We know that President-elect Donald Trump’s term is going to present new challenges for the civil rights of many Americans. Concerns over what this new regime will mean for marginalized people has inspired some to take a stronger stand for the causes they believe in. While itÆs great that folks are fired up to defend justice, there has been some tension arising between those who have been out on the front lines and newcomers who mean well but lack direction and experience.
It’s in our nature to want clear answers to the problems we are presented with. We want a path to follow — the narrative reassurance that doing “A” will inevitably result in “B” and the problem will be solved. Take the allies who are outraged over Trump’s proposed Muslim registry. I’m sure you’ve seen at least a few people take to social media saying they will register themselves as a Muslim to screw with the system. The anger is well placed, but government registries don’t work like that. They have never worked like that and they never will.
No one got to volunteer to be sent to America’s Japanese internment camps, nor can you choose to be put on the no-fly list. Should Trump and his administration implement a Muslim registry, they will decide who’s on it. The Christians yelling on Twitter that they want to sabotage it will have no say.
And it’s not just limited to protest: When cisgender people hear about trans students getting bullied over bathroom access and start advertising themselves as safe and supportive bathroom buddies, that’s well-intentioned — but allies can’t be there every time. They should ask themselves, “Is this action about their liberation or my need to not feel powerless?”
The sentiment behind these calls to action is driven by a desire to do something in the face of an injustice, but it’s frustrating to those who have been organizing for years against systemic prejudice. How often have there been calls to action where a groundswell of support from allies never happened? Almost every day. What about when a petition barely received enough signatures to make a legislative body change course? If only there had been a few more volunteers out there canvassing. How many people have not shown up for a city council meeting or a day of lobbying at the state capitol, yet they’ll spread a half-baked meme that is unlikely to lead to any significant action? Far too many.
The hard truth is that the work for liberation is far less exciting than protests and going face-to-face with bigots. Spending hours phone banking sounds tedious because it is, but it can help sway a public vote. Endless meetings with community leaders are time-consuming, but that’s where winning strategies are forged and refined. Calling and emailing elected officials might not be a grand gesture, but it could result in a senator being convinced to drop their sponsorship of something harmful. You probably won’t be celebrated for your bravery for doing these things. You might never even get a “thank you for your support.” But you will have at least done something that could actually change the world for the better.
If you look at the work that goes into community organizing, it’s no wonder that some activists are frustrated with people who are only now showing up with quick answers to complex problems — especially when they know those actions will ultimately do little to nothing. Defending and advancing our rights is work. Organizing for justice is a lifestyle. While you’re working to change the world, the work changes you. That personal evolution does not come easily to most. The victories are hard-won and did not come from just sending out some supportive tweets or making promises of solidarity without accountability.
So where do you begin? Well, don’t just ask any member of a marginalized group to be your liaison into the fight for their rights. Start by looking to established organizations that are already doing the work. Seek out leadership in your area. If you’re concerned about reproductive rights, look up your nearest Planned Parenthood and see who is advocating for their ongoing operation. Worried about systemic racism getting worse because of overt white supremacy? Reach out to the Movement for Black Lives and study the Vision for Black Lives policy platform. If you are concerned about Islamophobia and shady government registries, look to organizations like the Muslim Legal Fund of America to see what it takes to defend religious freedom.
You can't be there for every individual who is facing this terrifying prospect of an aggressively prejudiced presidency. But you should follow their lead, sign petitions, contact legislators, and show up when they call for action. Work to educate yourself about these causes along the way. Good intentions without the guidance of those who are organizing for marginalized communities will not go very far. Channeling that urge to do something positive into asking where you can have the greatest impact will make all the difference.