Reflections On Being A Leader in a Leaderful Movement
Rape Culture is real. It is omnipresent. It is destroying all of our movements.
I don’t know how to start this essay. I don’t really know what to say or how to say it so I’m going to be real and raw and honest. I am a local leader in the Black Lives Matter movement here in DC, which is a movement for the liberation of ALL Black People and a necessary but insufficient piece of a larger movement for collective liberation. I am leader whose followers are also leaders. I am leader who often has no clue what he is doing but decides to put himself out there because he knows that the work needs doing. I organize within a social network that is a web of mutual support, Black excellence, gorgeous righteousness and, let’s be real, shared trauma.
I organize for the liberation of my people all while suffering from the post-traumatic stress of having existed for 26 years as a sensitive human being in an insensitive world. I have been Black in society that can’t recognize the humanity of Black people. I have been struggling with mental illness in a world that would rather profit of my suffering than talk about it. I have come to terms with my attraction to all genders, including my own, in a world in which that means I cannot be seen as fully Black, really a man or completely human. All of this trauma infuses every decision I make as an organizer, as a follower and as a leader whose followers are also bomb ass, revolutionary leaders.
I say that, because it needs to be said. In the next few days I imagine a lot a of conversations will be happening about who will work with who and how people should have handled beef. I imagine a lot of people will have opinions about who did and didn’t say what where. We need to remember that we all are working through our trauma in real time. We need to realize that it is unacceptable to be traumatizing people through patriarchy in liberation struggles. We need to remember that there is a time to call people in and there is a time to call people out.
To many women have spoken to me about a desperate need to hold men in leadership in DC accountable for me to remain silent.
I don’t remember where I was when Mike Brown was lying on the ground for 4 and half hours. I don’t remember when I first realized that I was watching the public lynching of a Black boy on television every time I watched cable news talk about the “thug” “Big Mike.” I don’t remember when I realized that the Black Lives Matter Movement was giving birth to my generation’s Black Liberation Movement.
I do remember the feeling of needing to do something, anything, after Darrin Wilson was not indicted for the execution of Michael Brown. I remember the feeling of anguish that led me to start writing nearly daily on race, racism and white supremacy after seeing how white allies showed up in spaces. I also remember when Black women leaders inspired me to get off my blog and hit the streets
I remember when my now good friend Lydia and I met at an action she planned. I remember being grateful that she brought the movement to my city. I remember talking a long lunch to interview Erika Totten and Dominique Hazzard at a day of action in November. I remember hearing Erika say that she couldn’t not get into this fight. I remember them inspiring me to get off this blog and into the streets.
Once I was in the streets I remember a shared sense of organizers not really knowing what they were doing. This is not to say that people didn’t have skills, or talents or expertise. This meant that people were angry, and traumatized and were making plans as we were executing them. I remember showing up to actions and people asking me to pitch in. I remember when I decided to be an organizer in the Black Lives Matter movement because there was shit I wanted to be happening that just wasn’t.
There were a couple of months that I was organizing around Black Lives Matter but I didn’t consider myself a leader. I would read about the next shooting, the next beating, the next sex trafficking police officer in 7D and spend hours on Facebook looking for the event that addressed it. When it didn’t happen, I would send out e-mails to all the “real leaders” and wait for a response, wait for someone to step up and let me follow them. As the other organizers got busier, and replies started to be, yeah, you should do that! That’s when I started to think about leadership.
There was point at which it became clear that other people already saw me as a leader. It took a while for me to take the mantle as my own though. Leadership comes with a number of benefits, mainly that I get the unique pleasure of actualizing my plans and thoughts. I get to see my own plans for liberation come into being bit by bit. I get to see people move. Not just bodies on the street but minds and souls be moved by my action and writing. It is an amazing feeling. Yet leadership, true leadership like the kind this movement needs, comes with responsibility and accountability.
The weight of that responsibility grew steadily as it became more and more apparent that people expected things of me. People looked to me plan actions. People looked to me to say those hard truths that needed saying. People started saying things like, I came out because you asked me. I felt proud but also scared, unworthy and incapable of seeing in myself what others saw in me.
I remember the point at which the responsibility of leadership felt the most visceral. I had called a meeting to plan an anti-misogyny training at my house and invited my people. The people who I’m in the movement for, the people’s whose welfare makes me work to end patriarchy. Most importantly, the people I grown been accustomed to schooling me on what’s what.
I remember opening the conversation with my vision for the training and having multiple dynamite, power houses of local organizing gently push back by saying “I’m here because this work needs to get done, and I trust Aaron to hold this space.” That level of trust hit me hard. It was both an unexpected honor and, to be honest, terrifying. It was frightening because I had little faith in my ability to hold a space that honored the humanity, dignity and brilliance of the women in the room when facilitating a conversation about patriarchy.
The truth is, sexism is real and embedded in the very fabric of our society. It is foundational to how we think about leadership, self-worth, and movement building. In my mind, I too was too influenced by our sexist culture to rid the spaces I was creating of its taint.
In talking with those women, I realized that every time I hold a space the attendees have to make a decision. The women I invite have to make a decision about whether or not they trust me and the men I choose to surround myself with to create a space where they feel safe.
As a leader I cannot forget about that choice. I cannot take the easy way out and operate my meetings, my marches, my healing spaces within the oppressive atmosphere of a demented status quo. I cannot choose personal loyalty over liberation. I cannot duck out of the responsibility of leadership because silence is easier than speaking out. I cannot betray the trust of the women who continually teach me how to recognize my own humanity. That trust is important and not given lightly. That trust must be earned and re-earned constantly. Most importantly, it is not to be abused.
Sadly, far too often it is.
Far too often whole sections and scenes within movements are physically, emotionally and spiritual dangerous to women. Too often women have navigate those same uncontainable impulses to do something, anything to end their current oppression with the added burden of deciding, not whether, but how much abuse and misogyny they will endure to do so. That is sickening.
That simple fact outlines the limit of how far any movement for liberation can go without naming, addressing and ending patriarchy within the movement. Black liberation can’t move an inch past the bonds that men force on women.
Men must do more. Black men must do more. The male leadership of the leaderful Black Lives Matter Movement must do more. I must do more. We must do more.
We must transform our spaces to be the reflections of the liberation we are seeking. We must hold the men we surround ourselves accountable to our shared vision of world in which our neighbors, co-workers, sisters, mothers and daughters can be their full, beautiful, Black, female and gender non-conforming authentic selves without fear of violence. We must hold men accountable to holding spaces that do not enable, praise, or excuse rape.
Those of us who have decided that this moment is our time; those of us who have chosen to be leaders in the movement for Black liberation; those of us who strive for a world in which the overwhelming brilliance of Black people is allowed to thrive and flourish, must hold ourselves accountable to ending patriarchy.
Rape culture is too acidic to liberation to be tolerated. Sexual predation is too counter-revolutionary to be tolerated. Our collective silence, my own reservations about ruffling feathers and stepping on toes, is too violent to be tolerated. We must call each other in, until we need to start calling each other out.
I am not writing this as a model for how to be a man in the movement. I am writing this as someone who fucks up. I am writing this as someone who was silent for too long. I am writing this as someone who has to constantly apologize for how I show up in spaces. I am writing this as someone who wants all the amazing women I often follow and who sometimes follow me, to call me in until you need to call me out.
To all the men that are reading this we have to do better. We have to stop allowing men to prey on women in our spaces. We have to stop interrupting women on the mic. We have to stop defending rapist because they once were a role model to us. We have to stop shaming women for speaking their truth. We have to stop refusing to put in work for the women’s liberation movement. We have to re-imagine our conceptions of masculinity, sexuality and gender. We have to check our internal transmisogynoir.We have to step way back and remember to come forward when our support is needed.
If you have questions, concerns or push back please reach out to me. We need to come together to end rape culture. We need to leverage our power to create beloved communities and liberated spaces. We need to start crafting and implementing solutions. There have been a few conversations and events on ending patriarchy and redefining masculinity so far and hopefully there will be many more to come. Please find me on Facebook or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in joining me and other men to end rape culture.