6 Thoughts About Speaking Up

A sketch I made at Annie's Share-back.
This sketch of Annie Banks I made at her “share-back” event unintentionally captures her mixture of toughness and gentleness.

What if we speak?

It was a question some of my friends asked last winter, when the Idle No More movement lurched into the public eye: what if we, as people from white settler and immigrant communities, speak up and say we also want justice for Indigenous people in Canada? It became a book of poems and reflections that my friend and radio colleague Annie Banks contributed to, with the same name. More recently, she came to Edmonton to share stories about her efforts to learn when to be noisy, and when to be quiet.

I first met Annie at a documentary launch party that Terra Informa held last spring. She was new in town and eager to leap into a group of people telling stories about how environmental issues affected ordinary people, and what they were doing about it. We were all convinced by her gusto that she’d lived here for ages. She challenged us with new ideas, like her practice of naming the Indigenous territories where each of her stories took place.

Then she left us for San Francisco, on what I know she would want me to acknowledge are Ohlone and Chochenyo territories. She spent the early part of this year in a program called the Anne Braden Anti-Racist Training for White Social Justice Activists, and wrestled with some hard questions about herself and her work that I think are worth sharing.

A linocut of Annie's.
A linocut of Annie’s.

They’re relevant for many contexts, but especially pertinent because we still live in a culture where white people have a disproportionate share of power: where Aboriginal and black people make up more than their fair share of people in prison, Indigenous people all around the country are fighting to maintain control over what happens on their land, and our federal government’s campaign to demonize refugees in need of health care is likely to convince more of us that immigrants and refugees are “enemies at the gate.” These are problems that will need all of our participation to resolve.

Here are some of the things I’ve gleaned from Annie:

1. Lean in. Listen closely, and see where people are at before lecturing.

2. Make your space affirming. If you’re in a group of people organizing something important together, make it a joyful and enjoyable experience. She said this one was hard for her, because she’d always felt like heavy subjects demanded a sombre atmosphere.

3. Be patient. This is something of a rhyme to the title of her blog, Noisy and Quiet. For her, being an ally in a movement led by traditionally marginalized people means giving up some of the assumed power in that environment, and recognizing the pace your allies need to follow. Annie interned with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and it she said this was most clearly demonstrated when the group sometimes needed to wait for letters to go back and forth to people inside, which could take months.

4. Recognize that self-love makes a strong foundation for your work. I know this one was tough for her too – to hold all the knowledge about racism today in one hand, and still have some grounding and love for her white roots.

5. Don’t step back so far you disappear. Annie told a funny story about overcoming her feelings of anxiety about taking up too much power and space in a movement, as a white person. Someone came up to her, apparently, and reminded her that the group still needed her to be useful and get dirty. To do that, she said, she needed to acknowledge that sometimes she’d make mistakes, and mess up, and that’s okay.

6. Think about how to leverage your privileges for others. Annie spent a long time, even when she arrived in San Francisco, feeling uncomfortable about being able to attend this program all the way in California when others didn’t have her privileges: family members to help her pay for it, US citizenship that allowed her to get a job, and a friend to literally drive her all the way there. But in the end, she was persuaded that she could take her experiences and knowledge from the Anne Braden program, and share it back to people back home.

Which is what brought her to the Edmonton “share-back” that I attended, and which makes me so proud to be her friend and occasional student. Thanks, Annie.

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