Brenda Hillman’s Advice for Activists

Poet Brenda Hillman has done some serious thinking about activists and activism, and shared her thoughts at the Gandhian Conference on Non-violence . Excerpts:

It is impressive that many activists are so active. They are not “passive”-ists. People do the work of non-violence in their communities not just by making inroads into the power structures but by finding new paths.…

I confess I’ve been a little dismayed by some of the responses in the [San Francisco] Bay Area. In my region — one of the most historically vibrant places for political resistance — many people have been doing little but complain and consume more of everything. Some say only a violent revolution to defeat global capitalism will do, and if that revolution isn’t imminent, there’s little point in doing anything. Some have engaged only in fatigued finger-pointing. Others take blogging and forwarding anti-war emails to be their primary forms of activism. Email is fine, as long as it doesn’t become like a morphine drip, keeping us strangely calm and less engaged outside our screens. After all, most of our email reaches those with whom we already agree. Recalling every day the good Germans in , we must find multiple ways of working outside the immediate interests of own social groups and families.…

I want to recommend being uncomfortable.

She makes six uncomfortable recommendations:

  1. “[A]ttend to an imaginative spiritual practice that gives strength for everything else.”
  2. “Actively seek out at least one conversation per week with someone who might not have voted the way you did, especially those outside your community of friends.” For instance: “Many intellectuals and artists I know are busily dismissing Christian communities rather than trying to discuss Jesus’ teachings with them. Where and how does Christianity allow for killing in a Just War?”

    She writes: “This year, I decided to visit some conservative Christian churches to try to determine how these communities are thinking about the War and about Jesus’ non-violence. Because many anti-war and environmental activists feel strong antipathy toward conservative Christian communities, dialogue has become impossible. The groups have demonized each other since the election. Yet I felt repeatedly welcomed into these communities when I visited, and could understand why people so value their churches.”
  3. “[T]ake as part of your practice the idea of giving up on a trivial fight.” In other words: do an inventory of the battles you’re fighting — not just those concerned with politics and the big issues, but personal stuff too — and go ahead and surrender on the ones that really aren’t such a big deal: “save your energy for other matters that really count for saving health and lives.”
  4. “On a matter of universal importance, take a principled stand that makes you uncomfortable.” In her case, this meant taking the plunge and starting on the path of tax resistance:

    “I decided have my accountant prepare my Federal Taxes and to submit what I owed, but to withhold one-sixth the taxes owed, based on the fact that one-sixth of every tax dollar is now going to the Pentagon. I attached a letter to the I.R.S. saying exactly why I was doing this.

    “I have received a lot of advice not to pursue this particular path, the main thing being its impracticality. I have to date received three pieces of correspondence from the I.R.S., one of which resulted in an illuminating conversation with an investigating team in Utah. Many are quite afraid of going outside the law when it comes to taxation, even if their taxes have been committed to a wrongful war. I have been amazed at the number of people who have asked, ‘Are you working with anyone on this?’ and mostly I have said, ‘Yes, Henry David Thoreau.’ ”
  5. “Pursue very specifically, in a slow and steady manner, some form of grassroots activism or organizing that you can do locally, but that might have national consequences.” Hillman joined the guerrilla theater / activist group “Code Pink” and she’s sitting down with politicians to try to get the California legislature to withdraw the state National Guard from Iraq.
  6. “The sixth point is the same as the first: attend to your spiritual practice to keep healthy and sane.”

I can’t say that I agree with all of Hillman’s conclusions, but I respect the thought she’s put in to this and the seriousness with which she considers the problem of what an activist is to do. Even more, I admire her for applying what she learned first to herself — going outside of her comfort zone and trying to take new and practical steps to make a difference.