I attended the Hope for the Future Conference, a gathering for Mennonite people of color and white “allies,” held January 23-25 in Ft. Myers, Florida. The main objective of the conference was identifying different forms of power and how it operates, particularly in institutions. One thing I learned from the conference is that power as a concept and in practice is very fluid. Power can be used and exercised in many ways: sometimes it can be blatant, and other times it can be hidden or invisible.
I particularly enjoyed working together with other voices of color within the Mennonite world. I had the privilege of extensively talking and engaging with people such as Tony Brown, Erica Littlewolf, Ewuare Osayande and many others. Each of those individuals named are doing outstanding work within the institutions and communities they represent. They helped me take a step back and reflect about my own activism after seeing how they undertake their work in a complete and thorough way. After all, I am a college student and they have a lot more experience when it comes to dealing with forms of oppression and empowering others.
This conference also taught me the concept of problematization, which I was able to use to analyze some of my own work and action amidst the realities and expectations of institutional values and how that translates to functioning life for everyday humans.
Problematization is a critical thinking process that involves setting aside the status quo or accepted belief of a given situation to analyze the larger context in which that situation occurs. Rather than evaluating the pros or cons or assigning sound bites as our society attempts to do, this process draws back from the situation for re-evaluation and reflection. This can lead to insight and a move towards transformation of the belief or situation.
Using my recent activism as an example, I will attempt to apply the concept of problematization here. In late November, I helped organize a protest in Goshen in the wake of the Ferguson, MO grand jury declining to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the murder of Michael Brown. On the cover of The Goshen News the next day, the newspaper headline read, “Peaceful Protest.” Only now do I see the damage that was done by the headline. Was it written as a reassurance for its readers that Goshen was not subject to violence and looting while Ferguson was burning? My initial aim with the demonstration was to be in solidarity with the people of Ferguson and with African-American people as a whole, due to the sad truth that our issues and perspectives simply are not received or understood. Instead I am shown as the antidote to a minority of Ferguson protestors who chose to loot, the very same people I was attempting to reach out to. Martin Luther King Jr. put it best, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”
Rather than attempt to hear and report the perspectives of these unheard voices, the media chooses to deem people who result to property destruction as senseless looters, perpetuating a dehumanization of black folks that is as American as the 4th of July. And I, a biracial 19-year-old who identifies as African American, am being held as a beacon to what a proper protester looks like. I must also consider the context of where I am and with whom I am associated: a predominantly white, Mennonite institution which affords me a platform that conveys moral privilege over people I consider to be my own who experienced traumatizing systemic inequality first hand.
The Goshen Police Department wants to convene a talk between them and we who protested in November. The more and more I have been in talks about this, the more I see outside forces shaping the structure of this conversation for an agenda that seems out of loop with the demonstrations. All of a sudden my ideas and input for the conversation are disregarded and not taken very seriously by those very same outside forces that were not involved in the demonstration. My suggestions of inviting particular leaders of color in the Mennonite institution are grossly dismissed. All of a sudden the interpretation of the conversation is one that should be held only within members of the Goshen community, which does not reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement.
On the flip side, I wonder if those outside forces would post mine or any other protesters’ bail had we been arrested for an issue that is being ignored in the formation of these talks. I’m also skeptical of the GPD and their motives in wanting to talk. Are they just trying to cover themselves and shame us for protesting institutional violence towards blacks? What is their objective, and who does it benefit? As each day goes by, I am feeling less inclined to participate in these talks. After all, I’ve only been in the Goshen community the last year and a half and I have many more pressing questions.
Will our city leaders ever formally apologize and acknowledge the ugly truths of Goshen’s historic sun-down laws that did not allow blacks to settle in this city? A few weeks after the November protest, someone wrote a letter criticizing me personally and other protestors for participating in the demonstration. I wrote back and offered to meet with him, and now he is calling all the shots and setting all the parameters for the meeting. I am skeptical of meeting with this individual because I don’t want to feed into his power complex as a white man with the most say in a negotiation (dates back to Columbus). We will have to meet under circumstances that will support both of our comfort.
All of these are things I have to weigh and spend a lot of time considering. It is tough when your image is used in direct opposition with who you really stand with. It is tough when your work and the conversations you hope to stimulate get rearranged by people outside of the protest for reasons that will reveal itself with time. I have no doubt in my mind that all of the protesters including myself did a great job of giving this issue a good platform in this community but I’m caught in a pickle. I still believe the demonstration was collectively an empowering experience and action shared among all of the protesters. I welcome all who protested and any others interested to continue work together with sensitivity to how our message gets across. Hopefully people outside of the protest will be respectful and mindful of our work when it comes to organizing conversations from here on out. With that being said, I utilized problematization to weigh everything that has happened, I have come to a realization: Maybe I should put more time investing in the people with whom I stand in solidarity with. The road is long but I will endure. Let the journey begin.