Think back to a time about six years ago. Hillary Clinton was in Minnesota. While campaigning for president, she spoke with a voter in a Minneapolis coffeeshop. The voter, Stacey Rosana, spoke with a quiet voice that mingled with the sounds of the coffeeshop. Rosana started by reminding Clinton of past statements she had made in 1996. Clinton called Black children “superpredators” in an america where her husband was president. And that day in Minneapolis, Rosana asked Clinton, “have you changed?”
Clinton rattled off her plans and the support she’d received from the Somali community. Rosana dismissed that support as insufficient. “You know what, dear, we have a difference of opinion,” Clinton said. She named a Somali councilmember who she had met and is proud of. Rosana replied that he didn’t represent all Somali residents. Clinton replied, as the meeting cut short, “Well, why don’t you go run for something, then?”
I’ve been thinking about this exchange for years. I watched the video, no more than a minute long, dozens of times by now. It’s hard not to read Clinton’s comments as dismissive or condescending. Perhaps she was frustrated by the conversation. Maybe I’m interpreting her tone through a sexist lens. I don’t doubt that Hillary Clinton has tried to move on from the comments she made in 1996. I spent the election season wondering, like Stacey Rosana, if Clinton had changed. Even though I voted for her, Clinton lost that election in 2016. Stacey Rosana’s boss, future u.s. representative Ilhan Omar, won her own election two years later. And now, two presidents and a pandemic later, I’m still thinking about those words. Why don’t I run for something? Or (let’s be honest), what’s my own version of that?
the state of systems
We say all the time that the systems we live in are not broken: they are working exactly as designed. Those designs put the needs and desires of white people ahead of the needs and desires of everyone else. As I’ve learned more about the history of america and the history of work, I started to question my own place in the system.
I began to realize that as I am a part of the system, I can’t fix it by myself. I learned that even with other people’s support, we could only fix a system that is willing to change. Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s book As We Have Always Done helped me to see the even bigger picture. She wrote, “settler colonialism will always define the issues with a solution that reentrenches its own power.” The same is true in organizations. Leaders often think only of remedies that keep themselves in charge.
But the revolution is already here. Though it would be so satisfying, the people who did this to us may never face the consequences of their actions. Betasamosake Simpson discusses two options when facing settler colonial oppression. We can protest: raise our concerns to the appropriate governing body and lobby for change. Or we can refuse to play a rigged game by creating our own. The Iroquois Nation created their own passports to travel overseas from Canada. They rejected the need for a passport from a nation that surrounds but will never consume them.
Betasamosake Simpson writes, “What happens when we build movements that refuse colonial recognition as a starting point and turn inwards, building a politics of refusal that is generative?” Reject the system by generating something else. But how do we avoid recreating another oppressive system? How do we learn from the mistakes of our predecessors?
Within these options is a term charged with possibility: grounded normativity. Indigenous scholar Glen Sean Coulthard coined the term in his book, Red Skin, White Masks. Here’s what I understand about grounded normativity. Grounded normativity is a mindset that stems from the place where you are. It places ourselves as part of the world, rather than above it. We exist in a complex web of beings that interact and influence each other. Rather than bending the place to who you are, you’re drawing from the place to inform how you are. To me, grounded normativity means having respect for the people and the land around you. It’s an idea so alien to settler-colonial capitalism that I still have trouble holding these complete concepts in my mind.
Coulthard writes, “Place is a way of knowing, experience, and relating with the world. Indigenous ways of knowing often guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place.” When I think about creating something new, I am aware of entrenched power and the harm it has already caused. I strive to reject power that enriches itself at the expense of the powerless.
create your own thing
Though nothing is a binary, I face binary choices every day. I can organize a protest to change the world, or a neighborhood, or a company. Or I can put my efforts into something new. We can create something that is for us, that supports our needs, and our ways of doing things.
Here’s another binary: we can hire people from diverse communities to inform our plans. We can hire them to uphold the white supremacist bones at the heart of our organizations. We can extract their value until they get frustrated and reject this system for another one just like it. Or we can support the solutions that people create themselves.
We can push for leadership to stand down or abdicate their roles. Or we can create something new that we root to the places where we create it.
we are what’s next
It feels so terrifying to reject the status quo and start something new. It’s also incredibly liberating! What must it feel like to spend a career swimming against the current, only to have the current vanish one day? For some people who uphold the system we’re all used to, our data and ideas may never sway them. I’m willing to bet even those people are waiting for something better. Let’s show them what it could look like.