By Hénia Belalia, Truthout
Wise sister and civil rights organizer George Friday, once told me that “There are two paces to organizing for change: the speed with which our systems are collapsing and the slow intentional time that is necessary for deep movement building.”
Too often, the anxieties about the world’s problems lead to a hasty rush for solutions in which the slow time is compromised for the sake of moving actions, campaigns and institutional agendas forward. In that space, the complexities of systemic oppressions are overlooked, and the very inequalities that we are fighting to abolish continue to play themselves out.
With every excuse to deal with the micro aggressions later, because the crises of environmental and social degradation must take precedence, the same folks are made expendable and sacrificed. Every time an organization broadcasts their commitment to deep social change, while instead prioritizing one-dimensional results for their wealthy funders, the task of dismantling multilayered systems of destruction is lost in translation. With every instance by which the slow time is neglected, another voice is silenced, another experience is invisibilized – and history repeats itself.
Systems Rush Us
We exist within dominant and interconnected systems of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy that shape the world’s operations, as well as how we interpret and react to them.
Actually, the manipulation has gone one terrifying step further – one that we rarely pause to talk about. These power structures have become so deeply engrained in our psyches that, beyond instructing our thoughts and behavior, they have come to alter our relationship to time itself.
Over time, we’ve been conditioned to prioritize expediency, multitasking and constant production as measures of our fundamental self-worth. Carefully designed advertisements, social norms and school curricula are the primary tools employed to keep us invested in fast-paced lifestyles.
Meanwhile, in a world of 140-character Twitter updates and instant access to one another, Hollywood and Wall Street have crafted a global narrative to paint capitalism as the rightfully destined and most “natural” socioeconomic model. Within that story, any other culture that does not promote capital gain and unlimited material growth becomes insignificant, and therefore disposable. It allows the brutal colonial practices of large-scale theft of lands and resources and genocide of sovereign nations to be politically justified, while the populace is sedated by their daily dose of television.
The pace that has become second nature to us places little value on the slow time of transferring ancestral knowledge and wisdom that are actually key to our transition into a just and sustainable society. In this haste, many of the lessons from those who’ve come before us and those who continue to live by the planet’s natural cycles are intentionally disappeared.
Urgency Blinds and Breaks Us
By this token, fast-paced organizing often causes us to repeat the same mistakes that created this global mess in the first place – despite the best intentions. This looks like groups inviting a person of color onstage to take the mic, when no time was taken previously to build up trust for long-lasting relationships. It looks like big organizations holding anticapitalist banners at their rallies, while backstage they continue to be run by straight white cisgender men, with too few (or worse, no) indigenous peoples, women of color, queer or transgender folks standing in their ranks of power and decision making. It looks like loud voices of those with privilege screaming that they “get it” as they ironically overshadow the voices of the historically marginalized. What ensues is another action, conference or rally where the most disenfranchised communities are once more absent, silenced or tokenized for their contribution.
These scenarios don’t reflect that world we’re fighting for, because they rush through the processes themselves. They compromise the intentional time in which we could foster affinity, compassion and solidarity for different realities and lived experiences. They sacrifice the comprehensive dialogues that are key to our dismantling these violent cycles of oppression.
Our Very Instincts Have Come to Trick Us
Change isn’t only about the end result but, more importantly, about the journey and the processes that get us there. The survival of our species depends on us doing deep transformational work, both personal and political, on many levels: cultural, social and spiritual. In reality, we cannot reach our end result if the approaches themselves are flawed.
What we need most today are action plans rooted in the analysis that Kimberle Crenshaw coined intersectionality: how the interconnected complexities of our identities relate to the systems within which we exist. The labor of identifying, naming and deconstructing these interwoven layers will make us harder to please. The more we unlearn, the more we should expect of what we claim as our victories.
When our very instincts have been manipulated for centuries to uphold the status quo, it should be no surprise that the work ahead of us is no small feat – and that the process warrants its due time and diligence.
“I Am a Product of the System I Was Born to Destroy”
These words from English-Iraqi hip hop artists Lowkey resonate deeply, as I sit reflecting on my own experiences, struggling to tease out campaigns that have honored this slow time. Yet, I myself was born into a culture that continues to honor and hold onto age-old practices. A culture that I was trained to minimize and silence, despite it being my most rightful and valuable heritage.
Ironically, in the process of writing this very article, I resorted to my brainwashed instincts of rushing. As a starting point, I reached out to people I trust asking them to share with me where they have experienced or witnessed slow time in social change circles. The asking was not the issue, but my approach (of asking more people than I had time to follow up with in a deliberate and meaningful way) was flawed at best. In expecting their lived experiences to fit in the hasty question-and-answer format, I didn’t even measure the impact that my inquiry could have, especially given the labor it takes for some to (re)claim the slow time that has been repeatedly stolen from us. I found myself trying to collect a number of experiences that I hadn’t myself been through, in hopes of finding the perfect anecdotes to support my argument. In my blind rush, I was on the verge of sacrificing the process and consuming people I deeply admire and care about for the sake of a well-polished final product. With this harsh realization, I forced myself to slow down, to look inward at what I know. I took my own life as an example, how I’ve struggled to adopt slow time as a practice, as a means to care for myself, to survive and to become a better organizer.
Yet the Slow Time Is Within Us
Over the last couple of years, I have travelled home to Algeria – both literally and metaphorically – to sit with my people’s wisdom. There, I rediscovered slow time in one of our most mundane and important rituals: our cups of tea. The knowledge of my grandmother resides in the perfect balance of loose green tea, mint leaves and sugar, in the smell of makrouds from the kitchen, in the perfect pour as she gracefully serves those gathered in a circle. All of these gestures, sounds and smells now live in my body, only because they have survived generations of cultural colonization and genocide.
With this knowing, I have slowly disengaged from peoples, meetings, and organizations that continue to rush through the hard dialogues and sacrifice the safety of those most vulnerable. Instead, I started inviting people over for tea, and I have allowed those revealing conversations and conclusions to guide my work. From our kitchens, I deepen my understanding of the world, my own resolve, and my relationships to remarkable freedom fighters and land defenders. With every cup and with every step closer to the right pour, we sit with the hard conversations and the subtleties of the world around us, we plan our next moves, and we become better versions of the organizers we hope to be.
It was never really about me finding the slow time in other people – it was about slowing down enough to see it within myself. It was about breathing long enough to see that slow time lies at the heart of many people’s survival over time: in the creation, dreaming, reclamation and resistance. It lives in the circles, the gatherings, the prayers and the cups of tea – and if we pause long enough, we’ll hear the call clearly of those who will lead us through a global awakening and collective liberation.