Radical Vulnerability: Towards Stronger Alliances

Radical Vulnerability: Towards Stronger Alliances

Elyse Gordon, University of Washington, Department of Geography

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. Brene Brown

Alliance work means building trust through radical vulnerability. It is compiling the fragments of our journeys. Paraphrased from Richa Nagar, Keynote Address at the 2014 Critical Geography Conference in Boulder, CO.

What does it mean to be in alliance?

A simple question, you might say. Alliances are partnerships, relationships between two or more parties that share a common goal. They work together to achieve that goal.

Let me paint a scene of one such possible alliance:

A local tenant’s union is organizing a campaign to raise awareness of the violence of gentrification. A university professor has worked on gentrification for 15 years, and is eager to ally with the union to provide resources. A local middle-income resident who has felt threatened by creeping rents finds out about the union and decides to start attending meetings and organizing efforts, but doesn’t join the union.

The university professor might think they have some expert knowledge to share on this issue, given that they have researched it and written extensively about gentrification for a third of their life. Yet, have they experienced the processual nature of these practices? The creeping in of bourgeois businesses? The escalating rents? The ubiquity of white folks where once there were few? Have they worried about their ability to pay rent as developers and landlords continue the pursuit of capital? Have they feared their 4-unit apartment building being torn down to make way for a new urbanist condo complex? Likely not. It is possible, but likely not.

The unaffiliated neighborhood resident is familiar with the processes listed above, but they have not felt compelled to join the union. Better to test the waters first before committing to a more radical organizing strategy. But, this resident has been sparking conversation with their neighbors and colleagues, bringing the topic of gentrification to audiences who might otherwise cast it as an inevitable process.

The union is wary of the professor, but eager to have access to the resources that come with a university affiliation. They have been leveraging a large organizing campaign, and being able to reach the university setting more directly is a huge asset. They value the copy-editing and organizational skills of the professor, but dislike the idea of being a staging ground for research. They have work to do on the ground, and are more interested in having local residents buy in and support the work. But, then again, more bodies in the room means more interest and traction around the gentrification concern. They’re not going to turn anyone away.

Alliances are fragile, in negotiation. They are not static relationships, but rather ones built on trust and circumstances. Rather than an alliance perhaps we can think of the process of developing and negotiating ally-ship. This suggests that the experiences of risk and the shared goals will inevitably shift over time.

Let’s revisit the example listed above.

Our middle-income neighborhood resident has been enthralled in the work, and eager to spend time organizing and contributing with the tenant’s union. They feel inspired, and they’ve been learning an enormous amount about community organizing principles, and about the lived experiences of gentrification.

But then, our resident recently got a hefty promotion at work. They now make enough money that the concern for paying rent is rendered minimal. And the new expectations at their office meant they had less time to commit to the gentrification awareness campaign.

This is an excellent example of the constant negotiation of ally-ship. The resident’s availability diminished, as did their incentive. Most importantly, so did their risk.

Ally-ship is built on the sharing of risk. This risk will always be uneven, because it reflects the same uneven power geometries in which we already exist. Tenants at high risk of losing their apartments due to gentrification have more at stake than a university professor who is intrigued by the organizing campaign. However, the professor is not free from risk. Their work might be devalued in the academy. Perhaps the politics of the organization make them question their own privileged position, thus opening them up to the risk of letting go of privilege. Maybe the time they commit to the organizing work means less time on teaching and administrative requirements, or perhaps less time with family. Either way, there is risk involved, even if it is not the same.

It is in the admittance of this risk that alliances build trust. It is in saying, “I have something to lose, but I choose to be here, anyway.” It is in saying, “I know you have something to lose, and I know my stakes aren’t the same, but I’m here with you.” It is in saying, “I have no idea how to do this work, and I am ok with failure. I am here to learn, not prescribe.” It is in saying, “I just made a mistake. I’m sorry. How can we move forward?” It is in saying, “I have doubts. Don’t you? Can we make that productive, rather than cynical?” It is in saying, “How is your family? Here is a story about mine.” It is in saying, “I recognize that my job makes me complicit with oppressive power relations. But I don’t want that to prevent me from also acting. Will you have me at the table to work alongside you in a common struggle to diminish those power relations as best we know how?” It is in saying, “I’m here. I’m showing up. I’m flawed, but I’m here.”

Richa Nagar, a feminist scholar at the University of Minnesota, calls this radical vulnerability. She argues that this is the only way to do the work of alliance politics. It is to reflect deeply on one’s own flaws and shortcomings, accept that these are part of what makes us human and whole, and then being able to articulate and share these.

Too often, those of us in positions of relative power, say, embedded in universities, might fear sharing our vulnerabilities because we know our stakes in the game, our risk, are often less than those with whom we seek ally-ship and how dare we try to compare our risk to that of a tenant facing possible eviction?

However, if we silence this awareness, we also diminish the potential to empathically connect with our allies. Nagar would urge us that regardless of the stakes, it is important to share the fragments of our own journeys that illustrate our humanity. The connection fueled by this shared humanity, the inherent messiness, is the basis for trust. It is the basis for alliance.

An ethic of care helps illustrate how to engage such a conversation. She recognizes that, “individuals act politically, then, not only on the basis of their self-interests, but as a result of the particular constellation of caring relationships and institutions in which they find themselves” (1995, 142). As a relatively privileged participant in the academy, how might I share my own stories of caring relationships as fragments of the journey that shaped my interest and commitment to my current alliances?

As Brene Brown, a social work scholar and unofficial life coach, has shared, it is in vulnerability that we allow for great creativity and change. If our ally-ships are inspired by visions for more just power relations, for less oppression, for a greater awareness of intersectional identities, for recognizing the ways poverty is produced and sustained, then we must embrace our own vulnerability, and practice the uncomfortable art of sharing that, to lay a strong foundation for trust, ally-ship, and change.

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