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On Cynicism and Allyship: Doing the Work

By Poonam Dreyfus-Pai, BADP Co-Director
Originally posted on the CoreAlign blog

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about cynicism. With all the legislative restrictions happening in Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, and countless other states, it’s not surprising that many of us have been feeling discouraged. But it is a curious thing when the responses move from “nothing is working” to “nothing will ever work.” When the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a lower federal court’s injunction, thereby reinstating the admitting privileges provision of HB2, my Twitter feed was filled with people who dismissed this decision as emblematic of Texas, of red and rural states, of a system mired in a truly “anti-women” agenda. What’s worse is that many of these nay-sayers are themselves advocates, people who care about expanding abortion access. These advocates were unsurprised at the turn of events, and expected nothing more.

It is too easy to get stuck at this place of lowered expectations; it is also dangerous. For one thing, it alienates the thousands of people who worked to advocate against HB2 and similar rulings in other states: the people who organized, rallied, protested, fundraised, testified, voted, and provided on-the-ground support to people seeking abortions. It dismisses their countless hours of hard work. It minimizes the very real challenges they faced in trying to do this hard work, with constrained resources and a hostile political climate. Quite frankly, the very last thing that these advocates and organizers need is the cynicism of their supposed allies. “I told you so” is not welcomed in any space.

 Because what is cynicism, really? Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under the first Clinton administration and current Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, refers to cynicism as one of the “four horsemen of the work avoidance apocalypse.” In other words, cynicism is one way people manage not to do the work that needs to be done. The work is hard, no doubt – it is far easier for us to list the barriers and complain than it is to come up with creative, innovative solutions. When the barriers grow, and the onslaught feels constant, it becomes that much more challenging to find ways to overcome them. But this is the trap: cynicism in and of itself is one more barrier, one more obstacle to getting work done. Cynicism comes from a feeling of deep powerlessness, and a fear of vulnerability. It stops us in our tracks. It stops us from taking needed risks.

So how do we overcome cynicism? What work should we be doing, and how do we get re-inspired? For this, I take you directly to the example of the groups in Texas: these are the groups that have had every right to feel discouraged when the game was changed at the 11th hour. They were already fighting for months. And yet they are not stopping. Though the restrictions of HB2 have forced several abortion clinics to stop providing services, these providers, organizers, advocates, community members are working to build partnerships between groups and clinics, fundraising to help people get the abortions they seek, and are working actively with the ACLU to petition the Supreme Court. These are small but important victories that are worth noting.

And Texas is just one of several states who have been working to keep people committed and fired up in the face of extreme anti-abortion legislation– take Oklahomans for Reproductive Justice (OK4RJ), a group of young organizers who, for several years, have been advocating for the reproductive freedom of all people. Though the 20-week abortion ban has made it exceedingly difficult for people to get needed procedures in Oklahoma, OK4RJ has not let cynicism get in the way of their work. Instead, in February 2014, they will partner with the University of Oklahoma to host the 4th annual Take Root conference, intended to engage students, organizers, practitioners, advocates, and community members from red and rural states around issues of reproductive justice. Because the emphasis on the red state regional perspective is often missing in national conferences, Take Root aims to highlight this perspective and bridge this gap. At a time when people are saying, “why bother?,” participants at Take Root will instead ask, “what can be done, and how we can do it together?”

If they can keep going, then those of us who consider ourselves allies – particularly those of us living on the coasts or in blue states – should be fighting, too: fundraising, sharing resources, sharing support. We have no reason not to do this work, and every reason to keep at it.

So we must celebrate the small victories. We who live in more amenable political climates must do what we can to support the work of those living in harsher realities. And, perhaps most importantly, we must move beyond a place of fear – fear of failure, fear of vulnerability – into a place of social entrepreneurship. We must recognize, validate, and support the tireless risk-taking, resilience, and innovation of our allies in red and rural states, and let those lessons inspire us as we think about the long game. This is what I personally love about CoreAlign’s 30 year visioning plan  – having a creative, long-term vision allows us to fit these restrictive legislations within a much larger context, one in which we can also see the victories. It allows us to be imaginative, to ask questions about our goals for creating a more just world, to work collaboratively across states and borders, across generations and identities. We’ve no right to be cynical when there is so much work to be done.

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