For a long time, I did not think I was an activist. I could not match my perceptions of activism with my own reality. I thought activists were energetic, megaphone-wielding extroverts with larger-than-life personalities. I pictured speeches rousing masses and marchers chanting in the faces of oncoming police.
I am a quiet and introspective person. I came to life as a political being in Washington, DC, where I did my best to become a revolutionary rabble-rouser, only to find that I could not fit myself into that mold. When I moved back home to Grand Rapids, Michigan, I found space for my quiet activism. Here I am learning the art of introverted leadership, and my journey has shown me that stories and long-term relationship-building comprise the foundation of any successful grassroots movement. Luckily, Grand Rapids is a great place for listening and developing friendships.
A Big, Small Town
I think of Grand Rapids as a big, small town. Our city is growing rapidly. There is no shortage of new things to see and people to meet, but when you walk into a coffee shop, you will most likely run into someone you know. As our city grows, it is becoming more progressive. It is hard to miss the ever-increasing presence of rainbow flags and “Black Lives Matter” yard signs. Unfortunately, these shining symbols often cover up deep issues of discrimination and gentrification in our community. Still, we are a shifting people and I have hope for continued progress.
Having lived in Washington, DC, for a few years, I am grateful for the home I have found in Grand Rapids culture. Relationships in DC often feel transactional – find out what people do and build your bubble accordingly. In Grand Rapids, my conversations usually start with something like – “How is your day?” “Are you enjoying the sunshine?” “I love your garden. Did you do it yourself?” My heart has opened up to a wide variety of people in this big, small town. I am a liberal, atheist, hater of athletics who has become close friends with ministers, Republicans and yoga instructors. Grand Rapids provides ample opportunity to step outside of my bubble.
Joys & Hardships of Hanging Out
Several memories stick out as examples of how Grand Rapids has taught me to become a whole person and a political activist.
In 2010, something big happened that changed the way local organizations worked together in Grand Rapids. The Affordable Care Act passed, transforming the world of healthcare, and organizations had to partner with one another to understand the law and get the community enrolled. As a volunteer enrollment counselor with Planned Parenthood at the time, I set my sights on working with Bethany Christian Services Refugee Program. This was particularly important given the fact that these two organizations had never worked together. It is common in Grand Rapids, a city with a large, faith-based nonprofit sector, to have tensions between faith-based and non-faith-based organizations. Building new bridges in this arena was a focus of my work at Planned Parenthood. We came together, at first nervous and skeptical, to discuss the pressing healthcare needs of immigrants and refugees in Grand Rapids.
Out of this conversation came an unlikely partnership. It became clear that we needed one another. We found a shared goal that bridged a deep divide, and we strengthened our relationship as joint education and enrollment began. We met in Bethany’s space. They recruited their clients who needed health insurance and we provided our expertise in the form of trained certified application counselors. It was a wonderful example of sharing space but dividing labor and leadership roles based on expertise.
We became friends, and since this was a difficult program, we shared joyful ups and heartbreaking downs. We faced technological challenges when the healthcare website broke down and computers wouldn’t work. We faced language barriers, having to arrange for translation for refugees who spoke rare languages and facing the task of explaining complicated processes in multiple languages. Most devastating, though, were the cases where the system itself was not built to cope with the unique challenges faced by these people and we had to turn them away or delay getting them help that they needed. Despite all of these challenges, each time one of our certified application counselors successfully enrolled a family in the health insurance program, we celebrated the accomplishment of a shared mission and felt deeply the impact that we were having on the lives of the people we were working with. We got to know over 100 people during enrollment, and their stories and friendships kept us going, challenging us to keep breaking down barriers.
Taking the time to listen and share stories builds political power. On a night shortly after the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado, I invited a group of Planned Parenthood and Black Lives Matter volunteers to my home. This was a difficult and personal conversation that did not need to happen in public. We came to my living room already knowing and trusting one another, but we also came very explicitly as community leaders who wanted to create change in local work and conversation. We sat in my little living room and talked for a couple of hours, delving into our dreams and nightmares as controversial activists. For a blip of time, my living room felt like a sanctuary floating above the world’s daily violence.
Of course, the world keeps spinning. Racism persists. Attacks on reproductive healthcare persist. I am humbled to be a part of these conversations, but they certainly are not enough. Conversations must eventually move toward action, but we have to start by slowing down and talking to one another. We need to hang out more.
Hanging out isn’t always a love-filled dreamscape. Sometimes, hanging out means you are going to be called out. As a board member of the local chapter of the National Organization for Women, I invited a renowned racial justice advocate, Chaka Holley, to be a part of our annual fundraiser. Chaka blew us all away with her intelligence, kindness and sense of humor. What I admire most about Chaka is her ability to speak hard truth in a way that opens up paths to friendship and hope. She called out the feminist community of Grand Rapids for failing to prioritize racial equity and inclusion within our organizations. This hurt for a lot of people in my feminist community, and we had many conversations about how to listen. Chaka gave us information that was necessary but hard to hear, so we needed to train our hearts to pay attention and objectively look at solutions posed, rather than getting defensive. These conversations made us better people and activists. Listening and hanging out isn’t always easy, but I think it pays off every time.
Sit down, Shut up, and Listen
With all that said, hanging out is not enough. We have to hang out and listen to one another. We miss too much when we are busy talking. We miss thoughts, values and experiences that have shaped our friends and neighbors. We will neither understand fault lines nor build bridges without deep listening.
We certainly need eloquent and extroverted leaders in our movements for social change, but we also need quiet movers and shakers. We need to value our listeners and storytellers in the same way we do our tireless figureheads. Activists who take the time to rest and form relationships through asking questions are pivotal to sustainable grassroots movements.
Forming relationships and sharing stories builds bridges and cultivates political power. I feel lucky to have learned this at a young age, and I look forward to a lifetime of introverted activism. After a long time of trying to fit myself into an activism mold that didn’t fit, I am proud to finally embrace my personality. I am quiet. I am a listener. I am a leader.
Editor’s Note: A longer version of this piece was included in the book Grand Rapids Grassroots: An Anthology, which is available here: http://beltmag.com/grand-rapids-grassroots-anthology-now-available/.
— Jenny Kinne