Four Frameworks for Living Liberation
By: Trish Adobea Tchume, Director of Liberatory Leadership Practice & Sterling Network Organizer, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This piece originally appeared in Nonprofit Wakanda Quarterly (NWQ). NWQ is the online home for "Imagining a Nonprofit Wakanda" - an articulation project that creates space for self-identified Black/African Diasporic leaders/dreamers to share their vision for a New York City and a sector that centers Black lives and works to protect, celebrate, and secure prosperous, beautiful Black futures.
This post took me too long to write and I couldn't figure out why. I wanted this piece to focus on what for me is a clear concept:
Liberation is a practice. We have to live it everywhere we are and everywhere we go.
But when I look at the people, the teachings, and the frameworks that led me to both this clear concept and the actual practice of this concept, I realize that there are just so many. While abundance is a good thing for living liberation, it creates a challenge for crafting a 1500 word essay that makes sense to the people living outside of my brain and my experience. Please consider this an initial, loving offering.
“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” - Angela Davis
Framework 1 for Living Liberation: Transformative Organizing. One lie many of us tell ourselves is that it is the system solely that holds us back from living our most liberated lives. So the focus of our frustration and, by extension, our organizing is external: we focus on our government and our legislators. We focus on our organizations and our bosses. While it’s true that these structures create the conditions of our oppression, Transformative Organizing as a framework recognizes that we have to work for liberation from both societal oppression (an external, extractive political economic system) and from suffering (the internal response to external conditions we face). Both structures and ourselves must be engaged for liberation.
Or as my friend, organizer Shaketa Redden puts it, “You don’t want to be all stank when we get to liberation.”
Transformative Organizing is rooted in four principles that help to remind me of all the levels that must be engaged to move fully toward liberation. Transformative organizing...
- ...begins with self-awareness in recognizing habitual behaviors that influence how we show up and create positive impact.
- ...requires the intentional practice of new ways of being.
- ...requires envisioning the kind of society we seek in the long-term that traverses the personal, organizational, movement or field, and societal.
- ...requires ideological, strategic, and mass-based organizing.
Framework 2 for Living Liberation: Just Transition. I was introduced to the Just Transition framework at a Facing Race conference in 2018, and it immediately resonated with me because it is so honest. In the same way that the Transformative Organizing framework encourages us to confront and work to free our individual selves from the ways we have internalized oppression, the Just Transition framework pushes us to be honest about the ways that we are actually dependent on harmful or extractive systems. It is a strategic framework that was developed by Indigenous communities and has been adopted by transformative justice groups like Movement Generation as a way of broadly mapping the steps for moving from dependence on these harmful systems to interdependence with each other.
Philanthropy and the nonprofit sector are not only the spaces through which I have worked for justice for my entire career, they are also the spaces that support my and my extended family’s livelihood - including family back in Ghana. I am, like so many people I know, love, and respect, fully dependent on these systems that are both extractive and in many ways, work against the justice we seek for our communities. A Just Transition framework recognizes that, because of this conundrum, it is not possible to simply abandon current systems and magically arrive in new, liberated systems. It offers us a strategy to guide our work in this current moment - the space between the old world and the new. And it’s become how I try to shape my own life and livelihood:
Stop the bad & Divest from their Power. Yes we are working within giant systems or complex organizations, but within those systems and organizations, there are a set of policies and decisions that are within my sphere of influence or control. Where I work, this includes everything from weighing in on our endowment investment strategy to how I treat other Black women on staff. In these spaces, even if I don’t have the power to do the most liberatory thing, can I at the very least stop our/my worst practices and create new, even small centers of power?
Build the New & Invest in Our Power. Often our commitment to even the harmful status quo comes from a lack of vision for what else might be possible for us. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that in my places of work, I’ve been given space and resources to not only name what is not working about philanthropy and (in my case) leadership development, but to also create demonstration projects that offer a small window into what else might be possible. A team of us at the Center for Community Change developed the The Calling In and Up curriculum, as a new approach to supporting the leadership of women of color organizers who were stifled by traditional organizer training programs is one example.
Framework 3 for Living Liberation: Creating Liberated Zones. One of the things I’ve learned over my years as an organizer, facilitator and leadership development practitioner is that a whole system or organization might not be ready for transformation, but you can usually find a little nook that can be shaped for this purpose. I’ve taken to referring to these spaces as “liberated zones,” a concept inspired by so many revered teachers and organizers from Ella Baker to Paulo Friere to Octavia Butler to Ed Whitfield and George Lakey. A liberated zone is a space where we create the conditions to try on new ways of being with each other. In our Women of Color leadership development spaces, it meant inviting in a set of rituals, cultural aesthetics, and program elements that helped untether the women from their limiting beliefs once they entered in, and encouraged them to step into their strategic imagination. But this can also extend to the organizational setting. In some of my work spaces, this has meant focusing on the behaviors and approaches of our team - creating and holding our own standards for success, affirmation, joy, and trust - then piquing the curiosity of the rest of the organization by modeling a new possibility.
Living Liberation Framework 4: Making myself “Politically at home.” For reasons that are not exactly clear to me, there has been a great deal of conversation over the past several weeks about the distinction between our jobs and our political homes. The brilliant Lutze Segu (aka “The Social Justice Doula”) wrote a piece recently, reminding us that even organizations that claim to be working for social justice can just be places where we collect our paycheck. In a recent podcast, the equally brilliant Ana Polanco invites us to reconsider what it means to “bring our whole selves” to work. These pieces are by women who feel a deep sense of love and protection for us, their movement comrades, and wish for us not to sacrifice our wholeness for spaces that cannot fully honor or hold us.
I have worked and entered into many of these spaces, whether they are places of employment, panels, funder meetings, even movement gatherings. While there are groups and spaces that I feel truly grateful to identify as my political homes as adrienne maree brown describes, I also seek to feel “politically at home” in every space that I am in. What this means for me is that while the space may not support my values or sense of self, I am able to remain rooted in my dignity and my politics and stay on purpose. Some small practices that support this rooting are introducing myself or responding to questions in ways that place my culture and politics ahead of whatever credentials this space values. When facilitating or speaking on a panel, I let people know that I am the daughter of Gladys Amoabea Tchume and the granddaughter of Augustina Ekua Amoah. When I am triggered in a space, I pause and remind myself that I am a commitment to living and leading with radical self-love, and that my purpose is to hold space for others to do the same. Similar to the notion of liberated zones, these practices not only offer me a way of feeling politically at home when I’m not in my political home, they create enough of a disruption in the status quo to invite others to do the same.
These are just a few of the mentors and the frameworks that are helping me to live into this concept of living liberation everywhere I am and everywhere I go. I’ll leave it here for now with an offering from lifelong activist and philosopher, Grace Lee Boggs. In her book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century, she shares:
“As Jimmy Boggs used to remind us, revolutions are made out of love for people and for place. He often talked about loving America enough to change it. 'I love this country,' he used to say, 'not only because my ancestors' blood is in the soil but because of what I believe it can become.' Love isn't just something you feel. It's something you do everyday when you go out and pick the paper and bottles scattered the night before on the corner, when you stop and talk to a neighbor, when you argue passionately for what you believe in with whoever will listen, when you call a friend to see how they're doing, when you write a letter to the newspaper, when you give a speech and give 'em hell, when you never stop believing that we can all be more than what we are. In other words, Love isn't about what we did yesterday; it's about what we do today and tomorrow and the day after.”
Trish is a first generation Ghanaian-American, a social and racial justice advocate, facilitator and trainer. She currently works as the Director of Liberatory Leadership Practice and the Sterling Network Organizer for the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation in New York City. Outside of work, Trish is a proud auntie, a beach stan, and spends her time contributing to a future that includes all of us via the board of Change Elemental, membership in the Central Brooklyn Food Coop, development of Calling In and Up: A Pedagogy for Women of Color Organizers, and Project Truth and Reconciliation.