I’m a community organizer. The shibboleth of community organizing is “educate, agitate, organize.” Lay out the reasons behind the problem, get people pissed off about it and then work together to change the situation. It’s the opposite of social work, a field of work that identifies personal problems to correct rather than the “powers-that-be” that cause oppression.
One effective way for organizers to get a handle on the agitate part of the equation, to truly understand another’s oppression, is to focus on the oppression you may have faced in your life. Understand the disrespect and disenfranchisement in your own life–and allow yourself to truly feel the anger that oppression creates within you. This will allow you to help others to harness their anger and use it to to empower both themselves and their community.
I’ve always felt like I had to intellectualize this part of my professional training. Why? I’m The Man. Name a societal privilege and I’ve had it bestowed upon me–I’m a white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Ivy League college graduate, from a solidly middle-class family with a home in the suburbs, a two parent household, with a stay-at-home mother and a professional father. Currently, I’m a homeowner, happily married and we’re both employed. I’m empathetic toward suffering, but have faced no really serious societal problems. Or have I? I’ve been fat my entire life.
Now, being fat may not seem to be that much of a problem. But I am starting to realize that, despite my numerous privileges, my weight has been a challenge in my life. I’ve tried diets–both faddish and doctor approved. I’ve starved myself. I lose weight . . . for awhile. I usually gain back whatever I’ve lost, with a little extra for good measure.
I’ve been using the bullshit, social worker approach to being fat: Weight Watchers, Overeaters Anonymous, Jenny Craig, Slim Fast. I need to organize my fat self.
I’ve always been ashamed of my weight. I am a middle aged man and I still get embarrassed when I go into a restaurant and have to ask for a table because I know I can’t fit in a booth. I was filled with shame when a plastic lawn chair collapsed under me at a crowded party last summer. I get mad when I can’t even buy underwear at K-Mart because they don’t regularly carry my 3XL size.
I’ve been taunted about my weight since I was a boy. My mother (back in the pre-feminist 1960’s and 70’s) specifically taught me how to do laundry and cook since she told me that I’d never get married and have a wife for these chores. My friends called me a fat piece of shit and worse. I never once asked a girl out on a date in high school for fear of rejection and shame about my weight. My father (despite my honor roll grades, yearbook editorship and varsity tennis letter) openly wondered if my only saleable commodity was being “a nice guy.”
Only recently, I’ve discovered the online presence of the fat acceptance movement and realized that I am not alone. (special thanks to Lovethyfatness!) I’m starting to understand that my problems are faced by numerous others. I’m thankful to those fat people who have, through their brave insistence on their own worth and dignity, have helped me to stop thinking of myself as damaged and to stop judging myself so harshly. I am trying to stop internalizing the hate and nastiness that so many people have projected on me for years.
So, as a fat person, I guess I’ve gotten a jump start on the educate part of the organizing paradigm. I’m more accepting of myself, I’ve learned a lot about focusing on one’s health instead of just trying to shed pounds–the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement.
I’ve certainly got the agitate part down, amazed at the depth of hatred and loathing for fat people that exists. I’m still amazed that, before this recent journey of self discovery, I never picked up on something as obvious as the hatred of fat people embedded in the show “The Biggest Loser.”
That leads us to the final step–organize. I’m starting to unlearn all the shame and self-hatred. I’m learning that it’s OK to be angry for all the crap that I’ve had to endure–and to be angry for all those still suffering. Now is the important step. As Lesley Kinzel eloquently puts it in her book Two Whole Cakes:
Anger is a normal response to being told that one’s efforts, often spanning one’s whole adult life, have been meaningless. The anger can be all encompassing—every article, every comment—become an attack not only on one’s own body but on nonconforming bodies everywhere … Once we recognize injustice we see it everywhere and we are furious. It’s what we do with our fury that matters.