On feminist organizing | Lola Olufemi

Image credit: Steve Parkinson

In Cambridge, activism takes many forms; from planning direct action to photo campaigns in JCRs and craftivism to the work of the autonomous campaigns who put on events that centre the voices of the most marginalized. Students are always finding creative ways to push back against the bounds of an oppressive institution, to think beyond the tradition that it was founded on. But, this requires perseverance and perseverance can take a toll. Students juggle their work and organizing and their unpaid labour often goes unrecognized by the institution. Students who organise have asked themselves more than once, “How can we exist inside an institution built on structures that are fundamentally oppressive?” “Why organise when we are systematically silenced and erased?” I have asked myself these same questions. Why is perseverance important and what does it look like? Why is feminist and decolonial work necessary?

Students carry on organizing because they care, because the cause is important, because they understand that feminist and decolonial work is justice work and is therefore a necessity. Organising becomes a means for expressing dissatisfaction, an expression of the need for a more equitable society. Sarah Ahmed situates the need for perseverance under a framework for willfulness – determination in the sense of deliberateness of action, and also in the sense of self-determination. In her new book, ‘Living a Feminist Life’ she provides a framework for willfulness, she argues that willful subjects are obstructive; they become the problem because they refuse to ignore the problem. They are persistent, they reoccur, they refuse to be buried. Student organizers are willful subjects. They make themselves deliberately obstructive because they understand that the system should not be allowed to continue in a way that is unjust.

In a talk at the Women of the World Festival, feminist thinker and activist Angela Davis argued that challenging hegemonic structures requires an agreement with oneself to wholeheartedly embrace “hope.” She stressed that this hope is more than just an individual belief in the ability to overcome oppressive structures: it’s not about saying “I succeed and so can you” but rather about recognising the power of collective organising. Decolonial, feminist work is the work of those who understand hope not as an abstract feeling of expectation, but as a foundational belief in the possibility for change. It is necessary for the restoration of dignity to oppressed groups, for the redistribution of material resources and for the chance to live full and meaningful lives.

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I see perseverance as something deeply tied to this principle. It too, takes many forms. It is refusing to stop believing, a refusal to become cynical, a refusal to compromise. Perseverance does not have a model. It is the discretion of the individual that shapes it. It does not require us to work ourselves to the bone but to engage in small acts of resistance on a daily basis: speaking to friends, sharing an article, informing ourselves about global issues. Regardless of the outcomes of our organizing, whether we are alive to see our long or short term goals achieved; the fact that we organise, when others call our aims impossible or unattainable, situates us in a historical legacy of those who have also fought for transformative societies. We look to the past to understand the ways that we have succeeded and failed. We do not look to the past for a blueprint for the future, but to understand that the “hope” that Davis mentioned requires a commitment to fighting injustice even when the structures that surround us seem overwhelming and impenetrable.

The origins of this hope are multiple; philosophical, emotional but also rooted in the writings of the present and past. Some organise because it is necessary for their survival. Some organise because they recognize it is necessary for the survival of others. When we organise we often rely on the words of those who have challenged the maintenance of power in a number of different ways across disciplines. They remind us to keep going, to carry on in ways we had not thought possible.

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When Lorde tells us that:

[T]he strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame, but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.

We understand that this means that our feminist movements must be intersectional and constantly evolving. They must not shy away from rage in favour of palatability. Lorde too, hints at the need for perseverance. “The angers of women can transform difference through insight” – she is imploring us to keep moving, to carry on recognising our differences as women and non-binary people as the very thing that sustains the feminist movement. We turn back to these words as means of replenishing ourselves and our resistance. We listen.

When Amit Chaudri tells us that:

Decolonisation has to do with not only openly discussing the various transgressions, and shameful moments and ambitions, that comprise colonial history. It asks for a remedy that will cure us from viewing western history as a history of culture, science, and modernity, and non-western history solely as a history of conflict and race. It would make us hesitate before we situated western politics in a history of constant evolution and redefinition and non-western politics in a history of constant borrowing and reaction.

He situates decolonial thought in the process of transforming. He is asking us to flip hegemonic narratives on their head; to think differently about the world that has been presented to us. This too requires perseverance. We must fight against the instinct to mythologise the global south and instead locate the multiplicities of its history in order to forge a future where it is not solely defined by colonial brutalities and their consequences. This is decolonial work. Justice work.

Drawing from the works of academics and activists in the past and the present shows us that the labor of student activists does not exist in a vacuum. It is not expended without reward. We are adding to the histories we turn back to when we preserve. In the eyes of many, we are hope personified.

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