Giving without expectation, requesting without shame

On no longer going it alone


It is the end of March in Milwaukee, which means that the snow has melted and some days are extremely lovely but some are damp or windy or otherwise unpleasant, but even on those less-fun days the sun is still out past 6:00 PM and your kids still love it when you monster-chase them around the playground.

It is the end of March in America, which means that an ever-increasing flood of people whom I love have shots in their arms, but even though my text histories are filled with so many exclamation marks and even though I will never get tired of everybody’s pictures with that same little card, we’re all still a certain percent terrified that it might not be enough.

It is the end of March in our very weird world, which means that big clumsy boats will eventually get unstuck from canals but damn if it isn’t true that you can’t get a big clumsy boat unstuck from a canal if you don’t get it stuck there in the first place.

Everything is beautiful and full of possibility and everything is still a mess. We have all the tools we need but sometimes it feels like they’re all just laying there in a pile in front of us and the instructions are in a language we don’t understand.

And you know what? That’s not bad news, actually. There is joy in the not-quite-knowing. There is delight in half-hopes. Even clumsy steps can still move you forward.

Like most of us, I only have so many unique pieces of go-to advice that I believe in deeply enough to share with others. If you’ve been here for a while, you’ve heard most of it already: the mess we’re in isn’t just about racial bias or unchecked privilege, it’s about our worship at the altar of white rugged individualism. We can’t shame or shun other white people out of this mess we’re in. If we’re not going to muck up collective liberation efforts, white people actually have to start taking responsibility for each other as if we were a real community. I mean, I named my organization '"Barnraisers,” you all. Death to subtext. Long live text.

Also like most of us, half the time when I give that advice, I feel like a sham. I may have named my scrappy little organizing effort in honor of a general sense of neighborly care, but my own history working for and in organizations found me too often devolving into the exact opposite of all that. I’ve chased hierarchy and titles. I’ve prioritized relationships (with donors, colleagues, partners, etc.) either implicitly or explicitly based on what they might be able to do for me. I bought into a story of both triumphs and pitfalls as all being of my own creation. I overworked myself to the point of not actually having any time for the people who lived right next door to me.

And though I’ve talked a big game about mutual aid over the past few years, in practice that’s often meant passively donating to various GoFundMe campaigns with de rigueur branding. While I’ve loved the concept deeply (in her recent Atlantic piece on the subject, Annie Lowrey waxes optimistically about “the idea…that everyone in a community has needs and resources and that a little organization can help the two ends meet” and how radical of a break that is with our traditional notion of charity), I’ve wondered if I personally had the juice to live it out in practice.

Sometimes, when we’re scared that we’re going to really bad at something, we’re totally and completely right. Just sometimes though.

As many of you know, a big chunk of my time is spent running these virtual anti-racist organizing cohorts focused on white communities (a quick, inelegant promotional note: there’s a new one starting in April, registration is open through Thursday and they’re actually quite fun). I decided to make them free on the front end, which is the opposite of the advice you get when this is your new job and you’ve saved up some money in case this fails but it’s not all the money in the world and your children, to your chagrin, continue to expect to be clothed and fed. My thinking was at least some degree practical— I wanted to enable participants to give to Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab and Indigenous activists in their area instead. There was another element to it too, though, a force function to make sure I related to the various big-hearted learners who came my way as a community rather than customers. I told participants at the outset, “when this is all said and done, if you found this useful AND you’re in a position to help in one way or another- either financially or as a volunteer— please consider doing so.” But otherwise, I didn’t focus on it. Most participants probably forgot about that request altogether, which is fine. I taught the class and delighted in my new community and tried to deliver the gift I promised them with vim, vigor and fidelity.

You all, it’s been a delight of an experiment. Not for nothing, it has changed my orientation to all these amazing people who’ve joined my cohorts. It’s helped me get further out of those old nasty brain habits that told me, in past teaching gigs, that my job was to be the expert and authority figure. Instead, it’s made me remember that right now, at this moment, I do have something to share with others, some combination of content and energy and personal attention. That’s different from being the leader, because implicit on the back end of “I can offer this right now” is an ellipsis, an admission that after I get done sharing that specific gift, I also need a lot of help.

And yes, people have lent a hand in an overwhelming number of ways. Many have pitched in financially (all commensurate to their ability but collectively much more than I was expecting). Others have volunteered a stone’s soup worth of talents: web development, database management, coaching, strategic advice, connections, graphic design, social media support, etc., etc., etc. A whole bunch of folks have offered their earnest friendship— they’re the kind of people who now text back “hell yeah, buddy” when they see my picture with that little card. Still others have offered really catalytic and honest feedback (including pushes to better clarify what kind of gifts would be helpful).

Equally important and necessary though— some haven’t offered anything in return, which also feels really good. It may be because they don’t have time or flexibility, or perhaps because the class wasn’t valuable. They don’t owe me an answer. If they did, it would belie the spirit of my offering in the first place. They already gave me a gift by accepting mine. In the same spirit, so many of those who’ve offered gifts my way have done so with the grace and generosity to not expect an immediate answer back from me (because sometimes it IS hard to get yourself organized enough to accept help).

It’s all been really beautiful.

The most incredible gift of all, though, is the way that past participants have welcomed me into their communities and stories. My inbox is now filled with newsletters updating me on their affordable housing organizing, texts about their upcoming city council campaigns, all caps cursing about a frustrating set-back with a cousin or exclamatory recountings of successful neighborhood gatherings. As somebody who, more than anything else, is hungry for evidence that our collective community-building muscles haven’t fully atrophied, my cup has been overflowing.

The message here is not Local Man Is Hero For Sending A Donation Link After His Courses. It’s that the patterns I’m needing to unlearn are pernicious as all get out, but that the steps in the opposite direction aren’t, as it turns out, that daunting. And now that I’m experiencing my own experiment in mutual aid, my eyes are better attuned to see other examples that were hiding in plain sight this whole time. I’m realizing that far more people than I previously noticed have moved away from seeing their neighbors as customers or charity cases. They’re done asking “I feel guilty about ______ bad thing, how can I give back?” and are instead wondering “what do I love and how can I offer it with dignity?” or “what do I need and how can I request it without making it weird?”

Some of those lovely efforts are officially branded as “mutual aid” but many aren’t. Most are humble and organic: the friend who barters haircuts for favors in Oakland, the nursing home director in D.C. who responded to her staff’s vaccine skepticism not with bribes and penalties but with patient listening, my own neighbors who love Halloween so much that they make sure all the kids on the block get the best goodie bags around (whoopie cushions! our kids got whoopie cushions!). If you’ve read Heather Mcghee’s The Sum Of Us, you’ll see it all over the stories from Lewiston, Maine in that book’s final chapter— Mcghee holds up the old mill town’s growing movement to welcome refugees and support common-good policies, noting that many of those folks got involved because they themselves were seeking something— community, French lessons, a more vibrant Main Street— and it was from that initial seeking that they stumbled onto something bigger than themselves.

We are not evil, us human beings. Even those of us whose identities carry with them more privilege, power and threat. It took thousands of years of rotten systems to rob us of our ability to be human to one another— to both offer gifts freely and to ask for help without fear. And while terms like mutual aid can feel daunting and gatekeepery, we know how to do this. Our relearning will be clumsy. It will feel far too small in the face of what we’re up against. There will be fumbling and bumbling and boats stuck in canals. But we will still move forward. We do, as it turns out, know how to do this. We just have to do it together.

End notes: I’m rarely shy in sharing what you can do for me. I’ve used this space to request donations to various groups, to ask you to spread the word about Barnraisers, to join a cohort, etc. And yes, those requests will always be there.

Here’s what I don’t do enough, though. I don’t ask what you need as well. I know I don’t know the vast majority of you personally (there’s a lot more of you than there used to be! another gift!) and I’m sometimes slow on inbox replies, but please know that if there’s anything you need or a different way I can be in community with you— both long-time readers and folks who just got this weird newsletter forwarded their way— I’m all ears. Just toss me an email.

This week’s song “Long Long Time” by The Versatiles