PART ONE: Reflections on Collective Responsibility
DAVID E WATTERS
Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?
– Martin Luther King Jr.
In order to successfully affect positive and lasting change, we must look at the broader range of platforms which activists are using to raise awareness about social injustice and, most importantly, we must find methods to learn from each other so that we might collectively collaborate across our various causes to accelerate progress for all minorities.
Over the course of this series of articles, it is my intention to explore the concepts of Leadership and Active Citizenship; how these can be differently defined; the limiting perception of “real” activists as opposed to supposed “slacktivists” and the unintentional exclusion and devaluing of certain types of people who fail to meet our definition of true activism.
Are you really an “activist”?
Historically and globally, peaceful public demonstrations to raise social awareness, nurture public consciousness and unite coalitions of communities protesting injustice have been powerfully impactful and transformative.
We have all witnessed marches and other forms of non-violent political protest, whether as a bystander or as an active participant, and our history books rightly highlight the significant contributions made toward social change by the notable and influential change-agents of each cause; the leaders of each movement, the trailblazers and visionaries who have been compelled, often through necessity, to utilise their instinctive or acquired skills and talents to garner then harness support and guide others towards realising their vision of a new reality.
Whilst it is true that history makes leaders, it is also worth emphasising that leaders make history. It is also worth noting that leaders are primarily servants to a cause, a movement, and their aim should be to serve the greater good and not themselves.
Leaders are Crucial and Followers are Essential
A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. – Lao Tzu
If any movement is to grow, the first responsibility of any leader is to define reality.
It is sobering and encouraging, especially at times of greatest resistance, to recall the words of George Bernard Shaw, who said that, “New opinions often appear first as jokes and fancies, then as blasphemies and treason, then as questions open to discussion, and finally as established truths.”
Although the specific attributes of a good leader are frequently debated and it is questioned whether personal dynamism, a certain charisma, alone makes a good leader, it is undeniable that a great leader should model empathy and actively encourage and even nurture others for their own specific skills and unique talents.
Beyond defining reality, a leader should remain grounded and grateful to those who have “bought in” to this vision. A great leader is a servant to the cause, to the people and to bringing about the change which will manifest that vision of reality.
A leader is a dealer in hope – Napoleon Bonaparte
We all have an opinion on social issues and we all participate in conversations with friends, colleagues, perhaps to a lesser or greater extent with family members and, as such, we are all capable of creatively visualising an improved reality.
As social justice activists, we are all capable of achieving an impact but in order to do so we must acknowledge the broader range of skills required of a leader and, in our modern inter-connected world, we must explore beyond the limited thinking of what “real activism” is, so that we can all proactively engage in and, importantly, value our contribution towards radical social change.
As a young child and into my late teens, I was introverted and found it difficult to connect with people of my own age. Like many teenagers, I felt different to my peers; I couldn’t relate or “blend in” and subconsciously, and this is only in retrospect, I didn’t want to blend in.
My “truth” was that I was a little bit weird and, as a teenager especially, that wasn’t a great thing to be.
I was relentlessly bullied in High School and mercilessly mocked by two inept teachers (who shall remain nameless, except to say that I’m not much of a sports fan today!) at a time when my parents had newly separated and my sexuality was beginning to become more evident, to myself and perhaps others.
At this time, as you can imagine, my self-esteem was low, I felt detached from academic life and this impacted upon my ability to learn, retain and to achieve in any area that wasn’t entirely stimulating; but I somehow, perhaps subconsciously, sought out likeminded people, both teachers and other students, who shared my interest for art, for creative writing and for music.
The result being that enduring or surviving this period became an option.
My story is not so unusual; let’s face it, regardless of our sexuality, we all struggle, to some extent or another, to shape our adult selves during these years of teenage angst. For most, it is not a smooth and joyful transition into adulthood. For many it is a challenging time of torment and self-doubt.
I must say, however, that whilst High School offered much cruelty, as maybe it has for you, it also bestowed great kindness, in the guise of three hugely influential teachers who recognised something in me that I was yet to see for myself at that time; I was fortunate to find validation and to receive invaluable encouragement from those teachers whose passions I shared.
None more so than the inspirational and overwhelmingly supportive music teacher, Jimmy Tonner; without whom my life would be very different; had I even, in fact, lived to tell the tale.
You see, on nearing and reaching puberty, I felt as if I had been transported to a land where nothing made sense any more, where the language spoken became foreign to me; I understood the words, of course, but their meaning had changed.
The world hadn’t changed but my perception of it had; my awareness of what it was to be “normal” was heightened and my sense of otherness increased.
I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want to be “odd”. I didn’t choose to become the socially unacceptable creature that I had become; that much I did know.
At this time, I couldn’t begin to visualise that my life would ever amount to much; my voice was insignificant and my opinions irrelevant.
Yet somehow I eventually found my voice, shaping my adult self through small acts of advocacy; my first attempts at writing were poems on grief and on war, the latter developing into an extended comparison between the futility of war and the cruelty faced by those living with HIV; a documentary on factory farming led me, at 11 years old, to become vegan and a book lent to me by a friend of my mothers, The Happy Herbivore, reinforced this decision; Bob Geldof shone a light on world poverty, and at fifteen, wearing my Bob-inspired orange, yes bright orange jumper, I started working for Oxfam and by the time I was a student I was actively involved in protests against Poll Tax and the introduction of Student Loans.
This is not to say that I was reborn as an extrovert, far from it; my confidence was always only in the cause or causes and my voice still failed me in everyday situations.
I was my own worst critic, reinforcing the negatives that I’d planted in my mind. It was easier to extend that list than to begin to believe that I had any valuable qualities or that my voice or contribution to the world could ever be valid.
My point, and I do have one, is that not everyone is born with an easy, natural affinity with social engagement and that levels of self-esteem can determine the belief in our ability to live a meaningful and impactful life.
Even now, with moments of self-doubt preying when least helpful, I feel that I have made progress, yet still it is only when using my voice for others that it shakes a little less.
Maya Angelou famously said that, “One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.”
We all express our social advocacy differently and we need to value and support a broader palate of diverse voices, so that we can continue to engage, encourage and enable future leaders. We must cultivate the courage within others so that they can unlock their potential to be kind, true, merciful, generous, and honest advocates of social progress.
In the second part of this series, we will look at various views regarding what it means to be an ‘active citizen’, from Civil Participation to Civic Engagement and beyond. We will explore how anti-oppression initiatives can be part of our everyday lives; how to nurture a broader range of strategies to allow for wider participation and finally how we can learn from each other so that collective cross-cause collaboration can accelerate progress for all minorities.
DAVID E WATTERS
National Diversity Award Winner, David E. Watters, is a teacher, motivational speaker and writer; a passionate equality advocate, committed to enhancing the lives of young people and adults who may feel marginalised or limited by labels. As a teacher, he is committed to developing the whole person through creatively challenging students to embrace their unique value, and that of others, to encourage them to fulfil their full potential. He was nominated for an Excellence in Diversity Award 2015, for his contribution to enhancing the diversity agenda within education.
Since graduating from The Institute of Education, University of London, David has gone on to train as a mediator, and is a qualified facilitator for The Pacific Institute.
As Director of NBI Associates, David devises and delivers engaging, enjoyable and interactive Diversity and Cultural Enhancement workshops utilizing Cognitive Behavioural and Performing Arts strategies for individual, corporate and academic clients.
Watters is also the founder and coordinator of the inclusive, inspirational and international Give ’em Hope Campaign; an online initiative which utilises all available social networks to encourage and uplift those who doubt their validity, feel isolated or limited by labels, through the sharing of written and video testimonies. The campaign was honoured at the National Diversity Awards 2014 when it won the Community Organisation Award (Multi-Strand). Watters was a key player in the Equal Love Campaign UK; taking the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights in 2010 and successfully achieving Marriage Equality for same-sex couples in the United Kingdom. His passion for equality advocacy and commitment to celebrating diversity has brought many opportunities to write and speak on social change and his book, NEVER BLEND IN, brings together this wealth of experience and the voices of those whom he has met along the way.
CONTACT INFORMATION EMAIL: DavidWatters@nbiassociates.co.uk
BOOK WEBPAGE: http://www.nbiassociates.co.uk/Never-Blend-In.html
GIVE ‘EM HOPE CAMPAIGN: http://www.nbiassociates.co.uk/Give–em-Hope-Campaign.html