No doubt some of you reading this believed you were reading a diatribe referring to schoolteachers. If so, please excuse me for the unintended mis-communication. In truth, this article speaks directly to the “righteous” teachers, those of us who claim as our mission eliminating ignorance and sparking critical thought and positive action among our people.
But why would we the teachers, leaders, organizers and conscious members of the community need “lessons?” Simply put, because we like everyone else are imperfect, flawed, and in constant need of reflection and redirection.
We often speak of “the masses” in unflattering terms like “ignorant,” “misguided,” “backwards” or “brainwashed.” Yet we sometimes fail to see and thus resolve our own contradictions and limitations. When this happens, we run the risk of being self–righteous teachers! In the spirit of humility and resolution, I want to offer some food for thought for those of us who bravely endeavor to defend and advance the masses of our people, but who often embody attitudes and actions that sabotage and contradict these noble efforts.
Patriarchal attitudes/behaviors toward women:
According to Veronica Beechey, “The concept of patriarchy has been used within the women’s movement to analyze the principles underlying women’s oppression.”Kate Millet defines the concept as male domination and the power relationships by which men dominate women.
Despite consciousness-raising of many feminist intellectuals and activists, many Black institutions, organizations and individuals – even those considered “progressive” – still privilege men, maintain gender-based stereotypes, and continue to participate in the oppression of women. “Pro-Blac”k and “conscious” are not synonymous with oppressing or limiting women, and those of us who are serious about educating/liberating our people must educate ourselves on this issue and challenge patriarchy in our own attitudes, speech and behavior. We ALL must be empowered, not just men or those that support male-centric ideas. For example, we should be suspicious of organizations and institutions that prohibit or attempt to sabotage female leadership and participation or in which men define women’s roles in very limited and self-serving ways.
Conscious folk have a way of condemning or passing judgment on people of different ideas much like some religious folk tend to. We must learn to embrace and value people despite ideological differences or practices/ideas we differ with. A person that hasn’t read a particular book or who eats pork is no less valuable or important than we are. Judgmental organizers often forget this and make people they interact with shun or resent political and social action and those advocating for them. Isn’t this self-defeating? Isn’t our goal to bring more people INTO consciousness and activism?
Believing we know all there is to know about a topic or person:
No matter how many books we’ve read, lectures we’ve attended, or documentaries we’ve viewed, we can NEVER know ALL there is to know about a particular thing. A conscientious organizer views him or herself as a lifelong learner despite their personal level of expertise. We also should understand that even renown scholars of a specific subject disagree or have different interpretations of that subject. Not to mention that our understanding of things sometimes changes over time. For example, I learned as a child that Pluto was a planet. Years later, with more powerful microscopes, we now know that PLUTO is actually a star!
Failing to listen to those who disagree with us:
Too often we treat people who disagree with us as enemies. This is not only ignorant and arrogant, but it stunts our intellectual and political growth. A dutiful organizer should be familiar with various sides of an issue and to constantly interrogate what they know and learn. Malcolm X was known to greet his opponents directly after debates and ask them to recommend books to better understand a position or information different from his own. He was also known to befriend people he disagreed with whose intellect ans dedication he admired. We would wise to learn from his example.
Being condescending to people we deem “ignorant” or “not conscious:”
At one time, we were all “ignorant,” and we are all ignorant to certain things. Our guiding objective is not to ridicule or berate those who are less informed, but to educate and activate them. WE must also remember my grandmother’s saying: “even a broken clock is right twice a day.” Therefore, we can learn from those we deem less formally educated or experienced , or even those who appear to be “lost.”
Refusing or badly handling constructive criticism:
When we dismiss legitimate criticism, or attack those presenting it, we falsely proclaim ourselves flawless, and again, we stunt our own growth. Resistance to critique is the stuff of which cults and dictatorships are made. As Winston Churchill wrote, ““Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
Community organizers and activists do far more teaching through our actions and interactions than through our proclamations and platitudes. We have a mandate to be pleasant, engaging, informative and engaging with those we claim to fight for. If not, we are in the wrong line of work.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.