A Call to Attention Liberation: To Build Abundant Justice, Let’s Focus on What Matters

Marchers walk through the Homewood neighborhood during their Black Brilliance Collective: March and Gathering August 19, 2017, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)Marchers walk through the Homewood neighborhood during their Black Brilliance Collective: March and Gathering August 19, 2017, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

This story is the fifth in Truthout’s “Visions of 2018” series, in which activist leaders answer the question: “What would you like to see created, built, imagined or begun this year?” Each piece will focus on a bold idea for transformation, to give us fuel as the year moves forward.

What we pay attention to grows. Attention is the way humans bring water and sunlight to our seeds of ideas, concerns, relationships, and to our transformation. Capitalism understands this; corporations are constantly trying to gain our attention for the purpose of selling us things so they can grow their own profits. Disaster capitalism wants to keep our attention on that which terrifies and overwhelms us, which makes us more susceptible to investing in false solutions — solutions that won’t actually ever address our needs as a community, as a species.

Within our social justice work, we understand the power of mass attention. We are, every day, trying to bring the attention of our families, friends, communities and nation to the injustices and oppressions of our existence, and to the solutions and changes we believe will set us free. We feel urgency around gaining this attention, because everything we are working on has direct impact on our lives and the lives of those we love, on the well-being of the only planet on which we know we can survive. We feel heartbreak when we see people choose to keep their attention on trending topics and fleeting profits instead of doing the self/societal examination and change work needed to guarantee our survival as a species, our collective quality of life.

But we do the same thing within our movements: We let our attention be caught by clickbait headlines, midnight tweets and petty dramas. (I am all for conflict — if it advances our survival. Otherwise, set some boundaries and move on.) Since the 2016 election, it has become even harder to discern between news, propaganda, diversion, scandal and total waste of time. We expend precious energy processing illusionary issues, with low-grade terror as a backdrop for our decisions.

I believe that we would get so much further if we respected the power of our attention, if we liberated it from reactionary and groupthink tendencies.

If we put our attention on the ways we are overwhelmed by the odds we are up against, the truth of those odds may become an insurmountable obstacle. But our odds have always been impossible, and we are not yet extinct. I believe that we would get so much further if we respected the power of our attention, if we liberated it from reactionary and groupthink tendencies and put it on practicing our values inside of our work. Here are some of the things I have seen become possible when groups decided to put their attention into their own values and drop under surface-level reactions.

Principled Struggle

I have heard these two words juxtaposed for years, and thought they were self-explanatory. But then I heard people start to fling them at each other and question them; words fall apart when we realize that they are always open for interpretation, always shaped by entire lives. So, what does principled struggle mean?

Last year I had the honor of co-facilitating a Movement for Black Lives meeting with N’Tanya Lee of Left Roots, and she broke this term down in a way that felt like a light bulb coming on in a dark room. She said that in struggle that is principled, we struggle for the sake of building deeper unity, that we are honest and direct while holding compassion, that we each take responsibility for our own feelings and actions, and seek deeper understanding by asking questions and reading a text (such as an article or proposal) before we launch our counter argument. She also spoke to the reality that we must always consider that this meeting may or may not be the container to hold what we need to bring. A coalition meeting may not feel like a political home, a strategy table may not be the space to work through interpersonal dynamics. It might! But it’s worth asking ourselves, what is the right space and who are the right people for this concern?

This way of understanding principled struggle works as an attention-focusing device. We live in a nation that is both pro-war and conflict avoidant. It’s hard to learn how to be in righteous disagreement without either repressing our differences or trying to destroy each other. But principled struggle offers us another way, a way to struggle in which we are not being conflict avoidant, or conflict aggressive, but rather engaging in generative conflict, conflict that grows each of us and that creates more possibilities for what we can do in the world together. When we put our attention on conflict and difference in this way, it allows us to grow our capacity to be in integrity and unity with each other.

Critical Construction

Attention liberation is not just about where our attention goes, but about the quality of attention we bring to the work we do and to the relationships that make our work possible. I have been in meeting after meeting where we have tasked people (or they have volunteered) to go and put some thought into how we could do the work, and come back with a proposal, which we then rip apart. Often with blood (or whatever fluid runs in the veins of PDFs) still on our lips we say, “who wants to make another proposal?” This creates a dynamic of defensive creativity — that even as we are trying to come up with new liberation strategies, we are checking ourselves against what we think our community will accept.

We live in a nation that is both pro-war and conflict avoidant. Principled struggle offers us another way.

Critique is an important and irreplaceable part of a community-building process, and a way that we hold each other accountable across different ideologies and strategies. Critique is a way we ensure collectivity in the process of generating our future — to say “not that, this”; to increase rigor in our values; to increase the quality of our creative work. But for the sake of our creativity and innovation, we need to learn to wield critique as a tool in constructing a new society, rather than just using it as a hammer to tear things down.

Using critique as a constructive extension of our attention looks like beginning feedback sessions by noticing what is working in a proposal, and approaching things that arent working with curiosity and respect for the person/people who did the initial thinking/planning, and then working together to generate solutions to strengthen the proposal.

Abundant Justice

I was recently facilitating an exciting gathering aimed at forming a new coalition. There was a ton of good intention and both old and brand-new relationships in the space. On the first day, almost every time we opened up the floor for conversation, people would fall into a sort of routine practice of not actually engaging with each other, but rather adding their issues to the conversation with brief arguments for why they needed more attention. I think of this as “laundry listing.”

Laundry listing is rooted in a visceral experience of attention scarcity — we need such focus on each of these fault lines of injustice and oppression, and we all know that at any moment a new devastation will eclipse our ongoing work and it will need our attention. It’s like oppression Olympics on high alert: crisis Olympics. We do strange things as we compete with each other to bring attention to our work. We stop listening in a spirit of collaboration and start listening defensively, competitively, listening for where we are left out, or not at the top of the list; listening for where we must insert ourselves. As a result, we end up struggling to have conversations that can actually get us to the most strategic focus and action at any given moment.

We must pivot away from competing for scarce attention, scarce liberation and scarce justice. Instead, we must work together to generate an abundance of each of these, to believe that we will evolve beyond the scarcity culture of capitalism.

I woke up on day two of the gathering with this thought: We are trying to build a majority among many peoples. We have legacies of solidarity between us, but we also have legacies of betrayal, of war, of being pitted against each other for survival and equality. We have legacies of strategic divergence — some trying to escape and others to assimilate and others to transform conditions. We have divergent long-term visions in this room. And yet we believe we can be a majority, must be a majority, to get through this moment and to shape a future that works for all of us. So, our orientation here should not reduce any of our issues, under-nourish our work, shrink the realities or the complexity, or run from the things which could keep us apart. We want to find more than a list of woes. We seek points of alignment, and we want to name the places where collective work needs to happen for authentic alignment.

I shared some version of those thoughts on the second morning of the gathering. We spent the day seeking and finding alignment in the areas of work that could move forward, as well as coming up with plans for where to address the areas of divergence and competition. I left feeling hopeful and wanting to share more broadly the fact that this sort of attention liberation is possible. We must pivot away from competing for scarce attention, scarce liberation and scarce justice. Instead, we must work together to generate an abundance of each of these, to believe that we will evolve beyond the scarcity culture of capitalism.

Core Practice for 2018: Be Where You Are

The final piece of attention liberation that I want to focus on for 2018 is an invitation. I have been to so many meetings in the last year, across various communities and issue areas, where most of the participants did not really come. I mean, there were bodies in the room, but people’s attention was so in and out, working on other projects throughout the meeting, taking phone calls, arriving late, leaving early. In this urgent moment we are spreading ourselves too thin and it is impacting our work.

How do we keep our attention on our liberation work, and actually show up for the things we express commitment to?

I suspect if we reclaim some of our attention from the 24-hour news cycle, and the president’s Twitter stream, and movement drama that isn’t generative, then we would have more attention to bring to the work we have chosen to do.

I am excited for that future, a future in which we are not perfect, but in which there is a sense that all of our concerns, all of our needs, all of our particular traumas will get the nourishing attention, care and love they deserve, will get the campaigns and policies and collective practices they deserve. We will all get what we need and deserve because we will have enough attention available to focus on changing, together. And in that abundance of needs getting met, of issues being addressed, of trauma being healed instead of just accumulated … perhaps we can stop being a million small voices making demands of each other; perhaps we can become a solidarity, a wave of voices and bodies and hearts shaping a world that works for all of us.