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What does it mean to organise with emotion?

I’m writing this piece mostly to encourage you all to watch this short video of, University of Colorado-Boulder Associate Professor of Anthropology and teacher/organiser with Black Lives Matter, Bianca Williams explaining the concept of ‘radical honesty’.

Bringing emotions into our work

She talks about the role of radical honesty in her teaching and broader organising work. In particular, she looks at what it means to recognise, engage with and utilise emotion within our work. For our work at SAHR, it made me consider what role emotion might play in finding justice with the communities and individuals with whom we work. As a colleague of mine said, it also “dismantles the idea that knowledge is neutral, that the production of knowledge is in the realm of rationality and reason, and that emotion and affect reside in a separate realm”.

Bringing emotion into our activism may seem counterintuitive in a world where we are frequently told to leave our emotions at home or told that we must “stop being so emotional”. But it is for this reason that the idea of bringing our whole selves into our work, is one that has probably never been as vital as it is today. In fact, there is a parallel here with the second-wave feminist and student movements of the 1960s that used the rallying slogan “the personal is the political”. While grounded in a very different context, Williams similarly talks about bringing our whole selves to the work-space. In particular she centres emotional wellness. She recognises that the work many of us do involves tough processes that can lead to a variety of emotions — radical honesty is a way of giving space to that instead of silencing or stigmatising it. It is simultaneously about recognising each other as humans and recognising our work-spaces as a political spaces.

Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash

Has our activism been depoliticised?

Where NGOs are plentiful and often seen to be filling the gaps left by government, it can be argued that the mere existence of the “professional” NGO worker can depoliticise resistance. Are we living in a time where NGOs are so embedded in the existing neo-liberal, patriarchal and capitalist system that they (we) actually benefit from not resisting too much and not veering too far away from the status quo so that funders (and those that hold power) still want to support us?

In such a space, what can we do to bring engagement in critical thinking and strategic planning with emotion? How can we re-politicise our work and recognise the ways in which we are sometimes implicated in the oppressions we seek to destroy? Williams describes three tenets of radical honesty as:

1. Truth telling — The need to be honest about the stereotypes and racialised and gendered assumptions that we bring into our working environment while examining the histories and processes that brought them there. We need to tell our own truths about the feelings and emotions that we experience when these assumptions are present — shame / guilt are often the key ones. Emotion is central to this work.

2. Valuing narrative and personal experience — The need to provide space to use personal experience as tools for learning. Such qualitative data can be used to connect the dots between individual and group experiences of disempowerment to institutional and systemic analyses of racism and sexism.

3. Action — The need to look towards an action-oriented forms of working, keeping a critical eye towards analysis, intention and authenticity, where multiple truths may be taken together to create beneficial and effective praxis.

In particular, she makes it clear that radical honesty centres emotion and social justice, is equity and liberation oriented and places this within historical context. She is very clear that this is an analysis of power and privilege not an idea based around subjective truths.

Recognising our role in upholding systemic violence

Radical honesty seems to be a way of demanding that we acknowledge the failings of a system with which we remain engaged, acknowledge our vulnerabilities and share our strategies for self care/self love. In addition to re-politicising our work, radical honesty can help with the battle fatigue of doing this work itself. It is intended to create space to talk about how this feels and what we can do with it. In essence, it allows us to be honest about the cost of transformative work. As we experience different forms of trauma, it demands that we speak about it openly within our work. It also means that, as we gain access into a privileged spaces (whether that be academic, INGOs, formal political spaces etc.), we must acknowledge our role in upholding or benefitting from systemic violence. This requires vigilance and self-awareness. It actually demands that we be authentic and emotional, bringing our whole selves instead of emotionally disconnecting in the “professional” space. This allows us to work with anger and frustration and happiness and joy, even and especially when we’re tired.

Williams also talks about the role of radical honesty where quantitative data has been fetishised over all else and where spaces are corporatisatised under the guise of “professionalism”. For example, we see mission statements talk about diversity but organisations refuse to engage in the institutional changes that require real analysis of power. In our work, we see the language of justice and empowerment being adopted but a refusal to delve deeper into what justice or empowerment might actually mean to an individual. A de-politicised engagement with ideas, perhaps.

Engaging with emotional and transformative justice

A friend and colleague recently wrote about the idea of emotional justice which seems relevant here. An idea coined by Esther Armah, a journalist and radio show host, emotional justice is described as “working towards remedying the legacy of intergenerational trauma…due to unrelenting cycles of violence.” She explains that it requires “finding and creating the language to describe this trauma and articulating it as a reality, creating space to explore it, dealing with it by developing a counter-narrative.” As I learn more about this idea and the notion that accountability for violence may actually be distributed, not just laying with a single perpetrator, I wonder how we might utilise these ideas to rethink dominant notions of accountability and justice.

One example I would like to leave you with is this case study of transforming harm in the context of sexual assault. I am aware that the idea of utilising restorative justice in the context of sexual harm is a controversial topic and one that, in practice, needs to be approached with much nuance and mindfulness. This piece defines transformative justice as “a community process developed by anti-violence activists of color, in particular, who wanted to create responses to violence that do what criminal punishment systems fail to do: build support and more safety for the person harmed, figure out how the broader context was set up for this harm to happen, and how that context can be changed so that this harm is less likely to happen again.” Working on transforming the individual and collective harm, putting emotions at the centre of our thinking and being radically honest are all deeply important in this process. Interestingly, this takes us away from formal court-based solutions and into the realm of what we are SAHR calls community-based systems of justice. This provides an opportunity to not just focus on individual perpetrators but also the institutions and structures that “perpetuate, foster, and maintain interpersonal violence”.

I welcome your thoughts and further ideas as we prepare to explore this topic further through our ‘Digital Dialogues on Gender and Human Rights’ later in the coming year.


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