Making Movement Mistakes: What to do when you f@*k up

23 Apr

mistakes-homer-simpson-mistakeThat moment: when some words have escaped your lips, and you realize they were wrong/insensitive/politically incorrect/hurtful. Or the moment when you have made a decision in a coalition that has broken the “do no harm” principle of coalition work. When your actions have undermined someone’s agenda. These moments can be big or small. These moments can consist of an interpersonal slight, or they can be damaging to an entire political agenda. We all know these moments; we have witnessed them, experienced them and committed them.

I am a professional activist. I’ve done work organizing and advocating for policy change at the local, state, national and international level. And every single project I’ve ever worked on has had an element of coalition building and collaboration involved. That’s how you know you’re doing it right, in my opinion. If there are multiple stakeholders, with multiple goals involved. If we all, with our intersectional analyses and intersecting interests can find a way to move our agendas forward, together. That also poses many challenges, as you who do this work inevitably understand. Intersectional work is hard, but of course, it’s the only way.

I say all this because there are few constants in this kind of work, but if we do it right, if we work across our comfort zones and reach out to unlikely partners, and those with different goals but with a shared vision of the future, we will undoubtedly make mistakes. Here, I’m talking about mistakes made in good faith. Not malicious, calculated ones. I’m talking about the moments where we think we’re doing right, but we mess up.

Why does this happen? Why is it inevitable? We make mistakes because we do not know better. We make mistakes because we don’t understand another’s truth, another’s lived experience. Because we operate from some un-interrogated position of privilege, perhaps. We make mistakes because we don’t think before we speak, or just aren’t sensitive to someone else’s perspective. We make mistakes because we are human.

So today, I’d like to crowd-source the question of what to do when this happens. I’d like to hear from you, darling crunk feminists, about how you go about dealing with these moments both when you are the committer of the mistake, and also when it’s been committed against you. Here are some of my own strategies, things I’ve done myself, and things that others have done, that I’ve found useful (of course, all this depends on the offense, these are generalizations):

If you realize you’ve made a mistake.

  1. Apologize. Sincerely. When doing this, think carefully about the best approach. It might not be in person, or it might be. It might need to be public. It might need to be done one-on-one. This depends on the nature of the mistake. But nothing else can happen unless you acknowledge your mistake.
  2. Don’t conflate the mistake and your apology with anything else. The apology is not the time to try and fix the coalition, or your relationship. It’s not the time to make your broader political statement. It’s a time to do just one thing. Recognize your mistake and apologize for it.
  3. Ask what amends might be made, if that applies. Ask the person/team/group what might help. Ask without proscribing the answer. Wait. Listen. And then decide whether this is something you can or cannot do. Be honest about that.
  4. Realize that trust is easier to break that rebuild. Your relationship/s might not ever be the same. And of course it might get even stronger. But you can’t know that. You can’t have an endgame in your apology, you have to say it, do what you can to fix it and not expect more than that.
  5. Keep doing the work as best as you can. Learn from it, and don’t make the same mistake again.

If you’re on the receiving end of a mistake all I can say is: remember all the mistakes you’ve made. When I think of all the mistakes I’ve made, it’s easier for me to identify with someone who’s done something hurtful to me. I try not to hold it too close to my heart, and if at all possible, assume good faith. Sometimes things are fixed, sometimes they are not, but regardless I try not to carry around anger and resentment. That is, of course, easier said than done, but worth the effort.

Anyhow, your turn CFC readers. I’d love for you to share your thoughts/strategies/ideas in the comments.


17 Responses to “Making Movement Mistakes: What to do when you f@*k up”

  1. Susan L Daniels April 23, 2012 at 9:04 AM #

    Every time we open our mouths, or put words to paper, we take a risk of offending someone. On paper or electronically, it is easy to edit out potential bloopers before anyone reads them. Too bad we can’t edit our speech before it hits someone else’s ears!

    All I would add to your excellent suggestions above are to make sure the apology is made as quickly as possible; preferably as soon as the offense has left your lips, or as soon as you are aware your remark has offended someone. Nothing sounds less sincere than an apology made too late.

    Also, please remember to forgive yourself! No one is perfect, and an oops is bound to happen sooner or later!

  2. eeshap April 23, 2012 at 9:07 AM #

    Thanks Susan, great suggestion. Also, CF Moya just shared this great piece with me, so I thought I’d be sure to link it as well!

  3. Bridget April 23, 2012 at 10:06 AM #

    Thanks so much for this post — so few people know how REALLY to apologize; it’s certainly something I am still learning. I sometimes think that those of us who are privileged people who desire to be allies need that to be the second thing we learn, after how to shut up and listen. Otherwise the desire to be perfect prevents people from ever engaging in any kind of activism — I think we need to accept that realizing we are going to screw up doesn’t absolve us from still acting, speaking up, etc., and that the ability to listen, apologize, and amend how you are acting is fairly central to what it means to be an ally.

  4. Stuff Queer People Need To Know April 23, 2012 at 2:14 PM #

    This is a hard one for me. My immediate reaction is usually rage, but then I try to calm down, remember I don’t know everything either and approach someone in a way in which I would want to be approached. That person probably didn’t mean to upset me and probably doesn’t realize that they did. So, just try to approach everyone, everything and every situation with love, compassion and respect and it will probably turn out okay.

  5. Victoria Massie April 23, 2012 at 2:22 PM #

    I would have to agree with Susan. Maybe it’s because I’m currently in that position, but I feel like if you can’t forgive yourself for what you’ve done first, many of the other steps that have been laid down are only going to be that much harder to do.

  6. inmyownvoicetoday April 23, 2012 at 2:34 PM #

    I like your approach to both situations. I totally agree not to expect too much in terms of mending. Once trust is broken, it’s hard for people or groups to trust. Honest apologies are best – be authentic. Hope to be able to continue the work. And, try not to repeat the error again.

  7. bean April 23, 2012 at 2:35 PM #

    reminders like this are so needed — thanks for starting this discussion, CFC!

    i think it’s also worth discussing the “non-apology” (or: what folks often make say when they’re tryna save face):

    — “i apologize if that offended you”
    (keyword: if. i hear this a lot AFTER it’s already established that harm has been caused. to me, “if” is a way of distancing yourself from the impact of what you’ve done because it doesn’t fully acknowledge the other person’s feelings)

    — “i’m sorry that you were upset by what i said”
    (saying something like this implies that it was the other person’s sensitivities, not your fucked up comment/action, that necessitates the apology. if you follow up by some validation/acknowledgment of why it was upsetting, i don’t think this is a big deal, but by itself… no thanks.)

    i really appreciate the last part of this post — “When I think of all the mistakes I’ve made, it’s easier for me to identify with someone who’s done something hurtful to me.” our capacity for compassion isn’t limitless, but learning, transformation, and healing takes place most readily when we can hold space for each other’s mistakes.

  8. ivyleaves April 23, 2012 at 2:57 PM #

    “Assume good faith.” This is the lesson for all, and one that, sadly, is so often left out of everything.

  9. lgbtleadership April 23, 2012 at 2:59 PM #

    Wonderful and very helpful article and comments, thank you. I have one thing to add that I have learned over many years of activism. When I was in my 20s (20 years ago), I was lucky to take a course on doing organizing in working class communities. The thing that always sticks out in my head about that course was a comment from the trainer that “relationships are very important in organizing in working class communities.” The point was that developing trust was key to good organizing.

    I think that relationships are important and if you cultivate personal relationships within your coalitions over many years, this can go a long way to either being forgiven for mistakes immediately or for a much gentler process of amends/forgiveness. If people have a relationship with you, they are much less likely to ascribe ill-intent/deviousness/manipulativeness to your mistake. So what I am saying is that as activists we should spend time building up personal relationships in our coalitions as a way of preventing or reducing misunderstanding or overreaction. This is not to say that when we royally make a mistake that we won’t (or shouldn’t) be held accountable– only that relationships developed over many years lead to the situation where we are more likely to be forgiving– and forgiveness always feels better for all involved, in my opinion, when warranted by a good apology and amends (as well outlined in your article.)

    This leads to my final point about organizing- that we don’t talk enough about the importance of in activism. I think that it is the most important thing– and when we are operating out of love, an apology/amends process flows naturally, out of a humble vulnerability and trust (perhaps developed over years of relatedness.)

  10. itzadundeal April 23, 2012 at 4:58 PM #

    #IAMTRAYVONMARTIN I personally have nothing else to add to this list [which is in no way exhaustive but comes close to complete]. I’m a teachable person, so I am always up to learn more and try new things. To GROW. Thanks for the advise #CONVICTZIMMERMAN

  11. qxicana April 23, 2012 at 9:46 PM #

    My favorite part of this, is that last segment in number 3. When we apologize, when we learn, let’s be honest about our capacity to fully realize our mistakes and continue moving within certain spaces. If we want to truly mend and progress our coalitions after these types of things, we have to be ready to show up. And not show up for ourselves, but show up for each other and ultimately, our communities – in only the biggest way possible.

  12. missjademeadows (@missjademeadows) April 24, 2012 at 11:42 AM #

    i love this post. thanks for starting the conversation. i think it’s crucial (just like you write) to just apologize for what you’ve done, rather than make your apology an opportunity to lash out for something about the campaign that is pissing you off. and i very much appreciate your final call for humility: we are visioning a future together and i think we should all invest in each other’s growth. one thing i would add is: allow people the opportunity to CHANGE! if someone once said something that was ignorant or hurtful, perhaps if they are called out with kindness, the next time they speak it will be something BRILLIANT and intentional.

  13. Devra April 24, 2012 at 3:45 PM #

    I so appreciate this thought-provoking post. I think a lot of us, as activists, are encultured to eat our own or tear down a person or project as having FAILED, but aren’t well-versed in how to accept accountability for mistakes we make. And yes, we all do! All of us! I wish I could take so many things back!

    To these excellent suggestions, I’d like to add that when apologizing: do not demand anything of the people you’re apologizing to. Do not expect that it is their job or mandate to either comfort or forgive you. That is not any of our due, in apologizing.

    This is simple, yet kind of a big deal. When we have privilege in a social dynamic, we often expect the very people we have just offended to appease us and stroke our wounded egos. When we are subjugated in this dynamic, we are expected to appease and put others’ needs ahead of our own.

    Part of being accountable is really learning to own our own shit, and I feel that learning to own our own emotional turmoil and finding other resources for support (and not putting this on the people you’re apologizing to) is an invaluable part of this process.

    Many thanks.

  14. mandyvandeven May 2, 2012 at 6:13 AM #

    Recognize what your responsibility is and is not. The person/people you’ve hurt and/or angered are responsible for granting forgiveness. And they have the right not to do so. Once you’ve done your part to make amends, accept what the response is — whether you like it or not.

  15. feministplus May 7, 2012 at 6:32 AM #

    Don’t make it about your self-care. If this came at a really bad time, if you’re really close to burnout, if there’s all kinds of shit in your life right now, then yes, props to you for recognising and dealing with that, but an apology is not the time to talk about it. And don’t ham up your apology to make it look like you’re more sorry than you are. It is all kinds of emotional manipulatey. Just no.


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