Amy Levad, University of St. Thomas, MN
I do not take naturally to activism. In a classroom, I feel like I’m in my element; it seems natural to me. It feels right. Holding a sign at a rally, speaking to an elected official, testifying at the State Capitol: my heart pounds, and not in a good way.
Over the past year, as part of a sabbatical, I have had the good fortune, however, to research an organization that cultivates community leaders by helping them to understand how their personal stories relate to public life and by fostering risk-taking in service of the common good. ISAIAH, a federation of the PICO National Network, “is a vehicle for congregations, clergy, and people of faith to act collectively and powerfully towards racial and economic equity in the state of Minnesota.” In learning about ISAIAH, I have begun to feel more comfortable with activism, or preferably, community organizing, as this organization has enabled me to own more fully as mine the role of scholar-activist.
One thing that has struck me over the last year is how committed ISAIAH is to formation of community leaders through practicing the habits and virtues of civic engagement (very broadly understood). This realization was crystallized for me last spring at a leaders’ retreat.
The gathering, in a suburban parish on a quiet spring Saturday, followed an action at the State Capitol, in which ISAIAH, along with partner organizations, disrupted a public hearing in opposition to the leasing of a shuttered private prison in rural Minnesota by the state. The action was ultimately successful as it led Governor Dayton to vow a veto of the measure, but for many people there, it was unsettling. At the retreat a few weeks later, the day began with a sermon on Jesus’s turning of the tables in the Temple (Matthew 21), continued with singing of “God’s troubling the waters,” and at one point, an invitation to throw a chair across the room, practicing disruption for future events (the “invitation” took the form of a pastor unexpectedly standing up during a liturgy and flipping the chair over, then encouraging others to do likewise). As I watched very nice Minnesotans toss around this chair, I could see them become more comfortable with disruption. Many reflected after the end of this exercise that where disruption had frightened them, they now considered it a valuable tool within their repertoire for social action. They were disruptive in a low-stakes setting; perhaps they could be more comfortable with disruption – and just a bit braver – when the stakes might be higher. Practicing disruption helped form a habit in the group, habit is the bedrock of forming virtues, and at this historical moment, throwing some chairs (maybe figurative chairs) around in the service of equity, love, and justice seems pretty virtuous.
In the spirit of fostering habits and virtues that serve these commitments within myself, of owning my role as scholar-activist, I am committing to 100 days of resistance in communion with ISAIAH. The idea isn’t mine. At a gathering this past Saturday, “For Such a Time as This: Building Our Prophetic Resistance,” over 2,000 people committed (in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah who calls us to be “repairers of the breach” in our communities) to rejecting complicity in violence and dehumanization. In a handy folder, we each received a 100-day calendar and color-coded stickers, along with lists of acts of resistance from prayer to petitions, tweets to testimonies. For each day that we complete such an act, we get a sticker. With two small children in my house, I’m a sucker for a sticker chart. The calendar ends on my birthday, a fitting time for someone seeking to grow into herself, perhaps a slightly new self, in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Resistance is a habit, and habits need to be tended to become virtues. For at least the next 100 days, I’ll be tending this habit, along with at least 2,000 other people. In some ways, this plan feels small, individualistic, personal. In other ways, it feels as if it is binding me to a community, a tradition, a history of upholding the dignity of all people and opposing the indignities thrust upon particular groups of people in very particular ways. We were reminded on Saturday that each of us may only be carrying out 100 small acts. Together, though, we are carrying out 200,000. And that feels big. It feels right. It calms my heart.
(Note the circled item in this picture. It says, “Read from the selected bibliography (in process).” Which means it needs to be written. Of course, I have ideas, but if you also have ideas – please send them on to me.)
Amy Levad teaches Christian ethics to undergraduates in Minnesota. Her research focuses on mass incarceration, particularly Christian responses to it through community organizing, education, and ministry. Redeeming a Prison Society: A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration (Fortress Press, 2014) is her most recent book.