When discussing LGBTQ rights, women's rights, indigenous rights, the rights of POC (people of color) and people with disabilities, our conversations tend to overlook the fact that their issues are not wholly separate. We may focus our attentions — and our activism — on one discussion at a time, but more and more people are starting to realize that embracing intersectionality, the idea that social categories like the ones listed above are interconnected, is the only way to tackle the massive hurdles that face oppressed people.
Looking at the complex layers of identities that comprise each and every one of us helps foster a sense of empathy, which is exactly what our nation's lawmakers seem to lack. We can harness empathy within ourselves and our community, and use that connection with others to make change.
Naomi Pueo Wood, one of the core members of the Springs' SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) chapter, says: "In some ways, it's a whole system breakdown that we need, and you can only question the whole system if you look at whole, complex people that are always comprised of class backgrounds and racialized bodies and gender conformity or nonconformity and sexuality."
I spoke with Wood because SURJ, though it has only been local for less than a year, has done a lot to energize local activists in regard to a number of causes. In addition to co-organizing a local march in conjunction with the national Women's March, they've also put together a "100 days of resistance" plan, which suggests ways to fight back against inequality (and the new administration) in the first 100 days of Donald Trump's presidency.
The core mission of SURJ is to bring more white people into the fight for racial justice. SURJ chapters rely on Black Lives Matter (or, in the case of our local chapter, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) for POC-led guidance "so we aren't just white people making everything up on our own," Wood says.
The causes they work toward and the identities they represent go beyond that. Multiple people on their core member team, including Wood, identify as queer, and they come from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Wood says that when they attended a SURJ meeting in Denver before creating the local chapter, she and her partner thought, "This is the queerest place we've been in so long. Here's a gathering of all these queer people at this racial justice organization. What a beautiful combination."
It turns out, a great number of queer people of all races are drawn to advocating for racial justice. Wood says there's a simple explanation for this. "There's an embodied experience," she says, "that's obviously not fully shared, but the feeling that you don't really know if you're safe. And you don't really know if you will be seen or how you will be seen."
What this means for activists and potential activists — aside from the fact that it makes choosing which cause's protest to attend on any given Saturday a little more difficult — is that we are all in this together and we need to start acting like it.
Many movements throughout history have excluded the voices of POC, women and queer people. Second wave feminism, while it advanced women's rights exponentially, was largely pushed, promoted and led by white women, to the exclusion of women of color. Plus, the often white-dominated LGBTQ movement has only recently decided to remember that the Stonewall riots, the turning point in LGBTQ civil rights, were started by two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
Wood says that denying the contributions of people of color and queer people to social movements makes them invisible while "continuing to build off the labor and the colonial or imperial or capitalist legacies of the founding of this country."
How can individual organizations, like SURJ, keep an intersectional mindset but continue pursuing their individual goals? Wood says the solution is "finding collective things we're fighting for, and then stepping back and supporting each other to do what our individual organizations mandate."
And that's the key, really. Support. While our experiences as marginalized people are vastly different, we can harness that sense of empathy to help move each other forward. And allies should consider that fighting for one cause means fighting for them all, and we cannot afford to be exclusive.