Often we believe that the best leaders to right a wrong are those who have suffered the oppression. But world-changing leadership needs to come from allies as well as those who suffer, or activism cannot succeed in changing a damaged culture.
Whatever the cause, whatever the oppression, alliances must be made between leaders from privileged and oppressed members of society. It is in these alliances that the seeds of transformation are planted. Otherwise, the voices of those who cannot fight their way out will never be heard, and the voices of those who have the courage to risk death will have less resonance.
But there is a stage of social change when the oppressed distrust alliances with the privileged. Leaders from these seemingly opposing groups come from such different places in a culture that it’s hard for them even to speak to each other. The stories they’ve lived are so profoundly different that these leaders need to create a new language between them, a new story that makes a place for a better culture.
This negotiation between like-minded activists from different worlds is one of the hardest transitions between grassroots revolution and the gradual process of change within mainstream culture.
History teaches us that these alliances between counter-cultural and more privileged leaders are a turning point in the battle for justice.
Martin Luther King made strategic alliances with white activists, churches and organizations. African Americans risked the most by standing up against state-sanctioned racists. But white allies helped build bridges between progressive communities in the US, and allies like Rev. James Reeb were also killed on the front lines by white mobs. (See the Southern Poverty Law Center website to learn more…)
In the struggle for LGBT rights, straight allies have been equally important. Organizations like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and the Human Rights Campaign advises, “Straight allies are some of the most effective and powerful advocates for the GLBT movement. These allies have proven invaluable personally and politically, and are increasingly important in the fight for GLBT equality. Indeed, their voices often have been heard while those of GLBT people have been ignored.”
Similarly, the feminist movement is not solely a women’s movement, but benefits from male allies. This week, the feminist NGO Vital Voices
honored Shakti Vahini, an organization founded by three brothers from New Delhi to fight against trafficking of women and girls, burning widows, and forced marriages. Their organization not only rescues women and girls directly, but works for legal change in India.
The Shakti Vahini mission quotes Swami Vivekanand: “So long as millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every one a traitor, who has been educated at their expense and pays not the least heed to them. No amount of politics can be of any avail until the masses of India are well fed, well educated and well cared for.”
Every successful movement for social change gathers leaders from all areas of society, because social change is a long-term process.
Gradually, leadership arises in the most unlikely places. Gradually, alliances between visionary leaders create alliances among mainstream followers. Gradually, laws change, but it is the people who negotiate those changes into new social relationships.
Martin Luther King said, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Leadership alliances create the template of relationships to shine the light on ignorance, to show the dangers of oppressive stupidity.
Justice isn’t an instant fix, and it doesn’t come from one place or one kind of leadership. It is a learning curve. Great leaders teach us to question, to stand, and most important — to connect with each other across the dangerous divides that make oppression seem normal.