(Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
By Aiko Fukuchi
“We really need to stop putting people on pedestals. It is harmful and dehumanizes all involved. Putting someone on a pedestal is not caring for them. It is not love. You can love, admire, adore, learn from, or follow the leadership of someone without putting them on a pedestal. Putting people on pedestals is part of the binary of how we categorize people into “good” and “bad”. They are two sides of the same coin and they contribute to our collective inability to understand, identify and respond to harm. We demonize people or we put them on pedestals. As we work to be free of a culture of punishment/revenge, we also have to confront the other side. We have to acknowledge celebrity culture and how it stretches well beyond formal celebrities and into our movements, organizations, groups, relationships — just as punishment does. A punitive culture teaches us we have to be “good” or “bad”. It erases away our humanity: our human complexities and contradictions; our human capacity for growth, change and transformation, our human capacity for both harm and love.” – Mia Mingus (IG)
After a few years of working for a couple of non-profits that did not prioritize care or rest and rewarded overwork and lack of boundaries, I crashed, hard. By then, responses to unaddressed trauma and burn out that first presented themselves as anxiety and struggle with sleep had expanded into frequent panic attacks and migraines, dangerous weight loss, and rashes developing under my eyes and on my chest among other symptoms. Looking back at that time now, around a year and a half later, I can see I was operating from a place of survival.
I’m writing this as someone whose experience of burnout was severely exacerbated by notions of individualist and competitive action that were deeply intertwined with capitalist value systems I had internalized where the large majority, if not entirety, of my sense of self-worth was grounded in my ability to be both productive and available. Moving beyond my own individual experience of burnout, after conversations with close friends and comrades who shared similar experiences, it is apparent that the adoption of mentalities present in celebrity culture (individualism, idolization, dehumanization) are also present in many current and recent social justice movements in the United States, and that this is exacerbating systemic issues of burn out and unaccountable leadership, and is ultimately deferring our efforts towards collective liberation. What I hope people take away from this piece is a critique of cultures and practices around leadership progressive and left-leaning movements are maintaining, not a cancelation of individual leaders themselves.
To first lay some groundwork, mainstream celebrity culture is rooted in violent and oppressive systems, and perpetuates falsehoods that argue human connection and value is most efficiently achieved and effectively experienced through commodified goods, individual success, and popularity. While this line of thinking clearly goes against the values within social justice movements, they are still present in many of our spaces. For this piece, I’m specifically referring to dynamics within social justice movements in the United States. This piece is not meant to focus on mainstream celebrities. Rather, it explores how we, as social justice movements, recreate value systems and dynamics of celebrity culture in the ways we idolize leaders in our movements.
I see the dynamics between large social movements and their leaders manifesting a certain category of leadership I’ve recently been referring to as the ‘celebrity activist’, a leader who is idolized, placed on a pedestal, and generally engaged with through an ideology of individualism. This is not to be confused or conflated with ‘activist celebrities’, or mainstream celebrities (pop stars, actors, etc.) who act philanthropically or use their social media audiences as a platform to speak to social issues. Before and while I was burning out, whether or not I was willing to admit it, I frequently perceived the accomplishments of certain individual leaders as purely individual efforts and achievement. I admired their ability to financially sustain themselves from their work before celebrating their contributions to principled struggle, and I was often more focused on their personal lifestyle choices rather than their commitment to liberation. Unknowingly, I was contributing to this larger dynamic propped up by this ‘celebrity culture’ mentality. In doing so, I was simultaneously detaching myself and the leaders I idolized from our respective humanity, which I will speak to more directly later on.
Social media has severely exacerbated this situation, often dissolving the separation between people’s actions and analysis, and their personalities and style, and in this way, we can easily lose our clarity of what we are responding to that a person is offering. When the main outcome we are looking for in our leaders is the same entertainment, inspiration, and endorphin rush we find by following mainstream celebrities and their lives, but in a “social justice” context, we are limiting everyone involved while increasing avenues for potential harm. And while I support leadership that is accountable and structured according to collective need, I question if and how successfully our current leadership culture fosters this, when we are more readily willing to follow someone based on their charisma, rather than their relationship to the movement and critical analysis.
What does this look like?
I think we can notice leaders we have begun engaging through this perception of celebrity and idolization when we reflect on how we discuss and relate to many of our most visible movement leaders, and how this impacts the way we value ourselves, our comrades, and less visible leaders. One way I see us doing this is by placing leaders and individuals in our movements on pedestals, ascribing excessive weight and value to their opinions, and disproportionately rewarding one person’s efforts in a collaborative project or process. It leads to a shift from thinking of someone as a valuable part of a larger, collective movement, into idealizing their efforts, personal lives, personalities, and relationships, thinking of them as the individualized personification of an entire social movement. Additionally, when we consider how we relate to someone and their work we can ask ourselves whether we are seeking to replicate or replace the role someone holds, or motivated to expand, adopt, and build alongside an area of work, value, or practice.
Once we make this shift in thinking, our perception transitions from engaging with someone as a movement leader into viewing them as a celebrity revolutionary. This shift can look like adopting someone’s specific style, brand of swagger, or personal interests without first reflecting on whether you generally identify with these things. This can also look like believing a celebrity activist’s analysis and beliefs to be irrefutable as well as universally applicable and relevant. We see these forms of engagement lead to fragmented relationships, uncoordinated movements, and the formation of social cliques. Not only this, but in these idealized perceptions of individuals, we often disconnect from the reality that even in their greatness, our leaders (now celebrities) still hold the potential to cause harm as we all do. And when we disconnect from this reality, we increasing the potential for future harm they are involved in to go unaccounted for, excused, or brushed aside.
Which leaders we do and do not select into celebrity status is connected to visibility and absolutely intertwined with oppressive structures. The process by which our movements transition leaders into celebrity revolutionaries is heavily based on race, skin tone, ability status, immigration status, English-speaking capability, income and gender presentation, prioritizing cis-gendered people. Applying these same practices of adoration in celebrity culture to movement leaders, especially when this is how we determine who we place on top to receive the most resources and the attention, recreates the same value systems our movements resist.
Why is this Happening?
There are a lot of reasons why celebrity culture and individualism are so present in our movements. Three factors seem to be: 1) capitalist funding models, 2) uninspiring non-profits, and 3) experiencing personal, physical, emotional, or spiritual overwhelmed. These three reasons often feed into and perpetuate one another.
The mainstream funding model in the U.S is steeped in capitalist notions, assigning those with resources the authority to define (in a social context) who is and is not important expressed by what work, people, and locations receives funding and other resource support. This model prioritizes the opinions of white folks, charity-based models, quantitative, “measurable” outcomes, and success framed through an individualistic narrative, while sewing distrust in grassroots efforts and devaluing Black and brown leadership, collective action, long-term investment, and relational, qualitative achievements. This issue is defined and analyzed thoroughly in the report, “12 Recommendations for Detroit Funders”, put together by Allied Media Projects and the current Design Team of the Transforming Power Fund, a community-led fund that, through practice, is creating a template to address some of the funding issues named above.
The United States mainstream funding model is inherently misaligned with the vision our movements are fighting for. It pushes non-profits to compromise on their goals and ability to remain genuinely accountable to the communities they are working with, and present themselves as “independent, innovative, and visionary” while also presenting as measurable and palatable. It tends to fracture our movements by creating a culture that rewards aggressive competition, under-recognizes collaboration, and glorifies suffering for the sake of productivity through lack of self-care and rest, neglecting personal boundaries, and undervaluing community care practices, facilitating burn out, often leading to further harm.
This pressure and relationship to funding often plays a significant factor in the development of an organization’s culture, heavily influencing who non-profits hold themselves accountable to. This frequently results in uninspired theories of change, and contributing to the rise of individualist “celebrity” narratives around leaders. I’ve lost count of friends and fellow movement collaborators who have abruptly left positions at social justice-oriented non-profits, exhausted from navigating harm, enduring violence, having their opinions, contributions, or ideas go unvalued, unacknowledged or claimed by bosses, or simply working hard and feeling no sense that they are making a difference. Many non-profits don’t elect leadership or have clear, effective structures to keep us aligned with community-defined vision and goals and remove or take other accountability measures when they fail or cause harm. Our lack in stronger organizations and structure to support organizing for collective vision leads to a tendency towards individualistic activism. Many organizations are gradually degrading, their initial visions and goals diluted and redirected under the weight of funder demands while their detachment from communities they claim to invest in expands. Many organizations are also functioning under leadership structures that are not elected or clear, and do not offer safe ways to challenge decisions made by directors and other organizational leads whose main work relationships are usually with funders and other organizational leads. It requires continuous and committed effort to maintain collective decision-making and accountability systems, and existing in a social and economic structures that work against this generally leaves these efforts un or under-funded. This puts them in a precarious position where they’re generally the first items ot be deprioritized when organizations find themselves lacking in resources (time, funding, capacity), which is frequent and common. And when we don’t or can’t prioritize maintaining collectively-centered structures, it becomes all but impossible to focus on individuals. Our organizations often fall into over-celebrating individuals, offloading contradictions of systems onto organizations. This tends to fracture our movements, creating a culture that rewards individualism and aggressive competition and under-recognizes collaboration. This structure glorifies the productivity of individual organizers, pushing them to neglect self-care, rest, reflection, personal boundaries, and to undervalue community care practices, ultimately facilitating burn out and often leading to further harm.
These conditions exacerbate systemic and wide-spead experiences of overwhelm. Speaking from personal experience and drawing from conversation I’ve had with a few trusted comrades, when organizers are working with less than we need, running on fumes while facing problems bigger than all of us, it is often difficult to accept our own limitations. This pushes us further into individualist thought. We want to believe we can accomplish more than we can, because we feel a sense of urgency that we need to accomplish more than we can in order for any of our efforts to have value. Worse yet, we may even start to feel as though proving our commitment to a social issue, or to our community’s wellness requires us to suffer for our work, that celebrating or experiencing joy or fun is somehow a betrayal to our community, an idea is articulated in Trauma Stewardship, by Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk. In my case, this urgent feeling that I needed to always to do more for anything else I did to matter, of refusing experiences of joy, was how I was operating for a long time before I was more or less forced to slow down, ask a few people for help, and clarify, first for myself then for everyone else, what I did, and mostly what I did not have to offer at that moment.
In order for me to accommodate this sense of urgency, I often ended up cutting out parts of my life my well-being really needed me to prioritize. From conversation with friends, and what I’ve experienced and witness, what we cut out often includes investing in personal relationships, acting in solidarity with movements that our work does not center, and contributing to community care in spaces we inhabit. It can also look like de-prioritizing building our own analysis of the issues and vision towards liberation, an exciting, gratifying part of social justice movements. It can feel like just another huge, never-ending task on a long continually growing to-do list.
When we’re in this mental place, it can feel easier to align ourselves with someone else’s vision and framework that feels similar to our own. It can feel comforting to believe that even if we cannot be the super human we think we need to be in order to contribute valuably, at least someone else out there can; that one person’s vision is the only one we need in order to achieve collective liberation.
Engaging in another person’s work in this way can impact us in a few key ways. One way is a disinvestment in one’s own capabilities and potential. When we mainly value our work by how visible it is to another person, or how others’ view our work in relation to someone else’s, it becomes easy to lose touch with ourselves, making it difficult for us to identify and trust our own experiences, and capabilities. We will try to apply solutions that may have worked in well in their specific situational, geographic, or cultural context without considering why applying it to our situation may lead to a different outcome or require some adjusting and rebuilding in order to succeed. It also distracts us from our focus on collective goals and needs, deceiving us into thinking we are focusing on collective needs in moments when we’re really focusing on receiving approval.
On the flip side, this way of engaging in someone’s work or analysis also places far too much weight and expectation on what any one person or one groups’ framework can reasonably accomplish. As Mingus states in her quote found above, this pushes us back into binary thinking. Either a person or their analysis is absolutely flawless and applicable in every situation, leaving no reason to question or challenge, explore otherwise, or develop our own thought, or it is flawed and therefore not worth engaging in. Binary thinking makes it even easier for us to perpetuate idealizing and idolizing our certain leaders while we discard and disavow others, leaving little wiggle room between the two. And while I think it makes sense to listen and learn from clear, accountable leadership, I think this also means learning with leadership, actively engaging by questioning, challenging, contributing, and building.
What are some of the impacts?
So, what effect does this designation of ‘celebrity activist’ have on our ability to both hold leaders accountable and grasp their humanity? In the past, as I was beginning to notice my patterns of thought that viewed movement leaders through a binary lens, and relating to them through practices found in celebrity culture, I also noticed myself disengaging from uncomfortable, or unpredictable elements of their humanity. I saw them as unquestionable, unable to make mistakes or have short comings, and sometimes, I even started to see them as unable to cause harm or enact violence. Allowing space for the potential of certain leaders to cause harm left me feeling vulnerable, conflicted, and defensive. So to protect myself, consciously or not, I left this space out.
I’m sharing this from my personal perspective, but this train of thought is something I see in many social and progressive movements today. This train of thought may be convenient for a while, giving us a fabricated sense of security, but I fear as we continue to collectively refuse to hold these uncomfortable truths, and include them in the image we build of our leaders, ultimately we are opening gaps for potential harm to go unacknowledged, and are creating opportunities for our communities to disempower, silence, and neglect those speaking out against harm caused by our leaders. Community stories and transformative responses have been shared in ‘Beyond Survival: Strategies and stories from the Transformative Justice Movement’ edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi-Piepzna-Samarasinha. In the same moment, we also expand the potential for our leaders to experience harm and isolation themselves.
Our movements have experienced this over and over. We avoid holding leadership accountable, or even acknowledge violence or abusive they’ve committed for fear it will destabilize our movements. It’s easy for us to support #metoo advocates and survivors of abuse until it interferes with our campaign plans, our community events, our organizational structure. This is the point at which most of us become silent or look in another direction. Our willingness as individuals, organizations, and entire movements to look past violence is often determined by the race, skin tone, ability status, income, immigration status, English-speaking ability, and gender presentation placing Black and brown, disabled, undocumented, non-english-speaking, low-income, trans women and femmes in our movements at the bottom.
Finally, losing sight of understanding our leaders as fellow human beings also means disconnection from their need for rest, joy, care, and community, their limits and their boundaries. It also isolates leaders from their communities and makes it difficult for us (their communities, neighbors, friends, and families) to see when they are struggling and offer care. This can look like expecting our leaders to always be available, always be working, to conflate our leaders with their work, to view them as incomplete without it. It can look like is applauding our leaders for not caring for themselves, for not taking breaks, for suffering, a capitalist, ableist perspective on productivity that reverberates out into our movements and communities.
In addition to everything named here, applying celebrity culture to our movement spaces weighs heavily on how much and if we value care, healing, and other under-recognized and traditionally-feminized work including logistics planning, cleaning and space-creating, etc. When all of us are aspiring to be the most visible and charismatic leaders of a movement, we tend to see behind-the-scenes work, tedious, time and energy-consuming tasks like logistics planning as stepping stones on our ways to greatness, and not as independently valuable.
This shows up when we don’t give ourselves a reasonable timeline or enough resources to coordinate logistics for an event, expecting it to “just work itself out”, when we do not communicate effectively with those leading behind-the-scenes efforts, but give them a round of applause during the closing remarks of a conference. It also doesn’t allow movement members to play to their strong suits. Not everyone needs to have charisma, and not everyone wants to or can be at the front of a room. Let’s invest in people finding the work that feels good to them, not pushing them to fill a role that is convenient for us, but doesn’t work for them. Let’s invest in building movements that support the needs and value the participation of parents, low and minimum-wage workers, people who rely on public transportation, and people with disabilities.
I do not want to see us move into a way of relating which is defined by potential for harm. I want to see us hold ourselves and our leader in the full potential of each others’ humanity, something I do not see us doing when we place individuals on pedestals, refusing to hold space for potential mistakes, let-downs, and harm we all of the potential to cause. Disengaging from our leaders’ humanity also means disengaging from their ability to change, evolve, and transform. Once again pushing us into binary thought of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, it creates an opening for mainstream narratives that attempt to justify violent institutions including militarized police forces, and prisons, arguing that there are people who belong there, when we know this isn’t the case.
This piece isn’t about scolding ourselves for our flaws; it’s about identifying our shortcomings and adjusting to strengthen ourselves and our movements as we move forward. It is an offering to strengthen where we are unsteady, and build on where we are succeeding within many of our social justice movements and spaces. The goal of it is not to criticize our movement leaders or tear down our movements. Rather, it is to critique an aspect of our movement culture; how we treat our leaders, the pedestals we build to place them on, and the ways this impacts our relationships to ourselves, each other, and our movements. What I’m asking in this piece is for movement leaders, not movement celebrities. We do not need celebrities who we idolize or idealize, who we don’t feel comfortable questioning, who we don’t feel safe challenging. We need leaders who guide, facilitate, initiate, coordinate, listen, commit, clarify, and follow-through.
Our movement leaders offer critical analysis, historic context, tools, and practices that strengthen our efforts. They also model tenderness, fierceness, and tenacity to achieve healing for their communities and realize solutions that will bring us to a liberatory future. They deserve our attention, respect, and engagement, but they deserve to experience this in a way that is not disengaged from their humanity, or the humanity of those supporting and engaging them.
As community members and the people who make up these movements, we deserve to organizing in a culture that is striving towards our well-being, not just long-term, or eventually, or when this next event ends, but as we move together as well.
Through the current pandemic, many grassroots efforts are already redirecting their attention and actions, placing the focus on mutual aid and building spaces and practices that facilitate connection and trust; We are developing stronger clarity of collective values, and an unwillingness to bend in our practices or leave any of our comrades behind. We are weeding out unsustainable results disguised as solutions, and encouraging each other to envision futures that are breath-taking and irresistible before they are reasonable or palatable to discouraging perspectives or oppressive forces. I am excited for us to continue this work.
Recently, I witnessed two conversations that spoke to the insight of movement elders and ancestors in what out next steps might be, in how we might envision ourselves moving forward. Last December, during a virtual discussion ‘Hacking the Syllabus: Critical Solidarities with Scott Kurashige and adrienne maree brown’, Kurashige and brown referenced Grace Lee Boggs in discussing the idea of us shifting from the goal of all of us becoming charismatic leaders to becoming “doulas for the revolution”. Referring to this idea, Kurashige states, “We have a responsibility to nurture the conditions for a different type of growth and transformation as a doula”.
In response, Brown shares, “The thing I have always loved about being in the doula role is it’s not ‘I come with all the answers for your body’, it’s ‘you, birthing parents, you have a sense of the kind of birth you want, you have a kind of sense of the kind of possibility you want, and you can feel within you and between you all kinds of data that I don’t know, and I think of the same thing for organizers…we should not arrive into a city or a place or a community or our own home or anywhere like ‘I know exactly how this has to go and you have to conform the way you think to the way I think. Instead, it’s ‘you have so much power. Do you even understand the capacity you have for creating miracles? You have that within you.’”
Only a few weeks later, listening in on a conversation hosted by the Boggs Center to hear from movement elders Nelson & Joyce Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina, Nelson shared, “Often times, we think we are the only ones who can do this work, but that’s just not true…We must keep speaking to the potential of others, even as we oppose what they are doing.”
These conversations made me feel as though within and across our movements, we are already more in sync than we may think we are, and as we continue to build, this connection will only deepen as it has been for decades. As I continue untangling these oppressive thought patterns in my own mind, I hope to be a part of future conversations where we are not tearing ourselves apart, but instead are challenging ourselves to further untangle our practices from the systems we’re fighting and weave a stronger cloth on our own. I want to see us reject individualist, celebrity culture, and lean into exploring what collectively-led and community-defined liberation might look like for all of us.