Relational activism 

Five smiling faces, showing a mix of ages and races.
The way I know this picture is not real is that everyone looks content with life. Jasmina El Bouamraoui and Karabo Poppy Moletsane via Wikimedia Commons, manipulated by Lee Lim

Reframing where we ‘do’ activist work

When you think of activism or an activist, what is it that you think of? In answering this question, you likely imagined an activist as someone with a driven commitment to a cause, hardworking and taking their activism ‘out there’ and ‘doing something.’ This is an accurate representation of what most of us have come to understand as activism.  

In “Belonging, A Culture of Place,” bell hooks contends that in doing any kind of work that aims to deconstruct systems of domination and undertaking activist orientated action, we must adopt an ethic of relational reciprocity. To do so, perhaps the most obvious – but often overlooked – place to begin is from within our own relationships.  

The term “relational activism” draws attention to the ways people make change happen through their personal and informal relationships. The principles of relational activism are unlike other movements for social change because we can begin the process from wherever we are and whoever we are in relation with. This is done by understanding how unjust and violent systems code the ways in which we relate to one another and by using daily practices to resist and change norms.  

An example could look like asking why a person did XYZ action to hurt us and what caused them to, rather than deciding to turn around, do the same, and hurt them back. This challenges what is essentially a logic of equal punishment and revenge. This is seemingly minute, but on a larger scale it is the very same logic that underpins our carceral systems. Thereby, relationships become a key site for addressing and hopefully abolishing – in this case – carceral logics. Examining our everyday interactions helps us become cognizant of how our actions support and uphold violent systems, stay open to discussion, and to hold ourselves to accountable for our own complicities.  

When we understand these systems as being connected and encoded in our practices of relationality, then our solidarities become connected. In “Leaning In,Vikki Reynolds explains that “relationships of respect and dignity [act as a] frame for our solidarity, […] and the imperfect practice of being and needing allies.” Central to this we must navigate the imperfect, sometimes uncomfortable, and always messy ‘thing’ that is relationship. We do this with the understanding that we are working towards a shared and desired outcome.  

In “Gender Trouble,” philosopher and Gender Studies scholar Judith Butler says “Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” In such, we become mutually constituted co-creators of our realities, our communities, and our futures as we endeavour to relate to one another. Sometimes, as Butler reminds us, this might mean ‘undoing’ pre-existing ideas and notions that we tell ourselves about ourselves. This itself is a type of intimacy. 

For hooks, community is salvation. Yet, what underpins and creates our communities is our relationships. Because of this, relationships act as an important position from which to redress systems of violence. This is particularly true for settlers as they confront ongoing harms of settler colonialism that hinder us from living as treaty people. 


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