Washington activist urges Presbyterians to go ‘beyond ally to being an accomplice’

Samantha Paige Davis spoke at Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Washington activist Samantha Paige Davis, founder of the Black Swan Academy, spoke at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. on April 5 as part of Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day. (Photo by Rich Copley)

WASHINGTON — Samantha Paige Davis had to start her lunchtime talk at Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day re-framing her given topic: “Movement Building in a Time of Fear.”

“It was a challenge for me to talk about movement building in a time of fear, because as a black woman, I cannot recall a time when I did not live in fear,” she said to the packed room in Washington’s New York Avenue Presbyterian Church on April 5. “The ability to live in this country without some level of fear is a privilege that many people of color, many disabled, many queer, many trans folks simply do not have.”

Davis quoted author and activist James Baldwin, with a bit of paraphrasing, saying, “‘To be black and relatively conscious in this country is to be in a constant state of rage.’

“That rage is in part due to the fear that many people of color have: the fear that my safety is not promised, that my life is not valued, that while the very infrastructure of this country was largely built by the hands of my ancestors, the system and the laws that were created were not made for our own prosperity.”

But Davis, whose 11 years of activism in the nation’s capital has included founding the Black Swan Academy, which helps develop young black civic leaders focused on self-improvement and improvement of their communities, said she understood what the “fear” in the topic was referring to: the election and administration of President Donald J. Trump.

And that brought up a bit more unpacking.

Davis noted that she did not join the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, which was sparked by statements and actions by the newly-elected president seen as degrading and harmful to women. The problem, Davis said, was Trump already had a history of comments and actions against people of color and other marginalized communities that did not spark similar levels of protest.

While upset by the election, Davis says she and other women of color “found it difficult to empathize with our now-devastated progressive white colleagues. That sense of devastation, that sense of rage at not being heard is what oppressed communities have been feeling for centuries. Yet our feelings, our experiences, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.”

Speaking at the event organized by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness, Davis acknowledged that what she was saying was probably hard for some people to hear.

“I don’t say this to be divisive, and I’m aware how this might come across,” said Davis, who was raised in Pittsburgh’s Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church. “I don’t say this to suggest that feelings from historically privileged populations are not valid or should be dismissed. Nor does this take away from the harm the Trump administration is doing with the racist and xenophobic and patriarchal policies that have poured out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, right down the street. It does, however, suggest that we need to do some unpacking here and identify some core practices that we must be grounded in engaging and movement-building and organizing.”

Davis’ experience made her a prime candidate to join the board of the PC(USA)’s Committee on the Self-Development of People last year.

 

The Rev. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Committee on the Self-Development of People, said Samantha Paige Davis “has a heart for young people and education, and helping them to live lives of self-determination.” (Photo by Rich Copley)

“She has a heart for young people and education, and helping them to live lives of self-determination,” says the Rev. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Committee on the Self-Development of People. “We get to experience her gifts as they help to build strategy in working with community organizations.”

The work of the Committee on the Self-Development of People is supported by the One Great Hour of Sharing Special Offering. Click here to learn more and give.

Johnson says that as a millennial, Davis brings a more youthful perspective on movement-building, more easily recognizing communities and issues not taken up by previous generations.

Davis brought the more than 200 CPJ Training Day attendees five key “suggestions, tips and pointers” for movement building with a similarly broad perspective.

  1. Do not build an anti-Trump agenda or an anti-Republican agenda.

Davis said that is “short-sighted,” and “it denies that Trump is a symptom of the system of racism that this country was built on.” Oppression has occurred at the hands of Republican and liberal leaders, she said.

  1. Lead with an intersectional lens.

Davis said it is essential to acknowledge the past and present work of marginalized people in movements and raise their voices.

She quoted writer, librarian and activist Audre Lorde saying, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Davis elaborated, “When we’re thinking about intersectionality, what that is saying is racial justice is gender justice is immigrant justice is queer justice — you can’t move forward with liberation without having that intersectional lens.”

  1. Don’t stay home when it is no longer impacting you.

“If we don’t show up for everyone, particularly the most marginalized, we’re not going to get very far,” Davis said, invoking the refrain, “Not one of us will be free until all of us are free.”

  1. We are not figures, and not one of us is the hero.

Davis built on the morning’s keynote address by author, speaker and activist David LaMotte, who advocated movements as the way to get things done, as opposed to waiting for the inspiring leader or “hero.”

“In many cases, especially as the church, our role is not to be the decision-maker,” Davis said. “It is not to tell people what to do, or what they need or how they should do it. But it is to value their lived experiences, link arms with their knowledge, their solutions, learn from them and build with them.”

  1. Being aware and compassionate is simply not enough.

“To my white family in the room,” Davis said, “leverage your privilege and your power in a way that’s transformative for communities of color and move beyond ally to being an accomplice.”

For the church, Davis added that it is important to acknowledge it is an institution that has historically played a role in oppression, often using the Bible to justify it, establishing white culture as the norm and upholding white, male leadership above and to the exclusion of others.

“The church, because of the harm that we have caused, must do justice work — it is our obligation, it is our responsibility,” Davis said.

“If you do nothing else when we leave this space, you must go beyond the confines of the church walls into the community where the people are and simply connect and love with each other,” she said. “We know there is no fear in love, and if we start with loving others the way God has loved us, then maybe the way I started this conversation would be different, and maybe as a black woman, and for some from some other marginalized communities, that fear and that time of fear would actually have an ending in sight.”

Read more from Advocacy weekend in Washington:

CPJ Day speaker: ‘Maybe God has a plan, and God’s plan is us.’

More than 200 Presbyterians sharpen their social justice skills at CPJ Day

Showing ‘what advocacy is’ keeps Presbyterians coming back to Washington event

Ecumenical Advocates march and meet on Capitol Hill

 


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