Society today is extremely disconnected. Especially for marginalized people and double-especially for disabled people with other marginalizations. If you want to go out and help people and make a difference…
Well, I’ve known many people who have said, “I want to help but I can’t participate in marches and protests, what can I do?”
For a long time, I’ve been one of them.
When I talked with experienced activists and mutual aid people about how I could start doing stuff locally, they told me ‘start with people you know’ or ‘find a local group and get involved.’ Which, for me, was very frustrating advice, because I don’t really know anyone locally and I couldn’t find any mutual aid groups. Or any activist groups at all. I knew there had to be some, but they don’t exactly advertise in the Yellow Pages. Maybe Facebook, but I stay off the Book for my own mental health.
I finally floundered into a way forward, partly by luck, partly by unrecognized intuition, and mostly by letting go of my assumptions.
I’m sharing my story and what I’ve learned from it. And maybe it will help you find your paths to being more involved in local community building.
Starting Where I Am
It’s coming up on April. I found myself (again) anticipating ‘Autistic Awareness Month’ with frustration and dread and a deep wish that I could do something to make a difference. I (again) found myself thinking: what I would say if I ever got a chance to address allistic people about autism? About being autistic, and why Autism Speaks needs to disappear off the Earth and never be heard from again. Maybe it’s because I’d been reading The Color of Jews, which introduces a couple of dozen Jewish activist organizations and the work they do. Maybe because I had just attended a presentation by a member of the Abayudaya (an African Jewish community) hosted by my synagogue. But it occurred to me that there’s this thing called the ‘Jewish Community Center’ which hosts events, presentations, etc in my area. What (if anything) are they doing for Autism Awareness Month? What would they say if I asked about doing a presentation on autism?
The answer, it turns out, was ‘nothing’ and ‘OMG PLEASE!’
In the process of setting up what is going to be a short Zoom presentation on April 7th (~40 mins talking and then 20 min Q&A), I learned:
a) There are a lot of people in the area dealing with autism who have no idea how to find good information on autism.
b) the program director at the JCC has been trying to get some kind of autism thing going. She now wants to recruit me to get autistic-friendly social events happening
c) I’d forgotten who I am.
I’d thought of community building as direct mutual aid, protesting, providing resources, creating groups, and bringing people together.
All things that I would, frankly, suck at.
At least right now. I could learn some of it in time, but if I want to help now, I need to start with me, as I am now.
I am, first and foremost, an educator. That is the work I shine at. Especially outreach education.
Secondly, I am a decent ‘REMF’. (Rear-echelon mother-fucker – the folks who sit back in the office making sure everything is organized and all the necessary information goes to the necessary people. The one who pesters the people doing the work to make sure they file reports on time.) I don’t know what the activist-equivalent of that military term would be. (Is there one?) But it’s ridiculous for me to push myself to be in the front lines when I’d A) be more burden than help there and B) do a lot of good making sure there were sufficient medical supplies, food, and water for the protesters back at base.
First things first, I am an educator. And after talking with the JCC person there is a real, almost desperate, need for education about autism locally. For autistic people, caregivers, and community leaders.
It was easy. I just let the JCC person and the president of my synagogue know that if they know people dealing with a new autism diagnosis, to give them my contact info. I’ll be happy to answer questions and provide information.
As easy as that, I have started building closer ties in my local communities, helping my local communities grow stronger, AND now have a way to help connect different local communities.
Well, it’s not just folks in the JCC who are dealing with autism and lacking crucial information.
But the JCC and synagogue will be able to connect me WITH local communities.
For instance, my synagogue is part of an ‘interfaith alliance for racial justice.’ They can help me connect with other faith communities, who can help me connect with other local groups and on through the communal web.
And maybe (likely) I will find other people (like this JCC person!) who want to help more people learn about autism, and as I meet people and help them learn, some of them will join me. And we’ll have an actual group working in the city, across multiple local communities. Focusing on autism, but also being another strand in that web, connecting those communities.
Ideally, I’d like to have a small group (because I don’t deal well in large groups!). Working together to help autistic people and autism caregivers learn about autism and connect with community support and services. AND helping local communities learn how to include and support their autistic members.
And it’s not the kind of activism that gets talked about on Twitter or Tumblr or Reddit. But it is something that matters. Something that will help people, and build community, and bring people together.
I think, I hope, that if I can do this, then the next step makes itself.
If I/we have built connections to other communities, mutual aid groups, etc etc, then when there is a need, a protest, an emergency, etc, I/we will know about it. And I can volunteer to help organize the supplies, or make sure person A can contact group B and all the other stuff my REMF tendencies push me to do anyway.
Start with what you can offer. Are you another educator? A handyman? An organizer?
You have something to offer people. Stop worrying about not being able to do the ‘right’ thing, and start doing something. Even if it’s ‘just’ helping poor or disabled folks fix their leaky sinks or driving people to the DMV so they can get an ID. You can put up a notice on Craigslist or Facebook or your local grocery store’s notice board.
Even if you can’t find local mutual aid groups or activist groups, you likely already belong to a community. Start building connections where you are. Your religious community, your kids’ schools, your hobby group, even your employer, are all groups you can build connections through. Your religious group and kids’ school likely has people who need help or will want to work with you. They can also connect you with groups and organizations dedicated to community building and support. Your hobby group same. You don’t want to work WITH your employer (unless you have a very unusual employer). But most companies have connections to one or more local charities. Your boss might be willing to introduce you to someone who works for the charity. Or start a discussion around the breakroom with your co-workers. They may be able to introduce you to other groups or to get involved with you.
If you aren’t involved in any local groups or communities, you can join one. It’ll likely be good for you to be part of a local community, as well. Having local people to call on is always good. Not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible.
And… don’t wait for the perfect time. If you have an idea ‘I’d like to be able to do this…’ well, try it! The worst that can happen is you will fail – and most of the time, failing is a learning opportunity. Nothing more.
And If You Can’t, It’s Okay
There is good reason for as many of us as possible to focus on our local communities. On local aid and local activism. But if you can’t, there’s no shame and no failing in doing work online instead. Online communities are real to, and the people in them need aid, support, and access, just as much as folks offline do.