Solidarity as Active Resistance: Creating Meaningful Relationships in Struggle.
an evaluation of the trip by S
I approached this solidarity trip to Chile and Bolivia with a certain amount of skepticism and doubt. I was skeptical as to whether we would be able to achieve our stated goals because we were only going for 6 weeks and because our itinerary was very ambitious. In the past I have had much more time, and therefore a longer learning curve to wrap my head around the political context of where I am and what I wish to accomplish there. Reflecting on it now, I am happy and pleasantly surprised by how much we were able to get done.
The past few years of traveling and living outside of the US has taught me some hard
lessons about the limits of my ability to be politically effective in struggle in other languages, geographies and contexts. Being able to participate in struggles in other places in a way that feels useful has usually been dependent on four things: a historical and contemporary understanding of the political situation, language fluency, good friends or contacts whom I trust to guide me through the first period of exchange and my own ability to be vulnerable and open to others.
Most of the advice I would offer is pretty basic. Do your research before you go. Spend
time reading and learning about the situation you will be entering into. Having the back-
story politically, economically and historically will be helpful when you have discussions with people because you will spend less time interrupting them to obtain basic information. Also be honest with yourself about where you are at linguistically. Think about the level of passive listening and active expression you think you will need to make exchanges satisfying to you and balance that out with how long you will be traveling. The more time you have the more you can expect to improve but everyone learns at a different pace. Don’t bank on playing catch up once you get there on a shorter trip since most people need a certain amount of time for an immersion experience to positively affect their language skills.
Language skills (or lets say comfort- because one can accomplish a lot with a certain amount of initiative and a minimal vocabulary) is directly related to creating friendships. For me solidarity is an emotional project, based on personal relationships- which was the premise of this trip. I am not very good at networking, I find I need to make an intimate connection with someone in order to maintain an on-going relationship and have longer term collaborations. The kinds of contacts you have are very important to creating meaningful connections. The overall effectiveness of our trip was a definite result of the legwork that was put in beforehand to arrange ideologically relevant contacts. It’s important to think about what struggles you want to support and what kinds of friends you wish to make.
I don’t think that it is necessary to share the exact same world-view with someone in order
to support them in struggle but it’s important to be honest about what level of ideological
synthesis you need to feel affinity with someone. The contacts we had with others who
were in active resistance against the government- whether or not they identified as anti-
authoritarian or anarchist- made the tentative connections we began with much more likely to flourish into productive and genuine relationships because we shared a basic level of analysis.
The places that we visited where we lacked that common ground with our contacts produced significantly less exchange. Bolivia was hard because it took us longer to connect with people we had affinity with, and when we did we didn’t have the time to strengthen those connections. Hindsight is always 20/20, but I would suggest giving yourself a few more weeks than you think you will need, if you can afford it. Also remember that your trip will usually get less costly the more time passes as your local connections teach you more and more about living for less. I also can’t stress the necessity for some kind of letter of introduction- friends of friends assures a level of potential affinity and trust on both ends. Approaching any new place without being vetted can cause a lot of frustration and will be less effective.
Of course there will always be things you can’t control. The wave of government repression
in Chile that preceded our arrival made beginning contacts in Santiago difficult. We arrived
in the midst of a crisis. This negatively affected the capacity our friends had for showing us
around, and cueing us in. It also made it politically dangerous for them to offer us hospitality. Staying with people creates an intimacy through daily exchange that doesn’t always happen with organized discussions and events.
It took more time in Santiago to create relationships of trust but luckily we had that time to spare. Once we did connect, the work we did there was very much appreciated because our translations were essential for international solidarity actions in the English-speaking world.
Make it easier for people to help you plug in by knowing what your strengths are and what
you can offer before you go and communicate that clearly as you travel. Also be sure to only commit to future collaborations and support that you think you can realistically follow through on- small amounts of material aid that come through is a lot more helpful than being promised the world and having someone flake out.
The material aid we collected before we went was certainly appreciated, as was our
translating and diffusion of information. The political exchange was rich and we had many
interesting discussions. I found traveling as a group productive and worth the emotional effort. I also had a lot of fun taking the streets, but actually it was the small moments of concrete aid and daily living that touched me the most. Making bread in Wallmapu, playing with people’s kids, doing physical labor- felling trees and burning brush. All of these daily acts helped create intimate moments of connection and personal vulnerability that really resonated. Mutual aid expressed in simple small ways helps nurture, heal and support others. I was able to help facilitate that kind of intimacy by offering people bodywork.
Massage provided an opportunity- as it always does- to slow down, take space, and talk with people about whatever was burdening them. I was able to have a lot of conversations about birth and death, how we deal with raising kids in the midst of brutal government repression, and the psychological effects of police incursion into our communities. I talked with people about the fall out that happens after evictions and arrests and how hard the process of grieving for friends and loved ones who are killed in struggle is.
If I had to offer only one final piece of advice- it would be to approach a solidarity trip as you would anything precious and ephemeral. Be present in the moment, be respectful of others’ trauma but also be audacious. Don’t be shy. If you want to know something- ask- you may not have another opportunity. If you are having a hard time dealing with the consequences of struggle in your own life, chances are the person you are talking to is as well. Be honest about your own head-space, vulnerabilities, and history.
I was in the middle of really intense process of grieving during this trip and it was both hard and wonderful. I was a bit of a mess and therefore much less emotionally controlled than I usually am. It allowed me to put it all out there- all of my curiosity, questions, awkward doubts, arrogant speculation, incredulous anger, fear and hope. I learned that honesty and intensity reverberate, you get out what you put in. Solidarity is an emotional endeavor. Holding intimate space with others in struggle is just as important as taking the streets together. You will get so much back if you bear yourself and offer up your heart.