Sometimes Community Is About Knowing When To Say “No”
By Jorge Antonio Vallejos
In 2005 author Rick Moody said something that stuck with me. He shared his disappointment with some of his fellow New York writers who were trying to get the spotlight after 9/11. The media was scrambling for quotes from well-known New York City residents about the attack. Moody declined.
His sentiments were (I’m paraphrasing), “I’m an author. I write books. I know books. I don’t have to comment on everything.”
Moody felt that because he lived in New York didn’t mean he had anything of real substance to say about 9/11. Plus, he was not in any of the towers that crumbled, and he hadn’t lost anyone in the towers; really, although he could see the smoke and havoc from his balcony, he was far removed. Let those closely affected comment. Let those who had gotten involved speak.
Not everyone thinks like Moody.
Being a writer in a community that fights different forms of oppression in this colonialist society sees me being asked to speak at different places from time to time.
Sometimes I say, “Yes.”
Sometimes I say, “No.”
In my case it’s more than having the skill, will, access and privilege of writing that has some people ask me to speak. I’m of colour, outspoken, well informed on certain topics, and in some circles I’m well known.
Also, being Brown with long black hair, and having so many Indigenous friends from different nations, has many folk assume that I’m a First Nations person.
“I thought you were a full blooded Anishinaabe,” said my Saulteaux friend Verne about the first time he saw me.
“I’m Spanish-naabe,” I said. All of us in the room laughed.
I’m mixed race.
I’m someone who was born here but I’m not from here.
People with good politics will understand the line above. I’m not First Nations, this is not my land, I’m a guest here on the stolen land now called Canada.
So when I’m asked to speak on topics about First Nations peoples I always ask if the organization has looked for First Nations speakers. I live in Toronto. Some Native people call Toronto “The Big Smoke” for a reason: there are 80 000 Native people who live here. Some Native people also jokingly call Toronto “the biggest reserve in Canada.”
Years ago Ojibwe professor Jean Paul Restoule asked me to give a talk to his class about Native Spirituality. At the time I was going to sweat lodge ceremonies every full moon, and I had been doing so for years. I was (and still am) part of a circle of men who do ceremony.
I was honoured but I said, “No.”
I told Jean Paul that although I was capable of doing the talk I did not feel comfortable doing it. With so many Native people in Toronto who practice traditional ways I thought he should ask someone from the Native community.
Yes, I am Indigenous. Yes, I was (am) part of a circle. Yes, I was confident in my speaking skills and knowledge. No, it’s not my place to do such a talk, especially since Toronto has a wealth of Native Elders, speakers, and people who live traditionally.
Similarly, yesterday, I got an email asking me to speak at an event this coming Friday night:
Are you able to speak @ Idle No More concert friday night?
Native youth playing @ Idle No More fundraiser & wanted a speaker. Thought of you immediately. Fri. night @ Hard Rock Cafe. Are you free or willing?
I’m not free.
To be honest, I also think there are people much better suited to talk about Idle No More. I’ve not written about it at all cause I think others are doing such a great job.
I haven’t been to any of the protests due to sickness. And like I stated above, and in my last post about being in community not competition, there are many people who’ve invested time and energy into Idle No More and I’m not one of them. Big media to small blogs are covering Idle No More; I focus on literature by writers ignored by the mainstream (Native, of colour, queer…) and mix my politics in.
Idle No More is a movement. There is no leader or face to the movement regardless of what mainstream media says and who they highlight. Thousands of people are involved; again, I’ve not been one of them.
I was honoured that a person whose politics I respect, and who works for a Native organization, asked me to speak. But it wasn’t my place.
Could I have done my research on Idle No More and given a good talk? Yes.
Would it be right? No.
Many of the causes I am involved in are connected to Idle No More but they are not Idle No More:
Stopping Violence Against Native Women and Women of Colour
Highlighting 2 Spirit Literature
Dismantling The Prison Industrial Complex
A similar but different situation happened in October 2012. The awesome group Feminsits Of Colour Organize out of York University asked me to speak about the problems around the December 6th Vigil.
I was not only hounoured, I said, “Yes.”
For years I’ve attended the problematic vigil in Toronto with the yellow sign you see above. I’ve also written about it for different publications and done entire weeks on the problems of December 6th on my website. It’s come to the point where December 6th organizers now point me out in the crowd during the vigil: tokenism.
I shared the stage with activists Zainab Amadahy and Kim Crosby this past December 6th as part of a candlelight discussion called Remembering Otherwise: Centring Race in Gender Advocacy. I felt comfortable doing it. I felt I had a place there. I had done much work before that date, and I’ll continue to do more.
That wasn’t the case with this weeks speaking request.
Sometimes community is about knowing when to say, “No.”
You said it, Jorge. Well and clearly, as so very often. I know that i’ve made the mistake, at times, of feeling a need to over-commit; thank you for your clear eyed wisdom.
Anna Marie Sewell
Edmonton Poet Laureate 2011- 13
I really appreciate your comments.
Thanks for being honest, humble, and open.
I know I disagreed with you on this over coffee. But after reading this, I take it back. 🙂
Thanks for reading!
And I think it’s cool that you keep an open mind.
Thank you for posting this. I think it’s something other activists need to take into consideration when being asked to speak or work with other groups. I’ve seen plenty of activists (POC and otherwise) talk on panels or write for magazines/blogs when they actually have little experience in a specific issue, while the ones with actual experience and with something to say are ignored. I wonder if some folks just don’t realize they’re actually participating in silencing voices?
Thanks for commenting and for leaving such a great and important question!
Have you ever challenged anyone on it?
Please SHARE with your networks; maybe they’ll think about it more.
I’m gonna check out your blog now!