Reassuringly Restless 6: pass the mic (you're taking up too much space)
I’ve been taking a break over the past few weeks, so there was no June blog post. This is now the 6th blog post in the 7th month of the year. It irritates me that the numbers are out of sync, but, y’know, self-care!
The past couple of months have been stressful, for frustrating reasons. Event over the past couple of months and the fact that I will be aging out soon (I’ll explain more later) have gotten me thinking (more) about passing the mic and making sure I’m not taking up unnecessary space.
This blog post is dedicated to all the people who saw something in me before I saw it in myself. To all the people who passed the mic to this (once) fresh faced activist.
So, what is this ‘pass the mic’ business?
To ‘pass the mic’ is to share space with people, with the aim of bringing in a plethora of different experiences to the forefront. It may present itself in different ways, but ultimately it is about passing an opportunity to someone else (especially when that person’s/group’s experiences are often erased and/or misrepresented because of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, transphobia, homophobia, ageism etc.).
I am now in a position where I am handed the mic more often and there have been times when I have messed up and spoken, when I should have passed it on. Now I ask myself questions to reflect on whether or not it should be me to speak/represent/give feedback/take part. If you’re thinking about how much space you take up, these may be helpful questions for you too.
1) How does my privilege/power impact this situation?...
(… and more importantly, how am I going to respond to that?)
“The bottom-line folks: is that we all have privilege. So, I invite you and I challenge you to look into your areas of privilege. Figure out what they are and use them for good. Acknowledge the advantages that you have and use them to restore equity wherever you see bias. You are not powerless against institutional bias or unconscious bias.
You have power to make a difference in this world.”
Tiffany Jana, TEDx
I am a British born (with British citizenship – for now), cis-gender, university educated, able-bodied, young adult (with a good reputation in international HIV advocacy). These are privileges.They are not things that get in the way of me achieving my advocacy goals, in fact they often give me an unfair advantage (because of how they are perceived). On an international and national advocacy stage, there’s a lot of leverage I have to use these parts of my identity, to open up spaces for other people.
Let’s go back a few years, when I was new to the international advocacy scene. One of my first international events took me to Cote D’Ivoire, for conference looking at HIV and sexual health across Africa (emboldened for a reason). The conference involved a series of panels, talks and presentations (standard conference stuff).
One person wanted me to co-chair a panel about youth interventions across the continent (of Africa). I have always lived in Europe. The requester already had a man to chair and they wanted a woman for gender balance (yes, we are still very much living in binaries). I agreed in the moment, but it didn’t feel right (because it wasn’t).
When I was asked, there were two other women in the room, who were more familiar with the international advocacy scene. There were from eastern and southern African countries and they were doing work in those respective regions. I am originally from Uganda, but I have never lived in an African nation. Within this context, of course that matters (and that’s why it didn’t feel right).
When I have retold this story, I have had the rebuttal “well maybe they just knew you would be a good chair”. How so? I had never chaired a panel before. Even if I had, it would not have been appropriate for me to chair this panel. Optics do matter. Experiences do matter. People can moan about “identity politics” all they want - it matters. I honestly believe that I was asked because I had a British accent; there’s a lot of weight placed on western accents (especially London, UK ones).
Our identities may remain the same, but the impact and ‘importance’ of them (and what is focused on) changes depending on the environment. I could not ignore that. So, I changed my mind and recommended one of the other women instead. I should never have accepted the request in the first place.
Not every opportunity that comes your way is for you.
2) Who is not in the room?
Remember: you can’t speak for everyone (even if you have a marginalised identity)
You cannot represent everyone with the same lived experience as you, because there is a plethora of lived experiences. Earlier this year I was invited to speak at another conference and noticed that the list of the other speakers had similar experiences to me. I contacted the person organising the session and suggested two other people (because of their gender experience and the other because of their sexuality and ethnicity). These two people represented groups that often talked about, but are rarely invited to speak at the ‘mainstream’ table.
I guess this is an example of sharing the mic; I was only half successful. One of the people I suggested was invited to speak, the other was not. I decided to use part of my talk to read a statement from the person who was not able to speak at the event.
3) Do I know when it’s time to leave?
Passing the mic is not just about giving talks. I am currently the chair of the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV and I’m going to be 30 at the end of the year. UK lot: (before you get all animated) internationally, a young person is seen as anyone 30 or under. Some people try to push it 35, but they’re just trying it!
After over a decade of doing HIV advocacy (for young people), I’m aging out. I keep thinking about how I will pass the mic. Over the years I have heard people (rightly) call for people to hand over power and positions, whether that be for a new generation, new way of thinking, to bring in more voices... but when it’s time for them to do the same... they become quiet, resistant, difficult (cue: side eye).
Think of advocacy as a race (a long, long, long race – there are rarely quick wins). Now, I’m not saying your advocacy should be time limited*, but the specific roles you hold might need to be. There are many reasons for that:
to make room for a wider range of voices
less energy/lost enthusiasm
not enough time/changing priorities
self-care (read Andrew Spieldenner’s blog on taking a break from advocacy)
The list is endless. Sometimes we pass the mic by bringing more people into the stage with us and sometimes we pass the mic by stepping off the stage altogether. Sure, they may not do it like you, but that may be the key to the movement’s success. Know when it’s time to leave so that you wouldn’t want to become one of the seven types of activists to avoid.
Passing the mic is trial and error and there is not one way to describe it. Sometimes it’s about giving development opportunities to other people, sometimes it’s about giving opportunities to people who are already capable, sometimes it’s about sharing the space, sometimes it’s about giving up your space for someone else – always it’s about knowing that an ego should not be bigger than a movement. Ultimately, it’s about leveraging your power and privilege (a sliding changing scale, depending on the environment your in) to share space with those who have less leverage than you.
*however, if you are in a youth representation role, you should definitely hold that role for a limited time period. No matter how good you are, there will always be other good people. One person does not make a movement (they simply pass the baton on).
Can activism really change the world? I think it’s the only thing that ever has, but we need to be strategic with it. This is the six of a monthly blog series. If there is anything that you would like me to discuss in future blog posts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bakita Kasadha (aka BAKITA:KK) is an HIV activist, associate trainer and writer. She is the Chair of the Global Network of Young People Living with HIV. She is interested in self-care, ethical engagement and power dynamics within social movements.
Through this blog series, she aims to share some insight to navigating activism and advocacy spaces, for those thinking about it and for those figuring it out. All opinions are strictly hers.