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Monday May 29th 2017

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Resisting the Savior Mentality

By C. S. Satterwhite

Author Jordan Flaherty came to activism when he was a teenager.

“My first protest was when I was 16,” said Flaherty. “It was in support of friends who were expelled from school for organizing against sexual assault.”

Years later, Flaherty is an award-winning journalist featured on numerous news outlets, from CNN to NPR. As a white Southerner who speaks and writes candidly about race, he’s a frequent guest on black media.

Flaherty also has the unique distinction of being the only (known) journalist spied upon by the New York Police Department during its notorious spy programs of recent years, in which the NYPD actually traveled to Flaherty’s hometown of New Orleans to build their files.

While the subjects of his stories vary—from Palestine to the Prison Industrial Complex to attacks on women’s health clinics—as with many topics in America, many of Flaherty’s stories come back to race.

In many ways, Flaherty defines the role of the journalist within activism. He works in a community and writes about the community, trying his best to see the situation as they see it. Yet the New Orleans resident takes issue with how activism is typically defined.

“I don’t want to limit activism to protest,” said Flaherty. “Challenging friends and family on their sexism and/or racism is activism.”

As the holidays roll around, many are wondering how to handle the interesting post-election dinner conversations. Flaherty’s latest book may be exactly what they need to read to embolden their resolve to have the difficult conversations necessary at this time in history.

“No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality” covers a broad range of subjects, most dealing with racism and sexism. From the Black Lives Matter Movement to Teach for America, wherever progressives are, Flaherty offers a way forward, which avoids trampling over already, marginalized communities.

As the title implies, Flaherty’s book is largely concerned with the “savior mentality,” a common belief common among activists.

According to Flaherty, “the savior mentality means thinking we don’t need to hear the voices of those who are closest to the problem and solution.”

“It’s the idea that change comes from individuals, rather than collective action,” said Flaherty.

“For example, we are taught that Lincoln ended slavery, a view of history that ignores millions of people that fought and died to end slavery, whether through political organizing or slave rebellions and other brave actions.”

The savior mentality “keeps us from seeing how change happens,” said Flaherty. “It’s disempowering, and it’s incorrect.”

Although he says this problem is all around us, from the movies we watch to the way we’re taught history in school, Flaherty personally remembers seeing this as an issue after Hurricane Katrina.

Living in New Orleans during the storm was traumatic for the residents of the city. As the devastation became clear, watching the aftermath unfold on TV was, at a different level, traumatic for the nation. Many people with the best of intentions rushed to New Orleans to help without knowing what the city actually needed or wanted, and often without listening to those on the ground who actually understood the city.

This is where the problems began.

“For me,” said Flaherty, “living in New Orleans in the years after Katrina was a real awakening. I saw people coming to our city to ‘help,’ but bringing such a condescending attitude, like colonial explorers. And many of these good volunteers actually drained more resources than they contributed.”

The target audience for Flaherty’s book is not those who are on the fence, but really those who are already in the trenches. Many of the progressive activists, in particular, are the ones Flaherty hopes to reach.

The timing couldn’t be better.

The recent electoral victory of Donald Trump has energized activists. Much of this energy comes from the alarming rise of racially motivated hate crimes. As of this writing, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports over 700 potential hate crimes since the Nov. 8 election.

According to Flaherty, “the Trump victory shows that whatever we’ve been doing, it’s been either the wrong thing or not enough.”

“Progressive white people are uniquely positioned to talk to our friends and family members about racism, about fear, about immigration,” said Flaherty.

“We all need to step up our game, to take more risks.”

Among the many issues covered in “No More Heroes,” Flaherty is most concerned with what he sees as “a rising tide of white supremacy and fascism.”

Recent gatherings of white supremacists, or “identitarians” from the “alt-right” movement lend credence to Flaherty’s concern. “The Atlantic” magazine released a video, viewed by millions already, of a Washington, DC, gathering where men in suits could be seen giving the Nazi salute while yelling “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”

Although Trump denounced the white supremacist organization, the fear is a clear and present danger for many communities in the United States, but also around the globe. “From Trump here to Brexit in England and Marine Le Pen in France, to Duterte in the Philippines,” said Flaherty.

“I hope this book can be a lesson in how to fight this [rise of racism and fascism],” said Flaherty.

In writing his book, Flaherty spoke with communities who were fighting before the election and would certainly be fighting after.

Recalling his experiences, Flaherty said, “I got to spend the last several years speaking with brilliant organizers who have been successful in fighting repression.”

“From the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter to indigenous resistance… this book is an attempt to amplify those voices.”

Covering many areas, from the history of the movement and even to the author’s personal stories, race is the subject that ultimately underlines “No More Heroes.”

Most activist causes have some sort racial component, which requires dialogue. Yet many people freeze when talking to people of the different ethnicities about race, refusing to discuss the subject for fear of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Well-intentioned people become afraid to venture into uncomfortable territory to explore their own thoughts on racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and sexism, for instance. In response, Flaherty said the best course is forward, but with an open mind and open ears.

For those wary of making mistakes, Flaherty offers this advice: “I would quote the Zapatistas, who say, ‘Walking, we ask questions.’ In other words, don’t get so frozen in fear that you don’t act—we need people to take action.”

Flaherty continued, “but, as you take action, listen to the voices of those around you, and be willing to change course based on their feedback. Don’t go in thinking you have all the answers, move forward in social work seeking to learn and grow along the way.”

Whether in streets or the soup kitchens, Flaherty offers a way to remain strong to personal convictions, while avoiding the pitfalls many activists encounter. At the very least, for those people willing to become activists at the family dinner table and the water cooler at work, Flaherty’s book, in the words of historian Robin D.G. Kelley, is the “perfect gift for the age of Trump.”

Jordan Flaherty Reading
WHAT: Jordan Flaherty reads from his latest book, “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality”
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8
WHERE: Open Books Bookstore, 1040 N. Guillemard St.
COST: Free
DETAILS: jordanflaherty.org or openbookspcola.org