Why the Activist Community of Kansas City Must Be Dismantled...and Replaced with Radical Democracy, Part 1

Cecil E. Wattree, LCSW, LSCSW - Guest Columnist

File photo of 2021 protests in Kansas City, Missouri.

Photo by Brynn Fitzsimmons

Why the Activist Community Must Be Dismantled: An Introduction

8/20/2021 - Kansas City, Missouri

By Guest Columnist Cecil E. Wattree, LCSW, LSCSW

This last year (or last century) has put many things in perspective. Along with the advances with technology and innovation, there is an internalized programmed approach to how we address our social issues. None more relevant in the events over the past year in Kansas City.

Last year, I took a step back and observed what was happening in Kansas City as it responded to the deaths of Ahmed Arbury, Brianna Taylor, and George Floyd as well as locally afflicted families of Cameron Lamb, Donnie Sanders and Ryan Stokes. I wrote regarding my observation not just of the harm that is perpetuated on our community, but that of those who wish to address it: the community advocate. It is the community advocate that I wish to address. The community advocates are those who advocate for their community; those who organize, act and weigh in on the social justice and movement space of Kansas City. Although this is directed at those who claim labor or are present in this movement space, I welcome those who are entering this space to reflect as well as those who may be in opposition to seeking social justice.

I found myself thrust into the arena, where many requested assistance, counsel and participation in addressing the abuse of the oppressed and lives affected. In an effort to observe and navigate upon the quasi groups of community advocates (activists, organizers, and supporters). I find myself realizing the vagueness of communication, competence and education within those involved in advocacy. Not just that there were those who found purpose in advocacy, but also opportunity. The purpose of this observation is to provide perspective to the community advocate and to provide input that would assist in better mental, emotional, and physical navigation of this space.

But First….Context.

In a recent interview, Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor outlined three distinct problematic thinking styles we use to approach problems: The Preacher, The Prosecutor, and The Politician. "When we're in preacher mode, we're convinced we're right," explained Grant. The “Preacher” style is used when others are trying to persuade others to their way of thinking. "When we're in prosecutor mode, we're trying to prove someone else wrong," he continued. Grant goes on to say, “The politician I think is interesting. The politician mindset is about trying to win an audience’s approval. So that means I’m lobbying and campaigning for your support.”

Within the past year, involved with this movement space, I believe that I would have attempted to wear these three hats quite often. Within the preacher mindset, I would have ensured that I showed up at every protest and event I attended in an attempt to convince others to follow me as I have the answer for what is needed. Within the prosecutor, I would have shown up at every protest and event I attended as an attempt to expose the performative, self gratifying acts of the oppressor as well as other advocates within movement space. Within a politician mindset, I would have only shown up at every protest and event I attended in an attempt to gain the audience's approval to promote my own political aspirations by convincing others that I support their cause regardless if I believe in it. I can only imagine the newcomer community advocate as well as the seasoned advocate to do the same. Reactively, these mindsets were contemplated in an attempt to rationalize the trauma and harm done or done to others that takes place within this movement space.

We often see these three positions and/or mindsets (the preacher, the politician and the prosecutor) addressing the current events of systemic oppression, visible from both sides of addressing any social issue that lacks justice. Within their perspective fields, speaking from the street, podium or the pulpit, these mindsets tend to weigh in or perpetuate the oppression, while providing their lens of understanding. These three mindsets tend to be the emphasis made from Audre Lorde who wrote, “… survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

The majority of flawed and harmful action done upon the community by advocates with these mindsets has been presented for decades let alone the most visible in the last year with “People's City”, Bartle Hall and multiple calls to actions that provoke a police response rather than addressing baseline inability to protect and serve communities of color, and the most afflicted: the Black populus of the KC metro area. These actions are both unnecessarily dangerous to Black folx (especially children) AND almost none of the activists involved could identify or correctly order systematic steps to DO most of the things they chanted about at these events. It becomes more apparent of the lack of education that is provided as well as lack of understanding of the action as well.

Advocates that operate with these mindsets can produce harm through these points of reference consciously, subconsciously and/or unconsciously. In the series that follows, I hope to see a transition from the Preacher/Prosecutor/Politician paradigm to revolutionary potential and change. I will explore the following basis of my argument:

  • Confusion regarding types of advocacy and The Triangulation of the Oppressed

  • Transference/ countertransference

  • The agentic state of allies

  • Epistemic Trespassing and Narrative Engineering

In the meantime, I'd ask you to use this post to assess where your current sense of "activism," "organizing," or support might fit.

This is part one of a five-part guest series from Cecil E. Wattree, LCSW, LSCSW.