Michelle Boonzaaier, IAM Programs Manager

At the end of August, IAM took part in the 5th Annual Pan-African ILGA (PAI) regional conference with the theme, Reclaiming Our Past, Defining Our Future. 

I was invited to participate as a panelist in the interfaith pre-conference, organised by the Global Interfaith Network for People of all Sexes, Sexual Orientations, Gender Identities and Sexual Orientations (GIN), its members and partners, with the theme Dialogue for Change.

Passing the baton

I was invited to reflect as an elder activist on the subject, “Passing on the baton: Regional and organisational collaboration and strengthening”.  

The panelists were asked to look at the work being done across Africa, and identify avenues for strengthened partnerships and gaps that might exist. We also, importantly, reflected on how we are sustaining the movement, ensuring continuity in our advocacy, how we are helping others when their energies run out, and exploring our sustainability and institutional memory plans. 

The gatvol activist – work from a place of rest

The only thing that I could think about as I prepared for the session is that people are tired…The past 18 months have taken all the reserves from already marginalised and depleted people, working in a sector that is so very hard to navigate.

IAM exists because the question of faith doing violence always occurs in spaces where people who are viewed as different merely wish to live and lead flourishing lives. The programs that I manage at IAM – Collaborative Faith Partnerships and Collaborative Civil Society Partnerships – span faith and civil society; geographically explores contexts in South Africa as well across the SADEC region and into parts of West and East Africa. The work that we do is situated in building relationships with individuals and organisations, nurturing these relationships and interdependence, and building capacity.

In most faith traditions, faith and spirituality are shared through storytelling. However, it is difficult to hear stories when the language used is strange to the faith tradition, and faith language is often both offensive and oppressive. IAM’s facilitation and training often start with a look at language, how it informs our lived and faith realities, and what this means for LGBTIQ+ people to live flourishing lives in faith communities. Listening to stories that are different to the dominant narratives becomes transformative. When people are able to reframe their beliefs after hearing stories that are both true and not the norm, then faith communities can transform to become inclusive and affirming.

I have witnessed that through telling, retelling, and reframing stories of faith, we begin to dismantle patriarchal religious structures, question power discourse, and reimagine a space where all stories matter. Pastors are invited to deal with their own sexual orientation and gender identity and sex characteristics. Our process is one of centering people within their full humanity. This work is so necessary, but also exhausting.

Something that has become more and more evident over the past two years is that activism and advocacy cannot be effective without it happening from a place of rest. Throughout my nearly 11 years working for IAM, I have heard the same refrain from activists and advocates for justice, “I am just so tired…” Over the last two years this has become more and more evident. People in our sector are tired, burned out, overextended and just “gatvol” – fed up, up to here with it.

IAM wishes to hold spaces to the “gatvol”, tired activist. Within our own staff complement we encourage staff to work from a place of rest and wellness – to take time out when you feel overextended, to invite others to assist. To never work on your own, always with a partner that has your back. 

To work like this requires management, boards, and also funders to have the same understanding that activists require more rest and psychosocial support to do the work. Our organisation has been structured in such a way that this happens. Funding is made available to staff so that they can get the necessary psychological support and spiritual nurturing they need. An example of this is that I see my spiritual director during office hours. This weekend I will go on a retreat that is factored into my work plan and paid for by IAM. The work that we have done over the past two years has taken this approach – we build in rest and reflection time for our participants into our facilitation and training programs.

Working from a place of reflection leads to better action

A second gap that we have incorporated into our organisation and encourage partners to do as well is to work from a place of reflection. IAM staff have 25% of our time set aside for reflection in our annual work plans. We are already reaping the benefits of this action-reflection methodology. I have found that some of the “tiredness” – this feeling of “gatvol” is because we move from one task to the next – one activity to the next – one catastrophe to the next – without any time to reflect and heal and do differently – or do better. 

Action-reflection has always been and will remain an underlying theoretical lens that informs our work. As we try to do better and be better, we reflect on our practice and hone our skills of holding transformative spaces through our reflection as an IAM Team, management team, and board.

Communicating this with funders is a challenge in itself, but it can be done. We communicate to funders that we often need specialists to come and help us create action-reflection strategies that work the way we work, specialists that help us to address trauma and re-traumatisation that we deal with daily. When we address this trauma and re-traumatising of activists, we are able to deepen our work. We are able to address the devils within and the evils without. We can do this without doing violence, as is often experienced in activist spaces. This is slow work, and we have to honour that – we have to honour our own humanity and spirituality.

Collaborative partnerships are critical to our process. IAM’s training of trainers has become a way to accompany others to join our work. We work holistically, addressing the real needs of the people that we serve. Sharing knowledge and experience has become some of the keys to these spaces of collaborative knowledge sharing. 

Towards creative activism

I love the way in which working from a place of rest, reflecting deeply after a long process, and finding conversation partners to do all of the above has unlocked in me and the IAM team the kind of creativity that we can also bring to our training spaces. I am understanding more and more that activism from a place of trauma can often inflict violence, but my story does not have to end here. Trauma that is dealt with can also give rise to understanding, creativity, and transformation that changes people and groups.