ArtilesWhat is TranscommunalityLetters to the Editor

I am a firm believer in the positive effects of dialogue. As a college teacher and community activist, I support dialogue, especially in settings of competitive misunderstandings and hostility. However, my community work, from the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 through the work with gang peace organizations with whom I have been recently involved, tells me over and over again, that sharing real work and common tasks is the best way to work out respectful interactions, constructive disputing, and personal transformations. Words, by themselves have a way of spinning around unless they are grounded. “Sisterhood/Brotherhood” are wonderful terms but what does it mean, for example, to bring them into practice, by getting people together for a meeting to discuss toxic waste dumping in a community? For that simple event one needs people to make sure the notices are put out. You need people to make sure the location for the meetings is ready. You need people who can provide clear expert descriptions of problems and solutions. And, you need people who can facilitate meetings. All this and more is practical work, no matter how small it may seem.
The Haudenosaunee emphasized such practical problem solving as the basis of their successful confederation. The “Mother of the Nations” who hears the words of the Peacemaker, immediately asks what forms these words will take when they come to “work” in the world. Today, African American and Latino community groups in many parts of the U.S. work with great effectiveness together, in part, because they focus on shared tasks and the action necessary to carry out those tasks. There are many other such positive examples across the United States, and around the world. Combined with respect, a recognition of woodsedge boundaries, constructive disputing, and a willingness to learn and grow through interaction, Shared Practical Action gives concreteness to ideals without loosing the idealism in a mechanistic pragmatism.

Once we understanding the importance of woodsedge boundaries for spaces and moments, then we also come to recognize the necessity of flexibility in our involvement with others with whom we have developed well-grounded relationships of understanding and growth. At some moments we may be called upon for assistance. A positive response is important as a reaffirmation of the relationship itself. However, at other moments our partners may need to do what needs to be done on their own. Pushing ourselves into that situation may violate the protocols of the woodsedge and damage the relationship itself. As one reading of Robert Frost’s famous poem has it, “good fences” and “good neighbors” are not contradictions but rather go together. Fences can have portals that are used when needed. We can both engage and disengage from relationships when the partners in question ask us to do so.
This understanding of being able to engage with others and also to disengage without rancor is especially important if the “outsider” no matter how well intentioned comes from parts of the society that have been historically dominant vis a vis those with whom one wishes to interact. Given past histories and current realities of political domination, loss of home territory, and cultural destruction for many populations, sometimes people need the space to assert their dignity through autonomy of space and moment. The best ally in such moments and at such locations is one who can pull back, when requested to do so, knowing that such a request is not an insult but rather is often an important part of asserting personal and community/organizational integrity. The outsider who comprehends this imperative of dignity and integrity frees him/herself from those still active colonialist mindsets that reject such qualities by which people defined themselves. There is usually genuine appreciation for those who can both engage and disengage when asked to do so.

There is real hope for meaningful humane interaction that does not simply duplicate entrenched patterns of inequality and prejudice. This hope can be found in the coming together of many different autonomous voices being linked around the world in a vast multifaceted growing social and communal justice fabric. This coming together has large implications, but it depends on daily, lived experiences, in which people build up real practical relationships, respectful communication—face to face, community to community, people to people. As I say in Transcommunality: Hope for victory over the ravages of gigantic centralizing, militaristic systems of economic profit and power requires that we draw from a transcommunal interweaving of the diverse forms taken by the spirit of justice among the many peoples of the world (p.77).

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