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It’s a Delicate Balance (with Mirah Curzer) [Podcast]

Editor’s Note: Stephanie and Mirah first talked for In Times Like These in April 2017, after the first Women’s March. In that conversation, Mirah shared her thinking then about activism, resistance, and political engagement. Mirah also attended the 2018 Women’s March, and the teachings and resources highlighted in this conversation remain as relevant as ever.

Mirah Curzer is an attorney, photographer, activist, and world traveler. In her work, she seeks to learn about others, and learn how to engage in successful policy change. She’s worked to engage with others around legal and political issues—including strangers—on social media. Sometimes, this has gone well. Sometimes, it’s ruined relationships. In this episode, we talk about engaging in contentious conversations on Facebook, how to teach others in public, why “resistance” is both inspiring and problematic, and how to learn for long-term work and practice.

Episode Transcription

Stephanie:              You’re listening to, In Times Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Times Like These, explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. Mirah Curzer is a lawyer, feminist, and photographer. Since the 2016 presidential election, her work around women’s rights, immigrant rights and working to educate against anti-Semitism and Islamoracism, has become even more urgent and even more pointed. In this episode on, In Times Like These, we talk about political action, civic engagement, and the pitfalls of trying to engage in dialogue on social media.

Stephanie:       When I see you on Facebook in dialogue and in debate with people, who just have really … I notice their ideas, right? They’re making statements. I don’t know that, that correlates what they believe.

Mirah:              Yeah.

Stephanie:       I’m just so like … Wow. She’s really doing it. She’s doing it. She’s doing what we say that we ought to do. We shouldn’t block. We shouldn’t de-friend. We shouldn’t ignore. We shouldn’t … Maybe this is the Midwesterner in me. We shouldn’t make nice. We shouldn’t say, “Oh, you know, I can see how you would feel that way.” A lot of times, and I should have pulled this out, but a lot of times what you’re addressing, is inaccuracies. When people are talking about legal rights, or abortion, or what the constitution says, it’s amazing. I’m like, “Wow. Look at her. She’s in the comments, talking to people.” Have you always been that [crosstalk 00:01:47]?”

Mirah:              Yeah. No. I started doing this a couple of years ago. Going back and forth with people in the comments of Facebook and on medium as well. Every once in a while on Twitter. Although, I’m not as good with the format on Twitter, cause I like to write these long essays of multiple paragraphs in the comments. I mean, I find it … I think it’s sort of a promising, but also kind of a dangerous thing to do.

Mirah:              Sometimes, you can make an enemy for life, right? You call somebody out. You tell them they’re being stupid. You tell them they’re being racist, or regressive or whatever. They hate you forever. I actually lost a friend … I mean, we weren’t that close to begin with, but there are people, who don’t speak to me anymore, because of conversations that we’ve had and the comments on Facebook. I sort of wouldn’t advise anybody to engage in that, unless you’re going into it with your eyes open, knowing that, that’s the kind of thing that can happen. At the same time, I think it can be really productive.

Mirah:              Yesterday, I had a brief back and forth with a friend, like a family friend from Lubbock. She posted this article about antisemitism and it was arguing that we shouldn’t be focusing so much on antisemitism, because we should be focusing on Islamophobia instead. That’s the real oppression. She posted the article and I said, “Listen, I think there’s a problem here. The idea that antisemitism isn’t a real problem, makes me really uncomfortable.”

Mirah:              She said, “Well, maybe I’m misreading it, but I didn’t see that here.” I said, “You are misreading it I think.” I sort of laid out, in a paragraph, pointed out some dog whistles that I saw, that she may not have seen. She said, “Oh, thank you. I see it now. You’re right.” That happens every once in a while. It’s really gratifying.

Mirah:              A lot of times that’s not what happens at all. A lot of times, the person you’re arguing with is just completely intractable and never changes their minds. I actually see that as, not necessarily a failure, but as engaging in a different project. Arguing with somebody who’s not gonna change their minds is still worth doing, because there are people watching the argument. I sort of think of it like being the nerdy philosopher that I am. I think of it as like, engaging in a Socratic dialogue.

Mirah:              In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is often arguing with somebody, the interlocutor, for the benefit of the readers, or the benefit of, in the context of the dialogue, a group of people, who are observing the debate. That’s who I see myself as arguing for a lot of times. It’s not that I’m gonna convince the person I’m talking to. It’s that I’m going to demonstrate that their argument is not correct, for those who might be less reactionary, or less set in their ways, but watching to see which side of the fence they’re gonna choose. And so, demonstrating that the person I’m talking to has gotten it wrong, especially when they’ve gotten it wrong on the facts, or on the law or something like that, can be helpful, because of the people who are watching.

Stephanie:       Absolutely. Absolutely. Even someone like me, I consider myself educated and aware, but I have learned a lot from watching your comments. There are things that I don’t know, or things that you’re pointing out and framing, where you and I may share the same political viewpoint, but I don’t necessarily have those details. And then I’m like, “Oh. That’s right. That’s why this and this and this.” Yes. The public, the other people watching and listening.

Mirah:              Yeah, although that is also a bit fraught as well, because people who are watching and listening might recoil if they see the conversation as, me picking on somebody, or me being rude. I’ve definitely made that mistake before, that … I’ve done what I thought was presenting an argument and crafting a position. Somebody later came back and said, “Why were you being so mean to my cousin from Oklahoma, who doesn’t know any better?” That’s not what I wanna be doing at all. It’s a delicate balance.

Stephanie:       Right. Right. That’s good. Okay. Talk to me about the women’s march. So many of your images are inspiring and moving, and also communicate how important that is and was to you. Could you just tell me about it, what that was like and why you are invested in that movement and this work.

Mirah:              Well, I thought … I mean, it was … You’re right. I’m glad that my photo’s, are showing what it meant to me, cause it was incredibly meaningful to me. It was partly that I had been … We’d been planning to go to DC that weekend anyway, because we were hoping to go an inaugural ball. To be able to go do something and be with people, is sort of that, like a collective expression of grief and anger that had been only individual, up until then.

Mirah:              To me it felt really important to go run to something, instead of from something, and to be part of a group of people, who were excited about moving forward, and not just unhappy. I mean, I didn’t do the collective grief thing on election night. I sort of did that alone at home. I thought that would be too much.

Mirah:              I was excited about the women’s march, because I thought it would be historic. It was. My mom flew in from Texas to meet us there. My best friend, who lives in California came there with her mom and her husband, and her film crew. We all met at six in the morning. We wanted to get there really early. That turned out to be exactly the right thing to do, because we were up at the front. We had a place to stand. We could see the stage.

Mirah:              It was the historic moment that I expected it to be, which I found it so moving, both because, just the magnitude of it, the idea of being in a crowd of half a million people was just … I’ve never been there like that before. It was, everybody pressed in together, but this sort of very overwhelming sense of community and people helping each other. I know it wasn’t like that for everybody. Put half a million people in an enclosed space and some of them are gonna be jerks to each other. That’s just sort of how it works.

Mirah:              For me, what I found most moving to some extent was the disconnect between the crowd and the leadership and how that event narrowed it. It was basically, an event that was organized and led by women of color for the most part and attended by white women, just because of the demographics at how these things fall out, that it’s a privilege to be able to travel across the country and arrange for childcare and find a hotel and all of the things that go into being an attendee at an event like this.

Mirah:              At the same time, the speakers and the organizers were as far out on the cutting edge of the intersectional movement as I’ve ever seen in an event, that was at the same time, this mainstream. We’re going around the crowd interviewing people, partly because my best friend Hannah, who is making a movie about the march, was doing that. I was doing the still photography for her. Her movie’s probably coming out later this year, so it’ll be great.

Mirah:              She was interviewing people, and we met this family, was the two parents and their teenage son from rural West Virginia. They said everything that I was hearing, coming from the stage. They said, “We’re upset about racism. We’re upset about sexism. We’re upset about denial of healthcare.” They said everything exactly right. They had never seen an event like this. They had been to DC once or twice before, and had certainly never seen these speakers.

Mirah:              To watch the faces of people, who showed up, slightly uncomfortable, be moved by the speakers, who they did not expect to see, I thought that was an incredible moment. To see people, the white ladies from Texas where I grew up. They’re there. They’re bought in. They’re a little bit uncomfortable with this whole intersectional stuff, and the trans women speaking and talking.

Mirah:              It was opened with a Native American piece of music. Everybody was a little bit uncomfortable with that. It was so well done and so beautiful, that nobody was put off by it. It seemed like it was effective in pulling people together. People showed up at different stages of their development as activists and as people, who are engaged in the political process. It took everybody a huge step forward.

Stephanie:       Wow. You are an activist. Can you talk about what that means and what that looks like? Can you also talk about the idea of resisting and resistance, to help us understand what that means in civil participation, and what that means when we’re thinking about the rights of others and participating.

Mirah:              I think a lot of people, after the election are now getting involved in politics in a way that they haven’t before. That’s great. It’s also … It makes me nervous, because this is an area where you have to be careful to get it right, not in terms of making mistakes in the outcomes, but in terms of burnout and offending each other and people getting angry at their allies and leaving the movement, which happens a lot. I think it’s happening less now than it has in the past several years to some extent.

Mirah:              I think it’s important to take baby steps. There’s a lot of people talking, that they say, “If you showed up the women’s march, but you didn’t do X, then none of it matters.” I think a lot of that is counterproductive. Yes, it’s true that everybody’s oppression is bound up with each other’s. We’re not going to be able to solve some problems without addressing others. I think there’s a difference between the, we there, and the I. We need to be addressing sexism and racism and transphobia and economic inequality, and access to healthcare. We need to be doing all of those things.

Mirah:              That doesn’t mean I need to be doing everything at once. I think it’s important to pick your battles as individuals, to say I’m gonna show up at this march for whatever reason, because my friends are going because this particular issue’s important to me, because I have expertise here. Whatever the reason is, show up to some things. Resist the urge, I think to feel like, if you do some, you have to do it all. If you’re not gonna do it all, then you can’t do anything.

Mirah:              For example, my office building is right, half a block away from Governor Cuomo’s office. I’m going through a really busy time at work. I get these emails from this group on reproductive rights. They are having these weekly protests at lunchtime outside of Cuomo’s office. I didn’t go to the sign making event, the night before, cause I was too busy. I didn’t stay there for three hours, because I was too busy. I left on my lunch break and I went for half an hour and I took a video and I put it on Facebook and then I came back to the office, cause that was the amount of engagement that I could do that day.

Mirah:              I think it’s also … You can engage at different levels, at different times. I went to the women’s march. It was a whole weekend, and I got there early and I stayed there late. I did all this photography. I was very involved. The next weekend I went to this march about opposing the Muslim ban. I got there early and I stayed the whole time. The following weekends, I had to be in court on Monday, and so I didn’t go to the event that weekend.

Mirah:              I think it’s important to understand that, that’s okay. It’s not just okay, it’s necessary that the activism is a long haul. You have to pace yourself. The movement paces itself as well. There are ebbs and flows and not to get discouraged if this event is not as well attended as the last even, because there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world. There’s a lot of reasons for things like that. [crosstalk 00:16:09]

Mirah:              I also think, in terms of resistance, I’m a little bit … I don’t quite know how I feel about the word resistance. It’s very inspiring. It evokes … A lot of times people talk about resistors in World War II, and it evokes the image of ordinary people pushing back against an oppressive government. That’s inspiring. It gets people out of bed in the morning. It’s great. It frightens me a little bit, because it suggests that the way to do that is not through the channels of government, and through voting and things like that.

Mirah:              It’s hard to say, “Resist Trump every day. Resist everything by voting for your city council members.” That is the way it works. On balance, I like the language, but I wanna make sure that people don’t take it too far in the direction of, let’s have a revolution and overthrow the government, because A, it’s not gonna work and B, it’s dangerous and all of those things.

Stephanie:       Okay. Okay good. I don’t wanna take too much more of your time. I feel like you have a lot of knowledge and experience in how to engage for successful policy change. How did you get to that place? What do you read. Where do you follow? How do you stay connected with local politics. For people out here in the world thinking … I’m thinking about the fact that here in Los Angeles, we just had elections.

Stephanie:       It was like, an 11% voter turnout rate, even though we were talking about issues of homeless and issues of bicycle lanes and traffic, and things that arguably effect many people, you know, more than who the president is. Just help us learn how to become more engaged for successful policy change. What does that mean to participate in the public space for change?

Mirah:              I think it means different things to different people. One of the things that I hear over and over again is that calling senators and legislators actually works. Once you sort of get into the rhythm of it, it’s very easy. That’s something that anybody can do. There are a lot of newsletters, and Twitter feeds and Facebook feeds that will give you a daily suggestion about, let’s call about this today. They swing left and flippable and indivisible nation and all of these. You can sign up for a newsletter. Every day it’ll send you an email or a text or something that says, “Today we’re gonna talk about healthcare. Call your senators. Here’s a script.” It really doesn’t matter that much, which one of those you do. They’re all good. Sort of pick one and stick with it.

Mirah:              There’s also one that I really like lately is called, Resistbot. It was written up in Teen Vogue recently. It sends you a text every day, asking you if you wanna say something to your senators, and then you type in a text and they turn it into a fax, which apparently research has been done that faxes are more important than emails, because they actually get read, and personalized messages are important. That’s really easy.

Mirah:              Send a bunch of texts. It says, “Thank you,” and then it prompts you the next day and says, “Would you like to send another fax to your senators?” That’s really helpful. I also … You know, I read the news, but I read the local news as well. It’s important to understand what’s going on in your district. I follow my senators. I follow Schumer and [inaudible 00:20:06] on Twitter, but I also follow [inaudible 00:20:09], who’s my house representative. I follow my local state, the state house representatives as well.

Mirah:              Actually calling state house representatives can be incredibly effective, cause they’re not overwhelmed with calls. You might call their office and you’re the only call they get that day. If you call again then, you’re that constituent that always calls. They start to listen to you and they know you by name. You can actually have a conversation with your senator. That kind of thing is, it’s both effective and it’s also very encouraging, because it shows you how much citizens can actually do to engage with government.

Stephanie:       Have you always been politically active?

Mirah:              Yeah. I guess I have. I mean, partly because I grew up in Lubbock, Texas. There were … The democratic party could and frequently did fit into our living room. It was sort of a family tradition. My family’s always been politically active. You know, I learned what a petition was and was circulating them in my elementary school, just because that’s who my parents were.

Mirah:              I think it’s also … I learned a lot of lessons from my parents. Even if you don’t come from a family that has that tradition, that’s why we have these sort of rich history of activism and political engagement. You can sort of access that generational wisdom, even from people who are not related to you, because it’s all there in the history’s and the oral history’s, and books about the civil rights movement.

Mirah:              You asked what I had been reading. After the election, I read, The Handmaids Tale, which did not make me feel better. I read, Rules For Radicals, which was very helpful. I first started digging into the activist literature of the past generation. I read a lot of black feminist thinkers, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Patricia Collins.

Mirah:              I read, What’s The Matter With Kansas, which was written about the 2000 election, but could have been written now. I just have sort of, started trying to spend my train commute reading about what we should do, reading about the mistakes of previous generations, and just sort of absorbing all of that by osmosis, not necessarily studying it, just reading it in and enjoying it. The language trickles in.

Stephanie:       All right. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening to, In Times Like These, where we explore issues of politics and faith, and learn from one another, how to navigate difference from maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of CLU Live, at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.

Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why arguing on social media can have benefits even if you don’t convince your conversation partner
  • Why participation in local politics and media can be just as important as national and international political engagement
  • How learning from the rich history of activism in the US can be valuable (and affirming)
  • Why it’s necessary to understand the difference between “I” and “we” in long-term justice work

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

1. “To me, it felt really important to go run to something instead of running from something.”

Curzer participated in both the 2018 and the 2017 women’s marches, and captured much of the spirit of the marches in her photography. In times that many find divisive, she found that a sense of collective learning, dialogue, and purpose prevailed at the marches—and inspired further and deeper work.

'To me, it felt really important to go run to something instead of running from something.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “Resist the urge to feel like if you can’t do it all, you can’t do anything.”

Curzer has spent a lot of time thinking about daily practices of learning and activism, and the longer-term work of building coalitions, creating policy, and working for sustainable change. In this conversation, she details the ways she thinks about the different kinds of work, and how not to feel overwhelmed.

'Resist the urge to feel like if you can’t do it all, you can’t do anything.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “Activism is a long haul.”

While many of us want to bring about change immediately or react to perceived injustices and outrage, real civic engagement takes time, relationship, and strategy. What resources are available for building long-term education, real relationships with leaders and neighbors, and building on generational knowledge about positive social change.

'Activism is a long haul.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

Mentioned on the episode:

How to connect with Mirah and with us:

You can find Mirah on Twitter @MirahCurzer and on Facebook here. Mirah also has a Medium here.

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes. And you can always connect with us at CLU on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!

About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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