My 5th-grade teacher had given us a writing assignment, and apparently she didn’t like what she saw. She believed that we would learn the most from this assignment if she gave us a practical example, so she photocopied my classmate’s work, passed it out to all of us, and asked us to correct the numerous mistakes. I was immediately horrified. I imagined how embarrassed I would have been in my classmate’s place. I worked up my courage, and later that day I went to my teacher (quietly, as I was a very introverted child) to tell her that I didn’t think this was right. She shouldn’t have handed out our classmate’s work for us to correct.

This is the sense of fairness and unfairness that we all have when we are kids. We know when something is right and when something is wrong. We have a basic sense of empathy — what it would be like to walk in another’s shoes, to share their experiences. And while I by no means want to compare the situations in degree or kind, I think this simple example of a child’s empathy can inform our understanding of how we should show up for one another in the fraught struggles we encounter as adults. As we work toward equity and liberation in our adult spaces, these basic childhood feelings we all remember can push how we work towards racial, gender, and economic justice. 

Collective liberation means that each person has the right and means to authentically pursue their individual dreams, alongside each community having the right and means to pursue their collective dreams. It comes from the communal and individual entwining of rights, means, and responsibilities. This means there is an integration of your rights with mine, an integration of both of our means of achieving our goals, and an integration of our responsibilities to one another and all others in our community. As civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” By definition, our liberation is a collective achievement. One of us cannot achieve it without the other, or without the others in the community with whom we are in constant relationship. 

This relationship is complexified by the various identities we each hold and the way that those identities are valued or devalued by our culture. Here we find the idea of intersectionality — the way that liberations build and play off of one another. As a white man, to achieve liberation, I must fight for the liberation of Black women. To achieve liberation, cis-gendered, able-bodied Black women must fight for differently-abled, trans Black women. This is not about the oppression Olympics — competing to see who is the most afflicted. It is about the most basic elements of kindness and justice: that we must center the experiences of those whom our culture tries hardest to oppress.  

Our culture tells us that freedom is throwing off responsibility, striking out on our own with no attachments. But in truth, liberation lies in recognizing our responsibility to one another, and accepting our responsibility to one another gives rise to collective liberation. This paradox arises from the interconnected nature of human lives, organism lives, ecosystem lives, and global life. 

Collective liberation is complicated. It means that we each must give up some degree of our own comfort and certainty to gain community. Although my experience has been that police and prisons are here for my protection and that they have not harmed me and my family, I believe the real, lived experiences of the many people of color whose families have been torn apart by these institutions. I recognize the history that these institutions are descended from the systems created during slavery, and that incarceration enacts many of slavery’s functions today. And so, for me as a white man, collective liberation means advocating for the abolition of police and prisons. Although I have always been able to get jobs to support myself and my family, I believe the real, lived experiences of the many people living in poverty who cannot find sustaining work despite their efforts. I recognize the history that capitalism enlarges itself by creating businesses that pay people less than survival wages. And so, for me as a middle-class man, collective liberation means advocating for a living wage and a universal basic income for everyone. 

When I imagine collective liberation, I am drawn back to the lessons I learned in that 5th grade classroom. I knew that I could not be fully myself in that classroom if I allowed my classmate to be embarrassed in a way I would not want for myself. This childhood experience, which was devoid of racial and class implications, pushes me to show up for others today in situations that are full of those racial and class implications. When I imagine myself moving toward collective liberation, I experience the fear of speaking out against power. I experience the resolve of speaking anyway. I experience the exhilaration of connection with another through the common bonds of our humanity, and in acknowledgment of our different experiences. Collective liberation means that I lift you up when you have fallen, and you lift me up when I have fallen, regardless of who falls more often or how many times. 

Collective liberation is for you. It is for me. It is for all of us, because we must imagine it, cultivate it, and live it together. It happens in the smallest of interactions between children. And it should happen in the relationships we grow throughout our lives. “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” That’s the work of a lifetime.

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