Organize like a Shrinekeeper

Protest is like religious ritual, it embodies our moral judgment, so that we may express allegiance to moral visions through our actions. -- James Jasper

The way we think about our work as activists very deeply affects the way we orient ourselves towards the place. When we plan a public action, do we approach our work as a tool? As a way of reaching policy goals or other material gains? Do we see our protests, teach-ins, public art works, and rallies as mediums for communication, for changing the way we think or talk about an issue?

Kari wrote recently on the world that blossoms out to us when we consider our work as organizers as a work of art. As we’ve spent the past months holding space together in the fight against Duke’s structural violence and racism towards workers, I’ve begun to take seriously the proposal of public action as a form of collective spellcasting or ritual work.

Who are the shrinekeepers of our political movements?

The shrinekeepers of any movement, first and foremost, are intentional about the places we create.  We know that for the magic to happen, often there’s a lot of labor being put into the unseen environment.  It makes a difference, for example, the way we plan our meetings. Do we choose a campus meeting room in a central location with good lighting and whiteboards to write agendas? Or a friend’s apartment with candles burning and music playing in the background?  Both of these can “set the scene” for productive organizing, but the enviornment is sure to change the tone of the meeting.

Often, it is the borders of the space where the shrinekeeper must pay attention.  Is our ritual open to others, or only a set a group of people, and how are we communicating this? Pay attention to the optics and incentives of participation: is the ritual site easy to wander into? Is it appealing? Is there a clear divide between those who are part of the ritual and those who aren’t, or can one fade in and out of participation? I’m thinking of moments I’ve entered places of worship in the past and the markers that can welcome and distinguish us. Are there clear places where we can get information? Are there obvious sites of entry and exit? Is there a small way for me to participate without making a large decision? Are there obvious groups within the space and how are they marked spatially or with symbols? For actions where I want to engage with a lot of folks, I think of public rituals that have gotten overwhelming responses. Each appears fun to engage with, has a low barrier to entry, and it’s difficult to tell who is and isn’t “part” of the ritual.  

There’s also a huge difference in energy between different kinds of actions we might choose, as well as the language our ritual of protest relies on.  What does it mean to ritualize spaces in which we center trauma for spectacle, and folks leave feeling drained, angry or hurt? What does it mean to use public actions as rituals of processing, healing, and resisting, in which we leave feeling loved and affirmed? A shrinekeeper, whether sweeping the floors enchanting the entrance, constantly works with an eye for the altar or holy space. When we treat our work as sacred encounters, we should ask: what is at the center of the space, both in metaphorically and physically? Who are the faces of this movement and what are our iconic and places? Does the “center” of the space translate our intentions for being there?

The beauty of thinking like a shrinekeeper is that the process of place-making isn’t so dependent on the built environment so much as it is the process of giving meaning to wherever we are. Just as we may call on the elements in our practice by breathing in air, feeling the fire in our pulse, or the ground below our feet, just by understanding ourselves as ritual-workers we may welcome clarity, power, and imagination into our organizing spaces.  

Do you consider yourself a shrinekeeper? What are your best practices for creating engaging, accessible communities?

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