interview with Philip McKibbin
Stacy Russo is a writer, artist, and librarian living in California. She has written and edited numerous books, including Love Activism (Litwin Books, 2018). stacy-russo.com
What is ‘love activism’?
I thought that I would actually read a little bit from the book.
Love activism presents a new way to think of activism and the life of an activist. It is about working toward political and social change, as activism is often defined, but it is also about reimagining ideas and ways of activism. This is accomplished by valuing the profound nature of everyday activism and all of the components of the daily life of an activist, including even small actions and decisions. Love activism is a form of activism that is not composed of isolated actions or single issues. It is a way of life. The easiest definition is that love activism is a daily radical and holistic activism of kindness.
And I guess I would just add that love activism is concerned with all forms of oppression – and I kind of touched on that when I was reading that section right now. But it’s definitely a way to look at the interconnections between all forms of injustice. So, it’s not only focused on one type of injustice.
When I use the word ‘holistic’ what I mean by that is, it’s also a way of life, but it’s concerned with the individual, the community, the world, and all living beings on the Earth. And I know it can sound overwhelming at first, perhaps, to some people, but I feel that that’s the real essence and the magic of it, is that it does try to look at all the problems, and how we can live our life hopefully, working against them.
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How would you define ‘love’ in the context of activism?
Defining love is incredibly important, and in my thinking on love activism, it deepened, of course, and developed, over about a decade. So, initially, I had little cards I made, and then a pamphlet, and then ultimately the book – so it developed, and when I got to writing the book, I thought, ‘Okay, I need to really be able to define love.’ (laughs) ‘That’s the key piece here.’ It’s not an easy thing to do, because there are so many different definitions of love; it’s very complex. But within the context of activism, I like to think of love as ‘no harm’, and when I think of love in that respect of no harm, then I can think about, ‘What are things that I love?’ If it’s community, if it’s animals, the Earth, a city – you know, whatever it is – if we love something, we don’t want harm to come to it, we don’t want oppression to come to it, we want what we love to be free and to prosper. So, thinking of it in that context applies directly to activism work, because we can’t be perfect, but everything we do in our life, we can think, ‘How can I do this without causing harm?’ ‘Is there a way I can live my life that isn’t going to harm a person, or a community, or an animal, or whatever it might be?’ and try to make changes.
I think when people hear the word ‘love’, just from talking with people, they will often go, right away, to romantic love. And I understand, that’s an important type of love. (laughs) After that, they might go to love of family, and of course that’s important as well. I think that the idea of ‘no harm’, though, even applies to those types of love, because once things are happening that are, perhaps, abuse, or restricting or hurting somebody, then it’s really not love at that point, it’s something else. So I think that idea of ‘no harm’ can be a large umbrella for all forms of love.
Who has nurtured your understanding of love?
Definitely, I’m very fortunate that my immediate family provided me non-conditional love. That is very important to mention, and I understand a lot of people don’t, maybe, have that, which is very sad. But that is definitely my first feeling of love, within that context, with my parents and my brother.
My understanding of love expanded over the last six years, actually, from a dog I adopted. (laughs) I adopted a senior dog, Joni. She passed away almost a year ago, now. When I adopted her, she hadn’t been treated well before. I don’t really know everything that happened to her, but that was clear. So it took her a long time to even trust me, and I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to keep her, because it was so difficult, but I hung in there with her. I had all of these ideas about adopting a dog and things that we would do together and how she would be, and I had to let go of a lot of that, and I had to meet her where she was, and she profoundly taught me – although I thought I knew a lot about love, I already had my love activism pamphlet (laughs), all my things – but really, I realised I had expectations and things, and she really taught me a lot about loving people where they are and not looking for people to be perfect or to always do the right thing. So she was a great teacher for me, and she actually appears in the book, Love Activism.
I’ve also been greatly influenced by bell hooks. I love pretty much all of her work, in its different contexts – even as an educator, her books on teaching, everything. She’s one of the most amazing writers on the topic of love, and her book All About Love is my favourite. That book shows love in a lot of different contexts, and that’s what makes me really appreciate that work – because love activism is also in a lot of different contexts.
Also, June Jordan, who has passed away, was a phenomenal teacher and poet and activist, and many other things, and I was fortunate to be her student when I was very young. She taught me and others in her classroom, and other people out in the world who’ve discovered her, about aligning yourself with whoever’s oppressed, and that was something that I hadn’t really witnessed before.
June Jordan was a Black woman, and during even that short time I was her student, I saw her advocating for oppressed people at times, including sometimes white people, and I had just never seen that before, a life being lived like that. Her understanding had broadened so much that she was able to do that. She also spoke about truth and, as a poet, that truth is essential to being a poet, and I was blown away by that. I see truth as part of love, right? Because love, I feel, requires an honesty. So she also taught me about this essence of truth as something in your work if you are a writer or an artist, that that should be a part of it, and I thought that was really profound, too.
How would you respond to someone who said that love is too gentle for politics, that the world’s most challenging problems – racism, gender oppression, violence toward animals, the climate crisis, et cetera – need stronger responses than love allows?
I think that goes back to having a definition of love and thinking about what that means, because as I mentioned, when people think of love they often go to romantic love or something like that. It might have a connotation of something fluffy, ‘Oh, Isn’t that cute?’ when you hear the word ‘love’. You don’t have to embrace my idea of love as ‘no harm’, but if you embrace something like that, that’s a very profound thing. That’s a challenging way that takes dedication in your life, to live that way. So if you think of love in that context, it’s a very powerful, intense force, and I think love has often been a part of activism, even if it wasn’t clearly stated all the time.
So I’m not too concerned about that. Whenever I’ve encountered that, I just go back to that definition, and then I think when people hear that, they think, ‘Oh, okay, that’s how you’re defining love,’ and it is powerful, then, in that context.
What does love activism look like for you personally, in your day-to-day life?
I just want to mention, again, that when we think about activism, we often think about really large things. And that’s important, of course. But there’s also part of me that- It could be my age, as well. I first became aware of issues that were forms of injustice as a teenager. I’m 51 now. At the time when I first became an activist, I really did think, ‘Oh, we can change the world by going out into the street and doing this protest.’ And sometimes you can change things with that, so I’m not saying you can’t. But we just ended four years of a Trump presidency – and that’s just one example of something over your lifetime, and you start to see cycles of these terrible things, and you can become burned out, or really jaded about things and feel like what you do doesn’t matter if you’re not able to completely dismantle a large system or structure. An example of that would be as a vegan, someone concerned about animal rights, how would I be able to dismantle that entire structure, right? I mean that’s a dream, but there are realities in the world, and those systems of injustice and violence and cruelty are very well funded and very well established.
So one reason for writing the book about love activism was to provide ideas and ways that you can change the world in small ways, maybe, but they’re still important in your daily life, because – just an example – if I go out to a large protest, whatever it might be, and let’s say it’s an anti-racist protest, and then I find out that a company I’m supporting is racist but I love their products so much that I’m not gonna make that change, I’m really not in line, overall, with my views, then. So, with things I buy, with how I treat people, with what I do with my writing and my art, my approach to being a librarian and a professor at the college where I work and how I interact with the students, with what I choose to eat – all of these things are forms of activism.
So in my daily life, like, I have my coffee cup right here. It’s organic, fair-trade coffee. I can afford that, so I’m gonna buy that, even if I see something cheaper, you know? (laughs) When somebody comes up to get help from me as a librarian, I’m gonna try my best to be present and kind to them, and try my best to be aware of that. So it’s really about all those small things I can do during the day. I’ll still go out to the large protests, but I’m gonna also try to live my life like that all the time, and that’s really what love activism is about.
How do self-love and radical self-care fit into love activism?
As I mentioned, love activism is concerned not just with the world and the community, but also with the individual. Another reason I wrote the book was to hopefully help other people who either want to be activists or are concerned about issues, who may be burned out. And that’s why taking care of ourselves, I feel, first, can be examples for other people, and that can help other people when they see that, but it also helps us be more resilient.
I’ve seen so many people get burned out and quit – just give up – in a lot of different contexts, and one, of course, is activism. That’s why I think taking good care of myself, as much as I can, allows me to then do more out in the world.
How does creativity connect to your loving practice?
So creativity is another element of love activism. There are a lot of ways to define creativity. For me, in my life, it’s my writing and my art, and possibly gardening. Creativity can be brought into self-care and self-love, of course, and also art can be therapeutic, and anybody can be an artist, obviously. I feel like we’re all born with creativity, so we can all do that.
It can be a form of self-care, self-growth, to engage in creative practices such as art or writing. But also, creativity is so amazing in terms of community-building, and an important part of being creative, I feel, is sharing what you create with others, teaching others, creating things that hopefully make the world better when people see them, that can inspire them, and there are so many examples of creativity or art in activism being combined together.
One form of creativity that I write about in the book is making zines, which are small self-published pamphlets or booklets. It’s obviously a very accessible form of art, writing, creativity, that anyone can do, and the zine can be about activism, or whatever. There’s a large zine community – they’re all over the world – but here in the Southern California / Los Angeles area, there are many festivals around zines. Through the zine community, there’s so much of a sense of belonging and shared experience, and I feel that these are all forms of making the world better, they’re all forms of activism.
So that’s why I include creativity as an important part of practising love activism.
(Interviewed on 8 July, 2021.)
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