Commentary: Radical leadership elevates the voices of others

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Editor's Note: This column is an excerpted speech Sen. Balint gave last week at the Crossroads Conference in Burlington.

By Becca Balint

A year ago, I told myself: Americans won't elect an obvious racist, a misogynist, a con artist, a man who lies compulsively and cavorts with white supremacists and anti-semites. Simply, a man seemingly devoid of a moral compass or even imagination. But we did. And we are angry. But we can't lose our humanity by succumbing to rage. We must not lose our compassion even when every single day there is some new assault on liberty.

I thought we were farther along in our evolution as Americans, as humans, but we clearly have far to go on our national journey towards justice. But we've fought these dark forces for a long time, and it's going to take a long time to vanquish them.

We must build strong coalitions. In them, not everyone will share vocabulary, and we certainly won't all have the same identities or experiences. We don't need perfection in this revolution. But we do need curiosity, a generosity of spirit, and the humility to accept when we're wrong. We must be engaged in becoming better people so that we will truly be prepared to make the world more just. This is the work of radical leadership.

Political activism is a risky business. To be truly engaged, we must be vulnerable. We must accept that we will get some things wrong along with the things we get right. We will be offended sometimes and, in turn, will inadvertently offend others. Yet we must engage when there are conflicts; we must talk honestly if we want others to do so.

And of course, we have to ask hard questions of each other, and sometimes that will be painful and frustrating. We must continue to not just accept but welcome the tough questions. This is the work of radical leadership.

We can't excuse or tolerate racism or sexism or other hate that destroys individuals and wrecks true coalitions. But we must speak compassionately — across class, across race, across gender boundaries and through ideological differences. We must be willing to listen deeply when someone bares their heart to say, "Your experience is not my experience." This is the work of radical leadership.

Many are counting on us to tear each other down. They believe this movement for justice will fail. We must focus on holding those accountable who would deny anyone liberty. And although the work can feel lonely, you are not alone; we are not alone. Across the state, the nation, the globe — there are so many people joining this work.

But to truly embrace resistance, we must be willing to welcome radical leadership. I'm not talking about "radical", the noun. I mean "radical", the adjective. Radical, meaning essential, fundamental and profound: a model that fully embraces the ideology of being broad-minded, open to new opinions and ideas, willing to discard outdated modes of thinking and acting. We need to re-frame leadership.

Radical leadership elevates the voices of others; making space as we learn and practice how to stand together — when it's uncomfortable, even when we're unsure of the outcome. Radical leadership is about a great opening up of spirit. Of striving to include and not exclude. Of knowing that listening deeply — and bearing witness—can be the greatest gift you offer another human being.

Those who will help shape a new kind of radical leadership are standing among us. I welcome you into this profoundly important project of using radical leadership to change how power works and operates. We need you all in. We need your generosity. We need your humility. We need your courage. And we need the gifts that you alone possess in order to do this work together.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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