De-compartmentalizing disobedience to ‘stay with the trouble’

As we look back on 2023 and prepare for the year to come, we keep circling back to the concept of “disobedience”: what it is and how it fits into efforts to spark systemic change.

Obedience exists in relation to power, authority, tradition, or social norms. Nearly every moment of every day, each of us decides when to comply with the status quo and when the price of obedience is too great.

From grand actions to the smallest choices, the decision to disobey means choosing not to abide by the way things are, but envisioning and attempting to embody how things could be.

There is so much complexity within the myriad ways people think about disobedience: discerning the strategic value of specific actions, struggling to tolerate the discomfort of disobedience, defying norms that diminish frontline voices and leadership, and more.

As we roll out this series of blog posts, we hope you’ll share your reflections with us.

It never registered for me as a kid, but now as an adult I’m noticing how many children’s stories involve a fantastical world where the main character goes to break all of the rules of the real world. There’s always a voyage that separates this world from the one they live in: a rabbit hole, a wardrobe, a wolf costume and a sailboat, and as the character reaches this new world, they find that the identities that had been placed on them, the ways they had been taught to see themselves, no longer apply. What follows is often an uncertain, risky, and exhilarating journey as they become more powerful, more disobedient, less fettered versions of themselves. 

Nonviolent direct action spaces in this community feel like one of those worlds for me, where I can break through all of the noise that tells me to conform. Where I can hold the dissonance of actively resisting a world that I am also participating in. Where I am surrounded by a community whose calls for imagining justice are louder than the voices in my head reminding me of my limitations. These spaces are a container that holds disobedience. We build power with each other to confront those who cause harm. We refuse to comply with the structures and norms that allow this harm to happen. 

When the characters return from their adventures in fantastical worlds they are transformed. They see their own worlds with new eyes and become unwilling to accept the status quo. Their abilities to imagine what’s possible have expanded far beyond the limits of their reality. What follows is a complicated and often lonely process of making sense of their old worlds, which have remained unchanged; some characters grieve the loss of faith they once had in their worlds and the loss of relationships with people who don’t understand their changed selves, some charge ahead toward change, and some even relish the comfort of  the familiar after their adventures. But the response from those in charge is almost always the same: that the world they had just experienced doesn’t exist; the power they created is imagined. Many characters feel pulled back toward their fantastical worlds, craving the space that uplifted them in their power and encouraged them to resist authority, becoming torn between the world they imagine and the world that they live in. The problem for many of these characters is that they cannot live in two worlds at once. In order to live in their fantasy worlds, they must make a choice to leave their own worlds behind.

Image description: a shady, green woodland path stretches
into the distance, entering asunlit patch of bright yellow leaves.
Photo credit: Nastasia Lawton-Sticklor

I often grapple with how to live in my relationship with action spaces and my everyday life. While the ways we design action spaces to represent the worlds we want to see makes them feel like fantastical worlds, the reality is they are intentionally rooted in our communities. I have yet to traverse a wardrobe to reach an action. But sometimes I notice myself feeling distance between my world and action worlds. I especially notice this space on the ride home: the magic of the powerful community we built starts to slip away and I start to feel the familiar tension of participating in the world I’m resisting, going about my daily life while injustice remains around me, worrying that I will slip into complacency. 

When I’m in action, I see the ways I can be disobedient; I can remove my consent to the ways that the world operates. Actions feel like protected containers for disobedience; we build in layers of relational support. We co-regulate by singing together, we prioritize our relationships of care, we act collectively. Sometimes it feels like the only place I am disobedient is wherever I am in action. But what does that mean for the rest of my life? What are the consequences of compartmentalizing ‘disobedience’ into this one container? Do I continuously jump into action at any and every opportunity just for a chance to be disobedient? 

Donna Haraway wrote a 2016 book called Staying with the Trouble, wherein she suggests that working for multispecies environmental justice requires, among other things, kin-making. As she puts it, “Kin making requires taking the risk of becoming–with new kinds of person-making, generative and experimental categories of kindred, other sorts of ‘we’, other sorts of ‘selves’”. Other sorts of ‘we’ and other sorts of ‘selves’. Whew. 

If I think about the times when I’ve felt most disobedient in action spaces, they are the times in which my kinship with others has transcended the pressure to achieve. Making the choices that account for the urgency of reducing harm and balancing it with sustainability, ensuring that I can show up again, and again, rather careening into burnout. And the times I have felt the most powerful is when I have done these things with joy. It’s often more obvious in action spaces; I can name the ways in which kin-making grounds our resistance in actions.

 In other spaces, these practices are less apparent. But perhaps by naming these practices, by peeling back the layers of a direct action to find the unyielding kinship underneath, we can start to see our disobedience as a way of showing up in our lives, not just in action spaces. 

What might it look like if we joyfully choose to disobey the norms of our hyper-individualistic, capitalist system in whatever ways allow us to sustain resistance? What might we say to ourselves to mark – as individuals and as a community – the choices that we make to be disobedient every day? 

Not today, capitalism. Not today, white supremacy. Not today, patriarchy. 

In a way, this kind of disobedience is scarier to me than the direct confrontation of action spaces. To be disobedient in life is to constantly fail to meet the expectations of a society that requires us to conform and produce. To resist that requirement is to feel foolish, to feel invalidated, to feel small; quite the opposite of how steadfast and intentional our resistance often looks in planned action spaces. But perhaps this is the work of imagining other sorts of selves, as Donna Haraway put it. Perhaps in imagining another sort of ‘we’, the container of action spaces becomes more permeable, fed by our everyday disobedience to systems of oppression.


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  • Jess bess
    commented 2024-02-05 11:06:21 -0500
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  • Marla Marcum
    commented 2023-12-14 19:28:16 -0500
    Mary, I think we are on the same page about building communities of vision, resistance, and belonging! Thank you for lifting this up so specifically!
  • Lisa Hall
    commented 2023-12-14 10:29:31 -0500
    Love this! And yes, there needs to be a different “we”, grounded in a community that holds between actions, that is there for us every day, as we return to the world the way it is, from the world that could be. We need community to hold the tension between the world we know is possible, the one we are building, and the world as it is, in all its dysfunction. To make community that can hold this tension, and that embodies the world we long for, is a creative process that reaches into the unknown. We don’t know how to do this because we’ve never done it this way before. Of the many communities people have built over the millennia, none were built for this time, for this tension holding, for this transformation. Let’s bring joy and wonder and disobedience and our powerful creativity to this new “we”. I feel like the brave child of the stories, stepping through the wardrobe. . . .
  • Mary Wildfire
    commented 2023-12-14 10:12:20 -0500
    My problem with this is that I live in West Virginia, and feel I don’t have a community to resist WITH. I haven’t participated in any action in years. The best example I can think of is what I still consider the best week of my life, in Seattle in ‘99. I saw that as my dream coming true for a whole week: people from all over the wold coming together to fight the machine, defend the Earth and justice—and WINNING. Afterward, I went to a couple of meetings here in West Virginia to talk about it—it was an exhilarating time. But it didn’t last—9/11 was used to reassert the authority of the corpogovernment
    What we need to win more often, to avert catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss, is to gin up the places we live so that there is no disorienting “back to normal” when we come home from an action—back home we are still surrounded by like-minded people. I also think we will not, ever, no matter what we do, get governments or corporations to do the right things. We have to force a transformation from the ground up, creating communities that secede from the Machine, from a way of life that burns far too much fossil fuel, consumes far too much of everything, pretends only humans are sentient and matter—maybe just middle and upper-class white people at that—and sees everything as being about money. If we can do this we simultaneously walk our talk, gain credibility thereby, and remove support from the enemy. If we can scale up from model communities, attract interest from more and more people (especially young people unenthusiastic about hopping onto the ratrace) we could make real change and create a better world. I know it’s a long shot, but not as much of one as trying to get corporations or governments to ditch profit and power in favor of Mother Earth and global harmony.