At my organization, we believe cultivating a culture of gratitude is critical to movement-building and a clear antidote to white supremacy culture. Since showing appreciation is inherently about recognizing each other’s value, and doing so requires time, practicing gratitude moves us away from individualism and urgency and toward creating the anti-oppressive, interdependent communities we want and deserve.
For grassroots social movements, people are often kept alive by acts of generosity, and deep relationships are reflected in gratitude shown for all of the giving. Whether it be through the act of prayer and testimony in churches serving as organizing hubs during the modern civil rights movement or the exchange of support evident through mutual aid efforts today, giving thanks draws people fighting for freedom closer to one another: Being thankful reminds us of our interconnectedness.
If that weren’t enough, we also know that making gratitude a part of our everyday lives happens to be good for our mental and physical health. One might even call it, dare I say, self-care.
Gratitude Practices: A Starter List
If you are a team or collective committed to justice and equity, here are eight ways you can make reflecting on and showing gratitude an integral part of your practice:
- Open or end group meetings by asking, “What is one thing you are grateful for?” Challenge people to be specific and add a “why.” I like to give people a little time to think or write about this first, so they can meditate before sharing. Reflecting privately first can improve how we show up and allow us to deeply listen to everyone else. I promise you, this question never gets old as a way to check in. If we allow it, the question shifts our focus from scarcity to abundance.
- Go bananas for each other. Each time someone in your group tries something new, shares a gift, or takes a risk with the mission in mind, encourage the entire group to go bananas celebrating them. In virtual sessions at the Nepantla School for Organizing, they have a practice of coming off mute and cheering wildly for guest speakers or student presenters. This type of mutual support keeps cooperation, instead of competition, top of mind.
- Thank people publicly. This need not be as passion filled as going bananas, but it is especially important if you are a formal or informal leader of a group. This can happen in full-team organizational updates, through employee spotlights in internal newsletters, or even in pictures (and accomplishments) posted on the good old bulletin board. Since we know that everyone is valuable, be sure to find ways to thank everyone at some point and avoid recognizing the same people again and again. To really live into the value of collaboration, find ways of thanking two or more people for working well together to achieve a goal.
- Thank people privately. Everything does not have to be a production. Sometimes we can just pull someone aside and offer our sincere thanks to them for being their wonderful selves. We can also send a simple, private note. Don’t underestimate the power of a quick email, text, or direct message with nothing else added besides one or two sentences giving thanks. Of course, cards and letters never go out of style. On tough days, I read through some notes and cards people have sent me and I feel regenerated.
- Start an #appreciation or #gratitude thread in communications. In work for justice and equity, we still have organizational hierarchies. So it is super important that authentic gratitude comes from the top. However, as all of the best work comes from us standing side by side, it is important we find ways to thank the people right next to us. In addition to celebrating on special occasions, create spaces where people can thank each other on a regular basis. At Unemployed Workers United, they have a #appreciations Slack channel where they encourage people to post thanks for teammates.
- Begin or end every one-on-one meeting by saying to the other person,“Thank you for … ,” and expand on what you appreciate about what that person has done or just for who they are. (Make sure it is more than just something like, “Thank you for coming to this meeting.”) Intimate conversations like this offer a special opportunity to really see each other. When I am in a one-on-one meeting with collaborators, undistracted, I find myself moved by the beauty and essence of the person in front of me. I start reflecting on how valuable they are to the work we are doing and usually can’t help but say thank you at some point during our time together.
- Facilitate an appreciation circle. While sitting in a circle, ask each person to name what they appreciate about the person seated to their left. I like doing this in challenging meetings or retreats with people who are clearly dedicated to the work and each other but are experiencing tension. Gratitude helps us reground and recommit.
- Give people gifts. This may seem obvious, but one of the best ways to show appreciation is by giving people stuff. You can gift physical items you have found, bought, or made with the recipient in mind. If you are in a position to do so, you can give people money through pay bonuses or direct cash in times of need. (The best way to do this is without fanfare and by not tying it to “outcomes.”) You can also give people the sweet gift of time by canceling or shortening a meeting or granting a surprise half- or full-day holiday not on the calendar.
The Mississippi Freedom Labor Union used the first membership dues it received to help feed one another and find homes for those who had been evicted. This is how they thanked members for the risk they took by joining. I have a friend I’ve worked alongside for years who is always giving me little gifts. I never remember us meeting without her giving me something. She is a longtime youth organizer, and I remember all the gifts she would bring in for the young people as well. My friend is not rich. This was her love language, and she used it often. Her thoughtfulness demonstrates her caring and people trust people who regularly show they care. My trust in this person as a partner in organizing and activism is unmatched.
WHEN WE SHOULDN’T SAY ‘THANK YOU’
It goes without saying that we shouldn’t thank people when we don’t mean it. I think it is also important to make sure we are not thanking people just because they are furthering our own agendas. For those of us trying to build a more just world, our appreciation for one another comes from a place of recognizing our shared humanity and the fact that we need each other to survive. It is not used performatively or to create wedges in our communities.
Showing gratitude is not a substitute for an apology. Buying gifts or making gestures of appreciation is not adequate for addressing conflict or repairing harm. It should not be used as a tactic to avoid or gloss over real issues that need to be addressed.
GRATITUDE WORK IS LIBERATION WORK
Working for liberation through a social justice lens means we divorce from oppression, understand power as abundant, and strive for a world where everyone, regardless of identity or circumstance, is affirmed for who they are and has access to the resources they need. It requires not only that we recognize everyone’s unique contributions to our collective struggle, but it also invites us to see ourselves and others as inherently valuable and appreciate the fact that we simply exist.
Early this year, amid ongoingly hard times, Love + Protect put together a long-distance celebration in lieu of a party to thank the criminalized survivors they support. They expressed gratitude for their survival, their friendship, their creativity, their organizing, and their presence in the world. The collective sent different gifts depending on whether they were incarcerated or not, but they included gift baskets (from the abolitionist shop Ashpirations), organizational swag, and personalized videos for each survivor, in which they thanked them for their profound wonderfulness and told the survivors that they love them.
We often think of giving thanks as easy and maybe even trite. However, there is no true freedom without connection. I think there are few better ways to connect with ourselves and others than by rooting ourselves in gratitude.