Solidarity – From Noun to Verb

No human rights project can be discussed divorced from the concept of solidarity. Practically every charter, law, and mission statement out there has generous sprinklings of the word throughout its text. For a term so overused, it is surprising how little we engage with its evolving meaning and the connotations it holds for our conduct in society. For someone who has engaged in social work, volunteering, and humanitarian endeavours for well over a decade, embarrassingly enough my own critical reckoning with the concept of solidarity began only a handful of years ago. 

Practicing true solidarity necessitates a rejection of the politics of guilt, savior mentality, and moral obligation to ‘stand with the oppressed’. Instead, the practice of solidarity is rooted in a fundamental recognition of the human person and the notion that our struggle for freedom is a collective one. It is this commitment to collective freedom, one centering the intrinsic dignity of the human person, that gives solidarity its true meaning. 

Practicing solidarity also comes with the understanding that this work is messy. It requires learning, unlearning, making mistakes, and most importantly, getting comfortable with discomfort. It is more than just contributing our words or aligning our thoughts and beliefs with ongoing advocacy and struggle for change in our communities, but rather requires concrete actions. The World Youth Alliance recognises solidarity as being built on the use of freedom to willfully recognize fundamental human needs, desires, and rights and to authentically pursue their fulfilment for all persons. This pursuit highlights that action is very much encapsulated in this conceptualisation of solidarity. It is thus not mere passive support or way of being (noun) but an act in which we commit ourselves to the fight for the common good (verb).

In doing so, contrast is often drawn between solidarity and allyship. Allyship occurs primarily on the level of the individual and can be observed in interpersonal relationships. It can be seen as a loud public performance by an often morally-obligated someone who identifies as categorically different from the people, the oppressed class, with whom allyship is being practiced. As an individual, an ally has privilege. This privilege can be used to advocate for marginalised groups, but it can also be used to safely recede and distance oneself from the true ongoing struggles embedded in the daily realities of the aforementioned groups. By doing so, allies risk being complicit in sustaining the very violence and oppression they claim to stand against. 

Solidarity, based on the idea of doing rather than being someone or holding an identity, recognises that violence and oppression are structural and works on a collective level to dismantle the structure and institutions that produce them. In solidarity, individuals can free themselves from the binary shackles of ‘ally’ and ‘oppressed’ and begin to understand that our freedom, happiness, and wellbeing are interwoven. The privilege of some does not mean that
they can distance themselves from the struggles of others. Our progress is collective and depends on responsible solidarity work that is long-standing, often quieter, and prepared to risk personal freedoms, safety, power, and possessions, in service of the greater good and to empower others. Exercising our reason and will to choose to act in this manner is what we would term ‘freedom for excellence’. It elevates solidarity work beyond just freedom from
oppressive structures and actively grounds it in a deeper movement of freedom for truth, justice,
and equity.

It all begins with listening and learning. Self-driven education, one that does not burden the marginalised group to educate, must be coupled with responsible action with (and not for) the communities in question. Ultimately, acting in solidarity entails deep introspection into one’s identity and position in relation to social structures, as well as extensive accountability for all deeds associated with this identity.

Published: January 18, 2021
Written by Hafsa Ahmed, a WYAMENA Certified Member – Batch 3 of 2020

WYA’s Certified Training Program (CTP) engages WYA members to understand human dignity as the foundation of human rights through philosophical, historical, and legal texts. Learn more how you can access this free training by registering for classes on our website.