Tribes and Collateral

In non-profit communications-speak, “collateral” is “stuff you give people with your brand on it.” It is everything from t-shirts to magnets to pamphlets. Thinking about how Polaris could change how it uses collateral to work to end human trafficking, I’ve started by analyzing how I, as an activist and informed issue consumer, use collateral.

In DC, I own about 15 t-shirts, 5 work shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, 2 suit jackets, 2 pairs of work pants, and 1 skirt. Of those 15 t-shirts, 14* of them have survived my regular stuff-culling because they let me declare my allegiance to a tribe.

My t-shirts are tribal shibboleths.

Shibboleth: someone who also watches Supernatural and supports gay rights would know that the "hunter" and "angel" are characters on Supernatural who are both male and whom some fans wish would become a couple. The bottom text ("H8 is almost out of minutes") refers to a funny scene between the two characters. Shibboleth: the sigil and the words are of house Greyjoy in the fictional world of Westeros; when I wear it I'm expressing not only allegiance to the books and show, but to the values of that particular house. (Some of the values. Mostly the value that Asha is a baller). Shibboleth: this shirt is from the Lair of the Bear, which is the Berkeley Alumni/ae summer camp in the California mountains. By wearing it, I'm hoping to come across another Lair camper I haven't met yet.
Shibboleth: this shirt not only expresses I'm in the movement to end human trafficking, not only that I am an activist from DC, but that I was at a particular anti-trafficking event with that particular t-shirt design. Sign our petition today from The Body Shop, ECPAT, human trafficking Geek Girl tshirt
Shibboleth: each of the characters on the shirt are major Doctor Who villains, specifically, villains from the most recent seasons of the new series. When I wear this shirt, I'm hopping to meet other Doctor Who fans. Shibboleth: fans of the TV show Doctor Who know that the Doctor has two hearts, and this shows that I know that too. NB: this shirt, too, has backfired. I once ended up in a very uncomfortable bus-stop conversation in Pittsburgh with someone who insisted on telling me about his favorite episodes from the old Doctor Who, even after I told him I hadn't seen any of them. I never said fans had offline social skills--that one of the reasons we need t-shirts to communicate. Shibboleth: this shirt is the best kind of Shibboleth: unless someone is familiar with the TARDIS or the planet of Gallifrey from Doctor Who, at first glance it looks like a normal college t-shirt. One of the best things about shibboleths is the moment when you meet a member of your tribe and you both realize it. This is also known as fangirling.
Aside: A shibboleth is a word or phrase or pronunciation or object that confirms membership in a tribe only to other members of that tribe:“Got any recs for a  >30k Destiel h/c fic?”

An informed observer of can guess at my meaning but would not be able to provide me with the correct answer.

The idea that the internet enables tribes is not new, but I’ve been thinking of it more and more to understand behavior in online/offline communities. Playing indoor anthropologist, humans functioned in groups of mostly the same size for most of history. Increased living standards in the developed world allowed most people to have their own bedrooms and made it more economical for many to break off into the smallest common denominator that felt comfortable–nuclear families or life solo with a small family of choice.

With movement to the cities, we were suddenly surrounded by so many more people, but fewer forced relationships. To some, this freed them from the sometimes really messed-up ways families behave towards each other. To others, it made them feel lonely and isolated. Being a part of a tribe meant having a fall-back identity, and being without one put the onus for self-explanation on the individual or small-family unit.

Until the internet. With the internet, I can build a family of choice, but I can also fill that need for a certain number of people who can be sure of me, who can start a conversation with me and know we have a shared allegiance and I am safe to get to know.

Online, it is easy to display those tribal allegiances. Look at my category list on the right–it lets you know that if you want to talk about human trafficking, reproductive justice, Shito-Ryu Karate Do or women in STEM, you can start an email in the middle of the social conversation with me.

Offline, it’s harder. As I mentioned, most of my clothing in DC is of the professional type that declares no allegiance to anything except cleanliness and a certain tomboy aesthetic.

Except for my t-shirts, my collateral.

If you haven’t already, go back up and hover over each of the photos. The alt-text explains the shibboleth in the t-shirt and what tribe I’m expressing allegiance to when I wear that shirt.

This all gets back to non-profit communications because part of the way I think we will build a world without slavery is if people take that goal into themselves as part of their identity. Think of the causes you grew up with: when I say I am a pro-choice, digital native, Arabist, I am telling you core pieces of myself. I express those pieces by owning and displaying collateral which expresses those things:

  1. A Planned Parenthood t-shirt,
  2. And Electronic Frontier Foundation bumper sticker,
  3. A Khanjar, curved knife, pendant from Oman,

I own these things because I have a personal connection to promoting these causes; I display them publicly because I want to meet other people who do so as well. When a cause is personal, people work for it. Real change happens on it. Think of people for whom NRA, or ASPCA, or alumnae/i assoication membership is a core piece of their identity.

Causes that live within people flourish; collateral helps people express what causes they care about and want to build community in.

Now I just have to figure out how to get ending human trafficking to grow inside people’s hearts.

*The remaining 1 is a plain black number, for when I want to wear a babydoll t but in a professional setting. A good definition of East Coast professional clothing might be: clothing that declares allegiance to no one but your that of your employer–not a brand, not a particular fashion affectation, just the look and feel of your workplace. West Coast, anything goes.

Inspirational Quote:

“[T]hey would tell him to say ‘Shibboleth.’ If he was from Ephraim, he would say ‘Sibboleth,’ because people from Ephraim cannot pronounce the word correctly. Then they would take him and kill him at the shallow crossings of the Jordan. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed at that time.”–The Bible, New Living Translation, Judges 12:6


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