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  • Writer's pictureNina Burrowes

The master's tools will not save us when his house comes tumbling down

Audre Lorde gifted us the wisdom 'The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house'. For years this gift has been a ground stone for my development as an activist. It was a gift that made me feel uncomfortable, inviting me to consider - was I part of the problem? Was I using the master's tools? Initially I was able to push this thought away, reassured by my steadfast determination to create positive change to systems that were so clearly broken. But, with time, with being exposed to more and more of the systems I was working alongside, with a bit more growth that allowed for a fraction more humility, it became clear that I was absolutely part of the problem.

I came to some painful conclusions. This happened over time, a little bit here, a little bit there, until I had the courage and space to see them in full. Eventually I was able to see that every way I was thinking about change was shaped by the master's tools and that by fixing my gaze on the state and institutions I was reinforcing them as the centre of power, effectively leaving us trapped in the master's house. I was doing what I'd been taught to do. Doing it with good intentions. But as someone who wanted change, someone who wanted to be of service to others, I had made choices about my time, energy, and focus that centred the very structures I was becoming disillusioned with. It was time to put those tools down.

But, the master's tools run deep. They have fed into every aspect of my life through my education, through my culture, through how our society runs. I have been taught to be so proficient in their use I don't even notice when I'm using them. They inform how I think, what I value, how I relate to others and myself. When I judge, when I compete, when I value productivity over connection, when I centre the individual over the community, I'm using the master's tools. As an activist these tools have influenced every aspect of my thinking about change: what needs changing, how to create change, and what success looks like. The master's tools taught me to get paid to engineer change and then do it at scale. They gave me a language to talk about change and some letters after my name to give me status in the competitive market of change makers.

Putting down these tools has been a process, one that may last the rest of my life, but it began with getting curious about all of the questions I've never asked. With my energy so fixed on improving the state and institutions what were all the things I had not been doing as someone who wanted change? I opened up my thinking around what justice was and who was in a position to bestow it. This, along with the ripple effects created by the pandemic, led my partner Cynthia and I to make a conscious radical change in our lives - we packed up all of our belongings, got a van, and began travelling the UK talking about healing from injustice. We used circle to hold space and we allowed the randomness of housesitting to steer our path. We had no real clue as to where that would take us but it felt like the best way to make space for new things to emerge.

New things emerged.

It's now 18 months later and we've landed in our new home via a journey that has been growthful, abundant, and deeply life-changing (You can read about our travels here). Now I sit here, reflecting on that change but also deeply aware that the world feels very changed too.

When we left our home back in September 2021 the UK was still very much in the energy of Covid-19. International travel was possible but complicated, Christmas was coming and everyone was looking for testing kits, people were finding out if 'back to normal' was possible (we'd already decided it wasn't desirable). But since then we have had the cost of living crisis, the war in the Ukraine, the realities of climate change being ever present, and the good and bad potential of AI on our horizon. There have been moments when I have had to consciously remind myself that there was a pandemic, an event that should be generation-changing, but it feels like so much has happened since then and all of it has been unnerving.

A few months ago I stopped consuming all sources of news. Not just as an act of self-preservation but because the stories felt like they were the same one told in different ways. This story has been whispering itself for decades, but the volume and speed is rising. It's being shouted by those who are struggling, it's being shouted by those who've been silenced, sidelined, unseen, uncared for. It's being shouted by all of the injustice out there. It's being shouted by Mother Earth.

The master's house is falling down.

We no longer need to worry about how we will dismantle it. We need only see that this house was always built on unsustainable foundations and now the cracks are clear for most of us to see. This was always a giant pyramid scheme that was going to collapse at some point. A scheme based on insatiable greed, competition, and exploitation. A scheme that alienated us from ourselves, each other and our planet. Some spent their lives trying to help others see the truth. Some spent their lives being disruptive in the hope of causing a crack in the structure. For us alive today it seems we get to bear witness to the unravelling of systems and processes that have never been designed to service people or planet. We get to witness what 'unsustainable' means when it's more than just an idea.

We get to watch the master's house fall down.

Those of us who have been pushing for change need to see the moment for what it is. The momentum of change is already built - perhaps a combination of original structure design and the hard work of many over the years to dismantle the place. Who knows? We can save the Gender Studies essays for later. The house is falling down. The work is changed. How will we protect as many people as we can from the falling debris? How will we limit the number of innocent casualties? What will we build as places of refuge when people get out of there? How will we rebuild without allowing the new designs to be a copy of the original flawed version?

When I face all of those thoughts armed with how I've been taught to think they feel utterly overwhelming and terrifying. They make me want to grasp at stuff. They fill me with panic. They make me want to rekindle my ability to numb myself to this reality. However, I've been a journey and when I face those thoughts with the things I have learned from that journey my body feels alive but calm. Ready.

I want to share that sense of readiness. I know that all the answers we need are there, in abundance. They are not new, they are deeply old and simply need to be remembered and reused for the present moment. They aren't born out of despair, but they thrive where we place trust. I feel so grateful for every step I have been on since I chose to put down those old tools. And it feels like now is the right moment to begin talking about and sharing that process because it's more important than ever that more of us do so. The master's tools won't save us when his house comes tumbling down. They won't slow the decline. They won't provide us with sanctuary. They won't paint a path to a different future, they will just rinse and repeat the old.

So how do we begin to put these tools down when they are so deeply entrenched in our way of being? Put simply - we find new ways to be.

For me, putting down the master's tools has meant so much more than having some new opinions, or reading some new books. It has involved un-learning and re-learning. A never ending dance of letting go of the old and then making space for newer ways to emerge. This may sound cleansing, but I've found it to be deeply messy. Letting go of old ways that no longer serve me has come with doubt, grief, deep disillusionment, regret, and the vulnerability of swimming against the tide of the mainstream. I'm still learning to hold my anger at the injustice of living in a society that has not been designed to honour people or planet. I'm still learning to have the patience to make space for things to emerge when the moment feels more urgent. But whilst it's been messy it's also been deeply fulfilling. I've discovered that swimming against the mainstream often in truth, means going with the flow of life. I've discovered that ease and joy can be bedrocks of how I create change. I've discovered that I'm not in competition with anyone and that life only wants me to have more of what I need. I've discovered that when I slow down more happens.

This blog (and the accompanying mentorship scheme) is an invitation to share in these next steps together. To connect as people who want to serve and build. To ask different questions and make space for the emergence of new processes to support our desires for justice. To help each other with our grief so that we can discover what lies on the other side of it. To learn new ways of being and doing so that we can meet this moment, and the ones that follow it, with our grounded, connected, beautifully creative selves in community with others.

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