What is independence?

Many moons ago, I wrote a piece about the concept of Indivisible Freedom, which essentially came to the conclusion that the notion is does not really exist in practical terms. Today, this “Independence” Day, I’d like to do a similar exploration of the the concept of independence.

Independence is defined by Merriam-Webster as the quality or state of being independent. They further define independent as not subject to control by others, and, more interestingly, not looking to others for one’s opinions or for guidance in conduct. (Bear with me through one last definition.) Putting the definition of independence together with one of the definitions of independent, we get the following:

Independence is the quality or state of not looking to others for opinions or guidance in conduct.

Are you independent?

Whew. With all that established, I ask a simple question: are you independent? Using the above definition probably not. I’m not. Quite frankly, I don’t know anyone who is by this definition. That doesn’t invalidate the definition; it forces us to really think critically about what we mean when we say independence or “Happy 4th of July.”

I’ll break independence down into two pieces: personal, and collective. Most adults are “independent” with regards to their everyday, menial, routine tasks. I don’t ask anyone what I should wear in the morning or if I should shave. I don’t ask for someone’s opinion on whether or not I should eat breakfast. These are all “independent” decisions. I do, however, look at the news to get their guidance as to whether or not I should take the freeway to work. By my definition, this is not an independent act.

As for the collective, there are very, very few groups that literally have to look to no one else for guidance on conduct. Take the government here in the U.S. for example. It is supposed to have a system of checks and balances to ensure that there is no “independent’ branch of government. No branch should be independent of the other two or the people, by design. It is sad though how some people find ways to disregard this and do whatever the hell they so choose, answering to no one and therefore becoming effectively independent by our definition.

What does this all mean?

Should independence, as defined above, be our individual and/or collective goal? At the level of the individual, I think so generally, but the challenge is that it doesn’t make sense 100% of the time. Using the freeway example from above, it makes sense for me to check with people who know and understand current traffic conditions (e.g. local morning newscast) if my goal is to have a less stressful commute. What’s important here is understanding that sometimes it makes sense to involve/consult the right people in actions and decisions. This may not be a physical act of “independence,” but it is an act of intelligence, a characteristic I want us all to embrace. Intelligence here is realizing that the context of a particular decision or action may call for consultation. You have to smart enough, and humble enough, to ask for help when you need it.

Collectively, I think that this goal of seeking contextual consultation that I put forth for the individual also applies. Independence is more than the state of not needing to look to other for opinion or guidance; it is the state of controlling the decision of whether to look to them or not. We as Black people need to take ownership over our collective decision making. A practical application here is local ownership and support of local business. Why is it that Black dollars are so seldom placed into the hands/accounts of Black business owners? What this leads to is seeking guidance, opinions, and resources from those outside of the Black community. That is by definition not self-sustaining. Part of the problem may be due to a lack of business ownership in our neighborhoods, and groups like the Black Dollar Days Task Force are working to raise awareness of the Black businesses that do exist in local communities. This is taking ownership over not only the act of making the decision, but the decision’s resulting action as well. That combination, is the essence of practical independence.

Happy Independence, I mean Critical Thinking Day.

One Love. One II.


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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

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