Why I'm an Instigator, not an Influencer

and how to tell the difference between the two

The artwork above, created by Chippewa and Potawatomi artist Chief Lady Bird for the wonderful children’s book Holy Troublemakers & Unconventional Saints book, is a favorite portrait of mine because it was the first time I saw myself through the eyes of another Indigenous woman.

There is something really powerful about seeing yourself through the imagination of another person—having the opportunity to reimagine ourselves can change everything.

For so much of my life, I saw myself through the eyes of the colonized white evangelical church. I saw myself as sinner, as shameful, as lacking in every way imaginable. I saw my life as a long lived thing that ended in a horrible judgment in which my sins might just be too much to get me into heaven. Those are not the eyes of love.

But this? This is a chance to see myself in all the complexities of who I am. It is a celebration of the journey that got me here and the journey ahead, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.

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We talk a lot about influencers on the internet. A lot of people are on Instagram sharing photos and posts about products that they love or using their large followings to create change— that’s just what social media provides in our culture today.

I looked up images for “influencer” online and lots of people with ring lights popped up, along with photos of women sharing makeup tutorials or people laughing while taking Instagram-worthy photos of their food. We can look at this and see it as a shallow attempt at gaining a following (and sometimes that’s true), but we can also look and see people simply trying to connect with one another, to share something from the world with those on the other side of a screen or across the room.

But I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I see myself not so much as an influencer, but as an instigator.

I know, much of the time an instigator is seen as a negative term, but let me share the definitions of these two ideas as we move forward:

Instigator: bring about or initiate (an action or event).

Influencer: the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself.

So much of the work I do is asking questions. I’ve been asking hard questions of my own journey, my own faith, my own identity for the last few years— I’ve written about it in my books and online through social media and other outlets. There is a lot of power and grief in asking questions, and it’s okay to admit that. Even the work of decolonization begins with questions, and with a big question— is there a better way?

While an influencer has an effect on the character and development of others, an instigator helps initiate something, either out there in the world or in ourselves.

I consider my work to help us all initiate better, bigger, more compassionate questions in ourselves, in hopes that the work that follows is rooted in love and solidarity.

While I hope that those questions hold influence on others and inspire them to create a better world, what I want most is to get to the questions in the first place, so that some new dream can follow. Maybe the instigators get the questions asked, and the influencers provide a way for the solutions to come.

So ask yourself— are you an instigator or an influencer, and what do those roles mean to you? Are you perhaps more interested in the questions of a thing or in the solutions that come from those questions? And how do you want to be taught the way forward in your own life?

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It’s taken me a while to get here— to be okay with the fact that I am not here to answer all the questions. I’ve even gotten comments on my latest book, Native, that I ask a lot of questions in the book without giving answers to those questions.

That is the very work of an instigator, my friends.

We live in a time and culture in which we are doing a lot of unlearning, of deconstructing, beginning the hard work of untangling the truth from the lies of what we’ve been taught and finding the liminal space in between. That takes time, patience, and kindness with ourselves and each other. Our healing work is connected to whatever we put out into the world, and we need to pay attention to that.

And the thing is, we will probably never be done unlearning. We will never be done with some of these processes that take so much time, attention and care to work through. While we are in this process, we need both the instigators and the influencers to help us along.

We need the people who show us how to ask questions through stories and experiences and we need people who, in the way they live their own lives, have an effect on ours in some way.

So, it’s all connected. There is a rhythm here, an ebb and flow.

The next time you’re on social media or at a conference or in a zoom meeting, notice who the instigators are. Notice who the influencers are. Give thanks that both are around to teach us something about ourselves.

Friends, don’t forget, most of my writing will remain free, because I believe that sharing my words with all of you is what creates this community. For free subscribers, you’ll still get access to my essays and some original poetry. 

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Onward, friends, together.