Amber Hollibaugh: In the face of all the things that would defeat you or make you feel like there was no hope. You are stubborn and you insist there is. And that, to me, is the kind of spirituality that allows a person to stay in a struggle over a long period of time.
Caitlin Breedlove: [00:02:14] We’re honored to be bringing Fortification back to you after some time away. We’re excited to bring it this special edition with some recent and long time conversations with other folks. This winter, we’re bringing you some final conversations as we shift this project. Our goal has always been to provide an offering to people across experiences and identities and social justice movements and to bring them into conversation with organizers, cultural workers and healers about spiritual sustenance in this work.
I’m Caitlin Breedlove and you’re listening to Season 4, Episode 1 of Fortification, where we had the privilege of speaking with Amber Hollibaugh – a writer, filmmaker and feminist organizer working with sexual, racial and economic liberation organizing for many years. Her recent work has included establishing Queer Survival Economies, a project addressing the intersections of sexuality, poverty, homelessness, labor and the criminalization of Survivors. She’s also the former executive director of Queers for Economic Justice.
To be honest, I can’t remember the year that Amber and I first met, but I have known her many years and she has provided me some of the most important advice and organizing of anyone I’ve ever worked with. I am so happy to call her an elder of mine and a friend we spoke last year. Amber, friend, I’m so glad I get to have this conversation today. And I’m so glad that other people get to hear this conversation because I have benefited so much from so many amazing conversations with you. But I’m also glad that the people that listen to this podcast get to hear from you today. So I really appreciate you making the time.
Amber: [00:04:07] Thank you for inviting me.
Caitlin: So I want to start – I can talk to you about a million things, but I want to start with the question that I’ve been asking this whole season, which is “what do you see as the connection between your movement life and your spiritual life or your internal life in whatever way you define both of those things?”
Amber: You now, I was trying to think about it because Nora sent me some questions and that said this was the first question that you asked and I was trying to figure it out because I don’t. I don’t identify myself with any particular faith tradition or church or synagogue or anything else. You know it, but I actually over time. I have felt as though my spirituality was really the fact that I did radical social change work – that is what represented my faith. Because if you to me. You can’t do that work unless you believe in people. If you believe in the possibility of human beings being able to change themselves and change the world, and that’s a huge thing to believe in. That’s a very spirit-, to me, very spiritual thing that in the face of all the things that would defeat you or make you feel like there was no hope.
You are stubborn and you insist there is. And that, for me, is the kind of spirituality that allows a person to stay in a struggle over a long period of time. Because it isn’t it isn’t simply a certain historical moment. Because you’ve gone through so many if you stay in the movement long enough. It’s driven by something else. It’s driven by a certain kind of irreducible passion to make a different world, and that’s a big thing to want. And I, you know, I feel like from my own background – of poverty, being mixed, race, of not fitting in anywhere, of being queer. It’s hard to find a place that allows you to believe in in the possibility of your own life and the people who you love. Life being something different than where you find yourself. And that’s because it’s brutal. And often I think people have hope about escaping the places they came from. And if you decide not to try and escape, then you have to live with something that’s that’s harsh about what you remember and what you know. And within that, you need to find hope because otherwise all you have is anger. And anger burns out. I mean, really, it’s like, it’s like a kind of fuel that might get you someplace fast, but it doesn’t last over time.
[00:08:06] You can only be angry so many hundreds of days and be any good to yourself or anybody if nobody wants to be around you, when the only thing that you that makes you able to move forward is anger. Just doesn’t work. And it’s not like we don’t all have those kind of days or moments or periods of time where everything is about anger because something so bad is happening. But if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ve got to find joy and you’ve got to find hope and possibility for a sense of humor into the system, to be able to find other things besides anger as the only place that roots you. Because ultimately, it won’t last. And you won’t last. That was a very long answer.
Caitlin: That was a very important touchstone answer. And it it made me think about, you know, a lot of people that listen to this podcast. I don’t know. But I think a good amount of them have been in movement work. Maybe less than five years, maybe less than 10 years. Could you talk to us about who you were when you came into movement work? What the times were like, how you saw your role and who you are now and what you see as the times and your role. And that’s a question where, you know, I’m a give you a minute to answer that. You don’t have to answer that That’s it’s up, up, up, up.
Amber: That is a big question. And I was actually trying to figure out Caitlin, like, how would I date myself in terms of of my own history of activism and stuff in it? You know, it was a long time ago was like 50 years ago and a little over 50 years ago, actually. And and it was a different – a really different moment, a different time of, you know, growing political movements. The civil rights movement was, you know, huge and huge, meaning visible in a way that movements had not been for many, many years. And. I was lucky that that I found myself. In the early 60s, mid-60s. Trying to understand. Out of high school politics, because there was so much going on and I didn’t really understand it. Though I – I loved the the kind of passion that appeared in demonst- You know, when I would see demonstrations on TV and stuff, so I was very interested and -and one of my teachers in high school my last year high school gave me the Communist Manifesto, Marxist Communist Manifesto because I was in a ruling class.
I’d gotten a scholarship for my senior year in a ruling class institution in Switzerland. I mean, this was weird. We’re not talking like confusing terms. This was, you know, like the son of the president of Costa Rica. But it got to kids that went to it. And I came out of a trailer park and flew directly from that trailer park to this place. And boy, if you want to learn about class, quickly go somewhere where you completely find no one that looks like you or has anything like your own history and background and has only lived in privilege and you’ll understand privilege in a much sharper way than you might have in a trailer park where everything you see around you is similarly kind of devastated.
[00:12:46] And so I went to this place and I because I got a scholarship and then I went to my history teacher because I was doing so badly and said I just – I’m failing and I don’t know what to do, I’m I’m I’m going to flunk out. I don’t know what to do. And he was an immigrant. First generation immigrant. He was Lebanese. And he said to me “You’re the reason you’re failing is that you were never meant to be here. Not because you’re not smart, but because this place was never a place that would welcome you. Not ever. So you’re not failing because you’re stupid, you’re failing because you’re – It’s a setup. But you could not. You know that it’s very hard to break. And you need to understand what you’re looking at.” And then he literally gave me a copy of the Communist Manifesto. And I went and read it and it was like transformative. It’s like all my parents weren’t just a mess and unable to do anything was like, this is structural. Oh, my God, this. This has real. This means that it’s intentional, that poverty is intentional. Capitalism structures, class an – and often race and gender.
But, you know, for me at 16, it was like, oh, my God. I just, it just astounded me. And I managed to get through and not flunk out. And then he said to me that my history teacher that is giving me the Communist Manifesto said, come back to New London, Connecticut, where my family has a hot dog stand and work there in the summer. And -and I’ll introduce you to people in the Communist Party. And he did. And I joined a study group. And, you know, it was unbelievably radical to me that people were talking about such big ideas that came from a background like my own. I mean, these were people that really had nothing. This was not academic. This was not graduate school. This was people that worked in hot dog stands in New London, Connecticut, and were immigrants. I mean, that’s who that group of people were. And while I wasn’t wild for the Communist Party, it taught me I mean, it was my first study group. And I learned that the questions were serious and big and that you had to educate yourself. But it did. It wasn’t simply that you thought. Everybody should be free or women were as good as men. You actually had to understand what was going on. What each of those pieces looked like. And you had to think about what you understood about what it meant to be a woman or mixed race or poor. What did it mean? Was it just your history? What did that mean and how did that affect what you thought and what you believed you might be able to do? And so it was just remarkably transforming to do that. And I went to the Freedom Summer. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Freedom Summer.
[00:17:00] But I was too young and I got there and i had to go home. They just couldn’t have too many 16 year olds, white girls, in the middle of Mississippi. It would get everybody killed. And I really did. They were very sorry, but it wasn’t going to work. And I left in a huge disappointment. But, you know, I was trying to find a place. I was trying to join the movement. And I didn’t know how. And so I would hear about something and I would go to wherever it was. And you know it. So it took me a long time to figure out how to be a part of the movement.
And it also is true that while I could be involved because of what it was like historically in the 60s and early 70s, I could be involved in a lot of activism, if you consider activism to be demonstrations and things like that, the anti-war movement, the beginning of the women’s movement, beginning of gay liberation.
[00:18:09] It was hard to find a place that was…where you were really welcomed where you knew that, you know, that it mattered, that you were in the room. And I found it really complicated and difficult to know how to do that. I just, I didn’t have the movement language. I didn’t have the right stories. It felt to me like I was an anomaly that had somehow stumbled from outer space into this world. And I wanted it passionately. But I…It didn’t want me. And you know, really, it really seemed to me. Except for that time in New London, Connecticut, when I’d been in that study group that there was no place for me to go. I mean, I just didn’t know how to – I didn’t know how to be a part of the movement in terms of class and race. And being a woman meant that you were always a second class citizen in the left, in the anti-war movement as well. You just better figure out how to bring coffee to men as they were having serious debates and it could make you furious, but it didn’t make you matter. And so, you know, it really was hard, but it was also exciting. I mean, because I felt like because I came from where I came from like nobody in my family had ever finished high school. I was the first person in my extended family to ever finish high school. And so I was in these amazing conversations or I was I was a listener to amazing conversations about what you believed made the world operate the way that it did and how you thought that could change and what it was going to take.
[00:20:34] And, you know, it just, I was just alive at the brilliance that was around me and it really was brilliance of a young generational moment when people were really trying to figure out how to change the world because that was really the 60s and 70s was really about transformation. It was a moment in the history of this country that was. Very engaged in the possibility of change, and that’s spread through all the work that we were doing. And I found a place for myself often in movement work doing this stuff that nobody in the movement wanted to do. I was early on did prison work because, well, everybody thought that, you know, incarcerate – Issues of incarceration were very troubling and problematic. And of course, they believed in the liberation of everybody, blah, blah, blah. People didn’t want to do the day in and day out work of building relationships with folks that were incarcerated. And you know, so who are you representing if you were talking about prisoners and you had no idea – What people in prison thought themselves because you’d never been to prison and you wouldn’t go. You know, it was like that and like, I did a lot of work during the anti-Vietnam War movement.
[00:22:23] It was the draft and who is getting drafted. And it was all working class kids. It was all kids of color and poor white trash. And that was who was fighting the battle. And, you know, it was obvious, if you want to build an anti-war movement, you need to talk to the people that are being forced into the military, you need to talk to guys that are – that had no choice or even do have a choice, but think it’s their only choice. Which was true for my family. You know, was the only other way you were ever going to have a life.
And most of the anti-war movement didn’t want to work with people that were either in the service or were returning vets. They were seen as part of the problem. And so you didn’t want to have anything to do with them. And, you know, it’s like even there I kept thinking, you know, but that’s my family. They were sent to Vietnam without choice. And they came back – if they came back at all – broken and wounded and often with deep problems of addiction and alcoholism. I mean, hello. That was what was going on, and so I did an enormous amount of work in that kind of circumstance.
[00:24:04] And I also did a lot of work with the Black Panther Party. Getting Black Panther Party members across the border into Canada so that they if they were being pursued by the FBI or whatever, they could get out and having a white woman that had my kind of attitude was very helpful in getting people across the border and being able to deal with immigration and all of that, all the kind of, you know, power structures that happen at borders. So I did an enormous amount of that work. I went back and forth. You know, I mean, because I could do work and wanted to do work in places that the movement that I felt very committed to didn’t generally want to do even if they named the folks that they saw as oppressed as part of those institutions like incarceration or that, you know, the service or, you know, Black liberation, they didn’t want to do the work and they were scared to do the work and scared to have those conversations with working class and poor people about what it meant to do something like fight in a war or be a part of the Army or being able to escape so that you can stay alive if you’re African-American in Oakland and came out of poverty. I mean, it’s like. Don’t you want to do that work? I mean, don’t you want – isn’t that what it means to be a part of a liberation movement? And everybody would say yes, but they didn’t want to really go there. And it’s kind of been I have found over time in reflecting on these issues that that I have done movement work, though paid for it. Been paid for it often, though, not in those early years. Because I was willing and eager to go to the places that often people in the movement didn’t want to go.
They didn’t want to do the work. Like I went and did a lot of work around the United Farm Workers struggle around grapes and the grape boycott. Well, you know, I came out of Bakersfield. I came out of you know, I was arrested in Bakersfield doing the grape strike by my own family, my cousins who were cops in that county were arresting people that were, you know, trying to do the organizing, the labor organizing. And they busted me. You know, it’s like, yeah, well, you know, you’re on that picket line. I’m taking you to jail now. I was like, well, yeah, that is what it means.
[00:27:30] If that’s who your family is. And so I have often found myself in a very similar kind of circumstances of being eager to do the work that often people didn’t want to do in the movement, even if the people being named were often the people being idealized.
Poor people, and people coming out of poverty and people that blah blah blah the people in trailer parks. But I’m never going to a trailer park, you know, blah. It just has followed me through my life so that I have found myself doing work – always where I either was hired to do work that other people didn’t want to do or have built work into whatever the job was that included the people that I thought were often excluded. And that’s been you know, and I could only stay in a job if that if I could make that work. So doing the lesbian AIDS project, nobody thought that quote unquote “real lesbians” could get AIDS. And what they meant was you couldn’t be a real lesbian if you were a sex worker, if you fucked men to get drugs, if you were homeless. I mean, that’s really it was that’s all it meant. That’s what it meant about real lesbians. The only real lesbians were the women who had enough privilege to be able to take care of themselves around that sexual orientation without having to do the things that were complicated if you were poor. Well, ok, I’ll become a director of the first and only actually lesbian AIDS organization that when I started had 12 dykes. That were in a support group, and at the end of the first year, we had 400 women. I mean it. And they weren’t hard to find.
You just said to ask. Yeah. It’s like nobody wanted you. Nobody wanted those women. They didn’t want women in an AIDS movement that was about guys. And they didn’t want sex workers in that conversation. You know, blah, blah. They didn’t want the people that were the victims of that inadvertent infection. They didn’t want it. It’s like, no, I’m not going there. And. So I have found my work over and over again being work to find the folks that are often most invisible in social justice work, but who I think are fundamental to any actual change that is ever going to occur. If you don’t, you don’t know how to do that work and go there and make that possible for other people to see themselves as change agents in those places. Then you will only have a movement that is defined by how much resource and privilege you have. And that’s going to automatically be a roadmap to gender and race and class, period.
[00:31:36] It will always be that and you know, the thing is movements are often very intolerant. Very intolerant of difference. You know, you walk into a meeting and you don’t know the right words to use it. They call on you one time when you raise your hand
Caitlin: Yup, you have one shot.
You have one shot and you don’t sound right. You’re not invited back yet. And you know it. I mean, those of us that have been always left out know very well the signals immediately. If we’ve done something wrong, even if we’re not quite sure what it is. You know it. You just know it. I remember I worked in a bookstore for many years in San Francisco and we were having a collective meeting because it was course collectively owned at that time. And people in the collective were saying, oh, god, I hope we don’t get a I don’t know. It’s the beginning of a women’s movement. It’s really powerful. And God forbid any women should come in here with painted fingernails.
Caitlin: What a travesty, of all the things!
Amber: Hahahahahaha. Unfuckingbelievable. I don’t even know where to go in this shit. I don’t even know how to where to start. In this current season, I could shut somebody down by that time, but I wanted to actually tell them why that might be a little problematic that I didn’t even really I didn’t even know where to go.
So I feel like that has been my avenue in my life. That’s been my past. And it has been remarkably, astoundingly beautiful and very lonely. Often very lonely because. Because you can’t always be the person that raises your hand and tries to bring a set of people into a room who aren’t there. It really, really makes you lonely. And it also makes you not liked by people who really don’t know what to do. Even if they agree with you, and so you make them uncomfortable. And so I think it’s very. It’s very difficult in ways that our movements are stratified to bring a really full expression of the range of people that need to be a part of change work really into a circumstance where they’re there at the tables, they really are there and they’re making a difference. And in fact that’s been one of the things that’s been the most interesting to me about traditional faith work. Or not traditional faith work. I mean, it’s been welcoming congregations and I mean, that’s where I’ve been involved most recently is the kind of faith work that’s come out of social justice organizing. But it didn’t take me very long after I started being involved in real kind of congregational work to see that often the people that. I so much believed in and felt myself to be to have come from were in faith settings.
[00:35:52] They weren’t at the community centers and they weren’t at the you know, they were the justice. They weren’t going to Creating Change. They were going MCC or a unity fellowship or a place that brought together their identity and their and their need to have a faith driven life, a place to be in faith in their life. And I was like, oh, look at this. Wow. All those folks that have been feeling really badly about themselves because they’re too something, gee, they’re doing quite well here. And there’s a lot of them. And it’s so really been intriguing to me. And it it really has meant a lot to me to see that that has been the growth, I think of. Well, the idea of welcoming congregations and really going back into traditional faith settings and trying to create change, that it’s really made a difference for people that feel that faith kicked them out. That they were not wanted in their churches if they were queer or they were women or they were if they if they were of Color and HIV positive, you know that those are really complicated things. So to find a way back through that has been interesting for me to learn. And. And I’ve thought about it a lot because it really…there are very few places that working class people feel comfortable in social change work. And that’s one of the places and you’d be a fool not to pay attention to it, whatever you might think of established religion like hello. Knock, knock. There’s something going on here. And you really, really, really need to think about it. If you’ve been frustrated for 20 years that you can’t find your own people. And then you find them so powerful. Yes.
Caitlin: It’s powerful
Amber: [00:38:43] It’s really, really powerful. It’s really been an amazing thing to me and also, Caitlin, because for me faith stuff was often, in the same way as I was willing to go and do work that people didn’t want to do. I was often early on in quote unquote, gay liberation. The person that would go and debate a fundamentalist minister. About whether it was, you know, a punishment to be a homosexual, whether it was deviant to be a homosexual, because there were very few people that ever have had any history of being involved in churches and church philosophies that were so explicit and the end. Frankly, I became a great public speaker because I had to debate these guys. And if you can’t bring it. You can’t debate them because this is not about anything practical. They capture people’s feelings. And move their feelings forward into the way they understand those kind of religious leaders, understand faith, not simply. Oh, well, no, there’s nothing in this psalm or this part of the Bible that says blah, blah, and I know that you’re lying. You do not win in that conversation. And so I spent a lot of my early political life eventually through much my political life, debating mostly Christians in a lot of different faith settings about homosexuality and about AIDS and HIV. Because the stigmas were so profound and the communities affected were so embedded in faith settings. So if you couldn’t if you couldn’t go there. You were not having a conversation that needed to happen.
Caitlin: [00:40:52] Yeah, it’s so interesting given I mean, I have so many thoughts listening to you, but it’s also very interesting to me in terms of thinking about the piece you were saying about the incredible beauty and also loneliness of that role and how much by being willing to play that role even when it would so clearly cost you a lot.
I know that for myself and a lot of other people, you know, almost 20 years ago when I was coming in this work, there were times when I would hear you talk about class. I would hear you talk about veterans in the military. I would hear you talk about sex work. And you were literally the only voice in the feminist and LGBTQ spaces I was in—who was saying what you’re saying and who is saying it from a lived experience. And who was willing to say that and was willing to talk about that kind of structural exclusion that had happened.
But it also made me realize as a class ascendant person from a class ascendant family, the tools and skills that I really had that I didn’t think of as tools.
And I think also,
Amber: Like what Caitlin?
Caitlin: I think about, for example, having conversations with my grandfather, you know, who was in the military, was an old Polish dude, especially when he was going blind, talking about politics with him. When he didn’t read and write well at all. He could read USA Today. That was about his reading level.
Amber: Yep. Got it.
Caitlin: He couldn’t read The New York Times. It wasn’t it was a difference. You do like three times a night. You could read it, you know. And how much that taught me about organizing and how much, you know, just having conversations and going, you know, I say this all the time in these interviews, but going to gas stations or going to gay bars or going wherever and asking people what they think about what’s going on.
I watch organizers that come from class privilege have no idea how they would have a conversation with someone because in their structure of the world, those people have worked for them. They’re not as human and it’s not even bad intent. None of it has to do with bad intent. It has to do with what you’re talking about the prison’s true robust cross-class organizing not happening. And also, I love that you’re actually taking the frame further, which I think is the frame we really need for feminist work. But all work in this time, which is that we’re in a huge moment of anti-elitism around the world where people are really pushing back and they’re going to push back in every different pathway that makes sense to them. And the far right is presenting solutions that many of them are engaging more than the ones we’re putting forth. And so a lot of that is why people around the globe. And it’s not only white people.
[00:41:59] You know, if you look at what’s happening in South Africa. But the solutions we’re putting forward are not necessarily solutions that are speaking to how completely over they are with feeling like their lives are decided by. A very small segment of humanity is making decisions for everyone, and I resonate with that. And then I also just resonate with and I’ve been you know, I want to ask you, you know, what you see as greatest possible outcomes for feminist work in our time, because I think that I’m very, very lucky that even privileged, not a great word. Like lucky like like one at the casino, kind of lucky that I happened to be in movement with people who are older than me, who were really strong feminists, who were also dykes and queer women who really took me under their wing, whether it was everyday or episodically, you know, and gave me advice like you gave me advice from from one end to the other. I mean, I remember you telling me once, never tell a story about someone you don’t care about anymore, whether that person is someone else or yourself. I remember you telling me, “don’t be in a relationship with anyone who expects you to be smaller than you are.” Like people don’t get that kind of advice and younger organizers in my life name to me, but they’re not getting that.
And that’s part of why we made this podcast was because not everybody has the relationship to call you up and say, can can you be on this path, I guess. Can you talk? You know, I mean, you’re you. So you probably say yes, but they don’t know that.
And so the question of actually to me, like I think here we are at this place of in response to the sort of cynicism, nihilism, Trump’s administration. Because people who identify as women in the broadest possible way. You can think about saying We can respond. We’ll get in there. Whether we’re teachers in red states who are organizing, who make shit money, whether we’re going to go to the women’s march, where they’re going to do all this kind of stuff. We answer the call based on that particular dog whistle. And I I don’t I think we’re really trying to grapple with what would it mean to respond to that kind of mobilization in a way that actually creates a really strong fourth wave of feminism, for example. I wonder how you see that moment, like what is holding us back? What could set us free? What the hell should we do those are all questions I have?
[00:46:15] Jesus christ i don’t know…But I want to go back to even. I want to I do want to take that on directly, Caitlin. But I also want to say something to you. Like you were talking about things I said to you in, you know, kind of. I mean, we’ve known each other 20 years. We’ve known each other for a very long period of time. I knew you from when you were starting to build a life as a political organizer. And now, you know, thank God for Suzanne Farr and her saying, I have two women that are working for me. You and Paulina. And I want you to meet them because they’re both femme identified dykes. And you need to— they need to meet you because they need to have an idea that femmes have been a part of this movement and been big in this movement for a long time. And so they need to see that. They need to see you and you need to see them. And I was thrilled because because sexual orientation isn’t imply desiring a particular set of people. It also has a lot of rock nuance.
Like I’m not just flatly OK, women and any woman that walks in the room. Oh, yeah. I’ll go. I’ll go for her. It’s like my life is built in a more complicated way, including my sexual identity and and being a film, being a fight for them. You know, it’s like it really matters to me. That’s not a little thing. And I consider it. And it’s one of the. One of the things that has kept me alive is finding the kind of women that I needed to be with in order to be a sexual person.
And given that I come from a family of violence and sexual betrayal, finding my own sexual identity and sexual erotic fulfillment. That was a pretty short leash here. You know, I mean, that was unlikely to happen because, you know, because I came out of bad shit and, you know, and I had done. I mean, I had been I was a sex worker forever. And it was not a terrible job. But I needed to find a place where somebody was not a client that I knew I could control to be my lover. And I didn’t know I know how the hell I was gonna do it. So meeting the two of you was also. Saying to me that supporting the two of you was supporting my own life when I felt so alone and I didn’t see people like myself. And I’ve always been big. I’ve always been a big personality.
[00:49:45] Even when I didn’t have the language, when I didn’t look right, when it was clear to me I was not wearing a clothes.
And I you know, I. I feel very committed to trying to really make people feel welcome that shares something with me that has often been despised. I feel really strongly about it. And it isn’t secondary and it, you know, like I often now. Talk about how old I am that I’m 72. Because as a femme, I have not. I do not have women older than myself to talk with about what aging does to an erotic identity. I don’t I don’t have anybody that can say to me, oh, I remember when I was 72, this started to happen. I remember when the first time my lover was really in a wheelchair and she was going to have to stay there. How we had to negotiate desire or you know, it’s just there’s a lot of shit that happens for many reasons, including things like age. And I never saw a woman older than myself who was femme identified and queer. I mean, that’s a that’s a really lonely road. And so I have felt very much. It’s like I am not letting. Younger femmes not see who I am as an older dyke. I needed that always to see that there was a life for me through time that I could live and be who I was erotically, be who I was sexually and be who I was politically. And I feel fierce around it. And I know how important it is. And I know it was important in places. Caitlin like during the Lesbian AIDS Project when we were doing an enormous amount of work at Rikers Island, the big prison. And, you know, all the dykes that were— there were 60 dykes in a HIV positive support group at Rikers that we had organized. And it was all butch-femme couples. Or Butch-femme women. I mean, all of them have come out of that. And if I hadn’t been a femme. And knew who I was looking at and who I was talking to. Not just in terms of incarceration or, you know, being in prison. It wouldn’t I would have—what would I have had to say I mean, I knew who was sitting there and what people wanted. And and in trying to do something like a safer sex conversation, which really mattered to Dykes that we’re positive because they wouldn’t necessarily know the status of who they were sleeping with and didn’t want to pass on the virus. How much of a danger was that and what should they do and what did it mean to try? And they didn’t have any of the safer sex equipment that you could access Outside—they didnt have any of that, so would it would, you know—would Saran Wrap work like a condom? Would they put that over a dildo? I mean, those are serious questions. If you think you’re going to kill somebody by sleeping with them,
Caitlin: [00:53:45] Yeah. You know, so those are the kind of things which are often, I think made fun of or belittled that turn out to have enormous consequence in finding and being really able to be a partner in conversation with. The parts of your community that are often the last to see somebody like yourself.
I found myself feeling quite emotional when you were talking about that level of interdependence that you feel very directly in relationship, because I think that part of what I was thinking about is how few conversations, I mean, where people are talking about the responsibility that we have to each other to show each other different ways. And ways to build a life and live a life and illuminate the path of that life, particularly when I think now about seeing a generation queer community and LGBTQ community where, you know, there is a difference between how we identify individually and what our relationship—
Amber: —wait you got you got cut off. There is a difference between…How is where I lost you, huh? How we identify as an individual and how we individually and then how we are as an individual who completely articulates our own experience in relationship to these bigger communities, you know. And how we fashion that identity in relationship to some responsibility to other communities, and that we understand that it isn’t about simply sort of checking off, oh, whose identity is in the room or not. But the real depth that you’re talking about, Amber, where, you know, like what you were saying, like you really know you knew who those people were. The only way we only know who people are, if we listen to them, if we organize with them, if we’re with them. So that, you know, someone like me, I actually do have a pretty different relationship to identify both as as a feminist who identifies as queer in the lesbian tradition because of my folks are because of who we all are, because of who brought me up. Then I do simply saying, oh, well, you know, I have a woman partner and we have a kid and we live in Phoenix. You know, these are all facts. But for a lot of queer people, I know my age and younger, you know, they’re really fond of saying, well, this is like just one part of who I am. And I’m like, well, that’s not how I see my identity. My identity, actually, my political, my political, social and sexual and spiritual identity are actually interconnected because I was brought up to be part of carrying on a certain tradition and playing particular roles in the community that we’ve needed to play for a long time. Because yet again, yup, no one, you know, coming from a generation of elders where literally there was absolutely no safety net and no one and nothing was there for you all. So what’s kind of moved around is a cliche of like, oh, well, all the family we have is each other or it’s not about blood. Family like to see that be so literal. And how much? You know, I do think the contribution is incredibly overlooked in a lot of sort of.
Centrist or mainstream feminist spaces that, you know, they’re thinking about. Well, do we have enough LGBTQ women and elders to fulfill a diversity quota? Right. Right. And not kind of militant lessons and legacy we can nourish movements with. And that really keeps me up at night to be on again ever really at night, because that’s not the vision that I see. Like for me, without dykes and queer and trans identified women of poverty, of color, you know, et cetera. There isn’t. It’s not it’s not feminism without the transformative potential that the kind of interdependence we’ve had to create has created in my life. Right? And in the life of people around me—inside of, you know, big organizations that we’ve been part of building and inside of little organizations we’ve been part of building. And so to me, I think about that a lot when I think about that, the legacy and like what is the responsibility or what is my responsibility to take responsibility for myself in this time to think about how that’s carried forward and to develop leaders in building bases and building alliances between folks that really could and should be aligned. And it’s it’s really hard. It’s really hard in such a intense moment of individualism that obviously is structurally rooted, but nonetheless is incredibly, terrifyingly real. On the one to one, you know, from the micro to the macro, you know, it’s intense. It is.
Amber: [00:58:56] It is intense. It’s really hard. And I also think that. Like I, I think of the women that I know That are around my age and I watched them. Feel less and less welcome in. The kind of spaces that attract a younger group of activists that instead of feeling like you’re in it, either it doesn’t matter or is valued what your age is and you bring that. It’s like, well, I just I. I’m not going to go to creating change because really, you know, it’s younger activists and I can’t really keep up with the spiritual. It starts at, you know, eight o’clock in the morning and runs until 7:00. I just can’t put a day like that and then expect to do something at night at blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But the thing that I always think about that is also.
You know. We need each other’s life experiences to understand how the what what the complicated puzzle. And what are the pieces we need in that puzzle to fit together and how do we need to understand each other in the ways we’re both similar and different, like I need older people to. I need older people to understand some of the shit in my life. And I have an expectation that I’ll be a part of a movement that will be intergenerational. But in truth, I’m not. It’s not intergenerational. It’s young.
And, you know, young can be 40, but instead of 70.
[01:01:15] But it’s still it’s young and. What I’ve seen is both older people really being kind of. Not wanted or not valued, not wanted or idealized in some creepy kind of way, like the only thing you have to can to contribute is something from your past. Oh, let me tell you a long story about what it was like in blah blah movement in nineteen seventy four.
And then we did, you know, it’s like fuck you, I’m a part of a movement now and I want to be a part of the discussions that are happening now about how to do change work. It’s not that I’m leaving my history behind, but yeah, I’m an active participant still going forward. I’m not a, you know, a kind of broken down object that you can roll in and have me tell a illuminating story because I’m supposed to be wise and then roll me out again like I don’t I’m not going down that road. This is not going to happen like this.
[01:02:32] But it’s a hard dynamic to stop when it’s also true that movements often are embedded in younger people.
Caitlin: Yeah. Yeah.
Amber: For a lot of reasons. Lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones. But it’s a reality of who can do it and who does do it and who’s often coming to it in new and passionate ways. And. We we don’t talk about it, we don’t talk about an inter-generational movement and what that. What that could offer. And what that means in terms of responsibility, both for older people and younger ones like, hello. Could we talk about this because really otherwise you’re just going to have one more group that’s left out. That’s all. That’s all you’re doing. Not because they want to be left out. But like I remember when I started doing work at the task force.
[01:03:43] And they were talking about getting volunteers to come in to do a mailing. And so they were talking about going to all the different colleges, all their LGBTQ groups and blah, blah, blah. You know, and they would invite as many young people as they could. And and, you know, they’d order in pizzas and everybody’d sit on the floor and stuff envelopes.
And I’m sitting there thinking, you don’t you didn’t go to Sage. You didn’t go to the aging or queer aging organizations and invite people because, A, they couldn’t sit on the fucking floor and necessarily be able to get up again. But because you didn’t know you they made you nervous.
You don’t know you didn’t know what to do with somebody that was 70 who was stuffing an envelope in the same way you did with somebody that was 19. Right. You didn’t. Right. And so you didn’t invite him. Didn’t even cross your mind to invite them. And because of it, you you’re building Cordray’s off people that are not reflective of the hugeness of being queer. No, you’re not. You’re leaving them out. You’re assuming they don’t want to be there because you don’t want them there. Not because they made any choice. So, you know, I think. I think it’s I think it’s kind of brutal and and it’s complicated to try and figure it out like, you know, I fell and broke my femur. And, you know, I’ve been in recovery for about a year and a half and doing the Kessler, you know, being invited to be the Kessler lecturer this year. I went there with a cane. I had to use a cane because I’m still learning how to walk, frankly. And. You know, and I had to like say to the folks that were organizing the event, you know. What are the stairs like? Are there railings that I could hold on to, not just stairs. You know, how’s the podium set up? Can I lean against it? You know, just. A million things that are about disability, really about disability and. That they didn’t have a clue how to answer any of those questions. They didn’t.
They were more than willing to do the stuff that needed to be done, but they never would have thought of it without me having–needing to bring it up because I couldn’t be there and do the lecture if those other pieces weren’t in place. Period. And it’s how disability is often completely invisible in the rooms of activism. Period. It’s like it’s a big deal if you’ve got somebody that signs.
Caitlin: Yep. You know, you can. [01:07:05] Is it just It’s so pathetic that we can’t do better. Really? I mean, it would it would take us an intentionality. It has nothing to do with, you know, impossible things. It just needs to be taken on. And I think it is born.
[01:05:48] So it’s just going to say I think it’s also about what’s most important to us, like, you know, what are the values and the values death and how the money is spent, how the space is organized and also understanding what it would mean. Also, like on a very pragmatic level, like what kind of political power come forth from LGBTQ folks who are over 70. If there was a real commitment to figuring out the conditions and spaces that it would take to do that organizing— as opposed to the like you said, come in. Say one thing. We don’t really want your opinion on anything else because we don’t know how to have a relationship where we respect our elders and also disagree or debate or have different perspectives, which to me is how you have an honorable relationship. We don’t have to agree on everything that is OK. But I don’t think. I don’t think that that kind of genuine relationship folks have us have that skill set. And how do you say? I’m very respectful and we can have a conversation about something and disagree.
[01:08:42] All relationships that which is how it stays two dimensional. I think a lot of our intergenerational relationships stay two dimensional because we don’t know how to say that. We don’t talk about that. But we we’re not great at it with our own age peers, but we’re bravely back.
I think in a generationally we’re horrible at it generationally. But it’s also like how white people are afraid to have a fight with somebody that’s a person of color, because the fight is going to be seen as disrespectful. It’s like, well, here’s what that tells me. You don’t have a relationship, right? That’s what that says, because you’re never in a relationship with somebody if you can’t tell them straight up with what you think.
Amber: Period. And it’s that direct.
Caitlin: Yeah. Yeah.
Amber: I get it that it’s complicated and I get it. But you’ve got to do your work. I understand that. That is what’s demanded. But so what? Isn’t that what you say you believe in, that you want to have a you know, and a kind of intentional inter-disciplinary or, you know, interwoven movement of people from this kind of place and that feeling like women. Then really, if you want that, that’s going to mean doing the work that it takes to build relationships where people don’t automatically trust you.
[01:10:18] Now, it’s that straightforward. It really is. Hello. It is. That’s what it means: Not always thinking you’re at the center.
Caitlin: Yeah. Yep. I mean, that really is the gem. I mean, that that’s the thing that I feel like if people could just write that down what you just said on a slip of paper. You know, I I could talk to you about that all day. You know, obviously we don’t have all day. But I mean, that that to me, it’s so well put and succinctly put it, because I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why I think that we’re losing massively.
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to talk about some of the huge spaces where we have had losses if we’re willing to think about it. It’s just felt like after Trump became president elect, there was five minutes where people were like, ha, what self-reflection of progressive movements could be done about how we got here. And it just dissipated. It just disappeared. You know, as a writer who read states all these years, I’m like, what happened? You had five minutes to have a conversation and maybe there was some curiosity, you know, the fact that this happens. The rest of the country did this. This was not like New York and California did this right to all of us.
Caitlin: Does not mean that California didn’t play a role. However, you know, and I think the same thing with this person. It’s actually the incredible. The paternalism. Yeah. To not think that we can have real dialog across communities that have really no structural reason to trust each other. You know, we’re set up in a system where young people, people working across class, across age, across race, no real structural reason to trust each other. So to think that those dialogs become possible when there’s no mechanism that builds any trust through any shared work that’s useable, provable, demonstrable at all is just totally bizarre, you know?
Amber: [01:12:45] Yes, totally. I mean, I remember one time–You saying to me in, you know, again, this is a kind of example of us learning from each other, you said. “You know, I realized at some point I had to go home. I had to actually understand my neighborhood. I had to understand where I lived. I had to understand and have roots there. And not just fly to a conference in an in another place and be a leader and visible in that place. And I needed to do the work of knowing where I was.” And and I you know, and I thought to myself, if people understood in a way that wasn’t literal, what it meant to go home.
They would be they would have a different understanding. I mean, if you come out of a working class family and you go home and try and talk to them about Marxism, you’re going to have a really interesting conversation. And it’s not going to be easy if you go home and you’re talking to exactly the people that you also hate. For having done something like vote for Trump. You know, if that’s if that’s who you know. If that’s where you have to go and have that conversation, that then you have a very different feeling. A much more complicated and ambivalent feeling about who you despise and why and what you think this moron. Represents.
[01:14:17] Yeah. What do you think that’s about? Because if you don’t want to take it on, you’re not going to turn it around. You’re not going to change anything if you don’t have any sympathy. For why this misguided choice is seen as a choice by people who don’t see any other choices around them. You know, if you don’t get this, you’re not understanding what’s going on. And I mean, I think that there is a lot that we’re progressive or succeeding. Although it’s ironic that oft-. That I think the real place where it’s emerging is electorally. And that’s where you can really see actual blue wave change. You can actually see people getting involved that have never been involved before, that have decided that they can’t stand it. And they’ve got to do something. And this is the thing that they can go to. They can go to “Indivisible”. They can go to “Move On”. They can find the movement. They can find it. It’s there. And I mean, I can’t tell you how much I hate electoral politics, but it is like if we’re not going to do it, if somehow it’s not political enough. It’s like if we’re not understanding who’s coming to this place to try and make sense out of the world, that isn’t. A person that believes in Trump. Then we better get our butts to the places where people are finding some kind of answer. Yeah, that’s right.
And and I think a lot of us don’t want to. I mean, I hate electoral politics. I don’t think that’s how deep change happens. But I do think that in in. I do think that the conversation about change is is so alive right now. People really want change. They really want it. And if we’re not in the places where that kind of eagerness is driving people to do certain kinds of work, we’re going to be left out of it. And that work will be limited because we’re not taking all that work and making it a bigger thing.
You start there, you don’t end there, you know, to go to someplace and say to people, Yes! we need to get this person elected and they actually have to be accountable to us. And then what? What else do we want? What would really make a difference? Oh, let’s talk about that. How come this doesn’t work in that, you know, it’s like, come on, get in there. This is the time. It’s really welcome. Really? It’s welcome. Yeah. You don’t have to hide being a socialist. You don’t have to hide being radical. You don’t have to hide it. You have to do the fucking work.
I feel like that, you know, I mean, I could talk to you all day, but I feel like that’s an amazing. It’s an amazing send off because it actually requires people who are listening to this podcast and myself to take that seriously.
From the first point you just made all the way to the end of what you said, that it’s like if we are white people who are class ascenders, who or who are from working class backgrounds. If we’re not going to take some responsibility to hold the nuance from which real accountability comes, because you’re actually in relationship to folks who voted for Trump. Who exactly is going to do that? Because I mostly see, you know, people just like I. And who is going to take responsibility for really listening to what you’re saying? Like listening to what’s happening.
People are in motion. They just don’t want to be in the same frames of, you know, they don’t see policy work as rinse and repeat low-hanging fruit. All the right stuff we could ever get any way but the right. So crash experiences, we’re not getting it. They don’t see organizing as who’s the one person in charge who’s going to have that brand and be on TV? I mean, that’s why you look at, you know, like what really is growing. You know, that’s our responsibilities. Organizers, too. It is. It’s growing. And figure out how we’re in relationship to what’s growing. And so, I mean, I just feel like this converse. I just want to thank you for this conversation, Amber. And thank you for having it on this podcast, because I feel like it’s such an important reminder for me, which means it’s such an important maybe not even reminder.
But for those folks who haven’t had this conversation before and they’re actually thinking about it for the first time, like these are the questions that I actually think are are in front of us in so many ways, you know?
Yeah. No, I completely. It’s really been interesting to me to watch this thing that I dislike become something else. At a moment when things are so stark and so terrifying, it’s like, well, where do you see change? Where do you see it? Where do you want it? Where do you see it? Well, really, it’s actually happening. And it’s happening in places like, you know, Stacey Abrams. It’s happening in places like I mean, it’s just it’s happening.
[01:20:05] And you need to be a part of being in those places. And it doesn’t mean you go to Georgia. It’s like try and figure it out, look around and see where there’s movement and see whether you can be a part of it. Because if you’re a part of it, then people will value what you say. If you’re an outsider commenting, well, you know, people might listen to you if you’re not completely ridiculous. But but day in and day out, you’re not there.
And if you’re not there, you don’t count. That’s the truth in political organizing. You’re not there. You don’t count.
[01:20:44] Oh, you think everybody in prison was imprisoned, you know. It’s wrong, and you shouldn’t you know, it’s terrible, but you’ve never done the work. Really? OK, then you’ve never been to a soup kitchen, but you want to talk about poverty. Fuck you people. You have no idea what’s going on. And you have no idea that the people that are being often talked about or left out are people who in every way. Want to have a way to have hope – and can’t find it. And our job to me is to not tell, you know, not fabricate hope, but talk about what real hope is built on, which is human relationships and possibility of a decent world.
That’s hope. And we need to be there and keep it. And, you know, if you’re going to just give in because it’s so awful right now. You know, then, you know, stay home. [Ambient music begins]
Caitlin: Yep. Let some other folks who get ready to be with folks just be with them, you know. It’s the work of organizing. Oh, man. I feel I’m going to go pick up the baby now and feel more positive than I’ve felt in a while.
Thank y’all so much for listening. That was a beautiful episode for me to re-listen to. Please check out the other episodes that are in our sort-of pre-Archival pack here of Season 4. We’re gonna hear from Gina Breedlove, there’s a conversation with myself Gina Breedlove, Malachi Garza, Malkia Devich Cyril, Erica Woodland and some other great folks on Season 4. So if you want to join the rest For transcripts and more episodes from the rest of the season, as usual check out, please visit auburnseminary.org/fortification. Fortification is a co-production of Auburn Seminary and Side with Love, a campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association produced by Nora Rasman, with additional support from moi, David Beasley, Dan Greenman. Editing support from Wazi Maret and transcripts from Kolenge Fonge.
Amber L. Hollibaugh is an American writer, filmmaker and political activist, largely concerned with feminist and sexual agendas. She is a self-described lesbian sex radical, ex-hooker, incest survivor, gypsy child, poor-white-trash, high femme dyke. She is also an award-winning filmmaker, feminist, Left political organizer, public speaker, and journalist. Her first book, My Dangerous Desires, presents over twenty years of Hollibaugh’s writing, an introduction written especially for this book, and five new essays including “A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home,” “My Dangerous Desires,” and “Sexuality, Labor, and the New Trade Unionism.”
Erica: [00:01:46] Everywhere that I have the honor of doing this work. I feel like we’re unhinged in a very, very real way and we shouldn’t be like the conditions that we’re living inside of right now. That is the most authentic human responses to be unhinged. What I see less of is the awareness about how destabilising this time is for us and what that means for us on a physiological level, for our nervous systems, for our spirits, for our work.
Caitlin: [00:02:26] Hi, this is Caitlin Breedlove, and you’re listening to fortification, spiritual sustenance for movement leadership. You’re listening to Season 4, Episode 2, where we had the privilege of speaking with Erica Woodland. Erica is a Black queer gender queer facilitator, consultant and healing practitioner, born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. SHe is also a licensed clinical social worker with more than 15 years experience working at the intersection of movements for racial, gender, economic, trans and queer justice and liberation, and is the founding director of the National Queer Entranced Therapists of Color Network, a healing justice organization committed to transforming mental health for queer and trans people of color. We spoke at an Estrella Healing Justice convening in New York City last fall.
[00:03:21] Good morning, Erica. So happy to finally get a chance to talk to you on this podcast. So you have a really significant body of work. So some of that our listeners can learn about your bio and link to the work that you’re doing. And I want to ask you more about that today. But I want to start by asking you at this point in your life how you feel that your spiritual life is connecting with your movement work and move from there into some more of the specificity of the work.
Erica: [00:03:52] Wow, what a big and important question. I feel like my spiritual life is actually the foundation of my movement work and that there have been a number of times since I was in my early 20s. I’ve had to take a break from movement and my spirit work is what brought me back. When I was really, really young, I saw organizing in particular around the prison industrial complex and political prisoners as my spiritual practice. And it was really challenging for me that folks didn’t approach the work in a spiritual way. So those two pieces of my life are deeply intertwined and I don’t think I’d be able to do the work that I’m doing now if I didn’t have a really strong spiritual foundation. Mm hmm.
[00:04:39] Mm hmm. So tell us a little bit about the work that you’re doing now and how it came into being. You know, what was the sort of impetus for to start?
[00:04:48] So like any good social worker, I have a lot of different jobs, and the primary one that I feel most excited about is the National Queer and Trans Therapies of Color Network, which is an organization that I founded actually three years ago, almost exactly to the date. And we are pretty out front that our agenda is to mobilize and politicize queer and trans mental health practitioners of color. And we really see the not only the need for like really competent mental health practitioners, but also folks who come from communities that are marginalized come from communities that have long histories of resilience and resistance and also folks who have really specific skills that can be used in service of movement. And so I would say that’s about half of my work. And then the other half of my work includes other types of healing, justice. So I have a small psychotherapy practice. I do clinical supervision for mostly clinicians of color who are coming into the work. And I do a lot of facilitation and a lot of just, you know, if you have hard things to talk about or confidential things to talk about, folks seek me out for that. And it feels like a deep honor to be trusted. And it also means that I get to kind of bring actually my spirit work into everything that I do.
[00:06:18] So when you started the organization three years ago, what were the kind of things or the kind of gaps you were seeing that made you feel like that was important work?
Erica: [00:06:32] So just to be clear, three years ago, I did not think I was starting an organization. So so that’s how Spirit works through my national movement building, where previously I was doing a lot of leadership development with young, queer and transfix of color, primarily with the Brown Boy project. And I just saw that like high level of need regarding just like real basic mental health support. I worked with a lot of folks who were leading movement leaning organizations who were experiencing a lot of crisis, experiencing a lot of burnout and experiencing pretty persistent suicidality as part of their day to day life. And there were like also changing the way that we experience the world. And as a practitioner who’s based in the Bay Area, when folks would reach out to me to say, you know, “do you know a therapist?” And in the Bay, you can be kind of picky. It can be like, I want a Black non bad binary therapist who studies Hakomi and, you know, has expertise in eating disorders. Like you can ask for something like that and you might get three out of five of those. Does it mean that where we have everything but there is a really, really robust community there of practitioners, but there are folks who were in Chicago or, you know, definitely parts of the South or even in Baltimore where I’m from. And I’m like, I don’t know who to connect you with. And so for about five years, I was like, somebody should start a national network. And I just kept saying that because it’s not. There’s a way that it’s like actually not brains. It’s not that radical of an idea. And then it is at the same time. And then eventually Spirit was like, you need to do this and you need to stop playing around. And so I put this idea out there and I thought it was gonna take like a year for anybody to care. And about a week. It exploded primarily on Facebook and people just started reaching out. It opened up a really big conversation around mental health. And very quickly, I had to catch up with the plan to go along with this vision. And so here we are three years later. But it was a really important moment for me in terms of my leadership, because it was a reminder of just the ways that I have not like allowed myself to dream and put my dreams out into the world. And so the response, I think, was proportional to how much I’ve been holding back.
Caitlin: [00:09:08] I’m smiling because I think so many of the new organizations or organizations that are being reborn right now that I see that seem really successful often follow a similar story for really different reasons. Like I didn’t feel like I was the one, we didn’t feel like we were the ones. But somebody needs to do it. As one of my mentors, that song always used to say, Mandy Carter, you see a gap. Fill it. I-you see a gap filler. Right. So it’s just so interesting to me and not at all surprising that when people are actually working in the community, see the gaps. And then the organization is not about building our new nonprofit monarchy of anything like like we need more feudal castles and lords, but rather like, oh, there’s a. Really, there’s a really critical gap here, so, you know, folks are not necessarily gonna fill it. Let’s fill it. So that’s. Yeah. Awesome.
Erica: [00:09:58] I think also. There is this gap that we really sit inside of intentionally that’s hard around what is the intersection between movement and mental health. And I think that a number of other practitioners have come to me and be like, oh, I would have totally started something like this. I’m so glad you, you know, put this idea into the world. And it was my movement experience that actually informed the development of the network more so than kind of my training as a mental health practitioner. And so I’m thinking about our work as movement building and I’m thinking about how, you know, there’s a whole community of practitioners who actually want to be a part of movement and actually don’t know how to interface with movement and who are in institutions that are extremely harmful to them, extremely harmful to our people. And they’re trying to do what they can. And so it’s just been so liberating. It’s like actually there’s a space where we can bring all of who we are and all of our expertise together. And so, you know, it’s not just about like here’s a directory where you can find out QTPOC practitioner. It’s it’s about how are we again of service to movement. I really feel like that’s our charge.
Caitlin: [00:11:13] It’s also particularly exciting in a moment where I think I mean, this would just be my own personal kind of critique of how we’ve seen things moving in the left or right is that there have been very few entry points that honor people as well. Like if you don’t know the secret language, handshake, all this kind of stuff. Right. Or if you’re located in a geography, whether like a lived experience or a literal physical geography, that is not sort of in those circles, in those spaces, you’re not going to be steeped in the lingo, vocabulary and work to have an entry point and then if you are lucky enough to have an entry point. I think the elitism, in my opinion of the left has kind of been like, oh, but then you must have no life experience that’s transferable to anything here. And so I say all that to say. I’m extremely excited about bringing people in, based up, based on their vocation and craft and then helping them build deeper their consciousness and role and possibility. And I think we could stand to see like some more examples of that that actually are following the example that you’re setting that actually doesn’t come in with people treating them like they’re children and they have no lived experience if they don’t have the lingo. But being like, oh, you’re already really accomplished and experienced at this thing that we really need, how can we bridge that? It’s really exciting.
Caitlin: [00:12:30] So I want to ask you, like, what are some of the patterns that you’re seeing in this work, both in terms of needs, but also places like I’m assuming that you’re actually probably have some insight– More than many of us about kind of what is the terrain that we’re actually dealing with with those of us in movement and the needs that we have and what we’re running up against?
Erica: [00:12:58] I really appreciate this question and I appreciate the space to be able to share what I’m seeing because I’m I’m deeply concerned. I would describe not just movement, but everywhere that I have the honor of doing this work. I feel like we’re unhinged in a very, very real way and we should be like the conditions that we’re living inside of right now.
Erica: [00:13:23] That is the most authentic human responses to be unhinged. What I see less of is the awareness about how destabilising this time is for us and what that means for us on a physiological level, for our nervous systems, for our spirits, for our work. And so I spend a lot of time talking to groups who who are trying to speed up in a time like this, which makes sense when, like all of my teachers and all of my spiritual wisdom that I hold inside is saying that we just slow down. And one concern that I have is that when we are kind of moving from a state of reactivity and trauma, we are not accurately assessing the conditions. Therefore, our strategy is not on point. And it is really, really hard to say that to comrades who are literally like giving their life up for this, work and for our liberation. And I I don’t know what to do about that. I think that, you know, in my work as a facilitator and I work with the network, you know, it’s like a boat with many holes in it and we’re like patching it up in the way that we can. But I almost want to take our movement and have like a large scale intervention. We all need to sit down. We need to rest. Like we need to actually address the places that we’re wounded. And some of the consequences of us not doing that are just such a rise in people’s physical health. The amount of crises that folks are experiencing personally, things that maybe two years ago when have led to crisis now are leading to crisis because we just don’t have the resources that we used to have. And, you know, the onslaught of violence and surveillance and criminalization is not going to stop anytime soon. There is a lot of conflict which, you know, there’s always going to be conflict and there always has been conflict. And our inability to actually meet it is pretty concerning. And as someone who, you know, I spent a lot of time actually outside of movement. I spent a lot of time in solitude. I spent a lot of time in nature. I literally live in a tree house. I. I know what I need to restore myself. And I also know the people around me when I’m raggedy and out of pocket, that will call me in. And I feel like I want to call us in. And I want to I actually want us to grieve. I think that we have. We’ve had a lot of loss and we’re just moving, moving, moving with that loss.
Erica: [00:16:07] Another thing that I’m seeing and I don’t think this is new, but it’s coming up in really big ways is. Just the ways, folks. We have more language around trauma. We have more language around harm. We don’t have necessarily skills to address those things, but we have words. And so a dynamic I’m really concerned about is people either on their own behalf or on behalf of others using trauma to excuse harmful behavior. And you know, the people that I’m in conversation with and studying with around transformative justice, I’m like, in what world does my healing not require accountability? Right. And so those are some of the patterns that I think are sometimes I say I feel like our movement is eating itself alive. And, you know, there’s plenty a beautiful shit in our movement and there’s plenty of love. And those are the things that like the state doesn’t even have to do anything, like we’re being extremely successful on their behalf. And I feel like if we don’t start to take this seriously, we’re going to we’re gonna lose a lot more people that we don’t have to lose.
Caitlin: [00:17:20] I was literally just struggling with a follow up because I so completely agree with everything you just said and resonate from my own limited or different experience. But there are a few things that I resonate with that I think are really important that actually I think what you’re saying uncover some of. Like one. I keep saying to myself in my own work. Shit, if I wanted to be different, I have to be different at the moments when I want to do what I’ve always done, particularly like cynical shut down criticism. The infighting. Like there’s a reason our addiction to infighting is so intense. It’s because it feels really good for like a couple minutes. Like being a hater is not something that doesn’t have moments where it feels good, especially when we’re not doing well. Right.
[00:18:10] Like being like my team is better than your team. Like there’s a reason people are into that. Like being honest. And so I think that. One of the things that I think you also said that’s really critical is like there’s an inability to grieve our moment. And then I also feel that there’s an inability to grieve some of our strategies that have failed.
And, you know, in my own journey, you know, I was like a director, co-director for 10 years of song. Right. And like the years that I spent after that, the two and a half or three years I spent with some of the most important political years I’ve ever spent. And I struggle with words to talk about that time, because it was a very solitude based separate time. That also meant that I really reflected even when Trump when Trump was became president and also right before reflect on how many strategies I had been part of building, how many concepts I have been part of spreading, how much ideology I had been part of imposing that I no longer believe in.
And that continues to be a very risky thing to say in movement circles, because there’s something about our strategy is like. It’s like ah, like it’s like so much a part of us. You know, it’s so much a part of our spirit, it’s so much a part of our identity that there were comrades that I was like. I still love you. I still of everything we’ve built. I still want to be in relationship. I’m not breaking up with you, but I no longer believe that that strategy is the way to move. And I’m gonna move differently. And the relationships ended over that because it was such an insult, so deeply. And I’ve been struggling. I have no answers, but I’ve been struggling with how we have a conversation that actually isn’t in sult. That’s about strategic difference. And I don’t I don’t know. You know, I don’t know how to do it. I’m trying to do it. I think I’m failing most of the time or the results are not what I’d hoped, you know. So I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that, but it’s been really like it. I thought about it a lot with what you were saying.
Erica: [00:20:22] And it makes me think about how much judgment we have. And as somebody who is deeply self-critical, I’m so critical of myself. And, you know, I’ve been like that forever. I’m a recovering perfectionist. But I think in our movement, we have so much judgment and often have the most inspiring and clarifying political conversations with my family members who are never going be in movement and who just understand some very basic shit that we spend a whole lot of time arguing about. And I think that’s because a couple of things. I think we over rely on the mind. I think that we like when I have big questions that I’m grappling with, I’m bringing those questions to the ancestors, whether it’s like or practical, like how am I going to pay this bill to you know, I’m supporting this group and I don’t know how to get them from a place of being unstuck. Right. And I think that judgment and self-righteousness is part of the culture. And if you don’t, it’s almost like if you don’t move like that, you’re not in. And so I talk a lot about boundaries. I’m a deep student of boundaries, and I’m aspiring to be an expert. But I do think that we don’t know how to deal with difference because we don’t know how to have boundaries, because difference means you’re a separate entity from me. We have to figure out how to relate to each other. There’s a lot of enmeshment and I’m sorry to be using like such clinical language, but, you know, the clinical training that I got, some of that stuff was useful. A lot of it was not. But if we look at our movement as a very large family with all the love and dysfunction that any family has. The boundaries piece, I think is really integral to that. And I think our movement would be much healthier and much more strategic if we had better boundaries like personally, like if people actually knew what a boundary was and honored it. And I’m coming to this conversation as someone who is giving my ass handed to me around boundaries. Like the past couple years have been really big teachings around that. And then if we thought about, OK. So if I’m in right relationship with myself, if I’m in right relationship with the land, if I’m in right relationship with my ancestors in spirit, how am I in right relationship with this movement? And part of that peace around being able to grieve our failures feel so integral to that.
Caitlin: [00:22:56] Yeah, I think that peace around also what would be possible in terms of leadership and I mean collective leadership, not individual celebrity, all that stuff, but like collective leadership, if we have boundaries that are intact and move in a significant way. I think that.
Erica: [00:23:16] You know, I just see so many people who have been recognized by communities as leaders. And having leadership qualities that leave leadership roles in the work because. Either we are struggling to have boundaries. I think I struggled a lot to have boundaries in the first kind of 10 years of my life, quote unquote, leadership role work or being lead organizer in any capacity. And then other people struggle against our boundaries when we’re able to have them and don’t respect them. Say that, you know, and one of the comparisons I’ve made often. With leaders is like I’m like, I see that look on your face, that’s that like I’m tired of there being a comment card box in my sternum, like I can’t have anymore comment.
Caitlin: [00:24:06] Right. Because I think one of the things is like the way that we have seen leadership is like people become receptacles of everybody else’s critical comment. Right. Whether it’s on Facebook or whether it’s on an actual piece of paper. Like everyone has taken on. I really like what you’re saying about the cultural pieces so ingrained that you’re actually not in the in crowd. You’re not actually in the culture unless you participate in it. And we’re sort of hazing and testing new people all the time, like, are you actually going to be like vicious enough in some ways to like be in the down-est level layer of down?
Erica: [00:24:43] And I think that it’s been very interesting for me. As someone who had stepped out of leadership roles and is starting to take on more organizational leadership roles in different spaces to be like, I’m actually not willing to do this if that’s the way again, like I’m not I’m not going to install a comment card in my sternum again, like it took me a long time to, like, pull the one out that was in there and be like, not only do I have to remove all the comments, I have to remove the box itself. That makes me feel like that’s what being a leader is, is like any hurt feeling you have any problem you have is suddenly like, you know, my problem and I have to take it in. Right. Like putting a boundary where that used to be and being like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Which also is amazing because it also stops the pattern of individual martyr ish leadership. That’s like none or not. I need you all to take responsibility for what’s coming up for you. I need you to take responsibility for the conflict between y’all. Like, why is this coming to me right now? Right. Like, I actually don’t want to participate in this conversation in this parameter space.
[00:25:47] And I think that kind of reset is actually very challenging. And yet I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a longing for it to be different. So much longing for it to be different. But I don’t think we we know how to do that yet in some ways, you know.
[00:26:03] I so agree. And these are patterns, so we default to them. We have to build new habits. You know, I also think there’s. We need a place for “petty”. We need a place for like. For lack of a better term, like we all have a lower self. So how are you? How was I going to get fed? OK. Maybe it’s reality TV. I don’t know. But I think that it’s OK to be a whole ass person who, like, you know, is not always aspiring to be your higher self. And how do you do that in a way that is now harmful to a whole bunch of other people? Right. So for somebody it might be. You know, I love French fry. You know, my doctor’s like, that’s not your hyers on home. You can’t do that every day for other people. You know, it might be–fill in the next reality TV show. But I do think that we as leaders, I think are called to present ourselves in some way that is not real. It’s very performative. And this piece about kind of what’s mine and what’s yours. I’m already feeling that really strongly. I’ve I’ve held a lot of different leadership roles.
But very recently I was like, oh, you’re an executive director. And like, I was in some denial about that. And that was I was like, oh, this is my passion project. I’m like, no, you’re an ED. And so there are particular challenges that come along with that. And when you do things differently or when you say not here, not today. And also as a Black genderqueer person, I feel like people are coming for Black leadership in a particular way. That is really scary. And the only reason I’m not kind of bound up in fear is because I’m right with my ancestors. I’m right with my squad and have a council of people around me who will tell me if I’m short asked, they will tell me. And that kind of intimacy and trust and relationship is essential. And I think that those are the kinds of relationships I’m trying to build. And I’m I’m noticing that a lot of people don’t want that kind of authenticity. They would much rather have a thing to say about me and not tell me directly and kind of gossip and things like that. I get it. It’s hard. It’s hard to be direct. I often get feedback that I’m too direct. But I’m like I value honesty over kindness and niceties all day long, because for me, that creates safety and it creates trust.
Caitlin: [00:28:32] I think that part about. Also, the scrutiny of Black leadership in this time and the kind of structural vulnerability it creates when the left is so ready to scrutinize. I just feel like if you’re in leadership positions and you’re a Black person this time, there’s like immediate perfection expected. Right.
Caitlin: And then I think that mirrors kind of the way we’re holding leadership, period. Like you’re supposed to have it all the way together before you step out into any kind of visible leadership space. But everybody else can be like a complete shit show. I because its like we’re the base, we’re the base.
I’ve had a good times of guys like me, like I’m a member. I don’t know like it is that we can’t have that right.
[00:29:17] But it’s just like if you’re in the leadership role, you could never while out. You can never have your lower self. But everybody else is like, oh, no. But we like. That’s that’s all right. Actually, inside of our infrastructure. Right. And, you know, I think it’s interesting to what you said about accountability and what it means to have counsel or circles of accountability. You know, and what it means to have that accountability be really rooted in trust and honesty. You know, I think that part about, you know, you spoke a little bit about conflicts. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot is how much conflicts and indirect conflict often there are in organizations. How much in so many ways for people who’ve just been so strong in the face of all kinds of structural inequities, criminalization like holding up the infrastructure of progressive movements, but when their team falls apart. And I felt this, too. It’s like I have nowhere to go. Like I’m politically removed from any space or home. Right. And yet I think in those spaces, like it’s not only a desire to not have conflict, there’s actually a longing for conflict that’s principled and a longing for that directness and honesty.
[00:30:30] It’s like, you know, when you’re dating someone who you haven’t really had like a disagreement yet and you’re like, oh, what’s going to happen? Like, what’s going to happen? Like, are they going to while like, are we going to have any accountability? Is there going to be an honesty? And then is there going to be any like transformation repair work after? And I think that I feel like there’s so many organizations where folks are still like on the early part of that first dating. It’s like it’s kind of honeymoon ish, but stuff’s coming up. They haven’t actually figured out how to have an out and out conflict yet, you know. And so I’ve I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I’m curious if there are places where you’re seeing actually the conflict practices going better and better is too optimistic of a word or productive or. I don’t know.
Erica: [00:31:20] I really love that question because there are two groups that come to mind. One based in Baltimore and one in the Bay Area where I think conflict is so healthy when it’s surfaced. And so I remember I was in Baltimore. I walked into this meeting and this advisory board, they were having like a full on, you know, as Baltimore. So they were yelling, screaming. There was no they weren’t there. They don’t abide by some of the group agreements. The rest of us do. And I was like, wow, they really struggled with something very hard. People were very honest. People were like, this is my position. This how I feel, this I was impacted. And they moved through a conflict in about 30 minutes. I walked in. I didn’t even know the group. I was new to the group. We didn’t even do intros.
Erica: [00:32:04] And, you know, nobody was armed. There was no violence. But I was like, oh, this is a really healthy ecosystem, because when things are popping off, they pop off and they’re surface and they can be addressed and held. And there was enough relationship in the group that it’s not like everybody felt lovely afterwards. But the relationships are still intact because of that level of honesty. I think that there are also groups who are just being really intentional about integrating transformative justice and doing it early and often. You know, that’s our team. This year we’re gonna start a year long 18 month process where we’re studying together, where we are developing out, how we’re gonna deal with conflict and grievance and harm internally first, but also in our broader membership. And I think one thing I really want to touch us know is that if you think about our early experiences with conflict that comes from our family, it comes from usually a place of laundering. And so people’s shape around conflict, it it makes sense. And we have to we have to acknowledge that.
[00:33:10] So if you come from a family that had a lot of violence, you might be deeply conflicted with it. And so how how do we honor that and also know that we can’t avoid it? I often say if you don’t address conflict head on, it’s going to play out in other ways. And when I work with groups, you know, we have an agreement around like we’re going to engage tension and resistance. Like if you’re feeling some kind of way, that’s wisdom and information that we need. And if you don’t acknowledge that you’re feeling some kind of way, you’re going to end up acting out like we don’t have to do that. I mean, sometimes that’s fun. But sometimes a more direct way to get your needs met is to be vulnerable and really say what’s on your heart.
Caitlin: [00:33:51] I think that part is really deep, too. And we look at. Who are in our organizations, who are engaging our organizations. And, you know, both intense many layers of cultural differences and lived experiences and then differences in family or homes of origin or how conflict was dealt with. And I think that. I think there’s been a mistake of this idea that, you know, very privileged upper middle class white communities are the only ones that are conflict avoidance. I think if it begins to that like sometimes it’s like because you know what, you’re avoiding conflict because the conflict ended up in somebody’s getting their ass beat. You know what I mean? Or someone getting hauled away by cops. Like that’s a very different way to talk about. Not only how we deal with conflict, but how we actually deal with the work, and I think one example for me that’s been really interesting is, you know, I spent a good amount of time in the South when I was working with other white people– It was very mixed in terms of class base. And I’ve had experience working with a decent amount of white people that come from more class privilege than I do my family. It was working class and became very Middle-Class. Very classes ended quickly in my teen years. Right.
[00:35:01] But I also lived came up in a home where, you know, some people read and write. Some people did that. You know, like this whole kind of deal. My point is, it’s like when I started working with other white folks in Phoenix, I was trying to figure out what felt different about the way conflict was moving and the way trust was built. And I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t figure it out. And then one day I was like, God, you really are stupid because it’s class. Like, it was just like it was mostly class ascenders or people or working class white people who were working in the restaurant industry and other places. And what I was noticing was that the conflicts were playing out differently because there wasn’t these kind of academic conversations about disagreement. There was a building in the work. So people were showing their commitment to the organizing to each other, to building relationships through like bringing the snacks, cleaning the stuff up, moving it, you know, taking the food to the jail, like doing all this kind of stuff. And actually, that was leading and built the relationships so that when conflicts arose like they inevitably did. There was a lot there already between the humans, like in the in the kind of tissue of the group. So it wasn’t a war of ideas. Right. And people were much slower to throw each other away. And so I’ve thought a lot about how, like both the relationship of trust building and conflict trust building conflict, how they go together. And it’s part of why I’ve mourned so much and and have so much passion around correcting the systemic exclusion of working class people across race and our movements, because I actually think people have had ways of dealing with stuff that looks really different and ways of repair after like, you know, it popped off at the family reunion on Saturday night and everybody knows. Then on Sunday you gotta get repair, so like the next week. That I think is really, really different than some of the ways that we’ve kind of seen. I think the battle of ideas has become very, very personal. And I think it’s also the place where to me, the conflicts have taken on elitist shapes.
[00:37:03] And I think we really are not familiar with how much the trend of anti-elitism in this country cuts actually across race, across geography, like it’s pretty strong. Right. And yet we’re moving our conflicts in is pretty like elitist frames a lot of times that like not only are not getting us anywhere, but there like alienating the shit out of a lot of people who would be in our space, in my opinion. Right. Because there’s that. Plus, you’re not allowed to disagree. You’re like never allowed to disagree on an idea. And then we can’t deal with conflict just like, you know, what a word, a rough spot.
Erica: [00:37:43] I feel like there’s also this peace around integrity. Right. And so, again, I keep I think about my brother a lot because he he and I have a really important generative conversations. And I’m in this world of ideas in a way that he’s not like he he is in a world of care, in a world of service, in a world of trust, in relationship, and where people are not sitting around arguing or debating about thoughts. And there’s something always super grounding about going home because your peoples will remind you who you are. And so I think your ideas or mean anything if if your values are not solid and your ideas on anything, if you’re not living and walking your values. And so there is this peace around integrity, because I know a lot of brilliant people who are suffering and who are sharing their suffering with the rest of us. And I don’t think we need to do that anymore. And I you know, I think about even if there’s somebody doing work in their strategy, I don’t agree with. I’m like I think about people’s highest purpose. And like, we need a lot of different strategies. I might think that I have the right one. We’ll see. Right. Time will tell. But we have I don’t know why we think we all have to be doing the same thing. I don’t know why we think that. We all have to believe the same thing again. For me, it comes back to right relationship and boundaries, which is unless you are doing something that is actively harmful, OK. Like that’s your jam. I don’t really understand that. That’s not my jam. But go ahead and live your best life. And I’m like, why? I wish we could offer that more to each other. And I know that the conditions are so terrifying that we feel like we don’t have the luxury to offer that to each other. But we have to. And, you know, my go to always is Harriet Tubman. So I’m always I well, we’re here to do. Harriet had a lot of different strategies. Harriet was like inside strategy. Outside strategy. Harriet knew when it was life or death. Harriet knew when there was a little bit more room than that. So I think that we I feel like we have so many good examples that we could be resting on right now because what we’re facing is new to us.
[00:39:58] But in the larger cycles of human evolution, this is not new. And so that to me, to bring it back to the spiritual practice, that is what grounds me because I’m like there’s so much more information that we have available to us that we’re not using even in conflict. You know, even if I’m helping a group navigate a conflict, there’s a bowl of water in the middle before and there’s an altar. I’m like, I’m not holding this by myself. Like, how are we engaging that energetic and spiritual resources around us in a way that’s accessible to people?
Caitlin: [00:40:33] I think that’s really powerful because I think that there is a place where the connection between command, control and conform is showing up. Even as we’re saying that’s not where we want to do, even as we’re saying that’s now we want to move. But in a lot of sort of public debate, because I watch a lot of Fox News, I know I partially watched Fox News because I know other people can’t deal with Fox News. But then I have, you know, a little side bets about what they’re going to do or not. Right. But I had seen them brag about little side bet that I won. So I had a side bet that I was like within six months time, they are going to come up with a meme that’s called.
[00:41:15] Something about Puritanism and P.C. culture is gonna have a little wagon–and sure as shit, Erica, I was at the airport right.
Erica: Oh wow
Caitlin: It’s like this is why we’re losing like because there’s so many things where they’re like they’re picking up on something which of course they’re wrong, of course they’re off. Of course we’re right to actually say “Yes–language is powerful” and “Yes– stop stepping on us” and “Call us what the hell we want to be called” and “Stop saying that shit.” And also like that.
[00:41:45] And their whole diatribe in like moving kind of messages around snowflakes. Right. They’re actually picking up on some of the brittleness and fragility that we really do feel. And we feel it because we’re dealing with structural oppression like it’s not coming out of nowhere. Right. But I think there is a place where we have to be able to look at like they’ve picked up on some of our feeling so threatened that we do command. Like absolute conformity to certain thinking.
Even when it’s like we just signed it on the platform, but we can’t necessarily. Back it up. Right. Like you know it. I think it’s part of these conversations that we’ve been having about with everything happening with reproductive justice.
Right. Like, you know, many of my close friends, a really good friend of mine, Queer Woman of color, is a veteran who lives down the street. Right. I’ll ask her, like, “why don’t you come to left events and stuff?” And she’ll say, “Because you have to believe everything that you all believe. Otherwise, you’re not welcome.” She’ll straight up say it, you know, so clear.
Caitlin: She’s like “I will not be agreeing with some of the way that the taxation plan works in Phoenix. I will not be agreeing with late term abortion at 35 weeks. You know, like like we. I am not with y’all on that. I will never be with you on that. It doesn’t matter how much you talk it me. It doesn’t matter how much you try to make me feel like I’m not down. I don’t care. I’m not with it. I don’t know anyone else who’s with it. Like none of my social network is with it.”
Caitlin: So I think about that a lot in terms of like they’re seeing–the right wing is seeing some of these things we’re suffering under, you know. And instead of only blaming ourselves, it’s like– how could we transform that? So like that gap doesn’t allow them to come up against us in that particular way, which is a super hard and nuanced like argument to make, because it sounds like I’m blaming our folks. Right? Like, even when I say it, I’m like, it sounds like I’m blaming our folks. We’re doing the best we can. Like in so many ways, we’ve actually been like, this is what’s kept us safe in some ways inside of our community, a feeling like at least we have clarity about who’s with us and who’s against us. And yet at this time, assessment wise, like the “with us v. against us” “left v. right” paradigm, like, you know, that is not something that’s resonating for folks outside of some of our spaces. So what are we also what are we willing to have the courage to like listen, to shift, engage, ask questions about, even get curious about even if we’re like, you know what, we have to take this and this hard line on this. And a lot of folks might not be with us. And maybe we have to move that right. But at least that’s a decision we’re coming to with consciousness instead of like our default.
[00:44:28] Yes. It makes me think a lot about to how we have internalized all these structures that we’re trying to destroy, you know? I mean, it’s one of my regular prayers is like “Any way that I am complicit in name every single structural violence or system of repression. May that be lifted in a way for me.” Right? –Because we have to take responsibility for our complicity, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. And I feel like there is this piece around. We’re just not comfortable with the way things are.
[00:45:02] So I say this often that, you know, I wake up every morning and I’m very I’m de-list. And then I go to sleep, a cynic, you know, and it’s just a cycle over and over again. And I’m like, oh, humans are just so awful to each other. And then I wake up and I’m like, I hope we can do better day, including myself.
[00:45:21] But there is this way that there’s the world as it is now, which is just very hard to deal with. And then there’s a world that we’re building and creating. I’m seeing this a lot now, in particular in the conversations around gender and trans folks and gender, queer and non-binary folks, where it’s like we want so badly for a new thing. Right, or a new world, whether it’s gender-less gender neutral, I don’t know. But I’m like, we’re not there yet. So how do we deal with where we are and where we’re trying to get to and not stress ourselves out along the way and not vilify people who don’t understand?– vilify people who might have ideas and beliefs that are like deeply oppressive and harmful? Right. But I do think, again, it goes back to like, what are our values?
[00:46:09] And it’s OK to have those lines. It’s really okay to have those lines. It’s OK to be like, I’m with you on this. I’m not with you on that. To me, that’s like integrity in practice. Don’t come along with everything I’m talking about. If it’s not for you, you know, we don’t know how to have. We don’t know how to have generative disagreement that’s not resolvable. You know, and some of that, again, has to do with where terrified is very scary moment to be alive. It’s horrifying. And I think that fear. I don’t think that we talk directly enough about the fear. I think the fear is getting played out and all the stuff that we’ve been talking about.
[00:46:48] Speaking of generative, the super has been a very generative conversation. When I ask if there’s anything else you want to add before we wrap up.
[00:46:59] So one of the things that I feel excited about is so even the convening today feels like a really important opportunity to both bridge conversations between healers and organizers and funders, but more importantly to like share back really concretely and clearly lineage and history that often is invisiblized, forgotten and erased. And so for me, I think this bigger piece around our movement and patterns, I kind of like how we’re going to do something differently. I just really want to call us back to our lineage, both our personal lineage, our movement lineage. I just want to call us back to those ancestors who already have the answers to the things that we’re struggling with and who see who can see where we’re going, even if we can’t see.
[00:47:54] And, you know, I know everybody’s relationship to spirit is different, but I do wish them more of our movement work was held in a spiritual container because I have a lot of doubt. There are a lot of things I’m like, I don’t know if this is the right move. I just I mean, it took me five years to say yes to building out this network. But that was spirit led. And I really, really wish that we could collectively be more led by spirit.
Caitlin: [00:48:21] I think that’s. So important. And also, there’s so much longing for spiritual traditions or spiritual containers that feel like they’re they’re deeply knowing and engaging of what we need to learn at this point. And that’s why I you know, I celebrate so much like. You know, it’s not an accident that there are whole strands of cultural renaissance around Octavia Butler, right around Grace Lee Boggs. And I think Adrien has done a great Adrien Marie Brown has done a great deal to think about how not only what does she have to say, but.
[00:49:05] Who has something to say? Who are now ancestors, who would say, oh, it’s time, it’s time again. You know, it’s time again. And some of that, I think is our work right to be like, how do we be like, oh, that particular voice needs to be in the space again. Right. And that can’t be forgotten. And it’s that particular time for this particular way of moving and energy. Right. So how do we let that moves through us and how does that change everything we’re doing, everything we’re doing, even as a person that shares your “I go to bed cynical”.
[00:47:54] That’s a great way of saying, you know, I never thought about that. I wake up. You have a one and a half year old. So I wake us up and I’m like, this great kid is alive yelling groats going to eat some oatmeal, you know, at the end of the day. But to think about that, it does renew. You know, there’s something about the rest space, the dream space gives it back. So. So thank you for that. Thank you for your work.
[00:48:20] Seriously, people say, I really appreciate your work and thank you for this conversation.
Erica: Thank you for having me.
Erica Woodland, LCSW is a black queer/genderqueer facilitator, consultant and healing justice practitioner who has worked at the intersections of movements for racial, gender, economic, trans and queer justice and liberation for more than 17 years. He is the Founding Director of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, an organization committed to advancing healing justice by transforming mental health for queer and trans people of color. Learn more about his work at www.nqttcn.com and www.ericawoodland.com
Caitlin Breedlove: Hey y’all, it’s Caitlin Breedlove, welcome to the cold open for this episode of Fortification. We’ve had some shows in our archives that we are releasing as a Summer Season. We know that a lot of people, if you’re like me, you’re probably at home holding down the things that you have to and we hope that you appreciate these conversations. They were recorded a little while ago but certainly didn’t stay in-house for lack of appreciation and love, but rather because as most of you know, Fortification is a love offering and it is nobody’s full time project so sometimes it just takes a while. It takes as long as it takes and we’ve all had a lot going on. This conversation is with my friend the Reverend Jen Bailey. It was first recorded in December 2019, though Jen and I have been having these conversations together for the last several years. The conversation centers on building new ways within and outside of institutions, authority and elitism and defining what it means to be a young faith leader, particularly if like Jen, who is an elder in the AME faith. The youngest in years but not in wisdom that I’ve known. It also definitely has some great nods and conversation to Southern faith traditions, particularly Black faith traditions, so definitely a really helpful conversation in this moment. I hope you enjoy it. For transcripts generally, and for a transcript of this conversation, and more resources, please go to auburnseminary.org/fortification.
Greetings. This is Caitlin Breedlove. And you’re listening to fortification, spiritual sustenance for movement leadership. You’re listening to Season 4, Episode 3, where we had the privilege of speaking with the Reverend Jen Bailey. Jen is an ordained minister, public theologian and emerging national leader in multi-faith movements for justice. She’s the founder and executive director of Faith Matters Network. A womanist-led organization equipping community organizers, faith leaders and activists with resources for connection, spiritual sustainability and accompaniment. I have known Jen’s work in the South for many years and respected it. It’s been wonderful to get to connect with her over the years on many projects. We spoke at Auburn Seminary’s Mountaintop Gathering this winter. [Ambient music begins]
Rev. Jennifer Bailey: Hi.
Caitlin: It’s so nice to get to have this conversation. We’re in Oakland for this Auburn event- Mountaintop. And I was like this is my chance, this is my chance to talk to Jen. So there’s so many places we can start. But I actually want to start a little bit with talking about your spiritual practice. And I want to ask about it, because in a previous conversation we’re having over the last few days, you mentioned that it’s different or you’re trying to find what the next chapter or part of it is. And I’m curious about how that’s connected to what you’re doing in your day-to-day life and maybe how your day to day life in movement is different than it was five years ago, for example.
Jen: So when I think about that question, which is a really beautiful one and hard one, a surprisingly hard one for me, I’m thinking about some time that I spent the summer with Mama Ruby Sales, who’s a veteran of the civil rights movement. We were in a meeting together. And she said to this group gathered, I think movement is in process, right, when I was coming up, we talked about people being in process. You didn’t quite figure– You hadn’t quite figured everything out yet. But the old Black folks used to tell me “That’s because, baby, you still in process.” And so I very much feel like I’m at a place in process right now, which is interesting because I’m clergy in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. I went to seminary. I did all the things that you do to prepare for spiritual and faith, leadership or traditional things that you do to prepare for spiritual and faith leadership. I’m on the staff at my local church, I run organization, Faith Matters Network, which is all about catalyzing faith leaders, community organizers and activists to think about their own spiritual sustainability. And I had this epiphany two months ago. I was on a retreat with some rad ass folks of Color. Can I say “rad ass” on this podcast? [Ambient music ends]
Caitlin: Totally, of course. You can say anything you want.
Jen: –Rad ass folks of Color. And I had this moment where I realized that my church, which I love deeply, it is one of the few intergenerational, multi-class spaces in my life. All Black. Right? One of those few spaces in my life that is really important to me is not my space of spiritual formation. It is deeply my community of accountability but when I’m in a church context as clergy I play and perform a very specific role, which is about serving the people in our congregation, and that what feels absent to me at this place in my development, if I am in process, which I believe I am as that, I don’t know that I have the sort of embedded spiritual practices that would ground me or that the practices that I used to have in my twenties, now that I’m in my early thirties, don’t work for me anymore. And part of that has been the tension of being someone who lives in a place, Nashville, Tennessee, and is building home with a beloved partner and spouse. But so much of my life is on the road now that it feels inconsistent. And so one of my hopes for 2020 and beyond is to figure out what some of those are grounding spiritual practices are that helped me deepen my connection to the divine, the connection to my lineage, being able to name the resources of my lineage. I’ll tell y’all a quick story. Every Sunday when I’m home in Nashville, I’m always in the pulpit of my church. I usually have some sort of liturgical duties. And this particular Sunday, which sorry, pastor, if you’re listening to this pastor is preaching and I was not paying attention.
[00:06:37] And I started making a list of like and thinking about this question, what is my lineage and what are the resources that in particular the Black church tradition and more specifically, the Womanist tradition within the Black church tradition, which is not just about the leadership of those the clergy, but the mothers in the kitchen who are always feeding the masses. What is them are those resources? I thought about song and I thought about dance and I thought about them. The mourners bench. And I thought about the fact that since 2016 I’ve sung more hymns than I’ve ever a song before to myself that there is something about the fundamentals of the way in which I was raised at the same hymns that my great grandmother was singing under the guise and gaze of state violence in the Jim Crow South are the same hymns that came up for me when I saw Donald Trump being elected. And so in that way, part of my journey right now is about recovering some of those parts of my lineage that I’ve let slip away, or that in my own theological disagreements with the way that my church sometimes manifests in the world I’ve dismissed as not helpful recovering those items that sustain grandmama, great grandmama and great, great, great, great, grandmama, some of which operate beneath the institution of the Black church that go back to places that we were stolen from. Right.
But I think what I need is time. And I think one of the big questions that a lot of faith-rooted justice leaders are asking themselves in this season is around this question of time and discerning wisely what is urgent and what is a generational project. And I think so many of us feel like we’re having to put out fires everywhere or that everything is urgent. But in reality, one of I think the great resources that communities of faith in spirit have to offer is a different perspective on time.
And it’s interesting. Time is cyclical. Rather than that, there is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that I think in terms of eternities and not election cycles, even as there are urgent things right now that are happening that we need to respond to. And so I’m saying this to you and this is not my practice. Right. So there’s also a bit of this that is the tension between performance and true integration within myself that I am I am exploring and wanting to deepen and setting the intention to deepen in 2020.
Caitlin: [00:09:20] Mm hmm.It’s it’s really interesting when I think about 2020. I mean, part of me thinks about what you’re saying in a super logistical, pragmatic way that I literally feel like how do we help leaders develop the skill set to say no, to also say, I think this could be an email exchange, not a call? I think to be on a call after you’ve done six or seven calls means that like nothing is going to come out of that call or like, I feel like I try to sometimes like extend my batting average of being like, this is gonna be a 22 minute call and we’re gonna keep it really cute and funny and fun. But then I know that the hour that someone allotted for that, they actually can get more than 30 minutes of that back to like be like, oh, like just sit with whatever, absorb things and gauge things. So I think there’s a very logistical way. And then I think the other thing that’s interesting about what you’re saying is that I think that we’re actually in a time where like some of the folks who are not necessarily with us in organizing formation, but are with us psychically, spiritually, politically, are also like he’s already in office. Like some of the stuff we’ve been doing before doesn’t isn’t going to yield. So what if we do actually back up and think about time? In a particular different way.
So I think that’s I think there’s a hunger for it, because I also think the urgency that is sometimes conveyed. If that doesn’t feel real to folks, if it doesn’t feel like it adds up. Why is this thing urgent in this way right now? It’s also like where we lose folks because folks like I’m hustling. I have little kids. I’m broke. I have three jobs. Like, no, I’m not going to show up for that. Just show up. But just because it’s the way we’ve done things. Or it’s the urgency that’s built into the process. Right. And I see that as like really interesting in this time, you know? Which I think to me brings up, you know, this other question that we’ve been dialoguing about around leadership is this super elusive and incredibly loaded term. Right?
I’m interested in how you’re feeling and thinking about what kind of leadership is needed in this time in social movements and faith-rooted from faith-rooted communities towards social movements and how you think we get really explicit, specific even maybe dare I say methodological about how to actually like rock that out. So I would love for our listeners to get to hear a little bit about your thinking about that.
Jen: [00:12:06] Sure. I think first and foremost, we got to get real about this sort of leader industrial complex that we’ve cultivated. And I feel like I can speak with authority on it as somebody who’s a product of that system, who very much was identified at a young age as being a special star in certain spaces. And as a result, got to reap the benefits of a particular structure in which my leadership was amplified, was lifted up, was encouraged, and many people tried to craft me in their image of what leadership meant. And I think one of the things that I’ve discovered over the past five or so years since graduating from seminary as this industrial complexes kicked into high gear. Although if I really could probably trace it back to like my choice of college I think there is a way in which we incentivize and privilege particular institutions or particular pathways to leadership. As I’ve gotten exposed to some of the spaces that we would call elite, even in our organizing circles. I realize just how shallow that shit how easy it is to bounce from circuit to circuit, from conference to conference to keynote to keynote to a fellowship to fellowship. I’ll name that as somebody who has done that, right? And that it becomes this sort of echo chamber of the same names getting thrown into the same hands for the same opportunities. It’s almost as if particularly those with resources need you to jump through a number of different hoops in order to validate their choice in you. And I would argue that that’s replicated not just in sort of the civic sector, but also in the nonprofit sector. Yes, particularly in faith institutions.
Listeners who are clergy like me know what it is in their system to get that next big appointment or that elevate themselves to a particular role within an affiliate of their denomination. And maybe more controversially, I would say as a as a beloved outsider-insider to a lot of movement spaces. I see that happening within our organizations that do community organizing as well. The identification of a few special stars that we pour and invest our time and energy and resource in while ignoring others who don’t conform to what we might see as an effective leader. Even as we say we want leaderless movements and as we say we don’t believe that strong people need strong leaders. And I’m sure there’s an analysis around the functioning of capitalism within that matter and how it incentivizes certain types of productivity and patterns of behavior and. At some point we had to say enough is enough.
Jen: At some point it’s OK to turn down speaking gig acts and recommend someone else. One of the things that we’re attempting to do in practice at Faith Matters Network is I felt very clear from a conversation I had with Francisca two years ago that I, you know, my team might disagree with me on this. I didn’t want us ever to be an organization of more than seven people, because once we grow to over seven, this is what Francisca said to me. It becomes about maintaining the institution as much as it is about the work. And something about that leg struck to the very core of me, probably because I–at my roots, I’m still a church girl and sound like “Seven? Seven is the number of biblical completion. Yes, I can get down with seven” But that’s also. You know, whether or not. Right now we have 4 staff people. But whether or not we stick to that, I think what it says to me is that there is such a thing as enough in the way that we grow our movement organisms because I have been using language to “organism,” rather an “organization” because I am resisting institutionalization and some of our frameworks around that right now. In such a way that says this is my lane, this is the thing that we feel called to do and it’s real specific. And the more specific that we come about, what our work is to do, the more generous we can be with everyone else because we realize was not our work to do. So on our website, we have a list of workshop offerings that we can lead, right? And underneath that, our list of eight organizations that also clean workshops that do really good stuff. And I wonder about that sort of modeling of saying. It’s not just us, right? Yeah. We are part of an eco-system. And I wonder what it would look like if we weren’t so concerned about resource scarcity and funding.
[00:16:19] That we could organize funders the same way and say, look, you know, we’re comfortable organizing against policy X. But when it comes to thinking about whether or not we organize a direct action in the halls of one of our greatest biggest funders, we get jumpy, right? There’s something about being able to declare what we will and will not do and movement in this moment and how we will show up for one another that I would argue is probably countercultural and needs to be blown up. If we’re going to if we’re going to win. Whatever winning looks like, we also need to stop presuming that we all mean the same thing when we’re talking about what it means to win or even when we use language like social justice movements. I don’t know that we all have the same analysis or our politics, but that to me–as somebody who has been observing for a long time what it means to navigate inside and weave in and out of halls of power –are some of my top learnings.
Caitlin: [00:18:46] Yeah, it’s I think it’s really interesting as you were talking I was like “Ooh!” There’s like twelve of those things that I have a whole conversation. I mean I think one thing that’s really interesting is I think we’re in a different time in this country around the concept of public, public everything, government public– right, which to me when I think about the place we’re in. In neoliberalism and capitalism, I think a lot about like how far out they get spun out so far, the numbness, the blockbuster-ness, everything up, up, up like growth, growth, growth. And I think about that because I also think that it means we’ve internalized a sense of privatization that’s both connected to individualism and loneliness, but it’s also connected to exactly what you’re talking about, right, which is like like actually the idea that at the end of the day, anything private is only for some people, only something public is for everybody. And only something public is saying everybody should have it. And so even when we look at this electoral cycle, right, looking, I think all of the time about the James Baldwin quote, “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.” And I see people in their 20s and 30s walking around with that t-shirt more. And I just think, like that is the kind of quote where, like you could be with 10 different people, line them up and ask them what they think that means. And it’s going to mean something totally different, right? Based on also how he’s perceived as a Black leader, as a queer Black leader, as somebody who is, quote, not nice. Right. In his truth telling. And I just think about how powerful it is, because you can either take that as like incredibly defensive, mean spirited, or you can take it as this huge offering and gift, even when we reflect that question ourselves.
So I often am like, “Caitlin, I can’t believe what you say about your drinking last night because I see what you do” little stuff, you know what I mean? But I also think you’re talking about having the courage to lovingly ask each other, even among peers, institutions that pay our rent, like institutions where in relationship with political parties like, etc. to be like, hey, so I can’t believe what you say. Cause I actually see what you do. What you do is consolidate power for a few folks inside. It’s tiny, but that’s what we’re doing. It might not have been our intent, but that’s our impact and that’s where we are. And I think the reckoning around that feels like this totally different level of– I have not seen that happening in such wide swaths of the public. I have not seen – and I actually think it’s hilarious – like a presidential landscape on the Democratic Party side that really actually does care what individual humans like you and I think like who we endorse. I actually think that’s incredibly pretentious and problematic. And I worry it’s going to influence us losing because I feel like in the bubble. But I do the non cynical, non bitter Betty part of me is like it’s also really interesting that like with any system, authenticity is this particular kind of like cred right now. Right. Where you’re also talking about like people being like, we want more of that. We want more of people asking the James Baldwin question. We’re going to support that. We’re gonna not just share it on Facebook, we’re gonna give money to it. We’re gonna like engage it. And it’s not money coming from the usual suspects. It’s not the billionaire class. It’s not the multimillionaire class. And so I say all that to say to me. It’s really compelling when we you know, my dear friend Aesha Rasheed, who often like kicks my ass around about the contradictions that I hold all the time, was saying like, there is a methodology that you utilize and that other people utilize and that maybe we’re not even talking about about what you’re saying, right, like, I made a commitment to stop doing panels for a chunk of time. I’ve done that three times in my political life. Right.
Guess what? It didn’t mean that there was like no resources for things that I thought were important, it didn’t mean people lost my phone number. It didn’t mean I couldn’t advance work. It meant I wanted to think about what I had to say before I was out there saying it all the time. And also I wanted to think about if and what timing it made sense for which messengers to be in that. And I also wanted to think about how much time I was spending doing that and for why versus other shit. So I just it’s very it’s very heartening for me to have this conversation with folks, because I actually think there’s also a hunger of people who actually do care about the kind of work that we move in the world, not because we’re shiny pennies, but actually because they know us to be people who are actually trying to not be in that bullshit. But then we’re like, oh, well, it’s not actually only about modeling. It’s actually about just being in the doing everyday. And that you were saying, let’s say in the discipline of it and then folks being like, hey, it seems like that’s kind of working. Here’s what I’m doing that’s working. Can we try to advance that in a different way, you know? So I think I think it’s very interesting. And I’m curious about what the relationship is for you in being what I hear as pretty grounded in that, even as you’re in process. Right. And, you know, you live in a red state. I live in a red state. I used to live in the red state you live in. I’ve never lived in Nashville. But I’m curious like when you talk about your church, when you talk about your relationship, when you talk about that. Like how you feel like living where you live helps you hold that or helps you think about or move in your role as a leader.
Jen: [00:24:24] Yeah, as you’re talking, I was just reflecting that for most maybe most of my life, I’ve actually lived in red places. I spent years 1 through 13 in west central Illinois. And people think about Illinois in the Midwest in particular as a very blue place. I lived in a very red county right now, living in a little blue and a big sea of red. I think that there’s a particular perspective that those of us who have lived in spaces and with people and in community, even with people who may not be our political kindred, but for better or worse might be our kindred in other ways is incredibly grounding for the context in which we find ourselves in now. Because I do think as I consider the people that I’ve loved in my life, many of whom who especially for people who probably vote very differently than I do in many election cycles and I know some folks that we’ve met would hear that and be like, “Well, fuck them. You shouldn’t be in a relationship with them.” But I mean, like, you know, I often tell this story of one of my best friend’s mom growing up, who my mom was diagnosed with cancer for the first time, was on my birthday when she went into surgery. And this mom showed up with a birthday cake for me and when my mom died, was the first person through the door at her wake. Right. And we are very different in terms of our political homes and if what Lisa Anderson, who has been a mentor to me for a long time, said at Mountaintop this conference that we’re at right now in Oakland yesterday about Black women’s vision of liberation, always being for everyone being true, right? like there’s not a freedom that we imagine that doesn’t have everyone being free. Then the harder thing to do in practice and this season of life is to imagine that everyone being folks who sometimes are actively working for my oppression. Right. And so I say all that to say.
I find myself in a unique position as someone who feels called to the work of standing at the borders of a lot of different spaces and at the edge of a lot of different places, thinking about what my responsibility is to hold some of those bridging places, which feels counterintuitive when what I want to do is fight. And what the role of spiritual communities are, potentially not all, because I don’t think it’s ethical. I think it’s actually deeply unethical to ask people to bridge. But for those of us who are ready, willing, prepared to do so, to have the best. The bigger generational questions with some folks right now about the type of world that we want to live in and inhabit. About what a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious democracy can actually look like and which all people feel like they can belong. And the statistics tell us that we’re moving in the opposite direction, that things are moving, are changing too rapidly, and when things change too rapidly, folks tendency is to try to reach back and grab. And I think that’s what I see in lot of my white siblings doing in this season. It’s making America great again. When you ask them when was America great, period? The answer most often is the period between 1850 and 1950. My people were enslaved in that period. You’re talking about pre-civil rights movement, right? Yeah, but there is something.
[00:28:31] But I think what it speaks to is a particular type of anxiety. About what their future looks like, given the way in which white supremacy has been insidious and oppressing other people, they’re afraid they are gonna be the new oppressed. And many of them believe that and have internalized that. And I think what living in red places throughout my life has taught me and challenged me to do is to see the humanity and to see the fear in some of those folks and not just cast it aside, which is probably not the sexy thing to say. Probably not. But it’s probably a good thing, too. Right?
Caitlin: It’s not [sexy]. But its a needed thing to say.
Jen: You know, I constantly say when I’m on panels like it is, somebody’s ministry right now to work with young white men and tell them that they’re loved and to present them with an alternative to traditional masculinity that is rooted in compassion and vulnerability and not domination over violence. That’s not my ministry. But it’s somebody’s ministry to do that really hard work right now. And I don’t know that I always find those type of nuanced conversations happening in the political left right now, even as I seek to find home in the political left. And that’s how we’re going to lose exactly how we’re going to lose some of the bigger generat- Like, again, the generational question we will lose if we keep picking petty ass fights with one another, if we keep not if we keep not meaning what we say when we say collective liberation. I think when we say collective liberation, we proclaim we say we mean everybody. But I don’t think we always mean everybody. And maybe that’s one of the offerings that more traditional religious institutions and faith communities can offer is a common language that whether or not we believe we mean what we say when we say certain words, that I know that if I am sitting down with another Christian who might be of a different political home than I am– That there will be some common language that we can find in our tradition to talk about love. Whether or not they acknowledge me as a woman, as a minister, is a whole different set of something. But there is a starting place there. And I wonder what other – what are some of the other assets and resources in our communities that can be a starting place for a deepening imagination.
About what our country could be, because I think part of what we’re facing is both a spiritual crisis, a crisis of the myth of scarcity, of believing that there’s never going to be enough, and therefore I have to hoard all my shit for me and my folks. And I think part of what we’re staring in their face is a crisis of imagination, of not being able to even envision that other worlds are possible because we’ve been so constrained and blinded by what’s immediately in front of us. That’s why I like dig science fiction and like historical and speculative fiction. It’s like the practice of imagination to me is something that does not feel like it is active. And there are those who are really good at imagining a different sort of world. And those who are on the far right, who have a very clear vision of what that world can look like and who are mobilizing it across the world and leveraging this is what the other thing like leveraging religious communities to make the case for that, whether we’re talking about Hindu nationalism in India or here in the United States, that the insidiousness of Trump Evangelical Coalition as being the core base, right, like so other people are dreaming. Other people are imagining. Other people don’t get caught up in the pettiness of the bullshit. So much that they can’t cast forward to a different sort of vision. And that’s why they’re winning and recruiting people to their cause. And so I don’t even remember where we started but there is a useful nugget. It may go someplace.
Caitlin: Well, I think it’s also just like how do we also have the courage to tell the truth? Because I think that. Our lack of specificity. [00:33:10] As also somebody that’s lived like the last 20 years in red states and is from the Midwest, so not a particularly blue place and central Eastern Europe also not the bluest place in the in the sort of question of geopolitics, like I just think there’s a way that it smells to people like we’re not serious as a left when we’re not specific. I think the specificity with which the right wing actually paints parts of their vision for the next hundred years. Other parts are like very dog whistle meta et cetera. But some are very specific. Their position on immigration, for example. Right? Their position on a border wall like there’s a level of where it’s highly symbolic and it’s also this very literal thing. They’ve actually been able to like have people both create reasons for in people’s minds and then create a visual of. And I just think about that in terms of like I mean, also a thing that’s not that popular to say, right? It’s like the classic question of good couples counselor will ask you about any argument is like, do you want to be right or you want to be in relationship, like you want to be right or you want to advance? And I think that there is a relationship between the insularity and relative institutional academic privilege of the left in blue cities in the United States. And how much being right is the cachet as opposed to like advancing the struggle, less of our folks dying, less of them suffering, neutralising certain threats to advance like imagination, to advance outcomes. And I think that’s very true with like the question the left is having about, quote, organizing a white people like I’m like which white people where, in what age group, what gender and sexual orientation like in order to do what on what issues. You know, that’s way more specific than sort of like a social media hand-wringing among white liberals about like “What are we gonna do?” Quote about them.
And I was recently saying in a space that was a lot of well-resourced nonprofits and I was one of the only people in there who was from a red state. I was like, you know, I think that we really have to look at like the deeper sense of groups that operate on the national level in very blue places are literally afraid to be on the ground in the place that I’ve spent my whole adult life, and I feel some kind of way about the vilification as opposed to seeing these sites as one—places that, yeah, y’all don’t actually understand, but two– places that have been abused terribly by white supremacy, by classism, by homophobia, by economic and environmental exploitation, which is also very true of Eastern Europe. And I think about it a lot there. But it’s never that the place is a place where people have been put upon, like our good folks that we’re with every day, have been indoctrinated, have been put upon. It’s like there’s something where they’re really like blaming the survivors and because these are these big, bad, scary places that we live, you know. And, you know, so I just think it’s really powerful to actually articulate what are the places where I don’t see it as you being like, oh, I abandoned my principles. I rolled over. I’m talking to somebody who I really you know, I’m in a relationship with somebody that really is not with us. I’m like where is the part where also we’re playing roles that are about like loyalty to our community and folks. And I feel like that relates to the final question I wanted to ask you, which is, you know, given all of that, like how can progressive institutions play a positive role in this moment, given everything that’s happening? Especially when we know that institutions like interesting a lot of faith institutions are private institutions. A lot of people of faith operate in a lot of public space. A lot of our nonprofits, private institutions funded by private philanthropy. Right. Different than, you know, a public institution. Like what are some of the ways? If there are ways that you think some of these institutions could move differently and better specifically in 2020.
Jen: [00:36:08] I think my invitation to progressive institutions is to get creative when you think about what resources mean. What I mean by that is for those that operate within certain halls of power and privilege. Being able to say if you are at coalition gathering X that’s convened by thunder. Y, who is trying to move policy Z on the Democratic platform, particularly for my siblings, and I count myself in this number as much of our work as national, figuring out ways to invite to the table your kindred to actually know what it is to live in the conditions that you’re talking about. So whether that be saying no to a speaking engagement and inviting those folks to invite someone who may not be as well resourced or as high profile, that actually has the knowledge to take your spot inviting a plus one to some of your coalition gatherings that includes a coalition partner who actually knows what it means to live in a red place and do organizing in a red place, to make sure that your gatherings are not just dominated by people who, you know, I used to say people who live on coast or in D.C., but then I realized that there are a whole lot of people and communities on coast that are still under-represented or not being in those spaces.
So I’ve caught myself on that. It’s actually even a much smaller number of human men could scarily hit somebody who’s lived the vast majority my life in the Midwest, in the South, I would feel like resentful. But then I realized that like, oh, wait, there’s still a whole lot of…What you mean is that they’re like very specific institutions that are getting a seat at the table and who are allowed access to power. So. I guess what I’m pointing to with that response is that a re-imagining of capital, both as people capital and a divestment from one’s profile and in allowing the opening of spaces for other voices to show up at the table. I would say. Getting creative about things like space and 2020, like physical place.
[This episode was recorded pre-COVID and we recognize the particular constraints to maintain safety for people in these times. Please consider safe and generous ways physical space can be of use in this particular moment] One of the things that faith institutions have is place in space. So opening up space to groups that are values and mission to line to host meetings, to have a supper to care for – and this is particular to our work at Faith Matters Network -but thinking about like, what does it mean to just care for activists? We’re hosting a thank you b runch, a gratitude brunch for local organizers in Nashville this month. Not because we are on the ground organizing, but because we see the labor.
Caitlin: And it goes a long way. People never to do that.
Jen: And so I guess I would also reimagine or get creative as we think about space making and how can we open up monthly? Maybe it’s about opening up your fellowship hall monthly to host a gratitude brunch. Or bring in someone who does body work to to have folks come in. So I just I think that there are very particular ways that don’t necessarily require a lot of financial resources. Although I think I would also encourage us in 2020 to think about how we’re working its thing. Our friends in the philanthropic sector because we should be real. They’re probably not going to support those candidates that are the most aligned with some of us politically because it threatens their own wealth and power. And so like, you know.
I think that we too often equate resourcing with money. And people know what they need and we have enough and we actually have a lot of the tools we need already. And so in that that sort of imagination is not always present at large institutions. Right. In fact, I found that resource scarcity is much more acute in those institutions because their ultimate job is not about fulfilling their mission or working themselves out of a job, but rather is about maintaining the institution because their own. And they being made very practically people who work at these institutions. And I don’t fault that this rate. Yeah. If you’re you know, if you are the primary breadwinner in your family and your livelihood is contingent upon a check from institution Y, then that disincentivizes you from actually working yourself out of a job. So like not placing blame in any of those but I do think that because folks are so resource scarce or in some ways power hungry. Right. So desperate to be at the table with the people, with the right and the right room, with the flashy, with the flashy speakers list. That we can get lost in the sauce a little. And lose track of what’s actually at stake.
And for many of the largest institutions that sit in places that you were talking about, you’ve never actually met somebody from a red place They can forget what’s actually at stake in this next election, which is. Now, when your life isn’t it meeting a man merely threaten, it’s fine to stand on being right or to having the exact right politics or saying that pointing the problem as being over there. But when your physical health and well-being is on the line, the questions and stakes are a lot different. I was sitting with a colleague of ours last night at dinner who was living in New Orleans and was talking about their most recent governors election and how between the Republican primary and the general election, people like literally mobilized base organizations mobilize in particular Black women to turn out in Orleans Parish and their current governor like would be Republican in Maryland. Right. Yeah. But like what was actually at stake was like Medicare. I was actually at stake where these really practical things that if were not in place, people would die.
And I think that’s the sort of urgency that can get lost in Twitter debates about the purity of one policy area for a particular candidate. And so I say all that to say. My hope is that people who hold power and privilege at these institutions can actually hear the cries from the wilderness and not just hear it to go down and do an event and take some pictures with it and put it in your next annual report, but be led by the folks who know what it is to wrestlel and very real and immediate waves with the implications of election cycles and help that dictate your strategy rather than coming up with one out of the blue on your own. And stop speaking about generalization and generalizations about particular bodies of people. Get specific about who it is you want to organize, get specific about what it is you’re trying to accomplish. Because I can tell you that your problems aren’t just in rural America. Once I’m using rural America to mean white rural America because my people are from rural America and they real Black.
Do like to see you talk to your cousins and them in the suburbs because they’re the ones are actually going to swing this next election. So I say all that to say.
And keep doing the work. I guess I don’t want to be too dependent on our institutions because I do think that we’re living in a time of institutional collapse and that that’s necessary for whatever is going to emerge. And so for the faith community is listening in. We’re really good at living with people through life cycles, celebrating births, but also helping people through hospices and death. And some of your institutions are in a dying process right now. And they will. Having sat with people who are dying. Right, the last thing to go is that breath gasping for breath. And there are a lot of institutions, ways of thinking, biology’s ideologies that are taking their last stand right now.
[00:45:46] And in breathing and almost violent way to try to hold on rather than helping usher people through that dying process in a way that honors them or honors the legacy of institutions and helps it die so it can fertilize something different. Right. So I lean on the rituals and traditions that have sustained us for generations and and know that that knowledge is actually applicable today.
Caitlin: There are some mandates in there. I’m taking it with others gems that they like. Good. Thank you so much. I loved it. [Ambient music begins] Thank you so much for joining us. Please check out the other episodes in our Season 4 pre-archival pack here. There’s some great folks coming up so if you want to, please join us. For transcripts and more information as always, please check out auburnseminary.org/fortification. Editing by David Beasley and Wazi Maret. Transcripts by Kolenge Fonge and support by Nora Rasman and Dan Greenman.
Named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch by the Center for American Progress, Rev. Jen Bailey is an ordained minister, public theologian, and national leader in the multi-faith movement for justice. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network, a Womanist-led organization equipping community organizers, faith leaders, and activists with resources for connection, spiritual sustainability, and accompaniment. Jen comes to this work with nearly a decade of experience at nonprofits combating intergenerational poverty. Rev. Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and serves locally on the staff of Greater Bethel A.ME. Church in Nashville, Tennessee.
An Ashoka Fellow, Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow, Aspen Ideas Scholar, On Being Fellow and Truman Scholar, Jennifer earned degrees from Tufts University and Vanderbilt University Divinity School where she was awarded the Wilbur F. Tillett Prize for accomplishments in the study of theology. She writes regularly for a number of publications including On Being, Sojourners, and the Huffington Post. Rev. Bailey sits on the boards of World Faith, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund, and the Healing Trust. She enjoys good food, dancing like no one is watching, and road trip adventures with her husband, psychotherapist and religious studies scholar Ira Helderman.
Rev Dr Traci C West
Caitlin Breedlove: Hey yall its Caitlin Breedlove. Welcome to the cold open of this episode of fortification- we’ve had some shows in our archives we’re releasing as a summer season, all at once. They certainly have not been sitting there because we didn’t love having the conversation. Most of you know it’s because fortification is a love offering and is nobody’s full time gig, so when that happens sometimes things take the time that they take. This is a conversation that we recorded in Oakland, Ca with the Rev. Dr. Traci West who I have heard about her work for some time, but this was the first chance I actually got to sit down with her and talk. Not only is she an incredible scholar, so I got to learn a bunch of things I didn’t know but she talks with such dept and passion about the contradictions of faith and scholarship and confronting gender based violence in places around the world. It was a really helpful conversations and I was very touched by her wisdom and her humor so please check it out. For a transcript of this conversation and other resources visit Auburnseminary.org/fortification.
Dr. Traci West: [00:01:19] In that exchange that we have the building blocks for the possibility of solidarity. And it’s only in that solidarity, I believe that we have hope of doing the kind of transformation that I’d like to see us engage in at the systemic level.
Caitlin: [00:01:47]Greetings, this is Caitlin Breedlove, and you’re listening to Fortification: Spiritual Sustenance from Movement Leadership. You’re listening to Season 4, Episode 4, where we had the privilege of speaking with the Reverend Dr. Traci C West. Dr. West is professor of Christian Ethics and African-American Studies at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. She is also an ordained elder in the New York annual conference at the United Methodist Church, who previously served in campus in parish ministry in the Hartford, Connecticut area. Her work and scholarship focuses on sexual gender and racial justice, gender based intimate violence and clergy ethics. We spoke at Auburn Seminary’s Mountaintop gathering this winter.
Caitlin: Traci, thank you so much for being here with us this afternoon. Where in Oakland at Auburn’s Mountaintop gathering. And I really wanted listeners to Fortification to get a little bit of sense of your work and your presence here. And so I’m wondering if we could just start by hearing a little bit about your body of work.
Dr. West: Yes, thank you. So my work is mainly as a teacher and activist and I really consider myself to be deeply embedded in trying to be part of a broad struggle against gender-based violence. So my work is activist scholarship and teaching so that those are the three pieces, the ways in which I would identify myself. But I’m especially interested in working on gender based violence and especially the systemic, systemic fuelers of gender based violence related to racism more broadly.
Recently, I’ve been doing work on transnational understandings. I interviewed activists who work on gender based violence in Ghana, Brazil and South Africa. So I just finished a big project that I worked on for years and years, interviewing those activists with an interest in how we here in the United States can learn from those leaders and and learn especially the ways in which they address systemic issues related to religion and racism. And racism, of course, differs in like the and setting were mainly talking about colonialism and the impact and legacy of colonialism. And obviously in South Africa, post-apartheid issues and in Brazil, the ways in which sort of anti-Black racism surfaces. And I was in a particular community that’s a predominately Black community with Afro-Brazilians called Bahia, Salvador. So. But I’m interested in how do we learn from those leaders here in the United States and examine our really strong paternalism and my tradition is Christian. And so Christians in particular have a sense of people of African descent just being one big mission project. And so trying to understand and and and really disrupt that paternalistic missionary kind of imperial approach and an end to think about how we can be in solidarity. So that’s my most recent project that’s on my mind, in part because I just finished that project.
But as an activist, my work also includes work in the church.I am a United Methodist. I’m just taking a breath. I’m united because the United Methodist Church is at war over issues of human sexuality and specifically the exclusion of LGBTQIA people from having full equality in the church related to ordination and of course, just receiving pastoral care such as having marriages performed in churches and has kind of doubled down on that exclusion.
And so part of my activism, most recently as the church doubled down on that exclusion in this during this year has been to organize with people of color and trans and queer people and to and to develop within the broader movement for inclusion, which is a predominately white movement, to develop the leadership and solidarity among us, among those of us who are people of color, queer trans.
And so we created a conference in our creating a movement in our own language about liberation. So part of my activism is directly related to the church in that way, as well as my concern about gender-based violence. And so then the third prong, I said certainly so that sort of scholarship and activism and also teaching. So that’s that’s my love. I love teaching. And I do that mainly in a classroom setting with master students who are preparing to be leaders, faith leaders and in the seminary setting. And so many of them are preparing to be ordained. I’m in a United Methodist related seminary. So many of my queer and trans students are directly impacted by the rules of exclusion that are part of the United Methodist Church. But also, I have students from a range of other faith backgrounds and some who claim spirituality but don’t have a particular faith background that they claim. But I teach. I teach ethics. And so I’m interested in finding ways to expand our understanding of social ethics practices that are lived out transformations of our of our society, of our of our social way of kind of reinscribing certain patterns of dominance. And so how can we transform some of those patterns of dominance and understand social ethics as not merely a set of rules? Often when people say ethics, we think, OK, what are the rules? Give me the list. This is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I’m not supposed to do. But that actually doesn’t work. Mostly to give people a set of rules. They break them. They go around them. And especially in churches. We create really massive theological hypocritical critical understandings that cover up the ways in which we harm each other. So that’s I know that’s a big plate of the kind of work that I do.
Caitlin: [00:09:43] Well, it’s a fascinating plate. It’s very interesting to think about. I mean, there’s so many things I could ask about in that plate, but I was sort of struck by the question of what are some of the lessons that you would like activists in the U.S. to take from learnings from the sites that you’re talking about, an activist working on gender based violence, particularly in regards to me, the question of paternalism in feminist action, around race, around class, around US Centrism. Is so profound in the way even we talk about what the “mechanics and methodology of social change” is right now, but also that I’m very taken with the idea as somebody who doesn’t have an academic background if like the question of social ethics. Because what I see a lot in- You know, I’ve been an organizer like almost 20 years now, which meant I started when I was like basically a young and knew nothing- Is that I think there’s a hunger for that. I think there’s a real hunger around what is social ethics that isn’t a set of rules. What is principled engagement? What does it mean to actually come into that in this time? And what would it look like to do it in a way that was deeply feminist, that was deeply anti-colonial? Yeah, it was deeply interdependent. And particularly, I think about that a little bit in my own time spent. My mom is an immigrant from Central Europe, my dad is from here and spending more time back and forth in different parts of my life.
Dr. West: Yes.
Caitlin: The thing I notice with feminist movement happening in Eastern Europe versus in the U.S. is that they’ve completely schooled me and educated me on the question of what feminist governance is like, what actually a governance system looks like. Like if we are to actually take over governments, what does that actually look like and not in a dry toast policy way, but like what are the social ethics that then guide. Or is it enough to say we’re just gonna get more women elected? Right. We’re just going to give our women elected, fill in this identity gap. We get those folks elected and then we will have feminist governance. Or alone, identity is the only thing that then will create social ethics that will spring forth from us, which, of course, we know there is a much higher likelihood that in the U.S. electorate, African-American women are going to vote for against discrimination repeatedly and African-American communities will vote against discrimination. That’s history. Right.
And that also feels like people are like, OK, cool, I’m moving there. But the question of actually what a non paternalistic, non dualistic three dimensional conversation about social ethics that understands identity politics but doesn’t only live there would be feels like something that it just feels like it’s a little bit beyond grasp. Tracy, you know what I mean? Like we’re not quite there. We don’t quite have the language. And we could use infusions of like new ideas or examples. So I’d love to hear in both of those areas both your international work and the question of social ethics. If you’re ever sitting around in these movement space and you’re like, oh, this would be an example that might be helpful to them, these would be some ideas that maybe would love to see be more in rotation.
Dr. West: [00:13.04] Yes. Well, one place I would start is the kind of anti-colonial work- There’s a lot of ways to do it- But but but I’m especially interested in anti-Black racism. So when my starting point is, if I’m speaking to a church group and I’m describing what it might mean to learn from. So to just introducing the idea of what it might mean to learn from ACT activists who are either on the continent of Africa or in African diaspora setting, such as in Brazil. Right now with this moment, the minute I say Africa. It invokes Donald Trump’s reference to Africa as a place of shithole, right, fat, disgusting, repulsive, completely dehumanizing understanding of billions of people is now normalized in the consciousness. That kind of anti-Black racism is normalized in the consciousness in a way that is fresh. Now, I’m not saying new. Right. Yeah. Nothing new. I’d think fresh.
It’s awakened. It’s alive. And there is incredible doubt. And suspiciousness that it’s even possible. So one of the first tasks. What I’m trying to explain is one of the first tasks is to help us understand that we are in fact, dependent and we are dependent for our ability To create knowledge that is freeing, liberating upon each other. Now more than ever, we have to have a transnational paradigm. It’s just inescapable. Where does Trump make this reference to shithole countries in this meeting with both Democrats and Republicans in that private meeting? Dick Durbin comes out and says, this is what Donald Trump just said. It’s a meeting about DACA. Yeah, that conversation is about.
Caitlin: Yep, that connection’s forgotten often. Really important.
Dr. West: Yes. So if we’re going to do this kind of liberation. Ethics work. I’m especially interested in gender-based violence. It has to have a transnational frame and a frame that in some ways takes on some of these really, sort of saturating, overwhelming paradigms of anti-Black racism. So to see that kind of confrontation has to happen before I can even get to well so, for example. So that’s why I went there first as well, for example, because it’s kind of an interesting example. But I mean, there’s something in you that says. But really. You know, if I talk about the targeting of lesbians for rape and murder in South Africa, I have to quickly say but let’s talk about the targeting of trans women of color here for murder. Right. So I have to quickly talk about my own. I’m from New Jersey in in Newark. And the killing of Sakia Gunn, Black teenage girl by Black citizens on the street by a stranger who targeted her after she said that she was a lesbian. Right.
So I have to quickly say I’m not talking about a problem in South Africa we don’t have here. But what I am talking about is the kind of spiritual call upon ancestors, political in your face, organizing with, with and against criminal justice and an explicitly multi-faith organizing and multi-faith organizing across both what we here will call world religions. All right so and and African indigenous, religious, more spiritual based traditions and the need to have that kind of panoply array of of spiritual leaders and resources as well as having those who’ve been victimized. The need, the necessity, obviously, on the forefront. And how those come together to emphasize, I don’t know, certain strategies like space making. And so what does it mean?
Like creating, creating, creating spaces of of resistance, spaces of grieving, of of recognizing humanity, of those who’ve been assaulted, both who have died or committed suicide, as well as those who are alive and survive. There there there are attacks. So I think about how what are the ways in which we here in the states are so.
It’s such a challenge to pull together those kinds of resources and to view ourselves at the same time as interdependent and can be informed by and reliant upon and in solidarity with those kinds of activists transnationally. So that’s a movement. It’s a network so that you have the sense of. Of of strategy, learning, learning strategy, sharing strategies in solidarity’s as you do the activist work, but also recognizing that the ending of the violence, which I hope is our goal, not just addressing people after they’ve been victimized, but maybe ending preventing. That can only come when when you’re really transforming the systemic. And that’s why you have to get at this. Start with the anti-Black racism. Right. That’s so fresh now and it’s transnational.
The ways in which it is deployed transnationally against most obviously brown immigrants crossing the border. Immigrants of color across many different, you know, nation states and racial groupings who are in DACA, et cetera, et cetera. So so what I’m trying to say is that’s the kind of strategizing that’s intersectional, that’s talking about sexuality, sexual identity, race, nation, spirituality and religion. And there. And it’s and it’s a kind of mobilization that’s integrated. And also claims the power to end the violence so that those are the kinds of conversations I’m interested in having.
Dr. West: But but it begins with first confronting our our own deep, deep, deep racism and and colonial mentality, which Christianity equips us so well for those of us who are Christian, but we’re in a Christian dominated society too, to keep in place. So those are the kinds of conversations I want us to have. And but it’s about building solidarity in for the transformation. Mm hmm.
Caitlin [00:21:36] Mm hmm. I think it’s so fascinating to hear the sort of the the question of what are our strategies. And one thing I really loved about what you’re saying is for me, it’s really like almost a queering of how we’re thinking about strategies like space holding, making like space for grieving like these as strategies would. I think that, you know, one of my struggles in the US as a person of mixed ethnicity and and really straddling a conversation on immigration as somebody who nobody cares what my mom’s status was for a long time because we’re white. She lives in the Midwest. You married a white American man. U.S. born man is, I think this question of like both I’ve experienced in the U.S., the most profound sort of obliviousness of the power that we have as social actors in this country and a profound internalized inferiority, believing as grassroots activists do, possibly this is a controversial statement, but in some ways, grassroots activists in the U.S. sometimes know their power less than grassroots activists I’ve encountered in my fairly limited experience of the rest of the world. And I think that there’s something to me about a spiritual feeling I have about what part of the globe is carved into what layer almost like rings around Saturn. Yes.
Of where you are in relationship to like the ground zero of late stage capitalism and white nationalism. Yes. And there feels like there’s it’s just hit a point. When I look outside in the U.S., it’s come so far. Yes. Yes. And I was in Eastern Europe this summer. They were saying it’s like blockbuster world, like everything’s a blowout. You know, it’s like everything’s a blockbuster movie. And even the way we’ve metabolized that in the Left, in the U.S. right. Everything has to be huge. More people, more actions, more extreme. And yet, are our strategies actually dismantling and making remaking the world anew you know, when I think about what are we necessarily thinking about in terms of success? Like my dear friend Kai Lumumba Barrow, who helped start Critical Resistance. Right. With Angela Davis and other folks. You know, if people think, well, Critical Resistance isn’t really around anymore. You know, are the chapters that active what’s happening? I don’t think about it that way. I think about it as, because she taught me to think about this way, as an intervention made. And the idea of the carceral state. Yes. Of an entire generation of us being politicized around the carceral state– multi-racial group of activists. Yes. And then the dismantle change build like I think I still have my C.R. t shirt somewhere because it has the dismantle transform build frame. And I don’t think in my experience that we’ve been creative enough. And by creative, my subtext there is, you know, transformative in terms of feminism, in terms of anti-colonial imagination, in what our strategies are. And I would even say sheepishly, you know, as a white person who has had the unbelievable grace and gift of mostly working in majority P.O.C. organizations, I think about when we built song Southerners On New Ground. And when I go in other parts of the world and people quote SONG to me, I feel shocked. You know, and people say, oh, come on, me like this. That’s like the perform humility. Like you can’t really feel shocked. Like you can’t really like, you know, that it’s a pretty big footprints. But I really do. I really do. I feel shock because I think about when we had no money and we were doing camping trips because we couldn’t afford any people that was that this strategic program. I said it’s the strategy because we’re broke as shit. That’s all we can do.
We’re going to bring mostly people of color and some white folks who are queer and trans to rural Tennessee. And we can have a camp out and we’re talk about being southern and being queer and trying to be out. God help us, you know. Yes. And I don’t think at that time we ever thought that there would be any in some ways we didn’t take a lot of responsibility for what we’re putting out in the world because we didn’t think it was shit in some ways. Yeah, I definitely think some of our leaders of color had more forced thought than me about the ripples that could have and as we grew and taking responsibility. But I say this to say that it’s extremely compelling to me when I think now about the moment we’re in, where in many ways I think, you know, I was born in nineteen eighty one. So what do they call us in Xenical? I don’t know how I feel if I’m totally in radical honesty, which I’ve just been trying to be in. Even in public places recently, like I think I look at myself in a set of peers where not all of us, but most of us are fundamentally bewildered by how much we have been part of. And those of us who are older than us. But we just happen to be in this particular threshold how much the social justice movements were involved and actually have shifted things in this country. And while we have Trump as president, we also have a slate of Democratic presidential candidates who really either feel that they need to perform caring or actually do care about what Left movements in the US think and want and see protagonists as having influence. And I frankly read us and I’m criticizing myself first as fundamentally unprepared. And so to think about this question of what does it mean to go from this?
Doesn’t this is a maturity sequence. I’m not trying to imply that. But to go across the spectrum in time of where we need to know how to resist, we need to know how to organize. But are we willing to govern? Are we willing to bring those kinds of answers, not only govern elected positions, which more people that I’m close to have run and won than ever before in my life. You would’ve told me that 10 years ago. I would’ve been like, you fucking kidding. There’s no way. Right. But also to be willing to take responsibility for roles where you have to make really tough decisions. And so when I think about the social ethics stuff you’re naming, too. I was saying the other day that like when I’m really trying to figure out interviewing organizers to work with more closely with you, I work with many right now.
One of the questions I’m asking is. How do you feel in situations? How do you feel about nuance, complexity and contradictions? What comes up for you with that? When you encounter things you see as those three? What is your response? Where do you go? Yeah, because I actually think there’s something deeply in this question about moving past the paternalism to actually be a steady hand in some ways as we’re doing this transformative work. Yes. Even as these forces so aligned against us, which I completely agree with you, I think we are out to lunch about the depth of the freshness of the anti-Black and incredibly racist. Xenophobic. Yeah, anti-immigrant sentiment. That is specifically to the poorest and darkest Immigrants coming from Central and South America. As someone who lives in Arizona, I get quite a bit. Yes. Yes. That I think in the face of that. How do we figure out what we’re bringing to this struggle, to this tension? And I think that the question of how we take seriously the space holding, the transformative, the simply naming that there’s another alternative and then getting very imaginative and very concrete in some ways about what that could look like. And I don’t think I mean, the final thing I’d say is. Last season, we interviewed Amitha Swadhin about childhood sexual abuse on this podcast. And it completely blew my mind. It was a very difficult conversation for me because she’s so explicit about her work and experience with that. But one of the questions she named that I think is really powerful is she said, you know, we’re in this time where we can imagine, you know, free college for everyone in the United States, Medicare for all. But can we imagine a world without childhood sexual abuse, which I also feel like has been the work of Aishah Shahidah Simmons and other people for a long time. That imagination work that feels like that creates a muscularity that’s so deep. Yeah. I guess that wasn’t a question, but more of a riff. But I just was very interested in how you were talking about that and in a transnational formation and way,
Dr. West: It’s crucial, you know, I think. I was just think about your question about. About ethics. At my simplest understanding is ethics is always the relationship between. Our vision of what is right and good. And our practices, how we are actually living out what is right and what is good. And in movements, especially religious and spiritually based movements, we have a unique challenge because our rhetoric is so developed and sophisticated and and just and charismatic. I mean, we can give the speech, the sermon, the talk that just, you know, galvanizes an audience. I guess, you know, I can just picture the folks who can do that, who can put the language together about the vision and give you language so that you can see it. And so the moral imagination for the kind of solidarity I’m talking about to end the gender-based violence is absolutely crucial, but the imagination has to be directly related to what kinds of practices reflect that the principles that are being articulated, the rhetoric that is that is that that constitutes that guiding vision. And one of the biggest challenges I think is how often we’re caught in that hypocrisy. How often that leader is, in fact sexually abusing someone in the movement on the side or exploiting. How often, unfortunately, there are ways in which are the compromises.
This is getting to the compromises that we make often sacrifice those who have the least power and are stigmatized the most in our communities. So we always have to make compromises when we’re making concrete practical choices about advancing an agenda in particularly institutionalizing it in some way. But too often it is precisely the groups who have the least status and power who we are willing to sacrifice. And so that to me, that’s the social ethics piece is to keep those connected. The vision of of our rhetoric related to caring about those who are who are being victimized by the xenophobia and and racism and hetero normative, hetero patriarchal values that are fueling because their perpetrator logic. So they’re fueling giving permission for intolerance of sexual abuse and the sexual assault and the domestic violence. So, yeah, if that’s to me, that’s the key to ethics.
Dr. West: But where do I see some of that? Yeah, I think one place that’s very hard for me. Right. It’s just conversation I was just having earlier today that pops in my mind. We we were talking about the movement for the elimination of bail and a strong movement among Black Lives Matter activists and others to not only reform criminal justice system, but to move towards abolition of prison. And I have advocated encouraged people who have been raped to call the police on their perpetrator, to testify, to do everything they can to make sure that that person is put away.
And I feel strongly that that moment after being assaulted, whether it’s a domestic assault excuse me, or a sexual assault, that moment of seeing that in that crisis, moment of seeing that perpetrator arrested can be a moment of feeling safe, momentary, but knowing that bail is going to prevent that person from being able to terrorize, stalk, threaten. And ultimately, of course, harm can be a breathing space for figuring out how to get safe, how to be safe, how to be as safe as possible, especially if you don’t have a lot of resources to go to your third home in whatever in the Caribbean or in, you know, Europe, some European island or something. So if you don’t have those kind of resources. And so that’s one of the places where, you know, I have taught in prison. I’ve spent time. I’ve taught men in prison. I have actually one of my classes in prison in New Jersey with men I’ve taught in the women’s prison. But when I was teaching in the men’s prison, I did say, I’m uncoachable sitting here with you guys, because you need to know that I actually have supported men being put in prison who have beaten up their girlfriends and wives and sexually assaulted. And so, you know, we need to talk about that and be conversation about that. So I think that’s just a place where there are contradictions because. Of course it is an unjust, racist criminal justice system. And of course there’s tremendous risk, particularly for persons of color, particularly for brown and Black persons. I’m going to say particularly women who are not the only people get assaulted, but I’m going to emphasize women who call the police in crisis situations. There’s risk to the women when the police come. So that is absolutely a place of contradiction that I wrestle with and struggle with, because safety has to be. Yeah. Safety and respite. From threat. And there isn’t anything else in place at the moment, right now.
Caitlin: [00:37:51] And I think it’s also a place of contradiction in sort of I think a lot about the gap between those people who ascribe to sort of a Left agenda how small that group of humans is in a country 450 million and how many people are actually deeply with us on many parts of our agenda. And I think you’re also speaking to the contradiction and some of the gaps, like when you’re an organizer and you doorknock in working class communities, multiracial working class communities. I have yet to live in a community where when you knock doors in working class communities, people say, I want the police completely gone. Right. The traction I’ve seen as is like, could we for example, in Phoenix, the police department is doing horrible, brutal things to poor people across the board, particularly Black and brown, and also a lot of people dealing with mental illness. We’ve been able to gain some traction saying, well, 771 million dollars is going to the police department. Could we limit that? Could we make that smaller? Could we get every young kid who’s in there because a weed possession out? Could we reallocate police officers to be EMT workers? You know, actually, like a lot of a lot of think tank people think that people don’t get that because they’re talking and reading at a fourth grade level. Well, you know, my grandfather read in fourth grade level and I talked politics with them all the time. It’s one of my favorite stories to talk about. It taught me how to knock doors. You know, people actually are very ready to have a different kind of conversation about allocation. Yeah, right. And, you know, from a sort of very elite, privileged Leftist position that is boring, quote unquote. Right. Like they want to have this really specific conversation about abolition. And yet abolition is a concept that is in contradiction in times with how people are really living, what people actually asking us for right. And I think it’s also a conversation that another world is possible conversation, a frame that’s incredibly helpful. Right. But I think what you’re saying is so helpful to me around the relationship between vision and practice, because I think part of the crisis of faith that people have and whether voting with their feet to not be a part of what they would consider a far Left is that the large distance between vision and practice.
And I mean, I already spoke about this once, on this podcast, but I feel like it’s so alive in a different way in this conversation. I was talking about like how much I ruminate on the t shirt getting hip again, that has the James Baldwin quote that says, I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do and I see younger activists wearing this all the time. And I think in no kind of shade or negative way. I want to talk about what that means for different people and how what it means for different people. They’re walking on the street and they read it because to me, it’s actually incredibly profound. And in many ways it’s an indictment. I put that in quotes because I don’t mean it in a legal sense, but of the profound hypocrisy between the distance, both in faith institutions but also in in far left rhetoric, I think know between the vision and the practice. Right. And so the sort of calling bullshit on like this is which all are saying, but this is what we’re actually seeing. Yes.
The pressure even on the Democratic Party in the United States to say this is what you’re saying, this is what we’ve seen is consolidation of power for white billionaires. Right. Like where is the distance there. And so then the question becomes to me, in terms of leadership, maybe leadership is not this big blockbuster, individualistic, charismatic idea right now. But in fact, those of us who are just trying to tighten the gap a little bit more each day. Yeah. Between the pretty large chasm that the conditions of this country create between our vision and on our rhetoric, wish people like me got real good at doing a lot of panels running an organization funded by private philanthropy, right? Yes. And the practice of like what it actually looks like to live those values out, engage these questions with courage, say there are contradictions. Say I’m doing the best I can every day in this particular way. And this is how I’m working that strategy collectively.
Dr. West: [00:42:27] And staying accountable to all the folks who have a stake in it and finding ways to continue to stay accountable as a in part. That’s the example I’m trying to raise about sitting in prison with men and saying to that men who are prisoners and saying to this is like. So talk to me. You need to talk to me. This is what this is how I feel. I have to tell you, this is tough for me to see you guys. Because, yeah, we need to talk about abuse and violence. And when we had some really difficult, painful conversations about their views of women and the roles that women had played in their lives and in.
For some of them and in the kinds of folks that they blamed for some of the problems that had arisen in their lives and at the same time, yes, some of the guys talking about, a few of them talking about seeing their own mothers and women in their lives abused and the kinds of trouble that they got into as they tried to stop that and how that also contributed. And so them trying to say to me, listen, there’s a real complex picture here as you’re sitting here to say what you’re saying. All right. So you need to hear back from us a range of places we’re coming from and not make generalizations. So, I mean, so that’s that kind of accountability. It’s just crucial. I think absolutely.
Caitlin: [00:44:13] You know, I was thinking about also just to model the courage to give that example in a podcast, like I just think that that people there’s also just this shame around naming the contradiction. You know, it’s easy for me to talk about my family of origin. You know, people in my life that I love who have been incarcerated, it’s not as easy to talk about both my partner and I as class accendors that bought a nice house in Phoenix and are living there like the contradictions between sort of like the core values and then the like. Yeah. And these are the decisions that we’ve made, you know, to give her toddler a nice home where, you know, we have a day, we wake up, you know, the tree. I mean, it’s just like I think those questions are also. And yet I think they’re the way that people find a way back to trusting us. You know, no matter where we are, public voices, you know, I say that in the least. Hopefully the least pretentious way ever. But there is a question of like a longing for public voices that will name that contradiction. And the question of those hoaxes were just more trustworthy without trustworthiness being a manufacturing product yet again. Right. It’s not authenticity as a product, right?
Dr. West: Yeah. Know, absolutely. Because what I’m tried to talk about is, is is method fundamentally. I’m talking about is how we do this work and give examples. And when I’m talking about learning from leaders in Africana settings, I am describe I am describing all the ways in which I make mistakes. I’m trying to I’m trying to listen. And and some of the folks I’m interviewing are saying, you know, you’re not listening. You’re not hearing me. You’re not understanding. There’s no African in the African-Americaness that I’m bringing. I mean it no, no substantive meaning to it. When I’m out on the continent and when I’m talking to some of those leaders and needing to have I am a U.S. person with all of that dominant imperial influence and power that they’re needed to try and confront me on. And what it’s in that exchange that we have the building blocks for the possibility of solidarity. And it’s only in that solidarity. I believe that we have hope of doing the kind of transformation that I’d like to see us engage in at the systemic level.
Caitlin: [00:45:48] Thank you so much for this conversation.
Rev. Dr. Traci C. West is Professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School (Madison, NJ). She received her BA from Yale University, (New Haven, CT), her MDiv. from Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, CA), and her PhD from Union Theological Seminary (New York, NY). Traci is the author of Solidarity and Defiant Spirituality: Africana Lessons on Religion, Racism, and Ending Gender Violence (New York University Press, 2019), Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics (New York University Press, 1999), and the editor of Our Family Values: Same-sex Marriage and Religion (Praeger, 2006). She has also published many articles and book chapters on sexual, gender, and racial justice, gender-based intimate violence, and clergy ethics. She has served on the editorial board of Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics, as co-editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, on the Society of Christian Ethics Professional Conduct Committee, and the editorial board of T&T Clark Studies in Social Ethics, Ethnography, and Theology.
Traci is an ordained elder in the New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) who previously served in campus and parish ministry in the Hartford, Connecticut area. She has participated in United Methodists of Color for a Fully Inclusive Church (UMOC) and was a recipient of the UMC New York Annual Conference Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA)’s Gwen and C. Dale White Social Justice Award. She testified before the New Jersey state legislature in support of marriage equality, protested on behalf of lgbtq equality at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, was interviewed in the documentary on violence against black women “NO!”, and received Auburn Seminary’s inaugural Walter Wink Scholar-Activist award. She was born and raised in Stamford, Connecticut and now resides in New Jersey.
Caitlin: Hi, y’all. It’s Caitlin Breedlove. Welcome to the cold open for this episode of Fortification. We’ve had some of these shows sitting in our archives for a while and we’re releasing them in a summer season as a set. It is certainly not because we didn’t love having these conversations but rather because Fortification is not the full time gig of anyone, it is a love offering and sometimes it just takes as long as it takes, obviously, particularly in the time we are in. So I hope that those of you who are possibly having a Summer that is a little slower and needing a little more reflection, needing a little more spiritual nurturance, find this a nourishing conversation. Its a conversation I had with Gina Breedlove. No relation, or as she would say as far as we know. Which is incredibly flattering to me in December 2020. My friend Gina does incredibly powerful work and if you don’t know about her work, I invite you to google her, particularly this conversation centers on how art and cultural work are central to organizing and healing, as well as somatics practices. But for those who don’t know her work, Gina is a singer, she’s also a sound healer. And although this conversation was recorded last December, it feels right on time in many ways. So I hope that you will enjoy it and also just enjoy a recording of her voice. She has an incredible voice in speaking and in singing. For a transcript of this conversation or any of our episodes, visit auburnseminary.org/fortification. [Ambient music begins]
Gina Breedlove: In these spaces where we are endeavoring to bring ourselves to help love the world forward. Of course, disappointment and grief and fear are going to strike those chords of, well, what did I get and what did I not get? You know, that’s part of being in the flesh, frankly. And so another thing that I encounter often with folk and movement spaces when I’m doing my work is the head is not connected to the body. You know, there is quite a presence around all things intellect and beautifully cerebral and there’s not an ability to bring it, you know, down to the root, to the soles of your feet. You know, how does your skin feel? In fact, there is an avoidance that for fear, for fear of feeling, for fear of the power of sound.
Caitlin: Greetings. This is Caitlin Breedlove, and you’re listening to Fortification, Spiritual Sustenance for Movement Leadership. You’re listening to Season 4, Episode 5, where we have the privilege of speaking with Gina Breedlove. Gina is a singer, songwriter, sound healer and medicine woman. She is the creator of FolkSoul music that celebrates the lives we struggled to build and represents a kind of courageous kind of beauty – that is central antidote to what ails us. She has been an incredible source of healing for me in my own life, and her grace truly graces all of us who get to know her. We spoke at Auburn Seminary’s Mountaintop gathering this Winter.
Gina Breedlove, I’m so lucky we share a last name. I love it. I really love whatever I see you on my feed I think about you in a particular way. And I’m so glad that we get some time together in Oakland.
Gina: Me, too.
Caitlin: Here for Auburn’s gathering Mountaintop. You’re coming off a lot of time on the road. I am. I’m still in the room.
Gina: Still on the road at home, home is Georgia now.
Caitlin: Headed home soon next week? Yeah. Exciting. So I really wanted to take this opportunity to get to talk to you a little bit for this podcast while you’re here. When I knew we’d be in person. And I’d love to just start by telling our listeners a little bit about your work in the world and your work in this in this moment in the world.
Gina: [00:04:20] I am a medicine woman. I am a sound healer. I am a vocalist and a composer. I’m also an actor. I use sound in all the ways through music, through song, through toning. I also lay hands on folk. I use sound to move grief out of folks bodies. I teach people how to use the sound of their voices. [Ambient music fades] The sound of their voice to move Grief and rage to evict these things that take root in my spirit. I can see inside of the solar plexus, inside of the womb, inside of the liver and lungs, where grief and rage and in ancient legacy’s of familial, you know, horrors take root, take place and and walk with us like old friends when they’re not. And I teach folk how to evict these things from the body and place a sense of yourself there, your knowing, your voice, your own sound. Yeah.
Caitlin: And, you know, I think that when I first encountered your work, I was just learning about how many different communities, including movement communities and movement leaders and spiritual leaders and communities of artists you were working with. And so, you know, the work my experience of your work is it’s so profound. It’s so intimate. And it’s so powerful. And so I think about like with all of the different work that I’ve seen you doing or I know that you’re doing in the world, I thought it would be really interesting for people to hear some of the reflections and some of the patterns that you’re seeing in this time of what’s happening with our folks, what our folks are holding, how the energy is moving through. And so it’s a wide open question.
Gina: Well, I’ll start with some of the young folk that I’ve been working with lately I’ve been so graced to mentor. You know, I don’t call it mentoring. It’s more like shepherding and guiding. My daughter’s twenty and her friends have been coming to me because they’re so frightened and in need of of modeling and reflection and being seen an affirmation. My daughter has a friend who’s 20 who tried to kill herself just two weeks ago. This baby girl, you know. You know, I’m gonna be 55. And so there are baby girls, you know, to me. And that is how they think of themselves as girls and women in Cree’s crowd and and just feeling so despondent and not understanding how she can do anything about all of the things that she’s seeing. Also, I believe she works walks through the world as an empath. That’s her language. And and I can see it like she’s she absorbs everything and you know, everything through the social media and through our news and there’s a constant barrage of this curated despair. And then also this sense that someone on your Instagram feed is having a much better life than you are. You know, and they’re 20 and don’t really know haven’t really gotten out here good. Yet, you know, and don’t understand a whole lot about the world. Not even, you know about themselves are trying things on and and figuring out who and how they want to be in the world and so on. And so she did she tried to kill herself and her friends rallied and and brought her to me. And so working with there are like four or five of her friends now that talk to me regularly and just guiding them toward their power, sourcing where that is, guiding them back to the sound of their own voices and what does bring them joy. And then in it and leaning into that and expanding that this particular young woman loves to write. And so send me your you know, send me your work, send me your sample, some of your stories. And just having someone bear witness and receive and then reflect her brilliance has helped her so much in places where we share. Her mother got her into talk therapy. She feels very defensive in these spaces with a therapist. She doesn’t feel safe. She doesn’t feel seen. And I’m somebodies mama. So I’ve been able to use that as a point of entry.
So I’m seeing despair and fear among younger folk, among some of the movement leaders that I have gotten to have one on one sound healing work with I’m seeing the same thing. I’m seeing a lot of fear and a lot of grief and an overwhelm. You know, this is too big. This is too much. I can’t get my arms around it. My knowing, my spirit knowing is let us take our eyes off of the big picture. Oh, that’s my gratitude, my alarm. Let’s not look at the whole the big picture. Let’s just bring it in and make our world small for a moment and just focus on practices that we can be inside of to bring ourselves back into our bodies. I find the voice is perfect for that, you know, and because there there are practices that you can do while you’re in your car, go walking down the street or walking through the aisles of a great grocery store or anytime you can hum to yourself, you can hum your name, you can find that mantra that brings you back to the present moment. This is the work that I do with these folks that are, you know, that of are in front of the camera or in front of the crowd or or holding the space of leader inside of different organizations. You know, this sense of I can’t do this, I’m failing. But to look at the big picture is just too much is too much for the spirit is too much, and we’re not supposed to hold it alone, it’s too much for one person to hold. And so those are some of the things, the practices of meditation and of deeper care and centering yourself in your wellness work before you go outside and hold space for other folk. I have seen has been of deep service. And so I also see people hitting the ground and allowing the grief so come out of the body and then gathering themselves and taking care of themselves and then stepping back out into. Into movement spaces. Into community. Into their lives.
Caitlin: Yeah, it’s I mean, I think that’s powerful on so many levels. I think that piece about, you know, when I read the kind of information we have now about. How young folks are? Yes. Where there are suicide spikes. Yes. I think to myself, how could anyone think this is purely a political, social or economic problem? That’s – our young people are giving us a sense of the spiritual problem, the depth of the spiritual problems.
Gina: Yes, they’re telling us something.
Caitlin: [00:12:26] Yes. And they’re telling us about where they’re at in this particular part of the journey. Right. And I also think that there’s something powerful about you and others playing a role that actually gives movement leaders some kind of permission isn’t the right word, but space to say the things we did before, we can’t do now. And there’s grief and that, yes, they don’t work anymore. If they worked then, you know, we think about that. Some of them did Some of them didn’t. But I feel as a person who’s only 38 but has been organizing a long time now, like almost 20 years. One of the biggest contributions I’m making is actually saying this is how I used to do it. Right. This is what this is how I felt realizing I couldn’t anymore. This is how I do it now or this is how I was doing this, I got a lot of feedback that wasn’t working, now I’m trying this. Like those kinds of frames feel like they’re reaching and creating connections much more than the sort of fortified. I got this, you know,
Gina: Right, the mythology of I got this.
Caitlin: Right. I got my loyalty to our folks. It’s just to keep doing what we’ve been doing. But rather to say we don’t know. I don’t know. I was saying like maybe two or three times in the past month, someone has called me privately with some quote unquote, high level problem and I’ve said, I’m so flattered that you think that I have a solution for that. That’s so out of scope for me to know how to, quote, fix what you’re naming and I think that there’s there’s some kind of hunger for the truth of that, that people actually feel like, oh, well, maybe we could imagine or grow into something different together. Yes. Because you’re willing, you’re willing to say that, you know. Yeah. As well as the question of, you know, I would also ask. I think sometimes when people are discussing sort of, quote, the state of movement leaders, they’re immediately going very cerebral, like where they are in our heads. Yes. And one thing I really appreciate about your work, as well as really a sense of like what’s happening in our bodies. So I’m wondering if there’s also places where you’re like, oh, there’s some interesting patterns around what’s happening in the bodies of movement leaders. Yes. And some ways that folks are transforming what’s happening in our bodies.
Gina: Well, I also want to say that sometimes it is giving someone permission. Sometimes it is it. You know, it really is particular to whomever is in front of me and what their coping mechanisms are and how they were what they were weaned on. You know, inside of their homes and in how and where and when and when they enter. Right. And sometimes it is. Yes. You you have permission, you know, and then you can give yourself permission, you know, to lay out today to have an absolute day of wailing, you know, to move and pull his grief out of your body. I am seeing consistently blockages in the solar plexus, you know, and that is around your stomach area. And it corresponds if you follow, you know, to borrow from shock science, it’s all around your will. You know, it’s your will in my lineage. It would be your I am. You know how you know yourself in the world and how you and your follow through. And I’m seeing a lot of trouble in the solar plexus. A lot of you know, and it’s showing up as digestive disorders.
Oh, yeah, yeah. All kinds of issues around gastritis and inability to eat. Or eating to soothe. You know, just general grief and pain in that area. You know, Caitlin, my work is so rooted in the power and agency and wisdom of the person’s body. And so we start there. When I’m working with someone, I generally don’t know their story. I might not even know what they do. Like sometimes folk, I just know I’ve seen your face, you know, because my work is, you know, folks find me word of mouth and it’s best that I don’t know because the story and I and I know as Gina in the world, I’m very interested in where you come from and who your people are. But when I’m inside of spirit and doing this work, that can cloud it, that can get in the way. It can be distracting because the thing you think it is is generally not the thing. And so if I’m not working with any preconceived notion of where you been and what your troubles have been, then I can just to your spirit and I can help you to hear spirit, you know. And so the work is about using the sound of your sound and directing it to your own body. And there are different tones for different organs in the body. And the tone from my liver is gonna be different for the tone for your liver, frankly, because it is now that part is about lineage and line and who you walk with. And so working with folk around toning into their solar plexus and putting themselves there and and also doing these exercises, where will let’s see what’s in there when you tell them what shows up, you know, and it will be that meeting you had last week where you felt stifled or afraid or pissed off or it’ll be, you know, some of the folk who are running this country. You know, you know, wherever your grief and rage, you know, it’ll be that thing that happened 20 years ago, you know, but doing this work of of bringing yourself into your own body and discovering like what is actually what is what is jamming this energy here. And my solar plexus. And once you can locate it and name it, you can reach in and evict it. You can pull it out. You can pull out the energy. And that is a practice in a process. And it doesn’t involve moving grief through the body and creating a sense of spaciousness for what it is you really are calling in and how you wish to be in the world. And so but in constantly I’m seeing that like a jammed feeling sickness or a fear that gets stuck here in the solar plexus. I think it’s really.
Caitlin: t’s so powerful to me, too. When you talk about the relationship of that to will. end to this kind of like the question of like who we think we are, how we are and how we’re actually able to show up. I think one of the things that I’m seeing from my vantage point also working with lots of different movement leaders. But in a very different way than you is, it’s almost like a bewilderment and an anger turned on oneself because the overwhelm is so significant. Yeah. Right. And it can’t really be band-aided or easily triaged. Like it’s not a long weekend. It’s not a couple of weeks. It’s not like, you know, the battle to put down the phone. Right. Like those things are real. They’re helpful. But so many places that I go, I actually am seeing people try to create solutions and yet we know there’s something broken because they’re moving around, something broken. I think about a comrade that we were working with last week, queer women of color, who she cut her teeth organizing. You know, very, very neighborhood level. Poor folks in a major city in the U.S. And she said, you know, I’ve been in movement 20 years because I just believe in the liberation or a people so much. But I was manipulated by white patriarchs around what organizing was – organizing as manipulation – essentially was what she experienced. And then just the difficulty of the work. You know, you take 20 numbers, you call everybody, you get two responses, just the daily grind. And I, you know, I don’t tend to feel a lot of emotion when I do certain pieces of this work. But she said this one thing and I felt all this emotion. She said, you know, but I just can’t stay away. And so I do, I process receipts. I do admin for a movement organization because I can’t stay away from the collective struggle but I can no longer enter in the ways that I was told were the ways to enter. And I was like that I feel like is the core constituency of like a lot of who I work with at this point right now. Like I used to do organizer development. I mostly do organizer retention now in coaching because and I’m not trying to talk anybody into staying in. I’m trying to help them find ways to stay in. But that level of, I think it’s emotion, I think I find it emotional because I just honor that commitment that like depth of loyalty to our communities and to our folks. And yet the way that this work is getting done, which there’s a relationship between – the zombie apocalypse of Trumpism – and this sort of a way, this paradigm has caused so many of our of our folks to be like, I do this one thing that’s fine, but I have other gifts I can no longer bring because if it’s only I can only enter this one way, I can only enter the work in this one way, then I can’t anymore. And I’m like, wow. What is that doing to our spirits? What is it doing to our bodies? How many of us relate to that? You know, it’s really it’s profound to me, you know?
Gina: [00:22:36] Well, yes. And there’s a and there’s another frame, right? Because the breaking down. Is also the opportunity. It’s the opportunity I and I speak from experience. You know, my work. I mean, so as you I know you know, you surrounded by healers and so much, so many folk who do healing work in the world, find their way through their own journeys, through their lives. And so I have a testimony about that, you know, about being exhausted and face to pavement, literally and just I can’t do any more. I can’t do this. And having that be, that cracking open, be the moment of, for me, glory. You know, for me to get myself really get myself like to keep moving through it and to get to the other side of that, because it’s been my experience and the 12 years that I’ve been doing this work. What happens? What has happened? What can happen when you reach an impasse and feel like I can’t do anymore and this is all that I can do. It’s a much deeper root. It’s a rooted thing. It comes from other places, not just the grief and rage and fear of the present moment. Right. Like, that’s enough. Absolutely. The shit that’s going down. And when I start pulling at the through line and tracing it back with folk, we can trace it back to that moment when you were three. And, you know, so on and so on. Like this happened or that happened. And sometimes it’s that horrific happening and sometimes it’s standing in a memory of standing in the middle of the kitchen with your arms race and nobody’s lifting you up. Nobody’s picking you up. You know your mama, too. So you know what that means. And then these are the things that when we get older. Really? Oh, that was such a small thing.
I mean, one of the things we do constantly is measure our grief. We measure our grief against everything. Well, I’m not as bad off as, you know, I actually can do this and do that. And I have my eyes and my body and all the things, all the ways in which we completely donate ourselves. And then the grief just gets stored. It is stored. It gets stored. It gets caught in our throats. We’re swallowing and eating it constantly. And so I would submit that this woman who hit a wall because of all the, you know, all of the things that she shared and that she actually knows her body probably has a deeper knowing, you know, and something else is being triggered and being set off here. And this is the opportunity to actually really gather yourself and get yourself and there are ways are actually lots and lots of ways. Now, I have seen and and I’m so grateful to see healing work being centered in so many movements spaces, because it’s an absolute necessity. You know but and I have seen that it’s that there are other there are other things at play here. You know, there are other things that may have happened that’s triggering that setting off this alarm that reminds you of this time and it completely immobilizes you. And you’re like, why is this thing? You know, and you think it’s the present moment and it’s not. And sometimes it’s lineage grief. You know, like so there’s so much grief and pain. Absolutely. And so much opportunity. It’s like danger and opportunity happening at the same time. And so I stand firmly and rooted inside of the opportunity, because I see it. I see it. I witness it, you know, and I’m in that practice in my own life every single day.
Caitlin: So I think that’s so powerful. So just even the reframe to create the possibility. I mean, I think that’s the piece. I also have been very happy to hear and see a healing justice frame in movement work. And I think there’s also that classic, you know, the salt eaters question. Right? Are you ready? You really ready to be healed?
Gina: Things like are you really like to work? Well, yeah, it’s a lot of work to be well.
Caitlin: You know, I think about. I don’t often reflect on this, but of course it would come up when I’m talking to you. You know, I had an experience in direct action where I took an arrest fairly violently and that the arresting officer was fairly aggressive. And it healed my sexual assault. Something happened in that experience that I completely let it – completely let go. And I think it had everything to do with being confronted with this figure who was very much, you know, a white officer, a lot bigger than me, who you know, what he said to me was like he whispered to me, like, if you don’t get up right now because you’re doing civil disobedience, I’m going to hurt you. I’m going to break your leg. That’s what he said. And I remember having this distinct feeling of being like, you can’t I know you. I know that thing that’s in you that’s saying that. And it can’t hurt me anymore. And it went away. This was years ago and it never came back. It has never come back. And I just say that because I think that, like the spirit moves in such mysterious ways. You know, you have this really pitiful confines of what people think healing is right. Like what’s going to heal you. Right. And it’s just such a privatized, monetized, individual set of experiences. And my experience has been, you know, radical queer sex culture or this arrest or other things have like actually been these things that have been profoundly healing. But inside of a sanitized politics of respectability, you don’t get to talk about that, right?
But I think what you’re talking about is like, well, there’s all these different ways we could actually get to that different place. Are we willing to be who we’re gonna be another side of that? That’s because then it’s like, oh, shit, now I have to go do some stuff right? Or I’m in that situation of the verb of mothering, no matter how we are doing that but obviously you and I are both people on that journey at a very specific way with other humans. Yes. I’m like, oh, yeah, I’m the person doing the picking up. Right? I’m the person who. Who is holding how present or not present I am or can be in any particular moment for a human who, you know, you really come to see how real it is that like they would rather be loved than than eat, they would rather be loved than have water, they would rather be that that have any fucking thing. Yes. And your one or one of two or one of three of the main people that they’re like. I need this thing more than I need to breathe. And you’re the one that I’m looking to for it. Yeah. And what do you do when you hope that, you know, what kind of relationship do you want to have to your own? What relationship are you still willing to have to your own brokenness and your own struggle? Is, I think, the part that, like, my sister has two little boys and she always talks about that like everybody talks about how hard it is but it’s so rarely talked about how spiritually crowding it can be, how much it can pull you off of all this bullshit and oh actually I do have it like that. Yeah like I do have this whole capacity that I didn’t actually know I had. And that to me, it’s not about having some super traditional or patriarchal understanding of like what mothering is, but rather that we’re like, oh, I have all this juice, all this juice I didn’t even know I had for other humans. Right I have this for you. And so when I think about listening to other people I respect who have been doing the work of mothering. And I think about your story about your daughters’ friends, too. It’s like what actually happens when we’re not worried that we don’t have enough to go around? You know, I only my child, only this one. There’s not enough of that. Also, then people like, oh, maybe I have more, right? Yeah. Maybe I have something else. And I’ve seen you bring that energy again and again where people like there can’t be any abundance here, you know. Yes. We’d better lock it all down, you know.
Gina: [00:31:34] Well, that’s part of the curation of these times, isn’t it? And this whole idea that, oh, that’s too much or this is too much. And I’ve had circles where women in the circle, because a lot of my circles are for women and a lot of them are for even more of them are for Women of Color. Like I do a lot of work with Women of Color. And. And I’ve had folk walk away like, oh, I’m afraid, like all that was so much so much grief moved so much. It’s so much as too much to hold. And I say, well, don’t hold it. It’s not for you to hold. Let it go. Let it, you know, let it let it go. Let it spill out over and into the earth. And let’s see who you are then. You know, and and and let’s and I’m not scared. I’m know. I got you. You know, and so but that is part of, you know, what we’re weaned on, what we’re fed is too much and keep yours and only yours. And you don’t have enough and it’s not enough to go around. And all of the lies and shame. Shame is a big one. Shame is shame as a lie and a thief, you know. But you know, this thing about mothering and how our children look to us and how now my daughters’ friends are looking to me because I’m doing mothering here, we will be devoted to the folks that are caring for us, whether they love us forward or not.
You know, it’s part of our wiring and then later on it can be part of the conflict, you know, and in these spaces where we are endeavoring to bring ourselves to help love the world forward. Of course, disappointment and grief and fear are going to strike those chords of, well, what did I get and what did I not get? You know, that’s part of being in the flesh, frankly. And so another thing that I encounter often with folk and movement space is when I’m doing my work is the head is not connected to the body. You know, it’s there’s quite a presence around all things intellect and beautifully cerebral. And there’s not an ability to bring it, you know, down to the root, to the soles of your feet. You know, how does your skin feel? In fact, there is an avoidance of that for fear? For fear of feeling, for fear of the power of sound. And so, you know, bringing it back home again too I submit that there is some beautiful opportunity around healing work that can be done when we are in these places where we feel bereft and exhausted and that we can’t do one more thing. You know, my experience has been that that is really deeply and wholly connected to where you’ve been, where you come from, the lineage and line that you descend from. What has your story been in this country? What has your story been migrating to this country like? What is the story? What is the link? Not that this is not exhausting. It is, indeed. But, you know, how do we keep going? How do we keep moving through? How do we keep finding joy out of we keep finding, you know, sourcing love, you know, how do we care for ourselves, that’s an inside job? Yeah, I am completely inspired by you, and that is not gonna get me out of bed tomorrow.
Caitlin: Yep, yeah. Yeah.
Gina: And so then then that opens up worthiness in practices and it’s such an amazing opportunity and it’s one I think that we will be in for. I know I will be. I have been in practice with most of my life around staying in my body and feeling home. [ambient music begins] And I think it’s it’s it’s that old adage. It’s the journey. It’s not the destination because it will keep changing. And then what is it that we need for these times? What is the medicine for these times? You know, that as well is is something we get to discover when we’re inside of our daily practice, our work, our healing work.
Caitlin: It’s so beautiful to see you.
you too. It’s great.
Caitlin: It was starting to get dark and then your gratitude app. I’m feeling really awake. Yes. And in a lot of appreciation and thank you or doing what you do.
Thank y’all so much for listening. That was a beautiful episode. It was great for me to get a chance to re-listen to it. Please check out the other episodes that are in our older pre-archival pack of Season 4. There are some great folks coming up and more. So if you want to, please check them out. For transcripts and more resources, check out auburnseminary.org/fortification. Fortification is a co-production of Auburn Seminary and Side with Love which is a campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association and it literally happens because of Nora Rasman with additional support from moi, David Beasley, Dan Greenman. Editing support from Wazi Maret and transcript help from Kolenge Fonge.
The creative force of gina Breedlove is as dangerous and delightful as this earth we share. Singer, Songwriter, Sound Healer & Medicine Woman, gina was born in Brooklyn, NY.
She began performing at age 15, singing back up for the incomparable Phyllis Hyman. Since, gina has toured all over the world with artists who, like herself, define and redefine genre; Harry Belafonte, Toshi Reagon, Ronny Jordan, Ani Difranco, Craig Harris, and Sekou Sundiata, to name a few.
She calls her music Folksoul, a coalescence of Rhythm & Blues, with story telling cadences of Folk, Soul, and the gospel truth. Folksoul is music that lifts the Spirit, opens the heart and allows one to find their way. Breathing into the Sound of this woman’s voice, gina embodies healing artistry. An Actress as well, gina created the role of “Sarabi” for the Broadway production of “The Lion King”, and recently appears in 2 Spike Lee films, ”Living Da Dream” for NBA 2k16 and “Chiraq“.
Malkia Devich-Cyril, Gina Breedlove, Malachi Garza at Mountaintop
Caitlin Breedlove: Hi yall, its Caitlin Breedlove, welcome to the cold open for this episode of Fortification. We’ve had some of these shows sitting in the wings for a while, and we’re releasing them as a Summer Season particularly in this time. They are really powerful even though they are not current. As most of you know who listen to this show regularly, its only semi-regularly produced because its a love offering and its nobodies’ full time gig and so sometimes getting these out in the world just takes the time it takes and it has nothing to do with the quality of the conversation at all. So this is a little bit of a different episode. It’s actually a live recording of a conversation that happened between me, Malkia Devich- Cyril and Malachi Garza, and Gina Breedlove. Who you will have heard in episode five of this season in her solo interview. It was a conversation we had in person in front of a live audience in Oakland, California at the Mountaintop Gathering for Auburn.
It feels a lifetime away that we were gathered with that many people in person. But I remember the conversation very clearly because it was very, very emotional and I thought quite vulnerable in terms of sharing and several folks gave us feedback that it was one of the best conversations that happened in the gathering and it felt very connected in large part due to the panel that I was able to interview. Some of the themes include finding joy in movement and community in the midst of loss, grief and transformation; there’s also some interesting weaving in and out of organizing theory and practice, given that we’ve known about or through organizing been around each other some of us for a long time. Given the political space there was also some powerful conversation about resonance. And what does or does not resonate
In some of our progressive doctrines on the ground. For a transcript of this conversation, and more resources, please visit Auburnseminary.org/fortification.
Malkia Devich Cyril: …And so I’m trying to say that not just that romantic love is the answer, but I’m saying that your family, the things that you care about, you know whether maybe its your garden, maybe it is I don’t know what it is, you know, but this is the things that give your life meaning beyond the work. Because the work is not enough, it’s just not enough. And that’s why I quit, because it wasn’t enough. And I don’t know what’s next. You know, maybe next I’ll work in a hospice or maybe next door. I don’t know what I’m to do next. But I know what I know for a fact is that without that family, without that garden, without that pet, without those friends, it doesn’t mean anything, it is unimportant. If you’re not fighting, if you’re not living freedom, then what’s the point of fighting for freedom? You know what I’m saying?
Caitlin: [00:03:20] Greetings, this is Caitlin Breedlove. And you’re listening to Fortification: Spiritual Sustenance for Movement Leadership. You are listening to the Season 4, Episode 6. This final conversation is one I was so thrilled to facilitate during Auburn’s Mountaintop Gathering called Joy and Resistance. It’s a conversation between folks I deeply respect and admire about lessons on resilience, conflict, grief and imagination. And when I was facilitating it, I knew that interest had to be part of this season of Fortification because there were so many gems in it. The conversation took place between Malkia Devich-Cyril, Malachi Garza and Gina Breedlove. Malkia Devich-Cyril is a writer, public speaker, lead founder and now Senior Fellow at Media Justice. Devich-Cyril is also a sci-fi nerd, a communications strategist, and a veteran in the movement for Digital Rights and Freedom, a leader in the Movement for Black Lives, and the widowed spouse of comedian and editor Alana Devich-Cyril died following an intense two year battle with advanced cancer relatively recently I may add here. We’ve had the pleasure of having Malachi and Gina as past guests and encourage you to listen to our previous interviews with each of them and learn more about them through their bios. Thank you again so much for your ongoing love and support over the last many years of this podcast. Please stay tuned.
Ambient music in background ends
Caitlin: [00:05:09] Good evening, everybody, I’m Caitlin Breedlove. I’m really happy to be here. I’m really happy to be here tonight because of my work with Auburn, but also because I have a great deal of respect and love for this panel. And I’m going to let them introduce themselves in just a minute. I wanted to say that sometimes I go into a panel and I haven’t given it actually that much thought. And this one, I actually have given some thought and thought about each of you. And, you know, I think that one of the heavy things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is I think one of the most important James Baldwin quotes for me in this time is actually a really difficult quote that I think a lot of folks are grappling with, maybe difficult for some and not for others. Maybe I’ll know what I’m about to say. But the quote is “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do”. “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.” And I see a lot of young organizers wearing that t shirt. And every time I think, like, what does that mean for them in this moment? What do they want to share with the world in that? And then I think about all of the examples of where we’ve actually deeply lost trust of hundreds and thousands and millions of people who were actually, quote, with us, whatever that means on a broader liberation agenda, but are actually looking at the inconsistency between – and I would say I’ve been organized 20 years. so I feel like a lot of the problems that I see I’ve been part of creating. I’m not at a point in my life where I’m not keeping it real about that anymore. I think I’ve had a role and I know I’ve had a role. But the gulf between who we say we are and our rhetoric and what we’re doing is wide enough that a lot of folks won’t jump in. They won’t roll past it. And I want to say that. And I would not even pretend to think that I would alter a quote. But when I think about all of these three people, I think actually about a different version of that, which is that I believe what you say, because I see what you do. I believe what you say because I see what you do.
And there are other people in this room that I’ve been in deep relationship with that I believe what you say because I see what you do. And every day I’m trying to be the kind of organizer that folks can believe what I say, because they see what I do. And I think that is it. Well, there’s a lot of conversation about healing, y’all. There’s a lot of conversation about healing. But one of the conversations is not enough about is how do we heal, trust, broken, profound, broken trust across race, across class, across sexuality and gender, across geography. I’m a red states person. I’mma keep living in red states. That’s where I live. I have so much respect for folks who live here and other places. But I’m not going anywhere. And in that space, I’m trying to make that gulf smaller every little day. And a lot of times I screw that up and actually really suck at it. So I’m going to stop talking because I really want you to hear from them. But I want to say something to the three of them, which I feel like I’ve had different relationships to y’all’s work, not even just personal care and connection, but to the work that each of you have brought into the world. And I find I’m not very like publicly emotional person. I just feel like the longer I’ve done this, the more gratitude I have for that work. And I just would ask this room before we even hear from them, I would just ask people to show their gratitude for their work. The length of that work? The endurance of that work. All the things that that work has taken that actually I will never know and we might never know. So please join me in thanking them for their work. [Clapping] A little bit later on, I have another drink and then I might ask us to count up the collective years of this work that we’ve done to bring you all the number. And it’s going to be really shocking, you know, it’s going to be deep. So I want to actually start with the questions. And I’d ask that when we answer the first question is, please introduce yourself in the way that you want to be known in this space. So Maklia, we’ll start with you. I know you love that. Our first question tonight is what is joy for you? What is resistance and where do they intersect?
Malkia: [00:09:39] Well, good evening. My name is Malkia Devich Cyril and I’ve for the last 20 years, I’ve been running the Center for Media Justice. But I just quit. It’s no longer my job as a Friday this week, so. Thank you. What is what is joy to me? Well, also, I’ll say I will. It’s a question that I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with. From 2016 to 2018, I was a primary caregiver for my wife who had Stage 4 cancer, and she died last October, October in 2018. And, you know, fifteen years ago, I was also the caregiver or 20 years ago, I was a caregiver for my mother who died of sickle cell anemia at age fifty nine. And 15, 20 years ago when I was a caregiver for my mom, we did that for three and a half years, I started the Youth Media Council in 2002, and that’s when my mom was diagnosed with end stage sickle cell. And 20 years later, you know, the organization has gone through multiple name changes and, you know, whatever. But 20 years later, as I end my time there, I ended it also caring for my wife in hospice.
So my my career in this particular field has been you end noted or in the parentheses of death. And so how then in that? Do you find joy? I think about the fact that for every organizer that knocks on a door, you’re asking someone who’s suffering to move past that, suffering into action. That’s the question that is being asked. And the question is how then do people move to an activation point? Too often we think about anger as the propelling force rage at the conditions. We think as Marxism thought for a long time that the conditions thus that the conditions themselves alone would propel people into action. And we’ve learned that that’s just not the case. We learn that depending on whether you can transform grief into agency. Or whether grief transforms into apathy. That is the decision, that’s the determination as to whether or not you move into liberation or into slavery, right? And I think that in order to do that, we have to stop assuming that joy is the opposite of grief.
We are asking people in war zones. We’re asking people who have lost their children. We’re asking people who we were. Asking people who have lost, some of whom have lost everything to take a risk with us. That’s not an academic exercise. That’s hard to do. I can say that for myself the effort it takes to get up when the things that you’ve counted on, the things that you care about, they’re gone. To make plans to develop strategies for change when you can’t figure out how to eat or you can’t figure out where your next dollar is coming from or whatever. Right. The only way to move through that is to find something you believe in. Is to find some reason to care. Find something that helps you get up in the morning. Now that- that’s joy, that’s not happiness, that’s Hallmark. That’s bullshit. This is we’re talking about authentic joy. Joy that comes from being able being connected. Right. I think about joy is the opposite of alienation. Not the opposite of grief. And the thing is that we live in a economic structure, in a political structure that intends to alienate us, alienate us from the products of our labor, alienate us from each other and alienate us from the natural world.
Death is a natural experience like birth that many of us know nothing about, that we avoid. And that we are afraid of. I am afraid of it. But if we can move into that space of fear, if we can allow ourselves to dig in. I think that we will find more joy than we could ever imagine. And that is what I think helps us to be free.
Caitlin: [00:15:26] [Clapping] Just starting it out with a few deep thoughts, their friend Gina, can we go to.
Gina Breedlove: Hey, family. My name is Gina Breedlove. I am a sound healer. I’m a medicine woman. My medicine is sound. I am also a grief Doula. I use sound to move grief and rage out of the body. If we lived in a different time, my hut would be at the end of our path and you would come and see me for what ails you. And you would bring me chickens and fruit and lay it in front of my door. And you come on inside and I would you sound to reach inside of your solar plexus and pull out that thing. What that looks like these days is y’all just pay me money. Y’all pay a sisters rate. I’m all about lifting up and centering the healers out here as healers are essential to movement work. And that’s something I hear often. Um, y’all will find that I digress quite a bit. Um, and the moon is full tomorrow and I’m going with her. I’m also a vocalist and a composer and an actor.
Joy Is everything for me. I’ll say more about that. I feel an immense amount of joy when I’m holding someone in my arms who is grieving that thing that happened twenty five years ago that keeps showing up. The grief, the grief letting, is joyous to me. I feel a great deal of joy in this moment. I’m looking around this room and being inside of this circle and this ritual. I’m deeply grateful. I feel joy sitting next to Malkia here and Malachi and Caitlin. Folk I love and respect from afar. And this is a gorgeous opportunity. And so I’ve often wondered, is it wiring because I am wired this way. I like so many healers. I came to this work through trauma and and so when things were happening to my body, horrible things, my spirit was. Hold tight. Morning comes, and so I’ve leaned on that and I lean on that to move through the world and to do the work that I do. Persistence. Resistance. I have a problem. I’m challenged by the word resistance. I know that’s not popular. In my spirit resistance feels like pushing, pushing back, pushing, pushing against energy, using my chi to keep something at bay.
Resistance feels like that to me, I climb inside of the word persistence because it feels like something I could use my body weight for. You know, like something that is like breathing, like rolling over in my sleep, you know. And so I am. Yeah, that’s how I feel about the word resistance, and I know that is a very, you know, often used in, you know, deeply centered word inside of our movements, and because I do work with folk who are exhausted. It is the first thing I take out of the body, you know? And so I source a lot of joy from the natural world. I got myself to a tiny town. With red dirt and rivers, and if it cares for me, the landscape takes care of me, and I know that we, I lived in Oakland for eight years and and so I would find beauty here and just go and immerse myself and in that would care take my spirit as well. Finding beauty. And when I lived in Brooklyn, because I’m from New York and I had an apartment that faced a brick wall, I would lean into the light at different times of day on the wall. And so finding these things that helped me move through and keep moving and keep going. That’s my offering for that answer. Thank you.
Caitlin: [Clapping] Malachi?
Malachi Garza: [00:21:11] Wow. Wow. It’s like the lights came up and it’s 2:00 a.m. at the club. And everyone’s really smart. And I’m like “I’m here too.” Totally a club moment because I’ve been there before [Laughing]. What an incredible offering already. Thank you both so much.
First thing I thought about was, was this like, quote, I guess it called a verse because it’s in the Bible. It’s like a quote from the Bible. I’m going to quote the Bible. I don’t know. One of those three is but this. One of the things I find a lot of joy. No. I find a lot of joy and humor. And It’s never be so hard. And what we are against is so hard. And we break our hearts over and over in this work. And to laugh and to find joy and to be silly. Mac cracks me up all the time, and I think it’s one of the reasons I have loved them for 20 plus years. But this verse is a little more on the serious side. And it’s 2:Corinthians 4, verse 8 and 9, which says we are pressed on every side, but not crushed, perplexed, but not in despair, persecuted, but not abandoned. Struck down, but not destroyed.
And I think about this quote. As we framed it and put it on my mother’s wall when we were facing a cancer diagnosis, that was, that was incredible. And I’ve thought about having the little picture, had a rock and a stream flowing next to it, very like doctor’s office-y. Then I find like what will be if this grief does the rock and our fear is the rock, what is the water and how did we want to be shaped? Because there’s no fire. That we can bring. We must adapt and and be water. Or are we the stone? And in those moments, it was our relationships and community that brought us joy, any joy in the face of despair. And poisons and everything.
Our people. Ah, I had like notes that are all on something else, but we had to basically work to use joy as an antidote. And as joy of a practice of creation. Because when things are so bleak. There’s no like work to fix it. There’s no special thing. And so to find ways to use joy as an antidote to suffering was like a very intentional practice.
And we found joy in memory and in some times my granny would say she’s like ninety six now. And she’ll sometimes I’ll go in there and she’s like. Hold on, I’m playing tennis.And I’m like, you ain’t playing tennis girl, you are bedridden. What she said when I close my eyes, I’m nine years old and I’m playing tennis in Memphis. And it made me think about sometimes, even sometimes I find weird, like I know it’s sadistic or what, but joy in the times where I’ve overcome and been sort of really low, like 15 year old street kid like looking for cigarette butts to smoke because I’m hungry. But now I think about I’m in this foundation office telling them who to fund like, damn.
Well, sometimes we would. And then we would play that game with her family. Remember when Chip was more fucked up than this? I actually feel better now? Right. So I just I guess what I’m saying is that I think our memory is a powerful place to go when what is around us is breaking our hearts. And the other thing I’ll say is that sharing the impacts of our work and of our joy with each other.I think I’m tired of going out for drinks or being in a meeting and people having so much negative stuff to say about this leader, about this organization, about this thing. It’s negative, negative, negative. And so I I had a guy one time, my friend Shaka. He had the practice of like he never talked bad about anyone. And so I would be like be like Shaka. And I will like literally keep a tally of like how hella negative, negative, negative, negative, and then be like, what can I say that’s positive about anyone or anything? And so I’ll be like, anyone know Lisa Anderson? She’s amazing. And they’re like, I don’t know that person or like we’re at a football game? And I’m like, well, let me tell you all about Lisa Anderson. Right? And like being an intentional being somebody who uses joy to intervene in spirits of negativity and of and of where we are addicted to tearing ourself asunder. Yeah. Use joy as a weapon.
Caitlin: [00:27:25] Pretty much. I can’t believe there’s other questions on this panel because I’m feeling full already.
Malachi: I’m in the club. I’m drinking too much [Laugher]
Caitlin: Mm hmm. So the next question is about social movements for liberation, a thing that folks might have a couple of thoughts about on this panel. And I was thinking about how like, I mean, it has been the honor and joy and grace of my life to be trained into and asked to make a lifetime commitment to movements. I still honor that. And I’m still in love like I was 20 years ago when I didn’t know shit, that I was doing, but it’s been a really hard relationship. And I was telling Malkia here earlier I was like, then, you know, when they try to break up with you on a Tuesday, you try to break up with them on Tuesday and Friday they’re like, oh, we’ll see you at 5:00, I’ll pick you up for a drink. And then by the time it’s Friday damn, if you are not ready to go again and like, get in the car, go, you know. And I think I think about that a lot in this time. And the question that I have for you all is given. How hard they can be on our spirits. How are you doing the work that is still yours to do inside of social movements? How do you actually resource and sustain that role? So let’s go, Gina. And then Malkia here and then Malachi
Gina: I’m a solo practitioner. And so my time in and out of spaces has been a call. A call for support. A call for help. A call to hold space. A call to help grief move through a space. And so. And I spend a lot of time alone in my home or with my daughter once in a while with friends, but it feels like that’s the path. I mean, lone, not lonely, although sometimes lonely. And I’ve learned to find the medicine inside of that because I believe there is medicine in everything. And so that question, what I think about Caitlin is coming into spaces and where folk are and some of the harm that I’ve seen inside of these spaces. And in my response, sometimes it’s an urgent call, so I feel like a first responder in. Is to bring folk back to their own bodies, you know, in these circles, in these groups we were talking earlier about when there’s disruption or discord the go to would be to blame for myriad reasons, family. You know, we we are so afraid of accountability for myriad reasons and. And in really those reasons can be particular to whomever is standing in front of me. I almost always trace it back to something from either lineage line or something from early childhood. Really. And when I when I am inside of spaces where folks are not being accountable and being unkind and tearing each other up, when I get to sit with folk, invariably we will trace that back to that time when I was twelve years old and or this trauma stuck here or. And and so I have found that daily practice, daily practice is key to salvation. What is your daily practice when you rise in the morning?
Do you reach for the device? Do you take a few moments to breathe into your body? Do you meditate? Do you pray? How do you pray? How do you take a knee if you take a knee? How do you bow? That feels like an essential practice to me as well. And it could be that gorgeous redwood in your backyard. I mean, I see. Got it in all of us. I see God everywhere. And that’s my practice. And so but in spaces I come in, I hold. And then I go. I go. So I’m not affiliated with one organization. When the unique opportunity of that is I get to work with folk who are doing all kinds of work adjacent or just I’m focused on food justice, I’m focused on reproductive justice. You know, and sometimes folks aren’t talking to each other across these lines. But the consistency of grief and exhaustion is the same. And so, you know, there’s no magic knowing or answer. There’s practice, there is coming into your body and there are all kinds of ways and practices. I practice sound introducing folk or reintroducing folk to the sound of their own voices and the power inside of your own voice and how to use your voice in service to yourself and your own body before you bring it into a room to be of service to our larger – to the larger body.
Because, of course, when we walk into spaces, we bring in all our grief and all our story. And so I’ve found that that’s a powerful practice.I am grateful, I just received a grant to do work around Reproductive Justice in the South. And so it feels to me like now I have an opportunity to call it into spaces before folks are falling out, you know, and and be inside of these practices and and do introduce and share these practices from my alter to your alter and on wellness and wholeness and how to let things go, how to evict those things from yourselves that have taken up residence, that are attached to the grief in the world. And that’s in a field so big and so much.
When often I find is that three year old who’s sitting under the table because this horrific thing just happened, you know. And so when we’re faced with the grief, we’re that in that moment, again, the body memory. And so.
[00:34:24] So constancy, the constancy of practice, daily practice centering yourself. Really? I know the word self-care has been deeply co-opted. But centering yourself, centering yourself the way you are, centering the movements that you are inside of, you know, and leading with that, really leading with that, you know. Yes, I’m going to go and be on that frontline. But first, I have an amazing breakfast and. And then I might soak in the tub for 30 minutes and creating the spaciousness for that often to inside of spaces. I find that there is a donation of self. You know, I’ll give you my lungs. Here’s my womb. You know, I’ll make some space on my liver for that thing. I am, you know, being extreme. But just to point out what I have seen, like we keep we keep swallowing it and we must not do that.
And so figuring it out through practice and inside of community and introducing ourselves to our voices so that we can ask for help. Where we can say that no, or we can say that yes. And so these are all just, it’s daily practice. It’s is it doesn’t happen like this. I’ve been practicing for many years. I stay in practice. I stay in practice because this construct that we have co-created is rather terrifying. So I must stay and practice. So I hope that, you know, I realize that I’m not affiliated with any organizations, I go in and out of spaces and I. Yeah. So. Yeah.
Malkia: [00:36:20] So the question is, how do I sustain myself? Do I sustain myself?
Caitlin: Your role in this work.
Malkia: In the past 18 months, I have attended to five deaths. My friend Art. My wife. My Godsister. My uncle and a friend of mine who I became health proxy to and that happened last last week. Last week? Last week and a half. I tell you this because, I say this because. That’s not all the grief. Right, there’s all the childhood stuff? I don’t even think about that. I’m so, so focused on what’s happening now. You know, but there’s all of the social and the environmental stuff. You know, to the day to day aggressions that you experience, that I experience. And within all of that you know, you’re supposed to go to work, be a professional. Now, I can say with all honesty, I am not a professional. Sometimes I wish I was. Maybe things would have been easier for me. But I’m not. I’m an organizer for sure, you know, I was raised in social movements. But I’m not a professional, you know. And so. The thing that has been most important for me in terms of sustained, sustaining me has been my authenticity.
What’s true is that I don’t lie. It’s been a problem for me in the past. My mother told me, you know, think about truth in terms of whether or not people need to hear it at that time, you know. But on the other hand, it’s been a useful thing now that I honed it a little bit, you know, in that I find that telling the truth about myself Ccreates less room for me to worry about was what’s wrong with other people. I deal with the mirror. That’s my primary relationship. And it’s also, if I’m dealing with critique, if I’m critiquing you, it’s cause my spirit is wrong. And there’s a place for critique. Don’t get me wrong, you know, critique is necessary, just like conflict is necessary. It helps us grow. Contradiction is required for us to learn. That’s how we learn through mistakes and contradictions. But I think what I’m trying to say is that, I’ve been more concerned with my own growth and my own challenges, and I’ve been very transparent about those, and I think that that’s actually something that’s not valued very much in the movement.
We say we value it. But in fact, we tell people to leave their stuff at the door. We say that we’re about healing from trauma, but you don’t really want somebody traumatizing your organization. Right. You know, you know, because traumatized people behave badly. That’s just the truth. So so we have to find a, we have to figure it out. You know, in terms of thinking about. What kind of, what we’re building in terms of building movements, if we understand that white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism these are violent structures, they are abusive structures and they demand an abusive relationship and we understand that we are both surviving, we are victimized, we are surviving and we are participating in all of that. Then sustaining myself becomes like self acknowledgment, an authentic reflection becomes a part of how I continue. Does that make sense?
I write on Facebook a lot. I mean, this is stupid. I mean, I write to my wife. You know, I write. But I do it in part because it’s a way for me to take public inventory. And I do take public inventory because I believe the idea of hide nothing from the people, you know, boundaries are important, don’t get give me wrong. You know me boundaries. And I’m not talking about not having a private life. That’s not what I mean. I mean that so much of the things that happen to us and that we experience and that we feel they’re actually part of our public life, they’re part of our work, they’re part of our effort at change. And too often I believe organizers and movement leaders hide behind this wall of like intelligence, intellect, analysis, being correct, you know. And I think that that wall actually is part of alienation is not actually part of the movement. You know, part of building movement, I think it’s a problem. So authentic self-reflection is one of the ways.
The second thing that’s been most important to me has been laughter. My wife was a comedian. It’s one of the things she was, she was a stand up comic. And you know when she was in hospice. And you know, Malachi was there for somebody else and she would need to do things to her that were very painful. You know the cancer was in her spine. So it’s extremely painful. She suffered and what she demanded in order to deal with the suffering was that we sing The Brady Bunch theme song, you know, or the Facts of Life theme song or whatever, some kind of, you know, sitcom theme song as loud as possible, you know, and that’s that’s how we lived. You know, everything between us was funny and fun. And I found that in the seven years that we were together, my work improved, my organization’s budget expanded, my work was better because I was happy. So my joy was part of my sustaining my work, you know, me having a life, a family, my own family meant that my leadership was improved. And so I think that, you know, one of the things about, you know, we expect you to step in and be an executive director. And I know myself, I just was dropped into that role. You know, I wasn’t I didn’t ascend into that role in any way. I didn’t know what I was doing, you know, 20 years ago. I hope I know something now, you know, but before most of that time, I was miserable. I can honestly say I was fighting, I was doing. I’m great at campaigns. I was winning. But I was unhappy. And when I fell in love with my wife, I became happy. And so I’m trying to say that not just that romantic love is is the answer, but I’m saying that your family, the things that you care about, you know, whether maybe a show garden maybe is. I don’t know what it is, you know, but this is the things that give your life meaning beyond the work as a work is not enough. It’s just not enough. And that’s why I quit, because it wasn’t enough and I don’t know what’s next. You know, maybe next I’ll work in a hospice or maybe – I don’t know what I’m to do next. But I know what I know for a fact is that without that family, without that garden, without that pet, without those friends, it doesn’t mean anything It is unimportant. If you’re not living freedom, then what’s the point of fighting for freedom? You know what I’m saying? So that’s what sustains me is building my life right now in the vision of what I want.
Malachi: [00:46:20]This nice way to go. Way to go. Well, ok. I’m really stuck. After listening to these answers. [alarm rings] Ok, next question back to Malkia, all right.
So I’ve thought a lot about this this question in the last couple hours. And I think like many of us, we choose to head straight into sites of suffering. As something we do sometimes the majority of hours of every day. And I think there’s a lot of people that are good people that don’t choose that. And I think that, when I think back on some decades of work. Getting children out of prisons, I think about the trauma and how we carry that in our bodies and our spirits and our souls. And I was thinking about, well, what is the opposite of that?
And I have thought a lot about sanctuary. Kind of ironic; Auburn – into sanctuary. But it made me think about where do I find my sanctuary? There’s this word ecumenical? All spiritual people were medical. Right. Thank you. I was thinking about the ecumenical spirits of solidarity and love. Right. And that’s not like out of a certain tradition or anything. But it’s that like – something familiar, what you’re describing when you know you are in the arms of a beloved community, a beloved presence, what that can do, and so I thought a lot about how I stay in. Is that for me, their relationships are everything. And those who have organized with me, I probably pissed you off because I’ve probably been like, oh, this is the agenda? We’re not doing that because the people are right in front of us demand something different.
What we thought about when we strategically planned four years ago has not shit to do with what’s going on today. It’s horrible. It’s sad that we have all these systems, paper. But to me, relationships and caring for each other as primary over a deliverable or an agenda is what brings me joy. Sometimes it is in the horror of the face of the facilitator, like, Oh, we’re rocking today. We’ve got to stretch. It’s too much. But also like what was deep as I came in here with a very heavy heart. I came in here like having, being in one of those spaces with our beloved movement actors where we are quick to anger, where the pain is very up top. And the people that we blame for our pain are sitting right in front of us.
And I felt like I didn’t do enough. Did it mediate to happiness? No. And then somebody ran up here, Look what I was walking through those damn doors and so thank you so much for your work this weekend. It was so important. And impactful and fantastic. It was like, what the fuck is happening? Did Lisa pay this person what’s going on, right. But it was a wild to me, one that when you are in right relation with folks, how fast that word travels.
This person wasn’t even in that state yesterday with me. I had no idea that they would even be connected to that formation. And I realize when I look around even this room. Malkia here may be known since maybe 2001, 1999, be like Prince. Caitlin maybe 2003. Lawrence maybe 2007. Emmanuel maybe 2014. And so to me, the relationships have to be at the center of our strategies that how we form our organizations and how we form our plans. I don’t really want to look at another campaign plan that talks about anything in Oakland that doesn’t think about how we can share our excess of housing or clothing, if it’s something that doesn’t sit in our interdependence and the abundance we actually have to share. I don’t want to look at your fucking campaign plan about whatever it is. And so I think the biggest one is relationships to me, and the second one is around being humble and leaning into fault. It keeps me in that when people have critique and when they’re coming, this sucks and you suck this org sucks. And I’m like – It does. I do. We all are a disaster. That’s pretty much true. I got hella issues. Pancho got issues. Breedlove pleather pants. Not an issue – other issues. [Laughter]
Right? And our desire, I think as like leaders and feeling like the weight of all of this burden and importance and everything’s on fire is when we see that we want to just put water on the fire. We want to, we almost actually want to control and suppress the problem. And instead we have to be like wildlings and lean into the fucking problem. Like there is no control and there is no suppression. There is only growth and generativeness. And so let’s lean into what has happened. Let’s bring in the appropriate supports but let’s create something new out of what we’ve done.
Caitlin: [00:53:28] Ok. Well, I’m going to be like that and be organic and mix it up. So we’re gonna do one more question and then we’re gonna close out. And then if folks have questions, comments, thoughts, let’s not do the thing where we run up on every individual question on the panel. But there will be time. You know, folks can be together. So the final remix I have on the last question is I was sitting here thinking like, oh, my God, we need more of this. Not that anyone in movement thinks we need more panels per say, as a structure that anyone like that is saving us. Malachi’s like what what are you doing Breedlove?
But these dialogs, this kind of conversation that actually does make an intervention on some of the stuff that I see and hear every day and also actually engages some counter-weight space around what’s become some of the incredibly normalized toxicity. Right. Incredibly normalized. And so my question is, you know, what is your hope for what you want to see proliferate in movement right now, specifically going into 2020 for all the different things? Those four numbers together mean for different people in this room. I don’t think they mean the same thing for everyone. I don’t think the consequences are the same for everyone. I don’t think the time frame or even the way we’re thinking about time is the same, in the same kind of way.
I live in Arizona. I am completely not from there and I make a home there. And so it means something really fucking specific to me right now and my 2 year old kid. So I hold that in a very specific way, but I say it more broadly. Knowing that doesn’t mean the same thing for everybody in the same kind of way. But my question is, what is your hope for what you want us to proliferate in movement as we move into this time? So going to start with Malkia, then Gina, then Malachi.
Malkia: [00:55:44] Ok. So I’m in this grief group, right? And, you know, in that group. We talk about. What happened? You know. Each one of us talks about what happened, and one of the things that often comes up is a lot of people in that group have lost a job. They lost their housing because, you know, you’re a primary your caregiver for somebody you living with them. You not working, you taking care of them. They die. Now you’ve got no place to live. You know? Or you go to work and you’re a caregiver, so you work, like I did from hospital rooms and, you know, infusion centers and, you know, bed sides. And, you know, I’m saying, like, you can’t travel because you can’t be away for that long and you can’t afford private care. You know what I’m saying? And so you lose your job. You’re suffering and so you get disciplinary action. You flash on people, you know. Now, my organization and I was at the helm of it. So it’s my responsibility. I am the one who could have made this change, but I did it. My organization has no infrastructure in place to deal with that. Does yours? So that’s one thing. You know, I think that we need to think about grief differently. I think that we need to create infrastructure to support and manage grief in our organizations. I think that there’s actually no reason really to work five days a week and that’s capitalism that’s telling you. That’s how you supposed to work. You know, if we got choices, we are in charge. We can make the change. We can do it differently. So why don’t we? That’s one thing.
The other thing that I want to see. Proliferate is…look, I think about, you know, how the FBI used Martin Luther King’s cheating as a tool to discredit him. And he was cheating. That’s true. They didn’t make that up, that was happening because patriarchy is the number one wedge in social movements, in my opinion. Because relationships. That’s how surveillance works. It interferes with relationships. Now, back in the day, they used, you know, snail mail and they use snitches. They put this this jacket on, you know, I’m saying like they used infiltrators and agents, you know, today they might use technology and other tools. But the fact is that, when your relationships are poor, your ability to be divided is extreme. And so I would like to see a renewed focus on relationships. I would like us to think about relationships as the smallest unit of security. I would like us to think about relationships as the only way, like an organized community is a community built on relationships. That’s the way I think we need to move. I think we need to reorganize our campaigns, I think we need to reorganize our programs in order to center relationships, because then we wouldn’t fire people who flash because they lost you know, they lost a momma. You know, to me, like we would do something else for them, something different.
And I think the last thing that I want to see is I want us to stop blaming ourselves for our inability, our fault for the ways that we have to date failed to care for each other and care for ourselves and start blaming the real culprits – white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism. I’m saying like we can sit up here and talk about self-care. We can sit up here and people have done this with me. Told me you need to take better care of yourself. You’re right. So are you gonna take care of my wife while I take better care of myself? So the thing is blame is not useful. It just saying is not useful. It feels good, but it’s just not useful. So I would like to see us begin to place responsibility where it belongs. And at the same time, in doing so, build our agency towards our own care and make that care a collective process, something that supported the infrastructure and institutions.
Gina: [01:01:29] I would like to see healer’s on site. You know, when I go into organizations and whole circles or work one on one with folk and I’m given the tour – this is our kitchen and this is where our healer sits and holds space and folk come during the day to grieve or to move whatever is on their hearts, whatever is feeling burdensome and to be held. I would love to see that. I know that the value and the power of it and also I would love to be in spaces. It’s happened recently, which is why some my spirit where. It’s all done in circle. A onvening, Breaking out in small groups. And over here. Mic wasn’t intended, though. And then over in one corner. There is someone actually doing work, laying hands or sound or whatever it is, whatever the medicine is at, the practitioner is offering inside of the convening inside of the circle. And I had the grace of of of experiencing that recently. So I got to see what it looked like. And and it was amazing. It didn’t stop the flow. As I sat, a woman came and laid in front of me. And over here, folks were meeting and laughing and doing their thing and strategizing. And then on this side, folk were like in a huddle and like it was all happening at the same time. And, you know, she got some some medicine and she moved some grief and said she had just had an operation and she had come and because she wanted to be you know, she had to keep being a part of what was happening to move this work forward. And she put her body at risk and she knew that. And she was so I’m so relieved to see you and just laid in front of me, got some time and got up and went back to her circle.
And, you know, and that was it for all the reasons touched. Love being seen. Being held. Being reflected. All of those things and having that sound medicine, which is what I could give her eeiki practitioners or all all the beautiful offerings. You know, I would love to see that at every circle and every meeting. And also not in secret. Not and yeah. Grief is a part of living and being able to be held and witnessed in it and move it out of the body creates so much incredible opportunity. And so, yeah, I would love to see that.
Malachi: [01:04:28] OK, so the big question. I think part of how I think about this is very rooted in crossborder raised. So welcome here to the Bay, to Oakland. For those who come from from somewhere else, from afar. We have a beautiful, a beautiful reality, but that often I think of the political work in the movement here as a symphony of failure because we have a million instruments in our orchestra. You can’t walk down a street, let alone after gentrification movement, gentrification. But you leftists everywhere. Movement people everywhere. Nonprofits everywhere. You know, it’s – some people call it a bubble – which would be cool if we had some power.
But like, what does it mean to have, like, leftist revolutionary? Like, my Che hat. And we can’t elect more than like maybe one and a half progressive city council people. What the fuck is that? We have like the most tent cities going up everywhere. Yeah, right. How much disproportionately does the coast get of national giving? We got like 70 percent of them, not proper resources right here, and this is like where we’re at. So I think, how I think about it is very informed of where I’ve been born and raised. And think it’s also informed by my experiences of like being that Queer Gay-by whose like spared changing in the Castro watching like people come out of there like fifteen hundred dollar lunches and maybe throwing us a nickel. And I had these like dreams when I was younger that like maybe because I was, I’m like a preacher’s kid and I kind of grew up in and out of the far right. And I had an idea of like Castro. I’ll be able to go there and I thought I pictured in my mind like this kind of like middle aged, gay white man, like handing me an apple. It’s like very Adam and Eve in a weird way.
I swear to god, literal, you know. And I thought, like, that’s where the like, evil slash really great people will be, you know, to read like this is where the where I’m supposed to be like, oh. And then realizing like the reality of the situation and the hordes of other queer, homeless, queer and trans youth that are homeless that live all around in the streets, around the most predominant gay street of any mega city that has the most wealth in the country. And so when I think about these things, I think about one: that we have to start organizing where we are. It’s weird to me that I, like, sit in my little home office and I’m like working on political projects across the country or the world, and I don’t really know who my neighbors are like. We just moved. So like, ok, little Grace there, but really like our work in our nonprofits, we are like outside of where the reality of everyday people are. And I think until we start to organize around our own independence and the people who are actually living and breathing and next to us, we are going to keep missing the mark. And I think about that culture and practice come first and then policies and systems. And so if we created a reality in Oakland where everyone shared their excess of X, Y or Z or we started doing co-operative ownerships because we made it so. Then what would housing policy begin to look like? Right. But we want to have the right line to develop the right policy to save the day. So if I had my way, we would do our work completely inverse to how we are doing it now. And I think we would build organizations for mass engagement.
So like right now, either you’re like the lumpenproletariat, homeless, desperate, pretty desperate, just totally fucked or you’re like sort of a helper like. And that is who is mostly like people seek to engage in our work. And until we build vehicles and projects big enough so that the daycare worker, the dog walker, the doula, the doctor, the richie, the pooree, my hairdresser, a colorist, could actually participate in our movement and in our work and in our political work if we aren’t building organizations that are broad enough that we could actually plug in all of our relations. We will stay small. We will stay insignificant with our 10 friends who are really smart.
So I will just say the last thing is that we should actually govern. Like I came up in a very lefty, lefty ness in a time generation coming in the movement that was like fuck voting, fuck the man, systems, you know, my anti-capitalist I’m all these things. And then we kind of like what the Nazis take over. That was a mistake.
So I’m very interested in how do we actually do work that is interconnected to those that literally are next to us and that when we build organizations that deal with the fact that so-and-so doesn’t have child care or so-and-so is losing their job because their wife is ill and we attend to that and that’s our strategic plan, then we will have organizations big enough that masses can plug in because the hairstylist is like, my brother is sick and I also need that. And then we will have enough power because we have enough people we can win any damn election in any fuckin city and then we can govern how our people deserve.
Caitlin: [01:11:23] All right. Now, that Mic just wants to be on the floor [Laughter] Yeah. Just wants to be on the floor. It’s feeling the energy. So my my parting wish for this group tonight, when I think about all three of y’all, I think about what it means to have the courage to go inside the body, all the bodies, where it really hurts, where it’s really bleeding, where it’s really coming from. And I think about what Malkia you said in the first part of this conversation around what it means that we’re actually, when we knock doors, what we’re asking people to do is take a risk on us. That means they’re moving through suffering, that there could be a possibility that we’re bringing something that’s actually good matters or meaningful to their door. And that is not a given. Every single relationship we have, every moment of trust is something that we have to earn. We have to think about how we’re actually worthy of it. So my hope for us tonight in this process and Mountaintop my hope for my myself, because I sure know I need it many times, is that we actually be worthy of making that ask to folks. Right? and that we actually take all of the resourcing and gifts we’ve been given and all the possibilities we have and also all the suffering and understanding and pain that we have for where a lot of our folks are. And we’re able to bring that into the work and that we’re able to do it in a way that it’s not only privatized, because that’s the other thing I think about when I hear Malachi, this whole conversation about public and private y’all.
Private just means it’s only for a couple of people. Public means is for everybody. The reason that we’re getting our ass handed to us by the next generation is that they know that. And the sooner we’re willing to admit that, the sooner we’re gonna be in a different kind of way. Because private is just another way to talk about that. It’s only for a couple folks. And so how do we actually then make that a public commitment that it’s not just for our buddies and the 10 people we like, like Malachi said, that it’s for everybody, even the people that we’re really into you and that we’re actually able to to do the work of accompaniment that our comrade Poncho teaches me about again and again. That I forget that he helps me understand it again and again, right in a way where we’re actually thinking about what is that privilege to get to accompany our folks and always telling them what to do, not always thinking we know best, but actually it is to find it is a gift to get to accompany them, just to get to walk with them and the struggles that they have. [Ambient music] And how does that move us and touch our lives? How does that move us along when we think that we don’t have anything, anything left for it? We don’t have anything left. So I hope you will join me in showing some appreciation for this panel. [Clapping]
Thank you so much for listening to this beautiful conversation, it was so great for me to be able to re-listen to it. Please check out our listing of season 4. For transcripts and more resources, as usual check out auburneminary.org/fortification. Fortification is a co-production of Auburn Seminary and Side with Love, a campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association and it literally happens because of Nora Rasman, with additional support from moi, David Beasley, Dan Greenman. Editing support by Wazi Maret and transcript support from Kolenge Fonge.
The creative force of gina Breedlove is as dangerous and delightful as this earth we share. Singer, Songwriter, Sound Healer & Medicine Woman, gina was born in Brooklyn, NY.
She began performing at age 15, singing back up for the incomparable Phyllis Hyman. Since, gina has toured all over the world with artists who, like herself, define and redefine genre; Harry Belafonte, Toshi Reagon, Ronny Jordan, Ani Difranco, Craig Harris, and Sekou Sundiata, to name a few.
She calls her music Folksoul, a coalescence of Rhythm & Blues, with story telling cadences of Folk, Soul, and the gospel truth. Folksoul is music that lifts the Spirit, opens the heart and allows one to find their way. Breathing into the Sound of this woman’s voice, gina embodies healing artistry. An Actress as well, gina created the role of “Sarabi” for the Broadway production of “The Lion King”, and recently appears in 2 Spike Lee films, ”Living Da Dream” for NBA 2k16 and “Chiraq“.
Malkia Devich-Cyril is an award winning writer and public speaker on issues of digital rights, narrative power, Black liberation and collective grief; as well as the lead founder and former Executive Director of MediaJustice — a national hub boldly advancing racial justice, rights and dignity in a digital age. After more than 10 years of organizational leadership, Devich-Cyril now serves as a Senior Fellow at Media Justice. Devich-Cyril is also a sci-fi nerd, a communications strategist, a veteran in the movement for digital rights and freedom, a leader in the movement for Black lives and the widowed spouse of comedian and editor Alana Devich-Cyril, who died following an intense two year battle with advanced cancer.
In 2002, Malkia Devich Cyril helped coin the term “Media Justice”, and in 2019 declared that one significant goal of the Media Justice movement was to “fight for a future where we are all connected, represented and free.” For more than 20 years, Devich-Cyril has organized communities of color and other under-represented groups against media bias and for an open and affordable internet, the abolition of discriminatory high-tech law enforcement, and accountable tech platforms and companies among other human rights safeguards in a digital age.
Malachi Larrabee-Garza is the Founding Director of Innovative Justice Solutions (IJS). In this role, Malachi provides strategic consultation to businesses and institutions, specializing in scaling operations and impact through cross-sector collaboration. Malachi is also proud to be a 2019-2021 Rosenberg Foundation Leading Edge Fellow, building reparations based projects within the emerging cannabis economy and the governance thereof.
Malachi’s previous work includes directing a California-based alliance of elected officials, policy and advocacy organizations focused on the decarceration of the California juvenile justice system. Previous to this work, Malachi directed a U.S.-based network of over 250 organizations working to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities within justice systems and scaling community-based alternatives to the criminal justice system. Malachi serves on the Board of Directors of Auburn Seminary, the Griffin-Gracy Educational Retreat & Historical Center, and Southerners on New Ground. In 2015 Malachi received the VotoLatino Innovators Award for their work to bridge the technological divide for families with incarcerated loved ones. In 2009 Malachi was a founding trainer of the widely acclaimed Brown Boi Project. Malachi has been working 24/7 to build a liberation-focused movement for the past 21 years and deeply believes that we will win.
Abolition in Covid-Times
Weaving Strategies for Healing Justice & Transformative Justice
This conversation features co-hosts Cara Page and Caitlin Breedlove in conversation with organizers Shira Hassan, Mia Mingus and Sonali Sadequee. Many of us had reached out to each other, reflecting on the questions; what can abolition, survival and transformation look like in these Covid-Times? This podcast episode is the result.
(ambient music in background)
Caitlin Breedlove: Hey everybody is Caitlin Breedlove welcome to another special edition of Fortification. Alongside Cara Page, Susan Raffo, Anjali Taneja, we’re coming off a real success and interest in the collaboration that we did around COVID-19: Past, Present and Future. We curated and held that conversation and we’re back with a follow up. So this time we’re going to be talking about the connections between Healing Justice and Transformative Justice as well as what are Healing Justice and Transformative Justice and I’ve been thinking about the subject a lot because so many folks that I know in my work with Women’s March in other places that are really pretty centrist basis of organizations with big bases, a lot of folks who are new to activism have been asking questions about this and I was super thrilled when actually Anjali Cara and Susan and it really is an idea coming from that. So the credit here for making this happen really goes to them. So you can find all of our episodes on iTunes Spotify Google play or wherever your podcasts are found. And for the transcripts more you can visit in Auburnseminary.org/fortification.
And I also want to say because you are missed it before we were on, but literally the first 15 minutes of trying to figure out the tech of this conversation was like an amazing family reunion for me. I was laughing so hard we had to cover this just first sentence multiple times, this is just beautiful to be here with this group of people to be to be honest, particularly in this time. So we actually kick off this conversation speaking to that interconnectedness. Cara is going to do most of the questions here, but I’m going to start us off by just asking everybody to speak to how they’re connected in movement and Anjali, I want to start with you.
(00:02:09) Anjali Taneja: Thank you Caitlin. My name is Anjali Taneja, and I’m excited to be part of this conversation. Not quite part of the conversation right now, but inviting others to this conversation and being a part of creating this episode. My work in movement in the last decade-and-a-half has been around working to build systems for health and healing that makes sense to communities and that are embedded in Healing Justice and Transformative Justice together. So I’m excited about this conversation and I’ve known everyone on this podcast for a long time and have such a great respect for everyone. So that’s what I’m bringing to this and will pass it back to you.
Caitlin: Cara can we hear from you?
(00:03:00) Cara Page: Yes, I’m so excited to be back with the family as you said so beautifully. I am coming by way of Brooklyn and by way of my political home in the South: Atlanta Georgia and Durham North Carolina. And for 20 years I spent many many many hours, many minutes, many movements with much of this crew on this podcast. As a cofounder of Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, which Caitlin, and Sonali, and Shira are co-founders of and as co-founder of the Atlanta Transformative Justice Collaborative which Mia, Sonali and I are co-founders of. And then Healing Justice and Transformative Justice work inside the Medical Industrial Complex which I’ve been building with Anjali and Susan Raffo for over a decade since the Detroit US Social Forum. So I feel very honored to be part of something, we’re in a new portal, right now inside of COVID-19 and all the uprisings. So I’m very excited to see what evolves out of this conversation and what is possible for all of us in movement. Thank you.
Caitlin: Beautiful. Sonali, can we go to you?
(00:04:15) Sonali Sadequee: Hi. Hi, my name is Sonali. Thank you first of all, I just wanted to say such an honor to be reconnecting with you all for this podcast after all these years and to see you Mia and Caitlin Anjali Shira again, to have this conversation again, after so many years of being in our own work, but separate from each other, but yet kind of rooted and connected in the history that we have together. It just feels really special, precious and I’m grateful. How I connect my work is connect to or how I came in to movement work is really specifically it was around working with a Transformative Justice model around addressing child sexual abuse, incest, domestic violence, violence more specifically in the early 2000s, I was working with the Southeast Asisan immigrant community here in Atlanta. And my job was essentially to create leadership and support leadership around breaking the silence around such a taboo issue. And hopefully come together as community in Atlanta beyond the immigrant community, everyone, all kinds of different social justice movements as well as religious institutions of different faith as well as a legal organizations and institutions, government organizations to really come together to understand how we as community can come together to create models of care, models of accountability that is really community-driven and that is really a survivor driven as well as survivor centered.
And to me, that work was really present in how, what I was learning about the Transformative Justice movement work. And it really resonated with me and so as part of that work that I did and I was able to meet these amazing people here in this podcast tonight – Cara Mia and then eventually and that with Caitlin and Anjali. And Shira, I’ve always admired your work from afar. You know, you weren’t quite here in Atlanta. And then Susan Raffo eventually because conversations specifically began with Cara and Mia as we came together to Atlanta Transformative Justice Collective really look deep in this like how to really create a processes and structures and create space where we can really do what the work – community really wants, what survivors you really want – in a way that is safe, that is secure, in a way that really is accountable in a way that is really supported to what is really needed that we know we don’t get from the current legal criminal system. I don’t want to get too much into that, Let me come back. So that work kind of lanched us, as you know us as Atlanta Transformative Justice Collective and asking some of the deeper questions like because we’re holding this work and we’re talking about transforming the conditions that create, that perpetuate child sexual abuse and you know that it is parallel systemic violence the same tools and the tactics. The same kind of strategies are used to abuse right, that parallels the violence we experience. So we need to be looking at this – at a micro but also at a macro-level and so it really became important for us to look at then: how does a how does hurt our communities? We know that at an intimate level there is trauma.And so there is individual trauma right at the micro level, but we know that it is also replicated in the macro level trauma.
(00:09:05) Collective trauma, and when we looked at, well if we’re dealing with trauma, then we need to recognize that were dealing with something that actually requires not just organizing but also healing. And transforming at a deeper level of both at the individual level, but also our communities, our cultures, our institutions. To be able to recognize that we have to have a different way of organizing if we are dealing with trauma, right? And so because we also know that in our movements, you know social justice movements across that there is a lot of traum. And there’s ways in which we can be violent towards each other and so healing became really important as far as looking at this. So it’s not just transforming the systems but also healing ourselves. And so that work, launched into a lot of the conversations I’ve had with Cara. I remember this one conversation one time I was having with Cara. I said, you know as an organizer, I felt like first of all organizer community organizing was a healing for me. It was part of person look like it felt like personally and yes, I’m supporting at a community level when I’m organizing but it also has this deep impact of healing of myself and I want to be able to bring a human into the organizing work. It just felt to me natural, like I couldn’t separate it. And I also felt that my organizing work was also a call as an extension of my spiritual practice and I didnt – back then in the early 2000s – I kept on finding myself in movement faces that I couldn’t bring my spiritual stop and y’all I’m a Muslim woman at heart.
And so, my organizing work is an extension of my spiritual practice. And so I couldn’t – I just felt like it wasn’t welcomed, and like that felt really off. Like something is off here. You know, like why can I not bring my spiritual self in my organizing work? That was my question and it felt unjust. And it was kind of traumatizing because it’s my spiritual practice that keeps me resilient. That keeps me in the movement, what keeps me directed and guided. So that I couldn’t bring my spiritual self into my organizing – it was like that’s gotta change. And so I remember having conversations with Cara Page, Mia Mingus, and also our comrade, Stephanie Guilloud who’s part of this ATJC with Project South at that time. And those conversations I was able to have that bridged the ATJC work with the work that then connected with my conversations with Cara Page and talking about healing work – which is really healing and Healing Justice because it to me, its inseparable. Thats how I kind of launched into this work and come into this work.
(00:12:50) Caitlin: Taking us to their friends taking us there like right into the heart of things. So I want to get Mia and then Shira into the conversation and then pass it over to Cara because it’s a really powerful time for us to be able to be getting that a lot of the questions of Sonali is raising. So Mia, let’s go to you and then to Shira.
Mia Mingus: So this is for how we’re connected? Is the question, right. Hi you all! Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited to be here. Yes. This did feel like a reunion in a lot of ways. It’s kind of amazing. I am very connected (laughing) to all these people but I definitely have to say like, you know, like Susan and I even on the prep calls for this was talking about how long we’ve been on each others radar and you know spheres of and its like well over 10 years and I feel so similarly with Cara, with Sonali, with Shira. And I feel like with Caitlin and Anjali. So Cara and I and Sonali, as well as Steph, Steph G. Also were part of the Atlanta Transformative Justice collaborative, it seems like ages ago, but its not and I was just reminiscing on on Twitter actually how we used to have to like beg people to come to our TJ training and we used to have this really make the arguments of people about why we think it’s important and how we feel like it connects to their work and were just at such a different time now, it’s amazing. I remember Shira calling me when I was young co-executive director at SPARK Reproductive Justice Now and calling me about like funding to get like finding advice which I mean, I think we were probably not the best people to call cuz we were also scrappy little organization too. But I, you know I say that to say that I think that in particular Cara, Sonali, Caitlin like I think about that moment when the ATJC was happening and we were doing things that at the time seemed very new to people like we were doing joint fundraising and people didn’t understand like so you just share the money and we’re like “yes, we do” – what a concept. But also I think at a time when we were part of Southern organizing and Southern leadership and trying to build up not just leaders but support for those leaders as well. And this was before what I think of is like the activist gentrification of the South before it was like this “oh I work in the South” “Yeah I organize in the South” is at a time when nobody knew where wewere, we weren’t getting any fucking money. As well as Healing Justice too – as it relates to location, community and identity, has not gone away. And in the beginning of it – of both of those movements as know them now – I remember that being really rough. But yes, I am so grateful for all of y’alls work and just the amount of history and relationship thats on this tiny little podcast is amazing. I’ll pass it back to you, Caitlin.
Caitlin: Shira, let’s hear from you.
(00:16:20) Shira Hassan: Hello, thank you so much for having me back. It’s so lovely to being continued conversation with you all during these times and I’ve had the privilege of talking to some of you more regularly and its true as everyone already said I really can’t even remember how long I’ve known most of you but it’s definitely closer to two decades than one especially for me and Cara. So how I entered this work was as a young person who was – I was actually receiving services because I was using drugs, and street based on and off throughout my teenage years that I entered through a project that I always shout out whenever I can because they are one of the oldest and still have the most consistency around harm reduction called The Street Worker Project. And from there. I got to be a part of the project called NYPAC which for those of you who are old school AIDS activists, especially from the East Coast will know from New York Peer Aids Coalition was started by Edith Springer and it was such an amazing opportunity to be peer based in our work and to work on syringe exchange and work on saving each other as opposed to a social service model. And from there I got really lucky and wound up at Young Womens Empowerment Project, which is a project that was by and for young people in the sex trade and street economy who were all youth of Color and Trans People of Color – trying to figure out solutions for staying alive and having each others backs. For a long time we ran – and I really hope that if this isn’t true and I say this every time for people to tell me – but we we think we were the only youth-run syringe exchange in the country for about 10 years and the fact that we were all led by and for young people of Color in the sex trade was really incredible. And now I’m a part of a project called Just Practice and Just Practice works on helping people build capacity to think through how to practice at the intersection of harm reduction and Transformative Justice and I got really fortunate to also be a part of Kindred and think through Healing Justice and be at some of the beginning of those conversations as well. So, thank you.
(00:19:20) Caitlin: Wonderful. It’s so great to get to think about all those pieces of work and just hear about all the bodies of work that are represented in this conversation. I think for me I was just thinking also about what Mia was saying about the scrappy times. And I think everybody spoken to that in different ways. And I think this is a very interesting moment because when I think about each of you and I think in very different ways, in different kinds of relationships folks who have just been in the ring per-se being like “no, that very minor band-aid reform is not going to be enough. Nope, nope. We have to have a very different transformative conversation in very different parts of our ecosystem and worlds” and I have so much respect for that and I actually think it’s really important that we name how much that changed this country and this world.
That folks like all of you have been willing to stay in it actually does matter. It’s like watching the changes and many of them rocky waters like its incredibly powerful. So, Cara I want to pass it to you I would say that yeah I have the tremendous honor of getting to be part of Kindred and getting to be a part for a shorter time than Atlanta organizing community and spent 17 years in the South definitely co-directing SONG and actually want to shout out like still being on the board of Southerners on New Ground all these years later and having had years where that was easier and years where its harder and having real conversations right now about healing stewardship and what transformation looks like with resources inside that organization right now was so incredibly powerful, even though I live in Phoenix and I’ve been here for several years now. So, yeah, it’s definitely wonderful to get to be connected in these ways. Cara i’mma pass it to you.
(00:21:28) Cara: I am so incredibly moved to be here with all of you because this moment this particular dynamic moment of change inside of COVID times, inside of the uprisings, inside of increased fascism – right all the things? – what becomes apparent to me is a decade or two decades ago each one of you in your own spheres and then in our collective spheres were deeply a part of transformation and believing that 1. We could move and we needed each other. 2. That we could actually create such immense change in and confront and transform systems of oppression and harm and abuse and violence interpersonally communally and state. That we actually believed – I believe because you believed we could change that shit – and that who we are still deeply rooted and changed who I am down to a cellular level of what I think is possible for us. And so we gathered you – you particular folks – because of how you are manifesting and how you are still carrying the lineage of this work of Healing Justice and Transformative Justice on. And that for many of us I would venture to say these two political frameworks are inseparable. They have built off and amongst and within each other and Healing Justice – there has been a reference to KINDRED – we are speaking about the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, which was rooted in the South, rooted in a Black feminist led-intergenerational network of healers, practitioners, birth workers and cultural workers seeking to transform generational trauma by building collective safety and wellness strategies that centered the emotional physical spiritual psychic and mental well-being of our communities – as queer and Trans People of Color, as Black, Indigenous and People of Color, as people with disabilities we felt we needed to redefine what our relationship to care and safety was and Transformative Justice with already doing that. Wrestling with the prison industrial complex, and institutions of policing and state violence – and so there was an organic relationship to each other, it was just a different entry point in how we entered to do the work as many as you have already spoken to.
We just want to today work around healing justice and transformative justice and really ground in some working definitions to really keep that conversation concrete.
So Transformative Justice, or TJ another way to call it, is really seeking seeks to prevent, intervene in and transform harm & violence through non-punitive accountability – so basically without punishment how do we look at ending violence that doesn’t further increase violence and increase harm on communities. No matter if it’s the person who may have caused the harm or the person who survived the harm, that everyone is valued in that process. And that is a quote I’m borrowing from Mariame Kaba who is one of the architects and leaders of transformative justice as a political strategy and practice.
And then we’re also going to be working today with Healing Justice. Which really is a framework that seeks to intervene and interrupt on generational generational trauma by sustaining practices for our collective physical/emotional/spiritual/psychic and environmental well being. And we’ll get more into detail on what that looks like.
So this first question for our panelists is really do understand – where are there places of convergence for these two frameworks? Some people call their movements, Shira and I were in conversation about what is the difference. For purposes of this conversation, let’s say convergences of these two political frameworks – TJ and HJ as strategy and tools that people are searching and reaching for inside of this moment of alternatives to policing and community-led safety. How are these converging and how are they different from each other? if you can speak to that until that manifests with each of your work?
(00:24:46) Sonali: So the convergence that I see – there’s a lot of overlaps. I like to see it and then parts that don’t quite overlap. But there’s actually more overlapping then there is not overlapping and so it’s a lot of that overlaps I have experienced specifically, its really looking at the whole transforming, healing the entire in the entire all the different aspects of society. It’s not just looking at only the systemic and the macro stuff but also the micro and more intimate and all of that requires healing all of that requires healing different from different spheres are different kinds of healing, right? For example of when I hear defend the police to me that’s about healing on a systemic level. That’s about healing the parts of our system that only re-wounds, where re-wounding and re-harming happens and so we got to heal and go to the root cause of whats creating that wound, you know and transform those and heal that right, but also there’s a piece around so the way that we talk about it.
There’s collective healing, there’s individual healing, collective care, individual care. Both are really looking at systemic healing, systemic change and transformation. And so Healing Justice and there’s a little bit of the difference here is that there’s Healing Justice is looking at both the systemic but also not forgetting that we got to do our own work in our intimate spheres as well, so coming back to the convergence, both are Survivor centered and both are centered around those who have been impacted most and really centering our experiences. So those who are often times impacted you know queer folks, People of Color, Black, Indigenous, we know historically of people with disabilities have been also forgotten, left behind, people who are not Christian. And so, like how do we center and really support and uplift those who have been forgotten and left behind in the margins? like really center. So that’s a common. Also community-driven solutions, community driven processes, strategies that really are – what I love to say is it’s really created and customized for that community and really honoring that work, you know and really focusing on resourcing – whether it be that funding, allocating energy attention focusing on community-driven processes that are not dictated by something that’s outside of that community. So that’s really important. I’ll pause there for now.
(00:28:23) Mia: For me, you know, I feel like this question feels like it’s almost a two-part question because I’m going to speak to it is, but I also think it’s a question of how it could be. Maybe I’ll speak to both because I think when I think about TJ and HJ just at large and how they could be and what they what their potential is, I guess or what their true nature is, I feel like they’re inseparable, they need each other, they’re both like key pieces to the kind of larger liberation puzzle that we’re and like bigger project that were trying to do. But I think that the ways that they’ve been manifested and taken root on and come into being have been very distinct and different and I think it’s important to name. So some of the differences in my mind are that TJ came out of an explicitly abolitionist framework where as I feel like when I think of Healing Justice, I don’t necessarily always think of abolition though abolition is absolutely connected to Healing Justice for sure. Again – right in this both/and space of like how have things rolled out in real time? And then also though what are they? What are their true natures? Like I think about for me a difference between the two of them and maybe why they’ve rolled out so differently is: 1. I think this for all justice movements, but I think when we have a justice movement, it’s usually like telling us what that justice what realm or what like angle they’re going to enter into justice for or from. When I think of justice I think of TJ I feel like has really grappled with and has really contends with accountability and that has been like a huge focus of transformative justice is what is accountability and how do we how do we figure out what that looks like? and of course accountability usually requires some level of healing as well. But that accountability has been like the kind of main thing in terms of what is justice? And I think with which Healing Justice, I’ve noticed that healing is that place – that healing and wellness and care like those things are what and how folks are framing justice and it’s not to say that – again cuz accountability and healing are bound up together – so its not to say that accountability is not part of that. But I think it’s like it’s almost like Healing Justice and Transformative Justice are two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways in my mind. I think that you all cannot see this, but we can see each other and Sonali is cheering for me on screen – so that you can edit that out, *laughs* – Also just like pragmatically and more technically the way that things have rolled out is Transformative Justice has largely focused on intimate and sexual violence – so domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual assault, rape, child sexual abuse child abuse whereas, you know, and I think in general like interrupting violence in particular. Whereas I feel like with Healing Justice, you know, I think of things more like redefining what wellness and care look like, the medical industrial complex, I think of a huge intersection with disability justice there as well as well as climate change and environmental justice as well.
And so I think their differences in terms of how they have rolled out. I also think like just to be real that I think a lot of us in TJ land and you tend to lean more towards the accountability side and not necessarily are we are not necessarily as steeped in healing work and practitioners and Healing Justice work as much as we would like to. And I think also like when I think of Healing Justice, I also tend to think a lot of spirit work and spirituality work that you know, I don’t necessarily think a lot of when I think of TJ, which is not to say that it’s not there at different iterations of TJ, but just at large I think of those things as being different and obviously they have connections and overlap in terms of understanding that we need systemic and individual and personal transformation that those things are important and indeed that’s a core concept within Transformative Justice like how that we want to make sure that were striving for individual and collective justice and the both of those things are mutually dependent on each other. So those are a bit of what I think of but I will just like end this and say that to me though I think that neither framework, I mean, they’re both evolving and so neither of them have reached their full potential. And so I think in this moment in particular, what’s so amazing is that it’s really pushing abolitionists at large, but I think all of us at large to say like and get more clear and concrete around like what is it that we do want as we’re building this world and what are the concrete things that we’re willing to put into place and build.
(00:33:36) Cara: What have you seen work around TJ and HJ and what have you seen not work? Because what I know about you is you really hold due diligence and rigor on both frameworks and you and I have talked a lot about where the gaps are, so I’d love to hear you speak to, yes what you see that feels effective, relevant and what is just not useful.
Shira: I want to lift up the first one – I want to lift up this is because of the timing and the Intersex Justice Project just had an enormous, enormous campaign win. And so I just want to like make everyone aware of IJP on which has led by two QTPOC intersex badasses who have been working along with many, many other groups like Interact and other individual activists to end intersex surgery and end cosmetic genital mutilation on babies that are born intersex and that campaign was a direct challenge to the medical industrial complex and targeted Lurie Childrens Hospital in Chicago to say like hey, center for excellence, it’s not so excellent to not get consent to permanently alter and mutilate childrens bodies. And they had really incredible demands which were a public apology for the irreversible harmful surgeries that have been done on intersex people without consent, to end intersex surgery and stop performing all medically unnecessary cosmetic procedures on intersex children and reparations providing free medical care that doesnt position intersex variations of problems to be fixed – including hormones, psychological support, support for parents, many of whom were lied to by doctors and whose consent was manipulated. I just feel like that was such a beautiful example of a Transformative Justice campaign and I think it can be really challenging to think about what is a TJ campaign because TJ has to happen outside the state, like it is it is not – this is where it differs from what we think of is restorative justice not like the OG restorative justice, which is like, but like the spirit of version of restorative justice that many people are familiar with which has been co-opted by the state and is often mandated by the state and so it can be really challenging for people think of like, what is a TJ campaign since most of campaign work is actually targeted at legislators or targeted at some. And so I think this was just like a really incredible example of something that was a TJ campaign that also was undeniably a Healing Justice practice and then another like that was a win and then I want to go back to another win that happened in like 2015 on a campaign started in 2010. And that was by Fearless Leading by the Youth and FLY is like an incredible also BIPOC/QTPOC run young peoples organization that was absolutely appalled by not only appalled but like is a campaign started because one of their members was shot in the back and died. Was alive when the ambulance came but died before they could make it to a trauma center because there was no trauma center for miles and miles and miles in Chicago and that young person died when they were like 15 or 16 years old and so they came together to not only demand a trauma center be located closer to where most on the southside of Chicago where so many people were dying simply because of the distance between the ambulance and the next available hospital. So not only did they challenge the University of Chicago to build, to put the trauma center back they had closed it like in the 80s, but they also said not only that; we’re going to educate ourselves and we’re going to get training from medics about how to treat gunshot wounds ourselves. And so that was such like a powerful. And they won in 2015 and the trauma center has been very slowly and not built in the best location, but it said that it was you know a win that was undeniable and the movement that galvanized around FLY to make sure that young people had access to information about how to respond to trauma on their own, to help people survive was also I feel like a really beautiful example of both TJ and HMJ. And the last example, I want a shout-out is a longer campaign that’s been in operation now since I don’t know maybe 2011 and that’s the campaign led by Street Youth Rise Up (SYRU) and treat yeast rise up is now a free-standing organization, but it was a part of Young Women’s Empowerment Project and YWEP is and was and so is SYRU – Street Youth Rise Up a project that’s led by and for young People of Color in the sex trade and street economy – many of whom are queer and Trans. And Street Youth Rise Up started because the research that those young people did entirely on their own, this huge participatory evaluation research found that they had three main findings: one was that resilience makes resistance possible and so the more that we take care of ourselves, the more we can fight back, right? and I feel like that is like such the essence of those Healing Just and Transformative Justice. And then the second was that young people were being denied help from systems that were set up to serve them and sometimes it wasnt even for being involved in the sex trade, it was just for appearing like they were involved in the street economy or sex trade. And so the and like I said, I feel like the combination of those findings spread to a campaign that young people started to address all the things and that campaign was to change the way Chicago seas and streets Homeless Home Free and street-based they have to do to survive. In that they have this whole healing in action campaign where they learn how to make meds for the 3 or herbal pills for the three most popular, well not popular, but the three things most commonly that young people were struggling with which was depression/anxiety, urinary tract and pelvic discomfort and flu-like symptoms. And so they learned how to make they made and distribute their own herbal medication and became educated about herbs and they started a street youth bill of rights where they went organization by organization and said if you sign this Bill of Rights, that means you will fight for our right to stay in school regardless of our housing. That means you will make sure that if we come in because we have flu-like symptoms that we’re not going to wind up psych because you see self-injury scars and I think like the those campaigns for me really illustrate not only the extra babbling that Mia was talking about between Healing Justice and Transformative Justice being on two sides of the same coin, but also really show us what’s possible when we don’t charge it to state and we build our own capacity to respond to and transform harm.
(00:42:59) Cara: Beautiful. Thank you for such concrete, powerful examples led by predominantly QTPOC youth building the next. It’s really powerful. Is there anything now that Shira has led the way, Mia and Shonali in terms of concrete ideas, campaign work, organizing work that you’re seeing on the ground that reflects HJ and TJ.
Sonali: Early in the 2000s, about 2004-2005, at ATJC we were already organizing in Atlanta, about 2006, actually early 2000s in general, there’s a lot of anti-immigration policies being rolled out here in Georgia are the immigrant community was getting targeted and then the Muslim community also so were talking post 9/11, so a lot of targeting of Muslims and just People of Color and immigrants, South Asian immigrants as well and specifically where we really saw the Anti-Islamic policies being rolled around. And as part of that process we had lots of – hundreds of Muslims – that were being targeted a lot of them being entrapped and in the process of all of this, we’ve had a lot of young Muslim men being targeted. Especially online as well. And so we specifically happened with my family with my younger brother, Shifa, was taken away kidnapped and then brought back what we see what happened with him is what you see happening with a lot of Muslims which is getting targeted for a particular way of thinking or talking with their friends online and then eventually what we’ve learned is that there were informants that were hired in these cases who actually manufacture and actually fabricate and instigate with a lot of the young Muslim men who were being targeted, instigate constant conversations where the otherwise these conversations will not happen. And so what what are we talking about here? We’re talking about agent provocateurs that were hired informants that were hired. And we’re not just out in community in Masjids but a lot of informants made their way into the families’ homes in relationship with the parents of the kids of the family and we’re talking long-term relationships spanning over months to a couple of years. And so the sting operation goes on for all these months that are actually designed to get whoever they’re targeting, that Muslim man, to say something that otherwise they wouldn’t.
Oftentimes we see the informant is the one who is resourcing the person who they’re targeting you – resourcing them with ideas, with actual weapons with actual resources, like even cars and material right there this informant that’s bringing bringing those resources into those materials into the person that they’re targeting into their life and into their families home. Otherwise, they would never have these materials. But then what ends up happening is that what we see is the government then ends up going and then actually targets and convicts and goes after saying that they had provided material support to aid terrorism.
(00:47:22) And we see that in case after case after case and and what we do know is that before the informant came into their life. None of these Muslim men have any kind of weapons any kind of material or any kind of supplies that the government says are material support for terrorism. And this was a very common thing that happened and has continued to happen. Right? We have such similar case like this. We have over two hundred of such cases and still Muslims that are in prison under entrapment and these kind of policies and strategies. And so what we did at ATJC is we wanted to really educate the public about how the Muslim men are getting, how the anti-Islamic laws are getting rolled out. And then how do we actually show up when something like that happens? What happens to the community – the Muslim Community specifically – is that then the women and the children are often times left to kind of fend for themselves. And there loves ones just got snatched away and taken away and oftentimes their loved one was the breadwinner of the house and so now women are often times are left totally in situations where they’ve had to figure out how to economically survive.
The other situation that arises is because the media has done such a great job of demonizing of promoting Islamophobia and actually has the general population and the masses have come to see Muslims in a particular light and consider how it basically be, it’s what happens when racism is perpetuated against Muslims. And so we often times create a situation where then nobody wants to talk to the families that are being targeted, right? The families often times are left isolated, they feel demonized, their heart broken and even the Muslim communities that they were part of – even the Muslim community they were part of now feels scared to continue on relationship with the families that are being targeted. And so it creates a lot of, what we know is systemic violence. There’s a lot of conquer and divide tactics that are employed. So the part of the campaign what we did with the Free Shifa Campaign in Atlanta through the organizing that we did with ATJC and the greater Muslim community is we brought Muslims together from different Muslim communities throughout Atlanta to be able to understand how the targeting is happening and so that we can not be afraid of it and actually take stands around being safer and more secure support for the families that are being targeted.
The other thing is that as a way to of course break the isolation, be more accountable to this issue so that we are not in the grips of such fear, which is again a tactic that’s often times used. So that work was so healing for what we do now – of course for my family, but also the general Muslim community and since then there’s actually been more and more events and more more conversations. Back then a lot of Muslim organizations were very afraid to support families that are being targeted and we see that through like 9/11 all the way to like 2010 even and it wasnt until about 2010 when more and more – it took several years for more and more Muslim organizations to step in and start to really see how this issue – like being silent about it or turning the other cheek or right like. There was such a division, but now we see more and more organizations that are actually wanting to see the impact of not standing forward before but now see the necessity of that. Oh gosh. And that work was the Free Shifa campaign but fast forward it felt really important to bring families together to because there’s so much isolation that happens to these families, it felt really important to bring together to break isolation, but in breaking the isolation what we experience is a greater sense of connectedness, a greater sense of community and where we feel like we’re not alone like this isn’t just happening to us. You know which is so traumatizing and then being able to be in a common space, in one room organizations like the Coalition for Civil Freedom. Which is a coalition of several social justice organizations that came together and actually started supporting families that have been targeted under -in the post 9/11. And in coming together, creating safer spaces for families who’ve been targeted, with loved ones who are in prison. For us to come together and share our stories with each other here and learn about each other’s cases. That’s when we really realized that there’s so many similarities around how the government is going around targeting Muslims and entrapping Muslims. And we knew back then that what was happening with Muslim communities back then was just the beginning of something that is only going to continue and it was actually going to get used in other ways, in other communities if we don’t actually intervene on what was happening. And so we knew early on that without the arbitrary power that the government has taken by employing things like the Patriot Act – that gives them such arbitrary power that where they can then go on and target further and more communities, right? And so it felt really important to intervene on processes like that. But do it in a way that was actually created and determined by the communities that are actually being targeted. And so I think one of the things that a Coalition for Civil Freedom that we’ve done is, of course, you know I should say that the Coalition for Civil Freedom is completely and privately funded by private donors. To this day they haven’t gotten any grants and that’s another thing that I think is unfortunate because I think we can. I think there needs to be more funding coming because there’s so much need but we are grateful that donors give every year we’ve been able to gather $100 per prisoner during Ramadan as a Ramadan gift. So I’m going to just say that in that thats a community-driven support process. The family conference serves as a healing space for the families as well as doing political environment and education work where they are learning from each other about how the targeting is happening so we can create more strategies to be able to confront the system. So I’ll just pause there for now.
(00:56:11) Cara: Thank you Sonali. Mia, did you want to add something to the mix?
Mia: Hi. Yeah I think for me, just cause we’ve gotten so many great examples. One thing I wanted to just lift up is I do think that in a lot of ways though both frameworks really push back on dominant cultures and are extremely hard to build like. So I think the question around like what how why didnt get so challenging for collectives or groups or organizations to be able to manifest/embody/practice whatever word you want to use. I think I think they’re both really hard because I mean Healing Justice and again right, they’re so deeply connected but the places we can tease them apart. Healing Justice to me is pushing back against an entire culture and societal understanding of pace as you know, unsustainability, you know, exploitation all of these things and I think that you know, the same with I think Transformative Justice that’s what we’re offering is there saying questions about accountability are inevitably questions about justice, and questions by justice are inevitably questions about accountability. And so if we don’t even know what accountability looks like between us, how are we going to be able to demand it from the state or institutions? I mean actually more and more I’m thinking likeI think we need a different word cuz I dont think that it’s possible for the state to be accountable. Just FYI. I don’t know if anybodys created that word yet, but we need it. But it also think that in terms of Healing Justice to me, you know, I think when we’re talking about Transformative Justice, we are talking about transformation and one of the huge times and examples of transformation is healing. So when I think of these two frameworks I think the’yre both incredibly hard to practice actually and I think it’s not a coincidence that you know, I feel so I feel so lucky and honored that I got to come up at a time, working in Atlanta and getting to witness the birthing of Healing Justice as it is now. I mean obviously just like Transformative Justice the work has been going on forever just cuz you name something doesn’t mean you created it but like, you know, so people have been doing this work, but in terms of the ways in which we understand the Healing Justice movement and framework now getting to witness that as a young organizer coming up in the South I think was so powerful and I dont think its a coincidence that that happened simultaneously as TJ was kind of making its way as well as figuring out its way on to the main stage as well.
So I don’t know where all of this lives but I you know, like in my mind, I think that the part of I think part of the problem is more like what we’ve set up – that we separate these things. But also part of the problem I think is that just the sheer magnitude of what we’re trying to take down and the forces that we’re up against and we need different people and different movements to play different roles quite frankly. And so if the if it chunk of of that sandwich that Healing Justice can bite off is different than the chunk the TJ is working on like I think that’s fine as long as we understand the whole point is that we gotta have all hands on deck and in this moment so clearly is pointing to that as well in the middle of a of an uprising on top of a pandemic on top of all the other shitstorms that we already have.
(00:59:49) Cara: Thank you, beautifully said, powerfully said. In positioning where these frameworks and movements hold the possibilities and transformation and I want to close with this final question. Segway from Mia just named, right? We are at this particular moment of a pandemic and uprisings on top of that. As Susan Raffo, our co-comrade and producer who wasn’t able to be here tonight but is with us in spirit, would say the collective nervous system is is way way high right on just way out about the regular – not even regular, but our collective nervous system is on high frequency right now. And when we think about the original wounds of colonization and slavery as you said Mia, the linnaege, as Shira and Sonali spoke to, the lineage long before these frameworks were named. This resistance, this work, these ideas have been very much of a collective survival and liberation. Right? And so this question is this moment when we say or when movements are saying right now alternative solutions to policing – what can we imagine for Healing Justice and Transformative Justice strategies to interrupt state violence, to interrupt policing, to really manifest alternative solutions inside or outside of state so that can be the Medical Industrial Complex, the Prison Industrial Complex so on and so forth all of these state institutions that have caused immense harm and abuse – what does alternative Solutions look like? do they change each other?
(01:01:34) Mia: When I think about alternatives to policing – I think about everything from like people need to be able to just go to the doctor and get health care to people need to be able to eat. I mean we’re at a moment where people are going to be losing their housing. Yeah, they might have gotten $1,200 three months ago from our government. I just I think of all the things that we need and so I think in Transformative Justice work we’re trying to figure out how do we build community-based responses to think so – network of safe houses for survivors, for example, like what would it look like to have intervention teams that could take on, you know, if there is a domestic violence incident for example, and or teams to respond to acute violence if we can if we can build that. Everything to like mental health crises and all of those things to me are both/and they’re TJ and their HJ because what we’re really talking about at the crux of it, I think which I guess is as well is that are healing. Is that our communities have been incredibly harmed and that we’re trying to work to heal these harms, whether they’re the harms of gentrification or the medical industrial complex. It doesn’t matter that we are trying to figure out how do we heal and transform the toxicity that we have all been ingesting metaphorically for generations and generations. You know, like when I think about alternatives to the Medical Industrial Complex, I only think about Healing Justice nine times out of ten and I that work that Healing Justice – that the potential of that work that healing justice has to be able to to lend specifically to that particular type of work with the Medical Industrial Complex. And I think that when we’re talking about what wellness would look like for a communities, what sustainability and justice look like for our communities we have to be able to transform harm when it happens and we also have to be able to heal from that harm and you know, I think that for a lot of us who have been doing this work for a long time it’s almost as if its almost as if TJ and HJ I think have helped to propel each other along because I think that again like we do that work, unfortunately, siloing things off and it’s not a coincidence to me that often times when I’m in TJ spaces, for example, I’m there with other politicized healers. I’m there with other people who are who consider Transformative Justice as part of the work to heal our communities, part of the work to heal our society from punishment essentially and from the construction of like crime and criminal right? As well as obviously the construction of like health and desirability and the history of eugenics and things that Healing Justice comes from. So I think about alternatives as being anything not necessarily in a reformist way of understanding like just reforming some things and having nice or police or some shit like that. But like literally, what are our alternatives going to be from the state system. So that people don’t have to rely on 911. They don’t have to rely on the Medical Industrial Complex. But I also think in saying that that we have to acknowledge that we’re not where we want to be yet and we can dream big but we also we cant just abandon people to these terrible systems and say well, you know, if you don’t have a Healing Justice collective in yours city thats doing you know, all these healings practices then fuck you. I mean, we can’t do that and people are so caught up in the system whether we like it or not and that’s true for such Transformative Justice as well, we’re working outside the states and both/and. We also know that so there’s a lot of TJ work and worked as aligned with TJ that’s not necessarily formal TJ that’s working to help get our people out of the burning house so to speak. So I don’t know where that lives but when I think of alternatives and this moment of dreaming, I also don’t want people to forget that were in some real shit right now I know and we can just give people dreams and that won’t pay their rent. That wont you know, stop them from bleeding out for example. I’ll stop there. It’s such a ray of sunshine.
(01:05:58) Sonali: Thank you so much for me as for starting off with saying that it’s whatever we need in our communities and that we decide what we need and that we are able to -we are able to manifest that. When you have the resources done the network the the tools the skills that are going to be where we are going to be able to meet our own needs a community. And that is to me is where I see the potential and the the future going. I believe that like, so for example, when it comes to like the families that have been isolated and targeted and have been demonized and left behind and forgotten and their loved ones in prison also experience tremendous hardship and heartbreak and continuous and year after year because a lot of these sentences are 10, 20, 30, 40 and for life. And in that kind of a situation what Transformative Justice and what Healing Justice has begun to provide, for example is bringing all the families together so that they’re able to support each other and receive healing in that kind of a context builds and empowers each other. So it’s kind of like, you know what the system wants to know what the system does is it traumatizes through targeting and part of what Healing Justice can provide and is providing is that it’s countering that right. It’s actually creating healing spaces where folks can do that. And what we see the activists, organizers, the protestors that that has galvinized from the last 2, 3, 4 years, right? What if my vision is: what if we all also came together? Yes. Yes. We’re protesting. Yes. We are out there in the streets. But what if we all came together to also build systems of care for each other in our communities, right, as protest, as well as solutions for an alternative solutions to what currently exists. What if we all came together and created opportunities and platforms and networks that responded to all these different needs than Mia is talking about. Right? That’s kind of where I would like like to see us going where we like right now. Theres been so much Mutual Aid effort and that is something I see as kind of where we can go more and have mutual aid around all of our need put in place. That feels like the direction that we will, that we could go into to create, manifest and implement a lot of the Healing Justice and TJ vision that I see happening.
(01:09:31) Shira: First I think about how Black, Indigenous, People of Color, people in the sex trade, people in the street economy, we’ve never been able to count on police. We’ve never been able to count on hospitals, social workers and I feel like if we want solutions to how to solve problems we need to like Ejeris Dixon once said to me to “talk to our grandparents”. And for those of us who don’t have access to our family lines, we need to talk to each other and other people in the sex trade and street economy who been figuring out how to get around wound care and how to like FLY showed us in Chicago figure out how to respond to a gunshot wounds. I feel like we actually are living through one of the greatest encyclopedias of healing resources we’ve ever had and its we have an indexing problem right like we have to like figure out how to sort and sift and find each other but like the solutions are abundant. I was listening to the Slay podcast on the other day with Erica Woodland who said this like beautiful thing, “If we don’t have movements that center are healing, we’re not going to guess if you get to the future that we are collectively envisioning” and I just think he summed it up so perfectly in that statement and when I think about the things that we really need to work on and I think about why was YWEP – Young Women’s Empowerment Project and Street Youth Rise Up’s third research finding which I didn’t mention which is that institutional violence makes individual violence worse. And I think that both Healing Justice and Transformative Justice know that, live it, breathe it, possess it. And I think that what we need to do is and part of the work that I hope to be able to do is help people in the helping industries disconnect from carceral responses. So how can social workers, for example, who are now being positioned as a solution as an alternative to policing, how can they disconnect from that carceral logic? And it’s very very difficult. It’s not individual mindset, so many of the social workers that I traine and so many of the doctors and nurses that wind up in my class -I teach a class on harm reduction – come in because they’re frustrated in their systems. It’s not necessarily an individual mindset. It’s that so much as a routed we think of the carceral system as beginning and ending with police. But so much is routed through the systems of control where things like liability insurance, things like mandated reporting and things like the sex offender registry wind up putting people in helping positions – who are helpers – in positions of having to align with carcerality whether they individually want to or not. And so teaching not only those people had to resist but teaching them that we’ve been resisting, and that there are those of us who are inside helping professions, are inside helping organizations or inside helping formations of any kind where there were street medics or first respondersnor just someones sister who gets the call about the violent situation. Reminding us that we have these archives of resistance and that we know how to do this, we just have to lift them up and reach for the right tool in the right moment or the wrong tool in the right moment and figure it out and make the mistake and try again.
(01:13:30) Mia: I love what you were sharing, Shira, because I think that when I think about like when I think about the world we want to live in in like, you know, and in connection about like what would collective care and safety look like, you know, I know that. In doing TJ work for so long people are like what is safety? What does that look like and I and I always say to people, you know, I don’t think that safety is the absence of harm. I think that when we think about when all of us if we take a moment and we reflect on what are the relationships for example in our lives where we feel safe. Often times it’s not the absence of hurt or the absence of harm, it’s knowing that if it does happen though that there will be accountability. There will be some type of healing, some type of generative something that will happen. That it will not be swept under the rug but it will not just go on address and when I think about Healing Justice and I think about Transformative Justice, you know, I feel like if we only have healing with no accountability othen its often times harmful and and also that its’ just not possible that those two things are interdependent on each other. But if we only have accountability but there’s no healing then there’s no depth to any of that and when we talked about accountability and TJ, you know, I always say that a huge part of accountability is changing your behavior so that the harm doesn’t happen again and usually that part of that accountability requires some level of healing. The piece of accountability that is repair and that’s repairing the relationship, of rebuilding trust all of that involves healing too. So I just want to say that I think that when we talk about what we’re trying to build I think that people think oh, you know defunding the police or what have you and these prison abolitionists, they just they want this like perfect society where there is never going to be any harm done or anything and that is not true. I mean it’s going to take us generations to end generational trauma, for example, we’re just not there yet. but I think what’s so important is knowing that, is having the skills and the capacity so that when something happens, we’re going to be okay and this is especially true inside of our groups and our movements like not even talking about the forces that are attacking us but like, you know a lot of her a lot of our groups and I’ve been apart of those groups many times.They are not getting taken down by the alt-right or the religious right. They’re being any taken down because we don’t know how to handle- forget violence, harm and abuse. We don’t know how to handle conflict and misunderstanding or just hurt feelings like, you know and both/and that’s connected to that we don’t have access to and haven’t invested in our individual and collective healing. And so like I think when we think of this question of what does community care and safety look like, to me a big part of that is not just building these other types of community infrastructure that we absolutely need like how are we going to feed people, how are we going to take care of children excetera? but I think huge part of that is also how we going to build the skills and these values really into our relationships with each other? Whether it’s our partner, whether its mother and our father, whether it’s our co-workers and our comrades and movement. Like what does that look like and and also to share the stories of when we failed or when we haven’t been able to do it – would have learned that and how did that shift us and change us?
01:17:05 Cara: Yes, thank you, beautifully said. I wanna close this out and bring it back to Caitlin, but I want to say in the in the evolution of Healing Justice and it’ss still growing but at the beginning stages in 2005 or 2006m we traveled with SONG – Southerners On New Ground organizing school – right to look at what is our relationship to each other, what is our relationship to land? to economy? to spirit? and our collective bodies? And that to me, which was very rooted in a Black Indigenous Southern tradition of understanding our relationship to all of those things. But deeply I think embedded Healing Justice and understanding this is about accountability and taking risk and learning from the traditions and lineages of what has worked what needs to be transformed what has caused harm and how do we sit in struggle and understand what we can change what we are capable of changing when we confront the fear and grief that harm may have caused right? So I just want to bring it to Caitlin to take us out with gratitude for where the constellations that you all have openings for this universe of HJ, TJ, and the future yall. Love you.
(01:18:32) Caitlin: I am really appreciative for this conversation on the personal level as well as politically am excited for other people to hear this conversation as well. But I actually think, you know, I took a lot of notes in my little old school composition book here not on the computer, but I’ve just was really actually thinking about this conversation about where Healing Justice meets Transformative Justice meets the question of spiritual growth or maturity or like at SONG we would say a political and spiritual imperative. And I was thinking the other day, I was doing a recording for someone else and it came upon in my mind our work in South Carolina at SONG, our members in South Carolina and I’m going to say with all love to our South Carolina members – Charleston specifically – was the hardest place I’ve ever supported organizing. Never even lived there, but supported organizing. I can tell a lot of stories about why that was so difficult. Our members wanted to do this action many years ago that got like no coverage basically. That was about washing a confederate monument – not even removing it – and washing the slave trade market and I didn’t know – there were probably other ones – but I didn’t know about any actions like that happening at that time. and I remember talking to funders and being in rooms of power and so much of y’alls work and just resistance to the bullshit, I love what you said Mia about like these frameworks are in resistance to dominant culture. Yall been in those rooms too when people like are like “Aww that’s cute, SONG did some theatre and they did whatever” and I remember that at least for me in my memory – those actions actually were very important to birthing our position on ending money bail and are listening to the community and the listening was what transformed us to the point where we were actually willing to get that clear on money bail and our work against deportations also helped how clarify our work on money bail. So it felt like to get to some of Shira’s points and Sonali’s points there was something in the healing. There was something happening that was actually very transformative if it was actually very very concrete like that felt very actually connected to the spiritual and political work and so when I as someone who has had nothing to do with the organizing that’s been bringing down monuments, but has watched the relationship between that and organizing to dare to birth Defund the Police as a demand in our time. Like I really think that like, you know, I don’t want to go on and on and wrap up but I think it’s incredibly powerful when I think about the practitioners on this call and the legacy of the work that’s come before us and that comes after it, that there’s actually a relationship between the very very kind of campaign demands an twins that Shira is talking about these questions that I feel like you’re bringing and Cara’s bringing about what is the how that were actually going to be interacting in this time. And one of the things I said to Cara, I’m going to embarrass her a little bit, I think thar one of the things that’s happening in this time, we have like hundreds and thousands of people not only young Black people but a whole generation of folks that are hungry for, they have a hunger for this authentic conversation and we have to figure out that like, you know some of the capitalist infrastructure, some of the hoarding, some of all the gnarly, you know, all the stuff we know white supremacist patriarchal ways – get out of the way so the artery can flow. And I think about like this podcast is one one piece work that so you definitely off made. My heart happy. It is like 115 degrees in Phoenix. So it’s even making my body feel happier which is a big deal and I’m sending y’all so much love and appreciation then, you know, I know we have a lot of time tonight and I really think its going to be a beautiful piece. Sending love appreciate y’all.
Mia Mingus is a writer, educator and community organizer for transformative justice and disability justice. She is a prison abolitionist and a survivor who believes that we must move beyond punishment, revenge and criminalization if we are ever to effectively break generational cycles of violence and create the world our hearts long for. She is passionate about building the skills, relationships and structures that can transform violence, harm and abuse within our communities and that do not rely on or replicate the punitive system we currently live in. For more, visit her blog, Leaving Evidence.
Sonali Sadequee is a southern Muslim queer wholistic practitioner and organizer who believes in the transformative power of trauma and resilience-informed relationships for influencing social change. She is the founder of Sustainable Wellness, a wholistic coaching practice that supports community leaders and folks dealing with trauma to reverse the impact of chronic stress and generational trauma within their communities through collective wellness strategies. Sonali is also a co-founder of Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective and serves on the board of directors of the Coalition for Civil Freedoms and Imago Relationships of North America.
Shira Hassan is the founder, co-creator and principle consultant for Just Practice, a capacity building project for organizations and community members, activists and leaders working at the intersection of transformative justice, harm reduction and collective liberation. She is the former executive director of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, an organizing and grassroots movement building project led by and for young people of color that have current or former experience in the sex trade and street economies. A lifelong harm reductionist and prison abolitionist, Shira has been working on community accountability for nearly 25 years and has helped young people of color start their own organizing projects across the country. Shira’s work has been discussed on National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Nation, In These Times, Bill Moyers, Scarleteen, Everyday Feminism, Bitch Media, TruthOut and Colorlines.
Cara Page is a Black Queer Feminist cultural/memory worker, curator, and organizer. As lead organizer & curator of her new project, Changing Frequencies, she is building an archival/memory and cultural change project to intervene on generational trauma from the Medical Industrial Complex. She is co-founder of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, who are the architects of Healing Justice, a political framework rooted in Black Southern Radical Traditions that seeks to interrupt & intervene on generational trauma from systemic oppression; by building & recovering ancestral practices for our collective physical/emotional/spiritual/psychic and environmental well being. She is a recent recipient of the Soros Equality Fellowship (2019-2020) and an ‘Activist in Residence’ at the Barnard Research Center for Women to elevate this work. (https://carapage.co) @changingfrequencies
Anjali Taneja, MD MPH (@losanjalis)
Anjali is a family physician and DJ who is passionate about reimagining healthcare and healing in the US. She is the Executive Director of Casa de Salud — a culturally humble and anti-racist nonprofit model of care that integrates primary care, queer/transgender care, harm reduction, addictions treatment, acupuncture, reiki, massage, and indigenous based healing circles for uninsured, immigrant, and other marginalized communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The clinic trains 30 health apprentices a year — primarily young students of color interested in healing/healthcare fields — and prepares them for careers in health/healing. Anjali is board certified in family medicine, in addiction medicine, and also works in the emergency room of a small rural hospital in the Navajo Nation. From 2007-2013, she curated CureThis — an online community space for discussion around new models of care.
Susan Raffo is a queer bodyworker, cultural worker and writer. Living in Minneapolis, and deeply grounded in the midwest, the flatlands, she has been working with the relationships between individual and collective nervous systems, between histories and futures, for close to 20 years. Involved in a range of collaborative projects, she spends her time moving from an individual body-based practice to supporting groups to reflecting on the page. You can find her at www.susanraffo.com.
Fortification COVID-19 Edition is a conversation with Cara Page, Susan Raffo and Anjali Taneja with multiple guests, curated and hosted by Caitlin Breedlove and grounded in our evolving spiritual mandate in and beyond COVID-19. These episodes are centered in the experiences of resistance and abolitionism in response to the colonization and policing of People of Color and Indigenous communities; Queer and Trans; and people with disabilities in the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC). It introduces listeners to the histories that led to this moment as well as the present time expression and future visions needed to transform and intervene on the MIC.
Talila A. Lewis is an attorney, educator, organizer who helps people understand and address the inextricable links between racism, classism, ableism and structural inequity. Lewis created the only national database of deaf/blind imprisoned people in the U.S. and works to correct and prevent deaf wrongful conviction cases as the volunteer director of HEARD (www.behearddc.org). Lewis, a prison abolitionist, co-created the Harriet Tubman Collective and has taught at Rochester Institute of Technology and Northeastern University School of Law. Named a Top 30 Thinker Under 30 by Pacific Standard magazine, Lewis has received numerous awards, including the 2015 White House Champion of Change Award. www.talilalewis.com
Cara Page is a Black Queer Feminist cultural/memory worker, curator, and organizer. As lead organizer & curator of her new project, Changing Frequencies, she is building an archival/memory and cultural change project to intervene on generational trauma; centering the Medical Industrial Complex. She is a recent recipient of the Soros Equality Fellowship (2019-2020) and an ‘Activist in Residence’ at the Barnard Research Center for Women to elevate this work. (https://carapage.co) @changingfrequencies
Anjali Taneja, MD MPH (@losanjalis)
Anjali is a family physician and DJ who is passionate about reimagining healthcare and healing in the US. She is the Executive Director of Casa de Salud — a culturally humble and anti-racist nonprofit model of care that integrates primary care, queer/transgender care, harm reduction, addictions treatment, acupuncture, reiki, massage, and indigenous based healing circles for uninsured, immigrant, and other marginalized communities in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The clinic trains 30 health apprentices a year — primarily young students of color interested in healing/healthcare fields — and prepares them for careers in health/healing. Anjali is board certified in family medicine, in addiction medicine, and also works in the emergency room of a small rural hospital in the Navajo Nation. From 2007-2013, she curated CureThis — an online community space for discussion around new models of care. www.casadesaludnm.org
Francisca Porchas Coronado is a former organizer with over 15 years of experience and currently a healing justice practitioner and trainer. She is the founder and lead coordinator of the Latinx Therapists Action Network organizing progressive Latinx therapists to tend to the emotional wellbeing of migrant communities. Francisca is also the co-founder of Resilient Strategies, a healing justice project transforming the impact of systems on our bodies, our behaviors, and the organizations we build as a critical part of the process to liberation. Currently she is the host of Mijente’s La Cura Podcast engaging in conversation about decolonizing Latinx health and reclaiming traditional healing.
Michelle Morse MD MPH Dr. Michelle Morse works to rethink and advance medical education globally, expand the teaching of social medicine in the US and abroad, and to support health systems strengthening through equitable approaches to human resources for health. She is an internal medicine hospitalist, Founding Co-Director of EqualHealth, and social medicine course director at Harvard Medical School. Previously, she served for three years as deputy chief medical officer at Partners In Health (PIH) and as Assistant Program Director for the Internal Medicine Residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and now serves on the Board of Directors of PIH. In 2015 Dr. Morse worked with several partners to found the Social Medicine Consortium (SMC), a global coalition that seeks to use activism and disruptive pedagogy rooted in social medicine to address the miseducation of health professionals on the root causes of illness. www.equalhealth.org
Professor Jack Tchen is currently the Inaugural Clement A. Price Chair of Public History & Humanities and Director of the Clement Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University – Newark. He is co-founder, of the New York Newark (Estuarial) Public History Project; founder, of the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program & Institute, at New York University; and Co-Founder, of the Museum of Chinese in America.
Shira Hassan is the founder, co-creator and principle consultant for Just Practice, a capacity building project for organizations and community members, activists and leaders working at the intersection of transformative justice, harm reduction and collective liberation. She is the former executive director of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, an organizing and grassroots movement building project led by and for young people of color that have current or former experience in the sex trade and street economies. A lifelong harm reductionist and prison abolitionist, Shira has been working on community accountability for nearly 25 years and has helped young people of color start their own organizing projects across the country. Shira’s work has been discussed on National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Nation, In These Times, Bill Moyers, Scarleteen, Everyday Feminism, Bitch Media, TruthOut and Colorlines.
Susan Raffo is a queer bodyworker, cultural worker and writer. Living in Minneapolis, and deeply grounded in the midwest, the flatlands, she has been working with the relationships between individual and collective nervous systems, between histories and futures, for close to 20 years. Involved in a range of collaborative projects, she spends her time moving from an individual body-based practice to supporting groups to reflecting on the page. You can find her at www.susanraffo.com.
Erica Woodland, LCSW is a black queer/genderqueer facilitator, consultant and healing justice practitioner who has worked at the intersections of movements for racial, gender, economic, trans and queer justice and liberation for more than 17 years. He is the Founding Director of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, an organization committed to advancing healing justice by transforming mental health for queer and trans people of color. Learn more about his work at www.nqttcn.com and www.ericawoodland.com