Alice Bagley shares about timebanking, urban farming and community-building through and through. Unity in Our Community Timebank is an organization in Southwest Detroit focused on sharing services and building community one hour at a time. Alice Beagley is currently organizing learning circles with Michigan Alliance Timebanking and farming at Oakland Urban Farm.
Rhiki: Have you ever wished that you could get something but without having to give your money to pay for it? I know I have. Have you ever heard of the concept of time banking? Well, prior to a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea what it was either, which is why I’m so excited to talk with Alice Bagley today about the concept of time banking and how it can be a tool to build Radical Futures Now.
Paige: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement, and how to build Radical Futures Now.
Rhiki: Alice, we’re so excited to have you with us today. But before we get started, can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?
AliceBagley: Sure. My name is Alice Bagley. I live in Detroit, Michigan, and I work for Unity in Our Community TimeBank, which is located in Southwest Detroit. I also work with Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks helping to organize monthly learning circles and doing some other organizing work for them. And when I’m not doing time bank stuff, I grow vegetables that I sell through City Commons Cooperative.
Paige: Can I ask you a little bit about the learning circles? What does that entail?
AliceBagley: Sure. The monthly learning circles are the main program of Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks. They’re a chance for us to get together and share what’s going on with the different time banks in Michigan, as well as we often have guest speakers or some other kind of theme or subject like we’re having someone from Detroit Safety Team come to talk about ways to promote a culture of safety within time banks because that’s an issue that comes up a lot. And in normal times we also usually have a potluck and also just get to connect with one another as well.
Paige: Can you tell our listeners what time banking is? It seems like a lot of your plate is full of time baking. And can you tell us specifically what the origins of time baking are and the journey since then?
AliceBagley: Sure. Time banking is a way for people to exchange services with each other using time instead of money as the unit of exchange. If I go and help someone paint their front porch for two hours, I earn two hours in the time bank and I could use one of those hours to get Spanish lessons from somebody and another hour to get a ride to a doctor’s appointment or something like that. And obviously this is really based on a way of being an exchanging services that is very old in a lot of cultures kind of the more recent time banking movement. There’s a few different origin points, but most often people talk about Edgar Cahn with his book, No More Throwaway People, where he sort of sets out kind of the structure that a lot of time banks use now in started a time bank in Washington, DC, that’s been very informative.
AliceBagley: There’s also other time banks that I know less about that developed at a similar time. I know in St Louis Housing Development, there was a similar one, a housing project there. And yeah, there’s lots of different origin, like a lot of movements, there’s different origin points you can point to. And our time bank in Southwest Detroit has been around for a little over 11 years now and sort of has two origins as well. There was one that formed around a neighborhood association in Hubbard Farms and another one in a nearby neighborhood around a nonprofit called Bridging Communities. And those eventually merged and formed the time bank that we have now.
Rhiki: Wow. This is so fascinating to me, honestly, it wasn’t until one of our colleagues brought it up, that I even knew that this was a thing that was happening. I just think it’s great. Can you talk a little bit more about the benefits of adapting this new way of exchanging?
AliceBagley: Sure. I mean time banking, I think there’s a lot of benefits to time banking one easy thing right off the bat is that it allows people who might not have a lot of money, but do have skills or talents to share, to be able to get things that they might need or want. It also is a really great way to build community. Southwest Detroit is a really diverse neighborhood with a lot of different immigrant communities. And the time bank has engaged in a lot of activities that allow people of different backgrounds to meet each other and to build things together as well.
AliceBagley: I think that sometimes doing work together or doing work for each other is a really important way to build solidarity. It’s also really great as an intergenerational way to bring people together. I think especially we often think of elders as already having kind of contributed and not having as much to contribute, but we obviously know that the knowledge that our elders have is really valuable, even if it’s not valued in the money system. And so being able to value those contributions to our community is really great. And it’s also just a good way to get to meet each other. I joined the time bank when I first moved to Southwest Detroit and it was just a really good way for me to get to know my neighbors. And so I think it’s also just good for that.
Paige: Yeah. It sounds like it’s a lot of community centered spaces and a lot about thinking about how people have value other than their ability to make profit. Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about the book that you mentioned Edgar Cahn, No More Throwaway People. It sounds really interesting and it sounds like it’s coming up a lot in the practice of your work.
AliceBagley: It looks like it was published in the ’90s. And so yeah, No More Throwaway People by Edgar Cahn. He wrote it after he had a health crisis that made it so that he really needed a lot more help and had a lot more needs than he was used to having, I think like a lot of us, especially in the US we like to think of ourselves as being really independent and able to meet all of our needs independently. And he really was feeling like he wasn’t able to contribute, or at least not contribute in the same way. He also, in his career, he was part of the Kennedy administration and helped form legal services as an organization, legal aid. And so he had a background of working with people that our society considers needy, or as he would say in the book, as people who were throw-away people, people who needed a lot, were takers, I think is how a lot of people in our current political discourse would talk about them, but he recognized.
AliceBagley: And I think a lot of us recognize that just because people aren’t valued in our money society, doesn’t mean they don’t have valuable things to contribute. And especially the things that our money society doesn’t value that are really important, like caring for elders, caring for young people, building community. We don’t get paid to go to the neighborhood potluck, but it’s really important that we go to the neighborhood potluck and create that kind of solidarity and trust with our neighbors. And so, yeah, his book is really all about some different ways to do that. He also talks a lot about co-production in that and sort of that bottom up organizing is all part of that as well.
Paige: Yeah. Super cool. I think the core tenants of what it sounds like time banking is trying to help each other in the community and getting to know your neighbors and learning from the elders and making sure that everyone knows each other and can help each other out. I’m wondering what the distinctions are between time banking and say something like mutual aid and mutual aid networks, or if you find a lot of similarities or how your group, when they’re organizing, how you guys talk about time banking compared to mutual aid.
AliceBagley: Yeah. We’ve partnered with a couple of mutual aid efforts, especially around the pandemic early on in April, there was some organizing with a lot of different people and organizations in Southwest Detroit to form Southwest Care as mutual aid. And actually time bankers did a lot of the delivery driving to drop off food and other necessities with people who had emergency food needs or who had illness who weren’t in a position to be able to go to the grocery store. And now we’re also working with Detroit Community Fridge. Which is a really great mutual aid effort as well. I mean, I would definitely consider time banking to be under the umbrella of mutual aid. I think time banking is very specific because it really only deals with services. It’s really an hour for an hour exchange. And so you can’t really place a number of hours for example, with the community fridge, which is all about food.
AliceBagley: There’s not a way to exchange hours for a loaf of bread or something like that. I think time banks are very specific, but I think that they can definitely be a part of mutual aid efforts. There’s a time bank in Hamtramck, Michigan, that’s just starting and they are doing a toiletry drive for East Side Mutual Aid right now. And so people are earning hours for … Are going to pick up toiletries at different places and for organizing that effort. Because all of this kind of work, even though the output is, oh, we’re distributing food to people.
AliceBagley: There’s a lot of time and effort that goes into organizing those things. Like with Detroit Community Fridge, people have to go and clean out the fridge all the time, make sure that spoiled food is removed and that is really important work. And I think it’s great to be able to value that work through the time bank as a way, especially to kind of fight burnout. Because I think that work can also feel kind of thankless for a lot of people. People obviously get a lot of good feeling from doing good work and community, but time banking can sort of layer over an extra way of feeling like your work is valued.
Rhiki: You said that new ones are popping up in different places. I’m really curious, what is the process of getting something like a time bank established? How hard is it to get buy-in to something like this?
AliceBagley: It’ll be difficult because I think it is a new way of thinking for some people. And it does require, I think, especially early on a lot of organizing work. Like I mentioned, our time bank was formed 11 years ago. And at that time sort of in a similar time period, Kim Hodge who formed a Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks helped start, I think like six or seven, maybe more than that time banks kind of all as part of the same push and of those I think two still exist a decade later. I might be getting some of these numbers slightly wrong. It is really hard to sustain for the long term because it does take a lot of organizing time to get started. Though, it’s really fairly simple. We use a software called hour world, spelled H-O-U-R world. That’s a free software and people are able to like, once you have an account, you can post your offers and posts your requests and keep track of your hours that way.
AliceBagley: But you do need kind of a base level number of members because you need a diverse group of offers and requests. Like if everyone is offering, I don’t know, if all anyone is offering is to bake you cookies. That’s not a very useful time bank exchange. You need some people who are good with their hands. Some people who are good cooks, some people who can drive you places. Some people who tell great stories, you need a diversity of skills to have a really good time bank. Time banking is not always as convenient as just like calling someone up who you’re going to pay because oftentimes people’s schedules are difficult and it’s not as straightforward as other ways of getting things done.
AliceBagley: You also just need people who are willing to go through the extra effort and you also need a lot of trust. And I think time banks can help create trust in a community, but it’s also if you’re going to get a ride with somebody in your time bank, it really helps if you’ve already met that person at a social event, lots of time banks host potlucks and things like that. Obviously that’s more difficult at the moment. It takes a lot to start, but you can also look all sorts of different ways. I don’t think that there’s a blueprint on how to get started.
Paige: Earlier you mentioned burnout and time banking can help alleviate that burnout that happens in organizing or just being in the world that we live in. I’m wondering how do you all as a time banking community resolve conflicts as they come up?
AliceBagley: I think there’s a lot of different ways that conflicts can be resolved. I mean, burnout is definitely real, not just like in efforts that time banking support, but also among time bank leaders. I definitely feel like we’ve seen some of that in the Michigan TimeBank Community and some of that’s just natural. I think there’s a certain extent to which burnout can’t be avoided. And we all have to know when to step back from projects and say I got to take a break. And as far as resolving conflicts in time banks, I think it can look a lot of different ways depending on the conflict. We’ve been really lucky that at least in our time bank there haven’t been any major conflicts where people felt unsafe or things like that. I think what’s come up more often is just like in kind of the leadership teams of some time banks, there being disagreements about the extent to which a time bank should formalize itself.
AliceBagley: Some time banks are incorporated as their own, like 501C3 nonprofits, like our time bank in Southwest Detroit works with a larger nonprofit and some just want to be their own entity. And then I think it’s the sort of conflicts that come up in organizing a lot, like the extent to which you want to buy into larger systems, buy into the nonprofit, industrial complex, as some people call it or whether you just want to be your own independent slightly anarchistic thing. Yeah, I mean, and so that’s just, you got to talk it out and I think two, it comes down to deciding what you want to accomplish with your time banks. Some people, really their dream for the time bank is that they’re going to be able to get everything they need in their life from the time bank and not have to use money at all anymore.
AliceBagley: And if that’s your goal, you’re going to organize in a certain way. But if your goal is to get more neighbors to meet each other, you’re going to organize a different way. And I think that, that’s like one of the things I really like about the Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks is we have time banks in a lot of different communities that are doing very different things like our time banking Pontiac works really closely with the hospital there to help people who are getting out of the hospital with serious medical issues who need help going to the grocery store or rides to their follow-up appointments and things like that.
AliceBagley: I don’t really have any interest in doing that kind of work closely with healthcare providers, personally I’m happy to help people get to their doctor’s appointments, but that kind of coordination with health issues is not the focus of our time bank. And if someone wanted in our time bank was like, what I’m really moved to do is help patients. I wouldn’t say no, I had to say okay, cool. You do that part of it. I’m more interested in helping organized cooking classes, which are really popular in our time bank. I think one of the great things about time banking is that it’s a model that’s very adjustable to whatever your community wants to do with it.
Rhiki: This is so cool. It’s so fascinating to me, especially because I was in a really intense conversation last night, actually, with a group of women. And we were talking about the trauma that we feel when we have to participate in a capitalistic society and we’re unable to meet our needs and meet the needs of our loved ones because everyone sees care nowadays or sees … Yeah, care is monetized. Just like everything else in our society is commodified.
Rhiki: I just wish we knew a time banking when we were having that conversation and how we can create new ways of being, because yeah, I think a lot of people who are at the lower end of the spectrum, as far as income they’re struggling to participate in a system that is not designed really for them, because if you don’t have the money, then there’s no way to participate. If that makes sense. It’s more of a comment than a question, but I just want to get your thoughts on time banking as far as like, if we were to take it and think of it as a model for how to build Radical Futures Now plug for our podcast name. In what ways do you think this system could help us alleviate some of the things that we experienced with capitalism and how hard do you think it will be to make something like this more mainstream?
AliceBagley: One of the things that I love in time banking is that it’s like, I think of it as like training wheels for thinking outside of capitalism. Some people come into it knowing, I want to engage in this form of organizing directly against capitalism. Some people during the time banking get interested in it because they need somebody to come help them pull weeds in their garden. It’s kind of still the radical economy because I think its political and economic features are a little bit more subtle than some forms of organizing. But I do feel it helps people to shift their mindset. To shift away from the idea that … I think it helps people to shift their mindset, because for example, I did an exchange where someone knitted a hat for me and knitting takes a long time. It took 12 hours. That’s 12 hours in the time bank. And then something that we actually value more or valuable in our money economy than it had like getting a massage, is only one 12th of that. An hour long massage is one 12th of that.
AliceBagley: And so I think it gives people a way of shifting their ideas around how valuable certain kinds of work is. And it also shifts what is actually work. One of the core values of time banking is redefining work. We host a monthly family game night and everyone who attends that game night earned hours because we recognize that creating community is a really important service that we create. And one of the ways you create community is by going to family game night and interacting with other people, spending time with other people’s children, spending time talking about your day, that’s actually really important work in our society. When we’re in a system where an hour long massage, one 12th of a hat and attending game night are all worth the same. It can help us to shift our ideas about value and about how our system actually works. And help us, as you’re saying, with radical futures, it helps us to, I think, have that radical imagination about what’s possible.
Paige: I love game night and I love that, that’s part of the time banking processes, building community, and that being a service to others. That’s beautiful.
Rhiki: Alice, we want to switch the conversation a little bit to talk about the work that you do with the City of Commons urban farming thing. What has it been like maintaining and keeping a farm in the middle of a pandemic?
AliceBagley: Yeah. I’m with City Commons Cooperative and my farm that’s a part of it. We’re a cooperative of eight farms all throughout the city. It’s actually been my savior for my mental health, because it turns out that plants don’t care if there’s a pandemic going on or not. And also people still have to eat during a pandemic. It’s like then this lovely Island of normalcy, I mean, obviously like at farmer’s market, we were wearing masks. I wasn’t getting as many hugs as I usually get at a farmer’s market in the neighborhood, but it’s still like that was my main social interaction, last summer was going to the farmer’s market. I mean, even in a normal summer, it’s a lot of my social life, but especially last year, it was really great. And yeah, the plants did not care at all. They grew just the same as they usually do. It was a really wonderful part of my life.
Rhiki: What inspired you to get into farming and start a farm where you are?
AliceBagley: I went to college at Whitman College, which is in Walla Walla, Washington, which is a really rural part of Eastern Washington. And while I was there, I was really involved with an effort to start a food co-op in town and got very involved in the local food movement. And so as part of that, by that interest, I ended up working on a farm the summer between my junior and senior year of college. And it was one of those moments of just something clicking.
AliceBagley: I was like, oh yeah, this is the thing that I’m going to do. After I graduated, I grew vegetables at a farm in Walla Walla for a few years of learning through a lot of trial and error and talking to lots of other farmers who were in the area about how they do it and figured it out. And then I’m originally from Michigan. And so I wanted to move back in this general direction and also wanting to live in a city. When I heard about all the great urban agriculture movement stuff going on in Detroit, I was able to get a job here with the garden resource program and moved here and kept growing things.d
Paige: Can I just say before Rhiki ask the next question, I just love what you were saying about how the plants don’t care that it’s a pandemic, people still need to eat. I think that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot with my grandmother’s garden too. And I think that’s really important, is just taking care of the plant people because they take care of us.
Rhiki: I was also in a conversation. This is a part of the conversation that I was in last night, but it was just nice to hear this person talk about in the middle of the pandemic. How getting back grounded into nature is so helpful for us, being outside and taking a walk and feeling the sunshine or gardening or just connecting back to the land has really been a thing that has been getting people through this. I think it’s just so cool to hear about you and your farming and how that has been the thing that has kept you going during this time. I guess our last question for you, when you are trying to grow in this work or develop in the work of time banking and in the work of urban farming, who do you tap into so that our listeners, if they want to get more involved, they can also tap into those people.
AliceBagley: I mean, Detroit is just a great community organizing city. I mean, I think Kim Hodge who founded Michigan Alliance of TimeBanks and helped start a lot of our time banks here in Michigan really laid down a great foundation for this work in this state, Jenny Weekly, who is a member of Unity in Our Community TimeBank and was sort of one of the driving forces behind it for years and years and still is, has been a really great mentor to me around community organizing and doing work in that way.
AliceBagley: And then for urban farming work, I am lucky enough to live near Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, which Jerry Hebron and her husband run. And they are just super inspiring to me around how to do work in a neighborhood. That’s really the president driven. And so I’m always inspired by them. I could spend all day listing off urban gardeners in the city of Detroit, but a lot of that is involved with Keep Growing Detroit who runs the garden resource program. If anyone wants to get involved with urban agriculture, especially in Detroit, they should check out, Keep Growing Detroit for resources. Yeah.
Rhiki: Awesome. Thank you so much.
AliceBagley: No problem. Thank you.
Rhiki: This was great.
Paige: I just want to say thank you so much for coming and telling us about time banking. I feel like I really learned a lot from listening to you today.
Rhiki: And yeah, that’s all we have for you right now. Paige, what was something that you took away from the conversation today?
Paige: I think there’s many approaches that people have to building community and getting to know our neighbors and our elders and connecting everyone with the youth. And to me, time banking is so experimental. It’s really interesting, the work that she’s got going on in Southwest Detroit, and it’s a really humane attempt to exchange services where people feel valued and part of the community. Yeah. What thoughts and reflections are you having Rhiki?
Rhiki: Yeah. I think similar to you, it’s experimental and it’s also really flexible. And I think I liked that part about the model that you can really tailor it to what your community needs and how your community wants to engage with one another. And I also think it’s a really cool concept that actually builds off of a conversation that we had earlier with Omni Jones about community care and thinking about what services do we have to offer to people and what are ways in which we can ask for our needs to be met, that isn’t just texting and really relying on just the close ones in our circle, but just giving opportunities for other people to step up and meet our needs and building community.
Paige: And that’s it for our episode today, the Radical features Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Special thanks to Trevor Lolium Jackson for our music and Ellie [inaudible 00:31:38] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Arcus Center. See you next week. [inaudible 00:31:56].
Mazi Mutafa (no pronouns) discusses the sacredness of the cypher, and the expansiveness of Hip Hop as a music and culture. Mazi Mutafa is the Executive Director of Words Beats & Life inc, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. that teaches, convenes and presents Hip-Hop around the world. Mazi Mutafa began this organization as an after school program dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences in non-traditional classrooms, teaching the elements of Hip-Hop.
Paige: What’s up everybody it’s Paige. We’re here to talk today with Mazi Mustafa about all things Hip hop. It’s power. It’s sacredness. It’s interconnectedness. Today, he highlights the power of Hip hop to build community and share stories. He’s currently working on a book discussing his personal life and the organization he runs called Words Beats & Life.
MaziMutafa: Ayo. This is Hip hop, it should be promoting love, peace, unity, and having fun.
Speaker3: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement and how to build radical futures now.
Paige: I’m just going to let you introduce yourself [inaudible 00:00:56] today. Tell the people who you are. So I was wondering when I was learning about you and researching when you were growing up, what did Hip hop look like for you? What was the culture at the time where you lived in the time period of Hip hop?
MaziMutafa: You know, in all the years I’ve been being interviewed no one’s ever asked me that question. And what I think is most interesting about it is that when I was a young person, a literal young person, Hip hop was all around because I would travel to visit my grandparents and my great aunts in New York city. And it’s really only as an adult looking back that I realized that Hip hop was all around. My grandfather and I used to go to the racquetball courts and handball courts in the Bronx. And looking at pictures from my childhood, they’re all covered in graffiti. And it’s like literally seeing how I was a part of Hip hop, almost my entire life, because I really didn’t get into the culture or the music until college. I was one of those kids whose parents really kind of dictated the radio.
MaziMutafa: So I grew up listening mostly to R&B, a lot of Marvin Gaye, a lot of James Brown, all kinds of music like that. That was really driven by my mother who though she was a Puerto Rican woman, she was raised in foster care for part of her life. So she grew up in large part around African-Americans. My father is an African-American. And so those are my earliest recollections of Hip hop, literally seeing it, which is also why books like Tricia Rose’s, Black Noise, which is one of Hip hop’s first academic books is not about the music per se, but about the soundscape of the music, like the sound of horns, the sounds of cars, the sounds of trains, which all once again, reminded me of my own childhood but as a kid, I didn’t think about that necessarily Hip hop.
MaziMutafa: I remember doing backspin’s on the linoleum in the kitchen, just because that was a thing. I remember my parents buying me my first Hip hop tape, which was a Fat Boy’s album. And so my earliest recollections are going to New York City to visit my family. And then kind of bringing things back to my home.
Paige: Yeah. The book that you mentioned, it reminds me just of the importance of people’s soundscapes that they live in that influences so much of what comes out in the Hip hop music, for sure.
MaziMutafa: Definitely. And not even just the soundscape, but also the geography. Lots of people talk about West Coast music being connected to cruising, this idea of people in low riders, driving long distances. So the music feels like the place that it comes from. The same thing is true for like screw music coming out of Texas. So the geography of a place and the soundscape of that place have a huge influence on the people that live there, you know? So that that shows up in what it is that they create. The stories they tell.
Paige: Right. Most definitely. I mean, I’m from LA. So the cruise culture is definitely huge for sure. I just actually went to a cruise car show in my neighborhood last week, so yeah.
MaziMutafa: That’s what’s up.
Paige: Yeah. What was the theoretical foundation of your Hip hop and educational practice? So you talk about going to the Bronx and growing up listening to Hip hop music, but yeah, where does that theory kind of come from too?
MaziMutafa: When you say the theory, what do you mean?
Paige: To me, what I was thinking about that the theoretical framework is with like the five tenants of Hip hop, they have a variety of things that are involved, right? You have like a philosophical, mental, but you also have a physical, you have like… So I was thinking about the theoretical framework in terms of what’s the theoretical glue to all of this? How do you understand all of those parts in your Hip hop, your educational practice specifically?
MaziMutafa: Got you. Got you. I mean, I think that one of the things that is interesting about being a person that has witnessed all of the elements present in communities and witnessed kind of the elevation of individual elements for either commercial or competitive purposes, thinking about the addition of breaking to the Olympics or the lifting up of rap music as the primary way in which people think about Hip hop or thinking about the influence of graffiti on larger kind of marketing and commercial efforts to share stories using public transportation or public spaces, or even the transformation of public spaces. I think what’s interesting to me is that Hip hop has been the vocal and the silent influence for most of what is called pop culture today or just kind of popular music, even simple things like the idea that when you listen to music that there’s a blend, is that whether you’re listening on something like Apple Music, the way that that goes from song to song, there’s a blending aspect that literally was created by a Hip hop DJs.
MaziMutafa: I think that in terms of the way I think about all those influencers and their impact on pedagogy is recognizing that Hip hop is pedagogy. That it is a way of teaching and learning that speaks to the ways in which people feel most comfortable expressing themselves, telling their stories. And its been really interestingly teaching young people who are very much so into breaking, but are not very verbal because their expression is with their body. They’re talking with their body. The same thing is true for producers. Everybody in Hip hop, that’s not a rapper is generally not a very verbal communicator especially, at a young age, because they’re still trying to figure out kind of who they are and how they feel and that expression shows up and what it is that they create.
MaziMutafa: I think one of the gifts of running an organization that employs those creatives once they become older and more mature and kind of have a creative perspective is that those folks are verbal. They’re able to explain their own kind of trajectory in their creativity and that becomes a model for those young people who might begin as less verbal, begin as kind of less able to communicate, but I also think that part of it to be fair to those young people that ability to communicate what they think and what they feel is not just a reflection of the form of art they practice it’s actually, I think, a larger reflection of their educational experience, where you have to think back. And maybe you’ve had a different experience than me Paige but I don’t remember being asked how I felt in school unless I was a problem. I don’t remember being asked to express the things that I wondered about. And so whether that’s in my home life or in my school life like young people’s opinions and ideas and expression are generally not cultivated.
MaziMutafa: And so that shows up in their practice but when you think about MCs, like an MC is usually that kid who was in the cafeteria who still spin their written or freestyle. So their form of community building is verbally expressive. And they’re playing a role of bringing people together, whether that is for people to applaud or to give them words to rap to. Their practice is a communal practice versus the practice of creating beats for a lot of folks is solitary. The practice of doing graffiti in a book or on a wall for a lot of people is still solitary. It’s not a thing that they’re generally doing to engage verbally with community. And so what I love about the work we do is we create space for those nonverbal creatives to talk to each other and to learn about each other’s stories and to build a space whose pedagogy puts their life and their experience and their expression at the center of everything that we do. To me, that’s Hip hop.
Paige: Wow. That’s so beautifully said. Yeah. I think what stuck out to me, what you just said was just centering people’s genuine curiosity in what they want to see in the world and what they want to create to be in that world. And yeah, I never really thought about the nonverbal components of Hip hop because I think I usually think more on the DJ MC side and I always feel like they’re talking. So I never really thought about so much about the breaking and the graffiti in that way. Yeah.
MaziMutafa: I was going to say one of the reasons why I’ve even had to think about it is because we’ve been running afterschool programs for 17 years. And we’ve seen the kind of personalities that are attracted to different elements. You know, my theory gets jumbled when you have a young person that operates across disciplines, who is an MC but is also a producer and is also a breaker. And so I think that it’s important to recognize that what I’m saying it might be true for many it’s definitely not true for all, but I also think that the value in nonverbal communication shows up in things like… I’ve been in conversations with breakers who don’t know the legal names of people who they danced with. They know their B-boy name, but they don’t know what their mother calls them.
MaziMutafa: And I always point that out because one of the things that tells me is that you don’t communicate with them about their life outside of the circle. And I understand that part of that is, a Hip hop space is also about people recreating and re-imagining themselves. Creating their own identity, but even the identity that I create for myself is still, that’s my Superman. There’s still a Clark Kent when I’m outside of the circle. There’s still this person that I am when I’m not in this space that it seems like a lot of folks in Hip hop don’t really take the time to get to know, verbally, through storytelling the people who are in their circles outside of that circle.
MaziMutafa: And that’s true for me as well. I just did this series of interviews with people I have known for more than a decade. And I ask them questions that I’ve never asked them socially and learned so much about them and their families and their histories, that I never would have known had I not set up an interview. These are people that are my friends. And so, I bring it up only because it’s knowledge of who we are outside of the jobs or the skills that you have, I think is a kind of limitation to really deep community.
Paige: I think something that you said earlier reminds me of what I’ve been up to during the quarantine is, I’ve been going to these DJ live Twitch streams. So I’ve been going to Natasha Diggs, UniVibes vibes, the whole Soul in thorn family. And I feel like we spend so much time together. We get together at least every Friday for Natasha’s live stream. And yeah, I really don’t know who some of these people’s families or their jobs are, but I know that it’s so-and-so’s birthday today and we’re celebrating and so-and-so likes to do this when they dance on the live stream. And, yeah, there is a sense of community that’s very different than just knowing, oh, I see you every day. I know your government name. I know what your mother calls you. Yeah.
Paige: You talk about the structure of the cipher and this idea of the sacred circle. And I feel like I’ve been able to witness it a little bit when my guy friends will get together, they’ll cipher out a beat. And there’s something really magical that happens between them. Can you expand on that idea of the structure of the cipher?
MaziMutafa: I mean, I’m, I’m really building on the legacy of folks like Tony Blackman, who has this concept. Who has these workshops and trainings she does around the cipher. I describe the decipher as a sacred circle of interconnectedness. And I think I begin with the word sacred just because I want people to recognize that it’s not just this cool thing that happens. It’s a spiritual experience that we are allowed to witness. And that part of the responsibility of the people that make up… Actually, let me back up. Let’s assume everybody who’s listening doesn’t know what a cipher is. So a cipher is usually a word used to describe a circle that is made up of people who surround someone performing, whether that’s a set of MCs in the cipher or whether that is a set of dancers in the cipher, in the middle of that circle.
MaziMutafa: And so the reason why I call it a sacred circle of interconnectedness is one is that spiritual piece I just talked about, but the interconnectedness is the witnesses. It’s the people that literally make up the circle and they are not just witnesses, but they’re protectors of that space. They’re the ones that help make room when people come out of the cipher, come out of the center of it to become a part of the circle. And this idea that no one is always at the center. I think it’s also really powerful that people move in and move out of the cipher. Move into the center of the cipher, and move out into the body of the cipher, which I think is also really powerful from a leadership point of view or a community building point of view that. It’s not about one individual, it’s about everyone playing their role and everyone feeling when it’s their time to come into the center of the circle to share their gifts, to share their talents, to share their point of view.
MaziMutafa: And I feel like that is one of the things that Hip hop has to teach to the whole human family, but the other side of this is that the cipher, as a first of all, the word cipher comes from the Arabic word, it’s also in Urdu, which is, [foreign language 00:14:49] which just means circle. There are so many kinds of dance, particularly, that happen at the center of circles. So this is something that predates Hip hop its part of, kind of human DNA. I’ve been watching videos of people, particularly in the Middle East and in Asia, and even in the United States who practice forms of dance that happen at the center of a circle. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that particularly for those dancers and for those MCs who come to the center, their ability to have their bodies where their voices/their energy, transform a space is also part of that sacred practice of creating spaces that are transformation.
MaziMutafa: Usually, when people try to tie Hip hop to African-American traditions, they’ll talk about things like the call and response of the church but, depending on the way it is that you practice, dance is also a part of that, shouting is also part of that. This idea that kind of allowing your body to be taken over by something bigger than yourself as a religious practice is I think something that I’ve witnessed in MCs when they’re just building concepts verbally out of nothing. Non-conceptual rhymes and conceptual rhymes that they’re building on the spot or that person who’s improv-ing with their body in that moment, connecting the language of dance in different ways. We’re able to witness that kind of sacred practice in a “secular environment.”
Paige: Yeah. The protection of who can come in and who can… Not who as in… That’s not an exclusive. The protecting the happens kind of like when you give yourself up in that way and you allow that change and transformation to happen when you’re in the center. And then to know when you come back to the rest of the circle, that the rest of the community will hold you. Yeah.
MaziMutafa: And that they see you. And that they see you at the center that they celebrate you, that they witness your creative brilliance. And then after you’re finished that they welcome you back into the rest of the community.
Paige: The way that you talk about Hip hop just really reminds me of approaches that activists have towards movement work about interconnectedness, about having a sacred and spiritual connection to other people. And the community building aspect of it is really powerful, the way you describe Hip hop.
MaziMutafa: But it’s rooted in its history. The idea that Hip hop began with a block party or a back to school party. That is about bringing people together to celebrate something and bring together kind of these disparate artistic forms into shared space so that they could reimagine what they would mean to each other. And the fact that Hip hop is created by children of movements, whether that’s black power or that it’s civil rights, you name it. This idea that the people that have done the work in creating the culture are literally the children and grandchildren of people who were the mothers and fathers of movements.
Paige: I think something else I was thinking about in terms of who the generation of Hip hop is, I was reading this article. I can’t remember the name, but they were talking about the women in Hip hop and what role women have with MCs with rappers, with DJs. And they talk about mothers and grandmothers giving their young boys records. And that the older women were able to pass on legacies of music so that they could break it apart, mix it up. And just talking about the intimacy of the home too, and bringing music into that in that way. Yeah.
MaziMutafa: Yeah. I got a chance to see a presentation, it might’ve been by the same author. It was at a conference in California called, Show Improve. And the article that was being presented was by this academician that did interviews with the pioneers of Hip hop and learned about things like Afrika Bambaataa. One of the things he’s credited with is having really diverse music and introducing that to DJing and Hip hop but part of the reason why his music was diverse is because his mother’s musical tastes was diverse. He literally borrowed her records, had to write her name on them because he had to return them after the party. That the same thing is true for Kool Herc, that this idea that their musical tastes were shaped by their mothers and their mothers record collection.
MaziMutafa: Is part of the history that’s a race. And part of the reason why it’s a race is because part of the narrative about Hip hop is that Hip hop was created by people who made something out of nothing. People who are downtrodden and didn’t have blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, as opposed to, no Hip hop was actually created by people whose mothers loved them, whose mothers were practitioners, where consumers of culture who shaped their tastes. That’s a really different story than, look at what came out of the South Bronx. No, South Bronx had life before Hip hop. No doubt there were fires. No doubt there was poverty, but there was also life and culture and creativity and imagination that were all there but Hip hop didn’t just spring out of nothingness. It actually grew from roots of musical traditions of movement traditions that were participated in by the parents of the founders and forefathers or foremothers.
Paige: Most certainly.
MaziMutafa: [crosstalk 00:20:34] mothers was the first erasure of women in Hip hop.
Paige: Wow. Talking to you about Hip hop makes me really remember why I love Hip hop. I think sometimes with the current era of music, I have sometimes ambivalence’s or conflictions with my love for Hip hop, but talking to you reminds me of the history and the strength that comes out of Hip hop. I was wondering if we could complicate some of the things too today, because I have a lot of just general questions and thoughts about Hip hop that I haven’t really been able to… What’s the verb I’m trying to use? Make compromises around. Like sort of the limitations around the 90s with the bling era and the more commercialization of Hip hop. And this question I keep coming back to is… This might be a little bit of two separate questions, but how can we criticize and use Hip hop for social change when so much of the music is marketed towards a certain class of people.
MaziMutafa: To rap music. For a range of reasons, including the fact that there’s a whole generation of people who didn’t have to find Hip hop. Hip hop is everywhere they look it’s in their commercials, it’s on television, it’s on the radio, but that generation of people has parents or older brothers or cousins who are part of the generations that had to find it and had to create it themselves. Someone posted this the other day on Instagram and I’m part of the generation that used to listen to the radio and capture songs to create mixed tapes because it wasn’t on all the time. It wasn’t every place. And that there wasn’t one specific narrative being pushed.
MaziMutafa: And so I think that the beauty of this moment is recognizing that in my generation, I’m 43-years-old, but the same thing is true to a different degree to this generation via things like SoundCloud. This idea where you’re able to curate your playlist, think about the things and discover music. It’s not on the radio. It’s not being driven by some major corporation necessarily. It’s still organically being created by someone who has a story to tell that has value to them and the people that listen, but I think the other piece in terms of decentralizing rap music, as the frame around which we envision what Hip hop is, is to recognize that people have been breaking since the early 70s, early 80s, and innovating the dance all over the world.
MaziMutafa: The same thing is true for graffiti. Graffiti started their arguments about where it started in terms of multiple Genesis’s in terms of California, Philadelphia, and New York, but wherever it is that it started in the form that we think about is kind of old school graffiti it’s been innovated in Germany, innovated in Uganda, innovated Brazil. So, recognizing that that Hip hop is not just those pictures that I see from my own childhood, but it is those commercials that you see today. It is the pictures that you put on your wall or save on your phone, or like on Instagram. That it’s bigger than whatever limitations we want to put on it, to understand it, to restrict it, to criticize it. It’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than whatever it is our criticism is because there’s someone or people all over the world, re-imagining what it means to express themselves verbally, express themselves musically, express himself kinesthetically.
MaziMutafa: And because of that, because it’s a living culture versus a dead culture like ancient languages or religious texts that are about times that were thousands of years ago, because it’s living. It’s always growing. It’s always evolving. It’s always changing. And because it’s leaderless, it’s always going in multiple directions. It’s not this steady beat of Hip hop is this. And it’s always been this. And it’s always going to be this. It’s got to change. It’s got to change for a few reasons, one of which is that the innovations in it are usually driven by young people. And one of the things young people don’t want to do is be their parents when they’re young.
MaziMutafa: So when people are upset about what’s on the radio or what their children are listening to, would you really feel comfortable if your children are listening to the exact same music you were listening to when you were their age? I hope the answer to that question is no, because if they all are listening to the same music then that music is dead. It’s not changing. Anything that is alive is always changing.
Paige: That’s funny. That’s really funny. Ricky and I were having a conversation when we were preparing for this interview to talk about specifically, that question, but also trying to think about maybe those are some of the limitations that we see in the US but there’s so many re innovations, changes that are happening around the globe with Hip hop. Just thinking about just Gilbert and his work in Uganda. And we’ve been trying to get Gilbert to talk about it on the podcast, but yeah, I think what you’re saying is true is, I think sometimes I talk to people and maybe it’s because I talked to older people too, and maybe that’s not necessarily true, but they talk about, “Oh, your generation doesn’t know how to talk about love in the music. They don’t know how to talk about community in the music and it’s just all commercialized or feeding a certain image.” And I think it’s important to think about what you were saying. To decentralize rap music and Hip hop.
MaziMutafa: Yeah. I feel like adults, they say things like that or adults that don’t have relationships with young people outside of their family because I would say that I totally disagree with that point of view. I think that where they are right is that the music on the radio doesn’t know how to do those things, but when I go to slam events or to poetry events or open mics, young people are more than capable of expressing love and intimacy and the challenges connected to those things. Challenges connected to identity. As a matter of fact, I feel like the thing that younger people have done that’s better than people of my generation is like, sometimes my wife and I will listen to like old R&B, like Jodeci. And we love it. We know every single word, but older music is not as complicated as life actually is. It’s actually simpler. The formulas for telling stories about love are in some ways kind of the fantasies of that generation, like this is what love looks like. You meet someone, you love them, you fall deeper versus like, nah, it’s actually complicated.
MaziMutafa: And I think like this is really part of my own approach to media is even this idea of storytelling is not something unique to rap music. It’s also not unique to R&B music that comedy also tells stories that poetry also tells stories. And so if you broaden your view to see more than what is immediately in front of you, it’s clear that this generation is able to tell more complex, more nuanced, more involved and in some ways realer stories that look more like truth than sappy romance. I find it difficult when people are critical of any generation that they’re not actively paying attention.
MaziMutafa: And if you’re not actually willing to give people the benefit of the doubt that they’re full human beings too, who are able to express many different things, it might just take different forms. Just because you’re not making a mix tape of all your favorite love songs to send to the person that you care about, doesn’t mean that your ability to share reels on Instagram of songs or of places or of images that inspire romance for you, isn’t valid. You know what I’m saying? Have a bigger perspective of like you all as a generation have access to things we never imagined existed. So, we should at least give you the courtesy of having a wider view of ways in which you’re able to express love or community or connection while at the same time, encouraging you to become a part of the things that we recognize as ways of expressing love and community and connection. It is truly a gift. Communication is give and take. It’s not you listen while I talk.
MaziMutafa: Does that make sense?
Paige: Most definitely. Yeah. I’ve been listening to a lot of seventies, disco, eighties disco recently, that’s been my new musical endeavor and I think you’re right. It’s kind of simple sometimes about the love stories. And I’m really glad that you share that perspective about how this generation is able to complicate some of the love stories a little bit more. Yeah.
MaziMutafa: You also got to remember my particular generation are the children of divorce in a lot of instances. And then the generation before us is the generation of unhappy marriages that just lasted a long time. Of course, there are great marriages that lasted a long time, but there were also a lot of miserable marriages that lasted a long time. And so rather than being critical of people who are more hesitant or expressive in a different way to like really step back and say like, I’m part of a generation now of black men who love and take care of and are involved in their children’s lives because we were the generation whose fathers weren’t there. You know what I’m saying? And I think it’s important that we’ve decided to change the narrative just like every generation should be trying to change the narrative and not just be what our parents were.
Paige: I’m going to switch topics a little bit, if that’s all right. I was just curious, I know you are the executive director and you’re also a scholar. What are you working on these days? What are you writing about?
MaziMutafa: Well, I’m actually working on this book. I did an article for a manual on engaging the black boys in educational environments. The name of that article is Words, Beats & My Life. And it was basically telling the story of this work. And I’m really interested in going from that article to developing a full book that really tells the story of the work and the impact. It’s interesting being in a position where I’ve worked at the same place and on the same project for the last 22 years because I include the two years that I could do this as an undergrad, as a conference. And now the 19 years close to 20 years as a nonprofit. Being able to recreate how it is that we do the work that we do, but wanting to tell that story so that it doesn’t need to be a situation where someone has to imagine how we did or why we did whatever we did as an organization, but they can actually read the process, the thoughts that went into it, the approach.
MaziMutafa: I think that one of the most important things I’ve tried to do in the last 19 years is convinced people that part of your priority in life should be either joining or building an organization. And in order to do that, and you don’t need to find people that you agree with about everything, but find people who you agree enough with to be able to work together on the same project. And now in this stage, I feel like the thing I’m learning is to not just find people who agree enough, but people who have their own ideas who can use this platform to be able to advance their own ideas, their own visions, instead of needing to go and create something new. I think that that’s part of my own growth as a leader is not just finding people who could agree with me, but people whose ideas I loved enough to be able to support them as they developed an advanced them.
Paige: Right. Get organized. Get organized. Yeah. For our listeners, if they want to get more involved with Words, Beats & Life, where can they get more involved in? Or if you’re offering ways that people can get more involved with Hip hop, do you have any suggestions for all that?
MaziMutafa: Yeah, I think I would say there are many words, beats and lives all over the country and all over the world. I think the first thing to do is to see if there’s something like us where you live, even if it’s a smaller version or even if it’s only focused on a particular artistic element, look local first. And I think that that’s important just because there are lots of either startups or just kind of smaller operations that need volunteers, need talent, need new blood and energy. So I’d encourage that first, but second, if someone was interested in learning more about Words, Beats & Life, you can visit our website @wblinc.org because of COVID, we’ve really moved to more of a hybrid model where we’re planning to continue to do virtual programming, but also to do limited in-person programming. For the last year, we’ve done things like concert series being broadcast from our homepage.
MaziMutafa: We publish an academic journal of Hip hop twice a year. We do lots and lots of things. We talk about arts education, creative employment, cultural diplomacy, centering marginalized voices and for the culture as our priorities. So arts education is the work we do to provide programming for young people, but also now adult classes. Creative employment is about getting people into jobs like mine, to be arts managers of companies, theaters organizations.
MaziMutafa: Cultural diplomacy is the work we do abroad and bringing people from abroad to the US. Gilbert knows this well because Uganda was the very first country we ever went to do work in, at the invitation of the Babuka foundation. The work we do to center marginalized voices is about lifting up people who are part of the Hip hop community that are often not seen or heard and lifting up their voices, so more people can see and hear and recognize their contributions. And then for the culture is all the work we do to just build community through Hip hop. That’s our jams, our concerts, all the things you normally associate with Hip hop. It’s doing Hip hop things for Hip hop’s sake.
Paige: Cool. Dope. Thank you so much for being on the podcast. It’s been great listening to you talk about Hip hop and, yeah, I hope we can have you back again soon.
MaziMutafa: Appreciate it Paige. And I’ll be honest, you asked me a bunch of questions no one’s ever asked me. And I’ve been doing interviews for years. So kudos to you for the thought that went into putting together this podcast.
Paige: Oh, thank you.
MaziMutafa: You and your team.
Paige: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I try to come up with good questions.
Paige: Man, I’m feeling really invigorated after that conversation with Mazi. I’m having lots of new thoughts about Hip hop. He really reminded me that there is a two way relationship between Hip hop and also the soundscapes and geography of the people that influence Hip hop. And that Hip hop influences the geography and the soundscapes of the people within Hip hop, just like the cruise culture in Los Angeles and graffiti starting out in the Bronx and throughout the US. He talked about Hip hop as a pedagogy that the theoretical frameworks that are within Hip hop come from Hip hop from the people listening and learning constantly. And that Hip hop isn’t just about rap music that we need to decentralize rap music to talk about all of the parts of Hip hop. It’s expansiveness and constant changes.
Speaker3: And that’s it for our episode today. The Radical Features Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for social justice leadership at Kalamazoo college. Special thanks to Trevor Lodium Jackson for our music and [inaudible 00:36:43] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Arcus Center. See you next week.
Cat March discusses the murders in Atlanta through a historical, gender, and racial lens. Cat March (they/them) is a Gender Studies and English scholar. They have a personal passion for Asian American histories, especially Japanese internment camps in the United States. They are currently the student advisor at the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College and finishing up their graduate program in higher education.
Paige: Another intricate layer of gendered and racialized violence informs a shooting in Atlanta. The history of US imperialism in sexualized violence allows white supremacists and patriarchal thinking to believe there’s an ownership over Asian women’s bodies. Cat March is a gender studies and English scholar. They have a personal passion for Asian-American histories, especially Japanese internment camps in the United States. In this episode with Cat March, we explore the gender and sexual analysis of the Atlanta shooting. Cat discusses US imperialism abroad, specifically us soldiers, sex worker entanglements, and rape as a weapon of war.
Speaker2: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be a movement, and how to build radical futures now.
Rhiki: Cat, thank you so much for joining us today. To start us off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
CatMarch: Thank you so much for having me, Rhiki. So yeah, as Rhiki just mentioned, my name is Cat. My pronouns are they/them/theirs. I am currently working at the Arcus Center. I’m the student leadership coordinator. I’m a grad student and I’m about to graduate at the end of this month. And I know that this episode is going to be dealing with a lot of history, a lot of historical information, but honestly, I’m not a historian. I mostly describe myself as a nerd with a hobby. I’m just really interested in Asian American history and the historical interactions between East Asia and Southeast Asia and the United States, and particularly the United States history with imperialism and racism in interactions between the United States and Asia.
Rhiki: So to kind of start this episode off, I just want to ask you the question. When you heard of the attack that happened in Atlanta, how did you feel in your body in that moment? How did you process the information you were getting? And yeah, what was happening in your body at that time?
CatMarch: So that’s actually a particularly interesting question coming from someone who was raised with a Japanese upbringing in particular because whenever something really big and difficult happens to our community or even to us individually, the first response is not really a responsive processing, but more of a responsive armor and sort of shutting down for a short amount of time so that you can do what you need to do to survive and move on. So where I was, I was at work as I usually am during the week. And I was honestly just checking my social media really quickly. And it was one of the first things that popped up on my feed. And my first response actually was just sort of shut down because I was like, okay, another one. Do I have to engage with this today? I have things to do. I know that clicking on this article is going to hurt me.
CatMarch: So I actually had to recheck in with myself and resist that urge because when a traumatic event happens to people who you feel kinship with, you can’t just ignore it and push it away. You have to, in certain ways, in safer ways, open yourself up to it and sort of unpack it with your community, with your friends, with people who you trust. And so after that initial knee-jerk reaction was over, I went back. I looked up more information about what had happened about the women, about the context of the shooting. And I kind of froze and sat down by myself and took some deep breaths for about 10 minutes or so. And then throughout the rest of the week, just taking a little bit of time here and there by myself to sort of cry and grieve and mourn, and also check in with my loved ones. I immediately texted my mom and my sister.
Rhiki: Thank you for sharing, Cat, that whole intimate process with us. I really appreciate you being vulnerable with us in this moment.
CatMarch: I mean, of course. I think that one of the biggest parts of community is vulnerability. And again, as someone raised by a Japanese parent, vulnerability can sometimes be difficult. We literally have a word in Japanese that I’m going to pronounce really badly, so I’m not going to do it, but it means sort of lean into that stoicism, sort of let it roll over you, ignore it, put it away for later. We have a word that literally means that. So vulnerability in community is something that I’m learning that I’m trying to practice every day.
Paige: Yeah. I think your first reaction of wanting to ask yourself like, do I even want to engage with this because I have things to do today was very relatable. I think I had a similar feeling because I was about to go to sleep when I saw it.
Paige: And I was like, if I look into this, I’m not going to be able to sleep as well. But I think part of that is also a self protection to wait until you have what you were saying later, the kinship and community and people you trust to be surrounded with you when you do have to engage with that moment.
CatMarch: Oh, definitely. And it’s so hard to consent to that experience of engagement with the existence of social media. You can just be minding your own business on your Instagram or Twitter and see about 20 posts of people being like, “This horrible thing happened and I have to post about it.”
Paige: Yeah. That’s such a good way to put it. The content portion of social media is not there, to say the least, for sure.
Rhiki: Yeah, that’s true. It’s almost like if you want to kind of… I don’t want to say protect, but guard the intake of different things that come in and out of your surroundings, you either have to disengage completely, which means that you’re going to be out of the loop and not know anything, or you have to engage and know that you have no control over the content that may come across your feed. That’s tough.
CatMarch: Yeah. It is.
Paige: I’m so excited to have you on because I think you will bring a really strong historical analysis. I know you don’t call yourself a historian or anything, but I think you definitely have the knowledge and the skill to be able to relay that information to us today. So can I start with my first question? Can you talk a little bit about what is the hypersexualization of Asian women? Because that’s a big part of this conversation specifically with the Atlanta shooting, and I think it would be a good groundwork thing to know.
CatMarch: So just like anything, a phrase like the hypersexualization of Asian women is going to mean different things in different areas, but for the context of Atlanta and what has been happening now in this 2021, so the hypersexualization of Asian women is the… Whether it’s false or not is obviously up to the woman herself, but the notion that just because someone is Asian, just because someone “appears” or looks Asian, that person is automatically assigned a certain level of sexuality.
CatMarch: Asian women are often perceived to be hypersexual in a subservient way in the sense that the existence of the Asian woman is meant to serve the sexual needs of the white man. That’s kind of how historically this dynamic has been set up and how it’s kind of perceived in the present. I even think of… So my least favorite thing is weird, nerdy white men who are into anime porn. That kind of thing as well is something that’s really common nowadays. And they don’t even realize because it’s kind of like, “Oh, it’s a cartoon,” but like, “Okay. But that cartoon image is meant to represent a certain type of woman, a certain type of body, and the way that it’s stylized connects to Asian women.” And so again, through media, through films, even through literature, Asian women are often portrayed as these sexual beings.
Paige: Yeah. That was a great definition or working definition that we have today. Yeah, definitely. Can you talk a little bit about the history of that too? You mentioned the notion that Asian women’s sexuality is used to serve the white man, like the existing of Asian woman’s sexuality. Where does that understanding and that construction of the Asian woman’s sexuality come from historically?
CatMarch: So the easiest and most tangible example that I can think of is Western imperialism in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam. So what happens is you send in your US troops and what you get popping up around those army bases are sort of sex work industries cropping up all around US army bases. Again, that’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with sex work or that sex work is the dirty profession or anything like that. But if you are a sex worker, one of the… And historically, it’s a US Army base invading Vietnam. An Army base is a pretty lucrative place to start a sex work operation.
CatMarch: So what happened is these white men would have never interacted with any Asian women until coming to Vietnam, coming to the Army base. And then they would say, “Oh, well just because like this single one individual Asian woman that I met in Vietnam, I paid her for sex, because of that, all women who are Asian are immediately associated with sex labor.” Because historically, basically wherever you have the US military, you have Asian sex labor. Another instance of that even earlier than Vietnam would be in World War II, and the root of this actually is… Japan also has a responsibility in this as well, but basically Japan kidnapped women from China, Korea, and the Philippines, and then Japanese soldiers sent these women to the US military. These were called “comfort women”. And if you want to look into the history of comfort women, there’s plenty of resources available. But yeah, that’s a couple of the sources of this stereotype.
Paige: Yeah. I think that’s one thing that when people talk about Asian American histories or Asian American racial problems that we have within the US, people often forget that our histories are really entangled globally and really entangled with war and imperialism from the US, specifically.
CatMarch: Yeah, exactly. And there’s also instances, of course, before that, too, and in this instance, it’s actually kind of convoluted how this history begins because it actually begins with the exploitation of Chinese men’s labor by the US in the 1840s and 1880s with the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. So what ended up happening is white people exported a bunch of Chinese men over to work on their railroad and pay them next to nothing.
CatMarch: And then these men were lonely. They wanted to send for their families. They wanted to send for their wives, but white US laborers felt threatened by cheap Chinese labor and didn’t want a continuous stream of Chinese folks moving into the United States. So they developed something called the Anti-prostitution Act of 1870, which basically asserted that any Chinese woman trying to come into the United States could be declared a “prostitute” and denied entry. And that was kind of another one of the initial roots of the stereotype that Asian women are hypersexual beings.
Rhiki: I’m really just trying to process all the information that you’re giving us. There’s really a lot to it. One of the things that I hear in a lot of the things that you’ve been saying is this phenomenon of overgeneralization, right? Coming into contact with one person who holds these identities and then assuming that because this one person is this way or this small portion of people are doing this thing that we can then generalize that to the whole group of people that may share those same identities with that person. So yeah, that’s something I’ve been hearing. And I think that’s something that we have realized that has been happening in America and across the world with how we view people with different identities. And it is still a problem that I think we haven’t talked about as much but we might need to bring up again. I want to kind of talk a little bit more about how some of the things that you mentioned, so some of the Anti-prostitution Act and some of the other-
Paige: Okay. I think not just overgeneralization of these military men coming to war sites and building up war troops and stuff like that. But it’s also a tool of colonialism and imperialism to rape and pillage the villages of the places of war. There’s sex work that’s happening, but it’s also a tool of war.
CatMarch: Oh, absolutely. Yes. The weaponization or sort of… Okay. It’s really interesting when we talk about that in connection with colonialism because one of the literal concepts of colonialism is that the sort of white invading force is framed as this masculine force coming in and sort of invading and transforming the feminized, effeminate land, and that sort of aspect of the conversation, it makes you realize how intentional and purposeful this sort of overgeneralization becomes because colonialism doesn’t work if the people that you’re colonizing understand that they’re people, fully. Colonization is something that gets in people’s heads and sort of warps thinking in the mind. And so if you sort of intentionally create an environment where you sort of utilize sexualization as a weapon, then the association almost becomes automatic and implicit.
Paige: Right. Because it works with the fundamental discussion that these people aren’t human.
Rhiki: I also think it’s just interesting when we think about the dynamics between masculinity and femininity and how femininity is often seen as this thing that is subservient and something to be conquered ,and how that plays a role in all of this. Yeah. I don’t know.
CatMarch: Yes, because subservience is another aspect of the Asian woman stereotype. She’s supposed to be quiet and serve her husband and do whatever the white man tells her to do. And another dynamic of that actually that is kind of branching off and goes in a completely different direction, so we don’t go down that path too far, also is that this is connected to the effeminization of Asian men as well.
Paige: Right. Because one can’t exist without the other. You can’t have the hypersexualization of Asian women without the feminized Asian man.
CatMarch: And then once you create the effeminized Asian man, then it’s so easy to see why the white man feels entitled to the bodies of Asian women because it’s like, “Oh, well, their ‘men’ won’t protect them.”
Rhiki: So I kind of want to dive into this next question and it touches a little bit on some of the things that you brought up, Kat, about imperialism and fetishization of Asian women. But I want you to talk more about how those historical things that you mentioned play a role in what we’re witnessing today. So how are they’re tied more to what we’re seeing today.
CatMarch: How those laws tie into what we’re seeing today?
CatMarch: Okay. So what we’re witnessing today, first, we have to kind of define what we are witnessing today. What is it that we are talking about? What is it that connects back to these exclusionary laws, to the sexual imperialism of the United States and the Western world in Asia? So what we are looking at, there’s a couple of different threads here that we’re going to have to follow. The first thread is, of course, the presumption that every Asian woman is sexual or a sex worker. And particularly, this association comes with massage parlors because the eight women who were attacked in it, who were murdered in Atlanta, worked at massage parlor. So particularly in Florida, there are massage parlors that operate as sites for sex work and sex workers.
CatMarch: Again, nothing wrong with that. If women are engaging with this consensually and are doing it as their line of work, then that’s totally fine. But the problem comes in when the rights of sex workers are severely limited. And I don’t want to speak for sex worker communities and communities of sex workers because this is not an identity that I hold, but I do want to sort of… underlying the thread that hyperpolicing and police raids and sort of the excessive pressing of the law onto women and women’s bodies, particularly Asian women and Asian women’s bodies is not the answer because what happens when in this long history of raids in particularly Florida, is that the police will come in and arrest mostly the women themselves, some of who are undocumented, a lot of which who may or may not understand the situations going on or how to get legal help.
CatMarch: So the women are arrested in vastly larger numbers than for example, the men who were paying for their services. And this is exactly what happened in the instance with Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. His charges were dropped, but the women that he paid were themselves charged and fined and convicted. And so this connects to a history of hyperlegalization, a long list of laws pertaining to Asian women and their bodies because when we’re used to regulating bodies that come in and out of the United States, or when you’re used to regulating bodies, what those bodies stand for, how we perceive those bodies, then we assume that we can continually police those bodies.
CatMarch: And eventually, we use the guise of protection. At first it’s, “Oh, we’re protecting our women, our communities.” And then it’s like, “Oh, well, we’re protecting these Asian women who have fallen into sex work.” Like, “No, you’re just continually and continually stripping the agency away from these women through the process of legalization.” I can’t remember. I think it was in 2019. There were… I think it was photographs released of Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots. And he was caught paying money for women in a Florida massage parlor to have sex with him, perform sexual acts on him.
CatMarch: And there’s a whole thing. A quick Google search in the news will reveal tons of articles about it. But as I mentioned before, what ended up happening is that Robert Kraft got off free. His charges were dropped after the trial and the women that he paid were charged and convicted and were essentially blamed as the source of the issue. That’s how you view legal conviction in the United States. And this is a pattern. Oftentimes, even beyond the realm of just Asian sex workers, when there’s a big police raid, a big police bust, it’s often the women who are charged and arrested and then everybody else gets to go home.
Rhiki: That blows my mind. When you think about the efforts towards sex trafficking and stopping sex trafficking, you think they would target or go after the people that if it’s not consensual and women are being forced to do this, or not just women, just anybody are being forced to do this type of work, you think you would go after the person that’s forcing them to do it. But yeah, oftentimes, you see that it is the workers, the people that you’re claiming you’re trying to help that are the ones that are being convicted and prosecuted.
CatMarch: And well, the other thing is that the number of trafficking cases is actually fairly small in comparison to women who are just doing sex work as a form of work. Those are much smaller numbers than… If we’re looking at the massage parlors in particular, for example, so there’s a research article that I referenced specifically in the resource list that I sent you all. It was by John J. Chen and his research team. It was endorsed by Congresswoman Dr. Judy Chu. And it shows that the number of women who’ve been trafficked or coerced is extremely small compared to women who are willingly engaging in sex work as a form of employment. So the police have been a much bigger problem for these workers than violence from customers or robberies. And especially when we think of cases with women who English is not their “first language”, or when you don’t understand the language of the legal charges, the legal fees, the lawyers.
CatMarch: So the most helpful thing to do then in this case is to destigmatize sex work. But nobody wants to do that. Oh, and another issue as well is that if these women are not documented and they get picked up in in a bus in a police raid of a massage parlor or a place of sex work, then what are you going to do? But I think that the craziest thing here, of course, is that the eight women that were murdered were not even sex workers. The correlation, the presumption, the assumption of entitlement to body is so strong that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even matter the “actual reality” of the situation.
Rhiki: So I think another thing that’s happening is often when we see racialized acts like this, we see that where there’s a person of color as the victim and a white perpetrator, we see that there’s this thing that the media does, or not just the media, but a lot of different forces that play a role in this. They kind of destroy the narrative and the character of the victim. So in a lot of instances where there were attacks on the black community, you see that they dig into whatever type of history they can find on the person to make them seem less of a good person and almost make it seem like it was a crime, but it wasn’t that bad because they were a bad person anyway, type of thing. So I think this is also what we’re seeing here, where we have these victims that identify as people of color. And so we’re digging into whatever we can to try and devalue their character to make the crime seem less egregious than what it is.
CatMarch: Yep. And that is so supremely messed up because then the idea is first of all, that the discreditation of these women is a viable thing to do. But second of all, what does that say about how people view communities of sex workers, that the method of defamation is just to say, “Oh, well, this is an association…” these women weren’t even sex workers themselves. The mere association with sex work is enough to sort of dirty someone’s image. That’s so messed up.
Rhiki: But then that also has me thinking about the conversation that we had [inaudible 00:26:35] too about there is this urgency when something like this happens from the people who are in community with the victim to hurry up and get ahead of the narrative. But oftentimes, like what Cat was saying earlier, sometimes we need to process. Sometimes we might need to step back. Sometimes we might need to prepare ourselves to engage in this conversation. The whole trying to get ahead of the media doesn’t allow us to fully do what we need to do in our bodies to not just be organizers and activists and historians and what have you, but just to be people who also feel something because the situation happened, who need to grieve, who needs to heal, who need to feel and process and do all of these things. We’re robbed of that time because we’re so busy trying to get ahead of narratives.
Paige: I think that reminds me of the conversation we were having with [Nica 00:27:39] about why it’s so important to try to put out your own narrative and put out what happened in your own language and in your own voice within your own people because it is something that you’re always up against is the media if you try to be against it.
CatMarch: And another important thing I think for us to remember is that while we’re trying to figure this out, there are communities, people, organizations who have got this, who have been doing this work for a long time already. And I say this because I do want to speak specifically about an organization that’s been getting a lot of media attention recently because of what happened in Atlanta. So a lot of folks are referencing Red Canary Song, which is the… I think it’s the most prevalent organization right now in the United States for supporting women who are sex workers and also Asian migrants. So that intersection of identity right there.
CatMarch: And something that I think really speaks to the importance of this work is that it formed in response to the 2017 murder of a massage worker from Flushing named Yang Song who was killed during a police raid. So again, this is not the first time that this has happened. I think that especially with anti-Asian violence, violence against Asian women in particular, a lot of white folks in particular who are trying to enter into this conversation for the first time don’t realize the long and extensive history, don’t realize that this is something that has been happening for a really long time.
Paige: I guess for me, I’m curious because I know Cat is working in a lot of higher education, a lot of student development. Also really passionate about sharing histories of Japanese Americans in the US. Yeah, I guess I’m just curious about what you’re looking forward to and what you’re hoping to do in the next couple years as you graduate from your grad program and all that.
CatMarch: Well, I definitely want to link this back to the conversation that we’re having right now so I’m not just talking about myself. But what I hope is that… I know that when eight women are dead, there is no way to say that there’s anything good that comes out of that. But what I hope is that this opens up a conversation… Not a conversation, a realization for a lot of people that race and racism is a lot more complex than we think that it is, that there are a lot of angles and elements that people may not have even heard of, may not have even been on the horizon. Because when I think about in higher education, the anti-racism trainings predominantly, the anti-racism trainings that I’ve sat through, that I’ve like taken part in, it’s a very binary presentation of what race is and what race looks like.
CatMarch: It’s like there are white people and there are people of color, or sometimes it’s even there are white people and there are black people. And then the conversation ends there. And while that is a vital conversation to have, I don’t want to sort of delegitimize the importance of uplifting anti-racist conversations that have to do with the treatment of black people in the United States. I also do want to highlight the fact that without that nuance, our conversations about anti-racism or anti-racist actions can only go so far. So what I hope is that as higher education changes and transforms in the wake of so many painful events throughout the past couple of years, that we see more of this authentic restructuring in the wake of… I don’t know, y’all. I’m kind of just sitting here waiting for a higher ed to crumble so that we can rebuild and start again.
Rhiki: It’s crazy because I’ve been waiting for the same thing.
CatMarch: Maybe it’s COVID that’s done it. Maybe we’re good.
Rhiki: Yeah. We just need a new way of educating people. We need a new system. This system, COVID has shown it isn’t working till its fullest potential and fullest capabilities, but that’s just because the structure is not made to expand in the way that we need it to. So we just need a completely new system. And I feel you, Cat, as far as anti-racist trainings not really embracing intersectionality and not having the capacity to talk about things in very nuanced ways. We’re complex human beings. We’re nuanced. We’re not just straight one thing or another thing. We’re many things at all times, and some of those things even change over time. And we need spaces where we can have conversations about race but also be our full selves in those conversations. And I haven’t found one yet that is fully able to do that completely. And I just can’t wait to the day where we can start having those conversations and not shy away from them just because they may be a little complex.
CatMarch: Yeah. Well, what I’m looking forward to also is more sort of anti-racist activities, trainings, whatever you want to call it, that center people of color instead of centering white people so that people of color with multiple intersecting identities, coming from various backgrounds, can talk about race without white people in the room because I feel like that conversation would also be really cool. And it’s really hard to find a space where you can have that conversation because a lot of the time, anti-racism trainings are designed for white people.
Rhiki: And I would say I don’t totally agree with that. I think there are a lot of anti-racist trainings out there that do center people of color, but oftentimes, you don’t find those in higher education spaces. And that’s the problem I think is that you really have to go outside of certain institution to just to access those resources. But yeah, institutions like higher education, like colleges and universities that are recruiting people of color and everybody in the higher ed world is trying to be more diverse and inclusive and have equity practices, and yet a lot of the things that they bring into the space that are supposed to tackle those things are for white people. So I think that’s where the real problem is.
CatMarch: There’s a lot of development and learning for white people at the expense of students of color. And I don’t know. We’re not learning opportunities. We’re just here to go to school.
Rhiki: Yeah. I feel that. So Paige, what stood out to you today?
Paige: I think listening to Cat mention a few specific cases I actually hadn’t learned about before, specifically the Song case, the woman that was murdered in Flushing during the sex raid. I think all the historical laws and policies and colonialism histories that we talked about remind me that this has been an ongoing thing, but that to me feels a lot closer to home because it’s such a specific instance that’s so similar. And I think I also realized how much I don’t know about sex workers’ struggles in the US. So I’m leaving this conversation wanting to learn more about the sex worker community and their issues or our issues as a community with sex work. What reflections and thoughts are you having after the conversation, Rhiki?
Rhiki: I think similar to you, I just really learned a lot during this conversation. So I’m leaving it wanting to learn so much more. Like you, I don’t know a lot about the sex worker community and how to be in solidarity with that community. So I want to learn more around there. And then also another thing that stuck out to me was this idea of femininity. And specifically the thing that I felt was really interesting that I want to learn more about is the feminization of Asian men. Cat mentioned it, and they mentioned how there’s this thing where white men feel entitled to Asian women’s bodies, and that is connected to the feminization of Asian men. So I’m really walking away from this conversation just wanting to dive deeper into all of the topics that we talked about today just so that I can be better aware, and I make sure that I don’t have some of the same stereotypes or prejudice or biases that we’re seeing occur today in the reason why that Atlanta shooting was a thing.
Paige: Definitely. I think I hear you on the solidarity question loud and clear too. Just for me, I definitely want to learn about sex workers’ stories and histories and all of those things.
Speaker2: And that’s it for our episode today. The Radical Futures Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Special thanks to Trevor [Lodium 00:37:19] Jackson for our music and [Eliany 00:37:21] Quinones for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Arcus Center. See you next week.
Mika Hernandez discusses their feelings after the murders in Atlanta, and post-Atlanta organizing rooted in the Ohlone Land (Bay Area). Mika Hernandez (they/she) is a queer and non binary community organizer whose work is rooted in trans and queer liberation, abolition, transformative justice, and community care. They put this work into practice within their political and movement homes: Asians4BlackLives, APIENC, and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective. Mika is currently enrolled in an herbal medicine program at Ancestral Apothecary.
Rhiki: Heads up, this episode contains strong language and descriptions of racialized and sexualized violence.
Paige: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement, and how to build radical futures now.
Rhiki: On March 16th, a brutal violent shooting occurred. The shooter targeted businesses such as spas and massage parlors across Atlanta. He killed eight people, six of whom were of Asian descent. The rise in violence against Asian people comes to no surprise. Anti-Asian sentiment and language is deeply rooted in the US society in politics. Before this shooting, Asian-Americans were attacked, abused, and harassed this past year because of the racist perceptions that Chinese and Asian people were the cause of this pandemic. This phenomenon is not new to this pandemic, there’s a long history of Asian people wrongfully portrayed as carriers and spreaders of diseases. Racist depictions of Asian people are only possible when in combination with xenophobia and the racial construction of Asian people as perpetual foreigners. These frameworks are also entrenched in Yellow Peril, the racist depiction of Asian people as a constant and existential danger to the Western world.
Paige: Another intricate layer of gendered and racialized violence informs the shooting in Atlanta. The history of US imperialism and sexualized violence allows white supremacist and patriarchal thinking to believe there’s an ownership over Asian women’s bodies. The histories and policies enacted against Asian people in the US are disgusting and inhumane. However, there are mass movements, community building, and healing happening. Radical futures are in constant creation and imagination. Today, we are learning from Mika Hernandez who’s a queer and non-binary community organizer that works with Asian 4 Black Lives, APIENC, and the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective.
Paige: Mika Hernandez’s organizing practices are rooted in community in relationship to the land and within solidarity frameworks. She’s here to talk to us today about how Asian American organizers fight to sensor their narratives and stories using their language and arguments in opposition to the media’s all while balancing their emotions, taking care of their people, and staying vigilant.
Rhiki: So Mika I’m excited that you are joining us today. Before we get started, can you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself?
MikaHernandez: Yeah. I’m super excited to be here. My name is Mika Hernandez, I am a fourth generation Japanese-American, a third generation Mexican-American, and a fourth generation Korean-American. And I was born and raised here in the Bay Area, particularly Chochenyo Ohlone land. And I’m an organizer and abolitionist, and I like plants. I just started an herbal program, that’s what I just came from today right now.
Paige: Oh, sweet. What herbal program are you starting?
MikaHernandez: It’s called Cecemanna through Ancestral Apothecary, and it’s a bipoc-centered healing and ancestral medicine program. And I started it this past weekend. And today was the full day or first official day of class though.
Rhiki: Oh, that’s dope. I know you say you like plants a lot, what was the driving force behind that whole program?
Mika Hernandez: So I have been a plant person and a food medicine person for, I don’t know, a long time. And a lot of thoughts are in my brain right now because in class today, we were talking about history and how this is a long path and time is all over the place, it’s more like a constellation. But I think I’ve always been drawn to food and plants as storytellers and as medicine spaces. And I think that especially comes up for me as a mixed person and as a queer, non binary person. And I was like, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to get into this program and invest in that space because ultimately I want to bring it back to my community.” So maybe community herbalist is a new title emerging onto the scene alongside community organizer, artist, stuff like that.
Paige: I’m low-key surprised that that’s not a title or identity that you already use because that makes sense to me about who you are and who I know you to be like, I think one time you shared your winter recipe book. Yeah, you’ve always shared a lot of knowledge about herbs, so that makes sense to me.
MikaHernandez: Maybe in some ways it’s the imposter syndrome coming out that I’m like, “Well, I haven’t done a program yet, so I can’t really call myself a community herbalist.” But I appreciate that encouragement because it is. I do know stuff, I do have knowledge, and I’m always down to share it with my people.
Rhiki: All right. So I kind of want to jump into this conversation. And I want to start with asking about when you heard about the events, when you first heard or became aware of the events that took place in Atlanta. So specifically the killing of eight people with six of them identifying as API folks, what was going through your mind at that time? What did you notice about what you were feeling in your body?
MikaHernandez: And I think before I even jump into that, I know that I forgot to mention that a lot of the place that I put my community organizing into practice is with Asians 4 Black Lives, which is a formation in the Bay Area, APIENC, which is a space building trans and queers Asian-Pacific islander power also in the Bay Area. And then with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective where I’m a core member doing stuff about abolition and transformative justice. Those are the hats that I’m predominantly wearing. And I do think that when I first heard about the killings that happened, almost shock and almost not surprised all at once. Like how can I be shocked and not surprised at the same time?
MikaHernandez: And interestingly, I was actually on my way to a drive-in movie in San Francisco. I live in the East Bay, but I was going into San Francisco with my pod for this little outing to see the movie Minari, which is currently getting a lot of acclaim. And it’s by a Korean-American director. And it was his fun night out going to San Francisco for the first time during the pandemic. And the news came in on some signal threads that I’m a part of. And it was a little bit cryptic like sending everyone love. And I was like, “Why do I need love, what’s going on?” The kind of like your heart beats faster. Who did we lose was the first thing that goes across my mind, and then a little digging. And I think it was the first pieces of news making it to the national outlets and stuff like that.
MikaHernandez: And so then I went to go watch this beautiful, important movie about Korean-American and immigrant experience in the United States. And all the while it’s like the first two hours of this narrative unfolding. And it was weird energy that that was happening for me at that time, especially as someone who thinks a lot about identity and community and what our narratives are. And here I am watching this movie about an Asian-American narrative and one is being written in that exact moment with these killings.
Rhiki: I’m just trying to like, yeah, that’s a lot to have this narrative unfolding while you’re watching another narrative. And it just made me think about, how did I feel? And oftentimes I honestly don’t think I always check into my feelings when stuff like this happens. I’m so ingrained to act when I hear about things like this. So I’m just thinking about, “Okay, what can I do? What needs to be done?” dah, dah, dah. But I don’t always check in with my body. So I thank you for sharing that. Paige, is there anything you want to add?
Paige: Yeah. If that’s okay, I’d love to share how I was feeling that night too. I also received several text messages that was like sending you love and thinking of you. And I was like, “Oh, all my friends are thinking of me, that’s kind. I also love you too.” And then I was like, “Wait a minute, there’s four people texting me at the same time.” And that was a little scary to be receiving all of that at the same moments. I think I saw it on Instagram, which has been hard for me I think. My relationship with the internet is I try to be really specific about how I take in the news, especially just this year has been so many difficult things. And I do a lot of things to try to protect my energy in terms of what I see now, in terms of visually.
Paige: And so I think seeing it on Instagram was also really scary because everything on Instagram is a little fast and quick and not that much information actually. And I was also on my way to bed. So I was like, “That’s really intense, and I’m also going to try to sleep a little bit.” And then I think it was a little bit the day after where I was like, “Okay, this is settling in a little bit more into my body.” I was able to have more space for grief, fear. My mom was going to work the next day and my best friend was going to work, and I was really hyper aware of both of those things. So yeah, I think that’s what was happening in my body. And also just like thinking about what Mika said, that’s a really specific experience that you had to go into the movie theater and watching that as this is happening. That’s, I don’t really have an adjective for it, but I’m trying to think about that right now.
Rhiki: I want to highlight something that both of you said. So Mika, you said that you were shocked and nor surprised. And then Paige, you talked about trying to protect your energy. Those points are bringing me into my next thought. So I just want to know Mika, as an organizer, how do you not only monitor your emotional health but take care of yourself emotionally? I resonated with what you said about being shocked but not surprised because as a black woman and with the endless killings of black folks by vigilantes or law enforcement or what have you, it’s something that you, I hate to say this, but you get used to. And not that you expect it, but when it happens, it’s super surprising. So how do you balance tapping into what’s happening with you emotionally when these things happen but also being, I don’t want to say removed, but keeping your emotions, I don’t know, regulated so that you can also do the work as an organizer? So what does that process look like for you?
MikaHernandez: Yeah. I appreciate that question so much. And even something that you were naming before around how we often can be so quick to just be in what do we do next, what is needed of me mode. And to be honest, I do feel like that happened in the first few days after everything happened, after the shootings happened. I saw it happening so quickly in my organizing communities, particularly radical Asian-American organizers who have been in this work for a long time needing to immediately get on a thing about narrative. People who put so much of their heart and intention and day-to-day life and soul energy into creating safer communities that are truly rooted in community care. People who have been talking about these things for a long time, about structural oppression for a long time. We wanted to make sure that those narratives were being the ones that were listened to.
MikaHernandez: I think that’s so commendable and important because we don’t. Even for myself, I don’t want our movements to get co-opted. I don’t want the things that we’ve been working so hard toward to build solidarity and racial justice through our work to be co-opted in this moment. But I was also so angry that we didn’t just get a time to mourn and just be in the complexity of feeling. I just saw that happening for my community, for my people. And I know that that happens all the time, that we need to have a poised statement and we need to have all of the answers right away. And if we don’t do it first, then it might be taken up by people who have motives or desires that actually end up creating more harm. Like in this instance, hearing for the calls of more policing and then knowing that NYPD ended up putting more cops on the patrols in, I think it was Chinatown in various Asian ethnic enclaves and communities.
MikaHernandez: And we know that that is more harmful. And we have to be on top of that, but also I just want to feel. So I really appreciate this question because in my own process of just sitting with all of that, I think I did let myself have some time. And I think that that was a gift to myself and also then back to my community. Within APIENC, one of the spaces that I organized with, we did have a small community closed vigil space just lin the immediate aftermath to be with each other. There was no structure, it was just like, share some words, share some feelings, don’t be alone. And I think that that was super healing. And I just feel so appreciative that I have community with whom I share values and trust and have done the work.
MikaHernandez: And we know that we can be in grief and rage and also have in the back of our minds this bubbling up of, how do we continue to move, and how do we continue to teach our folks how to show up for each other? All the complexity and those things, I feel very grateful that I had that. I think a lot of it comes back to doing organizing and doing work in the movement that is actually about building relationships and about tending to one another. And I just feel so grateful that I have been able to root into that over the past 7, 10 years that I’ve been building to the place that I’m in as a community organizer. But it’s not easy. Even with that, it’s not always easy, especially in moments of grief and crisis.
Paige: There was recently an event too on Saturday, how did it go?
MikaHernandez: Honestly, I don’t know how time flies anymore. I’m like when were the shootings and when was this vigil? We did come together as APIENC, Asians 4 Black Lives, which I wear both of those hats. And I feel so happy that I could show up in the fullness of that. And then also ASATA, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action. And HOBAK, Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans, and Gabriela Oakland who are all groups that have collaborated together here in the Bay around trans and queer issues, feminist issues with an anti-imperialist perspective. We came together to create a vigil space. That was I think two plus weeks after the shootings happened. And it felt so good to move in that slowness because it was like, we know that we will continue to be hurting, we were still hurting, we still have these concerns. And also it’s not new, especially as trans and queer people especially.
MikaHernandez: We were hoping to invoke and center the experiences of sex workers, all service workers who are continuing to have to work during this pandemic. These types of violences aren’t new, and we know how that grief continues to reverberate two weeks after the fact. And so it was nice to move at a slow pace to create a really values-rooted space to be together. And also it was just sweet to see people, a rally or a vigil or whatever it is for the first time in person during a pandemic. And we were able to do it safely as much as possible. We were outside, and it felt good to just be together.
Rhiki: Paige, I want to thank you for bringing the APIENC people that you have brought to our podcast because it’s been so enlightening for me. I know this is kind of like, where’s this coming from? But I think as a black person, it’s been really good to hear that this isn’t new for the Asian community. When we think about hateful killings and discrimination, we think about black people or brown people or transgender folks, but we don’t specifically think about Asians first. And just the people that you’ve brought reiterating the fact that this stuff happens and it’s not new. It might not be as publicized as some of the others groups’ acts have been has been really helpful for me, and I think also helpful for our listeners. So thank you Paige and thank you Mika for just reiterating the fact that this happens in multiple communities and this is an issue that we need to tackle across various racial groups because it isn’t new.
Paige: I think when we think of we too, who is the we that doesn’t think that this happens in the Asian community? What are the structures and belief systems that are in place that divide people to believe that Asian people don’t experience this or aren’t doing the work to build solidarity? And I think for me, I often almost don’t even talk about it because I’m in so many spaces and so many communities where I just know everyone is thinking about it, is working on it, is fighting for it. I know one conversation in this entire month has been this happens to Asian people. And to me, that’s not an important conversation for me to have because not … This is hard, sorry. Not to say that that’s not an important conversation in general. But for me specifically, I’d rather talk about other conversation I think.
Paige: Is any of this making sense? I realize I’ve never talked about this before. Returning back to what Mika was saying, I think even though it had to be a vigil or not necessarily had to be, but I think being able to connect and being community together physically even during a pandemic is really important for our healing process. I trust that when we do get together in community everyone takes the safety precautions. There’s something that’s so important about sharing physical energy with people that I think is important for doing the work too. And just seeing people’s faces and seeing people’s eyes and just being there for each other during hard times like this. So I’m really glad that the vigil went well. I’m glad that everyone was able to get together in that way.
MikaHernandez: I understand what you’re saying Paige about the other piece that you were saying that it’s hard to speak to and name. I don’t know, maybe I’m about to get real big about it. Again, it’s like when I think about the work that I am trying to highlight that has been ongoing and has been rooted, it is deeply about solidarity. Especially as Asian-Americans, showing up to a struggle for black liberation and building up black power is essential to my work no matter what, and it is central to my work and my politic as an Asian-American organizer. And so when I think about my communities, I’m thinking about how do I continually nuance a narrative and how do I continually talk about the systems of imperialism that have created violence across many Asian homelands for our people here that are the same structures of militarism that are currently most impacting black Americans around policing and militarized communities right now?
MikaHernandez: Those narratives all come together in my brain. And if I am trying to be an anti-imperialist dismantling the prison industrial complex, getting to the fact of the things that have happened in the homeland, with things that have happened here on Turtle Island and are also right now most impacting low-income black and brown people. And that includes Asian-Americans. I feel you. It’s like, how do I get into why this moment feels a little bit hard for me. It’s not about maybe this is controversial, but this is not about hate. It’s not stop Asian hate because hate to me is a one-to-one thing. It does not look at the structural reasons why people are experiencing violence and the conditions that have led to this violence right now. And I want that to be the narrative, I want that to be the thing that people are interrogating, And I want that to be the thing that everyone gets to learn around because there’s just so many conditions of violence in this country. I mean, everywhere, but I’ll speak to the United States right now.
MikaHernandez: There’s so many conditions of violence that I just want to blow it wide open, I want people to pay attention to that narrative. And I also know that people are hurting right now, particularly maybe Asian folks in this country who have not experienced that. And that might be because of privilege. And that might be because of, I don’t know, just narratives of what they’ve had to do to feel safe here. So I’m holding a lot of compassion for the hurt and the scared that people are experiencing.
MikaHernandez: But again, it isn’t new. And I want to be gentle, but I am also so excited for people to become more invested in looking at the root causes and looking at the ways that … I don’t know. At least for me, I’ve been so grateful to learn from other people who’ve come before me, organizers who’ve come before me, day-to-day people in my neighborhood who’ve come before me to talk about how we show up and take care of each other because we have a relationship. I don’t know, maybe that got a little too big from what you were saying Paige. But I feel you because it’s like, it’s such a restricted thing in this moment, but it’s so big, it’s so big.
Rhiki: Yeah. And I appreciate both of you lifting that up. I think I was trying to come from the frame of how do we … I feel like white supremacy does this thing where it tries to keep movement siloed. And there has been great strides towards actually doing cross movement work and building solidarity. But part of that is being able to know the other narratives that are out there. And if you don’t know them, then it’s hard to know what other people are experiencing. But then also without people having to tell you what their narratives are, also actively seeking them out. So whenever you’re doing movement work, how are we being intentional about thinking about the parallels that may show up in other groups? And sometimes I feel like we’re so focused on our issue that we forget to think about those parallels and how it’s showing up to other groups in the US, globally? Because a lot of these things aren’t just something that’s happening in the United States. So always trying to keep that somewhere in the forefront of our mind when we’re doing this type of work.
Paige: Rhiki, I have a couple of new thoughts, is that okay before I jump into the other questions we have?
Paige: So I think something that you just named Rhiki when you’re doing solidarity work is you have to learn other people’s stories. When you’re in relation to someone, you have to know their stories, you have to know where they’re from, where their families are from, what their family is about, what their culture is like, what their language is like, all these different things. And I think that’s really at the root of relationship building. Even if you’re of the same ‘race’ or the ‘people’, everyone even within the same people have different stories to share. And then something that I think you’re naming Mika too is that people in the Asian-American community that are maybe experiencing this fear for the first time because of just situations or privilege that they come from.
Paige: I just remember feeling, when I talk to my friends like, “Oh, I feel really frustrated, where have you been? We’ve been like doing this work for so long, we’ve been waiting for you.” I remember, I think it was Sammy. Sammy mentioned, one of the elders said, put aside your frustrations or put aside any of those feelings and just welcome them when they come, welcome them with compassion. It’s okay, now you’re here with us, and we welcome you. And we can do that work moving forward together. So that’s something that I’m trying to work on too. And I didn’t need to make it a list. But my third thing I was thinking about is just the language that is being used during this is really interesting to me. You mentioned stop API hate, and I know there’s been a lot of conversations. And maybe this is a place where we can have a conversation about the language.
Paige: I really liked what you had to say about the analysis of hate, about that being a one-on-one interaction and not a structural analysis or a structural violence. And I wonder too if people even know the history of how API as a racial framework came to be, as a solidarity framework. If people know the complexities of immigration in that solidarity framework too. So I think a lot of this moment for me, I’ve just been thinking about the language, why are people using certain hashtags, where are these hashtags coming from? Not that that’s the most important thing, but I think language is a really critical thing to think about because it names the relationship that we have almost through the story too. I don’t know if you have thoughts about the language that’s being used in conversations about this, but we’d love to hear those.
MikaHernandez: All of the points that you just said. I guess about language, maybe it also relates to one of the other things you were saying about that real frustration that’s like, “Where have you been? We have been having these conversations. These have been important to us for a long time.” And feeling a little like, “Oh, now you’re here?” I have definitely felt that. At the same time … Maybe I’m going a little bit off track, but I feel like I’ve been telling this story a lot because it’s just I think really sitting with me and it’s on my heart. I was listening to a talk from Mariame Kaba who is an amazing transformative justice practitioner and abolitionist and someone that I really look to for learning. And I’m especially coming to this thinking a lot about transformative justice and how much more conversation around abolition has been prevalent, especially since last summer but in that moment again.
MikaHernandez: People have been talking about defunding the police and dismantling prisons for a long time. And that was a similar feeling then that I have right now of why are people only coming to this now? But I don’t want to be too salty. That doesn’t make good movements to just be salty and like, “Where were you?” Any way, so this thing that Mariame Kaba said was in response to a question about what about liberals co-opting this language and co-opting our movements around abolition? And Mariame said, “I’m not that worried about it because I want these movements to be irresistible, and we need everyone to be on board.” And she also specifically was speaking to the fact that her vision of abolition right now and what she’s advocating for and trying to build is probably wildly different than what Harriet Tubman was envisioning around abolition. And yet she wouldn’t be here as Mariame Kaba without Harriet Tubman.
MikaHernandez: And I thought that was such a lovely and gracious reminder from Mariame, I just appreciate that she shared that out with us. And by the time people get to where we are right now, we’ll be onto the next thing. And hopefully, we are continuing to accumulate and grow. And so when I’m starting to feel myself getting to that salty place, especially recently. I heard this a few months back I think. And especially in the past few weeks as people have been using language that maybe I don’t agree with, I’m trying to sit with myself and trying to sit with that wisdom from Mariame and be like, okay, we want irresistible movements, and language can be finessed. It maybe starts with conversations like this one where I’m talking to y’all and then maybe your listeners can hear about it, and then share that with their people. Have conversations with each other about where this knowledge comes from and how we continue to lift each other up. And maybe our analysis gets sharper, but I’m trying to not be in my slaty place. And I think that that is part of the work.
Rhiki: That’s real. We were actually having this conversation in August about language not too long ago, about how some people will always just be ahead of other people when it comes to the language. Like how woke used to mean something completely different than what it means right now. And we went from woke … Or how liberal used to mean something different. And now we’re like onto this term of anti-racism and how that’s the thing right now. But once people catch up and it sort of becomes co-opted by institutions who wants to use it to make themselves look good, how we always have to keep coming up with new terms to describe the thing or the place that we want people to get to. But how that’s also frustrating because we worked so hard to get this term to mean what we want it to mean. And now because more people are coming along, it’s starting to mean something else. I understand that frustration there.
Paige: Also, Mariame Kaba, damn, she would … What is the word? Not put you in check, but gently caress you into the right direction. And you’re like, “Yes, I needed that.” I remember talking to you in Sami’s Kitchen I think about you participating in an extended training with the Transformative Justice Collective a few years ago. Could you just talk more about your work on the core team, just about being near her?
MikaHernandez: Yeah. So I am part of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, and it is a group that’s based specifically here in the Bay Area obviously with the name. It came together a few years back, actually many years back now and has gone through many shifts over time. But originally came together specifically to think about transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse and to ending child sexual abuse. But I do think that over the years it has attracted people who are just generally excited to learn about transformative justice because, I don’t know, we’re in a beautiful ecosystem here in the Bay of movement and people trying to do cool shit.
MikaHernandez: It has created a lot of space for people to just learn about how to integrate transformative justice into their lives and to do some deep learning around it. I feel like probably when I was sharing that with you Paige, that was a few years ago and I was doing a six-week study. There’s like a summer study, a deep one-on-one on transformative justice. And after that summer, I joined a small crew that was getting skilled up specifically around interventions and how to hold processes and all of that kind of work also through the same space. And that was just a few of us.
MikaHernandez: And then from there, I was asked to be on the core of this collective. We’re just a group of people, we’re not a organization or a nonprofit or anything. We are just some people trying to do this thing. And right now, that is just me and my friend Havi, my friend Andy, and my friend Katie. We offer some programming, but we also hold processes or offer consultations or one-on-ones. We’re also in the process of revamping and seeing what we’re going to do. So it’s in flux right now. But it’s some of the best work I feel like I’ve gotten to do in a long, long while.
Rhiki: We talked about this a little bit before in season one I think with Adrienne Maree Brown, but I do want to get your perspective on it. How would you describe the difference between transformative justice and the restorative justice model that I see popping up a lot in our educational system?
MikaHernandez: I was actually just talking about this with a friend yesterday, a friend who’s wanting to learn a little bit more. So I’m like, “Oh, good, it’s fresh in my brain.” This is super, super quick and overviewy. And I don’t know as much about restorative justice, but they are distinct. Transformative justice and restorative justice are distinct thing. I often come back to the literal name. And when we talk about restorative justice, oftentimes we’re thinking about restoring relationships when there has been harm or abuse or violence. And I think that with transformative justice, we are thinking about transforming the conditions that allowed that violence to happen in the first place because maybe we don’t want to restore back to the relationship because that was what led to hurt and that was what led to violence or whatever it is.
MikaHernandez: That’s not to say that restorative justice practitioners and restorative justice isn’t about transforming conditions, but I do think traditionally that’s been my knowledge and my experience of the differences. And I do think that transformative justice is explicitly about not working with the state, and it is about reducing violence in all possibilities as much as possible. And we know that sites that collaborate with a state like ICE, like foster care systems, like the courts do create more violence. And that is something that we hold true to because it is an abolitionist framework and an abolitionist practice. But within restorative justice, there is opportunity to collaborate I think more often like you’re naming within schools. And sometimes also within the legal system, we know that that’s coming up more and more. And I don’t say that to be like that’s them versus us. Because if anything, if it is creating more opportunity to reduce violence, that’s dope, and I’m happy for that. So that is my little spiel.
Paige: I think something that you mentioned earlier is just how do we think about community safety? That’s something that’s at the core of prison abolition, anti-imperialism work, all of the different things you named. And I know within APIENC, within Transformative Justice Collective, that’s something that is discussed and brainstormed and worked through and practiced. Can you talk a little bit about what community safety looks like in practice?
MikaHernandez: Yeah. I think that community safety in practice will look different for different communities. And I think that that is a beautiful thing. And I think that is something that abolition has taught me, but it’s something that I get to abundantly talk about when I do transformative justice one-on-ones or conversations. I think it does start with listening. It starts with listening to what we have in place right now and what is not serving us and what is actually creating less safety or more fear or actual violence. I can speak to something specifically from APIENC, which I think is super dope because you already are a little bit more familiar with it, but we did lead a full community needs assessment called Up To Us. That was particularly looking at the experiences of trans, gender non-conforming, non-binary Asian-Pacific islanders in the Bay Area.
MikaHernandez: We were looking at literally, what does the community need? It was a needs assessment. And so we spoke to things around health and housing, and we also talked about safety. I forget the exact numbers right now, but more than, I think it was 70 something percent of our respondents named feeling uncomfortable or more unsafe going to the police. When we think about that, I’m particularly thinking about our sex worker friends and our people who might be undocumented who are also trans. And we know that we experience so much more harassment literally from the police. And so that’s one particular example from this needs assessment that we did that has led us to think more about, okay, we know that safety doesn’t come from the police. And we know that that is an informed thing for particularly trans and queer Asian-Pacific islander, what do we need instead?
MikaHernandez: And we also got to ask questions about what does make you feel safe or what makes you feel held in community? And that was literally hearing about places that allowed us to share our stories. How can we invest in that type of stuff? How can we invest in services and connection with each other that creates a more holistic sense of safety for our whole world. But again, it’s specific. And I think that that’s something so beautiful and something that I always bring to places when I do like TJ one-on-one, they’re like, “How do I do TJ? How do I do the thing?” And I’m like, “Well, first start by talking about your values and maybe setting up pod.” We have this thing called pod mapping where you get to literally map the people in your life that you would go to if you were harmed, if you had experienced violence. And also maybe a whole separate thing if you were someone that caused harm or violence to someone else, you’ve perpetrated something.
MikaHernandez: And start having conversations with those people about accountability, about your values, about what you need if you’re in crisis, if you’re having a panic attack, whatever it is. And so people want a step-by-step about how we get a safe community, but it really is so much more nuanced. And I love being like, “Y’all already have the answers in some ways,” and like, “you will continue to unfold what those answers are over time.”
Paige: Definitely, I think it’s going to look different for everyone depending on who the people in your pod are going to be, what your values are together. Definitely. I had a conversation with somebody recently about policing. And this person’s concern was, what are the immediate next steps? And I think that’s a lot of people’s first questions is like, “If we get rid of the police or if we defund the police, what are we going to do right now when someone breaks into our house or someone is on the street with a gun or if there someone who seems dangerous in the street?” And my first thing usually when I think of those things is like, “What are we doing to get to know our neighbors? Why don’t we know the people who we live near? What are the things that are in place that make people around us feel dangerous or feel like strangers?” So yeah, just having those conversations are difficult and thinking about those that really specific to people and place that you’re in relation to, for sure.
MikaHernandez: I love that you brought that up Paige because I do think that is sometimes a trolling question that comes up, and sometimes it’s a genuine question that comes up about, well, what are we going to do instead then? And whether it’s a trolling question or whether it’s a real question, I always come back to, well, let’s examine what’s happening right now. And particularly when people bring this up, they’ll talk about rape or sexual assault. And we know that these systems do not actually create more safety for people who’ve experienced sexual assault. If anything, we know that a lot of rape goes unreported to the police because you will have to be going through a re-traumatizing criminal case or you will have to not be believed.
MikaHernandez: And if it was the case that police were really making that stop or we’re safe, wouldn’t we not have that right now? Sometimes I do want to be like, not in a mean way, but sometimes I’m like, “Well, what about what’s working right now, is it actually working?” And I do think also what you were saying, and I love so much, it’s like, well, what if we invested a lot of that money and that time and that energy and that care into systems that serve us like getting to know our neighbors or having healthcare or having a place to be any time, having a place to be, having investment in our schools. Reallocating resources to the things that will transform our conditions and transform the places that we’re coming from and the places that we build community.
Rhiki: Yeah. I appreciate y’all lifting that up because I think I’m starting to go into some of these conversations about, well, if we defund the police, then what do we do next? But Mika, you’re saying let’s analyze what’s already here and if it’s even working, and it’s not. Because like you said, not only is it not making our environment safer, but the people who are committing those acts aren’t learning anything. They’re not being rehabilitated, they’re not changing. They’re just going into a system that honestly causes them when they get to the other side of it to probably be even worse off than they did when they went in. If we know this to be true about our current system, then we know that we need to do something that is completely different in order to get different results. So I appreciate you both for lifting that up.
MikaHernandez: Yeah. I’m all for more imagination, and I think that that is a big gift of abolition. It’s real that we don’t get to actually access that space of imagination and what else is possible, but I want us to. I believe so much that we can have something different, many things that are different.
Paige: Speaking of imagination, you do a lot of artwork. And I feel like art is definitely a place where that’s cultivated. Do you want to talk a little bit about your cooking or your magic making or any of those things you love to do?
MikaHernandez: I guess I could speak to it a little bit. It hasn’t felt as alive for me as a practice as of late. But in some ways, I think I was sharing about my herbal program that I’m starting right now. And that feels a little bit like an investment in my creativity and myself as an artist as well as an herbal medicine person. A lot of my art work and creative work does revolve still around food and plants. No matter what I’m creating, I still feel like I come back to that. Ultimately, that’s because it allows me to share story, and story feels so important to who I am altogether as a mixed person and as a multi-generational person in the United States. Without as much connection to my ethnic lineages and those types of ancestry, I have found that story. And the possibility of just being in the fullness of how I move through life and putting that out through food and putting that out through art has been really powerful.
MikaHernandez: It allows me to connect with people even if things like my access to language, ancestral languages is gone. Or it allows me to trace where people have come from and what food contributions have made it onto my plate today or have continued to feel like comfort and community. I don’t know, it all comes back to story for me. And that feels just as much a part of my organizing as it does of my art, as it does of et cetera, et cetera.
Paige: There was a period of time I think you were sending out newsletters of things that you were cooking and stories you were sharing with your meals, and music you were listening to. That was really fun.
MikaHernandez: Yeah. That was at the very beginning of the pandemic I think I was doing round-up of different words and images and food that have been really nourishing to me. Maybe that’s a thing back for myself that I have to be like, “Yeah, that is a part of art and that is part of curation and creation that I get to do.” But then I’m like, I don’t see the line where that creative part of me begins and ends with the community organizer part of me because they all feel like they just go hand-in-hand.
Paige: Yeah. I don’t think the lineage of separation or division is important, I think having that all entangled is beautiful. It makes sense to me that they’re together.
Rhiki: So Mika, before we let you go, I just want to say thank you for having this conversation with us. I know this was something that we reached out to you and wanted to have a quick turnaround, so I really appreciate you joining us today. Who are the people that you tap into, people or organizations that you tap into when you want to know more information or stay up to date or learn something new about the particular topics that we discussed today?
MikaHernandez: That’s a great question, I love that you’re building up the resources.I guess I will say for sure Mariame Kaba. I also would link to batjc.wordpress.com, which is the site for the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective of which I am apart. We have a really awesome media and readings list there. APIENC, and I’ll say Ancestral Apothecary because I’m on this new journey with them.
Paige: Rhiki, what reflections and thoughts are you having after that conversation?
Rhiki: I think two things are really present in my mind. One of which is when Mika said hate is a one-on-one type of interaction and how we need to be careful about not centering the hateful acts but centering the work of the organizers. I think that’s something that really stuck out to me and was a learning experience for me about being mindful in the way in which I talk about these acts and making sure that I’m not centering the hate crime but centering the people. And then another thing that Mika mentioned that really resonated with me was how we need to allow for more room for imagination and really invest in creativity. I know because I’m a creative, that might seem easier for me than people who don’t identify as an artist or a writer or all those things that probably fall under being a creative. But how creativity is so expansive that it’s really not you have to do this particular thing, but you just have to allow yourself to have time to imagine things, and imagine things that go beyond the scope of what you originally thought was possible.
Rhiki: So really expanding what possibilities mean to you. And in doing so, you envision a world that may have seem impossible at one point but now you see that it is possible and we can reach it. And I think that’s something important for me to do more but also just everyone. If we really want to get to a new world, we have to envision what that world will look like. And that requires us to engage in imagination. What about you, Paige? What are some things that stuck out to you?
Paige: I love the description you have of imagination, I think that’s so well put. For me, I think even though we had a couple of conversations about transformative justice, I think it’s always a good reminder to me that the work that transformative justice is trying to do is to recreate the circumstance harm doesn’t happen or isn’t able to happen because people are fully seen and heard in their needs. And I’m really glad that you asked Mika to distinguish the difference between restorative and transformative justice, I think that was a really helpful reminder. Mika also mentioned just the importance of having a slower pace when they were answering your question about how to hold both the feelings of this violence occurring and have been occurring and then also organizing within a timely manner afterwards.
Paige: She highlighted just allowing the gift of feeling and the slowness afterwards for herself. And also organizing the vigil and putting that together and allowing it to happen a little bit more slowly and with kindness and ease. I think that’s really important too. I think in organizing spaces there’s a sense of urgency. A lot of that is to try to control the narrative before mass media does, and that can be really harmful to our bodies and the way that we relate to our bodies. So slowness, really important.
Rhiki: Yeah, yeah, agree. And that’s it for our episode today. The Radical Futures Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Special thanks to Trevor Loduem-Jackson for our music and [inaudible 00:53:12] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Acrus Center. So you next week.
Dr. Baba Buntu speaks on building stronger relations within family structures and returning to ancient African. Dr. Buntu is an Activist Scholar and Founding Director of eBukhosini Solutions; a community-based company in Johannesburg, specializing in Afrikan-Centered Education. Dr. Buntu has founded a number of community interventions based on practical approaches to Black Consciousness and decolonial methods.
Speaker 1: The African family is supposed to be a place of strength. We say that African culture is built under African family. But what happens when the African family is so affected by its history and its lack of cultural strength, that it reproduces some of the oppressive effects that we have enjoyed for centuries on this continent?
Rhiki: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement, and how to build Radical Futures Now. Typically, when people think of colonization, we think about the invading, and the taking over of land, and usually land is always present in our minds. But colonization is so much more than that and we’re going to talk about that today, how colonization actually separates people from their roots, separates them from parts of their identity, separates them from their culture and their traditions, and also breaks down their relationship structures and how they’re in community with one another.
Rhiki: When we think about Radical Futures Now and how to get towards a post colonial world, we have to understand that we need to look within ourselves for the answers because we have them, we were just separated from them through the process of colonization. I’m really excited to talk to Baba Buntu, about this concept and how we can get back to our roots. Baba, we’re so excited to have you with us today. To start us off, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Baba Buntu: Thank you so much. I’m super excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me in. My full name is Baba Amani Olubanjo Buntu and I am an African man who’s trying to make … I think I’ve lived a long life to try to make sense out of the world with that we live in. Also be very intentional and practical about things that I think is worthwhile and meaningful to do, to change the situation because I’m not happy with this world. I’m absolutely not happy in this world and I don’t want to have lived my life and come out of it, and not have done the best that I can to add some change to this well. That’s really my whole purpose in life, to hope that I’m part of change that’s going to last and lead to substantial changes for our future.
Rhiki: Yeah. I’m really interested. Can you talk with us about your journey and how you found your way into the work that you’re doing today?
Baba Buntu: Yes. I’m trying to think of the longest version of the story because it has many details to it. But I think … My family is from Anguilla in the Caribbean. I have lived for a very long time as I grew up, in Europe, Norway, Scandinavia. Then I moved to South Africa in the ’90s and I’ve lived here ever since. This is home but I have many definitions of home. I think that has played an instrumental role in how I’ve navigated this world. I think from a very early age, in my life, I have been particularly drawn as an African myself and somebody of African descent and somebody who has really immerse myself into the African worldview.
Baba Buntu: How similarly, we have been treated and been marked by our history as members of them, Global African Family, as most will know. We live in all over the world and we are by no way one homogeneous people, but we have a number of things in common. As I’ve walked my journey, I have found out that we are not the people whose history is not told, it’s just that the world doesn’t really want to listen to it and accept it. I have immersed myself a lot in books. I have read a lot and that doe not make me more clever important than anyone, but it has given me some insights into what has happened to us and also why the world operates the way that it does.
Baba Buntu: Why oppression is so [life 00:04:32], why there’s so many imbalances and that has motivated me to be very practical. From the Caribbean, to Europe, to Africa, it’s been a journey, step by step immersing myself deeper and deeper into what I have learned and come to know as my purpose, which really is to focus on wisdom and educational programs. Let me say it like that because I think by learning and by being immersed in educational … Let me call it journeys. Educational or learning journeys. It also, at least in my opinion and in my experience, it then also pushes me to act.
Baba Buntu: The more I know, the question becomes, what am I doing about it? Okay, fine. I know things, but what am I doing about it and how important is it just to sit here and know something and not really doing something about it. I think that has really informed my journey, my choices, who I spend time with, what I’ve built. I’ve built a number of programs and projects. Right now, the most important to me, over the last 20 years has been Ebukhosini Solutions, a company that we run here in South Africa. Me, my wife, Mama Tebogo, and a number of our extended family members that we have gotten to know along the way and the journey of this work.
Gilbert: That’s powerful Baba. It’s really beautiful to hear that you’ve immersed … Your history is in all definitely different parts of the world. In the Caribbean, in Europe, and definitely in the continent, and how you’ve been able to also create all these educational services and community programs. But could you tell us or dive into a little bit about the Ebukhosini Solutions and how you’re using it to definitely serve your purpose in different parts of the world.
Baba Buntu: Right. Ebukhosini means house of royalty. It actually means the royal family. Culturally, we are setting ourselves a very high task in that this is a name that you can’t just joke with or just use as a fancy buzzword. It really means and we have claimed it in the sense of … Because we are not necessarily royal family by blood lineage or that we belong to a royal family in the way that it’s sometimes spoken about on the continent, but we see ourselves as descendants of a royal people who have in many ways been crushed, very many ways been pushed to the periphery, and we want to bring ourselves back to the center. Instead of just complaining about that and feeling sad that this situation has gotten so bad, we want to action ourselves there.
Baba Buntu: Ebukhosini Solution has a tagline, ancient traditions, modern solutions. In that tagline fits our … It articulates our purpose. We want to draw from Africa’s rich and broad wisdoms. I am saying it plurally because it means many things. It means technology, means science, it means spirituality, it means culture, it means humanity, means so many different things. We want to position that as what we draw from when we find solutions to navigate the lives we now live in a world that is very marked by so called modernization, which always mean westernization, means in the experience of Africa, being invaded and being spoken for, and being made decisions on behalf of, and very rarely to speak for ourselves.
Baba Buntu: That’s what Ebukhosini really is for to create platforms for our voices to speak, to put our knowledge at the center and sometimes imagine the world as if that’s the only thing that exists. When I say that, what I mean is that part of the decolonial journey for us who have been marked by colonialism is to sometimes put ourselves at the very center and imagine that we have the best solutions we are, our knowledge is the most important, not from a point of arrogance and to blank out other knowledges, but because it has been taken away from us, because it has been so marginalized. To bring it back you need to focus so strongly on it over time and consistently.
Baba Buntu: What does that mean? In practical terms, that means that we create … When I say learning journeys, it means we set our platforms for learning. I’m saying it very deliberately that way instead of saying classrooms or school books or curriculums, because when I say that people will see images that relate to their own school experience and this is not necessarily that. This is to sit with elders. This is to sit under a tree. This is to go and work with children. This is to make young people get up out of their chairs and get immersed into life in different ways. Ask questions, understand who we are, understand our history, but also build foundations, build businesses, build communities, build families.
Baba Buntu: When I say family, family sits at the center of Ebukhosini Solutions where … Because we believe that a very fundamental breaking point in our history is when the African family was broken, or the ability to understand what family means, apart from just mother, father, child but to understand that family is actually an economic unit, is the power unit, is a learning center, it’s a grounding place. It’s a platform to really set yourself up to engage with the world and the many challenges that it comes with, when you one day leave the nest of your family and start on your own. We position that as our center. That also means that we are a community of practice. The way we live if seamless with what we do. We don’t really have … We don’t go off work ever. We are always on duty, we are always incorporating what we believe in, in our everyday life practice.
Rhiki: I have a question. What are some of the programs that are coming out of Ebukhosini right now?
Baba Buntu: Okay. I said that family fits very strongly within our understanding of our work. We have the Kandaka program that focuses on African women. That’s workshops, it’s learning programs, it’s sometimes individual processes, and sometimes it’s collective and family related processes. When I say processes, it could be healing, it could be learning how to overcome a certain trauma, it could be understanding the African woman’s journey since antiquity, and a number of other forms of engagements. Women coming together to really support each other and find solutions to the challenges they face.
Baba Buntu: We have Shabaka, which is a similar equivalent to Kandaka, but for men, where we also create similar platforms for men. Young men, old men, married men, single men, like many types of African men in many different life situations. Since being a protector and somebody who generates resources … I’m saying resources deliberately, because it doesn’t just mean money. We also engage men in ways that they can start businesses, that they can start income generating programs for sustainability of themselves and the families that they contribute towards. We work with children, we work with youth. We do workshops, we do dialogues.
Baba Buntu: Dialogues is actually something that we do very intentionally. We believe that more than just setting up a space where we have a speaker coming in to go through a particular topic, many of the things we need to relearn, especially in the space of family and community, respect, dignity, taking care of each other, support each other, liking ourselves, taking an invested interest in each other’s futures and finding solutions to common problems. Actually processes we need to do, not talk about. Dialoguing gives that ability to work while you are talking. You’re not just talking and then you say, “Okay, let’s go and do the work.” You work as you talk. You realize, you understand, you comment.
Baba Buntu: You realize, “Yo, this is really my problem. I need to share this. I need to ask for some guidance on this. I don’t know how to handle this.” Then we deal with that in that session. Then of course, the real practice is the journeys that you then decide to walk based on that. We want to be very practical and we want to engage both young people, old people, people who have a degree, people who have always been unemployed and often are cast to the side because they’re not seen as being able to contribute something, they can contribute the most incredible things. This is not about hierarchical structures based on your educational level or your income or who you are socially in society. It’s for everyone.
Gilbert: Baba, earlier you just spoke a lot about spirituality which just reminded me, there is another podcast that you were also interviewed about African spirituality. While you’re in your statement you said, separating black people from spiritual roots make us easy to oppress. We find that a very, very, very powerful statement. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Baba Buntu: Yeah. Now, thank you for picking that out. My understanding of spirituality … I think you can only understand spirituality when it’s an experience, not just a theoretical thought about what it could possibly be. My experience of spirituality is to find a balance between the physical world we live in and the metaphysical realities that we represent our history, our ancestry, our spirit guides, and many of the other new aspects of spiritual life. It is to be in a duality of existence almost permanently. I mean, in different ways at different times, but it is to walk in the world with that duality.
Baba Buntu: Not just check into it on a Sunday, or because somebody reminds you, or because you longing for it so much that you go and seek it. Wherever you are, you walk with that and that is your truth and that is your being and that’s your existence. My argument then, is that when spirituality has been that for thousands of years for African people, when people come to oppress and degrade and maim and kill and torture people and at the very root of that oppression, also make sure that the spiritual power is denounced, is demonized, is taken away to such an extent that many of us now relate to our own spiritual history as somewhat mistake or dangerous or demonic or not really the way we supposed to be.
Baba Buntu: Like we a bit ashamed of it and we don’t really want to say that we go and consult with certain practitioners, or we hide it and we feel it’s not really who we are supposed to be. When it has gotten to that level, it means that a very fundamental aspect of our existence is not just tampered with or a little bit broken. It might be to mean to quite an extent, actually be gone or be void or be just a huge gap. When that gap has been internalized and normalized on our part, it is easy to be gullible, it is easy to look for solutions everywhere, but within. Because you have decided that, “I don’t represent any solutions, I don’t come from anywhere important, what I represent, I should try to get away from.”
Baba Buntu: Anything else, anything that appears foreign and new and in a language that I didn’t even grow up speaking, becomes more desirable, but then actually to go back and reclaim my own. When that becomes a position, it’s almost like, as an African unwillingly walking into my own oppression. I’m seeking to be oppressed, I’m seeking to lose myself, I’m seeking to not really love and reclaim and stand in my own self. Oppression doesn’t even have to be such a costly project for those who want to oppress me, because I’m almost effectuating and doing it myself.
Baba Buntu: I think it’s through that lens we can see how education has become very problematic on the African continent, leadership is very problematic on this continent. Religion is very problematic, economy. A number of these things have happened over many generations. I’m not trying to say that this just happened overnight, this is an after effect. Is a trauma, a lived trauma that comes at after many, many, many designs of oppressions. When that becomes normal, many of us struggle with just being an existing and wanting better.
Rhiki: Wow, thank you for sharing that because I can definitely see the parallels between what’s happening on the continent with this dynamic and also what’s happening in the US with African Americans. There’s like this shift where-
Baba Buntu: Absolutely.
Rhiki: … people are really trying to figure out who they are, but it’s hard because we’re so disconnected from our spiritual roots, or just our roots in general. There’s this gap in our identity and I think that-
Baba Buntu: True.
Rhiki: … gap keeps us from really being secure in who we are. [crosstalk 00:19:01] Like you said, when we see something new or see something foreign, we are attracted to it. We see it as better because we don’t really have a good baseline for who we are.
Baba Buntu: Exactly. It’s so true. I think around the continent, African people are very inspired by the African American branch of the family because African Americans are seen to be standing on the barricades and not accepting the violence that are being pushed down their throat. We see many proud African Americans, and that’s a great inspiration. But I think it’s very telling when we as a people even have to say, black lives matter, not black lives exist, black lives are important. They matter. Things that matter are not necessarily that important. See us like …
Baba Buntu: Accept that we human beings and when we need to even start there, we understand that we are not just here to complain, we’re not trying to make up our oppression, we actually don’t want it in the first place. We wish that we didn’t even have to have conversations like the one we’re having right now. But our reality tells us different and it becomes a must to insist on being alive, fighting to exist, fighting to be somebody, fighting to know and remember that we were so much more than what we appear to be right now.
Gilbert: Oh, no, no. I just wanted to come in real quick before we move ahead just still about that spiritual experience. When Baba, you mentioned about the foreign spiritual experience when it becomes much more desirable. I just wanted to get a quick comment about this, the African spiritual experience versus the foreign religions, or the foreign new emerging religions that appeal much more desirable to the people right now and how you use see people experience the African spirituality.
Baba Buntu: Right. What I see when I connect with the broader continent, and I think the Diaspora to a large extent as well, is that there is a pronounced search for spiritual truth right now. It comes out, as you said, in search of identity. Who am I? Who are we? Where do I come from? But it also comes in questioning the religious templates that have been given to us through our home. Because it’s people who love us who have told us that this is the religion you should choose, this is what is best for you. It’s not our preference that directly tell us that, now we have lived with it for so many generations that this is given to us and maybe sometimes even forced to us by people who actually love us.
Baba Buntu: It’s difficult to then make up your mind, “Should I believe what my parents told me? Is it really true? Am I too rebellious if I stand up to it, or choose not to follow it? Who is my enemy or who am I fighting even if I’m rebellious in that space?” But I think it’s a very healthy thing that we are beginning to go through as a people. I think we haven’t even seen how difficult it will be. Because when we start to undo some of them colonial matrices that were forced on us, we are also starting to unshackle some of the bondage that other people plan for us to be in forever.
Baba Buntu: They didn’t plan that we would get out of this. The future of the world takes it into account that we will continue to be this people that we were designed to be so that we are cheap labor, so that we are protesting on the street, a couple of times a year, that we are angry, that we are gangster rappers, that we are … It’s a design. That’s what the world expects us to be. But when we stand up, especially in the spaces of questioning fundamental questions around spirituality, spiritual awareness, we are starting to shake a certain ground that it now we don’t … I think this is why those within our communities who have accepted and started to identify very strongly with those religious templates get very scared.
Baba Buntu: That’s why there are conflicts between parent and child, because the child seems so ridiculously rebellious and asking questions that you’re not supposed to. Even from a spiritual point, this is wrong, this is sinful. You are tempering with things that we’re not supposed to tamper with. Now it becomes dangerous. Now a parent and a child is fighting. How can that be good? Because aren’t we saying that we want to bring the family together? Now if it disunites us, isn’t that a sign that it’s bad? But I don’t think it is, I think it is a conflict we need to be more mature at handling.
Baba Buntu: Because young people have done that for us for a while. They have been the ones on the barricade, they have been the ones daring to ask the questions, they have been the one thing that, “I’m not going to just going to follow something just because you tell me, I want to understand 1,2,3,4 and a whole number of other questions.” Those of us who now have then accepted that you shouldn’t ask questions, we become provoked by that. But that’s the maturity that, especially my generation, needs to take on much, much more and take a step back and not be threatened that some of the things that maybe we now have gotten used to thinking must stand and must never be questioned. It is actually going to be better when some of those things fall.
Baba Buntu: We actually walking towards a better power, a better grounding, when we are able to unravel some of the things that have been very oppressive for us. I like to have the conversation that way. You will notice that I’m not naming the religion, I’m not naming templates within the religion, because I feel we need to go there a little bit slow, because these are sensitive questions to many of us. Many of us, if we don’t handle this well, we will get out from the room and leave and never come back. I feel then we have lost the plot even before we started. We need to learn how to deal with conflicting undoing of our pain.
Rhiki: I want to switch the conversation just a little bit and talk about the work that you mentioned a little bit earlier about this idea of masculinity. In the West, like we’re now in this time of people are really talking about what toxic masculinity is over here and really, it’s just the ways in which we were that men were taught to display their masculinity and how it’s actually problematic. I think we’re in a time of redefining what masculinity looks like over here. But I understand that you’re also tackling that same issue on the continent. Can you talk about your work with that and how you’re going about redefining masculinity?
Baba Buntu: Okay. I didn’t really want to start particular projects for men. It wasn’t really a desire of mine. I was much more drawn to spaces where both men and women were interacting and learning to listen better to each other. But over the years, I realized that even places I was invited to speak, and we’re not necessarily talking about gender issues or masculinity, a number of men would come up to me afterwards and asked very similar questions. “What does it mean to be an African men today? Don’t you think feminism have gotten too far? Why are we not able to be there for our families? Why is fatherhood such an issue in our community?” Thing like that.
Baba Buntu: At one point, I thought, you know what? There are a number of men’s organizations out there, but they don’t seem to address these fundamental questions that a lot of African men or men of African descent ask. Then I started the idea of Shabaka, which is the name of a pharaoh, an African pharaoh lived in around 700 BC and did incredibly great things for his nation. We wanted to use that as a template for, what should we do for our nation, the Africa that is before us. When I say Africa, I’m talking about the African diaspora, I’m talking about the African continent. Then we decided also …
Baba Buntu: This is something that I have been led to and realize is the way for me to open up new spaces that I haven’t done before, because I haven’t hadn’t started a men’s project before and I knew a lot about what I didn’t want to do, but I didn’t know so much about how to define it and what do we do. We started with dialogues, and we started asking men, “What are you missing? What would you like this to be? What spaces do you feel you don’t have access to? When you are in your most shameful moment, what would be a good way to find a channel to share that with somebody that you’re not judged by?” Then we realized that dialoguing was very important spaces where only black men come together, regardless of the language you speak, regardless of how well you speak the …
Baba Buntu: Africanness is also very complex. Because if you don’t speak in African language, some will question that. “What do you mean your African and you don’t even speak an African language?” But then you could find another African who speaks fluently his or her language, but maybe just talk about things that have nothing to do with African knowledge or African history. It’s complex what constitutes Africanness. I think we’re still grappling a bit with that. For me it starts very simply, it’s people of African descent. It’s people who descend from the people that were once inhabiting this continent and started to populate the world that we can see with certain phenotypes and we can see by certain physical denominators like hair and in tone and things like that. It starts there.
Baba Buntu: I think it’s important and this has been very important for me to say, because some people feel that the question of who’s African and creating a line of who is and who is not, is divisive and conflicting and counter racist. I don’t think it is. Just as I think when women need to meet exclusively, that doesn’t mean they hate men, it means they want to have a private conversation. When we as black people feel that we want to meet alone and we have our own house issues or family issues that we want to address, it doesn’t mean we hate anyone. It’s based on the love that we need to exercise better for ourselves. That has been a guideline for the men’s project that it’s for men of African descent.
Baba Buntu: We hold it in the language that is relevant to the different conversations. Sometimes it may be English because there’s people who do not speak the same language. Sometimes it is in Izuru, sometimes it will be in Buganda, sometimes it will be in whatever language suits the occasion. It is really about bringing the voice of the African man raw, brutal, and honest. We don’t really use the word masculinity that much, but I get what you mean by the question that masculinity means a certain expectations in society of role a man should play. Because we have … Remember how I traced part of the toxic learning process that we’ve had as a colonized continent and people, woven into that is also many new insights around gender roles.
Baba Buntu: Although maybe this conversation doesn’t allow us the full time to go into the details of it, I just want to say that we understood gender very differently than what we have forced to articulate it as now. That means that Western and Arab cultures have been very busy with what is masculine and what is feminine and there must be a separation. Western and Arab masculinity has been built, I feel, in a very strong fear of the feminine. A lot of the power structure or the power dynamics is about containing, oppressing, keeping down the feminine energy. When that is represented as a woman, but also when it represented maybe in the form of art, in the form of softer values, in the form of care, those are things and dynamics that should be suppressed and kept down and controlled.
Baba Buntu: Because there is this underlying notion that if the feminine is allowed to blossom, something wrong will happen. That is not the original and worldview of African people. We had present femininity and matriarchal power constructs, much more stronger right at the center and we were not afraid of it. In the colonial experience, we as African men, first of all we were infantilized, meaning we were reduced to become boys. What do boys do? They complain, they moan, they cry, they are cheeky, they try to do things in way they’re not supposed to so that in kind of get away with stuff.
Baba Buntu: When we are reduced to that, boy is ness, and that becomes normal and almost the definition of what an African man is, we do not expect from ourselves and the society we live in, do no longer expect men to be upright, men to have deep values, men to be truthful, men’s word to mean anything. Many of us we realize as men that we can get away with stuff. There’s not that high expectations to us anyway. When this becomes a norm, I’m very concerned about that and I want us to remember who we once were. When I say that we for instance, have the Shabaka project, you will remember also talked about Kandaka which is the female counterpart.
Baba Buntu: Shabaka is not so much agenda project … sorry, it’s not so much agenda project, as it is a very necessary conversation we need to have now. We’re not planning for … Hopefully, Shabaka doesn’t have to exist 500 years, maybe 50. But what I’m trying to say is that as we go part of the … This is a way to articulate what Shabaka is really about. It is for every African man to ask himself, “Am I the best African man I could possibly be? If I’m not, what is stopping me from it? Within the reasons that I find, what am I willing to take some accountability for and improve on and change.” Of course, it’s not a process that I can do completely in isolation, because part of realizing that I’m a man is also realizing that I cannot be a man without mirroring my experience with my counterpart, who is the woman.
Baba Buntu: There’s also a complementarity that we need to relearn because we have become very much into a boxing match type of relationship. Women have learned from us that they shouldn’t smile back when we greet them. When they don’t, we then learned that, “Oh, so you think you’re better. We’re going to talk back to you, we’re going to make you feel small, because how dare you not greet me and smile to me.” Already there before we even had any conversation, we are already starting a fight. We are already starting a process to put the other person down. Because frankly we have become quite afraid of each other. We might not admit it, we might not say it that way, but we are actually fearful of each other. Because what I’ve learned about the African woman is that she’s probably going to hurt me.
Baba Buntu: What the African woman has learnt about me is that I’m probably going to hurt her. Let me hurt you before you hurt me. Let me do something to you before you do something to me. That’s not a good position for people who’s trying to remember the family construct and the coexistence. What we do within Shabaka, we do men of the mountain where we go to a space and we prepare men for marriage and for understanding their role in the family. We have dialogues, we have teen talks for young teenage men, where they get to explore their own thoughts and values and how they want to shape themselves as young men. We talk to young fathers.
Baba Buntu: We have support groups for young fathers, especially those who are in relationships where custody of the baby has become very conflicting, coexisting when the relationship is gone, but the children are there, to guide the journeys. I think this is our ethos. When I said Ebukhosini is doing our etho or our tagline is ancient traditions, modern solutions, it is to reinstate that guiding nature that used to exist in ancient society. When you get married, you are guided into marriage. When you become a woman, you become a [inaudible 00:36:08] you are guided into that process. Not forced, not being defined and told that this, this, this, this, this, you are guided.
Baba Buntu: Guided in the African sense means that reading your personality and your purpose. Because your purpose might be slightly different from the next person’s purpose. It is also about diversity. But there is a journey that you are allowed to hold somebody else’s hand and lean on somebody so that not every first experience is super rough and difficult. Then by the time you really face conflict, you should then have gathered the strength to be able to face it and take responsibility for what you need to do.
Gilbert: Thank you, Baba. But I got a follow up reaction about that. I felt like I was having a Shabaka moment exactly over here. But I remember the very first time [crosstalk 00:37:03] you came to Uganda and we had very first Shabaka sessions, and how the reactions were in the room. Some of the Shabaka sessions we’ve been able to have, especially when you come here, of course you see development with the people especially the young men that we usually bring about them getting to be open about [crosstalk 00:37:29] their feelings and experiences that they go through because in most African cultures there are no spaces for men to explore that those places. I just wanted you to take us through some of the things or the traits you’ve experienced over time organizing Shabaka. How people have been talking about the things that are hurting them or some of the things they triumph about, accountability and leadership, and how you see that developing over time?
Baba Buntu: Right? Now, thank you for the question. What I now know, after 12 years of doing Shabaka, and I did some work with men before we also formalized the platform, is that at the root of all of us as African men, at least to some extent sits fear, shame, insecurity. Yeah, let me just dwell on those three. Fear, insecurity and shame, for often in relation to things that we had no control over. We feel that we’re not men enough because somebody told us something or somebody dismissed us or somebody didn’t give us an opportunity, so we now think there’s something wrong with us.
Baba Buntu: We are fearful because we’re not sure if we can really speak our truth, we are fearful because we’re not sure if I’m living up to the expectation that society has of me as an African man. I’m not going to really talk because I’m probably going to be laughed at or called a joke, or told that there’s something wrong with me. I’m insecure because many of us … When you sit men down and ask them, “Who’s your role model?” They might come up with a few names. But then you go deeper in like, “What was the role modelship about that man about?” Then maybe it was because that man had money and he could feed his family. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Baba Buntu: But that doesn’t necessarily speak to values that you can really carry a family through with, it speaks to job opportunities, or income opportunities. Many men do not feel that they have been guided into an understanding of what it practically means to be an African man. I find this in the diaspora and on the continent with differences, but also with many similarities. What that does is that you mentioned toxic masculinity a little bit earlier, I wanted to say that, I do not really use that expression much. I think I know what it means, but in our history as African men and men of African descent, our masculinity has been broken more than just toxified.
Baba Buntu: Meaning, it’s not just a few toxic elements that have come in, it means that we come from a place where our role as men and role as women actually worked quite well. I’m not trying to say perfect and that every instant there was absolutely no problem, I’m not saying that. But I’m saying, we had a pretty good template for family life and community life and governance, which we struggle a lot with right now. That was crushed and taken away and uprooted in such a way that we have come back to it as African women and men not trusting each other, not trusting ourselves. In the space of men then it has been extremely interesting and I’m very humbled by the many men who have allowed me and the team that I work with, to get insight into the many things that men never talk about.
Baba Buntu: I think this is so important to say to women who have gotten used to us being quiet, not talking, not really answering the question. “What is on your mind? What are you thinking?” Because many women have experienced us as [inaudible 00:41:17]saying, “No, I’m not thinking about anything. Why are you asking so many questions.” But actually, I experienced that we, as African men, we are so ready to talk. But we need to know that we’re not going to be laughed at, we need to know that we’re going to be believed and we need to know that yes, we can be criticized or being told that maybe we are expressing certain things wrongly, but we must be dismissed, Because the moment that we are, we normally just go back to silence again.
Baba Buntu: We are very fragile. I think it’s very difficult for us to accept and admit that because there is an expectation that we should be unbreakable. We’re not unbreakable. We have feelings, we have emotions, we have our doubts, we have our own stuff that is going on in our own head that we rarely talk about. To give men the surety and the assurance that they can actually find channels and it doesn’t make them less men, you can actually break down, and it doesn’t make you less of a man, you can admit that you don’t know what to do in the family that you’ve been trying to guide for 15 years but you are failing dismally.
Baba Buntu: It doesn’t mean that you’re not a man, it means that you were not guided. It means that you were not fathered, it means that you were not taken care of in the crucial age of your becoming a man. That’s where it went wrong. That is not supposed to, in a communal culture like us, to be your individual fault. You shouldn’t have to feel ashamed. You should just understand that it has become this way because of what has happened to us and now there are other tools that you can use to find your way back. I must say this, it’s extremely beautiful to see African men finding themselves, rewiring themselves, rooting themselves, connecting themselves.
Baba Buntu: It’s beautiful to watch and be part of what maybe what I find even more beautiful is when we get phone calls and letters, from girlfriends, from mothers, from daughters who are in everyday relationships with these men and say, “My father has changed. My husband is a different man, my brother is my best support and we used to be enemies.” Just because men were led into a space where they were told that you don’t have to be afraid anymore, somebody’s got your back. You’re not the only one. You don’t have to be ashamed of what you were not able to do, you get a fresh start, you can start again and nobody’s expecting you to be perfect.
Baba Buntu: What I’m learning through all of this is that, yes we need resources to do this much more. Because as Gilbert and everyone has been part of Shabaka knows is that it’s very limited what we can do, because we don’t have a lot of resources to do this work. But I want Africa and the African diaspora as well to make this a priority just in the same way that we have at least in a better way than before, understood the importance of women’s empowerment. That’s beautiful and that’s necessary and that should continue and be done even much more. But we mustn’t then also neglect and not pay attention to the boy child. I see it in classrooms right now. I see it in schools.
Baba Buntu: Young sisters are sitting, there taking notes, they are … Even the lower grades, they’re starting to think about what they want to become. Many boys, and I’m not saying all, but many boys are still just playing, still not really knowing what … Because they have an insecurity even from a very early age. If we don’t do something about this, I don’t think we’ve seen the levels of violence that this could result in because that’s what often happens when we as men get very frustrated. We acted out in ways where we forced people to, in a very twisted way, respect us or see us or be fearful of us or take note of our existence and we force people. Because we’ve learned a lot about what colonial power can do.
Baba Buntu: How I can suppress my woman, how I can put her down, how I can use my force as a man, how I can use my psychology to make her feel this small and it works. She actually becomes a smaller person. When we learn this, we are drifting away and that’s the broken masculinity that I’m talking about, when some of us gain our power from very destructive ways of dealing with ourselves and each other. Shabaka really is about that. To rise up as an African man of responsibility, of a softer side and that doesn’t take away the stronger side, it actually builds it.You need to be able to have a channel, to vent, to talk, to find a constructive way to let out your anger, because we are angry and we have very good reasons to be angry. But the problem is that when we don’t choose the channel, the channel chooses us and then we went out and we destroy people that we have said we want to love.
Rhiki: I really appreciate you bringing up using the term brokenness, broken masculinity, and also the way in which you tie everything back to colonialism, because it is tied back to colonization. I was watching an interview, not too long ago and they were saying “One of the major …” I want to say, “Goals of oppressing black families or African families was the deconstruction of that family.” I really appreciate you bringing up what you said about like we had a way of existing, a familiar structure that worked in the past that was deconstructed and broken through the process of colonization and it was intentional. I think it was intentional to break that down in order to make it easier to oppress us.
Baba Buntu: Absolutely. True. True. Now, I completely agree. Having said that, because I think what many people misunderstand about this conversation is that we are shifting blame. When we say it as African men, some systems will pick up, we are saying that we don’t want to take responsibility, we are just violent because of what happened in the past, so there’s nothing we can do about it really. Don’t come to us. That’s not the message. The message is one of a two fold message. One, we need to understand how we got to this place. What happened to us. Like you said, this is not how it used to be way back in the day. How did we become these people? Why do we act out in this way?
Baba Buntu: That’s just one part of the question. Because the other part of the of that information is we are not sitting waiting for those who oppressed us to fix this. Because first of all, that wouldn’t work and secondly, they’re not going to do it and we have to fix this. That’s the second part and that’s what Shabaka really is about taking responsibility for a situation we didn’t create in the first place, but now are a part of, now have internalized, now have become agents of. Now we need to redefine our roles, now we need to think about what relationships are useful for us. What family structures can we encourage each other and support each other to build? What particularly is difficult in that process?
Baba Buntu: That’s why we offer guidance to young men and to young couples. A lot of young couples are very alone just in the space of forming a relationship. Because think about it. Many young people today if you ask them, “What is the consistent relationship hopefully of marriage that you have seen, observed and that you have access to? Meaning you can go and visit these people, you can go and talk and ask for advice from these people. How many of those relationships do that you think, ‘Wow, this is one that I really want to have in my own experience.'” You find that young people say, “Maybe one or two, maybe by a stretch three,” and that’s like a lot.
Baba Buntu: What that means is that you want to start something that you haven’t really seen a lot. When that is true, that probably also means that you need some guidance from people that can actually guide you into that place and create a support network for you as you enter and as you continue that experience. That’s not the experience that young couples have these days. We need to, as a community, rather than saying, “Oh, this one is so out of line, this one is just so strange,” we need to understand young people are telling us very clearly what’s happening in their lives right now.
Baba Buntu: One thing they are saying is that, “Nobody’s guiding us. Nobody’s having time for us. Nobody’s sitting us down and listening to what we go through. Everybody’s busy telling us who we are. Everybody’s busy defining us. Everybody’s busy saying how useless we are in many spaces. But nobody is willing to listen to our version of the truth and then give advice after that. Because we want advice, but we also want to tell our story first.” I think that’s where our generation, my generation, has gone very wrong, that we are so busy defining and complaining and blaming the young generations, rather than listening. Even if your behavior, to me, may seem a bit ridiculous and out of character, at least let me have the interest in asking you, “Is there a reason why you do this? What does this mean? Could this possibly mean something else than what I think it is? Let me at least have that as an opening question, and then hopefully learn something. Then I can maybe give some advice.”
Gilbert: Baba that’s powerful about guidance. You just mentioned about how young people, especially in Africa, they’re starting things where they don’t have guidance or they don’t have mentorship from and that is my question stems from that. When you usually hold workshops, there’s one powerful thing that we usually do and that is holding either bringing together old people in that community, with the young people to come together and have a dialogue, which is the intergenerational conversation. How have you seen that helping in the transfer of wisdom, knowledge and mentorship?
Gilbert: Because just like you just said, young people right now they don’t really have places to go to and say, “Oh, I want to be like Baba. How did he grow up? How did he become this person? How can I walk in the footsteps of what he’s been able to be? Yeah, just talk to us a little bit about the importance of those intergenerational conversations.
Baba Buntu: Now, thank you again for the question. I think this is very key to our healing and re-empowerment process to have intergenerational learning. It actually goes both ways. Young people are constantly told that they have nothing to teach and nothing to offer that you just be quiet and listen to the older generation. But young people have a lot of information about what is happening right now, what they see right now. The fact that many young people may be differently to us, when they are asked, “What do you think is going to happen 2030 years, into the future?” A lot of young people have a blank stare like, “2030 years? I’m trying to find out what I’m doing this year. I don’t know if I can even think 2030 years into the future.”
Baba Buntu: What that means is that’s actually a burden. Because many of us in the older generation, even if we were equally oppressed and confused about many things, many of us had this idea that the future is still going to be great. “Even if my life is completely upside down right now, at least in the future it’s going to be fine.” I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, it just means there’s a difference, generational difference in what has happened to us and how we see the world. That’s something that we need to learn as elders, because when I understand that, then I also understand that young people will want to do things much quicker.
Baba Buntu: Jump into a relationship, have a baby, buy a car even on a loan. Do lots of things because maybe the mind frame is that, “I’m probably not going to live that long. Let me just do as much as I can in a short space of time.” Which is a different planning order than maybe what I got used to because I was still thinking that the future is still going to be great. I’m just singling out an example of what an intergenerational conversation can position and bring, especially from youth to elder and from the elder to youth. But for me, what is important when you … If not just to call older and younger people into a room and just say, “Okay, talk.” You also need to guide the conversation. Because as elders, some of us, are not for us to share and especially not share about things that we didn’t do so well.
Baba Buntu: We want to brag and when we get to a certain age of our lives, we may look back and feel that, “I didn’t really contribute that greatly. Now I want to single out those two things that I did and I want everybody to know that. I don’t want to talk about anything that I did wrong.” But that’s why we also need to set a stage and allow elders to talk about things that they maybe regret or maybe that they learned or maybe that they didn’t do so well without losing face and without having to feel ashamed of it, but rather use it as a learning journey for the younger generation to also see that, “Now, our parents also went through extremely difficult problems and now I understand better why they were so hard on me, why they said education is the key, why they say all those things that at one point I just felt was oppressive and putting me in a certain light.”
Baba Buntu: I’m saying all of this to say that you need some guidelines for the conversation. That means you need to have persons that both the elders and the younger generation have some respect for or can listen to and who understands the perimeters that you don’t talk to the elders in a certain way, you don’t talk down to young people in a certain way to keep that level of respect. I would like to say also to be able to do this … Because I find a lot of … It’s not just one particular kind of people who can do this, but how you practice this is that you don’t make it a workshop persona, it’s something that you do in your everyday life.
Baba Buntu: As you get older, you take an interest in those young guys were hanging on the corner, constantly drinking beers and smoking, and you actually just irritated because you think, “You guys are making this neighborhood unsafe. I can’t take my five year old going down the street, because I’m scared that you’re going to recruit my five year old.” But instead of just having that judgmental talk, single a few people out and say, “Can I talk to you? Can I just hold that you? Can I just ask you some questions? How is life for you as a young person? I don’t see any of you going to work or going to school? Why is that? Just teach me. Let me see your world.”
Baba Buntu: You will find if not everybody who’s going to respond maybe favorably. One, because they’re not used to elder people actually having an interest. If somebody who’s undercover for some authorities, “I’m probably going to end up in trouble. I’m not going to say anything.” You could meet that dynamic with some young people. But I’m just saying that very often young people also, in a surprising way, say, “Wow, you actually interested in me? You actually want to ask me questions. Wow. Okay, let me talk to you.” Through that a relationship can start. Let me tell you this, for those who don’t know, most young people who engage in behaviors that we know are dangerous, and at risk, and not the best, most of the time do not really want to, but do not feel that they have an option to choose otherwise.
Baba Buntu: Because their family has not been there for them, they are in poverty, they have tried and failed that many, many other things of being excluded for many other opportunities. This is what they have found themselves doing. I just think it is so important to exercise this role of the elders that we need. I’m trying to call at my own age group, because I feel that we have really let the younger generation down. We have told you, “Don’t lean on us, figure this out on your own.” That’s what I feel many of us have said to you as a group of elders. I want to call us to order because we need to do much better. There’s a need for us. There’s a place for us. We should open up that by asking questions more than just pointing our fingers and tell you.
Rhiki: Wow, thank you so much for talking with us. I do have one last question. When you are trying to learn more or get more involved in the type of work that you’re doing now, who do you go to for inspiration? Or who do you go to, to gain more knowledge? Who are your go to people?
Baba Buntu: My wife, definitely. Number one is my wife. Mama Tebogo is an incredible source of information. I trust her judgment. She’s maybe one of the few people who speaks very, very honestly to me and say that, “That was not right. You didn’t do that well. You can do that much better.” I know, I’m going to get a very honest opinion and I know that it comes from a place of love and support. That’s definitely a number one go to. But I also have a couple of male friends who are my age or older, and who I do not necessarily see very frequently, but they know that when I’m calling them, there’s something serious going on.
Baba Buntu: Because I would be a hypocrite if I stand on stages to young people and different audiences say that, “When you are down, don’t be afraid to seek help. When you are down and out, don’t be ashamed,” if I don’t do it myself. I need that a whole lot of time. I have some go to people that I go and I belt out. I even instruct like, “Don’t talk for the next half an hour, I’m just going to say what it is.” And I’m just laying on them. If they can still breathe after that, they will give me some advice. Sometimes it’s also just to be listened to, somebody who understands you, somebody who has that open air. That’s very important for me to do.
Baba Buntu: Because I listen to a lot of people. I invite a lot of people in my space and I do this very honestly. If I’m not in an energetic space where I can honestly listen to you because I’m tired or I’m caught up in something, I will actually reschedule the appointment. I know how important it is for you to talk but I will say, “Don’t talk to me right now. I’m not going to give you a good ear, I’m not going to be … You shouldn’t trust me in this space because I’m so much all over. Give me until tomorrow. Let’s set up another day where we have this conversation.” I do that because I go out and seek it myself.
Baba Buntu: In saying that, I’m just encouraging everyone out there who know that they are called to leadership. I think leadership is something you call to. If you have a choice you don’t want to choose leadership. It’s hard, it’s lonely, it’s finding your life away, literally. It’s not about popularity and Instagram followers or anything like, it true leadership at least in my definition. If you have an option, don’t choose [inaudible 01:00:40] But, of course, I’m saying that with a joke because I also believe that we are all called to some sense of leadership. I mean, responsibility and doing things for the betterment of our communities.
Baba Buntu: But, I mean, when you play a leadership role in space of many people, I think you first need to check yourself. You first need to know that you have a support work around you, because very easily, these type of positions or these type of capacities, burns you out. You need to be in charge of that unit, take responsibility so that you don’t burn out. Make sure you have a support team around you, make sure you have people to go to, make sure you are very honest.
Baba Buntu: I’m trying my best. I know sometimes I’m also weak to the fact that I think that I shouldn’t be bothered somebody right now, I know that this person has been through a lot, let me not come and make it even more difficult. I will also have those thoughts. But I become much better over the years to also push myself to say that this is ridiculous. I keep saying this to other people, if I don’t do it myself, I am a hypocrite. That’s one thing I never want to have charged against me to be a hypocrite. Let me be real, let me be honest, let me be.
Gilbert: Powerful, powerful Baba. I think we are going to the close of our conversation. But before we do, I know between me and you, we have our own reach, and I wanted you to bless my team with it, to give them the harambee they need and to briefly just explain to them what harambee means and why we do it. Yes.
Baba Buntu: Okay. Harambee is the Kiswahili word that means pulling together. It really speaks to the energy that we are able to build when we support each other and when I make your problem my problems and vice versa, so that we become part of the solution together. When we have physical gatherings, we normally stretch our hand in the air and say that we pulling down, or we drawing this energy down into the space called harambee. We do that by shouting it very loudly. If you’ve been to some of our workshops, you will know that I shout [inaudible 01:02:52]. The point of that is, we can’t just sit and intellectualize ourselves into the unknown because our freedom is unknown. We haven’t been free for a while.
Baba Buntu: To liberate ourselves is a new thing. We haven’t been there. We need to use every capacity we have. We can use our intellect, we can use our voice, we can use our intelligent being, but we also need to use our spirit. As Gilbert is saying, he knows that it goes like, “Harambee!” It goes like a shout. When you shout, you actually feel a certain energy vibrate through your body. When you hit everybody around you shout at the top of lungs, however you relate to spirituality or out of body experiences or what, you cannot not feel that. I think it’s important to make our freedom journey also something we can feel and taste and hear. Harambee is an example of that. Harambee to all of you.
Rhiki: Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Gilbert, what was something that you took away from the conversation today?
Gilbert: One of the most important thing that I took from the conversation from Baba was how he was defining masculinity, away from gender, but also taking us through a journey, him defining it as a family structure and responsibility for the African youth and men to realigning themselves to responsibility and society. For me, that was really powerful because I’ve seen it in reality and through his conversation how that is shaping up conversations in Uganda. The other thing was through the intergenerational dialogues, what he spoke about of how elders and young people can be able to learn from each other. Where we see the elders can be able to sit and listen to the young people. Then the young people can be able to learn from the elders through their experiences and their knowledge. That was really powerful to me.
Rhiki: Yeah. I think what you said about the intergenerational nature of being in community with each other is something that I also took away from the conversation. But another thing that I want to highlight is when he was talking about, there’s a two fold thing that we have to understand in order to create change. One is understanding that we have a problem. Understanding how we got here in the first place, I think is the language that he used.
Rhiki: Then the next thing is what you said with the masculinity thing, Gilbert, is even though we may not be responsible for the situation that we’re in today, how can we take responsibility for that and do what we need to do individually and as a community to move forward, even if the reason why we’re here isn’t necessarily our fault. I think that’s something that I will always remember from today. That’s it for episode today. The Radical Futures Now Podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Special thanks to Trevor Loduem-Jackson for music and Ellie and I [inaudible 01:06:29] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Arcus center. See you next week.
Speaker 5: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
Jamie Grant discusses community-based surveys, intersectional feminism, and the expansiveness of gender and sexuality. Jamie Grant is a lesbian writer and activist, and author of Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey and Great Sex: Mapping your Desire. She is currently working on a LGBTQ+ Women’s community survey that centers anyone who identifies as a woman and those who used to identify as a woman and would like to speak about their experience. Co-hosted by Rhiki Swinton and Paige Chung: audio edited by Gilbert Daniel Bwette.
Rhiki: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement and how to build radical futures now. What up y’all, and welcome to another episode of Radical Futures Now. It’s Rhiki here, hey, and I’m so excited to talk with you all about this next topic. So we have Jamie Grant here today, and we’re going to talk about community surveys and feminist methodologies. Whoa! So we’re so excited to talk with you today, Jamie, but before we get started, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Jaime Grant: Sure. I think relevant background for me as an activist is I grew up during the violent desegregation of the public schools in Boston, which was pretty legendary. And that conflict shaped my life. I’m Irish-American. I was living in a very proud Irish first-generation enclave, and I saw all this massive racism and violence coming out of my community and it really shaped me, so that when I got to college, I was looking for other models of being an Irish-American woman. I was pretty feminist identified, and I came across the work of The Combahee River Collective, which was a black lesbian feminist collective in Boston in the seventies that did all this coalition work. They’re now super famous, but then really not very many people knew about the work. I actually wrote one of the first academic articles about the collective; pretty proud about that.
Jaime Grant: But I started doing research on collaborations between Irish women and the collective. And I got to meet Barbara Smith, really one of the founders of modern, this incredible wave of feminism. Her work actually is the work that created intersectional feminist work. And so there I am in my twenties and I meet Barbara and it just changes my entire life and trajectory. So I like to talk about that because as an activist it’s your story. And following your story and thinking about the fantastic things and the things you need to resist in your own story, that really is the stuff that’s going to make you as an activist. So, that’s the important thing to know about me.
Paige: Thank you for your answer. I know you talked a little bit about the desegregation in Boston. I’m wondering if that was part of your politicization process, or if you could talk a little bit about how did you become politicized?
Jaime Grant: Definitely. What a political education. First of all, we were in the burbs and my cousins were all in the city and some of my cousin’s parents were working in the public schools in major thing. So we had the, what I would say, the relative moral distance at which to critique what was going on of the suburbs rather than being in the midst of it, right? So my parents could be nominally anti-racist and say, this is all terrible, but also not necessarily pro-desegregation. So for me, I grew up in this really big moral quandary. I had that and the Vietnam War going on every night on TV. And my father was a World War II veteran, and he’d been in a war that he thought had a really big moral imperative and my brother was in a college and saying he would go to Canada if he got drafted, and my father was really pissed about that.
Jaime Grant: So, and then I see all this death every night, right? And all these young people protesting. So it was really just such an incredibly, it was a time like now. Really. It was a time very much like now where you can see really critical interventions and frames; shifting frames and shifting our understanding of what’s moral, what does it mean to live in this country, who are we. So I feel, in a lot of ways, fortunate. The women’s movement was also just exploding. So when I got to college, I got to meet Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich. I got to see all these people who I think of as really forming post-Stonewall, queer resistance. I was already a pretty full-blown alcoholic by college, so I missed a lot of things.
Jaime Grant: But even as I was struggling with my own, what I think of, as the follow out of the really colonization and my people and that long story, I could start to see there were other possibilities, because I was really taking in all this amazing resistance and reformulation of what was possible. So I felt really lucky to have been on a college campus. Much like [K 00:05:09], I was at Wesleyan, and it was 79 to 83. And this bridge called my back, came out during that time, which is one of, I think, the most important feminist women of color critiques in the last century.
Jaime Grant: That book came out. I got to meet Cherríe Moraga. So, yeah, my politicization, it was very vibrant. And not really because of Wesleyan, I have to say. They did bring a lot of people. I found being in a really, fancy school, predominantly white, with a lot of rich kids was super oppressive to me. I was a public school kid and it did not help me in a lot of ways, but it did help me learn to read and write and think. And so I’m grateful for that.
Rhiki: I really appreciate you saying that. I also went to a private liberal predominantly white institution, and it is, like you said, it doesn’t necessarily teach you to be in the movement, and it doesn’t really give you diverse viewpoints, but it does give you the opportunity to have access to different resources that you probably wouldn’t otherwise. And it does give you opportunities to think differently. They always said at the institution I went to, “We encourage you to think outside the box.” And I took that literally, so I really was thinking outside the box in all of my classrooms. And then my professors would be like, you might be too outside the box and I’m like, “Oh, really?” But I do want to ask you, okay, so I really just, I’m curious, what does feminism look like for you? Or, yeah, you personally, how would you describe yourself as a feminist?
Jaime Grant: Yeah. Well, you can see it in your work. You can see it in my work. But my life and my work and my family, it’s all the same. You know what I mean? I don’t see separations. My resistance, my work output, how I form my family, everything to me is a exercise in gender revolution, which is what I’m interested in. I am interested in absolutely, and I have been since I was young, since before I got out of Boston, that I could see that all the shit that my mother was trying to survive and all the other Irish women around me was just ridiculous. And I wanted no part of it. And I got targeted as a young person for it.
Jaime Grant: I got targeted for it in college. I got assaulted multiple times in college. And it’s just really shaped my work, but I have to say, meeting Barbara and understanding that women of color feminisms are really central feminisms. One of the reasons I don’t like it when people say intersectional feminism is because feminism is inherently intersectional or it isn’t feminism. So it centers a white supremacist feminism as feminism. So I always say, feminism is intersectional, right? But saying intersectional feminism means there’s like another kind of feminism and there just isn’t.
Jaime Grant: Yeah. I feel really grateful that I discovered the work of the collective in my twenties. And then basically from there, all of my work has been come out of women of color determined projects, women of color theoretical frameworks, my whole network, everything I’ve done since then. So, and I came to D.C, which was a black majority city. I feel really lucky about that in the nineties. And everybody was like, “Oh my God, you’re living in downtown D.C.” And I was like, yes, baby, it’s a black majority city, and I fucking love it, right?
Jaime Grant: People think of D.C as like the white feds, and that was not my D.C. I came into recovery in D.C in the early nineties, and I had this unbelievable community to hold me and support me through that. So, that’s all my feminism. And I feel, watching my kids grow up, and trying to think about how to help position them, so that they also have those early formative things so that things are not attached on from the outside. You know what I mean? That it’s an organic way of thinking about resistance, feminism, revolution, although they give me shit. They’re not exactly revolutionaries yet, but I still have hope for that.
Paige: Yeah, that’s so funny. I came up in ethnic studies and the English literature department at Kalamazoo College is actually pretty radical. And, yeah, all the people that you’re talking about, like shoutout to The Combahee River collective, Cherríe Moraga, Audre Lorde, those are all the people we still study now. And when you think about ethnic studies, that’s really the core of it is intersectional feminism. The way that you defined it is redundant, right?
Jaime Grant: Yes. And the Arcus Center brought you all that because [inaudible 00:10:31] studies and there was no… The faculty was completely different before the center came in. You know what I mean? If you could have a radical experience in case English department is really about this center. So, yeah, did our work there. That’s really good to know.
Paige: You talked a little bit about how your politicization and your upbringing informed your current work. You did the injustice at every turn, a report on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Can you talk about the importance of data in the nonprofit world and in organizing and some of the highlights of this report?
Jaime Grant: Yeah. So, this is a revolutionary report. Before we did it, the only data that existed in the US about trans people was a handful of small samples out of HIV testing out of cities that just framed trans people as disease vectors, problems, sex workers. There was no humanity in any of it. It was a complete problematization. So we realized in the early 200s that the community itself was so anti-trans that we needed to do something around making visible the realities of trans people, both within the queer community and without. So, we decided to launch this national study when I was at the national LGBTQ task force. We got no money for it. The powers that be, the queer academics, or I want to say, the lesbian and gay academics in charge laughed at us. Somebody told me who was running a major LGBT academic center at the time, that nobody would ever care about this report or this community, and I was wasting my time.
Jaime Grant: So that just gives you a sense of what the report helped change, because I think you probably think that’s unfathomable now, but this was 2008 and that’s where we were at. So, I came into the report and I’d already been living in trans communities for, I don’t know, 20 years. I had a trans partner. I had many, many trans people in my world of beloveds, and many, many gender queer people, and many, many people… One of my people is one of the people that really formed the campaign to use they, right?
Jaime Grant: They’ve been using it for 25 years. So, I feel really lucky that… And I wasn’t living with all activist trans people. I’m living in downtown D.C in a neighborhood, there are trans people all over our neighborhoods, and they’re in their neighborhoods, they’re living with their mothers. The ideas that people have about how trans people are in communities of color, totally wrong, in my view. There were just so many things that people really didn’t know, and I watched so many people die through the AIDS crisis, through dealing with their addictions just like me, but I got treatment, they got jail.
Jaime Grant: I got treatment at a good hospital they got treated like shit, and sitting in the emergency room all night and have nobody take them. I sat with trans people in the nineties several nights in ERs in D.C, and never got behind the window. We would just sit out there and wait for our names to be called. So, again, I think the best research is done by the people who are living this experience and living in the communities. So I firmly believe that that’s a Combahee River Collective technology, that’s a feminist technology. It’s really just feminist methods.
Jaime Grant: I’ve never done a survey project before I did the study. So all these big surveyors in various academic departments of various schools who were LGBT were telling me, I couldn’t do this either, that really I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, which don’t ever tell me I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing when I’m about to do something liberating for my community, because just watch me is how I feel about it. Just watch me. So we crafted this with the national center for transgender equality. We crafted it with a bunch of trans volunteers. We had no money. We had a couple of people situated that had jobs in movement organizations, so we were paid for. Everybody else, we just drew on everybody’s expertise as we went to craft these 70 questions.
Jaime Grant: And the idea was we would show up the first time a 360 degree portrait of trans life. We’d look at education, employment, family life, how do you get your identity documents, health care, education, everything. And there was nothing. There was literally nothing. So, again, people said 70 questions is too much. Again, one of these people said to me, this community won’t even be able to read this. Again, from inside the community. And 6,500 people read it and finished it and gave us the biggest trans sample in history within a couple of months.
Jaime Grant: And then when that data came out, it changed everything. Every secretary in the Obama Administration wanted to be briefed on it because they didn’t know. We went all over the world with this data. There’s a project in Kenya happening right now led by trans activists there that’s based on the methodology from this report by trans activists there who we supported and taking it up using the methodology and adapting it locally, which it’s totally adaptable.
Jaime Grant: So what about it? I would say one of the big fights that I really like explains who I am in this is that, A, I’m really living among trans people and I’m losing people as we’re doing the data, right? So this is not an academic exercise for me. And then the other thing is I have been targeted for my gender my whole life too, right, in a different lane. But to me it’s the same universe, right? So it’s like, I wanted a project that could look at the really big spectrum of gender in the big umbrella of trans, and we had a fight about that, and among people. People wanted first just people who either identified as male to female or female to male, because that experience of identifying transgender in that lane was so not recorded and misunderstood.
Jaime Grant: And I was like, well, we can get that, but I want to see all the other brothers, sisters, [theysters 00:17:04] alongside that, so we can look at the data across all those different identities and different expressions and see what’s happening. So I would say that was a really big contribution of mine to the project and I’m proud of it. And that data is some of the most important first data on gender queers that we have in the country, and has just fermented hundreds and hundreds of studies along with the organizing. So, for me, academic activist collaborative work has to come from the community. Period!
Jaime Grant: The architecture has to be from the community. The reason when you have academics going to a community and saying, we want to do this for you because this is our question. It’s in my view extractive and exploitive from the jump. If you are not starting in the community and going and saying, hey, what do you need? I’m a researcher. I have this expertise. That’s the kind of research and work I’ve done my whole life, and that is stuff that has real impact and also has legs. People can actually use it, which we’re still seeing. So very long answer. Sorry. I’m very chatty.
Paige: No, you’re good. You’re good. It sounds like an amazingly large project as well, like a long answer for all the credits that [inaudible 00:18:27] to this national LGBT project, yeah, for data and research. Especially, I think, you gave really important context to what it was like before this data because for me, I organize with [APink 00:18:41], and I came up with people in my young twenties knowing that this is normal, knowing that people are proud to be trans. And not to say that there aren’t struggles that people still face, but it’s a very different time period than prior to 2008. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more about the methodology of this report.
Jaime Grant: Sure. I just also want to say that my kids often say to me, they’re both bi-identified, queer-identified, and they’re like… One’s 22 and one’s 13 and they’re like, “Mom, just stop. Nobody cares about this in our generation. We’ve got this already.” And I’m like, you’re welcome. You’re welcome you little creep, you brat. Jesus, we did this for you, so shut up. So [inaudible 00:19:28], you know what I’m saying? It’s just like, oh mom, you’re so over the top about this. Shut up. So methodology. I would say, feminist methods for me is about the architecture of any project. Whose idea is it? Who’s sitting around the table in those very first meetings? What’s your accountability structure? A lot of people will, if I may say, put the color in their advisory panel, and have no people of color who are the research directors and the people at the helm of the project.
Jaime Grant: So for me, that’s just hugely problematic. And if you’re going to have an advisory committee that is really much more representative of the community than you are as the key team, then they have to be an accountability structure, not an advisory structure. They have to have real power to say, yeah, you’re not doing this right. Go back to the drawing board. Yeah, I don’t like this. Yeah. So that’s what I would say. For me, feminist methods is about the architecture. And then in community based work, if you build that architecture correctly, like we’re right now in the LGBTQ women’s survey starting to do, what I call, our [inreach 00:20:49] campaign because it’s not outreach, because we’re reaching into the communities we’re already in, rather than reaching out somewhere that we’re not.
Jaime Grant: So we’re starting or just letting people know what’s happening with it and when it’s going to launch and what it’s about. And we have about 30 people in the structure of the project in the campaign who are all part of the communities that are the least likely to ever be researched as LGBTQ women, right? And also our definition of women is, if you identify or have identified as a women and love women, then you’re in. So it’s a self identification process. Again, that’s a feminist method rather than we create some kind of a line. We’re also inviting trans men who want to report on their experiences of being perceived of as women, or if they identified as women, and partnered with women because we have feedback from trans men on our committee that a lot of them have nowhere in the world to record their experience of being perceived as, or living in lesbian women’s communities, and they want it.
Jaime Grant: So, and we’ve gotten tons of pushback about it from people who don’t want it. But my thing is, if you don’t identify, survey’s not for you. If you do, survey is for you. And non-binary people who may have identified as girls or women, and partnered with people who identified as girls or women, if this feels like a space you want to record your experience, this space is for you. So, again, architecture, how you formulate your questions and then are you doing outreach or inreach? Our advisory committee is queer, it’s trans, it’s majority people of color. It’s all the people we want to come along.
Jaime Grant: I can see over years of doing this work is that it’s not difficult to meet white middle-class people with a research project. If you put it out in the ether, they are going to find it. So if you really want a sample that’s representative of your community and is going to show you what’s going on, your architecture has to be really not that. So, that’s what we’ve done with the architecture of this study, and I’m just really interested to see what we do.
Rhiki: Yeah. Okay, so you’ve doing this survey thing for a while. So now I want to talk about the new LGBTQ+ women’s community survey that you’re working on. So can you tell us a little bit more about that? And some like, basically the purpose behind doing this type of survey and doing it now?
Jaime Grant: Well, a couple things. One is in the trans survey, we could see that feminine spectrum people in the trans survey had particular burdens, right? And particular things that needed more study. So, put a pin in that. That’s one thing we can see trans women and trans women of color are in the cross hairs of more violence and the murders that we’re constantly enduring and trying to figure out how to address. Number one, there. Number two, as an LGBTQ woman who’s now 60 years old, what I can see in my community and in the work is that the particular stresses and strains of surviving misogyny, racism, ableism, being caregivers of often hostile parents, our kids, our lovers, our ex lovers, our army of ex-lovers, our friends, there’s just enormous burdens in the community that really are shaped so fundamentally by sexism and how LGBTQ women endorse sexism.
Jaime Grant: Now we have the national trans data and you can roll these figures off your time. 41% of trans people have tried to commit suicide, so what are we going to do about it? 50% of trans people have to teach their health provider how to take care of them. So the American Medical Association’s so ashamed by that, that they’re changing medical school curricula. Trans people are unemployed at two to three times the rate of the general population. So now we know that. There’s all these labor and employment things that now Biden’s doing, right? When we have good administrations, we’ve been doing it at the local level. So we know where we want to fight, and we have the numbers to fight.
Jaime Grant: We don’t [inaudible 00:25:31] have that with LGBTQ women’s still. We don’t have a big national look. It’s crazy. And a lot of us have felt like God, we’ve been like holding up the Atlas of the world in terms of leadership in the movement and our issues are still really not on the table. So, I’m really excited to get that picture. I want those stats to roll off my tongue, and I want to be able to look… The thing about doing a national survey is A, you get a massive sample, but B, if you do it across all these domains, you can look at how different things are playing off each other. So for instance, in the trans survey, we could see…
Jaime Grant: One finding that really still hasn’t been explored enough that was a stunner for me was that masculine spectrum people assigned female at birth were experiencing tons of sexual assault in K through 12. A bunch from their teachers, right? And that was a completely hidden thing before the study. You could say, well, lots of people, trans people in the study are experiencing sexual assault. But what I thought I was seeing, which I still really want researchers to take up is that you can see that feminine spectrum people assigned male at birth are being beat up in the hallways by people who are crapping on them for a feminine gender expression, right? They’re policing what they think of as their masculinity. So that’s visible, but the violence that masculine spectrum people assigned female at birth or enduring is invisible. People will say, well, it’s much easier to be a tomboy in elementary school. Really? No, it isn’t. The tomboys are getting sexually assaulted and nobody knows about it, right?
Jaime Grant: So these are the kinds of things that you can see in a big national survey where A, you’ve done a really good job of identifying people’s gender and gender expression, right? So we could see the nuances of that because we had a really, this is another feminist method that I love, we had a really layered gender instrument. And that methodology’s been copied all over the world, right? Very proud of it. And we’re doing just a spectacular job in the LGBTQ women’s survey. Why don’t you see these lists of things you can identify with? They’re amazing. The thing that I really am excited about the survey is all these things about me that are completely invisible as a lesbian, as a queer woman, as a mother, as a radical, as someone who’s been fired for being queer and fired for being political.
Jaime Grant: There are places in the study for me to record all of it, right? And that just isn’t true anywhere. So we really have worked for over a year now on, I hate to say it, 170 question questionnaire. Everybody won’t answer 170 questions because there’s tons of skip patterns, right? Like X doesn’t apply to you, so you’ll move along and miss five questions here, 10 questions there. But we have a sickeningly long survey right now. It’s going to be a little shorter when it comes out. We’re still fighting over questions. That’s really, man, that’s a feminist technology getting to the consensus on those questions.
Jaime Grant: But the idea that it’s taken till I’m 60 years old to really be able to talk about myself, right, in any research project to really be able to illuminate our experience. I think people of color experience this all the time, queers experience this all the time, women experience this all the time, and so we’ve just got a nexus here in our community that we really want to make visible. How are those things coming together in the lives of different LGBTQ women, and what does it mean for our ability to form our families and live and thrive?
Rhiki: I really appreciate you lifting that up. I think we are trying to enter into a world where we can use data responsibly, or there’s few people that are trying to do that, but I really love this being able to really have, be able to self-identify in a questionnaire that is going to produce data that will hopefully help you get what you need or being able to talk about all of your experiences. And so I really appreciate that the work you and others are putting into, not taking the shortcut [inaudible 00:30:08] to the survey, but just doing what’s necessary to get all of the things incorporated. And, yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s probably the more complicated route, but it’s the one that’s most worth it in the end.
Jaime Grant: Yup. And it’s liberating to do it. I remember in the trans study somebody saying, we’re going to have this question about prostitution. And I was like, prostitution. Prostitution is a word that the state uses against us. We’re never going to use that word in a study about trans people. First of all, it’s all anybody thinks about, second of all, no. So it’s like, how are we going to talk about ourselves? So one of the reasons we got 6,500 people to answer 70 questions was because they could recognize themself when they came into the study. They didn’t feel like a rat in a maze, they didn’t feel like some pathologized vector, problematic vector of disease. They could see that someone in the community was speaking with them about themselves. And it gives you the [oomph 00:31:08] to answer all the damn questions.
Jaime Grant: You know what I mean? All those academics who laughed at me and said, I really, you could have seven questions. And I was just like, a bad word forming on my lips. You know what I’m saying? We are not a seven questions people. Our lives are not a seven questions questionnaire. So, yeah. I love figuring out that language, which changes all the time. I loved the gender instrument in the trans study. And when we did it, I was like, this is a snapshot of 2008. In 2021, we’d have a totally different list. And the question I loved the most in the trans study was, you could write in a gender not listed here, right? We left a blank. If you didn’t identify as male or female or gender-fluid or whatever you could say, a gender not listed here and write your gender in it.
Jaime Grant: 840 people wrote in their own gender and gave us 500 terms for their genders. And so my favorite article I ever wrote is off of that one question; all of the different ways. There was so much resistance in the formation of those terms. It was so funny. Gender pirate, [inaudible 00:32:28]. It was just like, oh my God, I really loved it. So, I did this incredible thing with Jody Herman who’s now at the Williams Institute, who was our [bean 00:32:41] counter, our real data geek for this thing. And they and I did this presentation at the National LGBTQ Task Force: Creating Change Conference. On that question, it was just on the gender queer, or gender spectrum data. And we put all the words around the room as people came in. We hung it up in these big sheets, so people could see all the words.
Jaime Grant: And people STARTED walking into the workshop and before we’d ever said anything, people were weeping. People were weeping because for the first time in their lives, their gender was in there, was in the room. And they could see it was a place they belonged. And it was just like, that is what I live for. Everything else, all the arguments, all the whatever, I will put up with those because that, in my bucket list of gender revolution, that room, I will remember for the rest of my life. Honestly. A 70 year old gender queer person crying because it’s the first time they’re in a space that actually holds them and is them, and they’re in community. Yes. Hell yes. That’s what I’m doing. That’s what I’m here for. And the LGBTQ women’s survey, our instrument’s really interesting. We’re going to be able to do the same thing. I can’t wait.
Paige: Right on. Yeah, right on, for sure. I wanted to return to something that you said earlier. I wanted to return to something you said earlier. You spoke about the violence that happens when tomboys or people who are masculine identify who are so born female… Wait, what is it?
Jaime Grant: Assigned female at birth.
Paige: Assigned female at birth. Thank you. I was missing the word.
Jaime Grant: Sure. No problem.
Paige: Right. And I think that violence does totally gets neglected. And I think when you were talking about how there isn’t a space for trans men to talk about their experiences prior to them becoming trans men as lesbians, and it’s really difficult, that they become invisibilized, and I think that’s really important work I’ve seen too.
Jaime Grant: Thank you.
Paige: And then I also wanted to ask you another question. You were talking about how this experience is so the opposite of being pathologized. And I was thinking about how a lot of sex education is really pathologizing or abstinence only, or just a very sterile understanding of sex and not relational or joyous or desire. And then I remember when I went to the Arcus Center one day-
Jaime Grant: No pleasure.
Paige: No pleasure at all. I went to the Arcus Center and I went to the bookshelf and actually saw your book. I didn’t get to go to your workshop because I was in class. But, yeah, you wrote Great Sex: Mapping Your Desire, and it was like, I was like, whoa! What are these questions? What is this book? And it really was also during a time when I was starting to think about those questions. I was in college. Can you talk about what inspired that work, and-
Jaime Grant: You’re going to make me cry.
Jaime Grant: Yes! Yes!. Oh my God, yes. Thank you. Oh my God. Well, that just makes me feel so good, that the book was useful to you. Yeah, so I’ll tell you how Mapping and that whole thing came about. Another feminist method, shall we say, which is in the nineties at the height of the AIDS crisis here, one of my dearest friends, Amelie Zurn, who’s a genius, who’s one of my, I wrote the book with her, was the head of lesbian services at Whitman-Walker clinic, the gay clinic. And I think it was one of the first lesbian services programs in the country. Maybe San Francisco had one, maybe New York had one, but we were really early.
Jaime Grant: And Amelie saw herself as an organizer, right? Not just like you know, it was like, yes, get your pap smear here. But it was also like, who are we? What are we doing? And so we decided to do a lesbian sex day. And this is 1990, everybody’s dying. Right? D.C is in the middle of the crack epidemic, early gentrification and AIDS. So black lesbians are suffering. And so we wanted to have a joy day about pleasure and we thought, how should we start this day? And I was like, why don’t we have people tell their sex biography? We’ll pick five different lesbians and we’ll just go through, like this is how I started, and this is where I am. And it was like, oh my God, what an idea? It was our opening plenary. And one of them was 60, one was 20, I was 29. And people who identify as lesbians have sex with all kinds of people, right? And nobody talks about it.
Jaime Grant: And so that got put out there, the kinds of sex we had, the kinds of partnerships we’ve had, everything we were doing that everybody knew about and nobody knew about just all on the table. And after we finished the plenary, we had two days of workshops after that. And it was like we exploded this happiness bomb in the middle of the room. People were on fire. People were so liberated and I thought, Oh my God, this is it. This is it. Telling our stories, telling our sex stories, is it. So fast-forward, I do different things. I do workshops. I do different things over the years, but then I get to the task force again in 2007 and the Creating Change Conference is happening and the sex track at the time, which was very vibrant in the nineties during the AIDS crisis was amazing.
Jaime Grant: All kinds of shit happened in those workshops. In 2007, they’re like, how do we message ourselves to get marriage? And I was like, fuck this. This sucks. This isn’t even a sex track anymore. This is, it’s been hijacked by the white gay money that is running the marriage movement. And I was like, we need to do something else. And the head of the conference who was a close, just a great comrade said, yes, take this over, do something else. So, really. So I just created this workshop based on the idea that if we tell a lot of sex stories in the middle of a room and we hold the space really well, we take care of people and that’s a big feminist methodology, how are we going to set the space up? Because so many of us are trauma survivors, myself included.
Jaime Grant: So, the Mapping workshops, what I did was, again, do a people of color majority, at least half trans or more, a lot of people living in poverty because everybody thinks people living in poverty can’t have pleasure. And I grew a faculty that is now, I don’t know, 60 or 70 people all over the country. We’re in year 13 now of the workshop. And I would just have us set a really safe container and center ourselves as survivors at the beginning of the workshop, which was so critical because survivors think, oh, everybody’s here to have a great time and I’m broken, and I can’t talk about this, and this is just going to fuck me up. And it’s like, no, we’re all broken. We’re all fucked up. And we’re still going to have our pleasure anyway.
Jaime Grant: And so starting the workshop from that space, again, feminist technology. I’ve done 13 years of workshops all over the freaking world. I’ve done it in the Middle East. I’ve done it in China with the government shutting the workshop down as we’re putting it on. I’ve done it in Kenya, I’ve done it in South Africa, I’ve done it everywhere. And the tool is to have all your storytellers always be local. Right? I come in with the idea, I come in ahead of time. I did it in Russia. And I sat with these Russian activists in this coffee shop in St. Petersburg and all of them telling their stories and getting ready. And then we did a workshop at 200 people with these big, bruising, KGB-looking guys out in front. It was crazy. But the same thing happens in every single space.
Jaime Grant: Yeah. Something specific happens and amazing, but the commonality is that once we start telling each other what we’re actually doing, what matters to us, what meaning we’re making out of our sex and our desire, it is like, fuck yes! It’s like, let’s remember the LGBT movement is a liberation. It’s a sex liberation movement. This is where to start. And this is also how to arm our people and give our people the resilience and the strength to keep going. When you’re targeted for your sex, that’s how they freaking shut you down and disempower you and wear you out. So honestly, it’s taken me about 13 years to convince anybody, God loved the task force.
Jaime Grant: They’ve given me this space for 15 years, but for a long time, it was like, ha ha, the sex workshops, oh yeah, they’re fun, they’re on the side. But people would say, I’m going to the leading the movement workshop, or the how to win a statewide bill workshop, so I can’t come to your workshops. But over the 15 years, our workshops have been packed. Literally packed. You can’t even get in the room, right? And I now can see 13-
Paige: Yeah, I actually went to… Oh, sorry.
Jaime Grant: No, go ahead.
Paige: I actually went to one of the Creating Change, the one that the LGBT Task force puts on. And I think it was 2018. And my favorite workshop was the kink 101 workshop. And it was like, we were practicing how to slap each other’s ass safely, how to choke safely. It was really fun. Yeah, That was definitely my favorite one.
Jaime Grant: Yup. We always-
Paige: It’s so funny because when I talk to the elder lesbians in my community, they’re like, the way you guys do workshops, they’re so boring. We used to have [cunnilingus 00:42:44] workshops and watch each other and teach each other how to eat each other out, and the way you guys do it is so, you guys are such prunes. They’re always making fun of our generation. Yeah. I’m totally on with you, yeah.
Jaime Grant: That’s so funny. That’s so funny. No, we can’t do that [crosstalk 00:43:05]. You know what I mean? We can’t do actual sex demos [crosstalk 00:43:09]. So we do what we can. But, yeah, I always think the dental stuff is so important to just help people start to think creatively about what this could mean to them or what they even want to do, right? Yeah, so I’m starting to feel like in this movement, and again, it’s no mistake that as people of color start to take over the leadership of this movement in the gay organizations, right? In my view, they’ve been in the leadership of the movement the whole time, but they’ve been marginalized around who’s got the seat at the head of these national organizations. Now that’s changing and I can see that there’s just… Even I’ve been a part of the task force since the nineties.
Jaime Grant: So, I’ve got a 30 year track record with this organization. I feel like there’s just more respect right now for the sex liberation piece, the sex justice piece, than there has been really since the early days. The AIDS crisis, oddly, as we were just dying and being told, it was because of our sex, we were dying, so therefore, we deserved it or whatever. It was a much more radical and experimental and interesting time around just putting it out there. And I feel like it’s just starting to come back. We’re just over the hump of trying to be long and be the best little gays in the world, so we can get our rights. And I think something new is happening, which is really exciting. And that’s a very long answer. So, and the book is basically based on the workshop. So it takes all the exercises in the workshop and tries to put them somewhere, so that people can use it like a workbook or a journal at home and figure some stuff out. I love it.
Paige: Yeah, I do too.
Jaime Grant: I just love having it.
Paige: Yeah. It’s a great book. If you’re out looking for a new book, if you’re out looking to do some self-discovery, definitely check it out.
Jaime Grant: Yeah, for five years, I did it all by hand. I printed every book. I mailed every book and it is now finally online. So if you can put maybe a link to that in the thing, that would be good, because you can buy it online now. I’m the worst promoter.
Rhiki: No, we got you covered. So to wrap up the episode, if there are any other resources that you want to direct our listeners to, or a better way to say this is, when you want to get more information about some of the things that we’ve been talking about, who are the people, or who are the organizations or resources that you tap into?
Jaime Grant: So who am I reading and who do I go to right now? Yeah, I would say, there’s a hand full of queer women of color who are just killing it right now in their writing and their publishing and their work. One is Ejeris Dixon, who did this book called Beyond Survival with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. That book, I think, is a really revolutionary book. I think the revolution starts at home, which is a south end press book that’s now another kind of book. Has this essay in it that is my favorite essay that transformed my life. I read it when I was at K and it absolutely transformed everything I did from there. It’s called The Secret Joy of Accountability by Shannon Perez-Darby. But there are many, many essays in the revolution which Leah Lakshmi also I think is a co-editor on that as well. I’m pretty sure.
Jaime Grant: J Delaney is also a co-editor. That book is really about violence in activist communities. And in terms of taboos and things we can’t talk about, there’s so much bullying, shitty behavior, coercive behavior and physical and sexual violence in our LGBT communities, in our activist communities that just goes unaddressed because we’re afraid to discredit our movements. We’re afraid to break up projects that we’re working on. We’re just afraid. And this book just changed my practices around this. It really helped me figure out how to get out from under really oppressive structures that were supposedly doing liberating work, and also to model and create structures that were better. So I love that book. I love Beyond Survival. Mariame Kaba, K-A-B-A, is doing all this great transformative justice work. I think Fumbling Towards Repair is the latest book.
Jaime Grant: These are workbooky books. I think it’s a fantastic book looking at the same things. Like how are we creating the revolutionary relationships, projects, ways of being, so that we can actually get to prison abolition? I like what Patrice Culler says, who I met during the first prize meeting at the Arcus prize weekend, before Black Lives Matter jumped off. And Patrice says, getting to abolition is about our daily practices of life. If we’re going to get there, it’s really about how we relate to each other in our communities every single day. And so I think Patrice’s book, When They Call You a Terrorist, is a really critical, fantastic piece of work into that space. What else? I think Leah Lakshmi’s Care Work is another one. Obviously I am fangirling like crazy over Leah, who I think has just had incredible production over the last many, many years.
Jaime Grant: And that’s really, again, about, that’s a disability justice centered framework about, if we lived in a world where we centered care and the folks that were the most disabled among us were at a level to really live and thrive, all the other systems that would have to be working to make that so, we’d be living in the world we want to be living in. And I think that’s absolutely right. So I think she’s doing a great job in that book. And then in terms of futurism, you can’t go wrong with Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who is my absolute favorite. She really thinks of herself as an acolyte of Barbara Smith and The Combahee River Collective. But to me, she’s just out there in a different universe of dreaming the future.
Jaime Grant: She just did this recent book called Undrowned, about how marine mammals survive. And it’s really, she [inaudible 00:50:11], we’re all going to eventually be marine mammals again, which I think is incredible to think about, possibly that is where we are headed, toward marine mammalship again. And these marine mammals and how they’ve survived being hunted forever classified, basically the colonization of the water. She’s a poet. The way that she looks at this and writes about it. And honestly, she started writing about this on her Facebook page, maybe a couple years ago.
Jaime Grant: She would just write these daily posts and they would come up and they would just blow my mind. I had to call all my people and say, read Alexis’s thing today. And it is how she works. She finds these spaces to dream and imagine forward. And it just always helps me. I think we should all have people who are way ahead of us in their thinking about what’s coming, what’s next and what’s possible that are totally different. Not organizing or doing stuff in the way that I am, but totally fortifying me for the journey, right? She’s totally fortifying everything that she does. So, yeah, love that work; Undrowned.
Rhiki: Yeah. So that’s it. Right, that’s-
Jaime Grant: [inaudible 00:51:39] BTS. I would say the other thing, BTS. I watch BTS videos all day because they’re so beautiful. They love each other so much. They are an intervention against toxic masculinity, and I don’t have to think about anything. I just can enjoy them. My daughter is so pissed because she’s a BTS lover and I’ve destroyed her whole BTS lane because there’s absolutely no fun in having your mother have the same [inaudible 00:52:08] you have in BTS. So I’ve just wrecked that for her. Sorry, Ella. But I also believe in [inaudible 00:52:16]. I believe in, I can’t watch movies with rape and destruction, and I want to watch this Fred Hampton movie so bad, because Fred Hampton’s so important to me. Judas in the Black Messiah, and I just cannot watch any more murder and destruction of our people right now. Maybe I’ll be able to watch that movie in a couple of years, but right now with the burdens I have, BTS. Give me Jin singing, I’m the one I should love all day long.
Paige: Thank you for sharing all those people that you read and other people who inspire you. So Rhiki, what reflections and thoughts are you having after having the conversation with Jamie Grant today?
Jaime Grant: I think one of the big things that I took away from this conversation is just the importance of collecting data like this, because when Jamie was talking about how people who were presenting in a tomboyish manner in K through 12, how they were being sexually harassed by their teachers and how that occurrence would have not been brought to light unless a survey like this was happening. So I’m just thinking about all the things that are invisible to us right now that this community needs, but we can’t do anything about it because we can’t prove that this is occurring, if that makes sense.
Paige: Right. Yeah. I feel like for me, I was thinking a lot about when she was talking about trans men who don’t have a place to talk about all of their gender experiences. And I’m also thinking a lot about the violence against just all people through gender. I think gender can be a really violent thing when it’s imposed on you by other people, and their expectations of you. But I think, also talking about sex and the beauty of all the ways that you could identify on the survey that she worked on also just shows how expansive gender can be too.
Rhiki: And that’s it for our episode today. The Radical Futures Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for social justice leadership at Kalamazoo college. Special thanks to [Trevor Laudium Jackson 00:54:35] for our music and [Ellie Anahi Quinonez 00:54:37] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram @arcuscenter. See you next week.
CW: mentions of suicidality. Abeni Jones discusses with us her articles for Autostraddle and workshops regarding community care and avoiding performative allyship. Abeni Jones is currently Managing Editor at PushBlack, a non-profit media organization for Black Americans, using the power of narrative to educate and activate readers. She is also a writer for Autostraddle.
Nikki: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement, and how to build radical futures now.
Rhiki: I’m so excited to have the opportunity to talk with you, Abeni. But before we get started, can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?
Abeni: Yeah, hi. I’m really excited to be here. I’m Abeni Jones. I’m a writer and editor and educator, and a trans woman of color based in the Bay Area of Northern California. I think that’s it.
Nikki: Abeni, I was actually the one that contracted you to do your workshop at Arcus.
Abeni: I loved doing my workshop there. Thank you so much for having me.
Nikki: I am still giddy at the fact that you said yes. It was a programming highlight for everyone. In your workshop, I remember you talking about self-care versus community care. Your workshop was about community care specifically. Can you talk more about the difference between the two and why community care is so important?
Abeni: Yes. The first thing I want to say up top is that self-care is good, or it’s neutral. It’s not bad. I’m about to get into a critique of it, so I want to say from the jump that it’s not a terrible thing that we need to get rid of or anything like that. I just think we need to expand our understandings of care. Maybe expand a number of tools we have in our toolbox if that makes sense. Something like that. I wanted to say that from the jump. I was thinking this week about this analogy, because I was driving in traffic and it actually made me think of something that I think might help get to the root of why I think we need to be thinking about community care as an alternative and extension of the concept of self-care.
Abeni: Let’s see if this analogy works. I was driving the other day through San Francisco, which I generally hate doing because there was so much traffic. It was really bad. I ended up lining up to get back on the freeway to head towards Oakland. I was about a mile from the on-ramp, and it took almost an hour to go one mile because of the bumper to bumper traffic. Now, once you cross Market Street, there’s a straight shot to the freeway on-ramp. It’s four lanes all going in the same direction. The far left lane is a left turn only lane. The far right lane is a right turn only lane. The two middle lanes go forward and they’re totally jammed.
Abeni: I get in line and I notice, as I’m sure you can predict, that some very smart, or very selfish depending on your perspective, people are using those turn only lanes on either side not to turn, but to speed up ahead to get all the way to the front of the line. And then cut in at the very end so that they don’t have to wait in the traffic like the rest of us dweebs there, sitting there while they are like, “Oh, well you didn’t think to do the smart thing and just cut ahead.” That happens in almost every type of situation like this. I was thinking about that partially because I watched a YouTube video about traffic, so I’m an expert. I’m just kidding. I sometimes wondered, why is there sometimes traffic on the freeway when there’s no car accident or anything? If everyone is just going forward, we should all just keep moving, right? How would it ever get to where you’re bumper to bumper unless there’s some big incident or something like that? But it happens.
Abeni: I watched this video, and it explained that essentially traffic is formed by unnecessary merging and changing of lanes. Every time you merge or change lanes without a much larger than you’d think amount of space between you and the cars in that lane, you’re going to cause another car to slow down in order to make space for you. Which causes a ripple effect, which creates traffic. Because one car slows down, the car behind them slows down. It actually ends up creating “traffic,” right? The lesson there is, stay in your lane. No, but the actual lesson is that the thing that you do to try and avoid traffic, changing lanes to go to a faster lane or whatever, that’s actually what causes traffic.
Abeni: Back to my situation. The people who were cutting the line by skirting around the sides, up the wrong lane to avoid the backup, are actually the ones who are making the backup as bad as it is. I was thinking about how what they’re doing is an individual solution to a collective problem. What it ends up doing is, that individual solution ends up making the collective problem even worse. I sometimes think about self-care in that way. There’s also an easy analog to COVID-19 too, right? We don’t have to get into that, but I don’t think that or this traffic situation or any of it is surprising, because America is built on this foundation of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. It’s a core part of the American dream even, the self-made man. I do say man because it’s almost always a man. There was this little kerfuffle a while back when one of the Kardashians or Jenners was called this self-made billionaire. I think it was Kylie or Kendall. One of them, right?
Nikki: Kylie, yeah.
Abeni: Okay. People were like, “She’s not self-made.” Which, sure, but they didn’t actually critique the idea of the self-made rich person. They just said, “She doesn’t qualify.” Which doesn’t really make sense because nobody is actually self-made. Why is even being self-made even enviable? Why is that even a thing? I think about often how I’d rather see 10 people come together as a community and build something that makes each of them $100,000, which they can then take care of their families and support their communities with, than one person makes $1 million on their own. Isn’t that other one such a better story than the self-made millionaire?
Abeni: At least in my opinion it is, yeah. That’s the dream of America. You can come here, you can work hard, you can whatever. On your own effort, all on your own with no support or help from anyone else, you can lift yourself up by your own bootstraps and you can become a self-made millionaire. We have this individualist, capitalist, hetero, patriarchal culture. We’re suffering, in my opinion, from the logical outcome of that culture, which is isolation. We’re struggling. We’re struggling with our mental health. We’re stressed, we’re sick. Much of it is because we’re pushed to our own little boxes of apartments and cubicles. We can’t connect with each other emotionally, and we can’t ask for help because we don’t want to be a burden on others, so we just suffer. Especially now during the pandemic.
Abeni: Then here comes this solution, self-care. But self-care is an isolated, individual solution to the problem of isolation, which is a collective problem. It’s like jumping ahead in a line of traffic. It might work for you maybe temporarily, but it doesn’t help with the collective problem. In the case of self-care, it doesn’t even often help you individually that much if you even have access to the things that self-care articles suggest or you can afford them. Similar to the traffic situation, it might just be making everything worse. I believe a better solution is what I call community care, which these days is more frequently known as mutual aid.
Nikki: Cool. You were talking about that traffic analogy and it made me think that my… I’m just curious about how this would fit into your analogy. Take it or leave it. We don’t have to talk about it. But I actually learned forever ago that another way that we cause traffic is when we’re driving, and you speed up too fast and then you slow down. Then this kind of jerky driving mechanism is what causes further and longer backups. When in reality, if we all just slowed down and didn’t stop, and just kind of crawled instead of zooming up to that next car and then breaking and then waiting, that we could get traffic rolling slower, but it would stop the jam. I’m curious if that makes sense, this idea of speeding up too fast instead of going at the right pace fits somewhere into your analogy.
Abeni: Yeah. I think it probably does. The whole reason why we speed up and slow down, and swerve through lanes, and get angry… I know I’m the angriest that I ever am in my entire life when I’m driving. It’s the worst part of myself. I hate it. That’s why I try not to drive as little as… yeah. I’m like, “What is this?” But it’s because I think the whole aspect of driving is so individual too. We’re in our own little box. We’ve got all our adversaries out there. They’re the ones that are keeping us from getting where we want to go. We speed up because maybe we’re trying to tailgate the car ahead of us so they’ll get the heck out of the way or whatever.
Abeni: The point is, that doesn’t make it better for us or for anyone. I remember reading a statistic once that was like, for every 10 miles an hour faster that you drive over some certain long amount of… maybe 20 or 30 miles. You’ll get to your destinations like 30 seconds sooner or something. I totally mangled the statistics there, I’m sure. But think about the impact of the danger of driving 10 miles an hour faster on you and on everyone else on the road. You’re going 60, 70, 80, you might get to your destination five minutes faster. But if something goes down, that goes from dangerous accident to fatal accident that fast. I think the analogy holds. It’s like we have these individual solutions where we’re trying to help ourselves out, and it totally makes sense.
Abeni: Look at the culture we’re in. Look at the stress and pressure we’re under. I don’t fault any individual who is making these kinds of decisions. The people who cut in line, I’m not going to do it, but I understand why people do it. I wish they didn’t, but I get it. It really doesn’t help, just like changing lanes and speeding up and slowing down. It might help you, but it makes the problem worse for everyone, including yourself. That’s the thing about self-care, is it can be great. If you have access to meditation, do it. If you can afford a massage, get it. If you live in a place where it’s safe to go for walks or whatever, or stuff like that, if you have a bathtub and you can take a bubble bath, I’m here for it.
Abeni: It’s not like those things are bad for you. But the problem is when that’s considered the solution. It’s when we say, “You have everything you need in your own person individually without needing support or help from anyone in order to feel better, or to thrive, or to be mentally healthy, or to survive the crushing experience of life under capitalism.” I think that is a false solution. I think that’s being oversold. I think that we need to talk about other ways of… I think about it like Audre Lorde talked about how the master’s tools won’t dismantle the master’s house. It was just her birthday yesterday I think. They both just had birthdays I believe, yeah. I don’t know if I am 100% on board with that idea that Audre Lorde talks… I’ve got some critiques of that concept. But in this sense, if your problem is isolation, then an individualized solution might not be the best solution. We need to think, well, what’s a bigger solution? In my experience, and literally actually in my own life, the life saving solution was community care.
Rhiki: Abeni, I remember when you came to Arcus. It was pre-COVID, so prior to COVID. In what ways had your framework or your analysis of community care shifted from being in the pandemic? Have you made any tweaks to it, or do you think it still works in the pandemic in the same way?
Abeni: That’s such a great question because I haven’t, I think for maybe obvious reasons, I haven’t done the workshop in a year or so. Although there’s ways that it can maybe happen over Zoom or things like that. I think what’s really interesting is the original genesis of the concept of community care was an article I wrote many years ago. It was called Community Care. How to Take Care of Each Other: Community Care in Times of Crisis. I was having an individual or a personal mental health crisis at the time. That was kind of the framework that I came from. It came from a disability justice framework, which I’d love to get into.
Abeni: That was early in the Trump presidency too. I was also kind of thinking, or I actually might have been in 2016 actually, when I first was putting together some of these. I thought we were in crisis then. Then this year happened and it’s like, wow, now this is crisis. I think it’s just even more relevant. The issue is that it’s just much more difficult because so much of my framework was built around building community IRL or in person. And connecting with people in your neighborhood, in your town, things like that. A lot of it has got to shift, but I think that it’s possible to conceptualize or to take the urgency of the current moment and have that really I guess animate or… I don’t know what the word is. Really making it even more necessary and build even more creative, interesting solutions.
Abeni: To fully answer your question, I would love to go back and talk a little bit about what the concept of community care was, and then how it might shift in the present moment and in the future. Because originally, I had a mental health crisis. I was suicidal and I was incredibly depressed, incredible anxiety. It was early in my transition. I didn’t know what was going on. I had just left… a friend of mine passed away from suicide and I quit my career was a teacher. I had no idea what was going on. I was really in crisis, and a friend of mine saved my life by asking me how she could help me out. She drove me to the ER. I went to the psych ward. I got some help.
Abeni: I eventually realized that for people in situations like that, it’s literally impossible to take care of yourself. And that I needed to think bigger beyond self-care. Because a lot of the weeks leading up to that incredibly difficult moment, I had read a lot of articles about how to get my mind right, or self-care for activists. Self-care if you’re in a funk. Self-care for queer people. I was reading these things, and it was saying stuff that you’re like, “I take a bubble bath. I don’t feel better. I eat healthier food. I don’t feel better.” Because those weren’t the actual issue. The issue is that my own mind was telling me that I was worthless and should die. I couldn’t rely on my own self to take care of myself, because my own self was the one telling me that I should not live anymore.
Abeni: In that moment, I had to figure out, how the heck am I going to reach out and get help from someone else? Because I can’t do it myself. But then we get to the whole American culture thing of, it’s a bad idea to ask for help. You should be totally reliant on your own effort. You don’t want to be a burden on other people. Which I found too is even more difficult for a lot of queer and trans people, and people of color, and immigrants, and folks whose communities are suffering and struggling. It’s like, I really don’t want to ask. They’re already dealing with so much. How can I ask and put another thing on my friend’s plate? They’re trying to do X, Y, and Z. They’re just trying to survive too.
Abeni: I really needed to figure out how to overcome that barrier. I eventually was able to. I was able to figure it out. Like I said, my best friend broke that barrier for me by offering help. Then that helped me to realize that she wanted to help, and that if I were to ask, it would be something that she already wanted to do. We figured out some solutions, then that had got me thinking. I eventually built this framework. It’s centered in this concept of disability justice. At the time, I considered myself disabled by my mental illness, but there’s a lot of folks who are disabled by all different kinds of things. Whether it’s physical, mental, or whatever, that literally rely on other people to survive. That also helped me to think that self-care is not the answer for folks whose existence is predicated on the support of another human being. Whatever kind of care that you need.
Abeni: It helped me to realize that to some degree, it’s likely that all of us need some kind of care in order to survive. Interestingly, it’s becoming more and more clear during the pandemic as people talk about things like touch hugger. People talk about a lot of the arguments to get kids back into school. It’s like they’re missing out on their socialization, or people talking about how that’s the reason why… There’s all these articles about how the messaging around masks or around social distancing was problematic, because it was either too strict and then some people weren’t willing to not see any other human being for months, so they would just not do it. Or it was too lax for this or that reason. A lot of it is around human people, what we’re realizing about human nature. I don’t want to say we’re realizing. We’ve known it for thousands of years that human beings need each other, that we’re interdependent, not independent.
Abeni: A lot of that is coming out now, which is awesome. But that was kind of the genesis of it, was some of us absolutely… A lot of us can move through life without relying on other people or without being independent, but most of us can’t do it happily. Most of us can’t do that without being miserable in some way or another. But some of us literally will not even survive if we don’t have care of other people. Interestingly enough, while I’m on the topic, I just read some article. I wish that I had prepared it, but I just read this article. It was an archeologist. They were showing how in some of the very early… not homo sapiens, but one of our earlier versions of humanity. There was evidence of people or humans, protohumans with disabilities, who were in their 40s, 50s, 60s. Which to this archeologist that was writing this article indicated that there were people with disabilities in the ancient past who were taken care of by their community. Indicating that that kind of activity is human nature.
Abeni: A lot of people want to talk about Darwinism, or survival of the fittest, or whatever. We’re too soft. I don’t know, whatever. But the truth is probably closer to, we’ve always been an interdependent species. Anyways, all of that stuff is kind of the origin. Then the workshop and the articles I wrote about it were about, well, how do you actually do that? I talked about building community online. Social media can be a blessing or a curse. I got a lot of great, amazing support in Facebook groups. I also left social media because it was toxic. It could go either way. I talked about a lot of cool ways that people have used technology to get care.
Abeni: A friend of mine, her mom died. She was so close with her mom, like best friends. Every year, on the anniversary of her mom’s death, she knows that she’s going to be a mess. Just total… she says like sliding down the wall is the words that she uses. She created a spreadsheet with every hour of that 24 hour period of her mother’s death day, and put in what she needs. Either sleep, or to be driven somewhere, or to be reminded to eat, or just words of affirmation, or a massage, or this, that, or the other. Then in every single column of that spreadsheet, she shared it as a Google Sheet. Shared it with all of her community. Then everyone can sign up for an hour or two or three, and be just on call to provide that thing for her during that period. So that she would know in advance that all of her needs would be met that day. I just thought that was so beautiful, and they did. They were totally met.
Abeni: That was one of the other things that I learned in doing the work on this workshop and thinking about community care is, we have this belief that asking for help puts a burden on other people. But one of the things that I ask people to do in my workshop is to think back to the last time that they were able to help someone that they love out. The last time that someone you loved, you were able to give them a hand up, or provide them with something, or talk them through a struggle, or be there for them, or give them support. And to think about how that felt. Universally, when we think about it that way, we realize it felt great.
Abeni: It’s such a pleasant experience to be able to provide support to someone that you love. For some reason, we don’t realize that when we’re asking someone for help, we’re giving them an opportunity to experience that pleasure of helping us. That I think was a radical transformation in thinking for me. I share that in the workshop, and I share some other tools. It’s a lot of tools. One of the big kind of theses of the workshop is that in a moment of crisis, this is again because it came… the genesis was a mental health crisis. I was thinking about a panic attack. When you’re having a panic attack, you’re not going to be rational. You’re not going to be like, “Oh, I’m going to text this person and call this person. I’m going to get the support that I need in this way.” No, you are literally in fight or flight. You believe that you’re in danger. You’re not thinking rationally.
Abeni: The idea is to set up structures for community support in advance so that when you are in a moment of crisis, it’s so easy and seamless to get the help and the care that you need. I talked a lot about these support card ideas that I came up with. I talked about some of these apps. Again, using Google Docs and other technology which again, to your actual question, I think what a lot of I’ve seen so much of in mutual aid networks over the last year is using things like Google Docs, Google Sheets, to organize mutual aid. I think technology can be leveraged in really powerful ways to build community. But like anything, I think it’s neutral, like self-care I think. It’s neutral. You can use it and it can be very beneficial for you, or you can rely too hard on it and then it can be detrimental to you. Technology I think is neutral.
Abeni: Anyway, that’s kind of the concept of community care, is that we have to figure out how to take care of each other. It’s that the only way we’re all going to survive and thrive is through mutual aid, is through built in community. The thing about it, the reason why I was like, “This could be a workshop,” is because we’re not taught how to do it. In fact, we’re encouraged not to do it. Like I was saying, America encourages us to be independent, and to not build community, and to not take care of each other. We have to be counter cultural in that way, and we have to figure it out on our own. We have to figure out how to break down the stigma around asking for help. We have to figure out how to give support to others. We have to figure out what we even have to offer, what we need. We have to figure out who is around, who can give what. We have to really do a bunch of work.
Abeni: It has to be really intentional because there’s not a ton of structures for this. It’s been really cool over the last year, seeing how so many mutual aid systems and networks and pods and organizations have sprung up, and are doing this incredible work, that it makes me think about how people talk a lot about how once the pandemic is over, we can go back to normal. That’s a false premise in some ways. There’s never a go back to normal. But also, there’s a lot of things that have sprung up during this time out of necessity that in some ways, I wish we had been doing all along. And also, in some ways we did used to do pre-colonization, a lot of our peoples. A lot of interdependent stuff. Anyways, that’s kind of the big idea of community care. I think that all of that is a better way forward and a better solution than self-care.
Abeni: The final thing I’ll say about that, because I’ve been talking a lot, is that I love Adrienne Maree Brown’s concept of fractals. I actually learned that there’s a very, very similar concept kind of in ancient African philosophy. It’s called something along the lines of “As above, so below.” It’s the same thing. It’s that what you do on a really small scale ripples out and can eventually be repeated on a large scale. That’s also why I think community care is powerful.
Abeni: Self-care doesn’t challenge that culture of individualism in America, but community care, we can do it on a small scale with our loved ones in our little communities. We can take care of each other. It eventually will build out into larger networks and larger networks that eventually will challenge the systems of capitalism, independence, and things like that, that thrive on isolation. Not only does it work to take care of us and to help us survive crisis, but it also is a project of dismantling a system of oppression. Whereas self-care, it helps you individually maybe, but it doesn’t do anything to actually solve the larger scale problem. That’s another reason why I think community care can be so powerful.
Rhiki: Yeah. I remember being in that workshop too, and my mind was just being blown the whole time. Especially when you talked specifically about the de-stigma…
Rhiki: Yes, so being able to ask for help. I think prior to your workshop, the way that I went about that was, I wouldn’t ask for help. Then when it got really bad, I would finally ask for help, but I would put everything that I was dealing with only on one other person. I would identify that best friend, or that parent, or that significant other at the time. Everything that I had, they were then expected to deal with. Not only was I going through something, but by putting all my shit on just one person, they eventually needed care too. I really like the fact that your model is about identifying multiple people within your community. And having a conversation about what you need, but also what people can offer you so that you know who to go to for what things, and you’re able to spread that out. People can contribute what they’re able to, and they don’t feel like you are a burden, and you are still getting what you need. I love that you talked about that framework and you broke it down on this podcast.
Abeni: I think that’s one of the major problems in aspect of this, of our culture, is this concept of either the nuclear family or the romantic couple, or significant other, is because that does happen. Those are often the only two groups of people that we do feel comfortable asking for help, or maybe if we have a professional like a therapist. It’s a great idea. Everyone should have a therapist if you have access to it. It’s such a good, important thing to have a therapist, but we often turn significant others into our therapists, or our children frequently usually if we’re a parent, or sometimes our parents. I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing, but like you said, if they’re the only person that you ask for help from, especially if you’ve been neglecting getting the care you need for a long time to where it becomes this massive thing that’s now a crisis, yeah. That’s probably not the best way to handle stuff.
Abeni: In fact, I think, I don’t know if I shared this at the workshop I did at Arcus, but I read this article about how men especially are some of the ones who suffer the most in this way because of our culture of emotional close off-edness as part of masculinity. There’s this study that showed, I want to say that men who have either been divorced who have had their wife die, either have extremely high rates of depression, suicide, and early death. The reason is, you realize that their wife was often their only friend. They might have some dudes out in the world, but you realize that when shit goes down, those are just acquaintances because they’ve never actually built deep, emotional bonds of intimate friendship and connection with those people.
Abeni: They definitely don’t have any women in their lives that are close friends because heterosexuality is bizarre. That would be a problem to have a friend. It just means that their wife was often the only one sending Christmas cards to all of their family, was managing all of the get togethers around holidays, doing everything. Was the only real connection to all of their extended community. That once she’s gone, they just kind of suffer and die. It’s really tragic, but that’s often another aspect of it. That’s part of why we need to build community. It won’t feel as burdensome if everyone in the community is giving and receiving care from others as a part of the culture of the community. When you have to lay all of your burdens on one person and just put so much on one or two people, honestly, maybe it could be burdensome. It’s not like being a burden is the worse thing in the world. We all need to be carried sometimes. But it can often be, like you said, so much more effective to spread it out.
Nikki: I’m thinking a lot about… I had a conversation with a friend recently about all the shit that just continues to feel like it’s piling on to this continuing crisis we have globally. She said something that really stuck out to me. She said, “Everybody needs more than what someone can give right now.” It makes me think about the solution to that problem, which is very honest. I think a really clear description of what’s happening in singular relationships like Ricky talked about, where it’s like, “You’re my person, so you’re the person I go to.” But we just don’t have it. I think community care, and mutual aid, and spreading this wide net like you’ve talked about, lessens so much so that I think we could solve… Everything that I need shouldn’t have to come from one person anyways. That community care is this kind of solution to this problem where even when we are attempting to seek out, it’s still in this very individualized, siloed, vacuumed way. I’m curious to hear you talk about how you build those relationships.
Nikki: I remember you talking in your workshop that you said it’s important to be open minded and expansive about who you go to when you ask for help. I’m curious, can you talk about how you choose who to go to, when, why? And what does it look like to build networks of community care models? And to build these mutual aid groups that we’ve been talking about?
Abeni: Yeah, such a great point. I think that it is really important when we think about romantic relationships especially. There’s this author, David Richo. He has this book called How to Be an Adult in Relationships that I think is a required reading for every adult who wants to have a partner of any gender, sexuality, or anything. He talks about, we probably shouldn’t expect more than 50% of our needs to be met by our romantic partner. I think the vast majority of people, queer and straight, it’s way closer to 95%.
Abeni: The thing is, if you don’t get your needs met from that person… I don’t just mean… for some people, like relationship anarchists or nonmonogamous people, they even take it to the level of sex. You shouldn’t expect your partner to be able to fulfill all of your sexual needs.
Abeni: I’m totally here for that. I’m monogamous, so that doesn’t apply to me personally, but it makes sense. But the needs of intimacy, closeness, connection, friendship. It’s so important to build deep, intimate, loving friendships, which I don’t think is a thing that is common in our culture. We’re always just on the lookout for our next partner. Then everyone has had the experience of a friend who meets their new boo and then they disappear. It’s like, “Oh, right. That’s more important I guess,” or whatever. We don’t really want to be doing that.
Abeni: You asked, how do you do it? That’s the hard question. It’s a lot easier to talk about why it’s important than to actually talk about how. The only thing I can really say is you have to be intentional. You have to do it on purpose. It will not just happen, in my experience. Well, 98% of the time, it won’t just happen. Some people just happen to meet their best friend in third grade or something, then the become deep, loving, intimate friends for the rest of their lives or whatever. I guess that’s a possibility. But for most of us, you have to work at it. For me, as a very extra person, I am the type to just come out and say it. “Hey, do you want to be deep in our friendship? Can we take care of each other?” If you’re like me then, if you’re extra, then the support card, which is available on my article about community care at Autostraddle.com, and is available if you email me. But I would be like, “Hey, here’s a support card. Are you down to do this?”
Abeni: You don’t want to do that with a stranger, but you do have to be intentional. The way that I frame it in my workshop is the kind of step by step is that you offer care first. Kind of like my friend who saved my life. She was like, “What can I do? How do I take care of you in this moment?” I was just vulnerable enough to be like, “Drive me to the ER.” Actually, I was like, “Can you go buy my cat some cat food first then drive me to the ER?” Because that was what had me stressing in the moment, distraught, was my cat was hungry. I couldn’t feed him. That was what I needed. I needed her to drive to the corner store, get some Kibbles, and then drive me to the ER. Her offering that let me know that receiving care was possible. We can be that person in our friends’ lives.
Abeni: My framework is totally built around deep, intimate, personal friendships, and not building networks of mutual aid. I do not have experience doing that. There are so many incredible, amazing organizers that do. I’m sure they have great information and skills on how to build networks. My idea is, how do I make it so that me and my four best friends are all intimately caring for each other and loving each other, so that we’ve got our own little circle of care right here? Then because we’re not only friends with each other, but that also builds out to their networks and circles. Then maybe that builds out in those networks and circles there. It’s kind of really individualized. Not individualized, but small scale, like fractals. You have to offer care first in my opinion.
Abeni: You could say, “Hey, I can tell that you’re struggling with this, that, or the other. Can we chat? What’s up? How can I support you? Can I provide X? Can I do Y?” I get into it in the workshop a bit some of the best strategies for doing that. But the big idea is, if you show that you’re willing and interested and able to joyfully support someone and be there for them, that gives them the permission to ask you. That’s kind of the basis of the support card is to be like, “Hey, here’s what I have to offer.” Then the workshop too. Write down everything that you have to offer. Do you have bilingualism? Do you look cis, straight, and/or white so that you can accompany someone somewhere and help them get more respect? Do you have writing skills or editing skills? Do you have money? What do you have? Because those are things you can offer. Then that helps people realize, “Oh, if you’re offering it, then I don’t feel bad asking for it, because you’ve offered it. It’s not going to be a burden to give something you’ve already offered.”
Abeni: Once you’ve taken that step, then you can be explicit about, “I want you to know that I’m always available.” Or, “I’m available at this capacity.” Not always available. You have to know your capacity. “I’m available at this capacity to support you in this way, or this way, or this way if you ever need it. Just please let me know. I promise you I will joyfully… that I get pleasure out of supporting you because I love you.” I hear myself saying those words. I know that’s the kind of stuff I would say, but I know that sounds bizarre to a lot of people. Who talks to their friends like that? I do, and my life is immeasurably better because of it. You have to do that. Then once you’ve started building that kind of thing, you also ask for help from people and you ask for support, because then you can take care of and support each other.
Abeni: Then you can start building out with other friends, and then you can be on social media, or maybe you can be in a Facebook group and building it a little bigger, but I like to keep it small. I have four best friends, and one of them is my partner. The other three, none of us live in the same area. My one friend lives in Brazil right now. The other one actually does live in Oakland, but was going to move to New York. The other one lives in Albuquerque. We all love and take care of each other, but in the age of… this was before COVID-19, but especially in the age of COVID-19, we’ve had to get creative on how to stay connected and still take care of each other. We actually have a bi-weekly Zoom call that we just chop it up. We have it on our calendars, and we make sure that it happens every time or as frequently as we can. I have calls with one of them in the mornings when I walk the lake in the morning. We do stuff like that to try and keep it together.
Abeni: Also, one of my friends, their mom just had a stroke and was in the ICU. What was so cool was they were able to be like, “Hey.” They texted us three, our group chat. “I need support. It looks like this. Who can offer it?” One friend was like, “I can call you right now.” I was able to be like, “I can talk tomorrow.” The other person was like… We were able to be there. But they were only comfortable doing that because last time they asked for help when they were depressed, they needed someone to help come clean their apartment, because it had gotten messy because they were just depressed. I was like, “Yes, of course I’ll do that. I’ll be there for you. I’ll come tomorrow.” We spent three hours. It was right around the time the Beyonce video documentary, or Beychella came out. We put that on and we cleaned the apartment.
Abeni: We had built that relationship. It had even gone back before because in my earlier crisis, when my friend passed away and I was inconsolable, they were there. They were there for me. It kind of is built over time that we know that we can rely on each other. Nowadays, we don’t even have to worry about it. I know that if I need something, I can call one of them. If they need something, they know they can rely on me. But it’s taken time to build that out, and it’s been incredibly intentional. We’ve had to do it on purpose. One final thing I want to say about that too is I mentioned in the workshop too that knowing people well and building intimate relationships also… it makes the asking for and receiving care so much more seamless too. Because I know who individual people are and who to go to for what. I know what they have to offer. I know what capacity they have, and I know what their current availability is like.
Abeni: I talked about different kinds of intentional conversations, for example, in the workshop. There’s processing, there’s advice, and there’s venting. I know that if I want to process, I can go to… I feel like my friend who I’ll call T. Very critical mind, very thoughtful. Asks lots of questions. Helps me to kind of figure out how I feel about a certain situation and work my way emotionally through it. If I just want to vent, I know that my good friend B is the one, because she is just so positive. She’s just like, “Oh, I got your back. Do you want me to fight somebody? Oh, that’s messed up. Screw that person.” Is just in my corner. If I want advice, I actually feel like my friend A is the one who has the most similar worldview and goals for life, and I feel like can give me really good advice that helps me to stay really true to my values and my integrity. Because she has incredibly strong and admirable values and integrity, and lives her life exactly according to her own principles.
Abeni: When I’m like, “I’m not sure what to do about this,” she’s really good at being like, “Well, what does your heart tell you? What’s important to you? Let’s dig out what it would mean for you to do this, that, and the other based on how it feels about whether you’re aligned with your value.” I know who to go to based on what. That also takes time to build. You have to be intentional about learning those kinds of things about each other. You have to kind of love people to really know that deeply what they’re about and what they have to offer.
Abeni: But they also have to know themselves well to know what they can and can’t do. It all just takes a lot of work. It’s a lot of work. Oh, it’s like a lifetime of work, but it’s so important. I’m only alive because of it. That’s a long, very, very long answer to your question, but hopefully I answered it.
Nikki: You totally did. I got to say, you saying you have to do it on purpose, that shit hit me in a way that I’m going to thinking about that for… yeah, you have to do this on purpose. The entire framework of our podcast. We don’t just stumble into radical futures. You have to do it on purpose. You have to be intentional. You have to do the work. You have to get a little uncomfortable. I’m just thinking, I met my wife the way that you were kind of just talking about. Walking up to someone or someone you know. Strangers would be weird. But just being like, “Hey, let’s be intentional in our friendship.” That’s how I met my wife. I asked someone if they wanted to be friends with me like I was in third grade.
Nikki: The next thing they did was introduce me to the woman that I married. Now I live this beautiful life full of love and care because I did it on purpose. I really love that you said that. I think that’s something that’s going to sit with me for years to come, is that we have to do this stuff on purpose. We have to put intention into it. We have to be a little awkward. We’re going to make mistakes, but we have to do it.
Abeni: And sometimes a lot awkward.
Abeni: Often not even a little. Sometimes a lot awkward, a lot uncomfortable. Asking for help is always awkward and uncomfortable, but asking someone to be your friend, especially if you’re an adult…
Nikki: It’s stay up all night thinking about it awkward.
Abeni: Yeah. That’s the thing. It’s funny because there was that movie I Love You, Man a number of years ago with Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. That was the whole concept. This man, like I was saying, he didn’t have any friends. He was always “a girlfriend guy” is what they said in the movie.
Abeni: I kind of really love movies like that, so I’ve seen that movie a lot of times. But yeah, the whole concept was, how do you make friends as an adult? So many years later, there’s even apps for it. Bumble has a friendship app, and OkCupid has a friendship category. It’s so hard. There’s still no structure or culture for how to just be like, “Hey, do you want to be friends?” Like you said, we have to figure it out. We have to be intentional about it. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be real tough, but it’s worth it is what I’m trying to say.
Rhiki: Yeah. We just have one last question for you because we want to be mindful of time. Since we’re on this theme of building community, when I was researching you, I mean, I came across your piece on how to avoid performative allyship. Can you just talk a little bit about what you mean by performative allyship, and ways that we can make sure we’re being intentional about, in movement work, how to really show up in solidarity with others across movements?
Abeni: Yeah, hold on one second. Okay, yes. One thing that I really want to say, and I think I got into in that piece, is that kind of self-care. And honestly, kind of almost everything probably. Allyship is neutral. It’s not amazing. You shouldn’t get praise and benefit for it. It’s just being a human, but it’s also not probably harmful even when it’s performative. I think I got into it in the article. If a bunch of people made their Instagram a BLM thing around the George Floyd protest, a bunch of influencers and a bunch of websites put a little banner ad saying “We support black people” or whatever, then it probably has a net benefit to society.
Abeni: There’s obviously problems with it. It’s interesting, we’re seeing that there is some movement happening. It just came out that Austin, Texas are defunding their police. They’re putting that money into affordable housing and stuff. That’s a direct result of the recent movement against police violence and the Defund the Police movement. Things are kind of moving and happening. I think what’s interesting about performative allyship is when people who don’t actually care feel the need to pretend that they do. That is evidence that caring about that issue has become so widespread and mainstream that they want to ride the wave. Honestly, I think it’s a good sign. Honestly, I think performative allyship is a good sign at large because it means the culture is shifting enough that it’s profitable for those people to seem like they support black people or Black Lives Matter or whatever. Obviously they’re going to only do what’s profitable. Either they’re a business or they’re an influencer, and their personal brand… their whole thing is making money off their personal brand.
Abeni: I wanted to say that. I don’t have any problem. This is similar to the people speeding in their cars, or people doing individual solutions to collective problems. I’m not going to be critiquing an individual person, especially if they’re a queer or trans person of color, for how they survive the hellscape that we live in. If you have to do this or that in order to get ahead or get by, go for it, sis. I wish that you would do something different, but we’re all just trying to survive. Same with these influencers and people who… or whatever, that cared a lot about Black Lives Matter for a week and then went back to regularly scheduled business.
Abeni: I’m not upset at them individually, but I think it’s an interesting phenomenon culturally. The idea I think, if we want to connect it to community building, which I think is one way to think about it. If people want to read the article, it’s kind of longer and more intensive. It’s also on Autostraddle.com. I think the best way to avoid performative allyship is just to live your allyship. You don’t have to perform it. You don’t have to let anyone know. You could just love the black people in your lives if you care about anti-racism and all the people of color in your lives. You could love the trans women in your lives if you care about stuff. You can love all your friends if you care about building community. You can try to create alternative economies amongst your folks if you care about anti-capitalism.
Abeni: I think the social media age has made it so that it feels like… talking about issues feels like activism. Spreading awareness feels like activism, and maybe it is. In fact, it probably is. But a lot more powerful is what you’re actually doing day to day. I think something that really stresses me out is videos on TikTok or Instagram or YouTube of people doing kind things, like giving money to a houseless person or stuff like that. I’m like, “Why are you filming that?” It’s so strange.
Rhiki: My friends and I were just talking about that. When you do acts of service or kindness but you’ve got it on camera…
Abeni: Yeah, it’s almost like it doesn’t count. Actually, I had a Christian upbringing. One of the very few things, positive things that I will take away from that, is there’s this concept about the Pharisees or whatever who are very performative about their religiosity. Jesus was like, “No, that’s not what it’s about. You should pray in secret. You should do your good deeds so no one hears about it. God will know. No one else needs to know.” I think unless you’re a big power player, or unless you’re an influencer or you have a big social media following and you have power in that, I feel like it’s almost not useful ever to share articles or little images or whatever about activist topics. I really wonder if that’s useful because the people who follow you probably already know what you’re about and what your politics are.
Abeni: The real way to avoid performative allyship is to stop performing it and to just live it in your day to day, I think. It goes back to the concept of fractals again. It’s like if you believe in some big political goal, like say you believe in the abolition of policing and prisons. Well, what are you doing in your day to day life to live that out? Do you hold grudges? Do you think that someone who harmed you years ago, you should hold that in your opinion of them for the rest of their life? Do you believe in punishment? Do you believe in retribution? Do you believe in retribution on an individual level? I think there’s no easy answers to that, but I think that it’s interesting.
Abeni: If you see someone stealing from a store, do you call the security guard or the cops? I was just reading… because I moved into a new apartment that has recycling. They give you a paper that says “Here’s how to recycle” and everything. On there, it has an FAQ. It’s like, “What should I do if I find someone going through my recycling to get cans?” The answer is, “You should call the police nonemergency hotline.” I was like, “What? No you should not. Who does it harm to give this person 40 cents from my cans that are no longer of use to me?”
Rhiki: Oh my God.
Abeni: Right? Actually, what I’m going to do is I’m going to put all of my cans in a separate bag and put it out on the sidewalk, so that the old lady can come get it more easily. I think we really need to be thinking about integrity, and about integrity meaning sameness. Meaning like a building has structural integrity. Meaning that it’s secure and it’s strong, and it’s not going to get blown over by a storm or an earthquake or something, because it’s really so strong in its foundations. If you believe in black life, what kind of media are you consuming? What books are you reading? Are you reading black authors? Do you have no black friends? If so, it’s time to do a really deep, introspective dive into why that is. Is it because you live in a white town or go to a predominantly white institution? Well, why is that?
Abeni: It’s time to go deep and really think, what does it mean? Where are you spending your money? I remember when I got carjacked, the first question that like four different people asked me was whether the people were black. I was like, “What the hell kind of question is that?” But it really made me think about where their minds were at. Are you afraid when you walk around downtown or something and there’s black people? If so, it’s time to do some real deep work to think about why that is. Anyways, the point is that I think we like to think… a lot of people are activists, or keyboard warriors, or they’re big on social media or something. They’ve got their analysis and they’ve got their critical perspective of this, that, and the other issue. But it’s not always that they’ve fully integrated it into their day to day life.
Abeni: I think that we would do much better to think deeply about the way that we live interpersonally and the way that we live day to day, and integrate our politics into that, then thinking about… Do I care much of what Biden is doing? I mean, sure. It impacts me and my loved one’s lives to a degree. But do I really need to be reading the news about politics? Half of the news you read today is, some congress person tweeted. That’s not news. I don’t care if AOC dunked on Mitch McConnell. It has no impact. It’s not important. What is important is how I’m actually living and how I’m taking care of people in my community. How I save enough of my income that I can donate to mutual aid funds. The inconveniences I choose to undergo in order to try to manifest the world that I would like to see.
Abeni: I’m going to stay in that middle lane even though it would be faster and easier for me to cut aside, go into the right lane, and cut ahead and get onto the freeway sooner so that I don’t have to wait in traffic an hour. But I believe that I want to live in a way that’s in alignment with my values. But also, I want to live in a way that if everyone lived that way, things would be pretty nice. I think that that’s a lot more important than what you believe politically or things like that. If you’ve got a vision for the future that’s beautiful and just and loving, what are you doing right now to manifest that vision? That’s how I think you can avoid performative allyship.
Rhiki: That was such a great answer. I love the way you brought the analogy back around. That just made it so much better. It was so great talking with you today.
Abeni: I’ll be honest, I was proud of that as well.
Rhiki: I’m so glad that we actually got to [crosstalk 01:04:04] like that.
Abeni: Sorry, I interrupted you.
Rhiki: It went well. It was so great. Nikki, what is something that you took away from our conversation today?
Nikki: I think it’s really easy to just kind of believe that we can fall into these kinds of things, or that it’ll just happen. I don’t know, I think there is something to be said about really naming and recognizing that radical futures and the work of liberation has to be done on purpose. I really love what she said about, just because it’s done on purpose, doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel awkward or uncomfortable. Intentionality doesn’t have to feel perfect or good. It just needs to be intentional. That’s kind of just the bottom line. I really appreciate that. I think I’m going to hold onto that truth for more than just community care and mutual aid, but just for the whole concept of radical futures. We’ve got to do that stuff on purpose. How about you? What are you pulling from it?
Rhiki: I think the thing that I’m taking away is the article that Abeni brought up, that an archeologist found evidence that early… the earliest beings of humanity, early humans, whatever we want to call them, had infrastructures of community care. They took care of each other. They were disabled. They had beings with disabilities, and they took care of them. And how Abeni was saying that community care or interdependence is something that’s ingrained in us. It’s the way in which we’re designed to coexist together, and how individuality or independence, or whatever is the model that we have for a living now, is something that hasn’t been learned over time. But it’s not actually the way that we were created to exist with one another.
Nikki: Right, I feel the same way. That was shocking to hear because I think we’re just taught that Darwinism, survival of the fittest, last man on earth kind of stuff is our true nature. I love to hear that that’s not the truth. The truth is that we’ve always taken care of each other. That’s it for our episode today. The Radical Futures Now Podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.
Rhiki: Special thanks to Trevor [Lodiam-Jackson 01:06:38] for our music and Ellianne [Icunones 01:06:41] for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram @ArcusCenter. See you next week.
Speaker 4: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
Shea Howell discusses everything Detroit. Shea has organized, as one of the founders of the Grace Lee Boggs Center, developing intergenerational relations, within the Council of Elders, and so much more. She is currently working in the water struggle in Detroit and celebrating the most recent win to pause the water bill during the covid-19 pandemic.
Paige: Welcome to Radical Futures Now. On this podcast, we connect with Social Justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement and how to build radical futures now.
Rhiki: What’s up everybody? It’s Rhiki here. And today, we’re going to have a conversation with Shea Howell, and we’re going to talk specifically about Detroit organizing and the building of the Grace Lee Boggs center. I’m so excited for this.
Paige: So when I was preparing for our interview, I learned about the National Council Of Elders, which you’re on Shea and I read the Greensboro declaration and it was really beautiful and touching. And usually when I do research in movement history or I learn about elders, it’s sort of painted with this idea that our greatest leaders always die and they’re assassinated and persecuted by the Government. With Malcolm, Martin, Assata, to name a few.
Paige: It’s true that most of the people who are the leaders of the movement are persecuted so that the movement dies down but, I think there’s really so many elders still among us today. And I think they still deserve a lot of visibility and just because they didn’t have as many well-documented arrests or more press coverage. And yeah, so I was really quite moved when I saw the National Council Of Elders.
Paige: They reminded me of my own work with APIENC at the Dragon Fruit Network, where we try to meet Queer and Trans Asian Pacific Islanders and build intergenerational relationships. So I was wondering a little bit about where did your activism start? And can you talk a little bit about what that means to you, The National Council Of Elders?
SheaHowell: I can, I want to talk just for a minute about The National Council Of Elders, because I think it’s really important that people are able to think about being a part of the movement for your life, as opposed to something you do for a little while and then move on. When I first came to Detroit in 1972, I think. I came as part of Angela Davis’s organization, which was then called The National Alliance Against Racist And Political Oppression. And it was shortly after Angela had gotten out of prison and then found not guilty for murder. And when I came to that conference here in Detroit, two things happened.
Shea Howell: One is, I walked into a room and I must’ve been 23, 24 and I’d been active for about 10 years. And for the first time I was in a room where a lot of people had gray hair and I stopped dead at the door and looked and I vividly remember thinking, “Oh my God, people do this for a lifetime.” Because the movement had been so aged segregated in the white movement. Certainly not in the African American movement, but in the white movement, it was very age segregated. And so to see people who had done this forever, for their whole lives, changed my thinking about what was possible for my own life.
Shea Howell: So it’s not an accident that young activists don’t know that people are constantly engaged in these struggles. Second thing I thought about when I saw Angela Davis speak, was she was welcomed by John Conyers, Coleman Young, Irma Henderson, Charles Diggs, the first black Mayor or black Congressman and the first black woman City Council President.
Shea Howell: And they not only welcomed her to the city, but they gave her the keys to the city and said “We’ve got your back.” And that was at a time when particularly white America demonized her. So to see a city where you had emerging black power embrace someone because of their movement’s struggle, made me say, “That’s a city I want to be part of.” So I came to Detroit after a couple of decades of activism as a young person in the 60s. And I’ve been here ever since.
Paige: I think that’s really beautiful, the way that you understood that the city was going to back up Angela Davis and I think that speaks to why you’ve been there for so long.
Shea Howell: Yeah. Although I often say Angela Davis got me to come to Detroit, but Grace and James Boggs got me to stay. Because shortly after I got here, I ran into some people, particularly a woman named Pat Coleman-Burns, who were part of a study group that Jimmy and Grace were doing around their book, Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century. And so I joined that study group, got an understanding of revolution that changed how I thought about what it would take to change this country, particularly moved by their distinction between a rebellion, which was where I was, and a revolution.
Shea Howell: Because they talked about a rebellion as the righteous uprising of people to create a response to oppressive conditions. But a revolution was not only against something, it was for something. And I had never asked myself, “What am I really for? What do I want the country to look like?” I knew what I didn’t want it to look like, but the invitation for Grace and Jim was to think about revolution as what advances our humanity. Yeah. So that’s how they got me to stay.
Rhiki: What was the name of that book again?
SheaHowell: It’s called Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century. It was republished about 2012 or so, maybe 2014. And it’s got a new introduction by Grace Boggs. It’s one of the last things she wrote before she passed. And it looks at organizing in Detroit in the 21st century. It’s a really good book. And we organized something called the National Organization for an American Revolution, based on that book actually. That was our primary text.
Rhiki: I really appreciate you bringing up the fact that, that book helped you think about what you wanted the world to look like. I think a lot of young people that want to get involved in movement have that same type of thinking where they know what they want the world not to be, or they know what they don’t like about our world, but they have yet to form a vision of what they want the future to look like. And I think a lot of people are in the place where they’re trying to do that work, that visioning, envisioning work, that imagining work of, “If I am working for something, what does the end goal look like?”
SheaHowell: Yeah. And that’s really important these days. I was talking to some people at The Boggs center this morning and we were saying that probably the movement in general is in a healthier, stronger place than it has been in maybe 25, 30 years. And in part that’s because there’s been so much reflection on practice, particularly since the killing of Trayvon Martin and the evolution of the movement for black lives, but that has held within it, this thinking about what kind of future do we want. And some of that I think is because of the wonderful work of Afrofuturists, who are really inviting us to think about the future in the broadest most glorious kind of ways.
SheaHowell: And so I think that’s helpful, but I think the other thing that’s been really helpful is the platform of the movement for black lives, the development of the Green New Deal, the development of The Leap Manifesto. These are all efforts to give us a picture of what the future could look like. And they’re detailed enough that can see ourselves in them, but they’re expansive enough that we still have lots of room to create and imagine. So I think it’s a great time to think about the future and what we want.
Paige: Yeah. I wanted to return to what you were saying about you know, meeting Grace and meeting the Boggs, really. And you were mentioning that the primary texts for your organizing was one of their books. And I find that really something that sticks out to me that you were studying and that you were engaged in deep studying in reading and community. That to me is one of my passions, is trying to get the community to read together.
SheaHowell: Yeah. Grace always talked about how in times of intense activism, it’s important to stop and read and think, and it’s very easy for us to get caught up in the moment. I know I’m great at that myself, but coming out of the early 70s, there were a lot of questions about, what had we learned from 1955 to 1970? That’s a long time. And there’d been a tremendous growth, tremendous pain, terrific gains and losses. And so we had to have some way to think about that.
SheaHowell: And the other thing is creating new ideas isn’t easy. There’s so much effort to keep our minds narrow and small and one of the great strengths of Jimmy and Grace was that they were able to see beyond the moment and to ask us to really imagine what the world could look like if it was based in justice and peace and ways of living that protected the earth. So it was an invitation to study, not only to build community and learn about each other, but to study in order to think collectively about the kind of future we wanted. So it’s very important and I would really encourage people to do studying now because there’s so much fine work out there to read.
Rhiki: Well, Shea, we’re so glad that you joined us today. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself before we hop in to the rest of the conversation?
SheaHowell: Oh, a little bit about myself. Sure. Rhiki, I can do that. I’m 74, squinting at 75. And I like to think I have been an activist for about 68 of years. I was born in a little coal mining town up in Southwestern, Pennsylvania. And I was left-handed, which turned out I had not realized, to be a problem when I went to school. So my grandfather had lived with us and he had lost his use of his legs in a mine accident. And so he spent a lot of time with me because he couldn’t go anywhere else. So by the time I was six, I could read and write and I could write cursive. So I went off to school and they had these block print letters on the board and I quickly wrote them. And while I’m writing them, the teacher smashes my hand with a ruler and says to me that “Left-handedness is the work of the devil.”
SheaHowell: So that happened two or three times over the next couple of days. By the third day, I said, “I don’t need to go to school. I can already read and write. Clearly they have bad ideas.” So every morning I’d leave home. And instead of going up the Hill to the school, I go down the Hill to hang out with what we called the Hobos. And they taught me how to fish, they taught me how to make coffee over an open fire, they taught me how to make biscuits on a stick. And so early on, I learned that there was a great difference between schooling and education and that people in authority don’t know what the heck they’re doing often. And those were lessons that I have carried through my life I hope. So I got politically active from the time I was in elementary school and I had the good fortune of being in school, elementary school and high school during the civil rights movement.
SheaHowell: And that helped shape my understanding of the need to work for racial justice. And then of course the Vietnam war came along and clearly working for racial justice meant opposing that war. And then in the mid 1960s, late 1960s, I was in college and we invited Dr. King to come to our college to speak. And because of that, I got involved in the Poor People’s Campaign. And after that, I ended up in Chicago and after that, working with Angela Davis and then with the Boggs’. So I’ve spent a lifetime in trying to figure out what kind of country we can become to become our best self.
Paige: I love that story you shared about becoming politically conscious at the age of elementary school. Usually when you ask people, how did you become politically aware? Politically conscious? They mentioned usually College or an incident when they were very, very young. So I think children really do know really early on what that feels like without having the language that we have for it now.
SheaHowell: Yeah, I think so too. I think that’s why education in the real sense is so important. One of the things that we have created in Detroit is the Boggs school and it’s named after Jimmy and Grace, but it’s a school that’s dedicated to seeing that children actually look at the world and think about how to make it better. And so we’ve developed something called Place-based education that engages young kids from first grade to eighth grade in the question of, “How do we solve the problems that you see in your community.” And the kids call themselves Solutionaries because they’re thinking about how to make solutions to problems because they see what we see and they are thinking about it in ways that are in some cases, much more imaginative than our own.
Paige: Can you talk a little bit more about why that’s important to you about kids being Solutionaries and people being Solutionaries for their own neighborhoods?
SheaHowell: Well, aside from my own experience where I learned that there’s a distinction between schooling and education, a lot of my work has been with young people and particularly in Detroit in the 1980s. We experienced a tremendous amount of violence with young people really killing each other. And you may remember or know about the formation of a group called S.O.S.A.D, Save Our Sons And Daughters, where we had lost over 40 young people in one year to death by gun violence. And the Mothers of those children formed an organization called Save Our Sons And Daughters with the idea of helping children find a way to peacefully live with each other.
SheaHowell: Out of that experience, we began to see a couple of things. One is, there’s something radically wrong with a country where young people kill each other. And secondly, much of what was wrong with those young people were their experiences in schools. At the time, as much as 40% of Detroit high school kids were dropping out, that is they were voting with their feet against the kind of educational system they had.
SheaHowell: So if going to have a future with young people who are healthy, creative, expressive, confident, joyful, we have to change the way they experience themselves in this world. And you can’t expect to create creative, compassionate adults. If you say to children, “Don’t look at what you see when you walk down the street. Don’t pay any attention to those people over there who don’t have a house. Don’t pay any attention to that place that’s fallen down.” Actually, what we want to say is, “Do look, do see and think about what can we do to make this different.”
SheaHowell: And it was out of that spirit, it was S.O.S.A.D, that we created a program called Detroit summer. And that was a program that took young people from in the city and around the country and put them together with community-based leaders to do projects that actually developed and advanced the community. And you may know the, the descendant of Detroit Summer. And that was a program that took young people from in the city and around the country and put them together with community based leaders to do projects that actually developed and advanced the community. And you may know the descendant of Detroit Summer, something called The Allied Media Conference and The Allied Media Projects. That had its Genesis in this idea that young people have solutions to the crises we face. We’ve just got to find ways to translate those solutions into action. So that’s how I got involved in young people.
Paige: I was actually reading a book by Dick Gregory. He wrote The Natural Diet For Those Who Eat. And he mentioned something really similar to what you had just said about, If young people are told not to look at the people on the street or look at their neighbors, then they become this sort of environment where it’s really violent. And it reminds me of also the story you shared about being able to go down the Hill instead of up the Hill and talk to the… what you called Hobos and how much you had learned from them and how much they had taught you. Anyway, in the book I was reading, he was talking about how, If rich people had seen how people in the ghetto live, then they would feel appalled about how much money they had and what that means that there’s such a… I’m not really quite sure what that is. Almost like a disconnection to other humans and to humanity?
SheaHowell: Yeah. Dick Gregory is one of my heroes and he does capture in much of his writing this sense that the dominant culture wants us to not identify with each other, it wants us to not feel compassion or pain or despair. And so every time we move beyond those boundaries, we’re able to do a little bit of altering the direction of the culture itself. Every time we acknowledge each other as humans, what that is in essence an act of resistance.
Paige: I’m trying to decide if I want to ask the question that I had originally planned, because you have taken me into a new place in this conversation where I haven’t been before.
SheaHowell: Well, let’s go there then.
Paige: I know, it’s like, “Wow.” I’m trying to think of all these new things that you’re bringing to me. I also have a new question about earlier, I wonder if there’s something behind that segregation between ages in movement work and activism. And I wonder what funnels into that segregation and that separation? Because I found it quite difficult at least not because they’re elders or because of the age-ism problem that people usually think of when they think of intergenerational movement work. But it’s quite difficult just to reach out to elders and to find where they are and how to support them and how do we talk to each other in our different languages. And, yeah, so I’m still thinking about that, that you had mentioned a little bit earlier with the National Elders.
SheaHowell: Well, when shortly before Margaret Mead died, so she was at the end of her life, Grace and I went to hear her speak and it was really great because Margaret Mead came out with this staff. Big, long stick and clopped out onto this big stage. And I don’t think she was two feet high at that point. She was just a very small person, very old. And actually, she might not even be as old as I am now, now that I think of it. But anyway, at the time I thought she was very old, but she said, “The reason young people need old people is because young people need to know you can survive tragedy and change.”
Shea Howell: And I think about that when, I’m just reading now about, Yesterday’s Times had an article about all these young folks in Las Vegas that are committing suicide because of the isolation and the despair they’re feeling being essentially as part of the pandemic. And so part of why that connection between young and old is important, is to give young people to sense that how it is right this minute, isn’t how it’s always going to be. And I think a good expression of that was when there were all the gay suicides and all of us queer folk did little cute videos that said it gets better, but it does get better.
SheaHowell: And people often find it’s difficult to believe that where you are. So hopefully that’s one thing our existence says to folks, but the other thing, I have said we have maybe five or six, certainly not a decade left, of people of my generation who have experienced the last of the organic communities in this country. And that experience is critical for how we imagine the future, because some of that was obviously limited and nasty, but some of it was also very good and it spoke to values of connection and care and compassion that we see through this pandemic, we really need now.
SheaHowell: Things like looking after each other at the street neighborhood block level, which was very much a part of my growing up. But by the time you got into the 1980s and 90s, anonymity in both urban and town and rural areas had expanded, so you didn’t have that organic connection. And so the memory of community that we still carry, I think in my generation is something that people need to have available as they re-imagine the future. So that’s what I think on what you’re raising Paige.
Paige: Yeah, definitely. I love these stories that you’re sharing.
SheaHowell: Oh, thank you. I love to share them.
Rhiki: So I want to shift focus a little bit more into the work that you done in Detroit specifically. So I want to talk about how you’ve been working on Water Security. Could you explain a little bit more about what the term Water Security means? And can you give us some insight into what’s been happening in Detroit as far as the shutoffs and the differential water rate.
SheaHowell: Water security in Detroit is a major issue. We’ve actually just had a bit of a victory thanks to the pandemic. We were able to get the Governor to put a Moratorium on water shut offs, and that was about to expire and because of a lot of pressure on the Mayor, the Mayor then put a Moratorium on water shut offs for two years, which will allow us to move to a real water affordability plan. Now I don’t have a lot of faith in our Mayor, but the water struggle in Detroit has been going on for almost 20 years. And the Genesis of that struggle is that Detroit sits at the edge of the great lakes, which is 20% of the world’s fresh surface water goes through the great lakes. And yet mass numbers of people in our city do not have access to fresh running water in their homes because of escalating water rates.
SheaHowell: Now the short version of why there are escalating water rates is that the water system in Detroit was built to cover almost a million and a half people and major industries. And by 2010, Detroit had 700,000 people, roughly less than half what the system was designed to support. But the trouble with all infrastructure is that even though you had about half the people, you had the same number of pipes, you had the same size water plant, you had the same number of pumps. So the fixed costs of running that system had to be born by half the number of people. And most of those people, roughly 40 to 50% are people living at the poverty level. So you had a situation happening in Detroit where water rates were fixed and escalating and the number of people trying to pay for that big system or smaller and smaller and smaller.
SheaHowell: So the city’s response, particularly during the bankruptcy crisis was to shut off the water to everyone who owed $150 or more. That turned out to be over a 100,000 people. That’s almost one in five people in the city, was having their water shut off. And we struggled against that for years unable to really move the city administration until the pandemic. When it became clear to everybody that if you have a city where people can’t wash their hands, where they can’t have clean clothes, where they can’t look after basic sanitation, you are ripe for a pandemic to spread. We had done independent research to show the city that there were public health risks, pre-pandemic. That contagious diseases were highest in the zip codes where people had their water shut off in larger numbers.
SheaHowell: And the city was unmoved. It wasn’t until the pandemic that we were able to move the city. And that was largely because we were able to the Governor. So the water struggle in Detroit has had two basic concepts behind it. One is, that water is a human right. And the other is that water is a sacred trust. And based on those two concepts, in 2005, the precursor to what became the People’s Water Board, put forward a water affordability plan that said the city should charge for water based on a percentage of income. The United Nations says that water should generally cost people between two and four percent of their annual income. In Detroit, people are paying as much as 20% of their annual income for water. So this idea of water affordability and a plan to implement that was created in 2005, it was passed by the city council, but the city administration refused to implement it.
SheaHowell: And that’s what led us, a decade later, to the crisis around bankruptcy and literally a 100,000, almost 200,000 people being shut off of water. And that’s what led to tremendous mobilization in the city to have water turned back on. And for the creation of some new plan. If people are interested in the water struggle, there’s an article that I wrote with Mike Doan and Ami Harbin called Detroit To Flint And Back Again: Solidarity Forever, in Critical Sociology. And there’s a wonderful organization in Detroit called We The People Detroit and they are primarily engaged in the water struggle and it produced terrific research and policy papers.
SheaHowell: And then there’s The People’s Water Board, which emphasizes policy and water affordability and has held, I think, the first international summits on a global water policy here in Detroit. So there’s a lot of activity, but the critical thing for people to think about is if we believe water is a human right, and a sacred trust, how do we then enact that, in ways that protect people who cannot afford to maintain this massive system and how do we ensure that water itself is protected for everyone? I hope that helps with the water struggle thinking, we’ve learned so many lessons from that struggle. It’s been really critical in the city.
Rhiki: That blows my mind to think about Michigan and in proximity how close we are to one of the largest fresh water resources. And yet we still see so many problems in our state with people’s access to clean water. That just blows my mind.
SheaHowell: And it should blow your mind because it is such an example of the crudeness of capitalism, of the idea that water is something that should provide profit for a few people at the expense of all of us.
Paige: I want to know how long the- What is the Moratorium? How do you say this word?
SheaHowell: The Moratorium is a… Currently, it will be two years and it just happened maybe two months ago, maybe November they announced it. So we have a good two years and there is someone working from the Mayor’s office with community groups to try to create a real water affordability plan. The reason for my limitation of joy, terms of the Mayor’s office is, even while he announced the extension of the Moratorium, the mayor still pays lip service to this idea that what we ought to do is create a fund that will pay the differential of people’s water bills.
SheaHowell: Now, if you can’t afford your water bill, it’s like an act of charity that will give you some money to cover your bill this month. And that’s bad thinking for a lot of reasons, but part of it is, it evades the structural problem that we face with this large infrastructure. And so we’ve long advocated to use a percentage of a person’s annual income as the way to pay for water. So the Moratorium will last for two years now until end of 2022, I think.
Paige: Congratulations on that win.
SheaHowell: Yeah. Yeah. It is a win.
Rhiki: What you say reminds me of what our former Academic Director, Lisa Brock, used to say, when thinking about what a radical lens looks like. As far as what you were saying about the Mayor and just trying to throw money at the situation for right now. She used to use the analogy that if you’re trying to combat hunger, a soup kitchen will only be a temporary solution but the actual problem won’t go away. So if you actually want to fix the problem of people being hungry in our country, we actually have to look at the structures that are in place that continue to allow those people to go without having food. So I appreciate you bringing that up.
SheaHowell: Yeah. And that lesson is very deep in Detroit because one of our strongest contributions to the future, I think, is our urban gardening movement and urban gardens emerged out of the necessity of people to get food. And now we’ve got almost 2000 easily documented, vibrant, urban gardens, providing food for families and neighborhoods. So that sense of looking at a crisis and asking, “How do we respond to this in ways that advance our humanity, our ability to be self-determining our ability to be productive, our ability to make meaningful choices.” If we look at a crisis that way, the solution is very different than if we say, “How do we get some food to folks?”
Rhiki: Yeah. So our last couple of questions are more geared towards Detroit and the history of Detroit.
SheaHowell: Yeah. You want to know something about the history of Detroit over time? I often give tours of the city of Detroit through the Boggs center. And the place we start is in an area called Elmwood Cemetery and the reason we start there… there’s really two. One is, it’s the only place left in the city that has been untouched by industrial development because it was a place of the dead that was the last sacred moment in Detroit. So people didn’t slaton it and turn it into a high rise.
SheaHowell: So you still have the contours of the land that looked the way the land looked and feels the way the land felt before the Europeans got here. So that’s one reason I start there. But the other reason I start there is Bloody Run Creek is the site of Chief Pontiac’s victory over the British Imperial army in 1763. And I like people to think that one of the first Anti-imperialist struggles in the world happened in Detroit at Bloody Run Creek.
SheaHowell: And it happened where Indigenous people, Indigenous leaders, gathered together one of the strongest coalitions of diverse nations in order to prevent the European expansion. And it was a tremendous victory for Pontiac. So in some ways, Detroit has this long history of resistance to European Imperial efforts. And that, that resistance is clearly marked in the waters that still flow in Bloody Run Creek. The other thing which I think is really critical right now is that, like many cities in the North, Detroit was shaped by the African-American migration from the South to the North.
SheaHowell: And it has become the largest African-American city in the United States. And it brings with it a critique of the dominant culture that is essential as we move toward creating a Multicultural Democracy, because rooted in that critique is an understanding of the degree to which America has always lied to itself about who it is. And until we are able to look at those lies and recognize that we never were a Democracy, that we never lived up to the things we said we wanted to live up to. Until we look at those really thoughtfully and wholly, we’re not going to be able to create the kind of future we all really want. So the resistance in Detroit has flowed from, in this last 60 years, that emergence of black power that has really demonstrated the capacity to make America reckon with itself again.
Paige: I’m wondering, you mentioned about how Detroit has this history of having the most African-American people now. Can you talk about what can other cities learn or take away from Detroit history and how do you envision the future too?
SheaHowell: Well, I think Detroit is an organized city. I like to say it’s a movement city, virtually every major movement that has had an impact in the United States has been influenced by both the practical organizing activity in Detroit and the theoretical ideas of social change and revolution. And so there’s this unity of theory and practice that is part of Detroit, is something I think other cities can learn from. But I also think the strength of Detroit organizing is that it has shaped the electrode or political powers that are emerging.
SheaHowell: Just as an easy example, this year we are establishing the Detroiters’ Bill Of Rights as we write a new City Charter. And that Bill Of Rights has flowed from, the tremendous neighborhood and grassroots organizing that has been emerging in the city over the last 40, 50 years. And it’s able to put forward ways of thinking about policy, that embody values that protect people. So for example, one of the things in the Detroiters’ Bill Of Rights is that people have a right to education, a right to water, a right to live in a clean, secure place and establishing those of as human rights is critical. If we’re going to think about what kind of policies matter for the future.
Paige: Thank you so much. I was interested if you have anything more that people want to learn more about the Detroit movement, who is a person or organization that you direct listeners to? I would guess that it was Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs though.
SheaHowell: You can definitely go to The Boggs center.org. People could definitely look at We The People Detroit, they could look at the Detroit People’s Water Board. They could look at the Detroit People’s Platform. They could look at the Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council. They could look at the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools. And most recently I’ve been working with the Coalition For Police Transparency And Accountability. So those are some things that people could look at right away. Oh, and the Detroit Black Food security Network and people could join the emerging food co-op.
Paige: Oh man. That’s amazing all these great organizations.
SheaHowell: There’s a lot going on.
Paige: Oh, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate all your insight and listening to your stories.I love talking to elders.
SheaHowell: Oh, well, thank you.
Rhiki: So, Paige, what did you take away from the conversation today?
Paige: I think talking to Shea Howell today, I was really reminded of the power of intergenerational relations, especially in my work with APIENC that comes up really often, but listening to her and knowing that she was in our larger movement together, but in a different part, in Detroit based organizing, yeah. That theme just comes up over and over. Intergenerational relations, making sure that we build relationships with our elders and our youth. And I also just love learning about the council of elders, I think that’s so sweet and really thoughtful for them to gather and organize in that way so that we know that there are people before us organizing and thinking about the same critical issues and that our struggles are lifelong bites towards liberation. What about you? What reflections or thoughts are you having after this conversation?
Rhiki: I think Shea really has me pondering over organizing and specifically its connection to the land and the resources that the land provides. For some reason I just never thought about the efforts that we typically fight for in our movement work, in our organizing work and how they’re really fights for access to basic human rights. And basic human rights are often tied to having access to the land and the resources that the land provides. So I think the way in which I think about organizing moving forward, I will always think about the roots of what I’m fighting for and try to see if it’s connected to the land and think about land and the way in which we occupy it more intentionally.
Rhiki: And that’s it for our episode today, The Radical Futures Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo college. Special thanks to Trevor Loduem-Jackson for our music and Elioenai Quinones for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram at Arcus Center. See you next week.
En este episodio de Futuros Radicales Ahora entramos en conversación con Luz Marina Becerra, lideresa de AFRODES y la COMADRE de AFRODES, sobre experiencias de lxs Afrocolombianxs, la opresión por parte del Estado, y su resistencia. Este episodio está presentado por Marcos Ferguson Morales, y editado por Marcos Ferguson Morales y Paige Chung
In this episode of Radical Futures Now we discuss with Luz Marina Becerra, leader of AFRODES and la COMADRE de AFRODES, about the Afrocolombian experience, State oppression, and their resistance. This episode is cohosted by Marcos Ferguson Morales, and edited by Marcos Ferguson Morales and Paige Chung.
Transcripción en español:
Marcos Para empezar la conversación me gustaría que me comentaras ¿Quién te inspira a hacer el trabajo que haces?
Luz Bueno la injusticia social, las desigualdades estructurales, las brechas de racismo, de discriminación, las desigualdades sociales, las inequidades de género, el conflicto armado cómo ha afectado de manera desproporcional al pueblo negro y especialmente a las mujeres es lo que me hace hacer parte de estas luchas del movimiento social afrocolombiano.
Marcos Y pues por supuesto que esta brecha es muchísimo más fuerte para las mujeres afrocolombianas que para los hombres, ¿Nos puedes platicar un poco del conflicto armado en Colombia para los que no están tan familiarizados con eso?
Luz Bueno podríamos decir que Colombia ha sido un país que históricamente ha estado en guerra desde su creación, desde la lucha por la independencia y digamos que ese conflicto siempre ha pervivido pero que simplemente se transforma o se dan nuevas dinámicas pero el conflicto siempre ha estado y digamos que se recrudece un poco más en 1948 con el asesinato de un líder, de un candidato a la presidencia, Jorge Eliezer Gaitán, allí entonces se genera una guerra entre los partidos, digamos que eran como los dos partidos que se existían en ese entonces, el partido liberal y el partido conservador, liberales matando conservadores y conservadores matando liberales y digamos que desde ese entonces se recrudece mucho más la violencia en nuestro país, muchas personas desplazadas de sus diferentes territorios, muchas personas asesinadas.
Luego se crea la guerrilla, las guerrillas se crean pues con la ideología de luchar por los derechos del pueblo, buscar esa igualdad en el tema de la repartición de tierras donde las personas campesinas, negros e indígenas también pudieran tener tierras y entonces desde allí se empieza pues otras dinámicas de violencia en el país pero luego más adelante se crean los grupos paramilitares que supuestamente se crean para combatir a la guerrilla y empieza a haber enfrentamientos entre estos grupos armados pero siempre la población civil es la que más afectada resulta siempre porque se encuentra en medio del fuego cruzado, luego digamos que en 1993 se da la Ley 70, es esa ley para comunidades negras que reconoce unos derechos étnicos territoriales de las comunidades, se reconocen unos derechos especialmente el derecho al territorio y pensábamos que con esta ley pues ya la población negra iba a tener libertad en sus territorios, íbamos a ser dueños de los territorios porque con esta ley lo que justamente se permite es titular ya de manera legal las tierras, los territorios de comunidades negras de manera colectiva y se hace de una manera colectiva, una manera de protegernos entre nosotros de mantener nuestras culturas, nuestros usos y costumbres, de blindarnos digamos como pueblo, como comunidad y pensábamos pues que ya íbamos a poder vivir tranquilos en nuestros territorios sin violencia, sin que las multinacionales y transnacionales y compañías nacionales entraran a los territorios nuestros a explotar los recursos naturales que poseemos pero desafortunadamente no fue así, se empiezan a dar una ola de desplazamientos en la medida que iban titulando las tierras nuestras que se iban dando esos títulos colectivos, en algunos municipios, corregimientos y veredas se iban dando también los desplazamientos forzados porque estos grupos, sobre todo los grupos paramilitares y guerrilla, enfrentándose entre ellos por la disputa de nuestros territorios pero también los grupos paramilitares sembrando el terror en nuestras comunidades digamos con la única excusa que tenían en ese momento de declarar a las comunidades como objetivo militar y digamos que se empieza a dar una ola de desplazamiento muy fuerte, eso hizo que en 1999 se creara AFRODES (La Asociación Nacional de Afrocolombianos Desplazados) y surge AFRODES para hacer visible toda esta problemática del conflicto armado con el pueblo negro y exigirle al Estado diseñar, implementar políticas públicas que atiendan estas afectaciones desproporcional al conflicto armado en la vida de los pueblos y comunidades negras y especialmente en la vida de las mujeres, porque las mujeres las mujeres, su cuerpo empezó a ser instrumentalizado en el marco del conflicto armado como botín de guerra, de allí que muchas mujeres fueron víctimas de abuso sexual, de tortura y digamos que de esa manera también el conflicto armado afecta de manera desproporcional y diferencial a las mujeres negras por la hiper-sexualización que se ha hecho del cuerpo de la mujer negra por los imaginarios racistas, sexistas y clasistas sobre el cuerpo de la mujer negra, entonces pues muchas afectaciones, todavía hay muchas mujeres que no se atreven a documentar su caso ni a denunciar porque no sienten garantías para hacerlo.
Desde el proceso de AFRODES creamos la Coordinación de Mujeres Afrocolombianas Desplazadas en Resistencia cuyas siglas es la COMADRE y la creamos para hacer visible todas las afectaciones diferencial y desproporcional del conflicto armado en la vida de las mujeres negras y desde allí empezamos a hacer visible toda esta problemática en los diferentes escenarios y a exigirle también al Estado el diseño de políticas públicas que atendieran estas afectaciones diferenciales por todo el tema de la interseccionalidad por nuestra condición étnica, de género y ser víctimas del conflicto, en ese sentido empezamos a hacer un ejercicio desde el 2006 de documentación de violencias basadas en género, especialmente la violencia sexual y a la fecha hemos detectado cuatro ciento cincuenta casos de mujeres negras víctimas de violencia sexual en el marco del conflicto armado y esos casos documentados y además de unos informes que entregamos a la corte constitucional le dieron luces a los magistrados de la corte para emitir algunos autos donde le ordenan al gobierno diseñar programas de protección para las mujeres desplazadas en Colombia y especialmente para las mujeres negras e indígenas.
Marcos Bienvenides al podcast de la zona radical hoy nos acompaña Luz Marina Becerra para hablar sobre la organización AFRODES y las experiencias de les afrocolombianes, bienvenida Luz.
Luz Muchas gracias Marcos
Marcos Gracias Luz.
Luz Marina Becerra ha sido líder del movimiento social afrocolombiano desde el 2001, actualmente es secretaria general de la Asociación Nacional de Colombianos Desplazados (AFRODES) y también ha sido presidenta y representante legal en años anteriores
Luz es organizadora de movimientos para mujeres afrocolombianas que han sido víctimas del conflicto armado, lo cual llevó a la coordinación de mujeres afro desplazadas en resistencia o la COMADRE de AFRODES y en 2019 fue nominada a la mujer colombiana del año y pues si nuevamente muchísimas gracias por estar con nosotros.
Me podrías platicar un poco sobre ¿Qué está pasando en dónde estás?
Luz: Bueno yo estoy radicada en la ciudad de Bogotá pero claro me toca moverme a los diferentes territorios donde la organización tiene presencia porque somos una organización a nivel nacional con presencia en 23 municipios del país y digamos que por el trabajo nos toca movilizarnos a todos esos territorios a generar espacios de encuentro y de construcción colectiva con nuestras comunidades pero yo vivo en Bogotá que es la capital de Colombia, donde tuve que radicarme después del desplazamiento forzado
Y en este momento ¿Qué está pasando acá? digamos que nosotros hoy con el marco de la pandemia del COVID-19 estamos diciendo que el COVID simplemente ha sacado a flote las brechas de desigualdades, esas brechas estructurales de racismo y discriminación racial en las que históricamente hemos sido afectados como pueblo, como comunidades y el COVID lo que ha permitido es sacar a flote todas esas situaciones y profundizar mucho más esas brechas de desigualdades, entonces hoy nuestras comunidades en Bogotá donde viven en diferentes localidades están pasando por situaciones críticas de hambre, la pobreza se ha agudizado, la mayoría de la población afrocolombiana desplazada vive de la economía informal, de la venta ambulante, del rebusque del día a día, no son personas capitalizadas con cuentas bancarias, ni siquiera tienen cuentas bancarias y estar hoy acatando las recomendaciones del Gobierno Nacional con respecto a las medidas de aislamiento, del quedarse en casa eso está afectando muchísimo más la situación de nuestra población y especialmente a las mujeres porque la mayoría son jefas de hogar, entonces hoy las mujeres están aguantando hambre con sus familias, hoy tienen dificultad, si antes la situación de salud era grave hoy es muchísimo más grave, muchas mujeres están muriendo de las enfermedades tradicionales como el cáncer, la tensión arterial y muchas otras enfermedades que no están siendo hoy atendidas porque hoy se está atendiendo solamente a las personas que tienen contagios con el virus, con el COVID pero tampoco hay un trato igual con respecto a la atención del COVID en relación a nuestras comunidades y digamos comparándolas con el resto de la población en Colombia, digamos que también se han vivido problemas de desalojo, a algunas personas las han sacado obligatoriamente de las casas donde habitaban porque no tienen como pagar un arriendo porque no están generando ingresos, digamos hay dificultad también para hacer a los servicios públicos como agua y luego otros servicios básicos y nos preocupa que justamente parte de las recomendaciones o el protocolo de bioseguridad que se ha definido para evitar el contagio con el COVID es el lavado de manos permanente cuatro y cinco veces al día pero resulta que muchas de nuestras comunidades carecen de servicio de agua y al no tener servicio de agua pues es difícil poder lavarse las manos de manera permanente como lo está demandando el Gobierno, eso hace que para nuestras comunidades la situación de contagio sea mucho más difícil, estén más vulnerables a contraer el virus.
Por otro lado las condiciones de hacinamiento en las que vive nuestra población también es difícil porque encuentras familias de… las familias nuestras son extensas y encuentras familias de ocho, nueve, diez personas viviendo en unas casas muy pequeñas, eso no permite que hayan medidas de aislamiento como lo viene promoviendo el Gobierno, por otro lado las condiciones emocionales y psicológicas son bastante fuertes en las que están las mujeres negras hoy en Colombia, las condiciones de estrés, de depresión, de ansiedad digamos por lo que genera, digamos las medias de aislamiento y al no poder generar ingresos para satisfacer sus necesidades básicas, esto ha llevado al incremento de suicidios, sobre todo en los jóvenes afrocolombianos que por encontrarse aislados, encerrados pero también por estar viviendo la situación de pobreza y de hambre han llegado a tomar estas decisiones, a quitarse la vida, lo que más nos preocupa es que de manera permanente estamos mirando en los medios de comunicación masivos de propuestas que está otorgando el Gobierno para digamos para abastecer las precariedades que está generando la pandemia pero desafortunadamente muchos de esos programas que están ofreciendo o que están mostrando de manera permanente en los medios de comunicación no están llegando a nuestra población, no están llegando a nuestras comunidades.
La mayoría de los programas están llegando a los empresarios para fortalecer sus empresas, pero no están llegando a las personas más necesitadas
Marcos Claro, parece que el Gobierno está poniendo ciertas medidas, pero no está siendo consciente de las realidades que vive el pueblo afrocolombiano.
Entonces ¿Qué están haciendo ustedes como respuesta a este mal manejo por parte del Gobierno?
Luz Bueno, nosotros hemos venido trabajando en varias direcciones, uno es en la articulación con organizaciones del movimiento social afrocolombianas, digamos una de esas articulaciones es el CONPA que es el Concejo Nacional de Paz Afrocolombiano.
Desde el CONPA venimos promoviendo una serie de acciones exigiéndole al Gobierno se destinen recursos que permitan atender las calamidades y todas las situaciones desproporcionadas que está generando el conflicto armado en nuestra población, en ese sentido hemos enviado cartas al Gobierno, cartas que no han tenido respuestas, a nivel internacional también hemos tratado de movernos para generar algún tipo de presión con el Gobierno pero sin respuesta, desde AFRODES pues nos hemos venido pensando, hemos tratado de reinventarnos para ver cómo atendemos estas situaciones de precariedad que está viviendo hoy nuestro pueblo, nuestras comunidades y desde el trabajo de las mujeres, de la COMADRE, estamos promoviendo iniciativas productivas que permita a las mujeres empoderarse económicamente o que permita generar algún tipo de condición para digamos avanzar frente a el hambre que hoy se está viviendo, entonces hemos identificado varias iniciativas productivas en varios territorios que están promoviendo las mujeres y estamos tratando de darle visibilidad a esas iniciativas productivas para ver cómo les buscamos de alguna manera con la solidaridad de las personas buscarle comercialización y en esa medida pues tratar de salirle al paso a la situación de hambre que hoy se está viviendo.
Frente al tema de la medicina, de la atención en salud pues hemos recurrido a nuestras prácticas de medicina ancestral y de ahí que muchas personas hoy para prevenir ser contagiadas del virus, pero de las que ya también han sido contagiadas del virus están utilizando mucho las hierbas, las hierbas medicinales nuestras que las hemos usado de generación en generación pero hoy justamente estábamos en un conversatorio, yo me desconecté para conectarme con usted, estábamos en un conversatorio con dos territorios y nos manifestaban que unos territorios han dado órdenes de cortar hierbas, de eliminarlas, para que la gente se sienta obligada a ir al hospital porque también el tema del COVID acá se ha vuelto un negocio en nuestro país, entonces la manera de obligar a la gente a ir al hospital es erradicando las hierbas, las que tradicionalmente nos han servido para curarnos.
Por otro lado, hemos tenido que acudir también frente a las situaciones psicológicas, emocionales, de estrés, de depresión y ansiedad en las que hoy se encuentran muchas de nuestras familias y especialmente las mujeres, estamos haciendo actividades de sanación desde nuestras prácticas, desde nuestra espiritualidad para evitar el suicidio también en muchas familias, entonces es como lo que hoy venimos haciendo pero también seguimos haciendo la incidencia frente a nuestras agendas históricas para que efectivamente ese amplio marco normativo que tenemos se implemente porque lo que estamos diciendo es: si ese marco normativo tan amplio que tenemos como pueblo, como comunidades negras se implementara seguramente la situación o los impactos de la pandemia en la vida de nuestras comunidades y de las mujeres negras no se sería tan difícil o tan macabro como está siendo en el momento.
Marcos Que rabia que el Gobierno están prefiriendo tener el ingreso que realmente la salud que ya tenían pues con estas medicinas tradicionales.
Y bueno Luz ¿Podrías platicarme un poco sobre tu trayecto para convertirte en organizadora social y cómo eso condujo a la creación de AFRODES?
Luz Bueno, digamos que en nuestros territorios de cierto tiempo digamos, más que todo como desde el 93 que se dio la ley 70 empezamos a ver digamos muy duro la violencia porque digamos ha habido otros contextos históricos en nuestro país en donde la violencia fue muy fuerte pero digamos que esta generación, mi generación en ese entonces éramos muy chiquitos pero luego ya crecimos y empezamos a ver todas esas dinámicas que empezó a generar la guerra en nuestros territorios y eso hizo que empezáramos a organizarnos,, a organizar a la comunidad pero también mirando pues la falta de voluntad política del Gobierno para atender la situación de nuestros pueblos y comunidades nos llevó a organizarnos para exigir o defender los derechos de nuestra población.
Digamos que, al darse todos estos desplazamientos forzados masivos de muchas comunidades de sus territorios, el encontrarnos en ciudades tan complejas como Bogotá que son ciudades muy grandes en donde la mayoría de la población son blanco mestizo y al encontrarnos con mucha gente negra deambulando por las calles sin un paradero fijo muchos desorientados, muchos sin saber, inclusive sin entender la lógica de las dinámicas de la guerra, sin entender por qué habían tenido que salir desplazados de sus territorios, eso nos obligó a algunos líderes y lideresas a sentarnos para discutir un poco la situación y todo lo que estaba pasando y desde ahí entonces se crea AFRODES que se crea el 1 de agosto de 1999 justamente ahorita este 1 de agosto cumplimos 21 años y se crea AFRODES entonces como lo decía en principio para hacer visible todas estas violaciones de derecho humanos de las que estaba siendo víctima la población negra en Colombia y exigirle al estado atención con enfoque diferencial que atienda digamos de manera diferencial todas esas afectaciones desproporcionadas al conflicto armado y de ahí entonces las mujeres de AFRODES nos dimos cuenta que la mayoría de las afiliadas éramos mujeres pero también nos dimos cuenta que nosotras vivíamos en unas situaciones particulares como mujeres, eso nos llevó en el 2002 a organizarnos y a crear la coordinación de mujeres, una coordinación horizontal al interior de AFRODES para ser visible esos impactos, no solamente desde una perspectiva étnica, sino que desde una perspectiva de género, entonces nos pusimos en la tarea y empezamos con el apoyo de una ONG ILSA a hacer un proceso de capacitación de empoderamiento de las mujeres como sujetas de derecho y tuvimos un año haciendo este proceso de capacitación, eso nos llevó a un año de capacitación a construir una agenda porque la capacitación lo que nos permitió fue identificar cuáles eran esas necesidades específicas que vivíamos como mujeres pero la idea era no solamente quedarnos en identificar las necesidades, sino plantear propuestas de solución a esas necesidades, entonces creamos la primera agenda política de las mujeres negras desplazadas como ese instrumento de interlocución entre las mujeres negra y las diferentes entidades del Gobierno pero también organizaciones no gubernamentales que atendían la problemática del desplazamiento forzado.
El primer proceso de negociación que nos tocó hacer fue al interior AFRODES donde convocamos a los directivos, les presentamos nuestra agenda política para que esa agenda fuera incluida en el plan estratégico de AFRODES y que el componente de género fuera un área importan te dentro del trabajo de AFRODES, efectivamente los directivos de AFRODES acogieron muy bien la propuesta y de ahí el tema de género y desde ahí el tema de género queda incluido dentro de las líneas de trabajo de la organización, luego en el 2006 nos propusimos hacer unos encuentros locales, hacemos cinco encuentros locales uno en Tumaco, uno en Buena Ventura, uno en Quitó, uno en Cali, uno en Cartagena y otro encuentro en Bogotá, seis encuentros locales o territoriales; el objetivo de ese encuentro era: primero socializar esa agenda que habíamos construido las mujeres de Bogotá, socializarla con el resto de las mujeres negras desplazadas en estos otros territorios para que fuera retroalimentada y fuera validada como es instrumento de interlocución entre las mujeres y las entidades que atendían la problemática del desplazamiento, el otro objetivo era hacer un análisis sobre la situación de derechos humanos de las mujeres afrocolombianas desplazadas y construir un informe para presentar también a organismos tanto nacionales como internacionales y el tercer objetivo era crear la coordinación a nivel nacional, efectivamente logramos esos tres objetivos, se valida la agenda, construimos un informe y se crea la coordinación a nivel nacional que es la COMADRE.
Luego en el 2007 esos documentos que habíamos construido producto de esos encuentros, que también hicimos un encuentro a nivel nacional nos permitió en el 2007 cuando la corte constitucional como la máxima autoridad constitucional convoca una audiencia de mujeres desplazadas víctimas del conflicto armado pero también ONGs que hacían acompañamiento a las organizaciones de víctimas para discutir con los magistrados cuál era la situación en particular que están enfrentando las mujeres víctimas del conflicto armado, afortunadamente como mujeres de la comadre pudimos participar y expresar la situación, las afectaciones que no solamente vivíamos por ser mujeres, sino por ser mujeres negras, el tema del racismo y la discriminación racial que nos limita a gozar de los beneficios o de los privilegios que gozan otros grupos poblacionales de la sociedad, entonces pudimos expresar todas esas situaciones, cuáles eran los problemas de salud, educación , de vivienda, bueno toda esa problemática, entregamos el informe que habíamos construido, entregamos la agenda y esta información le dio luces a los magistrados para reconocer que por toda la interseccionalidad a las mujeres negras el conflicto nos afectaba de manera diferencial y desproporcional y en el 2008 emite un auto, el auto 092, que es ese auto que ordena, le ordena al Gobierno diseñar 13 programas que ayuden a resolver ese impacto desproporcional de conflicto en las mujeres desplazadas y dentro de los 13 programas ordena un programa de protección de los derechos de las mujeres afrocolombianas desplazadas, digamos que eso para nosotras fue un gran logro, lo único es que seguimos con los vacíos y con la tristeza que ya a 12 años que se emitió ese auto, el gobierno todavía no halla implementado esos programas.
Y de allí en adelante empieza el recorrido político de las COMADREs que luego empezamos a participar en diferentes audiencias, a presentar informes, a documentar casos de violencias basadas en género y violencia sexual, eso permitió hacer aporte a otros autos como el auto 098 que se emite en el 2013 donde la corte le dice al gobierno que debe diseñar un programa de protección para las mujeres lideresas defensoras de derechos humanos por una serie de ataques, de amenazas, persecuciones que empezamos a vivir por nuestro ejercicio de liderazgo, pero luego en el 2015 la corte emite el auto 009 que es ese auto que reconoce la violencia sexual como un crimen de lesa humanidad y le pide la corte al gobierno reparar de manera integral a las mujeres víctimas de ese delito de violencia sexual, ahí la COMADRE hizo un gran aporte entregando 150 casos a la corte, entregando un informe sobre la situación de violencia sexual que viven las mujeres negras y digamos sale un anexo reservado en este auto donde salen 450 casos, el 30 por ciento de estos casos son de las COMADREs de AFRODES.
Nosotras luego de hacer todo este ejercicio de documentación y darnos cuenta de la gravedad de la situación y del impacto del conflicto armado en la vida nuestra en el 2014 le exigimos al gobierno y directamente a la unidad de atención integral para las víctimas se incluyera a la COMADRDE de AFRODES en el registro único de víctimas como un sujeto de reparación colectiva, eso lo hicimos desde el 2014 y después dos años de interlocución con el gobierno, porque ponían muchos obstáculos para incluirnos, en el 2017, el 8 de marzo nos entregan en un evento público la resolución que nos reconocen y nos incluyen como un sujeto de reparación colectiva, a la COMADRE de AFRODES, es el primer proceso a nivel nacional de comunidades negras con ese doble enfoque, étnico y de género.
Lo que buscamos con esta reparación es que ayude a resarcir los daños y afectaciones de que hemos sido víctimas las mujeres negras en el marco del conflicto armado y en este momento estamos en esa discusión, en esa lucha con la unidad de atención a las víctimas para que se construyan esas medidas de reparación colectiva, que aquí las luchas de nuestro país no son nada fácil, este es un país muy difícil para reconocer derechos y sobre todo si somos de un grupo étnico culturalmente diferenciado para este caso de comunidades negras.
Marcos Claro, empezar a cambiar la ley para empezar a buscar estas reparaciones que pues son reparaciones a tragedias irreparables y que más que nada asegurar que no vuelva a pasar.
Algo que me da mucha curiosidad a mi porque pasa aquí en México y ha pasado muchísimo en el país donde yo nací, en Guatemala, es que se logra que el gobierno haga cambios a la ley para empezar a buscar estas reparaciones, pero luego es como que el gobierno no pone en marcha estas iniciativas, ¿Sientes que esto es algo que ha pasado también con ustedes allá en Colombia?
Luz Si, si, digamos que esa es la gran preocupación que nos urge de manera permanente, la preocupación que vivimos de manera permanente porque Colombia es un país con un muy amplio marco normativo, normas que se han definido en favor de las víctimas, normas que se han definido en favor de las mujeres, normas que se han definido en favor de los pueblos étnicos indígenas y negras pero son normas que solamente se quedan en el papel, digamos que cuando la corte empieza a emitir esta serie de autos a las víctimas nos genera muchísimas expectativas que además la corte emite unos autos de manera diferencial para las mujeres emite el auto 092, para las comunidades negras emite el auto 005 que es ese auto en donde la corte le dice al gobierno – “Diseñe seis programas que ayuden a superar las brechas estructurales en las históricamente ha estado sumida el pueblo negro” – para los indígenas también emite auto, para los niños, para los discapacitados y cuando empiezan a salir toda este serie de autos eso genera gran expectativa y esperanza en las comunidades víctimas del conflicto de este país pero los autos se quedaron solamente allí, enunciado más no se han implementado,
La ley 70 del ’93 tiene como 27 años y no ha sido implementada, es poco realmente lo que se ha implementado de esa Ley 70.
Marcos ¿Ya 27 años?
Luz Exacto, digamos que uno de los más recientes logros de la población negra e indígena es que el acuerdo de paz que se dio entre las FARC y el gobierno en la Habana, Cuba donde se negoció digamos que a partir de toda la incidencia que empezamos a hacer los negros y los indígenas logramos que quedara incluido el capítulo étnico en el Acuerdo de Paz y digamos también que eso también generó muchas expectativas y mucha esperanza en nuestros pueblos y comunidades pero no ha pasado nada con el capítulo étnico, no ha habido ningún avance, así como no ha habido avance digamos con el acuerdo de paz en general, es muy triste y lamentable porque algunos gobernantes aquí les interesa la guerra porque la guerra es un negocio también en donde muchos sacan provechos y beneficios pero estamos los que nos ha tocado poner a los muertos , la población históricamente excluida, invisibilidad como ha sido el pueblo negro e indígena o los pueblos campesinos o las mujeres, entonces es muy lamentable. Aquí se editan leyes, para cada cosa hay una ley, pero no se implementan
Marcos Siento que es lo mismo que pasa en todos lados no, que se queda en papel, en las leyes, pero pues tiene que haber un cambio estructural, un cambio que va más allá del papel.
¿Luz y estas familiarizada con el término gentrificación?
Luz Pues fíjate que no tanto, encuentro pues que es como el cambio que se pueda dar en una comunidad marginada y que luego esta comunidad o estos barrios se transforman y pueden llegar a ser de un alto nivel de influencia y de comercialización, es más o menos lo que entendí de la gentrificación
Marcos Si así es, pues es algo que es un gran problema, que han estado habiendo muchas conversaciones allá en Estados Unidos pues que llegan estos grandes ricos capitalistas para… a barrios que les parecen chéveres, que les parecen cool y pues lo que pasa es que con esto las rentas de todo barrio empiezan a subir, la gente empieza a ser desplazada y pues sí, la gente que ha vivido allí por muchísimos años tiene que buscar otro lugar donde vivir.
¿Podrías platicarnos un poco de los paralelos entre la gentrificación y el desplazamiento de tu gente del pueblo afrocolombiano?
Luz Si, bueno son las mismas dinámicas efectivamente, mucho de los desplazamientos de nuestras comunidades han obedecido a intereses económicos de los poderosos, de los que lideran el mundo y dentro de esos están pues muchas multinacionales, transnacionales que llegan a los territorios nuestros con, o la idea que le venden a la gente es que es para generar desarrollo en nuestros territorios pero hemos visto que el impacto ha sido lo contrario, han generado muchos desastres, desplazamiento, asesinatos, bueno muchas violaciones de derechos humanos, pero también en algunos territorios nuestros, digamos porque ellos ya han hecho estos estudios previos, se dan cuenta que geográficamente estamos muy bien ubicados, muy estratégicos para el desarrollo de megaproyectos y empiezan a obligar a la gente a que se desplace diciendo que son zonas de alto riesgo, es la manera que muchas veces sacan a la gente, diciendo que las personas no pueden estar allí en esa comunidad porque es zona de alto riesgo, territorios que están propensos a declive o a terremotos, deslizamientos o bueno, cualquier tipo de desastres naturales y eso obliga a que la gente se desplace pero en poco tiempo vemos que en donde le habían dicho a las comunidades que era de alto riesgo de donde la gente se desplazó construyeron grandes cadenas de hoteles o construyeron otros tipos de mega proyectos y digamos que también como algunos grupos operan en favor de estas empresas que quieren montar sus megaproyectos, entonces el papel de estos grupos es también sembrar el terror para que la gente se sienta obligada a salir y en esa medida entonces el territorio se queda desocupado por la gente que históricamente la ha habitado y luego vemos megaproyectos en los territorios. Pueden ser dinámicas distintas pero el objetivo es el mismo
Marcos Claro si, pues al fin y al cabo es lo mismo que pasa no y bueno Luz otra cosa que trabaja AFRODES es la preservación cultural, tengo curiosidad de saber ¿Qué puede hacer una comunidad para preservar su cultura?
Luz Digamos que este ha sido uno de los mayores efectos o afectaciones del conflicto armado en las comunidades negras y es la pérdida de la cultura que tenemos al vivir el desarraigo de nuestros territorios, porque en las ciudades donde llegamos no encontramos un espacio donde recrear esa cultura, esas prácticas, esos usos, esas costumbres, de ahí que parte de la cultura se pierde pero también las organizaciones como AFRODES y otras organizaciones venimos haciendo el esfuerzo para esas prácticas culturales no se pierdan porque en parte de los desafíos nuestros es poder regresar algún día a nuestros territorios, entonces nos toca pues reinventarnos también en las ciudades para ver como mantenemos esos lazos de solidaridad, de hermandad y en esa medida preservar la cultura, de ahí que lo primero que pasa es que los afros tratamos de ubicarnos en los mismos lugares, en las ciudades, puedes encontrar en Ciudad Bolívar localidades en Bogotá por ejemplo Ciudad Bolívar, Usme, Kennedy, Rafael Uribe en Suba con una alta presencia de población afrocolombiana y es la manera a veces de nosotras de mantener esos lazos de hermanamiento en solidaridad y de hermandad de mantener viva nuestras prácticas culturales.
Básicamente nosotras venimos en un proceso de reconfiguración de territorios en las ciudades donde llegamos que lo hacemos a través de esas prácticas culturales ancestrales, entonces de ahí que algunas veces esas prácticas que se pierden y que para nosotros es muy complicado es todo el tema de la espiritualidad por ejemplo el tema como enterramos a nuestros muertos porque en nuestros territorios cuando muere alguna persona pues se hace el velorio que es llevarlo a una casa y ahí se reúne toda la comunidad a cantar, a rezar, a compartir, algunos juegan, se come pan, café y eso es toda la noche hasta el otro día que se lleva a la iglesia y de ahí sale para el cementerio, en las ciudades no es así, en las ciudades los muertos pues se les lleva a una funeraria donde solamente tienen derecho pues a estar solo tres o cuatro horas velándolo y de ahí todo el mundo se va para s casa y el muerto se queda solo en la funeraria, parte de lo que tratamos de rescatar en las comunidades es eso, cómo cuando alguien se nos muere poderle hacer su cristiana sepultura de acuerdo a nuestras prácticas y saberes ancestrales, pero también tratamos de rescatar un poco algunas danzas con algunos contenidos políticos y en esa medida pues hemos organizado grupos de danza de jóvenes, de niños, la medicina ancestral también es parte de lo que tratamos de rescatar en las ciudades y en esa medida se han formado unos quilombos.
Los quilombos fueron como los primeros asentamientos que crearon nuestros ancestros cuando se abolió la esclavitud, entonces ahora estamos tratando de rescatar esos quilombos, pero para dar atención a nuestras comunidades en las ciudades con respecto a la medicina ancestral, el tema de la partería también es otra cosa que estamos tratando de rescatar en las ciudades y es cómo las mismas mujeres ayudan a traer esos hijos al mundo cuando las mujeres embarazadas pues van a tener sus bebés porque en nuestras tierras muchas mujeres cuando iban a parir no tenían que ir a hospital, sino que había unas parteras, comadronas que eran quienes les ayudaban a traer su hijo al mundo y eso hoy estamos tratando de rescatarlo en las ciudades, cómo las mismas mujeres parteras hacen acompañamiento a las mujeres embarazadas para traer su hijo al mundo y hoy con la pandemia pues nos vemos mucho más obligados a rescatar estas prácticas culturales pues por la falta de atención que tenemos en este momento en salud pero también por las precariedades económicas en las que está viviendo nuestra población.
Marcos Luz pues nos estamos quedando sin tiempo para ir cerrando quiero compartir una frase de Nidia Góngora, una cantante afrocolombiana que ayer me puse a escuchar y de verdad me gustó muchísimo y pues ella dice –“Es necesario recuperar el vínculo con nuestro territorio, con nuestros saberes, con nuestra vida, con nuestra raíz, recuperar la espiritualidad y la sensibilidad de esta manera conservaremos nuestra cultura”– y pues esta frase me parece muy relevante no, a lo que me platicas sobe la importancia de conservar la cultura afrocolombiana.
Luz De hecho yo escribí una obra de teatro porque digamos que yo vengo como escribiendo obras de teatro, una manera de sensibilizar a la sociedad colombiana frente al impacto del conflicto armado en la población negra buscando también esa solidaridad del pueblo colombiano para con nuestra comunidades, la última obra de teatro que la escribí, la escribí ahora que estamos encerrados en casa por la pandemia y es tratando de rescatar todas esas prácticas culturales, entonces por eso escribí un poco esta obra que la idea es ponerla en el escenario cuando salgamos de todo esto de la pandemia y que podamos salir a la calle pero si es una gran preocupación poder rescatar digamos todas esas prácticas culturales ancestrales porque es lo que nos va a mantener vivos como pueblo.
Marcos Claro, ay que buenísimo que estas escribiendo esta obra, de verdad me gustaría mucho, bueno si… ya cuando esté hecha y si algún día la llegan a poner en línea me encantaría que la compartieras con nosotros para poderla difundir también, nos gustaría muchísimo verla
Luz Ok si porque el arte ayuda a transformar imaginarios, el arte sensibiliza, el arte ayuda a generar solidaridad, el arte nos permite acercarnos más a las personas, que las personas a través de esa actuación se den cuenta qué es esa realidad, la vivan y la sientan, entonces es lo que venimos haciendo también.
Marcos Que buenísima forma de difundir todo este trabajo para que no se quede solo escrito, que bueno que estén haciendo todo este trabajo.
Pues Luz nos estamos quedando sin tiempo, de verdad muchísimas gracias por platicar con nosotros en el podcast de la zona radical si quieren aprender más del trabajo de Luz pueden visitar www.afrodescolombia.org y recuerden que la conversación no ha terminado así que por favor únanse a nosotros a nuestra próxima plática en la zona radical. Gracias Luz.
Luz: Bueno Marcos, muchísimas gracias Marcos y al centro Arcus de Kalamazoo por permitirnos digamos poner en la palestra pública estas situaciones de violaciones de derechos humanos, las que históricamente hemos tenido que vivir, pero también conocer de esas apuestas políticas para tratar de menguar todas esas violaciones de racismo y discriminación racial, violaciones de derechos humanos de las que es víctima el pueblo negro, en Colombia especialmente las mujeres negras.
Muchas gracias por ayudarnos a difundir toda esta problemática y que esta problemática no se quede solamente con nosotros.
Bueno Marcos, gracias a ti y gracias a todos.
Transcription in English:
Marcos To start the conversation, I would like you to tell me what inspired you to do the work that you’re doing?
Luz Well social injustice, the structural inequalities, the gaps of racism, of discrimination, the social inequalities, gender inequities, the armed conflict that has disproportionately affected black people and especially women is what made me take part in the fight of the social Afrocolombiano movement.
Marcos Yes, and of course this gap is so much stronger for Afrocolombian women than for men. Can you talk to us a little bit about the armed conflict in Colombia for those who aren’t familiar with it?
Luz You could say that Colombia has been a country that historically has been at war since its creation, since the fight for independence, and that this conflict has survived but that it has simply transformed or taken on new dynamics, but that the conflict has always been there. And let’s say that it got a little bit worse in 1948 with the assassination of a leader, a presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, thereby generating a war between the parties, the two parties that existed, the liberal party and the conservative party, liberals killing conservatives and conservatives killing liberals. And since then the violence in our country has intensified much more, many displaced people from their different territories, many murdered people.
Later, the guerilla is created. The guerillas are created with the ideology of fighting for the rights of the people, to seek that equality on the issue of the distribution of land where farmworkers, black and indigenous peoples, could also have land. And so since then other dynamics of violence have begun in the country. But later paramilitary groups are created that were supposedly created to combat the guerillas, and there begins to be confrontations between these armed groups. But always, the civil population is the one that is most affected always because it finds itself in the middle of all the crossfire. Later in 1993 we are given Law 70. It is this law that, for black communities, recognizes some territorial ethnic rights of the communities, it recognizes some rights, especially the right to the territory. And we thought that with this law, now the black population was going to have liberty in their territories, that we were going to be owners of the territories, because with this law what is justly allowed is to title, now in a legal manner, the lands and territories of black communities collectively, and to do this collectively and in a way to protect each other, to maintain our cultures, our traditions and customs, to shield ourselves, let’s say, as a people and as a community. And we thought that we were going to be able to live peacefully in our territories without violence, without the multinational, transnational, and national companies entering our territories to exploit the natural resources that we possess. But unfortunately, this wasn’t so. There starts to be a wave of displacements, to the extent that they were titling our lands, that they were giving collective titles. In some municipalities, townships, and villages forced displacements began to occur because those groups, above all the paramilitary and guerilla groups, were facing each other over the dispute over our lands. But also the paramilitary groups were sowing terror in our communities, their only excuse in that moment being to declare the communities as a military target. And there starts to be a very strong wave of displacement. This caused the creation of AFRODES (The National Association of Displaced Afrocolombianos) in 1999. And AFRODES arises to make visible all the problems of the armed conflict with black people and to demand that the State design, implement public policies that address these disproportionate effects of the armed conflict on the life of black peoples and communities, and especially on the lives of the women, because the women… their bodies began to be exploited in the context of the conflict as spoils of war, hence many women were victims of sexual abuse, of torture. Also, in this way the armed conflict differently and disproportionally affects black women with the hyper-sexualization that has been made of the Black woman’s body by the racist, sexist and classist imaginaries about the Black woman’s body. So then, many affectations. There are still many women that do not dare to document or report their case because they don’t feel guaranteed to do so.
From the AFRODES process we created the Coordination of Displaced Afrocolombiana Women in Resistance, whose acronym is COMADRE, and we created it to make visible all the different and disproportional affects of the armed conflict on the lives of Black women. And from there we started to make visible all of the problems in the different settings and to also demand that the State design public policies that attend to these differential effects on the whole issue of intersectionality due to our ethnic and gender conditions, and being victims of the conflict. In that sense we began to do an exercise since 2006 of the documentation of violence based on gender, especially sexual violence, and to date we have documented 450 cases of Black women being victims of sexual violence within the context of the armed conflict. And those documented cases, in addition to reports we delivered to the constitutional court, spurred the magistrates of the court to issue some edicts where they order the government to design protection programs for the displaced women in Colombia and especially for the Black and indigenous women.
Marcos Welcome to the Radical Futures Now podcast, today we are accompanied by Luz Marina Becerra to talk about the AFRODES organization and the experiences of Afrocolombianes. Welcome, Luz.
Luz Thanks so much, Marcos.
Marcos Thanks, Luz.
Luz Maria Becerra has been the leader of the social afrocolombiano movement since 2001, is currently the general secretary of the National Association of Displaced Afrocolombianos (AFRODES), and also has been the president and legal representative in years prior.
Luz is the organizer of movements for Afrocolombiana women that have been victims of the armed conflict, which led to the Coordination of Displaced Afrocolombiana Women in Resistance, or the COMADRE of AFRODES. And in 2019 she was nominated for Afrocolombiana Woman of the Year. And again, thanks so much for being here with us.
I would like to talk a little about what is happening where you are?
Luz Well, I am based in the city of Bogotá but of course I have to move around to the different territories to where the organization has a presence because we are national organization with presence in 23 municipalities of the country. And for the job we have to mobilize to all the territories to generate spaces for meeting and collective construction with our communities. But I live in Bogotá, which is the capital of Colombia, where I had to base myself after the forced displacement.
And right now, what’s happening here? Today, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are saying that COVID has simply brought out the gaps of inequality, those structural gaps of racism and racial discrimination by which we have historically been affected as a people, as communities, and what COVID has allowed is to bring out all those situations and deepen a lot more those gaps of inequality. So today our communities in Bogota where they live in different localities, are going through the critical situations of hunger, the poverty has worsened, the majority of the displaced Afrocolombian population lives off of the informal economy, from selling on the street, from day-to-day rummaging, they are not capitalized people with bank accounts, they don’t even bank accounts. And now to be complying with the recommendations of the National Government with respect to isolation measures, of remaining at home, that is affecting the situation of our population so much more, especially women because the majority are heads of the household. So now women are enduring hunger with their families, now they are having difficulty – if before the health situation was serious, today it is so much more serious. Many women are dying of traditional illnesses like cancer, blood pressure and many other illnesses that are not be attended to today because now only the people who are infected with the virus, with COVID-19, are being attended to. But there also is not equal treatment with regard to COVID care in relation to our communities, comparing them with the rest of the population in Colombia. They have also been living with eviction problems, some people have been forced out of the houses where they were living because they couldn’t pay rent because they are not generating income. There is also difficulty to get public services like water and later other basic services. And we worry that, understandably, part of the recommendations or the protocols of bio-safety that have been defined to avoid infection with COVID is permanent hand washing four or five times per day, but it turns that many of our communities lack the service of water. And to not have water service, well, it’s difficult to be constantly washing your hands like the Government is demanding. That means that for our communities the situation of infection is much harder, they are more vulnerable to contracting the virus.
Furthermore, the conditions of overcrowding in which our population lives is also difficult because you find families – our families are extensive and you find families of eight, nine, ten people living in very small houses that don’t allow for isolation measures as the Government has been promoting it. Additionally, the emotional and psychological conditions are quite strong in those that are Black women today in Colombia. The conditions of stress, of depression, of anxiety that isolation measures generate, and to not be able to generate income to satisfy their basic needs… This has led to the increase of suicides, above all in Afrocolombian youth that find themselves isolated, shut-in, but also for living in the situation of poverty and hunger they have come to make these decisions, to take their lives. Yes, what worries us the most is that we are constantly looking in the mass media for suggestions that the Government is granting, let’s say, furnishing the scarcities that the pandemic is generating, but unfortunately many of those programs that they are offering or that they are constantly showing in the media are not reaching our population, aren’t reaching our communities.
The majority of the programs are reaching the businessmen to strengthen their businesses, but they aren’t reaching the people who need them most.
Marcos Right, it seems that the Government is taking the right measures, but isn’t aware of the realities that Afrocolombian people live with.
So, what are you all doing as AFRODES, as a response to this poor handling on the part of the Government?
Luz Well, we have been working in various directions. One is in the coordination with organizations of the Afrocolombiana social movement. One of those coordinations is the CONPA, which is the National Counsel of Afrocolombian Peace.
From the CONPA we have been promoting a series of actions demanding that the Government allocate resources that address the calamities and all the disproportionate situations that the armed conflict is generating in our population. In that sense, we have sent letters to the Government, letters that have not gotten responses. At an international level we have also tried to mobilize ourselves to generate some type of pressure on the Government, but without response. From AFRODES we have been thinking, we have tried to reinvent ourselves to see how we deal with these uncertain situations that our people, our communities are now living with, and from the work of the women, from COMADRE, we are promoting productive initiatives that permit women to economically empower themselves or that allow them to generate some type of condition to, let’s say, move against the hunger that they are now living with. So we have identified various productive initiatives in various territories that are promoting women and that we are trying to give visibility to those productive initiatives to see how we can somehow find them in solidarity with the people looking for commercialization, and in that way try to get out of the hunger situation that is being lived through today.
Facing the issue of medicine, of healthcare, we have turned to our ancestral medicine practices and hence many people today to prevent being infected with the virus. But those who have already been infected with the virus are often using herbs, our medicinal herbs that we have used generation after generation. But today we were just in a conversation, I disconnected myself to connect with you, we were in a conversation with two territories and they revealed to us that some territories have given orders to cut some herbs, to eliminate them, so that the people feel forced to go to the hospital.
Marcos Oh no.
Luz Yes, because also the issue of COVID here has become a business in our country, so the way to force people to go to the hospital is by eradicating the herbs that have traditionally served to cure us, right?
Furthermore, we have also had to face the psychological situations, the emotional situations, situations of stress, of depression and anxiety that many of our families, especially the women, find themselves in today. We are also doing healing activities from our practices, from our spirituality to prevent suicide in many families. So it is like what we have been doing now, but also we continue advocating for our historical agendas so that effectively that broad regulatory framework that we have is implemented, because what we are saying is: if that broad regulatory framework that we have as a people, as Black communities, is safely implemented, the situation or the impacts of the pandemic in the lives of our communities and of Black women would not be as hard or as macabre as they are feeling at the moment.
Marcos What an outrage that the Government is preferring to have the revenue than the actual health that they already had with the traditional medicines.
Okay Luz, could you tell me a little bit about your journey towards becoming a social organizer and how that lead to the creation of AFRODES?
Luz Well, in our territories for a certain time, above all since ’93 when they passed Law 70, we started to see very harsh violence because there has been other historical contexts in our country in which the violence was very strong, but this generation, my generation, we were very young. But later we grew up and started to see all those dynamics that the war in our territories started to generate and that made us start to organize ourselves, to organize the community but also watching the lack of political goodwill of the Government to address the situation of our people and communities. We came to organize ourselves to demand or to defend the right of our population.
Given all these massive forced displacements of many communities from their territories, finding ourselves in cities as complex as Bogotá, which are very large cities in which the majority of the population is white or mestizo, and finding ourselves with many Black people wandering the streets without a fixed whereabouts, many disoriented, many without knowing, even without understanding the logic of the dynamics of the war, without understanding why they had had to be displaces from their territories, that forced some of us leaders to sit down to discuss the situation and everything that had happened. So AFRODES was created then, created on August 1st, 1999. Just now this August 1st we turn 21 years old. And so AFRODES is created, as I said, in principle to make visible all these human rights violations to which the Black population in Colombia has been victim, and to demand attention from the state with a differential focus that addresses all those disproportional effects of the armed conflict. And so from there the women of AFRODES realized that the majority of those affiliated were women but also we realized that we were living in particular situations as women. That led us in 2002 to organize ourselves and to create the coordination of women, a horizontal coordination within AFRODES to make those impacts visible, not only from an ethnic perspective, but from a perspective of gender, So we put ourselves on the task and started with the support of an NGO, ILSA, to do a training process for the empowerment of women as subjects of rights, and we had a year of doing this training process. This led us to a year of training to build an agenda because the training allowed us to do was to identify what were those specific needs that we lived with as women. But the idea wasn’t just to consign ourselves to identifying the needs, but to lay out proposals for solutions to those needs. So we created the first political agenda of displaced Black women as that instrument of dialogue between Black women and the different entities of the Government, but also non-governmental organizations that dealt with the problem of forced displacement.
The first negotiation process we had to do was inside AFRODES where we convened the managers, presented them our political agenda so that our agenda be included in the strategic plan of AFRODES and that the component of gender become an important area within the work of AFRODES. In fact, the directors of AFRODES embraced the proposal very well and from there the subject of gender remains included within the organization’s lines of work. Later, in 2006, we proposed doing some local meetings. We do five local meetings, one in Tumaco, one in Buena Ventura, one in Quitó, one in Cali, one in Cartagena and another meeting in Bogotá, six local meetings or meetings of territories. The objective of that meeting was: first to socialize that agenda that us Bogotá women had constructed, to socialize it with the rest of the displaced Black women in these other territories so that it was given feedback and was validated as an instrument of dialogue between the women and the entities that addressed the problem of displacement. The other objective was to make an analysis about the human rights situation of the displaced Afrocombiana women and to build a report to also present also to national and international organizations. And the third objective was to create a coordination on the national level. Effectively, we achieved those three objectives, validated the agenda, built a report, and created the organization on the national level which is COMADRE.
Later, in 2007, those documents that we had built as a result of those meetings, that we also held at a national level, allowed us in 2007 when the constitutional court as the highest constitutional authority called a hearing of displaced women, victims of the conflict, to discuss with the magistrates what the situation was the particular situation faced by women victims of the armed conflict. Fortunately was women of COMADRE we could participate and express the situation, the affectations that we lived with not only as women, but by being Black women, the issue of racism and racial discrimination that limit us to enjoy the benefits or the privileges that other population groups of society enjoy. So we could express all those situations, which were issues of health, education, of living, well, all of those problems. We delivered the report that we had built, delivered the agenda, and that information enlightened the magistrates to recognize that because of all the intersectionality of Black women, the conflict affected us disproportionately and differentially. And in 2008 they issue a decree, Decree 092, which is the decree that orders, that ordered that the Government design 13 programs that help to resolve that disproportional impact of the conflict in displaced women, and within the 13 programs, ordered a program of protection of the rights of displaced Afrocombiana women. That, for us, was a great achievement. The only thing is that we continued with the gaps and with the sadness and that now, 12 years since they issued that decree, the Government still has not implemented those programs.
And from then on the political journey of the COMADREs began, and later we started to participate in different audiences, to present reports, to document cases of violence based on gender and sexual violence. And that allowed us to lend support to other decrees like Decree 098 that was issued in 2013, where the court told that Government that they should design a program of protection for lead women defenders of human rights from a series of attacks, of threats, persecutions that we began to live with due to our exercising of leadership. But later in 2015 the court issued Decree 009 which is the decree that recognizes sexual violence as a crime against humanity and asked the Government make comprehensive reparations to the women victims of this crime of sexual violence. There COMADRE lent great support, delivering 150 cases to the court, delivering a report about the situation of sexual violence that Black women live with, and they left a reserved appendix in this decree where 450 cases appear, 30 percent of these cases are from the COMADREs of AFRODES.
Later, after doing all this documentation and realizing the seriousness of the situation and the impact of the armed conflict in our lives, in 2014 we demanded to the Government, and directly to the comprehensive care unit for our victims, that they include the COMADRE of AFRODES in the single registry of victims as a subject of collective reparation. This we did since 2014, and after two years of dialogue with the government, because they put many obstacles in front of including us, on March 8th, 2017, they gave the COMADRE of AFRODES, in a public event, the resolution that they recognize us and include us as a subject of collective reparation. It is the first process at the national level of Black communities with this dual focus of ethnicity and gender.
What we looked for with that reparation is that it helps to make up for the damages and affectations that Black women have been victim to in the context of the armed conflict. And at the moment we are in that discussion, in that fight with the victims’ comprehensive care unit so that they build those measures of collective reparations. Here the struggles of our country are not easy. This is a country where it is very difficult to recognize rights, and especially if we are of a culturally different ethnic group, in this, of Black communities.
Marcos Of course, start to changing the law to start looking for these reparations, which are reparations to irreparable tragedies, and that more anything ensure that they don’t happen again.
Something that I am very curious about, because it happens here in Mexico and has happened a lot in the country where I was born, in Guatemala, is that it is accomplished that the government makes changes to the law to start looking for these reparations, but later it’s as if the government doesn’t set these initiatives into motion.
Marcos Do you feel that this is what has happened with you all in Colombia as well?
Luz Yes. Yes, that is the great concern that is constantly urging us, the concern that we constantly live with because Colombia is a country with a very broad regulatory framework, regulations that have been defined in favor of the victims, in favor of the women, in favor of the ethnically indigenous and Black peoples, but that are regulations that only remain on paper.
Marcos Uh huh.
Luz When the court starts to issue this series of decrees to the victims it generates in us many expectations, because additionally the court the court issues some decrees with a differential focus. For women, it issues Decree 092, for the Black communities issues Decree 005 which is the decree in which the court says to the Government: design six programs that help to bridge the structural gaps that Black people have historically been immersed in. For indigenous women they also issued a decree, for the kids, for the disabled, and when this whole series of decrees began to come out, it generated great expectation and hope in the communities that were victims of the conflict in this country. But the decrees only remained there, they outlined more than they implemented. Law 70 of ’93 is now almost 27 years old and it hasn’t been implemented, there is really very little of Law 70 that has been implemented.
Marcos 27 years now?
Luz Uh huh, uh huh, exactly. One of the most recent achievements of the Black and indigenous populations is that in the peace agreement between the FARC and the government in Havana, Cuba where it was negotiated – from all the advocacy that we Black and indigenous people began to do, we managed to include the ethnic chapter in the Peace Agreement. That also generated many expectations and a lot of hope in our peoples and communities but nothing has happened with the ethnic chapter, there hasn’t been any progress, just as there hasn’t been any progress with the peace agreement in general. It’s very sad and unfortunate because some rulers here are interested in war because war is also a business from which many take advantages and benefits, but we are the ones who have had to lay the dead, the historically and invisibly excluded population, like the Black and indigenous people have been, or the farmworkers or the women, so it is very unfortunate. Here laws are published, for each thing there is a law, but they are not implemented.
Marcos I feel like it’s the same as what happens everywhere, right, that it remains on paper—
Marcos — in the laws, but it has to be a structural change, a change that goes beyond paper. Luz, are you familiar with the term gentrification?
Luz Well, actually, not so much, I find that it’s like the change that can occur in a marginalized community, right? And that later this community or those neighborhoods are transformed and can come to have a high level of influence and commercialization – this is more or less what I understood of gentrification.
Marcos Yes that’s it, it’s something that is a big problem, and there have been many conversations in the United States, these great rich capitalists arrive to… to neighborhoods that seem awesome to them, that seem cool, and, well, what happens is that with this the rents of the whole neighborhood start to rise—
Luz Uh huh, displaced.
Marcos — the people start to be displaced and, well, yes, the people that have lived there for so many years have to look for another place to live. Can you talk to us a little about the parallels between gentrification and the displacement of your people, of the Afrocolombian people?
Luz Yes, well, they are effectively the same dynamics, many of the displaced people of our communities have complied with the economic interests of the powerful, of those that lead the world, and within those there are many multinational and transnational corporations that come to our territories with, or, the idea that they sell to the people is that they will generate development in our territories, but we have seen that the impact has been the contrary. They have generated many disasters, displacement, murders, well, many violations of human rights. But also in some of our territories, because they have already done previous studies, they realize that geographically we are very well located, very strategic for the development of megaprojects, so they begin to force people to move, saying that these are high-risk zones.
Marcos Uh huh.
Luz This is they way they often take people out, saying that the people can’t be there in that community because it’s a high-risk zone, territories that are prone to decline or to earthquakes, sliding, or, well – whatever type of natural disasters. And this forces people to move, but in short time we see that where they had told the communities was a high-risk zone, where the people moved from, they built big chains of hotels or built other types of megaprojects. And also as some groups operate in favor of these companies that want to mount their megaprojects, then the role of these groups is also to spread terror so that people feel compelled to leave, and so in this way the territory remains unoccupied by the people that have historically inhabited it, and later we see megaprojects in the territories. They can be distinct dynamics but the objective is the same.
Marcos Definitely, in the end it is the same thing that happens, right? Okay Luz, another thing that AFRODES works on is cultural preservation, and I’m curious to know: what can a community do to preserve its culture?
Luz Yes, this has been one of the major effects or affectations of the armed conflict in the Black communities, and it is the loss of the culture that we have when living with the uprooting of our territories. Because in the cities where we arrive in, we can’t find a space to recreate that culture, those practices, those uses, those traditions. Hence part of the culture is lost. But also the organizations like AFRODES and other organizations have been making the effort for these cultural practices not to be lost because part of our challenge is to be able to return one day to our territories. So then it is up to us to reinvent ourselves also in the cities to see how we maintain those bonds of solidarity, of brotherhood, and in that way preserve the culture. So then the first thing that happens is that us Afrocolombians try to locate ourselves in the same places in the cities. So you can find in Ciudad Bolívar, places in Bogotá, for example, like Ciudad Bolívar, Usme, Kennedy, Rafael Uribe in Suba, with a high presence of an Afrocolombian population. Right? And it is sometimes our way to maintain those ties of fraternization and of brotherhood to keep out cultural practices alive.
Basically we arrive at a process of reconfiguration of territories in the cities that we come to, that we do it through those ancestral cultural practices. Therefore, sometimes those practices that are lost, and that for us it’s very complicated, are the whole issue of spirituality. For example the issue of how we bury our dead, because in our territories when someone dies the wake is held, which is when we take them to a house and there the whole community gathers to sing, pray, share, some play, we eat bread, coffee… And this is all night until the next day when we take the dead to church and from there to the cemetery. In the cities it isn’t like that, in the cities the dead are taken to a funeral home where we only have the right to spend three or four hours watching over them, and from there everyone goes to their houses and the dead remains alone in the funeral home. That is part of what we try to recover in the communities, when someone dies how to be able to make their Christian burial in accordance with our practices and ancestral knowledge. But also we try a little to recover some dances with some political content, and to that extent we have organized dance groups for young people, for children. The ancestral medicine also is part of what we try to recover in the cities and to that extent we have formed some quilombos.
Quilombos were like the first settlements that our ancestors created when they abolished slavery. So now we are trying to recover those quilombos, but to give attention to our communities in the cities with respect to ancestral medicine, the issue of midwifery is another thing that we are trying to recover in the cities, and it is how the women help to bring children into the world when the pregnant women are going to have their babies. Because in our lands many women when they were going to give birth didn’t have to go to the hospital, but there were midwives, midwives who were the ones who helped them to bring their child into the world, and that is today what we are trying to recover in the cities, right, how the women midwives accompany the pregnant women to bring their child into the world. And today with the pandemic we are much more obliged to recover these cultural practices because of the lack of attention we have at this time in health, but also because of the economic precariousness in which our population is living.
Marcos Luz, we are running out of time, but to close I want to share a quote from Nidia Góngora, an Afrocolombiana singer—
Luz Uh huh!
Marcos — that I listened to yesterday and who I really like a lot, and well, she says: “It is necessary to recover the link with our land, with our knowledge, with our life, with our roots—
Marcos — recover the spirituality and the sensibility. In this way we will preserve our culture.” That quote seems very relevant to me, right, to what you tell me about the importance of preserving Afrocolombian culture.
Luz In fact I wrote a theatrical work, because I write theatrical works as a way to sensitize Colombian society to the impact of the armed conflict on the Black population, also searching for that solidarity of the Colombian people with our communities. The last theatrical work I wrote, I wrote it now that we are shut-in at home by the pandemic, and it is trying to recover all those cultural practices. So that’s why I wrote this play, the idea is to put it on stage when we all get out of all this pandemic and we can go out on the streets. But yes, it is a big concern to be able to recover all those ancestral cultural practices because it is what will keep us alive as a people.
Marcos Of course. Oh, how wonderful that you are writing this play, I really would like it a lot, but yeah… When it is done and if one day it is put online, I would love for you to share it with us so that we can also spread it, we would really like to see it.
Luz Okay, yes, because art helps to transform imaginations, art sensitizes, art helps to generate solidarity, art allows us to get closer to people. Through this performance, people realize what that reality is, they live it and feel it, so then it is what we have been doing as well.
Marcos What a wonderful way to spread all of this work, so that it doesn’t just stay written. How great that this work does all of that.
Well Luz, we are running out of time, really thank you so much for talking with us on the Radical Futures Now podcast. If you want to learn more about Luz’s work, you can visit www.afrodescolombia.org. And remember that the conversation has not ended, so please join us for our next talk on Radical Futures Now. Thank you, Luz.
Luz Well Marcos, thank you very much to Marcos and to the Kalamazoo Arcus Center for allowing us to bring these situations of human rights violations into the public arena, those that we have historically had to live in, but also for allowing us to familiarize with those political stakes and try to diminish all those violations of racism and racial discrimination, human rights violations of which Black people are victims, in Colombia especially Black women.
Many thanks for helping us to spread all these issues, and may these issues not only be left among us.
Sammie Ablaza Wills and Yuan Wang discuss trans-centered organizing, community based participatory research, and solidarity. APIENC is a grassroots organization building transgender, non-binary and queer API power in the Bay Area. APIENC recently conducted a community based participatory research called Up to Us that was conducted by and centered transgender API community members.
Rhiki: Welcome to Radical Futures Now, on this podcast we connect with social justice leaders around the world to talk about how to organize, how to be in movement and how to build Radical Futures Now. What’s up y’all thank you for tuning in. So today we have special guests Sammie and Yuan joining us today. And I’m going to let y’all introduce yourselves. So how about we start with Sammie.
Sammie: Cool, thanks Rhiki. Hi everyone, my name is Sammie Ablaza Wills and I’m the current director at APIENC. I come to this work as a young trans Philippine X person who grew up working class. And I first came to APIENC as a summer intern in 2013, expecting to learn how to organize a rally and be a part of an organization. But what ended up happening is that I found a political home and I found a lot of people that would challenge me to live within values of abundance and interdependence. And from that time I stuck around. So thanks for having me.
Yuan: Hey everybody, this is Yuan, my pronouns are she and they I’m calling in from Mulholland in Oakland, and I’m one of the community organizers at APIENC along with Sammie and our wonderful friend Jasmine. I’m a young Chinese American non-binary person who was born in the Bay Area, grew up in New Jersey. And I came into APIENC a couple of years ago as a young person. And Paige one of our amazing podcast hosts was a friend and one of the first people I met as well as Sammie, so I’m so excited to be in conversation with y’all today.
Paige: Oh, what a lovely introduction you guys are so good at this. Hey, everyone, I’m Paige, today is a very special episode for me. I love a APIENC with all my heart. It is also my political home. It is where I do most of my community building and I’ve been coming back ever since my very first internship in 2017. And then again in 2018 with UN. So I speak really biasly when I say, APIENC works intentionally to build and cultivate better relations, which is obviously reflected in the programming workshops on asking for help to conflict resolution and introducing youth and elders to one another in the Dragon Fruit Network. So my first question to you all today is what is possible when love is abundant and central in our relationships?
Yuan: Wow! That is an amazing question. And totally not surprised that you asked that, I’m really thinking about this from a place of organizing and also my own experiences, really with APIENC, because I think in my life, APIENC was one of the first places that encouraged me to think about building abundant care and trust and relationships in my life. When I first came into APIENC, a couple of years ago in the summer organizer program, as an intern, as a fellow with Paige, it really came into my life at a place where I felt really isolated, where I didn’t know a lot of other queer or trans or definitely not queer trans API people. And I often felt really afraid honestly, and really alone. I think I just felt a really big absence of folks in my life whose experiences and identities really reflect mine.
Yuan: And I think that at that time, I was really just thinking about my life, and one day at a time, just getting to the next day to the next week. And in a lot of ways, I was just really stretching and overworking myself because of that mindset and I didn’t really know what to expect when I came into APIENC and came into like this first community of grand trans API folks in my life. But that summer I met people like Vince, who’s some folks on this call know elders in our community. I met people like Paige and also other young trans API people. And I think even getting to hear stories of how our elders made it through the HIV/AIDS crisis and grieved and organize and build community for decades through it.
Yuan: And meeting other young people and people who are younger than me, I think really having these kinds of relationships and care in my life. It helps me get to a place where I can now think about not just like a day into the future or a long time into the future and many generations. Something that we talk about a lot is that the relationships that we build at APIENC make it possible to think seven generations into the future. And that’s not only something that becomes possible, but that it’s really necessary for our work of building care and connections and organizing.
Sammie: I really feel that Yuan, I think all of that really resonates with me and my own experience coming into APIENC. As I mentioned, I started when I was just fresh out of my first year of college and I was very politicized, excited to be in spaces like so ready to take all of this learning that I had from the world and create social change. I was very enthusiastic. And I think what was hard is that I came into a lot of social justice spaces and realize that, even in those spaces I could not be my full self or even in those spaces, what they wanted to prioritize most was getting a thing done, the productivity, the end result, without thinking a lot about the process, thinking about how us people who are doing the work might be impacted by the process itself.
Sammie: And I think that, that experience and the contrast to that I experienced in APIENC, which was a community of so much love and challenge and rigorous care for one another transformed what I thought was possible. And now I understand that holding care and abundance, it’s not just important in our one-on-one relationships for the sake of that, holding care and abundance is important because relationships are central and core to our organizing work. Organizing is hard and heavy work. And at the same time, like it doesn’t need to be extractive in the same way that our systems of oppression that we’re fighting against are.
Sammie: And as we work towards this like bigger long-term liberation for everybody, it is possible to still enact liberation every day in the way that we are with one another. We can hold each other close by holding each other accountable to the values we want to live by, through our relationships we can heal intergenerational traumas. We can return to our full humanity. We don’t have to fight for something, and burn ourselves out and feel worse by the end of it, we can fight for something with a lot of love, with a lot of tenderness, with a lot of challenge, while still holding each other close. And I think that’s the way that I think we’re going to get free.
Paige: Yuan can I return back to something that you said earlier? You said something about planning seven generations ahead, and how in APIENC this work allows for that. I was wondering if you could say more about why that’s important.
Yuan: Thanks for asking that Paige. So to share a little more context about where that comes from, the seven generations concept and mindset really comes from a group of folks at the work that reconnects and was brought to us through the Wildfire Project group of movement facilitators and movement workers. And I remember really clearly the first time we did that activity together within APIENC, or at least the first time that I was a part of it, it was with our core member leadership team at one of our annual retreats and without spoiling too much of the activity in case folks are listening get to do it. We took some time to speak to our descendants seven generations in the future and for the folks who were descendants in the room to speak to our ancestors seven generations in the past.
Yuan: And I think that on a really personal level, getting to do that and speaking to descendants who we were imagining were living in a world where white supremacy is not a challenge that they are working to overcome every single day. And where they get to be in relationships that are abundant and fulfilling and safe and where water and resources are clean and available for everyone who needs to have them. I think I have realized in that moment that there were many times where that was not the future that I was imagining. And that was a really heavy realization for me as was made clear by the many tears I shed in that moment. But it was also just such a deep reminder that from there is so much that asks and demands of us to move very quickly and respond to so many immediate needs in our own lives and the needs of our members.
Yuan: It is really important for us as organizers and as people, and not just the folks who are paid organizers, but all the folks who are leaders in our communities and members to really keep in mind the future that we want to be building towards. And speaking to what Sammie said, if these are the kinds of relationships we want to have seven generations from now, what are we doing today? And in this very moment to practice those kinds of relationships and make those values feel real to ourselves and more and more people. So those are some of the reasons I think, thinking in that seven generations mindset is really important to me.
Sammie: Can I add on to that a little bit?
Sammie: Cool. I think the seven generations activity that we do at APIENC is also part of our larger work and larger understanding to build solidarity with other communities. Although we were first introduced to it through the Wildfire Project and the work that reconnects, I think it’s also important for us to just name that this idea, like even this framework of thinking seven generations in the past, seven generations in the future is a way of being and doing that indigenous peoples across Turtle Island have done for years. And actually that, that foresight, that attention towards the future is the reason why indigenous folks are so skilled at stewarding the land because they’re not just thinking about extraction in the moment.
Sammie: And us learning from that and having reverence for that also gives us the opportunity to understand how colonialism and genocide and war, impact our work and our mindsets. And we can start to free ourselves of those limiting beliefs to not only advance ourselves, but to be in a deeper solidarity with indigenous people, the black folks on this land, with other migrant people and with the other communities that we have an interconnected history with.
Paige: I love how you framed that. It actually brings me to my next question, but I loved how you framed that it is this interconnectedness that we have with one another and in our struggles. I was actually rereading Leanne Simpson’s, As We Have Always Done. And she talks about constellations of co-resistance that it not only matters how you achieve liberation, but with whom you do it with. And I was wondering like, you talked a little bit about this, but you know, how does solidarity show up in APIENC work? What does it take to have that solidarity with other communities?
Sammie: I think this is a critical question for any organization to think about all the time or any person to think about all the time. But solidarity is part of APIENC’s values inherently, I think in some ways, because our values are things like abundance and interdependence and honoring our histories. And for me solidarity is not just a thing you do. It’s not just something that happens once. Solidarity is an action that needs to continuously be a part of work and learning and growth, just like allyship cannot be a static identity that you just like do one thing and you’re an ally forever. It has to be an active verb. So for me, working in solidarity means that we need to understand that our oppressions and our liberations are connected, we like need one another. And history I think, is a place that teaches us this lesson time and time again, when I look at my history of trans folks of color of queer people in the Bay of Filipino people in the US and overseas.
Sammie: When I know all of those things and I can identify where I come from, what my people have fought for, what mistakes they’ve made? It allows me to understand how I can make new mistakes, or it allows me to understand the powerful moments throughout history in which solidarity work has been absolutely necessary and has been a jumping off point for some of the biggest wins that our communities have ever encountered. At the same time, I think knowing my history also encourages me to understand that solidarity can not be the only way that I am enacting change. I think that one of the things I’ve noticed and come up against in social justice work, especially in the past six years or so, is that there are a lot of young Asian American people really, really dedicated and wanting to move on critical issues like the movement for black lives.
Sammie: And I saw this a lot as someone who’s been around and been part of the Bay Area Asians for Black Lives since its start, a lot of people wanting to come to us and having the solidarity work as their only political home. But I think what that has done is that it’s also made it so that those folks are not accessing any of their histories. They’re not accessing why they may be connected to these issues or to these fights or to these struggles. And I think the impact of that is like a weird martyrdom or even worse, like a savior complex.
Sammie: We need to do this because it’s the right thing and that no, we’re not affected by this at all. So we got to go save those people, which that’s like really not it. But instead when we work in a framework of a history based solidarity, we can see the ways that our oppressions, although different and distinct are interconnected and our personal experience, allows us to be more active, more present and more grounded, so that we actually do not need to center ourselves in any way and can just show up and be effective.
Sammie: I think that there’s a trap of this martyrdom based solidarity is that it doesn’t also acknowledge the ways that solidarity needs to happen within our own communities. I think a lot of people think of solidarity is external work, something you do with people who are unlike you. But even in our own communities, there is a need to build solidarity, build understanding because we’re always creating margins and mainstreams as we organize. And I actually want to ask Yuan to talk a little bit more about that.
Yuan: Thanks so much for speaking to that Sammie, I really resonate with a lot of the stuff you spoke to around our solidarity with movement for black lives. And like Sammie said, I think when this question comes up, I think a lot about how solidarity also needs to be something that we practice all the time, even within what we consider our community to be. And for APIENC that’s like a lot of different kinds of communities. I think a lot about our work building solidarity and practicing our organizing with trends and trans BIPOC groups across California. I think about APIENC, being a trans centered and trans led organization and the work that we have done to call other LGBQ API allies to really center and support the leadership of young trans API people. I think also about how even being queer and trans and API or using that term, that’s the formation of solidarity because even though to an outsider of our community, we may look the same, our cultures may look similar.
Yuan: We know that there are so, so many important differences that we have to navigate, understand and be curious about. And I think over the past two years, Sammie and I and other folks at APIENC, have been working a lot with trans groups around California in a coalition called Transform California. And we’ve also been working with groups led by the TransLatina Coalition to establish the first statewide trans wellness fund in California. And I think, such a big part of that work is that even when folks look at a large group of trans folks of color and are like, “Yeah, you’re similar.” It’s like, nope, actually we may share some identities, but we also so many important different histories and experiences. So it’s really been a lesson in how do we build genuine relationships across our difference that are transactional, but are rooted in trust?
Yuan: How do we get really curious about each other’s experiences, whether it’s the region of California that we’re organizing in or the experiences that our folks have? And how do we speak to our own specific needs for example, as trans API people in the Bay Area, to really build multi-racial coalition that’s genuine and accounts for all of us. So I think really, we’re trying to build the kind of relationships and solidarity in all of these ways that can push back when we’re presented with a scarcity of grant funding or a scarcity of support that asks us to compete with each other and relationships that can help us prioritize each other’s wellbeing when we work together. And that makes room for a really big multitude of ways of being, I think that’s a lot of our practice of internal solidarity as an organization.
Paige: I was just talking about this with someone else about how there’s sort of this Asian American, arc about organizing. There’s like, Oh my gosh, I don’t know a lot about my history. Oh my gosh, so much oppression happens to so many other people in the US, Oh my gosh, I want to do lots of solidarity work. And then it goes into that. Some people get stuck there that you were saying like the martyrdom Sammie. And it’s really cool to hear you talk about it, because I don’t know if people know about that kind of Asian American arc or when people are learning how to organize and it’s something that we should talk about for sure.
Sammie: I think a lot of it is like guilt. It’s like guilt and shame driven work and I’m going to be honest that, that’s not helpful. That’s like not helpful to the people we’re trying to be in solidarity with. That’s not helpful for our own longevity or our own sustainability guilt and shame can not be the driving factor of our organizing. It takes real work to confront the relative privileges that we have. It takes real work to understand the ways that we have not been oppressed and to also understand the ways that our histories are rife with violence and harm. And to be able to hold those multitudes is a skill and needs to be developed. So that we’re acting from that grounded place rather than like, oops, I feel bad I guess I’m going to go do something about it. That’s not going to work in the long-term.
Paige: You and Yuan said too, we have to build solidarity within our own work, as our community is so like vastly large, that Yuan one was mentioning, it’s API, which is huge within itself. And then it’s like LGBTQ and then it’s like all these letters. And we’re trying to figure out ways to center trans people and the most marginalized within Asian people. Actually, the other thing I was thinking about too is, when we were working on LEX, the Leadership Exchange this past summer, I had this realization that there’s like South Asian folks here. And that doesn’t just happen. And I remember you telling me how that happens. I mean, literally like how the organizing happens behind that. And it takes years of work and intention and relationship building.
Sammie: I can start and I think Yuan should also definitely jump in, Yuan mentioned that under the Asian and Pacific Islander umbrella, that is such a broad and not helpful term so often. And so when we use that term Asian and Pacific Islander, it’s not meant to flatten us. It’s meant to be a call to action. If we say it, we are trying our best to actually enact that. And one of the groups, one of the populations of people within the community, that’s often underrepresented is South Asian folks for multiple reasons. And I think it’s been very important for us to interrogate internally, who’s showing up and who’s not, and why not? Where are they? Do they want to be here? We don’t have to force anyone to be here, but what could we do to center those people, depending on what population we’re talking about.
Sammie: And so we’ve worked over the past many years to cultivate deep reciprocal relationships with many organizations that do have primarily South Asian basis, to see what true interdependence and reciprocity looks like in our relationships. And so we’ve been able build with groups like the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action Parivar, which is a trans and queer South Asian organization and Queer Crescent, which serves queer and trans muslim folks in the Bay Area and invite those people to build skills in our leadership exchange, not for the sake of building APIENC, but for the sake of building a more healthy and robust movement.
Sammie: And I think through the years of relationship building, whether that looked like just showing up on the streets and holding a banner together, or back in the time when we could meet up in-person, like just kicking it at a restaurant and hearing what they have to say, building the authentic relationship allows us to be in deeper service to one another in a way that is true and rooted in our deepest humanity, not just in any assumptions, one may have about someone’s experience based on their identity. And that’s how we work to consistently invite people into our space, who may in other spaces be put on the margins.
Yuan: Yeah. Thanks for naming that Sammie, I don’t have too much to add. I feel like that speaks to our mindset and our approach really accurately. I think I would just underline something that you said around, like for folks who we notice may often be on the margins of a category like Asian and Pacific Islander. I think it’s been really important for us to ask ourselves as staff as core leaders, where are folks already organizing and building leadership and building power together and building connections? And how can we support them in doing that? And I think that was an important part of LEX and I think a lot of our work. So I think I’m holding those two things at the same time like one, how are we shifting, who’s at the margins and at the centers within APIENC? And also how are we supporting folks who are building power outside of this organization, but within our broader movement ecosystem. So that we’re all more able to confront the forces that are harming us.
Paige: But before we transition into the next part of the conversation, I really just want to thank you both for being so intentional about talking about what solidarity work looks like and how there is a lot of work that goes into it because the authentic relationship piece is so important. I was in a webinar maybe two weeks ago, hosted by Race Four shout out to them. And in the webinar, they talked about the difference between allyship and friendship and how allyship is more transactional, which is like, you do something for my movement, I’ll do something for your movement. And then the friendship piece, these are people that you do life with. So there’s more of an intentionality behind wanting to be there and wanting to show up for this other group of people. So I just, thank you both for talking about that. So let’s get into this next part. So APIENC recently conducted a community led community centered survey caught up to us. Can you tell us a little bit more about the purpose of that survey? And can you also touch on some of the key findings of the survey?
Yuan: Yes. Thank you so much for asking. So this research report up to us was a two year long project, two years, very long, that was led by members and APIENC Trans Justice committee. And it was the first of its kind, a community based research project specifically about the needs of trans and gender nonconforming API folks in the Bay Area. It really came out of a place where two years ago, folks and leaders in our trans justice committee were working to set goals that were grounded in the needs of our people here. And as folks were doing research and thinking through their lived experience, they were just realizing and naming how little research, organizations, services and resources that are being provided are specifically naming the needs of trans API people.
Yuan: And I think it was really clear to that group, as it is really clear to us now that we have needs that are often dire and are often being unmet and unseen right now. Folks are struggling with housing security in the Bay, folks are struggling with safety in their relationships and in public spaces with workplace insecurity, mental health, and so, so much more. But there was really little out there that was recognizing it and even less that was meeting that. And I think it’s also really clear to us as a group that, that’s not a coincidence. For myself I know for Sammie and other folks in our group growing up, we were just told time and time again, either directly or just by our absence that trans API people don’t insist that we’re new somehow. Like we popped up in the 21st century, which is not true, and that we don’t experience harm or violence.
Yuan: And it was essential to us through this project to really assert that not only do we exist, not only are we abundant in our presence, but we’ve existed for centuries. And right now, we are experiencing dire needs. We’re living at the intersections of racism of centuries of colonialism, of xenophobia and war that makes our needs imperceptible and much harder to meet. And I think it’s also been really important for us to recognize that we have the ability to shift those things. Even though we heard so many hard statistics and findings, we also heard that the place where people felt most seen and held as trans API people was community spaces. And so it was just really for us an affirmation that the work that we do as APIENC to build community and relationships between our folks and to grow our skills, it’s not a luxury it’s life-saving and it’s really necessary. And I’m wondering Sammie, do you want to speak to some of the stuff that we’ve found and that we learned?
Sammie: Yeah. Thanks Yuan. I think that through the process of doing this research, we found a lot of things that were not surprising to us as a team of trans and non-binary API researchers, but that we’re still like deeply saddening and deeply disheartening because they put numbers, they put quotes, they put research to these experiences that we’ve known through our own stories or anecdotally there was numbers to put down what we had all been experiencing and in different ways and at different times. And I also just want to give a shout out to all of the organizations that supported us to actually reach all the people that we reached because by the end of our year of outreach and mobilizing people to take the survey, we had just about 200 responses from trans and gender nonconforming API people across the Bay.
Sammie: And that’s more people than I think a lot of us even knew existed ever before. We didn’t know the depths at which our community was here and present and actually going through some really, really important and deep things in our lives. So for the purpose of this podcast, I’m only going to give a little taste as to what our findings were. And I hope that people go and check it out a little bit more. You can just visit our website at APIENC.org/uptous. But on that website, you’ll find the full report with all of our findings and you can download it. There’s a one pager, it’s a beautiful website whole thing. But I’ll start by just talking about housing. We know that we need safe and sustainable housing, 20% of our respondents have experienced homelessness.
Sammie: And almost half of the people that live in San Francisco have experienced homelessness to get even more specific. Our folks are facing gender based harassment by landlords. They are not being able to stay in homes with their given families. And they don’t have a lot of housing stability, which is a really hard thing, especially in the Bay Area where rent is so high. If we look at work and employment, our folks do not have supportive and affirming workplaces and all the resources that come with having stable work, almost a quarter of our participants were fired from a job or treated unfairly because of their gender identity. And as many folks are aware, our ability to have work affects our ability to have things like housing, feel safe and secure, access health care, get our basic needs met. So it’s a big problem that our folks are being discriminated against because of their gender identity or straight up not even getting hired in the first place.
Sammie: One of the hardest things that I think we found during the survey was some of our statistics around mental health. And I want to pause and give people a moment if they don’t want to engage in this statistic, very difficult to hear. But what we’ve found is that a large portion of our respondents, 70% of our folks have considered suicide, that is almost three fourths of all the people in our community have considered something so deep and so hard. And we have to hold on to that, as much as that is the case. Our folks also do not have access to mental health care. Almost half of our respondents reported that the mental health care that they’ve been able to access or that they’ve tried to access, is generally culturally inaccessible. Which is completely unacceptable considering how deep of a need this is in our community.
Sammie: Moving on, talking about violence. A lot of our folks, two thirds of people have experienced verbal harassment and one in six have been physically attacked. Unsurprisingly with all of this in mind, more than 80% of people have altered their appearance regularly to avoid harassment. But despite all of this violence that folks are experiencing literally out of our entire survey, only one person reported that they feel very safe talking to the police. Which I think actually goes back on a lot of the narratives that we’ve heard around policing and APIENC communities. It is striking that in a population that is experiencing so much violence and harassment, the majority of people still feel incredibly unsafe talking to the police. The last thing that I’ll say when it comes to our findings before passing it back to Yuan is that all of this stuff that we’ve talked about in terms of housing, healthcare, violence are also being experienced in different ways, along lines of ethnicity, gender, ability and many other factors.
Sammie: And I think, it’s been incredibly important for us to actually be able to dis-aggregate the data and to allow people, even when they’re responding to the survey, to write in whatever identity names are relevant to them. For example, when we look at verbal harassment, people who identify with a feminine gender identifier, they’re much more likely to experience verbal harassment than people of other genders. Folks from South Asian and Pacific Islander communities are far less likely to be treated with respect by the police than folks from East and Southeast Asian communities. Disabled respondents, as well as people who have been unhoused were much more likely to experience unwanted sexual contact, verbal harassment and domestic violence, sex workers have higher rates of things like housing discrimination, homelessness and police interactions, and none of these things are by accident.
Sammie: So I think in addition to all of the things in the findings that I’ve named, it’s also important to look at the data even deeper to see for specific communities, what is the true depth of what is occurring for folks at different levels? I would love to actually pass it back to Yuan to talk a little bit more about all of these statistics, all of these findings, what this actually means for us?
Yuan: Got it. Thanks for sharing that Sammie. I’ve seen those numbers, probably hundreds of times now, and every time I hear it, it still feels heavy and it still feels hard. And I think what has been helpful for me when it does feel hard is thinking about what this means for folks that we’re sharing this with and how we, and folks in our movement ecosystem and our community can respond to make sure that in a few years, in a decade, in a generation, these are not the same challenges we’re up against. And I just want to call out that when we release this project in additions like the 20 organizations who Sammie shouted out and sign on over 150 organizers, service providers, trans API folks came to our release event to learn about our process and our findings.
Yuan: And it has been, I can’t state this enough, a really unique opportunity to call attention to the lives and the needs and the voices of trans API folks and a starting point to shift the story about our people long-term. And so as an organization, we’re thinking a lot about how we want to respond and we’re going to be putting more emphasis on mental health access, community safety, housing rights, education and organizing. And also building up the storytelling of our folks to both help existing and current members, speak to their own experiences and voices, and also reach more trans API people who may not as many folks responded to the survey said, “Know another person like them in their lives.” But beyond that, we also know that solving the problems that we’ve identified and giving evidence to, it takes way more than just one organization.
Yuan: And it will take way more than APIENC. So we’re really calling on a lot of our allies to respond, allies who are listening, accomplices who are reading about this. Because we know that achieving this kind of justice and safety, it’s up to all of us. And we really need API organizing spaces to recognize and uplift the specific needs of trans API people, to ask themselves how are you making room for our voices and our leadership? And making our API families, our neighborhoods and communities safer for trans folks. We work a lot with trans people of color organizing spaces, and we want to ask them to challenge the myths that all API people are secure and that trans API people are few and far between. To invite us to speak to our issues and build multi-racial coalitions that lasts with us. It’s really clear, especially from the mental health findings that Sammie named that we need folks who are providing services to invest real time and funding into our healing and our safety and to meet the language and cultural needs that our folks have.
Yuan: And we really need to call in our funding allies, and accomplices to fund this work abundantly. APIENC is one of the only organizations in this whole country with paid staff to address the needs of queer and trans API folks. And that should not be the case. How can you center relationships in the projects that you fund and support us to choose what success looks like? So those are some of the ways that we’re really thinking about how folks in our movement ecosystem can take action with us. And something that came up really recently is that we heard about a project that some really big institutions are working on. A research project that was supposed to support trans folks.
Yuan: But we found out actually was interviewing trans people to think about how to find a medical cure for their condition. And I think hearing about that was such a deep reminder that projects like this, where we get to interview and ask questions of our own folks and define our questions and support each other and speak to our own needs are super essential. So yeah, I think those are some really important takeaways that we’d want anyone engaging with the report to walk away with.
Paige: And I also just want to make sure this is clear, this survey was conducted prior to COVID, right?
Yuan: Yes. The survey was taken from early 2019 to the very end of 2019 and then research and analysis was done through 2020. So all the information was taken prior to COVID.
Rhiki: So that’s just blows my mind that the like statistics and the data is what it is prior to COVID. It just makes me think of like what it may be now during COVID. So I really want to challenge people to look into the report. We’ll have a link to the report in the description, so you can check that out on our website. But moving the conversation forward, I want to like touch on something both Yuan and Sammie said, about giving participants the ability to really write in how they identify and include all of their identities. When I was going over the report, the thing that really caught my eye was the. what is it called? Community-based participatory action framework. I just want to talk to you both a little bit more about like the purpose of choosing that framework and how that framework could be beneficial to other organizations or other entities that will want to do something like this in the future?
Sammie: Thanks for sharing that out. So like Rhiki said, we use this framework called Community-based Participatory Action Research, which that could use a better name probably is not the snappiest name. A lot of love for it though. So just to break it down a little bit, community-based, this was rooted 100% in our trans and gender nonconforming API community. We did not go through some like government entity or a research institution. Every single part of this process was led by community members learning how to become researchers ourselves. Participatory kind of speaks to that. So at every step of the process, we turn to the idea of like, who is being studied and who is doing the studying on its head? Because we were studying our own people were participating in the creation of this survey and then the creation of our solutions.
Sammie: Moving to action research, we didn’t just do this for the sake of documenting knowledge, which would have been cool. We did this entire research process for the sake of actually improving our lived conditions. And I first learned about community-based participatory action research through a historical organization that’s not around anymore called the Data Center. The Data Center supported a lot of grassroots movement groups to do this very thing, to document our own narratives, to prioritize our people as knowledge creators. Rather than knowledge, just coming out of an ivory tower or out of an institution, our folks are creating multi-modal knowledge all the time. So the data center supported a lot of organizations to actually document that. One of the organizations that they supported was, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which is a group of domestic workers in the Bay Area that ran an incredible campaign and research project to document their work and their experiences leading to the California domestic workers, bill of rights.
Sammie: And so inspired by that organization’s work and the work of any other organizations, we wanted to develop a similar research project that was rooted in the experience of our communities rather than extractive research processes. Like the one that Yuan named that wants to “Hear trans people” that’s incredibly messed up. So we looked at a lot of the things that were hard for us in previous research processes. Things like having to check a box about our identity, are you this or that? You can only pick one word for your gender or one word for your race, or one word for your ethnicity. A lot of these past research experiences, we have felt incredibly extractive. They wanted us to share about our deepest instances of violence without any compensation or without even preface to let us know what kind of questions they were going to be asking it just be like, so where do you live?
Sammie: Next question. Do you feel sad all the time? Just a very insensitive kind of way of doing it very impersonal. So when we were forming our own questions and the order, which we would make the questions we wanted to keep all of our own experiences in mind. So we did things for our questions like, what is your gender identity? What is your ethnicity? We left those as open ended boxes, which made our work a lot harder later because then we had to categorize and tag and clean up that data in some ways. But it also led to our participants naming, I think 26 different ethnicities that they identify with, it allowed mixed folks to speak to the fullness of their experience without limits, under the gender identity box it allowed people to name things that are culturally specific gender identities, like PIPA Phoenix in some Pacific Islander communities.
Sammie: It gave us the option to be all of who we are and not feel limited by a checkbox. We also did things like give trigger warnings before certain sections on things like violence and mental health. So if people wanted to opt out of that, they could, they didn’t have to subject themselves to something that would be triggering and destabilizing. And actually we found that many people with the preface were able to complete the entire survey and felt really grateful by the end. One of the other things that I want to mention is that, we also provided compensation. We didn’t have like a bunch of funds for this, but we wanted to make sure that if people wanted the small visa gift card that we could offer, that we could give that to them as a thank you.
Sammie: It’s just a token as an acknowledgement that people are sharing incredibly valuable knowledge with us. And so throughout the survey, as people did all these things, they could also see videos of our team that made the survey so that it was just that much more personal. Ensuring that, this wasn’t just an anonymous thing done by a computer that you never got to interact with a human about, but there are real people behind the survey, real people that maybe mirror your own experience or understand a little bit as to what you may be going through. And I think all of those elements allowed for a survey that was much more community-based that then allowed us to move into action.
Rhiki: Thank you for that Sammie. So I don’t want to keep you over time. We’re coming up on the end of our episode, but before we let you both go, I really want to ask the question. Yuan I remember you saying earlier that APIENC is one of the only organizations that focuses specifically on Asian Pacific Islander, queer and trans folks. But for our listeners, if there was a person who was like interested on learning more about this type of work and how to get more involved, like who are the people that you tap into, or who are the people or the organizations that you look to get more information?
Yuan: Thanks so much for asking that Rhiki. I’m thinking about a lot of people when you ask that question, because there are so many people. I feel like I, and I know we as an organization learn from all the time, a lot of those folks are our elders. And I know that so many people who have been a part of APIENC’s community way before I was involved, have done so much work to document the history of different organizers, elders and folks in our community. So if people listening right now are really curious and want to hear some of those stories. I know a lot of folks may have never heard a story from an elder trans or queer API person before, you can check out the Dragon Fruit Project website at dragonfruitproject.org. That was a project that was led by Amy Sueyoshi, and supported by APIENC.
Yuan: And I really recommend checking out, the amazing Vince Crisotomo story, who I spoke to a little bit before Tita Aida, and so many other folks. And if you’re like, Oh my gosh, I want to engage with these stories, but not quite ready to like, read about it right now. You’re in luck because our Dragon Fruit team is launching a podcast later this month. And you should be able to listen to that first episode and hear some of those stories and strung together by their connections. Sammie, do you want to share, some of the organizations are really excited about?
Sammie: Thanks for asking Yuan. There’s so many incredible organizations in our broader movement ecosystem that APIENC is learning from all the time. Even as we are one of the only organizations with paid staff working on trans and queer Asian and Pacific Islander issues exclusively, there are a whole abundance of organizations that are all grassroots, that don’t have any paid staff that are killing it all across the so-called United States. Movements are built by relationships and connections. And so there’s never going to be just like one organization or one person that’s getting it all. So I wanted to just uplift a few organizations that I think are incredible, and that APIENC has learned a lot from the first of which is Freedom, Inc. an organization based in Madison, Wisconsin that works with the black and Hmong community out there.
Sammie: They do incredible inside violence work, queer justice work and solidarity work as a kind of core of what they do. And we’ve learned a ton from their slogan, Our community is our campaign, and always centering their people, unapologetically for all of who they are. I also want to shout out PrYSM based in Providence, Rhode Island. PrYSM has spent the past decade doing incredible anti-violence work, anti deportation work, fighting things in Rhode Island like police databases of young Southeast Asian people. Working in solidarity with other Black and Brown communities to ensure that the police don’t have a presence that pride that the police aren’t over incarcerating the young folks in their community, and also doing all of this work with an incredibly strong queer justice lens.
Sammie: So Freedom, Inc. and PrYSM are also two amazing organizations that I would really encourage people to check out as well as all of the volunteer driven and run trans and queer API groups all across the nation, that are doing incredible multiple mutual aid projects or support groups or documenting their own stories, creating incredible art. It doesn’t have to be a big organization andc staff people to make an impact we’re an organization of three paid staff. There are organizations that have no paid staff that are doing incredible things that folks should definitely check out as well.
Paige: Rhiki, how did that conversation go for you?
Rhiki: I thought the conversation was fire. I really enjoyed it and I really enjoy like being a witness to like the relationship that you Sammie and Yuan have. I think that really came through today. I’m just like, Oh, these are Paige’s people.
Paige: I feel like I always talk about them, but then you don’t really know who I’m talking about. I talk about them, but it’s fun to introduce them to you and have us all in a conversation together.
Rhiki: So Paige, what are like the points in the conversation that you feel like really impacted you or that you really remember from the conversation that we just had?
Paige: What stood out to me was when Yuan, was speaking about the seven generations and for me most of my previous ancestral knowledge, is related to the Vietnam War and so much of my family’s narrative is about that. But I don’t really, think about what happened prior to that and what it’s like for my grandparents before the war. So I was thinking a lot about that. What stood out to you in the conversation today?
Rhiki: Probably there were two points that really struck a chord with me. One of them was when both Yuan and Sammie were talking about the importance of solidarity work, but solidarity work being this thing that doesn’t happen externally, but can be a thing that happens in group. And I was just thinking about blackness. It’s such a vast thing. Like there’s so many groups that can be included in what is blackness, and maybe there is a need for us to do solidarity work in groups. So I was thinking about that a lot. And I was also thinking about when doing community-based research, the importance of giving people the opportunity to self identify and like moving away from the check boxes, I think is really important because I feel like we miss out on valuable information when people’s fullness and all of their identities can be present. That’s kind of where my thinking was with that.
Paige: The solidarity that you had mentioned reminds me of also thinking about ways that we can stay grounded specifically Asian-American Pacific Islander folks, within our own histories and within our communities and find political homes there as well as doing solidarity work. That felt really important to me.
Rhiki: And that’s it for our episode today, the Radical Futures Now podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College. Special thanks to Trevor Lolium Jackson for our music and Eliana Ikinones for our graphics. Be sure to follow us on our Instagram @arcuscenter. See you next week.