I Remember Everything

It’s been twenty years since I stepped out of the subway on 6th Avenue and heard an unusually close groaning in the sky and then a boom of glass thunder.

I still question myself, did I hear this? How do I remember this sound so clearly?

Coming around the corner and looking down the island of Manhattan from 23rd street I saw something I couldn’t comprehend, which is now one of the most familiar images in U.S. history: a building on fire. Not just any building, but a tower of the World Trade Center, where my crew went often because our friend sneaked us free sushi at her waitress job in the basement mall. There were flames pouring out the side of one of the skyscrapers.

Then a plane flew into the second tower. I knew in a way I had never known before that I was in the presence of mass death; in that fire were people who had gone to work and were now dead and dying. All around me on the avenue people were standing and staring, slack jawed or screaming, running, trying to call people.

I ran into my office building and tried to call my father, who worked at the Pentagon. I couldn’t reach him, though someone did pick up the phone and say in a harried voice that they didn’t know where he was. A few minutes later the news came over the radio that the Pentagon had been hit. I spent the rest of the day praying, trying not to even consider that my dad was dead. In the end, we were one of the lucky families. He was not in his office, which was destroyed. Before I slept I heard his voice with a flood of gratitude. I remembered this flood often over the next few years, which would test our relationship.

I still wonder about the man with the harried voice – who was he? Did he make it?

At the towers, people were running down stairwells, stuck in elevators, though I didn’t hear all of that until later. On the floors that were on fire, and above the fire, people were gathering on ledges, jumping, falling. I can’t remember how I saw this, but I remember it, people having to make impossible decisions, alone and together. I’ve never stopped thinking about this.

And then the towers fell. I began writing this today in that window between first impact and collapse, though perhaps like the event itself, it will take longer than that for the dust to settle.

I remember my baby radical brain thinking our empire was falling, and perhaps everything I called my life was over, and that made sense to me, felt expected in a way.

I remember talking to a friend in South Africa at the World Conference on Racism, who reached me by phone when almost no calls were connecting, who asked me if people were going wild in the streets.

I remember connecting with a friend a few blocks away who seemed far less shaken by it all, which lodged in my brain as something to pay attention to, as another option that I couldn’t quite imagine with my father missing and the world falling down.

I remember how quiet it was as we joined the slow moving crowd and walked all the way down the island, across the bridge, to a friend’s house in Park Slope. I remember not wanting to be alone in my apartment in Washington Heights.

I remember that everything was covered in ashes, including people walking in the opposite direction, some visibly injured; including my hands every time I touched anything; including the backyard Brooklyn picnic table where I, a vegetarian, ate kielbasa that night. Ashes.

We breathed these buildings in, breathed these people in, and they became part of us.
I remember everything.

This is unusual for me, my memory tends to tuck the most traumatic events of my life away in a soft dense fog that I need support to move through. But in the same way childhood photos can shape our memories with sepia tones of repeated exposure, this traumatic event was replayed over and over. This event was witnessed in person or on television by everyone else I knew, everyone had and has a story. People I knew lost loved ones. My memories are individual and collective.

And, of course, 9/11 was used as the reason we went to war with Iraq and Afghanistan.

I understand in retrospect so much more than I did then about how the U.S. uses conflict to avoid grieving, avoid growing.

At the time, I was naively wondering to everyone I spoke to: how could we, having lived through that horror, inflict it on others? Knowing how random the deaths were, how precious those lives were, how could we put others through that? Through so much worse than that – in our retaliation for the strikes on these two structures, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, we obliterated nations. We became obsessed with security, we reignited rampant and overt xenophobia and racism, we used overpowering violence in the name of American safety.

We went to war.

As a military child, this was the first time war felt visceral to me. I knew by then that there’s no such thing as a fair war with a superpower. There’s terror, chaos and narratives of justification. There’s bloodlust, and the desire for total dominance and control. And there’s an attempt to erase any memories beyond the ones that make us warriors.

But I remember.

I remember all the complex emotions of being a budding nonviolent revolutionary living through September 11, wanting us to be accountable, to listen to what the conditions we were creating in the world had produced. I remember wondering who could believe in such one-dimensional villainy.

I remember the American flags everywhere.
I remember the eyes on me, trying to place me.
I remember the armed soldiers in the subway.
I remember the smell of downtown, it haunted the subways. I remember the open grief that seemed so brief before the warmongering began. I remember acts of heroism and humanity. I remember the flyers with faces and heartbreakingly intimate descriptions of loved ones everywhere; going to Union Square which was part-bulletin board, part-memorial, and feeling an empathy beyond politic for these strangers.

I remember knowing that I was politically at odds with a lot of these dead strangers, that they were capitalists and soldiers. There were also those I saw as my people, as an antiwar, anticapitalist organizer, the workers. But in the wake of 9/11, my empathy expanded, and I could grasp that every single one of these people were parents, spouses, friends, beloveds and children of those who now grieved.

Our nation began gearing up for war instead of turning to face the grief and take accountability for the impacts of our foreign policy legacy. My young empathy easily expanded into action as I first protested the pending wars, then watched the bombs hit Baghdad and Afghanistan. The day that we launched the shock and awe invasion of Iraq, I started sending emails with news from the war to everyone I had an address for, pre-blog. Perhaps I am still writing those emails now – I knew then that those who were dying far away were also parents, spouses, friends, beloveds and children of those who would grieve them. I remember thinking about 23-year-olds there, going about their days under the threat of our vengeance. I remember knowing they had less to do with 9/11 than I did as an American taxpayer and voter.

As I remember all of this, I have to acknowledge to myself that 9/11 and its aftermath transformed my sense of nation. I stopped paying taxes as a stance against those wars, the largest and most sustained direct action of my life. I became a post-nationalist in those years – I wanted a way to be a connected human, and it occurred to me that the project of building a specific nation-state with borders defended by walls and weapons and greed that poisons integrity is the antithesis of being connected as a species. I wanted to live in the connected field of all that empathy sparked in the seconds, days and weeks after September 11.

Because I remember the empathy as clearly as the fear. I remember how I felt the humanity in all of us, the enhanced brightness, the awareness of all our choices. The empathy ran concurrent with that concoction of disappointment and rage that humans produce in me when we, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again forever, choose violence. I remember longing to know what love could do uncoupled from vengeance and violence.

I still want that. I’ve seen a lot of numbers this week, placing September 11 deaths next to those of the global coronavirus pandemic. Seeing these numbers juxtaposed, I can’t help but wonder how we would respond to COVID-19 if, each day, it was a building of mostly strangers, altogether, taken at once, with an enemy we could other and blame. Instead we have this dispersed, intimate loss of loved ones we often can’t hold or see, with no one to turn to in anger but ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our elected officials.

Every day now, we lose thousands of people, more and more of them children. Each day in the U.S. alone, COVID-19 deaths are comparable to the numbers of 9/11. In a year and a half, we’ve had a total U.S. loss of life comparable to the total global lives lost in our twenty year 9/11 retaliation.

But this is not a surprise attack. We have known for over a year now exactly what is happening, and exactly how to save most of those lives. Our capitalist commitment to profit won’t let us hold the lines that would stop the spread of this virus, truly quarantine until it is contained, and shift the economy to support the people until that time. We have the resources, but not the will. It is thus left to individuals to make impossible decisions, alone and together, in crisis. The protests feel ridiculous – asking other adults to cover their mouths? Step back? We fight each other, and we die, polite and/or with violence, struggling with boundaries, logic and collective action right up until the end.

Ah, I didn’t expect to need to write this much today. This all feels connected to me, but perhaps the fog and dust and ash is too much for me to say it clearly, even feel it clearly…forgive me if I am wandering about, or doing too much.

I am sifting through the memories with this current lens of daily death, on the planet/species side of a vast chasm between belief systems around our human purpose on earth. There has been and is a war within our nation, just look at the casualties. It is a war of values and standards, and a war between individualism and collectivism. These days it feels like a war between informed boundaries and risks, and the myth of consequence-free, independent choices.

Stepping back to look at the patterns, the battleground is everywhere. It’s the plague, the profiteers, the police, the non-consensual pregnancies, the apocalyptic climate conditions – we are in the age of consequences for inhumane choices. We are still and always battling the culture of death. This iteration of war will determine how many days are left to millions of people, how many years humans will have on earth.

We breathe each other in, still.

For some of us, September 11 awakened an expansive and humble empathy that could have transformed our nation. The aftermath, however, fully unveiled the culture of supremacy and death that is as U.S.-American as any aspirational culture of democracy or liberation.

In the tenderness of my memories, I long for a collective shift into reality. We are just humans who need to find a way to empathize, feel compassion, grieve, generate love, and tether ourselves back to this abundant planet.

But can I still access that empathy beyond politic, that compassion beyond border, today? I can feel how my empathy is exhausted, bruised, stretched. But I remember when it felt like a limitless energy. And maybe that memory is what will help me, help us, survive this period of pandemic – not nationally, and not just physically, but collectively, and spiritually.

what they do to the earth / they do to our bodies

what they do to the earth
they do to our bodies

they press their filth into the crevice
and when, somehow, still, we make it holy
they take the miracle for granted

knowing all possible life is sacred
knowing what a life needs,
we decide what love would have us do

they demand we bring children
into this world, amongst them
amongst men fighting each other to the death

we know the labor of sustaining a whole life
so we will have to protect
these precious babies from them
as they starve, displace, risk, infect,
molest, rape, incarcerate and murder
that which they could never carry

yet they want us to bear it
in spite of what we know from within
there are so many lives
lived in untenable crisis
because we hear the no
but they won’t listen

and what they do to the earth
they do to our bodies

but
and this is so important
what the earth can do?
so can we
we are earth
we are earth

we can swallow with tongues of flame
rage down from the sky
in precise and dizzying destruction
shake the foundation back into
a chaos of stone..
strip the bullshit to the bone

unleash this creation fury
which cannot be contained or controlled
we know every choice in this context
is brave

don’t make us weep floods
when your house is on fire
if we can’t decide
who to save

The Darwin Variant, and/or Love of the Fittest

The chaos grows and grows, everything around us faltering, falling. Who do we need to be and who are we becoming?

Once I was in a room with Margaret Wheatley, one of the people whose thinking on emergence and complexity helped me understand emergent strategy. I (or someone else) asked how we bring down massive systems through small, complex organizing. She said, essentially, that systems that are top heavy will inevitably collapse from their own imbalanced weight.

How do we survive these falling systems? Especially when many of them need to fall? How do we prepare for the opportunities in collapse?

I am thinking about that in this era of Covid, climate catastrophe, natural and unnatural disasters (this week there are wildfires, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and disaster capitalism feeding off of all of it), cultural shifts, and long-term war consequences from indigenous struggles locally in the U.S. to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s all connected – decisions made from a competitive, supremacist, dominant mindset lead to top heavy economies and infrastructures, which inevitably collapse, leaving the survivors to contend with the detritus of empire.

Much of the crisis now feels out of our hands – even to me as a fairly connected radical movement person, most days it feels like a series of unstoppable events, to which I can offer prayer and donations, witness and attention. There are so many frontlines, each equally important to the soldiers in that particular battle. Stepping back to see it whole, there’s definitely the sense that we are trying to hold back tsunamis by plugging a million holes in a dam.

I realize that this sense of total pending and unfolding disaster is all over my Covid responses, thoughts and interactions. I am writing to face this disastrous feeling within me, to see if I can center a different perspective down in myself.

As both an antiwar and climate activist, I remember the devastation I felt when I first realized we weren’t going to be able to stop the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. People were not going to sustain direct action, they were still going to pay their taxes towards the war, and be satisfied with resistance in the form of liberal punditry that changed nothing. This week we leave behind another nation long violated, knowing it will be eaten alive. It has taken so long to say, with humility, we lost a war we should never have been fighting.

With the climate catastrophe, I realized in my gut that we weren’t going to pivot our nation, our states, our towns to be in a just transition, not in time. Organizers inch forward proposals of survival and boundary, documentation and data, the responses much smaller and slower than the pending crises demand. We are up against capitalism, which feels so big, has so many heads. It is all so daunting. It is still the right work. But how do we make it matter? How do we meet the moment?

It could feel reasonable to give up the fight, all the fights, in light of this overwhelming comprehension of our species in its limitations. But then we are also in a period of massive cultural shift around race, anti-Blackness, rape and patriarchy. Systems designed to allow the total violence and control of those given power through a mythical supremacy are suddenly exposed down to the blueprint. Again, that labor of exposure is largely done by organizers who cleared space for the truth to be told with calls of Black Lives Matter and Me Too. We are rejecting these systems of harm in policy, action, and interpersonal encounters.

It’s all crumbling, concurrently. We are living through both the devastating fall of systems that guarantee life, and the necessary fall of systems that uphold violence.

So then Covid enters, stage right. It’s fast moving, wreaking havoc along the fault lines of existing vulnerabilities – those struggling to piece together enough inside of these multiple intersecting crises are hustling, hungry, taking risks to go to work, trying to survive eviction and exposure. Nations who let collective thinking lead are responding intelligently, and then there’s us.

Since the beginning, Covid has asked one thing of us: act collectively. First, the collective actions were maintaining the social distance of breath, hand washing, wearing masks. Then it was staying home unless you were an essential worker. And quarantining if you were sick. Then quarantining even if you were not sick. Doing work and community through virtual connections. And then, most recently, it’s been getting a vaccine that reduces the hospitalizations and deaths of those exposed to the virus. I cannot truly comprehend how many people have died as we figured out the necessary actions to take together. And now people are dying because we struggle to take collective actions.

To be fair, we are also in a period of peak socialized distrust. The divisions between us are dangerous and near total – we look to divergent news sources, have different conversations, suspect different aspects of government (from police to politicians to scientists) of wanting us surveilled, tracked, controlled or dead. Four years of a destructive and immature president did result in a wall, but not the border wall he threatened. The wall that now feels so solid in the U.S. is a cultural one that has deep roots and an ancient design, 3D printed hateful troll bricks stacked on top of colonial ruins.

Trying to be curious, to ask a question, to express a fear, to make a request, to assume a commonality – all of it quickly gets interpreted as building the division. Inside of this, on whatever side is for life moving towards life, I have been asking myself about boundaries, expectations, solidarity, and collective action. And love.

I now live by these words from my friend Prentis Hemphill, “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” Love. Not tolerate or survive, but love. When I speak these words, as reminder, as mantra, they give me hope that no one has to be disposable, cut off from that vast connectivity of love. It’s just a matter of distance.

I learned some time ago that not everyone was going to survive and see liberation, or right relationship with the earth, in this lifetime. Not everyone was going to be in vibrant, accountable communities in this lifetime. Not everyone was going to choose love. Not everyone was going to even be aware that they could want or need such interdependence. For so many people, it feels impossible to experience love, to give and receive that sacred extension of adoration, devotion, care, growth, belonging, loyalty and shared experience.

But with distance, perhaps even as far away as the moon, I can always see the species as lovable. I can see that everyone deserves that deep belonging which displaces greed and grasping. I can see us, young, beautiful, powerful, clumsy, tender, selfish – and generally lovable, like a rambunctious and curious child. Or sometimes lovable like the traumatized, neglected bully child who needs so much more love and attention to soften and trust and connect again.

With enough distance, I can love even those who, up close, hate me, or hate the earth, or hate anything different from them. I know “only love can conquer hate.” From far away I can see the haters of the world – those who hate nature, difference, complexity, freedom in others – in the grip of their own spiritual work, which is daunting, which devours from within. Knowing almost nothing of the mysteries of the universe, having only our own planet’s wisdom to learn from, I deduce that even the haters are processing something for the whole, though it may be something toxic, or something heading towards extinction.

With that guidance, I have been earnestly asking myself: what is the distance at which I can love those who choose individual freedom over collective care in the short-term, at the cost of a future? Those who choose to go unmasked? Those who still don’t wash their hands? Those who breathe and cough too close to me? Those who have access to and capacity for the vaccine and choose not to take it?

This year has been a brutal and necessary reminder that control and manipulation don’t work, for anyone involved. I have had to practice self-awareness of my own controlling nature, I have had to soften my grip on a fearful future narrative and return to the humility of the present. I am not in control of any choices or boundaries but my own. I cannot manipulate others into collective action, into choosing life, not even with all my best words. I can only be vulnerable, I can only live into my own values, I can only invite others to join me, and to teach me.

Collective action is still made up of individual choices, which is the beauty and bane of our species. Especially in the colonized capitalist borders of the U.S. Even in the face of policy and punishment, the American way is to choose individual thinking and action under pressure, to fight for superiority on any hill. This focus on dominance over the living rather than partnership with life is how we have racism, rape culture, climate catastrophe, economic disparity, war and disease all in rampant disaster states at the same time.

It is perpetually disgusting to contend with the reality that these disasters benefit a bloated elite. And too many of us participate in our small scale versions of their individualistic and hoarding worldview, thinking we are better than each other and the earth, deserve unlimited resources and access, and should never have to adapt to protect others.

This is humanity at our worst. How will we change?

At a certain point, even if collective action feels far away, there has to be an awareness of the pattern. We have to develop the systemic intuition to sense that the same glitch is present throughout all the systems. Thinking that your choices only impact you or those you immediately know – that you needn’t be concerned with or accountable for the results – is supremacist thinking at the root. It gets packaged as freedom and independence, but we are not individual entities. Humans, like all of nature, live within systems of relationship and resource. Our freedom is relational. Individualist supremacy is a delusional concept, perhaps safely enjoyed as fantasy but not to be applied as common practice. One way to see all of the current crises is as a single delusional wildfire consuming time and space.

What do we do though? How do we practice another way inside so much crisis?

I have a very small circle of beloveds now. Covid required me to get clear about who I absolutely had to be in contact with, who I would invest my time in arguing boundaries with, who I would risk my life to go see. Relative to the number of people I’ve met, the number of people I’ve marched with and for, the number of people on the side of justice and liberation who populate this earth…it turns out there’s a tiny handful that I can actually hold onto. And I now believe my work is to be a good member of the human flock with that small number. Yes, I can still sing out my birdsong to the whole forest. But I move in community, in relationships that are visionary and loving at the root.

I light candles every day around my hope that the distance at which I can love most people in this era isn’t that mortal boundary between life and death.

Covid keeps adapting, like a shepherd herding us as a group through the one gate that leads forward. When we think we alone can run off and stop attending to the whole, a variant emerges to gather us back groupward. The idea of being herded generates such resistance in me, “WE ARE NOT SHEEP!”, “I AM NOT A COW!” (“imspecialimspecialimspecial”)…and yet, are these not also sacred and communal creatures from whom I can learn? In this moment, perhaps theirs is the wisdom we need. Can we adapt to be herd, to be meek, to belong, to move together, to be humble together? Or maybe it’s more simple, more literal: can we be satisfied in a smaller range of physical space? Can we be satisfied inside of necessary boundaries?

It’s quite clear that one activity that keeps the majority of people safe and, coincidentally?, has a positive impact on the planet, is to stay home, stay still, travel less, reduce each personal footprint towards a collective reduction of negative impact. Perhaps variants like Delta will come every time we attempt to return to a normal that the planet cannot sustain.

I heard someone call it the Darwin variant and I can’t stop thinking about that.

The first waves of Covid deaths were our loved ones and strangers who didn’t know what it was. Then those who knew the name and symptoms but didn’t stand a chance. Then those who didn’t realize or trust just how dangerous it was. Now we are seventeen months into the official global pandemic, playing chicken. Most of those who are getting sick and dying in the U.S. now are doing so as a result of choosing not to believe in Covid, in its viral nature, or in the benefits and safety of the vaccine; or those who think they are beyond the reach of guidelines; or those most susceptible to misinformation from unverified sources; or those unable to avoid interaction with others caught up in denial or misinformation, tragically including our precious babies.

They all still expect and need care.

I feel empathy for those who don’t trust the government, even as I feel my own righteous distrust. What’s been helping me in this moment is how much I love the divine work of science. I believe that the sacred force that designed hummingbirds and eagles and the symbiosis of bees and flowers and the desalination of the ocean through vapor and rain also moves through the minds of our scientists. I feel a primal longing for more people to trust in the curiosity-based practice of science. I feel a political need for science to be decoupled from big pharma, which feels so close to how I need movements to be decoupled from big philanthropy. But currently it’s all the same tangled rope of innovation and struggle and funding to which we cling over an apocalyptic abyss. I am not trying to be dramatic here, I’m just being with what is.

Charles Darwin was a scientist whose writing explored many concepts, including one from Herbert Spencer: ‘survival of the fittest.’ The concept reverberates into moments like this. The common misinterpretation is that it means survival of the most physically fit, an ableist view. I’m sure you, like me, have seen able-bodied people argue against Covid safety protocols by saying those with strong immune systems will survive. Many of those I’ve seen take this stance have gone on learn through sickness or loss that that’s not how Covid, or any of our other current apocalyptic conditions, actually work.

I was reminded recently (in public) that Darwin’s own writing points to ‘fittest’ meaning those most adaptive and collectively oriented, those most suited to the immediate conditions. Our immediate conditions are chaotic, frightening, fast-changing and inevitable. What is grossly imbalanced is teetering and falling. What is wildly anti-planet and inhumane is exposed and falling. What is cruel and violent and unfair and ridiculous, it’s all falling.

And the persisting question for me is, what is the work of love in all this falling? Can love help us be the fittest our species has been?

I have sought to offer and experience all kinds of love throughout my life. I have learned that I can love people who will still choose to leave me, to risk their lives, and I will feel grief. I have been learning that there is the big collective massive love I feel for all that lives, and then the tangible offer of love as an energy, resource and commitment which I can only give to those with whom I am in a mutual, consensual and aligned relationship.

I find it hard to love those who hate science, and hate me…not impossible, at least in the big picture setting. But working to actively love those who hate me is immense labor, and if I am honest with myself, it’s generally not something I’m even interested in cultivating in the irreplaceable hours of my remaining life.

Because my love feels rooted not just in myself, but in myself as a fragment of the miraculous natural world, I notice the patterns of hate at the interpersonal, interspecies and global level. There is an undeniable overlap between this resistance to science and the resistance to wear a mask, socially distance and/or vaccinate, in spite of data that affirms the life saving impacts of each choice. And all of that overlaps with the resistance to do right by the earth. The resistance to move beyond capitalism to economic models that allow shared abundance. And the resistance to give up patriarchy and white sociopathy. And national supremacy.

How do I love this vast diversity of human beings, beloved and stranger, who are currently toxic to our collective survival?

I only see one way. If I define love as the willful extension towards spiritual growth that bell hooks and M. Scott Peck told me about, then when I come across all this resistance to the miraculous and collective aspects of our species, I willfully extend my energy towards the necessary and inevitable growth evidenced by that resistance.

It liberates my love to see the resistance to science and nature and interdependence as a cry for help, a sign of how important it is that we grow our capacity to act as collective beings. And, as is my practice, when I can see where that edge of growth is, I seek it in myself. Where in my own life do I still persist in actions that presuppose my importance and supremacy, rather than accept my small role in our collective existence?

I have begun to feel gratitude inside my Covid grief. It’s the result of thinking collectively, even trying to think as a cell or atom of this planetary existence, awkward as that may sound. Even as I despair at the deaths of those who didn’t have a chance to choose, and those who did not survive their risks, I have to acknowledge what else I sense here…at a certain point we have to consider that Covid might be aligned with the earth, of the universe, designed to get us to fight for ourselves, love ourselves as collective beings, love ourselves enough to set and hold boundaries that serve more than our individual wants and needs.

Can I surrender the recent-normal for the present need? Can I commit to practicing a new and limited present-normal for the sake of a species-future? Can I listen more deeply to the earth, to the patterns? Can I keep finding the space to feel for direction within the chaos?

It’s so complicated.

It is much easier for me to love those who want collective human life to continue, in right relationship to the planet. But perhaps that’s evolution moving in me, perhaps this is a sacred attention, a ‘love of the fittest?’

Even now, as I write this, I still love people who choose themselves over the collective every time. And, I’m noticing, every day they feel further and further away. Or I do.

Seeing the pattern of life unfolding inside the destruction and chaos, I keep bringing my attention to it. I despair and then seek laughter, seek the community of others who feel afraid but keep working to connect. I relinquish being right for being present. I don’t deny reality as I find my place in the present moment and try to be of the fittest in constantly changing conditions.

I don’t wait for perfection or magic, I participate in the mundane work of staying alive. I keep my distance, wash my hands, wear my mask, carry my vaccine card. I get tested at every possibility of Covid. If something gets through my mask, if a variant finds me in spite of my best effort, it won’t be for lack of trying to live. If the vaccine works for most people who get it, but somehow not for me, I accept my role in the collective story.

And in my life I keep writing, keep working to shift myself out of the center of anything. I shift my practices one at a time away from capitalist socialization that says I need to be the best at something to deserve a quality life. I redistribute attention, time, donate money…and ask for help.

I am rooting myself amongst people who are learning to think and act together, as pairs, small groups, communities. We ask each other more questions, about what we are choosing to practice and why. We know so much more about each other’s lives and patterns than ever before. We process our inevitable risk-taking with each other because we are imperfect, and we long for each other. We are raising children inside these unclear, ever-shifting boundaries, and we are moving our resources around amongst us to get through. Sometimes we find that in the light of all this new transparency, we aren’t as compatible as we thought. It’s OK. We let each other go on different paths through the adventure, and root with the people on our path.

So are these answers, these small breaths in the maelstrom?

Small circles rooted in love.
Relinquishing control and offering love.
Mundane practices as acts of love.

Humility in the face of the unknown is self-love.
Seeing and shaping the whole, not as a million overwhelming waves, but as a sea – this is collective love.
Living in generosity and gratitude, every day, is living love.
Being nature, is being love.

It certainly feels like love is the way.

Perhaps. Perhaps.

And this may or may not fit in this piece of thinking and writing, but love is asking me to mention that I am centering pleasure even now, within the small circle. We are a pleasure flock, comforting each other, cheering each other on towards our best lives even today in these conditions. Pleasure connects us to ourselves and each other, to the aliveness at the funeral, to the blessing in the crisis, to the sweet new life pushing green up through the sludge.

We who are not yet dead are responsible for living fully, without regrets, with deep reverence for the wide range of emotion in the human experience. I look for the pleasure of home, of rooting and nesting, of growing things, of moving slowly, of being honest, of writing, of cooking, of dancing, of gratitude, of love. Every single day I dose myself with pleasures small and large, knowing that as it all falls apart, so much is growing; knowing that within myself and my circle I am seeding a path towards a future in which feeling and growing pleasure and aliveness and delight, in relationship to each other and our abundant and perfect planet, is our central focus.

There. It is long, but I have shifted myself from despairing overwhelm back to visionary center. It is a gift that I can only fulfill my own small destiny, follow the instructions that are clearest to me, move with my own consecrated choreography. When I feel completely lost, I can focus each day on being kind, being generous, and being honest. I light candles for all I cannot carry, and then move into the present moment with only my love. As everything crumbles above and around us, it is still true that the most strategic move is the ever changing dance of love.

St. Louis Racial Equity Summit 2021 Keynote

St Louis Racial Equity Summit Keynote (notes):

We are imagining a world we have never seen before. Writing it into existence with words and with actions.

We who live in this country on this earth today have barely experienced the wonder of our planet. We have not experienced a world without homelessness, poverty, inequality, white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, rape culture, slavery, environmental degradation, climate crisis or prisons. And that’s the short list of our ‘horrible, ordinary’ things, as Octavia E Butler called them. We haven’t seen a world free of these hellish beliefs and behaviors – many of us have never even experienced a pocket of community with the absence of some of these beliefs and behaviors – and yet we imagine.

We live in a world which others imagined. Most of the constructs that oppress us feel like fact, are taught to us as fact – but they are actually evidence of historical imagination. These ideas were imagined before being practiced into solidity, authority, tradition, assumption. The core patterns of U.S. historical imagination are supremacy, dominance, victory. These are not the most beautiful things imagined in human history, but the most violently upheld.

Someone imagined a racialized economic system built on a foundation of indentured labor and slavery – exploitative production of dehumanized people to benefit those who labor less or not at all. In capitalism the norm and assumption is that we must always be producing and growing in scale, so we either work ourselves to death, or if we are privileged we work others to death, or under risk of death, though these days we prefer that the exploitation stay out of sight, behind bars or across borders. In racialized capitalism, the exploited are primarily Black and Brown people. But it must be said that while Whiteness is presented as a racial distinction and a superiority, in fact when people speak of white supremacy and privilege, they are speaking of a very particular and limited racialized economic status – they mean wealthy able bodied white straight men. White privilege can trickle down to other white people, but the way whiteness really works is that anyone who has access to white skin privilege is competing for that elite economic status of White. This is why the wealthiest nation in the world couldn’t just pause and care for our citizens to stop the spread of Covid, even the white people. That elite body refused to take a loss, to let production stop. They could not imagine a scenario in which 570 thousand lives were more valuable than their own bottom lines. Can you imagine only being able to imagine what is good for you?

And yet, there are also, alive right now, those who remember how we are supposed to imagine in relationship to all that lives – indigenous beloveds have taught me we are meant to imagine seven generations ahead of ourselves, and make our choices accordingly. This long-view puts us in a time traveling familial relationship with all of existence.

So. We are in what teacher-friend Terry Marshall calls an imagination battle. The moment we begin to question oppressive historical imagination, supremacy imagination; the moment we begin to dream of justice, of liberation, of right relationship, we become imagination warriors. Organizers. Our mission is to co-dream visions more compelling than oppression, and more honest than supremacy. And then move from imagination all the way to new practice.

What happened in St. Louis, in Ferguson changed our imagination. Changed what we thought was possible inside the collective imagination. We have been fed up with living in a world in which a police officer can imagine himself in danger and kill our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends.

When I was in college, Amadou Diallo was killed in the Bronx, just north of my campus. As a young person, I was galvanized, politicized, shaped, scared, and I felt responsible for doing something urgently to stop this from being able to happen again. I cocreated a campus project called CPR – I can’t quite remember what it stood for, it was short-lived but it was a beginning of my path as an abolitionist. Now I see a generation awakened similarly by what happened here, and the way you all rose up to respond to it seven years ago this month.

We are most often moved onto the path of abolition, after being snatched into grief and uprising. Perhaps we watch the disparities, how our communities get locked up for things that white communities don’t. Perhaps we see how those who cause harm go into that system and come out with fewer options and more likelihood of needing to break a law to survive. When does it end? ‘When does it end?’ can be a question most clearly answered by the idea that it ends when we imagine what comes next. Abolition must absolutely be imagined as we begin to practice what comes next.

We imagine in part by remembering. Every single one of us, if we go back far enough, have ancestors indigenous to a place on this earth, or multiple places for those of us of multiple heritages. These ancestors predate colonization world-wide, and in a multitude of ways, they practiced being in relationship to every aspect of the earth and to each other, in responsible stewardship of land and life. For those of us who time and slavery and capitalism and the construct of whiteness have displaced from our original homes and peoples, we must reach to imagine how it might have felt to live this way. Most indigenous people alive today have to navigate and protect their long-held practices, and their literal land, against the pace and pressure of a modern world at odds with being in relationship. But we can all imagine some future-past which lives in our ancestral memory bag, which lives in our DNA. And when we struggle, we can actually find and follow indigenous leadership. A first step is to understand whose land you live on. I am in Detroit, on Anishnaabe territory. Anishnaabe organizers are active here, teaching me and others what they know and remember, and also sharing generously what they imagine through creative projects like the Adizookan.

We imagine in part by tasting our own aliveness. Audre Lorde wrote that once we experience our erotic aliveness, it becomes impossible to settle for less, for suffering and self-negation. For me, organizing to transform the conditions of injustice in the world was when I felt that aliveness, that tying in to something true, a connectedness that vibrates through my veins. We know this isn’t right. We know we aren’t meant to live in this perpetual state of war and stress and unmet needs and loneliness and lies. We can change this. Even before we have an intact political analysis we can feel that things must change, and we in small circles of humanity can change things.

Now, I sometimes imagine that each of us holds a distinct piece of our collective, liberated future within us, and it is only accessible as we liberate our own imaginations, and our truest selves, shaped by each of our particular ancestral and life experiences.

My work straddles the lines of science fiction, speculative fiction, and collaborative ideation.

Most science fiction answers three fundamental questions: What if, if only, and if this goes on. Social justice work answers the same questions as we dream together of a world in which we feel our miraculous lives matter, our freedom is non-negotiable, and we live lives that are satisfying and interdependent.

What if there were no prisons? What would you need to be able to do? Who would you need to be, to participate and be accountable and experience growth and consequences in that paradigm? I find it exciting to remember that there are places where there is no armed body making people obey – I got to travel to Costa Rica, a land with no ARMY, and I can attest that there is joy and there is community.

What if all children had access to the same resources of healthy meals, space to play and create, solid familial and community attachments, safety from physical emotional and sexual abuse, and quality education? What if they were not raised in an environment of emotionally or physically violent punishments, but tangible and nourishing consequences that grew their sense of responsibility for their behaviors and relationships?

What if we began life by getting to know ourselves outside of any preconceived identity-value construct (race, gender, class)? What would our Blackness feel like if it wasn’t primarily a site of shared trauma and forced resilience? What if the work we do in this generation makes it a smaller and smaller part of our history?

What if?

If only we learned democracy and consensus and collaboration as a practice from a young age, instead of just a theory we expect our government to practice with representatives in our place.
If only our police were not issued deadly weapons, but trained to mediate and intervene on harm.
If only we had a cooperative economy. If only we could liberate ourselves from scarcity thinking and practicing, had an abundance

If only.

If the movement for a just transition goes on, our species might be able to survive on earth and take root amongst the stars, a destiny Octavia gifted us with in her books the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents.
If this abolitionist movement goes on, we will transform how humans relate to each other.
If movements for queer and trans justice go on, we will successfully break the restrictive and damaging construct of gender and hetero normative supremacy and actually get to experience the wide variety of love, life and pleasure that is most natural to us.

If this goes on.

What if.
If only.
If this goes on.

Right now, we are in a phase of history in which we are awakening our imaginations, and these questions help. We are articulating dreams to each other in which we matter. We are dreaming to each other that Black Lives Matter – and not just black straight ablebodied male lives, but black queer trans women’s and non binary disabled lives matter. We will say the names of these lives and we will take direct action and change policy until these lives matter to everyone.

I want to share a poem I wrote about this political moment. It’s called “this is not justice, this is respite”:

the first thing we could do was breathe,
together
a practitioner of breathlessness is guilty
(hallelujah hallelu!)
like, they said what we knew
(he looked surprised too)
that small alignment is so rare
it lays our contradictions bare
some hushing shout does move through the body as if (remember) we are one body but
it’s really chorus, we of so many minds
we feel so hollow
we feel such joy
we feel such rage
we feel our grief
we feel relief
all at once, in undulation
we cry out in celebration
and then catch a dissatisfied breath
this moment makes the moment we need possible but…but…
in the next breath world
he would be fathering right now
or high like the rest of us
inhaling aliveness, exhaling freedom
on a day that blended into a life
blessed to be unknown
in the next breath world
they would all be alive today
and the presence of that absence
casts a blur across the headline
it took so much burning of precincts, chaos, rage
screaming and defending and
terrifying the children and
combating every mistruth and
nauseous vulnerability and regret and pressure from so many precious lives already at risk
to get this guilty, guilty, guilty
we will praise up the collective tonight
we will lay gratitude for our warriors tonight
we will claim the hard-won territory tonight
tomorrow, we return to the fight
for even in our gasp of yes
with our need to grieve so desperate
we know
this is not justice
this is respite

Respite is going to save our lives. Rest is going to save our lives. And rest allows us to come down from the nonstop stressful urgency of now, to remember that we are also responsible for dreaming. We are concurrently dreaming a world in which all Black lives matter, and rape culture ends, and we reclaim our place on this planet, and we can hold each other accountable through love, mediation, boundaries and consequences.

My mentor Grace Lee Boggs used to always ask us ‘What time is it on the Clock of the world?” and right now my answer would be, we are in a phase of imagination, co-dreaming a world where our ‘what if’s and ‘if only’s get realized, and the patterns of harm cannot go on.

Imagining these futures, writing these stories, does not mean we know yet how to live into these dreams.

I have worked as a facilitator and mediator for over two decades and a huge portion of the disputes I have been asked to hold are rooted in us being angry at our mistakes or someone else’s, while unable to be accountable for those mistakes. The crises are urgent, but the transformation that emerges from radical imagination is still slow, relational, imperfect work. We are learning.

Earlier this year, I noticed that we are in a pattern of disposing of Black women leaders, and I felt the heartbreak of that, and at first it hurt too much to write. But then I wrote, and so much came out of me that i ended up sharing a piece called Disrupting the Pattern, in which I offered some things for us to consider as we learn to practice solidarity with each other, whether it’s with and amongst Black people, or across racially constructed lines with any other people fighting for right relationship to the earth and each other:

“Consider that whenever dehumanization is taking place, someone is benefiting from devaluing another person. Ask yourself who benefits from attacks on effective Black radical women? Who benefits from spotlighting conflict within movements that are changing material conditions for Black people?

Consider who benefits from you thinking that Black success and freedom is dangerous, and particularly that the success and freedom of Black women is dangerous.

Consider that this isn’t a new pattern.

Consider that social justice work is a place where most of us work for years for less than a living wage, subject to the whims of trend and philanthropy.

Consider, when you see the news of some perceived betrayal, some corruption of power, that the least likely option is that a Black woman who has given decades of her life to social justice work, to her people’s liberation, has turned on her own legacy, on us.

Consider that the lie is scarcity. The lie is that there isn’t enough for us to have abundant resources for our liberation work. The lie is that we can’t have multiple leaders shining simultaneously, moving divergent strategies. It’s a lie – we generate what we need and we are always moving divergent strategies.

Consider that there are ways to access abundance that don’t rely on attacking each other.

Consider that it is not an accident that a massively impactful social movement for Black liberation is under this scale of attack – it only looks personal. This is an attack on all our emergent, imperfect efforts for Black liberation.

Consider that you don’t have all of the information. We live in a social media world that profits from tawdry, salacious, divisive misinformation, where power is wielded by those most comfortable with distortion and manipulation. Consider that we don’t have to feed the beast that comes to eat those who inspire and lead us. Consider that this may not be your business, especially if you don’t have time to ask questions, investigate for something true, especially if you are only being asked to leap into judgment.

Consider how you want to be held when you are attacked for things you didn’t do. Consider how you want to be held accountable for things you did do. Do you want death threats, doxxing and other privacy violations, organized harassment and disposal, when it’s your turn? Cause if you plan to lead anything, your turn will come. So consider – what is principled struggle, principled critique, not just when you have a concern, but when you are the concern?

Consider that movement is not just a place of faith in the futures we are creating, but a place where we need to practice faith in each other, in our effort and our learning.

Consider that how you act or don’t act in this moment is part of setting a precedent for how movement responds to attacks on those who love us. If you won’t protect a Black leader from white supremacist attack because you also have critiques of or questions about how that leader’s movement work is unfolding, examine that. How does that align with the world you dream of?

Most of the leaders I look up to were attacked in their time, and might have been attacked in ours. The common thread amongst them is that they were driven by love for their people, our people, us. The work of the revolutionary is to transform everything that does not align with love, from the personal to the systemic.

Consider what love does in the face of dishonesty, faithlessness, and repression: love tells the truth. Love believes in our best selves. Love liberates us.

Consider that you should not feel afraid to love Black women leaders out loud. In the long run, what Audre Lorde taught us is still true: your silence will not protect you or anyone else. Love Black women leaders out loud wherever you see us attacked and dehumanized.

Love invites us home, love says we belong, unconditionally.

Love does not demand our perfection, because none of us have that – love sees the effort we have made on behalf of our people, our species. They are home.

A huge part of my racial justice work is being in solidarity and loving myself in my own Black story and Black offer, which I know takes nothing away from all the other Black brilliance in the world, but increases its abundance. I love myself and claim my eternal place in movements for liberation. I have made and will make mistakes. I will still be liberation bound.

If you feel moved to practice this solidarity of which I speak, repeat after me:

I love you, Black woman.
I love you, organizer.
I will not engage in gossip about you.
I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.
I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.
I am committed to your freedom.”

Thank you for that.

In closing I will offer that yes, I imagine a world in which we are liberated. And before that, I imagine a world in which we deeply honor the work that we all do towards that liberation, even if we don’t agree on the methods. But I see so much more than just the state of freedom – I know my dream is not a destination, but a practice that will be ongoing. Because after imagination comes ideation – how do we bring these dreams into ideas of structure and policy and agreement? How do we move from air to earth?

And then once we have these ideas in place, we move into iteration – what do we stop practicing and what do we start practicing?

I am aware of how so much of what I imagine – liberation from the cycles of harm and supremacy, being in relationships of sovereignty and safety in our bodies and on our planet, letting love being a guide to how we understand everything from identity to economy – these imaginings may still seem peculiar and strange…queer. So i want to share the first words of Emergent Strategy, a quote from Ella Baker. ““This may only be a dream of mine, but I think it can be made real.”

this is the only moment (species love poetry)

i can’t stop being in the present

noticing how the past tells me what i should care about and the future tells me what i should fear
and the past tells me what we forgot
and the future tells me what we must dream
but here

i breathe in
noticing the gift i too often take for granted
not knowing how many breaths i have left
i want to spend them
being
love

i have done so much, so many tasks
but what has mattered most
has been the listening
to the thirsting dirt
to the spiraling wind in the wake of
murmuration
to the drumbeat of ant feet moving abundance with a million hands
the sacred erotic of pollination
the orgasmic opening of mushrooms
pulling the yes for miles underground
the innocent violence of predators
feeding their children
the way the wild wastes nothing
the way the cedar gives me permission
to pray

i thought someone else
had all the instructions
and i, stumbling and following,
praying to become worthy,
must admit i have been grieving and grieving
all i don’t know and don’t trust
and grieving so deeply
a world that is still breathing
anticipating failure
in spite of my visions

but when i listen
the universe is reminding me
i cannot be taken from her
i am never untethered from her roots
never beyond the whole
and nothing is lost, it is lived
and we are not here to win
but to experience love
and those who do not know love
are missing life in spite of all other accumulation

and when i listen
the universe is teaching me
that control is impossible
and the season will change
and enough is a feeling that cannot be measured
and the small circle is the deepest
and i cannot teach anyone what i have not practiced
and i cannot change anyone but myself
and i will never feel free in a position of demand
and i am already free
and we all are, and when we realize it
we cannot be contained

and we are never i
even when we are lonely
even when we distinctly suffer
even when we distinctly succeed
we are of lineage
of collective
of era
of farmers’ hands and strangers’ prayers
of singers with their heads thrown back
we are always dancing with our ghosts
and praying for our great great grandchildren
we are always the harvest

and the future is being decided
the future is being practiced
the future is being planted
in this breath
and this breath
and this breath

so i breathe in
noticing the gift i too often take for granted
not knowing how many breaths i have left
i want to spend them
being
love

boundary moments

this is a boundary moment, and i want to make a brief offer into it.

a few weeks ago my partner and i got our first vaccine shots. immediately we felt different, and began renegotiating our own individual covid-19 boundaries in new ways. after over a year of Everything Is Dangerous And We Must Be Inside These Walls, we had/have no measure for what is normal, what is safe, or if safe is even possible.

i felt safe-ish taking risks to be with family. my love felt safe-ish taking risks to be with friends. neither of us was necessarily right or wrong, but we both felt the other was risking too much, and those feelings grew into a sticky situation.

i am sharing this because since this pandemic started, i keep noticing that we are all trying to navigate collective boundaries as individuals or pairs, because we live in an economy of hyper-individualization. but it’s so hard to navigate this way because as Sistah-Dr Alexis Pauline Gumbs teaches: we aren’t individuals. we are cells in an interdependent highly connected species.

it would be so amazing if the information was clear, and safety was guaranteed, and we could just live inside the boundaries as a species, rather than as a million different risks. but we are here, and now. what i want to offer is what my love and i eventually landed, which is helping. (this is u.s.-centered because that is the context in which i am navigating covid-19 boundaries, with the availability of vaccines now fairly high in most places, but without a majority of people accessing the vaccine yet.)

suggestions:

one, review the CDC guidelines on vaccinated behavior. it really helps to not have to debate over things that are known, like ‘don’t change your boundaries until you are fully vaccinated two weeks after the second shot,’ or ‘where and when you can be unmasked with other vaccinated people,’ etc.

*Update: i am a bit at a loss with the latest guidelines from the CDC (for those fully vaccinated to stop wearing masks). i don’t grasp the logic and collective responsibility of it.

two, agree on boundaries for this next period. prentis hemphill told us, ‘boundaries are the distance at which i can love me and you simultaneously.’ you can just accept the cdc guidelines, or you can do cdc guidelines with some flourishes that are particular to your health vulnerabilities and needs.

remember, boundaries are more meaningful when you discuss the consequences of what happens if a boundary gets broken, so get that clarity too – apologies? rapid testing? another brief quarantine? rolling back to earlier boundaries?

spend some particular time on any particular adaptations you may need based on your personalities. this ‘personalities’ part is really important – we have forgotten a lot about how to be social animals. being quarantined together means that many of us have been in a house with our person or family, operating as one creature. with this shift of increasing vaccination, our biodiversity will start showing again: for some of us, there is comfort in the highest boundaries; people beyond our pair or pod seem like a terrifying untrustworthy danger. for others, the need to be free and out and normal is a pounding drum within. many of us feel both things…and there’s everything in between. don’t underestimate the social impact of this boundaries moment. don’t assume you need the same things, and don’t pathologize the divergent responses you are each having to impossible pressures.

discuss what you personally need in this transition into the next phase of the u.s. pandemic. do you need to see everyone you love, immediately? do you need to go really slowly? do you need to keep wearing masks until there is more data? do you need to see vaccination cards for anyone you’re gathering with? do you need to understand better how the vaccine actually works? both/all people reflect on and share your needs, and then find the path that is most nourishing to both/all needs.

three, organize, advocate and donate to ensure that more people worldwide have access to the vaccine. what is unfolding in india is devastating, and we in the u.s. are benefitting from their labor, which produced vaccines that they haven’t been able to access. you can support mutual aid efforts there right now. and they aren’t the only place struggling to survive covid with little to no vaccine access – areas already struggling in conflict, occupation, war and economic collapse all need our collective attention. we are not individuals. we have to make sure that everyone who wants this protection can access it.

finally, four, love and protect each other every day. i saw a meme on the internet posted by @hillarydixler that said, “everybody needs more than anyone can give right now.” we are burnt out and overextended at the level of species, and we do not know all that people are holding. channel octavia e. butler’s earthseed wisdom: “kindness eases change.”

this is not justice, this is respite

the first thing we could do was breathe,
together

a practitioner of breathlessness is guilty
(hallelujah hallelu!)
like, they said what we knew
(he looked surprised too)
that small alignment is so rare
it lays our contradictions bare

some hushing shout does move through the body as if (remember) we are one body but
it’s really chorus, we of so many minds
we feel so hollow
we feel such joy
we feel such rage
we feel our grief
we feel relief

all at once, in undulation
we cry out in celebration
and then catch a dissatisfied breath
this moment makes the moment we need possible but…but…

in the next breath world
he would be fathering right now
or high like the rest of us
inhaling aliveness, exhaling freedom
on a day that blended into a life
blessed to be unknown

in the next breath world
they would all be alive today
and the presence of that absence
casts a blur across the headline

it took so much burning of precincts, chaos, rage
screaming and defending and
terrifying the children and
combating every mistruth and
nauseous vulnerability and regret and pressure from so many precious lives already at risk
to get this guilty, guilty, guilty
we will praise up the collective tonight
we will lay gratitude for our warriors tonight
we will claim the hard-won territory tonight
tomorrow, we return to the fight

for even in our gasp of yes
with our need to grieve so desperate
we know
this is not justice

this is respite

Disrupting the Pattern: A Call for Love and Solidarity

shared with Tulane University for their Leadership Speaker Series

Tonight I want to share a piece of writing with you I have been working on called:

Disrupting the Pattern: A Call for Love and Solidarity

This is my emergent strategy thinking on the conflict and attacks happening on and in Black movement right now. I hope it serves us all.

I love you, Black woman.

I have been doing the work of holding movements for radical social and environmental change for over two decades, and I realized this morning that I cannot think of one Black woman leader who I haven’t seen gossiped on, mistreated, disrespected, lied on, and violated at the level of reputation or privacy – all while being overworked and underpaid, or unpaid.

Observing the pattern of Black women under attack is not new, so what’s been unfolding with Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors feels devastating in a familiar way. You have probably seen it – white supremacists doxxed her, meaning they shared her address and images of her home, putting her and her family in grave danger. And they spread misinformation that makes it appear she is financially untrustworthy. They were able to do this, in part, because of conflict within Black movement, including disagreements about structure and money and political orientation.

Right now it’s Patrisse. But I’ve observed disinformation campaigns on so many Black women, especially those in executive director roles or positions of visible movement leadership, that if I began to name them we would be here all night. I include myself in this observation.

My general approach has been: find whatever lesson is here, but don’t feed these untruthful narratives with public attention. Because what we pay attention to grows.

But I am learning that what we ignore can also grow, like a cancer or any other quiet, internal dis-ease. This disease of suspicion directed towards Black women leaders has spread and created such a toxic space in movements that it is sometimes hard to remember we are here for liberation, for solidarity against common ideological enemies, for love, for life. I want to bring my, and our, attention to where we need to grow and heal, to where we need to use a shift in our attention to disrupt this pattern of pain.

I, a writer who can express almost anything I think, cannot find words for how painful this pattern is.

I love you, organizer.

Movement can be a balm to systemic wounds, but it doesn’t make those of us in movement immune to the patterns of pain and harm with which those systems function. In fact, all of us move through the world perpetuating these systems in a variety of ways, and if we forget this we can lose touch with a crucial aspect of the work – our self-transformation, and our responsibility not just for what we say, but for how we are. This is why Grace Lee Boggs said we must “transform ourselves to transform the world” – we are in and of these systems.

There are several systems operating within this current complex and painful pattern.

There is the swift and brutal suspicion of Black women, cis and trans, taught to us through the toxic combination of racism and patriarchy that Moya Bailey named misogynoir.

We have centuries at our back of being taught that Black people are not trustworthy. This narrative is so persistent that even today, in every crisis where White people gather supplies, we (doing the exact same thing) are called looters. When the police shoot us, we are the ones put on trial.

We have centuries at our backs of being trained that Black people are naturally inferior, less than human.

We have centuries at our back of being socialized that women lie, manipulate, gold dig, are bitchy and evil when we hold power, and are too emotional, hysterical and inferior to lead.

We have centuries at our back of expecting Black women to mammy and martyr ourselves for the benefit of others. Many Black women leaders ended up in our roles because we continually picked up the work no one else would do – not that we necessarily knew how to do it, but we were willing to hold it and to learn; we said yes when a task needed to be done.

We have centuries at our back of violently punishing Black women who assume we deserve to receive even a portion of what we give, for finding ourselves on pedestals, for being willing to contend for tangible power. Black women leaders get isolated and attacked and pushed out of movement leadership, generation after generation.

These systems of dehumanization weave together and bind us all in the grip of harmful assumptions against each other.

I will not engage in gossip about you.

There is also the violent and envious competition around success taught to us within capitalism. As our impact grows, the pattern of gossip and then attacks grows; where we think we are leading towards solidarity, we find ourselves instead fighting for limited territory. This competition is rooted in a produced sense of scarcity – that there is not enough money or attention or time to go around, so we must fight for everything.

That sense of scarcity has been honed by philanthropy within capitalism – the wealthiest people and institutions pit us against each other for their funds until the majority of nonprofit work can be caught up in generating and sustaining income, rather than doing the organizing and political work we know is necessary.

From a hungry, mission-drifted, competitive space, we envy each other’s success and abundance, rather than celebrating it with pure hearts, because we get bought into the narrative that we are all fighting for the same scraps. I say scraps because the amounts of money for which we turn on each other are chump change to those with real wealth; charitable detritus. Some people in philanthropy are working to change these dynamics, to truly redistribute power around wealth, to think in terms of reparations – but in the meantime we must examine the economic models of movement and find a cooperative path to abundance.

Right now, these systemic patterns of racism, sexism and capitalism are lethal for movement leadership.

We are up against massive systems, massive opposition – we can be so overwhelmed and fearful about the scale of what we are up against that it feels easier to point out the way these systems are functioning amongst us than to go for the source. The work of building something powerful and massive begins small, begins in relationships where we can be ourselves, be accountable for our mistakes, be called into loving changes, be in mutual power. We relinquish relationship for both urgent massive work, and a false sense of individual safety.

Sometimes we are warned about these patterns of pain early in our movement work. We are still surprised when they turn on us. Sometimes we receive quiet, private words of comfort from comrades as we are being attacked, sometimes it is acknowledged that what’s happening to us is wrong. Rarely are we protected, defended, held out loud. Rarely do we experience the solidarity we offer.

I understand. It’s dangerous to protect each other, because it means we are climbing onto the target with our attacked comrades. But I believe it is more dangerous, at a collective level, not to protect each other. When we do not protect each other, we end up leaving our most valuable resources on the battlefield. Brilliant, hardworking organizers and creators and strategists pour the best of themselves, ourselves, into something collective, and are then left alone when they, when we, most need to be flanked.

I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.

We must strengthen and broaden our practice of solidarity until no single organizer or community member can be plucked off and dehumanized, disposed of, made an easy target for those who want to see us fail, destroyed.

Emergent strategy asks us to practice decentralized movement work, where no one ends up on a pedestal in the first place, especially not alone. But because we live inside a capitalist framework that is constantly looking for singular hero narratives and rock stars, some of our most effective organizers do end up on these disorienting, distant and undesired pedestals, and we cannot abandon those leaders. Many of our leaders and strategists, having recognized the inevitability of these platforms when the work they are doing has impact, are trying to figure out how to harness them for the sake of collective liberation. (I know there are some people who show up after the work has been done, wanting just the attention, the pedestal experience – that’s a whole other piece of writing and thinking, I’m not speaking of that here. I am speaking of leaders whose platform emerged because the work they were doing touched so many people, changed so many lives.) We must have a movement solidarity strong enough to protect our leaders and comrades whether we agree with their strategies and methodologies or not.

In nature, we see so clearly how the healthiest ecosystems thrive in biodiversity. There are as many ways of being, growing, processing sunlight and rain into life as there are species. When something threatens the trees, the mushrooms spread the warning and the forest adapts to protect the tree, knowing that each tree is part of the health of the whole – mushrooms flower on the tree’s trunk, sparrows nest in the tree’s branches, fecundity bursts forth in the tree’s shade. No creature or plant in that healthy ecosystem functions as a monopoly, or as an individual. They make it as long and as far as they can grow together.

So far, we in movements for justice only make it collectively as far as our individual leaders can survive the onslaught. We mistakenly operate as individuals when we are already ecosystem – this is keeping us from the growth we and our communities desperately need.

One side effect of this hyper individualization of movement leaders is that the many small parts of our movement – our local organizers and chapters, our youth leaders, our community groups, our collectives – struggle to sustain themselves within our collaborative mass efforts.

We won’t get free if we can’t learn to operate at the scale of collaboration across differences, across platforms and exposure, in spite of efforts to sow dissent amongst us, to develop leaders who know how to disagree and still work together.

Because how can the leaders we need grow in our current conditions? How do we invite the next generation to step into collaborative leadership when it means becoming a future target for takedown from those to whom you give your life’s work?

It definitely takes a peculiar kind of faith to persist in the thankless work that organizing can be (we are trying to counter that by cultivating celebration and gratitude as practices in movement), but even that faith can be tested when the work becomes a perpetual system of gauntlets, where it begins to feel like every forward move is a potential challenge for some unasked-for combat.

We can absolutely critique each other. We must. Principled critical engagement, principled struggle, happens within relationship, within and across formations where we have some shared values and shared vision towards which we are advancing. Principled critique is informed, impervious to click bait tabloid accusations. Principled critique believes that we critique to build each other up, help each other grow, not eviscerate each other, or delight in each other’s downfall.

Some people’s entire life mission, central organizational activity, or primary collective effort is the destruction of other movement workers under the guise of critique. Some people are movement workers who have lost their way and think destruction of their own structures will somehow set them free. Some people are motivated by pain, by a longing to belong, by a need for attention, by a fear of being forgotten or unseen. Some are people who have spoken their critiques and are angry that they don’t see the results, the justice, that they want. Some people are reacting to the ways capitalism is harming us, turning us against each other instead of against capitalism itself. Some people don’t want to commit to organizational spaces where accountability can happen, but don’t know how to leave with grace. Some of us just get pulled into the drama of that destructive tendency because we have not learned how to fight well, fight fair and directly, leave room for difference.

We have to learn to hold serious political differences around how we do our work. To debate, and acknowledge which idea actually moves the majority of the room. To find the places of alignment and move together, even if it is a temporary alliance. We often have to do this within the same formations, in broad coalition and united front efforts. We find the places of common struggle, common need, and organize for success there. We always have to work beyond our singular perspective, and we always will.

Part of what’s happening right now is that, too often, we don’t know how to hold differences well within our formations, when to clarify vision, when to debate, when to go separate ways fueled by divergent visions, how to respectfully disagree, how to understand that each container in movement can only hold so much. We also don’t always know when to sunset a project, and allow other efforts to seed from the resources we’ve generated.

We especially need to attend to how our political differences are experienced and perceived when money is in the picture. When money is in the picture, it becomes much easier to demand transparency from others that we do not practice ourselves. And when money is in the picture, we are often on new ground, because we are trying to lead with an amount of resources we have never actually learned how to manage, grow, invest, cooperate around.

We know we deserve the resources, because our people have given an immeasurable amount of unpaid labor and blood to this country, and because we are trying to do the massive work of liberation. But we are not necessarily given clear, values-aligned guidance on how to handle the resources – they are sometimes dropped on us like a monsoon, flooding all our existing infrastructure and then gone before we realized what the economic equivalent of a water catchment system could look like.

And we are definitely not given space to learn, which includes making mistakes, not when money is in the picture. So the money ends up flowing back into the control of those more experienced with money, which often overlaps with those who hold a less radical position on the work needed to dismantle capitalism, white supremacy and racism, patriarchy and sexism and other systems of oppression.

I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.

We – Black women who lead – are not saints, we are not claiming perfection – we are trying to work. To learn. To lead valiantly on unfamiliar terrain.

We are expected to do so, tirelessly and under-resourced, indefinitely. If we decide to set a boundary, to protect ourselves, to take risks, to ask for compensation for our time, to step back from holding everything, we are eviscerated swiftly, privately and/or publicly.

I say if because so many of us don’t: we fear to do so, would rather work ourselves to death than face the pain of disposal, the moment when those for whom we have generated belonging decide to push us out of the spotlight, or perceived positional power, or political home space.

I see so many wounded leaders, trying to hold our dignity intact under the onslaught, wondering how to give our lives to liberation in these conditions.

I ask you, if you are Black in movement, or a non Black ally, to really think thrice before joining in attacks on Black women leaders; to explore what it would look like to practice solidarity towards Black liberation, rather than against it.

Understand that it is a move against Black liberation and all liberation to engage in this pattern of attempting to destroy Black women leaders.

I am committed to your freedom.

Here are some things for us to consider as we learn to practice solidarity, whether it’s with and amongst Black people, or any other people fighting for right relationship to the earth and each other:

Consider that whenever dehumanization is taking place, someone is benefiting from devaluing another person. Ask yourself who benefits from attacks on effective Black radical women? Who benefits from spotlighting conflict within movements that are changing material conditions for Black people?

Consider who benefits from you thinking that Black success and freedom is dangerous, and particularly that the success and freedom of Black women is dangerous.

Consider that this isn’t a new pattern.

Consider that social justice work is a place where most of us work for years for less than a living wage, subject to the whims of trend and philanthropy.

Consider, when you see the news of some perceived betrayal, some corruption of power, that the least likely option is that a Black woman who has given decades of her life to social justice work, to her people’s liberation, has turned on her own legacy, on us.

Consider that the lie is scarcity. The lie is that there isn’t enough for us to have abundant resources for our liberation work. The lie is that we can’t have multiple leaders shining simultaneously, moving divergent strategies. It’s a lie – we generate what we need and we are always moving divergent strategies.

Consider that there are ways to access abundance that don’t rely on attacking each other.

Consider that it is not an accident that a massively impactful social movement for Black liberation is under this scale of attack – it only looks personal. This is an attack on all our emergent, imperfect efforts for Black liberation.

Consider that you don’t have all of the information. We live in a social media world that profits from tawdry, salacious, divisive misinformation, where power is wielded by those most comfortable with distortion and manipulation. Consider that we don’t have to feed the beast that comes to eat those who inspire and lead us. Consider that this may not be your business, especially if you don’t have time to ask questions, investigate for something true, especially if you are only being asked to leap into judgment.

Consider how you want to be held when you are attacked for things you didn’t do. Consider how you want to be held accountable for things you did do. Do you want death threats, doxxing and other privacy violations, organized harassment and disposal, when it’s your turn? Cause if you plan to lead anything, your turn will come. So consider – what is principled struggle, principled critique, not just when you have a concern, but when you are the concern?

Consider that movement is not just a place of faith in the futures we are creating, but a place where we need to practice faith in each other, in our effort and our learning.

Consider that how you act or don’t act in this moment is part of setting a precedent for how movement responds to attacks on those who love us. If you won’t protect a Black woman leader from white supremacist attack because you also have critiques of or questions about how her movement work is unfolding, examine that. How does that align with the world you dream of?

Most of the leaders I look up to were attacked in their time, and might have been attacked in ours. The common thread amongst them is that they were driven by love for their people, our people, us. The work of the revolutionary is to transform everything that does not align with love, from the personal to the systemic.

Consider what love does in the face of dishonesty, faithlessness, and repression: love tells the truth. Love believes in our best selves. Love liberates us.

Consider that you should not feel afraid to love Black women leaders out loud. In the long run, what Audre Lorde taught us is still true: your silence will not protect you or anyone else. Love Black women leaders out loud wherever you see us attacked and dehumanized.

Love invites us home, love says we belong, unconditionally.

I love Patrisse Cullors, and she is forever home in any movement I am a part of. I trust her. I trust her to lead and learn and make mistakes and find accountability and transform the world with her brilliance.

I also love Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Tarana Burke, Brittney Cooper, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Loretta Ross, Ash-Lee Henderson, bell hooks, dream hampton, Yaba Blay, Sonya Renee Taylor, and so so so so many other Black women who I have seen people attempt to silence, discredit, dox, harass, disrespect, attack, or threaten with death. I love you, and I am sorry for any instance in which I have stayed silent when you needed me to speak up.

Some of these women I know and love personally, and some of them I just love because they are Black women who stepped into this impossible work and stayed. I love them not for their perfection, because none of them have that – I love them because of the effort they have made on behalf of all of us. They are home.

And I love myself and claim my eternal place in movements for liberation. I have made and will make mistakes. I will still be liberation bound.

I love all these Black women and so many more, and claim that all of us deserve to be loved and protected for all we do. I tell them so privately and I declare it here publicly:


I love you, Black woman.
I love you, organizer.
I will not engage in gossip about you.
I will not stand by quietly while you are attacked.
I will practice solidarity with you, for you, at your side and all around you.
I am committed to your freedom.

And for those Black people so willing to attack us? I love you, too. I won’t stop fighting for you.

Commit to my freedom, my protection, my legacy. Love me.

Commit to Patrisse’s freedom, her protection, her legacy. Love her.

Commit to Black women leaders’ freedom, our protection, our legacy. Love us.

Thank you to the two dozen Black organizers who laid editorial hands and eyes on this writing. I love you.

Distinguished and Singing

yesterday was a big day for me!

i released an EP, a small odd intimate music project of songs and a story written during my sabbatical over beats my friend J-Mythos created. it’s called The Sabbatical Suite and it’s on streaming services. my general approach to my music has been that i write and sing it every day, occasionally share snippets, and dream of making a massive musical project where i get to build the soundscape from the ground up. this is my small step in the direction of learning my singer self in public.

i was also honored to be the IHR Distinguished Lecturer at Arizona State University yesterday, and i wanted to share an excerpt from my talk notes here because i am interested in these questions on identity, community and belonging. the full speech is available here.

more and more i think of myself as a ‘scholar of belonging’, which is an idea that emerged in conversation with my friend and teacher Prentis Hemphill.

how do we belong to this place, this planet, this species, this family, this love, this friendship, this body, this community?

i think, especially for those of us with a lineage of displacement, forced displacement, economic displacement, from the lands that we were indigenous to – we need to rediscover belonging.

in somatics and embodiment work we learn that the most basic humans needs are safety, dignity and belonging. we try belonging in so many ways – in family, religious spaces, hobbies or shared fandom, and definitely we show up in movement expecting belonging. movements need to be spaces that get good at belonging, cultivating belonging, because we want to be an invitation, and we want to be a sanctuary, and we want to be a space that can hold and grow the future.

this thought occurred to me last night while rereading all about love by bell hooks. i’m reading it aloud with my fiancé (yes to cocreating liberated relationship!) and we’re in chapter 8, on community. as we read hooks’ exploration of why we don’t know how to really do community, i had two ahas.

one: we need to give bell hooks so many more flowers and awards and donations.

two:

right now, people are confusing identity with community, and finding no satisfaction in either place.

identity (racial, class, sexual, etc) is often, initially, externally defined, a label for distinction, a construct developed for supremacy and oppression, a practice of compartmentalizing a whole complex miraculous person into one aspect of themselves which can be marked off with a check box.

identity is often quite binary, asking us to answer yes or no about aspects of ourselves that are much more complex, dynamic and spectrum-oriented than that.

lately i have been thinking that every binary i can think of, applied to humans, is conservative – good/bad, right/wrong, boy/girl. conservative meaning, trying to control and constrict nature, deny complexity, make rigid what is fluid. we have to survive and reclaim ourselves from most identities.

now – we are a resilient species on a resilient earth, and earth species are all programmed to adapt, so many of us have ended up finding ways to experience joy and power within these identities, claiming them as suits of armor within which we fight for our freedom.

some of us feel, deeply or briefly, a sense of belonging within specific identities.

being Black, for many of us, means having unspeakable trauma at our backs, having been wrenched from our ancestral and tribal homelands, languages, songs, the earth we knew, and surviving ten, twelve generations of torture, misery, violence, rape, child loss, and dehumanization. somewhere inside of that we claimed each other across history and language and cultural distinctions. (and being honest, its still never been an unconditional love situation).

we aren’t the only peoples who were collapsed into an identity by shared experiences of trauma and external reduction.

at minimum, identity can be a crucial space from which to organize across shared experience.

but identity doesn’t equal, or promise, community.

community is a place to practice and participate in care, attention, knowing and being known, being protected, having room to make mistakes and still belong…not just allowed to be there, but be valuable…to heal. to recover. community feels responsible for each other.

community is a choice. more precisely, community is an accumulation of choices made every day, a set of growing practices.

we can have community that is drawn together based on shared identity – BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity) is that for me. but it only works because it allows a wide ranging space for us to be in our own Black experiences without negating each other. and because it centers around naming and healing trauma together, while actively changing material conditions, learning together through political education, and delighting in the pleasure of being together.

most of us long for community. we expect and sometimes demand it from those with whom we share identity.

but who teaches us how to…community?

bell hooks examines this at the realm of family, where there are so many assumptions and so few skills.

in school we might get lucky enough to have teachers who can help us learn community skills, but they’re being paid to teach us to score well on tests. and to compete with each other. we are being trained to be capitalists – to compete, in a system of scarcity, to be better than each other to access resources to meet our basic human needs. octavia speaks of this in lilith’s brood as our fatal human flaw, our combination of intelligence and hierarchy. so we aren’t guaranteed to learn how to be in community in schools.

the internet is confusing cause we can feel like we are generating belonging there…and we can practice community there, but it’s also a space where we can get super mixed up about what we mean by community, how we understand and navigate identity, and how we answer the need for belonging amongst strangers – even if we are somewhat intimate strangers.

then there’s our organizations…some of us call them family hoping for belonging, but, just like in family spaces, we don’t necessarily learn to navigate the things that will shake our foundations and split us apart. we break each other’s hearts trying to practice community there, and in our larger movement formations.

in our formations we are ostensibly trying to generate belonging and community through shared analysis and practice, but we often end up trying to one up each other for unnamed social power, policing each other, pointing at each other’s imperfections, shortcomings, misalignments. simultaneous to these internal struggles, we are also struggling for survival because we are pitched against each other for what we’re told are limited resources. for the most part, the philanthropy that funds movement work has not supported belonging…

when i look at movements, and at humans in general, i see how deeply we want belonging, but how we are trained to use every breath to not belong to each other.

then we land in spaces of identity, which are massive – Black, immigrant, tran, queer, disabled, woman, southern – spaces which are too broad and divergent to actually offer and sustain belonging for the individuals within.

that longing for belonging can then grow toxic: ‘i don’t feel heard, or seen. someone is going to see me, even if i have to throw a tantrum or cause harm to get attention.’

we get in a loop – ‘my identity is under attack’, or being ignored! or being coopted! or just…has it the worst!

then everyone shows up in vague but righteous solidarity, maybe we change how we speak of that identity…but do we see a change of any behaviors?

the rash of crimes and hateful acts against people who share the identity of Asian, and trans, and Black, and immigrant, and sex worker, and and and…it’s spreading. its ubiquitous now to hear about identity-based harm.

and when we most need each other, even within ‘movement’ spaces, our internal attacks on each other, our intolerance with each other’s failures, is also on the rise. our fragility in the realm of connection is the highest i’ve seen, right when our need for interdependence and being aligned with something larger than ourselves is…desperate.

deep breath, this is the water we’re swimming in.

on every level, the answer is community.

both community for those identities under attack – we have to get in or deepen how we are in community with each other. we combat regressive, conservative, narrow thinking, the racism and white supremacy and stereotypes, at the level of community – that’s where we can be accountable to each other, intervene on harmful thinking and action.

we also have to know that community is the answer for traumatized and lost people causing harm. and it’s easier to say: no – those flawed disruptive, damaged people? they don’t belong to me. to us. but this is how we end up complicit in a prison system. someone, someone has to be willing to be in community, accountability, responsibility with those who fall out of alignment with their own spiritual growth, and with the collective. someone has to stay curious about the roots of harm, and what dissatisfaction, what longing, what trauma, is at the root of the harm?

these are different communities, or different components within a community. every identity or multi-identitied grouping needs to cultivate actual community.

as we heal, as we regain our humanity, what we all need is community. with these things which currently have us split from each other, we need to remove what is toxic at the level of belief and behavior, not at the level of the individual.

we have to imagine these open, festering wounds as clean scars, markings of something we learned from, and outgrew. let capitalism, and patriarchy, and supremacy, let it all become scars on our healing, collective body.

fortunately there are communities developing resources around these things. (donate, buy their resources, reference and cite them!)

the embodiment institute

just practice

BOLD

bay area transformative justice center: pods!

M4BL

the body is not an apology

esii mediation resource

Freedom Stories, by Siwatu Salama-Ra

Four years ago this month, my friend Siwatu Salama-Ra was incarcerated for defending her mother, her daughter and herself. The community was galvanized and everyone played some part in loving her and her family. Miraculously, her conviction was overturned, but not until she had had to give birth in prison, and had a chance to organize with other mothers there. These two short pieces are about what emerged during her time there.

Secret Unit Baby Shower

Inside my cell, I tore a simple piece of lined paper and wrote “mama’s wish list” at the top and passed it cell to cell.

It was against the rules to pass one thing to another so you had better not gotten caught.

The paper made it around the whole unit without notice from the prison cops.

Never able to have a baby shower with family and friends, or the freedom to pick out cute clothes, each mama wrote with tears in her eyes `Onesies, stroller, play pin, clothes, pacifier, toys, car seat.’

This special piece of paper made its way back to my cell.

I mailed it out to the Freedom Team. They put out the memo.

Over 500 people donated, making sure every item on the list made it to the families who would be the new caretakers of babies birthed under carceral control.
I’ll never forget the smiles on these mamas’ faces when they called home to hear indeed a package had arrived.

I call it, organizing love in hell.

Poetry On The Yard

Time moves slowly in prison, every minute has to be accounted for.

We mamas and pregnant folk sat at the picnic table in a fenced bobwired yard.

Jessica had a notebook, I sliced a sheet from it and passed a piece of paper to each one of us.

I asked if we could spend the next while writing a poem.

Silence stood.

Soon with pens in our hands we started to write.

More silence.

One by one we read our poetry out loud. I could remember the Ooooooo’ s and Ahhhhhh’s, loud laughter and moments of praise after each poem like we sat in a open mic event.

It was some of the best poetry I had ever heard.

After all, some of the best poets are sitting in a prison cell.

Later on, with the permission of my comrades, these poems would be published in a local philly Magazine.