tonight i had the honor of giving the keynote speech for the national network of abortion funds 2016 summit. i spoke after they gave each other awards and there were lots of tears and just so much recognition and celebration of their incredible and radical work. here are my notes from my talk, what i planned to say and what i think i added in. <3
I would like to open with centering words from octavia estelle butler, the black science fiction writer and, I would argue, prophet-philosopher.
first, let’s take a moment to center, come into this moment:
let yourself be heavy with gravity
and light with stardust
and look around your table, connect with the people around you
and connect to this moment
now, octavia says:
all that you touch you change
all that you change changes you
the only lasting truth is change
god is change
i always evoke her into these spaces because she taught me to be visionary.
wow. so here we are in texas, this massive great state that gave us beyoncé.
now, i was also born in texas, not to imply that all first-born singing virgos from texas are at the same level, or that you should expect a beyoncé level performance from my speech tonight. i only aim for perfection.
but seriously – i heard that there are only 6 abortion clinics left in this state. as we sit here knowing how hard we are working to make moves forward, as we make our Best effort to create changes within and beyond the system, as we raise the money to create our own systems of care, we are still only meeting about 1/3 of the need.
and we are traversing an election season that for some of us is ‘so historic’, for some of us is ‘so depressing and/or terrifying’, for some of us is ‘totally irrelevant in terms of tangible impacts in our communities’, and for some of us all of the above.
this fight of ours is both a local fight, and a supreme court fight. it is a fight that can sometimes feel rigid – as if all the territory has been mapped out already. as if every victory is fragile, and every position must be defensive.
and yet we must win, right? we must not only end hyde, but go beyond, beyond smashing our opponent (which can absolutely satisfying, i know). we need to evolve the conversation beyond the realm of opposition – we must create such a change around abortion that no one can deny it.
everyone in this room is part of an effort to create change. and yet sometimes we forget how change actually works. we think of change as an external impact – we will do something, and the other person will change. and we will stay the same, and we will be happy.
we do this at a personal level – how many of us have fallen in love with someone’s potential? with our story of how we were going to liberate another person’s best self?
or educate a family member?
we do this at a collective or organizational level. how many of us have gone to work at institutions that were deeply unsustainable, or patriarchal, or had severe conflict aversion or other really big clear red flags that we imagined we could transform on the strength of our own (naive) brilliance?
(i won’t ask if anyone here is still in that situation. we are all feeling the love – and i know it’s complicated.)
and of course we do this at a political level. we can see so clearly how the other, our opposition, needs to change. and we set forth to change them. we rage against them on facebook and twitter, go head to head in policy wars, or give them the evil eye at holidays. (cuz you know all this political opposition is in the family, right?)
and of course they are doing the same thing.
our lovers are imagining that we will begin to put the toilet paper roll on correctly, and stop interrupting them with important details when they tell a story to our mutual friends.
our organizations hope that with time we will get so passionate about the mission that we will overlook the regressive structural issues and work the extra unpaid hours to close the gap between the needs of our communities and never-quite-enough resources we can generate to meet those needs.
and politically, our opponents hope, and probably pray, that one day we will cave. that we will say fine. you all should make the decisions about what we can do with our bodies. you win – what were we thinking?
now, within this battle of wills, no one actually wins.
we all get amazing at fortifying our positions, at polarizing the entire world in a binary system that has no room for complexity, for changing positions, for life experience. we create hierarchies of ourselves and others.
octavia teaches us that we use our intelligence to construct hierarchy, over and over. and then we revel in it. i am guilty of this. i feel superior in every way to any man who seeks to legislate my body.
i can’t help it!
it is so easy to see the change that is needed in others, or needed in large scale systems. it is so much harder to create those changes within ourselves, to live up to our values, to live into the unknown, the theoretical – what we FEEL is right, even what we have proven is right at a small scale.
it is particularly frightening to see socialization rooted inside ourselves, and to pull it up. and yet that is what we have to keep doing, and what we need to inspire the rest of this country to do.
most of you are in this room because you have done this work to unlearn the shame and stigma so many of us still get taught to associate with abortion, and to step to the front line to make sure that anyone who needs an abortion can get one.
your work here, all of you, has been so crucial in this respect – you are putting your time, life and resources on the line to help us change how we access abortion care from the local to the national level. you are supporting low-income women, women of color, young women.
i commend you all. i am grateful beyond words. (part of why i wrote this down was because of how emotional i was just preparing for this)
i am grateful as a full spectrum doula.
i am grateful as a survivor of ectopic pregnancy.
i am grateful as an auntie to babies who will have more choices because of your work.
i am grateful as an ever evolving pan-queer-sexual human (who knows what the future holds?)
i thank you.
so now i want to explore what the next edge of growth is for us. what will be healing to everyone we touch?
all that you touch you change. but it also changes you. change is a multidirectional activity.
one of my biggest areas of question to offer tonight is – how do we expand our network of change? i mean, not just who we will change, but who we will let change us, in order to reach far enough to change everything.
to even consider letting others change us, we have to have a solid sense of self. a movement sense of self. we can create change around abortion, we are growing reproductive justice. we are creating a new world here. that you all have raised the money you have raised in spite of the cyber and ideological attacks, the vitriol and socialization of this country is a tangible measurement of that change.
but as we succeed, our opposition changes.
as we get bigger, they get frightened of losing power, and become more dangerous.
as they become more dangerous, their strategies and policies become more outrageous.
and then we become more fearful.
and we can get very narrow, trying to just protect ourselves, to hold the line for the tiny sliver of dignity and liberation and basic rights we cannot live without. our vision, tucked tightly in a safe place.
but often what we think we are protecting is already gone. vision is the collateral damage of a reactionary movement. the ‘vision’ begins sounding like “not this! repeal that! stop that! can we just get a little of this? a tiny bit of justice?” (i speak from experience)
remember the personal relationship scenario? you ever find yourself in a fight like – “wait how did we get here? i don’t even care about the toilet paper – i started this conversation because i want our home to feel like a retreat center of love and equity! you got stuck on bathroom habits, and what the heck? are we breaking up right now?”
it can be funny – even if its not funny at the moment we can usually laugh in retrospect, depending on how the breakup goes.
but this happens in our political work all the time. its less funny there.
this has absolutely happened with our work for reproductive justice, we keep finding ourselves in external and internal debates over differences that distract us from our vision – which is that every person has agency over her, his or their own body. it isn’t about one choice – its about a multitude of choices all rooted in love and equity.
humans tend to change in a cycle.
people say history repeats itself, and in some ways it does. but each time, the group of humans is different, the world is different, and even if it looks the same from the outside, within each cycle are evolutions, micro shifts that create different outcomes.
this slow but determined cycle of change is why so many of our movements are evolving beyond silo’d issue struggles and embracing intersectional identities.
it is how this movement is coming to understand that any discussion about abortion is a discussion about race, about poverty, about borders, about prisons, about control, about collective liberation.
that took so much work. your work and so many others. it is imperative to celebrate that work.
in order to realize our vision for a world in which we have safety and agency for all humans in all bodies, we have to understand this iterative cycle of change, and aim not just for surface shifts that advance or regress from administration to administration.
we have to get very intentional about how we “transform ourselves in order to transform the world”. those are the words of grace lee boggs, my late mentor. we have to create an ideological majority and stability around abortion access and reproductive justice, one that can normalize inside an ever changing world.
i know we can do this.
grace also said “we must assume our power, not our powerlessness”.
octavia called this shaping change. understanding that change is inevitable and constant, but if we are awake we are not simply victims of change, or reacting to change. we can be a force that shapes change.
we can shape change around abortions and reproductive justice.
it is time to get visionary about abortion.
(visionary. what do i mean? not idealistic. not never never land. (vision is kind of my fetish – one of my fetishes))
last year a book that i co-edited with walidah imarisha came out, it’s called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements. we asked organizers to write science fiction, because we realized that our work as social justice visionaries and organizers is to bring about a world we have never seen. a world without poverty, without patriarchy. a world where every human has the right to make their own difficult choices for their health and lives, towards abundance, towards liberation.
we haven’t experienced this world yet – we are cocreating it. so organizing is reaching forward and pulling the future into our present. all organizing is science fiction. (we are all badass super heroes!)
and what we found in our organizers was that many went above and beyond our call. we don’t lack vision, we lack permission.
we called it sci fi to reach the place people are familiar with, but it is more precisely called visionary fiction. walidah created that term to speak of art we create with intention.
art is never neutral – it either upholds or upends the status quo. so Octavia’s Brood gathered stories of the future that show change as a process, as a bottom up, collective process, centering marginalized communities. neither utopian nor dystopian, because as we know those actually tend to go hand in hand. the 1% depends on the 99%. first class has to be in front of coach. even heaven requires hell.
we invited stories that took us beyond binaries, that took us to the edge of what these organizers could see.
because gloria anzaldua taught us: “nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.”
this is our work. we must dream the impossible, dream it together, out loud, until it becomes practice and pathway. we must collaborate on our ideas, subverting the capitalist practice of competing like gladiators to have the best idea. we must build collective vision, deep intentions that allow radical adaptations in the unknown future.
(now, i say this next part as someone with deep southern evangelical anti-abortion family members)
a lot of the people who are counted in our opposition have been negatively impacted by the execution of their own espoused values – unable to get the abortions they needed; born to people who did not want to, or were not ready to, parent but felt they had no choice; people shamed for their pregnancies; then shamed for their abortions.
our imagination needs to include these women, our story needs to be big enough to invite them in.
i have been talking about imagination a lot lately. who gets the right to imagine? who gets to realize their imaginations in the real world? we are, in fact, in an imagination battle. i borrow this line of thinking from claudine rankine and terry marshall – right now we are living inside the imagination of other people. people who think women and black people and people from other countries and people with different abilities or desires are dangerous and inferior. can be shot down in the street. mike brown, renisha mcbride and so many others lost their lives to that imagination. we can be regulated around the choice to bring life into this world, we can be controlled through the violence people take based on their waking dreams.
those imaginings have created the conditions of oppression that bring us into this room. the results of this delirium are that women, especially women of color and poor women, are not to be trusted with our bodies. it’s not sane, but it has been institutionalized. and as we grow our resources and our ranks, it is imperative that we burst out of the box that the conservative imagination designates for us. this means moving out of a defensive stance.
i am creating work at a particular intersection. octavia is there, grace is there, and gloria. and a few other ancestors who bear naming.
toni cade bambara charged us with “making the revolution irresistible”. i think of this often when i find myself turning to fear or shame as a motivating force for my people (i never mean to do this but it comes out under pressure, fear and shame are contagious).
how do i make a future of justice an irresistible option? how do we paint in the loudest colors a picture of a world in which families are intentional, joyful, resourced with love and longing. that’s what’s on the other side of abortion access.
audre lorde is also at this intersection – she taught us of pleasure – that it is the experience of the erotic, of being fully sensationally alive in real time, that makes suffering unbearable. she said, when i am “in touch with the erotic, i become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.”
so i have been reflecting on how the fear of an unwanted pregnancy seriously impacts pleasure and power. in part because of the process of abortion. but, i think, in much larger part because of the narratives around abortion, the trauma of stigmatization, and the lack of emotional support for those who make this choice.
in terms our opposition might understand, they “deny themselves heaven” in this regard, because i suspect a next level of sexual freedom and erotic evolution is also on the other side of abortion access and human-centered reproductive justice.
the final piece i want to add here brings us back to where i started. one of the ways we change ourselves is to change our stories, yes – and my invitation is to bring creativity, joy, love, longing and pleasure into the next stories told about abortion.
but the other way we change ourselves is to put down our armor, or at least move the shield to the side so we can see who we are fighting with. this is ESPECIALLY important for our internal differences. how much of our time and energy do we spend trying to change each other, instead of working to align with each other?
this is a lesson from nature, which i have been studying in a deep way for my next book, which is on emergent strategies, focusing on the way complex systems and patterns emerge out of relatively simple interactions.
in nature the big creatures, those who are the same species but battle each other for territory – the lions, tigers, bears (oh my) – they are on the extinction lists. the creatures which work together with clear distinctions and roles and a shared sense of survival, those are the ones that are proliferating. ants, birds, roaches. octopi and squid. slime mold. these organisms move at the speed of relationship.
the black lives matter movement has been articulating this practice as moving at the speed of trust – that’s as fast as we can go. and our impact can be as big and powerful as our trust is.
our internal movement armor comes in the form of political positions and think pieces and call-outs. we must practice putting down our armor with each other, spend more time getting into a room together and not just drinking (which i enjoy but am abstaining from sugar so…) but working on our alignment. if we are already clear on where the differences are, how do we turn our collective attention to those places where we align and grow that?
what we pay attention to grows. so let’s practice with an affirmation pledge. turn to the person next to you and really take in this divine specimen of warrior. now repeat after me:
i am not you
oh but I need you
thank you for your work
let’s get this. let’s get free.
thank you so much for paying attention to me these last twenty minutes.
thank you so much for paying attention to our rights and our bodies as your life’s work.
thank you yamani, tiffany and everyone at the national network of abortion funds for having me.
(after this was an incredible karaoke night that was, as yamani sang in her first ever karaoke performance, ‘more than words’)