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?
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 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.
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,
a practitioner of breathlessness is guilty
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
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.”