Babies, Birthing Parents, and Midwives Birth Justice and Liberation!

Check out my review of Catching Babies, an incredible movie about birthing justice in action, made by the amazing Barni Qaasim.  Published in make/shift magazine, Fall 2012.  Then you have two more ways to support amazing anti-racist feminist media: subscribe to make/shift, one of the few print magazines left that is worth reading, and organize a screening of Catching Babies in your hometown!

Catching Babies

Directed and Produced by Barni Axmed Qaasim; Produced by Jennifer Lucero

Iftiin Productions

Catching Babies documents birth justice in action.   Filmmakers Qaasim and Lucero share an intimate, honest, and beautiful portrait of four students and four clients at Maternidad La Luz, a birth center and midwifery school in El Paso, TX.  Without commentary, Catching Babies depicts a powerful counter-narrative to the white-dominated natural birth resurgence and racist media portrayals of undocumented women birthing “anchor babies” as a devious attempt to gain citizenship status.  With an artful style that exudes respect for midwives and birthing parents and gentle pacing that mirrors the births portrayed, Catching Babies is a love poem to empowering, women-of-color centered holistic birth.

Viewers are invited to witness a birth model that runs counter to the dominant medicalized system through which the United States has one of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the Global North and one of the greatest rates of disparity between the healthcare that white parents and parents of color receive.  The people of Catching Babies are reclaiming a world in which birth is a personal, family, and community event, instead of a medical one.   Cemelli de Aztlan, one of the mothers profiled, refused to see a doctor who wanted complete decision-making power about her pregnancy and birth: she says, “In choosing midwifery care I was seeking the healing and the comfort and the care that I knew I would not get in the hospital and that I knew was in my own bloodline as an indigenous woman.”

Some scenes show the complexities of service work existing within a confusing landscape of charity and solidarity, including the white student with minimal Spanish language skills learning to provide healthcare for predominantly monolingual Spanish speakers and the fact that all leadership of the clinic and school shown are white.  While this movie doesn’t explicitly analyze these power dynamics, it highlights the students who are working from a solidarity model, learning to midwife in order to support their own communities.

Kennasha Roberston, one of the student midwives profiled, explains, “My idea is to be able to work with women in my community, African American women, […] to educate them about natural birth and the different options that we have […]That’s why I’m here, for them.”

Catching Babies shows what birth can look like, as part of a system of accessible, empowering, holistic healthcare that lifts up the dignity and liberation of birthworkers, parents, and babies.

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October 24, 2012 · 2:26 am

Privilege, reparations, and communities of care

So my friend B wrote this blogAnd then some amazing people responded to it.  Absolutely all of those pieces of writing are worth readingEvery single one. So many brilliant things have been said about ableism, class, burnout, grassroots healing, and care.

I’ve been thinking about B’s piece a lot since I first read it a few days ago. I have had a lot of different responses and big emotions related to it since then, about privilege and other things, but right now what I’m thinking about is how different our roles in this conversation are.  I’m thinking about how so much of this discussion is so relevant to our different relationships to heteropatriarchy, capitalism, and white supremacy.  We with privilege tend to universalize our experiences, to mistakenly assume that what happens for us can be assumed to happen to others with less privilege.  That’s one of the things B’s writing missed, while it also raises lots of important and challenging questions about what collective care really is and how we get there.  So I want to respond, but this response has an audience.  This response is directed towards white people, men, cisgendered people, straight people, middle/upperclass/rich people, people with ability privilege, people with citizenship status in the place where they live.   There is so much incredible and challenging writing coming out right now about care from people of color, queer and trans people, disabled and chronically ill people, women, working class and poor people that we should be paying attention to and learning from.  I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said and in more articulate and profound ways, but I want to ask those of us with privilege some questions about where we in particular stand in this conversation.  So to people out there who experience privilege in one way or another, who are reading this, I say “Take a deep breath and keep going—disagree with me if you want, but please follow me through to the end.  This is going somewhere and your defensiveness is worth overcoming.”

I don’t think we need to end self-care—that’s an intentionally provocative title that I’m not so interested in.   We all deserve the time, the space, the support, and the resources to have a movement practice that works for our bodies, nourishing food, healers who we feel comfortable with, time for rest and reflection, safety, connection, and love.  Healing our collective body, this world, involves healing our individual bodies, families, neighborhoods, communities, and movements.   But in all this conversation about self-care and collective care, there are huge questions and silences we need to grapple with about how our various relationships to privilege relates to all this.

I’m in acupuncture school and the best way I can think to describe this is with an example from the way I am learning how bodies work.  In the version of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) that I am learning, and that is taught in most acupuncture schools in the U.S., the Spleen is responsible for the transformation and transportation of food, nutrients, and fluids throughout the body.  When your Spleen is deficient, you may have an over-accumulation of Dampness in your body, which can manifest in many different ways—say sinus congestion, bloating or fluid retention, swollen, achy joints.  The way that you treat this condition with acupuncture or herbs is two-fold: you have to fortify the Spleen and get rid of the excess dampness.  In the end, both treatment strategies are about bringing the body more into balance, although they are opposing techniques.

So with transforming care in our lives and in our world.  Some of us who live at an intersection of more privilege in this world, be it because we are white, middle/upper class or rich, considered able-bodied by the world, straight, cisgendered and/or male, could stand to listen to B’s challenges about showing up for movements in deeper and more committed ways as part of truly realizing communities of care.  I don’t think that means we shouldn’t take care of ourselves in the process, but maybe for us, who have so been taught that our comfort and ease is the most worthy thing, sometimes it’s good for the world and therefore good for us to skip a meditation session and do childcare at a meeting or go to a meeting instead.

For people with privilege, it is often so much easier for us to disengage from movements in order to “practice self-care” then it is to fully commit with our hearts, minds, and bodies to collective care, to healing justice, to communities of care that include all of us. I think there are parts of B’s piece that should hit home in deeply challenging ways for those of us who prioritize care of ourselves and our precious bodies over (and often at the expense of) the care of other people’s selves and equally precious bodies.

Yes, some of the ways I take care of myself are related to my own struggles with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health.  And some of those ways are related to the particular way as a white person with class privilege I have been taught to prioritize myself.  Everyone should be entitled to care, comfort, safety, and connection.  Some of us have our right to exist denied and threatened every second.  Some of us have never had that experience.  Many of us exist in some complicated relationship to both of those realities.

There is a way that self-care in privileged communities can manifest as resource hoarding.  I think about how much I learned in the predominantly-white DIY anarchist communities I used to be a part of about how to take care of myself outside of the medical industrial complex, about herbal medicine, how my body works, how to care for it in meaningful and self-determining ways.   I think about how many others that I know from those worlds continue to learn and learn about healing work without ever facilitating the spread of that learning beyond  a small, insular, and relatively-privileged social world. We learned other peoples’ traditional medicines and then we only shared with others like us.   It’s not that those of us with privilege shouldn’t value our physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health—it’s just that it is deeply embedded in our psyches that our individual health is 1. not related to the health of our community and 2. Of a higher priority than anything or anyone else.

So right now, I’m thinking about how reparations and resource redistribution apply to self-care and community care.  How asking questions about what care reparations and healing resource redistribution can look like allows us to challenge our privilege as we transform how care works in the world.  I want those of us who experience privilege to actually learn how not to over-value our well-being compared to the rest of the world’s.  This plays out in subtle and intricate ways: because of how much privilege invisibilizes our position in the world, we may not see the many ways we CHOOSE self-care AT THE EXPENSE OF community-care.

I don’t think the answer to that is to “burn the midnight oil,” to work 18 hours a day for the movement.  That replicates guilt, shame, and martyrdom that reinforce white supremacy to begin with.   And it encourages us to continue to grow our movements based on some capitalist model that makes them look like industries, that leaves behind so many in our community (like kids, elders, parents, and people with disabilities to name a few) and leaves out anyone who can’t commit their whole live to organizing. But I do think one of the ways we confront privilege,  is to question our emotional, spiritual, and physical comfort.

I think it’s important to say right now that we can’t ever know why anyone makes the choices that they make, nor is it ours to know.  The spectrum of care that we choose and need to survive in this world is not something you can tell by looking at us.  Disability justice and harm reduction teach us that resilience strategies in this world take many forms and are always acts of resistance.  I’m not necessarily asking for us to start by questioning and judging each other’s self-care decisions.  I’m asking others who experience some form of privilege to wrestle with the complicated questions about how the ways we take care of ourselves, each other, our communities, and our movements do or don’t move us closer to dignity, justice, and collective liberation.  I’m asking other white people to question when they generalize their experiences, assuming that everyone “chooses” to practice self-care at the expense of movement work.  I’m asking men to question thinking of knitting as counter-revolutionary. I’m asking other white women to question our complicated place at the intersection of misogyny and white supremacy, to look at the ways we have been taught to martyr ourselves as caregivers and also to prioritize our own comfort.  I’m asking other people with privilege to consider the ways that each of us practices self-care as a way of hoarding resources, time, money, quiet, space, and then to consider the ways we could take care of ourselves and our communities by re-modeling our conception of care to include resource redistribution and reparations.   How do we transform care not out of charity but out of deep solidarity, collaboration, and connection, an understanding that we are all in this together?

People with privilege, we have a lot of work to to make healing resource redistribution and care reparations. Maybe some of us do a little more childcare not just for meetings but also for acupuncture appointments, offer a little more transportation, pay higher on the sliding scale for our local healer or community clinic.  B writes about a co-worker and he returning from a meditation retreat with hugely different access to quiet, reflective space and therefore ability to continue a practice of meditation and stretching.  What if, more than an example of how broken our world is, that was an opportunity to share resources?  What if B and his coworker had figured out a way for one to  help with the others’ busy life one night a week, one to have access to quiet space to engage in reflection and rest?   Sure, that’s a small response in the face of all that we are up against, but doesn’t this struggle need us to be working to transform it in so many big and small ways? Hand in Hand is an amazing example of people organizing around privilege and challenging that privilege in order to transform how care works.  

Dori Midnight offered a beautiful vision the collective body that we are all a part of.  What I want us to engage with is how do we get there:  what will it take to move from a model of self-care that is often so individualized, that is often about those of us with lots of privilege taking even more time, space, and resources to increase our comfort?  What will it take to get to what Dori describes? What is the role of people with privilege in helping to get us there?

We share beautiful visions of transforming care, building our communities into places where we are all cared for.  And here we are today.  We can dream big and vision and we are also trying to survive and fight and live and dream another day.  Here we are, and we have a long way to go.  We must recognize ourselves for who we are and where we are, now, today, in order to dream how to get from here to our visions of collective care.

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Filed under community care, healing justice, self care, Uncategorized, unlearning privilege

Moving through acupuncture school (while Fat)

At my school, one of my requirements this first semester is Qi Gong class.  Qi Gong is a movement practice that comes from the large and dynamic body of theory and practice that we call Chinese medicine.  It has to do with energy, electricity, meditation, and a lot of other things that I am just beginning to understand through studying them in acupuncture school.  I love it so much and it also makes me nervous all the time.  It’s not that I have qualms about taking Qi Gong—in theory, it’s really exciting.  I just have qualms about group movement* class, what it means to be a fat person in group movement class, over and beyond what it already means to be a fat person in acupuncture school in a world that systematically equates health with weight loss.   One of my learning-to-love-my-body practices is figuring out how to incorporate movement in my life that involves as few other people as possible (or making sure I time my lap swimming with water aerobics classes—universally one of the movement classes I have witnessed that contains the largest diversity of differently-sized bodies).

Group movement practice is something stolen from us fatties by a society that has decided there is one kind of acceptable body, and it’s not ours.  I’ve been to a million yoga classes in my life, and still every time, the teacher without fail assists me too much or not enough. Or I get weird looks—sympathy, pity, anger.  If you are not fat, you might be surprised how much maliciousness people feel towards fat people in group movement settings, like we are their personal internal enemy, which I suppose, when the diet industry frames weight loss as a battle, is true.

There is a deep-seated cultural myth that tells us fat is the opposite of health.  This just isn’t true.  Not only are more and more evidence-based biomedically legit research studies coming out that question this widespread assumption, but most of us could spend five minutes and find ample anecdotal evidence to counter this rampant and destructive belief.  Saying that fat is the opposite of health implies that all not-fat people are healthy, implies that “healthy” practices (a whole other bag of worms, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it some combination of taking care of ourselves in ways that work best for us, having love and support, time with people we care about and time by ourselves, food that gives us energy and nourishment, sleep, water, movement) change our weight or the size of our bodies, that health is about appearances more than internal experiences of wellness.  I am a relatively healthy person and I am fat.  I’m not a paradox or even an anomaly.  It’s just that you can’t tell by looking at me how well or ill I feel, despite institutionalized attempts to the contrary.

We didn’t always think this way.  We know that there are times, whole systems of medicine and wellness that understood health as something attainable by people with a wide diversity of bodies, that didn’t create some fake epidemic in order to hide the fact that it is the stress and trauma of oppression  or corporate pollution that makes people more prone to the “lifestyle diseases” of Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, heart disease.

In my Qi Gong book, interwoven with a history of this particular movement practice, is a brief history of vitalism-based movement in the West, how it was informed and augmented by Qi Gong practice.  It talks about the history of gymnastics, how over time western scientific materialism (read: nothing exists but what you can put your hands on, no spirit, no emotional body, etc.) replaced a system of movement based around cultivating energy, life force, vital energy, what have you, with one that was based on the appearance of that hard-to-name quality via the trappings of stamina, flexibility, strength.  It’s a profound difference: movement that is based on feeling better as opposed to looking better, like we know work towards.  Though Gymnastics as a sport is now far from its vitalist roots, this means we all have something to go back to, a place in our collective embodied memory when we moved together to feel better, not to look better.

I want to move with other people, and I want to do it in settings in which movement is about building together, collaboration instead of competition, in which different bodies are respected for what they can and can’t do, more than that maybe that different bodies’ capacities aren’t even the point. What it feels like individually to do the movement as more important than anything else.

In the post-industrial capitalism of the Global North that I live in, group movement practices have been stolen from almost everyone by the institutionalized systems of oppression in place, which include fatphobia, and also ableism, patriarchy, white supremacy.  Moving together to move towards health and wellness has become a luxury commodity as opposed to a basic necessity.  It’s a far cry from what it should be, could be: movement for wellness as a way we build solidarity with each other, as a way we come together in embodied community that doesn’t ask us to leave any of our selves behind, as part of the creating of other kinds of dynamic movements.  Qi Gong was banned from public practice in China during the Cultural Revolution, which tells me that there are many points in history when group movement practice, when growing our collective wellness together, has been considered subversive.  Maybe it’s because it’s related to the building of strength, the building of armies, guerilla forces ready for uprising.  Maybe it’s also because when we are well together, we have it in us to build the world we need, no matter the forces against us.

It’s not just group movement that has become more about cultivating a look than about cultivating an internal experience of health.  The history of colonialism on traditional medicines is one that is constantly shifting the focus to practitioner’s diagnosis and away from client’s experience.  Just think about this taken to an extreme: one thing it might look like is almost complete reliance on technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests and then practitioners spending five minutes with clients, mainly reporting on the results of said technologically sophisticated diagnostic tests.  Sound familiar?

All of this makes me realize that part of the goal of me writing this blog is accountability:  over the next four years, I will be schooled in how to diagnose people.  It’s a useful skill, and also a slippery slope.  Healthcare schooling teaches us to disregard people’s experiences for our own external perceptions of them; sure acupuncture school probably does this less than med school, but it’s still covertly and not-so-covertly part of the curriculum.  It’s my third week of school and I can already see how it can sweep over a person—I’ve already heard numerous teachers and students rant about how Fat people are automatically unhealthy.  This systematic silencing of peoples’ experiences of our bodies is a slippery slope and yet those of us who dedicate our lives to learning how bodies work do have something to offer, if we can combine that with listening and shifting the power dynamic ever towards empowerment of those we treat.  Fat is just one of the ways that we are taught we know about a person’s health just by looking at them, by using our far-from-objective observation skills without any sort of dialogue with the real expert in the room, the person seeking healthcare .

And one more thing: fat healthworker friends, where are you?  The first day of qi gong class, my teacher rhetorically asked, “who would want a 200-pound overweight chain-smoking doctor?”  In my head I automatically answered, that’s exactly who I want to be my doctor, and I realized that I have a lot of friends who do healthwork and none of them are fat.  I can imagine a million reasons for this, but I also know you are out there.  Fat healthworker friends, come to me.  We have some things we need to talk about.  In a body shaming, fatphobic culture, we are doing something powerful, transformative, even revolutionary—we would do it better if we were doing it together.  Doing health and doing movement together is part of collective liberation: it’s how we get to the world we need.

*I have used the word movement instead of exercise throughout this rant.  Partly that’s because the word exercise makes me think of all the ways white supremacist capitalist patriarchy frames the ways we move our bodies: that it is more about the appearance of health than the experience of health.  There is no monolithic experience of health.  Partly because as movements for collective liberation, what are we working for except broadly, a world in which everyone gets to live well and healthy, whatever that means for them?  Isn’t part of that learning how to move together?  We march and we dance and we eat together, sometimes we sleep together and we care for each other.  There is another basic pillar of wellness, and I want us to do it together, in anti-oppressive spaces that are working towards access and safety for all bodies.  I want vitalist movement practices together, as part of the world we want to create.

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Filed under #fatacceptance, #healthateverysize, acupuncture, body positivity, community care, fatphobia in healthcare, healing justice, self care, story telling, Uncategorized

Healing can bring us together: why I’m going to acupuncture school

Because I’m really lucky, four of my best friends came together a few nights ago to hold me a ceremony as I am about to start acupuncture school.  They are some of the most important people in my life for lots of different reasons, including playing integral roles in my developing my thinking and practice as a radical healthworker, the intersections of story, healing, and justice that are my life’s work.   As I start acupuncture school, which is a big deal step towards making the work of health and healing and collective care central to my life, I’m thinking about lineage and humility.  Of honoring where I come from and who and what has shaped where I’m at.  It feels like part of a direct challenge to the privilege that is making it possible for me to become an acupuncturist, in a world where holistic health practice and service is reserved for those with access to vast amounts of resources, like me.  I know that the healthwork I do in the world and will continue to deepen is intricately linked with the continual undermining of systems of power and privilege that currently barricade the way to collective liberation.  Part of that personal work for me, as a white person with class and educational and ability privilege, is honoring, bringing to the forefront, centering where I come from: the people and movements that have struggled before me and opened the space that I now inhabit, complexly, lovingly, always striving towards humility and freedom for us all.

My entry into acupuncture was learning the NADA protocol, a group ear acupuncture treatment with a revolutionary history.  When I had graduated from college about seven years ago and was just beginning to acknowledge and pursue the ways that healing and trauma recovery work intersected with the more conventional social justice organizing work I had been engaged in, my dear friend Lee said, “hey, come with me to this training in New York.”  And I did and it changed my life.  I was trained in the NADA protocol at the Lincoln Recovery Center, primarily by Michael Smith and Carlos Alvarez.    In 1970, the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in the South Bronx came together to occupy a wing of the local hospital in order to create a community-based drug detox center, the only service for folks struggling with addiction in the area.  Originally, the clinic used methadone in order to support people through withdrawal, but soon started using ear acupuncture, a uniquely innovative approach to supporting people coming off heroin without the use of another addictive substance.   The NADA protocol (5 points in each ear) was developed and used in conjunction with political education classes, peer support groups, and workshops in how to advocate for services from medical and social service providers.    Something about this community-based holistic model for addiction recovery led by people of color was so threatening to those in power that Lincoln was surveilled by Cointelpro, and raided and shut down by the New York police and accompanying SWAT teams, while the then-Mayor of New York claimed that “Lincoln Detox was a breeding ground for revolutionary cells.”

Lincoln still provides revolutionary client-centered care and support to people struggling with addiction in the South Bronx today, through a daily NADA clinic, 12-step groups, and the first drug detox program for pregnant women and mothers with young children in the country.  These days, they more quietly shift the paradigm of recovery by doing the amazing work that they do within the bureaucratic world of detox that has grown since they began.

The NADA protocol is easy to learn and to teach, is often performed by lay people/community members, and can and has been practiced anywhere: in parks, community centers, people’s living rooms, make-shift tents erected in recent disaster areas, refugee camps.    It is meant to be given in a group setting: part of the treatment is being around other people also receiving the treatment.  Since its development, NADA has been used successfully to aid people struggling with trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, and insomnia, as well as addiction and withdrawal.  It’s been described as “community self-help:” healthcare for the people, by the people.

Receiving healthcare in a group setting begins to undermine the conventional power dynamics that inherently exist when a client, a person receiving care, is alone in a room with a practitioner, a care provider.  By depending on group healing, NADA becomes a trauma-informed practice, one in which there is minimal touch involved, no moments of privacy with an “expert,” and can be performed by a friend or a comrade just as easily as a licensed acupuncturist.  NADA is rooted in a community’s collective response to oppression.  Oppression harms everyone in its path, creating stress and trauma, chronic disease and lack of safe and recuperative spaces, compounded by the criminalization of traditional healers and the turning of holistic healthcare into another marketable commodity available only to those with access to wealth.     I see NADA and Lincoln as one of the most notable models we have of health and healing justice in action, of the trauma- and oppression-informed healthcare that we need in order to create collective care, collective liberation, resilient communities that can overcome capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, challenging individualism and power and expertise in healthcare.  As a practice, NADA is not just accessible or holistic but revolutionary.

Through the work of NADA, I get glimpses of what it is like to be a healthworker in solidarity and alliance with a grassroots movement for collective liberation.  I recently watched this video of the late and great Wangari Maathai, about being committed to small acts of change even in the face of overwhelmingly huge catastrophic destruction and oppression, about being a hummingbird.  I had a moment of hummingbird insight a few weeks ago, getting to participate in and experience a microcosm of what deeply transformative and politicized health and healing work can look like.

I have had the honor of offering ear acupuncture at two health fairs at the Arizona Worker’s Rights Center, a worker-led organization fighting wage theft and unjust labor practices that harm day laborers and other workers whose human rights are so often trampled.   Their health fairs are amazing and inspiring, with people involved with the Worker’s Rights Center and other community members coming together to engage with their health with the support of nurses, doctors, physicians assistants, midwives, community organizers, massage therapists, and health and healing educators.  There were dental exams, resources about accessing services, a survey about people’s health needs and priorities, workshops about mindfulness and meditation, people coming together to share a meal, some peace, get their blood pressure checked for the first time in 30 years, some conversation and connection, a chance to recharge in the face of daily violence, criminalization, targeting, oppression, and attempts to dehumanize whole communities of people.

Providing healthcare that is accessible and client-centered is always a political act in this country, where corporations greedy for profit have turned our healthcare system into more about money-making than care-giving.  Here in Arizona, it’s downright revolutionary to extend services to everyone regardless of immigration status, given all the blatant hostile racist attacks on people without papers, including an attempt last Spring to turn emergency rooms into immigration checkpoints.

What moves me so much about the health fairs that the Worker’s Rights Centers hosts, though, is something beyond access.  Free care that recognizes oppression and that not all people and communities are the same, free integrative care, that includes services other than conventional “western” medicine, is a rarity and we need it, all the time.  Health and healing that encourages individual empowerment, informed consent, folks taking charge of their own health needs and learning how to advocate to is also a rarity and we need it, all the time.  Health and healing that is both of those things AND based in community, in movement building, in coming together to connect and to struggle against capitalist white supremacist heteropatriarchy, is something we need all the time and something I, for one, have never seen or experienced before in my life.  Even though I have been schooled in NADA and its history, I had never before felt in my body the possibilities of moving beyond individual access and empowerment to truly liberatory, transformative, movement-building healthcare.  It’s a huge part of what’s made it possible for me to start acupuncture school tomorrow, knowing that I can be of service to movement building, collective care, to tearing down white supremacy culture so often created when white service providers try to show up for communities of color, of actively creating the world we need in which we are all free to be well together.  It’s something that Lincoln’s history, the Black Panther’s health programs, have made me dream of it.  It’s like Arundhati Roy famously said, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet dayI can hear her breathing.”  It’s a real and crucial part of the answer to some of the questions we need to answer, like:  What does it mean for health and healing to deeply, intrinsically be a part of movement work?  What does it mean for movement work to be deeply, intrinsically a part of health and healing?

I don’t think I ever really got it before, the true depth of what NADA was developed to do, that it is a healing modality that was designed to go beyond accessible holistic care, beyond individual empowerment to health and healing grounded in collective access and transformative, community-building social change work.   Health and healing as a site of politicization, of coming together and organizing and unifying and figuring it out, of gathering strength for the struggle, like the way things are supposed to be, like revolutionary movements have slowly built and struggled for, time and again.

And now I know what it is I need to do, and what I can aspire to, and what learning I need to pursue in order to get there.  Acupuncture school, here I come, for so many reasons: so that I can teach and support more people practicing NADA in more settings, so that I can support people in their unique individual and collective processes and healing, so the work I do in the world to support myself is in line with what my passion is, for a start.   Tomorrow, I begin that process.  Tonight, I am thinking of how I got here, on whose shoulders I continue to stand.

We are where we are because of the people that surround us, the ones we know intimately and the ones we have never met.  We are here because of each other, always.

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Filed under #nadaprotocol, acupuncture, community care, family, healing justice, health justice, resilience

Decolonize Safety (part 2): Alternatives to Arpaio

The internet world is abuzz with the Department of Homeland Security cutting off Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office access to 287g and S-Comm, agreements which enable them to work as an arm of the federal immigration system.  Arpaio and his deputies are notorious for misconduct, racial profiling, excessive force, corruption, horrific treatment of incarcerated people, retaliation against those who speak out against them, and aggressive raids that sweep thousands of undocumented folks into the immigration system dragnet.   Janet Napolitano (Obama’s hand-picked head of DHS who has supervised over 400,000 deportations in the last year) says that the reason DHS is finally doing anything to hold Arpaio to the barest of standards is that the Department of Justice just released a report denouncing civil rights violations perpetrated by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio, including “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States.”  As the headline of this Colorlines article aptly puts it: “DOJ confirms Joe Arpaio is a Racist Sheriff.”  In this same week, his deputies have beaten and tased a man held in their jail to death.  Some say it’s bad timing, others that it is just another signifier of the culture of abuse and brutality that pervades the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office under Arpaio.

I feel honored and humbled and amazed and inspired by all those who have worked and fought so hard for what the National Day Laborer’s Network is aptly calling “A People’s Victory.”  All the hidden and not-so-hidden acts of resistance that have contributed to this small but notable victory against the repressive monster of a system that Arpaio represents.  This resistance has taken many forms: by living and caring for each other, by defending communities and supporting each other, by educating those of us not immediately directly impacted by deportation and incarceration, by organizing and speaking out and bearing witness and shouting truth to power.  There are so many ways that so many different people have created this moment, by the daily practice of living and surviving and by the more public acts of organizing and denouncing and marching against all that threatens our communities.

The struggle to get Arpaio out, which will have huge real impacts on people’s lives and an important symbolic rippling, is far from over.  The Puente Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization in Phoenix that has been a huge part of leading the fight against Arpaio,  is now calling for an end to all cooperation and all ICE Access agreements with Arpaio, criminal charges against Arpaio, and the shut-down of Tent City.  Yes, sometimes we win a little bit and there is so much more to win.  The way is led by those most impacted by Arpaio’s reign of terror and the rest of us would do well to join the struggle that is turning the tide towards justice and collective liberation, a world that works for all of us.

In addition to his horrific treatment of people he’s locked up and his racist terrorizing of undocumented people, Arpaio has been getting tons of media attention recently for a related, but different violation of human rights:  between 2005 and 2007, his deputies either didn’t investigate or barely investigated over 400 sexual assault reports, many of which involved children and/or undocumented people.  It’s a travesty and tragedy and unfortunately completely in line with Arpaio’s upholding and extending of systems of domination, power, and control that feed him and he feeds.  It’s also extremely common for police departments to ignore reports of sexual violence: we live in patriarchal rape culture that in so many subtle and overt ways deems sexual violence acceptable.

When sexual violence is reported to the police, it should be investigated: it seems so basic, but it’s unfortunately not to the MCSO or to other police departments, invested as they are in maintaining the power dynamics of the world as they are.  It is such an act of bravery for a survivor to report a sexual assault and it is often the only the option for folks to begin to achieve some kind of safety, to tell their story and make the intimate horror they’ve experienced public and seen.  Most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, and therefore any reporting or going public with the story can lead to severe consequences, including loss of family emotional or financial support, loss of immigration status, more abuse, isolation, alienation, etc.

But all the attention to this brings up lots of questions about safety and responses to sexual violence:  because we know that most acts of sexual violence go unreported, because we know that the police (not here, not anywhere) never have oppressed people’s best interests in mind, because really, even an adequate and appropriate investigation into a sexual assault is unlikely to keep a survivor safe, or to center their needs and desires, or to hold the perpetrator accountable in a way that means they will never assault someone again and transform into someone who is also struggling against the interlocking systems of oppression that allow sexual violence to happen.

When we see the ways that OF COURSE Arpaio and his deputies didn’t investigate sexual assaults because that would be undermining the power and control that they thrive on, as well as the fact that any Sheriff’s Office is a poor solution to the epidemic of sexual violence and culture of rape (1 in 3 women are sexually assaulted during their life), we can honor the further silencing around sexual violence that occurred due to Arpaio’s misconduct and also recognize what our work is moving forward.

The brilliant Opal Tometi recently pointed out how much Arpaio has stolen the definition of “toughness,” with his identity as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”   He claims it with pride to mean brutality and injustice, racism and violence.  When I think of toughness, I think of survivors.  I think of communities in resistance, together fighting all of what Arpaio does and represents.  I think of the courage it takes to keep living after facing violence that has torn you down, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  I think of survivors speaking out and knowing we deserve the justice and safety we are fighting for.  I think of speaking truth to power, even when that same power has pushed us into the most hidden and trembling corners of ourselves.  I think of the small part inside myself that, on some days, is tough, as I learn to be in survivor community, standing strong and powerful against the interlocking systems of oppression which depend on and enable violence, including sexual violence, as a way of keeping us silent and chained.  I think of toughness as the world we are breaking open, the one we are building, the one in which we can all be well and together and our best selves, the one we move a little closer towards with each small victory, the hidden ones and and the not-so-hidden.

So at this moment, when some silence is being broken around the prevalence of sexual assault, around the systemic reasons why the system of police and policing will never end sexual violence, we also have an opportunity to break the silence about responses.  We can break the silence about what would truly end sexual violence for all people, about how we can turn to each other and build responses and communities that do not rely on the police as the only way to keep us safe, knowing that for most of us, that is something they can never do.

We are at the moment when we get to dream and vision and plan and enact alternatives to Arpaio.  This doesn’t mean 50 federal immigration officials being sent to Maricopa County to continue the violent, racist work of deportation that Arpaio is being cut off from.  This means abolition, in all the senses of the word: ending detention, deportation, incarceration, the Prison Industrial Complex, rape culture, and all its tentacles that rip communities apart.  It means communities coming together to fight sexual violence and denouncing any violence as unacceptable.  It means self-defense and community-defense, learning how to feel at home in our own bodies and that we are worth protecting.   Abolition also means accountability: it means growing resilient communities that can respond to intimate violence and sexual violence in ways that do not rely on oppressive systems that also perpetrate violence.  It means learning from all the hard work that has been done to imagine what a world without sexual violence, without any violence, would look like, and beginning to enact that, every day, growing the world we need alongside the struggle to tear down the one we need to end.

If you are in Phoenix, come join the Puente Movement on Thursday December 22 at 4 pm in Cesar Chavez Plaza to hold vigil for the 432 survivors who were ignored by Arpaio and the system he upholds.  Together we bring Arpaio down, and together we build alternatives to Arpaio.  Jen Cross, from Writing Ourselves Whole, writes: “ for those who can, we also have to put our bodies in the place, on the ground, together, linking arms, raising voices, physically manifesting our resistance. For those who can and wish to, this is deep self care. We give ourselves the bodily experience of resistance together, of revolution, we allow our bodies the memory of solidarity, we give our hearts that message: we are not alone in this struggle. Look, look: we are not alone.” 

We are tough.  We are resilient.  We build a new world with each breath we take.

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Decolonize Safety (part 1): Understanding the Root Causes of Police Violence

So I’ve been trying to write this for some time now and it’s just too big to put into words.  A friend recently told me that when I write, I try to bring everything in all together—sometimes it works wonderfully and sometimes it doesn’t make any sense.  In the name of clarity, I’m trying to keep this short.  Partly it’s hard because that is just how this world works: everything is connected, sometimes as neatly as a patchwork quilt, sometimes as chaotically as a tangle of yarn the cat has gotten its paws into.  And I’m trying to write about things related to trauma these days and that makes my words jumble and strain even more, but here’s trying:

I’m thinking about Thanksgiving and police violence against Occupy protestors, the ways that they are similar.  I’m thinking about how they are both real things that hold lots of emotional significance for lots of people, that they are worthy of honor, holding, respect, and significance for many people.  I’m also thinking about how they are both layered on top of other, harder things: genocide and colonization and daily police violence against marginalized communities, which really is the same thing as genocide and colonization.  I can respect that Thanksgiving as a holiday, as a time to be grateful and connected in a culture of individualism, is a big deal for lots of people, including people who are aware that it is a celebration of the theft of land and the killing of millions of indigenous people in this place we now call the United States.  I can also respect that police violence against Occupy protestors is really hitting home for a lot of people: Sharon Martinas, a white anti-racist elder activist, pointed out a few weeks ago that this is probably the first time that many young, white middle and upper class people are experiencing or witnessing police violence firsthand.  That’s a really big deal.

The coordinated police crackdown against Occupy protestors is terrible, violent, and deserving of much attention and outrage.  It’s important to bear witness to police violence against protestors.  It’s an important step towards understanding what the state will do in order to maintain the status quo.  It’s part of beginning to see the police not just as individuals who may be part of the 99%, to use common Occupy lingo, but as part of a system of institutionalized repression and violence.  Sharing of stories and asking the world to bear witness are resistance strategies that have been used by people and communities that experience oppression probably since oppression began, whenever that was.   It’s an effective way to call the world to bear for its complicity in ongoing, hidden violences and also potentially some kind of harm reduction, some kind of safety plan: the more that people who the state wants to trust the police and see them as “community peace officers” are witnessing what the police actually do, the less it will happen, in theory.

But while we hold space for burgeoning attention to brutal police crackdowns against Occupy protestors, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: police violence is a daily concern for marginalized communities.  These stories don’t usually garner media attention.  They don’t usually go viral on social media.  They are horrifically mundane and hidden from view.  The systems of oppression in this world depend on people with privilege remaining ignorant to the massive amounts of violence used daily in order to uphold inequality.

For many people, daily survival under capitalism is an act of resistance.   That means people of color, poor people, homeless people, migrant people, and queer and transgender people experience police violence, every day, as part of daily living.  All the time.  Every second of every day.  All the time.

Here’s some facts to help break it all down:

The last stat makes a really important point, so I’m going to say it again:  most African American women in prison are serving sentences for nonviolent drug or property-related offenses.  In other words, crimes of poverty, of trying to figure out how to eat and feed your kids and pay rent and bus fare to get to work on time.  Most people in prison are not there because of violence that they inflicted on another person.  Most people are subjected to incarceration and brutal interactions with the police because of the color of their skin or because of what they had to do to get by in this unjust world.

I’m thinking a lot about the messaging after Scott Olsen got hit with a tear gas canister and nearly died.  About how somehow the violence against him was extra unacceptable because he is a veteran, had fought in U.S. wars.  The cops aiming a tear gas canister against ANYONE’S skull is unacceptable, whatever that persons’ experience, whatever they were doing at the time, whoever they are.

Police violence against protestors is horrible, disgusting, unacceptable.  So is police violence against anyone, no matter what.  Just because we don’t hear about it or see it on the news every day doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  We have an opportunity right now, in the expansive moment that the Occupy movements have generated:  we can understand police violence against Occupy protesters as a microcosm of police violence against marginalized communities every day.  We can demand that NO ONE get assaulted by the police, whether they were protesting, selling drugs or sex as a way to get by, crossing a border, or walking down the street.

Let’s never again say “The police did that because so-and-so did something stupid.”  Let’s never again ask what someone did to incite police violence.  Naomi Klein writes about the civil war that is being fought in the United States, the system versus the people.  Sure, it’s a civil war, and it’s been going on for some time now.  They just can’t hide it anymore.  The police are not here to keep us safe, any of us.  The police are here to keep the system in place at any cost: that’s what they get paid to do, day in day, day out, by targeting people who the system is designed to silence because their very existence threatens the way things are.  It’s supposed to be so mundane we can’t even see it.  Now that we and the media are paying attention to police violence, let’s tell the whole story.

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What does healing look like?: To all the white people talking about unity in the Occupy movement

Sometimes we need to spend time apart in order to come together.  Sometimes we need to be angry in order to heal.

It’s like this: I’m facilitating a workshop at Occupy Phoenix about colorblindedness and privilege on the Left and a middle aged white man compares “healing” the divisions created by people of color trying to create caucus space to overcoming the systems that divide our communities, like policies that bar migrant kids (or kids with migrant parents) from attending public school in this state, like police violence that works against black-brown solidarity in our neighborhoods, like a corporate media that works to convince us that most of us don’t have health insurance because poor people are using emergency rooms too much when really we know its because of corporate healthcare that puts profit over people.

It’s like this: race was invented by the few in power (referred to in the language of Occupy Movements as “the 1%”) to keep poor and working-class white folks from allying with everyone else because that alliance had (and has) the power to topple global capitalism.  It’s only if we work together that we can transform the world into one that works for all of us.

But Occupy movements and rhetoric are missing something huge in order to get there.  A lot of really smart people have written deep analysis of the problems with unacknowledged privilege at specific Occupy sites and in the broader Occupy movement and about how people and communities are working to unpack and resist that.  I think a huge part of how we move forward is to reframe how we talk and think about unity.

I hear lots of talk of unity at Occupy Phoenix and from the wide internet world of access I have to other local Occupy movements.  When I hear the word unity, my brain immediately goes to the word healing, because I think they are intrinsically linked.  Like that we are working towards a world and a movement in which they mean the same thing.   But what’s different about the word healing and the word unity is that healing implies a process, it implies something that must righted, it implies we are not there yet but we are working on it, it implies a history and a present and a future and work that must be done to move between those three points in time.

The word healing is often really loaded coming from the mouths of white people, privileged people in political spaces.  It often is about reinforcing colorblindness, about erasing histories and current lived realities of oppression in an attempt to pretend we are all “equal” in the present moment.  It’s a word that has been co-opted by the individualistic, depoliticized self-help movement, a word that white culture often tells us means just taking care of one’s own.  The work of personal and collective healing within Occupy movements is justice work and is work that must happen for these movements to succeed.

When I say that we need healing in our movements, I don’t mean the same kind of healing that the Occupy Phoenix participant I mentioned earlier in this post meant.  I don’t think unity means pushing everyone together without paying attention to different levels of power and privilege, to different experiences we have every day because of systems that treat us so differently based on the color of our skin, the language we speak, the amount of money and resources we have access to (even within the 99%), the gender we are seen as, our histories and experiences and the options we have been presented with.   Capitalism hurts us all, but it hurts us all differently.

I think the Occupy movements have the potential to be a liberating space, a transformative space, a place where movements come together and form and swirl around, getting even just the littlest bit closer to the world we want to create.  The only way we can build this is if we only call healing what is actually healing: creating space to acknowledge our different experiences of global capitalism, of the economic crisis, of histories of economic crises that last for generations in communities of color.  Yes, healing comes from unity, but not unity that only comes from silencing.  It comes from unity that is built, that is carefully, slowly, and painfully constructed, by listening to each other and realizing we have a lot to learn.  Unity-as-a-healing-process is built on spaces that center those most impacted by the systems of oppression that harm all of us.  It doesn’t always feel good, it is not always easy and it is NOT constructed on anyone’s back or at anyone’s expense, or by leaving anyone behind and telling “them” “we” will “deal with their issues later, once we fix this more important thing.”

Unity as a healing process doesn’t necessarily start with all of us together.  We have to grow our capacity to really share space, to listen to each other, to create room for all of us together.   Vanissar Tarakali, a longtime white anti-racist organizer, talks about why she has seen it be so important for people of color and white people to meet in separate groups to when beginning to learn about and heal from racism: “The purpose of this is for white people to build community, and support each other to challenge racism and white privilege; and for people of color to build community, and support each other to heal from the daily trauma of racism and internalized racism.”  The process of healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of oppression and internalized oppression is different than healing from the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts of alienation, guilt, self hate, defensiveness, and sense of superiority associated with privilege.   Like both people who perpetuate violence and people who survive violence need to heal from that trauma, but they are really different (and initially incompatible) processes. The end goal can still be (and to me, still IS) building unified multiracial movements that reflect ALL of our experiences, including the most marginalized among us, as the end goal.

But we have some work to do to get there.

So if we start to see unity as a process instead of a forced assumption, if we start to understand the way that systems have been intentionally designed to divide us through the use of tools such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, how do we move forward?

The synonymous healing and unity I want to be part of creating has to center those most impacted by the problem at hand, has to lift up our differences and the ability to listen to and truly hear each other’s diverse experiences, has to acknowledge and learn from our histories of trauma and violence and oppression and resistance.

White privilege, the system of unearned benefits and advantages that is granted to white people by systems that deny these same things to people of color, teaches us white people that we know everything.  In order to heal from the harms global capitalism has inflicted on us all and to build real unity, we have to learn to challenge these basic assumptions that we have been taught.  We need to learn to breathe before reacting to something that challenges our worldview, our perhaps invisible assumptions of superiority and knowledge.  We need to learn how to take the time to thoughtfully respond, instead of reacting out of places of defensiveness and hostility to proposals and ideas that we might see as “divisive” or “diluting the message.”  This is not to say that anger does not have a legitimate space in the process of overcoming unchecked white privilege that is rampant in Occupy movements.  People of color are rightfully pissed off at being yet-again marginalized in a space that is supposedly by and for the entire 99%.    Actually hearing and taking into account this legitimate anger can help us as white people move forward in a way that is more accountable to the systems that grant us feelings of superiority and unearned benefits, often in ways we don’t even notice.

We white folks at Occupy need to engage in really listening: both to the lived experiences of folks who bear the brunt of global capitalism as individuals and communities, as well as to the histories of resistance, struggle, and movement building that have come before us.    We need to build our understanding of what’s really going on in this world, how they got there, and figure out how to lift up the voices and needs and skills of those most marginalized among us so that we are truly moving toward a  transformed world that works for ALL of us.  We need to challenge the assumption that white privilege teaches us that our experiences and ideas are the most valid and important.

Let’s take this as an opportunity to learn from other individuals and communities and organizations.  To realize that our personal experience is important and not the end of possible personal experiences in the world.  Let’s really listen and hear what people are telling us, especially those who capitalism has silenced for centuries.

One of the things about white privilege is we are taught to see our work and ideas as individual, as arising purely from ourselves and our own intellect/smarts/genius.  Really movements are informed, whether we acknowledge this or not, by all movements that came before, by all organizations that have been throwing down and building for years.  Let’s connect to our personal and collective histories.  Let’s realize that we have a lot to learn.  Self determination is a crucial value of Occupy movements and one that I share.  But the systems that hold white privilege in place tell us that self determination is an individual process, one in which we only think about ourselves and our own needs and wants and desires and expect everyone else to do the same, starting from the same options and power and feelings of entitlement to advocate for ourselves.  I see growing self-determination as lifting up the power inside all of us in a way that moves us closer to our selves and to collective liberation.  I see self-determination as something that fits perfectly inside the framework of centering the voices of those most marginalized by capitalism: migrant people, formerly and currently incarcerated people, people of color, queer and transgender people, women, disabled people, and especially folks who fall into more than one of those identity groups.    If we create a world in which those of us most marginalized by capitalism are free and have our needs met and our voices heard, then we have a created a world in which that is true for all of us.

One of the important lessons we can learn from movement history is that we’ve already seen what happens to movements that marginalize those already marginalized.  They fail.  Many of us who can sell out do, many of us who can compromise our ways into cushy non-profit jobs and pretend like we are helping “the less fortunate” do and we are someplace so similar to where we started.  There may be some change, but there is no healing.  There may be a false sense of unity, but there is just all this hidden (or not-so-hidden) division.

We can pretend to be doing this together, but until we do the work to make sure we are all at the table and that the table is even set in a way that anyone can come to, where anyone’s voice can be heard, we will just be doing this as alone and as divided as we are in the rest of the world.  Until we center those who of us who are currently and systemically pushed to the margins, we will not be able to create a resilient and lasting unity that is BUILT ON our differences, instead of in spite of them.

The divisions among us are created by systems.  Let’s learn to understand those systems by listening to each other and learning our collective history in order to build real unity and healing in the face of all that tries to keep us apart.  Building true unity and healing will be painful, but it will also be liberating.  Mad props to everyone who is already engaged in this work.  It’s hard as hell and it takes all of us, so let’s get moving.

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