Category Archives: resilience

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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Filed under #alternativestoarpaio, accountability, decolonize safety, ending sexual violence, healing justice, prison industrial complex, rape culture, resilience, self care, story telling, violence

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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Filed under #anti-racism, #occupyphoenix, #occupyracism, #whiteprivilege, accountability, healing justice, racial justice, resilience, story telling, unlearning privilege

Making the way with love

I wanted to write something in honor of Samantha Jane Dorsett, but I didn’t want it just to be about her death.  There is so much to say about the holding of collective grief and healing justice, the way we as movements, communities, individuals do and don’t do this.  The ways that our grief and who/what we have lost has to be part of our liberation and our healing and our transformation.  But then I re-read Samantha’s novella Troubled Sleep on the second anniversary of her death, this past June 20th, and was inspired all over again by how amazing, how revolutionary it is.

Samantha made beautiful art, mostly before I knew her.  She drew hilarious and inspiring comics and wrote a genius novella and poems and so many other things.  In addition to just how plain amazing her creations are, I think that Sam’s art, her drawing and her writing and her flyers and her organizing and her friendships and her soup, were a way she took care of her people.

There has been lots written about how art is a part of movement building in the more conventional sense.  We have countless examples of artist-revolutionaries breaking silences, bearing witness, fighting against oppression and repression, inspiring grassroots explosions of struggle and freedom.  Samantha was such an artist, and she was something else besides.  It seems to me that the things she made, all of them art, were as much about caring for the people immediately around her, about survival and holding and comfort and tiny shreds of hope, as they were about  contributing to large-scale movements for justice.

Her art is an incredible example of art as an act of love, therefore of care, support, and healing.  When we think about love as an action, as bell hooks talks about, making can be just one more way we love each other and maybe even ourselves.  And all of this can become a microcosm of what our larger movements look like, how we feel when we are participating in them, what the work is.  Yashna Maya Padamsee wrote an amazing piece about how healing justice work is about moving beyond self-care to community care, to fostering organizations and movements and communities and networks and cultures that intrinsically value and support our well-being.  She writes,

“Can we understand how creating another world will require, or rather, demand our well-being? From small-town collectives and national organizations to strategy and pop-ed sessions to shared meals and parties- it is our responsibility not as individuals, but as communities to create structures in which self-care changes to community care. In which we are cared-for and able to care for others.”

The practice of revolutionary art-making is often framed either as an act of individualized self-care, that one steps out of the “real” work of organizing to do, or as a tool for moving the hearts and minds and bodies of masses of people to collective action.  It can be both of those things.  And then there is this: art as a way we show love to those around us, as one of the ways we make it possible for all of us TOGETHER to move forward and fight, to heal and carry on, to grieve and hope.   Perhaps our most liberating, transformative artists are the ones who were just writing to give their friends, families, and selves something that would help them make it to the end of one day, and then the next.

I have lots of questions about revolutionary art as an act of love, liberation, healing.  About what access means in terms of art making and sharing.  About when we break silences and when we keep our secrets safe.  About what it means for me to share my writing  as a white, able-bodied, cisgendered (not trans) person with class privilege, someone with so much in common with people whose stories and voices have been elevated at the expense of the silencing of others for centuries.   About how to tell stories that will give hope, inspiration, glitter, and heart.  About how the things we do to take care of ourselves can also help us take care of other people and about how the things we do to take care of other people can also help us take care of ourselves.  Asking questions, challenging ourselves and each other, being humble, moving and making in a way that respects the dignity and self-determination of all people, all of this is building love, like developing a new muscle, like visioning and creating liberation—the slow work of threading together our bodies, our hearts, our words, and our creations.

Dorothy Allison—up there with Samantha as one of my revolutionary/loving artist role models—writes in “Muscles of the Mind” in her book of short stories, Trash:

The only magic we have is what we make in ourselves, the muscles we build up on the inside, the sense of belief we create from nothing.  I used to watch my mama hold off terror with only the edges of her own eyes for a shield, and I still don’t know how she did it.  But I am her daughter and have as much muscle in me as she ever did.  It’s just that some days I am not strong enough.  I stretch myself out a little, and then my own fear pulls me back in.  The shaking starts inside.  Then I have to stretch myself again.  Waxing and waning through my life, maybe I’m building up layers of strength inside.  Maybe.’”

The art that we create and share is part of building that muscle, part of building truly loving communities that can hold us all up even in the face of the most horrific violence and oppression and trauma.  And the deep love we create and share is often all that we have.  Someone told me today that what makes it possible to live through grief is the moments when you feel the presence of the person you have lost as a strong beam of pure love.  That is stronger than death, stronger than oppression—it keeps us going even when there is no hope.  And at the end of the day it is what we use to slip through the cracks, to rage and live and fight another day. Samantha wrote, in Troubled Sleep:

“In Franco’s Spain, it was illegal even to hold hands in public streets.  Was there really something good, something inherently good about affection, another thing that brought people close?  So much affection was channeled and controlled by pimps and husbands.  But still there was something special about the way people gently touched and reached out to each other, some tenderness that can’t be controlled.”

Thank you, Samantha, for being a bunny princess beam of pure love, for the chance to know you, and for leaving behind your art that pulls us up and through and together.

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Filed under community care, healing justice, resilience, samantha jane dorsett, self care, story telling

mirroring resilience

When I feel the lowest, the craziest, the farthest from capable and who I want to be, all I want to do is immerse myself in stories.  Like I want to go from listening to Harry Potter on CD in my car directly to watching bad TV on my computer directly to reading some completely engrossing young adult speculative fiction novel (which right now, ps, is The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu—highly recommended).  I want to be immersed in stories that are not mine, in realities that are comprehensive and full, in worlds that I can relate to but that are clearly, starkly different from my day-to-day.

It is hard to talk about having a hard time because like with so many other things in our world, we are taught that there is a distinctive mental health binary.  There are crazy people and there are normal people.  If we are capable of functioning, putting one foot in front of the other most of the time, then we are of the sane half of the world and we work like hell to distance ourselves from everyone else: THOSE people who just can’t seem to hold themselves together.  It’s a fear thing, like so much interpersonal oppression– we try to distance ourselves so that we don’t see ourselves reflected in people who we have been taught to look down on.  And, of course, there is a huge, powerful, well-funded system behind it that tries to keep us in line—it’s the psychiatric part of the medical-psychiatric industrial complex–the definitions of normal and crazy created by those in power to fit themselves.  The pharmaceutical companies that try to convince us that drugs will fix problems so obviously caused by poverty, bias, and violence, the institutions that work to isolate us and convince us  that it is all in our heads, that we should never talk about our feelings and hard times except  to people we (or our insurance) pay to listen, that we are permanently broken and alone, and if we let on to anyone how broken we truly are, they will mock and shun and hurt us like they do the people who can’t hide their crazy.  It’s just you.  It’s just you.  It’s just you.

Everyone I have ever met struggles sometimes.  Experiences of trauma and oppression compound hard times so we interact with them differently based on our experiences, what tools we have available to us, what support we can mobilize within and around us.  The root of the word health is wholeness.  Wholeness is something we all find glimpses of in different ways, at different moments, as we try to keep our heads on our shoulders on our chests on our bellies on our thighs on our calves on our feet on the ground.  I deeply believe that wholeness involves the insides and the outsides of ourselves: it is body-mind-spirit-community-ecosystem-world.  Working towards health is working towards collective liberation because it has to be, because to be whole takes all of us, together.   No one’s crazy is an individual problem with an individual solution, because what could possibly be whole about one person, all alone?  To me, health only exists within movements and communities struggling for justice, dignity, and self-determination—without collective struggle, we are all just some kind of sick in a sick, sick world.

What would it truly look like for the work of mental health to be the work of centering those of us most marginalized by psychiatric oppression/individualized normalcy/crazy?  As opposed to a politics of inclusion/exclusion where we leave the most marginalized of our people behind, claiming we will pull them up later, what if we practice what Dean Spade calls “trickle-up social justice?”  If we work to center the voices, work, and power of those most oppressed among us, we will all benefit, unlike the fallacy of trickle-down economics by which the privileged compound their own privilege, over and over again.  Trickle-up social justice when it comes to mental health justice means we center the resilience and resistance of moms who are surveilled by welfare and are threatened with the loss of their kids because they sometimes have days when they are too depressed to get out of bed, of transgender and gender non-conforming homeless folks whose trauma is compounded every day by violence they experience and fight back against but who are diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic because so many psychiatrists can’t imagine that such realities exist, kids who are so unsafe in their homes that they have to split themselves into a million parts just to survive.    Mental health justice depends on  dignity and self-determination when it comes to support and healing, understands what goes on in our minds is intimate, private, belonging to us alone and also a crucial part of movement building, and does not allow for simple categories like normal versus crazy.

It’s crucial that we see mental health as a collective struggle as opposed to an individual problem.  It’s really hard to see how to do this, given how important it is for us to choose when and how to share our most internal experiences.  I think that one way we start is by beginning to name our own resiliences: to recognize, talk about, honor, and share the really smart and brave coping mechanisms we have developed to get us through.  Of course they are so individual and based on our particular context that they may not be useful to many other people, but just the fact of the naming that we are all resilient and all have things we practice that make us feel better when we are feeling our worst is revolutionary.

An example: Since I was seven years old, I read speculative fiction when I feel crappy.  It’s probably the practice I have engaged in for the longest at the bleakest times.  It’s an ingrained thing in me now: when I can barely get myself out of bed, when all I want to do is stare at the wall, I can open some book that will transport me to some other world in which magic and intuition are lived and named and respected and I can get through the day.   Stories help us practice things without having to take such big risks as it can sometimes be to try things out in “real” life.  They can be like cushions or training wheels or holding a really good friend’s hand, so that we can try out what it feels like to think or feel or enact certain things that seem scary or overwhelming or just plain impossible.

Speculative fiction develops and strengthens our imaginations, which we need in order to vision and dream the world we are trying to create.   It lifts us up out of The Way Things Are and creates enough space for us to imagine a world centered on dignity and self-determination, a world that so often feels so far away from the one we live in.  For me, the hardest days are often connected to when the world we want/need/imagine/create feels the most unattainable, so any tiny space for possibility helps me breathe.  Our assumptions about what is stuck and what is moveable are completely unsettled when we engage with talking animals, omniscient technology, and the rise and fall of civilizations so like and so unlike our own.  This allows us to come up with new resistance strategies and maybe, just maybe, to remember the moments in our lives we often dismiss as not real, the times when we listened to our intuition even when it felt “crazy,” the moments when we did talk to animals…

I think that another part of what draws me to stories when I am having a hard time is their predictable arc, meaning something bad happens to one of the main characters and then it is resolved, unraveled.  Even if everything is not all the way better, some crisis is averted or some conflict is satisfactorily closed.  There is finality, the ebb and flow of hard times and struggle, the reaching of solutions and conclusions.  There is the end of the chapter or the episode or the whole damn book and I can breathe again.  There is some feeling in my body that comes with the end of a good story, like the door has been closed and my mind is quiet and I can just be still for a few moments while the ripples emerge outward from some central point in me.    I feel it in my body, this quiet returning to what is around me from the other worlds I have been soaking myself in.  We don’t get that much in the “real” world.  The injustices that surround and enmesh and ensnare us usually don’t leave us with moments that feel like resolution, in which the energy and fight we mobilized is allowed to move through us and come to some sort of temporary end, closure, a place that we can notice as stillness, a place to move back into the circle again.

Our bodies are equipped with mirror neurons: we experience the same electrical transmissions and connections when we imagine or watch something happening as when we actually experience it.  If I imagine myself typing on my computer, neurons fire in the same places as if I were actually typing.  Mirror neurons are thought to be a big part of how we develop language, how we empathize with other people, how we practice and learn.  Because our nervous system doesn’t really differentiate between the things we live and the things we witness, it also doesn’t distinguish between what we live and what we imagine.  This means that when we dive into story, immerse ourselves in fantastical worlds, our bodies and minds are learning what it feels like to have arc, release, conclusions, and triumphs, the way that stories so often do.

Trauma steals from us this exact ability:  we get stuck in an unresolved stress response (fight, flight, freeze, appease, or dissociate) and never get to experience the release that would allow us to move away from that.  Our reactions to trauma (oppression included as a kind of trauma) are really smart and brave and protect us from situations that we perceive as life-threatening.  However, over time when we get stuck in this place, we isolate ourselves, we get sick, we have a hard time moving forward, trusting, listening, being our fullest and most authentic and loving selves.   We can heal in many ways, but the healing modality(modalities) called “Somatics” names that one of the ways we heal, learn connection, and develop awareness of ourselves is by learning to notice what it feels like it our bodies when we feel bad and also what it feels like in our bodies when we feel neutral, calm, good.  According to somatics, this process is called pendulation (as we naturally swing like a pendulum between being triggered and being calm)—and the more we learn to track what pendulation feels like in our bodies, the more we can fully inhabit ourselves.  It’s like the process of developing awareness about injustice and oppression in the world: as we pay more attention and grow our understanding of what is going on to, for, and around us, we can struggle in ways that are more comprehensive, deep, and aimed at the roots of things.  The more aware of ourselves we are, the deeper our healing can be and the more healing we have to offer to the people around us. (For way more articulate explanations of trauma, somatics, tracking and collective liberation, check out Vanissar Tarakali’s blog and Generative Somatics.)

So for me, stories help me learn to ground myself more, to practice moving through crisis and stress and triggers to release and calm.  It is a practice, this learning to notice what resolution and ease feel like.  It is a practice, engaging with fantastical worlds to figure out how to move through this one.  In the space of dreaming and visioning that stories give me, their respite and illumination, it seems to me they are also teaching me some lessons about embodiment, about what it can feel like to heal ourselves, our communities, and our world.

Through learning how to be whole together we learn how to be whole ourselves.  Through learning how to be whole ourselves we learn how to be whole together.

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Filed under healing justice, medical psychiatric industrial complex, mental health, resilience, somatics, speculative fiction, story telling