Tag Archives: liberation

Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice

My remarks from the 2017 Paul K. Longmore Lecture on Disability Studies at San Francisco State University delivered on April 11, 2017.

 

[Photo of a fall leaf with reds, oranges and yellows being held up against a background of water and land in the far off distance under a cloudy sky. Photo by Mia Mingus.]

 

Good evening everyone and thank you so much for having me. Thank you for being flexible as I recovered from being very, very sick. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you to the people whose work has made this event possible (twice!) and for your work to make this event accessible—work that is so vital and, sadly rare, when it comes to social justice work.

I want to send a thank you out to everyone here and around the globe who are resisting—in big and small ways—the current administration, greed, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, fascism, colonization, environmental destruction, xenophobia, islamaphobia, and rape culture. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I want to extend gratitude to not only the organizers of this event, but also to the people who work and care for these buildings, rooms and grounds. The people who built this building, dispose of the trash, and clean the floors and toilets. The people who work for this institution, but can’t afford to attend it or live near it.

Let us also acknowledge that we are always on native land (and this is no exception) and that communities and lands around the globe are being exploited so that we may sit here in an air-conditioned room together. Let us remember how interdependent our lives are, not only when it is convenient, but every single day.

 

I want to say unequivocally that disabled people are everywhere. We are one of the largest oppressed groups on the planet. We are part of political movements, even if you don’t know or don’t acknowledge that we are. No matter what community you’re working with, you are working with disabled people. (And given how violent and polluted our world is, those numbers will only continue to grow.)

Disability and ableism are not secondary issues, though they continually get treated as such. If you are a disabled person out there, I want you to know that our experiences as disabled people matter. Our experiences as disabled queer people of color matter—even if queer, people of color, and queer people of color communities don’t bother to include us in their events, social gatherings, strategies, movements, analysis and communities. We matter and our stories and experiences matter. It means something to be disabled. Never forget that.

Understanding disability and ableism is the work of every revolutionary, activist and organizer—of every human being. Disability is one of the most organic and human experiences on the planet. We are all aging, we are all living in polluted and toxic conditions and the level of violence currently in the world should be enough for all of us to care more about disability and ableism.

 

Access Intimacy

I would like to focus my remarks tonight on access intimacy, interdependence and disability justice. I want to talk about these because I think they are—especially access intimacy—an important example of how we can reframe our understandings of disability to help us in our fight for liberation.

For those of you less familiar with Access Intimacy, it is a term I began using and coined in the spring of 2011 in my essay, “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link.” And I want to be clear, I didn’t invent access intimacy, I simply gave a name to something that was happening in my life and I hope it’s useful to others. Just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it.

From “Access Intimacy: The Missing Link:”

“I have never had words for access intimacy before.  For years, I would feel it or crave it, but not know how to describe it. It has always been just out of reach; just beyond my grasp.  I have mistaken it for emotional or political intimacy, sexual attraction or romantic desire.  I have mistakenly assumed that it would be there based on one’s identity or experience.  I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy.  And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow. 

Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.  The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level.  Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years.  It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.  It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.  Some of the people I have experienced the deepest access intimacy with (especially able bodied people) have had no education or exposure to a political understanding of disability.

Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives.  Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations.  Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access.  I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability.  It doesn’t mean that our access looks the same, or that we even know what each other’s access needs are.  It has taken the form of long talks into the night upon our first meeting; knowing glances shared across a room or in a group of able bodied people; or the feeling of instant familiarity to be able to ask for help or support.

In my life, access intimacy is something that has been hard won, organic or at times even felt magical.  It has taken me by surprise, showing up with people that I never would have expected to have that kind of “access connection” with.  It has been exciting and relieving, like a long slow exhale.  I don’t know where it comes from or how it happens.  It has felt like an unspoken, instinctual language between different people, like an entirely unique way of being able to communicate and connect.  Similar to meeting someone you just “click with,” access intimacy has felt like a distinct form of attraction, desire and energy unto itself…

Access intimacy is not charity, resentfulness enacted, intimidation, a humiliating trade for survival or an ego boost.  In fact, all of this threatens and kills access intimacy.  There is a good feeling after and while you are experiencing access intimacy.  It is a freeing, light, loving feeling.  It brings the people who are a part of it closer; it builds and deepens connection.  Sometimes access intimacy doesn’t even mean that everything is 100% accessible.  Sometimes it looks like both of you trying to create access as hard as you can with no avail in an ableist world.  Sometimes it is someone just sitting and holding your hand while you both stare back at an inaccessible world.”

 

Tonight I want to focus on access intimacy between disabled people and able bodied people because it has been the hardest for me to build. This is a huge part of my life because most of my access depends on able bodied people and because I don’t have paid or formal attendants, I am often relying on friends, coworkers and strangers for my access, as is the case for so many disabled folks.

For me, I understand Access Intimacy as something that can transform ordinary access into a tool for liberation, instead of merely reinforcing “inclusion” and “equality.” I am done with disability simply being “included” in able bodied people’s agendas and lives only when it’s convenient. I want us to tap into the transformative powers of disability, instead of only gaining access to the current system, or the burning house as the late Grace Lee Boggs would say, and doing nothing to change that system. We don’t simply want to join the ranks of the privileged, we want to challenge and dismantle those ranks and question why some people are consistently at the bottom.

Cultivating access intimacy is a way to directly challenge ableism and the relentless isolation that disabled people endure, especially disabled folks who are part of other oppressed communities. Access intimacy at once recognizes and understands the relational and human quality of access, while simultaneously deepening the relationships involved. It moves the work of access out of the realm of only logistics and into the realm of relationships and understanding disabled people as humans, not burdens. Disabled people’s liberation cannot be boiled down to logistics.

Access intimacy is interdependence in action. It is an acknowledgement that what is most important is not whether or not things are perfectly accessible, or whether or not there is ableism; but rather what the impact of inaccessibility and ableism is on disabled people and our lives. In my experience, when access intimacy is present, the most powerful part is having someone to navigate access and ableism with. It is knowing that someone else is with me in this mess. It is knowing that someone else is willing to be with me in the never-ending and ever-changing daily obstacle course that is navigating an inaccessible world. It is knowing that I will not be alone in the stunning silence, avoidance and denial of ableism by almost every able bodied person I have ever and will ever come in contact with. Access intimacy is knowing that I will not be alone in the stealth, insidious poison that is ableism.

The power of access intimacy is that it reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able bodied people’s world, and instead calls upon able bodied people to inhabit our world.

It challenges able bodied supremacy by valuing disability—not running from disability—but moving towards it. It asserts that there is value in disabled people’s lived experiences. In this way, it reframes both how and where solidarity can be practiced. Access intimacy is shared work by all people involved, it is no longer the familiar story of disabled people having to do all the work to build the conversations and piece together the relationship and trust that we know we need for access—that we know we need in order to survive. I know this has been the story of my life, especially with able bodied people of color and able bodied queer people of color.

 

Disabled people get told we must shrink ourselves and our desires to settle for living in the wake of an able bodied parade. And especially if we are part of other oppressed communities, we are expected to be grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown our way. In my life this has looked like a lifetime of political events by communities I am a part of that were not (and continue not to be) accessible—and where seemingly no one even pondered disability with no mention of it on any event information—or where access was done reluctantly or only for political show. It has looked like a lifetime of rich, passionate political conversations with people from my communities about everything under the sun except for disability and if disability was going to be talked about it was always me who had to bring it up. It has looked like friends from my communities inviting me to social gatherings and never once asking me or thinking about my access or differences in ability. It has looked like dates that were inaccessible and, in the worst cases, left me badly physically injured and bloody. It has looked like friendships that expect me to do all the work to educate them on disability and engage in conversations about disability and ableism. It has looked like a lifetime of supporting “my communities” in “their work” and them never showing up for anything related to disability.

It is easy to list these things off and analyze them, but it is harder to convey the way they have felt. It is harder to talk about how incredibly—sometimes unbelievably—painful these have felt when experienced. Queer people of color to-be-parents want to spend hours talking about how they will support their will-be children to explore their genders and sexualities outside of binaries, but when I ask them how they will support their child if they are or become disabled the conversation abruptly stops or I am told I am being “negative.” Or Asian, Korean or Korean adoptee communities don’t make their gatherings accessible and then I am asked, “why aren’t you more connected to those communities?” Or disabled communities who have no interest in talking about race, sexuality or gender and respond with hostility that you are being divisive when you explain that you cannot separate your disability from your other identities. Or the only access people you can find are white and there are “people of color only spaces” that you desperately need access to for your own survival as a woman of color adoptee. The ways that ableism and white supremacy work together so successfully to isolate disabled people of color continues to break my heart.

This is why access intimacy has been so important to me in my life. It has been an antidote to the pain and the extreme isolation that pound like crashing waves with no end. It has been a way to remember my magnificence and my dignity. It has been the tender balm and recognition of parts of me that most people would rather deny, avoid and pretend away.

And I want to be transparent, access intimacy is not easy to build. When it doesn’t happen magically and organically, it has been hard to create. It requires a lot of trust and faith and practice. And it has been lonely because not everyone is ready for it (or even a good fit for it) and it has taken discipline inside myself to not settle for crappy access when I don’t have to, which often means I have less access. And because we live in an able bodied society, most of the burden is still on disabled people (and will be for quite sometime) to grow it and introduce the concept to able bodied people in our lives. It is like anything else that transforms you, in that it is a thawing that will force you to inevitably question why you have gone so long without it and why it doesn’t exist in more places in your life, similar to the way that any kind of powerful alignment, love or joy does. It reminds me of the way that Audre Lorde talks about the erotic in her essay, “Uses of the Erotic”:

For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of.

 

Access intimacy is one of the main ways that I have been building interdependence in my life. I have been pushing myself to grow it and not just subsist on the little I have been able to find, most significantly with my partner, as is the case for many disabled folks. Engaging in building any kind of interdependence will always be a risk, for everyone involved; and the risk will always be greater for those who are more oppressed and have less access to privilege. In an ableist world where disabled people are understood as disposable, it can be especially hard to build interdependence with people you need in order to survive, but who don’t need you in order to survive. In an ableist context, interdependence will always get framed as “burden,” and disability will always get framed as “inferior.” To actively work to build something that is thought of as undeniably undesirable and to try and reframe it to others as liberatory, is no small task.

Especially as disabled people, we know what it means to live interdependent lives and it does not always feel revolutionary or enjoyable.

There will always be a difference of power between myself and able bodied people I am in relationship with. It will always be a choice for them to not have to engage in any work around disability or ableism. It will always be perfectly acceptable for them to never have to have conversations about disability or ableism, and certainly not any conversations that address their privilege, ignorance or question their ableist desires. They will never be expected to be in solidarity with disabled people and even if they are—even mildly or offensively—they will be applauded by the world for taking pity on us. The scales are already tipped and those of us who are on the sinking side know all-to-well what living in the shadows is like.

In my life, access intimacy continues to be a game-changer, a way to queer access into a tool we can use to get free. It has been a way to shift and queer how I and others understand disability and ableism. And because of the inherent interdependence of access intimacy—the “we” of access intimacy—it has transformed the kinds of conversations I am able to have with some of the able bodied people in my life. Access intimacy has helped me to orient my desires from a place of magnificence and moving towards the Ugly. It has required me to demand more from the people in my communities and settle less because I know things can be better. In short, it has sparked possibility inside of me that, growing up as a disabled child, I never had and never knew could exist. As a disabled child, I didn’t know that access could be anything other than the usual mixture of guilt, shame and isolation that always seemed so normal.

Access intimacy is critical to disability justice because there will never be any work with disabled people that does not include accessibility work. And it is important to note that access is often one of the biggest hurdles to doing work with disabled communities. Access is not some “optional way of life” for us—it is part of everything we do. It is part of everything I do. So, if we are working to transform the world for all of us, and not just some of us, access will be a huge part of this work. There is no liberation without disabled people.

 

Liberatory Access & Interdependence

We talk about the importance of making our movements and communities accessible and yes, that is important. We have to make our work and spaces more accessible. There is no way around it. Access is concrete resistance to the immense isolation that disabled people face everyday. But I don’t want us to just make things “accessible,” I want us to build a political container in which that access can take place in and be grounded in. Access for the sake of access is not necessarily libratory, but access for the sake of connection, justice, community, love and liberation is. We can use access as a tool to transform the broader conditions we live in, to transform the conditions that created that inaccessibility in the first place. Access can be a tool to challenge ableism, ablebodied supremacy, independence and exclusion. I believe we can do access in liberatory ways that aren’t just about inclusion, diversity and equality; but are rather, in service of justice, liberation and interdependence.

I have been calling this concept “Liberatory Access.” Liberatory access gets us closer to the world we want and ache for, rather than simply reinforcing the status quo. It lives in the now and the future. There is no liberatory access without access intimacy, and in fact, access intimacy is one of the main criteria for liberatory access. Liberatory access understands addressing inaccessibility and ableism as an opportunity for building deeper relationships with each other, realigning our selves with our values and what matters most to us, and challenging oppression.

Liberatory access calls upon us to create different values for accessibility than we have historically had. It demands that the responsibility for access shifts from being an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility. That access shifts from being silencing to freeing; from being isolating to connecting; from hidden and invisible to visible; from burdensome to valuable; from a resentful obligation to an opportunity; from shameful to powerful; from ridged to creative. It’s the “good” kind of access, the moments when we are pleasantly surprised and feel seen. It is a way of doing access that transforms both our “today” and our “tomorrow.” In this way, Liberatory access both resists against the world we don’t want and actively builds the world we do want.

Liberatory access requires a political container to live in and orient from and I believe that disability justice is that political container.

Access should be happening in service of our larger goals of building interdependence and embracing need, because this is such a deep part of challenging ableism and the myth of independence. The myth of independence is the idea that we can and should be able to do everything on our own and, of course, we know that that’s not true. Someone made the clothes you’re wearing now, your shoes, your car or the mass transit system you use; we don’t grow all our own food and spices.  We can’t pretend that what happens in this country doesn’t affect others, or that things like clean air and water don’t bound us all together. We are dependent on each other, period. The myth of independence reflects such a deep level of privilege, especially in this rugged individualistic capitalist society and produced the very idea that we could even mildly conceive of our lives or our accomplishments as solely our own. And of course, the other side of this is not just that it’s not true—not just that the emperor has no clothes, but that everyone else should pretend he’s fully clothed too. So, the Myth of Independence is not just about the truth of being connected and interdependent on one another; it is also about the high value that gets placed on buying into the myth and believing that you are independent; and the high value placed on striving to be independent, another corner stone of the ableist culture we live in.

Interdependence moves us away from the myth of independence, and towards relationships where we are all valued and have things to offer. It moves us away from knowing disability only through “dependence,” which paints disabled bodies as being a burden to others, at the mercy of able-bodied people’s benevolence. We become charity cases, a way for able bodied people to feel better about themselves and we in turn, internalize our sense of being a burden, sad, and tragic. All of this sets up a dynamic where disabled people feel like we have to be “liked” in order to receive basic daily access to live and where able bodied people feel entitled to receive praise and recognition for providing access. This is not access intimacy and this dynamic of disabled people being “dependent” on able bodied people shapes so many disabled people’s lives and is the foundation upon which so much domination, control, violence and abuse happens.

Liberatory access is something I work to practice in my life and political work. Whenever we have events, I always think, how can we build access intimacy into our access work and our political work at large? I think of liberatory access and access intimacy as things we can use to unhinge ableism. These are tools we can use in our work to confront ableism and all forms of oppression because disabled people are not only disabled: we are people of color, we are all different genders and sexualities, we are from different class backgrounds and cultures, we are survivors, bystanders and offenders—we are human. In our campaigns and at our conferences, we can ask our selves, how do we use this opportunity to practice parts of disability justice? How can we help grow access intimacy? Or what would liberatory access look like? In the same way that we would work to try and practice racial and gender justice, again, in service of things such as justice, building community, trust, love, we can work to practice disability justice.

 

Closing

In “Feeling the Weight: Some Beginning Notes on Disability, Access and Love,” I wrote:

These are the parts of disability justice and liberation that keep me up at night, that have hurt more than any ableist remark, that have left more scars than any surgery. This is the underbelly of ableism. This is what I fear we will be left to wrestle with after every building is made accessible and every important policy is passed.

In all of my work for disability justice, I always come back to the human parts of disability. The parts that we would rather not talk about. The parts that are not about the bills or budgets or laws or services. The parts that live under our skin and inside of our bones and cells. The parts that are buried. The parts that most of us have had to learn how to navigate on our own, if we learn to navigate them at all.

I love being disabled and my history of disability has been so drenched in trauma and sorrow, pity and isolation, silence and pain, shame and guilt, violence and abuse. I don’t know how to talk about disability without talking about these parts—without pulling them out of their hiding places and holding them out to show you and asking, where are yours?

I don’t know how to be disabled without being all of who I am: a queer disabled korean transnational and transracial adoptee woman survivor from the Caribbean non-mainland U.S., always searching for others who have had to learn how to live on the outskirts; who know how to survive off of longing and laughter. These identities and experiences are all part of each other and asking me—or anyone—to separate them is not only oppressive, it’s impossible.

Access intimacy has transformed my life and transformed my present, even if I can’t change my past. It is one of the ways I practice disability justice in my everyday life and one of the ways I ask others to do the same. Ableist access has shaped so much of who I am and every relationship I have ever had. When I think of all the oppressive forces in my life that demanded (often violently) that I shrink myself in order to survive, ableist access is easily one of the most prominent.

Access intimacy means so much to me, that it is hard to articulate. When I try and explain it the people with whom it exists, I never seem to do it justice. When I think about disability justice, I think about access intimacy because it has a direct affect on my daily life and makes love possible. And in any of our work for liberation, isn’t that what we should be working for: anything that makes love more possible? Anything that makes joy, healing and trust more possible? Anything that can take away the power and cruelty of oppression, violence, abuse and trauma?

Access intimacy makes love more possible in my life and in myself. And I will always be grateful for that. I’ll never understand the magic of it or how it works exactly, only that it softens my heart and let’s me exhale. Only that it gives me hope, as terrifying as hope can be when your survival has always depended on fear and the lesser of two evils. Access intimacy has been a lighthouse in the storm of ableism, beckoning me back home to love and reminding me that I never left.

Thank you.

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November 6th

tree in fog

[Photo of a tree in the forrest surrounded by fog. Photo by Mia Mingus]

 

Today is November 6th, the day I was brought to the adoption agency to be adopted, the day the adoption agency recorded as my birthday, and the day I celebrated as my birthday for 25 years. It is the day I left my birth family, never knowing if I would return. It is the day I left my first home, my first land. It is the day that a strain of longing was born inside of me for something that I do not even know how to name or explain. It has eaten away at my insides, at times turning me into an empty shell of myself. It has taught me how loneliness can be a comforting friend.

 

My birthday, as is the case for many adoptees, is a complicated web of sticky feelings, some of which I decide to feel or not feel and some that overtake me without consent, pulling me in, down, back and under. November 6th got recorded as my birthday by an industry that profits off of the erasure of my birth family, the convenient construction of someone with no past. My life did not begin when I was placed for adoption; I was already here. Today is not my birthday.

 

I hate the confusion that surrounds my birthday. People still getting confused, “so which birthday do you celebrate?” “When is your real birthday?” Since finding out the truth, sometimes I would rather deny my birthday all together, no celebrations, no worries about what or how birthdays are supposed to feel like to someone who does not even know how to think about her own birth.

 

It only marks another diasporic year that I have spent separated from pieces of myself that may or may not even exist; pieces of my self that made me, created me, but don’t know me. It only marks a deep sadness at having celebrated something that was so wrong for so long, something that wasn’t real, the way sometimes entire decades of my life have felt.

 

It is a part of me, but it is not a birth. It is more like a death, a loss or a closing. And it means talking about things that sit so close to my heart, things that I don’t even completely know how to hold, let alone say. I have been missing korea before I even knew what “missing” was.

 

Having been ripped from one piece of earth and shoved into another, sometimes I think the only land I know, the only land on which I belong, is the shifting tides of the ocean. The place that has always brought me solace and has been able to hold my shifting adoptee disabled korean queer girl self. Sometimes I think that what so many of us are doing, the bravery of finding home and attempting to create it, is something I know nothing about. Something I have no business being a part of. I have no home, but myself, and even that isn’t always true. Belonging is something I know nothing about. Living on the other side of dreaming is nothing I know about, having only ever had dreams, distant blurry memories, to keep me alive.

 

I know I existed before November 6th, even if there is no trace, even if I can’t remember how my mother smelled or my sisters’ six inquisitive eyes gazing at me. I know I knew something about home at sometime, even if it, like everything else got re-written and stamped and filed away.

 

Maybe all adoptees find home in their own ways, maybe some of us never do; maybe our homes are in the leaving, in the moving; in the shifting of the wind that carried so many of us past the horizon. Maybe I belong nowhere; maybe that is how they like it—a living, breathing, constant experiment.

 

36 years ago I left my very first home for another temporary home, a foster home, before being adopted. Six years ago I left Atlanta, the first place that ever really felt like home, to build home in Oakland. Maybe this is a re-birth of some sort, into a second chance at belonging and creating home, a kind of returning all on to itself.

 

I know I knew something about home at sometime, maybe I will find it again.

 

It was not erased, just like me.

 

 

 

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Still Choosing to Leap: Building Alternatives

Remarks from the closing plenary, “Revolutionary Organizing Across Time and Space,” at the INCITE! Color of Violence 4 Conference, March 26-29, 2015, Chicago, Illinois.

 

vie on wallI am engaged in the work of building transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (The BATJC). We are a local collective and we are not a nonprofit because we believe that it will not allow us to take the kinds of political risks necessary for transformative justice and community accountability (TJ/CA). No one is paid and we work to get everything for as free as we can. We are not “volunteers,” but rather we understand this as part of our life’s work.

I am interested in our internal work. The work with each other inside of our movements, inside of our organizations and groups, inside of our relationships. The way that our analysis by itself is not enough, because what good is it if we can run great campaigns if we all end up hating each other in the process? If it means that leaders who used to be friends now don’t work together to the detriment of our movements? What good is our amazing analysis of TJ/CA if our intervention to violence tears apart our community, and then we need an accountability process for our accountability process?

Because it is easy to hate a white police officer, but what do we do when the violence and abuse is coming from people who look like us? People we rely on? People we love? What do we do when the violence is happening inside of our homes, our relationships, our communities? Inside of our political groups, collectives, organizations and movements?

Our inability to respond well to intimate violence and abuse continues to undermine our other political work. How is it that we still can’t respond well to one of the most common experiences on the planet that our peoples face?

This is the moment we are in.

Because it is clear to me that we don’t lack political analysis or people power or deeply compelling work. But I am interested in what happens next: the way we come together and then break apart. The way we can mobilize people against the state, but when it comes to intimate violence within our own communities, we can’t ever seem to find enough people; or they are there in the beginning, but are nowhere to be found in the following months; or we end up replicating our own versions of criminalization, exile and “other.” It is not enough to say, “community-based responses to violence” if we simply just end up replicating the state.

I am interested in what we are going to do when we have a world without prisons—that’s right, I said, “WHEN.” Because it is going to happen: we will win. I have no doubt in our ability to shut down the prison industrial complex forever and throw away the keys. It is going to happen.

But then what? What will be our alternatives for dealing with violence, harm and abuse?

We need to build alternatives. Yes, we need resistance—it is crucial. Our communities are being attacked and erased at every turn. Yes, we need to resist against the systems that are targeting us—most definitely. AND (BOTH/AND) we also need alternatives. Because even if we abolish prisons tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with conflict and harm and violence. Even if violence and abuse ended tomorrow, we will still need a way to deal with the impacts of trauma (individual and collective trauma, immediate and generational trauma). Generational trauma will be with us for some time.

And of course these are not mutually exclusive to each other. We can resist in ways that build a new world. And I am not saying we need to do everything all at once all the time. On the contrary, I am saying the exact opposite. That instead, we get clear about our different roles and work in service of a shared vision, and that we are strategic about those roles. That those of us who are working to resist and hold back the tide for one more day, one more night, do so for those of us who are working to build alternatives. And that those of us who are working to build alternatives stay grounded in the current urgency and reality of intimate and state violence. That we work in concert with each other so that we are not responding to immediate needs in ways that undermine our long term visions (and in ways that perpetuate the very systems we are fighting); AND that we are also not building utopic politically pure castles in the sky that have no relevance to our current conditions. We need both and we need them together and we need them to be in service of one another.

Because we are good at resisting. We are good at fighting for the world we don’t want. We are good at analysis and analyzing things up and down (and sometimes into oblivion). We are skilled at naming what we don’t want. I think we are less skilled at naming what we do want; our visions for liberation. And not just vague things like, “ending white supremacy and heterosexism,” but how are all the children going to get fed? Who will clean the toilets? Who will take out the trash? Who will cook the food?

We know that most people who experience violence—any type of violence—turn to their intimate networks first: their best friend, their family, their partners, a neighbor. Most people don’t call the cops or an anonymous hotline or even seek social services. They turn to their intimate networks. So if we know this, then that is where we need to build.

I hope we are in a moment where we are realizing that we need to put half if not more of our time and resources into building alternatives and building in our intimate networks. BOTH a reclaiming of what has been stolen from us, as well as a reimagining of what can be. As well as a revealing of what we are already doing and the strategies of resiliency that are already embedded in our lives. For example, I think about queer chosen family. No one took a class or got a grant to learn how to do that. We did it to save our lives and in the process, created a new world for each other.

We are at a moment where we have almost two decades of shared language and thinking around TJ/CA—obviously the work has been going on forever, just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it—but in terms of a shared language and political framework, we have had tremendous contributions from so many great people and groups. We are in a moment where TJ/CA is gaining more and more visibility and where we are able to share examples of our responses to violence like never before. I feel incredibly lucky to be alive in this moment doing TJ/CA work and I extend daily gratitude to the folks who have come before me in this work as well as the brave and dear revolutionaries who I have the honor of working with.

We are in a moment where we are building off of this work knowing that practice yields the sharpest analysis.

How are we building the world we long for in our day-to-day? After the protests, after the conference, after the event, outside of the meetings? During the unsexy times, in our most mundane moments?

This is not about perfection, but practice. Falling down and getting back up. Spectacular failures and learning how we can be and do better. Resilience in the face of fear; Humility in the face of ego; Faith in the face of hopelessness. This is about understanding organizing as a spiritual practice that is just as much about our souls as it is about our goals.

Sometimes I think it is strange to speak about this work from a microphone because so much of the work I am engaged in is quiet work, tender work. It is witnessing people in their most vulnerable moments around their histories of child sexual abuse, the times when they don’t want to be seen. This work is about nuance, complexity and contradiction, not sound bytes and drawing lines in the sand. It is messy and sticky work that reminds me every day that notions of “good” and “bad” people are fantasies that simply serve to make us feel more comfortable, but ultimately don’t serve to make us more liberated. I don’t believe in “good” and “bad” people, I believe that given the right conditions, any of us can be an asshole; any of us can abuse power.

How do we leave a legacy worth fighting for? How do we learn to invest in each other as our greatest resource? Because we will need each other to build the kind of world we want; liberation is a collective practice. How can we cultivate a sense of shared commitment to each other and understand this as part of our organizing? How do we cultivate the kind of commitment to each other that can withstand failures, heartbreak, disappointment, gossip, mistakes and conflict?

The kind of commitment to each other and love for one another that allows us to continue to leap together, knowing that we will fall and mess up and make mistakes and get bruised. Knowing that we will have to brush ourselves off and climb back up the mountain to do it all over again tomorrow. How do we cultivate that kind of commitment? One where we still choose to leap. Together.

Thank you.

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Medical Industrial Complex Visual

The following is a visual* of the Medical Industrial Complex (MIC) and is offered as a tool for our work for collective liberation. It was created so people could begin to get a sense of what the MIC is and all it encompasses. I have found that many people understand the general concept of the MIC, but don’t always know what it actually is beyond hospitals. The MIC cuts across all of our work and continues to be a major site where ableism is manufactured, perpetuated and fed. Any of our work to challenge and transform the MIC and its influences must have a sharp analysis and history of ableism. For example, when fighting for healthcare, let us remember that we cannot simply fight for the right to receive care, but also the right to refuse care.

This is an evolving visual that will continue to be updated. At the bottom of this post, is a non-visual breakdown in outline form. This is not an exhaustive listing of every single part of the MIC, but rather an overview, offering examples of the many sites, sectors, professions, fields and institutions that make up the medical industrial complex. There are many more we could add. For example, there could be a whole other section dedicated to animals, especially the ones that are part of our food source, and all the genetic engineering, drugs, hormones, supplies and services that they receive. It is important to remember that the impacts of the MIC ripple out and are felt past what is listed here.

The Medical Industrial Complex is an enormous system with tentacles that reach beyond simply doctors, nurses, clinics, and hospitals. It is a system about profit, first and foremost, rather than “health,” wellbeing and care. Its roots run deep and its history and present are connected to everything including eugenics, capitalism, colonization, slavery, immigration, war, prisons, and reproductive oppression. It is not just a major piece of the history of ableism, but all systems of oppression.

Oppressed communities have had long and complicated histories with the MIC. From the continued targeting of disabled bodies as something to fix, to the experimentation on black bodies, to the pathologized treatment of and violent attempts to cure queer and trans communities. From the humiliating, lacking or flat-out denial of services to poor communities, to forced sterilization and dangerous contraceptives trafficked to young women of color. From the forced medicalization used in prisons today, to the days when the mental institutions used to be the jails, and the ways that “criminal” and “mentally disabled” are still used interchangeably. From the lack of culturally competent services, to the demonization and erasing of indigenous healing and practices. From the never-ending battle to control populations through controlling birth, birthing and those who give birth in this country, to the countless doctors and practitioners who have raped and sexually assaulted their patients and the survivors who never told a soul. From all the violence that was and is considered standard practice, to the gross abuses of power.

In flushing out what the MIC is, we are naming a system. We are calling attention to the systematic targeting of oppressed communities under the guise of care, health and safety. Like other oppressive systems, there are many individuals within the MIC that do good work. There are many people who went into the MIC intentionally to serve their communities because they want to change the system and provide reliable and safe care to those who need it. There are many people working inside the MIC who see first-hand its bureaucracy and hypocrisy. They help many of us find loopholes, shortcuts and life rafts through.

We are not saying that there are no useful or helpful things within the MIC. It has saved many of our lives or the lives of people we love. We are not anti healthcare or science, but are rather exposing the reality that many of us are dependent on the MIC while we are simultaneously trying to change it and ultimately build alternatives to it. Many of us don’t want to have to turn to the MIC, yet have few other viable options. And still many of us are fighting for access to current (or better) services within the MIC. There are no easy answers and the contradictions we are living in are often painful and unjust. Similar to our work to resist and challenge capitalism or to create alternatives to the police and prisons, resisting and challenging the MIC is rife with complexity and there is so much we need that we don’t have yet.

We are asking, why we have so few options when it comes to our healthcare needs? And why insurance and pharmaceutical companies get to call the shots on the kind of care we receive—or don’t? Why don’t we talk more about the ways that forced medicalization has become part of our prison system? Or how non-western and alternative healing practices are often no less ableist than western medical practices? We are asking, what could “health,” “wellness,” “care,” “accessibility” and “sustainability” look like in practice, outside of theory? We are revealing where and how the MIC is already in our lives in ways we might not have thought of before. We are urging us all to connect the MIC to our political work, because healing, wellness, care, “health” and disability are part of whatever liberatory work we are engaged in.

This offers us tremendous opportunities for coalition and cross-movement work because we all have a shared stake in our individual and collective wellness and healing. If anything, the damage the MIC has inflicted on our planet should be enough for us all to dream and invest in building alternatives. We have so much shared ground when it comes to being able to answer the ever-present question, “What could true wellness and care look like for our communities?

 

[The image shows a visual layout of the Medical Industrial Complex, which is written at the top in large letters. Just under it, there is a thin, long box that contains the words: Profit, Power, Control, Exploitation, Ableism, Oppression, Violence, Trauma. There are four main quadrants of many different small boxes with text in them, varying in sizes. Each quadrant is in a different color. The boxes are all connected to each other with bolded and thin lines, forming a web-like effect, filling the entire page. There are main categories and subcategories differentiated by bolded text. The boxes are organized according to the outline listed below. In the outer four corners are 4 large boxes with Bolded text. The top two on either side read “Science and Medicine” and “Health” and the bottom two on either side read, “Access” and “Safety.” In the middle of all the little boxes, in the middle of the visual are four large boxes that correspond to the 4 outer large boxes. The top two read, “Eugenics” and “Desirability” and the bottom two read, “Charity and Ableism” and “Population Control.” There are 4 large arrows behind the boxes that connect each outer corner large box to it respective middle large box. Science and Medicne is connected to Eugenics; Access is connected to Charity and Ableism; Safety is connected to Population Control; and Health is connected to Desirability. In the bottom right corner there is small grey lettering that reads, “Posted on leavingevidence.wordpress.com Version: 2015.1]

[The image shows a visual layout of the Medical Industrial Complex, which is written at the top in large letters. Just under it, there is a thin, long box that contains the words: Profit, Power, Control, Exploitation, Ableism, Oppression, Violence, Trauma. There are four main quadrants of many different small boxes with text in them, varying in sizes. Each quadrant is in a different color. The boxes are all connected to each other with bolded and thin lines, forming a web-like effect, filling the entire page. There are main categories and subcategories differentiated by bolded text. The boxes are organized according to the outline listed below. In the outer four corners are 4 large boxes with bolded text. The top two on either side read “Science and Medicine” and “Health” and the bottom two on either side read, “Access” and “Safety.” In the middle of all the little boxes, in the middle of the visual are four large boxes that correspond to the 4 outer large boxes. The top two read, “Eugenics” and “Desirability” and the bottom two read, “Charity and Ableism” and “Population Control.” There are 4 large arrows behind the boxes that connect each outer corner large box to its respective middle large box. Science and Medicine is connected to Eugenics; Access is connected to Charity and Ableism; Safety is connected to Population Control; and Health is connected to Desirability. In the bottom right corner there is small grey lettering that reads, “Posted on leavingevidence.wordpress.com Version: 2015.1]

MIC Visual Version 2015.1 Fullscreen & Download

 

In this visual, there are 4 distinct sections that make up the underlying core motivations of the MIC: Eugenics, Charity and Ableism, Population Control and Desirability. These are part of what allow the MIC to continue to be profitable. Not only do they anchor each of the 4 sections shown here, but they permeate through the entire MIC. For example, Eugenics anchors Science and Medicine, but is absolutely a part of how we have been taught to understand Safety and is a cornerstone of Population Control. Desirability anchors Health , which includes everything from the Alternative and Natural Medicines Industry to Cosmetic Medical Procedures. Charity and Ableism anchor Access and reminds us how access is still understood as charity, rather than justice. Population Control is often done in the name of Safety, but is most certainly a part of Science and Medicine as well.

Since nothing listed is mutually exclusive and many of these boxes overlap, there are connections that can be made throughout the entire visual. For example, the Mental Health Industry boxes are intentionally positioned to slide right down into the Prison Industrial Complex, especially given that the largest mental institution in the U.S. is part of a county jail in LA. The same is true for the placement of Bio-colonialism and Cosmetic Medical Procedures since they both so aptly reflect the motivations of Eugenics and Desirability, respectively. Non-profits were included directly next to Charity and Eugenics because of the ways that they have helped to framed how we understand things such as “cure” and “rescue,” and dutifully fundraised millions of dollars in the process.

What would it mean to not have to be afraid of going to the doctor? To be able to trust that the care and treatments you are receiving will not only take care of your body, but the planet and future generations as well?

I am inspired by the possibilities that can be grown out of the rich fertile ground where disability justice and healing justice meet and overlap. I ache for more healers that don’t continue to perpetuate ableist notions of how bodies should be (or strive to be) and for disabled folks who don’t have to only know “healing” as a violent word because of our histories of forced healing, cures and fixing. I get excited about practitioners who have accessible spaces and practices that can hold all kinds of bodies and minds; and collective access and care that allows more and more disabled people to be less and less bound to the state.

I hope this visual continues to evolve and serves as a useful tool for different kinds of liberatory work and I look forward to creating more versions. I hope this is the beginning of all kinds of different tools (i.e. more visuals, writings, breakdowns, art and education) for understanding the MIC because there is so much work to be done.

 

*There are many important people who helped create this visual from its inception 6 years ago, to the huge mass of colorful webs it is today. The original version of this visual was created in collaboration with Cara Page and Patty Berne for the January 2009 workshop, “Re-envisioning the Revolutionary Body: Disability, Race, Queerness and the Possibility of Cross-movement Building.” Deep thanks go to both of them for their ongoing work for healing justice and disability justice.

Over the last 6 years, I continued to rework the visual by adding more information, re-organizing the layout, and re-formatting it. I played around with many different breakdowns before finally settling on this 4-part framework of Eugenics, Charity and Ableism, Population Control, and Desirability. I asked for (and got) a ton of feedback on it from great individuals across the U.S. and Canada who attended workshops and talks I gave. Friends and comrades also gave feedback and much needed support on formatting, arranging and content.

I would especially like to thank two fellow disability justice activists who have been pivotal in thinking through the content of the MIC with me in the last 3 years. This visual would not exist as it is today without them and they have given so much of their time and heart to both the larger framing, as well as the minutia. They have asked to remain anonymous, due to safety concerns of being public about their disabilities, so I will just say, “thank you, thank you, thank you.”

 

The Medical Industrial Complex Visual Outline

  • Profit, Power, Control, Exploitation, Ableism, Oppression, Violence, Trauma
  • Science and Medicine  —  Eugenics
    • State/Private Hospitals, Clinics, Health Centers
      • Medical Practices, Examinations, Surgeries, Procedures, Equipment, Suppliers
    • Medical Schools
      • Medical Curriculum, Studies, Research, Experimentation
      • Doctors, Nurses, Practitioners
    • Pharmaceutical Companies
      • Multi-National Corporations, Distributors
    • Bio-colonialism
      • Scientists, Researchers, Genetic Testing, Vaccines
      • Reproductive Control, Sterilization, Contraceptives
      • Assisted Reproductive Biogenetic Technologies
  • Access  —  Charity and Ableism
    • Assistive Devices, Equipment and Services
      • Prosthetics, Braces
      • Wheelchairs, Canes, Walkers, Ventilators, Vans, Lifts, Needles
      • Physical Therapy
    • Non-Profits
      • Service Provision
      • Advocacy, Fundraising
    • State Disability Services and Programs
      • Department of Mental Health, Case Workers, “Doctor’s Note”
      • State Provided Care (Nurses, Personal Attendants)
      • Federal, Regional, State, County, City
  • Safety — Population Control
    • Prison Industrial Complex
      • Prison Psychiatric Wards, Forced Medicalization and Institutionalization
      • Healthcare Provision and Facilities for Prisoners
      • Lethal Injections
    • Drug and Addiction Facilities and Programs
      • Drug testing
    • Assisted Living
      • Group Homes, Nursing Homes
      • Elderly, Sick and Disabled
  • Health —  Desirability
    • Mental Health Industry
      • Public/Private Institutions and Services
      • Therapy, Psychology
      • Psychiatry
    • Non-western and Alternative Healing
      • Schools, Research, Practices, Beliefs
      • Practitioners, Leaders
      • Faith-based and Forced Healing
    • Alternative and Natural Medicines Industry
      • Multinational Corporations, Distributors
    • Cosmetic Medical Procedures
      • Surgeries, Supplies, Drugs

 

 

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On Collaboration: Starting With Each Other

*Excerpts from the 5th Annual Queer & Asian Conference, “Collide, Connect, Create,” keynote address, delivered on April 28, 2012.

sea buble with stones and sand stuck to it, set against the sun.I would like to invite you to breathe, deeply. To remember why you do this work—this work for liberation. Think of the communities your work is in service of—hold them in your mind—feel them. What are your wishes and dreams for them? Let’s remember why we’re here, what brought us into this work of daring to create movements that value all of us; daring to assert that Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders matter; that we matter.

Let us ground in all those who have come before us and honor them. All the freedom fighters who have made this moment possible. All of the queer Asian and Pacific Islander (API) folks in particular that have gone the hard road of being the only queer person or the only person of color, or the only asian, or the only pacific islander. Let us ground in the legacy of racial justice and queer liberation organizing and community building, of immigrant justice work and radical women of color and trans liberation work. Everyone who has wanted something more than criminalization, isolation, shame, self hatred and invisibility.

Let us ground in and honor all of the people who are currently fighting for us. For all of us in this room—each and every one of us. For the first queer API person we ever met; or whose writings we read or who helped make it possible for us to be who we are. For the first time we were ever in a room full of queer APIs. For the queer APIs in the south, rural lands, small cities who don’t have access to this type of space and belonging. For the queer API folks who have families that do not support them. For everyone currently involved in and committed to building queer API community. For all of the people fighting for liberation in this country and around the globe in big and small ways whether they are working for food justice, reproductive justice, the community caretakers, child care workers, prison abolitionists, healers and radical educators.

And finally, let us ground in and honor those yet to come, the people who we do this work for. We hope we can give them intact queer API communities and organizing. We vow to be able to pass on concrete, substantial tools and learnings to them; and wish for them a deep sense of pride, belonging and dignity in who they are, in all of their complexities. Our work and our time is responsible to them and we work so that they may have a lighter burden to carry…

I do this work in service of community. I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation. I speak knowing that all of our voices are important. I speak to leave evidence for the people like me who are searching for reflection and recognition and a “yes, we exist.” I speak to leave evidence for folks who have been told that disability is not as important as race, or that gender justice will have to wait until after class equality is won. For folks who have been told that how you feel is less important than what you think; for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to rattle off 10, even 5, writers or books that reflect their identities or experiences. Those of us who straddle the lines between multiple oppressed communities. For those of us who are working to end violence for all of us, not just some of us. For those of us who truly believe that no one’s safety is more important than anyone else’s, even when we feel unsafe.

I want to specifically name my privilege as a disabled person, when so many of us are locked up in prisons, institutions, group homes, or in the back rooms of our families’ houses. I have a level of mobility that many disabled folks don’t have and I know it is a huge reason I am visible. As someone who is physically disabled and does not have mental or cognitive disabilities, I know how privileged it is to get to speak from the mic to a crowd full of people and be listened to…

I was asked to speak about collaboration and how we build alliances for social change. There is so much I could say about it, but really, to me, it comes down to our relationships. It’s not about the smartest analysis or the fanciest organizing campaign with sleek billboards, buttons and stickers. It’s about the quality of our relationships with each other, how well you can build community and how you treat people.

If we are truly committed to ending oppression and violence, then we must be committed to each other. Then we must live out of the simple truth that we need each other. We need each other. And this is where I would like to center my comments for today.

The best analysis in the world is useless if we don’t treat each other well. If we don’t invest our time and energy in learning how to love each other better, if we can’t build relationships that can last more than 2-5 years. If we can’t commit to practicing working out hard dynamics in our relationships or if we are recreating the very conditions we are fighting against inside of our collectives, organizations, and movements.

It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you’re not willing to work on your heart and your relationship with yourself. If you don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry,” “that really hurt my feelings,” or “I messed up.” None of this matters if you are interested in staying “right” all the time or always wanting to only talk about the places you’re oppressed and never talk about the places you are privileged.

All of us here know that oppression needs to be ended. All of us have been moved to come out here today. But then what? Our movements don’t lack people being inspired and motivated, it lacks what comes next: the day-in and day-out work to end oppression and violence that is not glamorous or easy.

Take the day-to-day work of being an ally to queer disabled API folks, for example. The work of learning about your able bodied privilege, valuing the voices of disabled queer APIs, making sure your events are accessible, fighting ableism in public and private, educating your fellow able bodied queer API comrades about their able-bodied privilege. As a queer disabled korean adoptee woman, I ask you, how are you connecting your identity as an able bodied person to your identity as a queer API? How are you connecting your fight for queer APIs to fighting ableism? How are you making sure that queer API community and family building is accessible for all queer APIs? How are you actively listening, valuing and learning about queer disabled APIs?

Because you can know about something and it doesn’t mean that your behavior is going to change. It’s the white middle class way of activism, isn’t it? If I know different, then I will do different, but we all know that it takes much more work to change. Good intentions are not enough. We need to practice. We have to be in it for the long haul.

Because hopefully what that sharp analysis should tell us, is that systems of oppression and violence are deeply embedded in our lives and world, intertwined with each other; and white supremacy and transphobia are not going to be ended in a campaign or in 5, 20 or 50 years. It is going to take a long time. And we have to be committed to each other through it. We have to think of our relationships as long-term relationships with each other, as people we will be working with and plan to know for the next 30, 40 years.

Any kind of systematic change we want to make will require us to work together to do it. And we have to have relationships strong enough to hold us as we go up against something as powerful as the state, the medical industrial complex, the prison system, the gender binary system, the church, immigration system, the war machine, global capitalism.

Because we’re going to mess up. Of that I am sure. We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in violence or accept violence as normal.

We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it—because they do. We have to learn how to have hard conversations and get skilled at talking about and dealing with shame, guilt, trauma, hurt, and anger. That’s the kind of skills building and workshops that I want to see at conferences! And not some new-aged privileged imperialist, “let’s go to India and get healed and work on our relationship disconnected from the rest of the world and injustice.” But rather, we are doing this in service of liberation because our movements, organizations, groups and communities are imploding from the inside. People get into fights and then we never see them in the same room again; most of our non-profits feel more like corporations with CEOs and dictatorships; break-ups divide entire queer communities or people are exiled or leave and never heard from again; activists are burning out or being traumatized by the very movements that seek to end trauma; campaigns fail because we don’t know how to listen and work together, so instead of coalitions, we have turf wars and undermine each other for next year’s grant that barley pays the bills.

We must work to transform our selves, each other and the systems we’re up against. The task in front of us is to learn how to value and practice individual, collective and systematic change together. There is no other choice. Someone once said, “ community is taking responsibility for the relationships in the group.” What if we moved from that place? What if we understood each other as our collective responsibility? What if we understood that we are all interconnected and what harms you will impact me—and THIS is why addressing power and privilege are so vital?

How can we demand accountability from the state, if we can’t even hold our selves and each other accountable?

How do we stretch for each other and learn to live past our lifetimes? How do we live in service of people 3-5 generations to come? How do we grow our skills to be able to center our vision and think long-term? That’s the kind of thinking I want us to have. Because, the truth is, most of us won’t live to see the kind of large scale change that we dream of, but we can do our best to lay the necessary ground work for the next generation to be able to take it and run.

I want to leave a legacy of useful tools and substantial work for the people coming after us. I want to be able to give them loving, intact queer API communities and API women (gender queer, trans and cis) who love themselves and each other. I want to give them a world free of sexual violence. But most of all, I want to be able to leave them with a legacy of stories of how people came through harm with each other, how they risked loving each other in the face of uncertainty, how they built family and community that centered resiliency and healing.

Because the truth is, we need each other. We need each other. I need you and each and every one of you make my life more possible. We owe our existence to each other in so many ways. I don’t know how you have survived, but I am grateful you are here.

Take some time to look around at each other. Connect with each other and realize all the brilliance in this room. Commit to each other and remember that every time we turn away from each other, we turn away from ourselves. Remember that loving each other as fellow queer API folks is loving ourselves. This is where coalition building, collaboration and building alliances across movements begins: with each other. Because movements, coalitions, communities… they’re all made up of individual, living, breathing people. What good is it if you claim solidarity and alliance with disabled people, if you don’t treat the disabled people you know well?

Commit to not letting go of each other, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard. Commit to finally learn that the ends do not justify the means. How many times do we have to learn that how we do the work is just as important as the work we do? Commit to thinking about after the meeting, after the protest, after the revolution. Commit to being a grounded force to end violence and oppression. Commit to being a grounded force for healing and community. Commit to learning about where each of you are different and how “our differences lie down inside of us,” as audre lorde talks about.

What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is about: loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other…

I have been all over the country speaking for the past seven years and across the board, almost everyone I have met, has longed for community and love that will be able to be the foundation for justice and liberation. Community and love that are just and libratory. But most of us have been so hurt, experienced such harsh things, that we are afraid to try again. Each time community, political work or love fails us, it is that much harder to muster up the courage to try again. I know it’s hard. And I am not standing up here saying I am perfect at this by any means—far from it.

But what I am saying is that it is our only chance. We have to be bold. We have to be courageous. We have to be willing to risk again and again and again. In a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done.

I’d like to close with one of my favorite quotes, by a fellow korean adoptee:

I am realizing that our stories weave together, that acknowledgment of your story does not mean a necessary preclusion of my own. Something has been shattered. Some door flung open that I will never close. And I will lose some people when I acknowledge the door, while others will accompany me to the other side. And I cannot forget the people who are waiting there, people i have been holding my breath to see.

–Soo Na, from Garlic and Salt in

Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption

Thank you.

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Changing the Framework: Disability Justice

How our communities can move beyond access to wholeness

(Written for the RESIST Newsletter, November, 2010.  Initially posted on the RESIST website.)

spider web stretched between rocksIn my time doing social justice work, I have found that disability is something most people know very little about—and that includes seasoned, fierce and well-respected community organizers and activists. People usually think of disability as an individual flaw or problem, rather than as something partly created by the world we live in. It is rare that people think about disability as a political experience or as encompassing a community full of rich histories, cultures and legacies.

Disability is framed as lacking, sad and undesirable: a shortcoming at best, a tragedy at worst. Disabled people are used as the poster children of environmental injustice or the argument for abortion rights. For many people, even just the idea that we can understand disability as “not wrong” is a huge shift in thinking.

Towards interdependency

Our communities and movements must address the issue of access. There is no way around it. Accessibility is concrete resistance to the isolation of disabled people. Accessibility is nothing new, and we can work to understand access in a broad way, encompassing class, language, childcare, gender-neutral bathrooms as a start.

We must, however, move beyond access by itself. We cannot allow the liberation of disabled people to be boiled down to logistics. We must understand and practice an accessibility that moves us closer to justice, not just inclusion or diversity.

As organizers, we need to think of access with an understanding of disability justice, moving away from an equality-based model of sameness and “we are just like you” to a model of disability that embraces difference, confronts privilege and challenges what is considered “normal” on every front. We don’t want to simply join the ranks of the privileged; we want to dismantle those ranks and the systems that maintain them.

In no way am I saying that accessibility is not important—it most definitely is. We cannot have disability justice without it, but we want to question a culture that makes inaccessibility even possible. Just because disabled people are in the room doesn’t mean there is no ableism (a set of beliefs that favors non-disabled people) or that people won’t pretend we’re invisible.

This work is about shifting how we understand access, moving away from the individualized and independence-framed notions of access put forth by the disability rights movement and, instead, working to view access as collective and interdependent.

With disability justice, we want to move away from the “myth of independence,” that everyone can and should be able to do everything on their own. I am not fighting for independence, as much of the disability rights movement rallies behind. I am fighting for an interdependence that embraces need and tells the truth: no one does it on their own and the myth of independence is just that, a myth.

The power of disability justice

Disability justice has the power to not only challenge our thinking about access but to fundamentally change the way we understand organizing and how we fight for social change.

It has the power to bring our bodies back into our conversations. What do we do with bodies that have limitations, that are different (no matter how much we want to change them)? How do we acknowledge that all bodies are different, while also not ignoring the very real ways that certain bodies are labeled and treated as “disabled?”

Disability justice activists are engaged in building an understanding of disability that is more complex, whole and interconnected than what we have previously found. We are disabled people who are people of color; women, genderqueer and transgender; poor and working class; youth; immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer; and more.

We are pushing for an understanding of how ableism affects all of our movements for justice. We are drawing connections between ableism and other systems of oppression and violent institutions. We are pushing for a more nuanced and fierce interrogation of the medical industrial complex and understandings of health, wellness and healing that aren’t rooted in ableist notions of bodies and what is considered “normal.”

We are trying to understand how we can build organizing and community spaces that are mixed-ability, cultivating solidarity between people with different disabilities. We are working to move together, as disabled people, through a world that wants to divide us and keep us separate.

Disability is not monolithic. Ableism plays out very differently for wheelchair users, deaf people or people who have mental, psychiatric and cognitive disabilities. None of these are mutually exclusive, and are all complicated by race, class, gender, immigration, sexuality, welfare status, incarceration, age and geographic location.

Finding home

As a queer, disabled woman of color, disability justice feels like a political home for me, a place where I can engage in conversations about disability and race and gender and queerness and capitalism and more.

I tried to look to the disability rights movement, but I saw very few leaders who reflected me, and I found that, for the most part, disability was being talked about as an isolated single issue. Having been involved with racial justice, queer liberation, reproductive justice and feminist movements most of my life, I have rarely encountered spaces that addressed disability or connected it with other issues.

What does it mean to not have the luxuries of deciding when to use the bathroom in the place where you live, having alone time or going to visit a loved one in their home? How do we re-imagine relationships that center interdependency? How do able-bodied people move from simply “supportive allies” to political comrades who are actively incorporating a disability justice understanding into their work and lives?

We cannot fight for liberation without a deep, clear understanding of disability, ableism and disability justice. The bodies of our communities are under siege by forces that leverage violence and ableism at every turn. Ableism is connected to all of our struggles because it undergirds notions of whose bodies are considered valuable, desirable and disposable. How do we build across our communities and movements so that we are able to fight for each other without leveraging ableism?

I imagine a world where our organizing and activism is less segregated, where our movements and communities are accessible and don’t participate in the isolation of disabled communities. I imagine places where we fight for whole and connected people, families and communities.

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Reflections On An Opening: Disability Justice and Creating Collective Access in Detroit

This post was originally written for the INCITE Women of Color Against Violence blog.

This summer, Detroit was an opening for me. And not just because it was the first time that there was a Disability Justice track at the Allied Media Conference (AMC) or because of any workshop or plenary I attended. Detroit was an opening for me because I got to spend over a week creating collective access with a group of twenty-three disabled folks and our non-disabled comrades. I got to spend eight days getting a glimpse into a different world and experiencing a kind of interdependency that let me loosen my shoulders; that let me breathe.

Creating Collective Access (CCA) was about re-thinking how we, as disabled and chronically ill people, engage in movement spaces. This was about imagining something more and knowing that we had to do it for ourselves because it is so rare for movement spaces to ever consider disability and access in ways that go beyond logistics; in ways that challenge the ableist culture of our work. This was about being very clear that we wanted to shift the individualized and independent understanding of access and queer it and color it interdependent. This was about building crip solidarity. We wanted to create a liberated space. We would pool our resources: body and ability, financial, material and more. We would not just think about disability as separate from class, age, race, queerness, family, children, gender, citizenship, violence, but we would understand it as intimately connected. We would think, not just about “conference and workshop time,” but we would also think about social time and what social spaces were accessible and how we would make sure no one was isolated or left out. Because in our movements much of the relationship building, socializing and bonding is done in very inaccessible ways in very inaccessible places—we know this all too well.

It all started with need.   About a month before the AMC, access was the number one thing on our minds.  What will we do?  How will we get to food and afford enough personal attendants to come with us?  Who will push wheelchairs?  How much walking will there be?  Who will help you go to the bathroom?  How will we manage the pain, the schedule, and the pace?  Where will we stay and will it be accessible (the majority of community housing just wasn’t an option)?  How much will access cost?

We were hit with the reality of having to be in another city for an extended period of time, under intense conditions; the same intense conditions that frame most conferences.  We knew it would be long days, stretching into late nights.  We knew everyone would be stretched thin and we knew that meant something totally different for us.  We knew we could make it through, by squeezing ourselves, as we’ve done before, into ableist practices of how bodies should function and perform, but we also knew what that would mean for our bodies (and our hearts) while it was happening and once it was all done.  We wanted to be able to stay in our bodies as much as possible, take care of our disabled selves, and be part of the community that was coming together for the AMC and the USSF.  We wanted to be whole and connected to ourselves, each other and other activists and organizers—was this possible?

We started to dream: how could we use this as a way to build community, put disability justice into practice and deepen our understanding and analysis of what it means to do this work together?  What if we invited other crips to do this with us—crips who were coming to the AMC and were probably agonizing over the very same things?  What if we did community care in a way that made space for many different kinds of bodies?  What if we made a commitment to each other to move together and centered our access and care around queer and trans crips of color?  What if we tried to create the kind of world we want to live in?  We do it in our disability justice work, so why not try and create it for the time we’re in Detroit?  CCA began as a hope and a dream to make what we need.  CCA is a reflection of the courage, resiliency, and creativity that disabled folks have in the face of an inaccessible and ableist world.

The bottom line was we needed each other.  Interdependency is not a choice.  We were not going to be able to get through the AMC and traveling to another city without each other.  We didn’t know what the environment would be like, how many people would be there and what kind of access needs would arise on-the-spot, as they always do.  We would be building the plane as we flew it.  The thought of thousands of social justice folks from the left converging at the USSF was an anxiety-provoking access nightmare, in and of itself.   But we knew if we had each other, we would be okay.  Together, the three of us, three queer crip women of color, got to work.

We drafted and put out a call to other disabled folks who were coming to Detroit and who wanted to be part of a community-led access effort.  We made a blog, explaining what we were trying to do and our vision.  We were clear that this was interdependent and we invited people to be part of creating this with us.  Leah worked to get scent free information out to folks and create a scent free room, while Stacey and I worked on a basic structure for access and communication. We scrambled with three weeks to go and came up with a model of pods.  We knew the disabled people who were coming would already have some type of access plan in place and we knew it would be with people they trusted and had relationships with.  Together, each grouping formed a pod and our goal was to connect the pods to each other.  We asked people to tell us about their pod’s access needs and what they could offer and contribute.  It was broad.  Some people were able to walk and get food, others were better at coordinating; some people had access to credit cards and others would need cash to be available; some people had personal attendants or able bodied friends/family members with them who could also help with getting food, driving and pushing wheel chairs.

I had done collective access before, but with three people, including myself; or for a disability justice meeting or when traveling with one other disabled comrade.  I had never done anything like this before with twenty-plus people, half of whom, I had never met before, on our way to a city that many of us had never been to, all in a container of shifting how we understood access, past just survival.  This time, we were all jumping together.  And we flew.

We called ourselves the Pod People and we worked seamlessly together with great affection and enjoyment.  It was truly a collective effort, centered around a simple value of care.  Everyone pitched in getting food, helping to serve food, audio describing, reaching, pushing, texting, calling, asking, offering.  We schemed together to get more accessible rooms opened for us in the dorms, access to a refrigerator and the accessible shower key from the dorm staff.  Everyday, we had lunch and dinner together, no one had to worry about not being able to eat because they couldn’t get into a restaurant, couldn’t get to the grocery store or couldn’t walk far enough.  And no one had to worry about being isolated while they were eating, as often happens to disabled people when they are in movement spaces.

When there were social events, we all talked about it and had two groups, the folks who wanted to go and the folks who wanted to stay in; we made sure no one was left out and checked in about access all the time.  We stayed up the first night after dinner talking about disability and race and queerness and invisible disabilities and coming out as disabled and bodies and gender and geographic location and our struggle to find community.  Some people were just starting to identify as disabled, having never called themselves “disabled” out loud before.  Others had been doing disability justice work for years and still others had been doing this work for decades.  A lot of us were trans, gender queer and gender non-conforming, most of us were women of color and almost all of us were queer.  We formed an almost all disabled space that centered all of who we were.  Amazing.

One of the most important pieces of CCA for me was a continued commitment to move together as crips and comrades.  Every time I attempt to move through the world with other disabled folks, I am always so astounded at how hard it is for disabled people to stay together, literally.  I watch how the world separates, isolates and divides us, so that we cannot move together.  I watch how it is constructed for us to move with non-disabled people, instead of each other; and how it discourages folks with different disabilities from moving together.  Trying to move with a group of disabled people with different disabilities is very hard, takes enormous amounts of problem-solving, energy and creative solutions.  To me, one of the most powerful opportunities of CCA was another chance to figure out how we can stay together and what it would take to create a world where we understand the weight of what “access” means.  So that when I say something is inaccessible, you don’t just think “there’s no ramp” or “there are no places to sit” or “there’s no close, accessible, free parking.”  Instead, you feel. You feel the weight of what inaccessibility means to us.  You understand inaccessibility to mean isolation, shame, exclusion, disappointment, loneliness, anger, privilege, sadness, loss of community and disconnection.  For eight days, it was amazing to be with people who know what “accessibility” means; who know and feel the weight of it; and who are working to transform it.

I learned so much and was rejuvenated from my time with the pod people.  Disability requires us to re-think “independence” and how we engage in movement spaces, down to how we think, move and communicate, down to our very bones.  As movements committed to social and economic justice, where are the disabled people in our communities, organizations, bases, and movements?  Are they isolated?  How are we re-imagining access in ways that include, but are not limited to disability; that encompass class, language, gender, mamas, parents and children?  What would access beyond logistics look and feel like?  Access that allows people to not just be included, but maintain their dignity and connection to their communities?  How do we care for each other in ways that allow us to stay connected to our bodies and stay connected to each other in order to build the kind of world that can care for us all?  We are learning and trying and learning and practicing and learning again.

With my deepest gratitude to the pod people: I will forever be changed.

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