Safety Labs and new ways of being

You know that feeling in the air when something’s on the verge of change? And it’s not just the possibility of change, or hoping for it but actually knowing without a doubt that our lives will be different, and that you took part in moving things forward. It’s kind of like the air is sizzling, like something’s cooking and the aroma of it is rising as you hear it sizzle and watch it transform, knowing it’s only a matter of time before what was raw becomes something you can taste, something that will fill your mouth with goodness and nourish your body so you’ll never be the same.

That’s what I’m feeling after helping facilitate a Safety Lab the other night with Community United Against Violence (CUAV). We were lucky enough to be able to invite members of the Brown Boi Project while they were the in middle of their leadership retreat, so we were working in a beautiful space with wonderful energy and powerful folks of all colors and genders and sexualities, from all around the country and some from all over the world. We were able to come as ourselves, to bring all of who we are and all of what we’re struggling with, and by the end of the night we had hope that our struggles would soon give way to liberation.

But before I get too much into it, to answer some questions you may have:

Who is CUAV? CUAV is an amazing organization that began in 1979 as the nation’s first anti-violence LGBTQ organization. They began in response to the murders of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, to mobilize queer and trans communities to prevent, respond to and heal from violence. Today, CUAV helps address violence in its many forms through resources like a 24-hour safety line and events like Safety Labs.

As far as my personal relationship with the organization, I am hopelessly and madly in love with CUAV. I’ve been a member for about a year and a half, and in that time I’ve had them to thank for everything from sending me to this year’s U.S. Social Forum in Detroit to providing space for me to lead my first writing workshop during Safetyfest to helping me feel empowered in my own healing process and struggles with violence. The incredible thing about CUAV is how they highlight and build upon the power we already have within our communities, emphasizing that we don’t need to rely on police or other oppressive forces to create safety in our own world.

What is a Safety Lab? It’s pretty much what it sounds like — a place to explore, practice and imagine new ways of creating and envisioning safety in our communities. The specifics of each Safety Lab have varied, as in other labs it’s a space for experimentation, and it finds its form when those who participate determine what they want to bring.

What is the Brown Boi Project? From their mission statement: “The Brown Boi Project is a community of masculine of center womyn, men, two-spirit people, transmen, and our allies committed to transforming our privilege of masculinity, gender, and race into tools for achieving Racial and Gender Justice.” I wasn’t familiar with the Brown Boi Project before this Safety Lab, and I’m so glad for the opportunity to connect with them. They were only a couple of days into their leadership retreat, and already it was clear how much they’ve been growing and learning and building a community that meant something special to each one of them.

So back to the Safety Lab: I’ve been finding myself in this constant effort to shift what are ordinarily abstract, intangible ideas (such as justice) into something we can all touch and see and feel. The Safety Lab is a place where that happened. We wrote in permanent, unerasable ink about the violence we’re living with, and the new vision of safety that we’re moving toward. We showed in our bodies what our pain looks like, felt it in ourselves and in each other. We moved, physically, toward our new world, all the while saying out loud what we feel, what we desire, what we demand and how we create this new world. We changed the shape of our bodies and felt change within ourselves, watched as others transformed and lent a helping hand when others needed support. We were all coming from different places, with different struggles and different stories, but we were able to unite and support each other in working toward common goals. I’m so thankful for everyone who participated.

This is the change I’d like to see in the world. Not just relying on laws or criminal justice, not just waiting to be acknowledged or supported by oppressive powers that simply don’t care. Not feeling disempowered or helpless because we’ve been pushed down and silenced. But simply reminding ourselves that we already have the capacity to create the world we want to live in. It’s our vision, it’s our choice, and it’s our right to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about feeling unsafe or like our needs aren’t being met.

We’re already moving forward, and nothing can stop us from getting to where we want to be.

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 9:51 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Some hopes for marriage equality

I’ve already shared some of my general thoughts on the marriage equality movement, but now with the overturning of Prop. 8 and the possibility of my home state of California allowing gay marriage, I find myself thinking about what I hope for the future of marriage.

My feelings about the news were conflicted. On one hand, I’m ecstatic that the court chose the side of equality, taking steps to ensure that same sex couples who hope to commit to each other in marriage can enjoy the same rights and benefits as heterosexual couples who do the same. I’m not even going to bother trying to put in my own words what Judge Walker so eloquently explained about how gay couples who deserve to marry deserve equal rights — to me it’s just common sense.

On the other hand, I have to stop to wonder, what are we fighting for? The right to be miserable in marriage, and to join the ranks of the frequently divorced? Our little piece of a historically oppressive institution? The chance to show people from outside of our communities that we’re “just like them”? It’s not as if this changes anything for relationships between LGBT people. Queer folks have been loving each other and committing to one another for centuries, and it’s not as if we need the validation of traditional marriage to make us feel like we have the right to love each other.

Unless it does change something. Maybe if I try not to be so cynical I can hope that, rather than queer folks adjusting their lives and perspectives to support traditional marriage, the result of such acts as overturning Proposition 8 will be the queering of marriage.

Some hopes for the future of marriage:

  • Perhaps the obvious: more acceptance of queer folks and their families. Moving past outdated attitudes and religious interpretations that characterize people in same-sex partnerships as “living in sin” and being incapable of sustaining stable, loving relationships or raising healthy children. Hopefully we can reach a day when nobody would think twice when a bride-to-be announces her engagement to a fellow bride.
  • A shift in our understanding of gender and gender roles. In his ruling, Judge Walker pointed out that it’s not a change in marriage that allows for same-sex couples to marry but a change in an understanding of gender. Perhaps if society no longer expects for marriage to only occur between a man and a woman, then we will no longer adhere to traditional ideas about the role of the husband and the wife in a partnership. With many traditions left over from the days when marriage made a woman the property of her husband, we can only benefit from moving on from our ideas of binary gender and male and female roles.
  • A recognition of the role of marriage in race and immigration movements. Unjust immigration policies have torn apart queer partners and their families, and perhaps working to dismantle these policies on a federal level can lead to much-needed solidarity between racial equality movements, immigration movements, gender equality groups and queer rights groups, and others who realize how these issues affect us on all levels.
  • Related to the above point, increased dialogue and community building among communities of color and communities of faith. Hopefully, an elimination of language and attitudes that frame being a person of color or a person of faith as separate from being a queer person. Recognition that there are some people whose identities intersect these areas, and that there is room in these communities for acceptance of queer folks.
  • I also hope that this whole struggle for marriage rights will shed light on the imperfection of the institution of marriage. I hope we can see that marriage isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t be imposed on everyone, to realize that many of the rights and benefits tied to marriage should be available to everyone, even if they don’t choose to express their love in the form of a traditional marriage.

Well, I could go on for days about how I’d like to see marriage change, but this is a start. Hopefully, the marriage equality movement won’t stop at winning the rights to marry, but will continue to address the social issues related to the struggle and create a picture that truly reflects equality for all people.

Photo from the Huffington Post slideshow

Published in: on August 7, 2010 at 12:49 PM  Leave a Comment  
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9/11 stories

I’ve been writing September 11th stories. I’m not sure why. I don’t tell my own, or stories of people I know, but stories of people who are strangers to me. Of women waking up from one night stands to find the towers falling, watching it all on television as they hold on to the strangers they’ve just met with more intimacy than before. The stories are all beginning to sound the same, of people who are close enough to one of the crash sites to spill their coffee when they hear the boom, or of someone who’s across the country finding out he has HIV right before it happens. I started to write one set ten years later, in some apocalyptic future, before I realized ten years later will be just next year and the world’s nothing like that now. Not yet.

For some reason the one about the kid keeps coming to mind. It’s nothing elaborate, just a short, simple story about a little boy who stays home from school with his parents to watch the towers fall on the news. He finds a new game to play as he watches, putting up makeshift buildings and having his G.I. Joes knock them down, over and over again. The buildings are made of legos and cardboard, and each time he knocks them over, the multi-colored blocks scatter like fireworks and the cardboard wears down a little more, making each new building a little weaker, a little easier to destroy than the one before.

He plays this game until his father breaks his locked gaze with the television, looks down and yells at his son to tell him that that’s not what G.I. Joes are for.

I’ve been thinking about that kid all morning, about where he might be now. He might be old enough to be considered an adult now. Old enough to sign up for the military. I wonder what messages from that day and the days that followed helped make him the person he is today. If he learned not to trust brown people, to hate the enemies of the U.S. I wonder if he decided to enlist, or if he decided that that’s not what his body is for.

I feel, somehow, that this isn’t my story to tell. I hope he’ll tell it someday.

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 11:25 AM  Comments (2)  
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After the unjust verdict

I have a very heavy heart following the verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the trial of the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant in the back on New Years Day, 2009.

And I’d like to move away from the media’s focus in the Mehserle trial, as they try desperately to come up with stories of violence among the largely peaceful gatherings. I’ve seen “shock” and “shame” over looting done by a small minority of those who clearly weren’t gathering in hopes of building community and making change, like many others were, without media coverage. Some say the looting is “more shameful” than the unjust verdict itself.

Really?

Is this what we should be focusing on? Is the fact that some took advantage of this moment to cause chaos, following sensational media hype all but calling for it, more shocking than the fact that a cop can shoot an unarmed black man in the back as he lies down on the pavement, and avoid being convicted of murder? More shocking than the sound of a gunshot ending the life of a young man, a father, a son? More shocking than the horror the Grant family faces for the rest of their lives?

Dare I say that to focus on the looting, of all things, is not really the point.

So I’ve dwelled too long on it already. Moving on.

What’s weighing much more heavily on my heart is the thought of Oscar Grant’s family. His mother describes the verdict as being “slapped in the face by a system that has denied us true justice.” I feel the echo of her words: “My son was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered. He was murdered.” It breaks my heart that she has to deal with a justice system that doesn’t agree.

I hope, at least, that more than violence or media sensationalism, this can lead to conversation, to speaking out about how it feels for the justice system to value some lives over others, to writing or creating art or doing whatever we can to express ourselves, as Jen Cross calls for here. The truth is, regardless of the verdict, Oscar Grant is lost forever. Let’s hold one another and hope not to lose another so senselessly ever again.

‎”Justice does not come to the swift nor the strong, but to the one who endures to the end. And as a family and as a nation of African-American people, we will fight for justice til the end”- Wanda Johnson

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It’s hard to focus my feelings about everything right now enough to write about it, but here’s something.

For Oscar Grant and Wanda Johnson

When You Hope for Justice and Get a Slap in the Face

when you hope for justice

and get a slap in the face,

hold your head high.

feel the sting of it,

know the pain is real

and don’t let anybody tell you

it was never there.

cry.

know your tears aren’t for nothing,

let them fall to the earth

to water the seeds

that will grow the roots

to anchor the trees

that cannot be moved.

know that you, too,

cannot be moved.

when you hope for justice

and get a slap in the face,

look to the past.

to those who were beaten and left to die,

whose sadness and rage

left them still standing,

and built the ground we stand on today.

look to the future,

where today’s heavy hearts

are tomorrow’s beacons of hope.

our hope may be lost

but our determination can be found again.

Published in: on July 9, 2010 at 10:42 AM  Comments (1)  
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Immigration and justice for all

If you couldn’t tell from Saturday’s fiction, I’ve had immigration on my mind. Specifically, the place of the Black community in the struggle for immigrant rights.

At the U.S. Social Forum, there was a workshop called “Crossing the Color Lines,” featuring a panel organized by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) to discuss a vision of just immigration and the role Black folks could play in achieving it. The panelists had some moving stories and words about crossing community lines and finding solidarity, but when it came time for questions, some of the audience members made it clear that their doubts, coming through an “us” and “them” mentality, remained: “Well, they don’t show up at our rallies.” “Well, it’s true that they’re taking our jobs!” “Well, they don’t want us around.”

It’s clear that if we keep thinking this way, as separate communities with separate concerns, we will remain divided. The frustration is understandable, of course. With the high rates at which unemployment plagues the Black community, it’s easy to point a finger of blame at Latino immigrants whose labor is cheaply exploited so employers can cut costs. It’s important to remember, however, that this system hurts all communities of color. Immigrant communities are hurting as well, and it’s not their choice to run things this way but the choice of those who see people of color not as humans but as animals who can be exploited, denied fair wages and benefits, and denied jobs altogether when they demand fair labor practices. It can be hard for anyone to find a decent way to make a living when facing the racism and classism that affects Latino and Black communities alike.

There’s also the fact that in spite of the way it’s framed in the media, immigration isn’t solely a Latino issue. I keep this in mind because, while some of my ancestors came to this country in chains centuries ago, my father arrived here from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970s. Articles like this one claim that Black immigrants aren’t concerned with Latino immigrants’ issues, because many come with a more specialized focus on things like law and medicine, and therefore aren’t competing for the same “crumbs” as many low-income Latino immigrants. Sure, it’s true that my dad came here to attend school and eventually become a doctor. I can assure you, however, that that doesn’t mean that he’s been free of discrimination against people of color or immigrants. Let anyone who has walked away from his care, preferring to be seen by a white American doctor, tell you that the racist eye sees no difference between a Caribbean-born doctor and a Mexican-born farmworker.

The comments on that article are really disappointing — everything from blaming Latino immigrants for their own problems to saying that Black people are “takers, not givers,” and would never rally for anything. Such comments show a mindset that can only do more harm to communities that are already hurting. Communities that need strength, solidarity and support, not the pointing of fingers or the deepening of divisions that keep us apart. The first issue of the BAJI reader features a speech that the Reverend Nelson Johnson gave to the Low-Income Immigrant Rights Conference in December 2007. Rev Johnson speaks of building bridges between our people, saying, “we cannot and we must not allow black and brown people to be pitted against each other in a painful spiral to the bottom. That’s why we want to organize joint conferences with Latinos, blacks, whites, and others to work out together the road forward. We must build these bridges, for when people cannot work with each other even though they share deep mutual interests, it opens the door for a small privileged group to make decisions that are not in our interest.”

As Black folks, we can’t afford to sit by and allow those in power to continue a system that hurts our immigrant brothers and sisters, even if we think it won’t affect us. Once we look into each other’s eyes and recognize a shared struggle, we can begin to move forward.

“In our work and in our living, we must recognize that difference is a reason for celebration and growth, rather than a reason for destruction.”
-Audre Lorde

Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 10:34 AM  Comments (2)  
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Another world possible through… poetry?

On art and social change:

I’ve always had this crazy idea that I’m gonna somehow change the world through writing. If not through my writing itself, then at least by helping others find their voices and discover the power of words.

I’ve also always thought, of course, that I’d have to be a little bit crazy to think this way. Of all the various kick-ass ways of going about creating social change, could sitting down and writing really be counted among them?

Some folks at the U.S. Social Forum certainly seemed to think so. Many led workshops sharing their wisdom and inspirational stories surrounding creativity, the arts and social change. There was much to learn, not only about creative practices but also about where I stand on their place in social justice movements.

So I’m going to start small. Rather than try to answer the bigger question of whether I believe in art as social change, I’ll begin with what I know. This I believe:

  • We can speak through writing when our voices are lost. Whether we’re forcibly silenced or held back by our own lack of confidence, writing can help us find and project our voices when we don’t have any other way.
  • Anybody can write (shh…). Now don’t let this one get out, because writing is supposed to be my thing, but I believe that anybody can write. No amount of talent or training (or lack thereof) matters when it’s just you and the pen, and you’re writing from the heart, telling your story like only you could. Don’t believe me? Get in touch with me, and I’ll help you dare to try.
  • Writing has made change before. There are countles examples from history, and I really believe that the world would not be the same if not for writers like the Beat poets or those of the Harlem Renaissance, who insisted on telling their stories in ways the world had never heard. If nothing else, the literary arts can capture a movement from the point of view of those involved, so that their stories will not be forgotten.
  • Writing can help communities heal, reflect and grow. I believe that simply by telling our stories, we can shake off pain and shame, celebrate our lives and communities, and learn to love ourselves and each other. Facing injustice, being constantly put down and out, we can feel stuck, and become unwilling or believe we are unable to take on the hard work of making change, even if it is for our own good. Celebrating and sharing with our communities through writing can help remind us that we’re worth it, deserving of a world in which we can thrive as we are.

So, I guess the answer is yes, I am crazy. Crazy enough to believe in the power of writing to create social change, and to not find the idea so crazy after all. What do you think? How do you see art as social change?

——————————————————————————————————–

I must write,

for I find the call of the blank page,

like the call to revolution,

irresistible.

Poetry I’m not supposed to write

I’m back from the U.S. Social Forum. And I’m not a poet, but this is what came out when reflecting on the experience this morning:

—————————————————————————————————

This Isn’t a Poem About Justice

This isn’t a poem about justice

I’m not supposed to write about wild and out there things

            that you can’t get your hands on

                        that might not really exist.

But if you promise not to call me crazy

I’ll tell you in a whisper

            that I felt justice.

            it was soaking the earth

                        in warm rain falling

                        and lightning bolts striking the Detroit River

                                    lighting up the sky

                                    like the eyes of a hopeful child.

Promise not to laugh

when I say I looked into the soul of a stranger

            Our eyes met,

                        our energies passed between us

                        like the shared tremble of an earthquake.

            No need to ask did you feel that?

                        I can’t call him a stranger anymore.

Promise you won’t turn me in

when I speak of bonds formed

            on darkened dance floors

                        between banners calling for revolutions

            I’m pretty sure what I did

                        violated some part of the Patriot Act

                        and if they lock me up

                                    and torture me

                                    and ask what I know about terror

            I’ll say her lips tasted like cinnamon.

We spit justice into microphones

            spilled it from paint cans onto canvases

                        wore it on t-shirts

                                    and fried it into foods,

                                    so it burned our tongues

                                    and slipped from our lips when we spoke.

I say justice is alive as the red rose of so many poems

            but its scent thickens the air like the heat of the sun

                        and its thorns are inescapable.

Published in: on June 28, 2010 at 9:20 AM  Comments (6)  
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Part 1 of Finding my focus as an activist: It’s not in marriage

In the past, I’ve had trouble finding my focus as a social justice activist. It’s hard when the general feeling is that there is injustice everywhere, and there seem to be a million different ways to get involved.

In moments like these, preparing for this week’s U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, I realize I’m still having a hard time narrowing it down. I could attend any number of workshops on anything from women’s rights to media justice, climate change to disability rights.

But one thing I know, in light of the recent events surrounding marriage equality in California, is that the marriage fight is not where I belong.

I used to think that it was. Frustrated with feeling discrimination on a personal and institutional level, I took the November 2008 passage of California’s Proposition 8, banning same sex marriage, to heart. I wanted to join the fight for marriage rights as an activist, and in May 2009, when the California Supreme Court decided to uphold the ban, I engaged in civil disobedience with 210 others in protest until we were arrested.

I was certainly proud to participate that day among activists, clergy and folks who stopped by and wanted to join the fight for justice. But soon after that event, I began to realize that my involvement in the marriage equality movement was misguided and ill-placed. I had been swallowing a rhetoric that claimed that the achievement of marriage rights would mean equality for all LGBT people, but I have since had a hard time believing that.

I still believe in the right for all people to get married. There are over 1,000 rights and benefits given to people who are married and denied to those whose marriages aren’t legally recognized. Those who choose to get married, and maybe have children, should have the right to do so and enjoy the benefits for themselves and their families regardless of their partner’s gender.

Part of the problem, though, is the assumption that all people will want to get married. Some won’t choose to, and what happens to the queer people whose partners and families don’t reflect what’s socially or legally recognized as marriage? Who don’t fit the mold of a nuclear household with same-sex parents of two children and a golden retriever? Do we have to try to fit into this image in order to gain so-called equality?

Historically, marriage has been an institution that has limited the rights of women and people of color, and some critics of the gay marriage movement have pointed out that its leaders have failed to address this issue. And personally, I felt very uncomfortable in my position as a queer person of color during the scapegoating of the Black community after the passage of Prop 8. With the gay marriage movement all but ignoring communities of color in the No on 8 campaign, and then blaming them for the loss, it’s hard to believe that the leaders of the movement care about the rights or needs of queer people of color. And it doesn’t seem like they’ve gotten any closer to addressing this problem since that election.

Anyway, my point here was supposed to be not just a critique of the marriage rights movement, but also a reminder that there are other needs that we can focus on to achieve health and happiness in queer communities. There are folks suffering from a low sense of self-worth, from a lack of education about how to stay healthy and from dangers to their safety and their lives. Luckily, rather than feeling completely excluded from and lost within LGBT activist circles, I realized I’d simply misidentified my goals. I’m not setting out to change queer communities but to celebrate them as they are and help support them so they can thrive. When we gain the right to marry, I’ll certainly celebrate, but I’ll also know that it’s not the end of our struggle for justice.

I’m glad to attend the Forum with CUAV (Community United Against Violence). I first got involved with CUAV last year, when searching for queer groups that were less marriage-focused. They’ve been around for over thirty years, doing amazing community-based anti-violence work for LGBTQ communities.

My association with CUAV will certainly help me find focus this week, as I attend workshops that explore ways for communities to prevent and heal from violence without relying on the prison industrial complex. I will also bring my perspective as a writer, seeking out discussions of topics like art as social change. I’ll keep in mind my goals of empowering, celebrating and embracing those who shouldn’t have to try to resemble mainstream communities to enjoy the same rights and privileges that they do.

I’m going to try my best to blog from Detroit, but I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to. Be sure to check back for possible updates! Until next time, faithful readers!

Published in: on June 21, 2010 at 10:05 AM  Comments (4)  
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