“How do we practice deep and reciprocal relationships as resistance to our culture of transactionalism and extraction?” asks Tanuja Jagernauth. In this year-end episode of “Movement Memos,” Jagernauth and host Kelly Hayes discuss the cultivation of hope, how activists can practice reciprocal care, the importance of celebrating big and small victories, and how to process painful feelings without being consumed by them.
Music by Son Monarcas, Charles Hubbert and Amaranth Cove
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about organizing, solidarity and the work of making change. This is our final episode of 2022, and I can’t think of a better way to end the year than by concluding my ongoing conversation with my friend Tanuja Jagernauth about the practice of hope. This is the third and final installment in that series, in which Tanuja has shared insights she has collected through conversations with activists and organizers who are out in the trenches, cultivating hope, experiencing heartbreak, grieving together, and finding ways forward. Our friend Mariame Kaba often says that “hope is a discipline.” This three episode, non-sequential series that Tanuja and I have put together began with a DM conversation about what hope as a discipline looks like for groups and organizers in practice. While a lot of us love the phrase “hope is a discipline,” we both thought that people could use a bit more practical elaboration on that point. Before making what we thought would be a single episode, Tanuja wanted to gather insights from other activists and groups, so that we could tell a bigger story. By the time she was done, Tanuja told me that it would actually take three episodes to cover what she had learned. I thought that was amazing news. While the concept of hope is an incredibly maligned one, in these times, it’s also pretty sacred to me. I’ve seen what its absence can do to people, including me, and I have also seen determined people, whose hopes were grounded in action and reciprocal care, accomplish things that I had previously believed were impossible. So, speaking for myself, it’s a topic I can’t get enough of.
But before we get into our deep dive on hope, I want to take a moment to honor some of the other things we may be feeling, because it all connects. I know that a lot of us are hurting right now. The holidays are a painful time for some of us, and as another year comes to a close, we are counting our losses, yet again. We are hurting for the earth, we are hurting for each other, and for ourselves. We are grieving for the people we have lost, and are still losing, to COVID-19. We are hurting because this thing called “normalcy” keeps trying to pull us forward in ways that render more and more of us disposable. Things were rough before the pandemic, but the new normal that is being thrust upon us is even more destructive for disabled people, migrants, imprisoned people, unhoused people, trans people, and so many others. And as each marginalized group gets thrown under the bus, nearly everyone is being pulled closer to the curb, whether they know it or not, because that’s how the normalization of mass death, debilitation and human disposal works.
So if you’re thinking, “I don’t know if I am ready to talk about hope, right now, Kelly, I feel like shit,” I get it, and I want to start by thanking you. I want to thank you for not shutting out the things that hurt. Because we all know it can be done. We’ve watched it happen, en masse. We have watched people normalize what they cannot bear or comprehend — incalculable losses that feel inevitable, or that they simply cannot reconcile. People normalize the systems they depend on, and we have seen what it looks like when exhausted people, who are longing for normalcy, stop seeing the things they don’t want to see and feeling the things they don’t want to feel. When you haven’t stopped feeling those things, seeing that disconnect happening all around feels nightmarish. There have been times when I have felt like I am living in a horror movie, and some great evil is entrancing the world, making people indifferent to the death and destruction being visited upon us. And to be honest, there have been moments when I’ve felt jealous of people who seemed to be experiencing that trance, because I, too, desperately wanted to stop feeling the things I was feeling.
Refusing to embrace the status quo comes at a cost. So I want to thank you for not giving up on us. For not forgetting other people. For not devaluing our fellow human beings, the earth, or the land, water, communities and creatures that we cannot always protect. A lot of moments might feel more bearable, in an immediate sense, if we forgot how much those things matter, or deemed our losses inevitable, or if we stopped asking ourselves what we owe to each other, and to the earth. But in the long term, that kind of forgetting is damaging and deadly to others and to ourselves. If we allow the status quo to dictate what warrants grief, empathy or outrage, we will not save each other, or build radical, reciprocal movements for collective survival. So thank you for continuing to care deeply, not only about injustice that affects you personally, but about what’s happening to people on the other side of your city, and on the other side of the country, and the other side of the world. Because that is where our work begins, and that is where hope begins — with giving a damn. That’s why we bother to dream about what’s possible. That’s why we take risks and put ourselves on the line for other people. That’s why we build unions, mutual aid projects, political campaigns, abolitionist news organizations, and so much more. We give a damn, so we put one foot in front of the other, and try to imagine what comes next.
We cannot practice reciprocal care if we don’t give a damn, and giving a damn hurts, so thank you. Truly. I feel the weight of it all, too. But where we choose to put that pain, whether it finds some communal expression, or purpose, or just lingers in the pit of our stomachs – I believe that these things have the power to affect the course of history. So thank you for that beginning, and that possibility.
This is a tough time of year, and I myself have to remember how to honor my feelings without being consumed by them, or slipping into an emotional abyss. So for me, this is a great time for a deep dive on the practice of hope. I’m guessing I’m not alone in that. So I am inviting all of you to take a little journey with us for the next hour or so. Unclench your jaw, relax your shoulders, and wherever you are, in time and space, let’s hold this moment together, and see what possibilities that might yield.
Tanuja Jagernauth is an activist, a healer, a playwright, and an educator. She is also the Just Culture and Operations Director at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. I am always grateful for her insights and I am happy for all of us that she’s back today.
Tanuja Jagernauth: Hey, Kelly. It’s great to be back and I really can’t wait to share the final pieces of wisdom that the organizers I spoke with shared with me. And I really want to thank you, Kelly, for giving me a chance to really dig in with folks on what their practice of hope looks like. I’ve truly learned so much through the process, and I’m really grateful to have a guide on what practicing hope can look like. And I hope that others as they’re listening to this are recognizing things that they and their people already do. And for those who don’t, I hope you’re taking away some things that you can start to put into practice whenever you’re ready.
I want to start off with really welcoming folks who are listening and inviting everybody who’s listening to really meet themselves where they’re at. We’re all in a moment where we are witnessing continued, and massively scaled and organized abandonment, to use the language of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other abolitionists. And so, every time we make the choice to demonstrate our care for ourselves and each other, we are demonstrating resistance. Any act of care, from my perspective, is a huge act of resistance, especially in the United States where we have a long legacy of extraction and transactional relationships.
And so, we’re going to talk a little bit about this today in terms of what does reciprocal care look like, but the kind of care I’m talking about is care that’s rooted in relationship, care that’s rooted in consent, care that’s rooted in awareness of power dynamics, and that is mindful about maintaining each other’s self-determination and bodily autonomy. And one of the things that I want to acknowledge, Kelly, is that the term “hope” itself, very much like healing or self-care or community, it can really bring up for folks a lot of complicated feelings because the ways in which terms like hope, healing, community have been co-opted, misused and abused, they create a lot of confusion, I think, for all of us.
And this is the result of capitalism, in my opinion, and the ways in which the healing and health care industries have capitalized upon our own language, twisted it, and sold it back to us. And so, in these moments, I really appreciate the opportunity to dig back in and remember sometimes our responses to these terms are actually a response to the commodification and the misuse of the terms.
And I also want to say for anybody who is hearing the term hope, the practice of hope, and so on and so forth, if that is raising in you feelings of being mandated to feel a certain type of way, I want to remind us again that the kind of hope that we are talking about is really rooted in action. It’s really rooted in vision and focus. And so, you can certainly go back to the first and the second episodes in this series, but just briefly, we’re not talking about a toxic positivity form of hope. What we’re talking about is the hope that is rooted in our lives as survivors in oppressive systems.
The pain that folks are feeling right now, it is absolutely valid and right, and no one, myself especially, is here to say, “Erase your pain, ignore your pain.” That is absolutely not what I would ever want anyone to do. I’m a former acupuncturist, and the way that we view pain in traditional East Asian medicine is there’s a saying, and the saying is, “Where there is flow, there is no pain. Where there is pain, there is no flow.” Often pain, in other words, can indicate an obstruction. We live in a society that gives us nothing but obstacles. And so, what I want us to do is, as always, acknowledge our pain, honor it, and really lean in and ask, “What is the message coming to us from this pain?”
Our pain often is an indicator that we have a need, that a boundary is being crossed, that we might be overextending in certain ways. And it can also be an indicator that, yes, we are being violated, our trust is being betrayed, we are experiencing what is known as moral injury on a daily basis. We’re looking around, and we’re seeing the state absolutely abandon and harm and really just violate our sense of the common good on a daily basis. So, your pain is right, your pain is valid.
And at the same time, we want to be able to take a pause and separate the pain we feel from our analyses. And something that I recently read from Rebecca Solnit is a reminder to not let our despair become our analysis. And I find that really helpful for myself. When I think about that and I think about despair and I think about those very real feelings of, Holy fucking shit, what are we going to do, I think about the Princess Bride actually, and I think about the quicksand. I don’t know if folks have seen this movie, but it’s a really cute movie. Don’t at [@] me!
But anyway, there’s a part in the Princess Bride where the princess is walking along and suddenly falls into quicksand. The hero has to then grab a vine and dive in after the princess to save her. And I really think about this quicksand when I think about despair. It’s like our acceptance of reality and our acceptance of the situation goes a little extra and becomes like quicksand. We can easily fall into it if we’re not careful. And so, what gives us that solid ground that we can really rely on?
That’s our analysis, that’s our community, in my opinion. That’s our ability to reflect, to really honor where we’re at and be deliberate in the things that we do and say in these moments while we’re feeling all the things that we’re feeling.
KH: I absolutely love the comparison between despair and the Lightning Sand in The Princess Bride, and as a child of the 80’s, I am going to nerd out a little about why I love it. So the Lightning Sand, which is quicksand, is one of the Three Terrors of the Fire Swamp, which Princess Buttercup and her true love Westley must navigate as part of their great escape. I love the quicksand as a metaphor for despair because we all know that sometimes we just have to feel our feelings, because they’re real. So sometimes, we are in the Fire Swamp. That’s just where we are, and what’s happening, and we are not going to feel great about that. And then BAM, we step in quicksand, and instead of just being in a bad place, we are being consumed by that bad place. That is despair. I also like the comparison because the dialogue between Buttercup and Westley in the Fire Swamp is a push/pull between hope and despair. After surviving her fall into the quicksand, Buttercup tells Westley, “We’ll never succeed — we may as well die here.” And I think many of us can relate to that feeling, even without a near-drowning in quicksand incident. Westley responds by telling Buttercup “we have already succeeded,” because they know now how to avoid the quicksand and the random fire spurts of the swamp. He is then immediately attacked by a giant, fire-breathing rat. Sometimes, that’s what trying to cultivate hope feels like, from one moment to the next. You take one step forward, two steps back, and now a giant rat is trying to eat your fucking arm. But we keep fighting, just like Westley fought that unusually large rodent, because the things we want are worth fighting for, no matter how bleak or impossible things may seem.
But navigating disaster isn’t always a choice between hope and despair. As we have seen during the pandemic, denial and avoidance are extremely common reactions to catastrophe and injustice. In a 2016 interview in The Chicago Reader, writer and human rights activist Jamie Kalven voiced concerns that the bleak political landscape of the Trump era could lead people to lead more insular, apolitical lives. He said:
There was a term used in central Europe to describe those who opted to retreat into private life under totalitarianism. They were called “internal emigres.” That is certainly tempting at a time like this: to live one’s life in the wholly private realm, enjoying the company of friends, good food and drink, the pleasures of literature and music, and so on. Privileged sectors of our society are already heavily skewed that way. It’s a real danger at a time like this. If we withdraw from public engagement now, we aid and abet that which we deplore.
Sound familiar? I think there are different strains of this phenomenon, and one is definitely the system-justifying behavior of people who are continuing to reenact normalcy, no matter how many lives are being lost in the margins. As Kalven says, things were already skewed that way among some people. The capitalist trance and cooperative death march that prevent us from waging collective responses that are commensurate with the injustices of the climate crisis, policing and more, are essential to the system’s survival. The ruling class needs us to isolate ourselves, and to be consumed by our own stories, rather than seeing ourselves as part of a larger story. I wasn’t kidding at the top of the show when I thanked you all for continuing to feel the things that hurt. We don’t want to hurt 24/7, and we don’t want to be consumed by our hurt, but we know we can’t shut these things out.
TJ: I completely relate to the impulse to go inward and to self-protect because there’s so much to process all the time. And that is valid and right. And at the same time, going back to Traditional East Asian Medicine, there’s a yin and a yang to everything that we do. Going inward can be excessive at a certain point.
And so, what I’ve been finding helpful right now is giving myself that time that I do need to go inward, do what I need to do, self-regulate, manage my triggers, get the rest that I need. And I’m so grateful that I’m actually in a position right now financially where I can rest. Kelly, there was a time in my life where I was working four-plus jobs just to make ends meet. Shout out to 2019, never going back there again. But now, what I do find myself doing is taking that time to really rest, reflect, get my head right, talk to the people that help me to process.
I use various tools. I have a super handy anti-anxiety notebook. Shout out to my therapist — former therapist — who pointed me in that direction. I use my tools. And then, I really listen. And when I feel like I’m back in a place where I can get back out there and reach out to folks, check in with folks, keep the mutual aid project moving. Then I jump back in. Sometimes, yes, we don’t have the luxury of spending too much time in our cozy little nerd cave, but I would recommend when you really do feel yourself being overwhelmed, and when you notice your thoughts and your words and your actions contributing more harm in spaces, that’s the moment to take a step back.
And actually, one of the things that the organizers shared with me when I talked to them was the necessity really to take that step out. Kristina Tendilla shared with me her reflection that when people don’t take the time to take a step back, they really can bring harm into our spaces and our organizations. Nikki McKinney also mentioned that we really need to be good at giving folks the opportunity to tap out when they need to. Elsa Hiltner affirms that as well. One of the things that helps Elsa and her group is there’s a good group of them, so they have enough people. If one person needs to tap out, that doesn’t mean that the entire operation shuts down.
And so, this raises the notion of resourcing yourself with enough folks when you’re working on something so that folks really can take a break. It also raises the notion of really delegating tasks, being able to do that, and cross-training everybody on the things that you do so that… maybe you’ve got resources written, you’ve got protocols written down, or you’ve just spent time doing things with other people so they know how to keep things running if and when someone has to take that pause.
And in my own life, in my own experience, that has been the thing that I did not do, and that was one of the pieces that was a downfall for a former project that I was working on. So, don’t do what I did, y’all. Make sure you’ve got enough people working with you. Make sure folks know how to keep things running so that we really can give each other the grace and the opportunity to tap out when you need to and then tap back in.
KH: All of that resonates so much. As someone who has been organizing for a long time now, it’s pretty easy for me to discern, in retrospect, that most of my shittier moments, when I really wasn’t living my values, or failed to consider someone else’s feelings, or just plain missed the point, have happened when I was exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed. To be clear, those aren’t excuses to be shitty with other people, but for me, they are warning signs that I am at a greater risk of being shitty to other people, and I have to be accountable to that awareness. Those feelings, on a protracted basis, mean that I am not okay, and while we all push through fatigue and discomfort sometimes, the more I allow myself to fray, the more likely I am to have moments when I am not my best self. I am guessing some of you can relate to that, because I have heard time after time from activists over the years, in the wake of some misstep, that they were just too mentally and physically exhausted to show up right in the moment when everything went wrong. We are so accustomed to forcing a performance out of ourselves because that’s what capitalism demands, or because it’s an emergency, that we sometimes forget what it is that we are building.
We don’t work for movements, we constitute movements. That means, if I am uncared for or overworked, in a way that’s becoming injurious to me, on a long enough timeline, the resulting damage is going to extend beyond me. In some way or another, that harm will happen. To be clear, I am not advocating for what some people would call “self-care,” because I hate that framing, but rather, the understanding that my well-being is not some optional concern that can exist outside of the things I build or the relationships that I maintain. I am not separate. The system isolates people, works them to death, and disposes of them, deeming some people less worthy of food, space and survival than others. We have to break that cycle, not reenact it in the name of a cause. Our needs as human beings matter.
One need that I think has gone unmet for a lot of us in these times is the need to grieve in collectivity. Our grief has sometimes brought us together, in protest or at memorials, but the ratio of loss to memorialization over the last few years is staggering. The ruling class does not want us to pause to process the severity of our losses, who is being sacrificed, or why. They don’t want us to dwell on the enormity of our losses, because if we did, a lot more people would be fed up and laying down demands.
TJ: I do think a lot of us are grieving. We are grieving not just personal losses, but we’re grieving the sense of a collective agreement that may have been there consciously or unconsciously. As we see the evidence continuously of this organized abandonment, we’re grieving this sense of what we would’ve hoped was there, and that grief is right and that grief is real. And I also want us to keep in our minds the words that Cindy Milstein, who wrote in Rebellious Mourning, “Our grief, our feelings, as words or actions, images or practices, can open up cracks in the wall of the system. It can also pry open spaces of contestation and reconstruction, intervulnerability and strength, empathy and solidarity. It can discomfort the stories told from above that would have us believe we aren’t human or deserving of life-affirming lives, or for that matter, life-affirming deaths.”
Part of our resistance right now is to give each other these life-affirming lives and when we can, the life-affirming deaths, and to the extent that it’s accessible to you, I would invite us all to consider to reach out to each other and share these moments of grief. We really have wonderful tools available to us now for how to hold these spaces.
I’ve talked about the Clearing Circle from Shira Hassan and Mariame Kaba in their book, Fumbling Towards Repair. The Clearing Circle is such a wonderful tool, and it’s just one of many tools that folks can use. Team up with somebody who’s a skilled facilitator to co-facilitate a space. And I would really recommend and invite us to hold space for this grief. It really does require us to take a chance on being maybe a little more vulnerable than we may be used to. And also, we don’t want to miss the opportunity to tap our collective grief.
KH: So we know that we don’t want transactional relationships, or to drain people like batteries, but we also know that the work we are talking about can be draining. So how do organizers find a balance? How do we maintain our relationships and our practice of hope?
TJ: One of the things that the organizers I spoke to talked about was sustaining our struggle, sustaining our practice of hope. And I really wanted to share some of their key takeaways, but they really have made me think about how do we bring our practice of healing and abolition home. How do we practice deep and reciprocal relationships as resistance to our culture of transactionalism and extraction? So, one of the things that I’m taking away from these conversations with folks is we need to take the long view first.
Elsa Hiltner reminds us that if you’re doing cultural work, we need to remember that it’s going to take time. Elsa says, “There’s nothing easy about this, and you know there’s a reason why it hasn’t been done already.” Elsa works in the theater industry and is organizing for equitable pay for artists. And this work really requires Elsa to have laser focus on the narratives that are being perpetuated by the industry and folks that work in the industry.
And so, Elsa really hones in on what people are saying and makes sure that she’s distinguishing between when people are speaking to a scarcity model or if they’re speaking from a place of experience and hope and transformation. But she does acknowledge, it’s really hard to turn this off. So, Elsa takes the long view as she does her work.
The organizers reminded me that we do need to also remember seasonality in our work. We have seasons of activity that range from fall, winter, spring and summer. And it is okay to be in a season that may feel out of sync with what the expectations are. In organizing often and in activism, I feel like we expect each other or we expect ourselves to constantly be in summer season or even early fall when we’re expansive, when we’re highly active, when we are producing a lot of stuff, but we also inherently have winter as well. Our bodies want that rest. Our minds want and need that rest.
We’re collectively going into winter. And so, this is actually a really great time to really embrace winter, embrace winter as a season, but embrace winter as a practice as well. So, we can take this time to go inward a little bit, and we can take this time to reflect, look back and really track what we’ve done thus far. And vision, right? What do we want to do moving forward? This is also a really good time to do the groundwork.
The Hope Praxis Collective pointed out in my interview with them, the groundwork is such a key component of the work that we all do. They noted that in the summer of 2020 when we saw massive collective uprisings, those seemed super spontaneous, but they were actually built on years of organizing and years of doing what they call “unglamorous trucking along.” And so, they noted the groundwork is a really huge part of making movements happen. And what they do is they actually build this into their daily practice.
They think about, “Okay, what is the groundwork that really needs to be happening today and continuously?” And they acknowledge the groundwork stuff. It’s not flashy, but it really is the work that is needed to keep our groups going and our work going. And so, winter is a beautiful time to really lean into that work, doing that slow, quiet, less visible work. And it can look like a lot of different things. But some things that come to mind and that I’ve heard about and practiced myself is one-on-ones. Winter, during a slow time is a great time to do one-on-one conversations where you’re really just checking in with folks.
You can call them relational interviews but it’s just a time to get human with each other, do something that each of you enjoy doing and get to know people on a human level beyond the work that you do. I know a lot of folks who are really good at this, and I appreciate them because it reminds me why we do this work in the first place.
During a time of winter and a time of slowdown, we can practice popular education. We can skillshare with one another. We can ask each other, “Hey, what did you learn this year that is really sticking with you? Do you want to share anything about that with us? How can we use this thing that you’ve learned this year in our work next year?”
This is a time for planting seeds with our loved ones, having those conversations, spending that time. There’s so much wonderful literature coming out right now that speaks to just the basics of abolition and what the visions for abolition are. And so, we can share those beautiful offerings with our friends and loved ones and just make those connections, plant those seeds on a slightly less exciting note but equally important.
We can also reach back out to folks who may have fallen away this year. We’ve been talking about folks really doing their best to navigate emotions and pain, and people are really processing a lot. And people may have fallen away from their mutual aid work and other work because they really just are overwhelmed. And so, this could be a great moment to reach out to folks you haven’t heard from in a while and just drop that friendly meme and how are you? And let me know if you want to do a Zoom chat or take a walk or whatever it might be.
I am a big fan of just reflecting, looking back and checking back in with my values. I learned this practice and really started practicing it in 2020 when it was almost mandatory to take that pause. All of the jobs that I was working on actually stopped, and I’m lucky enough that I got a different full-time job. But that pause of being able to sit with everything was so important. And in that pause, I was able to just really assess and say, “Okay, time out. What are the values that I want to uphold moving forward? And then, what are the practices that I really need to let go?” What are the ways in which I have been participating in transactional relationships? What are the ways in which I’ve been actually participating in exploitation of myself and potentially others?” Letting that go.
But I couldn’t have done that without that opportunity to just pause and really reflect. And so, we can take that time in the winter. We can give each other that time in the winter to do that values check-in and realignment.
One of the gifts of working in organizations and mutual aid formations is that our groups can be windows and they can be mirrors. They can be places where we gain insight into others and the world. They can also be places where we see ourselves reflected back at us and we have a choice in how we respond to what we see. I would really invite us to — anything that we see reflected back at us, whether it’s uncomfortable, unflattering, et cetera — we really take it and receive it and spend some time with it and interrogate it. And I think the winter, during a slowdown is a great time to do that.
And you don’t have to do this in isolation. You can find a buddy or a couple of buddies that you have, you built trust and built a relationship with. And this is the time to work on our stuff. And again, going back to the Clearing Circle from Shira Hassan and Fumbling Towards Repair, like the Clearing Circle is a beautiful model for doing that reflection.
KH: The concept of seasonality has been so important to my own work. When I interviewed Carlos Saavedra, who is the founder of Ayni Institute, for Let This Radicalize You — which is a book I co-authored with Mariame Kaba that will be out in May of 2023 — he emphasized the importance of taking care of your people in winter. That really resonated with me. I think a lot of folks who experience burnout only feel seen when their labor is being requested. I’ve described this phenomenon as feeling like a 911 operator. Everything’s an emergency. Sometimes, what we are working on is an emergency, and we do not get to build with people as lovingly or intentionally as we might like. But in these periods when I am not in emergency mode, when there’s time to plan, to heal, to learn new skills, to revamp old safety plans, we have to continue to invest deeply in one another and the projects we hope will blossom in the spring. As we’ve emphasized in recent episodes, these are great times for study groups. We should ask ourselves, what issues are we grappling with? What knowledge could help us? What books can we read and discuss together to start formulating our next moves? This is a great time to learn together, and if we are thinking deeply about ideas like “collective care,” words that were given to us by disability justice organizers, then we should be reading books like Care Work and The Future Is Disabled and discussing them together.
I also think this is a great time for pop culture discussion groups. I would love to get in a group with people to talk about Andor or Severance, and maybe do some shared reading about the ideas invoked in those television shows, which are radical as hell and could send us down all kinds of wonderful rabbit holes.
I also love Tanuja’s advice about reaching out to people who may have fallen away from the work. Maintaining that human connection, outside of any expectations about productivity, is crucial. Because ultimately, it’s not just what we do together that matters, but also how we do it.
TJ: In the conversations that I was able to have with organizers, they really speak to a quote that I read in As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. Leanne writes,
“It became clear to me that how we live, how we organize, how we engage in the world, the process not only frames the outcome, it is the transformation. How molds and then gives birth to the present. The how changes us. How is the theoretical intervention. Engaging in deep and reciprocal indigeneity is a transformative act because it fundamentally changes the modes of production of our lives.
It changes the relationships that house our bodies and our thinking. It changes how we conceptualize nationhood. Indigenous intelligence systems set up, maintain, and regenerate the neuropathways for indigenous living both inside our bodies and the web of connections that structure our nationhood outside our bodies. Engagement changes us because it constructs a different world within which we live.
We live fused to land in a vital way. If we want to create a different future, we need to live a different present, so that present can fully marinate, influence, and create different futurities.
And what I take away from this quote and from the conversations with the organizers I spoke to, is we are inviting each other into a different way of living. And through that different way of living, we will and are creating the next world.
KH: There is another small excerpt from As We Have Always Done that I think is worth considering as we end the year. The passage comes from the book’s introduction. It reads:
This is a manifesto to create networks of reciprocal resurgent movements with other humans and nonhumans radically imagining their ways out of domination, who are not afraid to let those imaginings destroy the pillars of settler colonialism.
This is my beginning. This is my radical resurgent present.
I wanted to share those words because they give me hope, and because I think they describe so many of the ways that we are working to keep each other alive and get free. In our last episode, I talked with Shira Hassan about Liberatory Harm Reduction, and I think this is a time to take lessons from communities, including Indigenous communities, disabled people, Black people and criminalized communities, including sex workers and people who use criminalized substances, about how people have been imagining their way out of danger, in defiance of their domination, for generations. The traditions and lessons of Liberatory Harm Reduction will help us build forward in this moment, just as the Black Southern traditions of healing justice and the reciprocal practices of so many Indigenous communities can help us build forward — if we are willing to learn.
To face what’s ahead, we need to cast off all notions of respectability and think about what it means to be rebellious thinkers who refuse to leave each other behind in catastrophic times. I know a lot of people who are concerned about reproductive justice are inspired by The Janes, for example, but they are just one important example in a much larger lineage of shared knowledge, reciprocal care and solidarity, which is why everyone should get a copy of Saving Our Own Lives by Shira Hassan.
TJ: One of the things that I really want to lift up from the conversations I had was just the necessity of harm reduction, liberatory harm reduction, and meeting each other where we’re at. And I’m not going to go too much into the definition of liberatory harm reduction as Shira Hassan was just on Movement Memos. So, I really recommend that folks check that episode out. But I want to lift up two key parts of liberatory harm reduction.
One, liberatory harm reduction is support for each other and our communities without judgment, stigma, or coercion. We do not force others to change. Secondly, liberatory harm reduction is true self-determination and total body autonomy. I feel like we’re in a moment where we are invited and welcome to pivot towards this practice with each other and with ourselves. And one of the things that Kristina Tendilla shared with me was her belief that everyone brings a superpower. And this is a different form of liberatory harm reduction in my view.
For Kristina, finding that superpower allows us to honor and affirm different kinds of leadership. Kristina really spoke to the aunties, the aunties in our communities and in our formations. And the aunties don’t have to be biological aunties. These are folks that do a lot of the care work behind the scenes. They feed people, they support people’s emotional care. Oftentimes, they are providing child care or they’re providing rides. That is a form of leadership. That is a form of reciprocal care. We want to honor the folks who are doing that labor and meet each other in that strength. It’s a really beautiful thing when we have folks like that in our midst.
For Juli Kempner, meeting folks where they’re at takes a fair amount of intuition, and Juli does her best to gently find out what people need. And so, sometimes she says to people, “I don’t know what would help you right now. Can you tell me if you know? And if I can, I will try and provide it.” And one of the things that Juli does is she sits quietly with people and she’ll offer folks options. So, do they need a walk? Do they need some support to have a difficult conversation with someone that they need to have?
Juli noted that there are just so many ways to support someone through a crisis. But the most important thing, even if folks are not going through a crisis, it’s to validate folks’ feelings, no matter what they’re feeling. Juli does her best to not question why folks feel the way they feel. Juli makes an effort to not make others compare their pain to anyone else’s by saying stuff like, “Well, so and so has it worse.”
What Juli does do is she reminds folks very gently that the feelings they have can change. Those feelings probably will change over time and they may return again. That’s the nature of healing. Healing, as we know, it’s not linear. And so when these feelings come back again, that’s okay, and we will address them. Another thing that Juli really relies on is a teaching that comes from Buddhism. And that is that our feelings, while valid, are not facts. And so, Juli encourages folks to take a step back, breathe, grieve, allow, watch the feelings go by, and they will.
That is really hard to believe when you’re in the moment. But I can also attest to the fact that this really is true. And Juli says, “I’ve had to do that minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. And it’s changed me in terms of how I approach healing.” And this practice of allowing, not treating feelings as factual, Juli says it’s made her more patient with folks who are also in deep despair and in deep crisis. So, this is a practice that we can think about using for ourselves and with each other.
KH: Another thing I want people to think about, as we close the year, or whenever you happen to hear this episode, is what you have gotten right. I mentioned at the top of the show that we tend to count our losses at the year’s end. That’s natural and that commemoration is important, but I also want us to think about how memory works, and that the scary and painful stuff imprints itself much more easily than the good. The moments when you held onto your values, even though it was hard, the moments when you helped someone who might have been afraid, in trouble, or even desperate, the moments when you felt joy and shared that joy with others, the moments when you won — in a cruel twist of neurochemistry, those moments are harder to hold onto. Sometimes, when I am experiencing something I know is going to help sustain me later, I try so hard to memorize it, because I know those things are harder to keep. So I am big on commemorating the good times, as well as the bad.
TJ: During the winter, during a slowdown is also a time, folks, to celebrate our wins. The organizers that I spoke to, many of them mentioned celebrating our wins as a key practice and maintaining hope and maintaining our struggle.
And actually, Hope Praxis Collective, they’re rooted in Milwaukee, but they credit Chicago with teaching them the importance for celebrating wins and victories. And so, they noted in our conversation, “Our struggles are so intimately connected.” And so, when one group in one town is doing celebration and demonstrating that, just notice others are watching and hopefully taking that invitation to do the same.
If you’re thinking, “Well, it’s been a shit year, I have no wins,” I would pause and say, you actually have more wins than you think. A win does not have to look the way that we might traditionally think of it. A win is not always shutting X, Y, Z down or doing the blockade. Those are wonderful wins. But a win can be something as simple as getting folks to talk.
This is coming from Elsa Hiltner, for Elsa, who’s working in the theater industry, getting folks to hopefully come to a consensus around the issue of pay equity for artists. Getting folks to even name that pay equity is a problem, that’s a huge win. So, in the theater industry, there’s a lot of silence around the exploitation of artists. And so, just breaking that silence is a huge win.
And I have a strong feeling that, for anyone who’s listening right now, like any difficult conversation that you’ve had this year, no matter how it turned out, consider that a win. Getting folks to talk to each other is a huge win. Juli Kempner shared an example from her life. She has a cousin that she’s in a tough relationship with, and this is a cousin that she certainly could have walked away from many, many times, but she stayed committed to their relationship.
And through their conversation and sustained connection, one day, Juli’s cousin shared with her that their conversations enabled her cousin to actually have a conversation with one of their parents. And that was really healing for them. And the cousin shared that their relationship helps to open their mind and reevaluate how they wanted to be in the world. And this is part of our healing work. This is part of our community building and our abolition work. This is part of bringing our healing and abolition home.
So, I want us to really consider those moments wins, and we need to make the time to celebrate them. So, once again, you can celebrate them with yourself, you can celebrate them with others. But the lesson that I took away from my conversations with the organizers I spoke to was, we must celebrate our wins of any size.
And then finally, we’re living through a time right now where we’re hearing a lot of conversation about the end of the world. I’m hearing and seeing the term Armageddon a lot. And for all of us, it can really conjure very specific things, some things that are rooted in specific religions and so on and so forth. But in reading Rehearsals for Living, I am so grateful to Robyn Maynard and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson who say, “Hold up, wait a minute, when we are talking about the end of the world, which world are we talking about ending? Whose world are we talking about?”
And they really got me to think about the fact that if what we’re talking about is the death and decay of capitalism, that’s actually a great opportunity, and that’s the beginning of the next world. And so, when I started to think about that, I can see signs of that next world sprouting and coming to fruition already. And so, in my conversations with the organizers and in reading Rehearsals for Living, one of the biggest takeaways is like, we are here because Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks, our ancestors, they have gone through world-ending experiences time and time again, and they have continued to build and rebuild their world.
So many of us, as Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie point out in their book, No More Police, we are survivors, and our movements are populated by people who have known violence and oppression intimately forever. And we’re here because they created strategies to stay safe. We talked about the practice of liberatory harm reduction. Liberatory harm reduction was created by Black and Brown and Indigenous sex workers and drug users. And we have this practice because of their ingenuity. And so, we’re actually resourced with the tools and the skills and the people and the knowledge to survive.
A key takeaway for me from the conversations I had with the organizers and from so many beautiful things that I’ve been able to read in preparation for this podcast interview was just the question, how do we practice a politics of refusal as we are bringing our healing and our abolition home? Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, who is a poet and a scholar, asks, “What does it look like to be intolerant of colonialism? What life would spring up? What recovery is possible if the colonial force actually shuts down?”
I think this is a great time to ask “what if.” What if is one of the key questions that artists ask themselves when they sit down in front of a blank page. What if we were living in a time beyond police, beyond prisons? What would that look like? What would that smell like?
In a previous episode, I referenced Kristiana Rae Colón’s world-building exercise. We are in a moment where we can absolutely, say, during a winter pause in our work, really get together and do this what-if visioning. Let’s take ourselves through the senses in terms of the next world that we are building. Because the thing that I am so reminded of is that we’re not done becoming, even during this time of crisis. Yes, there is fear, yes, there is despair, and also we can displace it, right, with each other, with our practices, and we can take on a learning and curious stance.
Maxine Hong Kingston says, “In a time of destruction, create something.” In that phrase, I absolutely hear refusal. We can say, “Yes, all of this is happening.” And also, in practicing a politics of refusal, I’m going to create something beautiful that stands in stark contrast to everything that I’m seeing. And a really beautiful example, Kelly, is an event that you’re organizing where we’re going to be sharing carols outside of a juvenile detention center. For me, it’s events like that that really, one, prefigure the world in which we want to live but then also practice this politics of abject refusal for the cruelty and the pain created by keeping children in cages.
So often in times of crisis, we tend to be handed a script. We are assigned a role, and it’s not a role that we auditioned for. It’s not a role that we chose. And so, in practicing a politics of refusal in this moment, we can ask ourselves, how am I going to hand back this script? Or how am I going to rewrite this script? Or how am I going to just get the fuck off the stage and create my own piece of wild resistance art?
Robyn Maynard wrote, “I learned from Ojore Lutalo who spent 28 years in a New Jersey State Prison that we are our own liberators. We have to define our own reality.” She and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson asked, “How do we demand an alternative timeline?” And in their book, Rehearsals for Living, they paraphrase Dionne Brand who asks, “How do we change the air?”
How do we change the very air that we breathe? How do we refuse the crumbs of change, the illusions of progress, the bullshit DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] statement that doesn’t mean anything in actual practice, and actually demand a change to the way things operate in our daily lives? How do we change the air?
And so, I take a lot of inspiration from all of this, and for me, this is part of the practice of hope, is taking questions like this and taking a moment to, yes, acknowledge the pain, yes, acknowledge the feelings of confusion, and at the same time let it be as we pivot toward what we want to create with ourselves and each other.
So, in closing, I just really want to thank everybody for joining in this exploration of what the practice of hope looks like. And I want to leave us just with these questions of, what future are we all going to be rehearsing every single day through our daily actions and how are we going to continue bringing our healing and our abolition work home?
And I’d like to offer this excerpt from Assata Shakur’s poem, “Affirmation”:
i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.
KH: That poem always chokes me up. Because I believe in those things, too. I also believe in the power of words, and reading has been as important to my practice of hope as anything I have done over the last few years. So I would also like to close with some words of poetry — words that I think fit the moment, as we enter a new year. In her poem “Call,” Krista Franklin wrote:
Artists, Writers, Intellectuals, Inventors: Tina Turner already told you, “We don’t need another hero. We don’t need to know the way home.” Make a new home. A twenty-first century vision. A future image. Get up from the Banquet Table of The Feast of American Madness. Wipe your mouth and turn the entire table over. Grab the hand of the person next to you and make a break for it. French kiss the idea of Humanity. If You find Your imagination cannot stop itself from churning out the scripts of the Death Machines, pull its plug. Dismantle it. Reprogram it. Dream Daylight. Manufacture Daylight. We are the Magicians.
I want to thank Tanuja Jagernauth for joining me in this journey and this exploration of the practice of hope. I also want to thank everyone who Tanuja spoke with for this project. It’s an amazing collection of folks, and you can learn more about them and where to find their work in the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- To learn more from Tanuja, check out her website.
- You can find the previous episodes of this non-sequential series on the practice of hope here and here.
- You can now follow Kelly on Mastadon at @MsKellyMHayes@spore.social. You can also find her on Instagram and Facebook, in addition to Twitter. Please be sure to follow Movement Memos wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back on January 12, 2023. See you next year!
- Rehearsals for Living by Robyn Maynard & Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
- As We Have Always Done by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
- Saving Our Own Lives by Shira Hassan
- Fumbling Towards Repair by Shira Hassan & Mariame Kaba
- Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
- Too Much Midnight by Krista Franklin
- Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes and Mourning Songs by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
- No More Police: A Case for Abolition by Mariame Kaba & Andrea J. Ritchie
- Rebecca Solnit: Why climate despair is a luxury by Rebecca Solnit
- Jamie Kalven: The Man with the Lantern by Michael Miner
- EJ Principles and Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing
- On Our Team builds pay and labor equity in the theatre industry, and is dedicated to creating a united front in requiring equitable pay and support for theatrical designers.
- Hope Praxis Collective is a Milwaukee-based capacity building collective.
- Survived and Punished NY is the New York affiliate of a coalition of defense campaigns and grassroots groups committed to eradicating the criminalization of survivors of domestic and sexual violence and the culture of violence that contributes to it.
- Midwest Academy is a national training institute committed to advancing the struggle for social, economic and racial justice.
We extend our warmest thanks to the organizers who shared their time and experience with us for this series, including:
- Kristina Tendilla, organizer with the Midwest Academy
- Elsa Hiltner, On Our Team works for pay and labor equity in the theatre industry
- Hope Praxis Collective
- Juli Kempner, organizer with Survived and Punished in New York
- Bettina Johnson, an organizer with Liberation Library
- Nikki McKinney, a youth organizer
- chiara galimberti, an acupuncturist, organizer, writer and graphic artist
- James Daley, investigative journalist and labor union organizer
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