Heart Work: Within & Beyond Activist Communities

People are fired up, ready to organize.

I felt the energy of folks in Oakland last Saturday at the Women’s March and it reminded me of the first time I ever attended an action (an anti-war protest at San Francisco’s Civic Center). That was back in 2006, about a decade ago. Since then, I’ve been a part of various movements — from Palestinian liberation and BDS groups, anti-war movements and international non-profit organizations until I found my political home in GABRIELA USA, a grassroots, anti-imperialist organization of Filipino women.

While I’ve witnessed many victories and forward motion, I’ve also had my fair share of burn out, of adopting different ways of taking care of myself (some worked, some didn’t), of witnessing destructive and harmful behavior. What I’ve learned is that in spite of committing to radical intentions and revolutionary ideals: we’re all (and still) human.

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Which means we are prone to making mistakes, f***king up, hurting those we love unintentionally, and possibly replicating harmful ways of living, loving and relating. Just because we are community organizers and activists doesn’t mean we are immune to the frailties and vulnerabilities of the human condition. It is in this vein that I started reading The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (Amazon | Indie Bound) edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

The book is a compilation of essays, personal accounts, poems, guides and strategies for confronting abuse, rape and intimate partner violence within activist communities from all over Northern America. Many of the pieces were written by people who founded and/or worked with nonprofit organizations. They wrote about the ways they’ve dealt with violence from a macro-level perspective, to dealing with violence from folks in the same community.

There are three major things that I learned from the book: 1) the rise and implication(s) of the nonprofit model as a means for social change, 2) abuse faced by people who are differently-abled and 3) the mechanics of community accountability practices.

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One of the pieces that I really appreciate is by Morgan Bassichis from a local organization in San Francisco, Communities United Against Violence (CUAV) called Reclaiming Queer & Trans Safety. Bassichis writes about CUAV’s organization struggles and the kinds of strategies they’ve implemented to improve and enhance their work.

Given the escalating US-backed wars and military interventions in Afghanistan, the US Gulf Coast, Haiti, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere being waged in the name of “aid” and “security” the exploding number of people behind bars in the name of “safety” and “justice,” and the continued ecological and economic exploitation of our communities in the name of “development,” the need for alternative visions of safety and sustainability couldn’t be more urgent. “Reclaiming Safety” was a small but important step in that long process.

What transpires in our interpersonal relationships is always rooted and shaped by the several factors around us — first at home, in our small communities, in the societies we live in and in the institutions where we spend most of our time. To fully grasp the root of all forms of violence, a proper accounting of our surroundings needs to be done.

The attempted obliteration of radical and revolutionary movements by the US government (through tactics such as imprisonment, infiltration and assassination exemplified by the FBI’s COINTELPRO) and the broader global ascent of neo-liberalism and its promotion of “individual rights” and “free-market democracy” over deep social change facilitated the rise of the nonprofit model as the dominant vehicle for large-scale social change work.

With this in mind, Bassichis also acknowledges the contradictions of organizing and movement-building, with the rise of nonprofit models as agents of large-scale social change. Before I joined a grassroots organization — as in non-501(c)(3) — I thought that joining or working for a nonprofit was the only way. I mean yes, you do need to survive and meet all of your physiological needs and a nonprofit can sustain you economically but no, it isn’t the only way.

History will show us that the state is the biggest perpetrator of violence. Relying on it for solutions or other entities whose interests are not primarily pro-people will only drive us to doing kinds of reformist work, as opposed to the revolutionary changes we seek.

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In Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence & Disability by Peggy Munson, an intimate account of how we, as a society, are ill-equipped on dealing with intimate partner violence faced by differently-abled folks. I am ashamed to admit that I am ignorant of her experiences, that even though I’ve been advocating against violence on all fronts for women, queer and trans folks, all of it has been framed from an able-bodied perspective.

Abusive relationships are often difficult to escape. But when inflicted upon a person living with disability, and thus buffered by social ableism and inaccessibility, abuse is often virtually or literally inescapable.

A person with disabilities must combat societal oppression at every turn in trying to escape an abuser, and sometimes that oppression feels more abusive, or at least more inescapable, than its intimate analogue, interpersonal abuse.

What she recounts are incredibly difficult situations, where at times she is forced to choose to stay in an abusive relationship so she can receive care that no one else can provide. It is even more aggravating to see how political theories fall short when it comes to materializing the basic needs of Munson:

Able-bodied activists tend to see my need for a partner-caregiver as a theoretical abstraction, focusing for example on notions of heteronormativity that conflate romantic (heterosexual) partnership with social well-being. However, such an analysis falls flat on the survival issues disabled people need discussed: who is going to help with bathing and toileting the way a loving partner, rather than an unknowing stranger (who might refuse the task), would do? The world of the disabled is more complex than a clean political agenda will allow.

She’s correct that in order for our communities, specially for activist circles and organizations doing good work to understand IPV, there needs to be a redefinition of what it constitutes based on individual’s disabilities.

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And lastly, I was captured by community accountability practices that so many individuals/organizations have been trying to use. When the survivor and abuser are in the same circle, it does get more complicated because we hold each other to higher principles. In the essay Beautiful, Difficult, Powerful: Ending Sexual Assault Through Transformative Justice by The Chrysalis Collective, the group details the process of transformative justice, after Diane suffered through acquaintance rape with Tom, an alternative to institutions like the police.

Aware that the state and its prisons are the biggest perpetrators of violence against our communities, Diane looked elsewhere for solutions. As infuriated and upset she was with Tom, Diane knew that putting him in jail would not bring about the healing, justice, and peace that she wanted for herself, Tom and the community.

The collective started with forming a survivor support team for Diane, an accountability team for Tom, defining the relationships of both teams and then creating a transformative justice plan from there. From what I read, it was a long, arduous process carried out by members of the community that both people trusted. Time, commitment and resources are all major factors; this kind of work is not easy.

I realized how most institutions in our society are adept at reforming people in the easiest but most destructive way possible: by locking them up. With the exception of transformative justice (and I’m still on the fence if it even works or not), we have no alternative solutions for holding people accountable.

Another piece in the book on the other hand thinks community accountability as an alternative to the criminal legal system, as it replicates the same framework outside of the State. What it advocates for is something called an “accountable community” approach, which promotes the individual and collective ability to assert choices or self-determination. After all, genuine change can really only come from within.

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I have tremendous gratitude for the editors and contributors of this book, for the immense knowledge and guidance they have imparted on their readers, for their trust and their willingness to be vulnerable. While I am learning, I also have a lot of questions: how does this look like in communities outside of activist circles? How do we engage poor folks and im/migrant communities with this approach? How do we center acts of violence and draw them from the root problems of our society?

I think it is also important to remember that in order to combat the kinds of interpersonal violence we face in our relationships and in our communities, we should work to resist and build movements against the root problems (as in U.S. imperialism). Our world today thrives on fear, violence, division and greed, and we must be as resolute, disciplined and at the same time tender-hearted as much as we can, to build the kind of world we want to live in.

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All artwork on this post are made by the amazingly talented Mar Pascual.

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The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (Amazon | Indie Bound)
by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
AK Press (August 30, 2016)

The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities

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