Author: Madeleine Keller


Mullein: A Friend for Fire Season and Beyond

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It’s my personal opinion that everyone in the western so-called “United States” would do well to get to know and love mullein. This plant may be just what so many of us need in this time of fire, smoke, and pressure on the respiratory system. Recently in my consultation practice, my mutual aid work, and my personal life, mullein has been called for over and over. It took this as a sign that it’s a great time to talk more widely about this plant.

What you see below is a full materia medica entry on mullein, referring to how I know it best and how I personally use it, as well as ways I have read about other herbalists using it. This entry was originally posted on my Patreon with an accompanying podcast episode for my $3/month and up patrons. In the podcast episode, I go more in-depth on this entry and talk a bit more specifically about fire season. I also posted in my Patreon’s community Dsicord server about the process of harvesting and drying mullein for tea. If you’re interested in seeing what other goodies my patrons receive, check that out here.

Mullein is a plant that I full-heartedly love. It’s helped me find so much expansion and grace within my own body, and I’ve seen it do the same for others, both in the short term and over long periods of restorative healing. Please read on and experiment with what calls to you!

Mullein, Verbascum thapsus

Scrophulariaceae, Figwort family

Where it Grows: Temperate climates, compacted/burned soil, sand/gravelly soil. Ranges from high desert Arizona to Canada. Found across what’s known as the US, some states have it listed as invasive (it’s not native but was introduced, likely from Europe). I typically find it in high coastal prairie zones where it’s getting a lot of sun. It seems to like disturbed soil and will pop up in gardens as a weed. 

Parts Used: Leaves, flowers, and roots are all used separately. 

Harvesting Guidelines: A great plant to weed-rescue whenever it pops up in gardens or lawns. These plants are biennial and some herbalists recommend that if you’re harvesting leaves only, and not the whole plant, that you gather leaves in late spring and summer (presumably before the plant is in full flower) from second year plants to avoid damaging first year plants by taking too many leaves and stunting them. Only second-year mullein produces a flower stalk, first year mullein is simply a basal rosette of leaves. 

Constituents: Flavonoids, mucilage, saponins, tannins, volatile oils

Mullein spire in bloom!

Common Preparations and Dosages: 

  • Tea made from the leaves is most effective for respiratory challenges. Strain through a cloth to get all the little fuzzy hairs out, otherwise you will end up with an irritated throat
    • The fuzzies can also irritate your skin and nose so do be careful with these
    • Mullein leaves take a long time to dry so be thorough with them to prevent mold.
    • Overnight infusion: put 4 tbsp of mullein leaf into a quart jar and pour over boiling water. Let this infuse for at least 8 hours or overnight. Strain out the plant material through a cloth and enjoy. Combine with honey if desired for taste or sore throat issues. Drink a quart a day as a tonic. 
    • Another method for making mullein tea: pour 1 cup of boiling water over 2 tsp of dried leaf and infuse 10-15 minutes. Strain through a cloth and drink. Prepare and drink this up to 3 times a day. 
  • Can incorporate mullein into an herbal face steam for a direct application to the lungs. In a similar manner, mullein is often a part of herbal smoke blends. 
  • Apply whole leaves or poultices to areas with muscle spasms, is sometimes also applied to broken bones or similar injuries to be used similar to comfrey – knitting the tissues back together
  • Mullein flower and garlic ear oil for ear infections

Energetics: Moistening, cooling, and relaxing

Tastes: Green, tastes like plant

Actions: demulcent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant, mild anti-spasmodic, lung tonic

Specific Indications: 

  • Leaves are very useful for respiratory infections. Considered specific for bronchitis characterized by a hard cough and soreness. Reduces inflammation while stimulating fluid production, thus allowing for expectoration (coughing up phlegm). 
  • Helps allay anxiety associated with not breathing. Folks who carry this fear may tend toward tightness in the chest and lungs, mullein can help alleviate this. It can also be helpful for people whose throats are closing from anxiety. 
  • Excellent tonic to the lungs to boost overall respiratory health and function. Some have success with beginning daily infusions of mullein a few months before fire season and notice they are less affected by the air quality. 
  • Topically apply leaves onto spasming muscles to calm them
  • Daily overnight infusions of mullein is one of the most commonly recommended and highly successful treatments for asthma. Inhaling smoke of mullein leaves during the onset of an asthma attack while focusing on lengthening the exhale can quell an asthma attack. 
  • Root tones trigones/center of pelvis, indicated for nighttime incontinence, swelling of ovaries due to its affinity for gonadal tissue, and root is also specific for low back pain and inflammation and spinal issues
    • This is a wonderful Doctrine of Signatures moment – the roots look quite bone-like
  • Flowers are sedative and antimicrobial
    • Mullein flower oil can be heated and used for ear infections
    • Mullein flowers are great for wound healing (highly vulnerary) and are good for acute infections
  • Flower or root oil is indicated topically for testicular inflammation


  • Quick ear oil: mullein flowers, garlic tincture, and hydrogen peroxide (this will foam, that’s ok). 
  • Combine with lobelia, a low-dose herb and powerful antispasmodic, for asthma and panic attacks
  • Combine mullein tea with yerba santa flower essence or honey, this is also helpful for a variety of respiratory infections or anxiety-related difficulties

Contraindications and Drug Interactions: Seeds contain the insecticide and fish poison rotenone. Make sure the herb is not contaminated with seeds (tiny black balls). 


“Mullein,” Western New York Urology Associates

Windfall Herbal Studies Lecture, 2019. 

The Gift of Healing Herbs, Robin Rose Bennet

Medical Herbalism, David Hoffman

And personal experience 🙂

Disclaimer: I am a folk herbalist, not a doctor. All information discussed is solely for educational purposes and is not meant to treat, diagnose, or cure any ailments. Anything you do to take care of your health is your decision and your responsibility.


Open Hours Space Agreements

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After hosting the first-ever Open Hours last month, I had a great opportunity to reflect on what kind of space I am creating with hosting these events. I decided there was a need for more boundaries and some light facilitation, something I hadn’t previously planned for, but here we are! Below are the current Open Hours Space Agreements. They are a work in progress and if you have any feedback for me about them, please reach out.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept of Space Agreements, think of them as a code of conduct or community guidelines. They’re a way for us to agree on how to treat each other well as we learn and do herbcraft alongside each other.

Open Hours Space Agreements:

  1. Use everyone’s stated pronouns and respect the personal right to define one’s own gender identity.
  2. Speak about other people’s health care or health choices in a way that is affirming or uplifting.
  3. This is a safer space for people of all racial identities, LGBTQIA+ people, people of all immigration statuses, ages, and physical and mental abilities. Please be mindful and respectful of all these groups in your speech and actions while attending Open Hours.
  4. Avoid making assumptions about or asking pointed questions about any aspect of anyone’s identity.

Some further info on these agreements:

for #1: My herbal practice prioritizes creating safe healing and learning spaces for queer, trans, and nonbinary people. As a nonbinary person myself, I recognize the importance of affirming spaces in a discipline that often relies on a gender-essentialist idea of health. My dream is that one day herbalism will be entirely liberated from the gender binary paradigm! Let’s work together to create this reality now.

for #2: We are all doing our best to take care of ourselves, and we all have access to different levels of care and health-related education due to factors like our financial means, economic/class background, and our racial or gender identities and physical and mental abilities. When you observe differences in health choices between you and others, remember to keep in mind your differences in financial means and access to education, etc. before passing judgement. This will help us create a safer space for everyone.

for #3: As the space facilitator, I take the lead on closing conversations that are hurtful to any of these groups, with clarification about why they are hurtful, if needed.

for #4: As an example: asking someone, especially if you are white and asking a person of color, a question like “Where are you from?” or “Where did you grow up?” may seem harmless to you, but can come off as pointedly racist. When in doubt, let people share only what they’re comfortable sharing about themselves.

I want to note here that it’s of course ok for mistakes to happen when it comes to these agreements. I am not expecting perfection, I’m simply establishing a precedent for kind thoughtfulness and recognition that other people’s experiences are different from our own.

That said, I reserve the right to refuse entry to Open Hours to anyone. People unable to respectfully follow these agreements will be asked to leave the space.

Some Additional COVID Safety Info:

I am now asking attendees to wear a mask as the Delta variant becomes more of a threat to community health in our area. I will also be masked the whole time.


Announcing Open Hours: Community Mutual Aid and Accessible Herbal Learning

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I’ve been dreaming about the possibility of working closely with other people to expand the mutual aid apothecary projects I’m working on. Last year, I joined a local group of herbalists to do things like offer tea and remedies to local unhoused folks and campesinxs in south county, as well as offer medic support at public events. This has been a wonderful experience, and we are continuing to work on projects together. But what I really wanted was to spend more time preparing herbs with other folks in person. I also saw the potential for the work put into each of these projects to also be an experiential education opportunity for folks wanting to look further into the realm of herbalism especially from a liberation-focused lens. Plant medicine has so much it can bring to the struggles we face today – for better housing conditions, warding off state repression, facing climate catastrophe, etc. I wanted a way to get more folks involved while also growing the work I and other local herbalists are already doing.

That’s why I’m so excited to announce that I am beginning to offer Open Hours, a time when we can get together outdoors to do garden, apothecary, and distribution tasks. This includes doing plant cultivation work, creating herbal medicines, and doing things like bottling, labeling, and boxing up remedies for distribution.

Who is Open Hours for?

This offering is primarily for folks local to what’s colonially known as Santa Cruz. I’m offering this as a way to give people a chance to access free/low-cost herbal education, while also helping me do the things that need to get done to keep my apothecary stocked, so I can keep donating medicines and providing herbal aid.

This offering is intended to serve the purpose of providing experiential education to folks who may have economic difficulty accessing herbal experience and education, either because they can’t financially afford classes, or because they lack access to garden space, materials, and supplies. Open Hours are not structured as a class, but more as a collaborative work session. Participants learn by doing, whether that’s how to press out a tincture or how to harvest mint leaves to encourage plant growth.

This offering is also for folks who are interested in getting involved with herbal mutual aid! If this is something you want to learn more about and collaborate on, I am so excited to meet you and work together.

COVID-19 Safety Info

Please note, due to household safety precautions, I am only allowing folks who are vaccinated to come to Open Hours. I respect that there are a multitude of perspectives on the vaccine, particularly in relation to structural racism. This is a personal choice I’m making to preserve the health of my housemates and myself, not a denial of differing points of view. 

How Do I Come to Open Hours?

The first-ever Open Hours are scheduled for next Thursday, July 29th from 2-4 pm. RSVP by contacting me! Then you’ll get an email confirming your attendance. There will also be some notes on location and further info about COVID-19 safety.


Towards an Anti-Oppression Herbalism

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Many people who are familiar with my work publicly are most acquainted with what I’ve done in the realm of racial justice and white fragility, namely with my zine, A Letter to My White Friends. Those who know me through this lens might be surprised by this pivot towards plant medicine, since it’s not usually something I write about . However, I am very clear about what values I envision upholding through my herbal practice, and they are the same as those I have championed through my writing.

Many herbalists, including a few that I’ve had the pleasure to learn from, do upstanding work. They endeavor to steward the land and be in right relationship to the plants they use, and pay reparations to the Indigenous groups to whom the land they practice on originally belongs. They deconstruct oppressive models of health that are linked to capitalism and patriarchy. They provide care in free clinics and donate medicines to those in crisis. However, like many practices under an oppressive society, there are many ways in which herbalism can be contorted by colonial and profit-motivated tendencies.

Today a friend asked me, “So is there oppressive herbalism?” and my answer was a resounding yes. The ideas of health and wellbeing are subject to the particulars of one’s world view. Many practitioners end up perpetuating models of health that are productivity-based, ableist, fatphobic, transphobic, etc., because they fail to examine their own assumptions about what “healthy” means.

There are also issues of cultural appropriation and environmental degradation to be wary of. Many herbalists continue to act out colonial power dynamics as they tout “superfoods” and exoticized healing practices. The cultivated herb industry, much like the industrial food system, can and does degrade the Earth. Wildcrafting exacerbates these effects by further disintegrating ecosystems. Often, the cultures which originally used the plants as medicine are not acknowledged, or are subject to purposeful erasure, as is the case with groups indigenous to Turtle Island/the US.

Since entering the herbalism world a few years ago, as a beginner, and then a student, I have been surprised by the great variety of practitioners and philosophies out there. There is certainly a spectrum of practices, and I believe no practitioner is perfect. I never intend to chastise practitioners, but instead I write this as a set of guiding principles for my own practice. This is a living document, inviting collaboration from those for whom it resonates. Here are the values I want to embody and strive for in my practice:

Anti-Oppression Herbalism is:

Explicitly Anti-Kyriarchal

Any model of herbalism that is anti-oppressive must be explicitly against all forms of oppression and domination. Being explicit about this is important for several reasons; it lets those being treated know what values are held by practitioners, gives anti-oppression work and thought a greater platform, and encourages other herbalists and health practitioners to investigate their values and state them clearly. Racism, class oppression, gendered oppression, and all other oppressions are also great factors in our overall health. Anti-oppression herbalism acknowledges that oppressions are often root causes of our health difficulties and individual physiological patterns, and steers away from victim-blaming while seeking to constructively address this truth.

Seasonally and Cyclically Attuned

Herbal treatments that are recommended and procured are sensitive to fluctuations of the seasons. Many herbs are not always available in fresh form, or perhaps not available at all. The anti-oppressive herbalist understands and prepares for this and doesn’t demand something from the Earth that it can’t give at that time.

Similarly, anti-oppressive models of health take these fluctuations into account. Unlike allopathic medicine or traditional psychotherapy, where the primary goal is to “fix what’s wrong” with a person’s body or mental health so that they can continue to adapt to and be a “productive member” of our society as it currently is, anti-oppressive herbalism seeks to support people through their own fluctuations of energy and capacity. It’s understood that health and wellness look different at different times for different people. This model allows for people to be seen and treated as their full selves. It also promotes a transformative view of health, wherein we as a society are pushed to accept everyone’s individual capacities and needs, rather than enforcing an idea of health that pushes people to conform, be productive, and serve a profit motive. Resting is subversive — anti-oppressive herbalism supports this!


Wildcrafting is the principal issue to address when thinking of how an herbalism practice could be earth-stewarding. Many herbalists have taken the stance that wildcrafting should not be engaged in unless you have a long standing relationship with the land and the plants you’re gathering. Wildcrafting can wreak havoc on the population of a species, like we’ve seen with white sage and echinacea , and on the larger ecosystems they reside in. It is in our best interest as anti-oppressive herbalists to care for and preserve these ecosystems. Herbs can be cultivated with regenerative agricultural practices for those who have land access, or gathered from cultivated sites on invitation.

As for wildcrafting, tomes could be written on the subject. There are many plants that are widespread and grow as “weeds” and others that become available as windfall or landscaper’s trimmings. In my personal practice, I continue to gather these and do “weed rescue” in my friends’ gardens. However, I do recognize that even in doing this, being in relationship with the plants is important. It’s important to know how they grow and how your gathering will impact them, ask permission to work with them, and offer them your thanks in the form of care, tending, ritual, etc. The land-tending practices of Indigenous groups need to be revitalized, and as anti-oppressive herbalists, it’s in our best interest to push for this and advocate for the return of the land and its care to Indigenous groups.

Many plants are traditional medicines of Indigenous groups. I think it’s important for herbalists to learn the traditional uses of the plants around them, and respect the fact that some plants are not for everyone. There are many plants that were originally the staple foods and medicines of Indigenous groups that have since become commodified, exploited, and over-harvested, and this has harmed the traditions and livelihoods of the groups that originally used them. This is wrong. As anti-oppressive herbalists, it’s our job to stand against this, rather than profit from it in any way.


Dosage is a key issue to ensuring low-impact herbalism. Lowest effective dosing is practiced by many practitioners for the health of the plant population, and for low impact on the body. Plant essences and spirit doses of tinctures can also be used for this practice.

Sourcing herbs and supplies is another concern when it comes to impact. Using herbs that are locally abundant can be one solution, and ensuring that herbs are sourced from growers who use organic practices is another. Sourcing packaging materials from small businesses and local sources can also reduce impact.


By reparative, I mean paying reparations. Paying reparations to the Indigenous group whose land you’re on is a good start. Donating a portion of your income or service to other marginalized groups on top of this can also be a wonderful addition to your practice. Incorporating a historical understanding of how people have become disenfranchised of their land, resources, and traditions into the mechanics of your business can be a way to slowly repair these harms.


When treating individuals, we can focus on helping the person better understand their body and the bodies of others and their relationship to plants and the earth. Our goal in doing this is to make it possible for them to heal themselves and others, rather than continuing to rely solely on experts. In this way, we can apply a transformative model of service, by providing aid and solidarity and assisting individuals in navigating and changing the health conditions in their lives.

Listening to individuals is of the utmost importance in this process, just as listening to marginalized communities is integral to real social change. Many herbalists come from middle class backgrounds, and with this comes a tendency to sort of “manage” clients, akin to a savior mentality or codependency. As anti-oppression practitioners, we abandon these dynamics in favor of joining those we treat in solidarity, seeking to build their agency with the understanding that their health is our health, too.


Anti-oppressive herbalism is not focused on the movement of herbal products or silver-bullet formulas, but on treating people and empowering them to work on their own health. I believe that in order to really be transformative actors in the face of capitalism, anti-oppressive herbalists need to shift the focus of their businesses away from products and ready-made formulas. Herbs and herbalism are already aggressively commodified by businesses like Herb Pharm and the like. We can help reverse this tide by focusing further on passing on our skills and knowledge.

Supporting ourselves as practitioners can take many forms — there are ways of dispersing knowledge while still making it accessible to people who are low-income. Many herbalists already offer sliding scale and scholarship options in their practices.


Jargon is explained and decoded, and herbalism teaching caters to a variety of learning styles and abilities. Ideally, herbal treatment is widely available in many different locales and at a variety of price brackets, including pay what you can and free clinics.

Culturally Informed

The historical cultural uses of every plant are known and widely taught. Originating cultures are credited with forming the foundations of our practice and are honored for these reasons. Various herbal traditions from around the world are understood, respected, and acknowledged, but are not appropriated by practitioners outside of that culture. In cases where practitioners are using/teaching healing modalities from other cultures, this is done with explicit permission from a practitioner in that culture, fullest possible understanding of both the spiritual and practical aspects of the practice, and a commitment to stewarding the full breadth of this knowledge by passing it on respectfully.

Supportive in Times and Places of Struggle

Herbal care is made available to those in need at sites of struggle against oppression and in marginalized communities. Whether this is prisons, refugee camps, protest camps, organizing groups, or areas affected by disaster, herbal care is used to shore up the wellbeing of those fighting hegemonic power and those targeted by it.


Herbal care specifically for community organizers, leaders, and bridge-builders is meant to protect the health of these people as they take aim at the current world order and work to create new worlds. By bolstering the health of these people and helping them avoid burnout, they are better able to carry out their work of dismantling prisons, growing gardens, dissolving borders, educating others, and reducing harm against vulnerable populations. Power-building herbalism also seeks to give people skills to survive outside of a fragile, oppressive, and unaffordable medical system.


Anti-oppressive herbalism doesn’t exclude those who need or believe in western medicine. There is a false dichotomy here, because both can work in tandem. A disability justice framework is applied; herbs do not negate the real need some folks have for elements of western medical practice. These needs also need to be prioritized. Practitioners take to care to avoid shaming those they are treating for engaging in western medical practices.

These are the principles of anti-oppressive herbalism that I’m striving to uphold in my own herbal practice. As I wrote above, this is a living document that I expect to change as my practice continues to grow. If this resonates with you, or if you have constructive criticism for me, let’s collaborate! Please reach out — anti-oppression work is a group effort and I’d love to be connected.

Lastly, I want to acknowledge some groups and practitioners that inspired this writing: Bay Area Herbal Response TeamHerbalists Without BordersStascha StahlLa Loba LocaSolidarity ApothecaryRise Up! Good Witch, and Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine all inspire me with their praxis and mission to provide care to others. Thank you for the work that you do!

This essay was originally written for my Patreon supporters, and accompanied by a podcast. If you enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting my work! Anything from $3-$45 helps tremendously and goes to cover my basic living expenses. Patrons receive a range of benefits, from monthly live Q&A’s and resource lists, to workshops and bi-monthly herbal care boxes. You can find my Patreon here.

emotional literacy

Staying in Place

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It’s 2:36 P.M. I’m dehydrated. I lean weakly against a metal railing outside a Nevada gas station while I eat the rest of a breakfast burrito. I gaze wearily at my car, the silver paint flickering in the desert sun. Slowly, I mutter out loud to no one: “I miss my friends.”

Three days before, I left a community. People that I lived, worked, danced, sweat, and cried with all summer. They serenaded me with flutes and drums and a saxophone as I drove down the gravel driveway. I drove to the city: Columbia, Missouri. I visited a good friend I’d known and worked with for years. I said goodbye to him and headed west.

At this point I was no stranger to travel. The year before, I set off on The Radical Mapping Project tour. We visited more than fifteen different cities. We met and interviewed more people than I can count. Before that, I ping-ponged around the country, not living anywhere longer than six months. I lived on a couch, in my car, with my parents, alone in a house with a slanted floor.

But this time around I felt like a plant with my roots ripped out of the ground: naked, vulnerable, drifting, displaced. Somewhere in the desert, heat beating down on my sweaty fingers as they held the steering wheel in place, I realized, I am tired of this.

I was tired of the continuous “new-ness” of everything. The way that I formed sudden but often shallow connections with the places I went and the people I met. I was tired of never having the chance to let those connections deepen. I missed being able to know people over a period of years, to the the point where they were predictable, tried and true. I missed watching the seasons shift in one place. I longed to understand a town, a community, by seeing it weather time and change. I yearned to grow a garden of my own, rather than just dropping in and helping others with theirs.

My life lacked depth. I’d had a variety of experiences, seen lots of places, and learned lots of things — but every experience felt limited by my mobility and lack of time. As soon as I got comfortable somewhere, and got closer to deeper learning with myself and others, my time was up. It was time to keep moving. I left all the people I’d come to know and depend on, and I left a hole in each community I departed.

The mobility that characterizes modern times impedes community building. When people are coming and going all the time, it can be challenging to form bonds with the amount of strength needed to effect positive change in a place. Interdependency can’t happen if all our relationships are shallow. Instead, loneliness and individualism prevail.

As a culture, we have some special narratives about drifting in this way. We go off to travel and “strike out on our own.” We go to look for things: fulfillment, connection, learning, perspective. Our stories idealize the experience of travel, of constant movement. On the Road is a classic example. More recent stories like Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild highlight that this ideal still rules the American mind. We idolize the opportunity to escape, to “find ourselves” somewhere elseAnd we admire the ruggedness of those that do — they become cultural heroes.

“What if deep friendships are the real life-changing experiences we’re looking for?”

Each of the protagonists from these books left home for their own reasons — to experience new things, to find fulfillment, to heal. They left to learn things about themselves and the world. But what if the real test of someone’s character, the real radical learning, comes from putting down roots? Putting effort into building relationships, communities, and solid social skills is challenging. This takes commitment and perseverance. Community both demands and facilitates personal growth, as it asks you to adapt to the needs and quirks of others. Strong relationships with others can also be fulfilling and help hold space for the healing we need to do. What if deep friendships are the real life-changing experiences we’re looking for?

I realized this was the case for me. I committed to putting down roots and cultivating stronger relationships with the town I live in, the land I live on, and the people I live near. I chose to do this in my hometown, on occupied Awaswas territory known as Santa Cruz, California.

Staying in place can be challenging, especially in this time of housing crises and real estate grabs across the U.S. Santa Cruz is the least affordable housing market in the U.S. Many long-time locals are getting pushed out as tech workers from the Silicon Valley move into the area and drive up prices. The topography of my community is changing quickly. Longstanding businesses are closing, and new shops catering to the wealthy pop up like weeds in the downtown strip. I left Santa Cruz fleeing this change — but I’ve seen it in most other American cities I’ve visited. I began to think about a quote on a poster which hung in the lounge of my academic department at UC Santa Cruz. It featured an image of a car loaded up with people and possessions, and read:

“Will it be any better the next place you go? Organize for fair wages and affordable housing NOW!”

It hasn’t been much better in other places. So I made a choice to come back, stay put for a while, and work to mitigate the housing crisis. I want to make my town somewhere that I, and other people who grew up here, can live again.

So here I am, staying still in a town that so many people are leaving and getting driven from. I go to community events, I work on projects with my friends, I do co-counseling classes, I greet people on the streets. I still discover new things all the time. I am working to build those deep relationships, to create for myself not just a physical home, but a home among people. Doing this takes a lot of work, time, self-investigation, and communication. But I feel like I’m getting more out of it than I ever got from a transient life.

emotional literacy

Mapping the Radical Emotionality of Social Justice Work

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Most of us involved are aware that social justice work is emotionally-intensive. I’ve written at length about the importance of acknowledging this emotional edge and taking steps to address it in our personal and organizational practices. I also realize that there is power in naming, and that my last piece on the emotionality of social justice work was unfortunately vague.

To remedy this, I’ve set out to name and dissect the various emotional impacts experienced by those in the social justice realm. I have experienced these and also observed them in the experiences of others. Though listed out separately, they are all connected and overlapping. This is not a complete list, but a starting point for dialogue.

I also want to note that in naming and dissecting these various emotions, my goal is to acknowledge and bring them to light. To moralize them away by decrying them as problematic is, for the purposes of this article, counter-productive to confronting and healing them. I do understand that many of these emotional reactions are problematic in certain instances, and I acknowledge that here. My ultimate goal is not to critique the legitimacy of these emotional ruptures, but to point them out.

There are many people who have written about the divisiveness and hyper-criticality of the social justice community and callout culture. (A couple that I’ve found helpful are Frances Lee’s “Why I’ve Started to Fear My Fellow Social Justice Activists” and Kai Cheng’s “Righteous Callings: Being Good, Leftist Orthodoxy, and the Social Justice Crisis of Faith”.) Instead of rehashing their points, I’m looking at these issues to understand them as emotional processes. With this understanding, we can then find solutions in the realm of emotional work. Increased emotional awareness, empathy, and boundaries all hold enormous potential as solutions. My writing on trauma and how it affects our ability to bond and work together, and therefore disrupts our organizing, is an example of how I find this analysis can be helpful to those of us in movement work.

Here are some things that come up often in social justice work which bring up strong emotional responses:

Investigating and deconstructing our own oppression.

It is transformative to understand how our culture and institutions limit our lives, thoughts, perceptions of reality, and wellbeing. It can also be a emotional process, one full of grief and anger. Grasping the extent to which injustice, violence, and brutality shape our lives is maddening!

Unpacking our oppression can also bring us to reanalyze our past experiences. It may help us understand past traumas in a whole new light, and can free us from shouldering the blame for our hurt. Rehashing our trauma and oppression can also be painful, and reignite a lot of past hurt with new vigor.

Becoming aware of oppressive dynamics in our society makes us much more sensitive to injustice. They don’t call us angry Social Justice Warriors for nothing — we are angry. And for good reason.

Investigating and deconstructing our own privilege.

Nothing provokes an emotional reaction like the word “privilege.” In our mythical meritocracy, no one wants to hear that they inherited their achievements and social standing. I often write about white fragility, and of course this is the best example, but examining other privileged identities can also be uncomfortable. This discomfort doesn’t always come from indignation, either. For example, I have straight friends who hesitate to discuss their straight privilege with me. They clam up when asked to think about how our realities differ in a heterosexist society. Most likely they experience guilt or shame. While there is debate about whether guilt is valid or useful in these types of situations, those feelings, along with anger, sadness, and even grief, can all come up while unpacking our privileges.

This is where many of us will embark on a quest to be “one of the good ones,” or as Kai Cheng calls it, “a performance of virtue.” This is a related yet very complex emotional landscape that we must also acknowledge. Everyone involved in social justice work holds some privileged identities, and makes a journey through here at some point.

Secondhand trauma.

This happens when we have a direct window to someone else’s traumatic experience. This is a real diagnosis also called “secondary traumatic stress.” It often occurs in people who work in direct service occupations, but can also happen to those whose work is not based in that realm. It can also impact us to varying degrees. You may not receive an official diagnosis, but you can still feel affected by witnessing the trauma of another.

Grieving history, ancestry, and the present.

As mentioned earlier, grief can come up when we unpack oppression. Learning about the extreme violences and injustices of the past and the present can trigger this. I chose to include ancestry because learning about their suffering — or their terrible actions, depending which side of history your ancestors were on — can be very painful and powerful. Learning about or witnessing injustice in the present also has this effect. Try observing your emotions as you watch the news or walk around your town, and you’ll know what I mean.

This relates to secondhand trauma, but I’ve separated the two because this one is less a personal experience of another’s trauma, and more something you experience by observing from a distance. Both rely on intense empathizing and taking in pain that is not our own.

Moral obligation and burnout.

Moral obligation is that feeling of urgency we experience in relation to social justice work. “I feel like I should be doing more, because it’s the right thing to do, and if I’m not doing more, then what am I doing? Am I a bad person?” And the spiral goes on. In some cases, this can lead to a sense of martyrdom, or flat-out refusal to accept the limitations of our bodies and livelihoods. I’ve heard people explain they’re missing meals, or classes, or even doctor’s appointments to be at a certain action or meeting. I’ve committed myself way beyond my capacity because I feel it’s the right thing to do, and that someone has to do it. Some of these tendencies mirror the pathologies Tema Okun mentions in her piece around white supremacy culture in organizations. I’m including them here because they are also emotional issues that are hard to distinguish from their insidious systemic roots. Whiteness and the capitalist drive for productivity are chief among these.

This can lead to burnout. This is a multi-symptom condition. It results in feelings of helplessness, depression, and a disinterest or inability to take part in activities we burned ourselves out on. In particular, I have noticed both of these in relation to direct action.

Hyper-criticism, cynicism, and depression.

The social justice movement nurtures hyper-criticality. According to Kai Cheng:

“The strength of social justice ideology are its sharp eyes and tongue, its ability to reveal and tear open the hidden logic of oppressive systems — a powerful and important revolutionary tool. My fear is that the valorization of critique, and the central role that criticism plays in the performance of goodness, has resulted in a rigid way of thinking that prioritizes the endless re-enactment of outrage and conflict while preventing us from developing strategies for reconciliation, necessary compromise, and collective action.”

While preventing creative growth, hyper-criticality can also lead us into a cynical realm of thought. If our attentions are always on what is wrong, embroiling ourselves in cynicism and ensuing depression is not a surprising next step. Critique is important, but to paraphrase Alexis P. Morgan, it doesn’t fill our cups.

Depression can also stem from many of the other emotional entanglements mentioned earlier, such as burnout, grief, or any of the above.

Hyper-vigilance and hyperconsciousness.

This happens as a result of “callout culture,” and we can experience both sides of this. For example, it’s easy for us to hear an ignorant comment and suppress the urge to respond with vitriol. It’s also common to fear responses like these in the company of other radical people. Both responses stem from the harmful notion of a hierarchy of “enlightened” social justice thought. This is an issue in and of itself, but the emotional aspect of hyper-vigilance and hyperconsciousness is also impactful. Venomous, righteous anger and shameful, paranoid silence both take a toll. Both erode trust, connection, and our openness to vulnerability. This dynamic also creates a fear of one’s own politics and beliefs. This can prevent thorough self-examination.

Alienation and defensiveness.

I’m not sure if alienation is the best word to describe the sensation of moving through the world and seeing so many systems and institutions and activities, etc., that run counter to my beliefs. I feel frustrated and dismayed as I watch my town put up more Starbucks and my family members parrot neoliberal ideology. My friends and I sometimes half-joke with each other that we wish we could “be normal” and not experience this strange alienation.

Being unable or afraid to broach certain topics and express your true opinions with your family, at work, and in other realms can be alienating. It can drive a wedge between you and other pieces of your life you once identified with. This is part of changing our worldview. I included it because it’s important to note that years after developing a consciousness grounded in justice, I continue to feel disoriented and gaslit by all the signs around me that pretend that everything’s fine! things are normal!, as though our world isn’t built on a foundation of oppression.

At the same time that I experience this wish to “be normal,” I also find a knowing within myself which understands that denial of injustice won’t serve or fulfill me, and is not an option. I experience this as a positive emotion, but it can also be oppressive.

I’ve also included defensiveness because this contrast between our own views and the mainstream world creates conflict. These conflicts can lead to all kinds of defensive behaviors. These range from stifling our self-expression to adopting habitual anger.

Engaging with social justice is an emotionally complex experience. I also recognize that my own emotional experiences of social justice work definitely do not encompass those of everyone involved. I do not claim to do that. My goal is to begin to create a map of the emotional impacts of social justice work, so that we can form language and understanding around them. From there, we can create a culture within the movement that encourages emotional literacy and constant reflection and processing as part of our praxis.

I recognize that the emotional impacts listed here tend toward the negative side of the emotional spectrum. There are also many positive aspects to the emotional experience of social justice work. A few of these include feeling understood, committing to a community, feelings of right livelihood, celebrating what society shames us for, and the sweet, sweet taste of direct action victory. Social justice work has many beautiful gifts to give.

It’s also important to note that a solution to many of these emotional ills is relationship building. Depression, burnout, grief, hyper-vigilance, and hyperconsciousness all flourish in isolation, but can be mitigated with connection and trust. This is another reason why emotional literacy is so important. To build good relationships within our networks, we need to be able to navigate and hold space for one another’s emotions and experiences. Doing so enables us to better understand ourselves, work towards more genuine politics, and create stronger movements.

To quote my personal hero Grace Lee Boggs, “We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.” Incorporating emotional literacy is necessary to form the bonds of care we need to achieve liberation.

Image Source: Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash


Community-Help: Why Individualized Healing is Only Half the Picture

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I’ve been to series of sessions of individualized talk therapy four times. While the insights I’ve gained have always been helpful and moved me along my healing path, I’ve also always had strange underlying uneasiness with the process. It feels alienating to have to pay to talk about my feelings. Sometimes when I was in therapy, I felt like that meant I didn’t need to or couldn’t talk to anyone else about my feelings. I deal with some heavy things; I have a long abuse history and a lot of trauma to work through. I often feel like I don’t want to “dump” that on someone. But when the only outlet for actually talking about this stuff is commodified – a service that you pay for – there is something very lonely and suffocating about that.

Traditional individualized therapy can certainly positively impact mental health. I benefited from all the sessions I attended, and I actively encourage others to seek out therapy for themselves. However, this model of mental health care can often feel isolating. Traditional therapy, often by default, places emphasis on the expertise of the therapist and commodifies active listening and emotional literacy. Suddenly, listening to someone’s heavy feelings is something you need a master’s degree to do, and being listened to is something you have to pay for. Mental health care becomes inaccessible and out of the control of those who really need it. Unfortunately, many people really do see this as our only path to emotional healing.

I believe that our idea of healing needs to be expanded. Individual therapy, while not devoid of flaws, is important – and it’s not the only thing we need to do. There are many different models of healing which are more community-based, less individualized, and therefore more radical. They can be used in tandem with traditional therapy, or on their own.

What could alternatives to traditional talk therapy look like? Alternatives that address the issues of traditional therapy need to be de-commodified and less individualized. Hopefully, they would serve to connect participants to their communities and each other.

Deep Work Groups

This year, I had the privilege of living in an intentional community for several months. In the community, there were several different emotional work groups offered, each with a different format. One provided a place for people to have longform check-ins, talking out their feelings to a whole group of other people who would simply listen. The groups I attended were more focused on doing what was called “deep work.” Each week we came together, we would check in, and then pick a few members of the group to work on their issues during that session. As an attendee, I supported those group members, honored their requests, and helped facilitate their working if I could. Some of the people who organized the group were more experienced facilitators, and were able to guide participants through various therapy exercises and techniques, like role-playing, speaking to a younger or older self, and prompting with sentence starters. This container was available to me, the other group members, and anyone else in the community, free of charge.

This healing space had a profound effect on my life. It was in this deep work group that I learned to call my experiences what they are: abuse. Seeing other people of varying ages and backgrounds working with their own wounds was so powerful to me. It helped me feel much less alone and recognize how much of my human experience I shared with others. Getting to help facilitate the work of others was also very powerful. I reveled in the chance to grant people their requests, to ask them questions, to hold their hand when they needed it. I found that participating in this group also helped ground me in the larger community – although I was only there for a few months, I found that going to this group deepened the connections I was able to make with others.


Another model that is practiced across the country and internationally is called Re-Evaluation Counseling, more often known as co-counseling. In this model, you take a class or learn from experienced co-counselors about the practice’s specific techniques, which are designed to improve your listening and emotional support skills. You choose a partner to work with and regularly meet to practice both listening and sharing your feelings. Your work with your partner is a reciprocal exchange, meaning it is free and both people benefit. You refine your emotional literacy skills and are able to offer them to your wider community.

I have adapted this counseling practice on my own. I have a few friends with whom I share “feelings time”, wherein we exchange roles of listener and speaker and offer support to each other. This type of model has been good for me when group settings are not available, and has also facilitated deeper connection with some of my friends as individuals.

These are just a few examples of different community-oriented models of mental health care and healing that are possible. When I discovered people could use models like these, that we could make intentional agreements to talk about our feelings with each other, hold space, and create a dynamic that allowed for mutual aid rather than “dumping” and perpetual care-taking, I began to feel hope for the very lonely part of me. Although we often view emotional healing as an individual process, something you need to work on and complete on your own, I’ve found over the course of my life that this is very rarely the case. I can’t recall a time when I was able to really heal on my own, without the support of others and a nurturing environment. I believe that individual healing and self-care and drawing a path for yourself are extremely important, but I think they’re also only half of the picture. In fact, the times I’ve felt my best and healed and grown the most, have been the times where I’ve had multiple people I could talk to and share with in this emotional, reciprocal way. The times that I’ve felt valued and accepted and affirmed in my environment have been the times that I’ve felt most comfortable doing deeper self-exploration and healing.

Sometimes, when I am working through my abuse responses and need to soften my inner critic, I think about dogs who come from abusive homes. They are often very shy at first, or aggressive. But if they are welcomed into a new and loving home, once they recognize they are no longer in danger of being harmed, they often “warm up” and become open and loving again. This is how it works for me, too. When I find myself in new environments or social situations, my automatic response is often fear or suspicion, which surfaces as shyness. But once I know that I am around safe people who won’t try to hurt or abuse or manipulate me, but instead accept me lovingly and treat me well, I open up and feel safe enough to dip into my self expression.

Affirming environments are important for survivors of abuse and people with marginalized identities. Last year, during my tour with The Radical Mapping Project, someone I interviewed told me about a similar dynamic. We were interviewing a queer housing collective, and our interviewee told us they had never heard any of their housemates raise their voice at one another. Their house had a huge emphasis on practicing nonviolent communication and being a safe space for people who had experienced abuse. As a result, they told us, people often began to feel more interested in expressing and exploring themselves and their queer identities, because they were surrounded by other loving queerdos.

The thing is, I didn’t know I needed an affirming environment until I experienced it. The only way I was able to experience it was by finding other people I could share things with, who I could relate to, who could reciprocally exchange with me without judgement of my needs or identity. I went to a commune where regularly sharing feelings, co-counseling and deep work groups, and queer feminist anarchist politics were the norm. Once I had experienced this affirming environment, I knew I needed it to heal and feel good and seen. Regular talk therapy as my only outlet was no longer going to cut it.

This makes me wonder how many other people need this but don’t know it yet. Our culture has such an individualistic view of healing, but I suspect individual efforts are less effective without the community piece, and without non-commodified models of healing.

To truly heal and feel good, we need community. We need people to listen to us, and we need people to listen to! We need to see others struggle, and know we are not alone. In the behavioral health field, these needs are increasingly addressed with the peer support model. A peer is referred to as “someone who shares the experience of living with a psychiatric disorder and/or addiction.” Peer support works because of the power of seeing others dealing with the same things we’re struggling with. Often I am surprised at how witnessing someone’s emotional work or listening to someone during a co-counseling session or a check-in is just as effective and comforting as doing my own work or telling my own story. We need affirming environments where we feel encouraged to be our whole selves and open up.

Often healing is painted as this very individualized journey and objective; if you gather the tools, you should be able to make it there yourself. You should be able to be strong and get the help you need and get through it. In reality, people who are able to heal are often supported by many more people than just their therapist and their own self-care practices. In her collection of essays, Peregrinajes/Pilgrimages, Maria Lugones discusses how the individualized narrative of achievement so often focuses on the person who reached their goal and their efforts alone. She asks us to look behind that person, and see all the people who supported them to reach that goal. I believe achievement of any kind is often much more of a team effort than we are willing to acknowledge in Western society, and emotional healing is no exception.

To really work through our feelings and work towards healing, we need other people on the journey with us. Self-help is bullshit. Many of us are familiar with neoliberalism as it applies to labor and wealth inequality; why should we expect ourselves to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps when it comes to our mental health? Brianna Suslovic sums up the neoliberal undercurrents of self care perfectly:

“..the burden for care rests solely on the self. No one else is given any responsibility for checking in or helping you out with the basic things that enhance your well-being. And why not? Perhaps it’s because this kind of communal care would start to look a lot like a visible kind of resistance.”

It is important to remember that many mental health and emotional struggles are linked to societal issues. My abuse history points to the patriarchy, capitalism, and heteronormativity. Many “disorders” are at least partially socially constructed and brought on by the conditions in our society that we see as fixed and take for granted. Depression, anxiety, suicide, and drug use are all at epidemic levels in the U.S. – we can’t pretend that the mental health struggles of these individuals are not connected to larger issues in our society. There are various studies which indicate that people of color, people experiencing poverty, and women are more likely to experience mental health challenges than socially privileged groups, like white men.  All forms of oppression have mental health implications.

Unfortunately, many of us lack even basic access to mental health care. While community-based alternatives like those described above may be monetarily more accessible, they do require a fair amount of social capital and volunteer labor to set up and maintain. What’s more, they require skills that many of us are just beginning to access. Mental health needs to be taken seriously. Doing this work for and with others is something we need to prepare for with study and practice.

Setting up community mental health resources should be prioritized in radical communities. We need to be literate in emotional healing and mental health care, so we are better able to take care of each other and ourselves. We need to create networks and counter-institutions so that our only option is not clinical mental healthcare, or at least so that we have more than one modality of healing. Doing so will add to our revolution and our capacities as organizers.We need to stop viewing mental health as a purely individual concern, and start practicing ways to support and care for each other.

In terms of information, this article really just skims the surface of community mental health models and ideas. If you’re interested in learning more, I’d recommend perusing the Re-evaluation Counseling website, particularly the techniques page. Brianna Suslovic’s essay “The Revolution Will Not Be Unsustainable: Drafting a Movement Strategy Handbook“, my essay “Community to Family in the Face of Trump”, Kai Cheng Thom’s “8 Steps Toward Building Indispensability (Instead of Disposability) Culture” and this interview by Sarah Lazare with Dean Spade on mutual aid are all in the same ideological vein.

If you are excited about this and want to talk to me about it, don’t hesitate to shoot me a message! My contact info is on my About page!

Lastly, thank you to those of you who support my work and racial justice organizing by purchasing a copy of my zine and following my work on Medium. Y’all help me sustain my writing practice – thank you!

Image by  Bobby Rodriguezz


Understanding the Marks Left by Abuse

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I didn’t think I had trauma. I’ve been in abusive situations and rough relationships in my life, but nothing I considered extraordinary. I believed that if the immediate pain of those experiences left me, I’d be just as I was before. Turns out, I was wrong.

I’m at a point in my life where I am coming to understand how many of my behaviors and beliefs are direct results of the abuse I’ve experienced throughout my life. Finally, I’m noticing how my past trauma interrupts the ease of connecting with others, and often injects my worldview with cynicism and suspicion.

Attachment theory can explain these effects. It maintains there are various ways people learn to be attached to and connect with others. Nora Samaran describes attachment styles using a chair metaphor:

“Just like the first time you walk on ice or sit on a new chair, at first your muscles are clenched, waiting to see if the ground under you is secure or about to fall away. If the ice has always been solid, or you have never had a chair break under your weight, you may assume that you can relax quickly into your seat, or head out onto the ice and skate. You have no reason to think otherwise. If, however, you have had a chair break under you, you may think hard about sitting down again, and may take longer to relax into the secure base. If the chair has never been there for you at all, you may decide you simply don’t need chairs and prefer to stand. These are insecure attachment styles.”

My attachment style is insecure. I grew up with constant emotional volatility in my household. I was always unsure of how I would be treated. This was my early experience of love and connection.

A while ago, I was in a bookshop feeling a little lost, and I picked up a book called How to Be an Adult in Love by David Richo. I was intrigued by the subtitle: “Letting Love in Safely and Showing it Recklessly.” I soon found myself poring over it, reading passages which described love in succinct language such as I had never read it before. I realized, I don’t understand love. I don’t fully understand where the line between love and harm lies, most likely because many people who love me don’t know where this line is either.

Perhaps this lack of understanding is why abuse is so commonplace in the U.S. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. This figure does not account for forms of emotional abuse, and only takes into account intimate partner violence. Familial abuse and workplace abuse are also common in the U.S., and both have deep effects on survivors.

Violence pervades our culture. Abuse is one head of that hydra, along with the prison industrial complex, gun violence, rape culture, environmental destruction, militarism, police brutality, animal agriculture, and most recently on the public mind, ICE and border policies. In a country that has literally set up for-profit prisons for children, you can expect violence to flourish. Violence and abuse also pepper our histories, both collective and personal. In a country built by slaves on land stolen through genocide, it is not surprising to me that violence, trauma, and abuse are passed down through generations. I have so often heard my dad tell me stories of being knocked across a room by his own dad. Of course the line between love and harm is blurred for him. It is for many of us.

I’m working through the messages I’ve received from others that impede my ability to connect, but it’s a messy process. I’ve learned it’s easy to accidentally take my trauma out on others. Trauma can be insidious that way – it’s easy to pass it on without being aware that’s what’s happening. My own trauma-based behaviors tend to be ignoring, neglecting, and withdrawing from my relationships, and in the past I’ve also lashed out at people in anger.

I still search for intimacy, closeness, community, and shared joy. Even acknowledging that sparks fear in me, but I keep reaching. Through my fumbling and my triumphs and despairs, I wonder, how often do we hurt each other? How often do we take out our past abuses on others, and thereby pass them on? I know I have hurt and neglected people before. The best thing I can do is continue to heal, so that I may no longer pass on the abuse. It’s important for me to understand the marks that my past has left on me, and the ways I express love and look for connection. It has affected all my relationships, including the one I have with myself.

So anyway, about that book -I bought it. I’m committed to healing and learning how to love well, fully, and recklessly. One concept from the book that I have really benefited from is this:

“We never lose our power and ability to let love into our lives and to act lovingly. The capacity to love cannot be canceled or erased by our past, no matter how damaging our experiences may have been. What can be damaged are our ways of showing love and our expectations of what it should be.”

This is comforting to me. It reminds me that I can heal from these damages and form more healthy ways of showing love and expectations for it. It is important for survivors of abuse to receive this message: we are not damaged goods. We deserve love, and we are able to love, but it is a practice we must work to grow.

The abuse we endure and inflict has lasting effects on our relationships with ourselves, each other, and in our communities. It directly affects our movements by dictating how we treat each other. In recent times, I have seen a few pieces of writing decrying “toxic social justice culture.” I believe this toxicity is due in part to the fact that our movements our organized by people who are still healing from oppression, violence, and abuse. Our connections are interrupted and our movements are shortchanged because we are still establishing the emotional literacy needed to healthily deal with our trauma and that of others.

Grace Lee Boggs has a quote that I repeat again and again when I think about how I’m engaging with community organizing work. In The Next American Revolution, she writes:

“We ourselves must begin practicing in the social realm the capacity to care for each other, to share food, skills, time, and ideas that up to now most of us have limited to our most personal cherished relationships…..We urgently need to bring to our communities the limitless capacity to love, serve, and create for and with each other.”

Understanding and enacting love is an urgent matter from this point of view. We benefit from actively healing ourselves. We benefit from learning how to not take trauma out on each other. We benefit from learning to communicate, set healthy boundaries, and trust and be kind to each other. If we can heal and reach past our old traumas and stories, we can open ourselves to more connection and become catalysts for positive change and growth in our communities. Building bridges of connection can help us accomplish the work of anti-oppression politics. It can open opportunities for collaboration and understanding and give power to voices without corporate or police/military-backing. At the very least, it can enable our organizations to work well together to achieve our goals. Openness helps us. Healing is a strategy.


The Revolution is Emotional

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I know I’m not the only person involved in social justice work who struggles with my mental and emotional health. Experiencing or witnessing the suffering, harm, and oppression embedded in every facet of our society is painful. So is responding to that suffering, both emotionally, and with action. Much of our work, whether it is internal – uprooting internalized oppression, acknowledging and navigating our privileges and blindspots, expressing ourselves in a world that demands conformity – or external – protesting, calling out institutions and public figures, speaking truth to power, providing direct service to and holding space for oppressed groups – is emotionally intensive. Even the root of our work is often an emotionally-charged belief in justice.

Many people who work in this vein suffer as a result of this intense emotionality. Burnout, anxiety, depression, and simply leaving the work behind are understandable responses to the challenges this work faces us with.

It’s important not to absorb the pain we see around us, to take on that of others as our own. From “The White Allies’ Guide to Collecting Aunt Linda” by Real Talk: WOC & Allies:

“If you are getting angry about other people’s pain, then your anger had better be serving those people, not yourself. So yes, get angry. But never forget whose anger it is. Never lose sight of the people actually experiencing that pain. Remember you are not one of them.”

People holding privileged identities (like myself) need to remember this. Taking on the pain of others as our own gets us nowhere.

It’s also very important for us to be conscious of how emotionally affecting this work can be. It’s important that we don’t take it lightly. We must be conscious of how we are being emotionally impacted, as we also grow conscious of the emotional experiences of others.


It’s important for us to emotionally check in with ourselves, and to process our feelings as part of our praxis. For example, Thais Sky and Lindsey Rae recommend that white people spend time privately processing their fragility and feelings around race issues, and reach out to other white people who can hold their fragility. This private processing makes way for more thoughtful public anti-racist work.

In other cases this may simply mean acknowledging when we are drained. Noticing our emotional needs and adapting to accommodate them is important. Part of what inspired this essay is an ongoing struggle with social anxiety and healing from trauma. Recently, I’ve been in a few situations in which I’ve had to step back from confrontational environments, and it’s been really difficult. In the past, I was always able to show up for actions and participate in public activities. Finding myself in a place where simply resisting the urge to self-isolate is taxing has been disappointing. It’s forced me to change the ways I engage with activism work, and to be understanding of my current emotional limits.

And yet, adjusting to my current needs is what allows me to stay engaged at all. Acknowledging our emotions and caring for ourselves and each other must be an integral part of our work. It’s what makes our movements and our lives sustainable.

Emotions also need to be celebrated! Coming together over our feelings – anger, grief, euphoria, or what-have-you – and creating a collective site of exploration, understanding, and bonding, is revolutionary. As Brianna Suslovic writes in “The Revolution Will Not Be Unsustainable: Drafting a Movement Strategy Handbook“, “Learning how to provide emotional support to friends impacted by executive orders and cabinet nominations is the kind of mutual aid work that is necessary right now, that sustains this work long beyond the next afternoon rally.”

Sharing and relishing in our emotionality is also a direct rejection of whiteness. As Tema Okun explains in her piece “White Supremacy Culture“, politeness, fear of open conflict, individualism and isolation, and white ideas of professionalism all work against emotionality and direct confrontation of issues (especially those which are racially charged). Openly sharing and celebrating our emotions brings these conflicts to the forefront, and frees us from the restrictive white codes of politeness.

Our organizing and our personal praxes need to hold space for the multiple dimensions of emotionality inherent in our work. Here are some ideas of what that can look like:

This is hard work. I work on this every day. Cultivating the vulnerability I need to get help and reach out to others is difficult. Building space for emotions into struggles which feel urgent and holding the ethereal complexities of feelings rather than simply evaluating tangible outcomes are modalities with which we are often unfamiliar. Seeing and supporting each other can be terrifying and draining. Navigating the new territories of radical emotionality is not easy, but it is possible and necessary.

Imagine your vision of justice, of a better world. Mine is one where emotions are valued, shared, and responded to with understanding and emotional literacy. I’m in this work because I care, because I am tender. Our tenderness is revolutionary.

With love and lots and lots of *feelings*, 


Image Sources: 1. is a self-portrait I took while battling depressive symptoms as a result of an abusive relationship {and those feelings were/are fucking valid!!} . 2. Froebel Decade

if you enjoy my writing, please do share it 🙂 please also consider buying a copy of my zine on whiteness (a portion of the proceeds currently goes to Protect Juristac) and supporting my work via PayPal. thank you so much for reading. 


Why White Activists Need to Go to Red States

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We’ve known for a while now that there are a few problems in rural America that need addressing. I can name a few: rural poverty, white supremacy, Evangelical fervor, and Trumpism. The 2016 election round made all of these issues painfully clear, and they continue to affect U.S. politics on a national and global scale.

Rural America’s issues are also self-perpetuating. I’ve watched the poorest county in Missouri strike down an initiative to increase funding for its already under-resourced public schools, some even lacking internet access. Lacking public resources, insular community dynamics, racial ignorance and intolerance, meth addiction, and government corruption are just a few of the factors at play in rural conservative parts of the U.S. All of them create a vicious cycle, increasing poverty rates and anger and bigotry alike.

Here’s where white activists come in: rural communities need outside resources and perspectives. We must confront white supremacy and conservative extremism, and help provide educational and organizational resources. White activists are the perfect candidates for this job.

Who Will Take Responsibility for Dealing with White Supremacy if We Don’t?

As I write in the A Letter to My White Friends zine, organizing and educating other white people is our work. The ignorance, racism, and Trumpism we see coming from so many insidious corners of our communities? Yeah, that’s on us, and we need to do whatever we can to defeat it.

White privilege operates in a way that unfortunately gives a white person’s views on racism more credibility than first-person experiences from people of color. Again, from my zine:”Due to their biases and because they know you, they have more respect for you and are more likely to listen to you than people of color. Yes, that is really fucked up, but it’s probably true. And even if these conversations are uncomfortable, who better to bear the discomfort of other white people than you, a white person?”

White activists are not only seen as more credible due to their privilege, but are also much safer in white communities than people of color. The same goes for those who are cisgendered or able to straight-pass. Throughout my time working in rural communities, my ability to pass as heterosexual protected me from anti-queer violence and enabled me to keep working towards the undoing of toxic white supremacy and crippling poverty.

Because we are much more likely to be both heard and safe in these communities, confronting white supremacy, organizing community members, and providing outside resources and perspectives are much easier for us. More than that, they are our responsibility, the contribution we can make in the fight for racial and economic justice.

Why White Activists Should Go to Red States: Madeleine L. Keller

Don’t Go Where It’s Easy

Recently, I attended a talk given by indigenous activist and water protector Winona LaDuke. She spoke about her experiences doing community organizing work on her reservation in Minnesota, explaining the difficult rural conditions and bigotry of the white people who surrounded the area. Despite the difficulties, she maintained that working within this community was extremely important and impactful. Then she referred to all the organizing done in urban areas, and urged us, “Don’t do community organizing in places that are easy – go where we need you.”

Urban areas, of course, are not without a host of their own special problems, which deserve attention. But what Winona wanted to draw our attention to was both the utter lack of resources in rural areas, and their inability to garner the attention of many activists.

Rural America, especially in conservative white communities, is not a comfortable or easy place to organize. But it is a place that desperately needs outside attention and investment. Rural dwelling people face serious issues – police corruption and militarization, domestic violence, human trafficking, major economic inequalities, and unregulated water quality, to name a few. These issues manifest into human conditions that beg for concern and exposure by activists on a national scale. The insular and hidden-away nature of many rural communities is what helps perpetuate many issues. Outside attention and resources can help change that.

The Civil War Continues

No one is surprised that bigotry lives on in rural white communities. But they have made it clear that even as they deal with issues of increasing inequality and deindustrialization, they cling to supremacy and scapegoating, rather than turn to the Left for poverty-competent policies. They continue to be manipulated by fear-mongering right-wing politicians who see opportunities to profit from their anxieties. Under-resourced schools, insular communities, and poverty all keep racism alive, creating a well of ignorance politicians can draw from.

Clearly, this needs to stop. Community organizing for racial justice and multicultural understanding, economic justice, and increased educational resources can help deplete the well. (A great example of this work is rural Oregon’s Rural Organizing Project – they do amazing work!) I truly believe that if white supremacy and rural poverty can be confronted with educational and material resources, we can see a political shift away from the destructive and violent tendencies white rural communities currently embody. Until we can do this, the civil war rages on.

Confronting the issues of rural white America is challenging. My own experiences doing community organizing work in these areas were difficult, but also rewarding and successful. I engaged many people in conversations on their thoughts about race, poverty, politics, and their own conditions. I brought educational resources and new perspectives to the table, and saw people change and grow as a result. Students I worked with understood and supported Black Lives Matter. Adults I worked with became more aware of community poverty levels and their shared struggle. I believe there is hope that rural white America can change for the better. But for the seed to grow, someone has to plant it. White activists have the safety of their identity and the ability to bring support and resources to community organizing efforts to do just that.

So, I’m leading a project this summer to bring white organizers into a white rural community. It’s a week-long project focused on a survey of community residents about the educational resources they need, and culminates in a Welcome Table-style discussion on racial, class, and social dynamics within the community. If you’re interested in participating, reach out via the contact page up top 🙂

Please also remember to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for more updates on this project and others! And if you’re interested in reading more about whiteness, I suggest picking up a copy for yourself. $1.25 from each zine goes to a racial justice-focused organization (currently Protect Juristac) Thank you for your support 🙂

Images: “Post Mortem: The Democrats Forgot Rural America”SURJ Facebook page