Author: Madeleine Keller

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

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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.

Co-Counseling

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

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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.

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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.

praxis-diagram-v2-1200x678

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*, 

madeleine

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. 

whiteness

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

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Care vs. “Normal Violence”


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#MeToo, the Parkland shooting, and the Trump presidency overall have put America in a vulnerable cultural moment: we are exposing and confronting the violence deeply ingrained in our culture. This is an old conversation resurfacing in new forms. Americans have been publicly grappling with the violence we induce on each other and other nations since before the slavery-abolition movement. More recently, foreign wars and racist police brutality have taken front and center. The fact that we are violent is not news.

But maybe we have reached a tipping point. #MeToo, originally started in 2006 by Tarana Burke , provided an outlet for survivors to raise their voices, show their numbers, and seek accountability Amazingly, the movement was met with some real actions and consequences for perpetrators.

Seeing sexual assault as an issue on the front of the American mind is comforting in the wake of Trump’s victory as president, despite his championing of nonconsensual behaviors. Like most people I know who’ve been socialized as female, I myself am a survivor of sexual assault. This moment of talking back to the violent beliefs of the president and our cultural norms has been cathartic for me. Peeling back the layers of silence to show just how common sexual assault truly is feels like a breath of fresh air. Finally, people understand and believe me. Finally, we are growing wary and suspicious of men in power.

Girls lean on each other & care for each other

Meanwhile, the shooting in Parkland shines another spotlight on the violent underbelly of American culture. The Never Again Movement, led by Parkland students, has sparked a push for gun control and attracted new waves of conservative backlash. Americans are recognizing that the most threatening terrorists in the U.S. are white men. We are, finally, publicly discussing the fact that white men have a violence problem.

In the Trump era, this is really not a surprise. From the moment he stepped on the campaign trail, Trump has personified the hateful and violent ethics of modern American conservatism. While many were shocked that he won the presidency, others – womxn and people of color who come into daily contact with instances of racial and gender-based violence – were not surprised. This moment of confronting our own violence brings to the forefront facts about our culture some of us have already known for a long time. The fact that we’re finally bringing it into collective conversations, is what makes this time important.

Recognizing America has a violence issue – racial violence, sexual/gender-based violence, institutionalized violence (let’s not forget, we are the world’s largest jailer and have the largest military), gun violence – is the first step in fixing the problem. It’s important that people discuss this, that this is becoming a common site of discussion and thought in the American public. But where do we go from here?

Of course we must stand up against what is wrong, and #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Never Again are examples of that. We must stand against opportunistic misogynists and AR-15 carriers, the NRA-backed politicians, the prison industrial complex profiteers, and other groups and individuals who carry out violence.  But we must also defeat the violent cultural narratives and beliefs these behaviors come from. These include whiteness and white supremacy, rape culture, misogyny and toxic masculinity, and conservative beliefs normalizing violence and punishment (what George Lakoff calls the strict parent model of government).

12 principles for a feminist economy to promote care

How do we do that? We study those narratives, find where we replicate them in our own lives and social formations, root them out, and create our own counter-narratives.

The opposite of violence is care and nurturance. Nora Samaran makes this point very clear in her piece, “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture” when she writes, “Violence is nurturance turned backwards.” She suggests that men teach each other skills of nurturance and discuss how to overcome dominant behavior, and that this must happen in order to break down masculinity.

Her suggestions are just one example of how care and nurturance can act as an antidote to violence in American culture. Black Lives Matter founders Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometi put forth the Guiding Principles for BLM which include calls for “Restorative Justice… Empathy, [and] Loving Engagement.” Their focus recognizes that care and compassion stand in stark opposition to the violence and oppression Black people face. Sophie Macklin discusses reshaping the economy to move away from the profit motive, and towards an ethic of care. Jennifer Armbrust makes similar points with her Proposal for a Feminist Economy project.

These are just a few examples of the discourse around creating a new care-centered narrative to replace our violent cultural ideas and beliefs. Our next step is to launch this discourse into the mainstream, and have it re-shape everything from public policy to interpersonal relationships. Free public healthcare, basic universal income, gun control and spending more on public education than we do on our military are all steps we can take to eliminate violence. Adapting our ideas of self care, valuing our relationships with others, and pushing for consent, communication, boundaries, and pleasure are ways we can retrofit our relationships to reduce violent dynamics and encourage nurturing interactions.

We as a society need to work toward deeply valuing care in all its forms. We must hold care over violence in every public and private space and practice. This means believing survivors and creating safer workplaces and relationships. This means valuing student lives over gun rights. This is how we make something better out of what we have now. Just imagine it; care, the next frontier.

Love,

Madeleine

I strongly encourage you to check out the links to the various ideas mentioned above if this article is interesting to you! Nora Samaran’s whole blog is really awesome, and these podcasts with Sophie Macklin are also great. Revisioning Men’s Lives: Gender, Intimacy, and Power (free download link) by Terry Allen Kupers is an older source, but the first book I read written by a man on how to overthrow masculinity, and I enjoyed it. I also think the Good Men Project and Radical Mascs are good resources! 

Images: Teen Vogue, The Feminist Griote, Jennifer Armbrust

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Thoughts on Endings, Beginnings, and the Radical Mapping Project


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     About two months ago, I successfully completed my undergraduate education at UC Santa Cruz. The experience was a long and formative one – I learned so much about the world and myself, and have to come to understand many more things about both. I was privileged to be able to do field research in rural Missouri, and get to explore the social and political realities of a place completely unlike the Bay Area. There, I learned more about the U.S. and our current political paradigm, and I also learned more about myself and my own white settler cultural roots.

A big part of this period of my life has been the act of discovery. I am continually discovering both myself and the world around me. I started out as an art major and ended up with a degree in Community Studies and Education, two academic areas which focus mainly on modern social issues. I shaved my head, entered my first queer relationship, started playing the bass, built up some serious community organizing chops, and went from googling “how to steam broccoli” to being a fairly accomplished cook and baker of tasty vegan cuisine. I lived alone and without internet and discovered I loved it. I am still discovering and mastering the art of adulting (baby steps). I have discovered what it means to be a white upper middle class person in today’s political climate and continue to learn more about all the systems in this world whether they be systems of government, economics, systems of domination and oppression, and emotional and moral/ethical systems which command our social world and shape our context. Learning all of this, I have become so much more conscious of my own position within my tiny micro-universe but also within our country and world.

Graduating in the time of Trump and attempting to navigate this world of heightened Neo-nazism and emboldened hate speech is a harrowing experience. My parents told me that when they graduated from Eastern Illinois University in the 80s, they felt like they had the world by the tail and couldn’t wait to “get out there and make some money”. I have trouble mustering that same enthusiasm and optimism when I’ve grown up my whole life watching things like 9/11 and the Iraq war unfold (along with the saga of Bush idiocy), enduring the recession of 2008, and always hear the background whispers about worsening climate change. To come of age in the midst of a time of heightened overt racism and violent upstarts from neo-nazi groups who experience no police brutality (my thoughts and love go to Charlottesville and the victims of the rally – please look into how you can help) is a trying experience. Some days it’s difficult to keep it up.

     But in the face of all these things I see around me that I do not want, that I want to tear down and destroy, even though it is very easy to despair, I find that what gives me hope is to focus on building the things I do want. I have been reading and writing utopic fiction, letting myself daydream community gardens and affordable housing and drug rehabilitation services. In 16 days, I will embark with my partner and two friends on what we are calling The Radical Mapping Project, a fieldwork journey focused on documenting and learning from the lives and organizational strategies of radical activists around the U.S. We hope to gather data which will help connect and strengthen the network of organizations working to create an alternative to the toxic gentrifying racist-capitalist-patriarchy we find ourselves in. I could have gone t seek the security of finding a salaried job already, settling in somewhere and preparing to be there for a few years. But this is a dangerous time, and I feel called to do something beyond what is safe. I feel called to strive for something better, to use my own skills and resources to create, rather than simply settle, hide, and keep my head down.

Some days it feels like the world as we know it is coming to an end, and I think it is. We’re in a serious period of transition in many ways, and I want to contribute to that transition by creating things I want to see in our new world: community, equality, greater representation and involvement of POC, Indigenous, LGBTQ+/QTIPOC folks, and food, water, shelter, health, and love for everyone. These things are some of the principals I see in the radical activist culture my friends and I will be documenting in the Radical Mapping Project. Adbusters is calling Trump’s election the beginning of a “new world”. I don’t want to live in Trump’s world, so I will use this time and this volatile energy to perform acts of creative resistance. Embarking on the Radical Mapping Project marks a moment for me where I step beyond the bounds of safe, predictable, expected actions. Let the new world begin.

I am beyond thrilled that very soon I will have the chance to talk to many amazing and interesting people who are engaged in creating a new world founded on justice and equality! If you want to know more about the Radical Mapping Project, our collective, our route, and how you can support us, check in at our website, Facebook page, and GoFundMe! I hope that this little thing I have written here helps others address their own feelings over the current political climate (rage, fear, and confusion, anyone?), and embrace their own power and autonomy to create good things and safe(r) spaces in the face of a government and neo-nazi movement that are so not-good and unsafe. If you have any thoughts, questions, or just want to talk, please feel free to contact me. (Also, here’s a little something for further inspiration, a 1988 speech from Vito Russo, an Act Up activist who was diagnosed with AIDS.)

With love, zest, and courage,

Madeleine

Photos: 1. Trans Youth of North Carolina by Hunter Schafer for Rookie Mag, 2. Artwork used with permission by artist Sybil Lamb, text added by RMP collective.

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Open Letter: UCSC’s Student Activists Stand Up to Chancellor’s Criminalization of Activism


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Last week on May 30th, UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal sent out a message containing threatening language that targeted campus activists. He threatened students, staff, faculty members, and all other campus affiliates with disciplinary consequences for engaging in direct action. This message seemed to be a response to two recent and very successful actions.

On May 1st, UCSC students shut down the campus in solidarity with International Worker’s Day. The strike specifically served to spotlight the ways in which the UC exploits its workers while also celebrating the heritage of Latinx migrant workers. During the strike, students were informed by the campus laborer’s union that the action was very beneficial for them, as they were in the process of bargaining their labor contract.

Then on May 2nd, UCSC’s Afrikan/Black Student Alliance reclaimed Kerr Hall, the campus’s administrative building (home of the Chancellor’s office). The reclamation lasted for only two nights before the administration agreed to meet A/BSA’s demands, which included housing guarantees for all Afrikan/Black students and the instatement of a mandatory in-person diversity training for all incoming students. A/BSA’s statements and other news on the reclamation can be read at those links.

On the heels of these two extremely successful actions, Blumenthal’s statement reads like the words of a sore loser, who doesn’t realize that the victories of activists mean that everyone wins. Here’s his full statement (bold added by me for emphasis):

“Our campus has a long and proud history of challenging the status quo. We do it through research, through teaching, and through activism. The exchange of ideas—sometimes done quietly, sometimes not—helps to move society and our campus forward.

Over the years we’ve made many changes on campus after hearing thoughtful and reasoned arguments from students. We are ultimately here as a university to support them, and it’s essential we remain attuned to their needs. A university is a dynamic environment. I want to be sure our services, programs, and policies are serving students.

For that reason, we have staff across campus committed to working directly with students to ensure that their voices are heard. They can connect students with the appropriate administrators, guiding them to the proper avenues to effect change.

Our Division of Student Success, overseen by interim Vice Provost Jaye Padgett, offers a host of services that aid our student body: Those include our Office of Campus Life and Dean of Studentseight Student Success Centers, and six resource centers.

Additionally, Teresa Maria Linda Scholz, our campus diversity officer for staff and students, is available to meet with those who have concerns about our campus climate.

However, I want to be clear: While I support First Amendment rights, I do not endorse efforts to halt the normal work of the university, such as blocking campus entrances or taking over a building.

Such actions are not protected speech under the U.S. or California constitutions. They can keep students from learning, faculty from conducting research, and staff from performing the essential business of this university.

Moving forward, people who choose to engage in conduct that obstructs or disrupts teaching, research, or other university-sponsored activities violate university codes of conduct and will be subject to discipline under our student handbook, employment or other applicable policies. Disciplinary measures can include warnings, suspensions, or—in the most egregious of cases—expulsion or dismissal.

We also must strive to be respectful and civil in our dialogue, as described in our Principles of Community. Allegations of hateful remarks directed at certain groups by others in our community are deeply troubling. That behavior is at odds with our goal of having a welcoming and open campus.

I ask our campus community to keep these expectations in mind as we move ahead.

The all-inclusive campus community we aspire to takes work, but it is something I believe is eminently achievable if we adhere to our principles. They allow us to respectfully discuss our differences while also acknowledging our common humanity.”

Of course the use of such openly threatening language sent a shockwave through the campus. With this statement, Blumenthal positioned himself against not only the Black and Latinx students who protected their communities last month, but also anyone wishing to stand up to the administration and ask for what they deserve through a means that could actually secure a response. A/BSA had requested meetings with the Chancellor for years prior to this action, as have countless other groups on campus, without getting any real response to their needs. Unfortunately, direct action has in recent times proven the only way to get the administration to listen and respond to the needs of students, staff, faculty, and other groups.

To protect our right to direct action, a group of student activists, including myself, wrote an open letter to Chancellor Blumenthal in response to his statement. I presented the letter to him yesterday at an awards ceremony. Here is what we wrote:

“Dear Chancellor Blumenthal,

We are sending you this letter in response to your email titled “Community expectations.” As you may have heard, this email ignited a great response within the student activist communities here at UCSC. We are expressing this response to you clearly and publicly in order to bring to light the threats and contradictions your words communicate to us.

We are disturbed to read a communication intended for the campus community which so baldly condemns the actions of campus activists as grounds for serious disciplinary action. When you write, “People who choose to engage in conduct that obstructs or disrupts teaching, research, or other university-sponsored activities violate university codes of conduct and will be subject to discipline under our student handbook, employment or other applicable policies,” you inherently criminalize the important and necessary actions of student activists, as well as those of campus unions and laborers. These words display blatant hypocrisy when you simultaneously champion UCSC’s activist spirit with your campaign slogan, “The original authority on questioning authority.” If we are not allowed to question your authority without being targeted for our actions, how will you keep up UCSC’s activist reputation?

We reject your threats to students, staff, faculty members, or anyone else. These threats create an even more polarized and uncertain campus climate, and directly contradict the concern you seem to express in your email.

We believe that you fundamentally misunderstand these actions and the needs of the communities forced to organize them. Campus activists are not organizing merely for the sake of interrupting learning, research, or university business. Students organized the May Day strike to bring light to the ways the university exploits its workers and to celebrate the work and heritage of Latinx migrant workers. A/BSA students reclaimed Kerr Hall only after making repeated requests over several years for certain demands which you subsequently ignored or dismissed. In short, campus activists organize out of necessity because these actions are often the only effective way to receive the appropriate and necessary response from your administration. Clear injustices exist on this campus which seriously hinder or endanger the lives of students, faculty, and staff, and Black and brown lives in particular. Actions such as the ones you have chosen to address in your email are at times the only means we have available to us in order to see proper responses to our varying needs, as seen in the success of the A/BSA reclamation this past May.

We assert that your requests for students, staff, and faculty to follow “community expectations” and recognize our “common humanity” must be coupled with administrative accountability. Organized actions must be met with understanding and listening rather than discipline. Better yet, the University administration can preempt these actions by fulfilling their responsibility to listen and respond to the requests of our campus communities. Because of UCSC’s size and influence, you and your administration are accountable for the many ways your actions – or lack thereof – affect the lives of students, campus workers, Santa Cruz residents, and others. This means you must be willing and available to discuss and negotiate with all affected parties when a group expresses its needs, especially when those parties are comprised of those with marginalized identities, including but not limited to Black, brown, LGBTQ+, low income folks, Muslim folks, and those with disabilities. We know you are capable of addressing students’ needs from your responses to groups on campus such as Slugs for Israel. However, it is blatantly apparent that not all groups on campus have access to this type of necessary communication with you, particularly the students and groups who are most discriminated against on this campus.

We agree that organized actions are disruptive. They are meant to be precisely because it is these actions which prevent your administration from shirking their responsibilities to the greater community. We hope you recognize that these actions are a means made necessary by the lacking responses from your administration. We also hope you will understand that meeting these actions with disciplinary measures will only further exacerbate the issues these actions are intended to address and contribute to greater unrest on campus. In light of the recent scandals regarding the state audit of the University of California, including $175 million in hidden funds and survey data that was altered by your office, administrative accountability and campus activism are both more important now than ever.

Your email sets forth a new precedent of threatening and aggressive action perpetrated by the administration against the campus community. Furthermore, it proves to discredit and eliminate the important work that activists and organizers do for this campus to create more equity. Political times like these characterized by rising hate crimes, assaults, and aggressions on and off campus especially call for the need of student activists and organizers.

The activist’s role on this campus, and more largely in any community, is to ensure all peoples receive visibility, equitable treatment, and justice. Our value shall not be disreputed. The activist’s role in the livelihood of our campus community should not be diminished by threats and fear mongering as conveyed through your email. We will continue to do the very important work of protecting the rights of marginalized campus communities and our greater Santa Cruz community as a whole. We will not back down from fighting for the principles of justice and freedom which we stand for and we hope that you can stand with us.

Sincerely,

Representatives of UCSC’s
Student Activist Community”

Not included are the student and organizational signatures that were on the document given to Blumenthal.

Handing this off to Blumenthal in the midst of an awards ceremony was an experience in itself. I was the last student to get called up to get my certificate, and as I did, I spoke to the whole room, saying thank you for the award and then telling everyone that I was presenting Blumenthal with an open-letter response to his email. I informed everyone that they could read it online on City on a Hill Press. It went off without a hitch, and afterwards a few faculty members came up to ask me about it and thanked me and my co-authors for making a response.

It’s currently circulating around the campus via social media and email, but I wanted to post this here with both Blumenthal’s message and our response, because I think people outside UCSC and outside of the realm of higher education need to know how authoritarian college administrations are trying to be. His attempt to quash protesting will not work, but does signal that campus activists need to be more prepared for the legal ramifications the university may thrust upon them. Blumenthal’s actions coincide with a larger trend toward criminalizing political protests and dissenting actions, from Trump’s infamous arrest of journalists to Indiana’s recent “commerce-block” bill.

We can’t stand for this y’all. We have the right to protest, we have the right to not be okay with what’s happening in our country and our world, we have a right to our voices. Let’s use them.

With love and defiance,

Madeleine

Photos: 1. May Day protest blocking the base of campus, 2. A/BSA students holding hands and celebrating after their demands were met, surrounded by crowd of student, staff, and faculty supporters at Kerr Hall

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Blackface Prom Asks Indicate it’s Time to Remedy Closet-Racism


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I wrote this article in response to some racist incidents that occurred in May 2017 at my old high school in Los Gatos, California. 

There is, as always, a lot to write about, but this week, an act of unbridled ignorance and “unacceptable” baldly racist conduct at Los Gatos High School takes the cake. I attended Los Gatos High School and graduated just about four years ago. My friends from those times know where it is, but for everyone else, Los Gatos is a relatively small town on the fringe of the South Bay Area, the last town you pass through before entering the mountains on your way to the coast. Many of its residents are either older white retirees, or else families who are usually somehow employed in the Silicon Valley tech business. The population is overwhelmingly white, although a decent percentage of students at Los Gatos High School are also Asian-identified (ex. I had friends who were Vietnamese, Filipinx, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean) or mixed-race. When I attended school there, I could count the number of Black and Latinx students on my hands. According to this source, the total enrollment of non-white students is 30%.

As you might guess, this relatively non-diverse environment creates a nice bubble for the residents, one where the issue of race is rarely confronted, simply because there are so few instances where it comes up. Even in my English and history classes, which are designed to deal with controversial social topics, racism was rarely discussed, and often thought of as a thing of the past. I can remember only a few instances where teachers pursued the issue enough to impress upon me that racism still exists, in Los Gatos and in other parts of the world. But even these well-intended lessons were not enough to break through the blissful ignorance that I was afforded as a white person who never had to go too far out of my comfort zone to understand other cultures, ethnicities, and racial identities.

Until I went away to college and began studying racism, while also being surrounded by and learning from students who were not white and who had different experiences than me, my ignorance continued. When I finally became friends with Black students, Latinx students, Filipinx students, Native American students, students whose parents are immigrants or are immigrants themselves, students who are first-generation college students, students whose parents are landscapers or farmworkers, students whose families come from Compton or South Central L.A., my ignorance was finally shattered. And today I am appreciative of the teachers at Los Gatos High School who tried to break through this ignorance early on, but saddened overall by the realization that Los Gatos High and the town of Los Gatos continue to put diversity education and conversations about race on the back burner. Because when we do this, here’s what happens:

Quoted from Danika Lyle’s editorial in El Gato: “On Friday, May 12, an LGHS senior asked a girl to Prom in blackface makeup. The ask was a recreation of a Bitmoji-Snapchat message he had sent to the girl earlier. The Bitmoji is an African American avatar with blue hair, glasses, a tank top, a bow, and a bright Prom poster. He asked the girl at her house without a bow, tank top, or blue hair dye, but did choose to blacken his face. The student posted pictures of his ask on Instagram, and as I write this article, the post remains.” (Danika skillfully goes on to explain why blackface is offensive. If you need further information on that topic, please read her article.)

This is not okay. Many LGHS alumni have been posting or commenting about the incident saying that they are not surprised, and I can’t feign to pretend I am either. I am, however, disappointed and horrified by the students’ behavior, as well as the arguments other students have made to back him up. My younger sister, who is a current student at Los Gatos High school, The incident exposes not only the intensity of racial ignorance present at Los Gatos High, but also perhaps the lack of empathy and compassion necessary for students to understand and stand up to acts of racism rather than defend their perpetrator. While I am not advocating for the punitive punishment of the students involved in this incident, I do believe that the situation needs to be remedied somehow.

     In a statement released by the Los Gatos High School administration this Thursday, administrators said, “We are aware of two prom asks this spring that have been of a racist nature and want this choice of behavior never to recur. Our obligation is to protect student safety and respond to actions that may create ‘an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment’ (California Education Code). We are taking action and responding to the situations as a school and care to do so sensitively… We are also working to develop additional programming to support increased cultural sensitivity throughout the student body.” I applaud the administration for taking a strong stance on the incident. Now, here comes my call to action:

If you are a current student, an alumni, or part of the staff at Los Gatos High school, it’s time to weigh in on this situation and what “cultural sensitivity programming” should look like. As members of this community, it’s our responsibility to have the conversations and take the actions necessary to ensure that students take racist conduct seriously, understand its harm, and do not repeat it. Call or email the staff about the issue, make requests for education on specific topics, like “Why Blackface is Offensive” or “Why it’s Important Not to be Racist” or “How to be Non-Racist”, or even “How to be a Good Collaborator in the Movement for Racial Justice”. Talk to each other; your students, peers, and/or colleagues, or fellow alum. Discuss why this is not okay and what we can do about it! For a long time I have dismissed Los Gatos as a closet-racist town beyond my help, but I recognize that as a former student, it is my responsibility to help eliminate, through dialogue and education, the quiet specter of racism from this community.

If you are not tied to the community of Los Gatos (congrats), take this story to heart and think about how it applies to your own community. And, if possible, share this piece and the articles I have linked to so that this incident may not go unnoticed. We need to put pressure on the school and community to change. The more eyes on Los Gatos and its seedy racist underbelly, the better.

Lastly, remember that its in incidents like these where the practices of allyship and solidarity become most important. This is a situation where white people need to recognize unabashed racism in their own community and address it, swiftly. Remember your place and the importance of your voice in issues like these. If you’d like to know more about this, please read my last post on solidarity. 

With love and energy to fight for what’s right,

Madeleine

P.S. Unfortunately I was not able to get ahold of the infamous photo that was posted of the incident on Instagram. I believe that school codes or laws protecting minors unfortunately must prevent that.

Images: Both are not mine and were found via Google. 1 shows the front of Los Gatos High School, and the other shows North Santa Cruz Avenue, the main downtown strip. Just to give you an idea of the wealth in the community.