for badass disability justice, working-class and poor lead models of sustainable hustling for liberation
-Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
B Loewe recently wrote this article: http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/blogs/b-loewe/item/729-end-to-self-care. Many folks on my Facebook friends list posted it and wrote about it in glowing terms. Many disabled, chronically ill, brokeass, femme and parent friends of mine reacted to this article with a huge amount of anger, grief and trigger. While it might not have been loewe's intention, for a lot of folks, reading the article brought up a lot of feelings about how the ableism and unsustainabilty of movements have pushed us out of them. So, on another chronically ill femme of color organizer day in bed, I read it. I had a lot of feelings. And, fueled by PMS, working-class femme of color crip rage and grief, and some coffee, I pounded out the following article.
Some of us on Sick and Disabled Queers, a community I am part of, are in the process of writing a collective response, but in the meantime, I wanted to post these initial notes. I did so with a lot of trepidation. I hate internet fights; trying to talk about anything complex on Facebook makes my brain hurt. But I am also a working-class raised/mixed-class femme of color with a disability who is invested in creating badass movements that don't explode and combust from unsustainable models, and who believes the genius of poor and working class folks, sick and disabled folks and femmes will be a huge amount of what gets us there. And I felt like there were some things I needed to say.
So here we go:
for badass disability justice, working-class and poor lead models of sustainable hustling for liberation
- Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
B Loewe's piece made me really angry and really scared. The first thing that gave me the feelings? Their anecdote about Don Andres, that working-class brown man who didn't need " self-care" because going to a meeting after a day labor workday that began at 6 AM was his self care.
Here's the thing: Middle or upper class organizers from the 1800s to now just looooooove painting majestic, romanticized and simplistic pictures of who poor and working class people are. Hint: we're not all one thing. We are amazing, diverse, complicated in our poverty and working class scholarship. My life as the kid of a working-class white rust belt mom growing up in recession Massachusetts in the 80s who's won a bunch of scholarships, is real different than my friend who grew up the daughter of a poverty class sex working white mama in the 80s, is real diff than my cousin, who didn't get a scholarship and is cutting hair in our hometown. And that's the great thing- as broke folks, we get to have, like, conversations, with each other, about all the different things being poor or working class has meant to us, looked like to us, taught us, gifted us with, and our genius which could give birth to entirely new galaxies of movements and forms of organizing. (Sarcasm definitely in there, and definitely may only be picked up on by other folks who were raised poor or working class.) Sometimes, anyway. There are so many things that make it difficult for us to find each other.
One thing I know for sure we aren't? Cardboard cut out workers who work selflessly for the movement 17 or 18 hours a day, handing out leaflets. In middle and upper middle class writing about broke folks, we're always either noble, selfless, salt of the earth worker warriors with nary a sensitive need to be found, or lumpen loud rudeass stupid criminals and welfare class. We don't get to speak for ourselves- especially about how brutalizing classist stereotypes like these about our lives are, and how those stereotypes impact the health of our poor and working class minds, bodies and spirits. Or about the ways we find to care for ourselves every day, how we struggle against how "self-care" has been defined to be a luxury for white and middle/upper class people. We're not Salt of This Earth. Salt of This Earth would look reaaaaal different if it was written by and for street-involved poverty class femme of color sex workers. For example. So in the meantime, while we're trying to find each other to have those conversations? Maybe don't write about working-class/poor folks as if you know what our experiences are from the inside- especially when it's something as deeply complex as issues of work, hustle, need, softness, our tough and vulnerable bodies. Cause that man? Maybe he does want some sleep. Some community acupuncture. A limpia. Some love. Maybe he's got it. Maybe he's not talking about that stuff to you because it's real personal.
Oh, working class and poor folks hustle our asses off, sure we do. I've had multiple jobs and hustles for as long as I can remember. I always have fifteen things on the go. Guess what else I have? A chronic illness and disability that don't allow me to get out on the picket line 18 hours a day. Guess what else I have? Badass resilience strategies of loud-ass working class femme of color laughter and shit talking, organizing methods with other disabled and/or chronically ill folks who find ways to do amazing organizing that centers what our bodies can actually do, trading massages as we sit in court praying for a youth who's been locked up on bullshit charges, doing grounding and praying to our ancestors outside court, a spiritual practice that is banging, yoga I do every morning in my house, for free, that allows me to manage my pain, fatigue and cognitive challenges and that helps me do my work from a grounded place of love that centers my crip body. (While the history of yoga is incredibly complex, a lot of South Asians have done yoga, for free, in our homes, for the five thousand years that yoga has been a practice in South Asian countries. This is very different from the current western, white, colonial model of making yoga into a Special White Healing Thing that costs a bunch of money, for profit.) I could add: good food that is cooked by me and my (queer, brown, disabled) housemates, herbs that are cheap brewing in a mason jar on my stove, and a sense of what I can do well and how much time it actually takes to do it. Disabled imperfect collective care models that are works in progress but still show up, with folks who help each other with personal care, rides to he grocery store, hanging out to combat total isolation. Shared rides, and money. Shared resources. Which are working class/poor, POC, disabled and femme strategies for self and collective care. Because it's not either/or.
There's something deep I want to tease out here- about working class and poor folks and work. Some of us, we work so hard. We work so much. We don't sleep. We don't stop. We have a somatics, a way of being in our bodies, sometimes, of toughness and sucking it up and making it happen. We do it because we have to, because we love it, because it's a way of saying fuck you to everyone who's ever said we're lazy and it's our fault we don't have money. And this can be a gift. And it can also kill us. AND there's so much in here about care and sensitivity and being able to breathe being coded as luxuries for the wealthy. AND, what about folks who are on SSI, unemployed, too sick to work? What about the complex interplay between labour and pain and our bodies and how poor and working class bodies are supposedly too tough to feel anything? Yet we do. We do deeply. And in much talk about sustainability, there's not enough talk about how we, as broke/disabled folks, do it- what sustainability means to us.
Yes, self care- like non Western, non-biomedical models of healing- have been coopted by people who want to make money off of it. And typical burn out movement organizations who are, maybe, starting to try a little bit not to run their workers into the ground til they get sick, sometimes they do the same work at the same breakneck crisis pace they've done it, and then take them away for a four day yoga retreat. But that's not actually using a model of sustainability that comes from disability justice! It's doing the same kind of organizing non profit industrial complex movements have insisted on for years- which pushes out parents, broke folks, and disabled folks, to name just a few- but tacking on a little self care on the side.
Getting rid of doing yoga is not the solution. Listening to brokeass, disabled and femme communities about how we actually create ways of organizing where we're not just grinding ourselves into the dust AND we're not going on some $4000 spa vacation once a year is the solution.
"We can't knit our way to revolution." Oh yeah? Wow, what a femmephobic and classist statement. Many, many people have organized politically through cultural work- which includes knitting and quilting bees- for a very long time. I think it's a problem how this femme-identified form of cultural creation (and just managing your anxiety and making a sweater for your kid during a meeting) is dismissed by loewe in their article. I think conversation and mutual support is a particular form of organizing that is often a femme organizing skill (not that other genders can't also do this) that isn't valued or witnessed enough in organizing due to sexism and femmephobia and trans misoginy. I think that knitting through meetings, and creating an organizational culture where that's seen as badass, is something that many of my badass working class femme of color and white femme organizers do.
I think Loewe has a point I'd agree with within their article- maybe the one they hoped would be picked up the most. It's the point that collective care should be lifted up, that self care shouldn't just be this individualized bougie thing . But what I wish they'd had is any kind of disability justice model in their article at all. What I wish they'd not done is reified this idea of good movement work as going back to an 80 hour a week hustle. What I wish they hadn't done is gone right into "self care is just for the privileged, look at this noble worker on the corner, he doesn't need yoga " stance.
Sure, movements can be healing. But are they? Many, many broke folks, parents and/or disabled folks who have been forced out of movements would say no. What disability justice and healing justice talks about- and ask- is , are they really? Or are they set up in burnout models that destroy folks's physical and spiritual health? And I think that a big part of what movements that I'm part of do to *make movements* that aren't shitty, is to center disabled, working-class and poor, parenting, and femme of color genius. Burnout isn't just about not having a deep enough analysis. It's about movements that are deeply ableist and inaccessible.
Like many disabled and chronically ill folks, Loewe's article terrified me. As able-bodied organizer after organizer posted it with glowing praise on their Facebook walls, all I could think of was the ripple effect of reinforcing ableism- already vastly present, like their air, in movements, and completely ignored (as a crip, you get used to the blank look non-disabled activists give you when you try to talk about ableism, access, that disabled people aren't just tragic or heroic, etc)- and how people using this article to shit talk about " self-care" was going to make shit so much worse for folks with disabilities and chronic illnesses, parents and caretakers trying to be activists. Including folks who have chronic health and disability, but who are deeply in the closet about it because they're terrified of losing their jobs or activist cred or self-worth if they come out as disabled. This is just one example of how I want non-disabled activist to be accountable- for real- about making fighting ableism central in everything we do, and to pay attention to how invisibilized anti-ableism struggles are in a lot of mainstream social justice work.
I'm used to people saying to me, "Wow, your self-care is so good!" I always look at them blankly. I never think of what I do- cooking good food for myself on my budget that supports my body and my chronic illness, going to working-class acupuncture twice a month, stretching, drinking a lot of herbs, making sure I get sleep- as "self care". I think of it as the stuff I do to love myself in a fucked up world, that helps me have more days with less pain, and helps me give my body love when I'm having days with a lot of pain and fatigue.
Let's tease it out further- when my friends who use power wheelchairs need personal care attendant care many times a day in order to pee and transfer from bed to chair, is that "self-care"? It's not commonly thought of that way- but it's part of the whole continuum of bodily need that gets trashed as a pain in the ass by an ableist world.
In their article, Loewe writes, "I have literally gone from being in debilitating pain and only being able to accomplish three hours of work each day to working 18 hour shifts the same week in a completely different context. The difference was not the conditions of my work. It was my connection to my purpose." I'm glad that works for them. But, as a friend commented back, "Okay, that method does not work for some of us. Some of us are in debilitating pain no matter what." And to say that we can just be "more deeply committed to the struggle" and leave our disabilities behind is an incredibly dangerous stance to take.
But we can do different. We do it all the time. For example, that moment I mentioned before- us massaging each other in court while witnessing and supporting a youth who'd been locked up under gang injunction and anti-terrorism laws? That really happened. Elvira Zayas, a 19 year old queer Cuban youth, Brown Boi fellow and person I met while teaching at Stories of Queer Diaspora, a writing workshop series for queer and trans immigrant youth this spring, was arrested on bullshit charges in August. (See here: https://www.wepay.com/elvira for more info about her ongoing case and how folks can support her.) We came together as a community to raise money for her lawyer, spread the word, support her family, show up in court, and much more.
Now, we could've done this in a typical movement burnout way. But instead, we prayed to our ancestors at the rally before her first day in court. We cooked for each other. Knowing that many people at the rally had either been locked up or had loved ones who are, and being inside the courthouse could be really hard, a community member lead us all in a somatic grounding so we could feel our bodies' power before we went in the courthouse. We shared food and rides and supported each other. There was always a feeling that if people couldn't make it do to work or parenting or disability/illness, other folks would move up.
This is the kind of movement I want to be part of. I want movements to embody a disabled, working class, brown sustainability that celebrates femme organizer genius. We deserve nothing less. And us- disabled, working class, femmes of color- have been creating these kinds of movements for a long time. Listen up. (Or read the captioning.)
For more information about disability justice:
And you should really read Joe Kadi's book Thinking Class: Sketches of a Cultural Worker for some dope queer, trans Arab-American working-class thinking, and Poor Magazine for poverty scholarship of all kinds of brilliance. Both have saved my life a bunch.