doing justice

29 07 2009

I kick it with shit-talkers pop-lockers non-stopping hip-hoppers/kings, queens, seasoned fucking witch doctors medicine men/… trendiest trend setters and tenement-den dwellers/Tienemen square fellows/revolutionaries brilliant/resilient with hella truth to carry/I kick it with gay guys and women so queer they leave a homophobic rapper crippled with fear/My mother showed me hatin’ was fruitless/stupid and my God-brothers are Jamaican and Jewish/I never write you off for being white – not what my life’s about/but if white supremacy’s personified, I’ll gouge its eyes out

Senbei, Chameleon

A friend is, right as I type, participating as a facilitator in an experiential history project for queer youth. For a week, queer youth are guided around the city (a US city with lots of queer history that will remain nameless) and facilitated through workshops and programs that, it seems, are designed to give them greater appreciation of the kinds of queer genealogies and histories we can draw. I think. Or something like that.

It almost doesn’t matter exactly what they’re doing, except to know that it’s politically progressive/radical(maybe?), and involves queer and trans youth.

And, apparently, it also involves lots of workshops on oppression, and the trauma of oppression. And lots of intention, on the part of some of the facilitators, to make sure that the white gay cis boy doesn’t take up too much space. Or as they’d probably describe it, trying to make sure folks with identities that have been marginalized throughout history (remember this is a history program) are given space/platforms/support/etc. Which, you know, is important. Don’t get me wrong, I think this really matters. Platforms and space and centering oft-silenced voices.

I think what’s more important, though, is actually listening to people’s voices, rather than thinking you understand them because you’ve read about/heard other voices coming from people with bodies like theirs. And it sounds like that piece might be missing here, as it is far too frequently. When the white gay boy, this youth (so let’s be real, he’s probably not older than 17-18) has all eyes on him at all times, because he’s white and gay and a cis boy – and yet people don’t seem to notice that he is consistently stepping up to support the whole community in ‘unremarkable’ and unnoticed ways. Like ensuring that the dishes all get done, & one person isn’t left to do them. And calling out words of encouragement and support to his peers any time they seem to hit a rough patch. And participating in/encouraging spontaneous fashion shows in their downtime. Aren’t those acts of kindness as much who he is as his intersecting (and largely privileged) identities?

I’m not trying to needlessly attack other people I don’t know, participating in a program I’m not a part of, doing what sounds like mostly really exciting and valuable work. And I’m not trying to completely deride anti-oppression work, because I think it’s important. Necessary but insufficient.

It’s just that, in hearing about & talking about this program, and some of the dynamics coming up, I was reminded how damn common those kinds of stories are. How frequently those of us who try to incorporate an understanding of historical & contemporary institutionalized oppression & marginalization into our work end up doing so at the expense of the people involved. Because it’s not just about the white gay (seemingly economically advantaged) cis boy. It’s actually not even mostly about him, although I think he matters, too. It’s also about the poor trans woman of color – and what it means to distill who she is down to those identity labels, as though they could ever encompass and describe and communicate to anyone else the central tenets of her personhood. The labels we place on people, or those they/we take on themselves/ourselves, will never quite do us justice. When I tell you I am a radical queer fetch Jewish feminist environmentalist – you might be able to start to sketch a rough outline of some things that might matter to me, but you know nothing about how I love the people I gather to my heart. It tells you so little of what brings me joy, the moments for which I get up each morning, and even less of how the challenges I’ve faced have shaped me, what struggles I’ve overcome and what I’m afraid of.

Those boxes we can tick are not enough. Which is not to say that they don’t matter. Because I think they do matter. And I think there is great utility and importance in building community around points of intersection – but when those labels, boxes, and identities take precedence over each individual’s humanity – aren’t we, really, replicating a pattern of dehumanization? Aren’t we, once again, saying that the color of your skin/ the genitals of your lover/ your gender identity/your class background/your [dif]ability  is more important than understanding who you are as a person?

Typing this, I’m afraid that it’s going to read like “anti-oppression work is BS and we just need to hold hands, sing kumbaya, and love each other” which is really not at all what I’m going for. I’m not talking about a lack of accountability, or pretending that we should all just be friends and that it would be enough to right the wrongs in the world. What I want is to remember the humanness within each person we interact with; that they will always be more than their boxes and their elbows will always poke through the sides. And sometimes that humanness will manifest itself in beautiful moments of compassion and community, and people will surprise you. And also that humanness will be flawed, and people will make mistakes and be thoughtless and crass and they will have trouble learning and they might hurt you, and often those gaffes will be compounded by and entrenched with years of built up institutional inequity and privilege. And that privilege and inequity will probably make thoughtless mistakes more painful for those on the receiving end, and easier to ignore for those committing them. And we need to encourage learning and growth and accountability in those moments. But those are human errors, always. Not just straight errors or misogynist errors or white errors. Which, again, is not to say it is immaterial how heterosexuality and whiteness and cisgendered-ness and masculinity and ability and wealth play into the whole thing, or that they should be obscured, apologized for, or ignored (I’m all about identifying isms for what they are) but that those qualities of a person will never be the be-all-end-all of them.

When we let those labels become all encompassing, when we allow them to take priority over personhood, even if we are doing so in an attempt to counteract past wrongs – aren’t we going to make it impossible for us to see the person in our midst?

I guess I’m just thinking about so many of my friends, the people I love, and what would happen if you were to say to me, “describe _______ to me,” and I answered with “well, they are a queer person of color with relative economic privilege” – it wouldn’t tell you jack shit about what I love and value and treasure about them. It wouldn’t really do them justice, at all. And I mean, isn’t that the whole point? Justice?

PS The rap quoted at the top of the post? Follow the link beneath it and download the album. It’s phenomenal, and free.





on ‘woman’

23 07 2009

Because, woman is a mythology embedded in the collective consciousness of our respective cultures, and anyone who has ever identified, or been identified as a woman has had to face this mythos. It is those individuals who have had the story of ‘womanhood’ written on their bodies, consensually or not, that Art XX is providing a space for.

We believe that feminism is innately transgendered, as it works to discomfit and expand the historical categories of ‘male and ‘female.’ Feminism is or should be- about gender equality, regardless of what that gender is. But until gender equality exists, ‘woman’ demarcates a condition from which we struggle, thrive, and create.

– Francesca Austin Ochoa, editor of ART XX Magazine

Emphasis mine. Source.





monday night – milk paint, sawdust, and building philosophies/communities

23 07 2009
Collage of building materials - stone, thatch, slate, and wood. By flickr user ...jeddy3

Collage of building materials - stone, thatch, slate, and wood. By flickr user ...jeddy3

On Monday evening, I had the incredible pleasure of sitting in on a lecture/question-answer session at a natural building and design school in rural central Vermont. The session was led by the co-owners of the natural building company I’ve been working for this summer, one of whom, A, is a close friend, and the other, D, – someone I’m hoping to become a larger part of my life. (The latter, D, the not-yet-close-friend-who-I-like-a-lot, has been teaching all summer, so we haven’t been working together.)

The whole evening – from dinner on picnic tables, outside, surrounded by Vermont greenery and creative energy, chickens in a nearby coop and a thriving garden; to a lively lecture in a small classroom between the woodshop and outdoor workspace, with walls covered in milk paint and air filled with the faint, sweet smell of sawdust; to late-night drinks in the local bar with aforementioned wonderful people – left me feeling filled to the brim.

*****

Toward the end of the lecture/Q&A session, one student brought up a question about the similarities and differences between Natural Building and Green Building. A & D answered deftly, I thought, masking what was either exhaustion or frustration (or both), as it was already getting pretty late into the evening, following on the heels of a long day on the worksite, AND, D had given a lecture on *precisely* that question a week and a half ago. Though I certainly wouldn’t wish frustration or exhaustion on him, I loved hearing D articulate what natural building was to him. I loved hearing him tease out the intersections and points of departure, gracefully drawing a picture of how these movements connect to one another, and also the strength in their divergences.

I don’t think that I can do justice to his answer, but the short version is this:

Natural building is about a fundamental, comprehensive, holistic change in, and approach to, building. It’s about understanding our environments as composed of communities – broadly defined. It’s about making sure that people are part of the equation, and that so is the non-human landscape. It’s about bringing together and bridging varying and sometimes conflicting needs in a manner that respects the fundamental value of each piece. It’s about not sacrificing the environment for the sake of aesthetics, but also about not sacrificing the needs we have as people, to live full, vibrant, healthy, nurturing lives, for the sake of ascetic principles of environmental preservation. It’s about a building site that prioritizes the safety and comfort of the builders, the happiness and satisfaction of the clients, as well as the health impact of the materials we build with, and the carbon footprint of their production processes. It’s about radical change, and justice, rather than just reform.

Green building is more about reform. It’s about working within the existing system to bring about incremental change. It’s about being palatable to a wide, mainstream audience, about not asking too much of people too quickly, but taking small steps. It’s about broad-based visibility, and profitability, and often – greenwashing.

I’m sure it’s pretty obvious where I stand between the two. And yet, as D pointed out, there is space for both, and each relies on the other, benefits from the existence of the other, and there is growth and productivity in the healthy tension created. The visibility that the Greening movement has brought to natural building has been really valuable. Sometimes it can bring up questions of priorities and sacrifice, but it can also bring about opportunity for really important change and an expansion of existing frameworks. If so much natural building is happening in places like rural Vermont, the outskirts of Santa Fe, NM, and sequestered in the abundant forests of the NorthWest – perhaps there is a need for an impetus, a catalyst, to push people’s creative gaze and critical perspective to urban spaces. Not just because urban spaces are the source of much environmental depletion and pollution, etc. But also, and importantly, because the faces of the homesteaders in Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Vermont, and New Hampshire are so often white, and in many places must be economically privileged, and their family structures are so frequently heteronormative. Because prioritizing people means prioritizing ALL people, not just those of us who can hop in a car and head three hours into the forest to satisfy a need for health-promoting spaces and environments.

Ivy-covered-city-bldg

The other thing that really struck me about D’s answer to the question on Monday night was how easily his answer could have been translated to a conversation about activism, and political movements. Because the tension between the Green movement and natural building feels a lot like the relationship between liberal, or progressive, political movements and more radical political activists. In the US, the liberal/progressive contingency also encompasses a broad range of people and beliefs, from Beltway-entrenched Blue-Dog Democrats (or even regular, mainstream Beltway Democrats) to the hordes of young Obama volunteers who believe in and want to act for change, and believe that voting and the existing political institution are the best way to get that done. (Full disclosure, I had a short stint of Obama volunteering – canvassing in NH a couple days before the election – but I wasn’t a deeply invested campaign organizer. Although I did, admittedly, get somewhat swept up in Obamamania.) And then there are also us radicals, a designation that also encompasses a very broad swath of people and political beliefs. There are more Anarcho/a-______ ideologies than it makes sense to name here, and then there are the Socialists and the Communists who don’t attach the circle-A to the front of their beliefs. Some of us in this wing off to the left see no space for intersection or overlap between the two, and some of us see possibility in the tensions created, and a fundamental need for interconnection.

Mostly, I just really liked that momentary (continual?) reminder of how interconnected the spheres of my world really are. I liked that a conversation about techniques for air and moisture -proofing strawbale buildings could blend so easily with theory and ideology, and how natural the connection between building philosophies and my political ideologies felt.

I’m a little worried about taking on more than I can handle, but I want to start volunteering with what looks like a really great organization in my community, YouthBuild Boston. I’m not sure in exactly what form, because I don’t know that my building skills are good enough that I can teach other people a whole lot, on a technical level, but I just want to support these kinds of programs. And I’d love to find out more about the collaborations happening, or the opportunities for them if they aren’t, between organizations like YBB and The Urban Ecology Institute.

*******

Later, over drinks in the only bar still open in town, the conversation meandered away from building houses, and toward building communities. I explained to D what I’m going to be doing this fall, and was sort of blown away, in the best way possible, by his enthusiasm. He was just so excited to be reminded that there were spaces and environments (not even all that far from VT) where there were enough Jews for a Jewish community organizing fellowship. And for LGBT/queer Jewish organizations. And for politically radical Jewish communities to form. Because rural northern Vermont is definitely not one of those places.

It was a reminder to value the blessings and opportunities abounding in my community, and in my life. I anticipate that this coming year is going to be challenging, for a lot of reasons, but it’s also incredibly exciting, and I am lucky to have such an opportunity, in *my* community. Where I already live. Where I’ve been building a life and pulling together strings of community for almost a year now. I don’t have to go elsewhere to find it, it’s here already. So many people don’t have that blessing, and I don’t want to take it for granted.

********

These days, I’m feeling full and rejuvenated. I’ve been building office infrastructure for A & D’s company, and that feels really fun and exciting too, in a way I haven’t experienced doing similar work before. I can’t wait to do more building, and I can’t wait for this next adventure (which is quickly approaching) to start. Life just feels full of possibility.





Remote

16 07 2009

I downloaded the wordpress app for my iPhone. And while I can’t imagine writing an entire post like this, it does seem like a pretty good way to share with you the pictures I took today of butterlfies and larger animals at the Franklin Park Zoo.

I’m not sure yet exactly how the photos will show up, or how best to describe and tag them so they can be easily read by a screen reader, so I’ll just describe them here. There are three of butterflies, 2 of which are sitting on my hand. One butterfly is light yellow, one is a deep orange, and the third is a vibrant blue. There is also a photo of an adult giraffe eating in its enclosure, with a juvenile standing, looking very gangly, just behind it. I also snapped a shot of a Pygmy hippopotamus drinking water. Lastly is a photo of a snail on a beach. In Ptown. Last summer. Just for good measure.





read this

6 07 2009

Hilary Goldberg writes about the increasing consumerization and attendant increase in state control and police regulation at SF Pride. This paragraph really resonated with me, but the rest of it is good and angering and frustrating.

In that moment, I could once again see the boxes and definitions that put everyone into the acquiescing line at the Pink Party. We are simple. We are this. We will get in line and buy beer and are happy because we can get married some day and that’s all. We just want our space nevermind about the gender queer because space is somehow limited. Or not somehow limited but limited by the lines of non-profits and privatization, and cozy little binary security frisks to buy beer and celebrate our some day marriages. The urgency to compartmentalize and unify into one thing is a problem that keeps cropping up and it goes against nature. Nature is a spectrum, light is a spectrum, and all of this other stuff is like a violent pair of scissors gone wild on our livelihoods. I feel cut up about it all and keep trying to piece it back together again, but it hurts.

 

Seriously, go read the rest of it.





vampire stakes and chunks of aggregate

6 07 2009

It’s 2:30am, so this probably won’t be a particularly insightful post, but I figure I’ll toss together a few things to get back into some sort of swing of writing after my month of living mostly off-the-grid.

EDIT: I actually finished after sunrise the morning I started it, so it’s more like 12:30pm now that it’s being published. Which basically just means I have fewer excuses if it is unintelligible. 

But first, a note:
One of the top searches that leads to this blog is “tight balls.” Um… yeah. I think that’s probably because of some post talking about tight balls and knots in my stomach? Mayhaps? I don’t even know. Weird.

****************

Some of you, dear readers (all 3 of you… hi Mom!), might be wondering what exactly I’ve been getting myself up to for the last handful of weeks I’ve been absent. Well, there’s been a lot of driving, very little of it in my car (which is having its second heart transplant in 5 years, but is expected to pull through), and quite a few states have been involved. There have been two very queer Pride celebrations, a smattering of birthdays, a lot of swimming in lakes and ponds and reservoirs and former quarries surrounded by green mountains, one dead snake, two orange cats of profoundly different sizes, many nights on my now-trusty air mattress, excessive amounts of straw in uncomfortable places, very dirty clothing, quite a few ladders, a singular squirt of deet-free (B”H) bug spray into my eyes, numerous bruises, and multiple dance-filled evenings. Life has been full and vibrant and exhausting and beautiful and engaging and challenging and fun. 

The shorter answer, though, sans weekend adventures, is that I’ve been building. Natural building, technically, and specifically, I was installing straw bale walls in a timber frame house in Hartford, NY, applying a rough coat of earthen plaster to a house in central Vermont, and mostly doing prep work for the finish lime plaster coat on a house in Deering, NH. I did get to do a bit of finish plastering though (just filling in and smoothing out cracks in already plastered panels), and damn, that’s fun and satisfying. 

I’m sort of blown away, and at the same time not at all surprised, by how much I’ve been enjoying building this past month. The days are long, regularly 10+ hours, and the work is more physically demanding than anything else I’ve done, but it is also satisfying and rewarding and challenging in very new and exciting ways. I’m on a hiatus from building for the next month or so, with perhaps a few days excepted, but hopefully will be back at it in August. Tragically, the finish plaster coat on the house in VT we just rough plastered is happening in September, and I’ll be busy getting my community organizer on, so I can’t be there. 

Building is great on its own, but it’s additionally really phenomenal to be working with and for the people I do – people who center the health and well-being of all involved, who understand natural building to be a comprehensive, holistic approach to building with a prioritization of social justice, ecological systems, community building, and the creation of safe, enriching, beautiful spaces. Very simply, that feels good, and I like it. 

My boss/friend also teaches natural building, specifically natural wall systems, and has been talking about building a curriculum that explores the histories and genealogies we can trace for natural building. An alternative to the narrative that is mostly filled with straight white homesteader couples “finding inspiration” from indigenous practices. I’m excited to explore and learn with him, to follow and draw those trajectories. I think that outlining our histories, tracing the lines that connect us physically, emotionally, and intellectually are incredibly important, and I feel full of anticipation.

There’s a lot more that I’m holding on to, have been thinking about and tossing around. I’m not sure I’m ready to put them all in one place, to consolidate scattered ideas into some semblance of coherence, so I’m going to leave things off here. But now I’m back in Boston for at least the next few weeks, with reliable internet access, and hopefully more time for blogging.

I’ll leave you with some pictures. 

 

Me, flat on my stomach, sandwiched between two bale courses in a wall, in the process of squeezing bales into a tight spot between the roof pitch and wall framing. Taken by boss/friend extraordinaire.

Me, flat on my stomach, sandwiched between two bale courses in a wall, in the process of squeezing bales into a tight spot between the roof pitch and wall framing. One of our crew, natural builder and solar power mistress, adjusts the bale positioning from a ladder. Taken by boss/friend extraordinaire.

 

   

A very sharp bale wall corner on the house in NY. Photo credit to AC.

A very sharp bale wall corner on the house in NY. Photo credit to AC.

 
 

Me applying a rough coat of plaster to a wall section of a strawbale house

Me applying a rough coat of plaster to a wall section of a strawbale house. Taken by boss/friend extraordinaire.

 

The sand pit, a former quarry-cum-swimming hole in East Montpelier. Photo was taken at dusk, and shows surrounding green hills and clouds reflected in still water surface.

The sand pit, a former quarry-cum-swimming hole in East Montpelier. Photo was taken at dusk, and shows surrounding green hills and clouds reflected in still water surface.