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Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza

Grassroots Organizing Strategies for Healing Our Black Trans, Nonbinary & Queer Bodies

Sept 6, 2018 at 4pm


Content warning systemic and physical violence against Black LGBTQ+ people

NEESHA POWELL-TWAGIRUMUKIZA: I am Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza. Pronouns are they and she. And today, I'm presenting on grassroots organizing strategies for healing our Black trans, non-binary, and queer bodies. This is a presentation by a Black, queer, non-binary woman, myself, and it's really for Black LGBTQ folks in the room. It's my love letter to y’all. But this is also a call to action to folks who are not Black LGBTQ people, to really learn about the work, the organizing, the healing work that Black queer and trans folks are engaged in and to figure out how you wanna support us: how are you gonna funnel resources to us? How are you gonna make sure that we have what we need to implement these organizing strategies?

So, disclaimer: I am a Gemini. So – [audience laughter]

We are so notorious. My mind runs a lot. I'm all over the place. I really just wanted to get grounded in this moment, this moment that we'll never get back. I just really want us to do just a quick breathing exercise just to root ourselves in this moment. So if you'll indulge me by just breathing in for three counts, holding it for three counts, breathing out for three counts and holding it, and really just think about whatever grounds you, what's your purpose for being here today, anything that you wanna think about. So if we can go ahead and breathe in. [inhales and exhales] Breathe out. All right. I feel good, y'all.

All right. So why am I here today? Because I wanna explore how we can organize towards our healing. So about a decade ago is when I learned about grassroots organizing. And how I define grassroots organizing in this presentation is when people get together to make strategic change in the face of social injustices that personally impact them. But I understand that there can be many definitions of grassroots organizing, right, and not any one of them is more valid than the other. Also, I wanna say that in this presentation, I'll kind of interchangeably use Black queer and trans folks and Black LGBTQ folks. But I understand that there can be nuances between the two that we could sit here and discuss all day. But in this presentation, I'll use them kind of interchangeably.

So about a decade ago, I was just a small girl from a small, rural town in Brunswick, Georgia. I went off to college, a majority white college. But ironically, that's where I started to learn about— I learned how to name the oppression that I was facing in my personal life, the oppression I saw in my communities. That's where I learned about Black queer feminism. That’s where I learned about womanism. That’s where I learned about grassroots organizing. And I'm really grateful for those experiences. So that's kind of where I learned, and I started identifying as a Black queer feminist. And I started organizing. I started organizing so I could be able to build institutions and systems that worked for people like me, because I realized that the institutions and systems that we have now, they're not working for people like me.

I wanna talk about organizing as a mode of healing. I wanna say that in social justice movements, for the past decade, I've seen a lot of personal and intergenerational trauma hinder our movements and also tear our movements apart. I've seen Black queer, trans, and non-binary folks who are so often leading justice movements being pushed out of organizing spaces because our needs aren't being centered, because our labor isn't being compensated, and we’re not actually seeing material improvements in our lives. I've found that we spend so much of our time organizing on the defensive. We spend so much time making sure that families don't get broken apart. We spend time making sure that we don't get a conservative Supreme Court justice, right? We’re always just fighting, fighting, fighting on the defensive and not seeing improvements in our own lives. So that got me thinking, instead of always organizing towards stopping these harmful policies and politicians, what if we organize towards our own healing? What if we organize to facilitate our own healing and to create our own solutions?

So I wanna talk about why healing is so important to me and to other Black queer and trans folks. For me, I feel like I've been in pain, in some, in one way or another, most of my life, whether that be emotional, physical, mental, spiritual, dealing with so many different chronic health issues: hypertension, endometriosis, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder from child sexual abuse. I mean I know that some of these health issues have been genetic, but I also know that they've been exacerbated and they've been caused by systemic oppression, because of white supremacy, because I lacked the things I needed to take care of myself. Whether that be health insurance or just a lack of having community support. If it was having a lack of money or just having to deal with microaggressions and blatant racism, queerphobia, transphobia in my everyday life. That takes a toll on your body.

My story is not unique. There are plenty of other Black LGBTQ folks who are going through the same thing, who are dealing with chronic health issues. A lot of us have seen a statistic about Black women, Black trans women having an average lifespan of 35 years. I've often quoted it myself, but it's become kind of a controversial statistic. [Speaker note: I wasn’t trying to negate the reality that Black trans women die hella early by questioning the 35 YO life span stat.] Because think about, who are the researchers who found that statistic? What did they look like, right? What methods did they use?

And also, that statistic does not take into account the resiliency of Black trans women. It doesn't take into account the self-determination of Black trans women. It really takes away the agency of Black trans women, right? When you look up Black LGBTQ health statistics, what you're gonna find is gonna be biased. There’s not gonna be a lot of it. And a lot of it, it just sounds really scary and dreary. But sadly, you know, it's true: there are large amounts of us who are dying early, whether it be from illness or if it be from being killed. And we're living unsafe, unhealthy lives, right? So those statistics, you know, I take them with a grain of salt. Once again, thinking about who's doing this research and also taking into account that they're not considering white supremacy. They're not taking into account systemic oppression that causes all of these poor health outcomes.

So I'm about to get into the organizing strategies for healing. I wanna say that I've been engaged in them. If I haven't engaged in them personally, I've written about them, or I'm in community with people who are doing this work. But I do wanna caution that not one strategy fits all, right? I've heard a few people today say a certain group is not a monolith. So just like any other group, Black LGBTQ folks aren’t a monolith. We don’t all organize in the same way. We all don’t want to organize in the same way. We all can’t organize in the same way. I want to acknowledge that in our ableist society, a lot of folks are hindered from even participating in movement work, in organizing, and it’s the job of everyone in this room to make sure that that’s not how our movements are working.

And once again, I just wanna say, for aspiring allies and accomplices to Black queer and trans folks in this room, to really learn about these strategies and think about how you can contribute resources.

So I wanna talk about reproductive justice, which Imani, earlier this morning, so beautifully spoke about. Reproductive justice: it's a movement started by Black women, and it goes beyond reproductive rights. It's when…. Sorry. It's when we have the control over our own bodies. We have autonomy over our own bodies. We have the right to have birth. We have the right not to– We have the right to give birth, or we have the right not to give birth, right? We have the right to raise our children in healthy, safe neighborhoods. We have the right to live in safe and healthy neighborhoods ourselves. And so that's why reproductive justice moves past reproductive rights.

So here are some of the strategies that Black queer and trans folks are engaged in around reproductive justice, accessing our right to have children. So much of the pro-choice movement, which leaves out people of color anyway, so much of it’s around preserving our right to abortion, which is super important. But what about our right to have children? Black queer and trans folks, we want to become parents too. If I have a uterus and my partner has a uterus, obviously, we're gonna need help if we wanna have a natural childbirth. And how can we access the technologies for–affordably or for free–to start families? So that’s a right, a right to have children.

And also, there are states and municipalities that are trying to stop LGBTQ folks from being able to even adopt or foster children. And that’s a reproductive justice issue. That shouldn’t be the case. A loving family should not be prohibited from doing that just because they're LGBTQ. I think earlier today, Imani spoke about the maternal mortality rate for Black mothers in the United States. So in our country, Black women are dying—or Black pregnant people in general are dying—in childbirth or after childbirth in higher rates than countries that are much wealthier than ours, that spend much less on their healthcare system. So that speaks to how oppressive our healthcare system is. It's rooted in oppression and white supremacy, and it's not safe for us to even give birth. That's why accessing queer, non-binary, and trans birth workers of color is so important: midwives and doulas who can advocate and support us during these processes and help us navigate this white supremacist healthcare system.

I wanna talk about revolutionary mothering and parenting. I hope some of you in this room have heard of the book Revolutionary Mothering. It's an anthology put together by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, China Martens, and Mai’a Williams. And it’s about the radical act of mothering and parenting and how it's one of the most radical things you could do, right? It even goes beyond just parenting your biological children or adopted children, but also just your mothering and parenting in community. The ways that we selflessly give in community and we don’t expect anything in return, that's mothering, right? And that’s parenting.

Talking about revolutionary parenting, that also means very intentionally raising your children with an understanding of social justice, of race, of gender, of class, of bodily autonomy, and of consent, raising children with all of those understandings.

Also, Black queer and trans folks are working to preserve the rights of undocumented queer non-binary and trans parents of color. In so many times, Black folks get left out of the undocumented conversations, and so we have to remember that there are undocumented Black folks. Some of them are queer and trans, and having all of those historically oppressed identities interact with each other, these folks need support, and we need to be able to keep these families together.

So this is a collective I helped found in Seattle, Washington called the Queer & Trans Pan-African Exchange. We are a group of Black folks from across the African diaspora who just work to build connection within our community and with Black queer and trans folks all over the globe. In Washington State, there were bills that were prohibiting trans and gender non-conforming folks from using a restroom that matches our gender identity. I know Washington State is not the only state that faced that. It happened in many states, and it's probably still happening. And so that's where the Let My People Pee comes from. From that legislation, we were inspired to shoot a mini-documentary featuring trans and gender non-conforming people of color talking about their experiences, not only when it comes to using bathrooms, but also when trying to seek abortions or reproductive healthcare. And that’s a mini-documentary that will be coming out towards the end of the year. So keep an eye out.

I wanna just give shout-outs. There are definitely more reproductive justice orgs that are doing the work, but here are just a few. Queer & Trans People of Color Birthwerq Project based in Seattle; Roots of Labor Birth Collective based in the Bay, a collective of doulas and midwives of color; and SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, which is based in Atlanta.

Next, I wanna talk about organizing around decolonizing health as healing. I wanna talk about ancestral medicine. There's many Black queer and trans folks who are turning to our ancestors to find out more about the food they ate and the herbs they used and the medicines they used and reclaiming that for ourselves. Because that medicine is just as valid as Western medicine is, and it's so important for us to remember what our ancestors were doing. And it worked for them for thousands of years, so why can't we reclaim that?

I wanna talk about pushing for culturally-relevant healthcare. So not only is racism ingrained in our healthcare system, but so is queerphobia and transphobia. So we need to move past having a healthcare system that’s just culturally competent. We want culturally-relevant healthcare that acknowledges not only that people of color and Black people, in particular, are humans and we feel as much pain as everybody else, but we want them to understand gender pronouns. And we want them to understand that trans people can get pregnant and do get pregnant and wanna get pregnant. So we need culturally-relevant healthcare.

Single-payer healthcare, also known as Medicare for all. So this is an interesting one because obviously, you have to engage with the state or government if we're ever gonna have single-payer healthcare. Which is also universal healthcare, meaning we would all have free healthcare. This would be a pathway to all of us having healthcare, which is such an issue in Black queer and trans communities. How many times are we gonna see people crowdfunding just to take care of their health? If we had single-payer healthcare, that would change that. The only reason we don't have single-payer healthcare is in the mid-century, 1950s, when they were coming out with all these public benefit programs, white folks did not want people of color to have these benefits. They didn’t want Medicare for all, and that's why we don't have Medicare for all. But so many other countries do.

And also a part of decolonizing health is having peer educators within our community. There are so many different mental health crises within our Black queer and trans community, and of course, we don't really feel safe calling the police for when these crises happen. Because the police harm our people. They're not safe for us. So having peer educators within our community who can be a first line of response when there are folks going through mental health issues, is super important.

This is a promotion for a series, a Decolonizing Health Series, put on by a collective I’m a part of called Queer the Land and also Liberation Medicine School. That happened this past summer in Seattle. It was a space for Black LGBTQ folks just to come together and be and talk about our health and our well-being from carrying our ancestry in our bodies, displacement from Blackness, and also, just the importance of rest, Black queer and trans folks being able to rest.

And some shout-outs to some organizations who are doing work around decolonizing health: the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective, which is a national organization; the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, which is a resource where you can find someone in your area who is a queer and/or trans therapist of color; and Rest for Resistance, which is an online mental health magazine for queer and trans people of color.

Next, I wanna talk about transformative justice and community accountability. Firstly, I wanna say that people have been doing this type of work for centuries. Communities have been responding to harm and violence within their communities without engaging the police and the state for many, many years. But it hasn't been documented like it should. The actual term, “transformative justice and community accountability” came from Black and brown queer and trans activists who were doing work around creating community-based tools and strategies to deal with harm and violence within our communities without engaging the police or the state. Transformative justice and community accountability values the survivor of harm being able to have a part in saying what justice looks like for them, along with community members that they trust. And at the same time, transformative justice tries to transform the root causes of oppression, which lead to harm.

Some of the different strategies that folks are working on: centering Black queer and trans and non-binary survivors within the #MeToo movement. Finding new, creative, alternative ways to deal with violence is on the forefront more than ever now because of the #MeToo movement. But we need to remember to center the Black queer and trans and non-binary survivors because we've been the ones leading anti-violence movements for so many decades, if not centuries. Also, community safety. So coming together and figuring out what systems, what networks can we put in place to keep our communities safe without police or state intervention.

And also, ending interpersonal violence in our social justice movements. So there is an organization called INCITE! Women of Color, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color* Against Violence who came out with a book called The Revolution Starts at Home. The whole anthology is about how can we start to end violence within our own social justice movements. It's so important to do that before we are ever going to end violence that happens within our society. If we can't tackle it within our own movements, we're not gonna be able to end violence at large.

So this is a lovely picture from a collective I'm a part of. I recently moved back to Atlanta, but I was in Seattle, before that, for many years, well, four years, not many years. And I was part of a collective called Queer the Land, and our goal is to collectively own our land and our labor. We also had a program called Building Autonomy and Safety for Everybody, which is a community wellness and self-defense program. So we not only learned physical skills to keep ourselves safe, but we had conversations around how to respond to violence within our communities without police or state engagement.

And more shout-outs. So INCITE!, who I already talked about, that flyer on the—I don't know my left from my right—on the far side is from Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Outside the System. So they work on finding alternatives outside the system to deal with violence. Also, Just Practice, which is an organization that can come to you or you can go to one of their workshops, and you'll learn how to apply transformative justice and community accountability within your own organizations and your own communities.

The last strategy I'm gonna talk about is anti-displacement organizing. So Black queer and trans folks, we're often displaced in so many ways. Not only are we displaced from the land that we originated from, but we also are displaced for economic reasons because of gentrification. There’s so many different reasons that Black queer and trans folks are being displaced. In almost any major city in the country right now, there’s gentrification and displacement happening. And we all know that housing is a super big part of healing. If you don't have a safe place to live and a stable place to live, how can you heal, right? And so some of the different strategies that I'm gonna talk about include community land trusts and cooperative housing. Community land trusts kind of, once again, they involve engaging with the state, which is colonial, right? You have to deal with non-profits and 501(c)3 statuses and all of that other stuff, but it is a way to create affordable housing. In a community land trust, usually a non-profit purchases land, and they keep that land forever and steward that land. And houses or condos or apartments are built on top of that. Folks have 99-year leases, and if you sell the house, you're only able to use a formula that will keep the house affordable. So it keeps, essentially, it keeps housing affordable forever, if it's working right.

Some other anti-displacement strategies that are happening: keeping oppressive institutions out of People of Color neighborhoods. I’ll call attention to some struggles happening in Seattle. There is a fight to keep a new youth jail from being built, a $210 million youth jail, and to be spent on actually doing restorative and transformative justice with youth of color instead. There is a campaign, Block the Bunker, to stop a police facility from being built. And there’s also a campaign against a gentrifying dispensary called Uncle Ike's, which is in the Central District, which is Seattle’s historically Black neighborhood. And Uncle Ike’s is a gentrifying force. So there are queer and trans people of color who are fighting to keep these institutions out of our neighborhoods.

Lastly, land justice movements. So movements really led by Indigenous and Black folks to reclaim and steward land. We know that we are on Indigenous land right now, and so we truly don't own any of it, right? So land justice is really asking and dialoguing with Indigenous communities around how to steward the land. And then also Black folks who worked the land and really built on the land and created this economy that we have today, we were promised 40 acres and a mule that we never got, right? So there are Black queer and trans folks who are working to get land as reparations for the work our ancestors did.

Once again, I'm using Queer the Land as an example. So once again, our mission is collectively owning our land and labor. And so we’re trying to get a space that will allow us to have transitional housing for queer and trans people organizers who are in between housing or jobs. It would provide a community center, co-working space, a community garden, and eventually be a self-sustaining space. And this is a promotion we put out to let people know that we're looking for a space for ourselves. Seattle is seen as a very LGBTQ-friendly place, but for Black queer and trans folks, it's not as friendly. And there’s not many spaces to go to outside of night life, which can be, those can be really harmful spaces.

And a shout-out to organizations doing the work. That picture is of folks at the 23rd Ave Community Building in Oakland. Their building went up for sale, and it's a mix of housing and organizations led by queer and trans people of color. When their building went up for sale, they were able to raise $90,000 in a crowdfunding campaign, and then they partnered with a land trust to actually buy the building. Qilombo is in Oakland. They are in a— They've called themselves Africatown in their neighborhood, and they're gardening and creating community space for Black folks. And Cooperation Jackson is doing the work of building cooperatives in Jackson, Mississippi and just having a whole network of cooperatives, housing cooperatives, worker cooperatives for Black folks in the South, which is where a lot of us Black folks call home.

OK. So I would love to talk to folks about what kind of organizing are you doing to heal? What have you heard about? And I would love to keep in touch with you guys. Email, Twitter, and Instagram. Support me on my Patreon if you wish. And if you're interested in consulting, there's the website.

Thanks so much for being here today, and I really enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you.

[applause and cheers]

Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza

Photo of Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza smiling and facing the camera while standing slightly angled with crossed arms

Neesha Powell-Twagirumukiza (they & she pronouns) is a Southern queer womanist writer and community organizer who conspires in the name of liberated Black futures, Queer & Trans Black/Indigenous/People of Color power, solidarity economics, and transformative justice/community accountability. Neesha is a co-owner of Carolyn Peruth Coaching & Consulting, a QTBIPOC-owned worker cooperative.