Yesterday I got to record a podcast conversation about the healing justice work at the USSF in Atlanta and Detroit with Cara Page and Kate Werning. I got off the phone and then went back to look at some of the documents we put together in 2010. This is something I wrote after we were already at Detroit. We were talking about how much confusion there was about how healing justice could be a lens on deep movement work, on actions and cultural change. So I wrote this and we printed about 500 copies and spread it in rooms around the Social Forum. Re-reading it I thought, yep, as HJ work often gets perceived as happening in separate spaces from where movement is taking place, this flyer is still relevant. If it's useful to you, go ahead and use it. Love credit it as appropriate.
A conversation takes place about working conditions for agricultural workers or maybe about housing foreclosures and you are listening to it when you feel something shift inside. This is not just an intellectual conversation. This is about your life. You feel your heart race and a mix of emotions are suddenly flooding through your body. Maybe you are angry. Maybe you want to cry. It is hard to just sit in a chair and talk about this as an issue. It seems no one else in the room has experienced what you have. So you shut down, get quiet, and wait for the session to be done so you can leave.
You are taking part in an action exercise, practicing using storytelling as a skill for mobilization. In the midst of a practice session, you can feel your voice get tight. You were talking about prisons and violence. It becomes hard to speak. You are embarrassed because usually you can talk about this really easily. You think of yourself as articulate. You leave the room as soon as you can, worried that people are going to remember you, that you didn’t have anything to say. You’re glad there wasn’t anyone from your hometown to witness you fumbling.
Two people with different beliefs, both undocumented, are arguing about how to organize in immigrant communities and about the roles of nonprofit organizations in social justice work. Their argument begins to get heated. People in the room freeze up, not sure what to do. A few people leave. Others take sides. You’re one of the people in the room. You don’t know what to do. You feel like you should say something but you aren’t sure what to say. You’re afraid they’ll turn on you. Or maybe you’re one of the people arguing. You don’t really want to keep fighting like this but it’s gone so far, it’s hard to back down. Or maybe you’re in the room and you say something and suddenly everyone is looking at you. The conversation ends when everyone leaves but the tension never finishes. Something got stuck and people leave, feeling uncomfortable.
There is nothing we talk about in movement building work that is only an “issue.” These are things we have experienced. Our bodies, our communities, our memories carry all of the times when we experienced or witnessed violence, systemic disrespect, or marginalization. When we are working together to change systems and beliefs, we are also carrying the fallout from those systems and beliefs inside our selves.
Healing Justice means taking seriously the effect of trauma, oppression and violence in our lives. It means recognizing that when we are uncomfortable or scared or furious, this is important information. We can learn from this information. We can shift what is happening in our bodies. The role of healing justice practitioners is to come into those spaces described above and to help shift what is happening. Often the reason we get stuck or feel like we need to run from the room or start fighting with someone who can and should be an ally is because of what we are holding. This holding affects how deeply we can dream and how far we can vision. Ending oppression means ending how it exists in our communities and in the systems around us – and it means ending how it lives within our bodies.
Deep gratitude to those building on the ground at the USSF in Detroit, 2010.