2017: the year of accountability

Every year, I struggle to come up with a theme that seems to connect the events of the year. It’s the way I’ve found to make sense of my experiences and reflect with clarity. This year’s theme seemed so clear and present from the very beginning — from the barriers I faced in my work to the forms of resistance I’ve seen. As more people have mobilized than ever before, our movements have struggled within themselves to be accountable to those at the margins. Women of color, especially those who are trans and queer, spoke out against the pink pussy hats and the original all-white organizers of the Women’s March. Trans and queer people of color disrupted Capital Pride, and Pride parades across the country. Black women spoke out in Ward 8 after organizers of a food table attacked a 16-year-old girl who had been sexually harassed, sending the message that we all deserve access to food, housing, and our basic necessities and to be safe from gendered violence, all at the same time. I was hopeful again briefly when I saw the hashtag #MeToo, and felt let down again when I saw a movement that overwhelmingly left out sex workers, incarcerated survivors, and people of color as a whole. I have followed and participated in movements for resistance from state violence — movements that at times seem to center the “most innocent” — and I have struggled with the ways that even in the most radical spaces I know, we can’t get away from messages like “protesting is not a crime,” playing into this idea that some people’s actions are deserving of state violence, perhaps because they killed someone while trying to survive like Cyntoia Brown or GiGi Thomas. How could we be playing into respectability politics in even the movement against state violence?

In all of these movements, I have heard the justification that organizers must ask for what we think we can win, rather than fighting for what we want. If we can make progress in the feminist movement by centering white cisgender heterosexual women, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress in the movement for LGBTQIA+ rights by centering white cisgender gay men, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress in the movement against state violence by centering the most innocent victims, then let us make small wins for some. If we can make progress toward housing everyone by centering a community that it’s easiest to make the case to house, then let us make small wins for some. What ends up happening is that we never get around to helping those at the margins, or even trying to truly solve the problems at their roots.

Our movements are fighting to take what they can get; our activist communities are operating with a scarcity mindset, and we are propping up individuals within these movements as our leaders, as our heroes, and in many ways we are replicating the same abusive systems we’re working to dismantle.

But I am of the belief that we need radical change to make progress for anyone, and for everyone. I want our movements to do better: to ask for what we want, and to fight for it. One of my closest friends tells me yes, but how will we appeal to conservatives? How will we achieve any progress at all if we can’t talk to people who don’t agree with some of these most basic principles? Thing is, I was once upon a time a vocal part of the right, and I see the contradictions in movements now just like I saw the contradictions then. When I was a queer homeless teen in need of housing and distrusting of state systems, I saw Democrats working to better support those in the middle, and leaving the most vulnerable behind, and I heard the message from Republicans that I could lift myself up by my bootstraps without any support from state systems that were built to fail me. Believing that I could beat the odds was a much more appealing message to 15-year-old Faith Skye. Back then, if I had seen a movement for LGBTQIA+ rights that centered the needs of trans and queer homeless youth then I would have been fully on board, and I’ve spoken to hundreds of conservatives that felt similarly — people who wanted to see movements that uplifted those at the margins, rather than providing extra help to those in the middle while leaving behind the people who needed the most help. And queer people in Harlem’s Lincoln Projects didn’t care much about marriage equality; we wanted safe and affordable housing. When I identified as a conservative, I wanted limited state power because I distrusted the state and didn’t see myself represented among liberal messages. I still distrust the state, and yet I see it now as an instrument to ensure that communities’ most basic needs are met.

So if we are searching for common ground, I believe we can find it by acknowledging that so many people in this country are struggling to survive, and that we all need and deserve access to our basic necessities: food, housing, and safety.

I recognize the contradictions in my own work, too. Last November, I was celebrating new ads on the Metro that featured marginalized women. I now see this campaign as an indicator of just a surface-level shift in the work, a sign that we remembered to put the faces of women of color out on front while simultaneously erasing their experiences by telling people to report sexual harassment to police. It represents the internal need at CASS for reconciliation of our work with our values, a need to define our values, a need to update our mission statement to one that reflects the needs of the communities that we seek to prioritize with leadership and input coming directly from those communities. We have come a long way, and that work still isn’t done.

And in this year of accountability, I have experienced my own personal struggles with people who I’d admired for their leadership in our local movements. I experienced their abuse, gaslighting, and manipulation, and I struggled to find ways to repair the harm they’d caused in a way that was compassionate, that was understanding of the experiences that had led them to engage in abusive behaviors toward me, while learning a lesson I’ve learned a thousand times but can’t quite internalize in a way that makes me change my behavior: I can’t heal your wounds with my love alone; it is your work to do, and I can support you in that work, and I can love you through that work, but I can’t do it for you. I must learn to love in a way that is firm and protects my boundaries. I must know in my heart that love is not the same as tolerating abuse. And I have struggled with this because I have, for so much of my life, been in search of unconditional love, and I don’t know yet how to give and receive unconditional love with. healthy. boundaries.

I have been burned, again and again, trying to put out deadly fires for people who are lighting fires within themselves and will never be able to stop and change their behaviors as long as people like me try so desperately to save them from themselves.

And so I’ve needed to hold myself accountable, too: I am not living my values if I keep intervening to protect people from the consequences of their actions. I am not living my values if I can’t communicate expectations and follow through on delivering consequences when those expectations aren’t met. In my work, I teach people to use their words and actions to set boundaries to stop everyday violence and change the culture that tolerates it, and in my personal life, I am telling my abusers that I will love them and I will be here regardless of what they do to me. Through my words and my actions, I have shown abusers that I will tolerate their everyday violence, and I have justified my own behavior by telling myself that I must be patient, that I must be compassionate, that I must remember that everyone who causes harm has experienced harm. But I can be patient, compassionate, understanding, and safe.

I know that this internal struggle isn’t over, just like the larger internal struggle within our movements isn’t yet over, but I feel great progress in the ability to name the contradictions, to know that I have a community of people I trust who will hold me accountable in a compassionate way, and to have started to work to reconcile the inconsistencies within myself, within my work, and within a larger struggle for justice.

JANUARY

In the first month of the year, I went into overdrive. I facilitated workshops for hundreds of people on how to effectively keep each other safe using bystander intervention strategies to de-escalate conflicts at protests, to respond to harassment, and to prevent gendered & hate violence. In sharing stories with each other during these workshops, people learned from each other about how their identities affected their experiences with violence, and their responses to it. The best workshops I’ve facilitated have been with diverse groups of people, because the lessons really come from the group itself. The most important facilitation skill I’ve learned is listening.

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This intervention is called “There’s a bee!”

There was one day in January that I facilitated three bystander intervention workshops in a single day — first for 100 bar and restaurant owners, then at a yoga studio in Petworth, then I traveled all the way to Northern Virginia to teach a group of ~30 people skills for intervening to stop hate violence. This work was even covered by WAMU!

January was also the month of the Women’s March. I’d debated about going, and then at the last minute I wrote an Audre Lorde quote on a piece of posterboard, and Max & I showed up to march.

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Photo by Kisha Bari

There were so many people at the Women’s March that I felt extremely overwhelmed. But Max had a great time. Then we got tf out of America and went to Punta Cana.

FEBRUARY

In February, I joined the small but mighty fight to #FreeGiGi — GiGi Thomas is a Black trans human rights advocate who has been in jail since October 2015 for actions she took to survive. I joined with a few others to organize letter-writing and turnout to her sentencing trial in February. The prosecutor misgendered her repeatedly during the trial and played on the transphobia of the jury, and she was charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 30 years. The judge, however, said that support for GiGi was different from normal support, and she suspended 10 years of the sentence. She’s expected to be out in 8 years, and we are continuing to organize for her freedom.

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MARCH

Max and I flew to Austin for 24 hours in March so I could present on a panel at SXSW called “Safe Spaces to Rock” — discussing steps that can be taken in nightlife and music venues to address sexual harassment and assault.

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This was also the month that my ~ extremely unique ~ expertise on the topic of youth homelessness came in handy as the city, and the country, suddenly became aware of the crisis of runaway, homeless youth in DC. Organizers from the Women’s March, which had by then evolved into an organization, contacted me to use their Facebook Live to dispel the myths associated with the #MissingDCgirls crisis. Folks from HIPS connected me to Ramina Davidson who worked specifically on this issue here in DC, and I shared both my personal experience and national data to explain why there were so many Black and Latinx missing girls in our city.

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In the same month, I was able to testify before the DC Council to advocate for increased funding for youth shelters in the city. I hadn’t even been aware that, at that point, DC didn’t even have a legal definition for the term “homeless youth” and there’s still a limited understanding of the problem and of the ways that youth experiencing homelessness get involved in survival sex work, legally defined as child sex trafficking regardless of whether or not a “trafficker” or a pimp is involved. While I’ve played an active role in work to end youth homelessness in LA and on a national level, I am still learning about the landscape in DC, and I’ve been lucky to have Ramina to educate me about the gaps in our city and what we need to do to close them.

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I shared my personal experience with youth homelessness, as well as national data that shows that my experience is more typical than many people know.

APRIL

Max led his first chant at a rally. And it was a good one.

 

I also met Chantal in April. Little did I know all the ways in which she’d change my life and revolutionize our work at CASS. I approached her with big ideas that Nona and I had brainstormed, and she was in so many ways the missing piece to our puzzle. She is organized, thoughtful, passionate, and somehow magically not scared off by me.

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The Safe Bars program had been started with patrons in mind — we knew that women & queer & trans people were being harassed in nightlife when they went out to bars, and we were missing this larger piece about harassment experienced by bartending and restaurant workers. We were missing the huge piece about racial equity in restaurants and bars, and it’s the kind of work & research that had been happening at the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) for a decade. Chantal talked to me about COLORS, ROC’s training course for restaurant and bartending staff meant to help people of color transition from lower-paid back of house positions to front-of-house positions.

In so many of the workshops I taught to front-of-house staff, the groups were all-white. The race factor became increasingly apparent as I was experiencing microaggressions from my white co-facilitator: she’d speak over me, stand in front of me, cut me off, make me feel small or box me out completely, and when I repeatedly asked her to sit down with me to find ways to improve our working relationship, she refused. I tiptoed around her, and she started to accuse me of doing the things that she’d been doing to me. I started by apologizing, until she pushed further and further and I realized I was being gaslighted. I had trusted this person. I opened up to her and felt safe being vulnerable, and she used my weaknesses against me until I felt the need to walk away from a brand that I had built and a program that I had worked so hard to make successful.

Meeting Chantal, learning about this data, seeing a great need for a conversation about race and other layers of oppression in our workshops about sexual & gendered violence was a way out of the Safe Bars program for me. And Nona, Chantal, and I had ideas to make it so much greater and more impactful — to leverage our partnerships with bars and restaurants to create opportunities for those at the margins.

Even if it meant that, in some ways, we were starting from scratch.

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In April, CASS worked with the End Street Harassment Coalition to organize a rally against street harassment in Farragut Square and raise awareness about the Street Harassment Prevention Act. At the time, this small but mighty crew was wholly responsible for building support for SHPA — Jayni Rasmussen had been there since the beginning and played an enormous role in organizing the roundtable that led to the bill’s introduction; Brianne Nadeau has championed the issue from the Council and introduced the legislation, following the lead of issue experts — and especially queer and trans women of color — every step of the way; Dave Chandrasekaran drafted the bill itself and helped organize our lobbying strategy; and my biggest shout out of all goes to Sarah Doyel who did so much of the day-to-day invisible labor of regularly convening the Coalition, incorporating the feedback of partners into our advocacy and messaging, ensuring that community members and organizational representatives showed up to the hearing to testify, and just managing all of the moving parts and moving people to carry forward this campaign. I am so grateful for all of the work that this team has done this year to make sure sexual and hate-based harassment is taken seriously in our city — to collect the first ever citywide data on harassment, to ensure that people know where to turn if they experience harassment or discrimination, and to hold our local government accountable in keeping our community safe.

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But in acknowledging all of the people who have played an enormous role in this work, I can’t forget to call out the invisible labor of the women who have been the backbone. Michela Masson, apart from being an amazing friend who accompanies me to Stop Light Parties, has managed CASS’s email list and our fundraising efforts, including organizing our annual gala & so many other events to keep CASS alive. Darakshan Raja has taught me so much along the way, and I’ve seen in her a deep commitment to ensuring the success & wellbeing of women of color in DC’s organizing spaces, even while she faced so many of her own hurdles this year.

MAY

I was honored with the 2017 Be the Change Activist Award at the Washington Peace Center’s annual gala.

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I also took the leap into a relationship — my first serious, committed relationship since surviving domestic violence. It was a big, scary decision for me, and I am proud of myself for allowing myself to be vulnerable and for loving with my whole heart in a way that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do again. That’s all I’ll say for now, but I know that I’ll want to share more about this experience when I’m ready.

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In May, I testified before Congress (!!) to pass national legislation to make childcare more affordable for families and sustainable for workers.

JUNE

Nona, Chantal, and I launched the Safe Bar Collective — a collective of bars, restaurants, and organizations working collaboratively to end sexual violence and hate in nightlife. As we were launching the Safe Bar Collective to expand the conversation on microaggressions and discrimination within our training, I came to know Preston Mitchum, an amazing Black queer activist who has called for accountability to queer people of color in LGBTQIA+ (but really white gay) nightlife spaces. Some spaces, and especially number nine and TRADE, were very receptive to Preston’s message and went above and beyond to address the problem. Other spaces required a bit more work.

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This was also the month that Nona did her first ever TV interview!

My greatest joy this year has been participating in WERK for Peace dance party protests — a form of resistance that is also a form of healing and practicing joy. As Saidiya Hartman says, care is the antidote to violence. With these dance rallies, we’re caring for ourselves and we’re resisting in a way that builds rather than destroys. I am so appreciative of Firas Nasr for the work he’s done to create this space to revive the fire in people like me who were coming close to burning out.

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I was also extreeeeemely excited to work with these amazing humans, Jeremiah Lowery, Joan Shipps, and Nina Perez, on the local campaign to make childcare more affordable by working to pass CM Robert White’s BEGIn Act. Jeremiah has made childcare access a central part of his campaign for one of the at-large DC Council seats, and with his passion for ending homelessness, protecting the environment, and caring for families with policies like paid leave and childcare access, I’m so excited about the prospect of having him in local leadership in 2018.

JULY

In July, Richard, Max, and I went on what’s become our annual camping trip to Cunningham Falls State Park. We hiked and made s’mores and swam in a lake.

This year, we were joined by someone who has become one of my closest friends, Al Basile, who listens with endless patience, gives care to those around her with boundless love, & consistently shows up for me and for Max in ways that will leave me eternally grateful.

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While we were in the woods, I received the awful news that one of the Safe Bar Collective’s program participants, Desiree Copeland, had been attacked and hospitalized. Desiree demonstrated great strength and resilience through the whole experience, and in this moment she needed support. I was away & only able to help in a limited capacity. It made me so thankful for a team, and especially Chantal Coudoux and Sarah Doyel who both quickly responded — Chantal supported Desiree in exploring options for healing, and then, when she chose to pursue justice through the criminal legal system, Chantal was by her side. Sarah immediately set up a fundraiser to cover Desiree’s expenses, and most importantly to get her into safe housing where she could recover from the attack. While DC has a Crime Victims’ Compensation fund SPECIFICALLY for this purpose, all they offered her was a placement in a shelter right next to the place where she was attacked. She didn’t feel safe.

Give money to desiree

We raised more than $5,000 to support Desiree and delivered the money (and everyone’s kind notes) directly to her as soon as it came in. In response to Desiree’s attack, and the spike in violence this past summer, the inspiring humans that have led the organizing of #NoJusticeNoPride, and specifically Emmelia Talarico and Drew Ambrogi, organized a rally to end violence against trans women.

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I spoke in solidarity.

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Max Raven proudly held the banner.

AUGUST

Around this time, I received a call that a 16-year-old girl who had testified at the roundtable on street harassment in 2015 had been threatened and attacked at a food table in Ward 8. After an attempt at transformative justice failed, I worked with and specifically under the leadership of local Black women and girls to organize a speakout against street harassment in the same place as the food table, recognizing that our speakout needed to have a food table, too, to send the message that people shouldn’t have to choose between safety from sexual violence and access to basic needs like food.

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But of course, on the day of the actual speakout, I ended up getting stuck in South Carolina, where I’d flown out for just a 24-hour period to speak at BevCon with my fearless co-conspirator in nightlife safety (and co-owner of Drink Company), Angie Fetherston.

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SEPTEMBER

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We came out with a new decal for the Safe Bar Collective, with special thanks to Melissa Yeo and Hanna Dekker.

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Max, uh, adjusted to school well.

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and I became re-inspired to work on my social justice toddler flashcards.

OCTOBER

Over the course of the year, I was excited to be part of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), which worked with Councilmember Grosso’s office to introduce legislation that will make DC the first U.S. city to decriminalize sex work! Shout out to HIPS for convening SWAC, CM Robert White for co-sponsoring the bill, and all of the amazing community groups and human beings putting in the work to educate the public about the need for decriminalization and get this bill passed.

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Most of all, I’m grateful to the amazing activist Shareese Mone who has been firm & consistent in her message that decriminalization is not the end goal; sex workers experiencing homelessness are those most severely impacted by criminalization, and often they’re not being arrested for sex work but for loitering or littering — in other words, criminalized for being homeless. Sex workers experiencing homelessness need housing.

This is also the month that I got myself the best 28th birthday gift of all: an office! (OK, let’s be real — you all, the humans that have supported my work with donations large & small, got this amazing birthday gift for me.)

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NOVEMBER

And in this year of accountability, I’ve felt this great need to reconcile who I am with who I’ve been. I am the queen of erasing my past and starting over, and I want to be able to honor my past experiences, heal from those experiences, and find a way to keep some of the good pieces. Though I’ll be honest in saying that’s probably not what I had in mind when I organized an impromptu high school reunion at Richard’s place in November.

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DECEMBER

This month, I’ve been closing loose ends. Chantal started work as CASS’s Deputy Director, and we’ve been planning for 2018. The latest ReThinking Masculinity cohort graduated, and our team held a day-long retreat to figure out what we needed to keep, what we needed to formalize, and what we needed to change to build a strong foundation for this program. RM has been intentional from the beginning about seeking to center those at the margins, and we have tried — and in some ways failed — to do this in our curriculum, in the diverse space we worked to curate, in our decisions to uplift people of color and queer people into leadership roles as facilitators. The program is still not quite there, but I am hopeful about our progress and about incorporating the feedback we’ve received to create something that can be replicated nationwide.

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I’ve been grateful to build with Tahir Duckett, Stephen Hicks, Amanda Lindamood, and Daniel Dixon this year — plus all of our amazing facilitators Kirk Jackson, Peter Cellier, Miguel Amaguana, and David Wolkin — who all put so much of their energy and time into making the ReThinking Masculinity program the beautiful, incomplete, meaningful space that it’s become.

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I wrapped up the year with friendship, creme brulee French toast and gluten-free snacks. I also closed out the year with heartbreak and loss. I feel hopeful when I look back at the progress I’ve made and the community I’ve built, and I am glad that I am learning my limits, recognizing the need to set boundaries, and trusting my gut to make exceptions to these limits and boundaries.

Thank you to everyone who has been on this journey with me, to those who have been patient with me while I have poured my energy into a thousand different directions, to those who have trusted me to do the work I do and to those who have invested in me. 2017 has been hard. It has been exhausting and challenging, and it has hurt. But with this community, with this team, I’ve been able to build infrastructure this year that will make our movements stronger in 2018, and I am so optimistic.

Here are some of the things I’m setting out to do in 2018:

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