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.

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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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on victim blaming

The victim blaming that a sixteen-year-old and her mother are experiencing in the backlash since last week’s speakout against street harassment has been hitting me hard.

I spent two years in a domestic violence situation and three years afterward with the words of my abuser repeating in my head: “If people knew what you were really like then they’d understand.” I’ve held onto this fear for years that people would find out something about me that would make them believe that I deserved to be spat on, told that I was worthless, hit, choked, and told to get on my knees and beg for forgiveness. This fear has paralyzed me. When my abuser walked up to me in a DC bar as recently as last April, he asked me: “Can we talk alone?” And I went with him, because I was so afraid that he would say something in front of my friends that would let them know what I am really like, that I am someone who deserves to be abused.

So here’s what I’m really like:

I have a history of sleeping around.
I have been in a mental institution.
I have exchanged my body for housing, food, and money.
I have attempted suicide.
I have hit people in situations when physical violence wasn’t necessary.
I have been unfaithful to partners.
I used to hide my abuser’s ID to keep him out of bars.
I once poured a beer over my abuser’s head while he was napping, and I yelled, “So you want to drink, huh? Have a drink then.”
I engaged in abusive behaviors while I was in my abusive relationship.
I’d been in abusive situations before; I saw myself as the only common denominator.

This fear kept me from leaving. This fear kept me from speaking up. This fear made me reassure my friends that everything was fine and that things were getting better when they were actually getting worse. And now I know that I am not a perfect victim, and neither is anyone else. I am someone who has been hurt and has hurt people. At the same time as we cannot perpetuate victim blaming, we cannot be afraid of allowing victims and survivors to take responsibility for the harm we have caused. We cannot create this false dichotomy that there is only abuser and victim, and the victim can do no wrong. It’s this dichotomy that makes it difficult for us to see abusers as humans, as real people we know who live in our communities, people who cause harm and experience harm. It’s what makes it hard for us to believe that it could ever happen to us and to hold people in our lives accountable for abusive behaviors. I caused harm while I was experiencing abuse – and it’s OK, necessary even, to take responsibility for that without minimizing the abuse.

I am a loving mom and a violence survivor and a slut and an activist and a person who has caused harm, and I am all of these things all at once. It doesn’t change the fact that I deserve to feel safe. There is nothing that I have done in my life, or could do, that would make me deserve violence. If anything, it is these factors — and the fact that my history made me less likely to be believed — that make me more likely to be targeted.

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It is especially difficult for us to acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm and violence we’ve caused because the only response we know is the criminal legal system — arrests, punishments, more violence except from the state. We have to be honest about the realities of the problem we’re trying to solve, and we need to find another way to heal, seek justice, and build safety.

building consent culture & ending abuse.

I read about a study once involving three rats and food pellets. In each cage, the rat would be able to pull a lever to get their food pellets. In the first, a food pellet would reliably come out every time the rat pulled the lever. In the second cage, there was no food. In the last cage, a food pellet would sometimes come out when the rat pulled the lever, sometimes multiple food pellets, and sometimes none.

The first rat would only pull the lever when he was hungry. The second rat gave up quickly after pulling the lever a few times and finding no food. The third rat became addicted, hoping for food each time and never knowing if and when it would come.

Emotionally abusive relationships are similarly addicting. If you showed no affection any of the time, I’d lose interest. I’d walk away. I’d know that there is no love here. If you showed me affection reliably, if I knew that I could come to you when I need you, I’d feel safe being away and feel safe being with you. But when you show me affection unpredictably, I will pull the lever over and over and over again, hooked on the variable rewards, trying to get back the thing I know is in there somewhere.

As it turns out, understanding emotional abuse doesn’t protect you from it.

The only thing I have control over is whether I’m providing a healthy, reliable, safe foundation for Max. When he falls and cries, am I responding supportively and lovingly to his needs? I can tell him, “You’ll be fine” and “You’re a tough guy,” or alternatively, I can ask him where it hurts and what would help him feel better. As he’s been transitioning to his own bed, I’ve tried to find ways and teach him words to use to make sure he’s feeling safe in his own room. Sometimes he wants to keep the light on and the door open. Sometimes he wants me to lie down with him until he falls asleep. Before I leave the room, I tell him, “I’m going to my bed now, and I’ll be here if you need me.” Sometimes before I leave the room, he says, “Mommy, I need you,” and I stay. It seems simple, and yet too often we tell parents, “No, children need to be independent,” and “No, you’ll spoil him that way,” and we ignore our gut as parents to provide loving support to our very young children. But you can’t spoil a child by being responsive to their needs. And in fact, it’s the only way to create a healthy attachment.

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We can’t build consent culture without changing the way we, as caregivers and as communities, treat children.

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~hi i’m human~

i know that this probably comes as a surprise to a lot of people, but my job is actually not easy, and also i don’t think i do it perfectly. i think i mess up A LOT. i think i sometimes do that human thing of reacting to situations that upset me, except sometimes my reactions end up in the news.

i try as hard as i can to do everything well, and i can’t, and i’m sorry, and the best thing that you can do is give me feedback, and encourage me when i’m making changes that are in kind of the right direction, and keep giving me feedback, and be honest, and sometimes help me out.

my intentions are good. i’m still a human being trying to navigate a lot of new, complicated, confusing things. and i need help. and i need support. and i need to be trusted sometimes. and i need to have freedom sometimes. and i need to be called out. and i need to be held accountable. and i need to know that i have a few people who will be in my corner regardless of how badly i mess things up.

anyway byeeeee

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2016: the comeback

For years, I felt like I was not myself. My life had become consumed with taking care of other people. I guess that’s what I always do. I haven’t known how to be a person outside of caring for others; I’m incomplete without someone to look after, and while Max does still need me to take care of his basic needs, he’s become very independent over the past year and I’ve been able to get back into the advocacy work that was such an important part of my life before I moved to DC.

If you’d met me in 2011, I was usually out late at night, phone banking or canvassing. I’d wake up early and read to kids at local schools in the morning, or I’d cook and serve food at the Ocean Park Community Center. I had something scheduled for every hour of every day – through CALPIRG, or the Los Angeles Homeless Services Coalition, or the Downtown Women’s Center, or UNICEF, or some other activity. And things changed when I moved to DC. I left my life behind, and for years, it seemed as though I’d never be able to rebuild it.

But here I am: back at it & better than ever.

I’ve had too many incredible moments and experiences this year that it’s hard to sum them up in a single post as I have in past years, so I’m going to choose a single memory from each month that was most significant to me.

january

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We went to Puerto Rico! We saw everything from Old San Juan to the rainforest and spent hours each day on different beaches. After months of an intense learning curve at my new job organizing a roundtable and huge fundraising campaign at the same time, this trip was so important for me to disconnect from the world for a few days.

february

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I organized my first rally in DC! It was haphazardly thrown together via social media, but the turnout and the press helped me see that I had a platform, and with a little more organization and a little more confidence, I could make an impact.

march

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I had an unexpected and horrifying experience at my local library, and I turned it into something that’s continuing to transform my community into a safer, more welcoming place. I didn’t fully understand the extent of anti-Muslim racism within the U.S. and particularly within the progressive places that I’ve lived like New York, LA, and DC. Until I witnessed it. I joined with local Muslim women organizers like Darakshan Raja to organize a rally outside Shaw Library and then testify at DC Public Library’s budget oversight hearing two weeks later. Through these actions, I was able to build a relationship with DC Public Library and have posters promoting safety and respect plastered across the library system. Now, I’m continuing to work with DCPL to organize a listening session for Muslim communities in DC, and my organization has become one of the founding members of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition. 

It was also March when Nona moved into my apartment, and I had no idea how that experience would change my life as well, though not in the ways that I expected. I saw her becoming a part of our family, and I didn’t see the ways that we were different, or I ignored them. My experience with Nona, and specifically my experience hiring Nona to work for CASS, taught me a lot about myself: things i like about myself, like the fact that I don’t pass judgment on others until I’ve gotten to know them and that no matter how many times I’ve been burned, I trust without question; and things I don’t like about myself, like my reluctance to set boundaries to keep myself safe.

april

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April was a total blur. I was tired, but there was no way for me to take a break because April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I don’t know how I got through Anti-Street Harassment Week and CASS’s annual gala and the grant application for anti-street harassment art that we didn’t even win. I’d also managed to take on a babysitting job a few days a week, which was fun and forced me to dedicate time to play with Max and another little girl who he & I both adored. But it was too much. I was exhausted. I had pushed myself too far through the winter, and there was no end in sight. But Lemonade came out around this time, and it was the first time I’d gotten to spend quality time with my friends in awhile. Then the night of the gala I awkwardly ran into PJ, who demonstrated all the signs of aggression at a bar that I’d been teaching people to recognize. Leering. Coming over and giving me an unwanted hug. Not getting the hint from all of my body language that I didn’t want him to come over and try to introduce himself to my friends, that I just wanted him to pretend he didn’t see me. That even if we were on okay terms, I could only interact with him on my terms.

I closed my tab abruptly, the way that bar staff I’ve trained have told me they’ve noticed women often do when they’re feeling uncomfortable. It’s funny to think now about how bar staff could have came to the rescue in that situation, and with the success of Safe Bars this year, that’s where local bar culture is headed.

may

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By May, I had decided I wanted to hire Nona at CASS. I’m not sure if it was her idea or mine, but it was probably a combination. We received approval from the Board only about two weeks before #DoMore24, which I felt would be our only opportunity to fundraise for her position. Nona taught me a lot about her experiences as a black trans woman in DC, her experiences with violence and discrimination when she tried to seek housing and employment. She couldn’t even ask a station manager at the NoMa Metro stop for simple directions without being met with hostility. Almost worse than the daily experiences may have been the toll it took on her. She’d become dejected and hopeless, and I couldn’t blame her for feeling that way. Hiring Nona didn’t work out in the magical, glorious, successful way that I’d imagined. But I don’t regret the decision. It’s wrong that Nona, and so many trans women of color, face so many barriers to survival, and anything that we can do to lessen the load, we should.

june

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We marched in Capital Pride! By this point in the year, I was burned out again. I was discouraged. I was exhausted. And I didn’t know where to turn for help. I wanted to show up for my team and for my kid and for everyone. I didn’t want anyone to know how much of a toll life and work was taking on me. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and I know that, but I always push myself to the point at which I’m running on empty, and I feel guilty when I can’t perform. The most important lesson that I want to take into 2017 is to take breaks. Even when something feels very urgent, it’s not more important than keeping myself alive & healthy.

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In June, I appeared in the Washington Post not once, not twice, but three times. I organized a rapid response to an incident in which a group of trans women of color, including Nona, were harassed by Banneker Pool staff, and I was able to organize a training on trans sensitivity and bystander intervention for all of DC DPR’s frontline staff.

I was exhausted, but I just kept going.

also, I breastfed my toddler in the presence of President Barack Obama. So that happened.

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july

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We went camping in July! I’ve found that I don’t know how to take breaks unless I completely leave the DC Metropolitan area. So we went with Richard to Cunningham State Falls Park and camped out for a couple of nights right before the 4th of July. And when I take breaks, good things happen. We won a $20,000 grant for Safe Bars. The media coverage was unreal — from the Huffington Post to my third radio appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show.

august

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Safe Bars took off! By August, we were more than halfway toward our goal to train 20 bars in 2016.

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and this picture was taken the same day as the picture above! I also took Max to the doctor’s office that day, and one of the other patients recognized me from TV. this day was one of many examples of me being completely superhuman this year.

september

In September, I co-emceed a rally for paid leave – a campaign that we ultimately won! but things got hard in September, in ways that I didn’t feel comfortable admitting to most people. I’ve learned the lesson a thousand times that strength means knowing when to ask for help, and yet I always find myself taking on the hardest battles on my own, when I have a community who I know would support me if I’d only speak up.

This was the month that Lucy ran away, and she still hasn’t returned home. She’s such a friendly cat that I feel confident that she found a new loving home in the neighborhood, but it makes me sad not to have her at home anymore.

In September, my upstairs neighbor, a woman who has a history of giving me dirty looks and leaving rude notes in my mailbox/inbox,  went further than she’s ever gone before. And I barely told a soul, because of the way that it made me feel and because of my own fears of being insufficient. She called children’s protective services and made a false report of child abuse against me because Max had bug bites on his legs, bug bites that she knew were bug bites because I’d complained to her about them. Bug bites that I’d taken Max to the doctor to treat, that we were prescribed medication to treat, that I used calamine lotion and aloe vera gel and avon’s skin so soft to comfort. I won’t make the case here that this report was unfounded and racist, because I think that anyone reading probably knows me well enough to know that it’s absurd that I’d ever abuse or neglect my child. But it hurt. The experience was brief but horrifying. I went through a home assessment, and I felt like I was being treated like a criminal.

A few weeks later, I saw a kid from Max’s daycare covered in bandaids, all over her arms and legs. I asked what happened, and her grandmother said they were bug bites. And I swear I shivered because I knew that they were bug bites, and I knew that no one would ever accuse her lovely white parents of child abuse because of them.

I’m a very good mom. I consistently go above and beyond to keep Max safe, and healthy, and happy. and I know that. and I know that this report, which came after we hadn’t interacted with her for over a week because we’d been out of town, was rooted in racism.

But fear of not being supported or believed kept me mostly silent about it. Which is how institutional racism works. And if it had happened to me even a year ago, I don’t know how I would’ve processed it.

I fought back, in the best way. And I have my experience at CASS to thank. I wanted to get angry and yell and throw things, but instead I chalked. I wrote messages like, “Treat your neighbors of color with respect,” and “Kids deserve to grow up happy, healthy, safe, and free from racism.” And it drove my upstairs neighbors nuts. Which was hilarious.

She continued to provoke me. I told her to leave me alone one day when she approached me on the sidewalk, and she put her hand to her mouth while looking around and walking away, as though I’d just attacked her. Then as we were walking down the street, five minutes later, she bent down to say, “Hiiii, Max!” Literally five minutes after I’d told her to leave us alone, just because she wanted me to get angry and to yell, so that people on the street could see that I was angry and I’d seem so unreasonable. The most insidious kind of bullying, and I couldn’t respond. Except with chalk.

And in doing so, and in standing my ground, I haven’t had to deal with any of it since then. And she knows that, if it starts up again, I will happily go back to chalking posi messages against racism and bullying.

I will no longer tolerate everyday racism.

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october

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October was probably the best month of this year, or maybe my life. I traveled to Colorado and to Canada – all expenses paid. I helped paint the town purple with the dc coalition against domestic violence and got my posters all over community centers, coffee shops, bars, restaurants, council members’ offices, libraries, literally everywhere. Max and I went trick-or-treating at the White House. I turned twenty-seven and celebrated with so many of my wonderful friends who have lifted me up and supported me this year

I have never had a stable family, and that has always hurt, but this year more than ever before, I’ve felt the support of a community that’s had my back and made me feel like I didn’t need to turn back to abusive partners or patterns, because I’m okay. because I’m safe. because I have people who love and support and care about me.

it made me think a lot about my past abusive relationships and the void that they filled and about the primary reason I stayed: I had nowhere else to go. I didn’t trust that, if I walked away and fell apart, anyone would be around to help me pick up the pieces. and so I never did fall apart. I went straight from celebrating my freedom to toting my survivorship & asking my Facebook friends to acknowledge my strength, because I needed to believe that I was too strong to let him break me. but what ended up happening was that I never truly recovered, or tried to recover, because I never let anyone know, or even acknowledged to myself, that I was hurt. I denied the feeling until eventually it went away.

even though I clearly have some work to do when it comes to asking for help, I’ve never felt more supported than I do now.

I’ve walked away from a number of romantic almost-relationships this year, and for awhile I thought there was something wrong with me (and some people probably still would say that this is true), but I look back and feel like I’ve made so much progress, even from last year when I couldn’t walk away from someone who was emotionally manipulative. I’ve walked away from people this year because of little things — feeling smothered, feeling undervalued, feeling pressured, or just having a bad feeling. And half of those feelings were probably in my head, but it doesn’t matter because what that means is that I’m learning to trust myself, to trust my gut, and to take care of myself. And I’m imperfect at it, and probably walked away from some very lovely people. But that’s okay, because some of the loveliest among them are still my friends, and that’s what I need right now more than anything else.

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november

influenced by experiences I’d had earlier in the year, I worked with stop street harassment to develop WMATA’s latest anti-harassment campaign that launched across DC’s public transit system in November:

december

and then, to cap off an amazing year, the washington city paper people called me interesting:

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And this is the part where I come up with resolutions for 2017. I wasn’t looking forward to this year the way that I’d looked forward to 2016. I’m terrified of what’s to come. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up this level of productivity, or if I even should. I tell myself all the time to slow down, but I’m only happy when I’m pushing myself to the brink.

I entered the year vomiting all through the night because I had friends and neighborhood kids over when I knew that I was too sick to celebrate. I showered and put on make-up and pretended I wasn’t sick, told myself I’d let myself be sick some other time, like I could just reschedule the need to take care of my health. I think that’s a sign that, no matter how many times I’ve been burnt out, I haven’t learned my lesson, and I tell myself that I’m going to slow down, but I haven’t been able to follow through.

I will keep trying. I will keep messing up. I will get up and try again. And the worst that can happen is that I’ll live life a little too fully, and that’s okay, too.

here’s my list of things to do in 2017:

  • see more of the world.
  • read more fiction.
  • build more authentic friendships.

onwards & upwards to a brand new year.

people think i’m interesting

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it’s fun and weird and i have fears about failing to live up to the hype, not being able to be interesting all the time, disappointing people by being so incredibly average.

this is what we do, as capitalists. we fixate on a single person who can be the hero or be the villain. of course i’ll participate, and of course i love the press. i found it incredibly exciting and feel very honored to be included; i see it as an amazing opportunity to bring attention to my vision for safe public spaces, one that elevates the needs of those who are most marginalized and has a trickle up effect for everyone. but i worry about being, or continuing to be, the “face” of the local movement against street harassment.

it’s similar to what we’re doing with donald trump: as much as i despise him, i don’t think that trump on his own is the problem that we need to address. we blame patriarchy and misogyny on trump rather than viewing him as part of a larger context of rape culture. we fail to acknowledge the small things that we say and do to perpetuate the culture that created trump and others like him, the culture that tolerates and even promotes violence against women. i talked about this more on eugene puryear’s radio show a few weeks ago, and then shortly after, i participated in a planned parenthood video project to stop trump.

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on one hand, of course i hate trump and want to see him go down, and i’m terrified about the prospect that someone so blatantly racist and misogynistic might become president. at the same time, i recognize that just about every president before him was a racist and a rapist, so these behaviors aren’t new and trump, on his own, is not the problem. we’re the society that’s tolerating his blatant racism & sexism on a national platform; we have to look at ourselves, too.

i participated in this video to say fuck trump and to bring homeless survivors of sexual assault into the mainstream conversation about sexual violence. i also participated because, as much as i recognize the problems with villainizing an individual rather than a systemic problem, i also see that it’s an effective recruitment tool. when we organized a sit-in for safe spaces in february in response to roosh’s men’s rights activist meet-up, people came out and a number of those people have stayed involved in the movement against rape culture. telling the story about the bad guy who’s perpetuating rape culture demonstrates urgency and brings people into the fold.

so it’s weird. i don’t love the process, but i see that it’s effective, and in a way i suppose that brings us closer to reaching our goals.

anyway i’ve been doing lots of cool stuff lately and tomorrow i’m going trick or treating at the white house when did my life become this fun