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.

Unknown

~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

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canada was fun. it feels almost unreal that we were only there for a couple of days! just a quick stop, presentation, radio interview, gala, meeting, and home.

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we’re heading back to canada in april to bring our program there.

i had conversations with friends this weekend, and went out with them last night. it was so needed. i have a problem with letting my life fall apart because i obsess over work, and it becomes the only thing that’s important to me and the only thing that’s real. i let my friendships fall apart, and i didn’t realize that it was because i didn’t trust my friends. not because they aren’t trustworthy or because they did something wrong, but because i don’t trust anyone.

it’s something that richard has pointed out to me before, but i guess i didn’t see it playing out in my friendships with women, until it did. i thought one of my closest friendships was falling apart, and instead of trying to salvage it, i explained it away, “we were drifting apart,” “well, i’m busy anyway,” and i hid the hurt. when i actually talked to her, she was surprised that my mind went there, as though we weren’t as close as we are.

i’ve always known that this is something i do in romantic relationships, but i didn’t recognize that i put up a wall with my friends, too.

it’s something that will take me time, and energy, and effort, and vulnerability to tear down. but i want to.

i read this today, and it resonated so much with me that i want it tattooed all over my body:

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i still can’t settle down. i still make weekly plans to leave dc and start a new life. i’m a gypsy and a wanderess.