sheafrotherdon: (Default)
sheafrotherdon ([personal profile] sheafrotherdon) wrote on June 17th, 2017 at 02:07 pm
Justice on the inside.
Yesterday, I attended a workshop led by [Dr. Shakti Butler] a social justice educator and filmmaker who is absolutely luminous. She’s one of those people who is so spiritually grounded that you want to just stand around and drink in their presence, as if you’re perpetually thirsty (and I think I am, on some level). I learned so much from her, and considering Trump and Cosby and the verdict in the Philando Castile case, I wanted to share some of what she said.

Dr. Butler is at work right now on a new film about [healing and restorative justice]. She asked how many of us had seen “13” (a lot of hands went up) and said that she loved that documentary. Her film took things another step and asks what it will take to change such a charged, unethical, racist system. She showed us interviews with several men and women (and young people) of color, all of them talking about the damage that has been done to them in the name of justice.

One man asked that we the fact that the central, driving truth of slavery was that it was designed to eradicate relationships. Parents to children, lovers to one another, friend to friend – slavery was designed to break those relationships, render them unimportant, even non-existent, and did so at the end of a lash. How then, he asked, do you repair that harm? 256 years of wanton destruction aimed at the black family – what happens after that kind of abuse? A Native man made much the same point for Native people – that when the government actively steals your children, forces them to learn English, cuts their hair, burns their cultural items and clothing, it’s about eradicating Indian-ness and it’s also about severing relationships. What happens after powerful whites attempt that kind of wholesale destruction?

Others took up this point and talked about what happens when you’re traumatized by violence, illuminating both the past and the present with their words. They talked about child abuse of all kinds, of lateral violence, and one woman said that someone who has grown up with trauma either turns their anger toward others, or turns it against themself. Without healing ourselves there can be no justice toward ourselves or toward others.

There was much, much more in that section – loving, big-hearted words spoken about children who see violence, are caught up in violence, who are violated. People talked about kids who “act out” in school because of internalized trauma, whom no one talks to to ask, “are you okay?” Instead those children end up in juvenile hall because someone sees their symptoms as a crime against order, and the school-to-prison pipeline begins.

This was hard stuff for me to watch. I felt it – I was the kid whom no one asked “are you okay” and I know how much trauma I drove inward to survive. I also know that because I am white and because the manifestation of my trauma sent me toward bookish perfectionism, I never ended up at the principal’s office – or, today, in many schools, the cop’s office – and I didn’t end up in the pipeline. I stopped the cycle of abuse in my own life by sheer luck on the one hand and by choosing not to have children on the other, and that hurt rose up and choked me. The whole thing cut me to the bone.

(I went to the bathroom to cry, but found it full of people peeing and waiting to pee, so I went back to the room, pep-talking myself the whole way – you can do this, pull it together, you’re fine.)

Dr. Butler asked us all to write down questions we had because of the film – questions that reflected something we had felt. Almost all of us asked a question along the lines of “how do I help” or “how do I reach these kids” or “how do I even talk to white people after this?” And in each instance that someone shared, Dr Butler asked them to turn the question around and make it about themself. Not “how do I reach these kids?” but “what do I need to do for myself? How do I heal first?”

We talked about this in pairs, and I asked my partner to go first because I was still trying to hold it together. We practiced questioning – he asked his question, and I asked further questions to help him discern what was really on his mind and heart. And then we reversed places, and I asked my question (what needs healing in me before I try to help others heal?) and promptly started to cry. Bless my partner – he took it all in his stride, asked probing and gentle questions, and was unfazed by my tears and nose-blowing.

When Dr. Butler brought us back together, she observed some general things – that the question you start with is not the question you end with, but the question you end with is what you need to consider; that it wasn’t understanding we were seeking, necessarily, but movement; that we all like our own ideas best rather than other people’s, and so the trick was for someone to help us figure out what we already knew rather than giving us straight-up advice.

But most of all she noted that social justice is about healing, and we have to heal ourselves if we have any hope of healing the world. We have to turn our compassion inward, and our thoughtfulness, and our resilience, and we have to stick with it. If we don’t, she cautioned, we’ll burn out. If we don’t, we’ll act out our trauma on others. If we don’t, we will not be able to live the life we want to live, pursuing justice and creating peace.

That thought has been with me ever since then – that when I want to rail and SMASH at the world I need to look inward and ask, what in me needs healing that’s responding to this? How do I heal myself as part of the work of bringing about justice?

(At the same event, someone repeated Cornell West’s words: “Justice is love done in public.” I’m thinking about that a lot, too. Where the world is riven with hate, it is something else to think that love is the well from which justice springs. I’m not talking about loving Trump – as the Dalai Lama says, that’s graduate student work; start with your ABCs – but if I come at injustice from a place of loving myself I have a greater capacity to love a better world into existence with the work of my mind, my hands, my feet, my legs. I have more love for others if I can love myself; more compassion; a greater share of empathy.)

Dr. Butler’s session was the last of the conference I was at, and the organizers asked us to go around and find people who had made an impact on us and thank them, express our gratitude, exchange contact information. So I went up to Dr. Butler and immediately started to cry. She took my hands and said, “I have all the time in the world.” (I have never been more touched.) When I could speak I told her that I was the survivor of abuse, and that the film had broken my heart clean open, but all the work we did afterwards had put it back together again, and I was so grateful. She gave me an enormous hug and said that she had been so worried about how people with a history of trauma would react to the film, and that it gave her heart to know that I wasn’t in pieces, but whole. I walked away feeling like I had been blessed in some way that I couldn’t (can’t) express – to go back to the thirsty metaphor, it was as if she’d poured a cup of water over my head and I had felt a moment of utter peace.

So that’s what I can offer – directly from this luminous woman, the injunction to ask yourself “what do I need to do to heal?” and to tend to that place as the wellspring of doing the hard work of facing down injustice and making this world right. If we are not just to ourselves, we have no hope of knowing what justice looks like beyond ourselves. We can know better. We can do better. We can love better. And we can bring about change.
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