Whether it be based in actuality or merely internal projection, the past couple of weeks, and the process of really committing and leaning into my offerings I have been plagued with the question,
“Who am I to offer this….”
The specific variations of the self-doubt questioning come in many specific flavours.
Early on in the process I had a meeting with a friend and someone who I look up to professionally. When we discussed this idea we spoke largely of credentials. We are all very accustomed to seeing the letters or certifications that follow someone’s name – a rubber stamp from academia to show that we have been proven legit.
For those of us who have pursued learning outside the ivory tower however, the establishment and defence of credentials is not as simple as universally understood abbreviations and a framed and mounted degree. One of the things this friend reminded me, was that for those of us who are working on the fringes (especially in practices like coaching, bodywork, things that are still considered experimental integrated approaches, and things that exist between legal greys and shadows of prohibition like sex support and psychedelic therapies) we will always have to defend our work, whether we have a certificate or not. As long as the world considers the work we do to be experimental, edge pushing, controversial or difficult to understand, a part of our work is to advocate for our right to do it.
I received a question on the facebook page for Resilience Building for Trans Folks that asked me about my race, my positionality and questioned the lack of people of colour visible on the available publicity thus far. Given the ways that intersecting structures of oppression impact people of colour, and even more so, women of colour, trans women of colour, trans women of colour in poverty and poor trans women of colour working in survival sex work, I returned to the question,
“Who am I to do this work….”
As a white person, as a white person living in Canada, with middle class privilege, invisible disabilities and access to masculine privilege- who am I to talk about resilience?
My experience in the world has never and will never include the types of violence experienced by those who were named at this year’s trans day of remembrance. My experience of being trans has involved pretty minimal experiences of violence; my walking in the world publicly as a trans person doesn’t actively put my life at risk. What do I know about resilience?
I fear that my offering of this course could be misinterpreted as me positioning myself in a position of expertise on all things trans.
This summer I had the opportunity to hear Kate Bornstein speak to a room full of trans folks and those who love us. She called us the most unlikely family, our experiences extending so far along every axis possible that we have almost nothing in common. Even the ways that we relate to being trans can be so different, that our commonality can also feel like a division. I am not suggesting that I am a prime candidate to serve as a spokesperson of our family. In fact, I think the idea of having any one person represent the issues and needs of such an incredibly diverse group of people will always feel off for someone. “Building Resilience” is not about position of expertise, or spokesmanship.
Within my family of origin I have a bit of a reputation of being a pot-stirrer: recognizing the dynamics that are playing out and naming them, even when that makes people uncomfortable. A few years ago I tried my hand at documentary film making, I later abandoned the project, but entering into it I was afraid. I wanted to use myself and my family to tell the story of how intergenerational trauma impacts mental health and addiction. I showed up at family dinners with camera in hand asking people to talk about coping skills, learning to be ok, and to tell the hard stories of when they weren’t. I was expecting that my family would close their shells, ask me to put away the camera, tell me to mind my own business. But instead, members of my family breathed a deep sigh of relief as my invitation to speak to these issues opened conversations that had been brewing under the surface and allowed them to breathe.
The fear to initiate had been commonly held, but the relief in speaking openly was also commonly held in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
I have played the role of agitator professionally, being the representative on conference panels telling service providers that they need to learn to get the fuck out of the way and challenging organizations to take on the tough questions about their priorities and values. Calling out issues and naming organizational shortcomings was something I always had a tendency to do. My fear surrounding my own job security, the funding for programs I was employed in or the reputation of organizations I worked for sometimes kept my mouth shut even when my heart didn’t agree. When I experienced my last wave of burn-out I decided to walk away from that security and the pressures it came with. When I was able to operate from outside of the default scarcity driven position, I could feel free to speak to my beliefs and experiences, without fear that it would devastate the funding for my programs. As a “free-agent” I felt a new freedom. As I stepped into that, it became abundantly clear that people had been waiting for the conversations that I had been afraid to have.
Closing the gaps between service providers and “clients” has been a big part of that. I think it’s crucial for service providers to enter into the mental gymnastics that can allow them to see the ways that they share commonality with the people they serve, while also recognizing the ways their privilege sets them apart. Understanding the intersections of these things seems to be really hard for folks, especially folks who have access to some privileges. We quickly and fiercely hold onto the ways that our experience as women/gays/poor whites/immigrants/… etc somehow grant us an understanding. I get that. I have struggled with that myself, trying to understand racism by placing in parallel to my experience as a trans person. Over time though, eventually realizing that my experience as a trans person, a white trans person, will NEVER allow me to personally understand what racism feels like. I will NEVER personally understand the feelings of indigenous people fighting for their traditional territories. I will NEVER personally understand the ways that folks who’ve grown up highly medicalized or with serious mobility impairments experience ableism. I will NEVER personally understand the experiences of trans people 25 years my senior, those who transitioned before the internet, before Jamison Green, Loren Cameron or Leslie Feinberg could be found in a local library.
For me to work in solidarity on issues that I don’t personally understand involves me needing to do a couple of things that are really hard. First, to admit to myself that I don’t know. This can (and in most cases should be) an admission done in my own head, or at least in the presence of others who share in the not-knowing. For example white people supporting each other in unlearning racism is valid, and not something we should be expecting our p.o.c. siblings to be doing the labour for. Making a big statement about the ways that I don’t know, or trying to make a big show of it was critiqued recently in an article on BlackGirlDangerous explaining “Ally Theater”. When we (people in a position of privilege) make a show of the ways that we are ignorant, or the ways that we are trying, we engage in theatrics that steal the stage from the really important second part.
Part two involves me actively listening to the voices of people who do know. Structures of oppression influence whose voices are heard and how and where in ways that make marginalized voices harder to find, harder to hear, and when considered under that first issue (credentials and legitimacy) often not considered valid. Learning to listen involves unlearning the ways that we internally assess legitimacy. It also involves actively deconstructing the racist biases we have been stewed in, recognizing that words spoken in a dialect other than the colonial oxford english standard, can hold important truths. It can also involve a process of acknowledging that sometimes those voices cannot be found.
Aurora Levins Morales talks about this in “The Historian as Curendera”, illustrating the ways that sometimes the stories we need to hear are actually story shaped holes, where we are left to question and imagine what could exist where we can’t find hard data.
Preparing content for “Resilience Building for Trans Folks and Our Allies” is framed by this type of labour. Spending days combing the internet for voices and perspectives other than my own that can help round out the content of the course. And even in that I am challenged, as I try to source voices and experiences different from mine, I ask myself questions about appropriation. Am I utilizing my platform in a way that helps uplift voices, or am I stealing those voices to secure my own livelihood? Obviously an exploration of trans resilience requires conversations about racism and colonial violence, and once again “Who am I to do that work?”
I don’t want to position myself as an expert. It feels obvious to me that contributions that I may have in direct regards to issues that I don’t personally experience will not necessarily be of value to those who do personally experience them. I understand that people of colour may not want to work around resilience building with a white facilitator. I think that every person should feel empowered to find teachers, facilitators, community leaders that inspire them and that they feel connected to. I also think that a part of developing my own solidarity practice involves stepping into helping hold conversations that people with access to privilege need to be having. White people need to be talking about racism, folks with mobility privilege need to be working on accessibility issues, men need to be learning about sexism. And yet for marginalized people, sometimes folks can’t find the leaders that they are looking for. Sometimes those folks are in the woodwork, working on their offerings, waiting for their turn, trying to harness the confidence or just needing a signal boost to reach their audience. I hope that my role as one of many leaders in the communities that I work in serves to help return the support I found in teachers and inspirational leaders.
I aspire to hold community learning spaces in ways that support new leaders to step into their power.
While I was in the editing stages of writing this I was contacted by a teacher of mine who has been a massive inspiration and whose course “The Burning Times Never Ended” helped me really put together some big pieces of how I understand systems of oppression. Her course also allowed me to envision what it could mean to develop and offer an educational offering via the internet to radical communities. After I had already spoken with her about my intentions and plans, she received a few private messages from concerned friends wondering if I was teaching a trans version of her course. This was based on some of the advertising that has recently come out for what I am offering.
They wanted to know what was similar and what was different between our offerings, and since we hadn’t discussed that explicitly, she contacted me in order to ask me, clearly and with intent to learn what was at the heart of my own offering in order to answer those questions born of a protective curiosity. In answering her I thought about how we understand the lines between inspiration and plagiarism.
It was an easeful conversation, and one that exemplified how we each have the choice in a moment to reach out and ask about what we may not understand with a willingness to give trust. She listened as I spoke, and at the end, she felt confident that our offerings were complementary and plans to continue to support me and mine.
I want to make clear that I also support her work, in fact I have already highly recommended her course as a helpful pre-req to those who want the full deep nerd-out about some of the topics I’m planning on my course to explore. When our offerings are experimental, prototypes for a new approach to education, prototypes for new relationships to economic exchange we are in a position to be making a certain amount of it up as we go along. I aim to find ways to communicate and deliver my offerings as being distinctly informed by those I have learned from, and distinctly different enough for us to be able to support each other without fearing competition, scarcity, theft and disrespect.
I trust that she feels the same and makes effort to do the same.
Another impact of the academic institution controlling education is the stratification of power along teacher-student lines. I am an educator. I am a facilitator. Teacher, however, has never sat quite as well with me. My background in education has been largely rooted in community education, free school approaches and facilitation. These approaches to education recognize that the “students” in a learning environment have valuable perspectives, a diversity of knowledge and the unique inspiration that when supported will support each person’s richest learning. Explaining approaches to education that are outside of convention can be challenging and sometimes we use compromised word choices to explain concepts across perceived language barriers. Maybe the course could better be described as a knowledge exchange, or a learning exploration, but I chose to call it an online course to attempt to simplify the communication. I hope that people who have different experiences than myself will be willing to join in the learning space that is “Resilience Building” because I know that what they bring will be super valuable to me and also to the others sharing in that learning.
Finding ways to balance this, creating meaningful non tokenizing ways to engage a diversity of perspectives in a learning environment, that is the facilitator’s art.
I hope that the ways that I am able to bring questions along with content to the classroom help hold our collective knowledge in respectful and celebratory ways.
All of this is happening with global crisis looming in the background. Refugees, climate talks, militant extremism, security crackdowns, corporate economies on the eternal brink of collapse. Everything about this time seems crucial. Intense. Important. Urgent. Indigenous activists, at the climate talks this week and for decades now, are naming the fact that we need large scale global systemic shifts to make prevent humans from being cooked off this planet. We need to think about alternatives to the ways that we have understood business, governments, and solutions. In complete honesty that involves actively considering and working towards alternatives to imperialist capitalism. We have to ask and be willing to explore the answers to really hard questions. We have to decide what parts of these dying systems we are ready to let go of. We need to work to support each other and our culture in letting go of the pieces that will not serve us in the future we dream of.
This time calls us to be death midwives for the culture that cooked us.
Thinking about solutions outside of the capitalist mindset of never-ending growth involves creating spaces for everyone to bring their thing to the table. We can’t afford to not see our gifts as valuable or important. The world needs our special weirdo selves more than ever.
So, from all of this, I am working on shifting this question, “who am I to do this work?” to variations where I am less actively shutting myself down.
Instead I am asking myself:
“How do I do this work with integrity?”
“How does my whiteness/class privilege/masculinity inform my work?”
“How can I hold space for my own complicated relationships to privilege? What happens to my masculine privilege when it wears a dress or expresses femininity? How can I carry my experiences of sexism and my beard in balance? ”
“Who is missing and how do I pursue the story sized holes?”
“How do I best honour those who have inspired my work?”
“How do I support future leaders in stepping into their power?”
“How do I continue to find the resilience to keep at all of this when it feels really hard and the doom sets in?”
I look forward to sharing this learning opportunity with those of you who feel like it’s a good fit for you.
I look forward to finding ways to continually improve the ways that we work together.
Please be in touch with questions about Resilience Building for Trans Folks and Our Allies. You can sign up here. To follow the breadcrumbs back to some of the places that I learned from you can check out this long story with lots of links.
Please know that this is a process. I aim to share that in ways that allow transparency. I value letting the vulnerability of learning shine light on the ways that we are all trying, fucking up, and trying some more.