Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buried Treasure

Hey y'all. Last night I filled in for Nia and spoke at the annual meeting of a Rape Crisis Center in the next county. I was honored to do it and affirmed by the people in the room. Feel free to participate in the prompt at the end of the speech!

Grassroots Organizing Against Sexual Violence

For the annual meeting of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center

Good evening everyone! I stand here representing Nia Wilson, director of SpiritHouse and co-founder with me and others of UBUNTU, a women of color, survivor-led coalition committed, with all of you, to ending gendered and sexual violence completely by filling our communities with sustaining transformative love.

I am not Nia Wilson, but I am proud to call her my sister, mentor, comrade, loved one, and dear friend. And some would say that we “look alike” because we have a shared vision of a transformed world full of inspired communities. And by community we mean groups of people connected by geography and affinity that truly support each member in having their physical, spiritual and emotional needs met, and their amazing priceless unique gift to the world expressed.

I am also here tonight in the legacy of Audre Lorde, black lesbian feminist mother poet warrior who also used her poetry, her life and her example to stand against sexual violence. I will be using on of Audre Lorde’s lesser-known later poems, “On My Way Out I Passed Over You and the Verazzano Bridge” in her collection Our Dead Behind Us to frame my discussion about women of color survivor-led grassroots organizing. Because I strongly believe that (as our other speaker, a high school English teacher and igniter of Scene and Heard youth poetry collective will also speak to) poetry is a powerful context for transformation.

I was asked to speak specifically about what grassroots organzing looks like from the perspective of women of color, those among us who have long held the under-rewarded task of ORGANIZING EVERYTHING often in the face of slander and disrespect…the exact kind of slander and disrespect that makes sexual violence against women of color seem normal.

Audre Lorde speaks for many when she says:

History is not kind to us

we restitch it with living

past memory forward

into desire

into the panic articulation

of want without having

or even the promise of getting

And this is often the position of women of color led initiatives like ours which do not conform to the standard of non-profit organizing. Organizations like SpiritHouse, which focuses on the soul work of healing with/as those most impacted by racism, sexism and classism, and coalitons like UBUNTU, which acts on the belief that we must create whoel communities full of shared childcare, shared, music, shared meals, collective gardents, and definitely poetry in order to grow a world where people are truly accountable to each other and sexual violence is no more….groups like ours are not always legible to foundations that value social services and policy outcomes, but which often overlook the community building work, the love work. Love is sadly undervalued in the non-profit industrial complex, but we as women of color are learning to be fierce beacons of love and finding support for that work is like planting your heart in the ground you stand on, shining your faith light and tears into your community and welcoming whatever grows up. Grass. Roots.

Even the present is not kind. We restitch it with living, past memory, forward into desire.

We draw on the resources of the brilliant women of color who have come before us and who hold a light to our vision today. SpiritHouse and UBUNTU have actively used the poetic work of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Ntozake Shange and asha bandele in our healing performances and independent publications and writing workshops.

We also ally with contemporary warriors like genius filmmaker Aishah Simmons who’s film NO! reminds us who we are and what we deserve and reminds men who are allies committed to ending sexual violence of their stake in the matter. Deconstructing male privilege means that men are not helping to end sexual violence on my behalf, they are not stopping rape from a property perspective to protect wives, mothers, daughters, etc. If you identify as a man ending rape, you are ending rape because it is not what you would want someone to do to YOU, Period.

SpiritHouse youth program which I have been involved in for the past 5 years works with some of the most criminalized members of our communities. Young black people, mostly male-identified, who have often been long-term suspended and exprelled from Durham public schools because of their involvement in gangs or street organizations. These are the people most likely to get pulled over if they drive anywhere, who have the hardest times finding jobs, who are often harassed just for walking down the street or hanging out. And no, they don’t always have the most PC gender language. We know from being accountable to and led by these young people that being treated like a criminal does not give anyone a healthier relationship to their own sexuality or anyone else’s body.

If the increased surveillance and criminalization is not the way to end sexual violence, and I strongly believe that it is not, as a survivor like most survivors of sexual violence that was enacted on me by someone in my circle of trust, how do we heal our communities?

In UBUNTU, a coalition of which SpiritHouse is a founding organizational member, we believe that when everyone’s needs are met, when we can look at each other eye to eye, when we can tell the truth about economic violence, agist silencing and sex in general, and when we can tell the even harder, rarer, riskier truth about love, we will treat each other well, we will love each other right.

The committees of UBUNTU have created poetic performances, writing groups, a community garden, a national day of truthtelling and monthly potluck dinners as investments in the belief that as Audre Lorde says:

And I dream of us coming together

encircled driven

not only by love

but by a lust for a working tomorrow

the flights of this journey

mapless uncertain

and necessary as water,

And the flights are maples. The tragic thing is that we do not know how to navigate life without violence, distrust and harmful silences. But Lorde offers us this poem:

I am writing these words as a route map

an artifact for survival

a chronicle of buried treasure

a mourning

for this place we are about to be leaving

And in the spirit of that buried treasure, that necessary digging. I have a poem that I would like you to interact with. Are you willing to interact?

The poem is called Dig (available as a PDF here:

And at the end of the poem (and for you reading in the comments) please respond to the prompt for your community, for yourself, or for any definition of “here” that you hold:

“If you dig here you will find ______________________”

(at the event each person stood and declared that we would find, “a poem” “love” “hope” “more digging to do” “dirt” “roots” “a proud father of three daughters” “peace” “a hundred dreams ready to be lived” “intertwining pathways” and more! And each person remained standing until the entire room was standing for the depth of healing that will truly end sexual violence. And I said…)

I was asked to speak about what grassroots organzing looks like from my perspective. I think this is what it looks like. Learning to stand against sexual violence with our whole selves. Thank you for your bravery.

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