The Resurgence of Indigenous Midwery

drawing of a city burning down while the sky women is pregnant

by Alyssa Gagnon

         My spirit name is nipi, which means water in Swampy Cree n dialect. The n dialect is spoken in various communities along the coasts of the James and Hudson Bay. The ancestral lands of my family are Fort Albany and Chisasibi along both sides of the James Bay coast, and I identify as a mixed-blood Cree iskwew (woman). My other name is Alyssa Gagnon and I am the mother to a sweet iskwesish (daughter) whose spirit name is masikisk (cedar) and to another chicheesh (baby) due to arrive at the end of December. I am a third year student in the Midwifery Education Program at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario.

From November 2015 to October 2016, I was the National Aboriginal Council of Midwives’ student representative and participated in community consultations with the Eeyou Itschee Midwifery File Cultural Working Group who worked to bring midwifery back to three Cree communities in northern Quebec: Chisasibi, Waskaganish, and Mistissini.

When I arrived in Chisasibi in July 2016, I stepped foot on the land where my nimushum (grandfather) is from and felt a sense of belonging. Not only did the land welcome me, so did family members I had not met before. More recently, I have become a member of the Association of Ontario Midwives’ Indigenous/Aboriginal Midwifery Advisory Council to offer an Indigenous student’s voice.

Like many Indigenous families in Canada, my family is no exception to the legacy of residential schooling. My grandfather, his siblings, and extended family members are survivors. This is the first reason why I pursued a career in midwifery – a solid and tangible way to support my People. I truly believe in blood memory and that the way we are brought into the physical world can affect our spirit for the rest of our lives. I believe in trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care for our People – care that is healing and land-based. As such, I relocated to Attawapiskat, Ontario for an eight-week placement and returned to Toronto at the beginning of November. Attawapiskat is a remote, fly-in community located on the west coast of the James Bay. Many moons ago, my auntie was born in a tent on this land probably near a trap line, one of the many modalities for sustenance by the Cree.

When I was a young child, I would travel to Moosonee on the Ontario Northland train with my kokom (grandma) when her brittle knees allowed her to be mobile. If we wanted to get fancy, we would take a freighter over to Moose Factory Island to walk around as rez dogs followed us hoping for handouts. At the age of 6 or 7, Moosonee is the place where I first met a midwife (little did I know). She was a kokom in her early 90s sitting with another kokom around the same age selling rosaries made up of moose hide and big beads on the side of a dirt road. In 2015 when I entered the midwifery program, I found out that this kokom I met more than 20 years earlier was indeed a midwife, but not the kind we see

toay. With my kokom being from Fort Albany and my nimushum (grandpa) from Chisasibi, my heart is entrenched into the aski (land) in and around the James Bay. I will always be a nomadic Cree and believe that birth was never meant to be a stagnant activity wrought with hospital confinement in low-risk situations.

For us, birth can be a meaningful catalyst for cultural ownership in lieu of historic and ongoing institutionalized and colonialist oppression. Indigenous health disparity is nothing new and Indigenous midwives are gatekeepers that support our People in navigating these hierarchal systems while peacefully resisting them.

There are many Indigenous midwives doing incredible things and I am humbled to call some of them, if not all of them, my mentors, teachers, and Elders. There is also a growing community of Indigenous student midwives who I am lucky to call friends. Be prepared Canada – there will be more of us working in every Indigenous community until every one of them has reclaimed birth as a sovereign act of cultural resiliency. Not only do midwives provide stellar clinical care, they bridge the gap between what colonization has done to this land and the bodies of our People. From what I have observed and learned so far, Indigenous midwives gracefully dismantle colonial systems that wish to maintain mechanisms that keep our birthing people compliant and dissatisfied with their health care. Land and body are inherently connected, and are not mutually exclusive phenomena.

More than 100 years ago, the work of Indigenous midwives was replaced with non-Indigenous, usually male doctors, who believed that birth was better suited to a hospital setting. Removing normal, low-risk birth from its traditional place on the land, and placing it in unfamiliar buildings further from home is yet another means to separate families. This instilled fear into our People who began to birth their babies void of ceremony and family members with the development of the evacuation policy in the 1960s. For years, traditional midwives have used, and passed on their knowledge to others within their communities, and outside of modern, Western channels.

Today, Indigenous midwives have been gathering together in order to bring back what is inherently ours: birth on the land. Now, the resurgence includes their ability to provide care within hospitals, and maintaining and opening practices across Canada.

Evacuation is a successful attempt by the federal government to institutionalize the birthing practices of Indigenous childbearing people. The Euro-Canadian bio-medical model perpetuates the socialization of the birthing process as something to be feared through monitored hospital containment even in low-risk situations. True reconciliation between the Canadian government and Indigenous people is only going to come about through the support of life givers. This requires new health care policies that implements the reclamation of Indigenous birthing systems that supports Indigenous childbearing people in determining their own perinatal care with proper referrals in high-risk situations.

I urge you to look up Neepeeshowan Midwives in Attawapiskat, Ontario, Seventh Generation Midwives Toronto, Inuulitsivik and Tulattavik health centres in Nunavik, Québec, the Rankin Inlet Birthing Centre (RIBC) and the Cambridge Bay Birthing Centre both located in Nunavut, the Fort Smith Health and Social Services Midwifery Program in the Northwest Territories, Kinosao Sipi Midwifery Clinic in Norway House, Manitoba, Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta’ Six Nations Maternal and Child Centre, Kontinenhanónhnha Tsi Tkaha:nayen located on Tyendinaga Mohawk territory, Kenhtè:ke Midwives, Kontinenhanónhnha Tsi Tkahà:nayen “they are protecting the seeds at the Bay of Quinte”, the midwives of Hay River Health and Social Services Authority located in Northwest Territories, K’Tigaaning Midwives located on Nipissing First Nation territory, and last, but not least, the Ionteksa’tanoronhkwa “child-cherishers” Homebirth Midwives located in Akwesasne, Ontario.

The provision of midwifery services is interwoven with the importance of keeping birth within communities. My hope for Indigenous midwifery to keep growing is informed by my own experience as someone who did not give birth on my land, but also in the narratives of birthing and parenting peoples that I heard through midwifery information gatherings that I have held on Taykwa Tagamou territory. My love of the land and my People motivates me to dream bigger and do more. A vision of mine is to contribute to the development of a community-based Cree midwifery education program, teach midwifery to people wishing to remain in their communities, and incorporate Cree language into the curriculum.

In June 2017, the federal government announced funding for Indigenous midwifery in Indigenous communities. It may not be enough, but it is a step in the right direction to true reconciliation between Canada and our People. Only by re-establishing connection to the land at birth, both for the infants, and those that birthed them, can we start reversing damage done by so many years of non-Indigenous medical policy. In Ontario, there are three university-based programs: Ryerson in Toronto, McMaster in Hamilton, and Laurentian in Sudbury. There is also a community-based training program located on Six Nations territory at the Tsi Non:we Ionnakeratstha Ona:grahsta’ Six Nations Maternal and Child Centre, which has traditional teachings and language embedded into their curriculum.

Indigenous midwives are primary health care providers who stay awake while the rest of the world sleeps. They provide clinical care, deconstruct patriarchy, liberate our lands and waters, and exceed our ancestor’s wildest dreams by bringing Indigenous babies into the world. As the only mushkegowuk student midwife, I am calling all Cree youth and those who are already nurses to consider becoming a midwife – we need you (I need you, ha!) However, people are working hard so that you will not have to leave your communities – as learners, life givers, and protectors of your families. One day, we will blossom further onto the land and there will be more midwifery practices along the coast of the James Bay, and even as far north as Peawanuck. There will be a return of kâkishkapikêshikêt (the one who cuts the cord) to all Indigenous communities.

Disclaimer: I do not represent any organization or institution mentioned in this article.


 

Alyssa Gagnon
Alyssa Gagnon’s spirit name is nipi (water). She grew up on Taykwa Tagamou Nation territory and her ancestral lands are along the James Bay coast. She is a mother, a graduate of Indigenous Studies from Western University, and a third year student in the Midwifery Education Program at Ryerson University.

Project Future is Now

by Savannah Clarke, Alana Siloch and Kaya DeCosta

                  We would like to give thanks to having the opportunity to work on the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. The territory was the subject of the Dish with One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant, an agreement between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe and allied nations to peaceably share and care for the resources around the Great Lakes. This territory is also covered by the Upper Canada Treaties. Today, the meeting place of Toronto (from the Haudenosaunee word Tkaronto) is still the home to many Indigenous people from across Turtle Island.

Project Future is a six-month mentorship program run through the Children’s Peace Theatre, that celebrates the voices of Black and Indigenous artists while offering mentorship and tools for a new future. Working with an incredible line up of leading artists from multidisciplinary backgrounds (i.e. music, theatre, visual arts etc.), Project Future offers land-based creative development and permaculture earthwork. With mentorship and teachings from their elders, the young artists are given tools to grow both as individual and socially conscious artists. As the program culminated this past September, we sat down and reflected on a few of the workshops and teachings we experienced.

Permaculture with The Stop

The Stop Community Food Centre contributed permaculture teachings throughout the duration of the program. Joce Tremblay shared teachings on seeds, food justice and re-indigenizing food growth in the city. Joce also led members through The Stop’s extensive greenhouse, sharing knowledge about how to care for plants as well as how to interact with them. The Stop also led Project Future in an onsite planting project. Joce and Melisse provided seeds of the three sisters, corn, beans and squash, for us to plant. Over the course of Project Future, we watched the sisters grow and thrive. It was very much a reflection of our own growth as a collective. We cultivated land around Children’s Peace Theatre, which was the base of the program. Space was made to plant many different species indigenous to Tkaronto. While we planted, we learned about caring for plants through a more holistic approach and how to treat colonial plants that may be invasive but also have purpose.

Savannah: “One of the most beautiful things for me was talking to the plants, asking permission and giving thanks. We built such an intense relationship with them. Also, I was pleasantly surprised at how much learning about the land and caring for the land informed my writing process. We are so similar! Learning about these plants, their history and life force really grounded me and reminded me how small we are in this world.

Alana: “The Stop was beautiful, full of information about plants and seeds, the greenhouse they have is amazing and very well taken care of. As soon as you walk into the greenhouse the air is so pure and full of life. We got our hands dirty in the fresh soil, tasted some of the plant’s leaves, and connect with the plants. The staff made an amazing meal for us and the ingredients all came from their garden”.

Kaya: “I loved going to The Stop and receiving teachings on tobacco. We learned about how ancient of a plant it is and how plentiful it’s seed pods are. We also got to interact with corn that came from seeds passed down through many generations of selective planting. Being able to interact with a product of such ancient technology was quite spectacular.

Talking Treaties with Ange Loft Talking & Treaties Rehearsal and Performance

Project future first met with artist Ange Loft for her facilitation on Talking Treaties; a combination of history, visual arts, and an audio collage. First, we listened to some audio clips of Indigenous elders from the Tkaronto community speak on the One Dish One Spoon Treaty. While listening to the clips we made associations with symbols and words to later use when we created stamps. These stamps were a representation of what stood out to us, and they were used as a contribution to a prop in the Talking Treaties production. Through Ange’s facilitation we learned how to reuse someone else’s creation and transform it into a new creation. By tying all our creations about the disparities and betrayal with the Treaties put together, Ange used it as a symbolic prop in the Treaties production.

Project future also had the honour of being a part of the production and joined Ange and the production crew during rehearsal sessions. We were taught the choreography and performed the piece at Fort York for the Indigenous Arts Festival.

Alana: “It was amazing opportunity to learn how to create through the concept of recycling art. The concept of using everyone’s thoughts on the Treaties to be represented as one big symbolic prop speak to the audience.”

Savannah: Coming into the program late I was not able to take part in the first workshop with Ange Loft but I had the opportunity to be an extra body during rehearsals. It was such a privilege learning about the Dish with One Spoon treaty through the means of theatre. I thought a lot about how stories of this treaty are often told, what aspects are left out and who are usually telling them.

Kaya: The Talking Treaties production was so immersive and collaborative. It really inspired me to think more about community based projects and the diverse ways of storytelling. Being able to work so closely with such a powerhouse in the Indigenous arts community was a privilege.

INTRODUCTION TO DRAMATURGY WITH JILL CARTER

Jill Carter is an actress, performer and professor at the University of Toronto. She led us in several different performance and story weaving based workshops. Jill also led us on a walk around the UofT campus where several buried rivers are. On this walk, she shared the buried history of how colonization affected that area, as well as how it continues to thrive. She posed this history in relation to how Tkaronto is built on a system of rivers, which continue to run under it. In her workshops, Jill asked us to reflect upon our relationship to our bodies and land. She shared techniques for harnessing different energies in our body, and kinetically connecting with other bodies. These activities challenged us to abandon insecurities around using our voices and bodies to express our ideas. Jill also shared her extensive knowledge on story weaving and invited us to engage with each other’s ideas to strengthen them. Jill really helped us gain confidence in our ideas for the culminating festival.

Kaya: The rivers that are still running underneath the monstrosity of industrial Tkaronto give me hope. They to me are metaphors for the spirits of the land protectors and land warriors that remain strong against the colonial regime.

Alana: Walking around Tkaronto and listening to the knowledge, and answers to what was here before. This land has deep history from Indigenous nations. It was an honour having Jill shed her wisdom and knowledge on what the colonizers have buried. The rivers continue to run, if you listen closely you may hear them.

Savannah: In terms of our story weaving workshop, I remember leaving feeling so rejuvenated and reflected a lot on what it means to listen to my body when telling stories and what weaving means when collaborating with other storytellers. What aspects of our own stories we have in common? What  is different? How do we interpret each other’s stories? Also, I really wish I was there for that tour. I remember seeing a map of Tkaronto pre-colonization and being absolutely amazed at how many rivers had been built over.

Writing while Black/ Indigenous w/ Whitney French

Writer Whitney French facilitated two-part futurities, racialized writing workshop with Project Future. In our writing pieces, we reflected on connections with our ancestors, the land, and futuristic thoughts. We did different writing exercises, first Whitney would read out a word and we would have to write one word that pops into our head, after writing down a couple of words we chose 3 and made a sentence out of them. The second exercise we did was with the sentence “there are pyramids in my backyard”, it was interesting to see how everyone’s piece turned out. We also played a storytelling game where Whitney brought in a list of different fantasy plot settings and we rolled a die to create our own world where our stories would take place. We then all created our own stories based on this futuristic /fantasy world.

Alana: “I tend to stick to Westernized genres and plots (not on purpose), this workshop opened my mind to exploring new themes and ideas consisting of non-human shapeshifters”

Kaya: Whitney’s writing activities re-lit my fire in terms of writing. She reminded me how important it is to write, especially if it something you do to heal. Regardless of what you are writing, just start! Through writing, we can construct alternative narratives, futurist ones, that are often excluded from the canon.

Savannah: There is something so beautiful about envisioning a future separate from our current reality. In writing and Afro-futurism or Indigenous-futurism it can look like so many different things. These workshops affirm that our stories are relevant, important and essential. Even if we just write for fun and nobody but us sees our pieces, it’s still relevant.

Savannah’s Project Future Journal Entry                   July 13

I am the plant that adapts but needs to be very grounded to do so. Like a vine. It takes them a long time to get to where they need to be but they get there. They spend their whole life span getting as close to the light as they can (like in the tropics). The light for me is divinity and actualizing. The energy that drives me is to better understand myself. I must admit I’m not as hard bodied as my vine friends but like them I will “grow” and learn to adapt.

My roots

It grounds me

I swirl around the base

As i move towards the divine

We share so we can survive

I help others but my journey is my own

I need others but my journey is my own


 

Savannah Clarke
Savannah Clarke is a young performing artist. She has recently graduated with her undergraduate and is an alumni of the Watah Theatre. She is now currently growing her art form. Her art has always been attached to her identity as a black queer woman and she strongly believes that storytelling is essential for the movement of black liberation.  While she continues to unearth what her artistry can look like, she stays committed to connecting and understanding the integrity of its roots.

Kaya DaCosta
Kaya DaCosta is a mixed Black Indigenous multi-disciplinary artist whose work explores themes of identity, femininity and land connection. Her visual work draws inspiration from nature, hip hop and fantasy, providing eclectic styles from which to work with. Using bright colours, mixed media and obscure character design, Kaya’s work is a reflection of her experiences as a young woman of colour navigating through the world. Kaya is currently completing a Bachelor of Design degree at the Ontario College of Art and Design University.

Alana Siloch
Alana Siloch is an upcoming artist inspired by her Caribbean ancestors who constantly call to her. She sleeps, eats and breaths her Jamaican and Trinidadian roots. Alana is currently completing her undergraduate studies at Ryerson University in the Child and Youth Care Program. Alana see’s the potential the future generations have and hopes to be ally in fighting against social injustices for all people.

as one, two, three

by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

i.

dirt

they crossed their hands in front of them, held each to the other and pulled back, exposing and lengthening muscles, tugging at the tension they needed in order to be able to grow.

no rings. every finger was for learning touch, learning how to be a hand, for palm reading each other’s faces for selves, pasts, futures, and fuck-ups. and their feet were planted, each toe conscripted, pushing down as their heads reached diagonally up.

there were places the sun kissed them that they didn’t know about. angles and star patterns ancients had built of stone. their bodies were repeating, not like reproduction, like the rhythm of a poem.

they could feel they were growing. biceps singing pulling in triceps teasing pulling out abs engaged. engaged the whole time.

if someone had told them that people used to buy each other down, strip each other into skeletons for the purpose of contracts and fear, they would have laughed.

and they were strong enough to laugh loud and for a very long time. without dropping each other on the ground.

and the ground shook, like the soil was trying to till itself when they looked into each other’s open eyes 1.

 

II.

fire

they looked each other in the eyes every time, and did not leave each other without singing a prayer of the name or the wish. they learned to add touching hands into the ritual, a tradition newly sacred after the memory of the epidemic.

and of course none of that would have been possible if they didn’t remember to look themselves in the eye every morning. or to chant the name of the prayer. or to track their dreams for keeping and sharing.

there is a sacredness to every day. every time.

it means again and again. it means all of us. it means this moment. this time. you and me.  we’re here.

which was something they would never again take for granted2.

 


1. how will you be engaged in the struggle? “Anatomy of a Mobilization,” 178.
2. disciplined freedom capable of renovating the collective terms of our engagement Pedagogies of the Sacred, 329

3. once we ceased being mindlesss spiritless bodies  Anatomy of a Mobilization, 130

 

III.

sky

then we cleared out the shelf space in our lungs. we dusted our convenient ribs. we trusted our muscular hearts. we tied ribbons all around inside. we laced them through our organs with no function but love. then we noticed that the only function of our organs was love. and we let them breathe again.

we took off our leaden clothes and we skipped out of our concrete shoes and we went barefoot enough to bear the rubble we had created just before. we let the sun touch us and felt what we had done to the ozone in our daze. we noticed that skin was just as thin as it should have been and all that we had been calling skin before were layers of accumulated scars.

we touched each other’s hands and found them warm and ridged with remembering. we traced the lines and found home again and again. home was like a pulse. home was where the hurt was. we lunged and pressed towards each other’s chests. we let longing lead long-past our labored lack. we held each other’s hands. they did not break.

we painted the walls with breathing. we painted the walls with breathing. we painted the walls with breathing and found they were not walls at all. they were the forests of our forgetting, beautiful and dark with medicine. we marvelled. at the patience of the trees3.

“as one, two, three,” is an excerpt from a longer work entitled M Archive: After the End of the World. All references are to Pedagogies of Crossings: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred, Duke University Press, 2006.


 

Alexis Pauline Gumbos
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity and the forthcoming M Archive: After the End of the World. She is also a co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the FrontLines. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Reflections from the Front Lines

By: Micah Hobbes Frazier

Visionary:

adjective

thinking about or planning the future with imagination or wisdom.

“a visionary leader”.

inspired, imaginative, creative, inventive, ingenious, innovative, enterprising.

noun

a person (or organization) with original ideas about what the future will or could be like.

 

                    i remember first meeting generation FIVE in 2001 when i started working for the Harm Reduction Coalition as the Training Coordinator for the SFDPH training program contract. my job was to coordinate a quarterly training calendar for service providers under the HIV Prevention section of SFDPH, and work with trainers to develop both content and their facilitation skills. At the time Staci Haines, a Co-founder of generationFIVE, was co-facilitating trainings on the connections between trauma and drug use for the quarterly calendar. that is how i was introduced to the organization and its vision to end child sexual abuse within five generations or 100 years. Over the next 10 years my relationship with generationFIVE deepened. first i began attending trainings to increase my knowledge of child sexual abuse (csa) and understanding of trauma. Eventually i became a training assistant, and then a lead trainer of the 3-day training on Child Sexual Abuse and Transformative justice. in 2007 generationFIVE hired me as staff and as a program team member to help develop and build our TJ work in different sectors. that summer we released ‘Towards Transformative Justice’, and joined our partners in bringing CSA and TJ work to the first US Social Forum in Atlanta. i finally left the organization completely in 2011.

 

Strengths:

1. Collaboration 

generationFIVE has a long history of bringing together and working with many different leaders, communities, and movement sectors. the organization itself was started after a series of 13 community meetings that engaged over 100 community leaders in the question: “what would it take to end child sexual abuse within 100 years?”. As the work grew, and deepened collaboration became a core principle and practice toward building transformative justice more broadly. this is reflected most in the collaborations and partnerships leading to the writing and publishing of ‘Toward Transformative Justice’ and the TJ workshop series at the 2007 USSF in Atlanta. Additionally, our study into action process and efforts to build TJ Collaboratives in the Bay Area, Atlanta, and New York reflected a strong commitment to collaboration. organizing, and building in this way allowed for a depth of knowledge, creativity, imagination and experience that greatly enhanced the thinking and practice of TJ.

2. Willing to Take Risks 

generationFIVE was at the forefront of articulating child sexual abuse as a social justice issue, and addressing it through community organizing and movement building instead of through service provision or the criminal legal system. This was a very new approach in the field of child sexual abuse response and prevention at the time, and not widely understood (or accepted) by funders or other organizations doing work around child sexual abuse. even today only a very small group of community leaders/innovators are working to address and end child sexual abuse in transformative ways similar to generationFIVE. additionally social justice and movement building organizations were not yet working on, or even talking about child sexual abuse as a social justice and/or movement issue. trauma and especially child sexual abuse were still primarily considered personal issues not political ones. however, the ‘Towards Transformative Justice’ document clearly articulated the connections between csa, systems of oppression and state violence in ways that had not been done before. and it issued a ‘call to the left’ that challenged social justice movements to understand child sexual abuse in a political context, and to include an analysis of trauma in their fight for liberation. the journey was not easy. navigating constant funding challenges, pushback from state institutions, isolation from more traditional csa response/prevention work and inside of social justice movement spaces, etc. took a heavy toll on all of us. yet despite all of that and more, we were not afraid to be “the first” or “the only”, and continued to take risks that we knew were necessary for the vision and the work.

 

Challenges:

1. Collaboration 

although generationFIVE was very successful in bringing people together, we were not always good at actually working well with others. partners did not always feel respected or well treated, and sometimes we reacted, mainly out of fear, to control how TJ was built and implemented. at times we acted as though we were the only experts and knew best which felt arrogant and dismissive to our partners. often we moved too fast, and didn’t take the time to truly get input from people we were working with. i believe that fear and lack of trust made it difficult for us to truly collaborate in the way we wanted to. because we were working around intense trauma and violence everything felt so big and the stakes always felt so high. holding the weight of that triggered a contraction inside the organization that sometimes negatively impacted how we interacted with, and related to others. certainly that was not our intention, however, that does not change the serious impact of how we sometimes behaved and operated with our partners.

2. Unsustainable Organizational Infrastructure

visionaries are not always good at managing the practical details of implementing their ideas, and we definitely struggled in this area. like many others the co-founders of generationFIVE decided to create a 501c3 organizational structure to build their vision. however, non-profit status made us part of an institutional system that ultimately created challenges that were harmful to our work, and did not allow the organization to create or maintain a sustainable organizational structure. the majority of funders and foundations did not understand our work, or value our approach. those that did were often too afraid to fund us because of the innovation of the work, or unable to because we didn’t fit into their funding categories. Additionally the funding world itself is not set up to fund long term change, especially the kind of focus on long term change that creating a world without child sexual abuse requires. most funding relationships last 3- 5 years at best let alone 5 generations. There were times when staff did not get paid on time because the organization did not have the money to do so. there were times when people were asked to contribute significant amounts of time and labor for free because the organization did have the money to pay them. at the time of my leaving in 2011, the organization was still in debt to its founders. this type of financial uncertainty created a level of chronic instability that negatively impacted the organization and the work.

3. Balance:

meeting the current needs of individuals/communities experiencing violence while working towards building the long-term vision – we don’t have what we need to deal with violence and trauma happening right now:

one of our biggest challenges in building transformative justice work was the complexity of holding both the vision of where we wanted to be and the realities of where we currently were. when responding to incidents of trauma and violence we were asking people to think, believe, and act in ways that moved us towards the vision. however, the current conditions people were navigating most often did not reflect that vision, or even necessarily share a commitment to it. the reality was (and continues to be) that we didn’t have many of the things we needed to actually effectively practice transformative justice on the ground, no matter what our vision was. we didn’t have the resources (alternatives to prison, safe houses, healing/change models, etc.), level of acceptance and buy in needed, power to assert leverage (different than force), political backing, or organizational capacity to bring transformative justice to scale in ways that could meet the levels of trauma and violence people were actually experiencing. sometimes it was very hard to still hold on to the long-term vision when people you love and care about are experiencing trauma and violence right now.

all organizations have strengths and challenges. no one is perfect and perfection should not be the goal, we have to be able to make mistakes. however, we must also acknowledge the very real impact and harm that happens inside of many organizations doing visionary work. often we are afraid to openly name the harmful dynamics or ways of being, however, this only serves to hurt the vision not protect it. what i learned most through my work with generationFIVE is the necessity of having strong systems of support and accountability in place from the beginning to deal with things that come up. because they will come up. as an organization we had a lot of support, however, not a lot of accountability. there were no individual or organizational community partners that were actually holding generationFIVE leadership accountable for the mistakes that were made and harm that was caused. ultimately that caused many great people to leave the organization, and/or not want to work with us. vision alone is not enough. building visionary futures requires that we also stay connected to the present moment and current reality of people’s lives. it requires that we remember that how we get there is just as important as the future we are trying to create. most of all it requires us to be courageous. courageous enough to believe in and move towards something we might never see in our lifetime. and most importantly courageous enough to admit that even though we may have incredible vision we don’t have all the answers, don’t always know the way, and sometimes make mistakes that cause harm.

those were extremely transformative years for the organization and for me personally. along the way generation FIVE’s vision also became mine, deeply developing and shaping my current work around trauma and practice of transformative justice. i am extremely proud of the work we were able to do and the contributions we made to the development of transformative justice (TJ) and community accountability models more broadly. however, i also hold the contradictions that existed inside of the organization and the complexity of the ways in which we did not succeed, and even caused harm. so when i received this opportunity to write about building visionary ways to address violence and heal trauma, i knew i had to write about generation FIVE and transformative justice. this piece is not about transformative justice itself, but rather a partial reflection on the path that generationFIVE as an organization took to build TJ as a way to address violence, and heal trauma. it’s about some of our organizational strengths and challenges in trying to build a visionary future of a world without child sexual abuse using a visionary approach transformative justice.

i’ve chosen to focus my reflections on the years 2007, when i was hired as staff, through 2011 when i left the generationFIVE. those were the years that i was most deeply involved with the organization, and the years we were most active in work around building TJ. what i offer here are reflections from my own perspective based in my long history and many years of direct experience with the organization. i can’t speak for the many other staff, program teams members, volunteers, partners, supporters, etc. that worked with and/or engaged with generationFIVE over its 12 years of active operation. reflection and evaluation are incredibly important for all visionary work. so that is what i offer to you here. a reflection. an evaluation. a reflective evaluation from someone that was right there doing the work. my hope in offering this piece is that it will serve as a useful tool for others engaged in creating visionary futures, and building visionary ways to address violence and heal trauma.


 

micah hobbes frazier
micah hobbes frazier is a black queer mixed-gendered facilitator, somatic coach/healer, and magic maker; living, loving, laughing, and building in Oakland, CA and Tulum, Mexico.

Social Justice Educators: A Note on Your Authority and Power

An illustration of a desk with books and pencils and a raised fist statue. the chalk board reads "anti-oppression 101 E=mc2 (a+b)"

By: Dr. Darrick Smith

                 Many teachers that pursue a mission of social justice struggle with the question of authority in their classroom. After all, the idea of having Authority over someone can feel largely contradictory to a teacher that seeks to spread a sense of fairness inequality amongst the student population. Many of us recall our first moments as activists against injustice as childhood memories of standing up against an authority figure that was in our eyes mis-using their power. As educators that seek to inspire Young people to follow their hearts in situations in which they are facing a mis-use or abuse of power. Negotiating our role as powerful figures in classroom spaces can feel a bit tricky. Further complicating things is the role that schools have played in the history of oppression and colonialism.

                      For many of us who have studied critical theory and the ills of capitalist institutions, we may understand the role of schools as part of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, or Althusser’s idea of the school replacing the church as the most formidable of ideological state apparatuses. Through a critical lens, we tend to view schools as mechanisms intended to convince the populace to accept the stratified nature of our society and the subjugated position of the working class.

        At least 1 in 3 adolescent students in Canada experience bullying each year1. In the U.S., a national survey showed that 20.2% of students reported being bullied on school property and 15.5% reported being bullied electronically during the 12 months before the survey2. In the U.S. reports have shown that nearly half of students may experience some form of sexual harassment3

As educators, we have come to understand the soul-stripping, culture-destroying capacity of schools through examining critical authors such as bell hooks, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Gloria Ladson Billings, Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren and many others who examine the destructive nature of schools through the neocolonial manifestations of classical attempts to “civilize” or “improve” the marginalized of our society. At the core of these ideas sits perhaps the most pivotal professional role in the area of human development in a democratic society-The educator. For our purposes as we understand schools as communities in which people can work together to create an environment in which humans can thrive as healthy community members, we’ll extend our idea of the educator past that of the classroom teacher and include administrators, counselors, and supporting staff alike. All of these positions serve as teachers. And as such all of these positions must struggle with the tension of having an interest in developing free and empowered human beings while serving as an authority figure within a historically repressive system that often functions to maintain a stratified social structure. For those of us that pursue social justice, this dynamic weighs heavy on our minds each day as we try and straddle the line between developing free minds and keeping our jobs. But this issue does not need to be one of great

 


1. Molcho M., Craig W., Due P., Pickett W., Harel-fisch Y., Overpeck, M., and HBSC Bullying Writing Group. Cross-national time trends in bullying behaviour 1994-2006: findings from Europe and North America. International Journal of Public Health. 2009, 54 (S2): 225-234

2.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). Understanding school violence: Fact sheet. Atlanta, CA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Hill, C., Kearl, H., & American Association of University Women. (2011). Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School (No. 978-1-8799-2241–9). American Association of University Women.

 

conflict an inner turmoil. The idea of authority can inspire a different conceptual relationship If we understand authority not as an impetus for control and repression but rather a responsibility to guide, and in doing so, maintain boundaries, sustain a sense of safety, and model community-minded decision-making. 

Social Justice is not a behaviour or a statement, but rather a condition. A condition that many of us seek to establish that constitutes a vaguely described ideal of a fair and humanizing political, economic, and social order. However, our calls for the establishment of such a condition, when clarified, can describe the various “destinations” for our journey, but not the pathways to such ideal conditions. This makes sense given the situational nature of resistance and the myriad of spaces and contexts that we might locate as the foci of our endeavors. But as educators, we don’t have to be vague in our understanding of the pathways to social justice because we have an advantage in the realm of clarifying our situation, space, and context. As opposed to other professionals in this world, we work in spaces specifically designed to influence and shape the human consciousness. We are put in position in which we have the ability to mold the content, processes, physical environment, ambitions, and relational boundaries for human beings. In other words: As educators, we are the caretakers and executors for most potent dynamic in the struggle for social change- learning. Even so, we find ourselves seeking to define the core of our social change work and activism through efforts that exist outside of our schools. This is not exclusively so. In our workplaces we mistakenly view student matriculation rates, graduation rates, and social service projects as our social justice work in schools. Many of us will rightfully include narratives, generative themes, and the exploration of conventionally taboo realities into our curriculum. And while these practices can certainly impact how students understand their world, they do not explicitly challenge students to “be” different as they walk through the world in the now. They do not challenge students to stop bullying one another or humiliating one another in-person or online. Content can shift understanding, but it does not in itself establish or maintain expectations and boundaries as to how one must speak, move, or listen for the purposes of liberation.

When we teach students about the realities of injustice and successes of their communities they can learn valuable lessons about the beauty and pain from which they came while also understanding the expansive possibilities for change. But where and when are they expected to manifest the lessons from this material? Where, when, and how do we challenge them to “act like they know”?

Often times it is easier for us to confuse the behaviours of an authoritarian mindset with the context of authority. As social justice educators, the distinctions between these two must be clear, but more so, a clarity must be established as to both the necessity for the embracing of one’s power as an educator and ethical foundations that frame its use. While, as Paulo Freire warned, it is essential that we do not become oppressors in pursuit of liberation, it is also important that we don’t set our expectations of our students in the areas of effort, behaviour academic performance, and healthy relationships to the low depths of those that profile, stereotype, marginalize, and target them. This balancing act between controlling and guidance can only be achieved if we are clear as to our responsibility as it is connected to a particular vision. Authority without humility and a purpose of community-empowerment becomes corrupt. For so many educators it is the very power of their position that they value and it is disconnected from any larger vision that guides their daily manifestation of their authority.

If we seek to establish a condition of justice in an unjust social order, we are engaging ourselves in a conflict. One cannot enter a conflict with only facts and knowledge. As educators, we could consider these elements as essential tools that our students need for the battles ahead. But the missing link in many of our educational spaces for social justice is an emphasis on the behaviours and attitudes that challenge oppression and provide context for the wielding of such tools.

The authority of the educator allows for them to make decisions and set expectations for students that create boundaries for how the student is expected to “be” in that space- how students are expected to talk and move and be with each other. This represents the core of the school’s culture. Culture is incredibly important because it is the culture of the school that serves as the greatest instructor. As culture is defined as artifacts, language, rituals, and beliefs, it is important to understand that a huge portion of the schooling experience involves exchanges and interactions with people in the building, as well as the landscape of the campus. Who sets the boundaries for how people are treated, who contextualize his meaning for all of these interactions that are occurring as part of the school environment? Who must maintain these ideas around meaning, purpose, human value throughout this school year for the duration of a child’s development? As educators it is our responsibility to develop and help maintain an atmosphere in which students are learning how to value themselves as peers, the adults who serve them, and the exercise of learning for the purposes of personal and communal development.

When you find yourself questioning how you can make more of a dent in our world of poverty, struggle and repression, look to the opportunities you have to guide students in their daily behaviour to manifest the beautiful side of humanity. This cannot be done by passively hoping for change or softening expectations, but through clear communication and the consistent implementation of fair boundaries and support systems. As educators, we must embrace our power for the purposes of humanization. And as we acknowledge that dehumanization not only occurs systemically or in faraway places, but right in front of us in schools, we must stand in our responsibility as guides in our learning spaces in the interest of developing students beyond what they know, but what they do each day- now.


 

Darrick Smith, ED. D.
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of San Francisco and Co-Director of the School of Education’s Transformative School Leadership (TSL) program. 

The Digital Mirror: Why Gamers of Colour Demand Representation in Gaming

Two people holding hands with their back turned. One is an adily with a raised fist on his back and an afro the other is a young boy with a gaming controller in his other hand his shirt reads "black gamer excellence"
by Andray Domise

A few years ago, a friend and I founded a program called TXDL to teach youth of diverse backgrounds how to make video games. As part of our pilot program, we asked students to send us character reference sheets, visual and written summaries of the characters the students wanted to create.

While combing through the student e-mails, one of the submissions caught me off-guard. The character, Samuel, should be typical as far as action game heroes go. Tall, muscular, arched eyebrows, clever grin. But this character description was far from typical. Sporting an afro and thick sideburns, armed with a sword strapped to his back, Samuel was far from a trope or a sidekick.

According to his creator, Samuel was to be:

  • African American, a martial arts expert, and a weapons specialist
  • The leader of a resistance movement seeking to liberate the world from the evil organization’s clutches
  • Strong-willed, fierce, and courageous. Willing to risk some things to achieve victory in battles
  • Compassionate towards his people

It might not seem like much, but for a gamer like myself, raised to expect either no Black characters or bizarre caricatures of blackness in the games I play, it was a lot. When I talked to the creator about his character, and what he hoped to accomplish with his adventure game, his answer was “I want to play the hero and feel like this is someone I could actually be. Not a thug, or an athlete or something.” Hearing his answer gave me one of the proudest moments I’d had in years. As someone who grew up unused to seeing people like me represented in video games, I’d finally helped a budding gamer become self-actualized in the medium.

I was a minority gamer growing up. By “minority,” I don’t just mean a gamer of colour, although I was (and am) that too. What I mean is, I was in the minority of console owners. Just about every kid in my elementary school with a video game console was an NES gamer, but I owned a Sega Master System. Which meant there was exactly two other kids in my entire school to trade cartridges with. And this was okay by us; in a way, we were our own little fan club and trading hub. We’d read Electronic Gaming Monthly religiously, making note of release dates so we could coordinate our game purchases. If one of them put Phantasy Star on his birthday wish list, I scribbled Ys on mine. If one of us asked Santa for Wonder Boy, someone else was guaranteed to find Zillion under the Christmas tree.

It was a pretty good system we had going. In the dozens of games we played and traded while I owned that ugly red and black Sega box, I felt connected to a small and exclusive group. In the fourth grade, I smuggled the plastic cartridge cases for my Master System games along with my school books when I went to school. During lunch time in the cafeteria, I’d leave the cases out next to my lunch tray. Sure enough, other Master System owners would show up to ask if I’d beaten the games, and if I’d maybe like to trade games with them for a week. My love for Sega and its brand helped me build a social circle.

But it wasn’t until I owned a Sega Genesis, just before middle school, that I truly understood what representation meant. Up to that point, I’d never played a single Sega game that featured a Black character who wasn’t a celebrity or an athlete. By that time, the absence of Black people not only in games, but in nerd culture and mass media at large, was background noise. Always present, but only an irritant if one stopped and paid attention. In 1991, the Genesis game Streets of Rage arrived, and one of the three playable lead characters was Adam, a Black former boxer and police officer helping to rid his city of a ruthless crime syndicate. It was the first time I’d ever picked up a controller and played as an imaginary Black protagonist.

Up to that point, the paltry amount of Black representation in gaming was stereotypical and derivative to the point where creators should have been embarrassed. In every fighting game franchise up to that point, just about every Black character was a boxer. In every other genre, Black characters were either savages or gang members. There was no role for us, outside of the narrow categories that western media, steeped as it was in white supremacy, had allowed us to occupy. Playing Axel for the first time felt like a minor breakthrough. Even though his backstory, of course, had to mention his past as a boxer, for the first time in my life I could see myself in a game’s protagonist.

Unfortunately, the gaming industry still had a long way to go.

In 2007, Capcom released the first trailer for Resident Evil 5 (RE5), the hotly anticipated latest entry in the survival horror series. The trailer was immediately lambasted .1. for its use of racial tropes, and mired the game in controversy over the two years leading up to its release. In that trailer, the camera follows burly white protagonist Chris Redfield as he kicks, punches, and shoots his way through wave after wave of Africans infected with a zombie virus. The backlash to the imagery of the trailer – nondescript poverty-stricken African country, western colonizers plundering the land and people, a white saviour venturing into the darkest heart of Africa to inflict violence – was met with a secondary backlash from gamers who believed those disturbed by it were the real racists. 

Well-known game critic Jim Sterling, writing for Destructoid.com 2 at the time in response to a blogger post about RE5, said “It does, however, take a really self-centered, perhaps even racist individual, to see it as “the white man killing MY people.” Wesley Yin-Poole at videogamer.com contacted “leading racism expert” Glenn Bowman, at the time a senior Anthropology lecturer at the University of Kent, to ask whether the game was, in fact, racist. 

 


1.John, Tracey (17 August 2009). “Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal on the Resident Evil 5 Trailer: This Imagery Has a History” www.mtv.com/news/2456617/newsweeks-ngai-croal-on-the-resident-evil-5-trailer-this-imagery-has-a-history/

2. Sterling, Jim (1 August 2007). “Resident Evil 5 is SO RACIST: The idiocy begins.” https://www.destructoid.com/resident-evil-5-is-so-racist-the-idiocy-begins-37196.phtml 


Bowman answered that the imagery of “black faces and…motifs of African masks and the like,” were not racist; the game had to be set somewhere, and since its setting was in Africa, African imagery was part and parcel. It later turned out that Bowman, whose areas of expertise were in Palestinian and Yugoslavian political anthropology, was not, in fact a “leading racism expert;” he asked to not be identified as such. 

Perhaps most surprisingly, motion actors Karen Dyer and T.J. Storm, both of whom identify as Black, explained in an AP interview that there was nothing racist about the “It’s in Africa! It’s been in Africa, it’s been in Spain, it’s been in the midwest (United States),” said Storm, in one segment. “It wasn’t racist then, why should it be racist now? It’s in Africa. Have fun with the game! Play the game!”

 What Dyer, Storm, and game critics back then missed (and have plenty of company in gaming industry types who miss the point now), was that, regardless of whether any harm was intended, video game narratives are not exempt from history and political context. While many were caught up in the images of, for example, infected African men dragging a white woman into a house to infect her with the virus, it doesn’t seem that many bothered to examine what it meant to take the zombie trope to Africa.

The zombie legend itself originated from Haitian folklore, in the blood-soaked sugar cane fields of St. Domingue – the name of the French colony prior to the Haitian slave rebellion. The vodun beliefs of West Africa – transported to St. Domingue in the minds and bodies of a kidnapped people – held that the spirits of slaves who died in bondage were returned to Guinée (or Guinea). By being converted into a zombie, the spirit was held captive for eternity. What then to make of the idea that a nondescript and monolithic Africa could be overrun by horrific creatures that people casually call “zombies?”

What began as a dream of release from the horrors of slavery became twisted the 20th century as the zombie trope that undergirds the Resident Evil franchise. Worse, subverted in such a way that West African spirituality was denatured and reflected back to Western audiences as the ultimate degeneration into colonial stereotypes of Africa itself: savagery, disease, and cannibalism.

In the ten years since the release of Resident Evil 5’s trailer, progress in the industry has been rather rocky. Tropes which should have died a long time ago, including the crude and sassy Black woman, and the hypermasculine Black male, still persist. Fictional worlds heavily influenced by Western European folklore dominate the RPG landscape, yet the rich, bizarre, and at times psychedelic folklore of sub-Saharan and eastern Africa have yet to be explored.

On the other hand, there has been much progress. Multiple studies show that young Black people not only spend more time on video games than their peers, but that Black millennials exert an outsized influence on social media. Game companies seem to be tuned into this fact. Over the last few years, Black characters are not only being explored more fully as human beings with diverse interests and personalities, they’re being placed front and centre. Mafia III, for example, set in the Vietnam-era South, follows a Black protagonist on a revenge journey against the mob and the KKK alike. Watch Dogs 2 is led by Marcus Halloway, a Black hacker, and the game’s sense of humour is heavily steeped in the code-switching reality of Black people who exist in tech spaces.

There’s obviously much more work to be done, which is why TXDL exists to help nudge forward the goal of inclusive tech spaces. But reading that character reference sheet, and speaking with the student who produced it, I was struck by the difference in the landscape for Black people in gaming now, versus the environment in which I cut my teeth. At least we now have the platform to demand visibility, and to cause disruption when game companies get it wrong. I look forward to one day picking up a controller and playing as Samuel, as well as mailing the pre-written thank-you note to the student who created him.

I plan on putting it in the mail, the day when people of colour have achieved true representation in the video game industry, and organizations like TXDL will no longer be necessary.


 

Andray Domise
Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and the co-founder of TXDL, a tech skills development program for youth.