Justice in our Schools

Building Safety for Black Youth Living with ADD and ADHD

by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji

 I recently caught up with Leroi Newbold, a bad ass teacher working in the Toronto District School Board doing amazing work with youth. This interview I did with him focuses on how Black youth living with ADD and ADHA are being impacted by ableism is schools and transformative solutions.

Shabina: Can you introduce yourself and the work you do? 

I’m LeRoi Newbold. I’m a community organizer with Black Lives Matter – Toronto, a parent, and an educator at the Africentric Alternative School at Keele and Sheppard in Toronto. On a daily, I teach Grade 1. I’ve taught Special Education and have taught in a “behavioral” classroom in the system. I work with Black kids who are struggling with being educated in a system that is oppressive, and I try to share some tools with them about how to resist in that system, or how to be successful through understanding how that system operates.

I am the co-founder of St. Emilie Skillshare in Montreal, which began as a skill-sharing organization to provide free studio time and photography/silkscreen lessons to people living in of South-West Montreal, and queer/trans *BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour). I am the founder and director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School, which is an arts based program to teach Black Liberation, political history and political resistance to young Black children (4-10 years-old). We especially focus on Black Liberation work done by and to support Black *cis women, queer, and transgender people, poor Black people, Black people in prison, and Black people living at the margins of our communities. We teach kids how to organize, how to use arts to communicate, and how to fight back against police violence and oppression.

I am on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto. So….we support people who want to speak out about police murders of their family members, and police violence. We also try to create space for Black artists making work in Toronto, hold systems accountable for state violence, encourage people to rely on each other for safety instead of police, and support alternatives to traditional schooling for Black kids etc.

 Shabina: What is an IEP and how are Black youth impacted by them?

An IEP is an Individual Education Plan. On paper an IEP is a seven page document that is written to outline how a child is going to get support over the course of a year in the Special Education system here in Ontario. The IEP outlines accommodation, which are things that a child might need to be successful in school like extra time on exams, different exam formats, condensed work etc. In some cases it outlines modifications, which is when a child’s whole curriculum is altered so for example, a child might be enrolled in Grade 4, but according to their IEP, they are working on elements of a Grade 2 curriculum as a point of departure.

On paper an IEP is a collaborative (so written together) by parents, classroom teachers, Special Education teachers, and principles. IEPs are in theory positive because they are personalized and student based. They outline a student’s strengths and needs, and the idea is to use a student’s strengths to address their needs. So for example, an IEP might stipulate that a child is very strong in music and that those strengths should be used to address their need to develop stronger reading skills or skills in mathematics. IEPs are also technically documents that hold teachers accountable to a plan for how to address a student’s needs, who may need support academically or even socially/emotionally.

The problem with IEPs is sometimes they are in fact not collaborative documents. Sometimes they are documents that teachers write and ask parents to sign without even properly explaining what they are. Sometimes they are documents that confuse parents because a child’s report card is reporting on their progress on their IEP instead of progress in the classroom. For example, a parent is seeing A’s on a child’s report card, but not understanding that their child is working below their Grade level. Sometimes IEP’s, are documents that criminalize kids and put families in danger because the IEP states that 911 should be called when a child does a certain behaviour, even though the child is 5 or 6 years- old. Sometimes IEPs are a problem because they lead to an actual lack of accountability. For example, a child may never fail a grade in school, but might remain on an IEP that says they are working at a Kindergraten level while they are enrolled in Grade 2, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 3, and then again while they are enrolled in Grade 4. There is a lack of processes of accountability for teachers to ensure that the plan written in the IEP is met and that the child learns the things the IEP says they’re going to learn.

Shabina: Can you talk about some of the barriers set up for Black youth living with ADD, ADHA and other ‘behavioural disorders’ in the public school system?

One barrier is that ADD and ADHA are often treated as behavioural disorders. ADD/ADHA are not behavioural disorders. ADD and ADHD affect the executive functions of the brain. So in an educational setting, a child might need support directing their attention to a particular task or instruction. What a child does not need is escalating punitive measures related to the struggle they have with focus or attention, and therefore their tendency to get up and wander around or “distract” other kids. Punishing a child for the executive functions of their brain is very violent and very ableist.

This can be exacerbated by the fact that Black children are often read as defiant in a way that is not appropriate. In “Educating Other People’s Children” Lisa Delpit writes about the way white teachers tend to give verbal directives. She writes about how white teachers tend to give verbal directives in a way that is very passive aggressive (Ex: would you like to read a book? Ex: Is that where we put the scissors?). For Black children whose parents speak to them in very direct ways in their up-bringing, passive aggressive ways of speaking and interacting can be very confusing. Black children will often take what is being said at face value, and respond by saying, “No, I don’t want to read a book.” And then the child will be read and labeled as defiant even though they are just being honest. Passive aggressive verbal directives can be an even bigger problem for children who have communication based learning disabilities or ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) because passive aggressive communication can be hard or impossible to understand.

Another issue for many Black communities and families is that education has been used as an instrument of colonization. So because of this, parents and families don’t trust the education system here even though education is a priority for Black families. There is also a breadth of research to suggest that Black communities have diminished trust in the health care system because of racism, mistreatment by physicians and having received substandard health care. Because of this, diagnoses for Black children with disabilities like ASD or ADHD might happen later in life or not at all. It is very hard for parents to effectively collaborate with teachers around things like IEPs when there is little or no trust there.

Shabina: How do you see the school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black youth with disabilities?

There has been a shift for people from talking about the school-to-prison pipeline to actually talking about schools as carceral (jail like) spaces. The case of a 6 year-old Black girl who was recently handcuffed at school by police in Mississauga clearly demonstrates how schools can act as carceral spaces for Black kids (especially Black kids with disabilities). A 6 year-old was handcuffed by police at her school because she was having an outburst, and potentially punched her principal. The child was 6 years-old, so weighed less than 50 pounds. For an adult principal (who is an authority figure within a school), being punched by someone who weighs less than 50 pounds and is 6 years-old might be surprising, but it does not present a threat to safety. When police arrived on scene the child was banging her head against her desk, which suggested that she was in emotional distress. It is likely that the child needed support processing her emotions, and that maybe she needed attention (maybe a hug) from an someone who cared about her and whom she trusted. The fact that the child had apparently had many incidents such as this, suggested that she may have needed ongoing social/emotional support. Instead, the police were called. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the police then handcuffed the child by her wrists, as well as by her ankles. This was an act of excessive and humiliating violence, and one that will be potentially traumatic for a very young child. What leads an adult principal (trained to support children) to seek the assistance of a police officer (whose job is address crime) in calming down a 6 year-old child is anti-Black racism.

In 2008, Toronto Police Services implemented something called the SRO (School Resource Officer) program. The SRO Program is part of TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy). TAVIS is a program that was implemented to curb gun violence by increasing police presence in specifically designated areas of Toronto, which included many Black neighbourhoods. The SRO program specifically placed police officers in a number of schools across Toronto with the goal of improving relationships between youth and police. By 2011, about fifty schools had School Resource officers, including a large number of schools in majority Black neighbourhoods, and including not only high schools but elementary schools (serving children from 3 and a half to 12 years-old). This means that Black children increasingly have police present in their schools, and police brought in to assist with conduct issues and conflicts between students and between students and teachers. This affects Black children in many ways.

This affects Black children and youth psychologically. They may wonder why it is a necessary to have a police officer present in their place of learning to survey them constantly. It affects Black children in terms of increased violent incidents with police. We remember the case of Spring Valley High School where a police dragged a teenage Black girl out of her desk and threw her against a wall. It affects Black children with disabilities because Black students with behavioural “exceptionalities”/disabilities are often the ones being suspended and going through other punitive processes at school. It affects Black children with disabilities because they are then at an increased risk being referred to Ontario Youth Corrections due to their behaviour at school. It affect Black children because youth are one of the fastest growing prison population in Ontario, and so are Black women.

 Shabina: Can you talk about some transformative models used to implement disability justice within a classroom to keep Black youth in particular safe, nurtured and humanized?

The Black Panther Party for Self Defense created a school called the Oakland Community School, and the school did not use punitive measures such as detention, suspensions, expulsions, or even timeouts. Instead they had something called the Youth Justice League. Through the Youth Justice league, youth (in the presence of an adult) would be responsible for addressing conduct issues that occurred in the classroom. For example, a young child who did not do their homework would go to the Youth Justice League for what they called “course correction”. The youth would ask the children why for example, they didn’t do their homework. The child would then outline the reason why they didn’t do their homework. The youth justice league would suggest ways for the child to correct the issue. They would ask the child what support they needed in making the correction. This is an example a transformative justice model because the Oakland Community School transformed the circumstances in which education took place. It transformed dynamics of power so that Black and Latinx communities decided what kind of education was appropriate for their children. It transformed dynamics of power in that it gave opportunities to youth to experience the same power as teachers (decide on course content, co-teach lessons etc). In an event that a conduct issue arose it gave power to children in terms of being accountable to each other rather than an authority figure. They were given a chance to talk about their level of engagement in what they were learning, and being given support to address their own behaviour. This is crucial for children with disabilities because punishment is not appropriate when your what is seen as inappropriate behaviour might happen because of a cognitive disorder or something else beyond your control. Disabilities justice means that transforming the spaces that we are part of to be accessible and sustainable and to prioritize people with disabilities. People with disabilities cannot be honoured within an educational institution that corrects atypical behaviour through punishment, isolation, violence, or humiliation.

Shabina: How can teachers stand in solidarity with Black youth living with ADD and ADHD?

1.Teachers working within the system should recognize ourselves as an arm of the state, and therefore an arm of state violence. We must, wherever possible, intervene in the routine intervention into and harassment of the Black family by police and Childrens Aid Society.

2.Nerotypical people and neurotypical adults must take leadership from people with disabilities in how to transform our classrooms and educational spaces into spaces that are accessible.

3.Educators must respect, love, and share power with Black families, students, and communities

Leroi Newbold
Leroi Newbold is a parent, community organizer, and educator and curriculum designer.  Leroi is inaugural staff and Grade 1 teacher at Canada’s first public Africentric School.  He organizes on the steering committee of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto and is the director of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto Freedom School.

Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina is a queer mixed race weird witchy lady from Guelph who is into community organizing and revolution.

Fibro Warrior

by Bitty

 I am a Two Spirit art-creating, youth-centering, forest wandering, garden growing kick-ass crip with maternal roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed-Euro ancestry. I use drawing and writing as a tool of empowerment and as a way of processing, accepting, and sharing where I’m at.

This article breaks some barriers and isolation of living with a chronic and invisible illness as a Two Spirit person. It’s enough to navigate everyday Fibro life, never mind how overwhelming it can be to try to explain it and how I am affected. Much of my brain and energy go to internally coping with pain, as well as other symptoms and with there being little awareness, it made sense to share some everyday life info in an accessible form.

 What is Fibro/CSS?

 Fibromyalgia is a Central Sensitization Syndrome (CSS). It is a condition that presents mainly in women 20-50 years of age and can also occur in children and men. Some people prefer only to use CSS in referring to their illness as it more clearly specifies the involvement of the Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS consists of the brain, nerves, and spinal cord and therefore opens our minds to the true whole-body complexity of the illness. When the CNS is hyper-sensitized, the body-to-brain messengers (neurohormones) have communication failures and changes. Our pain messengers (substance P) are increased, leading the body to register and feel pain from everyday use of the body and surrounding stimuli – for some even a cool breeze, lightings, cold or hot temperatures, strong/chemical smells, clothing textures and food sensitivities can be read and therefore experienced as real pain.

Other neurohormonal imbalances and dysfunctions in FMS/CSS involve serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine, and/or epinephrine, growth hormones, and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal gland– causing a cascade of symptoms. Pain is usually the major symptom of Fibromyalgia Syndrome (FMS)/ CSS and is generally felt throughout the whole musculoskeletal make-up of the body and/or it can move around. Probably the next most common symptom is sleep disturbances, often resulting in non-restorative sleep and profound fatigue.

 The word fibromyalgia can be deconstructed in Latin as:

“fibro” – connective tissue fibres

“my” – muscle

“al” – pain

“gia” – condition of

 This is just a glimpse of what is going on. Currently there is no known cause or cure for FMS/CSS. Though FMS is often discussed under the umbrella of auto-immune illnesses, it is not known as an auto-immune illness (or at least, not yet). It is known to often co-exist with Myofascial Pain Syndrome and other auto-immune illnesses. It is common to be tested and/or monitored for other auto-immune illnesses with similar symptoms before reaching a FMS/CSS diagnosis. I won’t get into FMS diagnostics then, on average, it takes someone suffering with FMS/Css 5 years to reach a diagnosis.

 To know more about FMS diagnostics I like the National Fibromyalgia Association (USA) website: http://www.fmaware.org/about-fibromyalgia/diagnosis/

 To know more about Myofascial Pain Syndrome check out books by Devin Starlanyl: “Healing Through Trigger Point Therapy: A Guide to Fibromyalgia, Myofascial Pain and Dysfunction”, “Fibromyalgia and Chronic Myofascial Pain: A Survival Manual” (1st and 2nd Edition) and “The Fibromyalgia Advocate: Getting the Support you need to cope with Fibromyalgia and Myofascial Pain Syndrome”

The following are selected from the zine Following the Beat of Our Wings, Two spirit Crip zine Issue 1: Fibro Warriors. To contact the author or order a copy of that zine send to: seawolfrise@gmail.com

Black and White portrait of Bitty close mouth smiling with arms raised in a black shirt. They have on glasses and dark lipstick

My name is Bitty. I am two-spirit and I make art. I have maternal Coast Salish roots of Lkwungen, Quw’utsun and Lummi descent and paternal roots of mixed Irish, French and Euro ancestry. The art I contributed about Matriarch Camp is a piece I drew to fundraise to sustain camp and out of a deep respect and gratitude to Ma’amtagila grandmother Tsastilqualus Ambers Umbas and the young matriarchs, warrior womxn and salmon protectors who hold the space that is Matriarch Camp.

Repeat After Me: Care Collectives and the Practice of Community Based Care

an illustration of a woman it reads "repeat after me: i am worthy of care, its ok to ask for help, its okay to receive help, i have valuable care to offer"

by Jennie Duguay

Above: illustration by Heidi Cho

“I do this work in service of community. I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation.1

It took me fifteen years to ask for help,2 sixteen to submit, mind and body, to the amount of care that illness requires and seventeen to believe, in my heart, at least some of the time, that I deserve the care I receive. There is only one reason it took almost half my life to get here: ableism. Defined very simply, ableism is discrimination against people who are disabled, sick and/or chronically ill. A few days before my second nervous breakdown of 2014 a friend held me while I cried in my mostly silent gulping way and told me again and again that I needed help; that I couldn’t do it alone anymore; that they would help me organize a care collective 3 here on unceded Coast Salish territories in Vancouver. They had been talking about it for months: the care collective they were part of in Toronto and the self-described queer femmegimp—the amazing Loree Erickson4—who has, for over fifteen years, been organizing her own volunteer car.

Later we wrote up the first draft of a call-out for volunteers and the next day, alone at home, I lost it; screamed at the wall for an hour, pounded it so hard my fists were bruised. Six days later when I stopped shaking my dear friend had already sent the email, flown home and a dear friend of theirs, a casual acquaintance of mine, showed up at my door. I don’t remember what we talked about, how I behaved, or what she did for me. I know that she is still here now, one of my closest friends and someone I can’t imagine my life as it is now, without. I hit the wall because I didn’t want to need help, because I felt betrayed by my body and I didn’t know how to talk about it. I hit the wall because I was scared and I wanted to be in control. I hit it because I had failed to make myself better, or at the least, to stop myself from getting so sick.

1. Mia Mingus, “On Collaboration: Starting with Each Other,” https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2012/08/03/on-collaboration-starting-with-each-other/, (August 3, 2012).  
2. “Help” and “care” are used interchangeably.
3. Care collective: community organized volunteer based care that supports the care needs of an individual.
4. “Loree’s Care Collective,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3rX8MAHULk, (January 26, 2016).

5. Community based care: covers all forms of community care, such as meal trains, childcare swaps or care collectives.

When I agreed to the care collective I wanted to take the burden off my friends and partner (at the time) who were doing so much for me—not because I believed I deserved the care. I worried that I was burning them out and that they would come to resent me. Limiting how much friends cared for me became the focus of the collective—not getting care for myself. At the time I believed any other choice would result in abandonment. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t remember when it officially became “Jennie’s Community Care Collective” or when I started posting volunteer call-outs on Facebook and hearing from people I didn’t even know or when my calendar began to fill up with “care shifts.” What I remember is shame. All that first year I would tidy the house before people came to clean it. I would try to have snacks for people. To be attentive, engaging, to seem ok—at least emotionally—even though I wasn’t. (Sometimes I still do these things.) It was embarrassing: to be so sick, to need so much help, to not be able to do it on my own. But I also remember moments of relief: when my freezer was full and there were clean sheets on my bed and clothes in my closet. I could finally try to manage symptoms instead of aggravating them. And most of all, I could put time, energy and focus into writing which, for me, is the same as healing.

What came up in my writing was an immense grief and sadness: my life and body had been transformed; I had lost my career and hobbies; many of my relationships were struggling; I was homebound and isolated but what devastated me, I see now, was ableism. It had me believing that my worth was relative to my “ableness” and the “productivity” and (so-called) independence that “health” afforded me—it had me questioning if my life was worth living (I continue to struggle with this at times). I’m not exaggerating when I credit the intervention of community based care5 in the form of the Care Collective with my survival. It functions not only to physically support me, but to strengthen me emotionally and spiritually: to validate my experiences, remind me of my inherent worth, and acknowledge all that I do offer—simply, to love and care for me.

Peggy Munson writes that “imagining a care system based on friendship and activist ideals is hard for me though I may wish for it. A radical revision of care is certainly possible, but only if the survival panic of the disabled is truly, deeply felt.”6

6. Peggy Munson, “Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence & Disability,” in The Revolution Starts at Hom, ed. Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Chico: AK Press, 2011), 119. 

I have felt the survival panic of financial and housing crises, of not being able to shower or cook for myself and I have felt the impacts of my panic on those closest to me—a panic of their own, from which some recover, and some do not; ableism or pain, who knows, too much for them.

The Care Collective allows me to say, that at least in some ways, my story is the best case scenario: a radical revision of care. But it’s not a common one. It’s much more common for people living with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses—in particular those for whom disability intersects with gender, race, class, immigration or refugee status, addiction and mental illness—to experience harrowing survival panic: isolation and poverty, intimate partner violence and other abuses, while also experiencing the physical, emotional and spiritual impacts of ableism, transmisogyny, racism and other forms of oppression. Patty Berne, co-founder of the Disability Justice movement—itself created and led by trans, gender non-conforming, Black, Indigenous and People of Color—asserts that “…able-bodied supremacy has been formed in relation to intersecting systems of domination and exploitation.

We cannot comprehend ableism without grasping its interrelations with hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism…”7 We make these connections because any work towards building community based care suffers when these interrelations go unrecognized and unaddressed. It has been said many times: doing dishes can be a radical action. Building relationships based on care can be a radical action. Learning (and teaching) how ask, offer and receive care are radical actions. “A radical social re-visioning of care must include the willingness to take radical action,” 8 in other words, community can’t transform us and we can’t transform community if care is not politicized.

Disabled people need care—reliable, safe, transformative care—right now. Participation in care collectives is one way for people to get “radicalized around care and disability,”9 in the sense that spending time with disabled folks “functions as anti-ableism training.”

7. Petty Berne, “Disability Justice- A Working Draft.” pages 4-6 of this issue 

8. Munson, Seeking Asylum: On Intimate Partner Violence & Disability, 133.

9. Loree Erickson quoted by Mary Jean Hande and Muna Mire, ““The Pace we Need to Go”: Creating Care Culture,” Action Speaks Louder, Fall 2013, 10-11, https://issuu.com/opirgtoronto/docs/action_speaks_louder_fall_2013/10
10. Erikson in Hande and Mire, ““The Pace we Need to Go”: Creating Care Culture.”

11. This interpretation of ableism is limited as I’m speaking from a North American context as a white person. Across the world, ableism will manifest in similar, contradictory and different way

10 I’ve certainly found this to be true. Previously abstract concepts like “mutuality” and “interdependence” develop embodied meaning with people as they learn, in a sense, to “see through” the myth of independence, the value system assigned to certain labours over others, the ways ableism defines what is “able”/“normal” and what isn’t—all while chopping veggies or cleaning. People have epiphanies: sick and disabled people are everywhere! Anyone can become sick or disabled! We all need care! Last year I made an agreement with myself: I would accept offers of help that I sensed (and hoped) was offered without pity or obligation or risk of harm and I would do so with grace and, importantly, with pride. I would not apologize for needing help in the first place. I would not apologize for being disabled. This is a radical action, and I fail frequently. 

I fail because ableism11 normalizes feelings of guilt and embarrassment for needing help. It normalizes a belief that asking for help is shameful and weak. That saying no to help is polite. That there is only so much care to go around and that we don’t deserve it.

Repeat after me: I am worthy of care. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to receive help. I have valuable care to offer. Well? How does it feel to say them? You don’t have to believe them but I want you to practice saying them. And you don’t get to excuse yourself by saying “but so-and-so has it so much harder than me,” (which is by the way totally ableist)! I promise you that these are skills that can be learned with practice: asking for help clearly, with respect and thoughtful consideration of our privileges; receiving help with grace and gratitude; offering help that is sincere, help that we can actually follow-up on, help that doesn’t make us sick in turn. If helping me hurts you then it’s not help, it’s harm. One of the great lessons of disability justice that is foundational to a re-visioning of care is that care is as much for you it is for me. We just need different amounts of care and/or for different things and/or more or less often. It changes. It’s a spectrum—don’t judge the spectrum. My point is: whether or not you are sick or disabled, we are all caught up in this mess and we are all responsible for cleaning it up. Getting involved in community based care can mean changing someone’s life, but they will change yours too. Never forget that.

I’d like to end with some questions: How do we build communities that include people who are homebound? What safety and accountability practices are needed when organizing care collectives? What are the options besides a care collective? How do we promote and build care systems that address the interrelationship between ableism, capitalism and white supremacy? How can men and masculine of centre people get more involved in caring? How can caregivers take care of themselves? How is ableism stopping us from taking radical action?

Heidi Cho
Heidi Cho is an emerging multi-disciplinary artist that works in a variety of mediums such as silk-screening, animation and drawing. As a queer youth of colour, art has been an important outlet to share her experiences around queerness, family and mental health. You can check out Heidi’s work at heidichomakesart.bigcartel.com

Jennie Duguay is a queer disabled femme and white settler living on Coast Salish territories in Vancouver, Canada. She has been published in GUTS and is forthcoming in CV2.

A Mobility Movement

An interview with Iahnijah and Queentite of Prosthetics for Foreign Donation Inc. (PFFD Inc.)

Interview by Savannah Clarke

Above image: PFFD inc. logo

I caught up with the mother and child duo, QueenTite and Iahnijah, to hear more about the work that they’re doing to advocate and support children living with various disabilities, as well as to hear more about what parents and community members can do to support children with disabilities in their lives.

PFFD stands for Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency, a deficiency experienced at birth affecting the hip bone and proximal femur. Iahnijah was born with PFFD and receives prosthetic legs.

Through Iahnijah and QueenTite’s experiences, they were inspired to use the same acronym to start Prosthetics For Foreign Donations Inc., an organization that donates gently used prosthetics and other mobility aids to children in re-developing countries. PFFD Inc. aims to provide equal access to opportunities that contribute to the better well being and the betterment of the community

Savannah: Can you two introduce yourself?

Iahnijah: I am Iahnijah the co- Founder of PFFD – otherwise known as Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. I am an 8 year-old below-knee amputee and in 3rd grade French immersion. I am a Freedom Fighter with Black Lives Matter Toronto, and an avid gamer. I just started my own YouTube page ‘XxATLASBOYxX’, follow me.

Queen: I am QueenTite Opaleke the proud mother of Iahnijah and a Winnipeg-born, west coast grown, Toronto-based multidisciplinary queer artist. I am a Nigerian/Jamaican Hybrid of the African Diaspora with roots laid in activism, the arts, academics, entrepreneurship, advocacy, love and in constant pursuit of more love.

I am a licensed hair artist and owner of NATTY- hair•art•roots, graduate of the Disability Studies Program, ASL 103 certified, and passionately the co-Founding Director of PFFD – Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. When not busy changing the world, you can find me painting, writing, speaking and performing spoken word at various black collectives around the country. As a member of Black Lives Matter Toronto I continue to use my voice to advocate for black love, black liberation, people living with various disabilities, human rights, and promote love. Always love.

Savannah: Tell us more about PFFD inc. and how it got started?

Queen: Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. facilitates mobility by creating access to recycled/repurposed prosthetics and mobility aides and donating them to redeveloping countries in critical need.

On October 2nd, 2008, Iahnijah Opaleke was born with a rare deficiency called PFFD- Proximal femoral focal deficiency (Now renamed CFD – congenital femoral deficiency). This deficiency causes Iahnijah to wear a step-in prosthesis on his right leg. I desired to recycle/donate his very gently used limbs (as he gets a new leg every six to nine months), but could not find a Canadian resource to do so. So Iahnijah and I created the resource to fill that void. Iahnijah is the seed of inspiration planted, which has created roots. These roots are the foundation of PFFD Inc.. Through Iahnijah’s birth and the birth of this charity, we hope to raise amputee awareness about prosthetics, mobility, limb loss, recycling, and major global change.

Upon a destined flight to New York, I met a director of a clinic that revolutionized prosthetics in India. When Iahnijah took his ‘leg’ (limb) off, a man leaned toward me and whispered, “this is destiny my dear”. Over the next three hour flight, he poured knowledge into me about his country’s most marginalized. We, in that moment decided to change the way North America saw mobility. It all started with Iah being comfortable being himself.

Later that fall, we travelled to Jamaica for vacation. This relaxation trip came right before Iahnijah’s sixth surgery (reconstructive hip surgery). We decided to just live, laugh, and enjoy life, as we forgot about the present struggle we were about to face. Iahnijah & I went to a local market in Browns Town. Here we met a man, a double leg amputee gladly using a skateboard for mobility. My son was deeply bothered by this. He offered the man his old prosthetics on the spot. In that moment, PFFD Inc. was born. Iah showed me how to repurpose prosthetics, so every Amputee could be recycling their old limbs. This was the definitive moment in time that shifted our entire lives, in the direction of our destiny.

Savannah: The work you two are doing with PFFD inc. is very essential. How does your work you center justice?

Iahnijah: We bring justice to people without prosthetics, mobility, or help. When we help them, they get justice.

Queen: There is an injustice in living without the privilege of mobility. It’s a blessing most of us take for granted. The gift of mobility comes wrapped with independence, and a renewed sense of dignity. This is the gift that we give.

There is a soulful justice that we are able to renew. Our aim to make a major impact upon the face of Mobility in order to see all individuals treated equally. Those born with missing limbs, or those who lose limbs still have every right to achieve their dreams, or even the ability to dream. This is how we center ourselves in justice for people living with physical disabilities

Savannah: What can other organizations and community members do to center justice in their work?

Iahnijah: People forget to think about others. We need to think about what we can reuse, give away, share, instead of just ourselves.

Queen: It is important to listen to the community. At PFFD we listen to the stories of people struggling in redeveloping countries. Fellow community members need to remember that we are blessed, privileged, and better off than most.

Think about what we can give. And when you have no more to give, give even more.

Savannah: From your experience working within disability justice why do you think services such as these are overlooked?

Queen: There is so much red tape and paperwork involved in sharing used medical/mobility equipment.

We feel this service to the community, and the environment is overlooked because it doesn’t affect them. We have equal access to any services we need – we forget our garbage is another man’s treasure.

The medical field is busy taking the best care of everyone as they can. I feel services like repurposing prosthetics/mobility aides gets overlooked because parents and amputees have never had the option.

It is a possibility that most people don’t know this exists. That is why PFFD Inc. stays advocating and educating the community about this imperative need.

Savannah: What advice do you have for parents of children who have disabilities in supporting and empowering their children to be leaders? What does that look like day-to-day?

Iahnijah: Always be different.

Queen: See your children as whole. Never ever try to make them fit in, or succumb to mediocrity. They are born different. They are born with such a magnificence. It is important to encourage their unique presence and celebrate it. They were chosen, to experience life through another view. This in itself is special, amazing, and miraculous. Life is hard, in general. This struggle builds strength, character and experience. It cannot be avoided. Do not shelter them, as they are born warriors. Stronger than most of us. Sweeter than most deserve. They are gifts. Divine gifts. Appreciate that!

Savannah: Iahnijah, as the co-founder of PFFD inc. where do you see the future of the project?

Iahnijah: I see us taking prosthetics from Winnipeg to all around the world to Africa, giving wheelchairs to kids with no legs, and giving prosthetics to kids with no arms. I see helping people who have no help, all the time

Savannah: Where can our readers go to support PFFD inc?

Queen: You can support PFFD Inc. by:

  • Donating monetarily at any Assiniboine Credit Union
  • Donating to our Gofundme at www.gofundme.com/MobilityMovement
  • Contacting us at prostheticsffd@gmail.com
  • Recycling your used prosthetics/mobility aids (crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, etc.)
  • Like us on FB at FB.com/PFFD Inc and follow us on IG and Snapchat at pffdinc
  • Share our story, and join the mobility movement.

I’m a winnipeg born, west coast grown, toronto based multidisciplinary artist. I AM; a black, proud, queer, Hybrid. My roots are laid in art, activism, education, black liberation, poetry, love, and in constant pursuit of more love. When I’m not busy changing the world, you can find me devoted to my personal projects which include; Co – Founding Prosthetics For Foreign Donation & owning Black Heir.

 Snapchat: @missqueentite and Instagram

I am the co-Founder of PFFD, otherwise known as Prosthetics For Foreign Donation Inc. I’m an 8 year-old below knee amputee and in 3rd grade French immersion. I am a Freedom Fighter with Black Lives Matter Toronto, and an avid gamer. I just started my own YouTube page ‘XxATLASBOYxX’, follow me

Mental Health in Detention

black and white photo of butterfly

Finding Freedom

By Mina Ramos

Since 2013, different individuals detained at the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC) for immigration reasons have been fighting for their freedom and to end immigration detention. M was involved in the initial hunger strike in 2013 that started a series of organizing from within the CECC. 

Although he is now released, M still works with several different organizations to support migrants coming into this country and to end immigration detention. I sat down with M to talk about his experience balancing his mental health while in detention and his ideas as to what can be done to create a world centered on humanity.

Mina: What was your overall experience like while in immigration detention?

M: Throughout the whole ordeal, it was basically CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency‎) going back and forth with the country I was born in trying to confirm my identity and CBSA trying to get identity documents for me. It’s hard to describe the feel of being incarcerated in a maximum security prison. You’re going through the routine on a daily basis as to what they want you to do, how they want you to live, down to what they want you to eat. The conditions there were horrible. I can’t tell you enough about what people who are incarcerated go through. Communication was the biggest aspect of it. You’re going through so many different things and you want to talk to your lawyer but that was so hard because with the system that is setup up you are making collect calls. Sometimes the people you have to call, can’t call take collect calls because there is a menu and they have to setup up calling you direct. Sometimes instead they’ll set up a meeting to come visit but this is also hard for them to make the time for because the jail I was in was so far away.

As far as hygiene, healthcare, medication, all they could really do was issue you anti-depressants. That was the easiest thing you could get. Once you’re on these pills, it alters your mind and you are pretty much dependent on that. They are so quick to issue these pills. There is so much more to healthcare that they don’t seem to understand. First of all, if of you need a psychiatrist, there is no help. For the time I was in jail, I never once saw a psychiatrist because CBSA knows that if a psychiatrist diagnoses you with mental health issues it becomes more difficult to deport you. So they deny you this access.

It’s an everyday fight because you are locked up with people who are sentenced with crimes and regardless of your viewpoints on prison, it messes with you that you have no convictions while on immigration hold, but are still in jail because you are an immigrant. That takes a toll on your soul, on your mental capability just to be human. You have to understand, you don’t even know why you are there in the first place and they will never really tell you because all it is is that they are trying to deport you but for whatever reason they can’t put you on the plane. So you are just there wasting away. You start to lose ties to your family outside who can’t visit you often. When they do, the visits are only twenty minutes. In twenty minutes you can’t really have an actual conversation. I would tell my family not to come because I didn’t want to put them through that strain. The fact that you are in a prison uniform alone discourages you everyday.

One time, I went to go see a doctor and I will never forget this scenario; when I was in the elevator and I was in chains. There was a kid in the elevator and he’s looking at me and asks his father “What did this guy do”. This was a four year-old kid. So, him seeing me would probably remain in his brain the rest of life. He probably has never seen something like this. He’s looking at me like, “this man is in chains. Why? I don’t understand.”

This is the type of image that CBSA projects.

Mina: You mentioned you had to deal with the stress of being in jail and then on top of that not knowing if you would be deported or released. How did you deal with that?

M: I don’t know. I don’t want to say I was strong-minded because that would send the wrong message. What CBSA tries to do is break you into submission. Everyday you go onto the range and manage to play games. it becomes your entire life that just repeats. Everyday you get up and do the same things. The lack of communication to the outside world makes it that jail is all you think about. You’re with thirty to forty people in the same situation. Naturally there is drama. People are frustrated and when they are frustrated, it leads to violence. There was a lot of violence. Some of it I am not proud of, but order has to be maintained in any society. In a jail society, there are so many power struggles and to deal with this you have to be strong mentally and physically. During all that stress, the only outlet that I had was working out. I made sure that I built my body and stayed healthy as much as that could help me. Even working out though is not pleasure. You had to get your mind in the fact that anything could happen. You see people stabbed and passing out. Immigration detention is a situation where people can die. I told myself I am not going to die in here and that kept me strong. I decided I would organize myself and make sure I let people know what was going on. A lot of times organizing and building awareness from inside jail on what I was going through is what kept me going.

 Mina: What specific mental health resources were there why you were in jail?

M: It wasn’t about the system diagnosing you. It was about telling the nurse “I can’t sleep” or I am thinking about this or that. The dominant prescription they would give you is Seroquel and it has some major side effects. That stuff was everywhere, it was like water. There were so many people on it and it would get your mind weak and people were being taken advantage of. You’re not really sober enough to understand what is going on around you. You are basically sleep-walking and attracting violence.

Mina: It’s been over three years since you’ve been detained. What was your transition out of jail like and how have you managed to keep yourself grounded?

M: Listen, I have seen so many psychiatrists since I’ve been out and the most common thing they say is that I have PTSD. They say man, you have so much trauma something really serious must have happened to you.

I don’t like to believe this because I like to stay strong especially when dealing with my kids and my daily outside life. I have a very supportive family that has helped me throughout. There are slips that happen. There are different ways that I cope. Every morning I tell myself today is gonna be a better day. That’s it. Sometimes I drink a lot. Me knowing myself before I went through this whole dilemma, I was taking care of myself and I was able to work and provided for myself but the stress that is related to this doesn’t allow yourself to see you that way. And there are minimal things that the public healthcare can do for you. Half the help I am seeking I am paying out of my pocket. The damage is done. You got to understand I spent three and a half years in maximum security prison. There is no freedom and you’ve been told this over and over again while you are in there. This has such a huge impact on what your life is during and after. Not everyone has the same experience than me, but I can tell you about my foundation. Some of the experiences I’ve been through before this all happened, I think equipped me to deal with everything CBSA put me through.

So here I am, three and a half years later and I notice that I am not myself. When I am dealing with my kids sometimes I yell. Sometimes I get aggressive even though I know that it’s not their fault.  Who do I blame in this case? I can’t blame anybody, it’s my life. That’s what I mean when I say the damage is done. I can’t find any answers to it, it doesn’t matter how many psychiatrists I see a day, I am still struggling. Some of the people I have been locked up with are also released but they are doing way worse than I am. Some of them turn to drugs. Some of them can’t cope. There has been instances where people got deported to their own countries and commit suicide. It’s so hypocritical, some people came here to seek refuge, get incarcerated, get deported back to the country where they were seeking refuge and then kill themselves. Where is the guilt? The government has to respond to these situation? If Canada is supposed to be a safe haven of the modern world, then why is this happening? What are people supposed to do? The system dedicates itself to keeping this image in the world. They say come here but the reality is that they detain you. Imagine people come searching for a better life and end up in prison. This is something that a lot of people can’t cope with.

Is Canada here to help or is Canada here to destroy? What they are doing is violence.

 Mina: Since you’ve been detained, you’ve been organizing in different ways to work with people to carve out a little bit more humanity in the world. Part of this has involved working to end immigration detention. Beyond these things, what does it mean to create a liberated world that takes into account the trauma that people have gone through?

M: My principle is pro-humanity. My principle is anti-detention. There has to be an alternative to this. I mean I understand that prisons are supposed to create opportunities for employment and economy for communities, but human nature dictates otherwise. Human nature tells us how to be humane regardless of what your status is or the crimes you have committed. So, for an entire institution to be built on this, people are making money somewhere. It costs two hundred and fifty dollars a day  to keep someone in immigration detention and this is taxpayer money. This is where your money is going.

These thoughts are what inspired and sparked myself and others to go on a hunger strike back in 2013. For me it lasted thirty-two days in order to have some sort of affirmative response. I had to starve myself just to get the bail program and and for CBSA to listen. During this time, they came to me and said, you have to stop and I told them this is my god-given right. I was sickened with their laws so I had to do something. I had to organize people to make them understand that we don’t have to be in this situation and I had to help them believe this.

Moving forward, we got to centralize the people who have been through this. You got to get to know them. You have to understand that they’ve been through so much atrocity that some of these people are not in their right minds now. So you have to organize some basic foundation that people can lean on. We have to get people their basic needs as in what they need to survive. We have to get people work permits. Most of these people are willing to work but you can’t even get a work permit even after everything you’ve been through. There are no workshops that are guaranteed to you, nothing that really helps you along the way once you are released. We need this.

In order for you to understand my trail of thoughts, you have to put yourself in my position. I’ve witnessed death and people being kept in some pretty seriously inhumane conditions. On the flip side, when speaking out about this I’ve had people approach me to tell my story for their own personal gain. Don’t take mine or anyone else’s misfortunes for personal gain; ever. To understand what goes on in these maximum security prisons you have to be in one. No matter how much you read about it or speak to people about it, you will just never understand if you don’t go through it. Bigotry, in whatever way it plays out has no place in my world. If you do approach me or anyone else who has gone through this don’t ask hypocritical questions and devote your life to making real differences.

I am not a genius in politics. I don’t understand politics. What I do understand is humanity and this is the basis of what society was built on. We neglect humanity as much as we want, but my fight is not just for me and if people actually believe in humanity, people like Justin Trudeau should be booking time to talk to me.

I am not saying I would put myself on the front lines, because it takes a whole body of people to do this work, but I do work with certain networks and people who are on the same page with me. Governments have to think twice about their principles and philosophies about what it means to be human. I come from a small country but I see my people mobilize, which is my foundation, which is my root. Me being in Canada, I struggle everyday with mental health. I struggle with addiction. I am not ashamed to say it. What I know is that humanity as a whole will one day conquer. Because we are people of different backgrounds but one thing that we have in common is that when we centralize as humanity no one will defeat us.

I am going to Manitoba today and I am going to be there to support people who are now coming into the country. Even though I have been through what I have been through, there is no way that I cannot support this people. These are times where I feel and I know that I can make a difference.

So yeah, this whole idea turns into who is in control and about who is dictating people’s lives and how we carve freedom from that.

Mina Ramos
Mina is a mixed race queer who is based out of Brampton ON. She is passionate about ideas, thoughts and issues ground- ed in resistance movements of all kinds and the intricate connection to spiritual- ity but speci cally organizes in the realm of migrant justice

How Deaf & Queer Communities are Tackling Oppression Together

black and white photo of various queer deaf folks signing

By Alex Lu

        If you frequent queer spaces in certain cities, you may have noticed social media posts and flyers advertising American Sign Language (ASL) classes targeted towards queer and trans people. The casual observer may write these classes off as a curious but incidental pairing of two communities. Yet, these classes are independently popping up all over North America, from Vancouver to Chicago to Toronto to Washington, D.C. It is apparent that queer ASL classes are not an isolated trend. But what draws Deaf and queer communities together so consistently?   There are a surprising number of parallels in the narratives of being Deaf and being queer. Just like how queer people are for the most part raised by straight-identifying parents, most deaf children are born to hearing parents. These parents are frequently unable to provide a framework for understanding the experiences of oppression that their children will have. Consequently, many of these children will grow up to seek shared experience later in life, forming rich communities that become sources of culture, connection, identity, and pride. However, as both Deaf and queer communities stand outside able-bodied and straight standards of acceptability, both communities have to fight against politics that push them towards invisibility and conformance as opposed to visible identity.

Zoée Montpetit, founder of Queer ASL in Vancouver and the president of the British Columbia Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf, thinks that these parallels may be why queer people are drawn to her classes. “Before I got involved in the hearing queer community,” says Montpetit, “I struggled to expand my signing community. But queer people understand how it is to be marginalized. Once they start to learn about ASL and Deaf culture, I think they start to recognize aspects that they relate to.” Montpetit says that her queer and trans students are motivated by a sense of solidarity with Deaf communities. “There is a real sense of kinship, a desire to increase access, and an ability to understand how hearing people can oppress Deaf people, just like how straight people can oppress queer people.”

Michelle Bourgeois, founder of Hands on ASL! and ASL literacy teacher in the Toronto elementary school system, echoes Montpetit’s statements. “Queer communities in Toronto are more connected,” she says. “I’ve taught classes for both queer communities and the general community. After students graduate from general community classes, I rarely ever see them again. Whereas with graduates from my queer ASL classes, I will bump into them time after time at queer community events.” Bourgeois notes that Deaf-queer people are more inclined to be involved in hearing queer communities, given the wealth of queer-specific resources these communities provide. As a result, she says that queer people are often inclined to learn ASL for concrete, communal reasons. “Queer people will often be motivated because they see a community member or have a friend who they want to communicate with better. With the general population, it may be more of an abstract, individual interest.”

This outpouring of solidarity and interest from queer communities has led Montpetit and Bourgeois to respond by adapting the curriculum and learning environments to better serve marginalized groups. For instance, both Montpetit and Bourgeois use the standardized curriculum taught in post-secondary institutions, the “Vista Signing Naturally ASL Curriculum”. However, Signing Naturally has a number of aspects that are unsuited for queer learners. For instance, some activities involve the instructor splitting the class into groups of male and female students, which Montpetit describes as particularly unsafe for trans people. The material itself can be hetero- and cis-normative: to teach vocabulary about family, most instructors use an archetypal heterosexual family as an example, complete with gender roles (the mother works in the kitchen; the father goes to work.) Montpetit and Bourgeois have worked to modify these aspects so that they better reflect queer and trans identities. “When teaching in the general community, I was limited in what I could teach as I had to follow a set outline by the college,” says Bourgeois. “With queer ASL classes, I incorporate social justice concepts and discussion of identity and oppression.”

Furthermore, understanding that queer identities are often intersectional, both teaching organizations operate to be as inclusive as possible. Classes are financially accessible, offering affordable fees with a sliding scale option; a course at Queer ASL has a suggested donation of $60 to $90, whereas introductory community college classes can cost upwards of $500. The spaces are physically accessible and scent-reduced, and Hands on ASL! also offers classes for free to hard-of-hearing and deaf people. “It is not fair that hard-of-hearing and deaf people who didn’t have the opportunity to pick up ASL as children have to pay later in life to acquire these skills,” explains Bourgeois. In addition, both classes work to ensure that PoC (People of Colour) identities are represented in the curriculum.

Montpetit estimates that Queer ASL has taught over 250 different students in the past seven years. While the majority of her students may only learn ASL at a basic conversational level, the collective exposure of so many queer people to ASL and Deaf culture has led to a tremendous increase in accessibility within queer spaces. “I started teaching ASL because I felt isolated and wanted more people to sign with. Over time, I started to see the community become more understanding of the need for interpreters and communication access,” says Montpetit. “I see folks with various levels of sign language skills at almost every event I go to now.”

The efforts of Deaf-queer people to make sign languages classes queer-friendly is also slowly making waves in the Deaf community at large. Exposure to ASL and Deaf culture is encouraging a growing number of queer and trans people to apply to ASL-English interpretation programs. Sara Gold, a white queer interpreter with over 20 years of experience working in Toronto, notes that this trend challenges traditional conceptions of ASL-English interpretation. “Interpreters are generally thought of as neutral facilitators of communication,” says Gold. Because society codes white, straight, cisgender, non-disabled people as more “neutral” or “default,” she says, this has led to a disproportionate number of interpreters who come from privileged demographics. “However, current interpreting theory confirms what we know intuitively: the identity, life experiences, and values of the interpreter will unavoidably influence the way they perceive and relay other’s communication. No communication can be neutral.” The influx of queer interpreters means that queer Deaf people have interpreters who reflect their own experience.

Gold notes that the conception of interpreters as neutral has reinforced institutionalized privilege and respectability politics in many ASL-English interpretation programs. “Because interpreter identities are currently so homogenous, it can be hard for our trainers, leaders, and colleagues to even recognize that we have a problem,” she says. “I am hopeful that our field will be changed by the innovative practices happening at the grassroots.” In the meantime, Gold believes that queer ASL classes provide interpreters from marginalized backgrounds with a sense of community as they go on to work through these programs.

While the movement towards increased interpreter diversity is challenging, it is extraordinarily important for Deaf people who stand at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities. As a Deaf-queer PoC myself, I once attended a Black Lives Matter panel. It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch the experiences, language, and righteous anger of the Black women panelists being articulated through white interpreters. In a similar vein, I once wanted to participate in a discussion group that was restricted to Black and Indigenous people of color. However, as the interpreters for the event were white, they were initially asked to stand outside of the room. I sat in nervous silence with two other Deaf people, a Black trans man and an Aboriginal elder, entirely oblivious to what was being said about us as the rest of the room voted on whether they would admit the white interpreters in the space. Yet, neither situation was easily avoidable — even in a city as large and diverse as Toronto, there are only a handful of PoC interpreters, and not all are available or specialized to interpret events such as these.

Queer ASL classes can therefore be regarded as a form of resistance, reclaiming spaces by building interdependent connections between communities. The labor that Deaf-queer people put into sharing their language and culture with hearing queer communities carves out spaces for marginalized people to learn ASL. The graduates of these courses use their newfound cultural awareness and communication skills to transform the accessibility of queer spaces, such that they are more accessible to Deaf people. Some will go on to further pursue their passion for ASL and Deaf culture, supported by Deaf-queer communities as they work through interpreting programs that may be hostile to their identities. When they graduate, their status as interpreters who have experienced marginalization will position them to support marginalized Deaf people.

While queer and trans ASL teaching organizations are still small and independently-organized, it is impressive how these initiatives ripple out to enact social change. By bridging together two communities, these classes empower both communities to mutually work to uplift and support each other.

Alex Lu
Computer science graduate student and OPIRG-Toronto director. I organize around disability justice, queer issues, and intersectionality when I’m not being a tedious academic.

I’m Not Going to Be Nice About Ableism

picture of the word nice crossed out

by Alex Lu

I have been the first in a lot of places. The first Deaf person in a number of nonprofit boardrooms, for starters. The first in various places of employment, including an ill-advised summer as a customer service agent at the international airport. Certainly the first Deaf student that my piano teacher in high school had to teach. And less than two years ago, the first Deaf graduate student in my department at the University of Toronto. I have been the first in these spaces not because I’m exceptional, but because of the way people like me are marginalized and sidelined in our society. It’s hard not to be first when you’re getting your life started at a time when institutionalized barriers are just beginning to soften.

Being the first representative of your identity that someone is exposed to is always an interesting experience. You are the first real imprint on a mind previously occupied by misconception and hearsay. Encounters with you help move from uncertainty and discomfort to acclimatization and acceptance. After enough such encounters, you figure out, as I eventually did, what you can do to influence the outcome and encourage that acceptance. Over a lifetime of being the first, you could say, I’ve become experienced at “changing hearts and minds.”

But I don’t say that, and neither should you.

Being the first representative of your identity that someone is exposed to is always an interesting experience.

That phrase, “changing hearts and minds,” is frequently used to antagonize marginalized people who are perceived to step outside the bounds of respectability politics. Be it Black Lives Matter protesters, queer activists disrupting police PR events, or trans women critiquing the cisnormative rhetoric used in many signs at the Women’s March, commentators will inevitably emerge to insist that the language and tactics used by the marginalized are unsympathetic and “divisive,” thwarting their ability to “change hearts and minds.”

The phrase has become associated with a very narrow rhetorical strategy that demands that people sit down with those most hateful and violent toward them, and patiently explain their humanity, taking great pains to neuter their language surrounding any concepts that may provoke defensiveness, like “privilege” or “racism.” Moreover, it contends that making minorities look sympathetic to the majority is the only worthy goal: Outcomes like building community, showing solidarity, or disrupting harmful institutional actions are ignored.

I clearly do not match the popular image of one who “changes hearts and minds.” For one, I get angry easily and hold grudges. When I first entered my department, another graduate student questioned if I could really do research, claiming that technical language was too complex to be communicated through sign language. I immediately shut down the conversation, and proceeded to do so each time he approached me for the next year. I’m impatient and don’t always have the energy to explain myself. When I began working with my supervisor, he would often invite me to talks where I didn’t have interpreters scheduled. Most of the time, I would just decline, without bothering to reinforce that these events were inaccessible for me. I’m cutting in my language, and deliver call-outs easily. More than a few groups in Toronto have received harsh emails from me accusing them of being inaccessible and ableist.

I clearly do not match the popular image of one who ‘changes hearts and minds.’

And yet, the attitudes of those around me have still changed for the better. Fast-forward to today, and the same colleague who originally questioned my capability now frequently makes a show of asking me to send him my latest papers. I never sat down with him to explain what I found offensive about his innocent questions, but I’m sure he came to his own conclusions. My supervisor now checks in with me and advocates to make sure that I have access at each meeting and event I attend; he told one of my interpreters that he noticed a huge difference in my energy levels and participation when I had interpreters. The student groups that I work regularly with now automatically arrange for interpreters when I express interest in being involved, and are diligent about warning overly-eager activists that they need to incorporate enough time in their planning to make sure everyone gets included.

At times, even I am surprised by my influence: At the last conference I attended, the entire audience applauded in ASL (American Sign Language) when I stepped up to receive an award, something that I would have never thought possible in the world of hard science.

At times, even I am surprised by my influence.

Clearly, the tactics that I use sharply differ from the patient soul-crushing labor that people insist I should be doing. If anything, my tactics more resemble me going about my everyday life and reacting to people naturally — and that’s mostly what it is. I expose people to myself. That I am still effective at “changing hearts and minds” reveals the fundamental weakness in the argument that marginalized people need to go out of their way to be eternally patient and persuasive if they want to change the way they’re treated.

If your goal is to get people to see our humanity, why is it wrong for us to act human?

Because I am human, I’ll get angry and frustrated if you say things that are hurtful to me. Because I am human, I’ll get tired and struggle in the face of persistent barriers. Because I am human, I’ll have needs and take up space. I trust that the people in my life will see these truths as well and adjust their attitudes to make room for me. I am lucky enough that for the most part, they do. As for those who do not, who hold me to a standard they would never hold themselves to — we are not operating from the same basic premise in the first place. No number of words from me can change that.

If your goal is to get people to see our humanity, why is it wrong for us to act human?

In many ways, the calls for “reasonable” discourse in the face of growing hostility is a form of victim-blaming. I can be sympathetic about where it comes from; I am also frustrated that marginalized groups are treated so unfairly, that progress on these issues appears to be so slow, that so much seems to be hanging by a thread in our political climate of open bigotry and persecution. But instead of blaming those most at risk, I have an alternative explanation.

Although I’m slowly changing hearts and minds through exposure in my graduate program today, you must understand that it took me extraordinary measures to get to where I stand today. As an undergraduate, I quickly realized that the lecture format in universities severely disadvantaged me due to my disability; my response was to spend three times the amount of time as my hearing classmates, painstakingly going through the syllabus of each class I was enrolled in line-by-line, piecing together the content from lecture slides, textbooks, and independent research, to compensate for what I could not glean from the lectures. Even then, I would get docked marks; sometimes it would be because I would miss that the professor emphasized a particular point not on the syllabus and told everyone else it would be on the exam. Still not being enough, I made the strategic decision to take a full year off from my undergraduate to work as a research assistant, where I co-authored enough papers to finally bridge the gap between myself and hearing students.

Even then, I am just one person. I cannot be in every university department, every boardroom, every workplace, every event, every friend group. How many people like me failed to be at the places where they were supposed to be at, because they did not have the guidance to understand how to sneak past a system stacked against them? Because they did not have the financial resources, the family support, the health, the basic privilege, to work to prove themselves to others? Because their hearts broke prematurely, from the feeling of persistence never paying off, from the burden of never being able to complain, from starting to believe the constant barrage of hate and doubt launched against them?

How many people never even had the chance to change your heart and your mind?

In our current political environment, where civil rights are being eroded, we are beginning to see old institutional barriers re-emerge. We must be very careful not to fall for the alluring lie that if marginalized groups are nice enough, people will see the error of their ways. Pretty and flattering words alone do not change hearts and minds; making the political personal does. To even be in a place where we can even access your hearts and minds, much less change them, we need to be your colleague, your book club member, your neighbor, your boss, your friend, your teacher.

How many people never even had the chance to change your heart and your mind?

Instead of demanding “perfect” behavior from those who have been marginalized, I ask those with privilege to push back. To smash walls. To shout down those who would target us. Show us that we belong. Open the floodgates, so it is no longer just the lucky few that break through.

As someone who is too frequently the only representative of my identity, I’m working the hardest I can on the frontlines already. Instead of putting the expectation of being beyond reproach on me, there are plenty of things you could do instead to help me not be the only one of few out there. Protest and contact your politicians, if you see policies unfairly target minorities. Educate yourself and others about issues. Push for more representation and inclusivity in your field. Defend us from hate groups and harassers.

Criticizing the language and actions of minorities is an easy thing to do; because it is easy, it is tempting for those who want to show that they care about these issues. But this comes at a cost: The weight of responsibility moves from your shoulders to ours. You imply that adding this additional burden of respectability is constructive because you are helping us shed ourselves of any flaws that could be used as reason to deny us access and rights.

Alex Lu
Computer science graduate student and OPIRG-Toronto director. I organize around disability justice, queer issues, and intersectionality when I’m not being a tedious academic.

We Who Dare

by Boi (boh-eh) Beting

We always tilt on the losing end
Where death is just a step behind
We dare to take every challenge
When knocked by the power of change
We ask for nothing but life.
We dare to speak at very crucial times
When tribes are offered as sacrificial lambs
Yes, at the altar of Development and Peace
They say for unity and mutual benefit
There we lost our being, our land and breath.

We live for the love of our lowly people
We come to share their agonies and mourns
We bring their lamentations and their songs
In forum, in hearings and great halls
Hoping to find open ears and doors.
But here and there our sorrows grow
Sometimes even the Holy and the wise
Chose to be mute, deaf and blind
And the powerful and the mighty,
Oh how they love to grab our lands.
We know our battles are lope sided
And we always tilt on the losing end
But we do not have to fall on our knees
To claim justice, our dignity and peace
We just have to regain our strength.

We who dare must lick our wounds
Turn to Magbabaya1 to lift our thorns
We may have tilt on the losing side
But on his grace we can depend
We who dare are his seeds on earth
We who dare must keep moving on
Amidst strong surge and storms
Our domains we need to protect
And to Monama (God) we raise our case
He will lead us to our dream and rest.

Written at the height of our legal struggle in advocating for Indigenous Peoples rights in the bangsamoro basic law. Dedicated to the living movers and to the fallen. Posted by Mindanao Peoples’ Peace Movement (MPPM)

Boi (boi-eh) Beting
“Boi” means a womxn tribal leader in one of the tribes living at the foot of Mt. Apo, the highest peak in the Philippines. Boi B was uprooted from her roots at the age of seven and since then onwards, she lives a lifelong struggle to live and adapt with the mainstream community through which she earned an education and has been heavily involved in human rights related works. Contact: Guelph-based migrant worker support group Fuerza/Puwersa at fuerza.puwersa@gmail.com for mailing address.

25 Years Before

By Melanie Monceros 

25 years before

I have been medically monitored since conception; the internal ivory of my skeleton inscribed with legacies of languish before my first ventilator-assisted breath. Unexpected and born too early, I arrived during a snowstorm and ever since it has always snowed on my birthday.

I arrived under duress, after distress flooded my mothers veins and panic pumped into my own, joined as we were, at the time. My belly button was the first scar she would leave me with; and, like the others that would follow I’ve learned to grow around and into it.

22 years before

(3 ¾ years-old)

My first introduction to illness came early and the memories are sparse, faint, and corrupted by almost three decades of familial storytelling. Shortly after I was out of the woods of my early-years epidemics, my mother would become lost in a barbed thicket of her own. I don’t know now what it is like to grow up with a mom, but at that age, she was the heat from the sun in the day and the moon lighting up my dreams at night.

The thing about toddlers is that they can be pretty adaptable to changes they can understand. And they can understand a lot if given the chance.

So, when my mother stopped being able to lift me up, I found my own ways into her arms.

When she transitioned into a wheelchair, I learned to relish the joy rides my dad would take us on along the path behind our house. Curled against my mother’s body, I was mesmerized by the spinning wheels and her spilling laughter that fell gently on my tiny shoulders like warm spring rain.

When she stopped coming home, the hospital became a field trip where I got to see my favourite person on the other end.

When she never came home; and all around, the heads attached to the legs towering over me began weeping; and when their tears dried up and took my mother’s name with them – I learned to do the same and let the words ‘mom’ ‘mama’ ‘mommy’ evaporate from my vocabulary.

12 years before (13 years-old)

I had my first ultrasound when I was 13 years-old. It was to investigate the acute back pain I had been struggling with for a while. By that point I had already had cat scans, bone scans, and radioactive dye injected into my pubescent bloodstream. Nothing had yet revealed the source of all of the headaches, foot, and back pain that had become regular company in my young life. That year though, the ache grew and began radiating. I learned the language of pain description. Burning. Throbbing. Tearing. Breath. Taking.

Like the other tests, the ultrasound revealed very little in the way of an answer. I remember waiting, and waiting, and waiting for the results. Pestering my father to see if the doctor’s office had called him at work. By then, my mother had been long dead, but I was secretly processing the new knowledge that what killed her could be hereditary. As I would come to learn, the doctor does not call with the results unless something turns up that warrants their concern and effort. So when I was finally told there was nothing there except a benign cyst and prescribed extra strength Tylenol for the pain, I accepted the explanation and learned to stop talking about it.

4 years before (21 years-old)

Prior to the operation, the surgeon showed me two different sketches of my face in profile. He said I could pick “which face I wanted to wake up with” and I pointed to the one most similar to the one going under the knife.

I awoke to the members of my small family gathered, looking worried, and a bit horrified. My father was unable look at me for long, for a while because the swelling in my face was so severe that my skin had expanded beyond its capacity and begun to tear at the corners.

As I healed and reintegrated into my life I was hit with the startling reality that I was no longer recognizable as myself. The shape of my face was so changed that people I knew well, had worked or gone to school with, did a double take when they saw me if I was able to get their attention in the first place. A funny thing happens when the reflection known as “myself” becomes distorted. I started to spiral and question integral elements of my identity because I could no longer reconcile who I was with who I saw.

The most common refrain from my granny and aunties during my life to that point was how much I looked like my mother. At 15 or 16, when I first cut my hair down to the micro-fro resembling a style my mom had worn, my elder aunt Hazel swore she saw my mom walk into the room before realizing it was me.

Eventually the swelling softened, bruising faded, and my bones fused back together. Yet still, I didn’t look ‘right’. I tried lots of things to heal my distorted vision – haircuts and bod mods and a new “city look”. It didn’t work. And, too late, I realized that I’d worn that face as an echo, a mirror into who or what she could have been, and now it was gone.

1 year before (24 years-old)

Before The Pain
There was cycling across the city in all temperatures and conditions.
There was walking through London’s cobbled and uneven streets.
There were 8-hour hikes through Cretan caves.
There was acrobatic, adventurous, wild-abandoned fucking.

Before The Pain
There were travel plans.
Thumbtacks on wall maps
and Circus dreams.
Pregnant fantasies.
Homesteading blueprints.
Really though
There has never been

‘before the pain’.
There was before admitting it.
There was before allowing it.
There was before recognizing it.
There was before feeling it.
There was before feeling anything.
There was before being anything.
But even then there was pain.

melannie monoceros
melannie monoceros is a poet and artist exploring polysensory production through text/ile and performance. They live and work on the traditional land of the Haudenosaunee, Petun, Anishinabe, Mississaugas of New Credit, and Huron Wendat peoples commonly known as Toronto, ON. They have read and performed at the Mayworks Festival Toronto, ON (2015) and at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre Toronto, ON (2016). monoceros was honored with the Sharon Wolfe Artist in Residence (2014) and was a VONA fellow (2014). They have since been awarded grants from the Canada, Ontario, and Toronto Arts Councils in 2016. melannie has presented at York University for the Working toward Disability Justice Symposium and the National Arts Centre for The Summit on Deaf and Disability Arts. They have been a guest lecturer at Concordia University, Ontario College of Art and Design, and Ryerson University. melannie’s writing has appeared in Make/Shift magazine and When Language Runs Dry. Their first solo exhibition, Point of Origin received critical acclaim at the Tangled Art Gallery, Toronto, ON in 2016. Currently melannie is working on a series titled “a n c e s t o r a d i o”

Unwinding Tangled Patterns

by Anonymous

I want to talk about how childhood sexual abuse is a disability to be navigated in adult life like a daily job that never really ends. More specifically, while trying to sort through clues and disjointed memories, it often manifests as re-creations, winding and distanced from memory, and repeating in riddles.

I no longer feel like pretending that most of us haven’t been exposed to this deeply pervasive harm in our society in one way or another- be it by experiencing physical abuse or being sexually objectified as a child. Children are sensitive enough to emotion and energy that merely growing up in a society that hides and protects this secret— as an underpinning of violent maintenance of power-over and control in capitalist socialization— can be felt, and may be internalized.

Red Rope in A Tangled Mess Isolated on White Background.

Further, I no longer feel like tiptoeing around how common it is for us to repeat our traumas in our friendships and intimate relationships. I no longer feel like demonizing the stage of healing from generations of this violence where we fight out those old battles in new, distanced battle grounds amongst ourselves. Where our feared enemies come for us, from within our mind’s memories and ingrained socializations.

Instead, I feel like being curious about why, when people reach this very tender and permeable stage of their healing, they are often labelled with the most damning, shaming and stigmatized mental health industrial complex labels such as borderline. That level of fear and shame based response to such a tender state can keep someone from coming up to a place where safety, love and play can hold healing as gently as it needs to be held for us to meet the remnants of our aggressors within us. I want to feel curious, without necessarily being able to generate answers, about why such a crucial keystone phase of healing and freedom for many is so heavily pathologized and labelled as irreparably broken?

So how can communities hold the hard parts of trauma healing in ways that do not recreate institutional harms? That allow us to move to a more dynamic wholeness? To a place where we can see all sides of ourselves? That makes space for us to lose our minds and find our hearts again?

Childhood sexual abuse socialization means higher exposure to situations where people try and act out their sexual trauma on you non-consensually. I find that no matter how much of a fierce strong feminist woman I think I am, this is just another thing that I need to care for myself about. Maybe one day it will stop, but there is some kind of magnetism curse thing, you know? And so I have this responsibility to protect myself, which was really hard to learn.

The majority of the shit that was non-consensually placed inside of us isn’t even our shit, and yet, we are the only ones who can clean it up. And it is super okay to be Pissed Off about that. We often don’t have many tools or supports available to do this. We can try and push it onto others, that is, if we hold privileges that allow that to happen, we can try, and see if it’ll work (hint: it won’t).

When friends are just starting to articulate their own stories to themselves in new deeper, messier layers, it can feel really scary for them. I will never forget how terrifying these times are. I have been there and I may go back, in new layers of trauma work. And so I have a huge amount of love for everyone I placed a boundary with during this layer of trauma work, and who felt really triggered by my boundaries. Often, community response is based on maintaining comfort and silencing. This makes sense, because it is jarring to see adults we know begin to act in childish or abusive or non-consensual sexual ways towards each other.

Even the person who has acted out may feel so nervous or alarmed by what came from them that they could react to anyone setting boundaries on their actions in violent or socially malicious ways. When abuse happens during a time in our lives when we are dependant for survival on the very adults that hurt us, challenging that reality is LIFE THREATENING. Processing those feelings can be delayed for years, and become tangled up over time. Triggers related to unwinding this in adult life often feel life threatening too, even though we are no longer unsafe in the same way: the thread connects back to a time when this was real.

If we don’t yet know why the trigger in adult life feels big, we often respond to the manifestation of the trigger like it is ‘life-threatening’. Because our body is reacting to the origin of the trigger, from a time when we did not have agency. When our friends and loved ones express their agencies outside of our stories by placing loving, healthy boundaries on being objectified re-creations of deep trauma, it can be really hard to receive: We just took a very brave step towards healing ourselves! The “No” we receive is often coming from those in our pasts as much as from our friends in this moment, which makes it even harder.

I don’t perpetuate moments where friends try and act out their trauma on me/with me/around me by talking about them in social gossip. I view these times as different than sexual assault or rape because it sits in context of their stories unravelling for them, my history of having done this healing work myself, my socialization as being literally bred as ‘an object to deposit unwanted parts of self upon’, and my ability to place and enforce my boundaries. And also, I matter, and when someone reacts in fear, attacking or silencing me instead of processing their actions in accountable ways, this is highly triggering for me- stress and inflammatory responses in my body akin to being hit by a car that I know all too well.

But instead of running after the car (which is a common reactionary learned response) I now check to see if I am okay, take care of myself, and move on when I can. This can be solitary, socially isolating and personal work, and a lot of people don’t ‘get’ me or are afraid of me, but it is survival.

We are trying to say the truth, and it starts as almost said- but not quite. And so, often the love of firm boundaries we can offer each other (although hard to do!) are integral for us to eventually come to know that what is happening inside of us, the stories that need our love and care, are not actually happening again in the present physical moment. Seeing that can be hard, and a great relief. If we respond to it out of context, it can perpetuate great harms.

Trauma repeats itself, and we may find ourselves predisposed to resonate with harm and chaos. This might look like being abused again in adult life, or trying to reenact trauma by doing harmful things to others. Often it is a whole mosaic of coming in and out of doing both. And so we see a spiral pattern emerge: repair or repeat. And a lovely common thread: we want to be happy. And a soft knowing: we have sometimes forgotten how to know what being happy requires or means.