Awakening

a black and white illustration of a goldfish with a blue background

by Amai Kuda

For each of us, the process and timing of political awakening is different. My mother named me Salmon, she said I looked at her like a judge when I was a baby, so I think that process happened quite early for me. By the age of six I decided I could not eat my best friends, who at the time were some goldfish, so I became a vegetarian. Within a few years I was putting up my own hand-made ‘Go Vegetarian’ posters around the neighborhood. Although, I confess I am no longer vegetarian, I am thankful that my early relationships with animals taught me about empathy, spiritual connection and how to fight for things that mattered to me. I also attended an alternative school that encouraged us to write advocacy letters, and so at eleven years old I was writing to NASA decrying their vivisection practices, and contacting Nelson Mandela to critique post-apartheid South Africa’s continued employment of White police officers who had actively oppressed Black people during the apartheid regime. Having a mother who taught me about the political realities of our people, both past and present, was certainly a critical part of my awareness and engagement as well.

Then I went to a feminist all girls school where I was both empowered to have a voice as a young woman, but was also punished by some White teachers who were disconcerted by a little Black girl, albeit a light-skinned one, having academic gifts in math and science. When one such teacher, named Susan, accused one of the school’s few Black students of stealing a watch and the Principals called the police on this fourteen year-old girl, I decided to organize a walk-out.  The Principals then had to answer to us, the student body, for how they had reacted to our schoolmate. It turned out that the teacher had tormented that same student all year long, even inviting other students’ to ridicule her in class. I learned from a young age that in White so-called ‘progressive’ circles we, Black and Brown folk, were far from safe.

From grades ten to twelve I went to Weston Collegiate Institute, a high school resembling a prison where two thirds of the student body were people of colour and the majority of the teachers were White. They had no pretentions of ‘progressiveness’ and I observed the policing of Black students’ bodies and ways in which young Black people were miseducated. I listened to the Fugees and Dead Prez. My best friend and I performed Lauryn Hill, Bob Marley and Mahalia Jackson songs in duet at Black History shows, and I made my peers uncomfortable when I sang “Strange Fruit.” When I noticed the double standard that allowed Jewish or Muslim students to wear religious head-coverings, but barred young Black women, like myself, from wrapping our heads as part of a longstanding spiritually-rooted tradition, I created a petition to protest this injustice. It was during this time that I really clarified my own views about the problems of institutional education. I found the learning environment oppressive, from the rigid schedule and the constant grading, to the rows of desks and fluorescent lighting. I found it unfair that our education should be in the hands of people that didn’t love us and, often, even despised us.

Despite this unfriendly environment, I did learn a lot. I took anthropology and learned about the Yanamamo, the Bunyoro and the San peoples.  My readings confirmed my hunch that land-based/Indigenous societies seemed to have much healthier ways of doing things, and problems of homelessness, imprisonment, poverty, environmental degradation and racism were non-existent when these Indigenously living peoples were left to their own devices. In these societies where people were organized into smaller communities, one was not educated in cold institutions, but by one’s community members. One was not ruled by a distant stranger that one had never met. One knew where one’s food came from and where one’s waste went.  I learned how each Indigenous society had a complex spiritual tie to the earth that allowed them to live in relative balance. They were not perfect, but to my mind their ways of life were a far cry above the soul-sucking, oppressive, environmentally destructive path that our society was taking. I decided my career goal was to become a hunter-gatherer.

I pursued this goal to the best of my ability at the time. I spent a summer at Curve Lake First Nation with a family friend, Alice, so that I could begin to learn from the people whose land I was on about how to live in a better way with the land. I had begun visiting Curve Lake with my mom when I was about thirteen years-old. It was during discussions with Alice’s kids, who were mixed Anishishinabeg and White, that I realized that being mixed didn’t make one less Black or less Native. I realized that identifying with one’s marginalized identity was a kind of resistance.  So in the summer after I finished high school I mostly spent my time volunteering at the Curve Lake daycare centre and hanging out with the woods and lake there. Then I had an opportunity to spend a few months up in Red Lake with Alice’s daughter’s family. During my time with her family I did housework to earn my keep, and volunteered a bit with a local Indigenous youth group, but I actually spent most of my time in the bush. I had always loved the woods and during this period I determined that the trees were to be my main teachers. I learned to listen to them, and to connect to my own ancestors through them. This practice has been my source of guidance and wellness ever since.

 

Although I was keen to continue pursuing my career path as hunter-gatherer/tree-talker my mom was pretty keen for me to get my butt back in school. I was not to squander the opportunity that our ancestors had fought so hard for. So, having been granted scholarships to cover my tuition, I attended Trent University, which I had selected because there was lot of bush on the campus. I planned to camp out in the woods the whole time. I even took a tent and all my best woods clothes and everything, but then my Granny warned me that I would surely be raped if I slept outside alone. Having had this idea firmly planted in my head I conceded to sleeping in my dorm and just spent as much of the daytime as possible in the bush. I continued to learn from the trees and they guided me to pursue my commitment to social justice by working in solidarity with the Indigenous peoples’ of Turtle Island.

It was at Trent that I met Laura Hall and re-met Urpi Valer-Pine, the two Indigenous women with whom I co-founded the group Seven Directions. Urpi had, in fact, been one of the brown students who was also tormented by the same Susan teacher at the feminist all girls’ school.  Although, we had not been friends in middle school, all these years later we discovered that we shared a commitment to social justice, particularly Indigenous rights and gender equality.  So we formed a group. We hosted Decolonization Discussions and consulted with Indigenous elders about what decolonization could actually look like and how we could best contribute to it. We also fundraised for Indigenous groups fighting for their land, like the Secwepemc in BC and I took the bus out West to do some front-line land defending with Cheam First Nation.  I learned a lot in my time at Trent. I actually created my own degree specializing in ‘Decolonization: Indigenous Cultural Reclamation in Turtle Island and Africa.’ The program included Native Studies and African studies courses as well as a self-directed study course on genealogy and another on the role of religion in the colonization of Africa.

After three years spent exploring ideas of decolonization, consulting with local Indigenous community members and working in solidarity with land-rights struggles, Seven Directions began working towards the creation of a centre for decolonization. The idea was to buy land and establish a space where Indigenous peoples and allies could relearn their  land-based traditions and learn to live according to the treaties.

It took us some ten years to pull together the money to buy the land, which we finally did in 2013, and today we’re still working on building the infrastructure for the centre. Last year the group was able to host a first Hide Tanning workshop for the local Indigenous community with a grant we received. However, we found that it was a challenge to bring large groups into the space without sufficient resources to accommodate them. We’ve had to go back to fundraising so that we can create the necessary infrastructure, such as a big kitchen and showers. We are working on building both physically, emotionally and spiritually. We are still learning how to share space so we can function as a healthy community, while also developing relationships with the local Algonquin and Metis communities. the center.

As we work through the challenges of building an alternative to a colonial way of living, I am sometimes frustrated by how slow the process is. I know patience is a virtue, but at times I panic when I look up from this work to see how incessant and tireless the forces of destruction are as they tear up the earth in the name of profit, displacing our peoples and gunning us down or jailing us if we resist.  I am terrified that there will be nothing left by the time we relearn how to live in a good way. Perhaps it was in answer to these worries that I dreamt one night about riding a bus where I could not distinguish between people and baggage. In another part of the same dream I was with some Batois people, my ancestors, and we were learning the names of plants as we walked up a hill.  I woke up with thoughts of the Montgomery bus boycotts in my mind and I knew that we had to get off the bus! I felt that those of us who believed in a different way of doing things had to engage in a boycott as powerful as that of the Civil Rights movement. So I started plotting. After many conversation with Black, Indigenous and POC activists who seemed on a similar page to myself I wrote the Call Out below.

The Call Out is a work in progress. At present it is being revised to be more reflective of the Indigenous voices in our movement.  The movement itself is a work in progress. But I have to say I’m proud of some of that progress. Due to the overwhelming support from community members, we already have a website and a beautiful flyer that serve to educate people about how they can take steps towards creating a more just world. We’ve held three powerful actions that at once feed and honor spirit while, simultaneously resisting oppression. All this has happened in only a few months. We have many great social justice groups within the coalition already and we are building steadily all the time.  I know this revolution that we dream of will not happen overnight, and I know that we have to take time to do things in the right way, rather than rushing forward to our death, as the wise ones say. But I also know we are in a powerful moment and timing is everything. I know that my job is to listen closely to the guidance of my ancestors whether they speak through trees or dreams. I must keep my feet planted firmly on the soil and offer thanks and water daily in the constant flow of reciprocity. In doing so, I can play my role, not unlike like the salmon who performs the ultimate sacrifice to make way for future generations.


 

Amai Kuda
Amai Kuda is a Toronto based singer/songwriter, community activist and the mother of a young child. The name Amai Kuda means “mother to the will of the creator” in the southern African language Shona. Amai Kuda is a co-founder and co-coordinator of three organizations, Moyo Wa Africa, Seven Directions and R3, dedicated to the decolonization of African peoples and to indigenous solidarity respectively.Daughter of the internationally awarded writer, Nourbese Philip, who has used her work to speak out about all kinds of injustice, Amai Kuda grew up going to demonstrations and listening to her elders passionately discuss the history and future of African peoples. Her first music video, All My Fine Shoes, was part of The Reel World Film Festival 2010 and in October of 2011 she launched her first CD called ‘Sand from the Sea’, an indie release which she produced herself.

Black Mental Health & Self Determined Futures

by Louise Boileau

A friend went to a youth shelter when it was cold. He was in distress, having a mental health crisis. He was told firmly to leave, or else they would call the police.

In July 2015, police arrived at subsidized housing unit at Eglinton West and Gilbert Ave, and murdered Andrew Loku within 20 seconds of seeing him. His house was a block up the street from Horizons for Youth, a shelter where my friend was living at the time.

The question has come to my mind helplessly many times: Where does a Black person in a mental health crisis go when they need help?

Left Illustration by Eli WiPe 

There is no safe place to go in this city when experiencing crisis where a black person will not be treated as a threat; including in one’s own home, be that a shelter or a private residence. It is a tired fact and one that requires urgent attention, that Black youth are treated as a problem in Toronto, on many institutional levels.

If reproductive justice is the ability to raise children in a community that is free from violence, it must also encompass mental health, and our ability to receive culturally relevant supports without being isolated or removed from the community, whether it be by child welfare, push out from school, incarceration or institutionalization.

 In the school system, Black youth experiencing anxiety, depression and trauma (which can manifest in many ways), are often summarized as having behavioural issues and are discarded. Expulsions as early as grade one show the incredible reach of anti-Blackness – that a child could be considered not worthy of an education and so lacking in hope for their potential that they should be isolated from their peers and “expelled” from opportunity. The treatment of Black students, and the problematization of Blackness at early ages is consistent with Black overrepresentation in the criminal system.

 Although Black communities represent 3% of the general population in Canada, we represent 9% of the prison population. People with mental health challenges are overwhelmingly filtered into the prison system. So, the chances of a Black person with mental health challenges spending timae in prison at some point in their life is extremely high. Furthermore, mental health challenges such as psychosis and paranoia are so extremely stigmatized, those who experience these symptoms are ostracized and isolated especially when they are most in need of support.

A Punitive Model Across The Board

When you begin to look at the methods of management in the education system, prison and hospital systems, the approach to Black students, youth and adults are very coordinated.

It seems that each uses a punitive approach to trauma, where Black people are being punished, ostracized and further traumatized for needing support, expressing anxiety, depression or distress, even though we are experiencing some of these things as a direct result of the hostile environment we are in.

In psychiatric hospitals in Ontario, there seems to be a chronic issue of overuse of force and restraints. On paper, restraints are meant to be used as a last resort measure. For those who are unfamiliar, to place someone in restraints is to secure them to a bed using straps. First, however, the person is forcibly sedated, sometimes by as many as 8 people (as a friend recounted), and then have their pants brought down so that they can be injected with a sedative in the buttocks. Then they are transported to a bed, and secured with the restraints for an unspecified period of time. A friend recounts being placed back in restraints whenever a nurse who didn’t like them would come back on shift. When she left her shift, they would be released. This is against standard protocol which dictates that restraints are to be used only in extreme situations, where staff either fear the “patient” will harm themselves or somebody else. So their discretion on using restraints lies on their perception of whether or not the “patient” is a threat. It is unreasonable to assume that anti-Blackness never plays a role in their decisions.

Placing a person in isolation is another approach, on paper, used to maintain “patient” or worker safety. However, I have also known it to be used in reaction to something a “worker didn’t like” about a patient, where the patient was then placed in isolation for a period of weeks, and was disallowed from contacting family or advocates. The use of isolation has drastic negative mental health impacts on any person, as has been documented in relation to the use of solitary confinement in prison and remand centres, where most of Canada’s imprisoned population are kept awaiting trial.

Remand facilities receive no resources or training in terms of caring for a person undergoing mental health challenges. Their primary go to, for the “safety” of the person imprisoned (the inmate), is to place them in solitary confinement. Furthermore, people are often denied their right to healthcare, medications or otherwise while in remand. The numbers and demographics of solitary confinement in Canada’s prisons and remand centres is not publicized, similar to the numbers and demographics of deaths inside both prisons and psychiatric institutions.

A Picture of The Mental Health System in Ontario

The mental health system in Ontario is a network of services and institutions, that follow two models intended to work together. The first is the the community based model which is meant to allow people access to support while staying within their communities. and The second is the institutional or medical model, which includes both inpatient and outpatient programs such as CAMH. The community model of mental health services is relatively new and certainly not perfect. Many services are rarely accessed by youth of colour, or and present services are often not culturally relevant.

Only two services in Toronto, that I am aware of, provide services focused on racialized people, and there is only one that provides counselling specifically for Black people in all of Canada. Across Boundaries, and The Substance Abuse Program for African Canadian and Caribbean Youth (SAPACCY) which runs as a program out of CAMH.

The SAPACCY program began in 1996 from community concerns over the amount of Black youth incarcerated for drug related crimes. It was proposed to the ministry and then amalgamated into the CAMH Queen and Shaw location. The SAPACCY program, due to lack of allocated resources is currently hanging on by a thread with only one counsellor with an unusually large caseload, and an even larger waitlist. The waitlist includes only those people who qualified for the services because they are in the catchment area. CAMH recently received a donation of $100 million. It appears they are determined to allocate these funds entirely towards “high-risk” research and the hiring of “top scientists,” in the midst of our current housing and resource crisis. What they intend to research, and how this is suppose to help anyone, I am unsure.

Toronto Police Services & The Mental Health System

The mental health system in Ontario maintains a tight relationship with Toronto Police Services (TPS). The Mobile Crisis Intervention Team (MCIT), which is intended to respond to mental health crisis, is a partnership between Toronto Police Services and participating hospitals. The team is a mental health nurse and a police officer (who may or may not be trained by the TPS in mental health awareness). To what extent they receive any training on de-escalation is entirely unclear. The Mobile Crisis team is only available between the hours of 6am and 11pm. TPS is usually the first point of contact for people undergoing mental health crisis. Police officers may bring the detained person to a hospital, where they will be kept for anywhere from an hour to several weeks if admitted. Or they may be charged with an offence and placed in remand.

To call the police in the case of a crisis, is to risk the death of yourself, your family member or friend. But this is the only option presented in a mental health related emergency. Even if a person calls the MCIT, they are still calling the police. There is little assurance that this is in anyway a safer option. At the many times I have made a list in my head of the greatest risk to my family members’ life, police interactions was always the one I feared most.

 The only route made available to access mental health care in crisis is the trauma of police services, and the trauma of psychiatric institutionalization. If we must cope with the pain inflicted on us by those systems that we are asked to call supports than we have very few options at all within the current structure of mental health care.

Community-Led & Self Determined Futures

Because of shame and exhaustion it is often difficult to seek out community or support services. Although we must teach ourselves how to navigate systems and how to survive, there is little space to share these tools with each other.

Intercepting the Pipeline to Prison is a project, lead by Black youth, to address the intersection of mental health, anti-Blackness and criminalization. It is a project created to share survival skills and strategies and to document our experiences. We have developed workshops in three streams: Youth Justice and Advocacy, Family and Community and Creative Solutions. The workshops provide skill building on safety tools for interactions with police, getting access to advocates while in remand, daily self care and coping methods, discussing mental health in our families, the ways we do support and advocate in our families and communities and how to strengthen them, and designing the kind of supports that we would like to see gain funding. In these community conversations we will have the opportunity to pool our knowledge and skills and create take-away resources for each other. The workshops are written from a lived experience perspective, with supports from our organizational mentors such as Legal Swipe. The Project also includes a short documentary interviewing Black youth on their experiences surviving, accessing services, living and creating.

We are creating spaces where we are able to talk about things we have never felt safe bringing up in mental health care spaces, institutional or otherwise: Anti-Blackness as we see and feel it in the mental health system, Caribbean perspectives on mental health, spiritual affliction, “pray it away” and stigma in the Church, spiritual or religious supports that we need, how the option of medication can be complicated by medical trauma, self-determination and the need for supports where people look you in the eye and understand you beyond the idea that you are an impossible problem.

 We believe it is within the community; friends, family, partners and chosen family that long-term support for mental health come from. And any service or support that a person seeks along the way should strengthen their chosen support circle.

 There are many directions to work in and issues to tackle; prison reform and abolition, deinstitutionalization, and the creation of Black-focused mental health supports that strengthen the community. There are conversations and actions happening now in regards to Anti-Blackness in the Peel Board lead by community, the scrapping of the SRO program (s/o to the many people who worked tirelessly for that), the Black Youth Action Plan, and the 10 year health accord that will see $1.9 billion allocated to mental health initiatives in Ontario over the next decade.

 It is a very important time to document our experiences, demand resources, and lead solutions as we connect the conversations on Anti-Blackness to mental health and the criminal system.

 If you are interested in getting involved in the project as a youth, mentor, interviewee, creative collaborator, researcher etc., or you have questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch by email at interceptingthepipeline@gmail.com or by phone at 647-207-9376. We are also interested in Indigenous community collaboration on the project.


Lou Boileau
Lou Boileau is a mental health advocate and writer of creative non-fiction and short stories. She works in the areas of youth work and food justice. She is based out of Tkaronto. Her work in mental health and advocacy is from lived experience, and family support caregiving.

Eli Wipe
Eli is queer artist residing in Toronto. They are an aspiring illustrator and writer. You can contact them at piscesprincx@gmail.com. Check out their bigcartel: piscesprincx, or their instagram, twitter and tumblr by the same names

Coming Home: An Interview With Tina Reynolds

by Savannah Taylor

I had the privilege of chatting with Tina for the second time for The Peak about her work with incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women in the state of New York. My intention upon interviewing her was to chat on what has led her to where she is today. Admittedly, I expected a play-by-play account of all the brilliant advocacy work she has done. However, what ensued touched on something much more beautiful and something many of us can relate to… Family and sisterhood.

Do you wanna introduce yourself and what you do?

Tina: I am the co-founder and chair of WORTH (Women On the Rise Telling Her Story), which is a volunteer organization that is led and run by currently and formerly justice-involved women. We’ve been around since 2008, and we’ve done some phenomenal things, like changing legislation and policy and bringing about laws that impact women who have experienced incarceration. Two years ago, I began working at The Child Center of NY to develop and implement A Vision for Tele-Visiting (AVTV), a program that offers the logistical, emotional, and wraparound support to assists families in maintaining meaningful relationships during a parent’s incarceration and preparing for a successful reentry into family and community life. We provide reentry support, family support along with youth activities, leadership development and tele-visits, as well as mental health support and wraparound services, such as job placement assistance and benefits counseling. The Child Center has a powerful community presence, reaching more than 26,000 children a year. It’s located in Queens, NY, which includes neighborhoods where the numbers of children impacted by parental incarceration are among the highest.   What better place to offer services to children with justice-involved mothers?

So WORTH, from what I remember from the last time we chatted, came out of your own experiences from being incarcerated, correct?

Tina: Yes! WORTH came out of the experiences that I had and many other women had from our incarceration. We came out of prison with a feeling that there was not much ready for us to become successful and remain out in the free world. So, we began by having conversations amongst ourselves to see how we could support each other and support our sisters coming home.

Did you wanna touch more on your new program that WORTH is focusing on now?

Tina: We are focused on our partnership with The Child Center to provide services through AVTV, which in turn focuses on mothers and children within New York State Facilities, for women in NYC who are housed in Bedford and Taconic correctional facilities. We also offer tele-visiting services within Rikers Island’s Rose M. Singer Center for women, where we offer services to families, youth, and mothers with children. There is this tele-visiting boom happening within the nation, and not all programs are thinking about the relationship between the child or family member and the justice-involved person. Here in New York, there are organizations like The Osborne Association, Hour Children, and The Child Center who always put the child first, and honour the relationship between the child and his or her parent.

It is important to offer supplemental services to physical visits–although it is very important for children to see, feel, and touch their parent through physical visits–in addition to offering families a safe space to heal and move forward with their lives. We have three sites in Queens and a tele-visit can basically be done every day. We facilitate visits in Bedford Hills and Taconic Correctional Facilities, as well as Rose M. Singer centre in Rikers Island 1.


1. Westchester, Bedford, Taconic and Rikers Island are all prisons located in the Tri-State Area

It’s interesting because the program originally started out with the focus on just the state facilities, but after talking with the CEO of The Child Center, Traci Donnelly, she agreed we should offer tele-visiting to women with children because there was the possibility of continuation of services if Mom was transferred up state. She also envisioned us working with youth and opening visits up to families.

Before you were with WORTH and before you started organizing, who was Tina? What was Tina up to?

Tina: (laughs) well that’s a long time ago. I really did not know who I was; I knew who I wanted to be, though. I knew I wanted to help women and children. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, so I became involved in an organization and began sharing my story about my experience as an incarcerated woman. I had been home for about 12 months? I began pursuing an undergraduate degree and raising my last two children and reuniting with my other children, changing my life through the love of others and being really grateful for being out. So my primary focus was on my family because I have seven children and I’d been out of their lives for so long. In the first 5 years, my efforts were to basically reunify with my own children. To establish a relationship with them or assist them with establishing a relationship with each other. They were raised by various family members throughout the tri-state area…so they were pretty much dispersed throughout New York and New Jersey. Reunification is difficult and challenging. I had to swallow my pride, be strong, give voice to my emotions, and remain humble. My main focus was for my children to have a relationship with each other, grow and live happy lives. I am happy my family stepped in and supported them through my incarcerations.

It sounds like you had a very solid foundation of focusing on your family unit. Did that carry over to your advocacy work and WORTH?

Tina: It certainly carried over. My family experiences through my incarceration and the unification process with my children certainly intersected with my work. I often found myself speaking with sisters who had experienced the same situations and the challenges of unification with their own families and children. They were facing the challenges of the choices their family members had made who were taking care of their children in their absence. So, I always wanted to make sure I focused on those issues in regard to reproductive health but also family stability once Mom came home. Because it’s so important! Mothers tend to think about their children during their incarceration. They think and wonder about their safety and who their friends are and whether they’re faring well and things that they have missed as far as conversations–as well as, the “firsts” in any child’s life; regardless of how old they are, there are always “firsts” that happen in your child’s life that you are definitely missing if you are incarcerated and you can’t get those times back. So, I’ve always been about doing the work but also realizing that there are challenges around re-establishing relationships with those you love. And continuing to strengthen those relationships as you are out, being true to yourself and asking your children to be true to themselves and coming up with some specific guidelines of how you would engage with them and how to be with them. Since you being there physically is such a big missing in their lives during incarceration, even if you see them regularly, speak with them regularly during your incarceration, you are still not there. Each one of my children are different people and each one of them have/had different needs. While they wanted me in their lives, there were certain things that they wanted from me and I had to realize my own limitations. Not always monetarily, but emotionally, because as I was growing through my process of being home, I was also growing through my process emotionally   of being the person who I am today. I hadn’t really spent that much time learning who I was, and so I could do things but I wasn’t attached to the emotion behind the things I did.   I wanted to be attached to the emotion; those were the most difficult challenges because I had spent so much time without feelings in order to survive in a very selfish and selfless world.

How do you feel like your communication/unification process has changed since you started your advocacy work to now?

Tina: Well, basically, so much has happened in my advocacy work in relation to my children. I’ve been an editor in an anthology, Interrupted Lives: Experiences of Incarcerated Women in the United States, where I shared a story about my last daughter and reuniting when she was 20 years old. Now, some 9 years later, she is in my life and she has three children and is married. My other children have gotten married. My daughters were married first and have strong and stable relationships with their husbands. My sons are not married yet. My children and I have always communicated, and my communication is unique to each child. I speak with some more than others. However, we have always communicated. It has transformed over the years into a relationship of dignity and respect and love. My advocacy work is all my children see and know I do, they observe my commitment and dedication to others.   They are an integral part of my growth. Advocacy is an integral part of my growth, sisterhood is a big part of who I am.

Do you feel like WORTH is a place for women to come and rebuild things that have been lost or forgotten while they were incarcerated?

Tina: So even WORTH has transitioned and transformed into something different. We closed our office in Manhattan a few years back and now we’ve been working specifically on this tele-visiting. . Our mantra has always been “once you’re a member of WORTH you’re always a member of WORTH” because it’s a volunteer organization. Women were inspired and moved towards gaining employment and seeking a higher education while volunteering at WORTH. It’s always been a volunteer program and because of our movement women have gone on and done different phenomenal things for themselves in their lives. They come back and touch base and we end up being in certain spaces together. We were able to join as a group of women to the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls and the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples Movement. It is always inspiring to meet so many women across the nation who have been impacted by incarceration and gone on to do phenomenal things. So, WORTH has grown as I have grown, and it hasn’t looked like something that I wanted in the beginning, but when things transform, it’s just like relationships with your children. You have this idea of how this relationship is going to be. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s gonna turn out like that. So, how do you adjust to the ways in which it does turn out and how can you keep moving forward knowing that that’s your position in the world and that’s the purpose you’ve been placed here for? So, through the transition of WORTH, in many ways, it’s not where we were before, but what can we look like in the future? So working within the prison now, we’re looking at it from a perspective of having leadership coming out of the facilities we are offering services in. Having the women come in and join us in this process and guide us from that place (because we’ve been home a lot longer) where they see the impacts of incarceration on themselves and their families being different within this world of social media and technology. We have to give folks that are coming out a safe space and a chance to be fully self-expressed.

How would you describe WORTH now then? Is it still a sisterhood?

Tina: It is still a sisterhood! It is always and will always be a sisterhood of women. There are so many women who have been a part of WORTH that it will never not be a sisterhood. Because of our experiences–some of us have experienced incarceration together, gone through education together or organized together. So, it will never not be a sisterhood… We are continuing the work moving forward, we’re just doing it differently. It’s sort of transformed into something else.


Tina Reynolds
Tina Reynolds is Co-Founder and Chair of Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH). WORTH is an association of formerly and currently incarcerated women who have been empowered by their own experiences while involved in the criminal justice system and beyond.  Reynolds has received a Master in Social Work from Hunter College and is currently an adjunct professor at York, CUNY in the Behavioral Sciences Department teaching “Impact of Incarceration on Families, Communities and Children” and Human Development.

In Our Own Words

Re-writing the Dialogue on FGM

By Galme Mumed

Let me start off by saying a few things about myself. My name is Galme Mumed and I am 24 years old. I was born in what is known as Ethiopia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old after my mom sponsored me. While I was in Ethiopia I was raised mostly by my grandmother in a small village called Karamile. Once I moved to Canada I grew up in Toronto, specifically Scarborough and moved to Guelph to study International Development at the University of Guelph. I recently graduated and am now living back in Toronto.

Even though I was born in Ethiopia, I am specific about identifying as an Oromo woman instead of identifying as Ethiopian. Ethiopia is a colonial state that exists on the oppression and genocide of Oromo people, who are the indigenous people of Ethiopia, and so it is important for me to make this distinction.

Getting into my experience with FGM (female genital mutilation), I actually got the procedure done right before I came to Canada. I think my grandmother strategically did it because she knew that I would be coming to Canada. I think she kind of panicked and made me go through the procedure because she didn’t want me to leave without me getting cut. A lot of women in my culture believe that if a woman is uncut she is unclean and no one will marry her. I think she wanted to protect me and for me to carry my culture going into this new place that would be so different than where I came from. I have always remembered everything from the procedure but it was never explained to me why it was happening or the reasons why it was done. There was never a conversation about it.

When I came to Canada I kind of just lived my life and forgot about it. It wasn’t even a thing. I just figured it was something that happened that one time. I didn’t think it was something that was going to follow me or something that made me different than other women. It wasn’t really until high school that I thought about it for the first time. In grade 10 I started having an intimate relationship with a girl. We started off as friends and we were together all of the time and eventually we were a thing. When we first started getting intimate, I realized that things were different. Obviously I know that every vagina looks different but hers had extra parts that mine just didn’t have. In terms of the clitoris I was looking at hers and was like woah what is this. That was really the first time I made the connection.

You know in the movies when someone sits there and their whole life is rewinding and replaying? That’s what it felt like. In that moment I rewound back to that day that I was cut and was like, okay, that’s what that was. When they held me down and did that all those years ago it was because they were removing this thing.

Before this moment I used to watch shows that had survivors of FGM who would talk about their experience and I always use to feel bad for them. I never made the connection that it had also happened to me. Once I realized what had been done to me, I told the person who I was with at the time but she didn’t really know how to respond because it was something that she had never really heard of it. No one else knew. It was overwhelming because all of these thoughts started coming in. Being in high school you are very limited to the information you have about this stuff and it is mostly just from what people tell you. So I was thinking that I’d probably never feel pleasure sexually or be able to have a good intimate relationship with anyone. Later on I found out that this wasn’t actually true but at that time I believed all of those things because that was the information that I had access to.

So I started to do research. I was googling everything. At that point I didn’t even know that there were different stages or levels of FGM. Like sometimes the lips get sewn together, sometimes there is complete removal of all of your parts. It was so much information. Googling it was helpful in some ways but the problem was that most of the information was coming from white people who were going into these communities and creating a specific narrative. I mean I did find out that it was banned in countries all over the world including Ethiopia and that it was condemned by the UN but I was like if it is illegal than why is it still happening. A lot of things didn’t make sense. Finding out almost felt unfair because I was like well if it is illegal then why did it happen to me. It hit me that even though so much research was going into this issue; the policies were being passed and statements were being made by the UN, none of these things were actually reaching the communities that were doing FGM.

Also there were so many articles that just talked about the negative results of FGM. The fact that you’d never feel anything again after the procedure. I knew that they were doing it because they wanted to make sure people understood why it shouldn’t be legal but only having one narrative sucked for me as someone who had already had the procedure done. I’m sure it sucked for others too because it paints the picture that this is the only result you’ll have which is actually false information. A lot of it depends on the type of procedure you’ve had done.

Illustration below: Quiet girls are seeds by Mia Ohki 

Initially I did all of this research but after I graduated and got into university I kind of just stopped and continued to live my life. At some point I became intimate with someone again and felt like it was something I had to share. It felt like such a big thing and I was ashamed of it. I felt like I was missing something important and it just weighed on me. I also felt like any intimate experience I would go into I’d have to have this conversation which I didn’t really want to have. I didn’t want to keep having to be vulnerable with people. On any other day nobody would know but all of a sudden I am intimate with someone and am having to reveal this thing. I tried to forget about it but it was always something that was in the back of my mind.

One day I couldn’t sleep and was thinking about it all night. I got up and was like you know what, I am   going to start researching again and focus more on if something can be done to fix this. In highschool that had was actually my first thought but when I was researching, everything I found said that reconstructive surgery was impossible. That it was impossible to get your clitoris back.

So I just started over with researching. Eventually I found a website that talked about this doctor named Dr. Marci Bowers who is based in California. She is a trans woman who is a doctor who did a procedure to change her own sex. After that process she came up with this whole concept that there hasn’t been enough research done about the clitoris and re-constructive surgery to say that it is impossible. Basically she says that the clitoris is not just this small piece that once it is cut it is gone. It goes deeper into the sexual organs than the parts that you can see. Once you remove the scar tissue the clitoris would still be there.

She was basically proving all the people who said it was impossible wrong. I ended up watching a Vice documentary about this Somali girl who underwent the reconstructive surgery through Dr. Marci Bowers and it showed that the whole process was a success. After watching the documentary, I initially was like woah this works but then got a little bit hesitant and wondered if it was fake. You just never know with the internet. I ended up talking with a bunch of my friends to see what they thought and we realized that it was legit. My friend Shabina and I sent the organization an email and they explained to us that the surgery was free but that we had to pay to rent the room for the surgery and pay for accommodation, travel and a $500 deposit to book the appointment. Also one of the requirements was that I had to go and see a gynecologist to confirm that I had actually undergone FGM.   They had this requirement because girls were showing up to get the procedure but actually still had their clitoris intact. Because it is something that is never talked in our communities, they had thought they had been cut when they hadn’t. So to tackle that they now had this requirement.

Going through the process of getting a note from the gynecologist was a rough experience for me. I went to the university campus clinic to get a referral for a gynecologist and even just trying to explain to them why I needed the referral was awful. They didn’t know how to respond to what I was telling them or what to do and here I am already feeling awkward because it’s the first time I am saying this thing out loud to anyone outside of my close friends. So the whole thing made me feel more uncomfortable because I had to repeatedly explain what I needed. There was a lot of back and forth and finally they gave me the referral.

Going to the gynecologist was even worse. I went with two of my friends Mina and Savannah who came into the room with me to support me. The gynecologist was really just supposed to examine my vagina and give an assessment of whether I had or hadn’t been cut. At first I was excited because he was Muslim but then I remembered that a lot of this stuff has to do with men in our culture not thinking we are clean if we don’t have the procedure. Even though he is a doctor and has gotten an education here, he still thinks like that. Basically it turned into him saying I didn’t really need the surgery. He was insinuating that it was purely for the purpose of having pleasure which wasn’t really necessary in his eyes and that I could still pee without issues and give birth with what I had so I was fine. My friends and I started to argue with him in his office that it wasn’t up to him to decide, his job was just to give an assessment and in the end he just refused to write out the referral.

I ended up emailing the organization and explaining what had happened and how the gynecologist had treated me. They responded saying that if I could just take a picture of my vagina and send it to them that that would be okay. I was approved right after they received the picture.

The next thing was raising the money for the surgery. Shabina suggested I start a GoFundMe. So she made the page and at that point my name was not mentioned because I wasn’t really ready for that so it was anonymous.

Through the GoFundme, this reporter named Jayme Poisson contacted Shabina. She said that she was trying to do a story on FGM in Canada. At first I was like, hell no. I didn’t want my name out there and everyone in my community to know all of these aspects of my life. Plus generally I am so against the media and how they move. It’s just such a complex and touchy subject so its like if it’s going to be done it has to be done properly and with a lot of care. I didn’t know if I was ready to do that.

Shabina did some researching on the reporter and realized she had done some reporting on police brutality in Toronto, carding and BLMTO and had done a good job. So that kind of changed my mind and I decided I would give it a chance.

When I was thinking about it something hit me. I was thinking back to high school and remembering that when I was researching, I never saw women who looked like me. There were never any black, Muslim, East African women who grew up in this culture here in Canada and were publically talking about it. So I felt like I needed to do this and that this was a part of my journey. I was like, this isn’t a coincidence that this opportunity is happening when I am a lot older and understand my sexuality and body a lot more. I wanted to do it in case there was another girl just like me waiting for someone just like her to shed light on this. I was worried I would get some backlash but I dunno at the same time I trusted that my community would really see my story and understand.   I felt like it was about time that we controlled the narrative and that it would happen with us talking to each other and that this would be the only way that people would want to start talking about it.

I talked to the reporter and she let me know that I would have a lot of power in creating the narrative, that she wasn’t looking to demonize my culture and people and that nothing would get released without my approval. So I started to think about it and how I would present this issue in a way that was complex and created a real conversation around FGM.

I feel like I was able to achieve that and once the article did come out this girl from Ottawa who wants to stay anonymous reached out to me. She had grown up here and is in her second year of university. When she was 13 she went back home to Somalia to visit her family and they cut her. I ended up going to Ottawa to meet her and she’s actually now done her own story anonymously and has a GoFundme for her surgery. It was cool because for the story I was just supposed to be there to support but then I actually got to interview her for the story and the reporters just listened. It was very beautiful. Now I am helping her with her GoFundme and we text each other. Her GoFundme hasn’t been moving as quickly as mine, she is not part of the community that I am so she hasn’t reached her goal but hopefully she can still reach her goal.

One time I was at a restaurant eating with some friends and as we were walking out these older Oromo men came up to me and were like we are so proud of you, we are so happy you are one of our own. It was a few weeks after the article had come out and he had the article in his bag and said he had been walking around with it. So many older immigrant East African women were not only happy I was shedding light on it but also the way I was talking about FGM while showing respect for my community and my people. One of my friends’ mom told me this was the first story that she really connected with.

Before all of this, me and my mom weren’t talking (we have a complicated relationship), but after the article she reached out to me and left me a message saying that it takes a lot of courage to come out and talk about this. She said she was really proud of me and said she didn’t know that it impacted me the way that it did and let me know that she would stand beside me in anything I needed. She was just so supportive about this thing coming out. She also felt like we need to stop walking on eggshells about FGM, that the practice should be stopped but for that to happen it means we need to be actively talking about it.

None of this would have happened if I didn’t do the article and work to be honest and complicate the narrative. It feels so good because my people are always the ones being demonized and it’s like just because people don’t circumcise women in Canada doesn’t mean that men here treat women any better. Patriarchy is everywhere, it has affected every part of the world. It’s not just a Muslim and African problem. If anything we learnt gender inequality from the colonizers…

I hope that the dialogue continues in this way. I want to hear more of us taking control of the narrative. I want to hear more of us talking about our experiences about ourselves instead of being studied. Right now most of the research and conversation is being led by people who don’t even know anything about our culture. It makes a huge difference when you hear the experience of someone who has actually gone through it. Why is it always people who study it have the most to say about it? It’s also so crucial to mention that all of these NGOs like UNICEF are so big on making it illegal and eradicating FGM but they have their own agendas. A lot of the reasons why they create this narrative is to justify Islamophobia and anti-blackness. I feel like the more that you tell people look how Muslims are, they are so barbaric we need to save these women. It justifies them going in and invading and doing what they’ve always been doing. It’s the same narrative as when they went to go colonize black people in the first place. It allows them to justify going in and taking all of our resources with the guise of helping but like I said their policies are not doing anything on the ground to begin with.

All in all this a family issue so it should be handled that way.

In terms of resources, through my experience and the research that I have done, Canada has a long way to go. To begin with, they need a doctor here who will do this type of surgery. I shouldn’t have to travel all the way to California. There are surgeries like this in France, in Kenya, the UK why not Canada. Apparently there is a doctor in Toronto who was trying to start it here but for some reason it has been a lot harder for him to set up. For me, I was very lucky that I am very well connected in a lot of communities which helped me reach my fundraising goal but not everyone has that. I know a lot of people want this surgery but could never afford to go to the states or might not have papers to get there. If we could even have people who are trained to deal with women who are FGM survivors in the healthcare system, or more affordable resources that people can seek out that would be good too. Things like sex therapy specifically for FGM survivors so that people can have a different relationship with their bodies or just therapy in general. Ideally there could be some sort of organization that people can connect to that has a physical space. Even if you have something as simple as training gynecologists and doctors so that they know how to respond when someone comes to them that is an FGM survivor.

There is just nothing right now so anything would help

Link for Ottawa Woman’s GoFundMe 


Galme Mumed
I was born in Hararge Oromia. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old but my heart and my memories are still in Hararge Oromia. I believe I am here in Canada for a reason and have a purpose to serve both here and in my home. I am proud to call myself Oromo and Muslim and Black. I feel like my ancestors have left me with many teachings and gifts that I’m constantly trying to listen to. I am a revolutionary because that’s the legacy I was born into.

Mia Ohki
Mia Ohki is a Metis Japanese-Canadian artist, born in Connecticut, USA, and raised in Alberta, Canada. She presently lives and works between Edmonton and Calgary, AB. Mia primarily illustrates with black pen on white paper to convey ideas surrounding the social, feminine and cultural influences in her life, however her art is mostly influenced by her background, with Japanese and Metis culture frequently appearing in the subject matter.

Community Spaces

A Conversation with LAL

By Adabu Brownhill

     As a Queer black gender bending person, I live for spaces that center Queer and trans racialized people. Living in Canada those types of spaces are hard to find, sometimes impossible to find, unless you live in a bigger city with a diverse population. I actually moved from Guelph to Toronto just to be able to have access to spaces that are primarily for folks of colour and Queer and Trans people. Unit 2, a well-known community space in Toronto, run by two radical artists, specifically changed my entire perspective on safe and inclusive spaces. My introduction to Rose and Nic/LAL was life changing as they have an incredibly beautiful concept of community and hold their community down in ways I’ve never seen before. I interviewed rose about Unit 2, which is her loft apartment where she lives with her partner Nic. They live there, make music there and open their home to an entire community of Indigenous, Black, POC and Queer and Trans folks. They’re two of the most amazing, badass people I’ve ever met and they’re a huge inspiration for me and many other folks.

First off, the word ‘community’ is really trendy these days. what does community mean to you?

Hmmmm that’s hard.

      I mean our community (Nic and mine aka LAL), is pretty interesting and diverse so it’s kind of all over the place from queer/trans folks to straight folks (and in between) from BIPOC to allies, artists to academics…so my sense of community is always changing or I’m always learning how to make community more meaningful and how to support it.

    Community to me means treating people like family or chosen family. sometimes you don’t like them or they piss you off but you find ways to love, and forgive them (or not), or you love them just cuz.

     I think community means to forgive each other, have compassion and try our best not to come at each other but i to understand if we do from time to time, cuz we are all dealing with so much shit and pain and trauma.

     I believe community means to have each others you back, so if you need something then I’m there for you and I will drop what I got going to support. If you need food or cash or housing then we are here to support, and vice versa.I think lot of people talk about community, but really they are looking out for themselves, this annoys the crap of me but I have to learn not to get upset and allow people their own path.

What are ways that you build community?

    I build community mostly through word of mouth, through other relationships and also just being open to the universe (you def have to pay attention when you do this as well!). I def build through our arts/community space, like Unit 2. A lot of folks contact us and find out about what we are doing through friends and such We end up building community through the space, both performers and community members. We def build through music as well and art and social justice. I mean def have an online community but the community is very much connected to our ‘in life’ community, it’s just a continuation of how we work in the ‘non virtual world’.

    I think I also support a lot of folks, either with their art or lately been trying to be supportive one on one with folks who need some support and help. This is a very different way to build community cuz it’s one relationship at  a time but it’s also super important. I don’t want my job or my arts practice to get so busy that I don’t have room for folks nor do I want my art to be the only thing i really focus on. Life is my Art so community building is def part of this.

You’ve turned your home into a community space. How did that start?

Well, I got tired of the scene in Toronto, not being able to do what we wanted, always bowing down to corporate types (not always of course!) but just wanting to something different. It started off as just us trying to run some parties and provide space, and we slowly realized how there wasn’t enough safer space for Q/BIPOC folks and accessible space in terms of economics, and ability. Again we hadn’t really thought of any of this when we started and luckily (well it’s not really luck!), we got a space that was pretty accessible (the main space), and as we learned more about what folks needed, Unit 2 just began to shape itself. It’s been six years! and we’ve learned a lot and continue to learn and share space. The hope is to make it a full time community/arts space and get more people involved who want to create a DIT (Do It Together) vision. Big ups to Toyin Coker, Ange Loft, Kevin Jones, Juli(e), Ki, Cherish Blood, all the volunteers, and other folks who have lived at Unit 2 and supported and helped shape the vision of Unit 2!

 What do you find challenging when it comes to community/community spaces?

      It’s a lot of work. Wow so much work (laughing) and though we love it we def need some help for sure. We are reaching out more and more cuz we are burning out and we got a new album coming out so we can’t always run things for like nine hours plus set up and cleanup!

     It’s also a lot of energy work, cuz I’m basically keeping track of the room and the energy and vibes. From the outside it may look like we are (Nic, the volunteers, promoters and I) partying but really we are very much aware of what’s going on, in order to keep things safer.

     I used to be worried about all different communities coming together but now I’m feeling like this a great way to build trust, eat, dance, smoke, whatever before we start to do political-based work. 

    It’s also challenging to get folks to believe in DIT spaces, but people are craving for it. Just getting people to work together can be challenging but thus far it’s been pretty easy, just a lot of time and energy goes into this shit.

What are some cool QPOC (queer people of colour) community spaces that you know of in Toronto? Can you mention some outside of Toronto?

Blocko for sure, not a physical space but def Block (Black contingent of Pride) have been creating space for years!

There’s Double Double land for concerts, though I’m not that familiar with them and are building with them slowly now, but April is mad cool. 88 days has been building space/shows for years within Black queer shit. Outside of Toronto there’s loads, QPOC in Winnipeg, who we just connected with are doing amazing things and we are just beginning to find more Q/BIPOC space throughout Canada. Yes Yes Y’all has been doing parties for a while and d’bi young’s Watah school as well. In the US there’s tonnes from Allied Media conference in Detroit to DIY spaces in Oakland. we are planning a tour in the US are reaching out to folks. In Seattle there’s folks like Moni Tep and Black Constellation folks and My Parade has a DIY Q/BIPOC concert space in their home. There’s a lot in the US for sure and we are just beginning to build with folks. Brooklyn boihood in NY as well have been doing some wicked things. Just found out about Boys of Bangladesh but haven’t been able to connect yet (out of Dhaka). Black Lives Matter is doing a whole lot and in Toronto is working on a Freedom school for Black youth. Il nana is creating dance spaces for QBIPOC folks in Toronto, Crafty Queers is also doing some amazing work. The Drag musical creates space for BIPOC youth create Drag performances, and Native Youth Sexual Health Network is doing some amazing work, oh there’s also Children’s Peace Theatre! Gosh, there’s a bunch!

What advice can you give to people who are interested in organizing some sort of community space ?

Be patient, work with people who you trust and want to build with. Don’t get too ego’d out and allow things to unfold and build organically.Get people involved to support and do what you love. If you don’t love it, then don’t do it cuz it will burn you out. Ask for help when you need it and be open to feedback and making changes! don’t get into this power ego shit. work from a place of community and try your best not to let personal biases get in the way. Listen to people and don’t be afraid to try new shit. Try to make stuff accessible in all ways and reach out to communities, build bridges not walls! Take breaks when you need and be honest about what you can and cannot do! Be transparent or learn to be transparent, and share information and money!


Adabu Brownhill
Adabu Brownhill (DurtyDabz) is a Black/Mixed, Queer, FemmeBro dedicated to fighting for Mother Earth and the Liberation of Black & Indigenous Peoples and All People Of Colour. She is a badass DJ as well as a passionate gardener. She strives to decolonize agriculture in Ontario and create farming/gardening spaces that are fun and kool for racialized folks. She dreams of a farm where People Of Colour be chillin’, bumpin hella beats, planting seeds, harvesting herbs and eating gourmet meals while making jokes and enjoying each others company. She draws inspiration from radical underground artists such as Junglepussy, Destiny Frasqueri (Princess Nokia), Jay Boogie and Le1f. Her favorite foods are spicy meat and fresh fruits and vegetables.

LAL
In the late 1990s, LAL introduced a political edge to the electronic underground, bridging the gap between art and social justice. They have carved out a strong diasporavoice in the Canadian music scene, which remains largely unexplored by mainstream media. They are queer / straight, black / brown, Asian and West-Indian and they are a mix of hiphop, techno, downtempo and international sounds. Unit 2 is their home and DIT (do it together) art and community space they run out of Toronto with friends. The space is mandated to support Q/BIPOC communities and our allies.

Where Does the Self Hate Begin?

a drawing of two naked men embracing each other in the clouds

by Emmanuel

Where does the self hate begin?

When does it end?

When I think of media that has consciously and subconsciously influenced what I value as beautiful or worth loving, I think of porn. As a queer cisgender man, I grew up watching gay men in porn. Here you find mostly white men on sites such as Sean Cody, Chaosmen, Corbin Fisher, Citébeur and other film studios. On the other end of the spectrum, you find the Latino film studios such as Papi and for the black audience you will find Flava Works and a few others. In these films, the guys that you mostly find have the perfect desired bodies. They are usually hyper masculine. 

In these films, the guys that you mostly find have the perfect desired bodies. They are usually hyper masculine. They ascribe to either topping or bottoming and versatile sometimes. In these films, the erasure of fat bodies, disabled bodies, “unperfected” bodies is not accidental but very deliberate. The message that it sends to most gay men is that you are not desirable unless you fit these standards. The standards themselves are not sustainable. It then creates a culture of always trying to achieve or preserve what won’t last. This culture than creates disharmony within yourself. A creation of a gap that will never be filled.

In moving towards the ugly by Mia Mingus, she writes “We all run from the ugly. And the farther we run from it, the more we stigmatize it and the more power we give beauty.” I am tired of running. Can we imagine a celebration of our sexuality that reflects us? One that doesn’t dehumanize you and objectify you and reduces you to the size of your penis. One that doesn’t need for you to have the best chest, legs, ass, face, hair, etc..? One that sees all of you, your imperfections, your insecurities, your fear, your ugly, your beauty and choose to celebrate all of that as a whole.

How do you (un)plant a seed that has already grown?

How do you learn to love yourself again?

I lost myself

Trying….

Trying….

To look like those who never wanted me

Took for granted that the sun kisses me every morning

Left my body in a battle zone

My mental heath left to be devoured by the violence

Learned to hate myself

Desired…

Desired….

What never wanted me


Emmanuel
Emmanuel is in the process of reclaiming and learning the power found in unapologetic self-love. He is currently teaching and learning new ways to acquire knowledge. He is interested in creating from a place of urgency and authenticity. He loves going out to do cute things with friends and talking about how air signs are awesome. Listening and honoring his past, the energies in the universe and his body is increasingly very important for him at the moment.

An Interview with D’Bi Young

by Savannah Taylor

I recently sat down with d’bi.young anitafrika to discuss the importance of theatre in our digital age and to learn more about how The Watah theatre, a professional theatre company founded by d’bi.young, cultivates such a necessary space in this urgent time

The Watah Theatre – grounded in African Oral Storytelling traditions – is a crossroads where the radical performance traditions of Dubpoetry, Caribbean theatrical storytelling and Black wombanist thought, intersect with critical Pan-Africanist theory-into-practice, Ifa-Tao-Buddhist principles, balanced by the global mind-body healing modalities of Ashtanga Yoga and Qi Gong. Arts-engagement sits at the core of the organization’s commitment to providing world peoples with the tools to self-actualize, create urgent art and uncover crucial mentorship skills for each one to teach one; facilitating an ongoing exploration of our place on this planet and in this cosmos. Watah celebrates the artist as a whole human entity who mirrors society and helps to shape it circularly and inwardly. Like being in a mother’s loving womb where the child is nurtured and cultivated, Watah is a cauldron of cultivation for a new generation of storytellers.

Savannah Taylor: Can you introduce yourself ?

D’bi Young Anitafrika: My name is d’bi young anitafrika and I am a storyteller who writes plays, performs in monodramas and multi-character plays, who mentors, writes dub poetry, who plays with a band, who writes revolutionary theory and who’s a mother.

Savannah: Can tell us more about the Watah Theatre?

D’bi Young: The Watah Theatre is a professional theatre company and also training ground for emerging and newly emerging artists. It’s primarily for black artist and within that it is primarily for artist who identify as women. Our doors are open to people of colour, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people and trans people. We’ve really never turned anyone away but everyone who comes through our doors knows that we are primarily serving African Canadian artists because that is absolutely crucial right now.

Savannah: Theatre isn’t the first thing I would think of if someone asked me about media but why do you think is it still so crucial in 2016?

D’bi Young: I think theatre is media because media is storytelling and media is storytelling geared towards people and media has very specific objectives. Whatever media we’re talking about that propaganda and narrativizing storytelling is geared towards getting people’s attention in a particular way. Theatre is storytelling as well and it is also geared towards getting people’s attention in a particular way. [That’s why] I really do feel that we can say theatre is a type of media. What’s most important to me when I think of all of this is what stories are we telling? You know? I can’t help but think about what has just happened in the United States of America. A part of me feels like acknowledging that, as a black queer women, artist and mother, my reality has always been to create space for myself to be valued, to treated fairly, to be treated equally and that has been life long reality. Part of me feels like, well the world that you live in is going to continue to be the world that you live in. Then there is another part of me that can’t help but respond to the over aggression that has already begun and will continue to escalate given that the veil that was prior somewhat concealing the deep hatred of black people, indigenous people, LGBTQ people and differently abled people, immigrants, the working class and the working poor. Basically, all the people who are not the elite and who are not the upper middle class. To see the sheer disdain for us, even while I recognize that this life of struggle will continue, there is a tangible worry. There is now a tangible worry around the fact that people have been issued a renewed license to be violent. So when I think about media and I think about theatre and I think about the role that the media played in getting Donald Trump elected and the role that the theatre that we’re making plays in maintaining systems of inequality, I can’t help but think about what stories are we going to tell?

Savannah: As a student at Watah, I know that those are questions we ask ourselves and we talk about. How do you feel Watah provides tools for emerging artist to create this space that you mentioned earlier?

D’bi Young: More so now then ever, I am deeply appreciating Watah and the work that we’re doing here. Sometimes you get confirmation about the choices you’re making. More so than ever, I am reminding myself and saying, “d’bi just stay focused. Just stay focused”. What we are doing in here is absolutely revolutionary and simple. It’s not high-inaccessible science or intellectualism, it’s actually pretty basic. Our premise here is that each one of us has been born into a birth right that says we deserve to self-actualize. It’s that simple. So, colour, race, ethnicity, gender, social standing, all of these ways that we create these walls that people have to climb in order to prove their humanity, In this space we say we don’t actually believe that narrative and we’re going to try to practice what it looks like to not believe in that narrative. We’re not even working in counter-narratives; we’re not even working in opposition to those narratives. Actually, we’re centering ourselves and saying those narratives are not the focal point, the focal point is us. This, more than ever, I’m so deeply thankful for and we have a set of real tools to support us through doing this. They are real and tangible tools that when we sit down and we dialogue about self-knowledge; about the stories we’ve been told and orality; and the rhythmic rituals of our lives; and the politics of our own power and the language of our own bodies and mouths; and about what is urgent and sacred to us and how we embody our integrity. That is not intangible. That is not theatrical mumbo jumbo. It’s so important that as we work through these ideas around self-actualization that we have tangibles. My physical body, my mental body, my community body, my economic body, my emotional body, these are real pieces that we experience every day and I am so bolstered by the fact that this is how I spend my time. As I look around at the shear madness that is going on, I am like how do I spend my time? What do I spend my time doing? It feels like a daunting time but it also feels like, right here inside of me are the tools I need to move through these times. You know? That’s a really rounding feeling.

Savannah: Can you explain in more detail self-actualization and the S.O.R.P.L.U.S.I Method is?

D’bi Young: Here at Watah we really encourage each artist to define for themselves these ideas. Because we’re unique, because we each have a particular framework and way or lense through which we see the world you’re never going to get any two people, at least here, defining something in the same way. Which is brilliant because it means that if you have a definition and I have a definition it means that together we can sit and look at all our definitions and learn from each other. That’s really crucial. Other models out there tell us that there is one way and one direction. One, phallic white, male, patriarchal framework but what we come from as black people and women identified people is that we come from the circle, from the collective. In that model, these are indigenous models, in the collective each point on the circle is crucial. So, in defining self actualization, I feel for me it could the ability to grow into the deepest version of one’s self. What’s the deepest version of one’s self? I feel like it is where one gets to explore and expand into one’s most profound integrities. What is one’s most profound integrities? Well, I feel like that is the ability to truth tell without self-deception to the best of one’s ability in each and every moment. I feel like the idea of self-actualization is both at once extremely dynamic and complex but also simple.

In terms of the Anitafrika Method, the method is essentially a distillation of all the mentorship that I’ve received over a lifetime. What I’ve done is taken those life lessons and highlighted what I feel are eight crucial principles. Four of those principles directly come out of my mother’s work in theorizing dub [theatre] in Jamaica. The four principles that directly come out of her work are politics, language, performance and music. I tweaked them a bit and so language is language of communication, non-verbal communication; music became rhythm, rhythm as ritual; politics became politics and political context; and performance became orality. Then I added four other principles self-knowledge, urgency, sacredness and integrity [ Which creates the acronym S.O.R.P.L.U.S.I] . That then forms half a system that is balanced with eight bodies [some I mentioned earlier]which includes the physical, mental, emotional, creative, spiritual, economic, community, and beyond body. So together with the principles and the bodies we have a series of questions we ask, per principle, and also a series of meditations that accompany these questions. It’s really such a beautiful thing. Of course I’ve had the pleasure of being in the lab with all of you who teach me every day what the method actually means.

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The Watah theatre currently has a funding campaign online in order to continue to provide the mentorship discussed above. Will YOU help SAVE Watah? Visit www.gofundme.com/savewatah to read more on how you can help.


d’bi.young anitafrika
d’bi.young anitafrika is a queer Black feminist artist, United Nations speaker, Canadian Poet of Honor, InkTalks/TED speaker and YWCA Woman of Distinction. The internationally celebrated African-Jamaican dubpoet, dramatist, educator, director and dramaturge is also a 3 time Dora Award winning writer-performer for her epic triptych of plays The Sankofa Trilogy and The Orisha Trilogy. anitafrika’s groundbreaking creative praxis – the Anitafrika Method – uses the Sorplusi Principles as an intersectional anti-oppression human development framework, which is studied and practiced globally by artists, instigators and policy-makers. d’bi is the founding Artistic Director of Watah; Canada’s only professional theatre company that offers year-long tuition-free artist residencies to Black and diverse artist-instigators. She is also the founder and CEO of The Sorplusi Institute and Sorplusi Publishing, a research-based social enterprise with a micro press extension producing and publishing works by Black and diverse creators. Author of 7 plays, 6 dub albums and 5 books, d’bi has toured nationally and internationally.

Savannah Taylor
Savannah Taylor 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.