Escape the Academy: Militancy and the University

Has the true impact of the university been to make direct action impossible?

Has the true impact of the university been to make direct action impossible?

I was lucky enough to share a meal a few weeks ago with a current student at my alma mater, who was embroiled this last year in a struggle over gender-neutral bathrooms on campus that received national attention.

After she and a group of her peers forcibly removed gendered bathroom signs from the walls of the student center, several of them faced serious fines and academic sanctions for their actions. The battle came after extensive conversations, petitioning and meetings with administration had failed to get queer and gender-nonconforming students any of the demands they had put forth.

I found so many of my friend’s insights profound, as she shared with me everything from the strain that direct action and its consequences can put on the personal relationships of those involved, to how study abroad programs and mental health leave can be leveraged as tools to fracture student organizing and halt political momentum. What surprised me most, though, was when she expressed her feelings of frustration with the ultimate outcome of the action.

After all the hubbub, Wesleyan University still failed to set up gender-neutral bathrooms for its students. (Though, my friend informed me, the signs remained down for the remainder of the year, and the bathrooms were continually faced and de-faced with permanent marker by students of various political persuasions.) From her perspective the action had not achieved its intended goal. I shared that from my perspective as an uninvolved alumni, it had been incredibly powerful to see realizations about the university’s priorities become a mainstream discussion, rather than just another opportunity for Diversity U to paint itself as progressive while continuing to alienate poor, Black, Brown, queer, working, immigrant and first generation students. As we mulled the events over together, we realized an important question we were beginning to ask about them: Was the purpose behind this direct action, however small, to transform the university, or dismantle it?

I left for college with the expectation of freedom. I couldn’t wait to be among other Brown, queer people who shared my passions, and gain tools for social change I believed I had been barred from in my home town. What I arrived at was something totally different: Instead of being empowered to advocate for my communities in ways I had thought myself previously unable, I found myself inculcated into an insular sphere that, even as it claimed me as proof of its own progressiveness, isolated me from the communities from which I came. It connected me to privileged networks and new accesses that estranged me from much of my family, friends and the spaces which had raised me. In order to fit in and survive I had to take on whole new forms of language and communication, ones that rarely offered me new insights into my experiences as an oppressed person, but taught me that those experiences only had meaning and value if they could be expressed through academic jargon. It became ingrained in me that writing, critiquing, analyzing were the highest-order skills, and that somehow the more of this analysis I produced, the closer I would get to liberating myself and people like me.

Living under this jarring new set of values, much of the activism I attempted as a college student looked very similar to my academic work: I gathered with other students to share readings, to teach ourselves on various radical topics, to discuss, to debate. Some of the work I did I was very proud of. But precious little of it was based on targeting the needs of my community with other members, plotting a course of action, and accruing the resources we needed, regardless of what permission we’d been granted. In retrospect, and in light of recent events at my university, reflections on this academic activism reveal to me a crucial new understanding: That the values I was working under, the new things I was learning from the academy, didn’t contribute to my movement building, but in reality ensured that movement building was impossible.

JOMO, a member of the revolutionary Black Orchid Collective, unveils in their landmark piece Queer Liberation is Class Struggle that the strategic gutting of labor and other grassroots, militant community movements in recent decades is what has lead to the current investment on the part of radical activism in the academy and non-profit sector:

The result…is that our movement is left with a shallow analysis of “intersectionality” rather than a full strategy by which the oppressed—people of color, women, queer folks, people with disabilities—can unite to fight our common enemies.  Among progressive circles, the idea of “intersectionality” has been taken up by the non-profit industrial complex (NPIC). In the absence of working class organizations like revolutionary organizations and thriving unions, academia and the NPIC have become the dominant progressive institutions today. The theories they espouse understandably have lasting impacts. — JOMO

When placed in a historical context, our reliance on academic institutions and non-profits is not an organic arrival at welcoming spaces, but an exodus from our ravaged community movements to the best shelters we’ve been able to find—ones neither made by us nor for us, and which have no intention of fomenting nor sustaining movements for transformational social change.

What are the lasting impacts JOMO predicts, in which our investment in these institutions in place of our own communities has resulted? I feel this point cannot be overemphasized.

The ‘intersectionality’ JOMO refers to speaks not only to the individualistic identity politics that have largely replaced full-scale community movements, but also academic vocabulary. An element as seemingly simple as the language we use to discuss radical change has been wholly hijacked by institutions that have constantly represented the undermining, discrediting and intentional destruction of radical change. We know this language is elitist by definition, yet we continue to employ it to organize our intimate relationships, political alliances, and the futures of our collectives.

Yet it’s not merely elitist language we’ve ironically adopted as tools for social justice, but the larger frameworks and values which generate it. Huge sectors of our activism are based almost solely in critique and analysis, preoccupied with terminology, debate and theory. Our work has become focused on making the most airtight, politically correct arguments, and calling out the flaws in the arguments of others, instead of having messy, complicated conversations with the goal of direct action in mind. How often have we had our own experiences belittled or denied because we did not have the right vocabulary to defend them, lacked access to the buzzwords and frameworks of the moment? How often have we been discouraged from or unable to speak for fear of what analysis we had left out, what holes would be poked in our thoughts? This style of activism—so deeply inspired by the academy—often alienates the exact communities for which it claims to advocate, and ignores the fact that so many of us who are engaged in it are also at the fore of gentrification, consumption and the privatizing of oppressed communities—conversations which occur much less often than ones about ethnic studies and queer theory.

Because the academy and the resources it commands dominate our movements in the current moment, we are continuously coerced into seeking its approval and reinvesting in its values. We are rewarded for doing so—with scholarships, with salaried positions, with accolades, with clout, with publications, with degrees, with grants, with tenure, with fellowships. We are reassured by the university that the accruing of these honors and privileges will result in our commanding of our own resources, ones that will aid us in the service of our visions for justice. The reality is that the university and the NPIC gain incredible influence and control over what our movements look like, who is considered a part of them, and what kinds of organizing and action are condoned. We are dissuaded from any action that would threaten the institutions which grant us these privileges, and the more dependent we become on them, the more we fear for our livelihoods in organizing in the ways our communities truly need. Conferences, gallery openings, articles and pre-approved protests become the only outlets for us to make our voices heard.

The debacle over gender-neutral bathrooms at Wesleyan University comes at the same time as questions about sexual assault on campus and the university’s reactions reemerge yet again, as well as student protests around the insulting lack of support for the African American Studies program. Will the university respond to these struggles in ways that aid and empower oppressed communities, or ones based on preserving its own power and control? Will justice for women, for queers, for Black and Brown people, ever come from institutions which have only welcomed us when it has been convenient for themselves?

As a young, oppressed person who wants militant movements which unite my communities, I do not oppose critical analysis, community discussion, and studied planning for the ways in which we build together. I believe all these things will be crucial in generating struggles which are sustainable, inclusive and effective in threatening the systems which destroy our lives. The issue is that the academy has taught many of us not that these are steps in a larger process of direct action and militant organizing, but that they are the entire process in and of themselves. Moreover, it has taught us that this process can only be carried out on the university’s own terms, with its language, its values, its frameworks, and not the already-existing ones of the communities being affected, those doing the actual organizing.

I believe the struggle of queer and trans students at my college is powerful because in an attempt on the part of oppressed people to make the university more welcoming and inclusive, they uncovered something much more potent: That the university is unwilling and unable to include them; That the academy has roots that will always serve as its foundation, and that these have always defined, confined and rejected our struggles for autonomy; That the destruction of property—the literal and not figurative dismantling of our oppression—is exactly what it may take to gain our liberation; That the best way to advocate for ourselves and our communities is to work within them, not removed from them, and that the tools we already collectively possess are the most effective ones for gaining the resources we lack and regenerating community movements; That the university is yet another face of the same structures we must oppose, confront and destroy if we are to be truly free.

Club Life: Consumption, Addiction and Being Queer

As queer people, who determines our relationship to alcohol?

As queer people, who determines our relationship to alcohol?

I first started going to strip clubs when I was about nineteen years old, ushered in by my close high school friends who had begun working there as dancers. This was my induction into an awareness of club life, the sex trade, and other cultural touchstones that have long been at the core of the experiences of my queer elders, family and friends. But one of the most impactful new elements this transition introduced into my life was alcohol.

As a new initiate at the clubs, I watched the ways in which alcohol became a tool for creating atmosphere, generating revenue, and relaxing clients. I also saw it used as a form of medication, a more affordable and readily available means for workers to manage their lives, survive their schedules, and cope with the structural difficulties that for many had led them to the sex industry in the first place.

I had never had the same access to alcohol as I suddenly did, nor found its consumption so tied to interacting with and making connections to other oppressed people. Though I come from a family that has struggled with addiction for generations, observing its role in largely queer, Brown, poor spaces taught me new insights into its unequal consequences in the lives of different kinds of people. This shift in my understanding, brought on by observing queer club life, helped me come to view the role of addiction in my own family through new lenses.

During my childhood, when my Black, working class uncle spent all of his money on a drug addiction, it destroyed his marriage, lost him his kids, and severed many of his ties to the family. This I was painfully aware of as a young person. It wasn’t until I was much older I came to understand that my white, middle class grandfather had been struggling with alcoholism my entire life. It wasn’t merely different cultural practices around disclosing addiction, but also his access to healthcare, financial stability, and the privileged perception of his professional status that made his addiction much more manageable, and my awareness of it almost nil.

All of these revelations have reemerged for me recently, being a part of a new scene, a new city, and confronting them yet again in my newest community. Clubbing and alcohol are central to my social circle, meaning I spend a great deal of time around drinking, being bought drinks I don’t want, watching how relationships change under alcohol’s influence, and explaining to people why I choose not to drink.

Talking about alcohol in queer communities, particularly in relation to our social lives, is a daunting challenge. It’s hard to speak critically about something so undeniably integral not only to our modern culture, but our collective history. Clubs and bars have for decades been some of the only safe, welcoming and community-controlled spaces for us to gather and socialize. They are places where our movements have organized, our lives have been affirmed and our history has occurred.

Moreover, that history has taught us that the regulating and policing of our bodies is a red flag, a reoccurring tool of the state, the nuclear family and other oppressive social orders, in quelling our resistance. This is important to acknowledge. It’s also important to acknowledge the multiple uses of alcohol, and the host of reasons that many–like my friends who work as strippers–might claim its consumption as self-care, part of their survival tactics. Yet, while celebrating our history in clubs and bars, I also think it is worth discussing how the need for such spaces may have changed, be changing, and how our reliance on alcohol–one encouraged out of historic social practice, but also out of racism, classism, local geography, and aggressive marketing–has a wide range of impacts on our communities, and does not affect us all in the same ways.

In our era of corporate pride, where capital and consumerism are more heavily tied to queer identities than ever before, alcohol and club culture are heavily marketed to our communities. The companies that target us as consumers are often lauded for doing so. Yet by branding these elements as something inherently queer, something innate to our spaces, the invasive corporate world makes the same tacit assumptions that we have been battling for decades: That queerness is uniform in class, race, geography and gender.

Defining queerness around a culture of consumption assumes that all of us can consume at the same personal cost. Friends of mine go out to clubs and bars and can spend a week’s salary on drinks and entrance fees, making a much greater personal sacrifice to participate in queerness than some of their wealthier counterparts. For those of us without healthcare, or struggling with undiagnosed physical, mental or emotional traumas, the potential to become addicted to alcohol is much higher, and our ability to overcome addiction and its effects on our bodies–without access to expensive therapies and treatments–is more greatly inhibited. The simple issue of living far away from the clubs and bars–which are often in wealthier neighborhoods–means that finding one’s way home at the end of the night can be a much more treacherous project for some than for others. And leaving a club drunk when you are trans, Black, Brown means you are much more likely to be stopped, searched or harassed, and end up in legal trouble and facing violence others can more easily avoid. DUIs and other alcohol-related charges don’t mean the same thing to queers who can’t afford lawyers, time off of work, or who are undocumented.

The discussion I want to have is not one about prohibition, morality or health. I believe what people need to feel well, safe and protected varies, and cannot be universally determined for all spaces, all times, for all communities and all people. But I do think we can look openly at the effects alcohol has on our community–especially those across it who experience multiple forms of oppression–and think about not merely what its role has been, but what its role will be as our movements and lives struggle onward.

We are wary–as we should be–when others define health, define normal for us. Having resisted it for so long, we are critical whenever we are told what we should do with our bodies, what is good for us and what is not. So I pose the question to my own community: Do we need alcohol/club culture to be queer? Can we imagine a queer culture without alcohol, or one with a different relationship to it?

The Basics: BYC Voguing Workshop

workshop posterBeginning today, Tuesday the 20th, the Broadway Youth Center will be hosting a free weekly series teaching the basics of voguing. Over five sessions, the series will cover the foundations of the styles of New Way and Vogue Femme, with a focus on ballroom scene history and youth empowerment, culminating in a presentation/performance at Chicago Dyke March on June 28th. All folks age 24 and under are welcome to attend. Please spread the word and feel free to come through!

 

The Basics: BYC Voguing Workshop

Every Tuesday from May 20th – June 28th Finale

1pm – 2:30pm

Broadway Youth Center

615 W. Wellington

Chicago, IL

Power Bottom is Redundant: Or; A Femme Guide to Anal Sex

Brawny, 2010 by Mark Aguhar

Brawny, 2010 by Mark Aguhar

Full disclosure: talking about sex publicly makes me nervous.

I like sex, think about it a lot, and factor it into many of my major decisions. Yet, when it comes to speaking to it in writing, education and advocacy work, I always think there are more experienced, more studied and informed voices to contribute to the conversation, so I tend to stay quiet. Here’s to speaking up, and trusting my own stories.

About three months into our relationship, when my college boyfriend asked me to penetrate him, I was confused. Up to that point in the relationship, he had always penetrated me, and it had never occurred to me he was interested in anything else. It had never occurred to me that anything else was possible.

I was still new to anal sex, and had never acted as the penetrating partner. The only things I knew about positions in queer sex I had learned on the piers. Participating in the New York ballroom scene as a teenager, I had been asked almost upon my arrival if I was a top or a bottom. The first time the question was posed, I needed to have it explained to me. But even before it was, I knew there was something about power and dominance tied up in the hierarchical terms, something that, when answered, would tell my larger community how I should be treated.

The first time I tried penetrating my boyfriend, we did it standing up over the desk in his dorm room. I didn’t like the position very much, but couldn’t tell if that was just because I didn’t like giving. I went through the motions mechanically, following step by step what my boyfriend usually did for me. I found being the giving partner boring. I didn’t know where to look, and I kept waiting for the intensity, the overwhelming sensations I associated with being a receiving partner. The orgasm was nothing to speak of.

Afterward, my boyfriend told me I had been a little too aggressive, and that it had hurt. I was mortified. I remember being embarrassed that I hadn’t asked my partner how I was making them feel, afraid of my own body and what it could do.

There was a reason I felt unprepared to be a penetrative partner, and why attempting it jarred and made me anxious: I was femme. I had never considered attempting to be a giving partner, never imagined myself doing it, never asked myself if I wanted to or might like it. I believed in a role, determined by my style, my movement, the way I danced and joked and talked. I believed that giving required traits that contradicted all of my femme qualities—aggression, dominance, physical strength, machismo. I not only believed I didn’t possess these qualities, I also didn’t want to.

What I had to learn—first from my boyfriend who continued to talk to and push me to try new things, then from later partners—was that being femme did not inhibit my ability to penetrate, but actually had the potential to completely restructure my approach. As I gained more practice and tried new positions, I stopped worrying about how I should be giving and thought about what had made me feel good as a receiving partner. I let my partners determine the speed at which we moved, what worked and what didn’t, what felt good and what needed to be done differently. I learned to pay attention to how they were feeling more than how I was feeling, which meant I had to ask. I learned to find excitement in watching someone else enjoying sex, instead of being trained on my own orgasm. And it was through the exact process of unlearning everything I had been taught about penetrating that I learned to love doing it. I discovered centering sex around my partners, but also around my own sensibilities as a Brown, queer, femme boy, made sex more powerful, more meaningful, and more fun.

Looking back, it’s strange I believed any of these macho qualities were needed to be a giving partner, for they were never qualities I looked for in partners of my own. It’s also strange that I exhibited so many of the base assumptions about giving my first time doing it—don’t ask, don’t talk, just fuck—when all my best partners had done the exact opposite when penetrating me.

I was afraid of penetrating because I thought doing it meant I had to take on a sexual persona that contradicted who I was. What I had to discover was I got better at giving and became a better sexual partner not when I changed who I was, but when I allowed who I am to inform and guide my sexual practice—simple as that.

I love watching someone I care about and am really attracted to having a great orgasm. I love the feeling of the person I’m penetrating cumming on me. Whereas I see being penetrated as a time to focus in and get in tune with my own body, I love the opportunity to focus on and appreciate someone else’s that penetrating allows. If I believed I was a “bottom” or a “top,” I may have never learned any of these things.

The saddest thing to me about the top/bottom dichotomy, and why I think we should let it go forever, isn’t merely its total lack of imagination, or the offensive assumptions it makes about power and passivity. It’s that it extracts all the magic and beauty out of queer sex, forcing it back into something dictated, scripted, hierarchically structured, exactly like the society from which we are in constant escape. It turns our desire back into something that defines our proper places, rather than a sacred space to break out of them and explore other possibilities.

To all the queers: Trans, gay, pan, poly, lesbian, bi. You are you and your partners are who they are. Who we are changes, and it changes while we are together. Let’s figure out what that means each new time we meet, touch, talk and love each other, and not any time before.

edTPA Boycott: UIC Grad Students Follow Parents and Teachers’ Lead

Members of the Saucedo Elementary School community at a press conference last week.

Members of the Saucedo Elementary School community at a press conference last week.

I am proud to say that members of my graduate program have decided to boycott the edTPA–a standardized exam for preservice teachers–joining in the battle against over testing, school closings and corporate reforms taking place around the city and country.

This last week, after 40% of its parents voluntarily opted their children out of the Illinois state test known as the ISAT, teachers at Saucedo Elementary School in the Little Village neighborhood voted to boycott the exam. They are holding fast to their decision despite threats from CPS officials that teachers from the school could have their certification revoked. As news unfolds, record numbers of parents around Chicago have opted their children out of the exam, and at least one more school has joined the boycott. 

Just weeks ago, interim dean of the College of Education at UIC Alfred Tatum announced that, without the input of any students or faculty, our masters program would be closing. Though we were shocked and discouraged, we also saw an opportunity to take an active stance in opposing the use of corporate assessments to shut down learning communities.

This last week, with the support of the leadership and faculty in our program, the current graduating classes resolved to boycott the edTPA, a newly instituted, highly invasive for-profit assessment for preservice teachers. (For a phenomenal analysis of the edTPA, read this article by an educator who was fired from her institution for supporting students in their resistance to the assessment.) What follows is our brief common statement, and rationale for our boycott:

 

Why We Are Boycotting the edTPA

This year, our Elementary Education Masters program, part of the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was selected as a pilot program for an assessment known as the edTPA. Based on a fifteen minute video segment and a collection of writing prompts on lesson context, planning, and reflection, the edTPA markets itself as an authentic assessment of teacher readiness. Administered by the Pearson Corporation, the edTPA is poised to become a national assessment, potentially generating huge profits for the company. Claiming to ensure new teachers are prepared to enter the field, completing the edTPA could be required for all pre-service teachers in order to receive licensure in the future.

We are boycotting the edTPA, and returning to build our own assessment, collectively determined by faculty and candidates in our program. We do so with the belief that an empowered teacher assessment should hold the following characteristics:

-  Student teaching assessments should take into account all aspects of a teacher’s practice. The edTPA forces candidates to adhere to a narrow, rigid rubric that focuses all efforts on the one lesson being tested, diverting attention away from the complex, long-term practice of teaching.

-  Student teaching assessments should support growth and learning throughout the candidate’s process. The edTPA operates on a pass/fail basis that offers candidates no feedback or support for improvement.

-  Student teaching assessments should promote opportunity for all candidates. The edTPA costs candidates approximately $300, and, as with all standardized assessments, will be biased against Black, Brown, poor, working and immigrant teacher candidates.

-  Student teaching assessments should be conducted by educators who are a part of the candidate’s learning community. The edTPA will be assessed remotely by temporarily hired educators who will be paid a flat fee of $75 to grade a 50 page document and 15 minutes of video. These hired educators have no connection to the communities in which we teach and learn.

-  Student teaching assessments should encourage candidates to teach in all schools, regardless of need. The edTPA discourages candidates from performing the assessment in high-need schools, where challenging classrooms may reflect poorly on the candidate’s score.

While the edTPA purports to be a more authentic form of teaching assessment, we must reject and debunk this notion. For, ultimately, as with all forms of standardized assessment, the core assumption of the edTPA is that underprepared teachers and underworked students are the primary issues facing public education in the U.S. Being assessed more will not make us better teachers, just as it will not make better readers, writers and thinkers out of our students. Our universities, as with our elementary schools, become stronger when they are provided the resources they need, and when the capable educators within them are trusted to perform the duties they have sworn to carry out.

We boycott the EdTPA because we believe as young teachers, and as members of our immediate communities, we know best what is needed to make our classrooms, our programs and our neighborhoods into the most effective spaces for learning they can be. We demand support in this process, and see this boycott as an active means of supporting ourselves and each other, as well as all pre-service teachers, long-term educators, and students who are working under the pressure of similar measures.

Members of the Elementary Education Masters Program

The University of Illinois at Chicago

Lesson Plan—Organizing Resilience: Reviving Militancy

The most militant thing we can do is to garner the things our communities need, within our communities, with no one's permission but our own.

The most threatening thing we can do is garner the things our communities need, within our communities, with no one’s permission but our own.

In recognizing the dire need for militant movements in the communities I belong to, and the countless ones taking place around the globe in this historic moment, I’ve been thinking about how to start action-oriented conversations around militancy. The following lesson plan could be applied or reworked for any number of settings or organizing needs, but regardless of how it is administered, it’s goal is to lay the foundation for militant action–not merely discussion–and help generate a network of thoughtful support as the steps for its preparation approach:

 

1. Free Write: Upon entering the space, a quotation is written on the board:

“Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people who are oppressing them.”

- Assata Shakur

Have a volunteer read the quote on the board out loud. Ask students to take five minutes to write their responses to this quotation: “What does this statement mean to you? How would you put it in your own words? What parts of it stand out to you?” Give students as much time as they need to respond to the quote through writing down their own thoughts and ideas.

2. Share Out: “Assata Shakur is a Black revolutionary who was involved in several Black Power organizations throughout the 60s and 70s. She has been fleeing the U.S. government since that time, and currently lives in hiding outside of the country. This last year she became the first woman ever to be added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list. What does this quote from her mean to us?” Ask students to share some of their responses. Give those who are willing a chance to read their responses aloud, talk about what they wrote, or share questions they have. Continue on until a range of ideas have been presented, and the conversation reaches a reasonable stopping point.

3. Introduction to Resilience Based Organizing (RBO) Model: “The organizing model we will be discussing today comes from Movement Generation, a radical economic and environmental justice organization from the West Coast. While they partially coined the term Resilience Based Organizing for their model, they cite its inspiration as springing from Black and Brown Power movements of the 60s and 70s, as well as ongoing struggles in Indigenous communities around land and environmental rights. The idea, as the name suggests, is organizing which is resilient as well as resistant. Communities focus first on the things they  need, and what it will take to get them, rather than on relying on the systems in place to provide them. In Movement Generation’s words:

Resilience-Based Organizing organizes people into a collective effort to meet the need at hand through direct democratic decision-making and physical implementation by those who are being impacted by the problem. It often does this with the knowledge or the intention, of butting up against legal or political barriers that force the questions of whether we have the right to self-govern and take right action in our own interests.

RBO is not about avoiding confrontation, but rather focusing on the needs of the community first and foremost, preparing for the potential for confrontation second. This is the framework we would like to work under today, both to structure our discussion and plan our potential action.” [Here, other segments--such as a teach-in, testimony from community members, panel discussion, or further sharing and interrogating of the model--may follow before the final brainstorm and closing.]

4. Brainstorm: “Keeping in mind the goals of our model, what are some of the things we feel are missing from our community? What are the struggles we face, the barriers to living/teaching/existing in the ways we need?” Generate a list that represents a wide swath of the current struggles and concerns of the community, but which does not become overwhelmingly lengthy:

 

Violence in the community

Too much testing!

Not enough healthy food

Not enough affordable mental health services

 

“Here we have a concrete list of some of the daily struggles and ongoing barriers to justice and balance in our community. What are steps we can take amongst ourselves and each other to start addressing these issues? Thinking big, throwing ideas out for the sake of starting our thought process, what are some concrete actions we can take now to start combating these issues, and working towards the justice we need?” Across from or below the originally brainstormed list of issues, begin to add other suggestions, questions, and ideas for action as they arise:

 

Violence in the community

-       violence and poverty go together, we need to address them together

-       discuss violence as an issue of community/mental/emotional health, not bad choices by bad people

-       talk to/organize first with those who have experienced/instigated violence in determining where it comes from and how to stop it

 

Too much testing!

-       boycott tests/don’t administer them

-       skip any test that takes away from student support, mental/community health

-       talk to other teachers in our school and in others about joining in the boycott

-       talk to administrators about which test are “optional” by state standards

-       develop assessments we see as nurturing of learning and connected to curricula

 

Not enough healthy food

-       start a cooking program

-       teach academic subjects—math, science, social studies—through cooking

-       what land is unused that could serve immediately as a garden space?

-       culture as a weapon—use the cooking traditions of our community to build connections, teach our history and traditions, and pass on health wisdom

-       create a co-op to make growing our own food sustainable, a source of income for those who do the organizing

 

Not enough affordable mental health services

-       compile list of as many free clinics/programs as possible

-       is there a way to organize carpools to the clinics that have not been closed?

-       support groups/meetings organized in the community by those who have struggled with related issues

-       is this a process we need more help in orchestrating? who is connected to the fields of social work/mental health that we trust and can talk to?

 

5. Closing: “What we have done here today is a very small step, and a very big step at the same time. We have named some of the major factors impeding justice in our community, and have worked together to begin planning immediate ways to address those factors, united with the resources we control and can share. We have much work left to do, and many more conversations as we decide which strategies we will move forward with, how we will continue to shape and adjust them, and who will be our allies. As we do, however, we are committed to honoring our own voices in this process. We have many more battles to engage, rivers to cross and difficult decisions to make. Let’s continue to support each other as we proceed, to act with love for ourselves and our community, and to focus on our needs and wellbeing first and foremost!”

Peculiar Spirituality: An Interview with Pastor Jamie Frazier

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the leader of the Lighthouse Church in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the leader of the Lighthouse Church in the South Loop neighborhood of Chicago.

Pastor Jamie Frazier is the founder and pastor of the Lighthouse Church of Chicago, a Black Christian congregation centralized in the South Loop neighborhood. “Passionate about Jesus” and “Serious About Justice,” the organization strives to be not merely a safe haven for Christians who are not always welcomed by the larger church, but a catalyst for justice in Black queer communities and beyond. I sat down with Pastor Jamie to talk with him about the history of the Black Church, social justice theology, and the role of spirituality in the struggles of Black queer communities. Here are some highlights from our discussion:

 

How was Lighthouse founded? What led to its being realized?

Since I was a junior at Vanderbilt College in Nashville, I knew I was called to start a church and that it would be called the Lighthouse. Now, who I would be as a pastor, or who and what the congregation would look like, that has changed over time. But what has remained consistent is that I would speak prophetically as a pastor to social justice issues, that I would be committed to the cross, and that it would be a place where folks could come and find a home. Those things have remained consistent.

When I moved to Chicago three and a half, almost four years ago, I came out as a same gender loving man, and found that there were few to no spaces where I could come into a religious faith community and be all of myself. And I figured if I was having that struggle, there were other people who were having that struggle as well. I began meeting with folks in the community one on one, asking them to share their own stories. ‘What’s your spiritual journey been like? Let me tell you about mine, Let me tell you about the vision of Lighthouse church.’ And it were these meetings, some of which only happened once, but others which grew into counseling sessions, bible study groups and more, that helped lay the foundation for our congregation.

April of 2013 we started having Thursday Nights Together, and our three founding cornerstones were passionate worship, engaging conversation and an inspiring message. My hope was that this would be an African American congregation steeped in the Black church tradition of social justice activism, one that helps to restore the Black family in all its iterations, and by that I mean that I see this as a church where Black heterosexuals and same gender loving and trans folks can come together, and also invite our allies together and really build a spiritual home.

Many might think of a queer, Black, Christian space as a contradiction. Can you talk about the history of the Black church as a social justice institution?

The Black church is birthed, as we know, in the crucible of slavery. Many African American denominations, like the Black Church of God and Christ, the National Baptist Convention, the Progressive Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, these were denominations that helped represent what we now think of as the Black church—spaces comprised of sons and daughters of the African diaspora who have an ear, a heart and an eye to justice for Black folks.

Now, I think there is a difference between the “Black Church” versus a church of Blacks. The Black church, when I speak about that, has a devotion and dedication to justice and to activism. Now, there are lots of churches filled with Black people, who don’t necessarily do any justice work. But when I talk about the Black church, I’m talking about a tradition and a legacy of social justice and activism.

Richard Allen, who started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, left St. George’s Methodist Church because of the stigma and segregation he saw Black people being met with there, and its inability to address the daily struggles in Black lives. So there is a tradition in the Black church of wanting justice and equality, and also a willingness to create new spaces in which we can experience justice and equality. So what the lighthouse is doing a. by pursuing justice and b. by creating new space is very much consistent with the tradition of our ancestors.

Given a long history of theology that sees queers as a threat to the family, and of queer struggles that denounce the nuclear family as an oppressive institution, what does ‘restoring the Black family’ look like at Lighthouse?

Let me address family from three different perspectives: First, historically in Africa, second, in slavery, and third, in scripture.

Many of our West African ancestors, before they were forced through various routs into slavery in this hemisphere, did not have last names. This notion of last names is very European. People were known by tribes. And I always underscore that for people, because many of our forbearers had a tribal, a village understanding of family. Everyone is interconnected, everyone matters, everyone is tied to one another. This notion of, my family is over here and yours is over there, is a very white Eurocentric notion of division, separatism and individuality. Black folks have always had a collectivist understanding of family. And I think that offers hope when it comes to the inclusion of same gender loving, queer and trans folks, because African folk have always had a creative understanding of family. A child did not belong to a nuclear, one many one woman, family. The child belonged to the community, and the community belonged to the child. I think that offers us some openings for rethinking how we understand family. Too often for us family is Eurocentric, it is individualistic, it is limited. What we need to return to as Black folks is our beautiful interconnectedness, a tribal understanding of family.

Secondly, I think of slavery. In many cases, slavery worked to re-inscribed gender roles and oppressive social norms. It divided men from women, parents from there children. I think the only way Black folks were able to survive was this oppressive structure allowed us to demonstrate the very kind of collective understanding of family we had experienced before slavery. On plantations, there were young people who would call older women their mothers, or elders in the community their grandfathers whom they didn’t necessarily have a biological link with. Some people call these “fictive kinships.” I call it chosen family, that’s the framework I use. I feel we were able to pursue that avenue of chosen family because we had a history as sons and daughters of the diaspora of creatively constructing family. So when I hear some Black preachers rail against queer members of the community, and say, ‘The Black family is being destroyed, it’s one man and one woman,’ I ask, “When was that ever the case?” It wasn’t the case before slavery, during slavery, or post slavery. We’ve always had a capacious understanding of family, and we need to remember and celebrate that.

Finally, I don’t feel these arguments are biblical, either, and I offer several examples: When Jesus is hanging on the cross, he sends his mother not to live with is brother, but to live with John—a disciple he loved. Mary and Jesus’ brothers stand outside of a house in which Jesus is ministering, and the folks in the house say, “Jesus your mother and brothers are waiting outside,” and Jesus replies, “Who is my mother? Who is my father? She, he who lives out the will of God.” So for me that means family is whoever helps me to live out and lean into my authentic identity, the person God has created me to be. So don’t tell me family is one man and one woman in the context of marriage. It’s not consistent with our ancestors in Africa, its not consistent with slavery, and its not consistent with our experiences in its wake.

What does Black queer worship look like at Lighthouse?

Let’s go general and move more particular. Generally, I think Christian worship is centered on a high view of Christ. A view of Christ as liberator, as a force for inclusion, a view of Christ as loving. Authentic Christian worship does those things.

I think what the Black iteration, or example, or strand of worship does is it is open to spontaneity, to emotional outbursts or release. It is open to the ring shouting, the leaping, the dancing of our African ancestors. All that comes into the room. I think Black folks are rhythmic people–and when I say rhythmic people, I don’t simply mean given to dance. I mean we are able to bend and to sway in the midst of oppression and injustice, and dancing becomes a way of living in the world. So what I’m trying to work out here is that when Black folks worship, its similar to how Black folks live. We become a people that learn how to be flexible and agile, because we have to deal with this duality, with codes switching. We have to be one thing often in front of white folks and another thing in front of our own people. We know what it is to dance, and the kind of dancing we do in culture and in society is the kind of dancing we do in worship. Sometimes its literal dancing, but more than that it’s the capacity to be open and flexible to the mood of the moment, the content of our culture, and the voice of God.

Now, when we’re talking about Christian worship that is Black, that is queer, that is same gender loving and trans affirming, it is those things. It is worshiping Christ as liberator and loving and inclusive, it is flexible. But then next thing it is after that is peculiar. What I mean by that is the worship of Black trans and same gender loving folks is subversive and it is transgressive, it is capacious and it is restorative. What it does is it acknowledges the woundedness we have experienced as Black folks, as queer folks, as gender non-conforming folks, as trans folks. It recognizes that we are a people under assault, and yet we dare to create a space that embraces, loves, affirms and can hold us. And in creating that space, we are radical, we are revolutionary, we are peculiar. And it compels us to address in and among ourselves what we face, because in the other spaces we are a part of we aren’t able to tell our actual stories. So it becomes a storytelling space, a restorative space, a place where we acknowledge the pink elephants in the room. And for those reasons and more it is peculiar, because where most churches are silent, we dare to speak.

We’ve talked about the role of social justice in the Black Church. What is the role of spirituality in our movements for social justice?

Let me first acknowledge that religion has in some cases, when executed by oppressors, been a tool of enormous pain and subjugation. And let me also acknowledge, at the vanguard at the call for the abolition of slavery, for an end to segregation, for gender equality, for TLBGQ inclusion, there have often been religious voices. I think the role of spirituality in justice—speaking from a Christian tradition since that’s what I’m grounded in—justice is at the core of who Jesus is. The trajectory of liberation is deeply a part of the scriptures, so to be Christian is to pursue liberation. There is no separation of the two. To follow Jesus is to be engaged in justice.

The role of spirituality, and Christianity more particularly in social justice pursuits, is that we have some eschatological, some eternal hope.  Let me explain what I mean by this: You can do a lot of justice work, and still there’s going to be injustice. You can fight all day to feed the hungry, and still at the end of the day some will still go without food. What the Christian tradition offers that is distinct is that the good that we do will find its fulfillment in the second coming of Jesus Christ. As Revelation 21 says, “God will wipe every tear from every eye, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.” Heaven and Earth will actually be joined into one. There will be healing, there will be reconciliation, there will be restoration. If all I was was a justice advocate, I don’t know how I could continue to fight. Because I am Christian, I can continue to fight for justice because I recognize that my fight will find its fulfillment in the second return of Christ. And this does not immobilize me, it doesn’t lead me to be this fatalist who says, ‘Well, Jesus is just gonna figure it all out.’ It encourages me to participate with Christ in this work of healing and reconciliation.

At a recent Thursday night service I preached about the second coming of Christ and what that means for us now. At several places in the scripture it talks about Jesus as “a thief in the night.” What Jesus is going to do in his second coming is commit the greatest heist in history–to steal suffering and brokenness and death and grief and loss out of the world. And in the same way that we are to image Christ in his life of justice, we must also image Christ in his second coming, which will be burglary. We have to become coconspirators in this holy heist. We have to look for where there is brokenness and loss and grief and shame and poverty, and we have to steal some of that out of the world. And I think this will be one of the only heists where the victims will be glad they were stolen from. What I think preparing for Christ’s coming means is doing now what Christ will do upon his return. Wherever there is dis-ease, in any of its iterations, we need to be speaking to it and fighting it.

Throughout the scripture, Jesus is very clear that we got shit to do, and we have to be about that. But I am always very clear that at the Lighthouse, we are not just a social justice organization. We are a church. For me that means, yes we do social justice work, but that work grows out of our passion and worship of Christ. It’s fueled by it, guided by it, and it finds its completion in the second coming of Christ.

What are the questions you receive most frequently as a queer pastor doing this work?

Many news sources, but also many members of my own congregation, come to me and ask, “Pastor J, is it a sin to be gay? Is it a sin to be trans?” And that question is really wearing on me. I understand when you’ve been told it’s a sin for so long, then you come into a space that says it isn’t a sin, it’s a part of what God wants you to be, you have to do some reconstructing of what you’ve heard before. But the very question itself is so limiting, because it forces us into a construct, a conversation, a pattern of thinking in which we have to legitimate or have legitimated for us our very existence. Tell me why it’s okay for me to exist? That’s what the question really looks like, and that’s a sad, disempowering question to ask.

A better question is how do I as a Black queer person participate in my own human flourishing? That’s the question we want to ask, not is it okay for me to exist. But that question reveals that many of us have been told that its not okay for us to exist, or even that we don’t exist at all. What my goal is as a pastor is to interpret scripture in ways that are inclusive, celebratory and focused on Christ’s message of love. Anything else is a history lesson, and should be treated as such, not as a guide for our lives. Our relationships with each other and our relationships with Christ’s message of justice and inclusion are what guide us into the present.

 

The Lighthouse congregation will be meeting every Sunday morning at 9am beginning this February the 2nd at Glessner House Museum located at 1800 S. Prairie Ave. All are welcome!

You can find more information about the congregation at their website, or make a donation of support here.