“Our movements themselves have to be healing, or there’s no point to them”
—Cara Page, Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective
Everyone I know longs for healing. It’s just hard to get. The good kind of healing. Healing that is affordable, has childcare and no stairs, doesn’t misgender us or disrespect our disabilities or sex work, that believes us when we’re hurt and listens when we say what we need, understands that we are the first and last authority on our own bodies and minds.
Most folks I know come to activist spaces longing to heal. But our movements are often more filled with ableism and burnout than they are full of healing. We work and work and work from a place of crisis. Healing is seen as irrelevant, just for folks with money, an individual responsibility, something you do on your own time. Our movements are so burnout paced, with little to no room for grief, anger, trauma, spirituality, disability, aging, parenting, or sickness, that many people leave them when we age, have kids, get sick(er) or more disabled, or just can’t make it to twelve meetings a week anymore.
It’s 2016. I’ve been involved in what’s know as the healing justice movement for six years, and have been involved and invested in healing as a form of liberation and social justice all of my life—from when I was a little survivor brown femme disabled kid, to when I was a nineteen year old feeling ashamed of her altar and interest in herbs and tarot because they were a “departure from the real struggle.” The healing justice movement was created in response to all of those things—burnout, ableist movement cultures that denigrate and dismiss healing as not serious, a lack of access to high-quality healing and health care by oppressed people—as well as in the hopes of reclaiming the ways our oppressed, surviving communities have always healed, from before colonization to now.
I have been part of what is called the healing justice movement for six years, though I have been engaged in acts of healing for a lot longer than that. Six years is a special birthday in the lifespan of a movement. Six years feels like the time in movements at which some of the people, moments, articles, wishes that birthed us are at risk of being forgotten—especially in low-money, low-time-to-document, brilliant-burnout-femme-of-colour-led movements. This the moment where disability gets forgotten, where class gets forgotten, where white, cis, able-bodied healers can try to slap “healing justice” on their spaces and try to forget that this movement was birthed by Black and brown disabled femme brilliance, in response to all that both mainstream western/biomedical and “alternative” white/cis/abled spaces lack in terms of understanding how colonialism, ableism, cultural theft, and whorephobia affect healing systems. In response, I offer some of these memories and moments, reflections and recipes, of why we do this, what healing justice is to me, and where we might go from here.
Some definitions and histories
Healing justice as a movement and a term was created by queer and trans people of colour and in particular Black and brown femmes, centering working-class, poor, disabled and Southern/rural healers. Before “healing justice” was a phrase, healers have been healing folks at kitchen tables and community clinics for a long time—from the acupuncture clinics run by Black Panthers like Mutulu Shakur in North America in the 1960s and 1970s, to our bone-deep Black, Indigenous, people of colour and pre-Christian European traditions of healing with herbs, acupuncture, touch, prayer, and surgery. As my mentor, intuitive healer Dori Midnight, says,
Cara Page, a Black and Indigenous, queer femme organizer, is one of the guiding forces who helped birth healing justice movements, through her work with the Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective and her work helping create the 2010 Detroit United States Social Forum (USSF)’s Healing Justice People’s Movement AssemblyThe notes from this space can be accessed here.2 and Healing Justice Practice Spaces (HJPSs), one of the first healing justice of such practice spaces many people had ever encountered. (HJPSs are free, community-based spaces where many forms of healing are offered.) Kindred, a collective of queer Black and brown Southern healers invested in social justice organizing, began organizing in 2007 because, “changemakers are dying as a result of spiritual and physical deprivation from trauma, stress and unrest in our movements.”“Needs and Strategies,” Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective, accessed May 9, 2016.3 Kindred said, naming the root causes of wanting to organize a healing justice movement, “We need to be able to respond to the increased state of burnout and depression in our movements; systematic loss of our communities’ healing traditions; the isolation and stigmatization of healers, and the increased privatization of our land, medicine and natural resources that has caused us to rely on state or private models we do not trust and that do not serve us.” Kindred: Southern Healing Justice Collective home page, accessed May 9, 2016.4
At the 2010 USSF Healing Justice People’s Movement Assembly, I heard Page say something that transformed my ideas of what movement work could look like and has stuck with me ever since: “Our movements themselves need to be healing or there is no point to them.” The idea that movements themselves could and should be spaces of healing—that care didn’t have to be a sideline to “the real work” but that care could be the work—was like a deep drink of clear water.
Core to my understanding of healing justice is also the idea that trauma didn’t have to be a secret, something shameful and “personal” to never be dealt with, but that many if not most people are survivors of trauma from abuse and oppression, that we often come to movement spaces hoping to heal that trauma through doing freedom work, and that the work itself could reactivate trauma. Tanuja Jagernauth, a queer South Asian co-creator of the healing justice community clinic SAGE Community Healing Collective in Chicago, wrote, “Healing justice acknowledges and addresses the layers and layers of trauma and violence that we have been living with and fighting for generations. And, it asks us to bring collective practices for healing and transformation INTO our work. . . . People have been asking more and more questions about “sustainability” in the work. I think that working within a healing justice framework is a way to institutionalize sustainability in our work.” Tanuja Jagernauth. “Just Healing,” Organizing Upgrade, October 10, 2010, .5
Trauma and sustainability are inherently and always about disability and ableism. My definition of healing justice is inherently anti-ableist and centering of disabled people’s genius, and it places healing justice in opposition to colonial ideas of what and who count as “real healers” or “real healing.” Disabled wisdom challenges the entire western colonial ableist idea that a body is either perfectly able-bodied, or broken and useless. Instead, healing justice centres disabled wisdom that does indeed want access to medicines, adaptive technology, and other things that improve our energy, mobility, or immune systems, but also believes sick and disabled and mad and neurodivergent bodies are a normal part of the continuum of being human, full of wisdom, cripskills, adaptability, and cripscience.
My healing lineage
I am a disabled and chronically ill healer. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who has the complex PTSD and the trigger land mines, who swims in the anxiety and panic oceans, for whom pills were not a safe or accessible option so I started growing motherwort in my backyard and making tinctures out of cheap vodka. I am a non-binary femme of Irish, Romany, Burgher, and Tamil Sri Lankan ascent who started reading cards as a deeply depressed nineteen year old whose mom was dying of cancer and first femme girlfriend was suicidal. I am that femme who read tarot for phone-about-to-be-cut-off money, at the queer dance party, on a psychic hotline when my rape crisis line part-time job’s contract ended. I am the activist who had an altar since I could remember, but only came out of the (broom) closet about how deeply spiritual I was as the queer and trans people of colour (QTPOC) witch revolution began to bloom. I am the person who, years later in Oakland in the 20teens, was drawn to the healing justice movement when it started to be a thing, even as I kept questioning whether I was “really a healer.” I am the person who, four years ago this August when I had zero dollars in my bank account and rent was due, created and posted up an “I can read your tarot cards” WordPress and was bowled over by the response. As I launched my tarot business in a more intentional way, one rooted in the healing justice movement in the Bay Area and beyond, I started breathing in that this could be “real”—that being a community healer, in a “community healer-full movement,”In coining the phrase “healer-full,” I am riffing off of Black Lives Matter’s Black queer feminist conception of BLM as a “leaderfull movement,” one that eschews a few straight cis male able-bodied leaders but is also not “leaderless”—in which many people, especially femme, female, trans, disabled and poor/working-class/rural people, who have had our work erased, get to be recognized as leaders and organizers.6 could be a real way of both paying my rent and playing a role in our communities.
I’m someone who’s participated as a co-organizer and healer in HJPSs at the Allied Media Conference (AMC), Communities United Against Violence’s safetyfest, and INCITE’s Color of Violence 4 conference in Chicago, as well as smaller spaces in collective houses. I helped coordinate the AMC’s 2013 Healing Justice Network Gathering, which brought together many healers from across Turtle Island to talk about ableism, cultural appropriation, and funding our work. With Susan Raffo and Adaku Utah, I helped organize the 2014 Healing Justice for Black Lives Matter fundraiser, where healing justice practitioners came together across North America to raise money for the Ferguson bail fund through creating HJPSs and donating the funds, raising $27,000.
I offer these stories not to boost my own ego or to make myself look good. I write them to name my work as a sick, crazy, brown femme healer growing and learning healing justice with other disabled, sick, Black and brown healers. I write to share some stories, through my own lens, of what healing and this movement can and do look like.
The HJPSs I’ve been at—at big conferences and small ones; in corners of protests and small community spaces like Third Root and Harriet’s Apothecary; and in actions like healing justice for Black Lives Matter, (when I could feel all the hundreds of folks and groups offering healing all over North America)—have felt like a temple and a balm. In Detroit, the HJPS was in an old union hall. There was an altar in the entranceway holding a bowl filled with Detroit water and other waters healers had brought from all over the continent and beyond. People sat quietly in a circle as they received community acupuncture. The schedule of healers was scrawled on sheets of big paper in magic marker: Reiki, somatics, herbs, community acupuncture, counseling, tarot. People who were scared of the doctor’s office could come there, breaking their isolation and shame about needing care. We were creating a movement that could be care-full. In HJPSs, I have seen them as the temple, the balm, in the middle of movement hecticness. They are places where healing shifts the ways we imagine movement organizing to be.
So six years in, what are some thoughts I have about the state of the movement, on what we are doing, on what I think is important to remember?
If it’s not centering Black / Indigenous / people of colour (BIPOC) healers, it’s not healing justice. If it’s not affordable, it’s not healing justice.
It happens within many movements: BIPOC start a movement to address what’s racist and lacking in other spaces, create a word for it, and five years later, the white people are using the word and erasing the people who created it. For example, the term “disability justice” was coined by Black and brown disabled organizers fed up with racism and single-issue politics in mainstream disability rights organizing.To learn more about disability justice, how the term was created and by whom, check out these articles: http://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/this-is-disability-justice/, http://sinsinvalid.org/blog/disability-justice-a-working-draft-by-patty-berne7 Five or six years after we created the term, the SDS (Society for Disability Studies) annual conference was titled “Disability Justice” but was still dominated by white people, gave zero credit to the members of the Disability Justice Collective for inventing the term, and didn’t invite any disability justice organizers to speak!
If a healing justice space is all or mostly white queers, it’s no different than any “mainstream alternative” white space. Healing justice was created as a phrase and a movement in part because a lot of “alternative healing” was dominated by white middle- to upper-middle-class people doing culturally appropriative work with nary an analysis of race and a high fee for service. But fast-forward to late 2014, when we did the Healing Justice for Black Lives Matter action. At first, this was a majority BIPOC action, but a million white people started to jump in to “help” and everything started to change. We had to ask that everyone who participated have information about the origins of Black Lives Matter and the fact that it was created by three Black women, two of whom are queer; and that they think about access, from both a disability framework and a BIPOC framework, offering, for example, free treatments for Black organizers and community members affected by grief over Black death.
If white healers slap “healing justice” on their work but still are using the healing traditions of some folks from not their culture; are primarily working with and treating white middle-class and upper-class people; are not aware of or recognizing that healing justice was created by Black and brown femmes; do not have a critical stance and understanding of how colonization, racism, and ableism are healing issues. . . . it ain’t healing justice. I’m not here for healing justice becoming just a white people thing. And neither is healing justice.
Who is a real healer: We all are / can be.
When I started participating in healing justice, like almost every healer I know, I told myself, what am I doing? I’m not really a healer. Every healer from oppressed communities I have ever met has had similar thoughts. Because many of our traditional BIPOC forms of healing were outlawed by enslavement and settler colonialism, and then stolen by white people who take our healing traditions and bring certification programs that exclude many of us and sell our healing traditions for a profit, many of us can’t financially afford to learn our own traditions and/or stomach the racism in the existing trainings and have imposter syndrome. But, FUCK THAT.
It’s also a revolution to reclaim that this is what it looks like to be a crip healer, a parenting healer, a sex working healer, a poor/working-class healer. Healing can happen in corners of rooms on Skype, can start late, can cancel because of a flare. Can be sick or weird, curse, happen in the corner of the BLM encampment in the drizzle. Can be a haircut, a blow job, an accessible dance party, a Reiki treatment—or all four at once.
If it’s not anti-ableist, it’s not healing justice. (Or, if the HJPS is up a flight of stairs with no elevator, it’s not healing justice.)
Mainstream ideas of “healing” deeply believe in ableist ideas that you’re either sick or well, fixed or broken, and that nobody would want to be in a disabled or sick or mad bodymind. One of the biggest ableist ideas says that being disabled is “a fate worse then death.” Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, these ableist ideas often carry over into healing spaces that call themselves “alternative” or “liberatory.” The healing may be acupuncture and herbs, not pills and surgery, but assumptions in both places abound that disabled and sick folks are sad people longing to be “normal,” that a cure is always the goal, and that disabled people are objects who have no knowledge of our bodies. These beliefs are embedded in overall ableist ignorance, in which most abled folks have no idea that disabled people have our own communities, skills, sciences, research, and knowledge sharing and that we are often more educated about our disabilities and bodyminds than most doctors. Finally, deep in both the medical industrial complex and “alternative” forms of healing that have not confronted their ableism is the idea that disabled people can’t be healers.
Most sick and disabled people I know approach healing wanting specific things—less pain, less anxiety, more flexibility—but not usually to become able-bodied. And many of us don’t feel automatically comfortable going to healing spaces at all because of our histories of being seen as freaks, scrutinized, infantilized and patronized with “what happened?”, prayed over, and asked “have you tried acupuncture?” or a million other “miracle cures.” Able-bodied practitioners without an anti-ableist analysis—including Reiki providers and anti-oppression therapists—often see us as objects of disgust, fascination, and/or inspiration porn. Mostly, our lived expertise about our bodyminds and needs are dismissed, or on the flipside, we’re told we’re “not really disabled!” when we insist on the realities of our lives. This dismissal carries over into organizing, where even in healing justice spaces, often when the crips aren’t there, there’s no access info and no accessibility.
I believe healing justice must centralize anti-ableism as a central tenant tenet of the work we do—centering crip ideas of what illness and disability is, as well as honouring disabled and sick and mad people’s autonomy and wisdom—and centralizing accessibility in a broad sense (from wheelchair access to fragrance access and ASL presence) as a central part of how we heal, not an add-on or an afterthought. Many of the BIPOC who were first involved in early healing justice initiatives were themselves disabled, or were close comrades with people birthing early disability justice ideas circa 2010. As the movement grows, I see more healing justice spaces up a flight or two of stairs, including ones run by people in my communities, where practitioners seem surprised when crips show up or are angry at a lack of access.
Access doesn’t just happen—anywhere, and there are specific challenges and tasks to making a healing space accessible. In helping to screen healers who applied to practice at a HJPS, we’ve had to ask specific questions about the practitioners’ understandings of disability, ableism, and healing, as well as fatness; educate people on language and access 101; work to figure out if the space we were offered was really accessible, or if the staff were just saying that; and work with healers to make their practices fragrance free. Most healers or medical care providers never receive any education about the medical industrial complex, disabled people, and ableism as part of their training. We remake ideas of healing away from being fixed, and towards being autonomously and beautifully imperfect.
A little money would help. We do a lot on a little, but we need to figure out how to support each other and resource each other so these big healing dreams can keep growing instead of crashing and burning. Every movement has an initial growth spurt where we can go a long way on joy and adrenaline, but that initial booster rocket doesn’t last forever. My friend Maryse Mitchell Brody, therapist, organizer and co-founder of Rock Dove Collective, a healing justice collective that operated from 2006 to 2014 in New York, remarked last year, “A lot of those little HJ collectives that started around 2010 and faded around 2015 would’ve lasted longer with even small stipends for all the free work we put in.”
This is an especially important point when one considers that most of the healing justice collectives and spaces I know of were created and are sustained by working-class Black and brown femme labour—femme labour that is often not valued or seen as work. In my years living in Oakland, I estimate that I worked for ten hours a week on unpaid healing justice organizing; my paid practice usually took another ten to twenty hours a week with unpaid time to buy supplies, do ritual, and get support. It took ’til I moved back to Toronto in March 2014 and stopped participating in Bay Area healing justice organizing that I realized how many unpaid hours of work I was doing a week, and how both nurturing and exhausting they were. As we keep going, can we share skills about how to get paid for organizing and healing, how we can share money, and create cross-class solidarity?
It doesn’t have to be either healing or organizing: It’s both. A few weeks ago, someone asked me at a talk I was giving at Portland State’s Take Back the Night how we choose between healing and activism. I tried to tell them that healing justice is not a spa vacation where we recover from organizing and throw ourselves back to the grind. To me, it means a fundamental—and anti-ableist—shift in how we think of movement work—to think of it as a place where many pauses, where building in healing as well as space for grief and trauma to be held, makes the movements more flexible and longer lasting.
Grief is an important part of the work. So many of the movements I’ve been a part of in my lifetime—against wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and against Islamophobic racist violence here on Turtle Island; for sex work justice and for missing and murdered Indigenous women; led by and for trans women of colour; for Black lives; by and for disabled folks and for survivors of abuse—involve a lot of grieving and remembering people we love who have been murdered, died, or been hurt or abused or gone through really horrible shit. Yet, I remember an older brown activist telling me in 2003 that there was no time for crying over shock and awe—we had to get into the streets.
While containing and denying grief is a time-honoured activist practice that works for some people, I would argue that feelings of grief and trauma are not some distraction from the real work. For example, transformative justice work (the work of creating strategies that bring about justice, healing, and safety for survivors of abuse without predominantly relying on the state) is hard as hell! What would it be like if we built healing justice practices into it from the beginning? Everything from praying to the goddesses of transformation to help us hold these giant processes of transformation and helping someone acting abusively to choose to transform, to having cleansing ceremonies along the way. I’ve witnessed and read about Black Lives Matter organizers integrating healing justice practices into BLM organizing and talking about BLM itself as a healing justice movement—one where grief rituals over murdered Black kin, breath work, and herbs for resilience during actions and marches are at the work’s centre. Check out the following articles for more information:
It’s not about self-care—it’s about collective care. Collective care means shifting our organizations to be ones where people feel fine if they get sick, cry, have needs, start late because the bus broke down, move slower; ones where there’s food at meetings, people work from home, and it’s not something we apologize for. It is the way we do the work, which centres disabled femme of colour ways of being in the world, where many of us have often worked from our sickbeds, next to our kids’ beds and our too-crazy-to-go-out-today beds. Where we actually care for each other and don’t leave each other behind. Which is what we started with, right?
As my friend and comrade, queer yoga teacher Yashna Maya Padamsee, a 2010 HJPS co-organizer and writer, wrote in her often-cited article “Communities of Care, Organizations for Liberation,”
“If we let ourselves be caught up in the discussion of self-care we are missing the whole point of healing justice work. . . . Too often self-care in our organizational cultures gets translated to our individual responsibility to leave work early, go home—alone—and go take a bath, go to the gym, eat some food and go to sleep. So we do all of that ‘self-care’ to return to organizational cultures where we reproduce the systems we are trying to break.”naya maya (blog), June 19, 2011, https://nayamaya.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/communities-of-care-organizations-for-liberation9
I remember the Healing Together Network Gathering at the AMC in 2013. A “network gathering” or mini-conference the day before the AMC proper, and I was one of six co-coordinators who had worked for almost a year on the gathering. The gathering was a lot of things for me. There were some amazing meetings of the minds, trainings, and connections. It was also a lesson in the difficulties of trying to organize a financially and disability accessible conference on a budget of less than $2000 ;).
In my Taurus organizer head, I’d hoped that a North American network would emerge out of the gathering, which would connect the many different healers, healing justice collectives, and microclinics blooming across North America. It didn’t happen. A friend saw my face fall. And she reminded me that one of the principles of emergence theory is that networks and organizing are organic—to trust that the need and desire and conditions we are alive to will help us create what networks and structures serve us. What is easy is accessible, and replicable. So, at this moment in the healing justice movement, I also hold to the wild truth that as long as we need to heal, we will continue to dream the exact kinds of healing we need into being.