Accounting for Change with Ching-In Chen and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha – NMP

The Revolution Starts at Home - Book Cover

NMP had the opportunity to speak with Ching-In Chen and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, two editors of the recently published book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. This anthology draws from personal experiences and community-based strategies to document not only the prevalence of intimate violence within activist communities but also strategies toward community accountability and transformative justice used to support survivors of violence.

After attending the Toronto launch for the book, NMP was fortunate enough to catch up with both Ching-In and Leah to discuss the origins of the book and strategies of community accountability.

NMP: The Revolution Starts at Home started out as a zine and became a book. How does the format of this project shape the way its content gets communicated and shared?

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: I think the fact that we began as a zine project made the book/zine much more participatory, juicy and accessible. The energy of a zine is that you don’t have to wait for a publisher’s contract or ok – you can just do it, gather materials and control the content and vision of your zine 100%. The biggest problem with zines for me is distribution – making sure the work gets out there. A lot of zine distros are focused around majority white communities and movements. Facebook helps get around that; so did the way that INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence made the zine into a PDF for free download from their website. That was the number one thing that got the zine and its ideas into the hands of thousands of people who we might never have met otherwise.

Ching-In Chen: South End Press had seen the zine and approached us to expand it into an anthology. I think the main difference between the zine and anthology is that we were able to allow space for documentation of the growth in the work along a wide span of time and experience. We were especially able to include more stories of collective processes in the anthology, which was really exciting!

NMP: What was your relationship to one another (to all three editors) before you started this project?

LPS: Our initial contact wasn’t through doing anti-violence work at all – it was through being queer APIA poets. The first time I remember us all being in the same room was at the queer/trans caucus at the 2003 APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit in Chicago. I think that’s important to remember – that spoken word, performance and creative communities have been a big part of anti-violence work, and aren’t separate from it.

CIC: We were friends, and I think that was important in terms of the intense and draining nature of the work, that we had a solid relationship with each other as we began this work together.

NMP: Were you prepared for the amount of editorial and emotional work that this project would demand from each of you?

LPS: Hell no. Personally, at the beginning, I thought we’d make a little zine with stories of activist partner abuse and that would be it. I was kind of prepared for some things – that it wouldn’t be just about soliciting essays and editing them, but doing a whole process of safety planning with authors, for instance – which we had to do as part of the editing. It wasn’t just as simple as soliciting pieces; we had to do intensive work with writers around thinking through what would make them feel safe enough to submit work. But I wasn’t prepared for how long the process would take, how much the movement(s) involved would grow, change, free-form and get complicated. Adrienne Maree Brown, at the 2010 Allied Media Conference, asked the question, “Are you willing to let the work transform you?” I think that’s the place we’re at with this work.

CIC: I had no idea! I also thought it would be a small zine project, which actually took a lot longer than we had thought. Even the logistics of us all being able to talk together was challenging, since I don’t think we ever all lived in the same city, and we all live very busy and full lives. I’m grateful that many people and groups seem to find the book helpful to their own lives and processes – that’s really what we set out to do at the very beginning – but I think I’ve also learned a lot from listening to the stories that have surfaced about groups engaging in this work.

NMP: Your book is groundbreaking because it openly addresses the prevalence of gender violence in activist communities. Interpersonal violence in these communities is often pushed aside in favour of “more important issues,” or is totally underplayed because it risks tarnishing the community’s reputation. Addressing this kind of abuse (and the frequency of it) so openly must have been difficult for each of you and for all of the contributors to the book. What steps did you take to provide support for yourselves and to help your contributors feel safe sharing their stories?

CIC: For me, this shifted during the time we worked on this project. Of course, if you’re working with a group of people (not yourself), there are going to be different working styles and ways of approaching work, even if you’re friends. It wasn’t always easy, but it was also helpful to be able to have a small group to check in with about challenging situations that arose from the work. As editors, we tried to establish relationships with our writers to work through their pieces and to take direction as much as possible so they were in control of their pieces. For instance, one of the contributors asked to remain anonymous and we agreed. For me, one thing that also helped was that I was able, at various times, to step back from the work and feel that my co-editors were able to have my back and that it was okay for me to do that.

NMP: Since releasing the book, what are some of the most important things you have learned: 1) As editors of this collection, and 2) As individuals working with your communities toward transformative justice?

CIC: I didn’t realize that so much had been going on and was going on in our communities, so it was really inspiring to learn about the history of this kind of work. Also, there’s a real hunger to talk about this, for something beyond what we’ve been doing so far, so I think there’s a growing mass of folks out there who are trying to think beyond what we have, toward what might be possible in the future.

NMP: In the preface to this book, Andrea Smith explains that accountability models working to end structural violence will help to “force us out of a crisis-based reaction mode into a creative space of envisioning new possibilities.” What are some of the new possibilities that you have realized through the creation of this book?

CIC: Hearing stories of folks being proactive about building the kinds of communities they want to have, being thoughtful and clear about what kinds of guidelines they want to set up ahead of time, and incorporating community accountability into that thinking.

NMP: According to your website, the launch of this book has sparked the creation of transformative justice reading groups and community accountability groups across North America. What advice do you have for people starting similar groups?

LPS: Take a look at Philly Stands Up’s “Start Up Your Stand Up” zine – it’s a great guide for people who want to start a transformative justice group in their community, and gets into lots of really practical things about structure, sustainability and the like. Get really clear about your goals and capacity. Make collective care a priority. Think about doing something small but doable – a reading group, an art-making project, collecting stories, practicing safety labs – instead of jumping into trying to deal with every situation in your city or community.

CIC: Another great resource is the Toronto Learning-to-Action Community Accountability/Transformative Justice (CA/TJ) Reading Group.

NMP: In the book, you have highlighted the fact that the community accountability model is not new, and that communities of colour, native communities and other marginalized communities have been organizing against all forms of violence independently of the state for years. How can new groups working toward this end ensure that they are respecting the roots of this model of self-determination?

LPS: It’s really important that white groups do not erase both the fact that all the recent CA/TJ efforts that are working were created by feminists of color and Indigenous feminists. And it’s really important that activists of color who aren’t Indigenous don’t erase Indigenous feminist anti-violence work – which it’s really easy for POC to do. I want to take accountability for the fact that one failure of RSAH was that we, as non-Indigenous POC, didn’t succeed in working with Native feminists to get their amazing work documented in the book. Boarding School Healing Project, Community Holistic Circle Healing and the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, to name just a few projects, are doing incredible, groundbreaking work. It makes me think about what gets viewed as CA/TJ and what becomes invisible.

NMP: In the book you included documentation of activist organizations working towards community accountability and transformative justice. Have you found there to be many differences between US and Canadian based models of organizing towards these goals?

LPS: I feel like because, in Canada, the state is “softer” – you can still sometimes get $300,000 a year from the Ministry of Health for your feminist therapy referral center, though that is obviously changing with the Ford and Harper governments’ attacks on smaller, more radical nonprofits – there’s less critique within anti-violence groups of the ways that the funding and nonprofit industrial complex change how we do our work. There’s more of a feeling that, hey, if you can get major funding from the ministries or Laidlaw, get it. I understand this – people need and deserve to get paid for the work we do – but I also feel like sometimes the fight to maintain the funding makes us more cautious about exploring what non-nonprofit organizing or non-state solutions could be.

In the US, state and foundation funding is harder to get and easier to get taken away (i.e., the way that INCITE lost its major funder when that funder discovered that the organization supported Palestinian sovereignty). I feel like this has pushed collectives and non-funded groups towards more creative, unfunded solutions, and I think this is why I know more CA/TJ groups in the US. But I also think it’s true that there are many groups doing what is called CA/TJ elsewhere – it just doesn’t get counted. For example, my friend Juliet November pointed out that bad date sheets created by sex workers are totally CA. So is the organizing taking place in many First Nations communities – from work by groups like Community Holistic Circle Healing in Hollow Water to the clan mother system on Six Nations.

NMP: At your Toronto launch you (Leah) emphasized that community accountability is not community policing. Can you explain the difference between these two approaches? Or, more specifically, how can activists ensure that community policing is not a byproduct of the accountability process? And, in such difficult situations, how can the process stay focused on actual accountability and on prioritizing each other’s safety?

LPS: One thing that I’ve seen happen a lot in communities is that there is a big, public incident – someone comes out and discloses that someone in the community sexually assaulted them, or that their partner has been abusive – and, especially in communities that don’t have tons of experience dealing with stuff like this (which is almost everybody) some people minimize or deny what’s going on (‘they’re such a nice person,’ ‘things are complicated,’ ‘was it really rape/abuse?’), and some people want to punish the abuser. They want to set them on fire; they want to kick them out of town.

For a lot of people – including myself, ‘cause I’ve definitely done this – this reaction happens for a lot of really good reasons. We are sick of abusers being tolerated in our communities; we want to definitively make sure that people are safe, that abusers don’t get to keep moving around with no consequences. And often, the incident makes us remember every single time someone (including ourselves) has been raped or abused and nothing happened, and we’re just like, fuck it, no more mister nice guy. That’s community policing to me – this idea that we can identify the bad people and kick their asses and then things are fine. I get it. And sometimes we do have to tell people they are not welcome in certain spaces for a while and that there are consequences for their behavior. But I think there’s a middle ground that people need to figure out how to explore first – between the poles of denying anything’s happening and beating up the people doing harm.

NMP: In the preface, Andrea Smith explains that gender violence is not something that we can start to worry about “after the revolution” because it is a primary strategy for white supremacy, colonialism and capitalism. She says that we must develop strategies that address state violence and interpersonal violence simultaneously. In the face of the current political context where another man of colour was recently put to death by the State of Georgia, where protestors around the world are being arrested, beaten and killed by the police and the military, can you talk about the importance of linking gender and state violence and why and how these forms of violence need to be brought down simultaneously?

CIC: If we look at the state violence that the United States, for instance, has perpetrated in places like Afghanistan, where one of the narratives was that women were being “liberated” as a reason for going to war, there’s a very clear link between how state violence is justified through gender and racial stereotyping. I think that this is particularly important when we think about how the state has co-opted radical work happening in our communities through the 501c3 nonprofit system, so that radical politics was separated from direct services by offering organizations funding for services. However, many of those organizations which became nonprofits became dependent on that state funding with strings attached, which often means that the services are band-aids, but aren’t addressing the root of the problem.

NMP: This book envisions new possibilities for community accountability and justice without relying on police or the state. It offers examples and suggestions for methods of building solid communities that prioritize responsibility and care of one another. Do you think these methods and models could be applied outside of activist communities?

LPS: Sure. I mean, I think the book is about abuse in activist communities, and it’s also about non-state ways of dealing with abuse, harm and violence, period. We wanted to look at how abuse is dealt with, or not, in politically left/activist communities, because there are specific dynamics. But we also wanted to fuck with the idea that activist communities are totally different than any small community in how we struggle to believe that people we know and love can harm. The fact that anyone can choose to harm, and anyone can be harmed, and that we can develop skills to intervene in harm, are at the centre of the book.

NMP: In the foreword, Andrea Smith explains that in activist communities we often “replicate the same systems we claim to be dismantling.” She says that we need to create communities of accountability that “pre-figure the societies we seek to build.” And that we need to ensure that in this process we are “dismantling our current system, not just creating another program or movement but creating a revolution.” From your experiences with this book, what tactics do you think we need to embrace to ensure that we are moving forward with a full-blown revolution in mind and not just working towards better service provision?

LPS: I think we need to resist the idea that CA/TJ is another program that mainstream social services can get funding for as the hot new thing. We need to think really seriously before we try and integrate any of this into the existing state – I understand people wanting to provide something better to mass incarceration, now, but the potential of things becoming utter co-opted bullshit is too high. We need to resist the idea that CA/TJ is something that only a few people who are experts know how to do, but instead understand that intervening in harm is something we all can learn and practice.

NMP: Your book is a call for radical social transformation, one that – given the book’s success – activist communities across North America are ready for and eager to work on. Do you plan a follow up to this book that will build on the momentum it has created?

LPS: Uh, if you mean are we gonna edit another book, maybe in a while! I think the conversations and organizing that hopefully will come out of their book are its own follow up. I’m hoping we can keep growing and building this movement. There’s been talk for a while of trying to build a North America-wide CA/TJ network, and I’m also excited by the potential expansion of the STOP project’s ongoing collection of oral and video storytelling of people intervening in violence without the state.

NMP: In this book you have recorded and used people’s stories and experiences as an organizing tool and as a way to keep a record of a story “that is still being told.” Have you thought about making these experiences more readily available through the web? Or through other means?

CIC: Yes, we have thought about collecting more stories and putting them on our Tumblr and also connecting folks to each other who are doing this work. But what that will fully look like has yet to take shape.

NMP: In conclusion, Leah, you said at your Toronto launch that the consequences of fucking up are enormous but that, alongside prioritizing survivors’ safety, we also need to figure out how to support perpetrators of violence. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of doing these two things at once? And (how) does this link to this theme of NMP, “amour” (love)?

LPS: Oh, it’s super easy (sarcasm). No – I mean, basically the challenges are to really develop the emotional and political skills to never forget or minimize the survivor’s experiences and needs, and also not throw away someone who has perpetrated harm. It’s fucking hard. Recently, a friend of mine had a brief relationship with someone who was lovely in many ways, but also turned out to be involved in a situation of harm with another lover of theirs. My friend talked about how all her theoretical understandings that perpetrators of harm have acted badly but are not inherently bad people were really challenged. She just wanted to run as far and fast away from this person as possible.

Alexis Pauline Gumbs has this really beautiful quote I’ve been meditating a lot on lately. She says, “Self-care includes holding each other accountable because we are interconnected. Loving ourselves includes learning how not to harm each other. Loving ourselves includes disrupting violent patterns in our homes and in our community-building spaces.” This is what it comes down to for me. As hard as it is, we really do need each other, and there isn’t any place to throw any of us away. I believe in this so much – that we can practice learning how not to hurt ourselves, our communities, or each other. And that it is a practice. We aren’t raised to know how to heal hurt, or do anything other than throw each other away. But I believe in our powers to figure out how to do new things.

Pushcart Prize nominee Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled Sri Lankan writer, teacher and cultural worker. The author of Love Cake and Consensual Genocide and co-editor of The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities (South End, 2011), her work has appeared in the anthologies Persistence: Still Butch and Femme, Yes Means Yes, Visible: A Femmethology, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Brazen Femme, Femme and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World. She co-founded Mangos With Chili, the national queer and trans people of color performance organization, is a lead artist with Sins Invalid and teaches with June Jordan’s Poetry for the People. In 2010 she was named one of the Feminist Press’ “40 Feminists Under 40 Who Are Shaping the Future.”

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi Books/Red Hen Press, 2009). A Kundiman and Lambda Fellow, she is part of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundations and Macondo writing communities. A community organizer, she has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston. Ching-In is also the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities (South End Press, 2011) and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press, 2009). She is currently in the PhD program in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee where she is involved in union organizing and direct action.