Care Under Conditions of Capitalism & White Supremacy: An Interview With Mia Mingus

Permission from the NEQPOC 2015 Conference Committee
Use with permission from the NEQPOC 2015 Conference Committee

Two members of our staff, Chanelle & Irene, shared a meal with Mia Mingus while she was here in Providence for the New England Queer People of Color Conference. Together, they discussed the past and future of our movements in terms of sustainability and accountability, including how we think about our youth, eldercare and those that are disabled. What is the role of apocalyptic thinking in strategic planning? And what are the limits of Transformative Justice on a college campus? Read on to see what Mia thinks! 

Chanelle Adams: Hi Mia! Thanks so much for meeting with us today. I saw you speak on a panel at #COV4 and I thought what you offered was really amazing.

Mia Mingus: Thank you!

CA: You brought our attention back to the fact that “violence is happening inside of our homes, our relationships, our communities, inside of our political groups.” Could you say more about how that manifests and how we are vulnerable within our own communities?

MM: Absolutely. It manifests in all different ways, whether you’re talking about any type of intimate violence. So whether you’re talking about rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and intimate partner abuse, or battery, people abusing their power within organizations happens all the time. This is actual trauma that people are experiencing within their organizations and their political work in terms of the way that we consistently treat each other.

One of the things that I always talk about how we replicate state violence within our communities. We replicate criminalization, demonization, we exile people. We isolate them and nobody talks to them anymore and they don’t have friends anymore, or we collude with rape culture and the dominant culture. We rush to protect abusers, we rush to shame and blame survivors. All of these things manifest in our movements, even things that are harmful and abusive like the fact that we don’t take care of our elders, the fact that so many of our disabled elders are so incredibly isolated. They have no access, or little access to, community, to love, to relationships, to even things as small as being able to go to each others’ houses to share dinner and build closeness that way. What do we do when our spaces are not accessible?

Irene Rojas-Carroll: You brought up the idea of eldercare being so important to creating the community that we want to see and intergenerational justice. I thought it was really important how you connected that to how we operate in a capitalist world. I also know that Ai-Jen Poo with the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance also talks about eldercare and a culture of care–who we expect to be taking care of our elders and who needs to be valued for doing that work. Could you speak more about that?

MM: Eldercare–taking care of our elders–is something that we absolutely need to do. It’s a pivotal point of challenging capitalism, because such a driving force within capitalism is hoarding money or trying to get a retirement account, buy a house, or have kids to take care of us. It drives so much fear and feeds into such a scarcity model, the idea that there isn’t enough. If we took care of our elders and took that fear away–and it’s so closely tied into disability as well—it would free us up to do lots of other things with that time and those resources.

The way we treat elders is so closely tied to the way we treat people with disabilities. So any work we’re committing to engaging in ableism, taking care of our elders is a key piece of that. It’s ageism but it’s also about ableism. As you age, you are seen as less and less productive and in this society, your body is only valued by how much capital you can produce.

But also there are so many other pieces here, not just about capitalism but about the knowledge that our elders hold. We will all [have the potential to] be elders some day.

We are all getting more disabled, or have the possibility of being disabled. It’s different than race or class, in that everybody is getting older and everybody is getting more disabled just by the nature of aging and living in violent and polluted communities, whether it’s the toxins in our food and in the air that we breathe, dangerous working conditions, whatever. We’re at a stage where one of the places where there’s so much abuse and violence happening is within eldercare and within nursing homes, whether it’s because of diseases, sexual abuse, violence that’s active violence or neglect. All of those things, and then of course there’s class. Eldercare is such a booming business and people are paying so much money to put their relatives into nursing homes for example. What do people do who don’t have that? There are also ways that taking care of our elders is reclaiming what we’ve always done and what our communities have always been a part of. So many of us don’t have the money to put people away, or it doesn’t align with our values or with our spiritual beliefs.

IRC: You mentioned that we can do a lot if we don’t have this fear looming over us, whether it’s fear of not being taken care of, or of not being secure when we’re older, or something else. I’ve been thinking about how much this moment feels apocalyptic –you mentioned this at the New England Queer People of Color Conference Keynote which was sort of comforting to hear–but also at the same time being able to imagine something beyond this. I also learned that you’re published in Octavia’s Brood, the new anthology of visionary fiction, and I think that’s so cool. Do you see a relationship between this apocalyptic mindset and the capacity to imagine a better future?

MM: Absolutely. I think it’s a both/and for me. I definitely see a connection because any problem, to me, is an opportunity that we can use. As organizers, we need to be strategic about that. So anytime there’s an opportunity for us to use something to reframe the argument, it’s an opportunity to be able to talk more to folks about what’s happening. It’s almost mythical in some ways. I don’t know if this is going to sound really cheesy but part of transformation includes death, and includes a leaving.

And this shift, on a mythical level, is part of what’s happening as well, so many folks bringing in, “What is the world that we want?” And not just myself, but on a movement level. And this has always been true, although I think that we definitely have come out of the last two decades, three decades, with a lot of resistance work because the conditions got so intensely bad. They’ve always been bad, but I think we’ve seen such a rise of surveillance, of the militarized police state, all these things. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ has gotten so much bigger and so much more intense.  Now we’re in a moment when we’re realizing that we really need to do both (resistance and visioning work) at the same time. What does that look like?

In a lot of ways the apocalyptic thinking gets labeled as just apocalyptic thinking, but in reality I’m like, it’s just being real about where we are. People especially in the U.S. and in industrialized and colonizing countries are really having to wake up. We are going to have to change our lifestyles if we’re going to continue and survive the way we have been. I really love the way that Grace Lee Boggs talks about how for people in the U.S., this would be the first movement not about gaining rights but about giving rights up, what we are going to let go of, and the privileges that we are going to have to shift. We may not be able to drink coffee every day. Even small things. We won’t be able to buy fresh strawberries every day in the middle of winter. I think it’s so connected with how can we reimagine something different.

People are also realizing, and continuing to realize, that sustainability of our movements is so important, because we also are seeing professionalization of our movements like never before with the non-profit industrial complex. Because of this professionalization and because people have been working in organizing as their jobs, we have to find ways to sustain ourselves. So there’s resiliency in having to build a new world as a part of sustainability. We can’t just keep resisting and resisting and resisting all the time because we will burn out and there will always be something to respond to, to write a blog post about, to go to the capitol and protest about, or go to the streets for. I know in Oakland, folks are burned out just having to continue to go and protest seemingly the same actions and events, just changing the names of the people who have been killed. Like, I don’t know how many times I can come out and do the same march and just say a different person’s name. Because so many of our folks are being killed. We have to find a way to do something different.

CA: I really love that you tied your response to how things are going environmentally, especially the ways in which climate change is going to affect the people who are already the most vulnerable in society and the ways that it already has, like with island communities and what we saw in New York during Sandy with homeless LGBTQ youth who were flooded out. I’m wondering about the ways in which you might see this apocalyptic mindset connecting our movements back to the environment? How can our movements account for these non-human agents that define our conditions?

MM: They’re totally connected and everybody should be taking this into account. The thing about the environment that’s both our greatest challenge and our greatest opportunity is that similar to disability, there’s a brick wall that we hit. There’s only going to be so much more fresh water on the planet that we can use, and that really forces us to confront our limitations. We’re not good at doing that, especially not in this rugged individualistic culture of ‘live your own future’ and ‘manifest your destiny.’ I talk about disability a lot, and I think we can talk about “socially constructed” all day long with ableism, and about how violence gets socially constructed, but eventually we hit a brick wall.

That brick wall is our bodies–that some bodies cannot change and some things are just real, like chronic pain. Similarly, with the environment, we hit a brick wall; there’s only so much fossil fuel we can pull out of the ground, and we’re seeing the effects of that now. For folks in Western countries and capitalist countries–and this area is growing as global capitalism takes over everything–but specifically in the U.S., it again forces us to confront our limits. To me, this is so tied in to how people who are able-bodied get taught to understand themselves, that you can do whatever you want with no limits, you can have whatever type of body you want, you can sculpt your body to look however you want however you want it to look, whatever. There’s so much usefulness in folks who have been living in marginalized and oppressed identities because we already have been living within limits. And so there’s a way that we can imagine how to tie those pieces around climate change to our everyday work, and we already have been doing it.

In California now, there’s this huge drought. Obviously we’ve been siphoning water out from other places already and that’s just been part of our history. But even within that, the water line has been sinking, so they just passed the first wave of mandatory water restrictions, but only to individuals rather than putting water restrictions on big business and these corporations that are taking so much of California’s water. And even to say “California’s water” is so ridiculous because water is something that shouldn’t be owned, but this is the mindset that we’re in. So that also is a both/and. There are ways that we have already been doing all these things for so long, but they’re not visible. And when we do get any type of ‘action’ on the subject it’s always targeting–in my mind–the wrong places. Because of Coca-Cola, or the water used to grow almonds for people’s almond milk, or Nestlé, or whatever–these large companies, they use so much more water than asking people to take shorter showers. I mean yes, that’s definitely important, but again, this is where we see the connection between personal change and political, structural change. It has to happen on both levels.

CA: What you were just saying reminded me of your writing on the concept of edges, of not necessarily always seeing edges as limitations, but knowing that where  or edges are. What would it mean for us to not always work in reaction or response, but to also to build for our futures?

MM: Exactly!

CA: Where is the foresight?

MM: I know, right?! Why did we wait until it got so bad? But we do this all the time with our own lives too. Like, I could get more shampoo but I wait until it’s barely there, and then I have to go buy more shampoo. Or in other small ways in my life like procrastination. Individual transformation and structural transformation are connected, and they also really mirror each other. We can’t make these structural changes if we don’t also practice them in our own lives in big and small ways For example, if you’re somebody who’s not really good at emotions and you know that about yourself, not waiting until all of your relationships break because of that and you’re not able to show up in them and so they’re not able to last, but starting to proactively work on them. This is an important part of me, being able to take care of the people that I love, and being able to take care of myself. This is one small example of a shift between holding people accountable and the ideal that we want which is taking accountability for the actions that we take.

CA: So you were mentioning some individual ways of becoming aware of things, but I’m wondering how to grow that sensibility within communities, knowing where to find it’s edges are.

MM: The only way to do that is to work together, though I don’t think there’s any one way to do it. But what is most necessary is that people commit together to doing that. Whether that’s a large community, or within ten or fifteen people, have these conversations. One thing we do in the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC), is we ask people to look at their values and to think in small groups: if someone came to you about intimate violence and you needed to respond, then given where your individual strengths and growth edges are, where are your collective strengths and growth edges in terms of being able to respond to this intimate violence that’s happening? Just talk to each other. Great things come out of that and the beauty of Transformative Justice (TJ) and community accountability right now is that we’re all in the same boat and it will look different in all communities. Communities are built and made up of individual relationships and smaller kinship networks that we have. So cultivating those relationships helps to build a foundation upon which larger communities can actually do the work.

IRC: I remember at the keynote you also emphasized the importance of talking to each other face-to-face, of communicating that way and some of the limits of digital organizing. How do you think that digital organizing might be contributing to a culture of activist celebrity-dom?

MM: It’s such a double-edged sword. Because we need to make money and so they feel like that’s the only way to do it. Digital organizing, like everything else, contributes to celebrity culture because celebrity culture is one of the main ways that we’ve learned how to relate to each other.It’s not necessarily about digital culture or organizing as much as it is about the fact that celebrity culture has become a cornerstone of our lives. Specifically in the U.S. but increasingly everywhere, of course with imperialism and capitalism and white supremacy, people want to have that kind of culture, so they replicate that. Anyways, so I think that the question to me is more about why is celebrity culture such a cornerstone? Any type of organizing, any type of things that we have happening in our society will get used toward that end. What’s happening is really scary because this is how we know how to relate to people now. It’s dehumanizing people. Celebrity culture directly reflects all of the things that capitalist culture really values… and it’s really profitable.

IRC: Can you speak about this possible tension between being financially sustainable as an activist and avoiding self-promotion and replication of celebrity culture, and how to get beyond that?

MM: It’s so strange, most of the work that I do is with people who don’t get paid for their activism, and I really like that. I feel like I’m really rare and lucky that I’m able to have my paid work be traveling and speaking to people, and at the same time, money changes the relationship to activism…Right now because our movements have been so professionalized, and people do get paid, we’ve lost a lot of the interdependency. People having paid work and doing their political work outside of that will force us to come up with different models. There won’t just be one person who does all of the work and obviously gets overworked: we will be forced to share it. And that’s how it was done before this nonprofit historical moment that we’re in. Before those existed, that’s the work we did. Grassroots fundraising wasn’t even called that because that’s just what it was; you just did this thing to try to sustain yourself and to sustain the collectives or the organizations, and none of them were 501c3s. I don’t know that I would say that it’s about good or bad or wrong or right, whether people get paid for their activism. I think that if you can do it well in this moment that’s great. Anything can be strategic. If you can use it and leverage it towards our goals and our goals for liberation that’s great. People need to hustle to make work, to make money.

On the other side of it there’s this judgement and it feels  very middle class culture and up, judging people for how they make money. I’m like, “Yeah, do what you need to do.” It’s a both/and for me and it’s just a balance in how you do it.I’m always questioning myself as a writer and as a community organizer. It’s just been a struggle, artists, performers, writers, poets trying to figure out “how do I sustain myself.” Having a 9-5 can be great in a lot of ways but it can also suck the soul out of you.

What I see happening is, again, people realizing that we need to build alternatives to capitalism for us to be able to sustain ourselves. So I see a lot of people trying to build up and be part of more barter economies so that they can still do their artwork, activism, organizing work, and so that they can take better care of themselves and the people that they love. This is such a  huge question, because at the same time that we want to build these alternatives, we’re not there yet.

And the reality is that we don’t take care of our elders. A lot of folks and a lot of movement elders, for example, are at the end of their lives and they didn’t have retirement or people who would take care of them, and that’s really real. What do we do about that? The reality is that we don’t have the kind of relationships in our lives right now where we can depend on people to take care of us when we’re not connected by bloodlines. I mean they exist in some places and that’s wonderful, but it’s not a regular thing.

I try not to be judgemental and shame people around the kinds of work that they’re doing and make value statements about how they are able to make money in a capitalist society that is forcing all of us to think about [these tensions]. Whether that’s around how you get paid through activism, sex work, or work that you’re forced to do that’s illegal, these shouldn’t let these fall into respectability politics.  I should add also, whether that’s “working for the man” jobs or jobs that are straight up capitalist or jobs that people know are connected with systems that are totally fucked up but they’re like, “I’m gonna work this so my kid can go to college,” or “so I can take care of my grandmother in my house until she dies,” that’s real too. The definition of oppression is people being forced to make decisions that are not just. So how do we really think about the context around that, rather than trying to push for political purity and asking ‘who can be the most radical,’ ‘what’s the most politically pure choice that’s most awesome, amazing and liberatory’? We don’t live in those conditions.

CA: As you’ve said before, this is an exciting time to be in TJ. There has been great theoretical progress in TJ in the past 20 years (and obviously, TJ has an even greater history in our communities and movements). Yet given that TJ is increasingly #trending in the social justice movement, while not quite at the same level in practice, how do you navigate this? What do you see as the both the benefits and potential pitfalls of that process of expansion?

MM: I see a lot. Some of the benefits are obviously that more and more people are getting exposed to this type of framework and building a shared language. Obviously the work has been going on forever. Just because you name something doesn’t mean you invented it, but in terms of a shared language it has been really useful. For a lot of people, even this reframing of community-based responses that don’t rely on the state are already such a mind shift, especially if they’ve never had to live in fear of the state. Even with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, rethinking police, even just a little bit, can benefit us. Obviously, there are many of us who would say say we don’t want nicer, kinder police, we want to end police. But again there’s where we are and where we want to be, and we’re not there yet. There’s going to be a lot of work to get there. How do we be strategic? Here are a lot of direct service organizations working directly with the state that are now interested in starting to infuse TJ and community accountability analyses and frameworks into their approach, which is great and every bit of it helps… 

Some of the not-benefits, or setbacks, are that TJ is being co-opted and watered down. Co-opted from the communities that helped create it. Many of those communities weren’t people who were like “I don’t want to call the cops because I have this amazing analysis of the PIC” but it was people who were like “I can’t call the cops. That’s just not an option.” In many ways TJ is just like ancient sacred knowledge of responses that create less harm and less violence. At the same time its a new thing. I worry that TJ, like everything else, will start to become this profitable thing, that will not be l be useful. I worry also that it will start to become professionalized and formalized, and I don’t think that’s useful either. In my experience, what’s most useful is not to replicate direct service models, but to embed TJ in our communities informally. Just in the way that visibility is not necessarily good, but that it’s a tool. Invisibility can also be used as a tool. Informality can, too, be a tool and a strategy for us. A lot of this work will have to be underground because so much of violence and responses to violence are highly criminalized and legalized. We have to move outside of the system. We will have to be renegades.

For example, with the work that I do around child sexual abuse, there are such intense mandatory reporting laws. It is really scary to respond to child sexual abuse as a community. The state has made it so that’s the case, because they actively benefit so much from responding to child sexual abuse and “sex offenders” in general. If we’re doing this well and actually creating these responses, we’re going to be taking power from the state, so we’re going to have to be prepared for backlash.

As TJ gets more and more visible, that’s also something that I worry about. How can we actively be planning for this backlash? Because, like we talked about last night, the state uses intimate violence as a way to maintain power, which is why it doesn’t have an invested interest in ending it. Even though it places itself as a protector, it’s about the expansion of the prison system, it’s about profit.? 

But we are at an exciting time outside of nonprofits, where more and more communities and individuals and leaders are trying to do community accountability and figure out what that looks like, and learning that it is extremely hard to do. 

IRC: How do you think that TJ can be applied to campus sexual assault? One way that I see a possible opening for this is that people working on campuses to change our policies and responses to sexual assault, we’ve become somewhat familiar with the argument that going to the police is not the way to solve these things for a lot of people, and that that’s another reason we need to have effective responses at the university level. even though it may not necessarily pushing for a response at the student or community level, it’s a shift away from the other, more carceral mode.  How do can TJ can help us in thinking about this?

MM: Any time people have a deeper analysis of state violence and why we don’t want to turn to criminalization and the criminal legal system with prisons and cops in our lives, that’s wonderful. The challenge around what’s happening on college campuses and universities around sexual assault and rape, keeps revealing so much about where we’re at. One, that a lot of TJ and community accountability work has been thought of in a community context that does not necessarily translate or transfer easily to a college or  university campus. Another piece of that too is that college and university campuses should be more embedded in the communities they are existing in. If there wasn’t such a bubble and a separation, then we could have a community-based response to violence. People cycle in and out; there’s no way to hold anyone accountable. The conditions we create allow these high levels of violence to happen. Obviously, violence happens everywhere and at high levels everywhere, but there’s a specific environment that’s created in a college/university campus that allows for these astronomical rates, to get even higher.

While I want to support colleges/universities in thinking about how they can use TJ and community accountability in their specific world, I also want to challenge people to be connected to the communities that they live in. Because, for one, they are connected to the communities whether they like it or not; that’s where people who clean the floors and clean the buildings and do the landscaping and the people who work on college campuses are. It’s so strange that I go ask many students about what’s going on out in the city that they live in and they say ‘oh I don’t know, I’m not really connected to that.’ That’s an important thing to shift. I know there’s tension there; it’s not always easy for students to get involved in local activist communities because a lot of that work is long-term work so if you’re just cycling in that can be hard. We have this very transient culture in society where people just sort of get up and go and don’t really think about the people before them, like gentrification for example. You just move to the next trendy neighborhood, or you don’t think about where you’re gonna move in terms of wherever you can get a job. These are the conditions of capitalism. These are the conditions of white supremacy.

TJ and community accountability force us to not just look at instances of violence but also at the conditions that allow those instances of violence to happen. How do we start to move and orient TJ and community accountability perspectives on college/university campuses? How does it require us to take a better look at the larger problems,contexts, and conditions that perpetuate this incidences of violence? It’s a really hard question. I don’t think anybody has the right answer right now, and it’s scary.

But these are the kinds of alternatives that we can build. Freedom University in Georgia, is a great example of not waiting for permission. That’s part of our problem too, we like to wait for permission. They didn’t wait for permission. They just did it. Higher education is fucked up in itself, even besides all the sexual abuse and other violence. What is higher education? What do we want it to be? How can we just create that?

CA: I’m also just curious to know what you’re think about most about right now. Is there a nugget that you’d share with us?

MM: So many nuggets! I mean, one of the things that I just constantly spin around in my head is just this idea, this fundamental or philosophical or spiritual/moral question, of just why is it and/how is it that we live in a culture where we can’t even take care of our children– the most vulnerable members of our communities? How is it that we can’t keep children safe? How? And that’s something we, especially in the US, try to pride ourselves on. “If it’s for the children then we’ll do anything, yes.” But largely, across the board, children are some of the most targeted people in our society, and even youth as well.How is it that we can’t keep our 3 year old safe? That child sexual abuse or hunger or being shot by a police officer are things that children are facing? Domestic violence? How is it that we are living in a society where this is happening?It’s such a key part of why I feel so invested in ending child sexual abuse. These are larger moral questions for us as humanity, whatever you believe, that children should be safe and taken care of. It’s a downer.

CA: Okay, how about one last fun question? If you could have any superpowers, or a feminist superpower, or activist superpower, whatever, what would it be?

MM: Ah! That’s such a hard question because there are so many super powers that I want. Can I name the top three that I want? One is definitely invisibility, except I feel like I already know what that is being a queer disabled woman of color, but I would just love to be a fly on the wall in some places. It would be really useful for our movements. Another is that I would want to be able to have people feel what another person is feeling. That would be a really useful superpower for myself too in terms of building empathy, awareness and connection. And the last one is probably what everyone says, I would want to be able to fly. I hate flying on planes more than anything. So maybe I could just fly myself places that I need to go. I’d love to be able to see the places, like flying over the Redwoods. That would be amazing, flying over the ocean and seeing whales and things come up for air. Fun things! That’s good.

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