Taking care of the hurt caused by racism

I got a message on LinkedIn a couple of days ago from a Black woman who had worked at Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and NI), when I worked there too. She reached out to me because she remembered me leading conversations on equality/diversity. It was a kind and thoughtful message. She started it with ‘I’m not wanting to bring up anything that might trigger you but…’.

I read it and forgot about it. Then yesterday morning when half-asleep I had a flashback to my first FOE annual conference in 2008. I was 26 years old and recently recruited to run the community empowerment programme on the Rights and Justice team. It was the annual ‘Motions’ debate at the conference, which was a kind of pseudo-democracy process between FOE’s local groups and the centralised office staff. I was the mic-runner in the debate, running around handing people the microphone to people speaking.

My manager had previously written an organisational policy that FOE local group members would refuse to share a platform in the local elections hustings with candidates from the British National Party. One of the motions was from a local group member (White, male) who wanted that policy to be overturned. He argued that the BNP was a credible political party and therefore it was damaging to FOE to not engage with them, if we want the best chance of achieving our environmental goals. The racism of the BNP was not relevant, not our business.

There had been some debate about whether the motion would be debated at all earlier. I had felt angry and worried, and then a temporary relief as it seemed the session was closing. Then all of a sudden, as people were leaving, the proposer of the motion demanded that it was brought forward. A lot of staff had left the room already. I don’t remember any other BME folks being in the room.

If I had just been ‘me’ at that point I likely might have responded to the proposer directly. And the Chair of the board who facilitated him, also a White man who knew what power he wielded and was consistently offhand and rude. (I still don’t understand why he was allowed to hold that role for so many years). I had already in previous weeks gotten into a skirmish with a (White male) member of senior management, told to ‘watch my tone’ when challenging the tokenistic use of BME folks’ images in climate change campaign materials, but I still had fire and willingness to use it.

But in that moment of chaos, I was the mic runner too. Imagine being in a role where you are part of the machinery of the debate whilst also being a new and junior member of staff, feeling exposed in front of an auditorium full of people. Traumatic events can cause us to fight, to run away and to freeze. I froze. And watched as people tried to argue (I remember a friend from Birmingham particularly having a go) but his motion was passed. I am sure I’m not the only one who wanted to do something and froze.

Humans are designed to handle stressful events. Stress becomes traumatic when you feel alone, unsupported. In that moment, I watched the organisation, the movement, I had joined to help progress issues I passionately cared about circumvent its own procedures to pass a racist motion, with very little challenge. I had continued in autopilot, handing round the mic. I sank into myself, as if watching the events from afar. At the same time horrified, livid, powerless, physically shaking. And perhaps worse of all, shame… feeling that it was somehow all my fault. That I was responsible for all this. That I had f*cked up and let down everyone impacted by racism and the BNP

A few of us talked on the train home and tried to fix it afterwards, but that involved writing long papers for management and the board and the effort fizzled out over time.

I didn’t get a chance to process the emotions of that time, so I buried them – there was no-one to talk to who really could help me make sense of what had happened. I had lots more of stressful occasions where I tried to speak up and lots of more regular day to day racist/sexist microaggressions such as people ignoring an idea when I said it, but loving it when said by a White person, having others take credit for my work, or being called Gita (the other Indian woman on my team). I told myself that because these experiences weren’t nearly as bad as the racism and violence other people experience, they weren’t important. I’ve since realised they can be both.

One of the ways I dealt with the emotions I buried was to try and fix things so something like that never happened for me or anyone else. I poured effort in the coming years at FOE into coordinating an internal organisational campaign and learning programme on equality and diversity and to try and ensure that our Rights and Justice work was reaching and shaped by the needs of folks worst affected by environmental justice issues. To ensure we recruit better, that our internships are accessible and paid. That work wasn’t new at the time – others had tried to start the conversation before me and others have taken up the baton since.

Lots of wonderful folks supported the effort when I was there, including a number of amazing BME staff and volunteers, and local group members. The ‘Environment is for Everyone’ core group could fill a room with staff and volunteers from all parts of the organisation. I learnt as many community development skills as I could and tools such as Theatre of the Oppressed, and we trained local groups at successive conferences to build relationships in their communities. We challenged management and the board to change organisational practices from HR to disability access to democratic decision-making to better communications. We were aiming for a deep and wide culture-change and we knew it. We were a victim of our own initial success, in some ways. Senior management then tried to co-opt the core group and its work into its 5-year strategy-planning process, splitting the group’s cohesiveness as it did so. Classic, right.

My Rights and Justice project networking community groups across East London on fuel poverty and housing standards was slashed (and thus I lost half my job) because management felt progress was too slow. I was actually taking time to build relationships with community groups (mostly BME) across Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking and Dagenham and co-planning with them. Management wanted a ‘more obvious climate change focus’. The then-Director of Campaigns said he didn’t understand why I was working to build relationships with Gypsy and Traveller groups, why they were relevant and not a reputational risk. I had a phase of bad health and left in 2012.

There were many things I loved about FOE. Some of the Power Up weekends my team ran, the informal BME lunch group I set up in the latter years and the singing group I started in our office roof garden are some good memories of beautiful nourishing times. A couple of my current closest friends, I met at FOE.

Over my 4.5 years there I had ideas, facilitated, argued, persuaded, encouraged, persisted. But I never really showed my full rage or hurt. I learnt at the conference that it wasn’t safe to do so, despite being amongst people who claim to be on the same side. I toned down the badass side of my personality, made myself more ‘likeable’, to stay safer. I took care of others, often not realising that I needed to take care of myself, ask myself what I needed. And that’s me as a person of an Indian/Hindu family. I suspect (and heard, on occasion) that FOE was a much harder place to be for the few Black and Muslim staff.

The personal impact of day to day racism is sad. The wider impact is debilitating for all of us: racism kicks the legs from beneath people who are able to lead and inspire radical change. It’s one of the reasons it exists I think – a backlash from a system that doesn’t actually want the change, even if your organisation claims to be working for it.

So… this amazing ex-FOEster writes me a kind message on LinkedIn and yesterday morning I woke up having a flashback to a memory I had buried and then puddles of tears, which kept welling up throughout the day. I know it is a gift – that the trauma of that time (which will be linked to childhood trauma too including racism at school and challenging sexist, racist, caste-ist norms in wider my Gujarati family) is looking to be witnessed, cared for and released. With the help of skills I have learnt from my teachers, my meditation practice and love from family and friends. My friend put her hand on my back between my shoulder blades yesterday – a simple gesture that really helped. Being supported and learning to really feel my feelings has been crucial in helping me support and build community amongst BME folks. It means the workshops and coaching I do now are all the more effective.

Why am I writing this story? It’s not cos I need apologies or analysis about that incident at conference or cos I think what happened to me at FOE was unusual or particularly noteworthy. I’m writing it cos all kinds of stories are needed and the ones I can tell best are my own. This feels like a particularly intense time of change. I want to remind myself and others of how much support and care is needed right now. Remind us that stopping, feeling, resting for a while at a time where so much ‘action’ seems to be asked for IS ACTION in itself. As is taking time to build communities of care and warmth around us

BME folks who have experienced racism in White-dominated organisations, particularly Black folks, ask yourself if you feel supported. As many of your White colleagues are waking up to structural racism and anti-Blackness, you may be being asked to do a whole load of extra work explaining, educating, taking care of other’s emotional responses, dealing with the memories this period evokes. It’s an exciting time of change in some ways and it’s exhausting. I’ll say to you what I’m saying to younger versions of myself – it is NOT all your responsibility to make better. The idea that things need fixing NOW and it’s all my responsibility is a kind of trauma response in itself, the voice of fear. Take time to build your support networks of people you don’t have to explain anything to, who will proactively ask you ‘how are you today?’ and ‘what do you need?’. Be that person for others, particularly young people. Remember what you love, what you enjoy, what brings you alive. Being in nature can really soothe. Consider therapeutic support of different kinds. Baatn.org.uk is the Black and Asian Therapy Network. Also see https://www.blackmindsmatteruk.com/ and https://www.blackthrive.org.uk/ in Lambeth, London. Massage and craniosacral therapy really helps me.


White folks who want to unlearn racism.. You are needed. This isn’t a Black or BME struggle, it’s yours to lead. Don’t let your organisation stop after making the reflexive public statement supporting BLM. You also need to love and take care of yourselves and other White folks who are trying to learn and stay with the feelings of this time. Stop for a while and feel it all, without jumping to do something. Check in with others, talk about what you are learning about racism and Whiteness at home and work. Challenge any bullshit behaviour without trashing the person. Be kind. Particularly reach out to young people. Men, please support other men, don’t rely on women to do the heavy lifting. Right now don’t ask your BME colleagues to teach you stuff, ask them what support they need. Listen. Listen hard. Show you can be trusted. Step up to meet the needs you’re hearing about. If they need to take some time and space out, be ready to release them from some workload for a while. Ensure your organisation pays for therapeutic support for your BME colleagues at this time if they ask for it, of whatever kind they prefer. Consider donating to initiatives like this or this. When planning the necessarily-uncomfortable discussions on structural organisational change (culture change and changes in specific practices and policies, redistributing resources, changing how decisions are made), allocate enough time and work to have them in a way where folks feel able to listen.

I was listening to this as I type, bansuri (bamboo flute) music which soothes my soul.

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Placard for BLM demo, Brighton, 13/06/20

Will you still be there next week, next month, next year?

I don’t believe that there is a right or wrong way to respond to traumatic events such as the recent murder of George Floyd (and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Kayla Williams… ). We need a full spectrum of action.

I do believe that what’s happening in our nervous systems at a chemical and molecular level is likely to affect how we respond.

Look at the diagram below. Notice if any of it seems familiar.

trauma

By an accident of birth, I will never really know what it is like to be Black and experience or witness racist state-sanctioned violence by the police. And by those in the criminal justice system, immigration detention system… or even our health and education systems. However much I listen to Black friends or Black folks I work with, I will never really know how that kind of violence and trauma would feel in my body and heart. The impact it might have on my day to day life, as I do my best to be me.

But I know that trauma vibrates in all of us, to some degree. Social media has its uses and also its shortcomings.

I know from my own experience that if, those of us as Non-Black folks who want to do something, we don’t take time to feel and process our feelings and soothe ourselves first, we are likely to respond in a way that serves primarily to make us feel better, rather than contributing to systemic change in the long run. And then there may be burn-out, or the focus moves on to something else. So the protests around these highest profile murders end up being like a pressure cooker vent…. until next time.

If we are committing to supporting Black leadership and helping birth a world where Black parents never have to have ‘the talk’ with their children and can confidently send them out into the world to follow their passions and be who they want to be without fear, we are committing to sustained action to heal racism; every day, every week, every year.

This is sacred work. In our spheres of influence: our families, neighbourhoods, workplaces. Stepping in, standing alongside, listening even when it’s hard. Feeling it all. Challenging racism we hear, pushing decision makers and being willing to have our own beliefs and actions challenged. Educating the children in our lives. Being conscious about where we spend our money and which voices we choose to amplify.

Yes, times are urgent. So please let’s slow down, research, reflect, take one step at a time. Sustained presence over time is fertile ground for transformation.

Related useful learning stuff about nervous systems and trauma:

  1. https://www.resmaa.com/courses
  2. https://culturalsomaticsuniversity.thinkific.com
  3. This great video from Street Somatics is a good place to start…
(Thanks sarahross phd for the Window of Presence image)

How do we navigate a time of uncertainty and paradox?

Where do we even start?

I really don’t have a clear answer. But, after connecting with lots of folks in several online community resting meditation circles in the last few weeks, and after an online silent retreat with my teacher (where I slept a LOT), here are four themes that are emerging:

Iceland, March 2018.


1. It’s OK to feel shitty. 


For me, addictive behaviour (such as being glued to screens and comfort eating) is often a resistance to feeling a deeper emotion like sadness. In fact, a resistance to feeling, full stop. Of course there is sadness. And whilst some people around the world have been living in crisis contexts for a long time, many folks are having now having a less familiar experience of collective shock and grief. Fear of losing our loved ones or our own lives.

Fear of death has always been there, of course, as humans. But it’s been surfaced and turbo-charged in a way that can feel like the ground is slipping away. We’ve become scared of air, of breathing, for heaven’s sake. It’s OK to cry. I find myself holding a hot water bottle, deluged by a wave of tears every couple of days and I’m learning that that’s OK. If I tend to the sadness, it comes and flows on, rather than hanging around disguised as anxiety or numbness. 


2. It’s OK to feel good.

 
We can get stuck in a place where we don’t give ourselves permission to feel terrible AND we don’t give ourselves permission to feel great. A purgatory that gets filled with scrolling social media, the need to be productive at all moments and endless ricocheting thoughts. Perhaps a sense of guilt – what right do I have to feel good when so many folks around the world are ill, struggling or working all hours? Yet there is also moments of laughter, silly songs on Zoom with nieces and nephews, enjoying playing the guitar or the way the light falls on that particular cherry blossom. Why not, you know? If anything, this is reminding us just how bloody precious every moment of life is. Of course a by-product of joy and creativity is that I have more clarity and energy to offer support to others and that offering comes from a grounded and wiser place, rather than the anxious reactionary need to try and make things better which is strongly programmed into me.


3. It’s OK to have feelings which sit uncomfortably alongside each other. 


I feel terrified of losing someone I love and heartbroken at hearing stories of struggle from the lockdown in India AND I feel excited about what feels like a growing wave of love and consciousness. I am raging at the way NHS staff and other keyworkers have been treated over many years and how they are not being protected properly even now AND I was moved to happy tears by the clapping all around the neighbourhood last Thursday evening. I am grieving the comfort and familiarity of a lifestyle that we will likely never again experience AND I feel hope and a commitment to help birth the something new that is being dreamed.

We are likely to be feeling things which seem like they contradict each other, often with only a breath between them. That’s really OK. There is a vastness to the polarity of feelings right now. It is a time of mind-boggling paradox. I think we are being called to be friendly with the wobbliness of not-knowing, to stretch to welcome and hold it all. And to cultivate courage as we do so.

4. It’s OK to rest


We know the things that are good for us, right? The time away from your phone, connecting with nature, move your ass at least once a day and drink more water, all that kind of stuff. Resting is one that we don’t talk about enough, in a culture where productivity is prized. If we’re honest, most of us were likely chronically tired before this all kicked off. Right now, if you’re a keyworker and/or looking after young children 24/7, that tiredness must be off the scale. Also I sense many of us are experiencing a kind of existential knackeredness; systemic change is happening around us and inside us at fast pace. Our nervous systems, the very ways our body and feelings are wired, have likely been in extra-high-alarm-mode, which can make it difficult to rest, even in those pockets of time we do have available.

For me, lying down meditation has changed everything – turning off all devices, getting into bed and feeling the sensations in the lower half of my body and lengthening my breath. Often gentle stretchy movement, favourite music, a hug, a bath or shower help. I long for a cat to stroke. Each of us will have different ways of dialling down the alarms and experiencing true relaxation, whether for 10 minutes or a few hours. What helps you rest? I’d love to hear.

Resting can help touch that fundamental underlying sense of okayness that lives beneath the stormy waves at the surface. And when we feel safe and OK, a space opens up for energy and transformation to trickle in.

As the poet and philosopher Bayo Akomolafe has said, ‘These times are urgent, we need to slow down’.

Forget me not. Haringey, April 2017.

Online Community Resting Meditation Circles April 2020

We are in a time of processing collective fear and grief, perhaps more intensely than we’ve seen before. How do we hold space for this with gentleness and courage AND ask…. what else is there? What seeds are sprouting during this time of transformational change? What nourishment is helping them to grow?

This month I’ll be offering twice-weekly community meditation circles focussed on deep rest. Tuning into the body, breath and encouraging self-kindness and relief. Not just to momentarily escape or distract ourselves. Rather, trusting that when we turn the dial down on thinking about the past and trying to control the future, then space is created for energy and warmth to flow in.


The circles use Zoom, an online meeting software that is free and simple to download. You will need a quiet space to be and a device that has a mic/speaker and a camera.


Both circles will include guidance for a 20-25 minute lying down meditation (you can follow this or do your own meditation practice and simply enjoy the connection with others online). I have found in my own practice that there is something wonderfully powerful about meditating in community with others whilst in my own home.


For the Wednesday circles involving singing, everyone will mute their mic due to the online time-lag and I’ll teach some super-simple voice exercises and songs, so don’t let shyness stop you. Sometimes a bit of poetry, music or journalling might creep in too 😃


I have been practising deep rest meditation for the past 6 years and have been teaching online meditation circles since last year, with my wonderful teacher (Jaya Ashmore)’s blessing. It’s a non-religious practice encouraging gentle connection with the body, breath and the earth. And I’ve been singing with communities in person since 2009 – online singing is a relatively new experiment and it’s been fun so far!


All are welcome. You absolutely don’t need any experience of meditation or singing.

Free of charge / donations if you can afford it.


Please email shilpashah23ATgmailDOTcom to sign up, saying which sessions you’d like to attend

All my love.

Online Community Resting Meditation Circles

I’m offering two more meditation sessions this week. Tuning into the body, breath and encouraging self-gentleness and REST. Not just to momentarily escape or distract ourselves. Rather, trusting that when we turn the dial down on the worry and non-stop thinking, then we can hear the voices of love, fearlessness and creativity a little more clearly as we navigate this period of transformational change.


The circles use Zoom, an online meeting software that is free and simple to download. You will need a quiet space to be and a device that has a mic/speaker and a camera.


Both circles will include guidance for a 20-25 minute lying down meditation (you can follow this or do your own meditation practice and simply enjoy the connection with others online). I have found in my own practice that there is something wonderfully powerful about meditating in community with others whilst in my own home.


For the circle involving singing, everyone will mute their mic due to the online time-lag and I’ll teach some super-simple voice exercises and songs, so don’t let shyness stop you. Sometimes a bit of poetry, music or journalling might creep in too 😃


I have been practising deep rest meditation for the past 6 years and have been teaching online meditation circles since last year, with my wonderful teacher (Jaya Ashmore)’s blessing. It’s a non-religious practice encouraging gentle connection with the body, breath and the earth. And I’ve been singing with communities in person since 2009 – not that much online though, so it’s been fun to experiment with that!


All are welcome. Free of charge (or donations if you can afford it).


Please email shilpashah23@gmail.com to sign up, saying which session you’d like to attend

All my love.

In Memory of Andreas Michli

This post is in memory of Andreas Michli, a central fixture of my local community in North London until this week. It started as a Facebook tribute and I was asked to share it more widely. 

If you’ve come over to my place in Harringay, North London, in the last 7 years, I might have taken you to the local grocery shop to have a nosey and meet Andreas and Hulya Michli, my adopted London family. You might have marvelled at Andreas’ coiffed handlebar moustache or Hulya’s toned biceps as she lugs around massive watermelons. Andreas might have quizzed you about your family background, you might have been fascinated by the weird and wonderful collection of pictures and pottery in the shop or giggled as they shouted at various people in Turkish or Greek. Andreas probably gifted you the perfect shiny organic lemon (leaves still attached) or a caramel-soft glistening fig as you left.

Andreas died on Tuesday night. He was 80 years old and still co-running the shop until two days before, pushing crates around and counting out change with his slightly shaky hands.

Andreas was the most passionate of grocers. He would insist on choosing the best locally grown tomato, or aubergine or melon. And he’d quiz you on what you were doing with them and give you recipe ideas. At first, I was apparently crap at choosing the best ones, but then he seemed pleased that his training was working, exclaiming ‘ah yes darling, your ‘inside computer’ is now improving’. He sourced produce from local allotments or fresh from small farms in Cyprus. People travel from all over London for his and Hulya’s marinated olives, cheeses and their giant watermelons (the best on Green Lanes). He refused to modernise in any way, including accepting debit cards (much to my annoyance) and kept tally of cash tabs by sticking little notes of paper to nails on the wall behind the till.

Time Out magazine said ‘Charmingly moustachioed Mr Michli oversees proceedings at what we think must be one of the best Cypriot food stores in London.’ The shop is old skool, like one you might have found in a Cypriot village in the 1970s. They treat people like people, rather than just money-carriers.

Andreas was so much more than a grocer. His presence in a plastic chair on the corner of Woodland Parks Road and Salisbury Avenue made him a bit of a community anchor, waving at familiar faces as they passed. Kids were a favourite – Hulya and him know all the local kids by name and each would often leave with a bit of fruit in hand. I would often get told off for not having been in for a few days when cycling past…. ‘I’ll stop by later Andreas’. ‘You better do!’.

He was an artist. He painted and did all the elaborate plasterwork in their house. He used to drape bunches of grapes everywhere and stack fruit to make it pretty. He loved my multi-coloured toenails and always noticed my colourful jewellery. When dressed up for a wedding or other do, I’d often stop by, fishing for a compliment on my colour coordination.

He was a healer, gardener and a knowledge collector. He knew which herbs would help which health ailments and would tell you how to make a tea to help things from diabetes to dry skin. If you’d been travelling anywhere, he would know something about the history of that place.

He made food for us regularly and especially when our kitchen was being re-done last year. He taught me to cook Cypriot food by learning at his side as he chopped tomatoes, peeled beans, fresh artichokes or hollyhock leaves and used seriously unhealthy amounts of salt and oil. He was exacting and impatient. He sometimes let me chop something, then would immediately take back the knife and show me how to do it ‘correctly’. He was always worried about whether Hulya and his smart and gorgeous daughter Selma, had eaten enough. He particularly fussed over Selma, showing his love through cooking, chiding, reminding, complaining, showing off about her achievements, teaching her to paint beautifully.

He loved it when I brought him new dishes to taste or made him rotli (chapattis), something which I wish to heaven I’d done more often. I told him off for eating sweets, which raised his blood sugar, and he ignored me. On just one occasion he let me massage olive oil onto his dry papery hands.

He loved the little posies of flowers I took from the garden (going straight upstairs to put them in a little glass of water and offer them to Saint Mary). I took the last one for him today, I guess. Including some borage which has just come up for the first time this year – he told me we were very lucky to have borage growing as drinking its tea gives courage. He told stories of roaming the fields, hillsides and caves in Cyprus as a boy, eating whatever wild food he came across and being free. He was increasingly a grumpy sod in the last few years, getting irritable with everyone who came in the shop (‘bloody idiots!’….). But he always had gentle and affirming words for me. He was the closest thing I ever had to a granddad, I guess. I’m so glad Hulya and Selma are here, cos they reflect his big heart and spirit ongoing and I adore them and their hugs. And we all know Harringay won’t be the same without Andreas 

If you had met Andreas and want to send a message to Hulya and Selma (and Andreas’ older daughters Marina and Anita), please message me and I’ll compile for them, I know they’d love to hear your memories. Here are some pics.

 

Andreas Michli outside the shop (Michli and sons) on a winter evening

Andreas Michli – self portrait

A piece of art Andreas did at home

Posie of flowers for Andreas (you can just see a hint of the borage blue)

An anonymous tribute on the shop front door

We are the Lions, Mr Manager!

May 1st isn’t only about celebrating spring and fertility by dancing with ribbons around a pole. It’s International Workers Day, or Labour Day, in some countries. Today people all over the world are commemorating the achievements of union-based movements and protesting for better workers rights.

I managed to catch a story-telling recently of one of the most iconic trade union struggles in UK history. “We Are The Lions, Mr Manager” is a theatre production telling the story of Jayaben Desai, a leading trade union activist who worked at the Grunwick photo-processing factory in North West London. Grunwick management hired many Asian women as factory-workers, who suffered unfair wages and exploitative working conditions. Jayaben organised the women to form a union and fight for change. She is known for her famous words, spoken to her bullying manager in 1976:

“What you are running here is not a factory, it is a zoo. In a zoo, there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions who can bite your head off. We are the lions, Mr Manager.”

Jayaben died in 2010, aged 77 (more about her story is here). The play tells the story of the fight for workers rights at Grunwick, as well as telling the story of her move from India to Tanzania to the UK and how she was inspired by the struggle for Indian Independence.

Medhavi Patel as Jayaben Desai

Seeing a Gujarati woman onstage, in a sari with a Gujarati style chedo (the pleated sari fold coming down the front) was a big thing itself for me, as a Gujarati woman. The last time this had happened was when watching special Gujarati comedy plays, mostly with soap-opera plot-lines, with my parents as a child. Yet here was a Gujarati woman playing Jayaben Desai, a shining light in the history of powerful movement builders. Her story had been an inspiration to me in my work for years. Seeing her come to life on stage with powerful speeches, tender stories and rousing songs, and a bhajan…..she brought together different parts of me – Gujarati, woman, singer, activist, story-teller, organiser.

Her story particularly touches three areas of enquiry which are alive in me and which I support clients to grapple with in today’s movements for change in the UK and internationally.

 

Courage

Jayaben is famously known to say ‘A person like me, I am never scared of anybody”. The play shows just how often she dug into a reserve of fire and fearlessness and how in doing so, inspired others. She crossed barriers of organizational hierarchy, racism and gender (when facing the factory management and dealing with the husbands of her colleagues) to try and stop what she felt was a gross injustice. Her unwavering drive to align her actions with her values, together with her genius way with words, inspired so many others at Grunwick and in the wider Trade Union movement nationally to stand alongside her.

She recites a Gujarati poem in the play: ‘Lado, lado ane lado. Dhiraj dhaari ne lado. Himath rakhi ne lado’. ‘Fight, fight and keep fighting. Fight with a deep patience. Fight with strength’.

What does courage look like in our movements for change today? Do we have different ideas of what courage is? Who or what inspires us? What does courage look like in me, today and every day? 

Audience participation with Jayaben leading us in chants

 

Solidarity

A key part of the Grunwick story is the solidarity offered to the strikers by workers in other sectors; most notably postal workers, who could block mail and hamper business for the factory which worked by mail-order. They did this until legal orders were served against them.

Some more conservative parts of the Trade Union movement did not support Grunwick, but many thousands of workers did. They did because they wanted to achieve better working conditions at Grunwick for the workers there and also because they saw the strategic significance of this fight for the wider collective bargaining movement. We saw another story of high-profile cross-movement solidarity, between miners and LGBT rights groups, in the film Pride.

What does solidarity look like between different groups and movements today? How can we offer solidarity and seek it when needed? How do we respect the leadership of those worst most affected by the issue at hand? How do we build trust?

 

 

Risk, sacrifice and generosity

Jayaben lost her job due to her organising role. She spent nearly two years struggling for workers’ rights at Grunwick, much of which was spent on the picket line outside the factory, whatever the weather. She sacrificed a lot personally due to hope for change and many others did around her too. Today change-making has been increasingly professionalised in high-paying union, charity and NGO jobs. Many folks making the loudest noise about social justice are paid handsome salaries and enjoy very comfortable lives.

What would we be willing to give up to help bring about transformation? How attached are we to security and comfort? Are we prepared to share power and resources with those who are more marginalised?

 

Some conditions improved in the factory as a result of the struggle, but Jayaben didn’t see the widespread change she dreamt of. Trade Union membership in the UK declined since a peak in 1979 (though they are rising again more recently) and collective bargaining rights were systematically weakened in the 1980s onwards. You can read more here.

The Grunwick strikers had tens of thousands of workers striking and marching in solidarity with them. Jayaben said ‘”We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect. We have shown that white workers will support us.” A beautiful thought, given the hostile environment that migrants in the UK continue to face.

‘We are the Lions Mr Manager’ has a few more shows left in the current tour around the UK and there are some highlights here.

 

The mural commemorating Jayaben Desai and Grunwick strikers outside Dollis Green station in London

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facilitating in a supportive way for trauma and self-care

Last week I led a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for the staff and volunteers at Women and Girls Network, who are celebrating their 30th birthday this year. That’s three decades of ‘counselling, advocacy and advice for women and girls who have experienced gendered violence, including sexual and domestic violence’. I looked around at the group of women, young and older, of all different skin tones and fashion styles, all contributing in some way to supporting and empowering other women. I felt happy to be there helping them celebrate. We stretched together, breathed together, laughed together and sang with beautiful heart-lifting voices. As I gave gentle reminders to bring non-judgemental attention to the body, breath and voice, it was a special reminder for me of just how much learning about trauma and self-care has shaped my practice as community empowerment specialist.

I began reading about the impact of trauma and ways to support self-care and healing a few years ago. Black Feminist writers (especially Alice Walker and bell hooks) and Buddhist teachings have particularly helped to develop my understanding in broader political and spiritual contexts. Training from Women and Girls Network helped me feel more confident about applying the theory in practical ways in my singing workshops and other workshops I facilitate. The workshops I offer are not offered as substitute for counselling and other services offered by organisations like Women and Girls Network. I hope to support these services by building positive group connection to promote self-care / community care, creativity and a sense of fun and achievement in a community setting.

Being trained in community development values and methods, I always aim to create a safe and inclusive space, supporting everyone present in any kind of workshop to be able to be there whole-heartedly. Being in a big group workshop (singing or more ‘worky’ workshops) can be a healing and liberating experience. It can also be a really uncomfortable experience for some people. If you’ve experienced trauma, you may feel a heightened sense of danger in a group. For me, building safety has always meant paying particular attention to what helps those who feel in the margin of any group to feel safe. The learning about trauma underlined this and I continue to invest time at the beginning of workshops inviting people to introduce themselves in small groups and share with others in ways which invite step-by-step connection and relaxation with each other. When the margin of a group feels safe to really be itself, it’s fairly certain that growth and development in the whole group and in the group’s work will follow.

In singing for wellbeing and empowerment workshops, I give more time to gentle movement and stretching exercises, coordinated with the breath. I find ways to appeal to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste in each session, helping singers come back safely to the present moment, again and again. I offer tools which participants can use to help self-calming and grounding after the workshops too. Working with the breath and body in this way can be very powerful – it’s important to go slowly, to help participants maintain self-authority and build skills over time.

Trauma can have a huge impact on our perception of our voices; how can I express myself? How do I judge my voice? Will others listen? Do I feel safe during and after expressing my feelings and needs? Creating a gentle, non-judgemental space for people to share and to sing together can help participants to build a more positive relationship with their voice over time. ‘I never believed I could sing’ is a phrase I hear time and again.

Sometimes I offer breathing exercises and singing during other workshops – a team Away Day or residential for a charity of campaign group. As lots of people who have experienced trauma (including the traumatic impacts of experiencing daily structural oppression including racism, sexism, homophobia and disable-ism) turn to activism and healing work, this can be supportive for people working on social justice issues. I talk a lot about – and try to model – self-care, and build gentleness and spaciousness into each workshop agenda I plan.

I look back at my learning journey about trauma and recognise two things – how my own learning about what is supporting self-care and voice-building for me has been instrumental to my approach as a group facilitator. And how much more there is to learn ahead. I would love to hear your reflections on facilitating in a way that is supportive for trauma and self-care too.

It seems the recent #MeToo conversation has brought the widespread nature of trauma (especially from gender-based violence) more into popular consciousness. If you’d like to find out more about how I weave supportive trauma approaches into my work as a facilitator, community builder and community singing leader, or enquire about a Self-Care-Through-Singing workshop for your organisation, feel free to get in touch.  

A big Happy 30th Birthday to Women and Girls Network. Thank you for the important, creative, powerful and heart-led work you do and thank you for sharing your learning onwards to make an even bigger difference. If you want to find out more about their services, or someone you know in London might need to, please see here

 

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A beautiful thing spotted in the WGN office

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Asking women with WGN means to them

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An example of a self-care and wellbeing table I might set up for a singing workshop

 

 

 

 

#MeToo

Today I watched over 40 of my friends and fellow activists, singers and community organisers posting ‘Me too’ on Facebook. They are mostly women from of varying age and heritage (plus one man and a couple of folks of who do not identify as either gender).

The ‘copy and paste’ status being shared is along the lines of:

If all the women/people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too.” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Over the day, my feelings shifted. I felt a numb, slightly defensive ‘I’m not surprised’ to start. And under the numbness was a truth: despite being caught unawares by the online disclosures, I’m not surprised at the prevalence of sexual abuse being highlighted.

I felt deep respect for those posting. I also felt deep respect for those women+ (*) not voicing their experience in this way – those survivors who choose to not write these words online, those who have experienced sexual abuse in prisons and immigration detention centres all over the world, those who don’t use social media, children and those of older and past generations. The image of reaching out to each other to hold hands and form a giant circle came to mind.

I felt rage. Public disclosure can bring about feelings of intense vulnerability as well as empowerment. And reading so many posts online can re-trigger painful feelings. Not only had these incredible women+ gone through these experiences, now they were doing the emotional labour (as usual) to raise awareness about the issue under the gaze of Facebook and Twitter.

The silence of the perpetrators has been so loud, I screamed at my laptop. ‘YOU KNOW WHAT? If all the MEN / people who have sexually harassed or assaulted others wrote “Me too.” as a status…. THEN we might REALLY get a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. Plus all those who have witnessed abuse without taking action. Plus men whose complicit silence upholds masculine norms of treating women as objects to meet their needs and desires.

Then I felt fear. I know it was fear cos I found it hard to take a deep breath. It felt like there was a constriction in my solar plexus area and in my throat. I walked around my local park and the fear melted into a shared grief and sisterhood with them, through my tears and an aching in my heart.

The stories behind these posts will range from being whistled at in the street to rape and other kinds of assault. Some of these are stories of trauma, the impact of which should not be underestimated. Trauma can show up in a perpetual feeling of being unsafe. The oversensitive firing of stress hormones can contribute to chronic health problems (including heart disease and cancers), relationship difficulties and a lurking sense of something not being ‘right’. Behind the brevity of the six characters it takes to type ‘Me too’, I grieved the pages that could be filled describing the impact of these experiences.

Yet what’s most striking to me is that every single one of the women+ I’ve seen post this (and actually every survivor I know who hasn’t posted too) is a powerful, creative and commanding change-maker. You are leaders creating waves in your families, communities, organisations and sectors. You are able to connect with your vulnerability and also sit tall, wearing cloaks of fire and majesty. You often have a startling level of empathy and ability to support and inspire others. I see how you work, I see how you play. I see how you create and how you laugh. I see you cry, sing and dance. I see you, full stop. I see your wounds and pain as you post and I also see the gifts you bring to this world and that brings me joy.

I see how women+ such as Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, Soni Sori shared their stories of pain and strength and inspired millions and again that image of a huge circle of women+ holding hands across the world comes to mind.

So this ‘Me too’ is from a place of all these feelings – rage, fear, grief, gratitude and joy. I acknowledge the hurt and rage, for me and all my sisters+. I also acknowledge how just like for many of you, that hurt is connected to my strengths. Learning about trauma has helped me to facilitate group spaces which are safe and supportive. It led me to community singing, which helps me and others breathe better and connect with our bodies and voices in a positive way.

I write with a wish of space for those posting (and choosing not to) to do what nourishes and supports you. You don’t need to always be there for others – being there for yourself and doing things that give you joy and pleasure is is the most generous gift you can give the universe. Ask for help if you need it. Let’s hold each other with gentleness and love until holding ourselves with gentleness and love becomes irresistible.

I write in the hope that men recommit to a daily effort to chip away at patriarchal and toxic masculine culture. To listen with more presence and kindness. To challenge and dismantle oppressive (and dismissive) words, actions, trends in your families, neighbourhoods, workplaces, our society’s institutions… and especially in your own thoughts. Talk with older and younger men about this and create healthy models of masculinity to aspire to. Maybe this looks like proactively organising a conversation soon with other men about it, given the buzz currently around these posts. I also wish you gentleness and community with each other as you do this.

Autumn leaves changing – © Shilpa Shah

 

*I created the term ‘women+’ here, to represent a longer list of people who experience sexual abuse: women (including Trans women), children, people who do not identify within the binary gender framework and sometimes men.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Treasure inside

Autumn’s here and there is treasure on the ground here in London.

It’s encased in a tough, rounded and spikey jackets. Here it stays… growing, protected. Until the moment comes to open.  There is a magic to holding a freshly emerged conker. There is a slight give if you press one between your thumb and finger. If you drop them, they bounce. They are soft for a day or two before they dry (and become hard little grenades for children’s games). There is a soft velvety sheen on the white part. They are unbelievably shiny.

Conker inside spikey jacket. Conkers are the seed of the horse chestnut tree, thought to be introduced to the UK in the 1600s – © Shilpa Shah

 

Conkers remind me of us.

Usually coated in layers of protection. Judgements. Fears. Shallow breathing and shoulders which can creep protectively forward. A stream of thoughts about things I ought to know. The weight of traumatic memories and planning ahead. Keeping up with technology and devices. A sense of constriction.

But occasionally we do open. We can’t make it happen, it just sort-of does. A shiny soft golden core showing itself. Our hearts start speaking. We feel curious. A tinge of vulnerability. An aura of strength and potential.

To me, it seems that every day, countless messengers are sent to help us practice pausing and opening for a moment. The sound of birdsong when stepping out of the door. Light filtering through leaves when looking up into a tree. A child laughing in the playground when passing the local school. An old song on the radio. The comforting warmth on the hands before the first sip of a cup of tea. A long hug.

Conkers that shine © Shilpa Shah

 

In all of my work I do my best to help create supportive conditions for clients to loosen the spikey jackets, together, and invite openness. Even if just for a moment at a time.

Breathing exercises help some people. As does creativity – singing or playing on big paper with pastels, crayons or collage-making tends to help people to connect the head with the body, heart and spirit. And encouraging people to gently surface and name the often-unspeakable power dynamics between them. It’s an atmosphere which blends the ‘a-ha!’ of answering a puzzle, with the ‘aah’ of a gentle sigh.

In moments like these, space is created to let transformation in. It’s a softer space where listening, honesty and learning happen with more ease. Where we feel wobbly, yet can see with eyes that are fresh and clear. Where we can melt into the painful things with kindness and sprinkle gratitude upon what’s good.

 

“When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” – bell hooks.