Balancing Acts: Building Accountable Communities of CareSubmitted by silverelf on Wed, 10/03/2012 - 3:51pm
Balancing Acts: Building Accountable Communities of Care
Maryse Mitchell-Brody (Rock Dove Collective)
There is a reckoning period, I think, early on in the political life of most organizers. It's a moment when we realize the enormity of the harm done, the systems that work to continue this harm, and the endless struggle required to uproot this cycle of oppression and violence. That realization hits us hard and heavy. For me, for years, I walked around with a weight, a hopelessness where my only defense was to keep fighting back. Where the way me and my friends dealt with George W. Bush, Abu Ghraib, the police state surrounding us during the 2004 Republican National Convention was to just keep moving, to bottle up all the pain and anger and let that drive us into more organizing, more meetings, more workshops. We worked from a place of deep suspicion of any system or institution, seeking to create our own alternatives rather than work within them.
And then, in 2005, I went to a workshop while back home in New York City for a few weeks. Tucked into the back of the 6th Street Community Center, between B and C, I found a room full of folks talking about the connections between the sickness of the world around us and the pain we feel amidst it. For the first time, I found people who shared my sense of the injustice of it all, who felt things deeply, and who were looking to build a movement based in the needs of those of us who have trouble bearing its weight. Being in the room with members of The Icarus Project felt a bit like my first poetry reading or my first punk show – the excitement and the crushes and the unexpected pride at being invited into a club you hadn't known existed.
Sascha Scatter, one of the founders of Icarus, was facilitating a discussion on radical mental health. And so within that back room, I told Sascha that I knew a lot of folks who were skeptical of psych meds – that they were just one more way for "the system" to control us, that big pharma was just trying to keep us all doped up. And that then, others in my life had thought maybe I should consider taking them, that, as my mother puts it, my "exquisite nervous system" felt things so deeply that sometimes it got in the way of my living my best life. I asked what he thought about it, maybe even what he thought I should do. And he looked me in the eye and said, "No one can tell you what's right for you. Nobody else knows exactly the way you feel, and the way I see it, meds are a tool in a big tool box. If you take them, and they help you, and people judge you for it, then fuck them."
And that, for me, was why I got involved in the Icarus Project. When I moved to New York a year and a half later, I found myself back at 6th Street, in a room with some of the brightest sparks I've ever seen. Icarus has always centered itself around the experiences of people who often get labelled as bipolar. So in addition to Sascha, we had Ms. Bonfire Madigan Shive, mad cellist extraodinaire, Jonah Bossewitch, chief conspiracy theorist and technological wizard, Lauren Russell, genius depressive poet, and J. Max Stein, brilliant zinester and author – just a small section of the rotating cast of characters coming through that door. I think I fit right in, and so I was quickly roped into the core group holding down Icarus meetings – a young organizer who was psyched to finally be amongst folks who felt like my people.
At the core of what drew me to Icarus was the notion of self-determination. When Sascha looked me in the eye and told me my friends could go fuck themselves if they didn't support my decision to take psych meds, I got permission to define for myself what being well looked and felt like, and how I got there. Among those of us who have felt powerless over our emotions, and sometimes as a result, our care, the notion that we could be the leaders of our own journeys to well-being felt like liberation. And so Icarus supported us – in taking meds or not, in labeling ourselves as "mentally ill" or "mad geniuses" or even "Jesus," if that was our reality at the time.
All of that said, I still think there was a dominant narrative within Icarus, if only to act as a necessary counterpoint to the omnipresent mainstream discourse that pathologized these experiences as brain diseases. That narrative was one of "dangerous gifts," in celebrating the strange and wonderful that comes along with the dark and hard parts of being someone who could be labelled as "mentally ill," or, more specifically, having "bipolar disorder." For a while, I bought it, wholeheartedly. After years of feeling ashamed and alone and unloveable, so many people found themselves feeling a part of something, not alone, unified by our specialness.
But it's not an easy thing, supporting each other. We don't really know how to do it. The medical industrial complex relies upon stripping communities of our knowledge of how to care for one another. And Icaristas, like so many others that seek to start building the world we're working for before we get our revolution, struggled at times to equitably meet each others needs, and to build community amidst them.
I recognize how important peer support can be – how finding others to whom we can relate is critical and life-changing – it was for me. And yet, there emerged a problematic habit from the narrative of dangerous gifts, one in which because we were special and unique and had different capacities and needs from "normal" people, we got away with a lot of bullshit. I know that for years, I didn't manage my own triggers and often excused behavior for which I should have been accountable by virtue of my own dangerous gift. I broke a lot of hearts that way. And that's also how my heart got broken so badly by another Icarista that I had to pull back.
So then, I stopped working with Icarus. Over the years since then, something fundamental has shifted about the way I think of my own and others' experiences of being emotionally unwell or precarious. These days, I'm interested in what it would mean to dethrone these experiences entirely – to view them neither as dangerous gifts nor as brain diseases but rather as spectrums along which we all slide, where each of us has the responsibility to take good care of our emotions and to show up for others when they're not able to show up for themselves. Whole communities contain shimmering diversity – which can hold shifting abilities and needs, and also, hold each accountable to the principles to which we aspire.
Shortly before I stepped back from Icarus, I met the dean of a department at the Hunter College School of Social Work at a Hannukah party at Sascha's mom's house. I went to social work school originally to get the letters after my name – so that people would actually listen to me when I said the same things I'd been saying about sex workers rights and mental health and being a queer survivor that stemmed from my lived experience. I've always hated the word "expert" - as if it's some level to be attained, and once we get there, we don't need to keep stretching and growing. But I also know that the organizing and community work that I wanted to be doing required I be taken seriously by the establishment. That I could use my privilege - as a white, educated, non-transgender person – to uproot the structures that rewards those things in the first place, and stand in solidarity with oppressed communities building their own power, was a huge and necessary responsibility to undertake. And while in school, I quickly realized that what drew me most was working with and learning from and being of support to those of us most marginalized by societal power structures - folks like drug users, sex workers, trans+ folks, people who are homeless and those who experience extreme mental states.
One of the core principles of social work is meeting people where they're at – though you might not know that from the media depictions or the Social Security office, of course. To me that means just being present with people wherever they are and whatever they might be feeling or needing or craving in the current moment, and putting aside our own stories about what that says about their worth or goodness as a person.
This is something that in urban culture, particularly white urban culture, we've become really good at avoiding. We've got a million ways to separate ourselves from really engaging with each other. And, on some level, fair enough – if we said hello to every person we passed on a Manhattan street we'd be emotionally stretched and hoarse before we got past the corner. But we've become especially skilled in avoiding those among us who seem crazy – whether that's homeless or drunk or loud or just really poor or ugly.
Arnold Mindell, who Icarista Will Hall introduced us all to, refers to these folks as "City Shadows."  We project the most repressed and unexpressed and shameful parts of our selves onto them. And so we get good at passing the "shadows" by. We're deeply invested in it, because connecting with others who struggle means risking connection with parallel pain in ourselves. It also can mean realizing the deeply disturbing structural oppression that allows folks to go so long without comfort or aide.
So this resistance to showing up for each other's pain is one of the reasons why we don't often know how to care for each other or ourselves. For the last six years, and especially since becoming a radical social worker, I've shifted from a strategy of working against oppressive forces to one of supporting power building and resource development among folks who are oppressed. In particular, most of my work for the past five years has been to support reclaiming the skills of wellness and mutual aid. I'm super honored to be a part of the Rock Dove Collective, a community health exchange here in NYC that connects New Yorkers with free, low cost, sliding scale, and barter health services from a network of 60+ healing practitioners.
In the fall of 2011, I was one of so many radical and progressive New Yorkers whose life became swept up in the energy of Occupy Wall Street (OWS).While I agree with a lot of the movement's critique, my involvement was never about the cause itself. It was always about the good people engaged in political struggle and putting their bodies and minds on the line to do so.
Though friends with some of the folks who were at the very earliest planning meetings, once the camp began, I waited a couple weeks before going downtown. When I did, I found the medics – then a ragtag group of mostly white, non-transgender men with red duct tape crosses on their clothes, standing with a mess of boxes, bins, and bags. I tried to assess what kind of space there was for someone like me to work with folks on whatever was coming up for them. I tried a few times to get looped in, but without much success. It took going down there with my friend Henry, a super charismatic organizer with lots of cred among the direct action anarchists, to get traction. With a few sentences from Henry, the core group of medics connected me to a social worker and a counselor who had also been trying to show up for the people in the camp. Whether it was my gender, my unwillingness to sell myself, the general catch-as-catch-can atmosphere at the camp, or the fact that emotional health wasn't a priority for the medics that caused the holdup, I don't know. I suspect it was some combination of all of those things. But it was one of those moments where each time I went down there, I could see the need ever increasing, and I wasn't about to let whatever it was stand in my way.
What followed were two of the most intense, emotionally draining, gorgeous, defeating months of my life. Early on, we started reaching out to others we knew, especially members of the Radical Social Work listserve, to come down and just be a presence in the park. I also from jump made it a priority to include folks I knew from Icarus, like Jonah, people who didn't have degrees but whose lived experience and radical perspectives were all the "expertise" I believed was needed for them to show up for others.
The social experiment of creating a decentralized, non-hierarchical political community in a single square block of lower Manhattan was, I think, way riskier than any of us realized. What was beautiful about OWS was also what made it terrifying – we had folks of vast diversity of experience and identity sharing space, living and working and cooking and fucking together. While it would be lovely to say that it all went smoothly, that we created a multi-culti "We Are the World" kumbayah sing-along, the OWS camp in fact magnified prejudice, hatred, privilege, and fear into stark relief.
In the beginning, the crew was more homogenous – folks with activist experience, many of them white. As the space began to diversify – with formerly middle class older folks who had been laid off, with people who had been homeless for a long time, with LGBTQ youth of color, and pretty much every person who never changed after the city – tension emerged. All of us were faced with confronting people who represented our deepest fears. Folks with privilege couldn't ignore people as City Shadows – they were sharing tarps, at least at first.
Before long, the camp began to organize itself into neighborhoods, ones that tended to reflect the geography of cities. White folks and middle class people tended to be camped towards the "front" of the camp – on higher ground, more well-lit, closer to foot traffic and where the general assemblies were held. And in the back of the camp, where there were more trees and fewer passers by and less political actions, people who had been homeless, LGBTQ youth of color, drug users, and other folks with more direct experiences of oppression made their homes. The young people actually referred to this section as the "ghetto."
Our "Support" working group, as we called it, was made up of social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, and peer supporters. We came from a big range of political approaches, especially when it came to mental health. Some folks were completely convinced of the evils of global capital but very comfortable with pathologizing people as "mentally ill." Our meetings were epic and often involved a lot of hard dialogue between Icarus folks and more conventional mental health practitioners. Jonah's spoken critically of our work, largely grounded in his experience of the meetings and a couple of shifts in the camp. That critique is important and I'm grateful that he's been vocal about it. I mourn that some people were triggered by the presence and approach of a group I helped organize. In the face of so much fear – about all of the bad things that could happen – a few folks fell back on some oppressive language and wielded the power of their degrees to oppress those who didn't. We also worked (and at times failed) to reckon with and be accountable around our whiteness, and the ways in which white social workers and psychiatrists oppress people of color. We, like so many other groups, like Icarus, struggled to know how to build this new mechanism of support in a world that has worked to undo our skills of truly liberatory healing.
But functionally, most of the work was done outside of these meetings. We walked around generally getting to know folks in the community, introducing ourselves and asking about people's needs. A lot of what we did was connecting people to getting their basic needs met. Many of the people in the park were used to getting some kind of services from mobile outreach vans and drop-in centers, and so we worked to get some of their needs met while also connecting people with existing good programs in the city. Much of it was just listening, taking a walk with someone, bringing them back to the medical tents for some herbal medicine or get acupuncture or to just get out of the wind.
I'd like to believe that we supported self-determination, that we helped more than we hurt. I know we fucked up at times. But I also know that I showed up hard for folks in the thick of it – putting my body between someone who had been triggered into a rage and the person he was about to fight, because we knew each other and my presence would soothe him. He eventually chose to check himself into a psych ward, and we made regular visits. I worked to the point of exhaustion with Safer Spaces to coordinate teams to be with several survivors of sexual violence 24/7, and to show up for them as they figured out how and whether to hold the people who had done them harm accountable.
Support worked together with four or five other groups to form the Peace Council – which developed strategies and protocols for responding to and intervening in conflict in ways that don't center around policing. This strategy was deeply informed by centering on the needs of people who have been harmed, and the belief that conflict and violence offer us an opportunity to transform the conditions that create that harm.
So a lot of what I was most proud of was the work that members of the Support and Safer Spaces crews did with people who maybe didn't identify as struggling emotionally, to help them figure out how to show up for themselves and each other. To work on their shit about what it means if someone is hearing voices or is aggressive or drunk or using drugs or in a gang or homeless or a person of color or trans or any of the other things people sometimes got really nasty about. It was also about figuring out how to let go of our preconceived notions of what and how certain people should be, or how certain actions needed to be dealt with. The idea that a survivor may not want to name or prosecute their rapist, for example, was something that a lot of folks needed to stretch their brains to get around.
There were huge mistakes made – like when someone who was in an extreme emotional state was convinced out of going to the hospital, only to climb the "big red thing"  and be forcibly committed. We all struggled with what we struggled with in Icarus, with what I believe is at the crux of the big questions about radical mental health and building healthy, safe communities: how do we care for and support each other's self-determination in all of our glorious emotional diversity, and still also hold each other accountable towards a collective vision of a more liberated, just world? I have never experienced a greater tension between these two competing commitments than I did at OWS.
There is, of course, no prescription for how to get it right. It's a tightrope walk for which we haven't been trained. But it's a vital balancing act to strive for as we work towards well-being for our communities and ourselves. It's a challenging task, but one I know our communities have the power to rise up and through. Deep inside us we hold the knowledge of how to hold each other with love and accountability – we just need to be willing to take the risk of unlearning the ways we hold ourselves apart from one another. 
Maryse Mitchell-Brody is an organizer and former Icarista who practices therapy in New York City. She works with the Rock Dove Collective (http://www.rockdovecollective.org)and is currently participating in efforts to deepen national healing justice networks.
2 For the record, I hate the term "Occupy" and stand in solidarity with the Indigenous people and people of color who called for changing it to "Decolonize Wall Street." It's a telling historical point that this proposed language shift never caught on, and so for the sake of accuracy, I'll use OWS in this piece.
4 Deep gratitude to everyone who I name in this piece and those I don't for doing the work with me and helping me put these thoughts out there. Icaristas, for keeping the radical mental health fires blazing for the last 10 years, and especially Sascha and Jonah for helping me come to these thoughts. For the woowoo heart & soul protection: the Femme Realness group; the Rock Doves; Adaku, Autumn, & Triana. To everyone I spent nights walking around Zuccotti with – especially Leah, Angela, Bathabile, Tashy, Jose, Henry & Lou, the medics, Shadow, Marin, Dan, Lyn, Jessica, Suzie: whenever the revolution does come, I want you on my side. To Jeff: for everything, my family.