- Who are you, where do you work, and why do you do what you do as an organizer for education activism?
I live and organize in Maine, where my fatherwas born & raised, though I grew up primarily in New Hampshire. I’m a white, cis, queer woman from a working poor family, survivor of childhood sexual & domestic violence, and the ‘one who got away’ and earned a degree. Importantly, I organize and engage in political education because of what Black mentors here in the Deep North taught me when I escaped to university. Particularly, I am referring to Black women cultural workers of NH, JerriAnne Boggis and Valerie Cunningham, who have worked tirelessly to tell the story of Black New England, to write themselves and their people into the public narrative, and wrest their stories away from white authorship, aggressive cultural amnesia, and distortion of public memory. The histories they amplified upended every story I’d ever been told about my own place in the world, what it means to ‘belong’ and who decides. They also hipped me to the inherently radical act of oppressed peoples declaring, We are here and we speak for ourselves. Their work blends public history and preservation efforts with education and activism that has literally changed the landscape of one of the whitest states in this country. They are shifting us towards a collective, multiracial reckoning with who New Englanders really were, are, and want to be. This type of education is public humanities, and it is also political as all get-out. JerriAnne and Valerie have shown me (and so many others) a blueprint of how to lead a life dedicated to liberation by doing the work where you live, and beginning by telling (often painful) truths in very public ways. Everything I do in the world is in some way fueled by the investment they made in their own dreams, and in my development directly; it is an honor to be in their debt.
With roots in the humanities, my daily organizing work focuses primarily on health care justice. I am a staff organizer for an indie abortion care provider that is constantly innovating to expand real access to poor people statewide. I work to connect ordinary folks (including young people) to opportunities to: support the clinics staying open; protect and advance their rights and access; engage in education initiatives about sex, sexual health, abortion & the reproductive justice movement; as well as learn from/with our communities about how we can be more a more relevant, accessible, and radical resource in this largely rural state. In my non-paid organizing life, I am also a member-leader of Maine’s Health Care is a Human Right campaign with the Southern Maine Workers’ Center. I am honored to serve with Survivor Speak USA, a survivor-led organization working to end sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in our state by addressing root causes of systemic racism and poverty. For the past 9 years, I’ve been lucky enough to do support work for JerriAnne Boggis in organizing the Annual Black New England Conference. The BNEC is a gathering for academics, artists, cultural workers, public intellectuals, organizers, educators, and students to learn about and honor the rich history and present of Black life in New England. I engage in other types of activism and organizing labor as local situations demand. At the moment, I’m working with statewide Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapters to organize several canvasses in neighborhoods targeted by the KKK with recruitment propaganda. We have been called to support folks in these neighborhoods in organizing and community defense efforts to oust the Klan and move in solidarity with People of Color in Maine. There is no shortage of work to be done here. There is a need for us all to be flexible, hold multi-faceted roles, and labor through ‘politically impure’ structures to keep the work going and growing.
- What five books have been essential to your formation as an education activist?
I’m going to cheat and specifically also name some essays and poems that profoundly shaped my thinking and action, and to which I relate as companions for life, returning to them over and over.
- Poetry Is Not A Luxury // Poetry Makes Something Happen, Audre Lorde (different iterations exist across multiple publications with slightly different titles, including I Am Your Sister: Collected & Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, 2009)
- Power, Audre Lorde (poem published in The Black Unicorn, 1978)
- The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America; Something Like A Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley, June Jordan (poem essay published in On Call: Political Essays, 1985)
- Playing in the Dark: Whiteness & the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison (Vintage Books, 1992)
- The Erotic Life of Racism, Sharon P. Holland (Duke University Press, 2012)
- What are three things you love about what you do?
- What keeps you up at night or worries you (we hope everyone gets healthy sleep, of course)?
Learning for liberation is often painful. White people ought not to set the bar at what “feels good” but instead ask ourselves: Did we come here to genuinely move & be moved? Did this process show us something about how we got here, and how to go forward differently? I don’t think rounded edges do much in service of liberation; I’d love less certainty and more seeking. I worry that (my) white people are simultaneously too fragile and too destructive to do the work consistently and effectively, despite an embarrassment of riches when it comes to POC leadership. I am not hopeful, but I am resolute.
- What misconception about education would you like to correct?
While my parents and family were not schooled, they were very learned in the ways of supremacy. The workings of domination are pervasive, oppression is SMART, and we learn it via daily living. I knew very young that I wanted another way to be, and yet for the longest time, I had no models for finding or creating this within the world I knew. This is why the educational uses of lived experience must not be confined to the merely performative or illustrative (story telling) or as raw material for creating “real knowledge.” We can examine the rituals, rhythms and practices of our daily lives and explore how we came to know what we think is true, or to question it. How the mundane structures and institutions of our days instruct us to feel and move, and how we push against it or comply. We learn from what happens when we ‘break a rule’ no one explicitly outlined; and we cannot be the same after. I want us to honor the kitchen table talk of family life and survival as one of the deepest sources of education any of us receives. This is not anti-intellectual; it is asking for a recognition of all the thinking and seeing (or refusals to see) that we accomplish each day. It acknowledging that the structures we (re)create, inhabit, come into conflict with on a daily basis cumulatively result in a frightfully formal education. We are forever receiving instruction in the machinations and pathways of power—whether or not we learn is a question of collective, principled reckoning and relentless imagination.
Lastly, I want us to assume that poetry *is* a natural language, medium, and site of learning for poor and dispossessed people. I struggle sometimes to reconcile that I believe so deeply in learning through lived experience AND it is reading/poetry that led me to frame that experience in relation to things bigger than myself. If someone had not put a volume of poetry in my hands that included Audre Lorde’s “Who Said It Was Simple” when I was 16, how long might it have taken me to understand the violence of white feminism? Poor kids can read, write, and learn from poems—and we can come to see our own lives as poems we author, even/especially against great odds. We need the poetry of young people’s every day resistance. And I believe young people need to know that someone has been before where they are now, and wrote to them across time and space to say: You continue a beautiful struggle; write your name with what you do to be free in spite of all attempts to stop you.