Sideways Times founder Lani Parker shares her thoughts on disability justice and interdependence

Going against the flow

We’re talking about a human relationship of interdependence that values everybody as part of the world that we live in. And not only people but the whole world.

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Lani: Welcome to Sideways Times, a new UK-based podcast in which we talk about the politics of disability and disability justice. Through this podcast I hope to have many conversations which broaden, deepen and challenge our understanding of how to work against ableism and how this connects to other struggles. I’m Lani Parker, and in this edition Andrea D’Cruz interviews me, following requests from some people to hear more of my perspective. We mainly talk about some of my thoughts around disability justice and interdependence, following many conversations with many amazing people.

Andrea: I first learnt about the framework of disability justice from having conversations with you, and it’s something that’s come up in a few of the previous podcasts that you’ve recorded – so I though it’d be really nice if we could have a whole podcast that was you talking about what disability justice means, and what it means to you personally, so maybe we could start – could you give me 3 sentences on what disability justice is, or what it means to you?

Lani: OK, so… disability justice as a framework was kind of put together by some disabled women of colour, or disabled people of colour, in the States, and to me the key things about it are that it connects issues and movements together, and that it has – it’s radically anti-capitalist, and that it has a commitment to interdependence and valuing the gifts that disabled people bring to the world, and so there’s lots of aspects to it, but I would say those are more than 3 sentences, but a little bit about what I think.

Andrea: Well the 3 sentence limit was more just, yeah, to keep you in check, because there are so many things that you can say about disability justice, and that we will say, but that was a really nice introduction to it. Maybe we could go back to a time before you heard about this disability justice framework, and your – kind of, your journey towards it, the various politics you encountered along the way, and movements that you were involved in, and… yeah, how you got from the start of your political involvement to where you are now?

Lani: Well, I grew up – my mum in particular was fairly political, in various ways, and so I always had a kind of political framework around, and I started to do things like kind of campaigning, from – what you might call campaigning, from a very early age. I guess, well, when I was at college for example, it wasn’t my first kind of dabbling in sort of campaigning, but I was president of the student – I set up a student union at my Further Education college, which was a segregated college. It’s called an integrated college, but it was actually a segregated college, so it was for disabled people – and non-disabled people, but it was geared up for disabled people, and I guess that’s where I kind of became politicised as a disabled person a bit more, because before that I’d been home educated, then I’d been in mainstream school, and I’d not really got a political identity as a disabled person. For example like I didn’t know that one of the main reason why I jump often is because of my impairment – I didn’t know that till I was 16. So for me, the experience of being around a lot of disabled people was kind of… maybe opposite to a lot of what for some disabled people is like, it kind of became – it was part of my political education. But because I’d been brought up in a very kind of political environment, I never saw disability politics as separate from anything else, and I always had an urge and a real kind of, I suppose, commitment, which I still have, to connecting things, and a need to really connect things up. When I went to university after college, I did a course called Peace Studies, in which we studied a lot around social movements, and I was always interested in a politics of liberation, and a politics of change and how you do that. And also I always saw like racism and patriarchy as key to those things, so again not really seeing disability politics as separate, but coming to kind of recognise myself as a white disabled person – a woman, but the woman thing’s a bit complicated because of my disability… but that was kind of, I guess, my development, in those things.

And also when I was younger, when I was sort of home educated, I had lots of opportunities to do kind of – lots of international youth work and things like that, so those experiences also exposed me to lots of different kinds of politics, and there was often this – or sometimes in these kind of narratives it’s like… we need tolerance, you know, we need to tolerate different cultures, and that sort of – that kind of liberal framework. There was a lot of what the, sort of, was seen as sort of anti-racist youth work, or kind of – not anti-racist, but cross-cultural, I wouldn’t say it’s anti-racist, more like cross-cultural stuff. I made really good friends, and I learned a lot in those environments, but I always thought it was kind of this idea of tolerance, these kind of liberal ideas of tolerance… and even things like rights and stuff, I just always thought that it didn’t really go far enough, and it didn’t include – really include what it meant to be disabled, and they didn’t really challenge white supremacy, and kind of I just always had this thing – or probably not always, but…

Andrea: I know that there are these 10 principles of disability justice that have been laid out in an article by Patty Berne, who devised these 10 principles with fellow activists – and they’re all really important, but 2 of them in particular I felt really compelled by, which was the principle of recognising wholeness, and the principle of interdependence, because they really pointed to a vision of a different world, like a very different world from the one that we live in now, and… yeah, I like that disability justice wasn’t just about what’s wrong with the world now, or what our struggle should look like, but what a totally different way of living in the world, and living with each other in the world would look like. I think you alluded to both of those principles in your 3-sentence introduction to disability justice, so I wondered if you could maybe elaborate on them a bit?

Lani: OK. That’s one of the things about that I came to, or that I think is really important in terms of disability politics, is that you cannot – it cannot be only about what’s wrong with the world, because in order to really have liberation that encompasses liberation of all disabled people, and kind of getting rid of ableism, we would have to completely remake the world. So to me those things are – those two, like you said, rightly, those two things are really talking about that. So… wholeness, I don’t know, wholeness makes me think of a few things. In some senses I don’t like the word so much, but wholeness makes me think about connection, which I’ve already talked about, like taking the whole – taking everything into account, taking the whole system into account, also taking the whole person into account, taking the whole, the body into account, and like Lydia Brown said in their podcast, disability justice is a politics of the body, and about taking the whole of that seriously. And like I said about kind of making – seeing all of – in a way, to me in some ways, it’s a bit spiritual or something, like seeing all of the human conditions as perfect in their imperfection. I think it’s like people say, perfect in the imperfection, like Mia Mingus talks about imperfection quite a lot, and Eli Clare, and so, yeah, that – sort of that wholeness means that to me, really, but I – and I think, as I think about it, I think it’s perhaps a resistance to ableism, as seeing disabled people as not whole people, as defective, deficient, you know, that kind of thing.

Interdependence is a big word, that’s really about how we want the world – how the world – in a way, how the world is, like we are interdependent, but what we want from the world, I think – well ‘we’, what I would like from the world, and I guess like what the politics is talking about, from my perspective is about how we ensure that we build relationships that are interdependent with each other. So not exploitative, and realising that we all have things that are important, we all have gifts, and moving away from productivity, and building a world that isn’t based on productivity and having to contribute in a particular way to that world. So I think if we really looked at how to build interdependence that was like mutually beneficial to everybody, then we wouldn’t – we’re not talking about capitalist relations, and we’re not talking about a patriarchal, white supremacist relations, we’re talking about a human relationship of interdependence that values everybody as part of the world that we live in. And not only people, I think, like not only people, but the whole world – nature and, you know, everything that is in the world, not only people.

Andrea: So you posed interdependence as imagined by dis – in a disability justice framework, as being totally opposite to the kind of relations we have under capitalism. I wondered where the state comes into all this? Is the idea of interdependence compatible with relations that are mediated by the state?

Lani: A few things come to mind about it, and these are just my thoughts at the moment – I’m happy to have lots of discussion about it with people, on and off podcasts and all sorts, but I guess like the way I think about interdependence is there are…What I said in that answer to that question was a kind of a vision for interdependence, that’s about a vision that’s going towards liberation. I think now, or it is kind of, it is part of a world which is not the world we have now, but I think like there is – there is interdependence now, and there is like – there’s oppressive interdependence as well, but there’s also, within capitalist relations there’s also interdependence that doesn’t need – that isn’t necessarily oppressive, or is fighting towards, kind of resisting being oppressive. So there’s all kinds of different forms of interdependence. I think it’s about kind of recognising… it’s about relations between people, so I guess the state is an oppressive mediator of relations between people, and is kind of one of the main organising principles of the world in terms of international relations and all of that stuff, and is one of the main ways in which, because of how it’s organised, or how the world’s organised, it’s one of the ways in which oppression happens – a big, massive way in which oppression happens. You can’t have interdependence, in the way that I conceptualise it as an anti-capitalist form of relation, and you cant have interdependence as a relationship that is not mediated through like coloniality, colonialism, neo-imperialism, however you like to say it, but coloniality to me is the word that’s kind of bigger – you cant have interdependence that works favourably for oppressed people through the state, basically. But you do have pockets of interdependence that work well, whilst we have that oppressive system, and it’s part, and that – and building those interdependent relationships, and realising – and also that, to me that also means realising your place, or your relationship to oppression, and how you are complicit in that, and challenging that. We do that as a form of resistance, and that is interdependence in practice, it’s just not on a massive scale, because we don’t have the scope to do that yet, because of the oppressive system.

The state is innately racist and ableist, so when we talk about interdependence, we’re talking about building something that does not oppress people, particularly people from the global majority. So you’re talking about building something that is counter to that, and that doesn’t mean – that means working against the state, and the control that the state has over our lives, but I’m not kind of talking about control that the state has over our lives in a kind of – in a narrow way, in a narrow kind of libertarian way, I’m talking about – yeah, like I say, the structure of racism and so on, white supremacy, so that interdependence needs to be… is about trying to build relations outside of the state, or… I think there are pockets of interdependence all over the place, and some of those… and everything we do is kind of mediated by the state, so I’m not – I don’t think that like what we have, ways in which we have interdependence now are not necessarily liberatory, I think there are pockets of liberatory interdependence, and that’s what we need to be doing is trying to build those, and doing the hard work of doing that. And it is hard, and I think particularly – well, maybe not particularly, but I was listening to something this morning about the kind of… the paring down of the resources that we have, or that people have, as kind of capitalism steps up, and how it’s more difficult to, or it is difficult to rely on ourselves, because we have no resources to do that, and so it’s really about building up those resources for ourselves.

Andrea: Rather than relying on the state?

Lani: Rather than relying on the state to provide them, because we know that the state not only doesn’t have the interests of certain groups of people at heart, but has the opposite, like it wants to destroy certain groups of people, so we need to not rely on it. But I think that’s a difficult tension within a lot of politics, but I think it’s – I’ve been trying to think about it, particularly in relation to like disability politics, and how we build infrastructure that supports people who have a lot of needs, like for wheelchairs, and medical things, and, you know, like the… it’s a complicated issue, I think.

Andrea: Could you maybe give us some examples of these pockets of interdependence that exist in the world as it is today, where we try to meet each other’s needs without turning to the state?

Lani: Hmm… Well, I guess my context is the UK, and I know a bit about the US, I don’t really have any other countries as contexts, so I’ll talk from those positions – it’s just that you said the world, so I thought I’ll situate myself a bit – and I guess we do it all the time. It’s in our relationships, it’s in the way that we like look out for each other, like even as neighbours, you know, like ‘oh, I haven’t seen that person around for a while, how are they doing?’, or ‘I wonder what that ambulance is doing there, I’ll just call my friend’, you know – we do it all the time in those kind of ways, in the ways that we bring our children up, you know, in the ways that we talk to each other about our – and listen to each other, a lot about listening and talking, I think, but also… And making those connections, so there’s those things, and then there’s things like, concepts like care collectives, where people will come together to like share the resources that they have, to get their needs met, so somebody who needs, say, quite a lot of personal care, might put together a collective of people who are happy to give some of that personal care to them, and they may be part of that collective and do other things for that – for those people, listen to them… all sorts of different skills that they might have. So it’s – there’s ways of kind of exchanging skills, and building relationships through those. And then there’s also things like alternative responses to violence that people are developing, accountability processes, circles of accountability, where kind of groups of people get together and think about intervening in that kind of acts of violence, and how that can be done without isolating the person who’s done the harm, necessarily, but also bringing them to account for what they’ve done. And then there’s things also, which are quite now common actually, in… or seem to be fairly common in sort of disability circles as circles of support, which are around, again around an individual, bringing a community around an individual, to break their isolation, and to – but that’s again about friendship, bringing friendship and people together, not relying on professionals. You know, there’s – there is pockets of understanding and work that understand that profess – that the state just doesn’t work.

Andrea: How could we apply some of the principles of disability justice in the way that we – to the way that we organise?

Lani: I guess this is one of the biggest questions, is like – this is the work, right, so we – so these are just ideas, and this is like kind of, I want to be generating that, like how we do it, more, I think, and having those conversations, and this is part of what this podcast is about! So that’s what – but I think, on a basic level, it’s really about thinking about who… who’s included and how they get to be, how they get to do the work. So… when you think about how we sort of build organisational, build movements – for example, a clear example like meetings, like not everyone can come to meetings, why cant everyone come to meetings, who gets to be at meetings, how you run meetings… so making sure that – things like not going on too late is really important, cause a lot of people, for many reasons, but a lot of people have – if you have caring responsibilities, or you have a personal assistant, or you run your – like people run their lives in different ways, so things like that… But also thinking about like how we can make things more sustainable, so not only like how we organise, like making sure that there’s not a hierarchy of activism, in a sense of like ‘oh, if you go to demonstrations that means that you’re a really… that means you’re a real, proper activist’, or whatever, so realising that there are many many ways to contribute to movements, and generating those ways of contributing to the movement, and not locking that potential out, I guess, like generating lots of different ways of contributing to campaigns and to movements, and always making connections, like intersectionality teaches us, like always making the connections between the issues, and the structural – and the material effects of those things. So I think I said it’s about how you talk about things, it’s about how you do it… and it’s also about sustainability, so one of the things is about – this is for me, it’s a really hard thing, because it’s so ingrained in a kind of capitalist way of thinking, is kind of we don’t have to do things fast. We don’t have to do things in a particular way, and we don’t have to be efficient, necessarily, like as a movement. That’s not to say that the struggles are not urgent, that’s not what I’m saying, they are, but I think often we, in the way that we work, we inadvertently kind of prioritise the work of ‘getting things done’ over kind of how we do it, and what the results of that is, in terms of collective care and sustainability for life… so those are some thoughts.

Andrea: Could you tell us a bit about some of the projects or organising that you’re involved with at the moment?

Lani: OK, well the 2 main things that I’m involved with at the moment are Sisters of Frida, which we’ve talked quite a lot about on this podcast series, we are a collective, an experimental collective of disabled women, including non-binary people, and we do a lot of work which I’m excited about. The work I’ve been mainly doing so far, as well as being part of the steering group, has been – I did a project around sexualities, and we’re doing a peer facilitation course at the moment, so for me that work isn’t really about – and what excites me about it, I guess, is about challenging internalised oppression, in the many ways that it comes at us as disabled women, and also challenging our complicity in our oppressions, in our various oppressions. So kind of, I guess kind of building internal power, I suppose, so that’s what I’m excited about with that. And we’ve got like really interesting projects and conversations coming up.

The other thing that I’m involved with is Reclaim Holloway, and we’re a coalition of groups which wants to see the land of Holloway prison be used to public good, that’s our strapline, and that means that we, what our demands are that we want to see housing, some stuff that benefits the local community – the local community want green space and things like that, and some kind of a legacy to the prison and the untold pain and suffering that happened there, and to me I guess that legacy is also about a kind of explicitly abolitionist politics, so we are an abolitionist group, so that means that we work towards the abolition of prisons, and of policing. So I guess that… that sort of abolition politics for me connects a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking about on this podcast. Yeah, it’s exciting in that I think it’s a community campaign, but we also need to ensure that the women prisoners, formerly incarcerated and incarcerated women, are at the centre of our campaign. We’re looking to get a women’s building on the site as well, which would be a space for women’s organisations to be, and specifically kind of abolitionist feminism, anti-carceral feminism, but I think when you say anti-carceral in this country, I’m not sure that many people really know what it means, so it means it is, yeah, abolition of policing and prisons, and surveillance, so it’s a lot of – there’s a lot of kind of connections there, yeah.

Andrea: So the tagline on the website of this podcast is “Beware the liberal vortex” – can you explain what that means?

Lani: So it wasn’t just my idea, but – and I have lots of thoughts about it, but this is the off-the-cuff answer… I think that, to me, “Beware the liberal vortex” is a challenge to us, to always be thinking more and more like against liberal, kind of prevailing liberal values, like things like tolerance – tolerance is not far enough, we’re not talking about – what, what, what, that’s not what we’re talking about! We’re talking about liberation – I’m not talking about equality, I’m talking about liberation, you know, so to me it’s like a big sort of part of wanting to do this podcast and have this, develop this platform. It’s about like having conversations that don’t say that politics is too liberal, or whatever, necessarily, but really push us in different directions, away from kind of a liberal kind of comfort of some kind, or to me also things like challenging the idea of productivity, and who, you know, and stuff like that, is also important in there, so to me that’s what I mean by always challenging that, that underlying liberal, oppressive liberal strands that we all – that I and many other people who were brought up in this country hold, and very easy to kind of slip into.

Andrea: So moving away from the liberal vortex, that’s threatening to suck us in, moving away from that and moving towards the vision of that disability justice holds.

Lani: Yeah, exactly, exactly.

Thanks so much to Andrea for interviewing me. I hope you enjoyed listening to this podcast. Sideways Times would love to hear your thoughts and comments. Please get in touch if you have particular topics you’d like us to cover in the podcast, or if you or someone you know would like to contribute content to the blog. I look forward to hearing from you and meeting you soon.

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