The Sideways Times Podcast is back! After quite a long absence we’re back with a great interview with Sophie from Docs Not Cops, who campaign against the British government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy in the National Health Service (NHS). In this podcast we talk about how Docs Not Cops organise, the history of charging, and the hostile environment within the NHS. We also touch on the wider context of racism within the British healthcare system. Sophie is a doctor who’s been involved with Docs Not Cops since its beginning in 2014. The interview was conducted before the British general election in December 2019.
Trees in temperate climates grow outwards; they cannot grow indefinitely upwards because the roots would not be able to transport the nutrients needed for the top of the tree if the tree is too tall. Even Redwood trees have a limit. Trees grow by concentrating cells in one place, for example at the edge of branches, so that they can grow outwards unlike humans where cell growth takes place everywhere. Roots grow downwards and outwards. The system of roots can be as deep as the tree is tall. Roots provide structural architecture; they can harvest enormous quantities of water and mineral resources. The stems divide into nodes which are points at which the leaves are attached, and internodes, the length of stem between the nodes. Shoots can be separated into long and short shoots on the basis of the distance between buds. Some buds can lie dormant, ready to re-grow when conditions allow.
On 2 December 2018 Sideways Times facilitated a workshop with rashné and Lani (the person writing this post) at the Our Bodies Know event, hosted by Arteries. In designing the workshop, we wanted to find ways in which we could look at movements for change and learn from other ways that change is made. We applied the way that trees grow and sustain themselves that I outlined above to thinking through ways in which change happens and how we see ourselves in that process.
We looked at the tree and found some important similarities, in particular the way they exist as a system. When you are in a particular place it’s difficult to see that there is a bigger system of change that you are part of. In my experience, this is one of the elements that can leave people feeling isolated and burned out. In looking at the tree we can notice that everything is connected – each part communicates with the others, and are in tight mutually reinforcing relationship. Through seeing this, the workshop gave space to talk about our own positions at the moment, and encouraged a non-judgemental approach. The idea of dormant buds seemed to be particularly powerful. As the buds only grow when conditions are right, waiting in a dormant state until they are, we can recognise that our own dormancy allows us to gather resources, and acknowledge that the conditions may not be right for us. The acknowledgement in itself provides us with power.
Dormant buds also connect to the cycles of growth that the trees go through, in response to external conditions, and also internal conditions, for example if there are not enough nutrients, or it is too cold, the tree will die-back and then start growing again when conditions change. Expansion and growth then is not a continual process, but goes in cycles which include dormancy and recuperation. So in terms of social change, dormancy can be a signal that there are not enough internal resources, and/or that we are reacting to external conditions. Leaves also fall off the tree when they have given all they can at that time, and so become nutrients for the soil. Applying this, we talked about how for people this is also often to do with conditions not being right for them and burning out, as well as lack of support. We discussed this ‘falling off’ as a powerful process which could communicate something important to the system, and also could allow for a different role to be taken up of becoming nourishment for the system.
One of the things that I loved about thinking about how trees grow is that realisation that growing outwards is an effective way of growing. For me again, it focuses my attention on making connections and expansion, with an openness to the world. This connection is grounded by communication – the different elements all talk to and support each other, giving the growth strength. So while it can appear as though the new leaf or new shoot is fragile and out on its own, it is actually held up by another part of the system that is far away.
The way that trees grow seemed to really connect with people and the metaphor opened up conversations about our relationships to movements for change. For me I came to appreciate exactly where I was and appreciate more deeply others’ positions and work. I saw in a new way how important it is to support each other and communicate to strengthen our relationships and understand how we connect.
This is a continuation of the conversation we began, using Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism, to explore organising spaces, interdependence and relationship building.
Part 2 picks up on the theme of slowness and preparedness in organising, as well as the necessity of centering relationship-building in a world of scarcity and precarity.
This is not a “polished piece.” And, of course, it doesn’t reach some kind of end point but we hope that it can serve as a something to continue from…
I really love what you said and made me think a lot things I hope that some of it makes sense.
Slowness and responsiveness also relates to building as well as being: the current system forces us to be reactive because it is full of scarcity and fear. We are built to be both reactive and responsive, I think, but the responsiveness is the element which allows us to build. What does it look like to really build together?
One of the principles of disability justice that came out of a group of disabled people of colour in the States emphasises collective liberation: what does it really mean to move together, to be responsive together, and not be simply reactive? I feel there are a lot of times when I’m trying to organise with people that I feel, and probably am, slower than others. I can be both slower and faster – perhaps we all can be.
Sometimes I think that it doesn’t look like much to be slow, that you can’t really “see it” – perhaps it is more of a feeling. I know that for me access is more of a feeling; it’s not so much about whether I can get into a building but how people react, how people are flexible, how people see me. Like you said, if you slow down, you can often see better. Learning to really see each other seems to be part of the work. Being doesn’t always mean being slow and I often really don’t know how to be collective about that. I guess it’s about holding each other. But how does that look? It doesn’t always look like waiting. It would mean grappling with deep-seated feelings of loneliness and grief and also fear. I think that both disability justice and healing justice work can see some of this.
I hear what you’re saying for yourself in terms of being selfish and needing to find people who nourish you and to let go of those who don’t…. And the fact that this is lonely work. It made me think about how much it is possible for me to create those spaces by being different. Not necessarily letting go but holding gently, giving space. How much do I have the resources to not get sucked in by negative energies or situations (as I do have a lot of resources in this power structure!)? Perhaps this is about the ways that we are connected.
From the moment we are born we are betrayed – born into a world that does not meet our expectations, even when we are born into the arms of people who truly love us we are disappointed by them and betrayed by them in small ways which are painful and enormous ways which are painful. This conversation is also making me think about the way that we learn and unlearn patterns of behaviour and intergenerational trauma. There is a lot of talk about the importance of vulnerability, about how we do not know how to be loved, about how we cannot bear it and that the only way we can do it is to actually show that vulnerability.
Our conversation makes me think, on the one hand, of something obvious – that to be in community is to be in relationship. And we often do describe organising spaces as community. On the other hand, precisely because to be in relationship requires a certain kind of work – of building intimacy, of making oneself vulnerable, of holding some form of responsibility to one another – we may actually tend to place a separation between this organising community and other relationships, i.e. relationships outside and beyond organising ‘communities’. I know I have been guilty of this for certain. And of course, in the context of facilitation and mediation, we see that there’s various groups needing support around “accountability”. But isn’t this all about learning how to be in relationship?
As you say, this is possibly because we are constantly living within a dynamic of scarcity. There’s too little time, too little energy. And so what we have we use on cultivating (hopefully) nourishing private lives. In a previous blog post I wrote: “Precarity, then, is a concerted strategy to disallow collectivity and solidarity. In this circumstance, the fight against precarity must be the fight to create and maintain the conditions for solidarity.”
This brings us back, of course, to capitalism. And to lies, too, maybe. But if scarcity and precarity is what disallows us from forming organising communities as relationship – not just as places of action, of work – then surely a critical political task is to do precisely that, i.e. build organising spaces as relationship?
This is what I mean when I talk about the misuse of decoloniality. Oftentimes in organising spaces we talk about being in community, building community. But if we were to actually try to practice this, it would require a radical – “decolonial” – rethinking of what politics is, of what our work is. But I’m not sure we do that. We take up ideas without really thinking through what it is to practise them. So, perhaps we are building our own “alternate” web of lies?
I think all of this is quite related to disability justice – please correct me if I am wrong. The way I understand it is, disability is constructed around these very notions of scarcity, precarity, of a certain kind of lack (and speed/slowness being an aspect of that lack). I don’t want to make some kind of simple comparison between those that identify as disabled and those that don’t, but I do think it is necessary to ask ourselves about all the ways in which we have been disabled by colonialism and capitalism. What kinds of sense of wholeness – or fullness may be a better word – have we been denied? And do we refuse to recognise, because to do so would be too dangerous?
This post has also been published on rashne.li.
Thanks for reading this far – hope you liked it. We’re hoping to keep the conversation going so we’d love to hear your thoughts too; if you want to pick up on any of the themes, feel free!
Over the past few years we have been having various conversations with various awesome people in our lives about organising and the sustainability of movements in the current climate. Thinking about questions like: what is it that we need? How do we envision ways of being that do not rely on the colonial capitalist logics that are so normalised in our everyday. How can we be, now, in ourselves and with each other, the ways we would want to be in other imagined worlds?
Many people have said and written numerous useful things on these topics. Our initial conversations were deeply influenced Harsha Walia’s Undoing Border Imperialism and led to a “collaborative correspondence“ on issues like the form of organising spaces, on the possibility of building different kinds of relationships, and the meaning of emotional justice and community care.
Below is a bit of this conversation – it is split into two blog posts. Part 1 starts off the conversation by looking at being and doing, reacting and responding, and grief and loss.
This is not a “polished piece.” And, of course, it doesn’t reach some kind of end point but we hope that it can serve as a something to continue from…
We are human beings not human doings! Today I held a small baby who I love very much and was reminded of this as she cried and sat and looked into my eyes and smiled playing with her hands, interested in everything.
The system of colonial capital relations has stolen the being from us and made them into something else, into a fiction, a figment of our imagination, to strive towards something that doesn’t make any sense at all. Not only has it stolen the being, it has distorted and stolen the human. Continue reading being and building otherwise: a conversation between Lani and rashné, part 1′.
“To some extent all our political motivations and morality are based on imaginary states”
Hamja Ahsan, author of Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert, discusses humour, connecting diverse movements and struggles, and imaginary spaces in activism.
Listen to the podcast
Read the transcript:
Lani: Welcome to Sideways Times, a UK-based podcast in which we talk about the politics of disability and disability justice. Throughout this podcast I hope to have many conversations which deepen and broaden as well as challenge our understanding of how to work against ableism and how this connects to other struggles.
I am Lani Parker and in this edition I talk to Hamja Ahsan about his book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Militant Introvert. We discussed what influenced the book, the use of humour in the book and in art in general, and how the themes relate to issues of racism and ableism, as well as some more things. I hope you enjoy it, let me know what you think.
Lani: Hi Hamja, thank you for coming to meet me. To start with could you tell me a bit about Shy Radicals and how it came about?
Hamja: So Shy Radicals has something I feel has always existed in me as a form of coping with feeling excluded and demeaned and bullied I guess, through what I call extrovert supremacist culture. It became a book last year, published by Bookworks – it’s an artist’s writing publisher. They’ve published people like Lubaina Himid, Liam Gillick and Jeremy Deller and then they’re like one of the best I think experimental publishers. And there’s a series called Common Objectives which is edited by an activist called Nina Power, who you might know through organisations like Defend the Right to Protest, or the Alfie Meadows campaign, and feminist philosophy. And she selected this as part of the series. So the way I’ve conceptualised my own feelings of inferiority and being bullied through being someone who is going to be the more awkward shy or quiet person in the room and thinking in a way of… not seeing it as something to be corrected but a different mode of being. I guess the questions which are often around the term neurodiversity and the way many people with Asperger’s Syndrome or autistic spectrum, and forms of resisting mental health diagnosis and medical models of mental disability, and reclaiming them as different ways of being. So I made up a revolutionary political party which would be like the Black Panthers but for shy people. Continue reading Shy Radicals: An interview with Hamja Ahsan