Jul 30, 2009

Underdogging: A Tale of Bittersweet Bicycle Revenge

This is the second in a series of bicycle-related postings I plan to do.

I’m not really sure that I believe in revenge. It’s such a vast and tangled mess of wrongdoing we are up in the middle of. I figure we are better off honoring what’s been lost and arriving at more radical visions of justice out of that grief than we are spending our time calculating and meting out precise portions of punishment. I do care a lot, though, about whatever keeps the fight in people, and what that fight looks like, and I think for that reason I have a lot of respect for at least the desire for revenge.

For the most part, when we strike out in singular, uncoordinated acts against someone or something that actually has enough power over our lives to deserve it, it often lands us in more trouble. Revenge isn’t reparations. It isn’t justice. It doesn’t honor what’s been lost, and it doesn’t systematically hold oppressors accountable or particularly change the conditions in which they do wrong.

I do sometimes wonder if there’s a value to symbolic acts of revenge. And if that value is for the person who gets away with it, or for all the people who don’t. Then again, maybe it just makes for a decent story now and again. For your consideration…

When I lived in Portland, I had days where I’d find myself feeling inexcusably bored, uninspired, old, or just like I was forgetting what it meant to live somewhere where the mood-swinging adolescent landscape of the west coast was ready to throw some sort of seismic tantrum and reinvent itself any minute. I always felt this was a good occasion to ride my bicycle up one of the teen acne patches that dot the area in the form of extinct volcanoes in order to see the world below.

Mount Tabor is one of those spots. It is the namesake of a mountain in lower Galilee that is the alleged site of the transfiguration of Christ, the event by which the senses of Christ’s apostles were transformed so they might be able to fully perceive God’s glory. The volcanic cinder cone in Oregon does have giant and artistic uncovered reservoirs carved into its side which house a large part of the city’s water supply. Mostly, though, it functions as a poop-covered off-leash area for southeast Portland dog-walkers and sports a too-grand statue of a dead Oregon newspaper editor.

It is a good spot to ride a bike to. And so it was, that one day in 2002 my housemate Tuesday and I decided to take a picnic there. As we crested the top, we were surprised that instead of the usual yuppies flirting over purebreds, the park was filled with hoards of drunken bike messengers having some sort of drunken race.

As we rounded the corner on our bicycles, surveying for a picnic space that wouldn’t set us on top of littered cans of PBR and fixed gear bicycles, we were spotted by one particularly obnoxious, drunken messenger. Not recognizing us as being of the six female bike messengers in the city at that time, he began screaming a series of sexist epithets at us to get us off the pathway because we were apparently blocking his race by being too slow and female.

After the resulting confrontation, we decided to climb down the hill a ways and picnic away from the brodeo that was happening atop the park. Tuesday and I settled into the tall grass and wondered at how bicycling could be both so totally and fundamentally good for our lives and also regularly force us to contend with such bullshit.

This incident happened at a time in my life when I was particularly fed up by bike dudes. I would have liked to be earning a living as a messenger, but of less than a tenth of the messengers in town at the time were ladies, and every girl I’d known who had gone into the biz had quickly quit. Worse, I was on a racing team with an extremely chauvinistic coach who would intentionally withhold information and resources unless I and other members of the young women’s team performed all kinds of domestic labor like shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundering bike jerseys for the young men’s team in exchange for our coaching.

As Tuesday and I sat discussing our woes, a chocolate lab bounded down the hill and took a shit inappropriately close to our picnic. We looked around and realized how thoroughly surrounded by dog shit we were, and also at once noticed a hearty-looking stick lying next to where we were seated.

I don’t even think we really talked about it. We both just knew what had to happen. When we ascended the hill again, I had the two foot branch in my right hand. The chocolate lab’s poop had turned out to be the perfect consistency for our purposes: firm enough to stay attached to the stick, but easily spreadable.

After an hour of shot-gunning a can of beer with every lap, the messengers were still amidst their ‘last man standing’ race. Dudes were weaving around the track recklessly, and our man stood in the middle, near the very spot he had cursed us off of. Tuesday rode ahead to check him out and make sure we weren’t mixing him up with some other guy in a khaki jacket and black beanie with a PBR in each palm.

With her nod as queue, I took off riding. As I neared, I braked with my free hand and slowed enough to roll and drag the stick across his back before dropping it in front of the dude's feet. Tuesday and I heard him scream and saw a bunch of guys mounting their bikes as we started off down the mountain.

The next time we looked back, we were full force into our descent. We braked hard to take a sharp switchback that would lead us into deep southeast. Pulling bikes and bodies up against the side of the switchback, we held our breath and went unnoticed by our pursuers, who caught up and continued barreling forward down the straight drop back towards central city.

We spent a lot of the rest of the afternoon watching our backs and cutting a wide path around town to get back home from the far side of the mountain. We weren’t sure how to feel, but agreed we felt like we’d scored for a team we didn’t know we were on until then.

Two weeks later, the local weekly printed an anonymous explanation of our actions with a graphic of a devil-horned girl on a cruiser wielding poop on a stick. People would bring up the article for months afterward and Tuesday and I would grin at each other in private agreement, feeling I think, that it wasn’t exactly our victory to claim.

Multi-Cultural Competency, Non-Profitude, and Moving Beyond Career Development for White Service Providers

I’ve been participating in series of white subgroup meetings within a non-profit I work for, which has been leaving me sorting through ideas about the potential of working around anti-racism and organizational change in the social work field and non-profits more generally. It wouldn’t fare well for me or the trust of the group to process it publicly here, so I’ll keep my reflections general. I feel like no matter what criticisms I may have, I am responsible to show up to take a critical look at racism within any organization I am a part of and this means being ready to engage other white people with openness and sincerity, even if I’m having a rough time with how those conversations get choreographed...

Trainings in “multi-culturalism” and “diversity” within the corporate world have been widely critiqued as a means of diluting an anti-racist ideology into something that is expressly non-redistributionist; i.e., not about actually redistributing power or wealth or critiquing the ways that white supremacy structures the distribution of power within our world or within our organizations.

In the non-profit world I see another version of this, which is usually framed as “multi-cultural competency.” I have many concerns about it, but see it as important work. Whether clients of color are going to end up too alienated by experiences of white supremacy within an agency to access services there is obviously a big deal. The skills of individual clinicians do matter in this context, but I’m also concerned about the direction that training around “multi-cultural competence” can take in the very white-dominated mental health field.

White anti-racism is rightfully and frequently critiqued for over-focusing on the beliefs and attitudes of individual white people. While “multi-cultural competency” training for service providers often strays dangerously close to this, I do believe that the cultivation and engagement of anti-racist commitment among individual white clinicians is important as it affects their ability to recognize the harm and violence white supremacy produces in the lives of their clients, provide more relevant support, and think carefully about ways that racist domination is reproduced within the clinical relationship. Recognizing the value of this training has helped me to have patience and respect for the work of the white sub-group, but I’m still left with as many questions about how exactly white clinicians should be engaging issues of anti-racism, white identity, and cultural competency within their practice, and what level of institutional support should be lent to this work over, say, more organizational/redistributionist and less individualist-oriented anti-racism work.

It is easy to imagine that providing institutional support for the individual anti-racist “development” of white clinicians is scarcely more than free career development for white folks in an industry that is already stocked with a shocking number of white professionals (The California Board of Behavioral Sciences says about 74% of licensed clinicians are white. A friend who is in MFT school told me 94% of Marriage and Family Therapists are white!) And while I’ve made an argument for why I see such work as important, I think without a focus on anti-racist organizational transformation, it pretty much becomes free professional development for white clinicians.

In my time as a white non-management level worker in the social work field, I’ve seen how having smart things to say about racism combined with actually having white skin privilege secures my upward mobility within the field. Having white people who say all the right things—who can develop, implement, and export a model for anti-racist organizational development without actually having to give up any organizational power is a great way of maintaining the secret handshake between whiteness and middle class professionalism. Without a structural critique of who is running non-profits, it’s not clear whether “multi-cultural competency” trainings make non-profits more likely to be run by people coming from communities being served, or whether they make middle-class white people feel better about hiring each other to make decisions about running direct-service organizations.

Generally, the field of professional social work exists because poor communities are denied the means to meet their basic needs. A lot of the work in the field is done by working class people of color and young white people who are then supervised by white professionals. Ultimately, our agencies answer to the foundations and government contracts that fund us.

So what does it look like to approach issues of “multi-cultural competency” among clinicians who are often doing good work and make their dollars within the middle of these contradictions? I don’t mean to sit on the sidelines and suggest that the problems within the field and are too big to approach or that attempts at addressing white supremacy within social service agencies are meaningless where they fall short. As a white person, separating myself from other white people engaged with anti-racist work within my organization would be a particularly nasty and destructive way of engaging these complications and reinforce the idea that the orientations and analyses of individual white workers are the locus of anti-racist work. Rather, I’m suggesting that paying attention to our context and staying engaged with the questions are important in order to not allow anti-racist work to be reduced to confessionals or a veiled form of career development that ensures the upward mobility of white clinicians and further cements white people’s positions of power within the industry.

So, the big question in spaces devoted to multi-cultural competency seems to be: “What are the assumptions and forms of cultural arrogance that I carry into the room with me in my work as a clinician?” Here’s a quick list of questions that are floating around in my head that I want to hear in these spaces as well:
• If we assume we aren’t going to think, talk, or train our way out of racism, what do we see as our goals?
• How can our work in this group be accountable to the people of color working group?
• Who is in this room? What positions do they occupy within the agency? If most of the management team are white, who is guiding a process of creating “multi-cultural competency” within the organization?
How will we know that that work is being done? Who do we answer to about how that work is happening?
• What if white people need to give up power within the organization? Is there safety for non-management level workers to propose this kind of idea within the room?
• What’s up with the board?
• Are there ways white supremacy plays out in who is tracked for promotions and management?
• For white non-management level workers, what are the reasons you would feel justified in taking a management position if one was offered to you?
• What communities are being served across our programs? Are there ways that racism is reflected in the way we prioritize our material, staff, and supervisory resources across our programs? Do we prioritize resources for the same programs we are most likely to present to funders as examples of our work?
• Why is the larger field of mental health clinicians so white-dominated? How might this affect the perceptions and experiences of our services in the communities we serve?
• How can we support communities we are serving in getting needs met that might also be addressed by our services? (In my position, I think a lot about prioritizing supporting social programming where queer youth can develop ongoing relationships)
• What are justice issues we take on right now and how do we determine those as the priority for our organization? What are the major issues we see affecting the lives of our clients? What would it look like for our organization to take on supporting racial and economic justice campaigns affecting the lives of our clients? What supportive role could our organization play, particularly in local campaigns? (To hear about a longtime LGBTQ org that is undergoing major restructuring, check out CUAV’s strategic plan to shift to centering issues of de-carceration and transformative justice in working to end violence in queer communities?

Jul 29, 2009

Jul 26, 2009

Notice of Intent to Squish

When I started writing for this blog, I originally planned to have this be a place where I posted things of a deep-winger nature. I wanted a place of dialogue and collaboration where smarty pants weird girls might try to talk about some of the things we are paying attention to. Part of this vision meant maybe reserving some of my more political postings for another location, but lately I’ve really begun to question the logic with which I determine what writing is and isn’t political, and am also cozying up to the fact that this has turned out to be a less collaborative project than I’d hoped (though I’m awaiting Tuesday’s article on epilator time theft any day now).

My friend and I have taken on a new practice of summer list-making and the longest list so far is a "things that are squished together" list. If you are wondering if somethings are actually squished or just otherwise put together, the only way to tell is to ask yourself if they would come apart in a peeling motion or not.

This has got me to thinking about all the kinds of knowing that are squished together in the world. Kinds of knowing that would definitely have to be peeled if they were able to come apart at all. I suppose I'm feeling like the political and the woo and the everything else are a little more squished together than I wanted to imagine and if I'm going to do some poking and peeling it will just be to expose the layers better, but not because I actually want to isolate them from each other all together.

If the blog in the world is actually about mapping connections between disparate seeming bodies of information, I have begun to question why I would further enforce a political/weirdo division of labor on my own thinking and writing. In particular, when I already feel semi torn asunder by this division in the world at large and when this paradox is one I hold to be especially precious in myself.

So I’m going to try something different. When something bubbles to the surface that has more to do with accountability structures in the non-profit world rather than iPhone applications that don’t exist yet or frozen yogurt or apocalypse purse packing, I am going to post it anyway and see how it works out.

Jul 13, 2009

Bike Shop Backdoors

Summertime has me not only revisiting punk music but really really appreciating my bicycle, so I'm going to do a little run of bicycle-oriented postings where I'll write about things like bicycle-sizing for injury prevention, bay area bike rides that might end in oyster-eating, the endangered dune gopher-mouses of marin county rv parks, stories of sweet revenge against pbr-swilling bike messenger dudes, my titanium tibia, and if I can really get my act together with Mira: a pair of divinely-bestowed pants from our 2001 biketour.

Last week I went to work on my bicycle to prep for a mini tour I was leaving on. The bike kitchen, a massive bike repair shop open to the public, has relocated to the ground level of a new condo development blocks from my apartment. Many non-profits, strapped for space and cash in a city with astronomical rents, agree to these sorts of arrangements because of the language of “mixed use/mixed income” developments, another way of saying that enough “affordable” units were included to get the project approved. Both the inclusion of lower rent units and cheap and spacious units for area non-profits are a means of gaining public support and legitimacy for condo development projects that proliferate the Mission.

That said, the bike kitchen has a new, stable, spacious, and centrally located spot, where on a recent Thursday eve, I joined at least forty other people in going to work on my bicycle. The spot seemed to appeal to twelve year olds pumping up their BMX tires, hipsters working on their fixed gears, college students with commuter bikes, and a few older dudes who were affixing welded pieces for carrying boomboxes and suitcases to wildly painted ten speeds or mountain bikes. Everyone seemed to be getting along, sharing tools, minimally engaging in conversation as they settled into their respective projects. I was impressed by this rare side-by-side coexisting of the reps of so many different bike camps, temporarily united by the too-loud Ramones soundtrack and the need for metric allan keyes. So I was even more surprised when on second survey of the space, I realized I was the only lady in sight. (The bike kitchen has a once a month 'WTF,' women, trans, and friends, night you can read about here).

Generally when entering bike dude space I try to fly below the radar. This is because typically, dudes assume women don’t know why they are there and need to have every level of their experience managed, whether they came in shopping for a bike light or asking for a repair. Often, if a woman wants to resist this dynamic by stating specific needs or objectives, bike dudes will act as though she isn’t actually there for whatever reason she’s saying, but rather to somehow encroach on their space and show them up. This can mean simple brake pad shopping trips or bicycle browsing can turn into exhaustive barely-coded trivia tests if a woman acts as though she knows anything about what is going on.

When I enter bike shops, I know there’s careful choreography involved in actually getting what I need, even if I know exactly what that is, because acting too competent can involve getting lectured to about unasked questions. Already I was at the bike kitchen because a trip to a local repair shop had gone so badly in this respect. Eight years ago when I would spend my at-home days training with a racing team and planning my next major bike tour, I had more energy for these types of exchanges and even got some satisfaction from making bike dudes squirm. Now, over a decade into being a serious cyclist, riding an entirely un-cool bike four years on the other side of a major accident, I have settled into a different sense of why and how I ride. I’m just happy that my body, now with its own share of internal hard ware, can still make a decent team with a rolling pile of steel tubing.

As it stands, I know a lot of what I need to know about bikes and biking, which is far more than what most people know about what I need to know. And I’m really not trying to know about what I don’t care about, just so I can keep up with quickfire bike shop conversations. I think this sensibility is so antithetical to how many dudes approach the larger body of bike-knowledge, or how access to such knowledge is negotiated, that it almost offends bike dude’s sensibilities. It just doesn’t go over well that I could have a lot to say about touring geometry or bicycle sizing to prevent knee injuries but not really care to know much more than I already do about flashy componentry.

When I entered the bike kitchen, using the earlier week’s trip to the repair shop as a case study, I decided to be conservative in my communications with the surrounding dudes. A “Do you know where they keep the extra aprons?” (knowing they were all being used), was necessary to secure a means of covering up the coral sundress I was wearing, since it wasn’t going to do any favors for my cause. I surveyed the shop to spot needed tools and avoid aimless wandering every time I left my stand. When the time came for me to ask a question, I scouted the most chilled out looking mechanic, waited for him to become available, and prepared myself to get ten times the answer I needed.

This could be a ‘how to’ post. I could share with you tips and tricks for pre-assessing how much of your dignity you are willing to sacrifice to get your needs met when entering a bike shop, how and where to pick your battles, and the top ten things never to say to most male bike mechanics.

But the truth is we all have different needs when we enter a bike shop, or any other armed fortress of dude-knowledge. We’re all there using what’s left of our lung capacity after the trek to blow up our hot pink floaty rafts to carry us across the castle moat. And they might think when we get there that we are there to take the castle.

More than wanting to tell anyone how to enter a bike shop, I am curious about our angles of approach towards the inaccessible worlds of skills and knowledges that we love too much to throw our hands up at. The millions of ways we figure out to say, “Dude, I didn’t come to take your castle. I am really wet and I am carrying a hot pink floaty ring. I just really like riding my bicycle. Can I buy some brake pads from you?”

Jul 8, 2009

State Control and Rock and Roll Are Run By Clever Men

Summertime makes me a little nostalgic for Portland and full of punk coming of age tales, so I've been doing some more punk music revisits lately.

I was remembering how at 20, I was so fed up with bullshit dynamics in the punk scene and how totally excited I was when my gf at the time introduced me to the Poison Girls, a British band that formed in 1976 and was fronted by Vi Subversa, a middle-aged mother who followed her two grown children into the punk scene.

"I reject the system that murders my children." Vi must have figured that punk music had a lot to learn from mother love. She played music for moms to dance to (regretfully I couldn't find, "Jump Mama Jump") and sang songs about mental health, loneliness, and the forgotten and invisible: "housewives and prostitutes, plumber men in boiler suits" and anyone "dying in secret from poisons unknown."

I really like how this video, "Real Woman" kind of reminds me of the eight minute abs workout video and features so many women playing at a carnival. It recalls for me a "fuck if I care"/"the world is my playground" punk ethic, but kind of demonstrates that rather than this being super entitled and problematic it can also look like a bunch of ladies just taking some time out to enjoy each other's company inside a bounce house.

I prefer not to read the lyrics as anti-femme, but more an embrace of failure, a cashing in of chips on compulsory femininity ("I'm not lemon, so squeeze your own instead"). But it's not all bounce houses and joyous refusal. I always thought it sad how the song talks about lonlieness and inaccessibility, the parts women just learn to keep for themselves ("Don't be surprised, if I don't look into your eyes, my eyes are on a million miles away.")

Anyway, I think the Poison Girls were important, if goofy and irreverent, in refusing to be jacket-holders in an hyper-masculine early British punk scene. Did I mention PG were blacklisted by the Socialist Worker's Party, who thought the song "Bully Boys" was talking shit on them?

Jul 2, 2009

Dreaming M.J.

I had a very vivid dream this week, the week of Michael Jackson's death. In my dream, humans had evolved into forms that were suspended in something of a sensory-emotive virtual mist. Nothing of form or visual cues indicated that we were still human, or especially related to humans. Only a certain sense of familiarity or practicedness helped me recognize my new self as non-alien.

The only language spoken was a series of passwords that functioned as a system of consent for marrying together our psyches within the ether-net. I watched as flexible fluid windows united and parted by folding in on each other and then peeling away, all within a web of space indistinguishable as either virtual or actual.

To say we were composed in parts both human and computer sounds too crude. Notions of part and whole were of little use for understanding these forms. Our existence and co-existence were virtual. Potential. Happening in the space of their own unfolding. Our password invitations were each unique and composed of a purely emotive language with a sort of rolling, lapping sound that landed pleasantly and pleadingly at the edge of consciousness. Mine was a sound I recognized as a sort of new name for my mother. It was the only word I could say.

This was not exactly utopia--this sort-of-bodied sentience suspended in gauzy spiderwebs of telo-internet melting into perfect crystalline consensual enagagement. I recognized from the human quality of the experience that we were not enlightened. We had just come up with new ways of doing the telling and the listening—of paying attention to each other.

The day after my dream, my movements through the world carried an investigative quality. What I was investigating, it felt, was the project of coexistence. I wanted to listen and I wanted to tell, and I only knew one way of asking how. kaythingsswoombordmoydoosbp. Requesting permission to connect.