The Soul Fire Writing Retreat was held in March 2022 and was facilitated by Max Hope and Sophie Christophy. Our intention was to offer a supportive and encouraging environment for those attending to re-connect with the ‘why’ behind their work. We were inspired by bell hooks and her thoughts and practices on feminism, social justice, truth-telling, and the practice of love.
During the retreat, we wanted to co-create a piece of writing that we could publish at the end of the weekend, something which communicated our collective and personal commitments to change making, authenticity, speaking our truth, and speaking from the heart.
This collection of writing – a chain letter – is the result.
‘From Pain to Power’, a prominent theme in the work and words of bell hooks, created the focus for the chain letter, and was a thread that wove throughout writing provocations and embodied sessions during the retreat. The writing process worked like this: one person started writing and finished with a question. It was then passed to the next person who wrote their response and finished with a question. Their writing (and not that from the first person) was passed on to the third person, and so on and so forth. The speed of the chain letter sped up as the weekend progressed until finally, after 30 hours, we had finished. The order of the fifteen writers was picked randomly, literally as names out of a hat, and each writer was under time pressure to complete their contribution. No-one saw what everyone else had written until we had all finished.
This is the finished chain letter. This is as it was written, mistakes and all.
Max is a facilitator, educator, researcher, activist, and writer and the creator of Write On Changemakers. https://maxhope.co.uk/
This is it. Today is the day. There are fifteen of us at a writer’s retreat and the sun is shining. We are here are we are ready. This retreat is for activists and changemakers. It is about building connections and creating community. It is about writing and speaking our truth.
We are here and we have stuff to say.
We are a mixed bunch of people. We do not speak with one voice. We do not sing in tune. We are united in a desire to advance social and environment justice, but what does that mean? What do we do? What do we think? Who are we, really, at the core of ourselves?
Our retreat is inspired by the work of bell hooks (1952-2021), a prolific author, activist and academic who persistently spoke her truth, even in the most challenging of circumstances. Her courage, her intellect, her compassion, and her fire are with us here. She wrote about feminism, social justice, racism, colonisation, inequality, patriarchy, love, power, and so much more. She wrote in authentic but unconventional ways. She went against the grain. She refused to follow the rules. The power of her work was not always recognised by the establishment, but it is recognised by us. We honour her and the hundreds of other activists who gone before us.
bell hooks said that: “People are hungry for dissent. People are hungry for provocative voices that go to the heart of the matter.” (quote from Speaking Freely)
We have provocative voices.
We want to go to the heart of the matter.
My own journey as an activist began as a young child. I was born into a political family. My parents were Quakers and were involved in party politics and they created a home environment in which the status quo was questioned. My mum stood for parliament. My dad was a local councillor. They volunteered their time for causes to advance social justice. Housing and homelessness. Romanian orphanages. Pacifism. Environmentalism. Sustainability. Food poverty. The list goes on. The point is that I never fell into the trap of believing that politicians and other powerful people were right or that mainstream ways of thinking were the best way to proceed. Everything was open to question. It was OK to think differently.
I have found my own fire, my own rage, my own purpose. I have chosen where to put my energy and where to fight. I stand alongside other folk who are doing other things and I cheer them on, but their fight is not always the same as mine. We must choose what burns most brightly for us, what keeps us awake at night. My fight is about children and young people, about education and social justice, about the wild world.
I am curious about what lights other people up, what keeps them awake at night, what makes them do something to change the world.
Mirel, what is your fire and where did it come from?
What burns most brightly for me – when I feel into that question more, I do wonder. I feel like my fire, whatever it was, has burnt down to a smoulder. It would need more fuel than I have available to me right now, as well as some energetic fanning, for it to blaze brightly again. Honestly, at this time, I feel my task is simply to keep a single ember aglow until I have the resources available to kindle my fire again.
Right now, I need to rest and take stock of things. I need to regain a sense of perspective.
It’s all well and good talking about changing the status quo, for a more equitable society, blah-di-blah-di-blah, but much of change needs to happen from within. And I’m tired of trying so hard. It’s exhausting, simultaneously trying to affect change outside and in. I’m faced with living a kind of paradox – spurred on to enact some change in the world but not fully equipped to enact it either. Discovering at times I am motivated by very sense of heroism that I am trying to kick against. Becoming more resourced the more I don’t achieve what I set out to do. And somehow ending up affecting change when and where I least expect it, or not at all. And sometimes fizzling out.
I don’t mind all of that but it’s the negative internal monologuing that’s the biggest pain in the ass. The judging, the self-deprecation, the sense of being an impostor. Actually, that’s probably the most difficult thing to change – not “the world”, but the self the world I am trying to change created.
Let’s think about that for a second: The self that the world created is trying to change the world. Right.
Things have their own way of working out. Mystery has a sick sense of humour. For me, the work is just that – not the outcome, but the engagement. There is an irony to trying to make change happen whilst still being part of the problem. The best resource I have in this process is ownership of my own imperfection, curiosity around that, kindness around that. And perhaps my soul’s calling is simply to lean into life, embracing these paradoxes, with humility, and to develop a quality of steadfastness that will probably take me my whole lifetime, filling up my saddle bags with enough self-awareness and self-compassion for the ride.
Caitlin, what is your soul’s calling?
Caitlin Harrison: Unschooling parent, adventurer and abolitionist
Mirel, thank you. My soul will get to itself in a moment. I promise.
First, I want to repeat your precise and poignant invitation to think about the fact that, “The self that the world created is trying to change the world.” Yes! Thank you!
I am so grateful for your delicious articulation. I recognise and experience this phenomenon as a whirlpool of responsibility, a swirling whirling within which my response-ability is formed and born as a direct effect of the oppressive structures to which I must respond. And in this fluid, dynamic, cyclical and spinning space, my soul’s calling is to recognise moments to practice freedom, to respond as though I have been in-formed by the worlds I wish to inhabit, worlds defined by love, passion, peace, transformation, truths, honesty. My soul’s calling is to humbly recognise, moment by moment, the ways in which my multiple intersecting identity privileges create illusory freedoms and ease that depend on the dehumanisation of “others.” My soul’s calling is to practice, enact and embody disparate freedoms that are contingent upon everyone’s liberation.
I believe that part of my soul’s part is to play a role in making the world that formed me and us more visible, to expose and interrogate hegemony. My soul feels called to share socialisation’s complexity while reducing our obsessions with individual culpability. I believe this may free up energy for collective responsibility.
Sara, where do you locate your Self within the concept of responsibility, as it relates to social change?
Sara Paiola is a feminist, a mother, an associate tutor in law, and the co-founder of Free We Grow a child-directed, play based, educational space. www.freewegrow.co.uk https://www.facebook.com/freewegrow
Caitlin, thank you. So your question to me: “where do I locate myself within the concept of responsibility, as it relates to social change?”
I feel responsible. The most important aspect of this for me is to be the change I want to see in the world. For supporting/making a social change. At the same time I know it is not down to me only so I do not feel guilty, if and when, I cannot do more. I do what I manage. I don’t like the neoliberal idea of individual/ised responsibility. Meaning indeed we are all responsible but for instance my recycling will not clean up the world. This individualised idea tends to divide people instead of creating solidarity and collectivity. Of course, for instance, I keep recycling as an individual but I think that voting for politicians that will struggle to bring some change in the country is more important than
for instance recycling but not voting. Even though of course without proportional representation in the UK voters have less influence on the results and on how much social change happens.
I come from a very political/activist family who spoke about world issues a lot and as much as it was great in many respects it added some kind of heaviness to me as a child. So I think there is a balance between involving children in social change and letting them off the hook so to speak as it is more our responsibility as adults to change the world our children/the future children live in. They are not responsible for the mess we are in so why make them feel guilty/pressured. Then it will be their turn – to make social change – when they are ready. Maybe as a child I felt too responsible. I think children learn from imitation/modelling so if we adults are socially responsible – or socially conscious enough – they will most likely grow a social consciousness too. If we trust humans/children to be innately curious and self directed then there is no point to push them and expose them too much to social change issues as to me it seems a sign of us adults being anxious. Basically a sign of us adults not being able to control /tolerate our anxiety and feel the need to put pressure on people/children to become socially conscious – sometimes at the expenses of letting this passion grow naturally and letting them be.
For years I have worked in jobs that align with my beliefs in social change. Or, I volunteered in positions that align with my beliefs. I believe that in giving a better start to children they will create a better world so I have worked with children for many years (with refugee children and children who lived in refuges with their mothers who had experienced domestic and gender violence). A happier childhood can give the possibility to children to be more fulfilled adults and create a more peaceful and equal world.
Jenny “What does ‘love in action’ look like to you?
My activism in the world is exploring what ‘Living well, Unwell’ means, and what healing and inclusion looks like for those of us going through this world in bodies with chronic and ongoing symptoms.) https://ofowlsandancestors.wordpress.com/
Sara, you wrote about responsibility, and then you have asked me ‘what does love in action look like?’
I suppose I’d start by thinking a bit about what that word ‘love’ encompasses – as it holds so, so much! And I think it gets used in a way that can feel idealistic, or vague and woolly, or naive. I know I can get irritated by hearing or reading a sort of ‘love is all you need’ perspective, that seems to ignore issues like social justice or power and privilege and oppression. So what does it mean to truly love? I think of the phrase ‘fierce compassion’ (not my words) and a sense that love can totally include fierceness and holding people to account. What does it mean to love someone who is so unhappy in their being and dysfunctional in their behaviour that they are seriously hurting others or causing damage? You ended your piece speaking about children. Parenting has been such a massive part of my life and it feels like a good place to learn from. Parenting consciously and presently has taught me about protectiveness, advocacy, boundaries, fear, respect, connection, safety, among other things. These aspects of love crop in my work around chronic illness too, in different ways…
Love in action looks like caring enough to step in but knowing when to step away and learning how to;
Love in action means being able to say no – and learning to hear no;
Love in action can be valuing others’ presence enough to make space to include them, whatever that means and even if we can’t relate to the things that are needed for that inclusion;
Love in action looks like being really clear about our own self-care – really radical self-care where we work to discern what our bodymind and soul need;
Love in action looks like coming back into our body and making peace with it – so that we can come into connection with others and with the world and the earth;
Love in action means courage – huge courage!
Basically, operating from a place of love means acting counter to most of society’s default ways of being – which come from a place of dominance and hierarchy and exclusion – and having a foundation of kindness, compassion, care, inclusion and valuing being as well as doing;
Love in action could be as fundamental as regulating our own nervous system, it could be as brave as challenging someone making offensive comments, it could be as expansive as taking the air fresheners out of our venue so that someone with chemical sensitivities can come to a group more easily;
And it means starting with ourselves, because we are part of the world and part of nature; the more we heal, the deeper that connection and the more our healing can impact others – and love in action is a feedback loop, I believe, where we are nourished too.
So, Sara, what does healing and self-care mean to you?
Sara Moon (she/they). Sara is an emerging Hebrew Priestess and co-founder of Miknaf Ha’aretz, a collective devoted to building wild, radical-diasporist multi-generational Jewish community in the UK. IG @jewdica
Thank you Jenny. This is a pretty live question for me as I emerge from a recent episode of a pretty serious depression. I’m still in a tender place and having to honour very intentional self-care routines to stay well. Such episodes are a part of my life and I have learnt to live in a way that enables me to straddle their interruptions through quite an elaborate scaffolding of self-care.
For me, healing and self-care is part of the justice we can make for ourselves in this broken world. Reclaiming that part of ourselves uncorrupted by the forces that have sought to belittle or destroy us. To re-build our souls.
Audre Lorde, the self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’ shares,
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
I don’t nearly face the same struggles Audre Lorde did but this sentiment rings so true and is applicable for all of us trying to survive amidst hetero-normative, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. And for me, self-care really does feel like an act of self-preservation though it’s taken me many years to get to this knowing. Especially as someone fiercely committed to social change and all too aware of the urgency of many struggles we face. How can I focus on myself when so much needs fixing? How can I turn my back on struggles I’m committed to? I have found this a hard line to tread. But discovered the hard way that I’m no good to the movement burnt out and exhausted!
And yet, for me, the journey of self-care can also be slippery. It can be tricky to find the balance, to know what efforts will topple me, what I can bear. And as I wrap myself up in a state of wellness and resource, suddenly suffused with a sense of joy, even liberation, am I deluding myself, when still, the material conditions of the world are still so unequal?
I wonder a lot about how to stay in the joy of self-preservation without dispelling the rightful rage, without destroying the fire that will propel us to act for justice… I think this also goes back to what you said Jenny about ‘fierce compassion’ and part of ‘love in action’ being to hold people to account. I think this must include ourselves too. I have found myself in recent years taking so much care to stay well I have felt I have not held myself to account enough to do the activism the world needs me to do….
It is so counter-intuitive to ‘do nothing’ as the world burns and so many struggles are raging. But for me, the journey of healing & self-care must be embedded into our activism. Not something we stop activism to do. This is a part of the ‘pre-figurative’ politics I believe in. That how we build is what we build. That we go at right pace. That we ‘do’ activism in a way that’s conducive not just to our long-term health and mental wellness but to regenerative, juicy & creative activism too.
For me, these are some of the ways I am bringing my full power to my life and activism.
Sophie, what do you need to be in your power?
Writer and changemaker inspiring parents to empower our children – and ourselves – to shape a fairer, kinder, more sustainable future. www.raisingrevolutionaries.co.uk Instagram: @raising_revolutionaries Facebook: @raisingrevolutionaries Twitter: @sophieblovett
Thanks for this, Sara. It’s a pertinent question for me right now as I feel like lately I’ve been struggling to inhabit that place of power, struggling to bring my whole self to the work I want – need – to be doing.
There’s a fine balance for me between pushing myself right to the edges of my capabilities to feel the fizz of energy that drives real and meaningful change, and sustaining that in a way that nourishes my soul’s energy rather than draining it.
I am certain there is little power to be found in comfort, in doing the things I’ve always done in a way that becomes unconscious: unthinking, unintentional.
The biggest catalyst to action for me was the transition into motherhood: the greatest physical challenge of my life, and one laden with spiritual and emotional challenges too. It still carries me now, still takes me to new and surprising places. But I comfortably inhabit that role of ‘mother’ now, so I have been sensing that I need something new.
And yet in seeking that there is still a place for ritual, particularly when it brings me out of my head and into my body.
I am recharged on a regular basis by the river, the icy waters searing my skin and cleansing my mind of the prickling anxiety that all too quickly takes over nowadays. There’s a clarity of purpose that comes in the minutes and hours that follow – it’s simultaneously familiar and unexpected.
It’s not just that physical effect either: there’s something about immersing myself so viscerally in the natural world that reminds me of the ecosystem that I’m a part of, that is a part of me.
There’s something about that ecosystem that is an integral part of my power.
Being in nature – by the sea, in the woods, on the moor. Tuning into the turning of the earth and the moon, honouring the seasonal shifts both outside and within me. Learning new old rhythms to replace the old new ones foisted upon us by the patriarchy.
Recognising too that humans are a part of nature, a part of the ecosystem that challenges and sustains me. And that the right humans are the ultimate source of empowerment.
We are not supposed to do this alone. And it is exhausting to always have to fight to be understood. It is so resourcing to be buoyed up by the explosive energy of like minds meeting, to hold each other in a cocoon of shared values and together find that place of stretch.
And on that note, Hannah, the question I’d love to ask is – have you found loving communities of resistance?
Hannah is a mother, a daughter, a football playing lover of the sea, the woods, books, words, and radical thought and action.
The short answer is yes.
The more complicated answer is that I have been aware of them for at least half of my life, felt drawn to them, felt very firmly outside of them. Sure they were for others, not for me.
There’s a lifetime of being willfully left out behind that certainty. I’ve discovered over the past few years that the people and the spaces that were not for me, were exactly that: they were the people and spaces that were not for me. And that just because they were not, it did not mean that there were no spaces or people for me.
So I became brave. I put myself out there in the spaces I felt a draw to and have found that not only are there loving communities of resistance there, but that I have what feels like a welcome place in them. It can be hard to trust the acceptance and welcome when I am on my own and my doubts creep in. But the sense of community and belonging grows all the time.
They are not just loving communities of resistance, but supportive and nurturing.
The sense of belonging comes not from open arms and a loving landing space (though when that has been needed, it has been there, and thankfully so), but from feeling like my own self, my thoughts, my own offers of support are valued and a part of a growing wholeness.
I have a part within the communities I have found, and they have a part in what I have found within me. And so the communities grow while I grow. Or I do while they do. Communities aren’t really found, they’re continually grown, but I am glad to have found that I have space within communities that are made up of people wanting to grow a world that I want to live in.
Rachel, where does love feature in your life and work?
I really hear you stepping into your bravery. Sharing how nourishing being part of a loving community of resistance feels to you echoes strongly in my own landscape of inner growth and outer change. The process of being brave, being safe and being connected has allowed me to strengthen my work from within and without, whilst recognising my own sense of connection growing all of the time.
Connection, for me, is what love is and is all about.
Since leaving my teaching career in mainstream education and journeying (both literally and metaphorically) down a different pathway, I have spent a lot of the past decade exploring and twirling in the delicate dance between being and doing. Almost every step I have taken off the mainstream pathway has felt a step into something more nourishing, more rewarding, more natural, more energising, more connected.
Teaching, learning, writing, travelling and journeying across the world and into my inner landscape, I’ve met love in many guises. I’ve learned to welcome the invitation to deepen my own sense of being love in balance with the love I give and receive. Learning how to dance lightly in this space has allowed me to strongly feel into the simple, universal power and value of connection.
Life’s logic springs through connection. We may be forgiven for believing that we’re all individuals out here doing our thing, but our singular lives only flourish because of all of the invisible webs of connection happening out of sight, allowing each of us to thrive. Like the mycelium networks in the soil, we’re all of us sharing, caring, feeding and resourcing each other, all of us part of infinite webs of connection, all of us thriving through a conscious and unconscious network of care. Of love.
Birthing a social enterprise focused on regenerating education for a thriving world has allowed me to land in a place wherein I am both practising and sharing the core values of love and connection on a daily basis. Through my work I am helping young people, educators, school communities, I’m working to help stitch back together the places and spaces many of us have become separated – from ourselves, from each other and from the rest of the natural world. My work is enabling and allowing people to remember how (and why) to love again: how to love ourselves, how to love each other and how to love the rest of the natural world.
I am living the ethos, values, offerings and focus of my work within my own life by living a life built on the foundations of conscious care: of self-care, people-care and earth-care. My life and work weave themselves together in a balance of being the change and doing the change by remembering how to be fully human and celebrate the interconnectedness of life. I feel I have landed fully into my soul’s purpose in a way that both nourishes myself and others in the process.
Jo, what is really at the heart of you and your work?
Jo is working with bold adhd genius for paradigm, change to grow resilience for children and young people in the face of climate crisis and all that it brings. https://www.jomcandrews.com/
Thank you for this question. It makes my heart sing and my belly squirm with excitement and discomfort. How can I find words to answer? Well, I can at least give it a good go!
At the heart of my work is a longing for life, love and peace. I see the pain of the world, the injustice, the destruction of life and I feel that pain in my own life, in my own body.
I am immersed in the study of human neurobiology, trauma, resilience and earth connection. I know what we need to live. I know how to solve climate change. I know what we need to live with respect and love on the earth into future generations. What a massively bold claim! This is at the heart of my work. I see what has gone wrong and I know how to put it right, and crucially, I am driven by urgency and longing to change the world.
My work has pretty much always been around supporting children and young people, to support their voice in the world, to advocate for their needs and to build networks of resourced adults who have the capacity to meet their needs. I have worked with bereaved children, then set up as a funeral director, put my heart and soul into creating community based unschooling projects, then trained many hundreds of education, health and social care professionals in understanding and meeting children’s basic needs for thriving.
At the heart of all that is the knowledge that childhood creates culture. It is not just that I want children to be happy, it is also that I know that everything an adult does and does not do, is rooted in their childhood, and that this in turn creates the systems that humans create. Warm care and love creates values of inclusivity and justice. Capitalism and colonialism depend on destroying this capacity to love and it is now destroying all life.
Now I am focussed on growing children’s resilience in the face of climate and social collapse. The stakes have never been so high. At the heart of all this is the sure and certain knowledge that humans need love to survive and to be able to honour the life of others. And the certainty that the systems of separation and domination that are the basis of our economic, political and social systems are stealing this from us and making us incapable of living fully.
So I see the connection between a mother, supported and valued by her community, smiling into the eyes of her baby, and the survival of life on earth. It is a direct link.
At the heart of my life and work is a longing to share the urgency of the change that is needed and to embody the qualities of clarity and compassion that is needed to make it happen. Love in action, together.
Emily, what are the most radical things you want to say to the world?
Thank you, Jo M, for your question and very moving piece “childhood creates culture” – I love and honour this.
In answer to the question, I will start with my reaction to the word radical. I feel like the word suffers from a bad reputation, and I initially let this construct get in my way. I read ‘radical’ and jumped to radicalised and thought extremism and the idea of the problems that came from fundamentalism rather than taking the positive perspective of the word ‘radical’. My subconscious walked me down the binary path that my conscious mind has been stepping away from and in this, I believe lies one answer to the question – I want to say to the world that humanity is not polaric and I feel this oppositional thinking is the cause of so much destruction, trauma and pain.
On a macro scale, the Earth has poles, creating a magnetic field and providing direction, which our Western post Enlightenment culture interprets as linear: north – south. So, we go from A to B in a linear fashion, often ignoring all the nuanced beauty in between. Yet, nature knows that the Earth is spherical, and the magnetic field creates a beautifully circular, all-encompassing spectrum.
On a meso scale, humanity has constructed the complications of ownership and dominance; have – have not. The fallout from this has created pretty much all the trauma humans live with and normalise, collectively and individually and as Jo M spoke about, this dominance has resulted in the separation from the Earth, from each other and I would like to add, from ourselves, wherein we find the micro scale.
The separation from ourselves is the (heart)breaking point. My radical position on this is that I want to have safe and consensual containers for everyone to express their deepest and darkest shadows, however radical or seemingly unacceptable they may be.
If adults can express this part of themselves, rather than be locked away, buried, suppressed under years of shame and conditioning, I believe people will be able to better accept their whole selves and love will ensue.
I have so much hope for the generation of children that witness this substantial healing. Their shackles will be so much less constricting, and their freedom will bring so much love.
So, in the Jo sandwich, I ask you Jo S: What practices do you use to help transform pain into power?
Jo Symes is the founder of https://www.progressiveeducation.org/ which is an online inspiration hub exploring alternatives to conventional methods in education. “Progressive Education Group” on Facebook; @ProgEducat on Twitter/Insta/Fb page
Thanks Emily, what a great question. Before I answer it, just to give you some context, my pain comes from the trauma around my sons’ experiences of starting school. They both became fearful of school, their lights went out and they lost their love of learning. They were in pain and so I was in pain. It continues to break my heart how our education system fails to put mental health/wellbeing, social justice and children’s rights at the core.
There are three things that spring to mind when I think about how I work to transform this pain into power:
- Putting my energy into something positive.
To quote bell hooks:
“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”
So in my work, rather than simply focusing on the problems and the criticisms of the education system, I strive to focus on raising awareness of more human centred alternatives to mainstream, as well as showcasing innovations within the state sector to celebrate the work of pioneering educators.
I aim to raise the profile of alternatives to conventional methods in education a) to help families who need something different now and b), to inspire change within the mainstream.
This work involves trying to normalise ‘radical’ approaches. I agree with you Emily when you say that the word ‘radical’ suffers from a bad reputation. In trying to normalise ‘radical’ approaches – such as unschooling or democratic, self-directed education – I steer clear from terminology like ‘radical’, ‘extreme’, and even ‘alternative’. These words make educational approaches which have their roots in social justice and children’s rights sound outrageous, ‘for others’, and irrelevant to the mainstream. I work hard to normalise these approaches as they are not extreme at all, they are simply common sense when you think about how children naturally learn, neuroscience, traditional indigenous communities and how humans have evolved. It is the conventional school system that seems outrageous, extreme and unnatural when you really think about it.
- Kindness. I think it’s important to try to be kind to all, even those with opposing views. In the spirit of trying to be the change we want to see, I don’t think we should shame or blame, and I don’t think it’s helpful to have a them and us culture and see people with opposing views as the enemy. Noone intentionally sets out to harm children or uphold outdated harmful practices.
- Self care and community. The most important thing which keeps me going is connecting with like-minded people. My facebook group has been my lifeline really, along with the Freedom to Learn Forum which I attended a couple of years ago, as well as connections with other social entrepreneurs and changemakers. I am particularly grateful for this retreat and being part of the Write On Changemakers community. Community and connection is key for me.
So, over to you Jai, how do you stay motivated as an activist?
Jai Breitnauer, journalist, mother, disability rights campaigner and daily adventurer. @Breitideas on Twitter
At one point in my life it was my choice to be an activist. But it is no longer true that I can choose. Activism is simply how I exist and my motivation is the quest for lived, equitable experience.
I grew up in a nice white family, in a nice white town, with all the assumed privilege that implies. I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, something my parents believed was about furthering my education to get a better job, or to gain more respect. I have no doubt that they enjoyed, and perhaps still do enjoy, telling people I have a degree and an MA from a well-regarded establishment.
I’d flirted with activism before university, but it was during the six years I spent studying that I really found the ability to question the world and my place in it. Before that, I had assumed being academic meant knowing all the answers. University taught me that academic rigour is having the confidence to acknowledge you don’t have any answers, and to seek them out with the help of others.
Still, as a young adult, I was able to pick and choose my causes. I joined the Socialist Worker movement, I protested the war in Iraq. I was part of an occupation relating to data sharing and breaches, and I joined numerous letter writing campaigns. All these causes were important to me but I wasn’t directly affected by the outcomes. I was an activist because it felt like it was my duty, to use my voice and my platform to speak for those who couldn’t. It was this feeling, this belief that motivated both my career in journalism and working in communications with not for profits.
It wasn’t until I had children that activism became daily life. It wasn’t until I became a mother that activism became my lived experience. That inequity became a reality for me that I needed to fight to live.
The beginning was childbirth, and the lies women are told to get them into hospital and on pain relief. The next reality was the hypocrisy of immigration rules. As my partner, willing to work but bound into unemployment by his visa, stood on the precipice of deportation, I cradled our child and wondered how we would pay the mortgage without him. Meanwhile the taxpayer continued to whine about having to support mothers like me while also whining about jobs for the British. The next target then, was the patriarchy, the root cause of the issues our family had been facing. I’ve always identified as a feminist, but once I truly understood the damage the patriarchy does to men, and I could align myself with the progression of all genders through the breaking down of misogynistic frameworks, I found myself free to make these arguments with clarity. The natural progression of anti-patriarchal work, is anti-capitalist work, and that is the moment you realise everything is connected.
But even when I am not actively activist, I am still an activist. My existence, as a neurodiverse woman, is an act of activism in its own right. And daily I fight for the supports needed so my autistic children can equitably access education, healthcare, leisure facilities … I fight not just for changes in welfare and statutory provisions, but in the necessary change to the social narrative that is needed to provide true accessibility. I don’t want people to ask what they can do to help effect positive change, I want people to understand they need help to change themselves.
This is the truth I have to speak simply to live and breathe. It isn’t my choice but it is my privilege.
So, J, what truth do you need to speak, and why are you the woman to speak it?
Unschooling mum of 2
The act of speaking my truth out loud and allowing others to hear or read it is terrifying for me. I am immediately flooded with thoughts of my voice being unworthy in a sea of voices which are already out there. There are already so many ideas, opinions and stories that it can be overwhelming at times to hear them all so what possible value can my truth offer?
But I am slowly beginning to see that hearing the truths of others can be a balm, a deep comfort, it has certainly been the case for me in times of deep pain. And this is why I am willing to speak my truth, in the hope that even one person may find some comfort and hope.
As a new mother, engulfed with advice, opinions and judgments from all angles and not knowing who to believe and what to do, I felt lost, lonely and unsure of myself – for almost 3 years. The ‘perfect mother’ that I tried to be and the ‘perfect life’ that I tried to create was not the life that my son needed. He resisted at every turn. He spoke his own truth loudly and clearly. It took me a while to hear it, and it was when my daughter was born that I could no longer ignore it. I broke down, I felt deep pain and it was the hardest and best thing that ever happened to me. I am eternally grateful to my son for this act.
I now know that the deep pain that had unravelled me was caused by a lack of freedom. As a stay at home mother, I had a role in society and I knew that it was highly judged but not valued and so I tried harder and harder to convince people of my worth. But it never worked. I was put in a box and I needed to stay there and I didn’t dare express all of the frustrations that this brought up in me.
And then I began to look around and see this story repeated over and over again with other mothers, everywhere I looked, throughout history and all around me. And then my scope widened and I began to see the effects of a lack of freedom everywhere, I couldn’t unsee the effects that it had on people. In those closest to me, those out in the wider world and in the stories of those who came before us. It was terrifying. Where freedom was lacking, no matter on how small a scale, I saw a missed chance for people to be their whole selves and when we can’t be our whole selves, then who are we? This seemed to me to be the cause of so much of people’s pain. How had I never noticed this before?
With the support of many wonderful people, mostly mothers themselves and this new realisation, I reclaimed myself and started to create a new structure for our family. One that was built on freedom, freedom for each of us to express ourselves fully. This thread of freedom is one I now weave into my life. It guides my decisions and my actions everyday and I now see many inspiring people all around me doing the same and the incredible things that stem from this. This finally brings me great peace and hope. This is at the heart of my work now and in the future. This is my truth.
And I want to ask you now Sophie, what is really at the heart of you and your work?
At the heart of me and my work is divine spirit. That is what I believe is at our core, and it is my reverence for this, that moves me to persist against all odds. It is life force. Pure light. A pool of it sits at our heart’s centre, and spans through our veins like rivers, streams and tributaries throughout our whole body. To our genitals, to our toes, to the tips of our fingers and to the tip of the nose. It is what makes us animate, what gives us life, where sound comes from. It’s desire is to run through us, down and into the earth, through the soles of our feet, or our asses, or whatever is closest to the ground.
And from above, from our heads, it wants to shoot up, into the sky. Into somewhere that feels like home, up there in the untouchable universe. A collective space, a collective pool, a place that feels safe and known, all embracing. A place from which we all come and all return. High high up in the sky, beyond anyone’s reach. Beyond anyone’s physical reach, that is.
We each have a birth right as a human creature on this planet to fully express ourselves in our divine glory. This is what I believe. And I want to see that right realised for each and every one of us. We are all needed. We are plants that want to grow, and we should be able to do so. To grow into the gnarly and/or smooth, ragged and/or lean, great and/or light potential brilliance that is embedded in us just like how a seed holds its own code to become manifest in its full glory.
Given, the sun, water, earth and air/loving care that it needs. Given the space that it needs, the cogent environment that knows what it is, that treats it like a plant and not like a fucking robot.
So the heart of my work, is to bring, or in the very least, not obstruct, those things: the light, the water, the nutrients of the soil, the fresh space and air. To bring the loving care. To hold the space for myself every day, and for others as much as I can manage.