Photo: El Centro de la Raza (on Beacon Hill) from Mount Baker Ridge Viewpoint, Seattle, Washington, U.S.(CC BY 4.0)
Roots & Remedies 19
Sally AlHaq, Egypt
12-14 July 2019
I am grateful for activist spaces that bring activism to its essence; no sophistry, just concrete actions for better realities. This was the state of mind I was in during the three days in Seattle as I attended The Praxis Project’s annual conference Roots & Remedies. The theme this year was Celebrating| Healing| Futuring. I travelled from Cairo to Seattle, invited by RESURJ, a Global-South led transnational feminist alliance that some of my favorite feminists love and work with to develop and channel their voices for our feminist movement building.
The conversations held there weren’t quite my reality. I am an African feminist with an Egyptian citizenship, and when they handed me over my visa to the US in the anxiety-filled embassy, it was accompanied by a “CONGRATULATIONS” from the embassy clerk. My mama even jokes about it: “you got permission to enter the heavenly land." I was quite happy getting my visa to be honest.
I say that these conversations weren’t really my reality because I was the only attendee from outside of the US. Although I must say, it was definitely the reality of activists that work on social justice. Activists committed to the journey, to the consequences of such a journey that include trauma and healing. Activists incorporating a lens to imagine and work towards a better future. And this is precisely what made me feel like I wasn’t such an outsider after all. The conference was diverse in terms of the diversity of participants from different ethnicities and different approaches of work in their communities focusing on different causes. Some of them were working on land rights, others on environmental justice, others on food justice, water justice, others on the LGBTIQ struggle, others fighting against racism.
The first day of the conference was about getting to know the activist political Seattle through local site visits. The city that is way too pretty. The city that is considered to be one of the wealthiest. The city of AMAZON headquarters and the first ever built Starbucks. The city that is also a gentrified city with a noticeable presence of homeless population and evident housing injustice. The city that drove some of its less privileged inhabitants to leave as if they did not belong anymore.
I chose to go to El Centro De La Raza (The Center For People of All Races), which is a hub for the Chicano community, an educational, cultural, and social service agency, headquartered in the former Beacon Hill Elementary School on Seattle's Beacon Hill. We toured the place with the executive coordinator who has been working since his teenage years in this place. While on the tour he told us all about the center’s history: it beautifully began with a peaceful occupation of an abandoned school in 1972. It lasted for three months and led to them owning the center and its land. It has a park, and a building they built themselves in 2015 for affordable housing after the rent crisis in Seattle. It contains 110 units and housing for 350 + people.
The conversations within the tour led to a question that opened the first plenary of R&R, the question was for Estella Ortega of El Centro De La Raza from Xavier Morales; “Did you envision what would it be today when you occupied the school in the 70s?”
Estella’s reply was: “we didn’t envision this, there was an explosion of creativity happening with our commitment to the work, we had to struggle, we had to occupy, to build our own institution and we did a very good job knowing that there is no work beneath you and that it is hard work.” Estella participated in the occupation of 1972 and started directing El centro after Roberto Maestas’ death in 2010. El Centro not only serves the Latino community but also any community that is less privileged. I walked into the place, its walls were covered with murals from different artists representing different backgrounds. I stumbled upon an Arabic word here and there, it warmed my heart as the tortured editor in me noticed that an Arabic sentence was written from left to right.
Together with Estela Ortega, the first plenary had Mike Tulee (United Indians of All Tribes), Pradeepta Upadhyay (InterIm CDA), Violet Lavatai (Tenants Union of Washington), and Gregory Davis (Rainier Beach Action Coalition). All of them talked about the uniqueness of the Seattle movement, and its multiraciality and their resistance to POC being kicked out of the rich city as their neighbourhoods got gentrified. In our late night walks, we were excited about the city and its bars. We also joked (from a millennial perspective) about how instagramable and hipster certain areas were. But also acknowledged that that is what gentrification looks like. We couldn’t unsee the violence of the streets through its homeless inhabitants.
The first day was about celebrating the movement, the second was devoted to healing; the highlight of this second day was Albino Gracia, a community activist that works on violence prevention, cultural diversity, and positive youth development. He talked about trauma, the radicality to heal, and what intergenerational trauma is. He finished with a powerful statement:“ I don’t want my grandchildren to be loyal to my trauma”. The second day continued with workshops on self-care ( Deep Breathing and forming your Warrior Stance, Relief Dances with Renee Chavez, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, Kitchen Divas”. I joined the divas to play with mangos, jalapeños and beans.
The organizing of the conference was in itself political, as we were hosted in the venues of the political sites we visited all over Seattle. The third day was dedicated to futuring in the Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. The Center is a land base and a beautifully built space for native Americans in Seattle, overlooking the waters of the city and located in the magnificent discovery park. The wrap up of the conference was brief but reflective of the previous two days and it ended with an ongoing conversation on imagining the future of the movements, and an exercise of revisiting certain years and mapping its main events and its political effect. In my group, there was a conversation about 9/11 and Islamophobia… As someone who comes from the MENA region and grew up in a politically changed world after 9/11, it was clear to me how American-centric the conversation was. I perceived a lack of idea of how and what the world is outside of the US and the impact of 9/11 on the Middle East. Witnessing this conversation brought back the feeling of being an outsider. It also brought a feeling of uneasiness and a question (or a desire) of a fair representation about what is outside of the US and the power of its government on less powerful countries.