Zubaida Bai is designing for women in the developing world

Meet The product engineer encouraging the education and awareness of women's healthcare.



Zubaida Bai has a mission to educate women about safer practices and encourage them to be self-aware throughout their reproductive life cycles. Bai founded Ayzh (pronounced “eyes”) in 2010, a social enterprise which originated with her birth kit, JANMA, designed to prevent infection during childbirth for women in developing countries. JANMA, meaning ‘Birth,’ is a purse containing the “basic, clean tools” needed for safer childbirth. As a mother herself, she understands how important it is to have the safest possible medical care.

Bai was initially responding to maternal mortality rates in the developing world where poor hygiene practices meant that mothers and newborn babies died from infection. According to UNICEF, 800 women die of preventable causes during pregnancy or childbirth every day, 20 percent of whom are from India. By selling JANMA for only three U.S. dollars, Bai and her team have been able to reach mothers in 20 developing countries. Not only are the people at Ayzh saving lives, they also crafted something beautiful––the desirable packaging, a purse––in the process.

For Bai, the purse packaging design was of the highest importance, as it is intended to be kept by the new mother. Bai believes that the birth kit will create a behaviour change, and that this change in turn will encourage more women to use this product. This will undoubtedly mean that more lives will be saved. Bai has said that the purse often becomes “a symbol of prosperity” for mothers. When talking about her encounters with the mothers who have given birth using JANMA, Bai spoke of one woman, who asked, “Will you give me a different colour when I have my next baby?”

With the benefit of hindsight, she understands that we need to be educated and prepared for all eventualities in life as much as possible. Bai makes the valid point that “when we in the western world don’t think about such things, we are made to think about such things.” Bai wants to see young women who are aware of the risks, and who can then take preventive measures to make sure they can live happy and healthy lives. With this goal in focus, Ayzh has started to develop products which, Bai hopes, will improve women’s health from the menstrual cycle through to menopause.

Are there universal misconceptions about women’s health?

ZB: Many people believe they don’t know what they need and what are the right products for them. The biggest problem with that is you don’t engage the stakeholder group you are developing for and that definitely needs to change–– it’s a big issue.

If the majority of women are comfortable discussing sexual health with other women, why is it still such a taboo, and why are there still these misconceptions?

ZB: The majority of women are willing to discuss with other women, and I think a lot of people designing products are still men … [Men are] amazing designers [but] there are not many women out there who are actually taking action on what they’re hearing. There is a lot of the community talking around health but is that translating to a service, product or even policy to help them get what they need? I think that’s the larger problem.

Historically, has childbirth been a dangerous procedure for women across the world? And is this still an issue today?

ZB: It has always been an issue. Maternal mortality is not a known issue, even for the developing world. I think a lot of people come to the realisation and wake up to the fact when they have an issue during childbirth. I see a lot of women raise their voices after they experience an issue, but then do these women also know that there are … thousands of women on the other side of the world that have no access to what we have, and that’s the gap. As much as we talk about maternal health as a topical issue, I don’t think it has been treated as one because of the kind of services available in different parts of the world. Even today, when I go to investors, you get a blank stare because not many of them have even thought of this as an existing issue.

For a lot of people it’s like, ‘Ok, women have been giving birth for …forever! What’s so complicated about it?’ I feel like that awareness is missing and in my mind I have come to the realisation that it’s such a spiritual process, not only for the mother, but also for the baby that is born; and that spirituality is lost as the baby grows up. Engagement doesn’t stay alongside [the child’s growth] and that’s probably why the disconnect is happening. We don’t speak about the process unless you want to go to a medical school and want to do that as a specialty.


Why has it taken so long for attitudes and procedures to change?

ZB: It’s how much priority you lay on it, right? People are trying to add the economic or dollar value to the life-cost of a mother.  When you add a dollar value to the impact of the next generation [such as] the health of the child as the child grows up, [this] starts affecting the future workforce and economy of people. Those numbers are now being calculated and that’s bringing a much larger-scale awakening of the issue.

Also, involving men in [the] maternal health movement is pretty recent. I was listening to the story that someone told me about African men, that it’s not considered a male characteristic to go with the woman for childbirth. How do you change that equation? Make it more about, not male culture, but engage them and bring them to the clinic. Somebody was telling me that men would come to the [clinic] if they could play soccer games in the waiting room! It’s deeply embedded in the cultures of different countries, so a woman becomes [excluded] from the emotional support she needs, and I don’t think men are aware of the issue. The man, even in the developed world, only knows the importance of this when he is intentionally involved through the process, and that is what is missing.

The whole missing link is many women speaking about the issue. Not many women speak about maternal health.

What is it about childbirth that makes it so dangerous?

ZB: Childbirth itself is not a dangerous thing. It’s not something to be scared about as long as you know what you’re going through.  The problem is the lack of education and awareness of getting into the process. Me, being an educated women with my first, I hardly knew anything about being pregnant. I read a lot about it through my pregnancy, [and that] was good, but also like shooting an arrow at the dark. When you plan your business, when you can plan your life, you also have to plan childbirth. You have to understand what you’re getting into and what are the potential things that could go wrong. … It’s about what you know about it, and how you plan for it.

What was the initial response from local communities, doctors and nurses when you started your research?

ZB: The more and more I spoke to women, the more I got to know how ignorant they were about the basic things. If I had gone into it without being a mother, I probably wouldn’t have known what they [were] going through.  It was when a lot of women looked at each other and said, ‘So, what is infection?’ [and] ‘What is she talking about?’

It’s the lack of awareness of your own [body]–– nobody teaches you about your reproductive health lifecycle. A lot of women, when they hit menopause, they have no clue what’s happening. It’s something they should have known because it’s going to come and it has to come, but how many of us know about it earlier on and how many of us are prepared for it?

People [going] through childbirth is nothing new… we in the western world don’t think about such things. We are made to think about such things. It’s similar in childbirth and in different cultures: we have to educate them from a perspective that they will understand.


Your products are safe to use, desirable, sustainable, and cost-effective. With design constraints pertaining to production, sanitation, sustainability and waste, how did you know which elements to prioritise?

ZB: From the beginning, the key thing that came out was the packaging. That’s something that would lighten up every woman’s eye. They really want to see something beautiful, something that was useful. … The biodegradability was something we had to bring in because 70 percent of the waste in [the] Indian medical industry is because of packaging. There [are] a lot more aspects that are still design constraints in terms of making every component in the kit environmentally friendly, but then the larger medical manufacturing sector [did] not allow us to do that. We had to pick our battles.  We had to prioritise the top three things which, for us, were the ethics of the product, the price, [and] the impact and usefulness of the product.

Could you share a story about a new mother who benefited from a birth kit?

ZB: A woman was talking about having a birth–– usually in these remote areas, when the birth happens, the placenta and all the blood is collected in a plastic bucket which looks more like a trash bin. She was like, ‘It kind of makes me feel dirty when that happens,’ but, when the kit came in, she [said], ‘This was giving me a more dignified birth. I knew everything was clean around me, and the baby was well taken care of.’

We’ve realised that no woman on whom the birth kit is used perceives it as a medical product. She perceives it as a respectful childbirth or a “dignified” childbirth. We can sell the product to the hospitals and healthcare workers with the medical benefits, but, for the mother, it comes down to a dignified birth, which is what she wants.

As a product developer and engineer by trade, have you faced any personal difficulties in your field, as a woman?

ZB: I remember when I used to go for a field trip, we were designing the product, and I had my second child. He would travel with me all the time because he was being breastfed. I would always face this comment from men saying, ‘You’re not being fair to your child.’ I started travelling when my child was probably less than a month old. [I said] ‘I’m being absolutely fair to him because I’m breastfeeding him, and he’s travelling with me, and that’s all he needs, right? He’s with me.’

The person I’m not being fair to is myself, not the child. I’m taking a lot of pain and effort to give the child what the child deserves. I think it’s a very Indian, African issue and not necessarily a western world issue. I am not advocating that women should go into this world when they have little babies–– they definitely should take a rest! I just feel like the world is not fair to women who are out there trying to do their thing, and [doesn’t] respect them for what they’re doing.


Besides life-threatening childbirth procedures, what are the next big challenges you're looking to take on?

ZB: There is a lot. We said ‘Ok, we’re not going into dangerous procedures, we are going to the root cause of why maternal mortality is happening.’ The biggest issue is that women are not talking about the beginning of the lifecycle, and if [women are] not given the appropriate tools and education, then… we have maternal and neonatal health issues. As of this year we decided to enter the menstrual hygiene space. We want to be able to provide the product along with the education of basic hygiene. The adolescent girls today are going to be mothers in the next decade, and that’s where you’ll really see the impact. From a long-term impact perspective, we decided that, instead of going into menopause or family planning, we should start in the beginning and that’s what we’re doing right now.

How have mainstream medical manufacturers responded to your projects?

ZB: We still considered medical supplies and medical equipment. We do work with the industry. The manufacturers who manufacture this project like that they are engaging with a product that is creating impact because usually they supply to hospitals. I see that they liked being engaged with us and they check in on us. It’s a good relationship overall; we aren’t competing with them. In fact, we are using their expertise in terms of manufacturing. It’s more a collaborative process than anything. If we had decided to manufacture every component of the kit ourselves, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We had to explore and work with the ecosystem that already existed in a way that benefits them and us. That was also a part of the design process.

Have there been developments in women’s healthcare since you started your work that interest you?

ZB: There is a lot happening in women’s health. The one thing that interests me very dearly in terms of the investment landscape is a new device that has come out––the gynaecological speculum––which has been designed by women. So, instead of the metal speculum that’s been used, there is this new speculum [that] is less painful.

What do you hope to achieve with your range of products, now that they have been successful in advancing medical procedures in women's health?

ZB: We are moving on from just the maternal health issue to looking at women’s health as one reproductive health lifecycle. We are starting with menstrual hygiene, going on, all the way up to postpartum hygiene. Over the next few years, we hope to include products in family planning and menopause as well. We aspire to be a company that focuses on women’s health overall by providing products, services and education at different points of intervention throughout life. [Women] can associate with the brand, trust the brand and come to us with any need that they have. At least at this point, that’s where we aspire to go.

As equality in the workplace and various disciplines slowly becomes more of a reality, do you think designing feminine hygiene products and services should only fall to women, who understand women’s needs and bodies?

ZB: I’m not averse to men being involved in the process, but we are here and talking about this issue because it has been primarily men [in the industry]. Even the wings [on] sanitary pads [were] designed by a man. The concept came from a woman.

I am not averse to men designing the products, but I am averse to women not being involved in the physical creation process. There are certain issues that women need to take the lead and talk about. For example, the metal speculum: it has been in existence and we all never spoke about it until a group of women came and said, ‘Let’s do this!’

That’s what I’m talking about–– this is women taking the lead in the process. It’s ok to partner with a male colleague, but it needs to be vetted by a woman because it’s her on whom the product is going to be used.

Ayzh has recently launched their Kanya 1=1 campaign for their chlorine free sanitary pads. Simplicity, dignity and equality are the drivers behind this campaign with a slogan of “when you buy Kanya, you give Kanya”. For every pack of Kanya we buy, the same amount is sent to a girl in need. This campaign and the all of the work that Ayzh creates is always educating and encourage an awareness of our own bodies.

NOTE: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Author portraits by Amber Phillips. Amber is originally from Bristol, UK but currently living in Melbourne, Australia. She is a digital illustrator. Inspired by people, animals and the world around, her illustration draws from the concepts of culture, family and friends.

The Feminine Rising

An intimate conversation with yoga therapist and women’s wellness teacher, Tina Nance, about the masculine origins of yoga and how to reconnect effectively with the body.

Women’s wellness teacher and yoga therapist, Tina Nance, teaches a potent and embodied class at Bali’s famous Yoga Barn in Ubud – the so-called “spiritual capital” of the east. Coming from an inquisitive background myself, I was interested in exploitation, authenticity and the effects that the rising yoga industry and expat communities are having on local populations in these yoga destinations around the world. After feeling intensely moved and inspired by Tina’s practice, and witnessing the diverse women spontaneously converging into a sharing circle after each class to offer their insights and discuss personal issues, I needed to find out more.

As I sat down to chat with Tina on one of the many daybeds dotted around the tropical paradise of the Yoga Barn, I couldn’t help but feel her energy: She is strikingly beautiful, with long brown hair, piercings and a cleopatra-esque confidence that oozes sensuality, ease and a powerful femininity. It took a while to get this sought-after teacher on her own, but she was more than happy to share her story.

Aptly named “Women’s Balancing Yoga,” this specific class values what Tina calls the “feminine, yin qualities” that have been “over-yanged” in a system that often favors men. In a world where value and worth  are “entirely in the masculine,” Tina believes that we have moved on from the need to assert our energies in “masculine” forms like extreme physical exertion, aggressive attitudes and long working hours. She describes the toxicities that modern living has plagued us with such as excess sugar, stress, xenoestrogens from plastic, and mercury exposure. All of which create a confusion within our bodies. And significantly, these lifestyle stresses are causing an inhibitory effect on the female reproductive system, according to several studies from the Journal of Reproductive Immunology. Tina’s response to all of this was to create a re-balancing and gentle practice of self-care.

‘Women’s Balancing Yoga’ is Tina’s response to what she calls “the feminine rising”––women “wanting to re-empower themselves,” to be seen fully for their worth as individuals. We are seeing ourselves as whole people, already complete. We already know what we need to do, we just might need someone to spark that body-remembrance.

With a background in wisdom traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.)––which Tina refers to as each sharing a “masculine lineage”––I wondered what inspired her to focus on the significance of reconnecting women to their feminine nature of being. Tina explains, “Yoga has been birthed from men: it has been written by men and taught by men. The wisdom traditions we know today have been brought to us through a male’s perspective. Not only have we assumed these traditions, but we have also misinterpreted aspects of our innate human qualities in the chaos of our daily lives. This causes an imbalance in all aspects of our lives.” But the question is – if we agree that this is the case, how can we change this, or at least become aware of it? How can we tap back into our feminine nature whilst exercising a practice that was formed through a masculine lens?

``Yoga has been birthed from men. It has been written by men and taught by men. The wisdom traditions we know today have been brought to us through a male’s perspective.``

Tina advocates that we are both feminine and masculine, but says that this has been overlooked in wisdom traditions like Yoga. This is one of the many reasons that she opts for a mindful practice of baring ourselves down to our inherent connection with mother earth through a practice of drawing in on ourselves and feeling what our body feels. It’s a yoga that honours both the “divine” feminine and masculine qualities necessary for a balanced life experience. However, Tina informs me that she is “less attached to the idea of masculine and feminine because it eventually has a glass ceiling” – it’s limiting. Yin and Yang, she believes, have less gender bias and more space, and, I will add, are inherently interconnected. The basic meaning of the duality symbol of yin/yang (light/dark, sun/moon, positive/negative charge, and so on) is that one cannot exist without the other in the natural world. Just like feminine/masculine. Certain aspects of masculine behaviour, she says, if unattended to, can result in “unconscious” behaviours that remove us further from our “true essence” and inherent conscious masculine and conscious feminine:

“These are generalisations, but we could say that the unconscious masculine looks like disassociation and numbness, and the conscious masculine looks like resting in equanimous awareness of everything as it is,” she said. “These are two very different things, but they often look the same.”

Tina views the “unconscious feminine” state as being “identified with emotion.” For her, this means identifying strongly with a story or a feeling, and viewing it as part of oneself, instead of  seeing it for what it is: a separate entity that can come and then go as quickly as it arises. For Tina, “the conscious feminine” state is “feeling everything and being informed by that communication.” In other words, we consciously respond, rather than allow the emotion to take over and be viewed as part of our identity. There is a distinction between feeling anger, for example, and being an angry person.

Creating a fusion of the ancient traditions of Indian yoga, Traditional Chinese Medicine philosophy and intuitive techniques, Tina’s class is eclectic. It’s aim is to “calm the nervous system and promote the flow of blood and chi [energy] into specific endocrine glands and organs that play a key role in a woman’s hormonal balance.”. It is her way of supporting women who are experiencing reproductive and hormonal imbalances––which she refers to as “just the tip of the iceberg.” (The iceberg of the suppression and detachment of the female body due to the past two thousand years of predominantly patriarchal rule.) This, she said, has removed our “connection to the body, to sex––sensuality and sexuality––and connection to the earth.” These qualities, which Tina views passionately as “feminine,” were not only removed but “shamed.”

Place your toes together, spread your knees wide and sit back towards your heels.
Place a bolster underneath your torso and relax into it.

Using the anchor of the body as more than “just preparation for meditation” is essential for this feminine practice. For Tina, this means coming into “direct contact with the fact that mind, body and spirit are inseparable.” Also known as the ‘bodymind’ intelligence in alternative philosophy, this notion views mind/body/emotions/spirit as an integrated whole for which every experience is stored in the body. Tina began listening to her body, “allowing it to speak, and it to direct [her] practise.”

“I just wait for the body to be moved, rather than the other way around – like spontaneous dance where something starts to happen through us,” said Tina. “I don’t really know a step-by-step process. It’s a result of embodiment, consciously being here more.” She listens, and her body takes over, she said. “This whole dynamic current of energy moving through our body that knows exactly where to go and how to awaken the body, I would describe that as feminine.”

``This whole dynamic current of energy moving through our body that knows exactly where to go and how to awaken the body, I would describe that as feminine.”

By directing her practice and teaching through a therapeutic lens, Tina employs the meridian pathways system of Traditional Chinese Medicine. This therapy maps out energy lines running through the body, working with “different organs, thought frequencies, emotions, fascia and connective tissue.” And so, Tina’s balancing class promotes a restorative, gentle and receptive yoga of presence. The objective is to ease the discomfort caused by hormones and menstrual cyclespremenstrual syndrome, fatigue, mood swings, anxiety, depression, cramps. The effect is immense.

During the 90-minute class, her meditative commentary allows students to be present as she paints a picture of the mind as a clear blue sky, whereby thoughts are clouds, just passing by, always changing, always moving. Because of its restorative focus, students are given various yogic ‘props’––a strap, bolster, blocks and a blanket––and set up in various five-to-ten-minute-long postures. My favourite of these is the hip-opening Supta Baddha Konasana. For this posture, also known as Reclining Bound Angle Pose, you lie on your back with the soles of your feet pressed together, knees spread wide, with a bolster (a long, thick pillow) underneath your torso.

We store tensions in our bodies, particularly the hips, so these hip-openers––pervasive in restorative styles of yoga––are also said to be home to meridian pathways connected to certain hormones; specifically, the hormones that may be out of balance for women. Understandably, holding these asanas for lengthy periods of time gently forces us to pay attention to the areas of our bodies, and our lives, that have perhaps been neglected. They also allow a refreshed flow of energy to run through our bodies. Double whammy.

Tina’s all-female class offers an example of why “being around a sisterhood, around other women [who] support what you are doing, is so important.” Just like my own journey to this class from the other side of the world, and just like Tina’s story, she says, “women are finding their voice and that’s a rising––initially through a curiosity and then through an exploration.” The “tiara-wearing, superficial goddess culture” concerns her. She worries that people see that which is louder and on the surface, and go on to make assumptions that can devalue the depths of the feminine work that is actually taking place.

Reclined Bound Angle pose with bolsters.
Lie back, place the soles of your feet together, and spread your knees wide. Place cushions under your knees, a bolster under your back and a pillow under your head. Ease into the pose and rest.

Despite some very obvious tendencies for Westerners to bombard a good thing and potentially limit the inclusion of a country’s locals (think party strips on the beach, alcohol abuse, etc.), Bali is also home to some very popular and authentic yoga studios run by Balinese teachers. These teachers incorporate their traditional Hindu practises of worship alongside traditional yoga styles, and some offer discounted rates for locals. Perhaps this is their response to the “rising” that Tina describes. And during the Eat, Pray, Love stage of my own path of self-discovery in 2017, like Julia Roberts, I too ended up in Bali. But, it’s safe to say that regardless of the movie’s cringe-worthy, patronising and predictable nature, the film got one thing right: Bali is a very special place, with appeal to the spiritual seeker from the West. In Ubud, in particular, there is a genuine integration of faithful yoga communities––communities seeking to respect and learn from the peaceful culture of the Balinese. There are also those that are authentically growing to explore this feminine rising. And this, Tina strongly believes, can “burn through any bullshit.”

Legs up the wall pose.
Lay on your back with your bum a few inches from a wall.
Place a bolster under the hips and rest your legs against the wall. Relax.

Thankfully, it’s not necessary for everyone to undergo intense training, or travel to Bali, to benefit from these ideas. The real wealth of what Tina, and many other women all over the world, are exploring and sharing is this idea that we can come back into our bodies anytime, anywhere. We have the power. We can take comfort in the fact that there is a whole world of women unlocking their potentials through re-connection within their bodies. Through a re-awakening of what may lay dormant for today’s modern woman. We can practice daily self-awareness and care, on our mats, in our beds, at our desks, on the bus. The options are  limitless. “It’s so exciting!” Tina says, smiling. “It doesn’t take much to inspire women.”

Illustrations by the author.

Author portraits by Amber Phillips. Amber is originally from Bristol, UK but currently living in Melbourne, Australia. She is a digital illustrator. Inspired by people, animals and the world around, her illustration draws from the concepts of culture, family and friends.

On Protesting: The Impossibility of Justice Needs Antifa

Photographs by Sara Rose
Photographs by Sara Rose

Black political action pursues an impossible object.
—Calvin L. Warren, Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope

After attending a Charlottesville preparation workshop, I learned the following: do not rub your face after being pepper-sprayed, do not separate from your group, and do not engage the Nazis. We received our list of essentials to accompany our exposed, shaky nerves:

A change of clothes
Johnson Baby No-Tear Shampoo
Vital info and numbers on your body
Coordinates for a meetup point
Emergency contact

At the same workshop, my myopic view of white supremacy expanded: there were over 18 hate groups we learned about—each having geometric, distinct symbols, colors, handshakes or gestures. There is a lot of phoenix-esque imagery in supremacist symbols like eagles, chickens, and other birds aflame. Triangles, arrows, and the confederate saltire (diagonal cross) are boastful in their regalia too. Later, I even learned how their memorabilia is bound to the Middle Ages, Crusades, and even African symbolism. I sneered at their irony of using tribal and the Flying African parable in their quest for terror. Strangely, I learned the A-ok hand symbol is a white supremacist gesture––regardless of writing  contrary to this––as I was thrown the symbol by multiple men.

Importantly, this was the workshop where I first learned about the antifascist or antifa group. Confusingly, this is not a concrete organization, but rather a shared, far-left belief system held by various activists (even internationally) who periodically convene to oppose Nazi rallies and to provide protesters with protection. For example, individuals from the Redneck Revolt or Democratic Socialist Association (DSA) can be part of the antifa network while still upholding and carrying membership for their respective organizations. Antifa members are socialists, anarchists and communists who research, expose, and confront Neo-Nazis. They were there at the Charlottesville protest and protected myself and others from incendiary harm and even fatality.

The evening before the protest, I had a DSA and antifa member from Arkansas stay at my home. I received a text from a friend that someone needed rest and wanted to caravan with others. I got his name, cleared it with other leaders and opened my door. We talked about his entry into organizing and struggles with mental wellness. He loved Rosa Luxemburg and The Art of the Impossible and grappled with the bravado of violence when I poked the reminder of gender and trauma protection politics in their creed of masculinized protection. We had a professor in common and both liked peanut butter and banana sandwiches. He was not the wayward, bored student Trevor Noah depicted in his unfortunate critique of antifa. He was white. He was also fragile and angry like we all are right now––at least the latter. And because the protest is a vulgar but urgent spiritual practice, this deeply confessional space elongated at the rally with others who talked about their origin stories and wounds. I learned about activists already arrested, assaulted by the police, coming to the protest to affirm their power against police brutality. These people could save your life so you might as well tell them why you got into this work—from Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) family members’ influence to partner rape and abuse.

At the C-ville protest, I marched with Antifa members, veterans’ groups, trans activists, college students, Black Lives Matter, feminist groups, religious officials and several other communities. And we looked out for each other—warned each other which streets were dangerous, where to find restrooms and where to refuel. We argued about whether or not shouting We Love You to Nazis was patronizing, diminishing to ourselves.

But of course, confronting your oppressor at a protest comes with dire and even fatal outcomes. I witnessed two white supremacists punch a woman in the face. Her hand did nothing to stop the wound pouring through her fingers while hordes of protesters—including antifa members—dived into the crowd protect or enact vengeance. I couldn’t look at the devastation; the last thing I remember was someone breaking the pole holding their confederate flag in half, over a knee, raising the stick as a weapon while the state police came marching over. But everyone in that fight lived. After, an antifa woman started to hand out homemade shields made with wood, rubber and nails and I quickly took one.

Not too long after that assault, and when the police shoved Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer away, we left. We were tired, swampy but joyful, feeling that emotion one experiences when standing up to a bully, a mythical monster, or one’s abuser. It was especially rejuvenating as I have never confronted my relationship abusers before in courts or at a police station or even face-to-face.

But then Heather Heyer was murdered.

The days after any protest are usually exhausting and reflective; however, the days after C-ville threw our souls out. I couldn’t stop sleeping and felt this warm, angular wrath when the media started to focus on the “violent and radical” antifa . The focus was off. I understand why there have to be two wrong sides because binaries or linearity is calming for folks, and people sitting on fences can avoid choosing action, but it steadfastly remains that we were and are still under attack. Antifa didn’t murder someone. A white supremacists killed Heather Heyer. He killed her, and injured many others, in daylight.

What’s frightening is that I understand the process and aftermath of Heather’s death. It’s not shocking because I’ve witnessed such racialized ire before. The desire to circumvent and focus on antifa instead of white supremacists is also not shocking. There’s something banal and now just borderline comforting concerning the death of the marginalized. Through the right-wing media gaze, Heyer received the same treatment as Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland––her life an omen to the righteous white: this death was necessary because [insert victim] would have been a threat to your joy. What I truly don’t understand is the level of denial and disregard of what survival looks like in this political climate. To pursue an impossible object—like justice—in an absurd world, you need those who value antifa principles. And even then, I have to accept I will always lose whatever battle I imagine.

When I told my father the preparation and planning for the Charlottesville protest, he said “it sounds like you’re preparing for war.” When he tried to talk me out of going, I told him “Dad, they’re killing me anyway. I don’t want to go back. I’m not going back. I deserve to be healthy and they deserve my confrontation.” But I’ll never be healthy protesting and demanding my humaneness because I’m fighting for an impossible object.

After reading right and even leftists critiques on antifa, I sought out the man who I spent time with at the protest. We separated and I saw him from afar, his bandana over his face, his arms up and out like his chest and his blood. I stayed away from him because I knew he was there for protection and confrontation and I didn’t want to be near the violence, but now I needed to be close to him—at least briefly to ask about issues of gender, violence and other distress I picked up from antifa critiques. Although he offered to use his real name, as he was pictured on CNN and has been outed by white supremacists on their platforms, I want to respect the slight anonymity he still has in this movement, and will only refer to him by his initials throughout this piece. There was a lot we couldn’t talk about, but I especially didn’t want to approach the death of Heather because it was clear everyone was tender and grieving.

Here is our exchange.

KW: Can you tell me a little more about antifa and its mission?

MS: There’s no hierarchy whatsoever and it’s really a tactic as well as any. I wish we could just call it antifascists or antifascist action which is actually what it was originally called. I mean really, it’s a tactic which I’d like to kind of briefly and concisely explain into two things: No platform for white supremacy because white supremacy is violence. Secondly, any expression of white supremacy is a form of hate and actual violence and we will confront that.

KW: How do you organize with locals? From various sources and readings, I see you all clash with local organizers or work on their behalf. Can you explain that dynamic and relationship?

MS: Now because antifa is a tactic, it works as a community strategy. That’s how we describe it amongst ourselves: above all else it is community defense. And you know that’s why I wanted to reach out to you all when I went to Charlottesville or when I went to Virginia—so you know that’s as close to locals as I could. In Arkansas, for example, is the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan and in the past few years they’ve had really really big and successful Pride Parades and a lot of antifascist activists who wanted to get out to confront the Klan whom we knew was going to be there. And the liberal groups told us our presence would make them feel less safe because they would have to suffer the consequences, so we stood down. It’s a lot more than just punching cops.

KW: Because antifa is known so much for physical violence and reaction, I caution to ask about gender dynamics and values. Can you explain that to me?

MS: I really believe the most effective and wisest and intuitive leadership comes from the women in our group and that didn’t happen because we decided it…it just happened. I think in organizing it’s just kind of the nature of horizontal decision making––women get a better voice.

I believe egalitarian structures are inherently matriarchal and that’s one of the most inspiring things about this approach to coalition and organizing.

The women in our group are the best at sensing trouble. They’re the best at predicting what’s going to happen next, like reading the more liberal groups that are maybe collaborating with police…they might be trouble. There’s just all types of people we have to watch out for. For [women] it’s just very spur.

KW: How has your life changed now from organizing?

MS: At this point, I’ve been doxxed and identified by many fascist groups as to where to find me. I’ve been sent pictures of my mother’s face. You know I was sent a satellite view from my house and a photograph of my front door and stuff like that.

KW: What provisions do you all or can you all take for safety?

MS: Well you know actually I don’t want to give away any tactics for you, but I would like to explain the covering of the face. You know most people see that and they say why are you wearing a mask. You know why. Well because I don’t want to be identified by fascists because they will terrorize me, but that just goes in one ear and out the other. Certainly you know baby boomers they think wow your face is covered. You must be up to no good. Then there’s the technology aspect and FBI attempting to infiltrate our chat groups. It’s never-ending anxiety and paranoia but we have a pretty good intuition.

KW: What else would you want people to know about DSA, antifa and other underground groups?

MS: Like before, we’re not just cop-punching folks. I’m on medication for sleep and a mood disorder and, I like, I can’t sleep if I don’t get that medicine, but if something happens with intervention or violence, why is it that the police are the first people to show up?

And I know in some places like in Charlottesville, for example, they told me that the police don’t have training, but, you know what, social workers are the ones that are solving domestic disputes. Now, I understand that you can’t have social workers doing that kind of work, but there’s an education neglect there. Who are they choosing and why?

So it goes back to the horizontal decision making and moving towards community autonomy and that’s a huge priority for me in my community: just making sure that everyone has been heard and that continues in other coalition strategies, like so people won’t have to ask their parents for pure dependence. Young folks and poor folks don’t have healthcare and need help now and a platform for voice––we shouldn’t have to own a car in order to go job hunting because you have to have a job, make money to buy a car in order to afford to go job hunting and sustain capital and have a family. And you shouldn’t have to track transportation infrastructure, but it’s a corrupt, marred infrastructure too. Everyone has to depend on that system though––a bad system in order to get a job. I want to fight class structures too. We want that too.

I just I would love to see policies [and] investment in things that benefit everyone. […]  I just want us to say something and smash the patriarchy and rape culture. People keep on saying “Wait, be patient and settle down,” like from university professors to community folks. When will we ever have time for that? When did being slow and quiet ever help anyone?

Endnote from the author: Sometimes, I remain unsure of my placement in antifa as a queer, black woman even though I have seen evidence through social media of celebrating queer history and activists. I know there are women and queer people in antifa. However, I also know that a system that is built on resistance and reaction will internalize those modes of violence, hierarchy and oppression. We internalize and eat poisons everyday. We really don’t have a choice in that matter. And I hate to operate in a system in which I need saving because that means I have little power, but I don’t have a choice in that matter either. It seems, at the very least, antifa is aware of those elements and is trying to remain afloat in a current state that is desperate to incite fear, break bones and take my life. I don’t think antifa is fighting for that impossible object called justice; I just think they are trying to survive and ensure others can have that ability too.

‘Poppies of Iraq’ Review

Brigitte Findakly discusses her graphic memoir

Interview conducted and translated by Britt Starr, with French editing support by Julia Pohl-Miranda.

Read the original interview in French here.

Brigitte Findakly can trace her father’s family history back to the year 300. She is a descendant of the Banu Taghlib, a Christian Arab tribe that left the Arabian Peninsula around that time and settled in what was then the center of Syriac Christianity, only moving north to Mosul a millennium later because of Mongol invasions. How far can you trace your ancestry? And what do you know of who these persons were?

Self portrait and other art by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim

Seven generations ago, Brigitte’s forefather was a mason and a stonecutter by the name of Alnakkar, which means “sculptor.” When the Persians tried to invade Mosul in 1743, her forefather’s gate withstood the attack, earning him a new name from the pasha: Findakly, which means a kind of precious gold. Generations later still, Brigitte’s grandfather was also a sculptor. Just recently, the Wahhabi Islamists of Daesh destroyed an 11th century Mosque that he had helped to restore. And so, in Poppies of Iraq, Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim weave together past and present, heritage and history, and the personal and the political to tell Brigitte’s story.

More than a graphic memoir, Poppies of Iraq is a feminist memorial project: it tells (and shows) history through one real person’s recounting of her life, with loving attention paid to the quotidian details that reveal both culture and the individual, and with consideration given to the personal, communal, and national consequences of how power has been wielded—in this case, brutally. Readers come away with an appreciation for what it was like to be Brigitte, to grow up as a happy, middle-class child in Iraq with a French mother and an Iraqi dentist father whose army affiliation sometimes helped the family and sometimes hurt. We learn that despite growing up amidst the dizzyingly incessant, violent coups of the 1960s, what Brigitte lived was “not a horror,” as she says in our interview, although the devastation to her culture now, after decades of continued violence, she would likely categorize as such. She doesn’t think she can ever return.

Subtle, nuanced, and multilayered, the graphic text eschews linearity. Findakly and Trondheim opt instead to piece together the story as one might recollect it—in individual micro-narratives, out of chronological order, and conveyed simply through clever combinations of image and text. The book feels generous, as though written with the intention to help an outsider imagine, and also perhaps to help an insider remember. None of Findakly’s family or friends has stayed in Iraq; those who grew up there were trained not to express their own opinions (making it hard to even think them), and knew never to speak critically about the government, even behind closed doors. “The national pastime in Iraq was gossip,” Findakly writes, “and it still is.”

So, using her voice, which she began to discover in the secondary education system in France, and with the help of her partner in work and love, Lewis Trondheim, Findakly tells her story. Expressed through personal vignettes that intersect with unfolding political turmoil in Iraq, and interspersed with scrapbook-like collages of actual family photos and panels that depict customs from daily life in Iraq, Poppies of Iraq is the poignant result.

It is a story of realizing the home of one’s childhood memories no longer exists. It is a story of the maddening destruction of dictators and the ever-widening ripples of grief and loss they cause. It is a story of piecing together one’s story, a story of growing into oneself, in exile. Never didactic, always inviting, and often heartrendingly charming, this graphic memoir is a brilliant and tender gem.


You have an impressive career as a colorist, but Poppies of Iraq is your first written work. Was it difficult to write? How did you find a creative process that worked for you?

Yes, this is my first time writing a graphic novel. Several events led me to write this book: the situation in Iraq, which has not relented, and which has no hope of improving any time soon; my cousins’ decision to emigrate so that their children could have a future; and Daesh (ISIS)’s invasion of Mosul, my hometown, on July of 2014, and the destruction that followed.

At first, I didn’t know how to broach the subject. Should I begin from my birth, or from when we moved to France, with flashbacks? But what I wrote seemed too flat, or too sentimental—I wrote with too much feeling/nostalgia and it just wasn’t working. That said, all of these first attempts at writing helped me figure out the important and noteworthy things that I wanted to talk about in the book.

It’s also the first time that you and your husband (celebrated animator Lewis Trondheim) worked together, right? How did that go? How do the two of you work together?

Lewis saw that I had a deep need to put my memories to paper, and he witnessed how hard it was for me to write anything that felt satisfying to me. So he offered to help me articulate what I wanted to say. I showed him the photo of me as a little girl in front of the Nineveh Gate, with the lion that had been decapitated by a jackhammer by Daesh. Right away he knew that was the starting point, and that we should use that photo in the first story of the book.

From this first story, I was convinced by the narrative trajectory and design that Lewis envisioned.

My life in Iraq was not horror, it wasn’t a tragedy; it was just the story of a family. I didn’t want to romanticize it, so there aren’t overly dramatized scenes. I didn’t want to invent dialog or overly reconstruct scenes. To deliver a narrative that was pragmatic and efficient, without overly dressing it up, seemed necessary and possible with Lewis.

Every anecdote we told came from some note I had taken. We would discuss it, Lewis would give it form, I would look over it to make sure it cohered with the narrative as a whole, and then he would draw out the page and I would color it.

Is it easier to work together with Lewis or alone? What surprised you about working together?

We have worked by each other’s side for 25 years– not always on the same projects, but we know each other well. Lewis puts himself fully in the service of a story and he’s an attentive listener.

Me, I’m more the type that asks myself a lot of questions before deciding, whereas Lewis is someone who dives in as soon as he’s found his angle.

Truly, I had complete confidence in Lewis, which was very important since the story was so personal.

Staying on the topic of marriage, would you tell the story of how your parents met? You say in the book that they met at the St. Lazare train station. That sounds very romantic, to meet the love of your life at the train station!

When I told my mother I was going to write a book on my memories of Iraq, she was very happy and she even started to tell me her own memories (including how she met my father). It was surprising because my mother had always been very private about her past. But with this, she really opened up to me, and I was so touched and happy.

You say that in Iraq today, 95% of marriages are arranged, and you describe how your idea of arranged marriage changed after living in France for a few years as a young woman. How did you think of arranged marriage as a young girl in Iraq?

The idea of arranged marriage always bothered me. I knew that my parents got married for love and I found that beautiful and normal, even if people in Iraq said that love comes after marriage, in the course of daily life together!!! Since the age of 9 or 10, I would tell everyone in my family loud and clear that never in my life would I marry someone if it was arranged. But because I was a little girl, it made them laugh.

In one particularly sweet illustration, you remark that because of the shoeshine man who came to your neighborhood, you wanted to be a shoeshine woman when you grew up. What were some of your other aspirations? What did other girls in Iraq imagine for their futures, and how did their aspirations change alongside the decades of turbulence?

When I was in Iraq, I wanted to either be a shoe-shiner or a surgeon so that I could open people’s stomachs and see what was inside.

However, I don’t remember discussions with my friends or my cousins about their professional aspirations. My cousins, all being older than I, mostly talked about prince charming.

You mention in the book that people can’t talk about politics in Iraq because the government has so successfully instilled in folks the fear and suspicion of neighbors and friends. What happens to friendship in this climate? What happens to one’s identity?

Ultimately, humans can adapt and become habituated to anything, even to not talking about politics, especially when one knows the potentially dire consequences of expressing disagreement with the party in power. People become fatalistic and content themselves with talking about personal lives (both their own and those of the people they know) and which products are missing from the grocery store [on account of the political turbulence].

As a student in Iraq, you were supposed to be quiet; then as a student in France, all of a sudden you were supposed to express your opinions (through writing and speaking in class), and it was extremely difficult to start voicing opinions after never having done so before. Can you say more about other differences in the expectations at school in France versus in Iraq? Also, were expectations different for students of different genders?

In Iraq, one of the goals of public education was to teach students discipline and respect for authority. To shine in class, you had to memorize lessons. Obviously in France, as elsewhere in the Western world, students are pushed to develop their own critical spirit.

I think I was so well trained within the Iraqi system, that even today, expressing myself doesn’t come as naturally as it could.

In the U.S., even though most people are racist (I would argue), it is shocking to imagine a teacher making overtly racist statements to his or her class, like the teacher you had in France. In the US, people tend to keep their racist views private (although people seem to be more comfortable going public with their racism now since the last election). Have you spent time in the United States, and what were your impressions vis a vis racism here?

I have been to the US five times since 1993. I’ve never experienced/felt racism from people, but at the same time, they didn’t know that I am originally from Iraq. However, the difficulties I experience every time I come to the US are at the airport (in France before boarding) when I show my French passport in which it’s written that I was born in Iraq. I am always then subject to further interrogation, control, and waiting.

You say that despite all the turbulence of the 1960’s, you only ever felt in danger one time in your youth, and it was in France. I find this detail and your delivery of it wonderful in disrupting readers’ presumptions about terror, fear, and danger in Iraq. With that said, given the political turbulence, how is it that you felt safe during your youth in Iraq?

I had a happy and carefree childhood surrounded by my parents, my family and friends, and yet, I lived in a country rife with political instability. The effect of all the coups d’états was frequent school closures for a day or two at a time, which always came as happy news to us kids!

In the book you say:

‘In eleventh grade, I had a feminist German teacher. We would take time in class to talk about current events. I had experienced the huge inequalities between men and women in Iraq, but she made me realize that things in France were far from perfect, and that it wasn’t all inevitable.’

What do you mean when you say, “she made me realize that…it wasn’t all inevitable”?

She allowed me to realize that the inequality between men and women was not a foregone conclusion. That we women can contest, we can revolt against this inequality. In Iraq, when something wasn’t fair, one could merely think that something wasn’t fair. In France I discovered that when something isn’t fair and one is not okay with whatever it is, one can express one’s ideas and even protest to let everyone know that these inequalities are not acceptable.

Does feminism continue to play a role in your life?

Yes, feminism is still important to me. I find that unfortunately gender inequalities are still present in so many facets of daily life: inequalities in salaries and in job positions, in raising children, in housework, in the fact that  women are used to sell various products in advertising, etc…

I’ll tell you a little anecdote: in general, when we receive administrative mail, it is addressed to both my husband and me. A few months ago, the mayor’s office sent a piece of mail addressed to me only, but it turned out that it was to inform us that our garbage day was going to change: something which could only matter to the woman of the house!

What has feminism brought to your life?

Self-esteem has a huge value in my eyes. And when someone acknowledges you and respects you, it reinforces this self-esteem. [Feminism] also gave me self-assurance and allowed me to have conversations more easily with many friends and cousins from Iraq about their conditions as women in their marriages, as always inferior to their husbands, always submissive, still in 2017.

What do you hope this book will do for readers?

I made this book, first and foremost, for myself– to preserve my memories, memories which have been disappearing because of all these decades of chaos and destruction.

I hope that readers will have a different image of Iraq than the one they are used to seeing in the media. They will discover that it’s a country in which people lived happily (with their own customs) despite the different coups d’etats and the dictatorship.

Do you have plans to return to Iraq? What would it take for you to return?

Almost all of my family and friends have left and immigrated to various places all over the world. I don’t see myself returning any time soon and I especially don’t see myself finding all the people that I loved so much and still love today. I am also discouraged from returning by the fact that my hometown (Mosul) has been largely destroyed.

Speaking Up With Beck Levy


In the class we took on nonfiction writing at Mills College, Beck Levy sat at the end of the table facing away from the windows, and the sun at her back made her dark curly hair shine at its edges. She wore a look of intensity on her face much of the time during book discussions—her green eyes sharp and wide, sometimes lined with colorful eyeliner; her mouth slightly open, ready to speak, to call out privilege or ignorance where most of us couldn’t see it. It was 2015. I was afraid of her because I sensed she was ten times smarter than I would ever be, and that she had answers to questions I hadn’t even thought to ask. I wasn’t wrong. I sought her out for the conversation below because her penetrating intelligence and political awareness make her an invaluable source of insight into what it means to live as an activist. Long before white people of our generation were activated by the campaign and now the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Beck was protesting the war in Iraq, doing banner drops, and staging die-ins.

Beck is open and warm. Talking with her over the phone in our three interviews, I got the sense that there is little she hasn’t thought about; she had an in-depth answer to most of my questions, with analysis to back up her opinions. She’s a polymath—a musician, public speaker, book artist, mental health activist, writer—but labels don’t stick easily to her because she’s also inclusive, and labels often work to exclude, to simplify. She’s not easily summed up, which is partially why she’s a good source of perspective right now, when everyone seems to be searching for “The Answer.” 

She knows things aren’t simple or easy, that to think there are solutions is to be naïve: We will never “solve” the problems of racism and bigotry, sexism and misogyny. But we can think more critically, we can work to be inclusive, to listen, to live at life’s intersections, and hope that these actions will encourage others to take up the fight alongside us.

The Rational: You see injustices very clearly. I’m wondering how you came to be so aware, especially as a white woman.

Levy: The first thing to point out is that I’m from D.C. I grew up in Maryland, but right over the line, and I was riding public transportation by myself from a very young age. When you are growing up in an urban setting from a young age you have access to a lot of culture, experience, and perspectives you might not have in a more isolated setting. [W]hen the Bush administration started, I was a young teenager and that really expedited my political consciousness. I started going to anti-war protests very quickly after September 11th and just plugged into that, and met a lot of like-minded people.

I’m laughing because it’s really wild to look back at that time right now. Me and a bunch of other high schoolers in the D.C. area […] met at protests, and organized and formed a coalition…sort of like a network of affinity groups. We would go to national [and local] mobilizations together. We also organized school walkouts and protests. We had a lot of support from the local D.C. activist scene. We got introduced to WPFW [a D.C. radio station] people, and did an interview on the air with them. Watching the way other groups organized made us take ourselves and what we were doing seriously, and so we had press releases for everything we did—I was the press contact.

Part of it was that we were in D.C. and so we felt we had a really clear channel to the forces that were ruining the world. Part of it was that we were at that age when you aren’t taken seriously by adults and you’re about to inherit a world—those realizations are really clear when you’re a young teenager. That was happening at the time when all this shit was going on [that] we didn’t want to happen. It just seemed so simple to us. It felt like the end of the world. You know how it kind of feels like the end of the world right now? It felt like the end of the world then. When you’re a teenager, you don’t have a good concept of time. Every moment feels like it’s going to last forever. You just don’t understand that there’s an ebb and flow, that circumstances change. The immediacy we felt was really intense. I skipped school to go to protests so much, I can’t even quantify it. I would skip school to go to protests downtown, I would skip school to go to protests at other high schools.

[The] Department of Homeland Security was created that year [2002], [and] shit got really serious for us organizing. It’s such a new department, and people often forget that…Tom Ridge was the first [Director] of the [Office] of Homeland Security and Blair High School—this high school in Montgomery County (right over the D.C. line into Maryland), had about 3,000 students—it’s just an enormous high school, and because of that it has an enormous auditorium, so Tom Ridge was going to use the auditorium for some type of event or press conference, which, in the D.C. area, at the time, was not unusual […] So, we found out that Tom Ridge was coming to Blair and we had members of our organization at Blair, and we all just skipped school and came to Blair to protest Tom Ridge, protest the Department of Homeland Security, and protest the War on Terror.

It was mayhem. They weren’t expecting us, at all. They weren’t prepared. It was this period of time where we were transitioning from an implicit police state to a total police state, I guess. It was just crazy. We did banner drops inside [and] outside the school. We fucking took down the American flag and replaced it with a black flag—it was bananas. Through that, I met people who I’m still friends with today, who are still radical today. I also found out that there was an anarchist bookstore in D.C.—called the Brian MacKenzie InfoShop. I worked there one day a week. I’d always been a big reader and kind of a nerd and a loner, so I just read a ton of stuff there. That’s the best way to sum up my political awakening.

The anti-globalization movement was still active at that time, so I was able to draw the connection between the economics of free trade and globalization and the economics of the war machine. I had a lot of really enlightening experiences like getting beaten up by the police. Also, the InfoShop was in a part of town that was right at the beginning of being gentrified. I started seeing how black communities were policed. I got exposed to a lot of shit in the three-year period between 14 and 17 that completely dictated who I was to become for the rest of my life.

[Our coalition] was called Students for Peace and Justice – SPJ. […] We definitely contained a spectrum of political opinions, but the people who were organizing things and were the movers and shakers were identified as revolutionary communists and anarchists—I identified as an anarchist. I forgot to mention that we all did Food Not Bombs, which is a decentralized, activist thing where anarchists take food that would otherwise have been wasted and do public feedings in public places for people who are experiencing homelessness or anyone at all who wants to eat for free. It’s a demonstration of how wasteful capitalism is and how even just a little bit of funding away from the defense budget would be transformative for people who are experiencing food insecurity.

We also did die-ins [in the suburbs]. A die-in is a type of protest that seeks to bring the war home in terms of making people think about the violence that people in other countries are suffering as a result of U.S. imperialism. Usually, it’s a bunch of people laying on the ground pretending to be dead somewhere while someone else distributes anti-war materials. Sometimes there’s someone pacing around, hectoring the audience on a megaphone while people lay around. Sometimes people are outlined in chalk. Sometimes it’s just that there are chalk-outlines of bodies and info on how many people have been killed. We tended to take it to a kind of next level where we had a lot of fake blood and [stuff].

The Rational: You were an activist long before many white people of our generation realized there was anything to actively fight against or to try to reform. What do you think of the mass white “resistance” of previously politically inactive people instigated by the election of Donald Trump?

Levy: I go to a therapist who is like this really badass, old-school activist who is queer and was involved in ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]…she told me that one of the ways that white supremacy often manifests itself is through a sense of urgency. I thought that was really interesting because…that really ties into this most recent activation of white people in response to the election. There’s a lot to legitimately be furious and activated by in terms of the election. The sense of urgency that white people have brought to it should probably be deconstructed, and I think has been deconstructed by people way more qualified to do it. The main issue is that things have been wrong for a very long time. Since the first white colonists came to this land. The Black Lives Matter statement on the election concluded with, [“The work will be harder, but the work is the same.”] That’s something that every white person who’s newly activated should sit with.

There’s also some really great writing by women of color, particularly black women, in response to SURJ – Standing Up for Racial Justice – [it] is a group for white people who normally self-describe as being there and organizing themselves in order to just show up when black leadership tells them to, but in practice it ends up playing out in more messy and complicated ways. [It] often manifests as groups of white people in white-only spaces, talking about racism, which is suspicious and suspect. Also, just in terms of answering questions about the problems of white mobilizing and white organization, I have a lot of opinions and perspectives on it, but I am less well-qualified to comment than black thinkers and black activists who are doing the great challenging writing on that topic.

The Rational: The white community who are very new to this, newly awake to their privilege – many of them thought everything was pretty much OK. We all definitely need to be listening to people of color especially right now, but I also think we need white people to talk to white people because if we leave all that work to people of color we’re asking way too much.

Levy: Oh, yeah. I totally think that expecting black women to carry the entire weight of the world is really fucked up, although it is what historically happens and is happening. I just think that there’s a way that white people can take the ideas of black activists and represent them as their own, rebrand them, and extract credit from them. Since white people have more of a platform than black people, that results in credit not being given and the platform not being extended. I’m not saying that’s something that happens in every case, it’s just something that is absolutely a big problem and something that I try to be really conscious of when I’m talking about this stuff.

Back to your original question, people genuinely not realizing that there was a problem before now is a symptom of a lot of things. One is the idea that progress is linear, and we’re always getting closer to justice, which is not true. Another is the product of really intentional decades of segregation that insulated white people from the realities happening outside of their bubble. Another is the tendency of people in liberal democracies to not feel responsible for creating change if they aren’t personally affected by it.

The Rational: And Donald Trump made us all feel personally affected by it?

Levy: Yeah, I think that white people for the first time in a while felt like, ‘Oh, shit, my life could get fucked up from this.’ Even if it’s not like, ‘I directly see the specific effects these specific policies could have on my well-being,’ It was white people being like, ‘I like to think of myself as not a racist and not a sexist and not an Islamophobe, and this person is making it really hard for me to go on like that because they are going to purport to speak for me and represent me to the world, and in order to keep thinking of myself as a good person, I have to actively distance myself from them.’ Every white liberal got to feel really good about themselves for eight years. As long as you didn’t have any Yemeni friends, you got to feel like the racial utopia was at our fingertips and you had a part in creating it.

The Rational:  In the summers of 2015 and  2016, I felt a lot of pain and lack of any kind of agency when it came to the shootings that were being televised of black men by police, and black women, too––though I heard less about their stories. I definitely felt a building sense of anxiety because there’s such a big disconnect between those events and how we get to a place where we’re not having these things happen. It feels like stepping into a space where so many people have been in this pain for so long would be an intrusion.  

Levy: Just kind of working backwards—you’re definitely not the only person who I’ve heard say, ‘I don’t know how to find an entry point for things like organizing against police killings of black people because it feels like an intrusion.’ What I think is at the heart of it is that, ‘I’m afraid that I will step into this space where I’m uncomfortable, and I will be wrong. I will be made to feel uncomfortable. I will have to make mistakes and be called out for those mistakes. I might be called racist.’ That is part of white people’s anxiety in getting involved in this stuff and is maybe a reason why white people don’t show up to Black Lives Matter marches. If you think about it, black people have been showing up to white-led activism a lot, being a minority, and not being sure if they’re welcome or how to participate, and it’s way higher stakes for them. It’s ok to just enter, ask, and do a ton of listening. Ask how you can be supportive, and maybe be told things that are painful to hear, like, ‘I don’t feel like telling you how to be supportive, figure it out.’

The way that the police have been terrorizing communities of color—you can draw a direct line from the militarized forces that would hunt down slaves to the police departments of today. There’s absolutely a direct line between those two white nationalist organizations. I don’t think there’s a problem with – no matter what type of organizing you’re doing – incorporating resistance to police terror into your organizing. There are really clear connections between whatever your issue is and that because it’s about land. It’s about black people – not all black people, but, black communities that are most vulnerable to police violence – being forced into and driven out of various neighborhoods, and [being] historically looted, having their labor extracted for wealth that they can’t access, and being victim to environmental catastrophes as a result of industry that white people profit from. All of these things relate to the way that black life chances are stolen, whether it’s at the end of a gun that a police officer is holding or because of untreated asthma [they have as a result of] environmental racism. Dr. Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as an unnatural shortening of life. It seems so simple and so obvious, but when you think about it, there’s just no reason that, using that definition of racism, it can’t be a part of any type of organizing.

[A] lot of people of color and black people in particular have been putting a lot of effort into telling white people how to participate. There are all types of articles about like, ‘As a white person, here’s how to be an accomplice in our fight against white nationalism,’ [and] right down to advice about what to do when you come to a community meeting for the first time. So, I’d say…the first advice is to listen to black people. Don’t reinvent the wheel. That’s part of white urgency, thinking like, ‘I’m going to apply my mind to this problem and solve it.’ How ‘bout, just listen. And then after you listen, trust and believe. Other aphorisms that come to mind that I’ve absolutely not invented but I’ve gleaned from, attempting to, as best as I can, listen to black writers and black thinkers [are]: ‘Stay in your lane,’ and ‘Don’t make everything about you.’

You don’t have to worry that your particular oppression isn’t going to be dealt with if you’re fighting for the liberation, wellness, and livelihood of people who are more vulnerable to institutional violence than you. If people who are more vulnerable than you are safe and well, then you are also going to be. Grassroots is the opposite of trickle-down.   

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

The Rational: You are not a pacifist. Tell me more about that.

Levy: So, Black Panther, Fred Hampton, said it best when he said that, “We say it’s no longer a question of violence or non-violence. We say it’s a question of resistance to fascism or nonexistence within fascism.” [Quote corrected to match speech transcript.] That’s probably the best and most legendary way of answering that question. Truly, what a beautiful turn of phrase. I think of violence as being a precondition of the moment, and so opting out of violence is kind of like opting out of capitalism—it’s the sea we’re swimming in. So, I wouldn’t ever call myself a pacifist because of that.

I totally get why some folks would be like, ‘I’m a pacifist,’ because, to them that means, ‘I’m anti-war.’ I just don’t find it to be a useful shorthand because, for people who have to fight, often physically, to defend their lives, it just seems insensitive and self-righteous and with tones of moral superiority. A lot of people who call themselves pacifists, if you dig, would say, ‘Of course, I believe in self-defense.’ I don’t think that self-defense vs. pacifism are stable categories.

Things are really complicated and nuanced, but I’m an anarcho-communist. Definitely hardline, militant, anarcho-communist.

The Rational: And what does that mean in your daily life?

Levy: Well, in some ways it doesn’t affect my daily life at all because, like I said, we’re all swimming in the same sea. It does mean that when I am involved in resistance, I think about whether or not it’s resistance that pushes us towards a horizontal society, that places personal autonomy as the highest value and the community as the fundamental social unit rather than the individual. For me, it all comes back to capital. Any time I’m trying to analyze a situation, I’m like, ‘Ok, what’s happening here with power? What’s happening here with capital?” So, that’s my lens.

The Rational: Have you applied that lens to animal rights and the food system, and how those things are linked to climate change?

Levy: Oh, sure. That was one of the original reasons I became vegan…fifteen years ago. I was really concerned about climate change when I was a kid. The elementary school I went to [had] like, really aggressive Earth Day celebrations. We would have school-wide contests about like, ‘Best Drawing About Saving Water,’ or whatever. It was really part of my consciousness. […] I had an unarticulated understanding of climate change…as having something to do with the smoke that came out of cars. I went vegan because I found out – and I don’t remember how – that the agriculture industry was hugely responsible for [climate change], and that a huge amount of resources go into producing one hamburger.

Environmental reasons were a big factor in me deciding to be vegan. As I got older, I started understanding the critique of lifestyle politics [as] not necessarily a way that change was going to happen. I think this is what the expression, ‘There is no ethical consumption under capitalism,’ means; the idea of voting with your dollar—it isn’t really clear how that would make change. People often say like, ‘Well, if everyone became vegan, then the meat industry wouldn’t be able to function,’ but that’s not going to happen. If your individual act doesn’t wage that outcome, it’s hard to rationalize that as being a huge force of social change.

Another thing that happened as I became older is that I became really disillusioned with how white veganism is, and [I] got more of a sense of how messed up it is that groups like PETA would compare the slaughter of animals to slavery, and how that actually just feeds into very classic racist caricatures that animalize black people.

Food is a very personal thing. The types of food we eat, the types of food we have access to, and the types that our families’ cultural and religious traditions connect to—that’s all very personal and part of the fabric of our lives. It’s really presumptuous to assume that because factory farming is so brutal, and the meat and agricultural industries are doing such violence to our planet that the answer is for people just to rip their food choice and traditions out of their lives and replace it with, I don’t know, a veggie burger, or whatever. That said, I’m still vegan, and I’m not sure if I ever won’t be vegan, and I still really identify with animals, but being vegan is a personal choice in my life and it’s not something that’s part of my politics.

The Rational: What does the media get wrong about mental health?

Levy: The mental health and disability community is very organized and very well-spoken. Advocacy is having a louder voice than it used to and I don’t want to discount or minimize that in the critique that I’m about to give.

The media and mainstream society have a really faulty model of what mental health and mental illness [are]. In my opinion disability is constructed in part by its environment. The example that’s commonly used in disability studies is that using a wheelchair is only a handicap in a society that uses stairs. That same principle applies to mental health in a lot of ways. Having depression, or attention deficit disorder, or something [else] is only a disability in a society that demands that you structure your days a certain way and that you perform certain types of labor in order to live and earn a living and have a right to live. That doesn’t get talked about, pretty much at all: The ways in which poverty and diminished life opportunities interact with mental health is also not talked about. Intergenerational trauma as a result of institutional violence doesn’t get talked about. A recent meme on Facebook is like, “It’s easier for people with mental illness to buy guns than to buy health care,” and that was a really depressing thing to read. People clashed with that pretty quickly and said that people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it, and that we absolutely deserve health care, but that juxtaposing it with gun laws in this way is not particularly helpful to people who are struggling.

The Rational: The National Institute of Mental Health reported that, “In 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. This number represented 12.5% of the U.S. population aged 12 to 17.” How young were you when you began to be hospitalized for mental illness?

Levy: That is so sad. I don’t look at statistics like that super often and that is super sad. Thank you for telling me about that. I was first hospitalized when I was twelve and I’ve reflected on that in a number of different ways. My understanding of why that happened has evolved and probably will continue evolving over time. One thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how I could have just as easily ended up in juvenile detention or jail if I wasn’t white, or if I lived in a different zip code—all these different factors in why some people go to a hospital and other people go to jail. I wasn’t violent towards other people or threatening to harm anyone else, but I definitely had behavioral health issues, and mental health issues. When you’re a kid like that, jail is the front-line, first resource for mental health in this country. I’m just so grateful that that’s not where I ended up, not that a hospital is a safer or more healing environment than a jail in some ways, especially if you’re there because you don’t have any other choice.

The Rational: You’ve written that a privileged (white) person who survives a suicide attempt will likely be taken to the hospital, but in the same situation non-white and/or underprivileged people will likely be taken to jail. How can communities build their own, more effective support systems?

Levy: The first thing that people need to do is stop calling the cops. Introducing a police officer into any situation is generally going to make it worse and put any brown person in the area at risk of arrest or death. Sometimes when you say, ‘don’t call the police,’ people immediately jump to well, ‘what if there’s a serial killer with an axe over my head?’ – these really hyperbolic scenarios. For one thing, in a lot of these [suggested] scenarios, if you call the police, they’re just going to come find your body at that point? But also, that’s not the most common situation in which the police are called. A common situation in which the police are called is when a white person feels uncomfortable. People call the police for all kinds of situations, but I feel like the most direct action people could take if they’re sad about the unequal way that white supremacy affects who’s hospitalized and who’s jailed is to not call the cops.

The other thing would be, if you want to be an advocate for people with mental health problems, or if you want to be political in your survivorship of mental illness, center people who are the most affected by the prison industrial complex in your work. If your mental health advocacy is about imprisonment, it’s going to affect people who are less affected by [the prison industrial complex]…if you center your reform around the people who are facing the most abject forms of oppression like torture and confinement, then [your efforts are] going to benefit everybody.

The Rational: What do you think of the claims that Trump is mentally unfit for the job of president?

Levy: Oh, lord. It’s probably true, but that’s not why he’s unfit. He’s unfit because he’s a white supremacist, rapist oligarch. Everything about his administration and the entire political structure that enabled it and continues to enable it is unfit. I’d say the mental health stuff is pretty fucking low down the list. I don’t really pay that much attention to democratic shenanigans, like these gestures towards getting him out of power. I would love to see bad things happen to 45, for sure, but I think what you’re asking is, does it hurt mentally ill people when people attack or criticize Trump as being mentally ill, and I think the answer is absolutely yes. I love that prominent psychiatrists have been outspoken in saying that it’s actually unethical to diagnose people who are not your patients. It’s not particularly useful, ethical, or even medically true to be like, ‘Oh, this guy has narcissistic personality disorder, or early stage dementia or something.’ It does hurt people with mental illnesses or people with neurological conditions. That said, I’m not sayin’ he ain’t off his rocker. I’m just saying it doesn’t seem like the right tack.

The Rational: What was also underlying in that question for me was that, when I hear people claiming Trump is mentally ill, it seems to me that they’re correlating mental illness with lack of intellect.

Levy: Oh, yeah, I agree. Incompetent. Totally. It seems like there’s a whole constellation of reasons why it’s harmful. I mean, equating mental illness with abuse of power—for sure, there’s a huge intersection between power dynamics and mental illness, but again: people living with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of abuse of power than the perpetrators of it. So much of the public dialogue is wasted [on] these really frivolous things, like ‘he has dementia,’ like ‘is he incompetent and stupid?’ like ‘did he commit witness intimidation?’ Probably all of the above, but more importantly, this is a white nationalist who is consolidating power and acting with impunity. Let’s definitely focus on that.

Sarah Hoenicke is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s working toward her Master of Journalism degree at U.C. Berkeley and revising her first novel. Her work has appeared in the Rumpus, the LA Review of Books, Guernica, BOMB, Gulf Coast, Brooklyn Mag, and many other publications. Sarah and Beck met while studying in the English Department at Mills College.

An Interview with Harriet Minter: Guardian journalist and radio host

Illustration by Hannah Fitzsimons
Illustration by Hannah Fitzsimons


Harriet Minter has noticed that women have stopped apologizing. We no longer accept the time that it has historically taken for incremental change to occur. Instead, we are standing up for ourselves and creating a fairer and more equal business landscape. Minter is a woman on a mission, juggling work on her radio show, “Badass Women’s Hour,” heading various leadership programs in the United Kingdom, and managing the Guardian’s “Women in Leadership” section. The dedication and strength Minter needed to build her status and career exemplify what is required for women to accomplish their goals in a world that’s still built for men.

The Rational: Women are in more powerful positions in the workplace today. What do you think is the main driver behind such progress?

Minter: At some point, people stop being patient. When I started [working in my field], there were a lot of guys who’d say things like, “Change will happen, but women just need to be patient.”

We’ve been sitting, waiting for things to change, because we were told that if we were patient they would. The fact that they [hadn’t] changed got to be a bit too much. Industries are becoming aware of the benefits of having a more diverse company, and, by having more women in senior roles, they become increasingly aware of the lack of women in these positions. That starts to change things.

The Rational: Have you seen any changes in male behaviour as a result of female empowerment in business?

Minter: Men are opening up and asking for more in terms of balance and family life. What will be a real change is when we start to expect as much from fathers as we do from mothers, and that is beginning to shift. Men are asking to take paternity leave, and are expecting companies to provide that option. The socio-economic emphasis is still on men to provide, and they may feel that if nobody else in the company is [changing the status quo] then they don’t want to be the first one.

The Rational: What should be the next change for women?

Minter: Redefining what “success” means. We traditionally define it in very alpha-male terms, whereas for women in general, success isn’t linked with a really great office or more money; it’s linked with being able to change things and the ability to bring people up, to create different cultures. So, when we’re looking at what we mean by being “in power,” or giving women more power, that’s the stuff we’d then have to be rewarding hard work with rather than the traditional format of a bigger title and [more] money. Although, those are good too.

The Rational: If that’s the case, then when we do get more power, do we want to change the status quo? Or is this a sign of how women and men think differently?

Minter: I’d look at the priorities for men and what we think equates to masculinity. If we use traditional alpha-masculinity to define men by how much money they make, it’s not that surprising that high on their priority list is making more money. As we have never really put that pressure on women in the same way, we’ve created a culture where women can be more focused on what really interests us and what motivates us. Often money isn’t enough and [we] want to have an impact on the world around us.

The Rational: What was it for you that made you want to do something about this and put more coverage out there?

Minter: Being completely honest, I felt there was a gap in the market. I spend 75 percent of my life at work, but when I look at women in media there’s not much out there about our working lives. What I found frustrating was that so many amazing women had pushed and pushed for equality, and they’d inch forward just to take a step back. We have to be more aggressive about it, and the media has a role in how we represent women. It’s an issue that goes through every aspect of our society and affects everything we do. Your working life isn’t just about who you are as a person, it’s also about your economic power, and that in turn affects all the decisions that you make about where you live, how many children you have, what your relationship is like with your partner and what your views are on society. Work is a fundamental part of who we are as humans and until we start addressing it as such, we’re just keeping women down.

The Rational: Do you feel that it takes a certain amount of luck to be a woman in a position of power in the media industry today? And do you feel lucky?

Minter: I definitely feel lucky to be a woman. I often feel sorry for men because I don’t think they get to talk about things in the way women do, and they don’t get to admit vulnerability or fear in the way that women do. In response, they don’t get the support that women do. So I definitely feel lucky to be a woman. I feel lucky to be in my industry. It’s an amazing industry filled with incredible people doing amazing work, and being a part of it is something I hadn’t even dreamt of. I think about what it’s like to be a woman, and I think about what it’s like to be in my industry, but I don’t always know what it’s like to be a “woman in my industry.” I see the sexism that happens occasionally, and I see the discrimination that happens occasionally, but a lot of the time, because I’m surrounded by other brilliant, incredible women, I feel buffeted from it, and I’m very lucky and thankful for that.

Listen to Minter’s radio show here, and read her articles for the Guardian here.