WATERtalk Notes: Caitlin Breedlove

Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Spiritual Fortification and Feminism in the Time of Trump”

An hour-long teleconference with

Caitlin Breedlove

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

1 to 2 p.m. ET

WATER spoke with Caitlin Breedlove, a celebrated community organizer and writer connecting LGBTQ, racial, and economic justice. She is the outgoing Campaign Director for Standing on the Side of Love, a project of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Breedlove spoke about the influence of feminism in her work and its role in the current political climate.

These notes are provided as a companion to the call’s audio. A Q & A session followed.

Mary E. Hunt: I am at the WATER office in Silver Spring, MD with WATER colleagues and friends on International Women’s Day. A happy day to all of you.

It is also “A Day Without a Woman” which is a day for women to take off from paid employment and unpaid labor, avoid shopping, and wear red. We at WATER debated cancelling this event and taking the day off. But we decided that since our work is for, by, and about women every day–we are feminist first responders– it only makes sense to hold such a program as part of our effort to empower women. This session and all of WATER’s efforts are focused on changing the cultural and intellectual assumptions that ground discrimination, exclusion, and destruction.

As we speak, women are clamoring for reproductive justice at the House a scant 7 miles from here. We wish we could bilocate.

Tonight some of us will go to Montgomery Community College two blocks from here to hear African American feminist theorist Dr. Patricia Hill Collins who will speak on “Black Feminism, Intersectionality and Democratic Possibilities.” It is a rich day in our circles.

I am delighted to welcome Caitlin Breedlove to WATER. We don’t know one another but she comes recommended by the great and good Sharon Groves of Auburn Seminary in NYC so I have every confidence that she is wonderful.

Caitlin Breedlove is known across social justice movements as a leader, strategist, and writer connecting LGBTQ, racial, and economic justice. She is the former Co-Director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG), where she co-led innovative intersectional movement building work in the LGBTQ sector. Since 2003, Caitlin has been organizing and doing movement building work in the South with communities across race, class, culture, gender, and sexuality. Caitlin began her work in the South doing popular education and organizer training at the historic Highlander Center in Tennessee. She is the outgoing Campaign Director for Standing on the Side of Love, an interfaith public advocacy campaign sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association that confronts issues of exclusion, oppression, and violence based on identity. She leaves that post to join Sharon Groves at Auburn Seminary as Vice President of Movement Leadership. While at Standing on the Side of Love she was involved in online courses, webinars, and interviews as she and colleagues deepened relationships with movement leaders on many fronts—Black Lives Matter, at Standing Rock, and other places where white progressives are learning, some slowly but surely, what it means to work alongside people-of color movements to be led by young people. It is out of these experiences that she will speak today about “Spiritual Fortification and Feminism in the Time of Trump” which is something with which we at WATER have deep connection. I hope you have had a chance to listen to some of the Fortification series that Caitlin produced. Lots of inspiring speakers there including our good friend Meg Riley.

Thanks for joining us, Caitlin. We look forward to hearing from you and joining you in discussion.

Caitlin Breedlove: Happy International Women’s Day. I have a candle lit thinking about all of the paid and unpaid labor of everyone on this call. My hope is that, as many people strike today, we are not going to make more labor on this call. Get comfortable! I will focus on storytelling and engaging. I don’t want it to feel like work.

I’ve only been able to do my work because of Southern black communities, lesbian feminists, women organizer leaders, and trans leaders. They’ve taught me about the LGBTQ movement. I sit here because of the work these folks have done before me.

Key political aspects of this moment. It’s important to talk about spiritual fortification and feminism. These will continue to play a role during trying times.

I think we’re seeing a moment of non-petitionable federal government. So much non-profit infrastructure is focused on policy and advocacy, based on the fact that we can persuade those with lots of power, i.e. President of United States. Marginalized communities have struggled to do this for a long time. What does it mean to not be able to petition in this way?

We’re also in a bleak, cynical, white supremacist, individual, patriarchal view of the world and what is happening. My mom’s family are immigrants from central and eastern Europe. I’ve followed rise of Putin in Russia. There are important connections and similarities between the Russian narrative and our current President. For example, this hyper masculine, white masculine caricature of leadership. This mirrors the rise of our current President. Both present bleak and cynical views of our future, based in sense that our communities cannot be saved. In order to “Make America Great Again,” many communities will have to be silenced, deported, and killed.

The stakes are incredibly high, there’s a high level of polarity in our country. Race, gender, sexuality, age, rural vs. urban, red vs. blue, etc. This context is good for understanding the possibility of feminism in this moment.

When I think about feminism and spiritual fortification, I think about how women’s organizing has always centered around the collective. Individual consciousness inside the collective. How to gain the collective strength to come forth and fight for our work. So many examples of past feminist and LGBTQ movements… Gloria Anzaldua once said, “I’m not here to be a star, I want to be part of the constellation.” Speaks to the potential of feminism in this moment. Turning away from individual to do collective work.

What does collective autonomy look like? People from older generations have told me about collective houses and political spaces in the past. Not as many brick and mortar spaces as there used to be. How do we reconcile our differences? Our lives do not exist without each other. Important part of fortifying ourselves, our political landscape fueled by isolation and loneliness.

Possibility of feminism and “going local.” Feminism as a local political force, changed the way I think about my body. What can we do as individuals and in the domestic world. In domestic realm, women always do more work (emotional and physical). We are the people who are running this part of life.

Example: I live in Phoenix, Arizona, where there are many profound matriarchs of families. These women are uniquely positioned to organize. When we think about organizing in this moment, how do we cut out the middlemen and have conversations with women doing incredible work in their communities? How do we build and connect in our communities, when we go deeply local, who is usually in charge of the local? It’s almost always women. Great opportunity to be fortified when we invest in women’s leadership. Women’s work is at the heart of community organizing.

It’s incredibly important to build communities of courage. Courage is a collective act, so is cowardice. Cowardice can also be contagious; cowards and the brave aren’t individuals existing out in the world. In moments where I’ve been complacent, it’s been a collective action.

It’s so important to think about and name all of the ways in which we can shift, especially when it comes to race. Important to think about for those of us who are white. We have the power to recreate and rename feminism in our communities. 53% of white women voted for our current president. Race often trumps solidarity or connection around gender. Recognize this.

I think about those who will come after me. Many young people are waking up to the reality that they haven’t gone through political consciousness raising. Many across different ages are waking up, these struggles are not done. There is work to be done. I had so many older feminists who helped me give potential blueprints for my life. In terms of friendship, work, movement building, romantic life, etc. We don’t have enough intergenerational work around feminism. We have many powerful opportunities coming, for example the Women’s March, women’s strike. We must turn to each other and start to build deeper relationships and bring this work to our communities.

MEH: Thank you, Caitlin. We appreciate your work. You bring us practical ways of thinking about what we can do to fortify ourselves in this time.

Q & A

Comment: A group I was with went to meet with our Congressman earlier this week. I resonate with what you said about the Federal Government being non-petitionable. This man did not listen to us, he certainly wasn’t petitionable.

CB: It’s great to hear about your efforts, nonetheless. It’s an important strategy to meet with Congressmen. I was never a hardcore electoral organizer. But I think now it’s incredibly important to get good people to run, think about who we want to run, etc. A big part of the right-wing strategy was not to wait for the perfect candidate, but to run lots of people in local races, school boards, etc. In some of these places, we’re going to have to get these guys out. Example: Joe Arpaio. Organizing got him out! Led by women of color. I want to see us be able to get people like folks on this call to push those in office to be less spineless.

MEH: I haven’t been too involved in electoral politics before, but I’m starting to get there. I’ve gotten involved in a local Swing Left group. They’re looking toward 2018 and 2020 to get seats back. They are well organized, have lots of efforts for voter registration. I’d encourage people to look and see if there’s a Swing Left group in your area.

I’d like to ask you about two things, Caitlin. 1) How can we bring together reproductive justice and immigrants’ rights? Example, Planned Parenthood, NOW, etc. – Where do you see some of the coalitions of those groups?

2) Do you have ideas about how all of us can transgress using public bathrooms to desensitize people to the “real estate war” being fought on the bodies of trans people? What are your thoughts on issues over bathrooms and trans people?

CB: I think sanctuary is important when thinking about feminism. What is sanctuary? A more traditional sanctuary movement has been harboring undocumented people in houses of worship, etc. A lot of undocumented communities are asking for protection in their own communities. The President literally does not have the “manpower” to do the kind of deportations he wants. He must collaborate with other organizations like Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE), the National Guard, local police departments, etc.

At the same time, there are real issues concerning women’s rights to abortion and reproductive rights. I think these two issues, sanctuary and reproductive rights, need to merge. When I think about the possibility of alliances, it’s to understand a reproductive justice agenda with poor and working class women in mind, how to bring these together and understand that the work is connected? To give an example, I think organizing in hospitals is important. How do we ask them to not comply? How can we run intersectional campaigns in hospitals to encourage resistance? Some of it is about organizing campaigns, organizing around sites of shared pain. How do we broaden our agenda so our language doesn’t exclude the needs of specific communities? We want local communities to participate in non-compliance.

As for your second question, the bathroom issues have made the deeply felt struggles of transgender communities all about bathrooms. These issues are actually about the sanctity and importance of trans people’s lives. It’s about who can be in public. We need to re-center the debate. Feminists in faith communities are in a great position to do this. It’s about sacredness of human lives, not about bathrooms. We need to see transgender lives as sacred, as well as poor women, women of color, etc.

We also need genuine leadership from the community. We need to think about our leaders outside of a celebrity culture. I think local communities can say, “this is ridiculous.” Local communities cannot comply with the bathroom debate.

Both of those questions are hard, I wish there were easy answers.

MEH: I think you’re right. The direction you’re taking is helpful. I also think there are ways we can take on these burdens without reinforcing the notion that the trans question is only about bathrooms. There are tactics we can use to decenter these conversations.

We also need to bring along the experiences from generations of this work. We’re not starting from scratch. We need to remember that.

Comment: I really appreciate some of the phrases I’m hearing. “Feminist first responders,” we’ve been scrambling to do this. Women as the workforce for social justice. I’ve been thinking a lot about solidarity, especially in Seattle. There’s a lot of great solidarity happening in Seattle. For example, the Muslim community has signed on to a letter to the Jewish community about anti-Semitism and vice versa. The Sikh community has stood with Jewish and Muslim communities. It’s been beautiful. But it’s hard to keep up with the fires all around us. Any words on solidarity?

CB: It’s wonderful to hear. I think one of the most important things about solidarity is a principle called the team of the willing. So much of the work is about being willing to show up and do it. We can’t all do the same stuff with our bodies and privilege, but there’s something we can all do. We can think about what the simple things community centers and spaces of resistance need. What can we offer before we ask? Don’t go in and criticize or critique, take up a lot of verbal space. Ask what we can do.

For example, SONG created an alliance with Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR). Both groups had very different memberships, but we took risks together, people went to jail together. The connections were so different than what could have been reached in a meeting alone.

Q: I have a follow-up to the solidarity question. Sometimes I think about how we use terms (especially in white progressive circles), thinking we’re being so politically correct, for example “white privilege,” “white fragility,” and “intersectionality.” I especially don’t like “white fragility,” as if we have to be so sensitive and careful with one another that we can’t even get into the conversation.

The other is “intersectionality.” We talk about this a lot. I recently posted about the James Baldwin move, I Am Not Your Negro. My African American friend commented, “sometimes we just need to talk about racism.” We deflect trying to get into all of the issues all at once, deflect the need to be honest so that we can be in solidarity fully with each other.

CB: I agree. When I was in my early twenties, SONG was doing a lot of political education work on intersectionality. Intersectional conversations look different than intersectional work in action. No campaign will be successful if it’s not focused. It is going to affect different people in different ways. Not every issue can be tackled all together. For example, I think it’s important to talk about the state of black lives. We can understand black lives in an intersectional way, but we need to talk about racism specifically.

On white fragility. I think feminists have an amazing opportunity to not make all of the issues easy all the time. I think purity politics have made our community efforts more fragile. We don’t have the resiliency to tackle hard issues. These issues have pushed out working class women, etc.

MEH: Thank you, Caitlin. This work is differently difficult for different people. We must be articulate about issues of solidarity, especially in this moment. People who look like me (white, middle class, upper educated) don’t really have a clue. So many others experience this time in a much more life threatening way. That’s why we need solidarity. We’re about being a part of this conversation here at WATER.

WATER thanks Caitlin Breedlove for her work. We look forward to continuing this conversation.

The next WATERtalk is scheduled for Wednesday, April 5, 2017 at 1 PM ET with Ayesha Chadhury. REGISTER HERE.