Published May 27th, 2013
Oakland activist Mia Mingus is named a Champion of Change by the White House. Oakland Local interviews Mia Mingus about disability rights, ending child sexual abuse, and transformative justice.
Mia Mingus describes herself as a queer physically disabled woman of color transracial/transnational adoptee — an identity that only begins to explain the personal background that informs Mingus’ cross-sectional social change work.
Mingus was adopted from Korea at the age of six months and grew up on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she was raised by a “strong feminist community” that taught her the foundations of the critical analysis she would carry into her life’s work. She then lived in Atlanta for 13 years, serving as co-Executive Director of SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW, among many other movement-building roles. She moved to the Bay Area two and a half years ago to live out a dream: to create a household with another queer disabled woman of color activist, thereby putting disability justice into practice, building interdependent and loving community, and both expanding and learning the limits of what disability advocacy might look like.
Now, at 32, Mingus is an Oakland-based, nationally-recognized organizer and writer who has traveled the country speaking about myriad frameworks for dismantling oppression, from racial justice to reproductive justice to queer liberation. Her current work centers around disability justice and child sexual abuse, which she addresses as a member of the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective (BATJC).
For her countless speaking engagements, workshops, trainings and keynote addresses, Mingus has been awarded numerous recognitions, including Angry Asian Man’s 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30 in 2009 and the Creating Change Award by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2008.
Earlier this month on May 6, Mingus was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change, an honor bestowed on Americans doing exemplary things to uplift their communities. Along with 14 other women — including fellow Bay Area activist Minh Dang, whom Oakland Local will profile later this week — Mingus was recognized as an Asian and Pacific Islander women’s Champion of Change in observance of API Heritage Month.
Last week, I sat down at Mingus’ dining table to chat with her about her work in disability justice and transformative justice.
First, though, we meandered into a discussion about the food that was served at the White House (surprisingly hard bread), our respective embarrassing celebrity crushes (hers is country singer Jason Aldean — “There’s just something about him, I don’t know what it is… maybe Southern charm?” — and mine is Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold) and what Mingus’ reaction was when she heard that she had been recognized as a White House Champion of Change.
“At first I thought it was a joke, and I didn’t respond,” she said. “And then they sent me another email that said, ‘We never heard from you,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s real!’”
Oakland Local: So you’ve been doing a lot of speaking engagements and trainings lately.
Mia Mingus: That’s pretty much what I do for my paid work now. I’m doing that to support my writing, but it doesn’t leave me a lot of time to write, so I’m trying to balance that more. I’m also trying to sit with this deeper question that I’ve been talking with some other disabled people about, which is: How do I do my work in a way that’s really sustainable for my physically disabled body, knowing that I probably won’t be able to do it for as long of a time as I would want to?
Really, my heart is in my local work that I’m doing here with the BATJC — disability justice and work around sexual violence. Child sexual abuse, well, nobody really talks about it. Communities of color don’t talk about it, disabled communities don’t talk about it, and we know just by the estimated statistics that disabled children and adults are twice as likely to be victims and survivors of child sexual abuse and sexual violence. Many of the disabled people that I know have been through so much violence — medicalized violence, intimate violence, violence from the state from being incarcerated or institutionalized. I see the two pieces of my work being hand-in-hand with each other.
OL: Can you talk a bit about what disability justice work has looked like? What is the need behind disability justice?
MM: I feel that with disability and ableism, most people don’t even have the language to know what to ask or know what they don’t know, or to even be able to engage in a conversation. A lot of my travel and speaking is just building awareness and giving people a framework to place their lives and experiences in. Disability is everywhere. Most people have a grandmother or an uncle or a cousin who is disabled; most people are dealing with mental health or other people’s mental health; most people have survived violence and have consequences from that, whether it’s physical injury or scars or trauma on their psyches. People have disabled people in their lives but they oftentimes haven’t thought about it in a political way, or haven’t thought about it in connection with other identities like people of color or queerness.
OL: Do you find yourself confronting an attitude of, “Hey, we need to fix you and help you get better” rather than “What do you need? What can you add?”
MM: Oh, totally. I talk about the seduction of ableism, but it’s so intense — not just for disabled people, but for able-bodied people as well. This idea that disability is not desirable, or that disability is something that’s wrong or that needs to be fixed or cured or is somehow lacking or is not the norm. My whole childhood was spent with this idea of trying to fix me and make me “less disabled,” and so much of it is medicalized, too — “health” is so loaded of a term.
OL: It sounds like both disability justice and the child sexual abuse work are, at their foundation, about empathy and relationship-building, as I think most social justice work strives to be but isn’t necessarily explicitly about — just thinking of people as whole people.
OL: Can you talk about the BATJC’s transformative justice framework, for people who don’t know what it means?
MM: Transformative justice, at the crux of it, is about responding to violence in ways that don’t cause more harm and don’t perpetuate more violence, and in ways that don’t collude with systemic violence. That means we see prisons and the criminal legal system as places where more violence and trauma are enacted. We’re looking at, “How do we respond to violence that’s more community-based, that’s not about just calling the police — because the police disproportionately target oppressed groups — and how do we in our own communities stop perpetuating racism, sexism and oppression?” Because our communities aren’t perfect either. It’s not just about resisting and saying, “No more violence, no more trauma,” but also actively creating and cultivating safety, resiliency, healing and transformation for our communities.
Our work is also about, “How do we respond to concrete incidences of violence that are happening now?” Say, like somebody beat up their partner, for example — how do we respond to that violence in a way that not only addresses the immediate needs that that violence has created, but that also works to shift conditions so that the conditions that allowed for that violence to take place in the first place, don’t continue. How can we use our response as an opportunity to prevent future incidences of violence from happening?
We’re in the time now where we’re doing a lot of experimentation. I feel that we’re at the beginning of a lot of our alternatives-building.
OL: It seems like there are a lot of questions — like what does community mean, where does community begin and end? What about the individual causes of why someone might harm another person or perpetuate violence, not just within a community or society that allows it to happen, but also what happened in an individual’s own history?
MM: Yeah, definitely. I feel that transformative justice is about connecting those two things, that it’s not about excusing violence at all, but connecting individual responsibility and accountability with communal responsibility. We all contribute to the culture that we live in. We all help to perpetuate a rape culture — according to estimated statistics, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be survivors of child sexual abuse. So it’s not about just finding a couple of “bad eggs” and locking them up, because given the prevalence of child sexual abuse — not to mention battery, domestic violence, rape, assault — given the rates, we would be locking up most people, our sisters, our brothers, our uncles, our grandfathers, it would be so many people from our communities.
Because again, we know that most forms of intimate violence happen between people who already know each other. People have very complicated relationships with their abusers; it’s not this black or white notion.
When we look at, for example, the way the government or the state has used rape as a weapon of war, or child sexual abuse in Native American boarding schools, we start to understand how systematic violence really is, and how violence gets passed down from generation to generation. Nobody is born knowing how to torture somebody or rape somebody, or how to hold power over somebody’s head. Those things are taught, and often the first place people learn those is through experiences with child sexual abuse. So we see child sexual abuse as a strategic place to work, not only because of its pervasiveness but also because it is the building block of oppression — the first place where people learn what power and control look like, what silence and shame look like.
OL: Can you tell me what the BATJC does, in terms of what the work looks like right now?
MM: We’ve been meeting for about two years. Our work is to build child sexual abuse responses in the Bay Area. Right now, we’ve been doing a lot of preparation work, studying other models of accountability and intervention. A lot of community accountability work out there has been happening around intimate partner violence; people are trying new things and having spectacular failures and learning a lot. It’s slow and really hard work. Our goal is to help support a trial incident of violence.
Our vision is a Bay Area where everyone and every community has the tools to be able to intervene in an incident of child sexual abuse, or to prevent an incident of child sexual abuse. So we’ve been building the kinds of relationships with each other that could actually hold an intervention to violence. Because that’s the thing about transformative justice that I love — nobody owns it. People have been doing it forever, “transformative justice” or whatever you’re calling it. As long as you’re trying to respond to incidences of violence that aren’t about creating more harm or perpetuating more violence, then it’s like, Yes, I want to work with you.
At the crux of it, we’re saying that another way is possible, that healing is possible, that transformation is possible. And if accountability and transformation are possible for someone who has sexually abused, then what does that mean about our own relationships and how we’re treating each other? — when a lot of us, in our work and communities and movements, don’t even know how to handle conflict well, let alone violence, you know? It just shifts the orientation to your work and the kind of deep trust that you have to build to go into this work, and you have to live out that belief.
OL: It sounds like you’re literally building a movement from the ground up, in terms of language and framework and the basic ways we interact with each other.
MM: Exactly. We’re not going to end violence with a campaign or even necessarily in our lifetimes, so how can we take the chunk of work that we have to do in our lifetimes and do it well enough that we can pass it on to other people? One of the things I’ve learned really deeply in the time I’ve spent organizing is that we need both systemic policy change and broader institutional change like abolishing prisons, AND we need to be able to respond to violence in our own communities. Even if prisons were abolished tomorrow, we still need some way of confronting violence or harm when it happens. And I think we can all agree that prisons were not set up for rehabilitation. The work of resisting existing systems has to be coupled with the work to build alternatives. Some of the most powerful work I see is the work that’s connecting those two together.
OL: You started a blog when you first moved here to Oakland, writing about the disability justice and community-building you moved out here to do. How did that experience inform the work that you do, and is that sort of building still a part of your work?
MM: Definitely. All of our work has to be in service of community-building and taking care of each other, whatever that looks like for you. For some people, community is a larger or smaller group; for some people it’s their online community because maybe they can’t leave the house that often.
The work is not “ours,” it’s not “mine.” Everything that we learn, we learned from someone else who passed down writing or knowledge. All of the work that I’m able to produce or be a part of, the only reason I’m able to do it is because of all of the people who gave me information out of their own generosity or from the mistakes they made. The process of moving out here has been deeply a part of my work. I try to live my life in a way where everything is a part of my work.
OL: Do you have a recommendation for people who are interested in learning more about disability justice or transformative justice?
MM: There’s so much out there, so many blogs and websites that you can go to. I think everyone should read the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which is downloadable from their website. What I’ve been most inspired by is seeing people create what they need from what they have — people who aren’t in formal movements or involved in nonprofits, who are doing frickin’ amazing work. I think a lot of people feel intimidated by the kind of elitism and professionalization in our movements that creates “celebrities” or “experts” who go to fancy trainings. A lot of the most groundbreaking andgrounded work is done by people who didn’t go to school for organizing, they’re just people figuring out the crux of how we take care of each other better.
I keep trying to remind people that we have everything that we need to get free. And most of us, if we would just believe that and tap into that, we would be in such a different place.
When I was coming up, there was no such thing as disability justice. Many of us are creating it, just from our own lived experiences. We’re creating it in the ways that we, as disabled people, have figured out how to live in a world that’s ableist. It’s a movement that comes out of something like four disabled friends figuring out, “How are we gonna go to the movies together when one of us can’t take mass transit because it’s not accessible, when one of us needs a PA [personal assistant], one of us has a service dog and one of us has severe depression or chronic fatigue?” That’s where it started.
I don’t want it to lose those roots. My work is trying to cultivate an environment where we believe in ourselves and each other enough to start doing that work.