Talking Transformative & Disability Justice with Mia Mingus

We had the pleasure of interviewing writer and community organizer, Mia Mingus, on her journey in disability and transformative justice work, creating models of community accountability with the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, and what she means when she says, “we have everything we need to get free.” 

Many thanks goes to Allison Leow for being our correspondent and transcriber.

[content warning: mentions activism around child sexual abuse and intimate partner violence]

As[I]Am: What has been the trajectory of your career? Where did you start from? What challenges did you face? What life experiences did you have before reaching this one?

Mia: I don’t really think about my work as my career; it just feels more like my life’s work. I was adopted from Korea when I was six months old and the family that I was adopted into was at the heart of and part of this larger social justice community on St. Croix in the USVI. So I grew up in this small, close knit, rural feminist community, and so I feel like in terms of activism and social justice work, that’s what I was expected to do. It’s so funny, because I feel like so many other people were expected to be doctors and lawyers…

As[I]Am: But you were expected to go into social justice work?

Mia: Not even to go into social justice work, but just that it would be a part of your life. That was something that was a non-negotiable, or that I learned and really felt aligned with. I feel like that had a big impact on me: one, the violence of adoption and then two, the tremendous amount of violence I experienced in the medical-industrial complex as a disabled child as well, combined with the political analysis and the political education I was getting from the community that I was a part of, which was all focused around helping to organize this organization called the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix. They helped victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and rape. I think, for me, having that analysis and–you know, that Audre Lorde was one of the ten people who helped to found that organization [that] was a part of my community–all of these things helped me to have a better analysis, to connect the state violence that I experienced. To not just have an analysis of intimate violence, but to connect that with the ownership of children, and the buying and selling of children, and global US imperialism, in terms of transracial and transnational adoption, and then also state violence within the medical-industrial complex. That intimate violence and state violence are connected and mutually interdependent on each other.

As[I]Am: Can you talk a little bit about how intersecting identities come into play within disability justice work? You have spoken before about putting accessibility issues at the center, rather than at the margins, of all movements, but what does this look like and how does it end up serving a large number of populations?

Mia: Intersecting identities and intersectionality in general, and having a multi-issue analysis, is key and core to disability justice. It’s ground level; it’s non-negotiable. I feel like that’s the work that disability justice came out of. At least for me, I came into disability justice through the other social justice work that I was a part of that wasn’t including or prioritizing a political understanding of disability or ableism. For me, the piece of disability justice that’s so foreign is that obviously we need accessibility and access, but we need to go beyond just access. We need to go beyond just inclusion and beyond just trying to make spaces accessible, into [asking] what would liberatory access look like that is moving us towards a larger vision of liberation for disabled people and all of our communities.

To me, building disability justice is the political container in which (hopefully) liberatory access happens. I think it’s less a question of just accessibility at the center, and more a question of what would liberation for disabled people in our communities look like at the center of our work–in all communities, because disability is one of those identities and one of those experiences that everybody is a part of. Everybody knows somebody who is disabled, or has been disabled themselves, or has become disabled themselves, or will become disabled themselves. Disability, unlike other forms of oppression, unlike other identities or experiences, is something that everybody is moving towards, or that everybody could become tomorrow. Obviously that’s not the reason to do it, because it will impact me–that’s a very U.S. way to think about it, I guess–but it does make it unique in that way. And I think that that is one of the unique challenges of disability: [that] because everyone is so close to it, they push it so far away.

Disability justice is still evolving. For people to really do justice to it, hopefully, it’s not happening now. I hope it’ll happen in ten years. Hopefully, people will critique and redo everything I’ve done and take it to the next level. That’s what I hope. Maybe it will even be called something different by then. I’m excited for that.

As[I]Am: Could you talk a little bit about the work that you’ve done with BATJC (Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective)? How can young people begin that kind of organizing work and make it successful?

Mia: I love that work! That’s where my heart is, I think. Transformative justice and disability justice are the two big pieces of my life’s work that I’m moving forward. In the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, we are helping to build and support transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse that don’t rely on the state and that are community based. And obviously understanding that being just community based is not enough. Our communities are just as fucked up as everything else. Our communities are not perfect either, so just having community based responses is not enough. We have to have an analysis around state violence and intimate violence and communal violence as well.

We also need to be responding to violence in ways that don’t create more harm and violence, and that also move us towards our larger vision of ending violence, and ultimately liberation. I love the work that I’m doing because it’s smaller work. It’s on a much smaller scale than I think I’ve ever worked, and I think it allows us to go a lot deeper and gives us a lot more depth. I think there’s something about child sexual abuse work–to me, my work at the BATJC is disability justice work because disabled children and adults are twice as likely to be victims of child sexual abuse. And then, disability just complicates what “child” means, [like] people with developmental disabilities. There are all different levels. Child sexual abuse, and sexual violence in particular, is certainly not getting talked about in any disability communities that I’ve been a part of, and yet there are so many of us who are survivors and have been victims. For me, I see it as disability justice work and I see my disability justice work as transformative justice work as well because so much of what we’re trying to build also are responses to violence that don’t rely on social capital, that don’t rely on really ableist notions of what community means, and that are accessible for people, that we can all be a part of.

We always talk about how you can’t think your way through child sexual abuse work. There’s so much of it that you have to feel. And I think that has also been a huge place of learning for me, in terms of reflecting on and being critical of how intellectualized our movements have become and how much our bodies and our motions and our minds and our spirits–we don’t bring those pieces of ourselves into our movements. It has become this petty intellectual exercise. I could go on and on. There are so many pieces of child sexual abuse that are so key, and especially [in] thinking about ending violence work. I think that child sexual abuse is so strategic in how it gets used in violence, in that it is oftentimes the first site where people are learning about what power control looks like. The most vulnerable members of our community are learning for the first time what denial and blame, and what colluding with power looks like.

I think that it’s such a strategic site because it oftentimes lays the groundwork to normalize other forms of violence, and besides the fact that it is so basic. The latest statistics and estimates that we have are one in four girls and one in six boys. And obviously those are based on gender norms. And obviously those are based also on estimates from reports, and we know that most child sexual abuse cases are not reported at all. So if those are the estimates based on reports, then we know that it’s actually probably much higher. The possibility to mobilize a lot of people, and the possibility to actually have a larger impact on violence as a whole, is really profound.

As[I]Am: Do you have any numbers for how many members of the disability community are also members of the child sexual abuse community?

Mia: We have such few numbers on that. The only numbers we have are the rough estimates on one in four and one in six because it’s so not talked about, and because so many disabled people are so isolated and don’t have access to anybody but their caregiver, for example, or are incarcerated, or are in group homes or are literally chained to the back bedrooms of their parents houses and [are] being hidden. For me, I feel like doing work around child sexual abuse as a disabled person is so key because there are so many of us who are being sexually abused–not just because we’re children but also because we’re disabled.

As[I]Am: In an interview with Oakland Local, in response to people feeling intimidated that they aren’t experts at transformative justice, you said, “We have everything we need to get free.” What does that look like?

Mia: To me that looks like just starting the work now. I think it looks like resisting against bullshit crap that people tell you–that you have to have fancy trainings, like you don’t know enough, like we have to teach you, you have to pay me thousands of dollars. No! I think that it looks like indigenous communities that have fucking formed amazing responses to violence in their communities that obviously have been co-opted by the state that we have now. You know, I think about the women of color that I grew up around, who were literally doing transformative justice work, just not calling it that. Just literally trying to find a way to respond to violence in their community that didn’t harm more of their community and didn’t further trauma in their community. I feel like it’s the work that so many of us have been doing for years and years and years when you look at any of the responses–like when you look at the responses queer and trans communities have had in response to isolation and exile and violence, and their response to building chosen families. Nobody taught queer people how to do that, like “and now we’re going to teach you how to build chosen families.” We just did it. And it was just right; this is what we need to do to survive. And not just to survive–that this will ultimately lead us towards the world that we actually want and desire.

I also think that part of it is starting from where you are. Whatever you’re calling it, you’re part of a community. Whether it’s a digital community, whether it’s a community on your college campus, whether it’s a community of where you work, whether it’s your family. Whatever it is, you’re starting the work where you are. I think there’s also this white, middle-class/upper-class mentality–like we have to go to this special other place, these other communities, to do the work. No, anybody could be radical, anybody could do the work wherever they are. That’s what that looks like to me.

Doing work around child sexual abuse and doing work around intimate violence pushes us into the places that we have not historically been taught are political spaces to do work. We have to figure out a way to do responses to violence in our intimate networks, because that’s where people go when they’re experiencing intimate violence. Most people don’t go to the police; most people don’t call a shelter or a hotline; they don’t call a domestic violence organization, for example. They don’t do any of these things that we’re putting all of our resources in. Some people do, but most people don’t. So we’re putting all this time and energy into all these things around policies and laws and funding for organizations, when I think we need to be putting half, if not most, of our resources into how do we develop everyday skills in regular people to listen to disclosures from their friends, to know what accountability looks like, to be able to sit with complexity, to be able to build trust or to be able to rebuild trust after trust has been broken–those type of skills, which we don’t do in our movements. We’re more concerned about how to organize a campaign, which is really useful, and we also can’t go to protests and then come home and beat up on each other in the activist communities. We have to figure out something. That’s what I’m talking about.

We have all those tools and we can start sharing them with each other, or at least beginning to share where things are working and where they aren’t working. When you look across the globe, like I was talking about–with not just indigenous communities, but communities around any type of marginalized or oppressed identity–we had places of resiliency and places of resistance that have been brilliant, that we’ve kept with us, and we can use those in our responses to violence.

As[I]Am: Do you have any advice for young Asian Americans new to organizing?

Mia: I feel like it’s the same advice I have for all organizers. So much to me about organizing, and about disability justice work and transformative justice work, is about the relationships that we have with each other. I would say, think long-term, not short-term. Think about where you want to be, or where you want the movement to be in fifty years, in a hundred years, in thirty years. Think about what kind of impact you want to have in twenty-five years. Don’t just think about one year, three years.

Really value and honor the quality of your relationships with people and work on that, and take time out to build it. Don’t just assume that the relationships are going to build themselves through the work. I think that’s one of the biggest mistakes that we make. I think that the work should enhance our relationships if we’re doing that work well and if the work is taking care of us. And I think that should be a key red flag: if our relationships are not getting deepened or being sustained by the work, it’s a marker to me around how we’re doing our work.

I really feel like whatever work you’re doing, disability justice and transformative justice are key. I mean, as a disabled, queer woman, I know what it’s like to be excluded from the Asian community because things aren’t accessible. And like I said before, it’s not just about access and we can’t get away from access. I think that really investing in disability justice work as Asian people is so important, not only because there are so many people in our communities who are disabled, but because at the rates that violence–intimate violence, state violence, communal violence–is being used against so many of our oppressed communities, we don’t have the luxury to pretend that disability is not going to be a part of our lives. What happens to communities that are living in war zones? What happens to communities that don’t have access to healthcare? What happens to communities that can’t call the police, whether for immigration or what have you? I think that transformative justice work [is] for everyone to invest in.

I do this work on child sexual abuse as a disabled person. I do it also as an Asian woman where we are not talking about sexual violence. As an Asian queer person, we’re not talking about sexual violence; we’re not talking about intimate violence. We can’t just wait for somebody else to do it, and we don’t want somebody else to do it. We know our communities best. I would say those three things; to really think long term and have a long term vision; to invest in relationships and honor the quality of our relationships as a priority in our work; and to really do the work to learn about and invest in disability justice. And be awesome!

As[I]Am: What are some of your favorite ways to practice self-care?

Mia: I love to go to the ocean and I’m obsessed with succulents! I kind of want to ask people to just pay me in succulents! But I have this ridiculous, large collection. My partner is so nice; she’s just let me take over the entire porch. I do that, and I bake a lot and I cook a lot.

03/18/14 Correction from the interviewee: “The most vulnerable members of our community are learning… what polluting and power looks like” should actually end as “what colluding with power looks like.”

MIA MINGUS is a writer, community educator and organizer working for disability justice and transformative justice responses to child sexual abuse. She identifies as a queer physically disabled Korean woman transracial and transnational adoptee, born in Korea, raised in the Caribbean, nurtured in the U.S. South, and now living on the west coast. She works for community, interdependency and home for all of us, not just some of us, and longs for a world where disabled children can live free of violence, with dignity and love. As her work for liberation evolves and deepens, her roots remain firmly planted in ending sexual violence.

ALLISON LEOW is a Wellesley College student. She’s passionate about anti-racist feminism and dim sum. If she were a kitchen utensil, she would be a whisk.

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