Practicing people power.
By Kelsey Kitzke
In October of 2020, I began working at a domestic violence shelter in the city. Looking for something to fill my time and give me a sense of purpose during the first full Covid semester, I started my job with the vague notions that I would be doing “good,” that I might help others and be personally fulfilled in the process. What I came to learn, however, is that the shelter system, in New York City as elsewhere, can be as brutal and violent as the situations it purports to help its residents leave (to fully explain this would require a word count this magazine cannot afford). I came to Dean Spade’s work with what I can only describe as a need for reassurance. What can a person who is looking to do good hope for today? First, as Spade and I discussed, maybe hope is the wrong word. And at other points in our conversation, I saw that maybe I was asking the wrong questions of myself, of the world, and of activists like Spade. And that the questions we should be asking have much more to do with survival, resistance, and solidarity than with hope, helping, and doing good.
Dean Spade, BC ’97, has been working in grassroots movements for queer and trans liberation, racial justice, and economic justice for over two decades. In 2002, he founded the Sylvie Rivera Law project, which provides free legal services to low-income and POC transgender, intersex, and gender-nonconforming people. In October of 2020, Verso published Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis (And The Next) about the necessities and practicalities of mutual aid work in today’s times. In the fall of 2021, he collaborated with the Barnard Center for Research on Women to organize a four-part workshop series focusing on building capacity in mutual aid organizations.
Spade now works with mutual aid organizations to shape strong, meaningful, and long-lasting group dynamics, as well as politically impactful community organizing. Together, we talked through building powerful mutual aid organizations, the depoliticization of queerness, and meaningful ways to resist systemic oppression.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue and White: Was there was an ‘aha’ moment for you when you realized how we’ve been told to do aid or service or politics isn’t working, and serves to reproduce the system that has led to so many problems? You went to law school—I feel like becoming a lawyer is often the path that people who want to create societal change are told to take.
Dean Spade: One major thing is that the time period when I was becoming really politicized in the mid-’90s in New York City was simultaneously the time period where Giuliani was mayor. There would be brutal attacks on poor people and sex workers and taxi drivers and street vendors, and there was all this really interesting coalitional work happening amongst targeted groups. So on the one hand, I was learning, through grassroots activism, a lot about deep intersectional resistance. And on the other hand, there was a new very right-wing gay politics emerging that centered marriage and military service and hate crime laws. That period was really pivotal for me to be like, what are the differences between these two things? I’m queer, I think I’m supposed to be into this version of gay politics that’s becoming so visible. And yet it’s aligned with things I don’t believe in like the military and the police and marriage … And so that pivot moment where I was like, wait, how does change happen? What are we fighting for? What do I actually think liberation is versus what are some things people say are liberation, freedom, and where do I want to be on the ground involved?
B&W: Do you remember the first grassroots organizing that you were doing in New York?
DS: I was involved with a group called Sex Panic!. That was a lot of people who had been in ACT UP New York and who were concerned about the criminalization of queer and trans youth who hung out at the piers. We were concerned about the rise of conservative gay politics that had a really anti-sex message at the time that was like, ‘The way we should deal with HIV is that people should become more domesticated and not have sex with so many people.’ We were concerned about the ways increased surveillance and policing were happening in places like Washington Square Park. And we were concerned about the increasing criminalization of needle exchange. Then a bunch of us were involved with doing mutual aid with people with HIV and AIDS who were unhoused and trying to access housing that was supposed to be guaranteed, but it wasn’t actually given out in a way that was survivable.
So we were a multi-issue group of queer and trans people with a sex-positive agenda doing this response to the Guiliani administration that was multifaceted. There were people in the group who were in the sex trade and concerned about the ways that the sex trade was being zoned out of the Times Square area and the ways that sex was being increasingly criminalized. Some of us, like me at the time, worked in queer bars and clubs, and increasingly the Guiliani administration was trying to push those kinds of businesses out. They would send the fire marshals constantly to fine all the queer and trans clubs for violations that almost every space in New York City has because of the age of the buildings.
BW: And then you went to law school—how did you find that experience?
DS: Law school was very unpleasant. What I didn’t expect was that it would be such a conservative way of thinking about law. I had been involved in all these groups where people I knew were criminalized. People were arrested for protests and also just criminalized for being poor. I saw law enforcement as a problem in my community. So I was like, I’m gonna go deeper into studying those systems. But when I got there, it was not a place of a lot of critical thinking about those systems, it’s a lot of like, pretend those systems are neutral, try to memorize what they say about themselves; you mostly just read what judges say. I was very shocked by how uncritical it mostly was. I also had the opportunity to study with a few critical race theorists, but most of my classes were this kind of uncritical, kind of pro-law enforcement framing. For the most part, I felt extremely alienated at law school and came to understand that what they were trying to train us all to do was to be essentially just cogs in the law enforcement machine. There’s an assumption in law school that even if you were somebody who was like “going to do good” or whatever, you were still going to do good just by winning a lawsuit and a total lack of reality about why that has not yet won anyone's freedom.
B&W: I heard you say, I think in one of the BCRW workshops, that we’re in “peak conditions of bleakness” right now. I’m sure you've been asked this a lot, but is there a reason for hope? How do we practice mutual aid even when we’re at our most jaded and cynical about the world?
DS: Mutual aid is something that we don’t really have a choice but to practice; conditions are worsening rapidly and will for the rest of our lives. The conditions of climate change, the conditions of work, the conditions of this pitched battle between our opponents who are interested in extracting as much as possible from people on the planet, and all of us who are losing out in that system. And there’s a lot of things that our opponents do to make it seem like the thing we should all do is be very passive. They want to pacify us, that’s essential to them keeping these shenanigans going. So I think part of the call to mutual aid is just like, oh my God, people are suffering and dying so badly. For God’s sake, let’s help each out, let’s actually try to produce conditions of survivability, when what the system is telling us is that people are disposable and we should just let them die. And because we know that worse conditions are coming, the more we do now to build out our capacity to share with each other and make decisions together and support each other, the better off we’ll be when the next disaster arrives.
The question of hope and all that is really complex. I think you could be like, this whole thing of human life is circling the drain, and you could still decide to resist the entire time. Because it’s the thing that speaks to all of our dignity, and the possibilities of any well-being. Or you could also be someone who’s like, I believe that change might be possible, we never know what’s gonna happen next. If we do this constant on the groundwork in our communities, then when moments arrive—like the way that June 2020 was this moment of political possibility that none of us could have predicted—the more we’ve been forming groups, the more ready we are to make the most of those moments.
I think none of us should have a thin, positive-thinking hope because that's actually not true. Can we be in sober reality with the conditions as they actually are, and then decide to act? And you might decide to act because it feels hopeful, or you might decide to act because it feels ethical, or because it feels urgent, or because you’re angry—there are so many reasons, good reasons, to decide to build connection with others. But I think that the story of hope in the U.S. is actually usually a pacifying story, it’s usually like, don't worry, things always get better. It’s telling you not to act. I think we should all tune into whatever emotional valence helps us act right now.
B&W: Yeah, because often hope is, I think, connected to the whole liberalist progress narrative that everything will get better, inevitably with time.
DS: The Obama campaign was all about the idea of hope. And what we’re supposed to do at this pivotal moment in history was say, “this guy will solve it,” and wait for it to be delivered from on high. When, of course, his agenda was just like every other presidential administration’s agenda: imperialist, capitalist. Hope is often used against us in the context of U.S. politics and symbols and fighting. People are rightly suspicious of hope, or grasping for hope. Let's grasp for sober reality, and then modes of action and solidarity.
B&W: I’m wondering how you find it possible to have satisfaction and fulfillment, all the kinds of things that prevent emotional burnout, while working against the system that is so, so deeply frustrating, even devastating, to be constantly encountering and understanding and working against?
DS: We’re all living under these systems, so hopefully we’re noticing their impacts. And when you do mutual aid work, you might get closer to parts of the impact that are not in that moment impacting you. So it’s very heartbreaking and devastating to see what that system is doing. But because everything is connected, it’s still creating your life, whether or not you are its primary target. So I think part of it is just like: is the alternative to hide from the reality of what is actually happening to people in the world? That doesn’t feel ethical.
We need so many more people to do mutual aid work. One basic thing is just there is so much crisis and most people are still really, really, really pacified. The more of us do this work, the less it is burnout work. The other thing is a lot of my work, especially in recent years, has just been about how do we create, within our groups, conditions that make the group's really fulfilling and satisfying to work in instead of creating conditions where we’re crappy to each other and where somebody’s bossing us around? And we’re having all this conflict because we’re acting out the scripts from our culture.
There’s a sense that this will be another job. People are used to working and going to school in exploitative, hierarchical organizational cultures that are exhausting and draining. But actually, when you do political work, it shouldn’t be exhausting and draining. It should be like, I met people I really loved who understood me finally, and who totally have my back, I made lifelong friendships, I found a cute date, I felt creative, I felt righteous anger that was really beautiful. It should be an experience that is connective and satisfying.
We need to break the habit of seeing all “work” as work. We have to be like, connecting with people in my community isn’t the same as when I went to my shift and somebody made a lot of money off of me being there. And so how do I figure out how to not feel avoidance about things I actually love and believe in and distinguish them inside myself.
B&W: From your work to make mutual aid organizations more horizontally structured, I wonder how can we get rid of hierarchical thinking, both structural in organizations and more implicit in our own thought processes?
DS: One thing is getting rid of the structure of hierarchy inside groups and actually building ways of making decisions together. How do I come to this meeting with these 10 other people and be excited to share my ideas, but actually interested in hearing how others disagree, and what I might not be seeing? And how do I become somebody who’s actually interested in other people’s views instead of interested in being right? That skill set is actually very hard for people. It has a lot to do with race and class and gender and ways in which we've been trained to operate in hierarchies.
I think a lot of mutual groups, too, are doing political education inside the group. Like, let’s look at what it would mean for us to live those values or let's do dismantling racism work inside this group together, or let’s look at toxic masculinity … we’re building structures that don’t become hiding places for that programming. [That] don’t become places that legitimize that some people are just the experts here because they’re older or because they’re white or because they’re men or whatever.
B&W: I know you’ve talked about how the conditions we’re living in right now are often so unequal that the mutualness of mutual aid is increasingly impossible. How can groups adapt to that?
DS: In mutual aid, we’re trying to avoid charity dynamics. So we’re trying to avoid a dynamic in which people who have more come to people who are in crisis and tell them you can have this if you follow all of our rules and meet all of our eligibility criteria, and prove that you're the deserving poor and all of that. There’s kind of a colonial dynamic in that charity model, where it’s like, ‘We know better than you, you should be sober, you should be using an anger management class, you should take a budgeting class, etc.’
We want to build groups in which people participate in the groups who are in crisis. Let’s say our group is doing support to unhoused people living in an encampment, and sitting up there we’re like, ‘Hey, we've got tents and water and you can charge your phone here.’ And we’re also like, ‘Do you want to join this group, do you want to help us make decisions about it? We're deciding things like are we gonna go to two encampments or focus on this one, should we spend more money on tents or on water, you know, come join us.’
A lot of times in mutual aid, what I see happening right now, it can be hard to do that because people are in such extreme crisis they don't want to join the group or whatever—which is, of course, totally fine. It can be hard for people doing mutual aid work. They’re like, ‘Wait, does that mean we’re in charity model?’ Say, we have a lot of housed people in our group and we’re supporting unhoused people. And I think the answer to that is keep doing the work. That’s how it is right now: keep figuring out, are there ways to bring the wisdom of the people who are directly impacted into the work more?
Some groups I have talked to, they’re like, while we’re at the charging station with people and they’re charging their phone, we bring up all these questions that the group’s thinking about, so we just use that as a way to get their wisdom. They don’t want to come to a meeting; they can’t do that. But we’re finding ways to seek their counsel and to talk with them about housing justice and what we care about …There’s lots of ways of trying to bridge that gap. But I think that question of should we stop doing the work because the work doesn't look perfect, yet? No, there is no perfection in any of this work. You keep doing the work and you keep seeing how it’s not meeting your values. And then you keep doing new experiments. There’s a dangerous idea that I think in part comes from social media culture, that if something isn’t perfect, you should just stop doing it. And we just cannot afford that.
B&W: Is that the most common way you see mutual aid groups slipping into a charity model: that inability to have people that they’re working for as members of the group?
DS: I think [the charity model] comes up in a lot of ways. Groups that are struggling with all these new people asking us for money, how do we decide who’s the most important people to give it to? So then sometimes you can get into deservingness frameworks. Most groups I see struggling with that are really thoughtful. They’re like, Oh, yeah, the ethical thing is to give it to the most needy people facing the most kinds of harm at once, the most intersectional harm. Those two things: how to make sure your organizing has a deep invitation to collective action for people in crisis, and how to make sure that you’re not using eligibility criteria that that connects to stories about deservingness in our culture.
B&W: I wanted to talk to you about your recent conversations on how romance and sex affect group dynamics within mutual aid organizations.
DS: I started doing more work about the romance myth and more generally about sex, dating, and friendship and how those structures relate to a lot of conflict in our movements. But a lot of that work is about looking at the deep ways that we have imbibed some very bad ideas that are sexist and racist and homophobic and colonial, capitalist structures that are about how our society wants to shape sex, romance, and family formation norms in order to keep us all in our places. The romance myth tells us a lot of things: It tells us that romantic and sexual relationships are the most important relationships we can have. It really discounts friendship, it tells us to give everything up for that privatized domestic fantasy. It sets us up to have really bad experiences in sex and dating and romance, because it gives us expectations that are really unrealistic and harmful and isolating and really invite harm and violence between people ... And so what can we do to become more aware of very typical patterns of thinking and behavior that we’re all likely subject to and either experiencing for ourselves, or maybe supporting friends who are living with the bad results of this, or supporting an organization where people's unethical behavior has torn through the organization because of this kind of programming? Because I’m interested in movement-building, and I’m like, Oh, wow, this is something that's really in our way in our movements, surprisingly heavily in our way—the ways that we completely lose our shit when it comes to behaving ethically as soon as sex, dating, and romance is on the menu.
B&W: I’m wondering if you’ve seen this particularly affect queer groups. With the mainstreaming of queerness and the way that queer people have been integrated into the romance myth over the past couple decades, does that strip the radical possibilities of queerness and transness?
BS: I think what your question points to is that, in general, the romance myth is isolating. It tells people to domesticate and focus on settling down into these very limited relationships, and building lives that are primarily oriented towards consumption. And so the increasing invitation to gay and lesbian people to become part of that is, of course, depoliticizing and reduces political participation. I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that so many lesbian/gay bars closed in recent years or … in general, people are more isolated and have less in-person relationships. I think it’s hard to say how much of that is from this new narrative of gay domesticity and how much of it is all these other things that are also forcing people to greater isolation in our society, but it is worth noting.
It is interesting for those of us who are in our 40s even to notice … what we had to do to find our people when we came out and how that brought us into community in various ways. You had to go to the gay bookstore or the gay center or the bar … so it brought you into contact with more [queer] people, some of whom you might become friends with or who might have your back when you got sick or might invite you to think radically about war and militarism or something.
B&W: I know you’ve talked about the practical benefits of collective living—is it also activism in itself to be combating our increasing isolation?
DS: I would say there’s no single solution about how people should live or do things. But I just think in general, the tendency in our culture is towards isolation, including in living arrangements. And that does produce a really high cost of living and high cost in time of what it is to reproduce your life. You have to make all your meals, there's no shared labor in that. Also, I think a lot of people are really afraid of other people at this point. Just like fear of doing anything that involves other people, and really afraid of conflict and really afraid of difference and really deskilled at being with each other.
And so I do think that it’s worth thinking about collective living projects … it's an opportunity to think about all of our values. It has been in tons of political movements … and those experiments have had all the ups and downs that we can imagine. But there’s a reason people gravitate towards that desire to build those social relations they want to live in. And I think on a very practical level, that question comes up a lot when I do events, people are like, how could I possibly do mutual aid work? I have to work all these jobs to pay my rent, and all my student debt and whatever else, and I don’t have any time. And I’m like, well, both the time and the money piece in part comes from the ways we’re worsened by the way we’re all living in greater isolation.
B&W: You once said “everyone should be accompanied through these brutal systems.” What does accompaniment look like, today and in the future?
D&S: What I was getting at is that the systems that are controlling people’s lives … a lot of it is just going to all these horrible hearings and meetings and being told that you’re bad and being stigmatized and being blamed for the poverty that you are experiencing. The ultimate goal of our movement is to dismantle those systems and not have anybody be put through that. But in the meantime, it is meaningful to do mutual aid where people at least don’t go through that alone. There’s tons of examples of people doing that who are not professionals in the systems. When you think about when people go through really politicized court hearings, maybe activists who’ve been involved in protests or something, and then people pack the court and their supporters are there … I really think that matters. A part of what trauma is is in being alone when it’s happening, and not having anybody witnessing you and sharing a belief in your dignity.
There's a parole prep project in New York, where people who are not lawyers, help people who are in prison prepare for parole hearings. And not only do they get better outcomes in people's parole hearings, but I also just think it’s meaningful to have connections with people on the outside who want to help you get out … or having people go with others to housing hearings, to welfare hearings; all those kinds of hearings are often very non-professional anyway, like real legal rules of evidence don’t apply and they’re kind of designed to have people who are going through them not have all the information they would need. Even a little bit of support from somebody who’s willing to sit down and read forms with you … [can] change the outcome for someone in one of those systems.