Amita Swadhin is a genderqueer, pansexual South Asian American femme who spends much of their time as an educator, organizer and storyteller fighting interpersonal and institutional violence against children. They are the founder of Mirror Memoirs, an oral history project centering the narratives, healing and leadership of LGBTQI survivors of color in the movement to end child sexual abuse.
Since 2016, as part of your oral history project Mirror Memoirs, you have conducted over forty interviews with queer, trans, and/or intersex people of color who are survivors of childhood rape, assault, and abuse. What sort of trends and themes have emerged from this intersectional praxis? What does 2018 hold for MM?The fifty stories have been incredible to witness. First and foremost, I am humbled by how many survivors in the project said they’d never told anyone what they were sharing with me. Second, many of the survivors (and particularly transgender women of color and transgender Black men) have experienced a trajectory of rape and sexual and physical assault beginning in childhood and continuing into adulthood, from multiple perpetrators. Third, several of the survivors, and especially transgender Black, Native and Latinx folks, relayed stories of being harmed within institutions that are supposedly created to help people living with mental health disabilities due to trauma and/or people who have been victims of violent crime. Mental health hospitals, juvenile detention centers, foster care families, and adult prisons have all been sites of harm for Mirror Memoirs survivors.Given the institutional harm, a key theme is the need for our community to look beyond prisons as a solution to interpersonal violence. Another key lesson is the need to center survivors living at the intersections of oppression: transgender and gender non-conforming survivors, disabled survivors, survivors descended from lineages of genocide and slavery upon which the United States was founded, undocumented survivors, and folks who fall into more than one of these categories. These survivors have historically been left out of national-level efforts to end sexual violence, especially in terms of public policy. This absence has often meant nonprofit and government “solutions” intended to help survivors end up criminalizing already vulnerable and oppressed populations.Another complex theme is of course the illustration of the fact that survivors and perpetrators span the gender spectrum, and that many people who have perpetrated child sexual abuse are also themselves survivors. In the spring of 2018, I will complete the first slate of Mirror Memoirs interviews (expecting to land close to 60 interviews of QTIPOC survivors across 14 different states), and turn my attention to coding the stories into quantitative data to disseminate findings in a report meant for organizers, policy advocates, direct service providers, philanthropists and legislators. I will also be working closely with my advisory board to raise funds for the development of a training institute and educational tools, for a multi-media dissemination strategy (including a podcast, animated videos and an art exhibit), and a national conference building off the success of our August 2017 gathering (a pre-conference institute of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault statewide conference, attended by 31 QTIPOC survivors of child sexual abuse). I hope to disseminate the first half of stories from the Mirror Memoirs archive in the fall of 2018, and to complete dissemination and launch training in 2019. Ultimately the goal of Mirror Memoirs is to create more paid positions for QTIPOC survivors of child sexual abuse to engage in advocacy work to end sexual violence, and I am so grateful to be supported in that goal by so many fellow survivors and our allies.
On your personal website, you offer a free download of your daily ‘Top Eight Healing Practices.’ How did you come to these practices? Has your understanding of healing shifted over time? So that you can continue to do this work, what are non-negotiables for you in how you care for yourself?
I live with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the trauma I have survived, primarily in the first 16 years of my life. When I got diagnosed in 1998, my therapist did not tell me CPTSD is a disability that entitled me to accommodations in the workplace or in educational settings. I was not aware for many years that I could travel with a service dog and live with an emotional support animal.Through this not knowing, I went through a lot of trial and error to figure out how to be as well as possible. In 1997, one of my supervisors at the US Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women gave me the recently-published book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Hermann. It was a revelation, comparing the brains of people who survived domestic violence to soldiers who survived war. I began to understand that I was living with a level of brain damage, and to understand some of that damage would likely not be undone even with the best efforts on my part.Of course as I began to also understand that trauma would be an ongoing force in my life, as a racialized queer, at times visibly genderqueer, brown woman in the United States, my understanding of “healing” shifted from a finish line to a mindset and a practice.As I’ve gotten older (now on the cusp of forty), I’ve also become aware of the ways my body has “kept the score” (to use Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s frame). I went through an ovarian cancer scare in 2016, which led to the discovery of a 14 cm benign teratoma in my right ovary. That process also led to the discovery of massive and numerous fibroids in my uterus. And last year, I had a herniated disc in my cervical spine flare with intense, excruciating pain. After working with western medical practitioners and eastern-trained acupuncturists, massage therapists and spiritual healers, I’m clear these health challenges are connected to trauma - both my own history and the trauma of the survivors for whom I hold space.
Today, some of my non-negotiables I practice to allow me to stay in this work include:
-Get a full night’s rest every night
-Avoid alcohol, sugar and dairy as much as possible, and limit caffeine to one cup a day
-Do some kind of physical movement every day, be it stretching, yoga, strength training, hiking, or just walking my dog
-Try hard to be home in Los Angeles on the weekends
-Don’t travel and give a talk or conduct a Mirror Memoirs interview on the same day
-Take small quarterly vacations and one longer annual vacation every year
-Meditate in community with other folks of color at least once a month
-Journal and meditate as much as possible, with the goal of this becoming a daily practice
-Spend as much time in nature as possible
-Be mindful of who I spend my free time with - focusing on folks who can reciprocate the practice of holding space for me and being interdependent with me (as opposed to folks I am supporting more one-directionally through my work)
-Limit my consumption of the news
-Limit the amount of time I spend talking or thinking about child sexual abuse beyond working hours
You also have a writing practice and share short-form poems on your Instagram. We would love to hear more about what kind of role writing has played in your larger healing process.
My friend and writing coach Nayomi Munaweera reminds me that writing is not fun. It’s something most of us, including myself, would not choose. It is particularly not fun to write about trauma. But it is healing, in the sense that my poetry and essay writing helps me put words to violence that was unwitnessed, unspoken, unacknowledged for many years. By vomiting it up (to paraphrase James Baldwin), I am allowing others to see those most isolated and violated parts of myself, and to connect with me through my wounds. I am also allowing myself to feel my own emotional response to memories that I have kept at bay for decades, finally integrating them so that I may be freer and more whole.
This year you made both The Bitch 50 and 100 AZNS, congratulations! In this vein, who have been some of your teachers in the anti-violence movement? What do you hope for the future of this movement? Additionally, what are some ways this movement, and individuals within the movement, can center QTPoC survivors?
Thank you! It’s really an honor to be celebrated by some of the communities to whom I feel most accountable.
Frankly, every survivor I’ve ever encountered, including my own parents, have been teachers to me in one way or another.
Mimi Kim, who founded Creative Interventions, has specifically been a huge inspiration to me. I went through one of her trainings when she was leading the Story Telling & Organizing Project, which was during the time I was co-creating Secret Survivors and just beginning to explore oral history as a tool for empowering survivors of child sexual abuse.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who has become a close friend in recent years, has also been an inspiration. Way back in 2000 or 2001, I attended a screening at Barnard College of her film NO! The Rape Documentary, which was at that time a work in progress. I was immediately moved by the power of survivors’ stories in ensemble. Until this recent #MeToo moment, the media has historically ignored the cultural and systemic factors that make rape a public health issue that happens at epidemic rates. Mainstream coverage hardly ever discusses rape as a tool of colonization, slavery and genocide (upon which the United States was founded). Aishah has always led with that analysis in her work, and I am grateful for her leadership.
Maura Bairley has been a great source of personal support as a mentor and coach. Her recommendations for organizational structure for any nonprofits or collectives attempting to address child sexual abuse guide my thinking as I work to expand Mirror Memoirs - particularly around ways to avoid replicating the conditions that allow secrecy, power over, and abuse to happen - conditions that perpetrate violations like child sexual abuse. Her guidance about ways to be an elder-in-training, focused on the intergenerational nature of this work, the marathon and not the sprint, has also been invaluable.
My hope for the anti-violence movement is that we all collectively begin to center the stories and more importantly, the leadership of those survivors who have historically been left out - for instance, folks who were raped repeatedly as children, folks who were raped by cisgender women, folks whose gender non-conformity, disability, indigeneity, blackness, and/or immigration status have made them more vulnerable to violence.
If we really want to uplift the leadership of transgender and gender non-conforming survivors of color in anti-violence work, we will have to make some critical changes. Folks who don’t fit into those identities will have to decenter themselves. We’ll all have to adopt an intersectional praxis - for someone like myself, that means ensuring my board and the cohort of survivors whose leadership I am supporting and learning from needs to include Black, indigenous, undocumented, disabled transgender folks, even as it includes people whose identities more closely mirror my own. It means the organizations we create and support need to make work plans accessible to folks who are disabled from trauma. It means we need to destigmatize the identity of being a highly traumatized survivor and we need to learn from the wisdom of all survivors - not just those of us whose coping mechanisms are rewarded by capitalism. It also means we need to understand that white supremacy, xenophobia, anti-blackness, imperialism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are values that inherently promote rape culture. These are belief systems that make some humans more vulnerable to violence than others, because these are belief systems that dehumanize particular people. So if we really want to end all forms of sexual violence, we need to understand that we also need to end those forms of discrimination and oppression.