The Art of Healing (Keynote for Doctors for Global Health gathering at UC Berkeley, 8.11.13))

Good morning, everyone.

I’m so happy to be here, to learn, to share, and to heal.

I was thinking about what I was going to say to a roomful of doctors, nurses and community organizers, but mostly thinking about the doctors and nurses and I started to panic. Mostly because what I know about doctors and nurses tends to come from twenty some odd years of watching intense medical dramas—and what I have learned from the doctors of St. Eligius, the County General Hospital in Chicago and of course Seattle Grace Mercy West is that you guys basically have to hook-up with each other to cope with the variety of messed up ways our global capitalist system is set up to annihilate the poor. I mean, there’s no other way then to blow off steam and detox under five minutes than to make fast and awkward love to your colleague in a quiet dark corner in the locker room, right? You don’t, right? Or…do you? I’ve never worked a 20 hour shift, so I am certainly not one to judge!

But television shows us an exaggerated version of how the world functions, right? Couple it with the right soundtrack, lighting and actors that can draw us in with nuanced performances of empathy and we have only a bare inkling of what it’s like to heal and experience healing.

Healing.

True Healing.

But nary do we see the connections between capitalism and health access; God forbid someone with McDreamy looks calls out a slumlord after removing one too many cockroaches lodged deep inside an inner city child’s ear canal.

And I don’t know why we don’t see that. It happens! You can’t make this stuff up. It is all too real.

In life, here where blood is blood and access to healing—and the kind of healings we do—becomes indicative of the divided world we inhabit, what does it mean to heal? What does it mean to heal when every day there are so many injustices that you don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them all out. Violence happens every day. We are witness to the spectrum of violence—the soft violences of being stared at because you present your gender like a fashionable unicorn or of being cat-called on the street or getting called a faggot or a wetback…but you don’t end up in a trauma unit in the hospital because someone spit in your face. And trauma has a life-or-death meaning that comes with a different set of stress disorders.

Sometimes you’re a nurse who gets spat at, who gets sexually or racially harassed; sometimes you’re a doctor who drives a kid home, a sixteen year old that came shot up the night before and you drive him because he’s a youth activist and shouldn’t be hobbling on a walker through a gang-occupied neighborhood. Sometimes you’re the only one who sees the madness behind hospital policies and the personnel that deny poor people from having any dignity because they lack health insurance or any other means of securing quality healthcare. You are the one that gets looked at like you’re possibly from Mars for being an ally. For being an advocate.

You are here because you believe in justice and you probably need a recharge. You know that working for justice made it easier to check your ego, forgo dermatology or plastics and pursue anything that foregrounds your interest in political intersectionalities. But you can’t do it alone. It is here among a range of tribes where you are seen, validated and given a siguele siguele pep talk to continue birthing and nurturing collective action and building the world where justice reigns supreme.

In Western Medicine, you’re deemed nurses and doctors. But when you pursue justice in these endeavors you have a deep relationship to the act of healing, of being healers. There is an art to healing. It reminds me of the photograph that circulated this last year as we all found different ways to turn our mourning and anger about the murder of Trayvon Martin into actionable projects—the photograph of the Howard University School of Medicine wearing hoodies in the first shot, followed by the white coats over those hoodies in the second shot. Stopping and forcing viewers to acknowledge that we don’t know that we travel our paths shrouded in assumptions and that we need to be shaken out of that. This kinds of visual interventions are moments that lead to healing.

But, what does healing mean for the healers? What might it look like for those that bring healing to others to experience healing themselves. Because if it’s one thing I take away from these medical dramas is that you, as a worker in a trauma unit, in an emergency room, in a South Los Angeles based health clinic; anyone and everyone working hard to eliminate health disparities and foster community well-being by providing and promoting the highest quality care…have really seen it. You have acted fast in moments where you probably just wanted to scream. You remain calm because it is in the moment where you must resist the impulse to judge the systemic ethical failure in order to make someone feel better about the pain that is all-consuming.

I don’t know what it is to do the work you do. I don’t always make appointments with my health provider. I don’t see the acupuncturist enough. Or the dentist. I don’t know what it means to be healthy. Even though I know that avocado and salmon have tons of omega-3s, that kale is like the best antioxidant. I know some stuff, but you. You know everything. About my body. And then you don’t really know a thing about my body. My body. You don’t know that it took a long time to want to be in my body.

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I want to share a little bit about what I do.

Well in case my bio didn’t hit it hard enough, I am an artist. I got started back home in Los Angeles about twenty years ago through punk rock and Riot Grrl—these were the ways I learned about politics, feminism, eco-activism and becoming anti-imperialist. I fell into art as a way to rebel against my family. My parents dealing with their own set of traumas raised me under a set of strict domestic policies. No sleepovers, ridiculous curfews that I would break time and time again, like their hearts. Not that my parents let me know it. When I came out of the closet I was nursing a heartbreak over my first same sex love and my father very casually says “Ay, mija, no llores, hay te vas a encontrar a otra.”

But I learned about myself by piecing my history through the stories my mom told me before my bedtime and then later as a young adult, reading about the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. I basically pummeled through all the classes in Central American Studies at Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

These particular ethnic studies were a way to study myself, to contemplate where I came from as a child born in Los Angeles to a Salvadoran mother. My mom, one of nine kids (originally 12, but 3 died before the age of 3) grew up in a small hamlet on the border between El Salvador and Honduras, became a registered nurse who worked in San Salvador and ended fleeing not a civil war but an abusive husband who kept my older brother away from her for over six years. My mother fled one type of violence and arrived to encounter another kind in the U.S.—poverty. She was one of fourteen living in a house on Coronado Street in Echo Park—una arrimada, she called herself, or someone “leaning” on others for a few weeks without paying rent until an opportunity arose.

Learning about this type of trauma, this family history and first person account transmitted to me by my mother sometimes somberly but mostly through laughter—because my God if it’s one thing my mother never lost in leaving her country for a hostile U.S. of A it was her sense of humor. And my mother lost a lot. And her sharing the stories of loss with me was a way to heal. My mother, as both a trained nurse who couldn’t be one in her new home found other ways to offer me healing.

It was difficult to reckon, to understand that my mother and I made different decisions for ourselves at age 15, 25, 35. Knowing where you come from is a form of healing. But we share with one another the stories that to this day continue to mark the path, that like a scar, of where our pain and healing are configured.

But it took a while to get there because sometimes starting out with this work we don’t always have a language for healing. My introduction to healing came through art. It came through writing. I wasn’t in a Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers or even a Precious type of situation, but rather at a languishing 22 year old caught unprepared and under-resourced for college crossed paths with someone who had also very much experienced the world as a daughter of a Salvadoran immigrant mother had seen in me a potential to create a world where that experience can be seen, first and foremost, and then shared with others. The writing is what saved me. It helped me make sense of the hurt of racism, the confusion of desire, the numbness of addiction and the fury against imperialism. And finding a public that felt like they could drown themselves and possibly come up for air with my words was a gift. This was how I found community. This was how I found my calling.

There are many places where art and medicine connect. I like to think of these connections as sites where art becomes medicine.

In Anna Deveare Smith’s Let Me Down Easy she enacts a multiplicity of stories that center on the complicated relationships people have to health care. The one-woman tour de force explores the power of the body, the price of health and the resilience of the spirit. It is based on interviews with an eclectic range of people, from a heavyweight boxer to a supermodel, and from Texas Governor Ann Richards to legendary cyclist Lance Armstrong. Anna Deveare Smith is a seasoned stage actor and is currently part of the cast for the Showtime program Nurse Jackie. She’s been in so many amazing movies. She teaches also in the department of Performance Studies at NYU. I think about the body of Anna’s work and the thing that rings the loudest to me is that she can just be an actor. She can just be a theater acting professor. She doesn’t have to make amazing live work that focuses on the betterment of our citizenry and the ways we are good to one another. She doesn’t have to do work that focuses on race relations in Brooklyn, or the emotional toll the riots took on Los Angeles following the verdict that let members of LAPD walk free after nearly killing the late Rodney King in 1992. She is someone who talks to hundreds of people for every project she puts together. She has top billing when it comes time to perform these projects with their high production values and impeccably skilled professionalism. But that’s not even the point of her work. It’s not the product as much as the process and what you learn when you open yourself up to another human being, especially when that human being never had anyone really sit down with and really do the task of listening.

Anna’s work is like all of our work, where we work with others in mind. Yet our work in order to ring true, to reverberate beyond our individual selves, must be done so in community. Pursuing justice is akin to healing. There is healing when we fight for justice and we heal ourselves in the process of it when we turn to each other to coauthor speaking and listening.

When I was younger I performed in a variety of different spaces and stages. I thought I wanted to be the next Sarah Jones, Danny Hoch, or the next Anna Deavere Smith—crafting these one-person shows that portray a range of characters all performed by me. In the meantime I was in a group project very much inspired by the guys in Culture Clash. I did a project called Butchlalis De Panochtitlan with three other masculine of center Chicana butch female-bodied lesbians and it was good and fun and so healing to tell the story of gender outlaws. We had picked up enough traction to be invited by a range of art and academic institutions to talk about what it is to perform brown queer female bodied and barrio-raised Latinidad. It was fun. It was cool. I mean sometimes it got weird being asked to perform your identity, being in awkward Q&A sessions after performances being asked about your clothes and hygiene in really non-respectful ways. But you shake that off when you meet people who connect with your work, who are part of the interviews you do to create characters that speak truth to power. As I got older, and performed in the same venues, saw the same faces I started becoming dissatisfied with just the art-making portion of my creative life.

I wanted to see more people in the audience. But I also wanted to find different ways to activate audiences. Could they be a part of the art-making? If so, how? How do you invite someone that hasn’t much of a relationship to performance or art to co-author a piece with you? How do I engage people like my mother—a woman that loves art but is afraid of the feeling that comes from stepping into the big white cold box of most museums.

I didn’t know it but I was always a cultural organizer. It’s kind of like a community organizer, but it’s like totally specific to the arts. Or as the folks over at Arts & Democracy say, Cultural organizing exists at the intersection of art and activism. It is a fluid and dynamic practice that is understood and expressed in a variety of ways, reflecting the unique cultural, artistic, organizational and community context of its practitioners.  Cultural organizing is about placing art and culture at the center of an organizing strategy and also about organizing from a particular tradition, cultural identity, and community of place or worldview.

And that’s what I do now. Here in the Bay Area. I started out doing community partnerships for Los Angeles’ Cornerstone Theater Company, and getting clear about doing this work. Today in the Bay I work at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, building a a pilot community collaboration program with objectives to create community-relevant hierarchy-free art. What a concept, right?

My work here centers on installing professional artists—and every kind of artist you can imagine—into different communities to create work collaboratively with members of those communities and to present that work in community-specific and relevant venues, privileging access and relatability. The program I run is called IN COMMUNITY and I believe that local Bay Area community members, community organizations and individual artists can collectively meet mutual interests through experiential art making. This project approaches community collaborations with four core principles that guide the entire development, production and presentation process. While these principles might not be articulated verbally, I hope that these principles are seen in action in the way that the community is engaged and the way the work is performed.

·      RESPECT

·      DIVERSITY

·      FLEXIBILITY

·      MUTUAL MENTORSHIP

This work makes my heart sing. I am privileged every day to be able to sit with different people and learn. I learn by listening, by resisting my impulse to speak first, to really hear what the different community histories are as told by the people who have witnessed them, who have lived them, who continue to live them. Educational community histories. Economic community histories. Health community histories. Artistic community histories. These are the histo

ries and knowing them is a part of healing.

 

I can’t do this work without community. I could have written a play according to my own devices, according to what I saw, without consulting the experts that live in the community. Experts that have seen neighborhoods change, that have experienced different waves of flight, of gentrification, or just have been arbitrarily denied or limited financial services to their neighborhoods, generally because the residents of their neighborhoods are people of color. But I would have done myself a disservice to not have engaged with these community members, to hear their stories, to hear their tales of critical witnessing and to be impelled to be of service to that truth-telling. I have had to learn that I cannot go into a community with the intention of changing it, of transforming it, of making it better. I go into community with the hopes of being transformed.

 

I applaud you if you work from a place of being in community. You probably already know first hand the things I have described. If you’re seeking though a space to activate your desire for more justice, then welcome.

 

Thank you for letting me share these words with you.