When You Are A Penguin, Be A Penguin: Summer Updates From Aaron

Aug 02, 2022

By Aaron Goggans


The past month and a half has been a bit of a whirlwind for us at the WildSeed Society, as I am sure it has been for many of you. It feels like the Supreme Court's indefensible decision to overturn Roe v. Wade unleashed a storm of bad news and worse luck. It seemed to me as if the true scale of burn out, the crisis of capacity and despair that is affecting people trying to build better worlds was fully revealed and started to hit closer to home.

Several of our members faced multiple challenges in their personal and professional lives of the past few weeks from sick dogs, to sick kids to getting sick ourselves. I feel like all the capacity that we have been cultivating as individuals and as a collective is constantly being eaten up by the effects of the cascading failure of U.S society. It pains me, in a way that is hard to articulate, to see all of my increased skillfulness, wholeness and groundedness be immediately consumed by the failure of empire.

Most worryingly, our comrade Reece was hospitalized near his home in Kentucky on Sunday June 26th. Reece started feeling unwell as he was leaving a meeting where he was supporting organizers who were defending against the rising grassroots fascist movement overtaking U.S political, social and cultural institutions. On his way home, he experienced a sudden onset of the now too familiar symptoms of infection. Reece experienced severe fatigue, intense pain and a high grade fever, among other symptoms.

With the support of a comrade, Reece was able to make it to the hospital where he was diagnosed with sepsis. Being in the hospital again also activated Reece's intense medical trauma, further taxing his system. He spent over a week in the hospital with a high grade fever, dehydration and intense pain before being released.

Reece’s body, mind and spirit are recovering, albeit slowly. As most of you know, this is the third time in as many years that Reece has experienced a serious infection. His family, friends and doctors have concerns about the potentially fatal consequences of another infection and thus are working together to develop a comprehensive recovery plan.

True to our commitments to each other, the whole Sacred Warren drove out to Louisville in early July to be able to support Reece in person.  As a collective of neurodivergent people of color, many of us with complex medical conditions, we have long held agreements about how we would show up for each other when we get sick. As a community of shared risk we have all agreed that an injury to one is an injury to all.

While I felt grateful that we had structured our work, lives and organization to be able to change plans on dime and respond to crises I was also terrified that my best friend, who is like a brother to me, might die. It widened a deep but previously healed wound of loneliness that has re-opened in this pandemic as I have become a bit of a shut-in by necessity and haven’t seen my parents and siblings in over two years. It coincided with my knowledge that my partner Sandra would be going on sabbatical for three months once we got back from supporting Reece.

My anxiety spiked and a recurring intrusive thought told me that I would end up alone. For a time, I couldn’t separate my fear that my best friend would die from a fear that Sandra would end up in an “Into the Wild” like situation while on sabbatical camping alone in the North Carolina mountains. My brain, which is basically a massive prediction machine, spun images of me alone, left with a WildSeed that had run out of money, facing some Christian Nationalist congresswoman hell bent investigating BLM and Antifa conspiracies dragging us from one pointless investigation to another.

Going back to Louisville alone made this anxiety rabbit whole worse. Every siren woke me up shouting into the darkness. Nightmares of police raids and shootings, vestiges not of my own experiences but the vicarious trauma of time in Louisville during the uprising, returned after months of peace. Once again I was back in Louisville, supporting Reece, trying to step into his shoes hoping to get out of them before I got sick again.

I am thankful that we planned ahead, knowing how difficult it would be for the team but especially for me. We split up our roles with Erika providing emotional support for Reece and I, Chany managing travel logistics like AirBN and Sandra handling the food. I focused on doing what I do best, creating crisis teams, collecting known unknowns and getting as much information together as possible about what Reece was going through and what his recovery would look like.

In Louisville, despite the heavy emotions and anxieties, we were a remarkably effective team. Most of the hang ups that stall us when we try to do traditional organization work remotely (scheduling, collective decisions making, record keeping, follow through etc) vanish when we are in person with a clear objective. We are, quite simply, phenomenal in a crisis, getting things done, respecting boundaries and taking care of each other as the land constantly shifts under our feet.

It reminds me of an Alexis Pauline Gumbs quote that I’ve only heard third hand: You have to have a foot on land-in the world as it is with all its oppression and dominance culture- and foot on water-the future world of liberation and joy that we want-while having the foot in water lead.

 In Louisville I realized how much of a penguin WildSeed is. We are awkward though kinda cute on land, fumbling through basic organizational things but graceful and powerful in the water. 

When we returned to land we were exhausted. We rented an AirBnb to come home to, remembering how hard it can be to reintegrate after being deployed to a crisis. We rested for a day and then went on a quick, informal retreat to plan for Sandra’s sabbatical and try and figure out what programs we could possibly hold as a skeleton crew that itself wasn’t really at full capacity. (We all literally got sick as soon as we got home, we are all recovering from something that feels very much like covid but all home tests have come back negative.)

Together, our exhausted crew of penguins grappled with conflicting desires and needs. We needed rest and we needed funds. We needed community and we needed to strengthen our ties to movement. More importantly, we needed to feel like we were doing the work that only we could do to bring about the world that we deserved. We had to grapple with the tension between the community we envisioned together through the community discernment process and the dozens of one-on-one conversations we had with people in the movement.

We had to be honest that we don’t have the spoons to help steward an emergent community without Sandra and Reece. We don’t have the resources to bring on a ton more help to support us and most of what we did have would have to go to administrative support. In many ways we have the budget of a mid-range non-profit but the infrastructure and culture of a scrappy start-up. This is evidenced in the fact that we are also still looking at a massive revenue problem with us likely running out of money sometime in September (next month).

We also didn’t have energy to figure out a business model that worked. We don’t have any development staff at all or any infrastructure for professional fundraising. We had hoped that if we focused on doing good work we could be funded like a prominent movement organization. For better or for worse, as a collective, we don’t care enough about money to find the energy to make enough for ourselves. These are the kind of moving on land conversations that are on the one hand basic but on the other hand not really our thing.

We initially did not want to engage in major donor or grant solicitation to support our salaries at all. We hoped that a combination of earned income and grassroots support would be enough to sustain us (using grants only for exciting new programs) but that hasn’t proven true. The pandemic and inflation have made people's economic situation untenable and much of our ecosystem doesn’t have a ton of money to donate. Those in our ecosystem who do, are often surprised to hear that we are not grant funded. When asked for money they are often worried that funding us will change their relationship with us from comrade to donor.

Ultimately, our ecosystem is still figuring out how to interact with us as much as we are figuring out how to interact with it. We have many conversations with friends in philanthropy and they are always excited about our work but not quite sure how to fund us. They often send us to other funders who often say one of two things either “we don’t understand what healing work is” or “we already fund M4BL, so go ask them for funds.”

 In conversation with M4BL, they talked to donors about this, telling them that funding M4BL is not an excuse to not fund other Black led orgs. Unfortunately some funders admitted that they simply didn’t want to spend the energy vetting other Black movement ecosystems! The scandals at Campaign Zero and BLM Global Network Foundation has made funders wary of funding any new Black orgs. Once again, something a handful of Black people do becomes a story about how Black people can’t be trusted with money.

As you can imagine, the stress from trying to be more mobile on the land has proven too much for us, particularly for me as the most systems thinking and organizational development focused person in the group. So we have kinda decided to just be Penguins. We have to come to terms with the fact that being an organization from the future means that sometimes we don’t fit into the present seamlessly. 

Part of this decision, for me at least, comes from the realization that the standard for what it means to “have your stuff together” in the nonprofit world is completely inhumane. Our society is literally failing all around us, the social reproductive economy–the things that help us eat, take care of us ourselves and find shelter–has completely broken down. Many of us are going from one crisis to another while rich get rich and more protective of their wealth. The idea that should still have all our ducks in the row in the face of this is absurd.

Once more, it is often a bureaucratic standard that whiteness puts forward but never meets itself. People of color are never given the benefit of the doubt and the system never covers for our fuck ups. People of color, especially Black people, are often forced to always have a plan and come with it lest some white person not give us what we need due to some technicality that white people are almost never stopped for.

I realized that I have used being hyper-vigilant and always on top of things as a survival strategy successfully for some many years that it has wrecked my nervous system. It has robbed for the chance, even the desire, to be a care free person. I have made a career off this hyper-vigilance, specifically the way that my nervous system would activate when working with white people.

Knowing that failure might mean financial insecurity or social erasure, my nervous system would go into overdrive, increasing my capacity to meet this inhumane standard of productivity with calm and deftness. Yet it would also leave me without the spoons to support people of color who needed me more but my body knew they wouldn't withhold anything I needed if I failed.

In this way, white people and white communities have extracted our extra capacity in subtle, insidious ways while ensuring we never had the capacity to build a safety-net in our own communities. It means that, as Nikki Giovanni told James Baldwin, “those we love get the least of us.”   In this way, accepting that we are Penguins is accepting we cannot have it all together individually and hold our communities together. Being a Penguins means not having to grieve that we can’t fly while meeting our needs by swimming in the waters of the world we want.

We hope that you, our emerging community, can accept that we will just sometimes be a messy organization that comes together to magical things occasionally. This also means that in times like these, when we are all personally struggling and recovering, we might not be able to follow through on some of our more brilliant ideas (like a more formal community) on the times we originally thought. 

At the same time, we still want to invite those of you who are willing to come with us into the water. We invite you to join us on this Liberating Retreat away from a society trying to save itself from the fires it keeps starting. For me, a liberating retreat means practicing freedom together. I am inspired by the insights of Jasmine Syedullah, PhD in the phenomenal book “Radical Dharma:”

“It is not enough to know we want freedom. We have to practice it. We have to be able to live it together. Remind each other how messy practice can be but rally each other to keep going for it. It might not make sense. It might not appear reasonable. Knowing we want freedom is a practice in presence not fortune-telling, not story-telling. There are no guarantees. No gold stars for having arrived on the other side perfectly unscathed. No chance of anyone nailing a perfect landing anyhow.” pg 83

I realize that I have been trying to nail the perfect landing. I have been so concerned with inviting people onto an off-ramp from capitalism that might fail and make people cling onto a system that is hurting them even more. Yet I can see more clearly now, how wrong headed that approach was. Sometimes the only want to get off land is to jump, knowing eventually you will have to waddle awkwardly back on swore eventually.

So, once again I’d like to invite you all to come on a liberating retreat with us into the water, into a world we are building where we can get all our needs met with dignity. We know no we have no stable, steady home to retreat to yet. But we do have a couple of fields of play, where we can practice our freedom.

As always Erika will continue to host her emotional emancipation circles. While Sandra is on Sabbatical I will be holding down the Healing from Internalized Whiteness and Collective Care live sessions. We will also continue to host spiritual talks and panels where we will explore different aspects of the WildSeed Way.

Our next talk will be in lieu of our effortless action space. It will be a conversation on Revolutionary Aftercare. We want to have a serious conversation on just how devastated people are working to build a better world right now. We need to be honest about how trying to “push through it” is only making it worse. Most importantly, we need to put our personal crises in a collective context. Our mental and physical health crises are not individual failings. 

As I sit here, tired, with a slight cough worrying about my best friend's recovery, it feels so important to say that wellness and health are symptoms of social systems functioning well, meeting the needs of people in society. When we find ourselves facing anxiety, depression, fatigue, chronic pain or a whole host of other problems we need to realize that these are not due to some weakness on our part but rather to our body struggling to process the toxins and stress in our exposome (all the social and physical exposures to stress and toxins in our environments.)

Even when we are predisposed to certain illnesses, our exposure to toxins and stress is generally something outside of our control. So while we are ultimately responsible (in the sense of being able to respond) for our healing journey, it's a journey that–like freedom–we have to take together. We might have to waddle together on land as we heal so that we can get that horizon of possibility and desire and jump into the oceans of the world we want!

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