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Image courtesy of Mayra Sierra-Rivera '20, Studio art major

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Radical Healing/Hearing Toward/For Transformative Justice

By Jesica Siham Fernández

Movements grounded in transformative justice can become living models of abolition. The abolition of structural violence, white supremacy, coloniality/colonialism, and fundamental forms of dehumanization. Abolition as a practice toward and for transformative justice is about acts/actions that are life-affirming, and about dignity, thriving and love for one another. 

In the opening pages to her booklet “We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice,” activist adrienne maree brown -- a movement-builder, doula and American writer-in-residence at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute -- offers the following opening statement: 

Abolitionists know that the implications of our visions touch everything -- everything must change, including us. In order to generate a future in which we all know we can belong, be human, and be held, we must build life-affirming institutions, including our movements. Page 1

As she continues setting the intention to this pocket-sized companion text to her best-seller “Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds,” adrienne maree brown affirms for readers the importance of practicing what we preach, of walking the talk, and of revealing ourselves -- our fears and griefs -- and hearing with openness -- a widening capacious heart -- in order to heal. Most importantly, it is an invitation to Visualizing Abolition -- abolitionist present-futures.

I offer two quotes that underscore this invitation: 

We are seeding the future, including our next systems of justice, with every action we take; the fractal nature of our sacred design teaches us that our smallest choices today will become our next norms. Page 3

… we are all connected to each other, at our best and at our worst. Page 7 

These excerpts from Introduction: Building Abolitionists Movements found in the booklet are offered because they have provided me with roots. Especially at a moment in time when I have felt uprooted and disconnected in more than one way -- from family, friends, community, colleagues and students, for the spaces, places and faces that I once took for granted. Like the trees captured in the images, I too have felt myself holding onto hope that the pandemic will pass, like the tides and high waves. And, that transformative justice that encompasses healing, and the abolishing of structures of racialized and colonial violences, will flourish and rise toward/for justice: from the root to the trunk to the stems, branches and leaves.  


Trees without leaves hanging at the edge of a cliff over a coastline


Tree stump on the edge of a cliff with the ocean in the background


In my process of finding, tracing and sowing roots -- making room for growth, grounding and gratitude -- adrienne maree brown’s words have offered me ways of feeling, reflecting and being in the direction of healing. A type of healing that is seeded in hearing -- active and intentional listening -- toward a praxis that aligns with transformative justice.

Transformative Justice  

Transformative justice, the work of addressing harm at the root, outside the mechanism of the state, so that we can grow into the right relationship with each other. Page 5

My process toward radical healing has involved listening more deeply, meaningfully and intentionally to myself, to others and to ourselves. Hearing with an open heart and an open mind -- why some people are hesitant or refusing to get vaccinated or why others purport that Critical Race Theory is “anti-American.” Like waves crashing before a wall of decaying stone from underneath wavering rootless trees as captured in the images, radical healing is about holding a vision and acting upon that vision through a movement for transformative justice. One that as adrienne maree brown put it involves:

feeling for what is out of alignment with abolition, for what feels like transformative justice, for what feels like radical love in action. Page 13 


Low shot of a beach with waves beating against rocks and a cliff face


Hearing, and thus feeling, those moments when

we don’t know how to belong to each other, to something big and collective and decolonizing. Page 21

When we are “not engaging in principled struggle,” the kind that would lead us toward actualizing transformative justice.

Principled Struggle

In a nutshell, principled struggle is when we are struggling for the sake of something larger than ourselves, and are honest and direct with each other while holding compassion. …It is when we consider that a given organization, formation, or space may or may not be the space to hold what we need to bring, and that side conversations within the space should be for the sake of better understanding rather than checking out of the work. Page 21

In my process of healing and developing an ear that attends to the clashing of waves, the flow of winds through the trees, and the crackling roots toward change, adrienne maree brown offers us three guiding questions, which I share for us to engage with and reflect upon as we move into the start of the academic year, into modes and forms of change that are uncertain and unknown. These questions can lead us to growth that is grounded in radical healing, and critically compassionate hearing-learning

  1. Why. Listen with “why” as a framework. People mess up. … When we hear that something bad has happened, it makes sense to feel anger, pain, confusion, and sadness. But to move immediately to punishment means that we stay on the surface of what has happened. … “Why?” is often the game-changer, possibility-opening question. That’s because the answers rehumanize those we feel are perpetrating against us. … Also, “Why?” makes it impossible to ignore that we might be capable of a similar transgression in similar circumstances. … “Why?” can be an evolutionary question. Page 70-71 
  2. What. Ask yourself/selves “what.” What can I/we learn from this? … If the only thing I can learn from a situation is that some humans do bad things, it’s a waste of my precious time -- I already know that. What I want to know is: What can this teach me/us about how to improve our humanity? What can we learn? In every situation, there is a lesson that can lead to transformation. Page 72
  3. How. How can my real-time actions contribute to transforming this situation (versus making it worse)? … Real-time action often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility. Real-time transformation requires stating your needs and setting functional boundaries. Transformative justice requires us, at minimum, to ask ourselves questions like these before we jump, teeth bared, for the jugular. I think this is some of the hardest work. … But if we want to create a world in which conflict and trauma aren’t the centers of our collective existence, we have to practice something new, ask different questions, access again our curiosity about each other as a species. Page 73 

Let us meet the waves of change with a vision of transformative justice that can restitute our sense of humanity, our mutuality. When the roots of one tree begin to protrude we can either bring ourselves closer, and draw strength from each other -- or, pull ourselves into the trenches. I have a vision for the former -- and it is this vision that I share with you, dear colleagues, students, and friends.

Jesica is an Assistant Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department. She has spent her Fridays on hikes in her former hometown of Santa Cruz, and along the coast of Highway 1. This summer she also completed her first book, Growing Up Latinx (New York University Press).

summer 2021 blog

Jesica Siham Fern√°ndez is an Assistant Professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at SCU. As a community-engaged researcher, Jesica combines decolonial critical race theories and feminist perspectives with participatory action research (PAR) paradigms to work collaboratively with young people to bring about social change via youth organizing and activism efforts. She is currently writing her first book, tentatively titled Growing Up Latinx: Young People Challenging U.S. Citizenship Constructions, under contract with New York University Press in the Critical Perspectives on Youth series.