disability justice
traditional chinese medicine

Understanding Disability Justice and Harm Reduction with Chiara Francesca

I’m so excited to speak with you, Chiara. How have you been feeling over the past few days? Can you describe your energy?

Yes! I have been trying to show up for community, and for loved ones close to me. While trying not to leave myself behind. Chicago has been a bubbling of activity, of frayed nerves, of hopeful heartfelt moments, and much heartbreak too. I am learning to set boundaries everyday, and to both be present, and not soak up everyone’s feelings, or feel like it’s on me to meet everyone’s needs or asks. There is so much more to it, just finding slowness when the spinning gets faster and faster has been where I try and find myself today

Wow, yes. I’ve been dipping in and out to what is happening in Chicago right now. I can imagine that as someone whose work is so integral to community bonds, creating those boundaries are so necessary to rejuvenate yourself, filling up your cup so that you can provide adequately to both others and yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about what your healing practice has looked like since the uprising? 

I don’t know if I feel like my work is integral to the community. I am just a speck. I’ve seen the work of generations of Black and Brown organizers in the city going on for days and weeks and months on end. I want to uplift the work of Chi-Nations Youth Council, BYP100, Black Live Matters Chicago, OCAD, Let Us Breathe Collective and so many others who have been on the frontlines of all of this

I am not sure how I feel about filling the cup. Like how do we move through having cups that have been empty or chronically unfilled for generations? How do we move from a place of trauma and chronic divestment and still find abundance? Still build without using the same tools as racial capitalism and white supremacy? That has been the work.

Since the uprising, and the pandemic I have moved through many different iterations of work. At first it was supporting folks remotely, then I organized wider resources to be used for home care, like the Acupressure for all doc in English and Spanish. In May, I transitioned to seeing patients in person. I have been doing treatments with COVID safety in mind while trying to wrap my mind around what it looks like to ethically prioritize folks on the frontlines, since I cannot see everyone who is asking for/wanting treatments. 

Two other things have been happening: 

1.  Is the organizing-in-progress of a healing justice space with other practitioners to support folks on the frontline with COVID-safe community care.

2. Trying to figure out what to do with using social media platforms as an organizing tool. The explosion of interest that this moment has sparked ideas that are actually long-standing that the wider society is finally shining a light on. I’m trying not to get sucked into lengthy back and forths with folks online that are asking for a lot of labor.

I really admire your humility in articulating that you are merely a vessel for the insight and knowledge that has been passed to you through your practice. I do want to recognize that, as someone with CPTSD, the work that you’re doing has been so transformative for me. The acupressure for all doc especially has been a resource that I’ve been coming back to weekly, I really thank you for all your offerings.

Coming back to this notion of navigating cups that have been chronically unfilled for generations, violence against people like us is not a coincidence nor a byproduct, but a necessity for the systems we occupy to thrive. Healing justice and harm reductionist work holds keys in mitigating centuries of effects of intergenerational trauma, structural oppression and violence. As you have been seeing more and more interest being sparked in these practices, what are some ways long term impacts and healing of intergenerational collective trauma is being centered within these conversations and movement building spaces? 

I am so glad to hear the doc is useful! so much work is born out of hope and not knowing how it will land, so it fills my heart to hear that <3

I see that we are coming to terms with the fact that there is no arrival point. Not in healing and not in filling cups. That awareness doesn’t mean that we accept oppression or scarcity, instead we let go of the anxiety of perfectionism, of being “fixed” or “healed.” We let go of the notion that there is a set arrival point. I see us personally and collectively moving like waves. There is always growth, and always death and decay, and they interplay and intermingle. We can use death and decay for growth. We can use our tired or disabled bodies, and the experience they bring, to create new paradigms. In many ways the “perfect” able-body is what white supremacy and capitalism wants us to be so that we can be efficient laborers. The sick body, the disabled body, the traumatized body, is a body that cannot play into racial capitalism. It is a body that refuses collaboration with systems of oppression. It is a revolutionary state on its own.

In terms of how healing is being centered now vs in the past – I have been involved in social justice work for like almost twenty years, it used to be all martyrdom and self-sacrifice. The “stay up all night” and  “the revolution doesn’t sleep.” Shaming comrades for needing time off or even to step away for illness was the norm. We are ways away from that. Healing is being talked about and spaces for healing are being consciously built-in social justice and movement spaces now across the board. Here I want to uplift the work of Cara Page, Tanuja Jagernauth, Adela Nieves Marinez, Charity Hicks, the 2010 US Social forum in Detroit as a place where the architecture of Healing Justice came together (and Healing By Choice is active in Detroit today and part of that legacy) 

Having that intentionally grounded point of no particular arrival point or end goal is something I have been wrestling with. There is something so radical in being open to what comes and trusting that we are equipped with the tools that will allow us to address whatever that is. 

This concept of the “perfect” able-body as the most efficient, productive body in the capitalist and white supremacist system is one I want to stick with. The binaries imposed by the imperialist, casteist, white supremacist modernized world brings with it an ableism that really does render anyone less than fully able, incapable. What does it mean to ‘be well’ and be sick, be disabled, be traumatized? What are some challenges and some successes you’ve seen in the ways that healing spaces have been opened to those who live in differently abled bodies?

The first feeling that comes up in my gut is a big old sigh. We are ways away on this one. We are in the baby-stages of disability justice being a framework that is visible to folks. The short answer is that healing spaces, as society as a whole, have not been accessible, and it feels like very slow work. I have been trying to think really hard on this one. To understand why disability justice seems to operate so differently than other movements for justice (although it’s all connected). The best way I can make sense of it is that the continuum and wide difference in experience of what being disabled means—building community, changing policy, and even relating across differences is very difficult. Add to that the fact that for most disabled folks isolation and community-building is already challenging. I want to uplift the work of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and the anthology “Care Work,” which comes to disability justice from a radical anti-capitalist perspective. Crip Camp is getting a lot of traction right now, and there is a online series of workshops that are up right now, and a really excellent starting point for able-bodied folks to learn about disability justice and for disabled folks to be in community.

Making those lines of connection across struggle are crucial in order for us all to come together in community and solidarity. Can you tell me a little bit about your work in harm reduction? Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction and narcissism as incompatible. Although, we live in an ego state. Collective healing can occur when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side. Being gentle and compassionate with ourselves and each other, how do you move through this when the systems above us maintain an individualistic, narcissistic conditioning? 

There is so much to say about harm reduction

1. It is how I approach my practice and every relationship as an acupuncturist, in terms of honoring where someone is at when they come into the clinic. Honor that they are the expert on their wellbeing and experience and that the tools they are using are valid.

2. I also feel that the experience of growing up/being poor and disabled and a teen mother, makes everything harm reduction at a basic level. In the sense that oftentimes you have to make do with what you have. The tools you have are often imperfect, messy, cobbled together, and the best you can do at that given moment.

3. As a political framework I came to it through doing domestic violence prevention work and on screen advocacy at the hospital. This meant showing up at the ER  to support folks after DV or sexual assault incidences. I was lucky enough to be trained by folks who believed and practiced harm reduction as a framework for supporting people through domestic and intimate partner violence. Right now Just Practice, Shira Hassan’s organization, has a beautiful offering on Transformative Justice coming from a harm reductionist framework.

I think that we need to build up a tolerance for discomfort and conflict, and to build awareness around the differences between unsafe and uncomfortable. I am not sure collective healing can only occur “when we put our differences aside long enough to realize we are on the same side.” I think one of the most important aspects of healing, collectively, as a society, is to be very clear about who we are centering. The idea of “putting differences aside” has been weaponized too many times by white supremacy and whoever already holds power. I am more interested in: Who are we centering? Are we centering the needs, experience and asks of folks most impacted by oppression?

And also, can we have generative friction? What does that look like? Conflict is not bad unto itself, rather it is necessary. The internal work of self-awareness, of healing our personal and intergenerational hurts is vital.

Eek yes, thank you for pointing that out, the constant need to center and recenter instead of pushing aside & homogenizing/monotonization. Generative friction and the need to sit in uncomfortability is really where transformative action and healing begins. The need to embrace and see both individual and collective trauma in order to move from it. Thank you, Chiara.

Before we end, I just want to ask, what are three (or more!) things you are either reading, making, listening to, watching, eating that are helping you ‘be well’ over the past few weeks?

I May Destroy You. It’s really intense and deals with painful stuff. It feeds me to see those experiences represented, I feel seen as a survivor and an immigrant (although the show centers British-African diasporic folks, there are so many parallels. The way trauma is depicted feels accurate in a way I have not yet seen).
Reading “Rust Belt Femme” by Raechel Anne Jolie. 

Again, it feeds me in the way I feel seen by what is written about poverty and single parenthood, although it is also painful at the same time. I guess the moral of the story is that nothing is simple, and nuance is where it is at.

Dancing to: I have dance parties in the kitchen with my kids very regularly and we just blast music and dance to Ghali, The Weeknd, Santigold, Caterina Caselli, M.I.A., La Tigre 

Originally from Italy, and currently residing in Chicago, Chiara is an acupuncturist, organizer, artist, immigrant, and former teen mother living with a disability. She completed a 3 year Master in Acupuncture at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, earned an MA in Italian Studies from NYU in 2015, and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2012, where she was a Soros New American Fellow. Her clinical focus is on mental health, trauma, CPTSD and queer/trans health. She is committed to making healthcare accessible and in building collaborative healing spaces. Chiara is involved in the Chicago Healing Justice Network, which aims to promote healing justice from an anti-oppression framework.