Last year in late February, I was leading a co-design project at North York Community House. This is when I first met Daisy. Daisy was a part of a cohort of 21 Youth who I had hired to participate in an experiment called the Youth Researchers program with the goal of doing community-based research and designing new programming for Filipino Youth who are newcomers to Canada and have reunified with mom because of the Live-in Caregiver Program.
After the first week of orientation, Daisy came to me to share that she was concerned that she might cause harm within the group because she didn’t have the exact same lived experience as everyone else in the group. I appreciated her awareness and intentionality. Not enough practitioners have the self-awareness to see that their personal lived experiences (or lack of) might trigger others. I suggested that Daisy stay and use this awareness to listen more, to support, and to determine where she can lend her leadership.
In the time that I have known Daisy, I am grateful for how she has modeled brave leadership and self-advocacy even in moments of personal anxiety. What I admire most about what Daisy did, is something that we all need more practice in, is she named harm and didn’t immediately want reparation to be the harm in return. This level of compassion is not often recognized for the gift that it truly is. In the days following Elevate & Amplify, Daisy and I connected to talk about the harm she had named during her panel. Daisy decided to write this blog post as a part of her healing process.
Content warning: discusses harm, white supremacy, violence, gaslighting, trauma, mental illness
I wake up and immediately start hyping myself up for what I know will be a challenging afternoon. “I can do this. I’m more confident than every white man at every conference, ever,” I repeat to myself, nervously, excitedly.
I make myself a huge breakfast that I don’t end up eating, but applaud myself for the effort. Small wins are important, I’m learning. I’m going to talk about some really heavy things soon. I’m choosing to do this because my story matters. “I can do this.”
I arrive at the tech run and see some familiar faces. My camera is still off. I beg my heart to please…slow…down. “I can do this.”
Doors open. I resist peeking behind the sticky note I’ve strategically placed on my screen to block the number of people entering this webinar. Calm the nerves, take deep breaths. “I can do this.”
Introductions. My heart sinks at the sight of a familiar name. I’m suddenly very hot and cold at the same time, I’m sweating and shaking, I can’t take deep breaths, the room is spinning. I am angry, terrified. I remember. “Oh no.”
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak on Elevate & Amplify’s Navigating Systems that are not Designed for Us panel – something that I typically wouldn’t enthusiastically choose for myself but something I have weirdly come to expect, having Jenn as a mentor. Public speaking has never been easy for me, but I’ve always approached it with my nervous-goofy-candid flair that seems to get the job done. I’m learning that, sometimes, doing hard things is necessary.
Nine minutes into this conference, she/her/elle made her presence known in the Zoom chat. She is a white woman, a supposed (and unfortunate) ‘leader’ in the social innovation space, and someone who is both, directly and indirectly, responsible for the racism and ableism I experienced a couple of months ago in a space that claimed to be ‘safe’ for youth who’ve experienced mental health challenges.
In this conference space that I’d intentionally filled with people I feel safe with, she was the last person that I was hoping to see. I am referring to this person as she/her/elle because everyone seems to know each other in the social innovation space and I hope that someone will understand me and use their power to advocate for me. I am hoping that she sees this and makes the connection that I am – and have been – speaking about her and her harmful behaviour. I am not using her name because this would pose an unimaginable threat to my safety – because I am afraid of what she might do. Unfortunately, white violence is not new to me.
Self-advocacy – something I am able to do with confidence now (shout out to therapy!), but also something that requires patience, practice, and self-compassion. Sometimes it brings about accountability and reparations, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s relatively easy, sometimes it takes a lot more out of you. The latter was true for me that day.
I won’t go into detail about what she did to me, but I will say that my self-advocacy at the time of the harm was met with white fragility, gaslighting, a non-apology, and the all too familiar, “But I can’t be racist, I…(insert link to her performative-at-best newsletter).”
Nine minutes into this conference, I was forced to go through my options: Do I leave and pretend I’m having internet issues? Ask for her to be removed from the space? Name her outloud? Can I even do that? Will I get kicked out? Do I act as if everything is ok? But why should I have to (profanity) act as if I’m (more profanities) ok?
And then I surprised myself – I welcomed her. A privilege I am sure she is used to, and one that I have rarely experienced for myself. A difficult and painful decision that I shouldn’t have had to make.
Apologies involve an acknowledgment of the harm done and changed behaviour. We cannot address or heal from harm unless we also address the conditions that allow the harm to take place in the first place. The condition at play, before, during, and after Elevate & Amplify, is white supremacy.
For a very long time, I responded to white violence by gaslighting myself into thinking that the harm didn’t actually exist. My story has never been believed or celebrated…until now. Thank you to all the friends and countless strangers who held me in this painful, triggering, and vulnerable moment, for celebrating my strength and bravery in a moment in which I struggled to do this for myself. Thank you for believing me when people like her refused to.
I don’t know if I made the right choice, but it felt right at the moment. Maybe I could have been bolder. Maybe I could have been less bold. But I think the main thing that I’ve learned from this unfortunate experience is that, any of the momentary and/or long-term feelings you may have about the harm you’ve experienced do not take away from the truth and the gravity of the harm. Your experiences are valid even if others are committed to not believing or understanding you, even if, at times, it’s difficult to believe yourself.
I didn’t imagine that I would end up in the social innovation space, and certainly didn’t expect to be regarded as somewhat of an ‘expert’ – especially when the idea of ‘expertise’ has typically centered the voices of colonial white men and their gaze on BIPOC communities. I am simply doing what feels right for myself, with my community. It just happens that my work resists mainstream, white ways of doing and being.
And so I want to normalize recognizing the moments in which you don’t feel strong, and allowing yourself to be seen and supported. I want to normalize doing what feels right for you, even if it challenges how things are typically done. Especially if it works to dismantle white supremacy and if it holds people like her accountable for the harm they have caused.
Whenever I facilitate a group with other youth, I invite them to reflect on what care means – especially in the context of confidentiality, agency, and consent. I remind them that we keep each other safe; I remind them that stories stay, but lessons can leave. As people who have witnessed me telling my story and navigating harm in a very public and urgent way, I ask that you leave only with whatever lessons emerged for you at Elevate & Amplify and/or in this moment, while reading my words. If you’ve figured out her identity, I ask that you call her in privately without referencing my story. If you happen to know the details of the harm, I ask that you not share this publicly; I ask that you consider what this could mean for my safety. I ask that you continue to allow me to exercise my agency in being able to tell my story on my terms. And as folks who very openly supported me in that moment, I ask that you continue to act with care, and to support me in the way that I am asking.
As a final note, I think it’s important for my healing to disclose and name that this experience has been incredibly retraumatizing and seems to have triggered a period of unwellness for me. I have needed to access more therapy than usual, with the limited income I am able to earn, because this white capitalist society is not designed for folks who are BIPOC, mentally ill, and/or survivors to thrive. If you would like to support my mental wellness and healing from this trauma and unnecessary white violence, you can do so here. And yes, she/her/elle, I am speaking to you.
This blog post is written by Daisy Nolasco, Co-Founder of Bayanihan Empowerment