Karate for the Community Organizer’s Soul

Karate and Community Organizing, they have a bit in common, at least for me.

I’m a martial artist, not a particularly good athlete, but I’ve been doing this for years (off and on), and I’ve dedicated myself to learning how to do this better throughout the entirety of my life, if only on my time and to the best of my own ability (in the words of my Instructor, the only person we need to compare myself to is me).

Similarly, I’m a community organizer. I’m not a particularly good organizer or storyteller, but I’ve dedicated my life to learning how to be a better organizer and storyteller, again even if only to the best of what I’m capable of.

Neither of these things necessarily come naturally to me, but I’m a quick-thinker and my body is good at catching-up, I’m stubborn as all hell, and I’m willing to keep learning. Even after almost 19 years of karate classes and years as an organizer (even before I knew what community organizing was), both have been the kinds of things that make me uncomfortable and nervous and push me as far away from my comfort zone as it’s possible to be.

Two things about both karate and community organizing:

1) According to a classmate of mine, an older woman who has been in karate years and has known me since I was brand new to the sport, when I was little I was so shy that you could look at me and I would go hide in a corner. I don’t remember this but I trust her. I remember thinking in my first ever karate class that I had humiliated myself, when I did a move (a run, jump, sidekick) that ended up with me on my butt, rather than standing up. I ran out of the karate school crying. My parents made me join anyways. I wasn’t very shy for much longer after that and I’ve fallen more times and in more ways that I could count. I’m still learning how to make mistakes gratefully and usefully. This is the most important lesson I ever learned for for community organizing and for everything else.

2) When I began college, I left karate. But it was my experience organizing as a college student that made me need to go back. I’ve always had a short fuse and a quick temper and I was having a lot of trouble turning hot anger into cold anger that I could use. I had lost control of my most powerful weapon. I needed to re-train my body and mind for focus and control if I was going to succeed as an organizer. Karate (under the same instructor I had learned from for years) was the best and only way I knew how to do that.

Organizing gave me a goal and a sense of the future and the beginnings of a plan, but karate gave me the focus to reach it, the discipline to plan for it, the value system (and community) to anchor myself in, and the confident sense of self to make myself uncomfortable in the process. More importantly, in the words of Grand Master John Worley, 10th Degree Black Belt and National Karate co-founder, it taught me to stick to my bush.

It’s made me less scared of the unknowns. This next year of my life is a whole lot of stuff I can’t plan for and a whole lot of stuff I can plan for as much as I want, but can’t really know what to expect. I’ll be organizing and teaching and writing and doing my same work, but I’m be in a new community for several months, where the people I know can be counted on one hand. I’ll be dependent on me and me alone for the very first time, but I’m okay with that. I’ve got the lessons karate taught me, I’ll keep training at karate because that’s the best way I know how to care for myself, it’s what I believe in, it’s how I’ll be a better community organizer, and because I know more than anything that my experience as a student of the martial arts have taught me all that I need is already within me.

This post was NOT in any way a project requested, thought of, or funded by my karate school or the chain of schools it belongs to. They had nothing to do with this post, but for the fact that they have taught me for years. I’m grateful for their guidance and instruction and hope this post reaches their high standards if they ever read it, but this post and the idea for this post are from my own mind.

 

Advertisements

“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I spend almost all my time attempting to figure out how I can braid storytelling and organizing. I’ve been attempting to not just organize communities around ideas, but also organize ideas, making sense of the din around us, the tunnel vision that too often exists in the justice world, the lack of recognition of the ties that bind injustice together, and the ways and whys we too often ignore who we are for what we do.

I’ve often used this quote, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” but it’s never seemed more apt to me than it has in the last few weeks.

Because I have never considered myself an artist, and because the food justice world is the one I intentionally live in, reporting on CREATE: the Community Meal became more than just a story assignment I asked for. It really became one I needed to write and one, for lack of a better phrase, I felt called to write. So too did a story I recently wrote about a rally held by Somali women for a community-based food shelf.

Here’s the deal. I believe that storytelling is the single most important thing we can do, not just as a tool in our arsenal, but in our declaration of of self. Too often I am told, stories don’t matter if nobody hears that, but I disagree. As someone who has been told to “tone it down” or “get out of the way,” as someone in communities always told the same things, we begin to hold that silence around us like some sort of safety blanket. Maybe, if we don’t make noise, we’ll be safe and we can live our life and no one needs to know we’re here. I know differently and I disagree.

Sometimes, the act of saying anything, even if just to ourselves, instead of shutting down is the most powerful act any person could do. Sometimes the act of announcing who we are to our own self is all we need to declare a space at the proverbial table.

I spoke with a young man and his children at CREATE: the Community Meal. They lived near the neighborhood. He was out of a job and struggling not just to make ends meet, but to make sure his kids were eating healthily. His story didn’t have to reach everyone to change him, for him to feel more powerful for speaking up, for his voice to not hold me accountable to my own promises, he just had to say it, even just to himself. That’s what mattered.

CREATE mattered, because 2000 people gathered for a meal, on a windy day in St. Paul, just west of the Capitol and its opulence, east of the University of Minnesota and its massive-ness. 2000 people, too many of whom would not have had a healthy meal that day, gathered to have a meal together, in a neighborhood too often only recognized by its crime rate and a lack of so-called community investment. 2000 people gathered, and they didn’t have to say anything, to change the frame used to talk about Frogtown. CREATE was important, because it is so easy to deny, despite every fact, that marginalized communities face food injustice.

CREATE made those stories and those faces obvious, binding those people and their stories together eternally. CREATE also made the solution obvious in its food, in its art, and in all that it was.

2000 people sat a 1/2-mile long table and they set the new agenda for what food justice will look like in Frogtown.

The day after CREATE: the Community Meal, I reported on a rally held by Isuroon, a Somali women’s organization, who have been organizing for a healthy, halal, community-based food shelf. They also met with Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. Now, I don’t know how to explain this, but to say about 40-50 Somali women, mostly elderly, gathered  at the Hennepin County Government Center, absolutely terrified and completely nervous, but with one intent: being able to feed themselves, their family, and their communities.

Now, really, this isn’t much to ask for. Though with the hate that has been aimed at the women from so many different communities, you would think they had asked for keys to the United Nations. Fartun Weli is the Executive Director of Isuroon; I interviewed her the Saturday before the protest, as I headed up to St. Cloud to do the communications work and rally with my Asamblea co-workers. Weli said, and I quote, “They didn’t realize people who weren’t white could protest white people.”

Can you imagine the strength it took for those women to stand up and claim their right to eat, even just to themselves? 50 Somali women sat at the table in Commission McLaughlin’s office, at their kitchen table, at their desk and they decided they would fight for a new way of looking at food and food justice in their community.

I know that writing both the articles about CREATE and about Isuroon were two of the greatest writing struggles I have ever had, I also know other food justice stories I will write will mean the same struggle. Writing these sorts of stories, developing new ways to talk about the world we live in, and doing so as a storyteller in a variety of capacities, this is a struggle, but it should be something we struggle with. We’re dealing with some incredible injustice, and we’re dealing with some incredible work for justice, and these shouldn’t be easy to talk about, nor should they be easy to write about. These things shouldn’t be easy to write about, because the stories said aren’t easy to say. We should struggle with our words, because the mere act of speaking, layers another brick in the foundation of a better world.

I wrote both these articles for the TC Daily Planet (where I serve as both a Board Member and volunteer Community Engagement Editor). I really struggled with writing both articles, because they mattered to me. I’m hope you have the opportunity to struggle with your art.

A note: my blog was recently syndicated at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. I’ll be blogging on a weekly basis for them through this platform. I’m super excited to be moving forward with them on this. You can also find both articles linked here: A Frogtown feast: Thousands gather to discuss food access in St. Paul and South Minneapolis Somali community asks for ethnic, healthy food shelf.

nothing-about-us-ricardo-levins-morales

Credit to Ricardo Levins Morales on the art piece above. I heard him speak at a convening this week and I found what he said to be incredibly moving and transformative.

A Spoon Can Start A Revolution

Our work as organizers is many things. It is the sum of our experiences, personal, professional, communal, reflecting, analytical. More than anything though, our organizing is stories. Food justice organizing is no different. It is many stories, it’s why we came to care about food, our earliest memories, maybe it was dinner last night or a lack thereof. When you think about food or food justice or food justice organizing, what do you think about? What’s your food justice revolution look like?

I would begin by telling a story I’ve tentatively called “Ketchup Sandwich.” When I was little, we would make ketchup sandwiches for my father, because too often it was all we had or could afford. We made the sandwiches with the double-thick white bread, because that made it just a tiny bit more filling. 

I would also tell a story about power and becoming an organizer, claiming my right to organize and act. The first time someone told me I was powerful was during my first day of my first weekend of a year-long community organizing training. I went home that night with this whole new understanding of who I was and who I could be, though I didn’t actually understand power at the time or what my journey would look like. I remember my mother angry that I was claiming to be powerful, angrier that I was telling her she was powerful. And, she was right, I didn’t yet understand what power was…that power is a broth of relationships and lives lived, vegetables made up of experiences had and mistakes made and lessons learned, the spices are the work we do, the fancy or not-so-fancy plate setting are the theories and trainings behind our work. The silverware is our cold anger, ready to destroy, dismantle, de-bridge.

A spoon (or a shovel) can start a revolution.  

There are more stories. When I think about making ketchup sandwiches for my father, I have to remember he owned his own business, but he still had to work 18-20 hour days. The small, Catholic elementary school I went to would hold my report card until he made a large enough donation to the attached Church. We had government-sponsored lunch and would be forced to stand in a separate line from the rest of our classmates to get that lunch. Our snacks (and sometimes our dinner) was Suzy Q treats and Country Time lemonade from his work, a gas station. We would pierce the thin aluminum cans and then guzzle them down when we were young. And we went home to ketchup sandwiches. 

When I first started organizing, these were not the stories on my mind. I started doing food justice organizing, because I was angry at my alma mater for intentionally and knowingly acting disingenuously and hurting its community through food. Of course, that wasn’t the only injustice. Queer students were essentially forced to hide their identities. At-risk students were shuffled away to the smaller, hidden campus a city away.  

My hope was to use food justice organizing to get people talking. If people were talking about food, maybe they would talk about the Sodexo workers who were banned from talking to students and made to work in the back of the kitchen or fired. Maybe if we were talking about food, students would talk about who wasn’t talking about food, which students were hidden from or unable to join the conversation. Maybe if we were talking about food, we were talking about our food stories and beginning to understand that food is everything. 

I first realized I was powerful and that my story and voice mattered two years after I became an organizer, the Friday of the first annual Food Week at St. Kate’s, a week of food justice-related events organized around Food Day that I had helped to co-organize. After a week of presenting questions to students at events and through surveys, we took the time to mold their responses into a “Recipe for Food Justice.” We presented to Dining Services administration in the cafeteria, with our mentor, leaders, and allies behind us. It was terrifying. Not 15 feet from where we stood, the Vice President grabbed his lunch. A leader grabbed him, “you have to hear this.” As he walked up to us, my co-organizer and I turned around and began re-reading our speech and our recipe to him.

We believed in that recipe (and I still hold it dear to my heart) because it was the result of the stories of St. Kate’s students (including ourselves, to be honest), students that had never been authentically, genuinely, and intentionally asked what their food story was before. I knew that Friday of Food Week (a day I often refer to as Good Food Friday) that our voices would be heard and, even in the darkest of times, we would get through. 

These stories I’ve shared about food have helped me take leadership in the movement. Claiming food justice as a value and my stories of food injustice as experiences have helped me clarify why I do the work I do and why it matters. Food is a story and thus the stories we tell about food, the hows and whys, are the stories of food justice. How do we talk about food in a way that matters? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the paradigm, deconstructs the false reality forced upon us? How do we talk about food in a way that shifts the world around us? Why should we talk about food this way?

My revolution is stories made up of soup and ketchup sandwiches and recipes and spoons. What does your food justice revolution look like?

Storytelling as Healer

I had the most wonderful experience today in a meeting with my fellow staff members at the Twin Cities Daily Planet and some of our community allies.

At one point, we began discussing wounds. We began discussing healing. We discussed the ongoing trauma that comes with being “othered.” It was an incredible, powerful, tough discussion to be a part of. I’m struggling to organize it in my head.

I want to be very true to myself in this space, honor my history and respect my mistakes and future.

I went to a very small private high school in Minnesota. 9/11 occurred just days after freshman year for me. Much like with many other Americans, I remember where I was, what I was doing, and how I found out on that horrible day. Unlike the rest of my classmates, however, my mother and aunt came and picked up my younger brother and I from school, worried that students would retaliate in a cruel way.

The next day I walked into school and students (or whomever it was) had taken the opportunity to write their opinion of me in my locker. Slurs and words I had never, ever heard before were suddenly my reality. Teachers warned me to calm down my “Arab-ness” as the students were going through difficult and sensitive times (as if I wasn’t living in this country, feeling the same fear and horror my white classmates were feeling). I was Arab-American, but I didn’t feel Middle Eastern in any way, shape or, form. Other people sure felt it for me though. Suddenly I was “the Arab” at the same time I was feeling more and more ashamed (systemic oppression at work) of being Arab-American.

The moment I opened my locker and those ridiculous slips of paper fell out, that was the moment I realized I was a person of color, that I was an “other.” I’ve spent my entire life, and far too much god forsaken energy, trying to maneuver it and looking for other’s acceptance of me and my other-ness, in a way that doesn’t scare people or make them uncomfortable. I spent years denying everything about my culture, participating in the oppression of other Arabs and other communities, because I was hiding from me and my realities and my traumas. I’ve not gotten over that even in my work now.

Those moments have shaped my entire life. Those wounds never truly heal. Our traumas never truly leave us. Healing is a long, slow, sensitive process that takes the whole of our lives if not longer. We may never know that peace, but I know that we’re sure as hell going to fight tooth-and-nail for it.

I use storytelling to shape the world I believe needs to exist. I don’t live in that world yet and I don’t hide from this world pretending that if I close my eyes and ears, that other world will show up. I work as a storyteller for a number of organizations with community leaders and community leaders in-training all over the Twin Cities. I’ve been spending so much time helping other use storytelling to begin healing processes and to fight for that something better, that I’ve ignored my own and my role in community storytelling, even in my own communities.

I want to use this blog space to share my story and define my stories, to talk about the power of community storytelling, and to discuss the importance of storytelling in the development of the better world. I hope that you’ll feel called to discuss your own stories and your own processes of healing, if you have them.

For me, storytelling is such a powerful tool because it offers us an opportunity to both shift our frame of the world around us and to begin shifting others’ frame of the world, by speaking about the world in the ways that are us honest to us, our lives, and our communities. By recognizing that how we express our world impacts the way the world looks, we hold the power to begin tearing down these destructive and traumatic paradigms that actively work to destroy us, to begin building a better world and to fight for justice in a way that doesn’t support the “cycle of protest.” Our words and photos and videos and dances have more power than we could ever imagine for us and for each other.

I’m sure I’ll be back to discuss this more. I want to talk about this at length, but I don’t believe I quite have the language yet to do so. For now, I want to acknowledge that my wounds shape who I am and what and why I write, no matter for who or what I am writing. If I am to heal those wounds or at least learn from them, I need to be honest about their existence and not hide from the scarier parts of myself.

“Twin Cities farmers wants city officials to do more for urban farms”

Hello all!

Sorry to keep you waiting for my next blog post. It’s been the sort of busy and productive week I can usually only dream of. I hope to have a blog up tonight, but for now, for the past week or so I’ve been working on an article for the Twin Cities Daily Planet on the state of urban farming. You can take a look here!

Twin Cities farmers want city officials to do more for urban farms

PS: MN Rep. Phyllis Kahn took the time to leave a short comment on the article.

Welcome!

My name is Cirien Saadeh; I am a community organizer, journalist, and graduate student. No matter what I am doing, however, I am a writer.

My hope, with this blog, is to use this space to learn how to tell my story and how to better talk about the world.  I use writing, no matter if its journalism, blogging, or even note-taking, to try and make sense where sense can’t be made. This project will focus on issues on inequity, on the development of language we can use around these issues, and on the collection of community and personal stories.

My perspectives on life and the world, like all of us are shaped by my experiences. I am an Arab-American woman in my late 20s. I have grown up all over the Midwest and have now settled in Minnesota, though I attend a small (but powerful) liberal arts college in Arizona, Prescott College, in its limited-residency program.

I chose to share my writing (and related information) publicly, because I am uncomfortable with doing so. My personal goal these past few years has been to push that which gives me discomfort further away. I also want to use this public forum as a means of holding myself accountable to developing my voice in community. I also hope that this public forum allows for me to participate in important conversations, but I also wish for this space to become the host of new and continued conversations.

–Cirien