It’s been a little over a year since I became involved in Women With A Vision. And as anyone who has ever worked with us knows, that means I’ve been tasked with anything and everything. I’ve created outreach materials, helped clients complete Medicaid applications, provided clean syringes to injection drug users. But of all activities I’ve taken part in during my time at Women With A Vision, our story circles stand out.
Twice a month WWAV hosts story circles—a community-based storytelling session. Our staff, interns and participants gather around in a circle to tell stories, share our lived experiences, and find a collective voice. WWAV’s participants are overwhelmingly low-income women and transgender women of color, a number of whom are involved in the street-based economies. Story circles thus achieve the important task of centering the voices of people who are too often made invisible in our society. They not only engender a sense of community and awareness, but they also promote healing and collective action.
Timid and a little quirky, afraid that I wouldn’t gain the acceptance of our participants, I did very little talking in the first few story circles. I had come to WWAV as a student intern from University of New Orleans. And while my coursework in the sociology of gender had impassioned me, serving as the impetus for my politicization as a young Latina woman living in the South, there was also a gap between what I had been taught in the classroom and what I was now learning in our story circles. My courses at school had given me a theoretical understanding of the ways in which systems of race, gender, class, and sexuality intersect to create social inequality. But story circles lent a face and a voice to the people who live under the pressure of those inequalities. I admire our participants’ resilience, and I admire the generosity with which they shared their lives with me.
Eventually, my timidity washed away, allowing me reciprocate the same generosity our participants had shown me in sharing their stories. As I developed relationships with our participants, they came to call me ‘White Chocolate.’ Not only is this a delicious nickname, but I felt it validated my place in WWAV. That nickname is a reminder of my personal trajectory at WWAV—from a reserved to a more confident person with a deep social justice commitment.
Perhaps that’s why I so vividly remember my incredulous reaction when I got Deon’s message that “our office was torched.” Torched? As a non-native English speaker, I had initially thought: perhaps there is another definition of the word “torched” that eludes me. Because “torched” certainly couldn’t mean that our office had been set on fire. My denial was quickly punctured as our photos and videos began to circulate on the web.
In the month since fire, all of us have experienced many ups and downs. WWAV has not only been a safe haven, but it has also been a place of growth for all us. The violence of this attack is an ever-present reminder that the personal is indeed political. As we continue our rebuilding process, this awareness is what keeps all of us going. Someone tried to stamp us out by destroying the materials we use to do our work, but our work—our vision—goes so much deeper than that. It is inside all of us who are part of the WWAV family. That’s something that can’t be burned down.