Marginalised communities are rarely given the opportunity to work at scale. We work on shoestring budgets, and have suffered the cumulative impacts of years-long government austerity, alongside the intentional decimation of community spaces. As the primary targets of multifarious forms of state violence, we also often find ourselves without the personal resources to do long-term, sustainable justice work without entering into cycles of burnout, conflict and further traumatisation. But one look at the expensive messes that are allowed to be made by, for example, large scale infrastructure projects, shows us that some projects are not only routinely given the trust and resource to try, but also the space and grace to fail.
The belief that we need large-scale experiments was the impetus behind Rehearsing Freedoms, a new festival of community health, healing, movement-building, arts, and culture, organised by Healing Justice London (HJL), my place of work. We’re a small community health and healing organisation led by women of colour, and staffed by many people who have experiences of disability and health-related state violence. Inspired by the work of Black feminists and abolitionists, we believe that people of colour, people living in poverty, queer people and disabled people should be given this space to gather en masse, to engage in political education, to be creative, to exchange skills and resources, to heal and support one another, to grieve, and to practise building the community infrastructure that we will need in liberated futures.
The festival will comprise of 80 events – including a creative sessions by Copwatch, a police monitoring network; a session on unions by International Workers of Great Britain (IWGB); politicised Tai Chi classes; art and zine-making workshops; community dinners and DJ sets. Panels and workshops will cover themes including the harms of the benefits system, deaths in state custody, prison abolition, cultural resistance, climate justice, decolonising healthcare, narrative change, and politicised somatics.
This remit sounds broad and sprawling – some might wonder what, for example, policing, has to do with health. But HJL’s approach acknowledges that, as Audre Lorde writes, we do not live single-issue lives, and that health is a social and political issue that is not isolated to the clinic or the hospital. Our race, gender, class, disability, sexuality, and material conditions have everything to do with our ability to be well. For example, it’s communities of colour that are most exposed to toxic air, to intergenerational trauma, to the disabling police and prison systems, and to the lack of bodily autonomy brought about by poverty. When we seek support within health systems, we’re often met with greater violence. We need movement-building to truly tackle these problems at the root. Arts and culture are a valuable site of resistance; dire conditions often activate our political imaginations, and we dream towards new worlds out of necessity and survival. When we are given space to create freely, unproductively and messily, we also often come away feeling more resourced. It may not lend itself to soundbites, but this is the scale, depth and complexity of the work that we think this political moment demands.
Some might assume that in order to transform the conditions of marginalised communities, we need to go into large institutions with power and capital, and get our work “on the agenda”. HJL has partnered with institutions as part of our recent strategies, but there’s consensus that Rehearsing Freedoms requires a different tack. Many of us do not feel safe or like we can be our full selves in majority-white institutions that have a history of extracting knowledge and resources from marginalised people. As a result, all programming will take place in community spaces – ICF @ Block 336 in Brixton, Avalon Café in Bermondsey, and Resource for London in Holloway. It is our hope that these venues will provide the ability for people to speak more freely, gather more intentionally and take ownership over the space, free from the white institutional gaze.
The phrase “rehearsing freedoms” was sparked by the activist-scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s provocation to “rehearse the social order coming into being” in order to build futures free from oppression. This concept of rehearsal feels particularly pertinent within the context of increased policing, border securitisation, austerity, climate emergency, disablement from the Covid-19 pandemic and economic precarity. At a time in which the world we want to see feels so far from our grasp, we must accept that in order to get there, we will need to practise and take risks together in the present. As the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba writes, “we are going to need a million experiments”, in which we can try something new, and attempt to move together in a different way. Some parts of our experiments will necessarily fail – we will need to evaluate, and to be accountable to one another.
We invite others to come along and engage in this process with us. As the Black feminist Nikky Finney reminds us, liberation work is a type of “pencilwork”. It requires that we sketch and dream, with a willingness to erase our mistakes and try again where things didn’t work. That is the space and grace that our communities deserve, and since no one’s going to hand it to us, we’ve decided that we’re going to take it for ourselves.
Rehearsing Freedoms runs from 11th October - 11th November. Reserve your space here.
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