I am back from my impromptu trip to P-Land with news that makes me question how feminists operate in Oregon at the same time that I celebrate many of the feminists I spent time with while there. It seems that in the State of Oregon, if you have 5 full time employees or less you can discriminate against differently-abled people with no legal consequences. What this means for “social change” and feminist programs in Oregon who run on mostly volunteer and part-time labor is that unless feminist programs are intentional about including ability in their “cultural competence” no one can actually hold them accountable at the legal level. While social action around disability can permanently mar the public image of agencies dependent on soft-money, the lack of commitment on the part of the state, the ongoing unspoken ableism in N. America that far outreaches the spoken kind, and the overall willingness of liberals to fund organizations that discriminate against people who are not generally associated with them (ex: funding so-called feminist agencies that don’t serve trans women or are known to have had multiple racism complaints in their history, etc) means that action comes at a great cost. Not only does it pit ability rights activists against “feminist social justice workers” but it is often reduced to interpersonal conflict with “unreasonable” differently-abled women “angry” about “personal issues” getting in the way of “real” feminist social justice.
After reviewing my friend’s case, which by report of two lawyers and BOLI was “open and shut”, the legal advisers involved wondered if in fact the agency in question was well aware of the disability loophole since “the discrimination in this case is so blatant” and “they didn’t even try to cover themselves”. That question horrified me.
my question: Could supposed “feminist social justice workers” actually know the law and use it to openly defy respecting the rights and humanity of differently-abled women?
answer: Sadly, most of us on the margins need only look at our own personal histories of marginalization to find the answer.
In the state of Oregon the issue is much deeper than a single incident between the self-described “best place to work in the world” and an individual employee who lost her job offer over disability issues. In fact, disability issues and feminism in Oregon have likely seeped into your own homes and pocket books without you even realizing it. Most of you involved in trying to save feminist bookstores are well aware of the organizing to save a certain feminist bookstore in that state. On the one hand, this organizing saved the last and oldest openly feminist bookstore in one of the largest cities in the state and one of three largest cities on the West Coast. It spoke to the commitment of local and national feminist groups to the ongoing support of women’s literature, theory, and herstory, and consciousness raising that are often located in women’s bookstores. And it showed a needed alliance between feminist bookstores and feminist academics; in an effort to save the store, women’s studies professors in the area moved their book orders there and gave extra credit for student participation in events or volunteering at the store. It also represents a key win for a feminist bookstore that actually does care about transgender and gender queer issues which many feminist bookstores have failed to do on any large or consistent scale.
What did not happen in this huge outpouring of feminist activism was a discussion of the ableist past of the bookstore. You see, the bookstore is well known amongst disability feminists on the West Coast for being unapologetic about the lack of wheelchair accessibility at their original site. The original store contained an elevated area in the back that was impossible to access by wheelchair with poor lighting that also made it questionable for people with other mobility and sight issues. Several years ago a well known disability rights feminist advocate and wheelchair user pointed this out to the leadership of the store to no avail. When she went public with their lack of response, the store rallied not around supporting feminists with disabilities but around “the need for a feminist bookstore at any cost” (including the cost of an entire group of feminists). They released PSAs and held meetings claiming that they had no money to fix the ramp issue and that it was “the plight of underfunding feminist businesses” that was the real problem, not discrimination. In other words, their intent was good even if their actions were exclusionary. They failed to mention that they could have addressed the issue when they bought the store by either buying a different space or by not utilizing that small area of the store for retail space. Given that the area was completely uninviting and cut off from the rest of the store it would not have been that hard to have made either choice.
While a wheelchair brigade picketed outside the store, irate able-bodied feminists marched past them to buy extra books. It was a debacle that resulted in no apology from the leadership at the store or its employees/volunteers. It also had no lasting impact on their retail sales; except maybe when they went up in a show of ableist solidarity by Oregon resident feminists … Worse, through mechinations I cannot fathom, there is no online documentation of the action against the bookstore to which I can now link as if it was intentionally erased by someone with something to hide. Even though the conflict predates online archiving, all of the local weeklies covered the story at the time and most of the local weeklies are now archived online. I only know about the story myself because I was involved with one of the out-of-state disability feminist organizations that lent support to the original action.
In the midst of this protest, an oped piece in one of two local black owned papers, mused about how the inaccessible area of the store also housed the black feminism, multicultural feminism, and global feminism sections. Neither the able-bodied nor the differently-abled feminists involved in the conflict, most of whom were white on both sides, had bothered to think intersectionally in their attempts to rally support. In a store that was 90% accessible, well lit, with an open floor plan so one could see their children, the store clerks, and the various areas of the store in one glance, the woc books, with the exception of fiction, had been relegated to the one corner of the store that was poorly lit, and walled in to block view of the children’s area or the front desk. It was also the only section in which you could not count on staff or volunteers to be knowledgeable about what was shelved there; though some were. Given that a whole section of the front of the store was taken up with candles, posters, and other non-book items, there was no excuse for this physical ghettoization. Where women of color and differently-abled women could have come together in protest over this shared marginalization no such activism occurred because the activists involved, primarily from Oregon and Washington, could not see past their own identities long enough to address the real systemic issues impacting the Portland based mainstream feminist movement as embodied by the bookstore. (This includes certain communities of color who saw the feminist bookstore as “irrelevant” to their issues.)
Since that conflict, said bookstore has made a point of moving into a single level building and advertising its accessibility. However, they have not acknowledged the history behind why they make sure to advertise this piece of information; and I wouldn’t doubt that its current staff and volunteers has no idea what went on. Nor do I think we can forget that the store refused to fix the problem nor move venues when disability rights feminist called the action but made the move without incident when the majority of their patrons moved across the city to what I refer to as gentrification grand central. In other words, the bookstore was unwilling to make changes for inclusivity and accessibility but happy to make them for money and inclusion in the “new hip side of town.” While visiting my colleague, I went to the store and several things struck me about the space:
- the stacks are still not accessible by wheelchair or crutches – while all of the books are on the same floor, the shelf spacing in one area of the store is so tight that it would be impossible to move a chair through them let alone turn around in one (I am told by a colleague in a wheelchair that the same holds true for speaking events where the seating is equally packed too tight to move through)
- the store is located on the outer edge of gentrification – a process that in P-Land has led to a vibrant multicultural neighborhood, predominantly African-American and Latino but also including API people whose oldest Buddhist temple was forced out of the neighborhood along with families, to become almost exclusively white with certain stores that employ people who actively frown at you or pretend you are not there even if you ask for help (this is something I’ve written about before since I visit my cousins in P-land and the surrounding area once a year); this is not the case however at the feminist bookstore where most volunteers don’t do a double take as long as you “look middle class”
- they chose to put the bookstore less than 5 blocks from an already established radical feminist bookstore and activist center – thus creating unnecessary competition in an already dwindling market and concentrating access to feminist books into one area of a rather large city that is only served by large chain bookstores everywhere else; prior to this they were on the opposite side of the city so that two major points were being served by the two stores/centers
- for the most part the book selection is still dominated by white cis feminist voices, and to a lesser but substantial degree white trans ones, including a display of books that were actively being boycotted at one point or another during the last two summers by women of color across the feminist blogosphere
- Their paid staff pool, as much as I was able to confirm through direct question and review of the website is largely, if not exclusively, white and able-body appearing
I should note however, that
- the new Director is a woman of color and that she comes from one of the more radical feminist organizations in the area, Sisters in Action. (UPDATE: According to a comment maker this is no longer the case; either she is mistaken or the volunteer I spoke w/ was mistaken or lying. END UPDATE)
- I was also told by the volunteer who was working there that they also have genderqueer and woc volunteers, though she did not tell me the percentage of them nor does the website seem to indicate they exist.
- And they have also held a series of discussions on gentrification, including a film viewing, that includes discussion about their decision-making in the move to the outskirts of gentrification grand central. Yet the volunteer I spoke with was quick to point out all of the “drug addicts and people down on their luck in this neighborhood that you would never see in [gentrification grand central]” and while this is true, I’m told that is b/c they couldn’t afford rent any closer not b/c they wanted to be outside of the hub
- though the majority, if not all, of their paid staff is white all of them have highlighted books by women of color in their “staff suggestions pages” – though at least one has also included a text published by girlcotted Seal Press that has multiple thematic duplicates from inclusive presses
- they have at least one book group devoted to Mexico and Mexicana organizing
Unfortunately, for black history month, they are having a film series on Masculinities not black feminisms or black feminist interpretations of masculinities; though like a queer colleague I met several years ago who couldn’t figure out what to talk to the little black lesbian about, I am sure they think including Paris is Burning in the series is a black history month feat accompli. According to the February Calender they have ABSOLUTELY NO BLACK HERSTORY EVENTS SCHEDULED WHATSOEVER. Nor have they included discussions of differently-abled masculinities despite at least one famous disability rights trans male author being from Oregon; granted he wrote a book not a film. And while they have standing reading groups on queer sexualities, they have neither standing reading groups nor regular events related to disability feminism or women of color feminists or the intersection of the two. Nor do the staff suggestion pages seem to include any references to books specifically about disability feminism or authored by disability feminists. What they do have is a reference to Spanish groups offered at the store, that are not listed on their website or their calender, and a reference to “diversity” on every page of their website.
I’m not calling this bookstore out anymore than it needs to be; instead, I am using it as a recognizable example of a larger problem in the “liberal” “queer mecca” of Oregon and its feminist organizing vis-a-vis women of color, differently-abled women, and differently-abled women of color. It seems to me, that if in the course of 4 days, I can find two well-known and popular organizations in the same city, operating in or around the same neighborhoods, that are guilty of the same forms of discrimination while claiming to be good people and being labeled as such by social justice activists, than I have to believe that the dual issues of racism and ableism are entrenched in the city. More than that, it seems to me that the loophole in the state’s regulation of the ADA helps to encourage and normalize this behavior to the extent that feminist agencies and feminists believe they are engaged in radical social change at the same time they openly, and/or unwittingly, discriminate against differently-abled women and to a lesser extent women of color. In other words, the state sets the tone through its legal loopholes regarding discrimination against differently-abled people and its longstanding history of homogeneity and racial discrimination dating back to its first constitution barring people of color from holding office to its urban planning that intentionally leveled communities of color for freeways to its ongoing problems with supremacist organizations to its recent failures to try to intervene in gentrification or get a street named after Cesar Chavez (which I am told has finally happened but not without ongoing protest). So called social justice agencies, particularly mainstream feminist ones, are simply mirroring a larger milieu rather than causing it. Where they are at fault is in failing to live up to the decolonized and/or anti-racist and anti-ableist ideals implied by social justice organizing and feminism.
After thinking about architecture, milieu, and the creation of difference, and/or the reinforcement of difference through spatial realities, in gentrification grand central, my colleagues and I went on a walking tour of our old haunts as people who currently live in Oregon or have organized in Oregon in the past (some of us, myself included, are West Coast regulars, and some of us are residents, like my colleague who prompted the trip up to Oregon). Many of the black owned businesses and fixtures are long gone, prompting me to consider writing a book about the Vanport flood, intentional racialized districting, and the rise of [white] liberal institutions that capitalized on “commitments to diversity” and/or “cultural competence” without knowing or ultimately caring about the histories behind the areas that allow them to do so. It seemed to dovetail nicely with a talk I gave about 15 years ago on the myths and realities surrounding liberal perceptions of racial histories in liberal cities that included a look at San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. While I was thinking this through, one of my colleagues shared this story:
You see [that building] over there? It used to be the oldest storage facility in a black neighborhood in the city. It housed generations of working class black people’s momentos dating all the way back to Vanport.
You see [that building] across the street? It’s owned by feminists who moved into the area about a year before the storage facility burned down. I’ll never forget watching the news that night while the owner stood there and said that she was glad it burned down b/c ‘it isn’t really the kind of business we want in our neighborhood’ while black elders cried in the background and smoke twisted up toward the sky. I swear, I thought this must be what it was like when they got mobs together and burned our cities to the ground.
My colleague who had lost her job because of ableist discrimination pointed to the parking lot and added:
“You see that flight of stairs?” we all nodded. “That’s the entrance to [the agency that fired her and claimed she was a threat to children b/c she was differently-abled]. If I’d been in a wheelchair I wouldn’t have even made it to the first interview.”
The assumption of able-bodiness embedded in that action was lost on none of us. The fact these places were in the same exact block was also chilling.
We stood there, dumbfounded at the intersection of racism and ableism, at the heart of a supposed feminist stomping ground, alienated and intentionally marginalized. We were silent. Silent in the face of how history repeats not only through the will of the Right but also the self-absorbed Left, their hypocrisy like a shimmering mask that phases out in the light of their gaze but never really disappears. In the background, the slow hum of social service folks, mostly white and queer, having meetings and winding down mixed with the smell of strong coffee like a Noreaster burying our dead under so much snow.
Later that night, when I was sitting at a friend’s house in a lesser known African American area of the city, she told me how they had just renamed her neighborhood into a catchy phrase that likely meant they were next in the grand gentrifying scheme that the Mayor of Portland, who is one of her distant neighbors, calls “amazing progress.” (This is the same Mayor who called the Chavez planning committee “liars” in a heated racialized community meeting in which he offered no similar damning criticism for the white supremacists who had actively harassed brown and black meeting attendees.) We sat together, feminists from so-called first, second, and third waves, [temporarily] able-bodied and differently-abled, cis and trans, queer and straight, traditionally educated and self-educated, employed and unemployed, woc and white, immigrants, indigenous, and “born here”, residents of this state, people with family here, and people just coming for the weekend impromptu get together from around the area, sharing a meal and deep conversation about the feminist work that we do.
Amongst the work being done by feminist friends in Oregon were:
- a partnership between a largely white staffed feminist organization and a black staffed and black serving healing organization that had just culminated in an amazing black women’s healing weekend. My colleague told me about how a white lesbian director had made the black healing program a priority and saved their funding, and how both black and white feminists had come together to grow the program.
- Another friend told me about a young girls group she is doing with Latina and API youth in an extremely low income area of the city. She only has a little bit of funding but the buy in by the community has led to overwhelming success in her first few weeks of work with the girls and she hopes that it will lead to ongoing cross-cultural opportunities around girls empowerment.
- Still another is taking her knowledge of Russian culture and Russian feminism, and working to empower working class first and second generation Russian women in communities dominated by them on the outskirts of the city. She has recently partnered with other advocated to start doing diversity workshops and diversity centered girls groups to cut down on racial tensions between the Russian, black, and Latin@ communities in the area she serves and says the outpouring from feminists who work within all three of these communities has been amazing.
The stories of hard work toward decolonized feminist praxis in and outside of Oregon abounded. And I was proud to be there talking to these amazing women in and outside of academe in the same city where feminism had gone so wrong. At the same time, I noted there were no stories about local or city wide disability feminism organizing amongst my friends and there seemed to be a sense that work on disability feminism in the area was being done by the same activists from Seattle who had failed to include woc issues in their action against the feminist bookstore so many years ago. On a bright note, some felt that the mainstream queer community in P-land, which has sadly failed at diversity except at the most superficial levels, was doing work around the intersections of queer and poly sexualities and disability rights. Many of the differently-abled woc present pointed out that withing woc queer organizing there was a similar inclusivity of disability feminism but that the connection between the two groups of queer organizers was tenuous at best except where relationships caused overlap. It seemed to be a tension that was well-talked about amongst queer woc but taboo in any deep and lasting change way amongst queer white women who, mostly identifying as feminists, once again trotted out their “commitment to diversity” and “cultural competence” language when things got too deep.
As we sat in the shadow of an impending gentrification, planning strategies to create more inclusive feminism in the state and encourage changes to the law that allows people in Oregon to discriminate against differently-able people, I couldn’t help but wonder about the glaring dichotomies between communities of feminists doing decolonized work and those canonized places and spaces where there is still so much work left to do. It is sadly something that is not unique to Oregon, as I pointed out similar problems in my state recently here on the blog.
I found myself left with one question: What kind of feminist are you?
Do you take time to ask about the history of an agency, organization, or “radical space”? Do you consider whether the places you frequent are accessible? Do you actively seek out ways to make your favorite places or organizations open and inviting to diverse groups beyond a simple diversity statement? When given a budget that says it will serve “women” in the following areas, do you consider which areas and which women are falling through the cracks?
And when you are called on your stuff, the way I have recently called out the state of Oregon on this blog, do you simply stop reading the blog in question as my Oregon readers did (that’s right, I had 20% Oregon readership prior to my first Want Ad post and now I have between 1 and less than 1% per day), or do you engage the criticism and make a change?
I encourage you to consider writing a Want Ad for the kind of feminism you want and use it to “interview” potential feminist “employees”, including yourself. We can build a decolonized movement but not until we actually take the time out to look at every aspect of our lives and our organizing and be accountable to the most marginalized among us instead of just to ourselves.