Published on 11 March 2016
Recently, I was asked to be a panelist at a policy conference. I seldom participate in conferences when invited because I’m a Dalit who’s part of a black cooperative community. I believe my living and growing in this community is a conscious, lifelong commitment that is not to be tokenized by anyone. As a result, I mentioned to one of the organizers that my choice to participate comes from a cautious and conscious place. I ended up taking part in the conference via Skype. Most often, conference participation can be much enhanced and very limited through how the questions are framed, the time allotted and by the language used to share information via instant social media output. Therefore, I’m storifying my responses in a self determined space such as Savari.
The presentation follows.
Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri sisters! Free the land!
I am Noel Didla, a Dalit woman who is making the deep southern place of Jackson, Mississippi, home. What does it mean for me, a Dalit, immigrant, single mom, instructor at an urban Black university to find and define home in the Deep South? How does my life’s walk inform my liberation work? How does it look like in my heart, mind, kitchen, living room, classrooms, community settings, faith spaces, the streets and at the capitol?
My life and values are definitely impacted, transformed and informed by the Black struggles in my city, specifically as I’m an immigrant making home in Jackson. As a global citizen, they are held firmly down by the values and struggles of Dalit and other oppressed/marginalized/indigenous people from around the state, region, nation and the world.
I’m 42 years of age and grew up in Guntur, South India, as the daughter of a radical Dalit Christian, First Controller of Examinations and Joint Registrar at a majority university dominated by upper caste men, resistor of corruption in the Lutheran church, organizer of interfaith community actions, who (with an ecumenical vision) co-created Guntur Christian Forum; a platform of solidarity, political action and cultural expression. My mother is a revolutionary sociologist who fought administrative management corruption and sexism in an all-Dalit environment. I grew up with more than considerable economic privilege. This caused further confusion, as I was not fully accepted in all-Dalit spaces because of perceived illusions of my dad’s position in the society, and the caste community marginalized me. I was sheltered and protected by my parents, so in the mid-’70s through the early ‘90s in Guntur when I witnessed and experienced my share of gender violence, I had no proper support system to navigate the violence, trauma and its outcomes. My upper-middle class Dalit life left me ill-prepared to deal with gender violence. At the same time, it afforded me opportunities to discover parts of who I am and find pockets of safe cultural spaces to engage the multiple levels, layers and conditions of violence women, in general face that Dalit women, in particular, are traumatized by.
Economic security is key to transitioning women toward socio-economic safety nets. But without nurturing, non-abusive, non-extractive support systems, purely focusing on economic security will not unchain the trauma we need to shed, survive and thrive. As a teenager and into my 20s, I was confronting those complex struggles in multiple settings. My dad was super active in the Student Christian Movement of India, so as a family, we too grew up in that tradition. That further radicalized and strengthened my womanity. I’m sharing a very small part of my story with you all because, as a Dalit woman who has the privilege of moving in global spaces, it is critically necessary to share the utter truth of my complexity, where I’m representing so many facets of who I am, what I do, and how I came to be, since I do not know most of you, and I’m not sure if you know of what Dalitness can look like.
That in short, is a brief response to question one, which is, Why does policy change on economic security issues matter for women? For survivors of gender violence? How did you enter this work and why?
I should say that my confusions, traumas, struggles, artistic expressions, quirks, Dalitness and my privileged unpreparedness of the world has opened me to a unique Mississippi unlearning. The love, acceptance, embracing, and truth telling of my students on this HBCU campus reignited the fire in me to constantly find the courage to face the necessary tension while being myself. That birthed a journey that continues to inform my navigation of Matti Collective, Cooperation Jackson, Jackson Human Rights Institute, Jackson State University, People's Assembly Task Force, Coalition for Economic Justice and Unita Blackwell Young Women's Leadership Institute's mentoring work.
To understand one aspect of the on going work in Jackson, it’s important to know that particular history of the Black Liberation Movement which gave rise to the Jackson Kush Plan, the foundational blueprint from which the grassroots electoral politics, people’s assemblies and cooperative work were born.
Chokwe Lumumba's team introduced the community to facets of the Kush Plan in various settings and some of us were invited to work on the Jackson Rising initiative right after Chokwe became mayor in 2013. Chokwe Lumumba transitioned in February 2014, we lost Antar Lumumba's mayoral bid during the special election and yet successfully hosted Jackson Rising. Cooperation Jackson was born on May 1, 2014 and our grassroots to establish co-ops continue to this day. As an emerging network of cooperatives in Jackson, we believe in and work for a Just Transition from extractive economic, environmental, political, social and cultural ways of living. We believe in restorative and regenerative living, and therefore, the work we do as the Human Rights Institute and our economic democracy work to build a cooperative eco-system are all rooted in undoing systemic violence against communities of color, which begins with addressing violence against women and children. This is why our community values and cultural co-creation include undoing patriarchy and center children in every space.
Second question:"Is there a specific policy win you can walk us through and how it happened?
Third question:"How does policy change intersect with movement building and community change? How can we connect local to global movements and why should we?"
Fourth question:"Any thoughts you might have related to economic security, movement building and gender justice."
After multiple intergenerational conversations on state violence against Black and Brown lives and Black and Brown bodies and one non violent direct action protesting the non indictment of Darren Wilson in the murder of Mike Brown, we decided that it was not enough. We engaged the city council to pass a resolution to create a charter and commission to ultimately make Jackson, Mississippi a Human Rights City that respects, protects and fulfills the human rights of all inhabitants. Since then, we have been holding training of trainers workshops using the people-centered human rights framework and participatory process. We also brought the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent to Jackson and hosted a Civil Society Day in January 2016. That day, folks from across the Deep South testified on nine key areas of which gender was one.
Another significant strength that we have is our People's Assembly, which is a people-centered vehicle of self-determination and governance, through which we educate and organize political action on issues, such as the capital city’s 1% sales tax and the current effort to takeover the Jackson airports. If possible, support The Coalition for Economic Justice in its resistance work to push against the racist, heteropatriarchal, anti-woman, anti-education, anti- environment protection, anti-people policies that the legislators in the state of Mississippi are churning and passing at a fast pace.
As of yesterday, HB1564 passed. It is a bill that aims at taking over the economic enterprise of our city through a capital corridor project and chokes the citizens from being economically self-determining. Please check out HB1564 and SB2525, if you get a chance. So now that that policy side has failed, we have no choice but to build our resistance side. Our coalition will be launching a movement of boycotts, divestments and sanctions. This is where we will be counting on all our communities across the region, nation and the world to share our story, support our work, and fight by our side as we will by yours.
Ideally, policy should be responsive course of action to alleviate people’s struggles. When such scope fails in states, like Mississippi, you have to fully invest your energy into educating, motivating and organizing people with all the revolutionary love and radical accountability you are capable of as individuals and as collectives.
How do we as women of color build such relationships with each other that make all our spaces truthful, authentic, solutionary and transformative? In the context of Jackson, then, what does it mean for me to hold my own as a brown woman in all black, all white spaces, or black and white spaces, without assimilation? What does it mean to be forced to navigate a South Asian model minority identity that doesn’t fully apply to me? How am I truthfully building the narrative of a Dalit woman in community in the Deep South while holding space for honest conversations on complex issues of race, culture, faith and the politics of assimilation? How do I influence policy work with my truth and as an ally?
I’m the only person in this city that is Dalit and engaged in academic and grassroots work. Therefore, my responsibility toward this community is all the more necessary, precious and critical. There are so many nuances of authentic engagement that have to happen to deepen global relationships. After three years of building trust through working, eating, struggling, reading and growing together, exploring Black radical traditions and liberation, we are enhancing our learning to include global political and cultural education that makes space for Dalit literature and experiences to be shared with members of the coordinating committee. We’re also making space for general membership to share their cultural truths and, thus, humanize our cooperative values. Cooperation Jackson is a 2-year-old toddler. As I am a living, breathing creature that thrives from self care and nurturing, my Dalit sisters from everywhere, sisters of the Matti Collective and several Black and Brown sisters from confluencing circles continue to be part of my growth. I want to shout out Esme at Highlander who is one of my sisters that’s with you right now. I want to be in such community always where we learn to madly love each other in decolonized, non-heteropatriarchal, restorative, creative, collective, accountable, loving, living and artistic, badass ways, centering our truths and absolute truth only to work and build a just world.
Which brings me to my last thought of connecting local and global movements. In this context, Dalitness being promoted abroad. I believe promoting singular, romanticized, fetishized and violent stories of Dalit people to international audiences who have little to no idea of our history, cultures, struggles and triumphs does not help them connect the dots of global solidarity work or transformative change. It, in fact, is a capitalistic model of opportunism and/or a non-profit industrial mechanism working in the form of academic brahmin-savarnas and other mindless accomplices who singularly benefit through such profiteering, at the cost of further violation of Dalit communities, especially women and children.
Communities can be built intentionally and truthfully in many ways, based on where each of us is, because place matters and people matter. That is why I have lots of questions for consideration.
1. What is the Dalit narrative(s) that is allowed space in the global scenario?
2. Who are the owners of these stories?
3. For what reasons should these stories be shared abroad?
4. Who are the prime sponsors of such events/gatherings?
5. What is their intention behind sponsoring these events?
6. Do these narratives have the potential to oversimplify or over-complicate historical Dalit struggles by solely centering violence, sexual violence of high caste men against Dalit women, oppression, discrimination, etc. while erasing in-house struggles?
7. What are the ultimate expected outcomes of these shares?
8. What are the accountability processes to counter the potential tokenizing and patronizing of a few voices as Dalit leaders by these white/black and Brahmin-Savarna sponsors of such events?
9. How do these shares help Dalit women empowerment without causing erasure to their lived experiences, without converting them into research material by Brahmin-Savarna /white/black and other mindless research enthusiasts, as evidenced in the recent fetishization of the death of Rohith Vemula?
10. Are there accountability processes in place to counter such occurrences? Why are Dalit women’s narratives always placed in a lens of sexual violence for global consumption by Brahmin-Savarna folk? I would love to know what kind of community accountability we have for the non-monolithic Dalit oppressions that mar and scar grassroots Dalits in South Asia that I, growing up, didn’t face for the most part.
11. Do these South Asian “movement” folk, most of whom are second generation Americans identifying with global blackness, ever address their caste privilege that allows them to be so capitalistic when it comes to placing Dalit women stories in a lens of mediocre sexual violence on the world stage? Is this not a perpetual chain of violence?
When such information is shared, silence, non-engagement or selective engagement on parts of the sharing is also violence. This, sadly, defeats the purpose of these gathering spaces and the subsequent relationship-based work that may or may not happen.
Several misleading and reductive equivalences were made by NGO-Savarna academics that lead to equating anti-caste and anti- race struggles which makes my truth as a Dalit woman in community in deep southern black radical spaces all the more necessary. Through initiatives created for and by women of color, some of these intricate systemic issues of violence etched in narrative stones need to be addressed and undone. My story is an evolutionary part of my community’s truth in place and time, and further light will be shed in future articles.
My desire is for us to honestly reflect on these questions and more efforts at creating that system change we need to be capable of.
Free the land and Jai Bhim! Jai Savitri!
Noel Didla teaches freshmen at Jackson State University in MS. She believes in humanizing learning spaces and processes. Her Philosophy of life is informed by Paulo Friere's pedagogical approach and Ella Baker's vision. As a Dalit woman, she believes in honest sharing of herself and her cultural complexities to be in community. Her values are rooted in her Dalitness.
This article was also published on SAVARI