If anyone knows a thing or two about hope, it’s Kai Cheng Thom. Her insight comes from many places, like being a writer, performer and conflict resolution practitioner — but much of it also comes from living through hard times. After all, when else is hope needed more than during disaster?
Apocalypse — in the form of oppressive systems or the million tiny fires that can burn up one’s personal life — is a recurring theme in Thom’s work. As an author and poet, her award-winning book I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World blends personal essays and prose poetry into a heartfelt exploration of how to continue moving forward in a world of injustice. In her regular column for Xtra Magazine, "Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse," she offers nuanced counsel to readers in difficult interpersonal situations still wishing to navigate them in loving ways.
While her accomplishments extend further into the realms of art and performance, these days Thom is also a mediator, somatic coach and conflict transformation consultant with Arise Embodiment. But all of her work is connected to a bigger picture of social change.
“If we're wounded, we are going to create wounded systems,” she says. “That's why I think we need to work on healing ourselves. And a wounded system is not going to allow people to heal, so we need to be doing these things simultaneously.”
Speaking to me from her home in Toronto on Treaty 13 territory, Thom discussed why personal and collective change need to happen together, and what it means to practice hope. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Tyee: Your work centres the interconnectedness of personal growth and healing with collective transformation. What do you wish was better understood about how personal growth and collective transformation are linked?
Kai Cheng Thom: To me, the personal and the political are not separate. Many political writers, authors and activists have said that before, particularly in the Black feminist tradition. When it comes to the realm of change work, I really believe that we need to be able to do our inner work of trauma healing, and conflict resolution, and personal development so that we can actually even begin to envision a world that is more sustainable, that is more loving, that is forgiving, that is anti-colonial.
I believe it is the Rev. angel Kyodo williams who talks about how there is no social transformation without personal growth and vice versa. It's tempting to say that if we just do our personal work, then the social transformation will automatically happen. Of course, that's not quite true either.
Personal change work is what allows us to dream better systems, but collective change work is what allows individuals to even access healing work, and then to sustain any kind of new paradigm that we might be trying to bring into being.
I think it tends to be one or the other for me. Either folks are thinking personal growth is the key to everything, or they're thinking personal growth is impossible because the systemic barriers are raised against us, and so there's no point in trying. Either way is an unhelpful approach.
Particularly in the mental health space I would always rail against — and my colleagues, too — this idea that you could do therapy in a room for one hour a week and then your client is going to automatically get better if they just work hard enough, because the truth is it's hard to have good mental health when one is denied access to the social determinants of health, or when one is experiencing violence or abuse, at home or in the world.
I will also hear the narrative that is like, well, if I'm racialized and queer then it's not up to me to do any kind of conflict repair work, because I am a survivor of oppression and the world should change so that I am supported. That's sort of true, but there is also another truth. This is the hardest pill to swallow, that we also need to do our part in conflict resolution or interpersonal growth, even when it doesn't feel fair.
Something I really appreciate about your work is that you often share specific names, tools or containers for holding messy feelings. What’s one thing you find really rewarding about that process of transforming complicated feelings?
As someone who spent most of my adolescence and young adulthood in a queer and anarchist kind of community, I was always witnessing or attached to these processes that were called, like, accountability processes — but they would go terribly, you know? Hundreds of people have asked me, is an accountability process even possible, does it ever work? To me, that just shows how difficult the paradigm we're living in is that we don't have the social tools [ideas, language and behaviour to shape our interpersonal communication] — or there's a professor at OCAD [Ontario College of Art and Design], Lillian Allen, who would call it social technology, which is not necessarily machine technology but this way of speaking to each other, and thinking and feeling. When it's going well, it's like, oh, it's working, actually we can heal from harm. That, to me, is proof that a better world is possible.
So much of this work feels never-ending, or reiterative. It's a very uncertain process. What are your thoughts on navigating that kind of uncertainty?
A big lesson for me was releasing control, which I have a hard time doing. I get it from my mother, you know — sorry, mom! You know, we’re control freaks, the women in my family, and I'm not different. Because I was a pretty successful psychotherapist for a long time, I had this sense — which was not good, now that I think about it — that I could control emotional outcomes for people.
What I have learned is to first redefine success when it comes to conflict transformation. Often people think if it's successful, then we're back in a good relationship with each other. But actually, I would say at least half of conflict resolution is saying we're going to end this relationship, but we're going to end it in a way that is good, that is minimally harmful to those involved. We can never control the outcome of something like a conflict, because it's so chaotic. But we can hold on to process. I think that's really key.
The current moment that we're living in the pandemic has also exacerbated feelings of apocalyptic urgency. What role do you see urgency playing in your work, if any?
I recently received an email from an organization that was having some big conflict, and they were like, “Could you do some one-on-one stuff, and a group process and a mediation? And could it all be done in two weeks?” And I was like, I don't think so. [laughs]
If there's room for a slow urgency, or like urgent slowness, that is how I like to proceed. Not slow like not present, but slow like in contact, not necessarily talking too quickly or making decisions too quickly — which is funny because I'm a very fast talker and decision-maker. I think that’s why I'm obsessed with this work because it really is about learning to slow down.
Apocalypse is not something that happens in an instant, generally. I mean, sometimes, right? Like nuclear warfare, that can be instant. But I heard the concept of social collapse as a series of descending plateaus. We're watching the baseline for health care just get worse, and the baseline for access for disabled folks get worse. Then it stabilizes, and then it drops again.
When we think about it that way, I think there's more spaciousness to be like, well, we might as well take our time with process. Because the world is going to keep crumbling, but there are moments of stability inside of that. So we need to make processes that are aimed at long-term solutions and long-term flexibility, rather than like, Oh, we're gonna come in and just fix everything immediately. I don't think that those solutions work very often, and when they do, they're not sustainable.
You’ve also written a children's book, From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea. Children are often included in narratives about the future, but what's important for you when we centre children in our visions of hope?
Oh my god, thank you for asking this. There's so much that happens around children, and about children, that is not actually directly engaged with children. I get pissed off when people say children are the future, la la la, and there’s this very rosy — like, Oh, children are magical unicorn beings. Like, no! Wrong! Have you ever spent time with a child? Children are humans, they are great and funny, and they are awful and cruel. Children have the same capacity for good and bad behaviour as adults, they just have less control, often, over their behaviours and less control over the world around them.
But actually, I don't see children as more or less important than elders. I used to run lots of youth groups, and then I also used to run a group for elderly trans women. It was really fascinating to look at the way that youth would get more attention and more funding and more care than elder people who arguably were less resourced. I really think that's like an imperialist thing, it's a dominant cultural norm that romanticizes children and fetishizes children without paying attention to other parts of society. Even that is objectifying of children because it says, Oh, you're important, but only because of what adults believe children should be.
Hope is often viewed as an abstract, sentimental concept. But Mariame Kaba, an abolitionist writer and organizer, always says “hope is a discipline.” How would you describe the way that hope shows up in your work?
I love that thing that Mariame Kaba says about hope is a discipline, because it requires practice and choice. It's not just something that floats down from the heavens, and then suddenly you're an optimist.
I think about love, often, as hope without faith. We don't necessarily believe that people are always going to be good. And the track record of colonial history shows us that humanity is not going to make good choices, generally speaking.
But hope is this still caring enough about people around us to act as though they were capable of making the right choices. Still loving and believing in the world enough to act as though we could change the course of history, and then maybe sometimes we do, right? It's never going to happen if we don't act as though it were possible.
When I look back at the end of my life, what kind of person did I want to be, and what do I hope to have given to those around me and those who are coming next?
Is there anything else you’d like to add to today’s conversation?
Maybe one thing. It's something that I actually really learned working with teenagers and preteens. But something that most adults know about the lives of teenagers and children are that it takes courage to be loving, and courage to be kind. What's really fascinating is that adults then turn around and behave in all these ways that are not very brave.
It's easy in churches and in religious movements, and activist movements, social movements, to justify our cruelty in the name of virtue. But I think we know, that the body responds actually and we know in our hearts and our guts when people are bullying each other, or being cruel — either because it's fun, or because we're acting out of pain, we don't know how else to do it.
So I encourage courage, and connecting with others. The more we talk about wanting to build movements based in love, the stronger we will feel and the braver we will become. And there it is again — we have to be individually brave, but it's easier when there's a group of us and we need both in order to really build the movement that we wish to see.