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15–17 minute conversation, or the time it takes to create a glossary of new terms.



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    Note: This conversation was published and conducted virtually in June 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.

    Building Hand in Hand

    How would engaging with each other feel if we didn’t turn our heads the other way in times of hardship, and instead held the difficulty and ugliness of those moments together? What solutions would we come up with in understanding how interwoven and interdependent our lives are? In this exchange, Mia Mingus, a writer, educator, and trainer for transformative justice and disability justice, and Tasneem Raja, a journalist, writer, and editor of The Oaklandside, share what is at stake if we cater to siloes and what language we must invent to center the corners of our attention. In doing so, we might find a new sense of outcome, one that isn’t necessarily resolved, but firmly at the core of a shared concern.

    On the function of writing
    Illustration of Nose and Magnifying Glass
    the function
    of writing

    Nadine Nakanishi: Both of you have been working on building infrastructure for new realities to unfold. I am thinking of community newsrooms for you Tasneem, and training frameworks like you do with your transformative justice project, SOIL, Mia. In this context, I was wondering how your writing practice anchors, informs, and/or propels those activities and those needs or vice versa?

    Tasneem Raja: Having started my career as a reporter in Chicago, and then having become an editor over time, it’s been interesting to see how you end up with this meta-view on writing. I do a lot of writing all day long, but I’m working with other people’s words and other people’s ideas and stories. I get to serve as the proxy for the reader. When I think about the journalism that we’re producing and the information that we’re trying to get across in our work at The Oaklandside, it’s my job to take out my sense of self and adopt the readerly position of our audiences. 

    I remember being in my twenties and desperately searching for any type of writing that I could hold onto, and how hard it was to find things. Writing helps build new worlds, perspectives, and ways of understanding.

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    As much as I love reporting, editing is a form of writing that I really appreciate. Because number one, I think of journalism as a public service and the information that we’re providing as a public good. And it’s nice that I get to take myself out of the equation a little bit. As writers, we have a hard time doing that.

    Mia Mingus: For me a lot of my writing practice is such a part of what we’re doing, because if you are trying to build a new world that is more just and loving, you have to create new language. You have to document it somehow. You have to get those ideas and concepts out in the world. And for me writing has been — especially when we talk about Transformative Justice work that I’ve done — so important. In Disability Justice, we’re also creating new terms and concepts to be used. People need that language to be able to describe their own reality. It’s such a profound and powerful thing. 

    I’ve made up language to use in my own disabled life that felt a little silly to share with the world at first, but now they’re cornerstones and staples in terms of how people describe their realities, organizing, or access in general. I remember being in my twenties and desperately searching for any type of writing that I could hold onto, and how hard it was to find things. Writing helps build new worlds, perspectives, and ways of understanding. “Hollow” in Octavia’s Brood is a great example of that: dreaming of science fiction futures where disabled people are able to live, thrive, and be in community with each other. It’s definitely a huge part of my work, but I don’t get to do it nearly as much as I would like to.

    Tasneem: There’s so much that you’re talking about Mia that resonates with me in terms of this idea of the power of writing and language to make stories visible — although nothing is invisible, it’s more a question of what we choose to see and what we have access to seeing. 

    Writing and language are efficient ways of helping make things visible for those who have not seen something before. I chafe at people who claim that journalism “gives voice to the voiceless or makes the invisible visible.” None of these things are voiceless. None of these things are invisible. 

    And I’m excited by the ways in which traditional journalism has begun, in some corners, to listen and learn from community organizers, activists, and other people who have been doing the work of very powerful narrative change and information sharing. If we think about journalism as a public service, we actually have a lot to learn from people who have been intentionally sharing information with communities that journalism has done a total crap job of reaching and serving.

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    On the function of writing
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    teaching and practicing

    Nadine: You are responsive to the community you are serving and work in proximity to it. I would like to discuss interdependence. It’s something you’ve been speaking about, Mia, and it’s such an important space of the future: to be responsive to resources and to be responsible to each other. How do you teach people to understand interdependence?

    Mia: Being interdependent in a world where we’re raised to be independent is incredibly difficult. There are so few things in our society, and America in particular, that encourage interdependence at all. But there’s also a disconnect between what we intellectually want to think about, the theory side of things, and then the actual practice. Between theory and practice is miles and miles of bare land, and it’s both an individual and systemic problem. With COVID, for example, most people are only thinking about if they’ll get sick, and not the fact that if they get sick, it means that the pandemic continues at large, impacting millions. We need to abandon this mindset of disposability and independence.

    In terms of helping people understand this, we know that stories move people more than mere facts or statistics. It’s also about realizing that being smart isn’t enough: if smart was all that we needed, our work would be done already. We have to practice. We need to build muscle memory. Practice is a central part of liberation. We have to be willing to put into practice our values and our political beliefs.

    Most of us spend our days as disembodied heads that move from meeting to meeting, thinking. I like what Brené Brown says about how we think we’re thinking beings who occasionally have emotions, but we’re actually emotional beings who occasionally think. In my Transformative Justice work to break and end generational cycles of violence, and child sexual abuse in particular, we always say that you can’t think your way through it. You have to feel it. It has to be more than just political analysis, and that’s where this idea of practice comes in. Relationship-building and trust can help us create the spaciousness to not be in our heads all the time — our heads being where we’re taught it’s “safe” to be, whereas we’re often taught to be afraid of other people or ashamed of ourselves.

    The first question to ask is not what kind of chart we should use, it’s what is the story? What’s the message? Let’s start there. Don’t worry about the way it looks. Let’s start with meaning.

    Nadine: You bring up really important points about not just talking, but practicing. Tasneem,  when you’re teaching designers and coders to look at data, how do you make them understand that there are people behind the data? How does data-driven research inform stories, and what is important to remember in terms of how it’s interpreted?

    Tasneem: Now that I run a newsroom, I’m eager for all of our reporters and editors to have the literacy you’re describing: to be able to think about the information we’re trying to get across to a reader and the best format for delivering it to them clearly.

    It’s been interesting to watch the field of data journalism evolve in the digital era for the past decade. At first, I think we were enamored by the digital bells and whistles. We wanted everything to move and blink, and we wanted to make the audience do a lot of work. Now, I’ve been seeing more empathy for the user. User-centered design asks: How can we make it as simple as possible to get a point across to them? How can we use affordances? How do we make it more accessible to people who are not necessarily staring at a screen all day? It has become a process of stripping away rather than adding on.

    So not everything needs a chart or graphic, but there are times when data visualization can tell a story with incredible impact. One example I can think of is a clever horizontal bar chart by The New York Times about the number of drone deaths per country. Usually, if you have a chart in which one data point is significantly larger than others, it’s a design problem. If four data points are in the range of one to ten, but then one is 300, it’s going to be a funny-looking chart, and usually we bend over backward to erase that difference. But what the newspaper did instead was actually break the format to emphasize this big discrepancy. One country was operating in a completely different reality than the others, and rather than hide that, they let that bar break out of the box it’s supposed to go in and run down the entire half of the paper or screen. They let the power of the visual get the point across, tell the story, and share the message. 

    The first question to ask is not what kind of chart we should use, it’s what is the story? What’s the message? Let’s start there. Don’t worry about the way it looks. Let’s start with meaning.

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    On the function of writing
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    the role
    of aesthetics
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    Jessica Ferrer: In hearing what both of you are saying about how you approach your work, I wonder about the role of aesthetics in what you’re trying to achieve. Where and how does beauty fit into this process of learning and practicing interdependence, if at all?

    Tasneem: Our work is a visual medium and most of our work as a daily local news outlet is distributed as online articles. It’s not the be-all and end-all of what we do, but that’s our bread and butter, so it was important to us from the get-go to invest in visual journalism as soon as we could. We hired an incredible photographer, Amir Aziz, who was born and raised in Oakland and still lives there, to shoot photography that accompanies most of our journalism.

    Until we actually learn to do the awkward, uncomfortable, messy work of working with other people who we traditionally have not sought solidarity with […] we won’t yet reach the world we want.

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    We created an amazing series called “How and Why I Got Vaccinated,” where I think aesthetics really made a difference. Amir was paired up with the reporters talking to people in communities where vaccination rates were lower than in other areas. The overall approach was to talk to people about why and how they got vaccinated. How did they make that choice? Where did they go for their vaccine? What was the process like? What happened afterward? And then we ran beautiful portraits that Amir had photographed alongside each of these Q&As with community members sharing their experiences to personalize the issue. In seeing the portraits, we hoped readers would feel like it was somebody who looked like them, or who was their neighbor, friend, coworker, etc. It’s important as journalists and storytellers to think about the impact, positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, that the photography or accompanying visuals can have. It requires as much care as thinking through the words we use.

    Mia: This question is interesting because a lot of my Transformative Justice (TJ) work has been underground, where I haven’t had to think about those things as much, but I do think that art plays a pivotal role in any kind of social change we want to make. Tasneem was talking about it a little bit before in terms of photographic portraits. Toni Cade Bambara talks about figuring out how to make the revolution irresistible. We have to figure out how to make the dreams and kind of world we’re longing for seem more compelling than the world we currently have, and in a way that actually moves people to action.

    When I wrote “Moving Towards the Ugly,” I was taking aim at beauty and the politics of desirability, but there’s a very fine line between the radical understanding of wanting to make this new world irresistible — wanting to get the message out in a way that moves people — and also wanting to make sure we don’t reinforce harmful norms about the politics of desirability, about whose story gets told, who gets to be in front of the camera, who is heard. 

    Your question also gets at the fact that our world is becoming more and more visual every day, especially when thinking about the impact social media and the internet have had. I think we’re being pushed more and more in our movements to figure out how to add aesthetics to our work in a way that moves people toward building a new world, but we’re also up against things like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok, which often reflect current, harmful dynamics and systems. It’s about considering the aesthetics of how things are presented, and how we do that well, meaning effectively and strategically.

    Tasneem: It definitely makes sense to me. I know there’s an ongoing debate right now around whether images from the shootings in Uvalde, Texas, should be presented to the public or not. It reminded me of when Emmett Till’s mother let Jet Magazine publish that haunting photograph of her son lying in his open casket. I’m paraphrasing here, but she wanted the world to see what white supremacy had done to her child. Today, some families are saying they want the world to see what our culture of gun complicity has done to their children. At the same time, however, we know that white supremacy didn’t end because a child’s disfigured body was shown to the world. The killing of George Floyd recorded on video didn’t end it. And there are so many other crises Mia has mentioned, whether it’s mass incarceration, climate change, or the refugee crisis, where accompanying visuals have also been used in the hopes of spurring action. 

    In reality, I think the piece we’re missing is very much tied again to the interdependence Mia has described, and in naming individual solutions as the problem. We keep hoping that enough people in a vacuum will change their minds about some issue, but we’re not all that effective in a vacuum, and until we actually learn to do the awkward, uncomfortable, messy work of working with other people who we traditionally not have sought solidarity with, until we abandon the idea that reaching individuals as individuals is going to move the needle, we won’t yet reach the world we want.

    At some point, hopefully, we’re going to have to build cultures, relationships, and societies that can hold the hard, messy, ugly, and painful.

    Mia: Yeah, that’s so right, Tasneem. I could spend hours talking about these things, but I wanted to add to this conversation about aesthetics that there’s also the other side of it, which is that some things are just ugly. Some things are just hard, and we can’t put a nice spin on it: war, genocide, child sexual abuse, domestic violence, sexual assault, gun violence. At some point, hopefully, we’re going to have to build cultures, relationships, and societies that can hold the hard, messy, ugly, and painful. 

    And again, I think this is part of the world we’re in now, which is all about how to make things look sexy, nice, easy, comforting. That’s part of why our world is the way it is; so many folks, communities, institutions, and people in power don’t want to turn and face what the actual hard reality is. They don’t want to have to feel the hard things and sit with discomfort. They want to put a good spin on things and keep crises siloed because it’s easier to compartmentalize than acknowledge the one big mess we’ve created. They’re all connected. 

    Ugliness is not a bad thing, it can be incredibly powerful and that’s one of the places that “Moving Towards the Ugly” came out of. It’s a both and, not an either or. It’s about how we have to change ourselves and the world at the same time, as Grace Lee Boggs says. We don’t have the luxury to just choose one or the other.

    Tasneem: Often, when I’m in powerful conversations like this one, I feel this internal pull to find a way forward, like, what’s the hopeful part? What’s there to look forward to? But I really want to honor the message that you’ve been sharing by resisting that urge to make a nice ending and put a bow on it. I would love to be okay with walking away from a conversation where we let it sit in that place of recognizing there’s some ugly stuff here, and we’re not going to try to paper over it.

    Mia: Is that not the perfect ending?

    Note: This conversation took place via Zoom in June 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.

    Mia Mingus headshot.
    Portrait of Mia Mingus Photo by EPLi.

    [ID: Black and white photo of a Korean woman with long hair and glasses, smiling and sitting on a wooden chair with plants and trees all around her.]


    Mia Mingus
    She // Her // Hers

    Mia Mingus is a community educator and builder for transformative justice and disability justice. Mingus is a queer physically disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee raised in the Caribbean. She works for community, interdependence, and home for all of us, not just some of us, and longs for a world where disabled children can live free of violence, with dignity and love. As her work for liberation evolves and deepens, her roots remain firmly planted in ending sexual violence.

    She leads SOIL: A Transformative Justice Project, founded in 2020, which works to build the conditions for Transformative Justice (TJ). She has been involved in transformative justice work for almost two decades and is passionate about building the skills, relationships, and structures that can transform violence, harm, and abuse within our communities and that do not rely on or replicate the punitive system we currently live in.

    Mingus helped to create and forward the disability justice framework. She has played a key role in connecting disability justice with other movements and communities and she has worked tirelessly to educate different communities about disability, ableism, access, disability justice, and abled supremacy.

    Tasneem Raja headshot.
    Portrait of Tasneem Raja Photo by Pete Rosos.

    [ID: The Oaklandside editor-in-chief Tasneem Raja in downtown Oakland.]


    Tasneem Raja
    She // Her // Hers
    Oakland, CA

    Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside and a co-founder of Cityside Journalism Initiative. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, Raja co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR’s Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped build the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, and started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly. Raja lives in Oakland with her husband and daughter.

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