Sister Insider: A Journey Home through Climbing

Making it Home 

Being inside my head was always safest. It was where I could make worlds that felt stable, a place that made sense when the adult world didn’t. And so climbing, connecting my body and mind from within for the first time, felt safe. I learned to make my body a home I could trust when family and house-like homes slipped away from me as I shuttled between states, between parents, between the chapters of my life. 

Climbing has always been this kind of internal exercise for me: in-doors, a puzzle unfolding inside my head, in the muscle, fascia, snappy tendons and bones, in the mirror that flexed back at me as I wrestled with an image telling me that to be a girl, I had to be thin, delicate and slight. But I was already too much of that, all spindly limbs and no shape, a disappointingly flat chest despite my best efforts. This body said I was to be quiet, and non-confrontational. Never too much. And so I didn’t argue when my mom told me otherwise, told me that if I was going to make it in this city (in this life) as a woman, as a black woman, I needed to be strong. Like her. 

In the summer of 2006, at 13 years old, my mom could no longer mask her concern for my safety as we both faced the unnerving reality of my commuting 40 minutes to my new high school on public transit. She pinched her brow, pinched my bony shoulder, and said “You need some upper body strength.” And no, I wasn’t about to take self defense classes or join some regular team sport. She knew me better than that. Knew I hummed to the rhythm of my body when walking quietly along a beach, squatting in the mud, clambering down a ravine, climbing up in a tree, collecting my community of shells, frogs, deer and birds to me. I loved to be alone and half wild, free to live through my imagination. I would be sobered by Chicago, certainly, but to let it tame me, break me? No. Perhaps that was more terrifying than the threat of assault alone. So climbing class it was. 


The Approach

Every Thursday night, I would pack up my heavy school bag, climbing shoes and chalk bag in tow, and walk the mile from my Lincoln Park private school to the Fullerton El station. In my memory, it was always a slate gray already darkening sky – phosphorescent yellow lights – sloshy snow kind of walk. Sparking train wheels squealing around the elevated tracks would pull me into my favorite part of the brown line ride: screeching into the loop from the north side and getting that spectacular view of the John Hancock skyline, edging closer until we crossed the river and the city swallowed us into a busy, tight circle of commerce. These were my mountains. 

And just as suddenly as I’d been swallowed by buildings, I would descend, transferring to the blue line that took me back out of the city maw, flying under the river this time until I emerged a few stops later at an unassuming intersection. The gym was a few blocks away and the walk took me under the Amtrak train, a long underpass that was always dripping and freezing and dimly lit – a horrible shrieking, flickering yellow. Keys shift in my pocket nervously. Sketchy. I came to avoid this route. Eventually I’d emerge at a dead end, a narrow street rimmed with parking. The other side gave way to a sprawling, shallow quarry and the towering black conveyer belts of an asphalt factory perched along the North Branch of the Chicago River. A right turn and the sudden shock of the color of children’s spandex gymnastic outfits, their outlandish patterns almost as strange as seeing children in this industrial landscape. A blast of heat as I opened the door, the sound of feet pounding the spring floor of the gymnasium, the sound of my own feet clanging hollowly down the metal stairs into the dusty, sweaty smelling basement. Safe, at the Hidden Peak.

The gem that lay hidden at “the peak,” as the gym was lovingly known, was not only a powerhouse of a youth climbing team that regularly placed with USA Climbing, but, most importantly to me, the assortment of misfit kids who crowded the tiny space—and knew that they belonged there. Kids wearing baggy clothes, thick glasses and hearing aids. Kids who knew three languages and magic tricks. Kids who listened to sad, alternative music. Kids with too much energy for the classroom, with too few friends, with so many books, with so many ideas, with so few outlets. Kids who were creative, and funny and smart and wiser to the way of the world than most. Kids who were timid and shy on the playground and the bravest, boldest kids on the climbing wall. Lonely kids, who were small and skinny and not the least bit athletic. Despite the odds, we found our way here. And because of the odds, we kids climbed – hard.

 The place hummed with energy. Dave, our kind yet demanding coach, would yell and cackle and joke and encourage and trash talk and instruct while dozens of kids yelled and cackled and joked and talked right back. It wouldn’t be until much later that I realized how much he taught us, and what a rare gift it was – to learn to trust our quiet feet, to understand, with a lot of pre-teen giggles, the mechanics of ‘sucking our butt in,’ to the wall, to be taught how to solve the mental puzzle of a problem before laying a hand to it.

He gave us a tradition, a lineage of mentorship that made everyone there family.

And the peak gave us a home—a cardboard cutout of a scrappy home gym that Dave seemed to have built with the tenacity only a climber could muster.  The parents sat on sunken, filthy couches while music blasted from an ancient PC layered in chalk and lined with pictures of Dave and the climbers he had mentored, and those who had mentored him. All of the holds in the cramped, maybe 300 square foot space, were slick and shiny, and routes were marked with a dizzying array of colored and patterned tape. Grades didn’t really matter here. I often joked that it was all just “V-Dave,” since, for many years, he was the principal setter and he set to challenge his team. Returning to this gym today always serves as a good ego-deflator.  

This is what climbing was to me for the first 4 years. Rocks had nothing to do with it. It was all indoors, in a small community, and I felt, for the first time, like I was in something. A part of something. An insider.


Outsider Within

The Peak was, indeed, a rare and unexpected find. To be a part of the climbing community in a city located in the middle of hundreds of miles of flat land and corn fields, and at a time when the only climbing walls anyone knew about existed at summer camp, required initiative and intel. So, naturally the Peak only attracted dedicated seekers; and it attracted white people. People who knew how to look for the hidden pockets of privilege, who knew where to start, and who else to ask. I think I could count on one hand the number of black or brown kids I ever saw so much as step foot in the gym when I was there as a student. Having attended a primarily white private high school, I had grown accustomed to being ‘the only.’ It wasn’t something I thought about. Being the forever outsider in every school situation, I only knew that I wanted to fit in, to be good at something to fit in, and, better than fitting in, to have a place where I felt I could belong. The misfit magicians and kids with overactive imaginations gave me that solace. For a while.

For a long while, I was consistent. I went every single Thursday evening that I could throughout high school. The growing piles of homework that awaited me never changed my level of commitment.  But the friends I made early on in the program didn’t keep up as regularly as I did. Slowly they faded away. And I started to feel alone in that space. Finally, I was at home with the movements, but an outsider all over again. At 15, I felt that I was too old to join the junior team, which matched my skill level at that time but comprised of mostly strong, spastic 8 to 12 year olds. I watched the team kids train, trained with them too, and longingly sat just outside the ring of their ability, of their excitement to travel and compete together, of their indelible whiteness that enabled a certain enthusiastic confidence. Dave always encouraged me to join the team, recognizing my potential, but I declined, attributing my reluctance to my disinclination toward competition.

I’ve since learned that I am a fierce competitor, and give my most, pour out all my try-hard, when people are watching, expecting, audibly setting the bar higher and higher by shouting “Come on, you got this!” I just never thought that it was ok for me to compete against others, especially people I wanted to belong to and who I never thought could see past my difference, my quietness, and, what I thought, was my lack of demonstrated skill. I felt I could never compete against or with this elite team until I had proven myself.

Although I was in, finding home in this cozy, familial basement, it was lonely there.  

Things got a little better when I moved to Southern California for college, where the density of climbers delighted and surprised me. The two friends I climbed with, Ru & Erin–both exceptionally tiny, exceptionally boisterous, and exceptionally strong–were some of my closest during this time. They would soar and shine together, climbing much harder than I could. Much as I came to love these two, climbing with them evoked the boulder-like shadow of loneliness that loomed over me, heavy and grating and immovable. Still, I kept my same diligent schedule, biking the 4 miles each way to the gym every week. And I gradually improved until I was consistently climbing V3s and 4s at this gym. People noticed. And I was invited on trips, complemented weekly on my small accomplishments. 

By the time I arrived in the Bay Area, I had internalized the subliminal message of this sport, the one that seems to hum in the air like a high-pitched whine that only registers when suddenly it’s no longer there: climb hard or be a nobody, climb well or climb alone, climb like it’s a performance or else you won’t be seen, and sometimes, climb your best or literally die trying. Climbing is a perfectionist’s perfect sport. And so, climbing fed me in all of the unhealthy ways that I saw myself, and pushed myself, and worked just to feel like I had a place to land when I fell. Finding home in the body, in the movements, even in those wild and gorgeous outdoor places means less if that home starts to ring with the hollow, quiet emptiness of a house. 


A Soft Landing

In 2017, after over a decade of almost-perfect, consistent climbing, I considered quitting, moving out of this house that had stopped feeling like home a long time ago. I saw an REI feature on the Brothers of Climbing, and I raged on social media, raged in jealous admiration, raged for the sisters and non-binary siblings I had missed all these years. And shockingly, tenderly, softly, I was received by real, calloused, gentle, brown hands. Endria, Narinda, Audrei, Trish – this small crew of climbers of color – would gather early on weekday mornings at the gym in downtown Oakland, transformed my lonesome, angry energy into the embers of a new motive. A horizontal one.

I say horizontal because the way that climbing is ordered is so painfully vertical. The language and action of domination, of hierarchies of oppression is pernicious, inherent to the drive to climb to the top of something just for the sake of it. Verticality is crushing, it is falling, and it is, as the saying goes, lonely if you do indeed fight gravity enough to make it to the top. Maybe this is why I’ve always loved traverses, moving horizontally, in tandem with the curves of the earth. It reminds me of climbing at the Peak; what it lacked in height, it made up for in long circuit climbs and tough, two-move problems. And it reminds me of relationships, the way we match strides with those we want to walk beside–march with–in our respective and intersectional movements. 


It’s late October in the Eastern Sierras, but the air is still pleasantly warm in the evening. The sun has just gone down in the Buttermilks, leaving a dusky spray of stars in a moonless sky. Endria, Narinda and I lay out a few crash pads at the Iron Man traverse, and train our headlamps on the thin white line that cleaves the smooth face of this boulder in half. Usually baking and slimy in the heat of the sun, usually crowded with climbers, it is a relief climb here protected by the quiet blackness of night. We shove still swollen toes into stiffening shoes, and sink into the familiar moves. We try the final, elusive big top-out move until skin and muscle succumb to cold and brittle exhaustion. We drag the crashpads back a few feet just beyond the penumbra of Iron Man’s leaning shadow, so that when we lay down on them, puffy to puffy, we can gaze comfortably at the sky. We let our eyes drift slightly out of focus to catch the grazes of shooting stars. We let the expansiveness of the dark swallow us, rolling us around until we are sweet melty lozenges, swilled in sips of whiskey. None of us had successfully finished the traverse. But this is better somehow. Looking up at the stars that night communicated the sideways-ness of climbing: that way of being ok with not “accomplishing” but doing and being and laying down in humble admiration of the galaxies. Because as the arms of the universe stretched out wide in a dissolving embrace, we realized that there is always something much bigger than this boulder holding us.

Finding the POC climbing community has been like arriving at the Hidden Peak all over again and re-discovering that initial soaring sense of belonging that drew me into climbing to begin with—belonging in my skin this time, and in the just-right place with all the other misfits. Regardless of how “good” at climbing we are, whatever phase of strong or soft, injured or recovering, we’re excited just to be together, to be caught by one another. With more of us sharing beta, it’s easier to find those hidden peaks, and to make this lineage of knowledge our own. It’s not so much about the hard edges of accomplishment here, as it is the softness of belonging, the sweetness of home. 


The #Image as Community Cairn

A few months ago, my friend Summer (co-creator of the Brown Ascenders), whom I had just met at the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival, invited me to come out to a photo shoot that their friend, Michael Estrada, was doing for The North Face. They said it would involve a few hours of climbing and a small group of other POC climbers wearing North Face gear for photos that would be posted to their Instagram page. In return, we got to keep a piece of gear. Free gear? Climbing? Photo shoot? Of course, I was in. A few weeks later, however, when the pictures came out, when I started to see myface looking back at me from Instagram posts and blogs, when waves of climbing-related accounts requested to follow me, an odd feeling set in. I no longer wanted to post the gorgeous action photos of myself that required me to tag said company. I didn’t want to post anything. How did I become a symbol of women of color outdoors and what did that mean?


The image by Michael Estrada, featured in his fantastic piece about representation outdoors and reclaiming our collective imagination on Melanin Basecamp

I remember when I started climbing. I was 13, perhaps even younger, when my best friend from 3rd and 4th grade came to Oklahoma. She had an uncle living in Tulsa at the time and he decided to take us climbing out in one of grottos outside the city. I remember the heat, the sound of the cicadas that I always associate with dense scrubby oaks and feeling slightly itchy as bugs and sweat prickle the skin.

The uncle tied my figure 8 knot, made sure my helmet was on tight enough, and talked us both through the safety commands. Then, I was off. The rock face had a large crack at the base, and I followed it up like it was a set of stairs. Large pockets of cool rock melted against my palms as I stretched them above my head. The buzz and heat of the day seemed to fade. And then, it was over before I knew it. I don’t remember any fear. Just dirt and a breathless exhilaration.

Later that summer (or maybe the next), I felt that breathlessness as I anxiously entertained the reality of starting high school in an entirely new place: Chicago. Maybe to distract me, more likely to get me out of the house for a few hours, my mom signed me up for rock climbing classes in the basement of a gymnastics gym in the west loop. In answer to my questioning skepticism, she said “He said you were fast…and you need some upper body strength” she said, pinching my skinny shoulder, masking her concern about how I’d defend myself everyday from leering strangers on the CTA and while walking the city streets. Little did she know that, years later, she’d be peering at me between her fingers, clasped tightly over her face, as I told her about my latest climbing escapade.

First Climb! 1

My first taste of outdoor climbing

Something about climbing stuck. I think I’ve always loved the feeling of moving freely in my body. I pretty much failed at sports that involved team communication or extraneous objects (being an only child with clumsy hand-eye coordination makes most team sports a no-go). But dancing, gymnastics, now running, swimming and biking (now surfing?!) are beautiful ways to dip out of the mind and explore the breath and the simple miracle and privilege of watching my body move. Climbing was all of this plus a mentor-figure and an odd ball group of kids to *hang* out with (haha).

It’s only recently, however, that I’ve started to question the climber identity, especially in the era of social media. Identity seems to become increasingly rarified as a thing through the act of taking a picture and putting it online. Once the pictures of me started to go up,  I felt that I had become a resolute category, one that I suddenly felt beholden to perpetuating. Self-concious of my insignificant pictures of snails and leaves, selfies with friends, I froze for about 2 weeks, worried that I had to start posting more pictures of me climbing. It reveals how easily this platforms lends itself to typecasting, to imprisoning ourselves to an identity, on top of the ways that intersecting identities have indeed shaped my story, my ability to be in outdoor space.

I wonder if the vanity enabled by art/technology (extending beyond camera phone photography) is a reflection of a media on itself. Are we simply using other objects to cut through the objectification of our own bodies, in a way that a double negative creates a positive? In other words, are we trying to see past the indexical qualities of our skins, hair, faces, that make raced, gendered, categorized lives? Trying to see the self that feels liberated in motion that lies beneath? Gain affirmation from our peers that our inner worth shines through? Indeed, by creating a form of social connection through self-reflection, I think we’re being necessarily vulnerable—an attempt at intimacy directly in the face of technologies of oppression, colonialism that have facilitated our own alienation. The risk, of course, is actually becoming the saleable object that we make ourselves into through the image—the object that is only an object and not its essence.

This is the strange feeling I have about representation. As important as it is to be seen at all, to demand a different way of being storied into historically exclusionary spaces, I stumble when it comes to the tangle of strings attached – to commoditize oneself as a “Woman of Color, Outdoors.” Even the need to hashtag makes me squirm—doing so it quite literally asking not just my community to find me, but everyone trying to market to me, a #Strong #Woman Of Color #Climber #Outside. (liked by North Face, REI, etc.) And yet, this is how we survive. This is how we get the money, the sponsorships, the “free” jackets, the swag bags which reallocate some resources to those most disenfranchised by these #White #Male #Outdoor industries. Yeah. But how do we live?

The contradictions continue to unfold themselves, seemingly stretched between being invisible and selling out; true to this blog’s form, however, I’m looking for release somewhere in the middle ground. And as I’ve learned from meditation, one of the most important parts of the practice–climbing or walking the middle way–is the “sangha,” the community that supports you on the path to liberation. Climbing itself connects me intimately to my surroundings, to my body, and breath. Yet it is the community, feeling in some ways connected to larger base of being and knowledge, that has been one of the most important factors in my love of climbing and outdoor adventure (communing with people, rocks, trees, all of it). Putting my image out there, I hope, is a way to nudge someone who wants to ‘just try it,’; I want to be the encouraging coach who will help you with that drop knee technique. It’s not just about the sport, but about being in our bodies and in spaces that feel good and nourishing to us with people who make us feel good to be there. So, climbing in community is, for me, a way back into myself.

As such, I’m understanding my connection to the outdoors as being more than just about me or my abilities, but about those whose shoulders I stand upon—the badass, queer WOC who brought me back into climbing when I was feeling disillusioned by all the whiteness around me, the Chicago coach, Dave Hudson, who made me feel like I had a home that I was always welcomed into at the climbing gym. Even those women of color who I never knew have been working their magic into the climbing scene, whether they’re the people I see coming in regularly, working climbs to whom I might just give the nod, or people like Emily Taylor, who has laid the ground for coaching young people of color, including most notably, Kai Lightner, for over 20 years.

By luck, I happened to meet Emily last week at the gym. I was just wrapping up my usual morning bouldering session and retrieving my bag from the cubbies by the door. I noted the woman standing to my right, noted that she was Black, that she seemed to be an instructor for some of the kids trickling in for summer lessons, and that I would be sure to smile or try to make eye contact with her before I left. Before I had the chance, however, she turned to me, held out her hand and introduced herself. I was taken aback, even more so when she said that she had noticed me, a Black woman bouldering hard. We chatted some and as I asked question after naïve question, her story came forth with a force I recognized. Years of being invisible, marginalized, never recognized for the decades of work and experience put into an outstanding achievement—it’s always the white guy that gets the credit. All I could think to say before we parted was precisely my instinct when I first glanced her way: I see you. Just as she saw me.

These are the moments when I remember what this work of representation outdoors is all about. It’s not about the sponsorships, the free stuff, even the (mostly symbolic) redistribution of resources. It’s not about the likes, although there’s something deeper there as well. And it’s not about the feeling of self-accomplishment or even retribution. Our representation is about being able to recognized one another, really see those women of color who for centuries have been responsible for building the ivory tower yet never get to look at the view. It’s about being able to clear a path toward healing with one another, with the elements. For once, let this not be for “them,” or for “me,” or the commodified #womenofcoloroutdoors, but for us.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Doctor’s Daughter

For Papa. For us. 

I got my wings from the doctor. He stitched them with the strong, steady fingers of a surgeon. He knew my bones—made em himself. Knew my spine could bear the weight. Knew my back couldn’t hunch or hang like a tree’s laden boughs. No. It had to be straight and strong. Had to be.

These wings are hand-me downs. Tattered with hopes. Borrowed every time. An heirloom of ‘excellence.’

The doctor took his from the pharmacist. Cut his teeth on cold slow-churned ice cream and bitter syrup in Louisiana, held a light to Tennessee, worked his hands into the flesh of St Louis, scratched the back of Pennsylvania, New York, Canada, stitched his time through the skies of Iowa, built the bones of Indiana.

The doctor’s daughter took the sticky tar baby wings. Took the father feathers her siblings dropped. Walked aching feet 1000 miles over the Appalachians. Almost twice. Almost died. Searched for some meaning; from cows in Maine, deities in Boston, and a Black Panther’s bullet holes in California. Mother doctor made her feathers into a lei, sunk hands into Hawaiian sands, and buried broken wings into my back.

As a child, I’d wake up and stare at the white ceiling, thinking, “Is today the day?” I’d go stiff, hold my breath, wiggle my toes, press my fingers into my eyes until I saw stars, preparing myself for the universe. Then I’d leap out of bed hoping my feet wouldn’t touch the cold tile, waiting for the moment when my wings would flutter into life.

I tried because it happened once. In a dream. Standing beside the rusting, pale green sea buoy beached in our backyard. I touched its cool, round surface for reassurance. Rocked back on my feet, and hurtled forward, down the long stretch of the yard, aiming for the two short steps that lead to a white, unusable door that had been painted over in the landlord’s house. I leaped up the steps, turned abruptly, and launched myself up toward the opposing rooftop, feeling an upward pull. I awoke before I could crest the roof.

I had to be in flight. Had to be. A speck against a white sky.

If ever I yearned for rest, to lay my head in the supple dark crook of a Mississippi river’s elbow or dry out in the steam of buttered hot water cornbread, I knew. It was not my place to find healing. Not that kind, anyway. Waywardly, onwardly, longingly, I flew. Indiana, Oklahoma, Chicago, California…

I don’t want to fly these wings, a hapless bird riding the wake of some unseen god’s impatient exhale. Never free to carve clouds. Doctor wings beat desperately, but they are waxen molds, made by the men who stole the sun to hide our own life from us. Blinded, melting, we return. Again. Tragically plunge. Black, salt-water plumage, caged. Who will to play doctor this time? Lawyer? President?

I want to be a healer, not a doctor. I don’t want this flight–no more broken wings, broken promises, broken bodies. We are the weavers of unmade dreams. Sowers of knowledge, not intellect. Sewers of bodies, not flesh. Stitchers of place, not space. Unmaking the center because we have to make the whole from many. For many.

“The Number 1 Rule of Backpacking” – Finding Trust & POC Community Outdoors

A few weeks ago, I set off on another solo, Bay Area hiking adventure. This time, having recently rounded out my camping gear with a cook pot and a tent, I decided to make it into an overnight backpacking trip in Big


View from McAbee Outlook, Big Basin

Basin State Park (beta at the bottom of this post). I had a wonderful time hiking along 3 beautiful waterfalls, leaning intently into the sound of a wood thrush, even content to suit up in rain gear to bedevil the mosquitoes as I settled in with a cup of tea at camp. Everything seemed to go off without a hitch and I could sigh in sudden appreciation of my competency and the years of accumulated knowledge I had until then taken for granted. Naturally, after I returned, I posted a few pictures on Facebook, anticipating at least one comment about the risk I’d taken. Sure enough, someone replied, smugly, that the number one rule of camping was never to go alone. And yet…some of our best known American naturalists, like John Muir, spent days alone in the woods to write their musings on nature and spirituality. Note–they are mostly white guys. Why is that do you think…?

[As an interesting aside, Henry David Thoreau is commonly thought of as a solitary figure, alone with his thoughts on Walden Pond; he was in fact joined by a community of outcasts, many of them freed slaves or Irish immigrants.]


So what is it that people fear about being alone in the woods, especially when it comes to young women of color? I’ll admit, the idea of just being alone out there used to scare me, and not because I was afraid of psycho killers lurking in the bushes—that’s like being too afraid of a tsunami to go to the beach. Example: my dad once did a solo trip in Colorado when I was in high school and I remember being superficially happy for his excursion but quietly terrified that he would fall ill or off of a cliff and lie stranded for days without rescue. (And, in fact, he did get serious altitude sickness…but really, it’s all good, just keep reading.) Something changed after hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), my first long distance trail of 220 miles in the Sierra Mountain Range from Yosemite Valley to the Mt. Whitney summit. It didn’t challenge me physically so much as it did mentally and spiritually. Mainly, I learned how to trust–how to have faith in my body, mind, and the earth that held me. What’s more, the idea of true self-sufficiency is a dangerous fallacy, a myth of meritocracy that has merely facilitated the invisibilizaiton of white privilege. Can we learn to rest instead in the small but growing community of POC hikers, backpackers and climbers? Can we learn how to tell them “We trust and support you” rather than cling to the fear that kept us or forced us out of (so-called) wild spaces to begin with?


Chillin on the summit of Mt. Whitney, August 2016.

Trust: Building a New Personal and Community Structure

In yoga class a few weeks ago, our teacher reminded us that it’s much easier to have faith when we have structure. And that even when structure and order falls away, we have what remains of our practice–a sense of peace. There were indeed many times on the JMT when I felt panicky and full of apprehension, but at very odd moments. When we got lost and walked 8 extra miles the wrong way on the first day, I was ok—I trusted my instinct as we headed unexpectedly downhill that this wasn’t right, and trusted the godsend of an old lady who kindly directed us back the way we had come. When my dad got so sick just a few days later that we had to bail at Tuolumne Meadows, I was perfectly clear minded. I knew we had to get off the trail, I trusted that my dad was ok enough to get safely out of the woods, and was calm enough as we looked up bus routes, fetched nurses in Yosemite Valley, took a very long ambulance ride with a cranky medic, and waited in the ER for results. After that it really felt as if the worst had happened—all that was left was to finish the trail. The micro-structure, the plan for the trip, was shaken—my sense of direction wasn’t as clear as I had thought and our bodies were not as strong as I had hoped. So, when we returned to the trail and headed off along a fairly straightforward, N-S trail, for hours all I could think about was “Are we going the right way? What if this is a side trail and we have to backtrack? Then we’ll have to make up X miles tomorrow, or hike extra today in order to get our food on time. We should check the guidebook. Shouldn’t we have passed that landmark by now?” I’d have to catch myself, tell myself to breathe, and trust that we would be ok. Breathe. And Trust. This was my mantra for much of the latter half of the trip.


Paying attention to the subtle ways we are held and encouraged. i.e. love notes in a food drop package…

What I learned is that it is sometimes necessary to shift the structure of faith that I had build around myself. I had been resting on the fragile plan we had laid out for the our hike. Once I realized how easily that could be broken, I was able to see the larger structure that held us–practice, experience, and intergenerational knowledge.  This is what enabled me to plan well enough to be aware of how to handle emergency procedures, to feel confident in my ability to plan and ship our food, to purchase supplies. This solidification of trust in myself and larger community was huge, and would eventually be what allowed me to  go on my solo-backpacking mini-adventure without a doubt as to my abilities. In sharing these posts, I hope to transmit some of this knowledge–this structure–for other POC folks to build and sustain trust in ourselves, that which has been buried in our bones for generations beneath the sediments of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.


Real Talk – Race, Class and the Environment

Sexism and racism underpins the kind of doubt said anonymous commenter conveyed about my ability to camp alone for one night in a very well-populated park. In whom and what structures we choose to put our trust is very much determined by larger social structures that hinge on self-perpetuating inequalities. So why don’t we see more people of color and women leading outdoor excursions, making trips like mine the norm?

  1. Access to backcountry spaces requires extensive travel, money, and leisure time
    1. Rewind: backcountry spaces have been created and defined by white men who killed and exiled a lot of native people from “pristine wilderness”.
    2. Rewind some more: the entire idea of  and idealized “pristine wilderness” and even “nature” as distinct from the places we live is entirely constructed around both European Romanticism and capitalism, which required increasing concentration of the production of goods and poorly paid laborers to “urban” areas. This has resulted in our alienation from the natural resources from which our livelihoods and goods are derived. Sigh.
  2. The skills and equipment needed to essentially be homeless in the mountains (which is almost beyond comprehension many POC families that have struggled not to be seen as dirty, manual laborers or migrants) for extended periods of time is ridiculously expensive to obtain. It has taken me many years of saving, birthday gift cards, and research to acquire my own set of gear. Hence why I have been backpacking for nearly 15 years and only just recently went on my first solo trip.
  3. The fact that we rarely see POC women leading outdoor excursions and climbing mountains means that POC girls have very few role models they can identify with to inspire them to do anything of the kind.  Ergo: POC women are seen to not have the skills to survive alone in the wilderness and are therefore, not to be trusted with their own lives. [This assumption of course belies historical examples, like that of Harriet Tubman who took care of not only her own life in a much more hostile wilderness, but dozens of other escaping slaves under her guidance; as well as contemporary role models like National Park Ranger, Betty Soskin.]

Real talk #2 – Confronting my privilege

Confessions of a mixed kid: I have to say that having a white guy—with a beard to rival John Muir himself at that—as your dad really helps with all of this trusting yourself in the outdoors crap. True, my mom was also a total badass and, legend has it, was likely among the first black woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail in the 80s (that’s 2000 miles of walking, folks + the extra 1000 from when she did half of it again). But by the time I came around, she had hung up her hiking boots and was never again to be seen so much as hopping stones in a pond save tromping around the woods. Like Sasquatch, I have always hoped that I get a glimpse of the legendary figure in real life.


Rare sightings. Mom and Dad on the AT. And check out those chops…

[Also Sasquatch-like legendary figures: other black women on the JMT. I counted one, ONE, who only appeared at the very end of our trip. We shared a very large camp area for an afternoon. I was too excited and nervous after counting literally every POC I had seen up until that point to do anything but stare helplessly at her from upstream as I filtered water.]

Nevertheless, I’m lucky enough to have both parents as role models in my outdoor adventures, and my family as a support base. My dad introduced me to the birds and Chinese herbal flowers in the tropical mountains around his cottage home in Hawai’i. He took me on my first backpacking trip in the Appalachian Mountains when I was still young enough to need the accompaniment of not one, but TWO bulky, stuffed bears. We have since explored the bluffs, valleys and rivers of the Ozarks, Rockies and Sierras. And although we never hiked together, it was my mom who (surely not knowing what she was getting into) signed me up for my first rock climbing class in a tiny basement in downtown Chicago when I was just 13. Even my (black) grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, who don’t understand my desire to walk around in the dirt for weeks at a time or to tempt fate by climbing hundreds of feet up sheer rock faces, support me with the occasional REI gift card. Here are elements of racial privilege–being able to enter outdoor spaces with my dad’s whiteness as an all-access parks pass–as well as class privilege, which put my black family within the orbit of weird white pastimes like this as well as the means to support it if they chose to.


Pre-teen Kaily is not having none of this klan country, mosquitoes, or poison ivy (Ozark Mountains).

It is this rare combination of circumstances that puts me in a position of trusting my own black feet on the rock wall, in the sand, on the earth (but maybe, ok definitely not in Confederate-flag waving backcountry parts of places like the Ozarks, Arkansas).

Trusting the Community – The Black and Brown Beta

How we can hold and trust one another while holding white supremacist structures accountable–a list of just a few of the articles, books, videos, and organizations that have crossed my path over the years that are bringing POC and representation in natural spaces together:



Ashima Shiraishi & Kai Lightner: Two really strong youth climbers who are paving the way for the next generation of POC climbers.

The Beta (finally)

The last Bay Area public transit hike I did inspired me to continue this challenge of looking for the most accessible ways to get outside and hike. This trip was not made via public transportation, but thanks to car-sharing apps, it was pretty affordable. But, I learned my lesson—DWB with a burnt out tail-light and blazing down the freeway in the golf cart they call a SmartCar was probably the most stress-inducing part of this journey. Next time, I’ll take the bus.

Big Basin Redwood State Park – Berry Creek Trail Loop

Typically, this hike follows the well-known Skyline to Sea trail to reach Berry Creek Trail. Due to the rains we had this past winter, however, this section of the trail was washed out and closed. Fortunately, I hadn’t been planning to take Skyline to Sea and I was much happier for it. I planned my hike using the “Hiker’s Guide to Big Basin Redwoods State Park” which I have to say is pretty thorough if you’re looking for good hikes and intro level explanation about what to pack, how to plan, trail etiquette and other basic safety tips. (It’s actually way more thorough than I will be in this post, so go to that PDF if you want more backpacking 101 tips.)

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 5.02.49 PM.png

The trails I followed were: Big Basin HQ > Skyline-to-Sea Trail > Howard King Trail > McAbee Overlook > Howard King Trail > Berry Creek Falls > Sunset Trail > HQ (Based on #21 in the guide, but modified to exclude Twin Redwoods Camp)

Details: I made this approximately 12 mile loop into an overnight trip. If you start early enough, however, it’s very doable in a day.


  • Moderate grade. Despite many many signs that warned me about how strenuous this trail would be, I had to disagree. It’s a fairly gentle, gradual ascent to McAbee lookout. I will admit that the switchbacks down 1,000 feet into the next valley were pretty steep. Going down is ostensibly “easier” but try telling that to my thighs, which were sore for days—think 1000 tiny weighted lunges. The trail that ascends alongside the waterfalls is only about .75 miles long. There are a few “staircases” that suggest that it is fairly steep, but they’re very short. The trail back to headquarters was also very gentle.
  • McAbee lookout: View to the ocean.


    Banana Slug!

  • Waterfalls! Very worth going to see, even if it’s just a day hike.
  • Banana slugs appear in damp cool weather. They’re wacky looking creatures.
  • Redwoods. Always a treat.
  • Variety in landscape. It’s mostly dense understory, but there are a few times when you come around onto some sunny southern slopes and the environment is noticeably different–from eucalyptus and redwood forest to exposed slab and chaparral shrubs.

Things to be aware of:

  • If you’re doing this as a backpacking trip, make your reservations in advance. Backpacking trail-camps are reservable only by calling (831) 338-8861 between the hours of 9am – 5pm. Front country campsites may be reserved by phone or online .
  • Rules and Fees 
  • Mosquitoes. Yes. They swarm in the summer. Bring some form of repellant and/or rain gear/mosquito netting.
  • It’s cool at night–bring layers.
  • Despite what I said about the grade (above), it may be strenuous if you are a beginning backpacker.
  • The Hihn Hammond Road and Howard King Trail intersect quite a bit more than you can see on the map. Howard King is only marked as “TRAIL” and signs point toward a rather skinny path through the undergrowth. This is indeed Howard King if you choose to follow it. The road is much wider and well-traversed. Don’t worry too much if you find yourself on the road instead of the trail or vice versa as they both eventually put you at McAbee Overlook.
  • The end of Howard King Trail leaves you at a crossroads near Waddell Creek. This junction is also poorly signed. Turn NNE, right, until the trail crosses the creek. This is the Berry Creek Falls trail.
  • Sunset Camp is about .25-.5 miles from West Berry Creek, the nearest water source. Either fill up here before you go to camp, or do like I did, and set up at Sunset, grab your bottles, and make the short (but steep) walk back to the creek.

Similar loop + additional details about the trail

My Packing List:

  • Water filter (I use a pump, but any certifiable filtration system will suffice i.e. iodine tablets)
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat to protect against the sun
  • Bug spray
  • Handkerchiefs
  • Enough food for lunch, snacks, dinner and breakfast in a bear canister (These can be rented at places like Sports Basement)
    • Snacks: trail mix
    • Lunch: salami, cheese, crackers
    • Dinner: TastyBite, or 5 min rice and freeze dried beans, or a backpacking freeze-dried dinner, or something else (see that hiker’s guide above for other suggestions).
    • Breakfast: Oatmeal and instant coffee
  • Camp stove + fuel
  • 1 liter water bottle + 2 liter bladder (or another 2 liter water bottle)
  • Mug
  • Spork
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Tent
  • Pocket knife
  • Headlamp
  • TP & hand sanitizer
  • Trowel (for digging cat holes when outhouses are not available)
  • Warm, clean camp clothes
  • Camp shoes (sandals)
  • Change of hiking clothes & socks
  • Toiletries (the bare essentials)
  • Warm hat/beanie
  • Warm layers or down coat for the evening
  • Rain gear
  • Hiking boots (although some prefer to hike in trail runners)
  • Cook pot
  • First aid kit (include bandaids, Neosporin, Ace bandage wrap, and blister care)


    The first waterfall you see coming from the bottom of Berry Falls Creek Trail

BART-Diablo Foothills Regional Park-Summit Trail


View from near Summit Trail, Mt. Diablo State Park

This week marks my first spring break experience as a graduate student. Initially, I thought that any “break” in grad school was really just a euphemism for “no class, so more time to get more work done.” I was surprised, however, to find that many of my peers (at least those who weren’t in the field or writing up their dissertations) took the break somewhat seriously. I received What’s App text pictures of their bicycle excursions abroad and hikes along gorgeous vistas from various state parks.

I had received offers to drive to the Sierras or to hike the Lost Coast trail with friends, but lately, I’d been itching for an experience of solitude and independent reflection on a backpacking or hiking trip. The only problem is that I don’t have a car, and so have always relied on friends with vehicles to get me to the trailhead or crag.

How can I live less than a 20 minute drive from high ridge walks and deep redwood forest groves yet feel totally stranded in the middle of my urban surroundings? What do I have to do to get myself and a backpack to a regional park and/or a campground sans private transportation (or a fancy lightweight bike)? To find out, I did what any good grad student would: research.

I came across this Bay Nature article from 2009 about taking BART to a campsite in Mt. Diablo State Park. The author, Ryan Branciforte, provides some great highlights about the trip, but details are sorely lacking. Frustrated, I looked for PDF maps, went on a wild goose chase through UC Berkeley libraries for an equally unhelpful East Bay park guide, and finally resorted to Google maps walking directions (arguably, and surprisingly, the best and most accurate method).

The fact that parks and wild spaces are difficult to access—physically and in terms of accurate information—is no accident. Environmental conservation has a long, ugly history of associated racism and continues to exclude people of color to this day (see: Black Faces, White Spaces by Carolyn Finney, “Woman of Color in Wide Open Spaces“; see also Outdoor Afro for positive examples of how to form POC community in outdoor spaces). But, more on this later…

I’ve been asked for the “beta” on how I put together my version of the hike that Branciforte sketched in his article. So here goes (for the quick directions, skip to the bottom of this post; if you’re into the semi-naturalist narrative, read on):


I head out at 8AM on what promises to be a beautiful spring day—sunshine and 70 degrees. Still, I come prepared: 2 warm layers and a rain shell, 90+ SPF (light-skinned tradeoffs…), a liter of water, a headlamp, Swiss army knife, hat, sunglasses, my useless East Bay regional park guide, and a lunch of tuna fish, mandarin oranges, and a nut bar. I stop by the store for some crackers (Dr. Kracker—tastes a bit like cardboard, but is a good, sturdy, calorie-packed option for longer backpacking trips), an avocado, a ProBar, and cheese. A woman behind me in the checkout line is purchasing a few bottles of water and I fleetingly think about getting some myself. By the end of the day, when I’m parched and thinking about nothing but an icy Gatorade, I’d be kicking myself for buying a messy, unripe rock of an avocado and passing up the opportunity to bring more water.


Around 8:20, I get on the Pittsburg/Bay Point BART to the Walnut Creek station. I had been
planning to walk from BART to the trailhead at Howe Homestead Park, which Branciforte describes as a “short stroll through a residential area.” I check Google maps for the route only to discover that the “short stroll” was still a 1.5 mile walk, which would add 3 miles to my hike, round trip. Edging on 9AM and knowing I have many miles ahead of me that day, I decide to cut out the half hour of urban hiking and take a Lyft line instead (one stocked with candy and bottles of water which, again, I neglected to take). This time, I took the quick and dirty shortcut. In the future, however, I would bring my bike on the BART and ride to the park. There is a community center just around the corner from where I started that likely has bicycle racks.


Howe Homestead Park to Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail:

The hike begins on Kovar Trail. Starting from the small parking lot for the park, take the gravel trail up into a neighborhood park. At the first fork you hit less than .10 miles into the walk, head left. If you need a bathroom or water before your hike though, take the right fork. The trail leads past some community gardens before heading uphill and east, scuttling very close to backyard fences. After traversing up the hill for a few tenths of a mile, the trail crests a shallow saddle. The trail to the right is the Summit Ridge Trail. To continue on Kovar, follow the middle trail that dips down to the other side of the hill (the trail to the left appears to just go to a view point).

Summit Ridge Trail

I took the Summit Ridge to get some early morning views. While this trail does connect back to Kovar, a word of caution: the end of this trail is pretty sketchy—a very steep, rocky and narrow descent. At about .7 miles, you’ll reach another parking area and trailhead. There is a water fountain here. Drink some water and re-fill here—there is no water on the trail and much of the hike is very exposed.

I was grateful that there is pretty good signage and outposts with maps along the way. After looking at the map (and missing my opportunity to get water), I take Fossil Hill Loop Trail northeast. Stay left at the fork that appears and head down hill toward Bramhall pond. Keep going north (uphill) for another .1 miles to get to Briones to Mt. Diablo Regional Trail. Head east (right) on this trail and chill in the Shell Ridge Open Space portion of the hike, knowing that you have about 4 more miles of coasting along the same trail. You’ll encounter a number of trails heading north and south but each fork is marked with a trail post. Follow the signs for Briones-Mt. Diablo trail, which generally keeps E/NE.


Bramhall Pond

Briones-Mt. Diablo to Wall Point Road


Green understory near Indian Creek

Typically, this would be a walk through golden hills. Because of the drought-ending downpour we had this winter, however, my walk was remarkably and brilliantly green. I enjoyed dipping occasionally into low ravines near Indian Creek and catching glimpses of the sun filtering through early spring leaves and a tall grasses (these were also the only areas where I would have liked bug spray). Near Willow Spring pond, the landscape gets marshy and grasses grow to chest height. Perched among the cattails, I saw and heard the abrasive call of many red-winged blackbirds.

After veering up hill and passing under some electric lines, I reach another map station that details the trail to Borges Ranch. This also marks the beginning of about a 1.5-2 mile stretch to cattle grazing territory and the journey out of Foothills Regional Park. At this point, I had been hiking for about 1 hour, 15 min and was just starting to feel my feet and some stomach rumblings. I decided to push through the cattle gate and keep going to look for a rest spot, not realizing that grazing country is the last place you really want to stop for a break. This was my least favorite part of the hike. Tree cover drops to almost none, I was constantly hopping over muddy patches and cow pies, and the trail was so uneven after being cut up by cow’s hoofs that I had to watch my feet to make sure I didn’t roll my ankle on a clod of dirt. Most uncomfortable, though, was confronting the cows themselves. Although they were pretty quick to move out of my path, their skittish energy had something of a ripple effect across the entire field. Herds of cows within a half-mile radius would all pause in their grazing to watch me. Maybe this makes me sound like a big chicken, but there’s something incredibly eerie about being alone in a field of dozens of 1-ton pound creatures that are all silently watching you with attentive, intelligent eyes. (I swear they knew that I’d eaten steak the night before. Needless to say, I skipped my usual post-hike burger that night.)

Three screechy cattle gates later, 5 miles from where I started, and officially in Mt. Diablo State Park, I reach the loveliest stretch of fields and rolling hills yet. At first, I thought I was standing next to another power line, until I realized that the steady buzzing I heard around me was the sound of bees pollinating the spring flowers, with crickets intermittently chiming in as well. Besides being quite hungry, what stopped me in my tracks here was the unmistakable sound of wood thrush song (in this case, I believe it was the Swainson Thrush). This is, without a doubt, my favorite sound on the planet. Whether I hear it in the quiet depths of a redwood grove or an open meadow like this, wood thrush song has an echoing, warbling quality to it that makes it seem quite ethereal. I head off the trail toward a large, shady oak tree to lunch and watch the nuthatches defy gravity, hanging upside down on tree branches. Although clearly buzzing with insect life, I was surprised to find that this meadow spot was not buggy. From my perch under the trees, I was also able to observe the curious rock formation called China Wall; it looks as if a dragon’s tail is poking up through the earth’s surface. It forms a perfect gateway for the Summit Ranch trail heading south.


View of China Wall from my lunch spot

After a leisurely lunch, I continue along Briones-Mt Diablo Trail for a little less than a mile when I hit the junction with Wall Point Rd. Now being officially in Mt. Diablo State Park, the signage improves, detailing the mileage to the next major junctions. I take the left fork for Wall Point Rd. to Summit Trail for the next 3.8 miles.

Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail



After passing through yet another cattle gate, the landscape changes markedly from grassy hills to chaparral and manzanita dotted scrub. The path widens and I pass many more mountain bikers. The slopes get steeper, beginning the foothill climb up the back of Mt. Diablo. By now, it’s high noon in the heat of the day, I’ve realized that I don’t have enough water, and it’s several tenths of a mile between shady spots. However, the views only get better, and I stop to turn to watch the receding skyline of Walnut Creek and the intense green hills (and disgustingly huge mansions) of Diablo and Danville to the south.

In a shady, poison-oak filled hollow and .8 miles from Summit Trail is a fork with Secret Trail toward BBQ Terrace Road. Had I been going to do an overnight trip, I believe I would have taken this fork. BBQ Terrace Road ends, on the map at a few campgrounds, including Wildcat tent campground.

I march onward until the next junction some .3 miles later, where I had the option to take a ridge trail for .3 miles to meet up with Summit Trail, or continue for .55 miles along Wall Point Rd. Since I wasn’t summiting Diablo that day, I decide to take the tiny dirt trail up the spine of a grassy, windy hill. It is incredibly steep and I pause frequently to breathe and look around at the view. Pushing up and around a slight bend in the trail, I catch the barest glimpse of the snow-capped Sierras to the east before plunging down to meet South Gate Road and the Summit Trail. At this point, it’s almost 2 PM and I need to head back if I want to make it home before 7. If you choose to summit Mt. Diablo, take Summit Trail another few miles to the top and let me know how it is!

Instead of going back up the ridge trail, I follow Summit Trail, taking a trail marked “Staircase Trail” to get back to Wall Point Road. This is probably ill advised, since it was quite steep and I had to do some brush-whacking at the end. If you do this though, when you reach the



wide road at the junction, go right. This is Wall Point Road.

Keep walking and take these directions in reverse to get back to Howe Homestead Park. The wildlife highlight of my trip was right at the very end when I made it back to the parking lot at the community center. I was compelled to cut off the trail early when I heard the gobbling giggles of a huge rafter of turkey toms. They were fluffed up and preening, trying to attract the attention of some very unimpressed looking hens.


The Hike:

Meadow and hill-walking, gentle ascent through Diablo Foothills Regional Park in Walnut Creek to Mt. Diablo State Park. This is an 18-mile round trip hike that can be modified as an overnight trip or cut short. Regardless, an early start is advised.

What to Bring:


Do: Bring hat and sunglasses                                                 Don’t: Forget extra water

  • Hat & sunglasses
  • At least 2 liters of water per person
  • Electrolyte tabs
  • Bug spray
  • Sunscreen
  • Extra layers
  • Snacks and lunch
  • Maps/charged smartphone (there is service along most of the trail)

Transit Highlights:

  • Take BART Pittsburg/Bay Point to Walnut Creek
  • Walk, bike or Lyft to Howe Homestead Park
  • (See above image for route)

Howe Homestead Park to Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail:

  • Take Kovar Trail, keeping north through the city park
  • At hill crest:
    • The trail to the right is the Summit Ridge Trail
    • To continue on Kovar, follow the middle trail that dips down to the other side of the hill
    • The trail to the left appears to go to a view point
  • At about .7 miles, you’ll reach another parking area and trailhead.
  • Take Fossil Hill Loop Trail northeast, staying left at first fork
  • Pass Bramhall pond, walking North to the junction with Briones-Mt. Diablo Trail

Briones-Mt. Diablo to Wall Point Road:

  • Follow signs to continue along Briones-Mt. Diablo trail for approximately 4 more miles
  • Pass through 4 cattle gates
  • Pass by Devils’ Spine rock formation
  • Reach Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail junction

Wall Point Rd to Summit Trail:

  • Go North/left at the junction, following trail posts for “Wall Point Rd. to Summit Trail” for about 3 miles
  • At the 3.2 mile mark, you will have the option to take a small, quite steep ridge trail with stunning views that is .3 miles from the next junction with Summit Trail or continue along Wall Point Rd for another .5 miles.

Overnight Option:

[I did not take these trails, so these are my recommendations based on maps and articles]

  • At the 3-mile mark, there is a junction for Secret Trail to BBQ Terrace Road. Take this trail to meet with BBQ Terrace, where you will go East/left toward the campgrounds.

Other hikes and info:


Responding to Fear: Reflections on Love & Inequality in the Midst of Turmoil

I woke up on Wednesday morning, November 9, 2016. Eight years of seeing someone who looked like me, someone who represented my values and background, in the White House made me forget that Obama was only ever an exception to the rule. That morning, I awakened after a sleepy doze to the reality of a country that is not only mired in the structures of inequality, but still expresses stark racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia.

For a moment, my whole liberal elite community woke up, too. More frightening than the hideous character now occupying the highest position of power, however, was how quickly this community reached to pull the covers up over their eyes again and pretend as if this nightmarish reality could be logically explained away, and smoothed over by extending an olive branch. On Facebook, I watched the posts roll in: What is this “really” about? What pain must blue-collar white communities be suffering to vote for such a bigot? How can we extend love in this moment?

Admittedly, I, too, felt the impulse to go back to sleep and pretend like disembodied political and economic reasons could be enough to explain the election results. To respond with love, however, requires that we open our eyes and hearts to the totality of what has happened: that Trump was elected not only as an individual who represents hateful values, but precisely because of those deeply embedded values. To mobilize love as a revolutionary force, we must come back to the body—a body that, if brown, female, queer, or undocumented, is at risk. To act compassionately, we must look to and become warriors who confront hate, greed and delusion with understanding, critical consciousness, and resilience.

I first want to respond to this idea that the election results must be about something “other” or more “real” than racism through the lens of revolutionary love. I think that love is being able to look at the truth of this situation and embrace every part of it, including that this election was every bit about race, gender, sexuality and nationality as it was about the economy–and that these are inextricable. The neoliberal, capitalist economic motivations for this decision are certainly important considerations. But focusing on these causes and not validating the ways that intersecting issues of injustice are integral to this decision exacerbates a harmful, colorblind liberal rhetoric.

We do not need to call Trump supporters racists to be cognizant of how this decision has been made possible by racist paradigms. Consider, for a moment, that the country was founded at a time when global markets were being mobilized to capture new labor and natural resource frontiers for capitalist accumulation. White agriculturists of the South and industrialists of the North all benefitted from the same exploitation of cheap or enslaved immigrant black and brown bodies, and they worked to create a democracy that served interests of Northern and Southern capitalists radicalized as white. Indeed, the very reason that Washington D.C. is where it is was so that George Washington could govern and oversee his plantation without the hassle of making the trip from Virginia to Philadelphia every week. What’s more, our very Electoral College system was established to ensure that slave-owning states had a voice, sparsely populated as they were by white, voting men.

In sum, the white communities being discussed in this election are the beneficiaries of a political-economic system that was built on the backs of black and brown bodies, built on the destruction of native communities, and built to serve the interests of the heterosexual nuclear family. To suddenly ignore Trump’s dog whistles and outright bigotry around race and nationality, and to try to explain the situation as something “more complex” than intersectional issues of injustice means that it is also okay to ignore the demands of marginalized communities—demands that illuminate the ways that immigrant, Latinx, Muslim, Native, black, queer, disabled, and female bodies are systemically predisposed to a lower quality of life and the shorter end of the economic policy stick. To uncritically uphold the narrative about this country as free, just, and unprejudiced is, perhaps, more dangerous and violent than Trump’s contemptuousness, because it appeals to a bootstraps national rhetoric that idealizes individual success, shames the poor by insisting that it is their fault that their lives are in shambles, and deflects blame away from entrenched capitalistic powers and onto non-white and immigrant communities.

So how do we demonstrate love while still pursuing justice? Exhausted by these events, many are losing hope and are tempted to focus instead on ideals of peace and unity. But the process of arriving at those states involves intense struggle. Martin Luther King Jr. too had a dream of harmony. But that did not mean accepting his oppressor’s terms of violent cohabitation, guised as unity. Rather, he fought relentlessly, without brutality and with incredible love, honesty and compassion to arrive at a state of unity that was not blind to justice for black communities and the most vulnerable. In today’s fight, we need not immediately search for a middle ground—because that is to concede to the terms hate, greed and fear. We must instead become warriors of love by fighting for the disenfranchised.

I think of two exemplary women who exhibit what I mean by “warriors.” Alice Walker tells a story about her quiet, but fierce contribution to the civil rights movement. She was living in the South at the time, registering black people to vote. What’s more, she was one of the few black people in her neighborhood and resided there with her white, Jewish husband. When she and her family were horrifically threatened and harassed, instead of moving or retaliating she stood her ground. Instead of spitting vitriol at her tormentors or begging for unity, she defended her family and went on with her work, saying simply, “These white people just don’t know no better.”

Mildred Loving shares a similar story. Mildred, a black woman, was forced from the bed she shared with her white husband in Caroline County, Virginia, and eventually, in 1958, was compelled to leave the state for Washington, D.C. But within 5 years, she returned to face the courts in Virginia and fight for her right to raise her family with whomever and wherever she wanted to be. She did not give in to laws of hate.

Love for these women meant recognizing ignorance, not falling prey to it, and facing it head on. They saw the ways that hate and fear twisted their communities, but did not try to appease it. They embraced those who did not welcome them as their neighbors, who acted out of fear and misunderstanding, and were unrelenting in their mission for justice. They held fast to love, to their families, and did their work.

To those searching for compassion–yes, reach out to your neighbors, your Facebook friends, with the understanding that they are grappling with the everyday demons of fear, delusion, and anger. But let us not drop systemic inequality from our critique. We cannot afford to ignore the role of racism in this election outcome by masking it with incomplete stories about the ways that white communities have been economically or politically “left behind.” The pain we are all suffering is really about confronting a national narrative based on a legacy of oppression. The work toward justice is uncomfortable and exhausting, but love calls on us to be brave. Love is calling us to awaken—to the truth, to the pain, and above all, to one another.

Boundaries and Boundlessness

I started writing this during the summer of 2015 and I never posted it because it just didn’t feel complete or quite right. Since then, I’ve spent the last 10 months working learning what my own boundaries are and the creative challenges I need to grow. Ironically,  I think that this piece is a bit sprawling and not yet complete, an idea which has been holding me back. I’m challenging myself here to put my words out there even if I don’t think it’s perfect. So, to be continued…?

“We don’t shape the world…the world shapes us.” –Toni Morrison, A Mercy

Redwoods, older than any of the cities I’ve ever lived in, spiral in tall, broad circles above me. I crane my neck, trying to ascertain just how high they stretch, but my head is stopped by the bulk of my pack behind me. Frustrated by this inconvenience, I twist my neck to the side and lean backwards until I nearly topple over. My dad flutters his hand constantly over the visor of his baseball cap that blocks his view, himself craning to get a look at the giants around us. We both laugh at the compromise of our situation. Here we are, 7 miles in from the winding camp road we left yesterday, deep in the heart of one of the oldest redwood groves in California for the express purpose of experiencing its grandeur—and yet we are incapable of fully taking in the breadth of our surroundings.

What we can absorb of this place is pure awe. The woods that spread above and around us seem boundless and wild. There is a sense of deep mystery here—in the way that the light is filtered through motes of ancient dust and springy evergreen, the way that it shuffles through the lush carpet of sorrel underfoot, the burble of a creek echoed somewhere miles away by the warble of a wood thrush. It’s easy to feel the sublimity of the moment here, to feel so small and unimportant in the midst of such….Such what?

Freedom is the word that comes to mind, but I pause here to consider the burden and the fallacy of that word.

Freedom in this country is invariably tied to the myth of the American Dream—it brings up some passed down story of so-and-so’s great great grandfather who came from nothing and worked hard to become somebody. It is both a legend and a cautionary tale. Legend in its frail fictionality, cautionary tale because it presumes that it was freedom that inspired so and so to follow his dreams. But was Anne Pierce, my great great grandmother who, as story goes, grew up in slavery but was the first in our family to go to college, really free? On the contrary, most would argue that she was hemmed in by significant limitations, which may have actually encouraged her to strive for something better for herself and her family. We pass on these dreams of freedom and then become disappointed when we look around and see our kin so privileged with choice that they don’t know where to turn or what to do with their time. We, like all living creatures—even redwoods—need a structure to live within to make sense of this otherwise purposeless and amorphous existence of ours. Says Stephen Nachmanovotch in the book Free Play, we need those limitations in order to truly take advantage of our own creativity. In writing about art and form, he states:

“Working within the limits of the medium forces us to change our own limits. Improvisation is not breaking with forms and limitations just to be “free,” but using them as the very means of transcending ourselves. If form is mechanically applied, it may indeed result in work that is conventional, if not pedantic or stupid. But form used well can become the very vehicle of freedom, of discovering the creative surprises that liberate the mind-at-play.” (84)

But herein I’d like to draw the line between constructive limits and imposed limitations.

The limits that we set ourselves are the boundless trajectories of our dreams. But then there are those boundaries that we do not cross—places that we do not look and actively avoid: The eyes of a homeless person on the street because we’re too afraid not of their desperation, but our own callous shame reflected there. The neighborhood just west of the freeway, where we fear the broken glass and, more so, the people we have broken and whom we have confined there, in schools or behind bars. These are the limitations born of minds as they reference our pigmentation, gonads and economic status. These are the limitations that my great grandmother dared to cross when surely people spit at her face for keeping her head high. What she gave me was the opportunity to set my own boundaries instead of being roped in by others; she has handed me the ropes that held her own mother to a whipping post and told me to make something better of it.

Dare I ensnare someone else in this noose? Out of fear of losing the ground we have apparently gained, this is many a reaction. And we have paid the consequences for doing so.

While we think that we have the power to shape our lives, this world, the environment, we are, in many ways, limited by what the world presents to us. The way in which we use this limited space determines our creativity—limitations that prevent us from taking up this paintbrush are injustices imposed upon us by a grasping people. This grasping is a fixture of the human element. Because how often it happens that in the sublime of creation and our struggle for a sense of self-importance, we look out across something that we feel we may become lost to and, instead of embracing wholeness, we try to grab hold of something and control it, claim it, own some small piece of it.

I want to emphasize. There are natural limitations within which we must all live & without which we cannot thrive. I am a tutor at a Sylvan Learning Center, meaning that I teach English lessons to students from 1st to 12th grade. I’ve noticed that right around middle school, kids begin to grapple with their own power, as well as their own impermanence. They begin to test the limits of what they know and push the boundaries their parents have set for them. Grappling with the realization of their own mortality and ability to manipulate their own life can lead to some very deep and occasionally dark conversations with these students.

During a lesson on personification with one such student, an example that came up said: “the sun sleeps…” I explained how, because the sun cannot actually sleep like people can, that this is a way of using personification to create an image. The student looked at me, a look of gleeful defiance glinting in her eye, as she said “but the sun could sleep.” Despite myself, I ask her how such a thing would be possible. “Well, the sun could just never rise. Or it could explode…” “True…” I said cautiously. “But then we would all die. If the sun never rose on one side of the planet, it would get very hot on one side, and very cold on the other. And if the sun died, we wouldn’t have an energy source any more.” “But what if the planet stopped…” The “what ifs” continued and I patiently explained the very precarious balance that we are in. Even the slightest changes affect our climate, our food, our energy, and our basic survival. The limitations in place are the only ones, to our knowledge, within which we can live.

What exists on our planet is all that has ever existed since the Big Bang and it has sustained us graciously ever since. The delicate balance in which the materials hang is an energy that hums fervently in the background; most times, we do not take the time to listen. But in those still spaces between thoughtless chatter, between the cogs of capital lurching mindlessly across the planet, between the explosions of fear and greed that we launch at our neighbors, is that hum, a siren song that tells us that division does not exist. While constraint is a necessary feature of the landscape, division is the creation of the human mind. It is the one that says that “I” am different from “you,” that “we” are different from “them” and that humans are different from the soil we’re buried in.

In Lauret Savoy’s recollections of the land and stories of its inscribed boundaries, she understands the fallacy of absolute freedom within the strictures of American life. She states in her book Trace, “As a young adult I felt little integrity or wholeness of living because so much of my acquired knowledge came from inculcated divisions. Only slowly did I come to see that I would remain complicit in my own diminishment unless I stepped out of the separate trap: me from you, us from them, brown skin from depigmented skin, relations among people from relations with the land.” (43)

We must cross invisible borders to know what boundaries serve us and which have been created out of fear or greed. In the borderland, we seek the ether where new lines may be drawn in ever shifting sand.


The Great Divide: Howard Street

I consider this part 1 of a piece that goes into more detail about my mixed geographic and racial identity and the connections I am seeking to make between that and the process of gentrification. I wrote this in August of last year (2014) as a spur of the moment piece of reflective prose not meant to be shared; however, I find many parallels between this experience in my neighborhood in Chicago/Evanston and my new home in Oakland that I would like to explore here. 

I step out from the cool shade into the heat on Howard. The wet, smoky smell of barbeque wafts from somewhere and keeps me company as I walk the familiar, gum stained concrete. Someone’s building something out of plywood in the lot that’s stood empty for years on Callan. Two people stand in the heat and watch, shading their eyes, a look of consternation pinching their brows. I walk on to see that the storefront building that shelters the lot now houses large, wide glass windows. They protect high oak stools, dark turquoise paint, plush re-upholstered couches with gold buttons for finish and a gleaming bar laden with high quality whiskeys and vodka. The whites of the barman’s eyes follow me as he wipes glasses behind a chic unfinished wood paneled bar. Two white men in crisp button downs sit just past him, their belt buckles shining in the sun that catches them through those cool deep windows. The Peckish Pig. Flyers paper the glass here, announcing the opening of their new patio—come celebrate with cocktails and a $75 four course meal. The woman’s pinched face from the unfinished patio comes back to me, and I realize that it now mirrors mine.

I reach the end of the block, looking for 701. How long have I lived here and yet the corner store that faces me, while familiar, seems foreign to me. Matte blue, sun bleached paste announces their various services but it’s tackier than the aquamarine, velvety air conditioned turquoise at The Peckish Pig. I pass it. Pause. Return. It is indeed 701. I thought I was picking up a package? I hesitate another moment at the door before pushing it open. My stride catches as I look around. High ceilings make the long room look emptier over the low, dingy shelves. To my right, it appears that the stuff that crowds the shelves tapered out where the rows neared the wall. It’s dark, hung with a few dusty, cobwebbed kids backpacks. Boxes crowd the floor beneath before disappearing into darkness at the back of the store. Two people are waiting patiently at the counter as the store owner, a dark South Indian-looking man, rolls a mellifluous language out of his mustached mouth like dice into an old cell phone. I catch a few words here and there, curving Sanskrit pieces like “achaar” and “pagal”. Maybe I’m only hearing what I want to hear though, since the store reminds, with a settling comfort, of the Nepali grocery stores I visited after school while abroad: stark, but stocked with snacks and oddball necessities. The young black boy in front of me has a pile of small candies spread out on the counter and he looks around aimlessly as he waits for Mr. Mouth to finish talking. Except for the stirring of a dark green, steel ceiling fan, the place is still and dim. The sense of hurry that followed me in the sun outside seems to have faded away, time slowing to a crawl. When he finally finishes his conversation, he scoops the candies into a plastic bag and hands them to the boy, who quickly dashes out the door. I didn’t see an exchange of money, no ring of a cash register, no receipt. Someone bustles in behind me, looking to buy some mints from the front, so I move in closer behind the second black man. The store owner moves swiftly over to the man, who hands him a bill, though again, I didn’t see the transaction, and requests a $5 bingo card. Mr. Mustache pulls a sheet from a roll hung behind the counter and hands it to him. He leaves. It’s my turn. I want to know if they pick up packages here. I can see the haphazard pile lying on the floor behind him, but I’m still skeptical. Afterall, who picks up their mail from a corner grocery? He mutters a confirmation and asks to see my ID, pulling out a plain notebook with what looked like 20 names written in a neat hand. I can see my name written there, his finger tracing down the list stopping at Heitz. Somewhere along the way, the other black man who came in behind me has handed Mr. Mumbler some money and walked out of the store. Again no receipt. No questions. Barely a word said. Just in and out. Mr. Magic Money shuffles through the packages on the floor, picking up a few and letting the contents roll around in an ominous sounding way. Dissatisfied, he walks back to the dusty, dim part of the store and brings out a box larger than those behind the desk. That’s the one. He pulls it behind him to his station. Someone else has walked in, another young black boy. He’s placed a frosty glass of Coca-cola and a candy bar on the counter. This time I see 3 bills pushed into Mr. Melliflous’s hand as I sign off for the package before the boy dashes out.

On my way back, I decide to take Howard street again to see what else I have missed. As I trundle awkwardly along the sidewalk with my oversized box, I see a young white woman dressed in a gray tank and black jeans clomp down the other side of the road past Popeye’s Chicken, past the hock shop, past the police cameras, past Buffalo Joe’s…. I glance at her before staring openly, my head turning to follow her part way down the street, just like the whites of the barman’s keen eyes. She’s around my age, dressed in a tastefully grunge sort of way, dyed blonde hair and headphones. I gawp. I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen someone who would look more at home in Wicker Park on Howard. Yet in her presence, I find a kinship, a certain recognition that I haven’t felt since I was a little girl playing double-dutch with the neighbor girls in the park around the corner, their braided, spangled hair clacking as we jumped….and yet with this stranger, from across the asphalt river dividing Chicago from Evanston, I trade pawn for pawn, black skinny jean white girl for flowing skirt Chaco’s sandals mixed girl. Touche. I turn away, shame on my brown, freckled cheeks and I spy another cavernous new oak paneled bar next to the Evanston Police Department on my side of the street.

I reach the shaded streets of Callan again, the shouts of children and their equally noisy parents replacing the rumble of busses, and wailing sirens of Howard Street. Reggae greets me, still beating from a seemingly endless source deep in the block. I look with a sad smile as a naked, brown skinned and fuzzy headed baby, clad only in a pair of diapers and socks runs into the middle of the empty street, holding his shoes. Euphoric. In his sudden escape, he grins at me with full shining wonder. Planes roar overhead, birds chirp. And a woman shouts from a parked car to grab him and a young man follows after the baby and scoops him up, an annoyed look on his face. The baby cries in glee, lifted in a gruff and short-lived ride. Leaves shush in a gentle sway, brushing unkempt curls across my face and tracing the deepening sadness in my smile as I watch the young man trying to shove the baby at the woman through the car window. His stockinged feet catch the steering wheel at an odd angle. I’ve seen enough, and so turn away from hungry pigs and ravenous time. The gates to my apartment are close.

Wake Up! On Anger, Understanding, and Justice


I had joined the protest where it had gathered in Daley Plaza, melting wordlessly into the crowd. As it surged forward and we chanted variations on “Black Lives Matter,” someone handed me a flimsy cardboard sign with the now famous hash tag inked into it, a surrogate for anyone who anyone in the protest who lacked a prop. It was a simple gesture, honestly less an act of kindness than exasperation that this person had to hold an extra sign. But it allowed me to feel tangibly connected to a movement that I could previously only relate to through the artificial plasma of computer and television screens. I felt a warmth begin to spread in my chest. I closed my eyes for as long as I felt sure that I wasn’t about to run into something and let this feeling radiate and move with the rhythm of our march. People on the news had talked about anger and senseless violence. But this feeling, this gathering, wasn’t fueled by unchecked anger; rather it was one revolution past anger toward a kind of compassionate sadness and understanding. People both afflicted and untouched by structural violence and oppression could feel the pain of this incident—of this history—and were crying out together. It touched within me a space that I consider sacred and, most importantly, awake.


I cannot speak for the thousands who partook in the various nationwide protests that have erupted since the unjustified deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. However, I think that this collective outpouring of emotion—grief, fear, and yes, anger—has been incredibly eye opening for both participants and onlookers because it is honest. It is an awakening both political and spiritual because we are looking not only at the issues that cause this pain, but at the pain itself.

So often, people of color are not validated in their pain. We begin to doubt our own judgment—did that white man really just see my skin mistake me for the maid, or was he just making a passing comment about how I, like any other unfamiliar face, might have been the maid? Instead of analyzing the situation or allowing the indignant anger to show itself, we bury those feelings deep and smile to shield ourselves from their anti-racist pleas and accusations. This becomes oppressively normal.

In her book The Black Notebooks, Toi Derricotte covers twenty years of her painstaking process to uncover the deep emotional scars, traumas and pains that stand as the emotional byproducts of centuries of racialized psychological repression. In her search for this truth, she discusses the necessity of interrogating our own anger and emotional responses instead of repressing them:

 I want to talk about anger, about how important it is as a part of the process of coming to one’s voice, about how it is inevitable in a diverse classroom. I want to talk about how powerful it is, how dangerous it is, how mysterious, about how suddenly real feelings start to emerge. If we don’t recognize anger, if we don’t allow for it, if we’re not ready, if we don’t, in fact, welcome it as a creative force, then I think we’re going to end up blaming and dividing people even more. …

At the same time that we move toward clarity about our differences, it is also possible to move toward clarity about what makes us human, the same. (p. 125)

Our awareness of our emotional responses to issues on injustice is important to understanding the root of our anger and how to overcome those systematic obstacles that block our way to wellbeing. Without recognizing it, without letting it out in a safe space, anger sizzles beneath the surface and becomes the underlying vitriol in our words, the negativity in our perspective, the defensiveness in our relationships. We’ve carried this pain around with us for so long that we don’t even know it’s there; yet it’s why we feel so tired, disconnected, and misunderstood. Unexamined, this pain becomes us.

What Derricotte discusses here in awakening to our feelings is also a fundamental tenet of meditation practice. When we become aware of our feelings of pain, anxiety, grief, or anger, we begin to recognize how to use this emotion, rather than allowing it to use and define us. Derricotte and Buddhist monk, Thich Naht Hahn write that these emotions are, indeed, destructive when left unexamined. But to analyze this energy is to begin to transform a destructive force into a constructive one. Says Hahn in Being Peace, “When we get angry, we have to produce awareness: ‘I am angry. Anger is in me. I am anger.’ That is the first thing to do…we have to convert anger into some kind of energy that is more constructive, because anger is you.” (p. 47)

Upon recognizing anger and how it motivates our actions—indeed our very selves—we can convert this energy into constructive forces by understanding the root of that anger. Thich Naht Hahn and other Buddhist texts state that in order to let go of anger (and have it release us), we need to be able to understand that which our anger is directed. This doesn’t just mean knowing basic intellectual facts about that thing or person, but truly becoming one with it. By putting ourselves in another’s shoes, we recognize the motives of another’s actions and we have little reason to be angry anymore. By practicing compassionate understanding, we can convert this negative energy into powers for love and constructive healing.

However, our anger is an old one, directed not toward white people exactly, but whiteness, and the power that it represents. The unjust construction of the invisible system that controls our physical lives is an abstract concept, which creates a diffused, abstract anger. In her book Being Black, Angel Williams suggests that we address this pain using Buddhist practices for thoughtful, careful awareness of our own and others’ perceptions of the way the world works. If we can think beyond ourselves to understand how this system affects others, we might begin to understand why, for instance, white communities are more likely to defend the police and and their actions than communities of color.

 Black people and other people of color really need to be active in their analysis of both their individual situations and the situation of their communities. We each need to become event more engaged than we are. We need to participate in the world and have our voices heard beyond our own backyards, streets, and neighborhoods.

 We cannot afford to be lazy thinkers, because there is too much to be lost when we take that route. If we are not careful to think about the situations that we see around us, we cannot address them. Part of enlightened being and living responsibly is acknowledging that we are essentially in a relationship with the rest of the world. If we leave ourselves in a position in which we can’t respond to the needs of others, we contribute to a breakdown in communication, in harmony, and in peace. This is how we create dysfunctional relationships in our lives, the lives of our families, at our jobs, in our communities and in the world. (pp. 76-77)

Williams advocates strongly for the pursuit of justice. But we must do so from a place that is free from perceptions that are informed by emotions, ignorance, or illusions (Hahn, p.48). Analyzing and understanding our actions and emotions allows us to take right action with a clear mind. We are also able to communicate our needs, feelings, and ideas more effectively to those who do not share our perspective.

Even Obama agrees that communities of color have profound legacies of emotional burden that we must learn to see through in order to make tangible change. In a recent interview about his latest State of the Union address, the President was accused of sounding angry and was asked if his position on issues of race was at all influenced by his multi-ethnic lineage. He responded that his ability to identify with multiple perceptions has helped him to understand Americans of various ethnicities and their motives.

…it also makes me mindful of the fact that there’s misunderstanding, there’s mistrust, and there are biases, both overt and sometimes hidden, that operate in ways that disadvantage minority communities. And that’s a carryover. There’s a long legacy in this country that has gotten enormously better, but is still there. And when you look at what’s happened in law enforcement across the country over the last several years, that’s not news to African-Americans.

I have been inspired by these protests because I see them as the numen of our collective re-awakening. Being aware of our anger, our pain, our grief is a powerful first step; it forces an honest look at the sources of these feelings and has pushed us into dialogue with those who do not yet deeply understand these feelings. This communication, this critical compassion, is the next step on the road to converting this anger into constructive forces for healing. This does not mean that our anger will go away—it is very much a part of us. But it need not control our actions. Looking our anger in the face and understanding it as the seed for something transformative is to be awake. Using that energy positively to communicate and create our own vision for the world is to be revolutionary.


Derricotte, Toi. (1997). The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Hahn, Thich Naht. (1987). Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax Press.

Williams, Angel Kyodo. (2000). Being Black. New York: Viking Compass.

Shwartz, Ian. (Dec 21, 2014). Obama: Being Mixed-Race Gives Me a Different Perspective. Real Clear Politics. Retrieved from

EMERGE-ing Identities


MERGE Mission Statement: “To provide a safe space for people of mixed heritage in which we may discuss issues of multi-ethnic identity and to raise awareness within the Claremont University Consortium community about the multi-ethnic experience.”

In the fall of 2010, I began my first semester of school at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Like my peers, I was shuttled between activity booths, clubs, activist organizations and affinity groups by an administration eager to help their students feel at home on campus. They were particularly keen on easing this transition for the more “diverse” quotient of the student body. As a result, I was sent a letter from the Black Student Affairs office that encouraged me to visit their center and indicated that I would be receiving a black student mentor. A mentor? I thought that this seemed unnecessary and a little impertinent, but I wasn’t about to turn down an offer of friendship so early in the game.

I met with my black student affairs mentor over dinner later that week along with two other girls from my class. When our mentor saw us, she descended upon us like a mother hen coming to roost, telling us to call her mom and herding us protectively to a table near the windows. The other girls and I, who I noticed almost immediately were also mixed with light skin and curly hair, looked at one another sheepishly, each of us silently thinking, “What did we just sign up for?”

My fellow mentees, Katie Robinson and Sophie Howard, and I, became instant friends through our shared sense of unease with the enthusiastic induction to the black community that our “mother hen” had impressed upon us. The next week, we met up to discuss our initial perceptions about campus life and, more importantly, our struggles to identify as mixed race in a space that did not recognize us. We bemoaned the lack of an organized multi-ethnic presence at the Claremont Colleges and felt equally resentful toward the black student affairs office for assuming that we wanted to be a part of an exclusively black community. “Well hey, what if we started our own club?” As fledglings in an entirely new environment, the idea seemed ambitious, but also amazingly simple. All we needed was a space and enough interest, which, from our interactions with other students, seemed to already be present.

The following semester, after a number of forms had been filled out and ads printed, we had a room booked and a steady following of a grand total of about five students. A few months after our first meeting, we had a name: MERGE, the Multi Ethnic and Racial Group Experience.

Challenges Arise

During the second semester of MERGE, we received our first, and thankfully only, piece of hate mail. At that time, we had been sending out our meeting notes on a public email forum that was open to all students at Pitzer College. A student responded to the notes, commenting that she did not see the purpose of creating another race-based group on campus that only succeeded in further dividing the student body. ‘Why create MERGE when there are plenty of other ethnic groups on campus?’ Having somewhat naively created the club under the assumption that it existed more as a support group than a haven from insidious racism, the comment came as a startling wake up call. Admittedly, we had titled MERGE as a “safe sapce” as more of a nominal formality than a serious consideration of what we felt we needed to be safe from.

But it was not just from faceless white students that we felt hostility. A few semesters later, Katie reported back to the club about an incident that occurred in one of those very “other ethnic groups” on campus. At the time, students from one of the cultural resource centers on campus were hosting a weekly discussion group for members to have an open dialogue about a selected topic. Katie had decided to attend the fishbowl style discussion meeting on mixed race identity. Ideally, anyone sitting outside the fishbowl—who were the observers of the discussion— could opt to take a seat in the inner ring of chairs to join the discussion, regardless of their self-identified race. As could be expected, however, it was mostly mixed students who made up the inner circle. The discussion leaders had, perhaps inadvertently, had alienated these mixed students by making them suddenly highly visible, separate, and the subject of open scrutiny. While being ogled by a circle of her monoracial peers, Katie said that the most demeaning question she received that evening was “What’s your favorite part about being mixed?”

These examples demonstrate a marked lack of understanding on campus about being mixed. Students seemed to think that it was a trivial delineation of racial identity rather than a complex experience worthy of serious attention. This also showed me that there was in fact a need for a club like MERGE: to improve education around the topic, and, first and foremost, to provide a platform from which students could convene to tactically discuss these situations.

In response to questions regarding the viability and importance of a group like MERGE, I have chosen to write about my observations of mixed student academic and emotional needs and how well this club met those needs. Using my own observations, research, and an informal survey conducted within MERGE, I found is that, at the Claremont Colleges, mixed race student spaces function as safe spaces for students to share their experiences and form communities out of which educational outreach may occur.

The conversations had within the inner sanctum of MERGE often regarded sensitive, personal or painful topics. Through the process of forming our own self-defined identities, we developed a close sense of community with others who could share in the collective sense of pain and joy that accompanies the mixed experience. So, MERGE was necessarily advertised as a “safe-space.” This is a contentious term that has generally been used to indicate a physical or metaphorical space in which members of a victimized, minority group may seek protection and community. The controversy exists in that safe space movement has been criticized for being separatist and non-inclusive. This sets up an interesting dilemma for mixed-race student groups, which through intentionally fostering cross-cultural discussions, are to a certain degree inherently open and accepting, yet still require the distance that “safe space” implies.

I argue that sensitive, discursive spaces need only be open to those students who can engage with the experience of being a part of multiple racial or cultural categories. Despite the overarching goal of clubs like MERGE to question the importance of racial categories, to a certain extent, race must be used to create boundaries within which these identity constructions can occur. The educational platform of the group, while important, need not interfere with the creation and defense of safe space; education is instead a discrete entity of the organization that is created organically from and secondary to safe spaces.

Defining “Mixed”

When Katie, Sophie and I sat down to write out the mission statement for MERGE, our conception of a mixed identity initially seemed fairly straightforward. Our goals for MERGE were to make it into the niche that we couldn’t find when we arrived on campus, in which people who didn’t feel like they fit into just one ethnic category could express the fullness of their own proclaimed identities. We were careful to avoid using the word “race,” however, erring on the side of cautious consideration. We recognized that not everyone who could contribute valuable insight on the mixed experience defined that perspective by race alone. Cultural or ethnic plurality was in fact possible while still maintaining a monoracial identity. And indeed, we attracted a few transracial adoptees, exchange students, and American students who had spent most of their lives growing up in another culture. These students came into discussion groups with a similar understanding of what it meant to exist outside of a single ethnic, cultural, or racial category.

Gloria Anzaldua’s definition of a mestiza or mixed consciousness perfectly captures these ideas because it expands our notion of transgressions against hegemonic identity categories to include all those experiences which embrace plurality. The mestiza consciousness, she says, “constantly has to shift out of habitual formations; from convergent thinking, analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality to move toward a single goal (a Western mode), to divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective, one that includes rather than excludes.” (2004, p. 141) Anzaldua clarifies a perspective of many types of people whose experience has allowed them to see the world through a lens of wholeness in multiplicity rather than segregation and divergence.

However, there is a balance to be had between embracing indefinite borders and enforcing boundaries. While Anzaldua uses the mestiza consciousness as a platform for establishing “bridges” between constructed racial borders, she recognizes the inherent function of those borders saying, “Effective bridging comes from knowing when to close ranks to those outside our home, group, community, nation—and when to keep the gates open.” (2002, p. 3) She effectively illustrates what Larana et al identify in their study on “New Social Movements” as boundary maintenance. Collective identities, they argue, are formed out of an identity movement; through members’ commonalities, a shared “we” is defined. This is naturally accompanied by an “us” vs. “them” mentality which distinguishes the group and their frame of reference from others who, in this case, do not share a mixed identity. These boundaries “can be thought of as activities and definitions that reinforce collective definitions through we-they distinctions, which are often marked by differences in physical appearance, dress, speech, demeanor, and other behaviors.” (Larana et al, 1994, p. 20)

These boundaries become complicated when we consider that part of the underlying goals of the club are to deconstruct the validity of racial categories. Says sociologist Judith Lorber, “We want to erase the boundaries between categories of race, gender and sexuality, but to do so, we have to use them, for without clear categories, you can have neither a politics of identity nor a politics of transgression. Categories are needed for group power and boundaries are needed to transgress against” (Lorber in Bernstein, 2009, p. 729). It is necessary to create restrictions on who is allowed to participate in informing the creation of new identities. Thus, when validating the distinction of a mixed race identity, only those who are typically categorized as belonging to more than one racial, cultural or ethnic group should be invited to participate in this in-group discussion.

While a mixed race identity may be theoretically broad-reaching in validating many types of plural identities, in practice, there must limitations on who may allowed to contribute to the collective identity. The boundaries MERGE drew were sometimes too soft, allowing non-mixed people to join conversations. However, the group made itself primarily available to anyone who did not feel as though they belonged to a single racial, cultural, ethnic or national identity. It is only within insular “safe spaces” that students were able to confront the challenges that a mixed race identity brings and define it within their own counter-hegemonic parameters.

Safe Spaces

Tantamount to the creation of a mixed race identity is the creation of a safe space where a consciousness of counterhegemonic plurality may be nurtured and validated. Within the protective sphere of like-minded people, peers may begin to understand and share with one another how their relationships and the ways in which the world sees them have also shaped their perspectives on the world. Creating a safe space is necessary for maintaining a collectively formed identity based on this “between the cracks” perspective.

Literally, the phrase “safe space” is attributed to those physical and psychological spaces in which members of an oppressed group may find shelter from harassment, pain or discomfort caused by their association with that group (Stengel, 2010). It is a notion that Fetner et al stated as a relatively common sense reaction to “the negative consequences of social isolation and marginalization.” (2012, p. 189) In the case of MERGE, this means that mixed race students may find recourse from criticism they may feel from their student peers or monoethnic resource groups.

More abstractly, in response to the constraints of imposed ill-fitting racial categories, mixed race students have created ideological safe spaces that allow for the generation of a collectively created identity that defies those expectations. Creating a collective counter-hegemonic identity has been fundamental to social movements (Polleta & Jasper, 2009). For instance, in her book on Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill-Collins recognizes safe space as crucial to rebuffing harmful images perpetuated about black women and creating frameworks authentic to a more heterogeneous experience of racial identity. They encourage the re-conceptualization of racial frameworks, advocating for a “unique and authentic voice in which “[marginalized groups] must ‘jump outside’ the frames and systems authorities provide and create their own frame.” (p.110) Much like the community of black women Collins discusses, safe spaces provide these students with the opportunity to lean on one another. Through the expression of common experiences and frustrations, students use the space to validate their own definitions of their racial and/or cultural identity. Actual safety from harassment, while still a potential threat, is less of a concern than the ability for students to give voice to radicalized notions of their racial identity.

Gloria Anzaldua complicates this notion of safe space in her essay “(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Space.” She argues that it is in the nature of mixed race identity that people act as bridges between the communities they represent. However, I’d like to draw an important distinction. The type of “bridging” that Anzaldua advocates relies upon the movement’s outward, educational mission. While this is an important element of the mixed race movement, safe spaces form the foundation in which this type of movement must necessarily be rooted. Says Patricia Hill-Collins, “safe spaces rely on exclusionary practices, but their overall purpose most certainly aims for a more inclusionary, just society.” (p.121) It is only following the creation of these intimate circles, then, that bridging may effectively occur.

The Survey

To determine how well MERGE was meeting the ideals for a mixed-race safe space, I developed a survey at the end of the 2014 school year and distributed it to members of the club. I used an online survey service for the question platform and distributed it as a post on our group Facebook page. I chose this forum as a way to restrict participation to existing group members. This was a completely voluntary and anonymous response survey that was open and available for Facebook group members for approximately 1 month. (See Appendix A for the full list of survey questions.)

Why did students become involved?

From its inception as a club in 2011, members expressed their need for a space where they could openly discuss issues that pertained to the mixed experience. Their primary goal was validation of an identity that existed outside of normal racial parameters through the creation of community of similar people. This came up most prominently in the meetings following the controversial email that had questioned the role of MERGE on campus. Students re-affirmed that a shared consciousness of being mixed is what brought people together; someone was quoted from this meeting as having said that mixed people have, “No shared history or culture…Being mixed is its own culture.” (2011, personal communication) Being mixed, for these students, appeared to transcend categorical racial differences. The experience of being mixed race mattered much more than the given race of any member of the group.

This idea was reinforced in the survey answers I collected. Students stated that they were primarily concerned with finding a space in which they could feel comfortable discussing common experiences of being mixed and find a sense of connection, belonging, and/or community. They frequently used language like “comfortable” “acceptance” or “open” to describe their desired environment regarding developing their mixed race identity.

When asked if they thought that MERGE had achieved its mission of creating a safe space for students to develop this sense of acceptance and community, 11 out of the 13 total respondents replied unequivocally that it had. A few provided reasons for why they felt this way; one student stated that, “I felt like it was a safe space for me to talk and everyone was there to listen to what I had to say. It was also comforting to know that others shared the same experiences as me.” Other respondents echoed the importance of feeling that their position and experiences were well received by the group. The only time that students felt that this safe space had been breached was when a non-mixed student entered the group. A majority of respondents said that they were comfortable with this occurrence but also implied that discussion would necessarily shift to become educational “learning spaces” rather than an exchange of common experiences. “I think that since spaces for mixed race folk are limited, when they do exist it’s important for them to be specifically for mixed folk.” This is important to note because it demonstrates the importance of racial boundary maintenance in the formation of safe spaces.

In some cases, this need for community seemed to arise as a result of students not feeling that mixed identity was given enough validity within the campus setting or that mixed race narratives were often silenced. Said one student, “I grew up feeling inadequate, being forced to identify as a specific race/ethnicity/culture. And [the college administration] has just made that three million times worse. ZERO attention has been paid to mixed students. I’m constantly being boxed in by the institution. And MERGE has provided a community where I finally feel accepted as a singular identity that is comprised of many different identities.” On the same topic, another student said, “I think often times the narratives of mixed individual are silenced and a group like MERGE could help combat that specifically at the 5Cs and beyond that due to influence. It both serves as support for those whose narratives may be silenced, or who may feel silenced at times, and to fight against that silencing.” The act of creating a space specifically targeted toward students from a multi-ethnic background worked to simultaneously generate a supportive community and a platforms for taking action against identity silencing. 

Why was MERGE a necessary presence on campus?

As a result of developing a positive community support base, students felt empowered to take on the role as educators for their mono-racial peers. While survey respondents did not feel like organizing was a primary goal of the group, they implied that educational works resulted as a natural outgrowth of being a part of a safe-space community. Rather than feeling isolated in their struggles with mixed race identity, their acceptance into a group of people with similar experiences inspired them to seek recognition for an identity that suddenly seemed larger than themselves; respondents commented that they felt that they had something to stand for and comrades to stand with. “I think it’s presence here has made me feel like there’s more than just me – that I’m not speaking up merely for myself but for a group of people on campus who are affected by the politics of mixed race and identity. It’s motivated me more to speak up when I feel like mixed identity isn’t a part of a conversation it should be a part of.” At the very least, it has encouraged these students to bring their ideas into the foreground of their consciousness and given them the confidence to constructively confront issues of prejudice or ignorance amongst their peers. MERGE’s presence on campus encouraged many mixed-race students to give voice to a silenced perspective both as independent activists and as a part of the group’s educational campaigns.

How did we accomplish this?

The importance of forming a safe space for the discussion and validation of mixed identities is also evident in the way that we prioritized each semesters’ agenda. Much of the first semester of the year was devoted to community building through discussion based events and mixers. These were crucial to building a support base and forming trust within safe spaces. A smaller percentage of our energy as a group was devoted to outreach and educational activities.

Discussion groups served as MERGE’s organizational backbone. We hosted these safe-space gatherings regularly, discovering that discussion events every 2-4 weeks garnered highest attendance while still meeting the needs of the community. Each discussion had a theme and a moderator who kept discussants focused on the given topic and encouraged equal participation from members of the group. Every year, discussion topics fell into a regular pattern. New members, especially younger members, who had not had the chance to discuss things like being asked “What are you” before joining MERGE, needed to have these common experiences validated before moving on to more nuanced or complex topics. Other common subjects included discussions on the meaning of words like “hapa” or “mulatto,” surveys that force a “choose one” option, “passing,” mixed privilege, and interracial dating. Less frequently, we discussed colorism and the role of race in forming our identities. Chiefly, however, members used the space to bond with one another over shared experiences rather than to deconstruct, question, or deeply investigate mixed race identity.

The outreach events that we hosted were similarly focused on validating a mixed race identity. By partnering with cultural resource groups on campus, we were able to develop programs, discussions and events that allowed members to reach out to those minority communities they struggled to feel like they belonged to. These were usually small and only open to people from MERGE and the associated cultural center. This largely eliminated white student participants, but, as evidenced by Katie’s experience at another resource center’s discussion about the mixed race experience, it was not exemplary of a safe space for mixed race students because it required them to educate their non-mixed peers.

Other programs, like movie screenings and speaker series, were open to the general public, which helped to generate discussion and awareness about being mixed beyond our immediate circles. Because of the size of these kinds of events, mixed race students were not required to speak about their experience at all. As such, these events were more impersonal and educational.

The discussions that we had as a group were intimate and dealt primarily with individuals’ personal struggles with being mixed. These in-group dialogues are the best example of building a safe space for mixed race students because students could rely on one another to validate their experiences and identities. These types of events had the largest effect and benefit on the mixed race student community. Other programs, like joint discussions with other cultural centers and large events open to the general public, offered students the opportunity to educate and create a bridge between the mixed race community and other communities. This was important for the advancement of the group, but could not be possible, or at least would be less successful without first having a safe space in which students could find a community they felt they belonged to.

When Katie, Sophie and I began MERGE, we felt like mavericks in Claremont’s small sphere of student organizing. Unaware of what other nationwide groups had done, we set out to create a space in which we could bring together other mixed-race students to deeply discuss some of the issues we faced as college students trying to make sense of our racial identities. We blazed forward, energized and excited to see others take interest in our intimate, seemingly obscure group because it allowed us to continually recognize and take ownership of a marginalized identity. Through the discussions we had amongst our peers we, along with our peers, learned to translate personal experience into a political, educational motive. In this fashion, I believe we ultimately succeeded in creating a safe space for this type of growth, communication and empowerment to occur. But it cost us far more time and energy to reach some semblance of solid ground than it could have. The extent to which this type of discussion has taken root around the country is staggering. It is important, therefore, that organizers understand how these discussions and movements evolve on different campuses so that we can successfully foster safe spaces for mixed-race college students and powerful movement organizing tactics. My hope is that the study and conclusions I presented here are used as a reference point for other university group leaders or for further academic study.

Appendix A: Survey Questions

  1. What is your school and class year?
  2. How did you hear about MERGE?
  3. Why did you decide to get involved?
  4. How long have you been involved and do you plan on continuing in the club?
  5. Do you think MERGE is a necessary group at the 5Cs? Why or why not?
  6. What could be improved?
  7. How do you racially/ethnically identify yourself?
  8. Are you a part of any other race/ethnic-based resource centers at the 5Cs? If so, how does your experience at those centers compare with your experience with MERGE?
  9. Do you ever feel uncomfortable during discussions? Why or why not?
  10. How do you feel when someone who does not identify as mixed-race joins a discussion?
  11. Do you think MERGE lives up to its mission statement in providing a safe space for mixed students to convene? Why or why not?
  12. Do you think the politics of mixed race issues are socially relevant and important? How, if at all, do you think MERGE has prepared you to motivate change or educate peers around this topic?


Anzaldúa, Gloria, and AnaLouise Keating, eds. ““(Un)natural Bridges, (Un)safe Space.” This Bridge We Call Home: Radical Visions for Transformation. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Anzaldúa, Gloria., and AnaLouise Keating. The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.

Bernstein, Mary, and Marcie De la Cruz. “‘What Are You?’: Explaining Identity as a Goal of the Multiracial Hapa Movement.” Social Problems 56, no. 4 (November 2009): 722–45.

Fetner, T., Elafros, A., Bortolin, S., & Drechsler, C. Safe Spaces: Gay-Straight Alliances in High Schools. Canadian Review of Sociology. 188-207, 2012.

Hill-Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought. New York: Routledge Classics, 2000.

Ifekwunigwe, Jayne O. Mixed Rae Studies: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Laraña, Enrique, Hank Johnston, and Joseph R. Gusfield, eds. New Social Movements: From Ideology to Identity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994.

Polletta, Francesca, and James M. Jasper. “Collective Identity and Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 283–305.

Renn, Kristen A. Mixed Race Students in College: The Ecology of Race, Identity and Community on Campus. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2004.

Root, Maria P. P., ed. The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier. London [Enk] ; Thousand Oaks, Cal: Sage, 1996.

Stengel, Barbara. “The Complex Case of Fear and Safe Spaces.” Studies in Philosophy and Education 29, no. 6 (2010): 523–40.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: And Other Conversations about Race. New York: Basic Books, 2003.

Zack, Naomi, ed. American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995.

———. Thinking about Race. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006.