February 08, 2021

The Emotional Labor of Participation: Tamika L. Butler and Justin Garrett Moore in Conversation

Tamika L. Butler and Justin Garrett Moore are consummate community builders and advocates, leading in design, government, and transportation on issues of racial and social justice. Among the many things I appreciate about both of them are the frankness, emotional intelligence, and fortitude with which they approach their work. This bracing and nuanced conversation delves into the many types of labor that people of color, and in particular Black people, are often asked or forced to shoulder in our profession and society; the practice of participatory urbanism can challenge or reify that emotional burden — either by embodying new modes of collectivism or being co-opted and tokenized by those with institutional power.

Complex realities of space and surveillance and equity and justice, so central to our national collective experience this past year, have always pervaded the lives of racialized Americans. Tamika and Justin’s conversation, recorded last November, is the middle of three for this edition of the Open Space magazine, gathering many previously addressed themes and signaling those to come. –RAO

Black Lives Matter mural, Civic Center, Manhattan. Photo: Justin Garrett Moore, 2020

Justin Garrett Moore: Tamika, it’s always such a pleasure to share a space with you. Obviously, it’s a virtual space, but — there are certain spirits and souls and minds out there doing the work, who are helping us collect and understand so many disparate things together, and you’re one of those people. So it’s a privilege to be in conversation with you, especially now.

Tamika L. Butler: I feel the same way. This might be the longest conversation we will have gotten to have, and I’m excited about that. And it was a long time coming. From when we first started talking to now, a lot has changed. I want to start by asking: how are you doing? Where are you at?

JGM: Oh man, so much has happened. I’ll be honest, I’m still completely overwhelmed. There is such a desire to try and have impact with everything that’s going on. Calls and demands and pressures that are seemingly never-ending. Parts of me feel like, “I can rally and I’m going to do this,” but there are definitely times when it feels like too much; I’m navigating that overwhelming feeling of what is needed, is too much. But having a space like this, a conversation like this, where we can talk and be and not feel other responsibilities of helping make things work, is a nice change. How about you? How’s it going?

TLB: Well about a year ago we started saying, “We should have a discussion about Black perspectives on participatory urbanism.” How I’m doing is wildly different than it was a year ago, and in other ways the same. My experience as a Black person in this country and my opinions on urbanism or land use or planning or architecture, haven’t changed. We haven’t become less Black.

JGM: “Yep, still Black.”

TLB: And over the past year, folks in power and in these spaces have not become more Black. So how I’m doing today might not have changed much from what I would have said a year ago about being a Black person in white spaces. It still requires us to do our jobs and code-switch, and have a level of excellence, often taking for granted the extra work it is for us. In that sense, a lot is similar. But in another sense, there’s this pandemic! When we’re talking about participatory urbanism, or when we’re talking about place-making or place-keeping, I ask, what is a “place” now? Frankly, what is “time” now? [Laughter] We have all expanded our minds about where we are, what we do, and how we do it. And that’s also exhausting. I think part of what we both love about our work is the way we connect with people, and the way we can see the tangible impacts of the things we do. I love a good Zoom conversation and connection for folks like us — who are in different parts of the country — we may be seeing each other more now than we would have previously. But I still miss that connection in real time and place.

West Athens Victory Garden in South Los Angeles. Since 2013, the West Athens Victory Garden has provided local residents with relief from the highly dense asphalt environment, and continues to serve as a hub for community members with a passion for urban agriculture and environmental stewardship. The garden is a project of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

JGM: I think the idea and occupation of “shared space”’ was taken for granted or abstract for a lot of people before the pandemic. Changes in people’s patterns in public and private require that more people understand this concept of shared space on a fundamental level — for example domestic space that you’ve been contained in. Or how you navigate public space — the rules and measures and controls for our public spaces — is something that more people understand better now; and it’s interesting to watch that. Because of course, the control of space is something that Black people have always understood, right? Black people always had other rules and impositions on how we use and navigate spaces — those we did and did not have access to — the way we had to operate in different kinds of contexts and environments. Now in this very bizarre time, more people are confronting that and having to navigate it. It’s really, really interesting to see how ill-equipped some people are for having a level of responsibility and control; and an understanding about how one relates to space. When we talk about urbanism, we have to confront the dynamic of how we relate to different circumstances. We have to better understand each other in order to better understand space at a fundamental level; because we’ve been so bad at it. I hope that the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests help people enter a mindset of understanding and acknowledging and confronting issues.

TLB: These verbs are not in the toolkit of those who have historically been in the leadership roles and making up a majority of the fields that do the work we care about: Acknowledgment, Confronting, Understanding, Empathizing. And, frankly, Atoning. Those folks like to talk about Designing and Planning and Engineering —

JGM: I love this. I just have to say, I love it. I love it.

TLB: It is so freeing, right? The ability to just have a real conversation, or in a different way. But, has this period been good for business? It’s been great for business. People want us on every panel, every day of the week. But are they getting past listening and actually doing this work? Actually embodying some of those verbs?

Our colleague Jay Pitter, out of Canada, has a new book coming out about Black joy, which I’m excited to read. I’ve heard her say a few times that Black folks’ experience on this continent started in the public sphere, in public space, on the auction block. And so, to your point, we’ve always had to think of space as this place where we have to be aware, to think about all the ways that we interact and engage and show joy and show anger. We’re always aware of these inherent risks, because that’s how our existence started. And that is why, for generations, a Black mom with one look can get you to stop acting a certain way in public, right? You’re always aware of the space. And it is both deeply upsetting and troubling to see the way in which white supremacy and anti-Blackness are just growing unfettered. I read another article today about how hate crimes are increasing, and in space and places that we want to create to bring people in. like public parks and buses. It’s maddening and upsetting and deeply hurts me. But there’s this other part that is going to sound perverse to folks, but it’s hilarious. It’s like, “Oh you mad, white people? That I told you, you have to do something?”

JGM: Put on a facemask!

TLB: You have to put on a facemask! Oh, you can’t go to the park today? You can’t go on your hike? You don’t like the way people look at you and judge you, because you forgot your mask? Oh, white people… It must be so hard these things that Black people have always had to hold, experience, and endure.

JGM: Absolutely. We have to pick up some new words and terms and terminology in planning and design. “Participate” is another word that we have to start unpacking because it gets twisted and confused and abused, sometimes. We have to do that work of acknowledging how Black people, people of color, women, Indigenous people, people with different abilities, have been able to participate in our spaces, in our society, in our communities, and in our cities. We really have to take a hard look at and see: is it simply about more engagement, more participation? Or do we really need other words and actions, to press thinking about different ways for people to have comfort, to have security, to have access to our planet? Who has access to the environment that we’re all sharing?

You know, the structures and the power dynamics of that have been playing out this year, in every way. Let’s take the phrase “civic participation” in light of what we’re seeing in front of city halls; in front of police precincts. Notice how certain actions get characterized, understood, and navigated, based on the color or the composition (let’s call it) of the people who happen to be “participating.” [Laughter] It’s a very, very loaded term that, frankly, carries into our world of planners, the designers, people doing policy. I don’t think people fully understand how loaded a term “participation” is.

TLB: It’s so fraught, this idea of who gets to participate and who’s defining the parameters of participation; and what the work of participation is and how we divide the work of participation.

We’re on this language tip, and we’re talking about all of these different verbs, and I’m always so struck by “taking;” the act of taking. This society is built on these colonial views where there is this ideal that people can build something together if we all just participate. But the way that our society has been built involved taking Black folks across the Atlantic. Taking land from Indigenous folks. Taking opportunities, or taking an ability to love openly, or worship openly. Taking somebody’s ability to fully participate because the thought of giving them access is too hard. “Taking” is this core, fundamental piece built into a colonial framework or a white supremacy framework, or a white-centered framework.

Black Lives Matter mural, Civic Center, Manhattan. Photo: Justin Garrett Moore, 2020.

JGM: Right, connecting to entitlement.

TLB: Totally connecting to entitlement. Sometimes it’s hard to know, when certain folks are saying “participatory,” are they just figuring out another way to take from us? Are they figuring out how to get into our communities, or to get into this group of us, who some would consider thought leaders in the field? Are they participating with us; are they participating in a process of becoming more engaged and more knowledgeable about equity; or are they continuing to take? This has really stuck with me over the course of this last year. For those of us who have been doing this work, for those of us who have been talking about these ideas and frankly, risking a lot (professionally, physically, mentally, relationship-wise) to do it: what happens when folks say they want participatory urbanism but aren’t willing to examine what participation they are actually enacting? That they may just be repackaging ‘taking’?

JGM: I love when you called it “the work,” because there are all these different types of “work.” If we really look at the history we will see — the consistency, the ingenuity, the innovation that it took to put us all here, literally. [Laughter] All Black folks know the image, the drawings of packing the people into the slave ships. Or Africans’ first encounter with public space in America, brought to some sort of commons or street or right of way, and then put onto a block or a platform. Somebody thought “Oh, well we need to elevate this person so that the people can value and buy them.” That was a designed interaction that people were having in space; that took thought. And we just have to confront that and say, “OK, well this is what’s been happening, and what is it going to take to unhappen?”

And “participatory urbanism” being a go-to strategy is absolutely an issue. I see “participation” becoming coopted and frankly, corrupted, pretty broadly. There is so much work that has been done for decades, for generations — grassroots work, trying to seed power building, agency, and self-determination. But that has totally been coopted by — I jokingly call it — the management consultant mind. The high-level institutions and even companies that mimic and mirror those structures for their own purposes. It’s very frustrating to see in the last ten years or so how it’s become so pervasive that it’s hard to discern whether a process is real and authentic or not. It’s so challenging because there are these power dynamics that we have to acknowledge exist, whether in government or within the people who own and control a lot of resources. They’ll say, “We want your participation. We want to do ‘community engagement.'” It’s really, really hard to see if that is a genuine process or not. Even for those of us that do this all the time, it can be hard to navigate those competing interests.

TLB: Because we so genuinely care, we go into participatory work, or we go into urbanism with the hope and the intention and the openness to believe that this will be different. That we are in fact being invited to a space to participate, because folks are indeed interested in what we have to say. And it’s always so surprising to me — it’s not like folks like me and you are particularly private in the work we do. You can find us; you google our work or look on Twitter to see how we speak about, feel about, and do this work. And yet the number of times I find myself asking, “Well what did you think you were going to get when you asked me to come and work with you on this and push you? You knew who I was when you hired me.” I’ve been shocked by the number of people who are like, “No I didn’t. I didn’t really know. I had heard about you.” And I’m like, “Okay so you were willing to work with me, to invest resources in me, and you didn’t do your research? Because you just saw a Black face and you thought this was going to get you some sort of credibility? And you thought it was going to shield you from any critique. You thought you could just go back and say, ‘Well, Justin said this was okay. Well, Tamika said this was okay.’” It’s hard to trust that when people say they’re truly interested in participatory urbanism and engagement with communities that they really are open to listening.

Because as soon as it gets a little hard, as soon as it gets a little uncomfortable, as soon as it gets a little expensive, as soon as it takes a little bit more time, folks start to say “Well, I didn’t know what I was getting into.” And I’m like “Okay, but even if you didn’t know, you hired me because you didn’t know, or you came to talk to the community because you didn’t know. So you took this affirmative step of acknowledging that you don’t know something. But now that we’re telling you, you just don’t want to do it. You don’t have the desire or the will or the commitment, or the care, the concern. Or you have the privilege not to. You and I can do all the public speaking we want, we can continue to excel in our careers and get more credentials and more credibility, but on some level, if folks aren’t really willing to commit to the work, then it won’t get done. That’s hard because our whole existence as a people has always been based on our ability to see something for ourselves, and for our collective that folks did not see as possible before.

JGM: Positioning the self within the collective is something that people have trouble doing, especially in the urbanism fields. I always have this issue with the term “engagement,” because of the automatic othering in that concept. If you’re doing community engagement, are you also doing self-engagement to actually create the space and opportunity for you to process and understand and receive something that is beyond your individual or your organizational experience? Typically not, unfortunately. The amount of time and effort, outsourcing, finding expertise to talk to “the other,” is that happening to figure out what’s going on with you, white people? It sounds mean to say it that way, but I think there is a lack of resources allocated to that type of engagement work. Instead of framing the problem as these other people that are not participating in the world that we’re trying to execute, understanding there’s a lack of participation from our part, or from our organization, to build the kind of world that people outside of our own experience are trying to build. It’s hard to challenge and push people to do that work, because it typically requires discomfort. And 2020 has been the year of discomfort for people; there’s greater awareness than there has been in recent memory. But is that discomfort turning into action? Will real participation result in giving up power or resources or space? When it comes down to it, people are not willing to sacrifice. Se we have to push people to really get them to understand.

Unidad Park and Community Garden, located in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, is a project of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.

TLB: The sacrifice piece is huge. Folks are feeling discomfort in 2020 because it’s been hard to not have a conversation about race or racism. You can’t avoid it, and I think for some people it feels like it’s happening all the time. And for some people it’s not happening enough. There’s a new Congress member from St. Louis, Cori Bush, and she wears a Breonna Taylor mask and people think her name is Breonna. Those people so clearly live in a world where they’ve been able to avoid these conversations about race and racism. But I think for most people, it has felt like it’s not beneath the surface, it’s not behind the scenes.

And that is 2020, right? It’s all of these white folks who say, “Well, we want to be of service. We want to help you find your home. We want to help you find equity and transportation. We want to help make bird-watching more equitable. We want to help.” And so then you say, “I’m so glad you want to help. Here’s all the things we need to do to make this work because racism is real and it impacts the things you are saying you want to help with.” And then they’re like, “This is too much. Why do we always have to about race?” And so, my fear for 2020 is what you said. That this discomfort is causing us to talk more, but not act. There are going to be folks who are so exhausted and so uncomfortable that they just give up: “We did the correct thing. Can we just go back to normal now, where you Black people handle this and I don’t have to think about it, and I don’t have to be tired all the time? Because this is hard. When I have to call out family members, and I actually have to pay attention to the people who say offensive things on social media, but also in real life, in meetings. I’m going to have to acknowledge that these people who I call my friends or my neighbors or my fellow soccer moms, are actually quite problematic. And now that I know it’s wrong, I have to build up the courage to say something, and then when I say it and they get defensive, I have to wonder if I did the wrong thing.”

JGM: And they have to do it all the time.

TLB: All the time! And I don’t know if they’re ready!

JGM: “I’ll read How to Be an Antiracist, I’ll watch a Jane Elliott video, I’ll say ‘hashtag Black Lives Matter,’ but do I have to do this all the time‽”

I’m from Indianapolis, and my parents have lived in the same longtime Black neighborhood forever that has gentrified pretty rapidly in the past ten years or so. My mom, a neighborhood old timer by now, sent me a photo the other day of a moving truck on the street where I grew up. And she said, “Well there are now four Black families left on the block.” Because there was a new white family moving into this middle-density, inner-city neighborhood. The experience that she’s had with that transition, is another way we experience “participation,” which is that we have to talk about what happens all the time. Right?

There’s been this transition happening in many communities of color, and this idea of participation and connectivity of people, us together, and what that looks like, has had this bifurcation. And so, for example in my parents’ neighborhood, they have different Halloweens. Same neighborhood, same geography. And the new people might say positively, “We’re moving into a ‘diverse’ neighborhood.” But their white kids don’t go to the Black houses on Halloween. They even had two different Juneteenths. They had the Juneteenth that’s been happening for a long time, and then they had the white people that learned about Juneteenth in 2020 and decided to do something for Juneteenth. We have to acknowledge that these big chasms exist, and the amount of work that actually needs to happen all the time in order to have true participation is something very different from how we talk about it in our field.

TLB: It’s tough, this idea of participation and being participatory: there isn’t an acknowledgment of the emotional labor that those of us who are part of oppressed and racialized groups, who do anti-oppression or anti-racism work professionally, are not able to separate our personal lives from it. So I think that certainly we have to continue to push folks who have historically had power. But what I’ve really seen elevated during the pandemic and this time of racial uprising is that we have created our own space. Whether  that’s BlackSpace, or Dr. Destiny Thomas’ Thrivance community, or the Untokening, or Designing in Color, or the Urban Studio — these groups have always been doing this work, but have come together to say, “As much as we want to do this work in these white spaces, we also are no longer asking for you to recognize our dignity and our intelligence and our expertise. We’re creating these spaces.” Because again, we are people built on the collective vision of liberation and community. We will invite you to the space, but we’re not asking permission.

And you have been a leader in a lot of these spaces — for example at the Hindsight Conference — that are getting us through. How have you balanced creating our own space with doing the work in the traditional white spaces of our field?

The “Problem” Women of Colour in the Workplace. Image courtesy Kira Page, of the Centre for Community Organizations, Quebec.

JGM: I naturally like being in a lot of different kinds of spaces. Collective liberation is a driver, because when you’re in a lot of different kinds of spaces, you see that nobody has it right. It’s an uncomfortable truth. Having to work together in a collective way, and all the good and bad things that come with that, and collaboratively learning how to make a way helps me get through the challenges. There are big institutions, those who have power, including SFMOMA: an elite, white-led, endowed institution. But we have to value all of the other spaces that are able to do work that these institutions will not, cannot, and frankly are not fully capable of doing. There has to be an elevating of the people and collectives that need resources, power, and to be acknowledged and respected even though they may not be “institutions” or institutional in their approach. And so, the work that I do with different hats, especially with groups like BlackSpace, is to own and feel empowered and generative in the work that we can do collectively. We should reject a lot of the paradigms in many of the existing institutions that tend to valorize individuals. They’ll say things like, “Who’s the best person for x?” and it creates this bizarre monster that has nothing to do with the need. You have to think about a network of opportunity and resources instead. For example the Unurbanist Assembly — that was the best thing ever because there were so many kinds of people and knowledge and insights and experiences valued there. It’s not only a key person or a key paradigm or best practice, concentrated in that space. It was about growing and building power. We need to challenge institutions more not to co-opt that or internalize the power and practices found in BIPOC communities. A lot of the universities now have lecture posters where everybody is Black. Guess what? Black people have been on earth longer than everyone else. Literally. [Laughter] And they’re just discovered, you know, AD 2020. So that idea of there being only a few BIPOC urbanists, we have to reject, and put more into building this common experience and this collective value found in our communities. I would also say that another frame for talking about how we think about institutions or alternatively, collectives, is the intentionality with which we acknowledge people. In BlackSpace, for example, everything happens across the collective. So for those of us who may be, based on our professional or personal or other lives, more visible — our visibility should be used in service of the whole; for the collective. So the brand isn’t one or two or three people, it’s BlackSpace. And BlackSpace is a network of people; we call the BlackSpace affiliates in different cities our “cousins.” It’s like family, and when you come together and do work, there are different ways to engage It’s not a branch, it’s not a chapter. There’s not a power dynamic; not in the same kind of hierarchies that we see in large institutions.

November 2016 gathering of the Untokening: Conversations Rarely Had & Questions Rarely Asked, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Tamika L. Butler.

TLB: We started by talking about what we’ve been thinking about in the past year. As we’re coming up on our hour, perhaps to close we can reflect on what we’re thinking about for the next year or beyond. For me it’s about building power and community. From elections to community planning decisions, to sports, to flying into space, as we saw a Black man just do a few days ago. I think when we as Black people, racialized folks, folks who are a part of oppressed groups, build community and build power, there’s not much we can’t do. Including saving democracy! [Laughter]

JGM: It was close, but you know, we made it work. We did our part.

TLB: And we always do!

JGM: We did more than our part.

TLB: We always do more than our part. As do our Indigenous cousins, and many folks who have been racialized, who have been oppressed. So when I think about the years ahead, I have trepidations about folks getting fatigued or rushing to get back to normal without acknowledging that normal has never been enough. My deepest hope lies in the growing number of us who are ready, who are leading this built environment, planning, and design space kicking and screaming, into a new way of doing this work. I hope we continue to build power because there is nothing more effective — and maybe to white people scary and dangerous — than Black folks who know our worth.

JGM: I totally agree. People working for community improvement or change understand the opportunity that we have to be more connected to one another through different platforms and different modalities, for working across time and space, for greater connection, for what adrienne maree brown calls an “emergence” toward transformation. While at the same time, it is critical to still be grounded and rooted in the realities that we are all living in. So much has changed, but at the same time nothing has changed. The kind of transformation that people are looking toward and hoping for is one that gets us away from whiteness, the colonial, racialized capitalism, all of these legacies that Black people are carrying around. But frankly, white people are carrying it around too. In order for us to survive, we have to get from the empire to the multitude. We have to make that transition together, and to value that all of us, the multitude, are needed to care for both the planet and its people. It really does sound so basic, but we’re not doing it.

TLB: It’s so true. Instead of thinking of this as more complex, I want people to take away that it’s just basic. Racialized people and people in historically oppressed groups are here, we are leading, and we aren’t asking for permission. So stop operating from a mindset of scarcity and believing that if we get something, you must lose it. As you said, we have to make the transition together and that’s so basic. Basic decency. Basic dignity. Basic justice. Don’t overcomplicate this. Listen to Black people. Trust Black people. Protect Black people. Stop killing Black people.

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