Mya Wollf – Interconnections of feminism, animal liberation and radical sobriety

Full video with closed captioning available here

So I want to talk a lot about the interconnection of oppressions as they respond to – as we investigate radical sobriety, feminism and animal liberation. To start, the further we investigate oppression the more we can see that every single one of us has been involved in or affected by oppression at some point in our lives. The fact is that we live in a culture of oppression and we’re indoctrinated into this system of oppression from an early age, we learn that we should either be propagating oppression, be accepting it or turning a blind eye. This process of deconstructing and abolishing different forms of oppression is probably the hardest thing that any of us will undertake, because not only do we have to rise and fight up against those who push us down, but we have to have accountability for ourselves as oppressors. For anybody who has faced any severe trauma or severe oppression, it can be really hard to acknowledge that even though we were victimized we can still be responsible for the suffering of others.

I will talk a little bit about my life in and the oppressions that I faced and then I’d like to explore some of the ideas that I have come up with in regards to this. I just want to put a trigger warning out there. Sadly, this talk definitely explores a lot a lot of violence to women, so if – take care of yourselves, like the last talk explained if you are really feeling traumatized by that kind of stuff, you don’t want to hear about it, then please take care and maybe sit out for this. I will make it short and I don’t want to hammer in any kind of trauma, but just to give you an idea of where I’m coming from.

I had a really rough adolescence. I left home when I was about 14 due to family issues and by the time I was 17, I had been raped by 11 men on six different occasions. I had been held against my will at a drug house for three months. I had mistreated my body for a place to stay numerous times, for something to eat, or to protect my friends. I had spent about two years working as a drug mule flying extreme amount of narcotics around the country for a pretty dangerous cartel. My work and my lifestyle kept me away from hard drugs luckily but I drank so much during this process to numb the pain that I did not have a chance to think of anybody else or think about anything rather than just survival at that time. This lifestyle, it was hard and it’s something that was really traumatic for me and fortunately something that I’ve been able to get through. I look back at it and I see that in some ways I felt really empowered in that lifestyle. I would try to be as tough as I could and I would pick fights with others because I was so powerless when violence was inflicted on me.

I was just part of this really vicious circle of systemic oppression where violence becomes the norm and everyone included numbs themselves to get through. Often people are blamed, oppressors are blamed, for their actions and, rightly so, they should be held accountable, every single one of us should be held accountable. But sometimes we have to look a little bit further and we have to look at the systems of oppression, the systems of abuse, and really have some empathy and understanding for where others are coming from and how they are reaching the point where they are so disconnected from contact with others, from compassion, that they take severe actions against other humans or other animals. From there, once we find that understanding, we can grow a little more and we find different ways of communicating with each other.

I was fortunate enough to get out before I was an adult and I am really lucky because a lot of my acquaintances are dead, in jail or stuck in this life that they cannot break free from. I found over the past 13 years or so I found some really awesome ways to heal. In that process, I have really been able to learn about the interconnectedness of oppressions and how everything is connected. I want to pause here and say a little bit about privilege. I am a survivor, like so many of us are, and I went through absolute hell and it has not been easy to bounce back. But I did, and I did in large part because of my privilege. Despite problems with my family, I had a lot of love when I was young. I’m white, I’m cisgender, so for me to find rehabilitation programs was easy. To get into school was easy because I did not face racism from the class and the school system. I was always able to find a job and I was lucky enough that though I was a really heavy drinker, alcoholism didn’t run in my family so I could walk away from this when I needed to. I was able to find clarity in life, particularly when I started exploring radical sobriety. I was able to become aware of oppression and take action against it. Being able to look back in my own trauma and see how similar traumas affect others had been huge and to be able to use my experiences to find compassion and understanding for others, for where others are at, has also been paramount.

This is not the case for a lot of survivors. Many survivors are marginalized, and not just facing the oppression of a patriarchal system but also racism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, and so many other oppressions that for some of us, especially people like white settlers, we don’t know this oppression. We just know the one kind that we have been facing. The first step to abolishing oppression is to remember that when we are calling each other to mobilize, to step up and take action, not everyone is in the same position of privilege and not everyone has the same vantage point to be able to look past their own struggles and focus on the plight of others. We see this a lot in the animal rights movement and veganism, we want so much for people to step up and stop hurting other beings, but we’re not necessarily taking a look at what is happening in those people’s lives at that moment in time. So, as we move through this work, let’s to not assume other people’s privilege. Let’s try our best to work from a position of compassion and understanding and just find out where people are at and how they are and how they are being affected and how we can work together.

There is this article I just read and I wasn’t going to talk about this at first because I had not been opened up to this, but it was shared on the website the other day and it
was an article by Lauren Chief Elk about the myths of shared gender oppression and it totally blew my mind. I have felt this oppression for so many years and I do my best to not feel like a victim and I try to work through that and be strong, but having more privilege than others we need to be accountable for that without perpetuating further models of colonization by trying to help other communities because we feel empowered to do so. For anyone who has survived trauma and is feeling empowered to go out and make changes in communities and it is a natural thing, you want to go, you want to help and talk to people and see what you can do but it is not always our place to barge into a liberation struggle and start helping out. There are communities around the world who are already mobilizing, and standing their ground, against oppression.

For me, it’s important to know that it has been an important lesson to know that just because I feel able to stand up for other women and it’s not always by my place to speak on behalf of them because we are not all the same and we have very similar oppressions and to be an ally to work in solidarity is huge. But you can’t determine what people — I see a little note here, the article is called the — I don’t have the full title, but it is by Lauren Chief Elk and it’s about the myth of shared gender oppression. It’s posted on the Facebook page for the forum. You can look at that or I will try to find the link — oh there it is. Awesome.

I was really lucky, I got through, I healed, and I started to open up to how other beings are being treated. I became active in many different campaigns for animal liberation, for environmental protection, social justice issues. What I found was that I was still numbing myself. So back to when I was in the midst of trauma and oppression, I just numbed myself with alcohol because I couldn’t deal with it and I found that once I broke free of all that oppression, I was no longer facing such extremities anymore that and I was utilizing my experiences to assist others. But I was just kind of burying myself in whatever I could find. I was pushing myself too hard and taking on too much and I would deal with it by having a couple of drinks every day or whatever. I would use alcohol as a release and something to help me cope. Really, I wasn’t coping at all. I ended up having a pretty bad anxiety breakdown. I found myself in an abusive marriage. I had just replaced one trauma with another and I had not really started to heal at all.

So, about three years ago I started to explore sobriety. I began to realize that I could be a lot more effective, not only as an activist, but as a community member if I started to look a little bit deeper and started to really explore how I relate to the world and how different oppressions are formed, how different oppressions are out there, and how I also participate in these oppressions. When we talk about radical sobriety and veganism in a lot of these movements it sometimes this sounds like we expect others to deal with life, to deal with trauma, by taking on the actions of others. I don’t want this to be the case and I am explaining a lot about my experiences with it and for me radical sobriety was something that was paramount and it saved my life.

But it is not the option for everybody. It’s not a means to an end, at all. It is the same thing with veganism we are able to eliminate the suffering of animals the minute we adopt it and with radical sobriety we can take a stand against corporations and we can start to take a lot more accountability in our communities. But it’s not the only thing. If we’re just sober, that’s great. But it’s not going to start a revolution. It is a tool that we can utilize and for instance in a lot of liberation struggles, the Zapatista movement especially, or specifically, sobriety has been adopted to affect the autonomy of women, to create safer spaces, and eliminate any thing that could perpetuate the suffering that someone could be in already.

The state has used drugs and alcohol through history to stop the liberation movements, and in fact, here’s a quote from a really awesome being, from this book, which you should read if you’re interested in this kind of stuff – a significant portion of gender violence specifically sexual and relationship violence against women committed by men who are intoxicated. So how many of us have been present in a radical community or an anarchist community and has seen abusive or oppressive actions being condoned simply because someone was drunk. It’s not okay and should not be acceptable. We have this right to safer spaces, and in our quest to create spaces free of all oppression, why not decrease a practice that affects who we are and creates a lot of violence in itself. This is something that having come from a place of extreme violence and coming from a place where alcohol was the tool to really bury down everything. The idea that we could let go of a crutch like that and start to really be accountable for ourselves is huge because we don’t see a lot.

Sometimes there is not enough accountability in radical circles. As we move through this work and we try to fight for the rights of others, if we’re speaking up for the animals, if we’re standing up for the environment, and other kinds of social justice issues, but we’re not even able, in our own community, to be accountable, to be caring and be respectful of each other, how are we going to get out there and be active for these causes that are bigger than anything else? I’ve been committed to a lifelong sobriety for about 2 years, and this changed my life so much. I’ve been able to reassess what I take on and have developed a great self-care practice and it was beautiful to hear the last presentation about self-care because it is so true, even if we are not taking in any kind of intoxicants, as activists we push ourselves way too hard because we have to and we feel like there are so much injustice in this world and there is.

Each and every one of us comes with such an open heart and wants to make change and that is beautiful. We have to realize that we cannot save the world by ourselves and it is hard. It’s really hard. To be able to step away from burnout and do a few things that nourish our body and our minds and our spirit, it’s really important. I have been able to find that and by having the clarity of mind on a daily basis I don’t deviate from that too much. Which is nicer than the days where I would deviate from that. Because, I was involved in partying the night before, or something, right? I have been able to face my trauma which is huge. I didn’t for so long, and I thought that I did. I talked about it sometimes and I knew it was there, and I read some books, but I had not really opened up to it because I had not allowed myself to just feel, like really, really be down. I hadn’t allowed things to pop up. Not only the suffering of myself but, the suffering of others. Now that I am opening up to a lot more struggles, I’m able to explore different ways to decolonize and I have more energy to love, to share, to protect and explore who I am, and what affect I have on the world.10014610_10152068371473108_1413824307_n

Particularly as somebody whose existence alone causes oppression to others, I live in Central America, and this is where I get do a lot of work with animals, with the environment, with community. But, I and every single other white settler here needs to be super aware that just our presence is oppressive, it’s not necessarily our fault, but it goes back far into history, however we all have to take accountability for it and we all have to work on ways to be allies for a community and to not just barge in and tell people what to do. I find that sobriety has really helped me be super aware, at any given time I’m doing my best to be aware. I’m not there all of the way, obviously. So many of us have so much to work on, but it has definitely helped me a lot. I am really finding that I need to take accountability for my actions now, whereas before maybe I would have been a bit defensive or argumentative about the fact that I could be an oppressor because I had been oppressed in the past.

But now I am able to listen, really listen and it’s hard and even if it sucks and it’s icky, I need to listen and that is true for all of us. I find that I feel a lot stronger to call other people out on their own actions and hold other people accountable for the same things. The more that, as a community, we can start to practice this. There was this great article [on Black Girl Dangerous] not too long ago about ‘calling in’, which instead of shaming people and casting them out of the community, and making it a big deal, it was more of this heartfelt one on one conversation with people that we work with, as comrades, about their actions and I found that was so beautiful because having those situations where we can talk to one another about the things we do is huge and we are all products of very, very oppressive systems of years and years and generations of systemic oppression that have come down. Every single one of us has learned that, maybe some of us have grown up in some pretty radical communities but for the most part, we have all learned these terrible things that now we are trying to break free from.

To have a situation, to have safer spaces where people are clearheaded and are mindful, are compassionate, are loving, is so important. There is a lot to learn and I’m just starting, we are all just starting. There is a lot to let go of. For most of us, it is weird, but I feel that if we’re all on this path together, holding each other up and supporting one another, we can do it. So yeah, I think that is about all that I have to say. Costa Rica is, a very – a place that a lot people move to, a lot of ex patriots and foreigners and I find that sometimes there is a high level of ignorance as far as being part of the community. Language is huge and you see a lot of people who come here to live and build some crazy house somewhere that isn’t really doing anything for the community and they don’t learn the language and don’t attempt to communicate with anybody in the community and I find that is a huge problem because how do you really know what is going on in the community or what issues the community faces.

I live in a community of about a hundred. So, people come together when there is a problem in town, when there’s a shortage of water, when anything is going on and there are collectives, and communities and people talk about it. I find that coming in to such a situation and building up a little castle and putting your walls up and not learning the language is a problem. Unfortunately, it really perpetuates the same model of colonization, to come in and try to change a community, try to bring in a little bit of America into the jungle. Doing a lot of work talking to other foreigners, other people who have settled here about this, about language, about mindfulness in the community and respecting people. For instance, there is a squat here.

In Costa Rice, the first 50 metres of the beach belongs to the people and then 150 metres after that it is maritime zone, so you can’t build any structures. There is a squat not too far from where I am and I think about 30 to 50 people live there and there is a huge push by the people who own property around here, mostly white foreigners, to abolish the squat and they feel like, especially because in Costa Rica if a squat is broken up then everyone is given land and they have more and that is good. This is good. A lot of places can learn from a lot from that. However, the first 50 meters of the beach belongs to people. And these people were here way longer before anybody decided to come in and buy land and start selling it for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Advocating against that and using my position as a white settler and my ability to converse in English with other people who are trying to abolish squats, who are trying to step in on the community is huge and is something that at least I can do. I cannot speak on behalf of the community, but I can on behalf of being a white settler and a bit more of the integration process, like being anywhere else.

Another question, are there any problems with “manarchists” in Costa Rica and how do you deal with it if it occurs and any tactics? Yeah, it’s everywhere. Especially since I live in the country. But it’s a huge problem with misogyny and manarchism not so much that I have seen. The anarchist scene here is really amazing and is mostly around San Jose, which is the capital city, and it is phenomenal. There is huge emphasis on being queer friendly and being about total liberation, really including all of the liberating struggles in it, so I find that I have not met any or seen any of oppression within the anarchism here. Most of the stuff that I see, the misogyny that I see, is in the general community and the community that I live in specifically there is a lot of abuse towards women, and so women don’t stay. You won’t see any 18-20 year old women because they have all gotten out. I think that dialogue about that is huge and having safer spaces for women to go to, and again, it is very interesting because if I was in Canada the first thing I would do is barge into a community and set up shop and make safe space and start talking to people about violence against women. Here, because it is not my community and I am a settler and have to be respectful as an ally it is a different process, so I’m learning a lot about this and finding where I can be of assistance in the community as opposed to trying to take over a struggle. It is interesting and a lot of work, but something to work toward for sure.

Is there a website or any social media that we can contact or interact with you? I have a Facebook page for Total Liberation Yoga, I try to take away a lot of oppression with western yoga. So it is free classes and open to anyone and fundraisers for animal protection and environmental protection and I am working on launching a nonprofit here that will deal with, I’m hoping to start a drop-in centre for street kids and at-risk women, and then hopefully a sanctuary for injured wildlife.

The last question I can see is can you tell us more about your work with yoga and how that influences your activism. Again, just as sobriety has been amazing for me, yoga has been phenomenal. I was in six car accidents during my time of craziness, my crazy adolescence, and I had a lot of physical problems. Not only was I bearing the pain of emotional past, but also physical as well. Through yoga, I was a dancer growing up, so physical movement was something I was missing. To start with, yoga brought that back and allowed me to start to feel things in my body. All of us hold so much emotion in different places in our body and when you start to move again, things release. It was really hard, but it was really worth it. I started to get into the physical practice of yoga, to open up and feel my physical body, and the more that I got into that the more I started to open up to the emotional side of yoga and the more I started to realize I did not have to be a tough angry woman all of the time with my walls up so that nobody could get to me. Yoga has allowed me to open my heart and to soften. In that softening I found so much more strength to take a stand and speak up for others. I learn every day and I had an opportunity to be a teacher and work with people who are facing trauma themselves or to raise awareness of issues, but I’m helping students. I learn from every single person that I comes into the room and it is always something new.

I recently actually published a blog about a lot more in depth about what I’ve gone through and the amount of feedback and stories people shared with me afterward was heartbreaking, but so beautiful that through something like that people were able to open up and I find that in yoga it really helps. The more we get away from the Western model of having to have the fancy studios and the nicest clothes, the more that we get to the practice of yoga, of community and raising our awareness and opening our hearts and our minds the more I find we have the ability to heal each other and be there in solidarity for one another when we need it. That is big. We often need a lot of the conversations to get us through and we don’t often need so many of these clinical “self help programs”. We really just need each other and to have a practice that allows us to heal ourselves and heal our community, so that we are stronger for one another.

Full video with closed captioning available here

Mya Wollf is a vegan straightedge anarcha-feminist residing in Costa Rica, where she works in wildlife rescue/rehabilitation, environmental conservation, and many projects advocating for the liberation of all beings.  She is also a yoga teacher and the founder of Total Liberation Yoga, which is a project dedicated to bringing anti-oppression and total liberation work into yoga, creating safer spaces and accessibility for all people who wish to join the practice.

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