Hope isn’t something that comes effortlessly, like blood pumping through our veins. Janaya Future Khan likes to say that hope is a muscle. It needs to be exercised to grow stronger — and, for them, that sometimes means literally. “I have a heavy bag in my backyard and since I can't go to the boxing club anymore, I practice on this,” the Toronto-born social activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada says. They also exercise that muscle of hope by seeking out beauty, they say, “because that's one of the things that have been robbed from us..."
“We should always be reminding ourselves what it is that we're fighting for and what world we're trying to build,” Khan explained from their home in Los Angeles, where they’ve lived with partner Patrisse Cullors since 2016. “That’s what makes sure the muscle stays strong.”
Speaking with Khan in the week leading up to the 2020 presidential election, the idea of hope comes up over and over. It’s been a busy year for the activist, who spent the summer working as an international ambassador for Black Lives Matter, helping to lead demonstrations across the city in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, and giving inspirational weekly Sunday sermons to hundreds of thousands of viewers on Instagram.
The other word that comes up a lot is “courage.” After all, a switch won’t magically flip come Nov. 4, wiping away the many problems the pandemic and the protests made clear. And that, Khan says, is where the real work begins. “Courage is a commitment to curiosity, a commitment to growth or discomfort or tension,” they say. “When we create [a culture of courage] around us, how we show up, how we move and walk through the world, and how we seek to protect each other fundamentally changes.”
Khan has experienced firsthand how transformative it can be to move through fear. As a teenager in Canada, living in a women’s shelter with their sister and mother, Khan was “terribly afraid of everything,” they recall. “On the outside, I looked real tough. I had a very typical early 2000s aesthetic. I masked all my fear with huge, baggy clothes and a frown.” In reality, they were afraid to enter a classroom two minutes late for fear of having eyes drawn to them, or to even talk to people at all. Activism gave Khan a way out: “I fought for other people because I knew that they felt like how I felt. In doing so, I learned what my voice was.”
Here, the activist talks about the roots of their activism, their paradigm-shifting year, how to avoid panicking, and how to prepare for what comes next.
How would you describe your 2020 thus far?
The past few months have been a bit of a pendulum. I feel OK and inspired and ready for action, and I feel very concerned. The conditions that we're all living in — pandemic and political pandemonium — can be really overwhelming. A big shift for me has been grounding down in the nighttime, making sure that I'm remembering to look at and seek out beautiful things in the world. And to remember that there's going to be life after this. That's what we're fighting for.
What are some of those little things that you personally have felt joy and beauty from?
Spending time with my dog. Being able to call my mother, and being able to be an advocate for her. Reading a book. I'm reading a book right now, Washington Black, a novel by Esi Edugyan. There was a line in there that was so beautiful to me. The character was describing what the moon looked like from the Earth, and she said that the moon looked like earth on the third day, which is a biblical reference for sure. But it was such a beautiful pairing of words. I have been sitting with that ever since.
What about that line struck you so profoundly?
Those words together reminded me that this work that we're doing is really world-building, isn't it? We're trying to change what is possible. It reminded me that every day is a moment for us to really think about what it is that we're creating and building together, and that we can always start again. We always have.
How are you feeling at this moment?
These moments when everything is so incredibly difficult and nothing seems possible, that's the time where we have to be the most committed to conviction and committed to courage. What I see is so much power in the people. When people think protest, they think that means chaos, but I look at protests and I see possibility and power. I'm more inspired than I've ever been. I'm also more worried than I've ever been. The risks are great, but I think that the change that we are fighting for is happening.
What change have you seen in the past few months alone?
The paradigm shifting is massive, and it takes a long time to achieve. The work that we're doing is so much bigger than these moments. We're not fighting an administration or a president or a set of policies. We're fighting a belief system that is formed by bigotry, by segregation, and by hatred. So we have to build a [new] belief system in its place and make it really clear what our bottom lines are. What I’ve seen in the past few months around the development of that belief system, I know that we will win.
How do we build a new set of beliefs?
We need to break free of the idea that you could just pay into a system and that system would therefore protect you. This pandemic has shown us that where people thought they were paying into protection, they were really getting precarity. Those kinds of shifts are dramatic. They are massive and they are not measurable in the same way as a simple policy change or even a vote. We have to punch up that power. It's very inspiring to me when people are like, “Yes, we have to vote because we understand that we have to fight back and we have to organize.” That says to me that the power of what happens after the vote is just as important.
Activism is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. How do you define it?
Activism for me is being for someone else who you needed most in your vulnerable moments. I used to think that activism meant that you had to follow very specific sets of rules; I now realize that activism is really following a set of principles and beliefs. It's about having values and fighting for them. Activism is really the work of being alive. It is fighting for life and protecting and defending life. Fundamentally, activism is about being fully alive.
Do you remember the first time you witnessed an instance of activism?
When I first started high school, my mother and sister and I were living in a women's shelter and I was very embarrassed. I felt a lot of shame for being there. My friends would call the women's shelter all the time, and everyone had to share a phone in the rec room. Some new person would always be answering the phone, and my sister and I would always say, "Oh, that's just our aunt."
Those women, who were arguably in one of the most difficult times of their lives, still managed to find that kindness and started to refer to themselves as our aunties when they would pick up. They saw that we were struggling. They saw that I needed more help and more support, and they provided that for me. That set a foundation of care that never left. That was a pivotal moment for me; it was one of my first experiences of activism that was informed by love.
Do you find that people are hesitant to label themselves activists?
We regulate each other a lot. I was asked a question regarding some athlete who spoke on an issue that I think he didn't know especially well: "Well, what do you have to say to that person?"And what I had to say to that person was, "Keep trying. Keep going." Because if we believe in the same principles and the same values, then we're on the same bloody side. I'm less worried about that person who didn't get it right. I don't want to break them down. I want to build them up. That person is a person that is on our side; they're trying.
Right now we're facing bigotry and hatred in this country, and that is my primary focus. My focus is not on trying to break down somebody who's in the same fight as I am. I want to help get them to the place where they need to be; that is the work of the organizer and the activist. Our job is not to judge. Our job is to build people up and steer energy and momentum where it needs to be. There's a mutual responsibility there that I think can't be missed. I see it as an opportunity.
What do you do for yourself to stay centered and grounded at the end of the day, and allow yourself to realize that at the end of the day, you are one person?
I spent half of my life believing the story about me that I was born into — I didn't know I was non-binary yet, didn’t even know I was queer. If I’d accepted the story that I was born into, I would have accepted my own destruction. So much of this work, and so much of my work, has been stepping off script and stepping out of the story that I was born into and writing my own. On a larger level, that is what Black Lives Matter is. It's about rewriting the story of Blackness in America.
What keeps me grounded is gratitude. I feel very grateful to have the trust of some of the people, to be considered a leader. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with that, but I feel so much gratitude. In society, so many of us were forced to shrink, to cut off parts of who we are, to be contortionists. So much of this fight is about finding out who you are and trying to protect that, and to fight for other people to have the same opportunity.
I want to see a kind of world where our strength is not determined by how much suffering we can endure. If I'm clear on that as my goal, it allows me to be present. Toni Morrison said that the [function] of racism is distraction, and I think that is true and we have to fight it, but we also have to be clear about what we're fighting for. When I'm present in the moment, when I'm seeking out joy, when I'm trying to love and to be loved, those things to me are foundational to these big-picture acts and demands and fights that we're doing.
As you said, the election is just a small part of a larger picture, but for many people, it serves as a sort of crossroads for where we go from here. How are you feeling in the days leading up to Election Day?
Part of our job as organized leaders is to have measured responses; we can't give way to nihilism and we can't give way to panic because the truth is no matter who wins, we will be here. All of us will have to be living in it. So I don't see this as a crossroads, but I do see it as a clarifying point. These moments will be very revealing for who we are. And for anyone who is feeling that this is a crossroads, let it be a crossroads in a series of crossroads.
This fight is a marathon. Even if Biden does win, which of course I long for and I'm fighting for, we still have to deal with the nightmare and the base of bigotry that has been woken up, or, I should say, risen in power over the last four years. We're still going to have to live with that. It's not going to go away. This idea of the return to normalcy is something that we really have to resist. Do we all long for it? Yes. But that normalcy is what enabled us to be here in the first place on what feels like a precipice. Sure, we should live in a way that feels less precarious, we should. But our sense of safety cannot come at the expense of others and I hope that’s what this moment has revealed.
What would you say to someone who is feeling panicked?
No matter what result comes in, we're still here. We're still in the fight. There is always going to be a tomorrow. If we give up our power today, we ensure that the tomorrow that we're fighting for will never come to be. We have to hold on to our power. We have to hold on to our purpose every day, we have to fight for joy. We have to live in our purpose. We have to live the kind of life that we are telling other people is achievable.
We have to let go of this idea of panic and that there's apocalypse on the brink. We're not on the brink of annihilation. We're at a very pivotal moment, but we always have to be ready for the day after.
When we are in those dark moments, how do you still stay positive and find that resilience to want to fight? And how can other people find that for themselves?
It is fair to foresee a lot more ugliness. I think there's going to be a backlash no matter what. Our job is always to figure out how to be as big as possible. So it's not about making the backlash smaller, it's about making ourselves bigger than the backlash. Making our vision and our beliefs bigger and irresistible. We have to be prepared. Whatever that looks like for people, whether that is being with friends or family or loved ones, we have to seek our joy. We do have to brace ourselves for what is going to be one of the ugliest periods of our lives and know that we are going to get through it. Whatever almost destroyed us didn’t. There’s history in that.
And when we're feeling at our lowest, just remember that our job is not to make people see the light. We don't have to perform goodness. Our job is to be the light.
How can we be a light for others, especially if not feeling bright ourselves?
We struggle to fight for ourselves. It's actually so much easier to fight for someone else. But we have to riot where we're quiet. We should really be looking to be a champion for someone else. If you don't know what to do, do what you know. If you know how to paint, then paint. If you know how to write, then write. But the biggest thing is, all you have to do is be for someone else what you want for [yourself].
We've all had a moment where we're singled out, and you wish that somebody else had said something. We all know on some level what we wished somebody had said in our defense, how we wish to be protected. We know how to do it for someone else, because all we have to do is go back to what we wish somebody had done for us. We all have that in us. When you don't know what to do, it's about embodying that thing, because when you become that for somebody else, you invite that care back into your life.
How will courage factor into how we need to approach the coming months, especially post-election?
I've already seen such incredible, inspiring courage. We're feeling the full weight of isolation, of despair and uncertainty, and we're fighting more than we ever have before. Courage gives birth to conviction around our beliefs and around our values, around fundamental bottom lines, like dignity. I know that that's not going anywhere.
I've seen courage with people who're spending hours in registration lines to cast their own votes.
There's courage around people in the movement for Black lives who are fighting to defund the police. In teachers, who are fighting here in LA for the kinds of protections and support and funding that they deserve. I'm seeing climate activists and the radical shifts and demands that they're making at this time. I'm even seeing it with content creators. I just saw that Ava DuVernay's production company is putting on a show called Sovereign that's focused on Indigenous people. On every level, I am seeing more and more power, more courage, more possibility, despite all odds. The moment that we stop believing that we have power, we do, to reference that Alice Walker quote. The place of pain that we started from is turning into so much power and possibility, and I'm full of it.
This interview, based on two conversations, has been condensed and edited.
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