Joy + Accountability: A Conversation

Join me and Liberation Doula Martissa Williams for a conversation about how joy and accountability go together.
Joy + Accountability: A Conversation
In: archive, Liberatory Joy, Accountability

This is what we'll call a transcript-ish of the IG Live that we (Martissa Williams and Liz Wiltsie) did on Thursday, May 27, 2021. We've worked to keep the integrity of the conversation without a word-for-word translation. The video has word-for-word subtitles.

Liz Wiltsie: Hi friends, so we are Liz and Martissa.

Martissa Williams: Yes, we are.

LW: And we're going to talk about how we know each other for a second, and then we hope we're also going to talk about how joy and accountability go together. And we're mostly going to be friends in public, so we may or may not make fools of ourselves. Who knows. And my mom is here, and Martissa, your mom might end up joining us as well.

MW: You never know, you know.

LW: So Martissa and I met more than ten years ago; I was her high school dean of students. I was a baby high school dean of students as well, by the way, just for everyone who wants to know. And it's been so cool to get to evolve that relationship into something where we work together regularly.

One of the things that we've been talking about (since we live together now) is how particularly Martissa's work around a consistent joy practice dovetails with mine around an accountability practice. So that's what we're kind of hoping to share today. So, Martissa, do you want to talk a little bit about what a consistent joy practice actually looks like?

MW: Yeah, I think that it's one of those things that are extremely individualized to the person. For me, my joy practice looks like a lot of things, but it's rooted in my desire for a fully realized life. It is rooted in my desire to lead a very radical and liberatory life. And part of that looks like just pure joy, pleasure, peace. Those are the ways that I want my life to feel. I'm moving things around here to come into that space. I think that there there's multiple things that have to occur, and I believe accountability to oneself starts at the crux of that place.

But right now, my current joy practice looks like morning existential social talks with you at like 6 am, after we've walked the dog. It looks like sitting in the sun. It looks like travel, and it looks like really great orgasms.

LW: And putting on a red lip when necessary.

MW: And putting on a red lip when necessary, yep.

LW: We are both Capricorns; we have big earth sign energy [Capricorn, Taurus, and Virgo are the earth signs]. I had someone ask me a couple of weeks ago what I do for fun, and I'm like I spreadsheet for fun; that's what I do for fun. And so sometimes I'm like, so Martissa, what does that look like for me? What does a joy practice look like when a red lip doesn't look good on me? There are many people out there right now who will say joy has to look like this specific thing.

Can you talk a little bit about your method and how you help people find their unique space rather than trying to shoehorn it into something else?

MW: For sure, so for me, as a Liberation Doula, the point of my coaching is liberation. Joy ends up being a byproduct of that process. So my process looks like three steps (which is really not steps - we're failed by two dimensions).

It's alignment which is getting in alignment with what you believe to be true in the world. What is it that you believe to be true about being in community? What do you believe to be true about yourself? What do you believe to be true about the existential questions in the world? Then, getting really in alignment with that.

And then embodiment is the next step: how do I practice that every day with every thought, every action, and word that I speak out of my mouth?

And then the third is connection. How do we do that together in space? How do we intentionally and daily buck up against how the systems of oppression get embodied into our everyday experiences? How we relate to ourselves and how we relate to others? In that comes the joy.

When we're deeply aligned with what we know to be true, and we act kindly to ourselves and think of ourselves from a radical space rather than a very oppressed space, we begin to do that with others; that's where the joy comes from. That's where the peace comes from. That's where we experience the deep pleasure, not the like momentary, oh I'm happy because I had this piece of cake or whatever. It's the real; I'm in alignment with what I know are the best parts of me. I know these are the best parts of the ways that I can show up in this world. And so that's the process. It's figuring out what those things are for ourselves rather than, again, the systems of oppression. They will have us all day thinking we have to follow some script. It's not about the script anymore, fuck the script. We're pushing that away.

LW: We talk regularly about how much the scripts don't serve us.

If the script does serve you great, there are pieces of a script that can. We have to be mindful of its impact on the rest of the world, right?

MW: Right, exactly right.

LW: My mom has a marriage that works for her. And that looks much different than anything I would imagine for me, and it works for her beautifully.

You know she and my stepdad have a relationship that they've had for too many years to count; I can't do the math anymore. It's a long time, and that's much more traditional. I'm not going to say that that traditional frame isn't serving them; it is. But it doesn't serve me.

James -Olivia, who's @inquisitive_human, talks about being able to just not sit in this judgment space all the time that says, mine is the only way to be. James-Olivia talks a lot about right relationship: the ways that we are awful to each other and to ourselves. So that's part of it, of not being like, what doesn't work for me will never work for somebody else.

We had that conversation the other day at the pool because I am a person who does not do yoga, and you are a yoga instructor. And I shy away from the way embodiment is sold to us because it makes me feel like I exist wrong. And you told me to frame it as some questions. Do you remember what those are for people?

MW: I think that coming to almost anything in the Buddhist tradition it's called like with a beginner's mind. Coming to anything with a beginner's mind with the framework of like, what is there to learn here? What is there to experience here? What is there to gain or be like Nah, never again, we're not doing that anymore? What is there to experience from whatever? And so my thing, to you, was how can you come to an embodiment practice with just a question? What is there to feel? What is there to experience? Can I be soft with myself? Can I do this hard thing? Does it serve me to do this hard thing? Can we move to things with questions? Rather than, again, a script of how I should and shouldn't be in the world.

And there's something you had said earlier about these scripts that made me think about how the joy practice for me dovetails into accountability because it comes down to this: this need to be deeply accountable to your truth, to your individual truth. What feels good in your own body, what feels liberatory for you? And then be accountable to the ways in which how you walk in the world offsets other people's joy in whatever ways. And I think that's where, for me, the accountability piece is really, really key. And I love how you speak about accountability and how to be in relationship with others.

LW: Yeah, well, I think there's a piece both with ourselves and with others where and, again, we've talked about this a lot, James-Olivia talks about it too. It's like all my friends talk about the same stuff; go figure. How accountability and our ideas of punishment are just deeply connected and how we seek both to punish ourselves and others. And often around difference and to say okay not only do I disagree, but I'm right, and you're wrong. And that super binary is a part of supremacy culture and doesn't serve us. That's one of those that just doesn't serve us, doesn't serve any of us to live in that space.

One of the things that I do when I talk about accountability practice is developing your own ability to admit when you were wrong. Because there are times where I know, I made a mistake. I know I made a mistake; I'm not talking about the times where everyone's a little bit wrong, and everything is super nuanced and everything else; those exist in our lives for sure. And I am talking about the times when I mess something up, I know it, and I have a deep fear in my body of admitting it aloud. And that's a nervous system response. A fight-or-flight response can often be felt here [chest], not always but often. And I will tell people that I'm almost all fight response. That is mine, some people have others, but that's mine. And so I'll fight.

And my body is always ready. So part of that is learning the discernment to say I'm activated here. I can feel it here. And Polyvagal Theory, which Stephen Porges developed in 1997, is helpful. Some of the most accessible books, I think, are written by Deb Dana. She talks about the Polyvagal Theory in therapy; two of her books are written for therapists. Still, I would say anyone who learns via books would be here for it because they're accessible whether you're a therapist or not. I am not.

One of the things that she talks about is how the story follows state. And so, your nervous system is making decisions about your safety without your conscious mind. Then you're in a different state, and there's more to it than that; there's more to it. But you're in a different state of your nervous system. So if I'm activated, I actually have less access to the part of my brain that understands nuance.

And so, if I'm afraid, I'm more likely to slam into that binary and say, I'm right, you're wrong. And so, how do I manage my own thing? To one, get better at reflecting on when I was wrong, seeing my own wrongness, and then being able to work through my own nervous system responses? And people do that in therapy, but therapy isn't accessible to everybody. It's not a thing that, if you're in the middle of a meeting, you can pause for therapy.

MW: Gotta call the therapist; hold on, just give me a second.

LW: Sorry, I have to go. But you might be able to pause in general. I would love to see more folks in business situations be able to say; I need a minute; I'll be right back. Because what happens in that activated space is we end up saying things we don't mean. Or, we do mean. But they're not something we really actually wanted to say out loud.

MW: I think it is so necessary to know about those moments when we're highly activated that our brains shut off the reason, and oh, I had these incredible plans to be in my joy and to be in my creativity and to be reasonable. Our brains just shut that down. So our ability to regulate, or at least like notice when we have fallen into that space, is critical for like how am I going to move next? What's the next move? Knowing how to slow down and say okay, I recognize the story that's being played, I recognize that I am feeling something in my body. I feel like, in so many ways, the first step to both being accountable in space to yourself and to others and the first step to coming into your joy. It's from that space of let me be still and know well.

LW: And another person, who I know we both have studied with at different points, is Melinda Alexander (@mumumansion here on Instagram), and she was the first person who had ever said to me, Liz, you don't have to understand something to hold space for it.

MW: And I love that.

LW: My big Capricorn energy was like, excuse me. I don't believe that's true. I'm sorry, what? The way it works, for me anyway, is I will feel that sort of activation in my chest, and then I will walk away from the thing.

Sometimes, it's an email; I'm like, we're not responding to this right now. And it's not so much about why it happened, or what it is, or what the story is or anything else it's just going; we maybe shouldn't respond right now.

Getting a little distance from things is important. This is also where the urgency that rules our lives in lots and lots of ways, again, because of supremacy culture doesn't serve us. Because if we have to do it now now now now now, then we don't have any time for that like, I'm going to take a second; I don't know what's going on for me. Sometimes you want to know, and sometimes you want to dig in, and sometimes you want to take it to your therapist, and sometimes you don't. Sometimes you are like, okay, this was a thing, it passed, and I'm going to move on in my existence now. Not everything has to be a five-alarm fire.

MW: Joy doesn't happen in the urgency. Joy doesn't happen; the peace doesn't happen, the alignment doesn't happen in those moments of fight or flight, in that moment of, I have to do it now. It happens when we've taken a step back and been like, oh, this was what feels good. And often, what feels good isn't happening because we're moving like this. It's happening because we've slowed down a bit and started to be present with what is.

LW: We're all sort of sitting at this moment of having had a million different experiences of the pandemic. And I think it's interesting how folks talk about stuff as though there has been some sort of singular experience. And I'm like, okay, yeah, I don't know two people who have had the same experience. And so sitting in that, there's a lot of us, myself included, who will continue to be activated for a while.

And part of that is about like yes, there's a really big thing happening in the world and continuing to happen in the world and the more we can judge ourselves less for the way we respond to things, I think, the better we can move through them.

MW: Absolutely, it ultimately comes down to grace; we've got to give ourselves grace. I mean, we've got to give ourselves grace to be accountable to the ones we love. We've got to give ourselves the grace to begin to navigate what it looks like to be in alignment with our joy and with our pleasure. We've got to give ourselves enough patience, enough stillness, and step back to step into whatever it is that we're calling in. There's no way that we can be doing that from a place of I should, I need to, I have to, or the urgency that capitalism will have us believe. Capitalism has ingrained urgency not only into our culture but into our very nervous systems.

LW: And this moment of, you and I are both in the United States, I know there are folks joining us from other places. There hasn't been anything for us, for the most part, here in the United States. But there's been a federal eviction moratorium. There have been state eviction moratoriums, and most of that is ending in July.

I think this particular moment that we're in, this summertime moment, is going to be really hard for many people. Because there are folks saying, okay well, you've got to be okay now, get back into it. A friend of mine is in Florida and on unemployment in Florida. They had federal, and now the state of Florida has shut off the federal unemployment because "not enough people are going back to work." Which, again, because people aren't getting enough paid enough money. I know we're talking about joy; we're talking about accountability, and the amount of money we get paid directly impacts both of those things.

Because of instability in finances or housing, you can't access anything else because you are in survival mode 100% of the time. Because your actual survival is threatened.

MW: And I think that's an important pin that we throw in. My work comes from a privileged standpoint: most of my needs are met, most of the time. I don't have to worry about my survival. It is from that standpoint that I'm able to do this joy work. I'm able to do this accountability work. I'm able to do this liberation work. But when we want to talk about the foundation of liberation, it cannot happen unless everyone's needs are met. It cannot happen if you don't have a paycheck coming in. It cannot happen unless you know where your housing is and your food is, and your safety is. Let's take a moment to pin that as the real necessity to these things.

LW: When you talk about connection, and I talk about accountability, we are also talking about our connection to society and undermining these systems of oppression. Because we can't be out here stable in our housing and not be working towards stable housing for everybody.

We're both in Los Angeles, and LA has a giant population of folks without homes. And that's huge. There's no reason that that should be so. There's big organizing here in Los Angeles around actual support, not "solutions" that just perpetuate the problem.

MW: That's why I'm building my praxis around this idea that joy is a human right. Because we have to think about justice in more radical ways, we need to think about supporting our community in more radical ways. And I'm like, I won't believe it's justice until I have access and the most marginalized folks have access to joy. We will not have a world that is just and free until that is the truth.

So if we have not gotten there, we have not done enough work. In some ways, it goes without saying that we need to be working on the homeless problem like we need to be working on these things. And we need to be accountable to one another.

I think the beauty of accountability is how scalable it is. From a one-on-one standpoint, there's a practice of accountability and just with me and myself, making sure that I'm in alignment with my values. And then there is a practice of accountability that happens on a global scale, on how we show up in a way that is equitable and just in an alignment with collective liberation. We have to begin to think about it at those levels. We also have to start thinking about joy in those levels. We need to think of joy, not as a singular experience but a collective one. One that we can constantly invest in for one another. Once we do that, I think we'll live in a different type of world.

LW: There's a big connection between folks who are willing to be personally accountable and folks who are willing to see where their institutions and governments need to be accountable, where the structures that we have built need to be accountable. And I think that skill set goes together. Those muscles are built together.

Because we start to break the hold that punishment has that says that if you make a mistake, you are a mistake. Then we see the connection where we cannot dispose of humans. We cannot just lock away people that are deemed a problem.

Here in Los Angeles, the biggest mental health care provider is the California jail system. And that's messed up. That's why we talk about abolitionist practice.

I also want to say one of the other folks who has been talking about joy for a very long time is EbonyJanice. EbonyJanice and Thea Monyeé did a lecture this time last year about Sustaining Joy in Anti-Racist Work that is really helpful. One of the things that EbonyJanice talks about is that her practice rooted in being a Black woman is joy and liberation now. That it's not a thing we get to later.

And I think that your embodiment pulls at a similar thing. It is important to support Black women in their joy, Black trans folks in their joy, Black non-binary folks in their joy. Particularly as white folks. Because the news will show us the trauma.

Because the trauma sells ad space, I think that's a piece of capitalism too: the trauma sells ad space, so we don't get to see the joy.

MW: This is where divestment comes in. We have to divest from the way that the media spins the trauma. We have to divest from sensationalism and begin to invest our time, our money, our brain space, our imagination into a joy paradigm. Into an actual liberatory accountability paradigm because that's the only way we get free. I will forever quote Audre Lorde in that, "the master's tools will not dismantle the master's house." Forever and a day, I will go back to that because our investment in sensationalism in trauma and trauma porn and all of that is all tools of the master's house.

That's why my work is based on the individual and working on a 1-on-1 level. Because it's in the hearts and minds of people that this thing blows up into the community. And so, as we begin to experience what it feels like to be in our joy to experience what it feels like to be in our pleasure, that's when we can begin to truly and radically imagine and work towards joy from a collective space.

LW: There's lots of discussion of the theory of change. Is it individual? Can you personally transform? And lots of folks are in different places about which theory of change works best. Carlos Saavedra and the organization Momentum have done a lot of work on the theory of change stuff. In general, there are three formats: personal transformation, changing dominant institutions, and building alternatives. And I would say, and Momentum will say, that any great movement needs all three. Often we disagree with other people who are doing similar work, and it's really a disagreement about how you think change happens and less about like, oh, this person is making me mad.

Which I think is an interesting piece. You know, you and I both work with individuals and then small groups as well, and then we organize with larger groups, and I think there is that piece as well about where you fit in with your work and where you join with other folks? Because it's dangerous for us to think that we're alone and again with that same like sensationalism is what gets played.

I've told you before, I didn't know there were other white folks doing anti-racist work before 2017, and I've been doing some version of anti-racist work since 2001. I wasn't away from it, but I also wasn't in an organizer space. And it's very easy to think, oh, this isn't already being done.

I'm currently reading Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. It's about dreaming disability justice, and there are so many things about access that came up during COVID that people are like, oh, this is new, but they've been discussed in disability justice and in communities of disability for ages.

There's so much collective wisdom and knowledge that just isn't in the mainstream. And I will also say as white folks, we like to imagine that we made it, that we invented something and or found something when that's not necessarily true. That's not to say there's no innovation, but I think a lot of ideas exist in the world. We need to be connected so that we can see where those things are happening rather than having to reinvent every wheel ever in the history of the universe.

MW: That feels like a good segue to a shameless plug here. I've said the foundation a thousand times, but one of the foundational pieces of this work is how we can imagine and dream in community. And so thinking, again, about EbonyJanice's work around Dreaming Yourself Free has been hugely impactful. Just that language (I haven't even done that work with her) around that feels really necessary.

Part of the personal transformation work is to expand our imaginations. Can we expand what we believe to be possible? About the world, for ourselves, all of it. So, I'm going to be leading a dream session called Dreaming the Impossible Possible. I was thinking about that because you're talking about being in community so that we're not reinventing the wheel, and I think when it comes to our imagination, into our dreaming, and what is possible, doing that in community is so important because our own imaginations are so limited. My imagination is limited to my experience and what I have seen, but if I can dream with you, one of the reasons why you're such a huge part of my joy practice is because now that we live in the same home, I get to dream with you every day, so my imagination gets to expand daily. My imagination of what's possible gets to expand daily. And I think that's a critical part of a joy practice is how can we expand, how we can see more things as possible so that we can live into the world and create the world that we really want to live in.

LW: Yeah, if we're not in conversation with other people, we do think we're alone. And some of this is hard stuff. You and I talk about dealing with a scarcity mindset which is deep deep deep deep deep, and what does that look like to do that together? Rather than just separately.

And I will say, I think that curating a social media experience of people who can remind you of things that are true is helpful. So EbonyJanice is in my feed, Thea Monyeé is in my feed, Jade T. Perry is in my feed, and Mara Glatzel is in my feed, James-Olivia is in my feed, you are in my feed. And folks who are regularly saying, here are things to think about, but also you're not alone, you're not the only one who's thinking about this, you're not the only one who struggles with these things. Jake Ernst (@mswjake)  is another one who is a therapist out of Toronto. He talks about safety, Routes of Safety. If we're going to scroll endlessly, let's endlessly scroll in ways that support us rather than don't.

Right because I think we can get in that trap of thinking like we're not good enough.

MW: Yeah, or just to continue to reinforce that life is difficult and hard. That it has to be difficult and hard, that there's no way out of it being that way. I think we absolutely reinforce a lot of things with the ways that we scroll through our phones all day, every day.

LW: Well, and they've done their best. They've done their best, well TikTok brings me joy. I watch baby animals on TikTok.

MW: That absolutely expands my understanding of what's possible absolutely.

LW: The number of times we are in this house, and I'm like, I learned this on TikTok. I learned how to clean out my all-in-one washing machine on TikTok; thank you very much. I did not know this information. And all of these apps are coded to keep you here. It doesn't matter if you're here in a space that works for you or not. Again, back to the idea of does the script serve you?

What serves you? What doesn't? Another person I like to follow is Regina Anaejionu @ByRegina here on Instagram; she's also @byregina on Twitter. She is talking about the attention economy a lot right now as well. And that we are often more careful with our money than we are with our minds and our attention.

And what is that? What does that look like, right?

MW: So for sure, yeah, I love that. Talk to me about the accountability workshop.

LW: Yeah, I am running an accountability workshop in June, and it's two sessions on either Fridays or Saturdays. I always like to talk about logistics; first, that's my Capricorn; I make spreadsheets for fun friends, my spreadsheets for fun.

It is what we talked about in terms of minding your nervous system. A lot of us come from places: families, schools, workplaces, communities where there's no admission that we're ever wrong, no admission from someone further up on a power dynamic than we are that they were ever wrong. And I call that our legacy of repair. What is our legacy of repair?

These are things you can do without coming and signing up and being with me, but you can if you would like. It's important to dig into what are our ideas? How have we treated repair in our lives? Is it necessary? Is it a thing you have to do? Is it the thing you get to joyfully do to be in connection with other people when you've messed something up? Again this is when I know I messed it up, when I know I messed it up.

We also spend time talking about what I call your Grace Go-Bag, which I have developed. What do you need to remind yourself that when you make a mistake, you're not a mistake? Because sometimes we forget. Getting into I've made a mistake throws us into a really deep shame spiral which is actually not that helpful in the world. So, how do we resource ourselves that way?

And then how do we reflect on what happened in ways that are helpful to us? And then how do we make amends? How do we make amends, and what does it look like to have put out something that you think is honest and real and have one someone say thank you for that, I'm actually not ready to be in relationship with you again? And recognizing what that can look like as well.

So it covers a lot of those things. It's meant to be a space to practice so that your nervous system can get used to it, so it doesn't feel quite so much like dying. Because we're running, we are always running on survival instincts, and there was a time in our evolutionary history that is not long enough ago for our brains that a mistake was fatal. All mistakes were fatal, and so there's some part of our brain that still feels like I made a mistake I might die. So like I like to remind people that you're not alone in that feeling either.

Accountability is one of the deepest ways we connect with other people and build trust, and it's a thing that makes us feel like dying. It can be both of those things at once. How do we hold that and ourselves with care while recognizing that that amends are a thing that make us better?

MW: I love that you said, how can you make it a joyful practice like how can we make accountability a joyful practice? And I was like, oh, that just delighted me. As you said, accountability creates a deeper connection; that's the whole point. The whole point is to be in deeper connection, and being a deeper connection is, or should be, hopefully, a joyful thing. So how can being accountable for how we fudge something up still feel like joy even when our nervous systems maybe can't access that?

LW: Mia Mingus, who's another disability justice activist, who talks a lot about accountability, talks about a thing called pod mapping, which is building your system of people who can support you when you mess up. She talks a lot about really big accountability, like if you mess something up in giant ways, and who's going to support you to be accountable? But she's got a quote that I will share that is that is to that effect that is like, what if we ran with joy towards repair?

MW: Yeah, right, so I will be in attendance if anybody wants to come be accountable with me because I will be there.

LW: She will, she will. So Martissa, tell us about your work with clients; I know you're not taking very many.

MW: I'm a Liberation Doula: I support folks in creating, mapping out, and moving towards action in their most liberated, full, joyful life. We work through those three steps that I talked about earlier and plan out what needs to occur so that you can be in your full joy. What needs to occur so you can be in your full peace? What needs to occur so you can feel fully free in this world? And so I'm taking 1-on-1 clients, it is a minimum of three months of work with me, which I think is scary for some but I think really important because unfortunately, I did not create a pill for how you just take it you're liberated. This isn't The Matrix; at least I haven't figured out how to do that chemistry yet. So it is something that's got to be committed to. So if you're interested in working with me, there's also another link in my bio.

LW: We're going to wrap this up. We can talk forever and ever and ever, but if folks like us being in conversation together, we could probably do it again.

Thanks, everybody, for joining us.

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