Episode 48: Kuttin Kandi

Kuttin Kandi shared insight, passion, and wisdom about what it takes to show up for people in this My Dearest Friends Project podcast episode.

Interview Date | June 4, 2020

JILL: Welcome to the DisTopia podcast, where we look at disability from the inside out. [peaceful music fades in] My name is Jill Vyn, and I’m the cohost of this podcast with my friend and colleague, Chris Smit. 

What you are listening to now is the first of two interrelated components of our My Dearest Friends project, both of which have been generously underwritten by the Ford Foundation. The My Dearest Friends podcast, which is produced by DisTopia, is a series of recorded conversations with disabled people about their individual experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the personal, cultural, and political alterations it has triggered. These informal conversations give our guests the opportunity to share personal experiences of sheltering in place and to engage in conversations around deeper questions raised about the value of disabled people, the core values of the disability culture, as well as our hopes, fears, and strategies for living an authentic and pride-filled disabled life.

The second component of the My Dearest Friends project is created in partnership with disabled artist Oaklee Thiele, who is creating black and white illustrations that represent our collective response to our new and uncertain realities as a disabled community. Designed as an open invitation to the disabled community around the world, we invite all of you to participate. More information can be found on Instagram @MyDearestFriendsProject, Facebook, and on our website, DisArtNow.org.

As is true for many of you, our desire for this project is to share our experiences as a disabled community, to disrupt ableist beliefs, to celebrate a culture whose lived experience of disability necessitates flexibility and creativity, and to validate disabled voices and perspectives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[peaceful music fades into electronica Hip Hop music break]

KANDI: First of all, I wanna say it’s very comforting to meet you both. You know, it’s been hard, right, as we all know under COVID as well as not being around folks. And then on top of that, just all that’s going on. And to see people feels really good, and to be in the presence of good people. I already feel such a welcoming spirit from both of you. And that’s, we’re not even in close contact with one another! So, it feels really nice. [laughs]

JILL: Well, thank you.

CHRIS: For a long time, we’ve been using distance communication like this. And so, for us, it’s been a real joy to find other people finding comfort in it as well. So, it’s kind of cool, yeah, cool give and take, you know.

KANDI: Yes, yeah.

JILL: This is recorded on June 4th of 2020. What’s the right now for you?

KANDI: My name is DJ Kuttin Kandi, pronouns, are she/her/hers. I’m a community organizer for nearly 25 years. I’m a Hip Hop DJ/turntablist, poet, parent to two children with disabilities. I’m also am Asian-American, Filipinx person, queer, disabled, and just a lover of life and social justice, Hip Hop feminist, which I believe that it has its own praxis in how we do our work as well, as cultural organizers, and I’m just a lover of people.

CHRIS: We’re so thankful that you’re here with us and grateful to talk to you. I wanna talk about Hip Hop for a minute. I have this sentence that you wrote with Leroy Moore in your essay about hope and justice in Hip Hop in Alice Wong’s book. And you guys say this: “Hip Hop is a culture that awakens our spirits and finds home through spoken word truths. Hip Hop is about surviving and thriving in an unjust world. It’s about healing, embracing, and holding space for one another.” That is a deep, spiritual, and wonderfully audacious understanding of Hip Hop.

KANDI: I almost teared up when you read it back to me because I feel like Hip Hop has been a space where I was politicized, and it provided home for me in a more personal context in a moment in my life where I was, you know, in Hip Hop, born being born in New York City, you are surrounded by Hip Hop music, where Hip Hop has been rooted from, right? From the culture of Hip Hop in the ‘70s and then stemming from the lineage of African roots and culture and Black culture of jazz and blues into funk and the political times in those eras as well. So, in the ‘80s, growing up listening to Hip Hop as a young child, you’re surrounded by all of it, growing up: fat laces and clothes and Hip Hop music and culture and all my classmates embracing Hip Hop culture. It just become so much of your identity and how you live.

But when you get older and you recognize your own positionality as an Asian, you understand your place and your role, not necessarily within it, but outside of it and then through it and how you work through it. So, for me, as I got older and understanding that, it’s also where I found my home in my own struggles in my own family life, my own upbringing, things I was running away from and running towards and wanting to find a place to feel safe and held and loved. And Hip Hop did that for me because it also found my calling. It embraced me to recognize my own roots as a Filipinx. ‘Cause when you had folks that taught you about your own Filipino struggles, when I was searching for so long for my own Filipino community, and they brought me back to my own identity even as a Filipinx, you know. And then had me search for my own Filipino community in New York City. Even though I had knew Filipinos, it was to get really connected to the roots of our culture, our people, and our own resistance, Hip Hop brought me to my own roots as a Filipina.

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

And then it also brought me to the understanding of struggles that other communities of color are facing. Black people and Indigenous people learning about Amadou Diallo back in the ‘90s and their resistance then to learn about Mumia Abu-Jamal, like political prisoners, learning about Assata Shakur. All of that brought me to an understanding of struggle beyond just my own Filipino community and where I must be on the side of. So, it strengthened me, and it brought me to a greater calling than just a home for self, but a home for everyone, a house. And even if I felt like I had nowhere to land on, Hip Hop brought a sense of a political home, you know, and that’s what Hip Hop did for me. And there’s nowhere like fighting in a struggle for liberation that can make you feel you found your place in life. That’s why there’s so much spiritualness to it, because it’s something that moves you beyond words that you can never describe: a lifting of your soul, even when you don’t feel free. Because you know that on the other side of it, there’s only nowhere to go but freedom. And that’s kind of what it feels like. It feels like coming home.

CHRIS: I think what’s so drastically important about what you just said is this idea of homecoming. When you fight, you feel alive. When you fight, you feel like you’re part of a larger group. When you fight back and you find your home in that fight, there is that spiritualness that you’re talking about. How did you come to that point, though, to see your struggle in the voice and chorus of others that were also struggling? How did you get to the point where you said, “My struggle is the same as others, and that will make us all powerful?”

KANDI: Hmm. Well, I think it took a lot of understanding and listening, a lot of tuning in, being in community. It takes a practice of, I think, an intentionality of being in conversations. And being in solidarity is such a phrase, right? But it’s cross-racial solidarity. But you have to get more specific. What does that mean? And to me, it’s more than just on the organizing front lines of sitting at the table and making decisions together and strategizing. To me, it’s about our social encounters. Who are we engaging with? Who are we building relationships with? How are we having conversations of where our shared struggles may be, but where they differ and why they differ at the same time? It’s like my country and my people may have gone through 600 years of oppression, of colonization. We’ve even had lynchings in the Philippines when our people were hung when we were colonized. But that doesn’t mean we understand the context of slavery and lynchings in America and how they have continued. So, we may have similar struggles, but how does that harm differ on impacts on Black communities?

And in order to even have those conversations or get to that understanding, it requires a relationship-building more than just our show up of going to parties or having tea and coffee together. It’s about like where are we in everyday life of our own personal struggles that have been the cause of systemic and structural racism? Of course, if one is not able to pay bills or they have to go through a daily struggle of proving their need for federal assistance daily, or people with disabilities that have to fight for SSI and prove that they have a disability every time. It’s understanding that struggle of people we’re speaking to on a daily basis, and where are we in their life and understanding that there are folks in organizing tables that we’re organizing and fighting together for a common goal. But when we go home, we’re alone, dealing with these little struggles we’re impacted with. [a child calls out in the background] So, how are we having these relationships and strengthening that so that we can understand more, show compassion more? So, for me to answer your question, how did I get to that place, well, I learned from the people who also have showed up for me.

And the people who always showed up for me has always been Black communities, other communities of color. I grew up in Queens, New York, with Black and Puerto Rican communities. And I was surrounded by a lot of folks who have gone through racial profiling, gang violence. And those same folks showed up for me when I used to run away from my own home and where did I have nowhere to go. Like, where did I have friends that showed up for me when I’ve gone through also harm and violence, you know, and who showed up for me? Who took me in? Who sheltered me? Those examples are people in my life who are Black, who are Puerto Rican, who are Guyanese, who are all different diverse ethnicities, who showed up for me in my life. That taught me so much, tremendously. Those relationships taught me how to show up for other people. And it started on that early point.

Now, not everyone has that same experience: to have that experience to have grown up in such a diverse community. And I get that. But I think it comes down to an ultimate ways of humbleness and shedding of ego. I think if we’re able to shed our own ego, to remove ourselves from a place of centering our own issues every single time, to be able to understand what anti-Black racism means. It means to decentering yourselves and to understand the systems that’s already in place. To know that we already are anti-Black, even though we don’t believe we are. This country itself has been founded upon a white supremacist system. So, we’ve been all conditioned to be anti-Black. We’ve all been conditioned to be ableist. We’ve all been conditioned to be all of these -isms and oppression. So, if we come to the understanding that we already are, then we can be better at taking away and dismantling from what we are, so that we can unlearn and do the work of becoming who we strive to be.

And that’s where the humbleness comes in. And it took a lot for me to get there. In the earlier years, I didn’t have all that understanding. I remember my early years of learning how to organize and made a lot of mistakes. But again, it took community. It took callings, and it took calling me out. And both of those things were necessary. [kids playing in the background] And I believe in the higher power of transformative justice work. I think that’s really the key to how we come to this understanding of what does it mean to struggle together, to work towards collective liberation. It takes a lot of individual critical reflection, but also the real solidarity of connecting in relationship building. Hmm.

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

CHRIS: Yeah, the getting called out is an important part of anybody’s story. It’s part of our story when we started doing our work. You know, we knew that disability was something we wanted to center on and get people thinking about differently, but we did it wrong. We did a huge, two-week-long arts festival that had no understanding of disabled time, disabled energy. And to get called out is to, you know, but [chuckles] we’re in a cultural climate, though, right now that seems like being called out is the final step, right?


CHRIS: We have a government that calls out these truisms without any sort of follow-up. But we also have a government who’s been called out and not responded to that calling out. You say you have faith in restorative justice. Has that been strengthened because of the riots of the last week? What does that faith look like this week?

KANDI: Oh, good question. Well, depending on when you mean restorative or transformative justice in a context of us as a community, although they all pretty much intersect. Or do you mean in the system itself?

CHRIS: I think both because they, as you said, they intermingle so closely, right?

KANDI: Yeah. I think in terms of the system itself must be dismantled. We have to start anew because the system itself is white supremacist already. If we look at the pillars of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy as defined by many of our ancestral guides who has written these platforms or even previous writers and scholars, community scholars, and scholars like Andrea Smith. If we look at the pillars of the white supremacy heteropatriarchy, we understand that the system itself is already anti-Black, utilizing work around that to create the systems of the capitalist structure that we see. We cannot just reinvent itself. That’s what it’s been doing this whole time: reinventing itself, reforming, reforming. And here we are today with mass incarceration, really another form of slavery that has brought people into this massive, massive, with Black folks, massively, massively mass incarcerated, including Indigenous peoples, and a high population of Asian-Americans, Asian folks within the mass incarceration system. So, all of that is tied together, you know. And so, this system itself is not working. It’s designed intentionally not to work. So, every time it reinvents itself into something else and reshapes, we’re still in the same system. So, there has to be something new.

And for me, when it comes to transformative justice, the system, you know, like with law enforcements and the state-sanctioned violence itself. A lot of people are saying, well, we believe in the police, the good cop, bad cop versus conversation. None of that works because they’re still in a system. [child playing nearby] Because the system is inherently anti-Black, the conditions itself, we cannot continue forgiving a system while it’s still harming and killing us. I don’t think we should. That’s why people are calling for it’s time for the abolitionist work. Black abolitionists got us here to the moment of the Civil Rights Movement through Black Liberation Movement. We’ve gotten here because of abolitionists, Black abolitionists. And we are in this moment where we have to call in and look towards folks. And in this moment, Black folks are leading us to the understanding of abolition. It’s time to defund the police.

It’s time because in that, we’re talking about high folks of people with disability, Black disabled folks who are being mass incarcerated. So, we have to understand that we can’t call for forgiveness of cops and this form of respectability politics lens that, oh, let’s forgive the police ‘cause there’s good cops, too. You know, I’m sure, OK, if we wanna even look at that way, there’s some good cops, I know. I have a family member who’s a cop who I don’t talk to anymore because here is one! We may have good cops out there, I guess, but they’re still following a system, you know what I mean. It’s like I’m not getting into that  discussion. The system itself has failed. It’s meant to not work. It’s not meant to be redesigned. It’s meant to a way to police people in a way that doesn’t create a real community control, a real culture of accountability. That’s what transformative justice is: creating a culture of accountability where we ourselves have a right to our own ways of being and showing up for one another.

So, we need something new, totally something new than what exists. The hardship is that folks have been so colonized to the system itself already, and it takes a huge amount of decolonization. So, in this moment, we have people starting to awaken to that, but are still stuck because the idea of letting go of what’s been so normalized is a hard piece. And for those of us who’ve been doing decolonizing work in so many areas for so long, particularly Indigenous communities talking about climate justice for so long, people who have led the way for so long, we haven’t been paying attention to. So, we are in a learning moment. That’s why I understand how some people have lost their tolerance, at like, well, catch up already! We’re already here! There’s an uprising! People are ready to defund the police. I believe more so in the culture of accountability and transformative and restorative justice work for the people and for us to create what that looks like. I don’t believe in the system to be restored or reformed. I believe in the system that must start anew.

CHRIS: You know, there’s so many echoes in what you’re saying to the culture that Jill and I and DisArt fight for as well. It’s not the white—it is white, ableist system—but it’s the medical establishment as well.


CHRIS: Right. And the way that the medical system has begun to—well, [chuckles] I don’t know if it’s begun—I’m hopeful that it’s beginning to see and hear the voices of the people that they take care of as something less than always needing, right? I don’t know. It’s just there’s really some echoing, like I said, of the things that all of us have been fighting for. And I think you’re right. There’s a rebuilding that needs to happen. But, man, when you talk about replacing a system, I can hear some people say, “But we need a system, right? We need a system.” And I guess all you’re saying or all we’re saying—not all we’re saying, but—is that the system itself has to be run and equipped with all of us, or does not need to be a— How do systems work after this? Or is systems just an antiquated way to think about the way life should be?

KANDI: Mm. Good question. I think we have to look to our Indigenous communities to learn from them how they’ve done it, and also other Indigenous communities in other countries. Look at the Zapatistas, learning on how they collectively have guided their community. I mean, we can learn a lot from what mutual aid working groups have done, whether they use the words “mutual aid” or not, right? Because learning a lot about mutual aid work, learning the ways how people done it in movements in times of crisis, in past histories, or even currently, you know, how people in Puerto Rico have showed up for each other when the hurricane happened in Puerto Rico and how they aided each other. And so, we can learn what collectivity really looks like more than just what does collective look like in working organizational grassroots groups, but collectively in a community? That’s why we must look to our Indigenous communities. ‘Cause they’ve done that for so long. Look at the Zapatistas, how they’ve done that so long. Everything for everyone is what they say.

They’ve been saying for so long when I last heard Winona LaDuke talk here in San Diego and how they’ve been fighting forever on their pathway that they believe, and we should’ve been listening for so long about protecting the lands. To me, if we wanna build anew, we go back to the roots and listen to Indigenous communities and get more connected with them and build relationships with them. Have a lot more relationship-building to do with Indigenous communities.

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

JILL: When I hear you’re talking about collectivity, my mind quickly goes to, “Well, this is America.”

KANDI: Mmhmm.

JILL: Collectivity, interdependence, dependence, mutual support are not, not in general, the ways of life. So, we’re talking about shifting from this independent mindset of I’m in it for myself to a collective mindset. And I’m just wondering, where does that work start? That shift is, that’s huge.

KANDI: Right. Because capitalism has taught us otherwise. Capitalism, white supremacy has taught us to be individualistic. It has taught us to hate one another. It has taught us to hate ourselves, which is why internalized racism exists. And not just internalized racism, right? Internalized homophobia. Fat phobia exists. You know, all of these things. We’ve got a lot of work to do to work towards collectivism. And it’s scary because we know how hard decolonization looks like. We know how hard it is to decondition ourselves from away from these systems to go move towards collectivism. I think people will learn when hard times come. You know, I remember when the pandemic happened, I was warning my mom, my sister, and no one was listening to me. And it made me super frustrated. Everyone around me wouldn’t listen to me because I have two children here. My daughter is a child with Down syndrome who has a heart defect. I have a heart condition as well. So, but I also think about my daughter because I’m their caretaker. So, what does that mean for me that I actively move when I know this thing is coming, or this thing’s already here? And people think I’m overreacting. People think I’m making just such a big deal, or I’m paranoid. I’m like, you have no idea.

People with disabilities, like there’s people with disabilities pre-COVID who have always had to live in a place of protecting themselves and their loved ones because either they’re immunocompromised and so many other levels and so many layers. So, the immediate I knew this, I pulled my daughter from school. They were already out of school because they were sick already. You know, I contacted the Principals right away. I contacted everybody. And their responses were like, well, the public health county hasn’t done x, y, z. So, until then, we’re just wiping things down. I said. “This is not a good enough answer for me. I don’t care if the public county, health county didn’t make a decision or not. My child is not going back to school the minute they’re better. They’re not going.” This was, what, first week of March before it even like got on their, really on their alert. I knew as a parent to a child with disability, I had to move quickly because I cannot count on the systems in place to protect myself and to protect our children.

So, I mean, I say all of this because to answer your question, I always go the long way [laughs], is that this is an example of these individual efforts answering to a system that’s in place rather than thinking for themselves the right thing to do. And we have the right thing to do. And if we worked more towards collectivism, we would have a better understanding of how we show up for each other. And now there’s so many people getting impacted and hurt and harmed, like the school in New York City that killed how many teachers that got sick. [kids playing in the background] And a Black Brooklyn teacher that died to COVID. Had they moved quicker in York City. And I get a lot of the reasonings for sure. But at the same time, this is life here! And yes, there’s a life also. These are two mutual struggles that are existing at the same time. We need children to get their food and get their necessity of child care in the school system ‘cause they depend on it for their resources. At the same time they go to school, they put themselves at risk, and then they put their family members at risk. Then they put the teachers at risk, and look what happens. Teachers got sick. How many people of that? I think it was 53. I could be wrong on the numbers. But like all of that, had we moved in a collective way, we wouldn’t have relied on a system to tell us, no, don’t go to school. And a lot more lives could’ve been saved.

So, collectivism is so key here. And sometimes it takes tragedy, unfortunately, for people to learn a lesson. I wish we learned a lot more from history [chuckles] ‘cause had we known our history, would’ve known better on how do we move collectively.

JILL: But well, what happens when the lessons are learned with people of color and disabled people?

KANDI: Yeah.

JILL: That’s not enough.


JILL: Right? When you’re talking about who died, it’s not enough.

KANDI: No. Agreed. Agreed. It’s not enough. It’s wrong. It’s wrong. Tremendously wrong, unfortunately, that these people. I wish there was a lot more of ourselves out there who think collectively already. And I’m not perfect at that every day. No. Like when I’m in meetings, sometimes I’m moving so quickly, so fast, and then I excluded somebody. And I didn’t mean to do that. And I learned.

JILL: But the difference is, is that you realize that.

KANDI: Yeah.

JILL: It’s acknowledging. Maybe we don’t know in the first moment. Maybe we do something. Just what you were saying about how we’ve all been conditioned in a certain way that it’s not the first thought that’s the problem. It’s how we act on it in the second thought or don’t.

KANDI: Yes! Yes. Because I’ve gotten, again, called out on when I didn’t move collectively. And I learned—

JILL: I should clarify. The first part is a problem because that’s a systemic—


JILL: —you know where we’ve been raised. But if you don’t, you have to stop yourself. You have to recognize. And then where are those, where’s that coming from?

KANDI: Right. Where is it—

JILL: Where are my biases coming from? Why do those exist?

KANDI: No, I understand that. I mean, it’s true. That’s why I think it really takes the humbleness, the shedding of the ego, the I in it to really learn where can I grow? What are my learning edges? Well, what else do I need to know? [a chorus of two kids playing nearby] What else do I have to work on? And how can I, you know, acknowledgment of when you do harm.? We’ve all done harm in many layers and different ways, and how do we grow from there? And people unfortunately lack that at the expense of harming others, and they learn the hard way at the expense of other people’s lives. And that’s horrible because look at the mistakes everyone made in this moment. So many people have gotten sick. It didn’t have to be this way. All of this was preventable, you know.

I definitely blame more so the systems in itself, of course. But I think the apathy that has been out there for so long, the struggle to get people to listen has been difficult. Because we’ve also been desensitized as well. The systems has desensitized us that we don’t listen, and things have been normalized. And so, because of that, it’s great deconditioning work in our communities. And for those of us who do educational workshops in our communities, I wish I could see a lot more people, loved ones I know part of those workshops. But a lotta times, I would say even own family members who are invited to go or who I send— I’m one of those people in my family, by the way, I’ll send a text every day on something, constantly. I’m like, I’m an organizer. I agitate, you know? So, I’m an agitator. It’s not easy. Sometimes having these discussions with loved ones can be toxic because you’re seen as no one never believe us. Like, as if we don’t do our own education. Like we don’t do our own research. As if we’re not well-studied, well-practiced. We’re always never believed, you know. We’re never believed, never heard, never listened to. And then we’re always like the problem maker ‘cause we don’t wanna stay happy about things, [laughing] you know? So, it’s toxic work.

And there’s times I step away from it for a bit, and then I come back to that. Because I think that work cannot end with my family. I believe in them. I have hope in them. I love them. When I get to freedom, I want everyone I love with me. And that’s what restorative justice means. That’s what transformative justice means: that we all get there together. It’s leaning onto that hope, even when there’s times of despair. Because I wouldn’t be an organizer despite the hardships if I didn’t believe that we’re all gonna get there.

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

JILL: In your intro, you talked about being a feminist.


JILL: And I’m curious what the role of women is in this work, specifically.

KANDI: Hmm. Yeah! I mean, our role has always been there. We’ve always been in the struggle since the beginning of time, you know. And then you look to leaders, to people like Sojourner Truth from then. You look to people like Harriet Tubman, just your folks that you know who’ve led these movements and place of protection for their communities. And then you look towards people like Audre Lorde, right, in their roles in shaping the critical thinking that we all have now as feminists and understanding that. I look towards a lot of Black feminist work and Chicanx scholars of feminism. And then in our field of Pinayism and Filipinx communities. And then people who are organizers underground who have done the work om paving the way. And because in understanding that when people have made the mistake of just, well, taking down white supremacy but not understanding how white supremacy and heteropatriarchy are tied together. They depend on that in order for it to function. They depend on white supremacy and patriarchy, because to colonize, you need to colonize land and body. And when they’ve colonized not just the land, they’ve colonized people’s minds and body. And who, during a time of war, when colonization, colonialism happens, who did they harm? They not only harmed the men, they raped the women. They have taken the women. [kids playing with boisterous yells] Our role in it has always been there since the beginning of time in how we resistance and fought back.

I look too of woman revolutionary leaders in the Philippines like Gabriela Silang, who fought in the war. I look to Nanushka Rusca who fled the Philippines and fought in resistance as a political prisoner against Marcos under his regime and was exiled into the United States and started an organization here in the ‘80s. And I look to those movement leaders in our past who have led us as feminist and had brought my own understanding of what feminism means in my early years. But then I grow from there to that understanding, really reading the works of Black feminist folks and who have taught me the understanding of feminism to its very core of intersectionality. I look to bell hooks. I look to people like Rosa Clemente. I look to people like Mia Mingus and Alice Wong to understand how these are tied together and strengthen my own analysis in understanding disability Justice movements and how they’re all tied. So, for me, we have our place in these interconnected struggles in our own identities and how they intersect. So, we cannot have this fight for freedom if we’re not working on an intersectionalist lens in all of its ways that they are tied in the oppression and how it impacts us to get to freedom.

CHRIS: I also think of the work of Nellie Bly—


CHRIS: —and her devotion to people with mental illness and people with mental disabilities, and her willingness to live that way in those institutions and then tell that story too.


CHRIS: Like there’s something about her journey that is the same as Sojourner Truth, that is the same as Harriet Tubman, and Alice Wong and all the people that you’re talking about, is that there is the courage to look at what everybody else sees and to point out something that nobody sees. I think that’s the transformative work of all those people. I remember reading bell hooks in graduate school. And I remember reading it and weeping openly, and [laughs]—I know—and my wife was like, “What are you doing? What is your problem?” I’m like, “I just, I’ve never seen life this way, and now I see it. And I can’t see it another way.” It’s wonderful to hear that litany of heroes, you know, because those are the people that, you’re right, we have to dip back. We have to dip back into them, yeah.

KANDI: And there’s so many more newer folks every single time. And I’m reading their work, and I’m always blown away. Just when you think you unpacked one layer, there’s multiple other layers there. And I’m like, oh. Oh! I didn’t see that, you know? So, I’m always humbling myself to learn. I think that’s the key, is a lot of those of us who are older in this work and who’ve had a long experience, we can always learn from newer generation with more unpacking that they’ve done, like, oh, I didn’t go there! I didn’t quite go there yet, you know. Where else can I go with this? And I’m always just enjoy of learning and building more and figuring things out and finding solutions together, you know. Yeah.

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

JILL: You’ve talked about the Hip Hop community and some of the work that you’ve done. I’m curious if you identify as being part of the disability community.

KANDI: I’m so glad you asked that question. And for me, when I got sick in 2012, and even before then, I was already understanding, learning to understand, strengthening my understanding of intersectional feminism before then, but then really understanding Disability Justice movements right before that time. But it wasn’t until 2012 where I got really sick, and then had a heart procedure and several other heart procedures after. And then understanding my own heart condition and that people like Leroy. Leroy took me in and just really developed and helped me to understand where I was at in claiming my disability. Because I remember the day when I was applying for disability, and because I don’t faint 50 times, I am not qualifiable or applicable for disability. So, I have to wait till I faint 50 times from my heart condition, when I pretty much faint about only one to two times a year. So, now I have to faint 50 times in a year before I can get disability. So, and that struggle of understanding that just because the government and the state itself will not define me as a qualifiable disability person, that doesn’t mean I can’t identify as disabled.

So, for me, understanding my own access needs. And then even when I came to my understanding of my own learning style, my own learning disability, too, and what my needs were for that, you know. I remember when I went back to college, I was having a hard time, and I didn’t understand why. They gave me a test, and that’s when they diagnosed me with APD, Auditory Processing Disorder. And I was astounded that I never knew this my whole life! And then I was like, no wonder I struggled my whole life in school! To the point that it was my family would write letters after letters to teachers in the ‘80s who probably lacked any understanding of different forms of styles of learning. And I struggled so much throughout school. And when I took that test, I both cried, and I both had an aha moment, like shit. I’m brilliant as fuck, you know. Excuse my language.

But I was like, wow! You know, despite the systems not offering me anything this whole time in school to help me through school, I managed in figuring out ways how to get there. And I was astounded by that. I felt abandoned by this educational state this whole time, that could’ve provided me the resources I need to not have such a difficult time. While I know I’m brilliant, and I was excited, that like, wow, I’m so brilliant, I was angered by the fact it shouldn’t have been like that for me. I didn’t feel like I ever had that throughout school. I didn’t have that ever. And I would’ve probably had a better pathway and maybe would’ve finished college at the time. But I struggled in my first year of college that, you know, and luckily music was there for me. So, I went that route. But I learned a lot just by trying to go back to college. And I said, wow, this system in the educational system, that’s where they failed me.

And so, for me, when I came to my understanding of my disabilities and I rightfully started claiming my identity as disabled, do I have more work to learn? Yes, I have tremendous amount to learn in Disability Justice communities to get more connected, to show up more for people with disabilities, for my child, right? For them, for myself. So, I learn every day. I’m also learning within the ASL/Deaf community as well, since we’ve been doing a lot of town halls together and learning every day. And I hope to continue to engage, hope to continue to not just engage but build and do work together and show up for one another in the ways that we can, right? So, I’m learning all the time.

JILL: Well, you just kind of laid out a guidebook for people who are saying, “I’m really paying attention with the riots and the systemic, the realization of our broken system.” And you just laid out that process, that it’s a process to learn for ourselves and to engage with community and learn from community. And you have said this a number of times, showing up, it sounds like for yourself and for others. Many people are going to books and podcasts and trying to get that. But that’s not gonna be enough because you have to engage physically or virtually, whatever we’re gonna do for a while! But you have to engage with real people.

KANDI: Yeah, I mean, that’s what I’ve learned. You know, even in this time of the pandemic, right, I’m not trying to go out there as much at all. I haven’t been out of the house for two months until recently. They had a drive-by graduation for my child, for they graduated from their preschool class. And that was the first time I’d been out in two months. I’ve been trying to really limit that. I had to quarantine my partner away from our children because he’s considered a quote-unquote “essential worker.” And so, but I’ve loosened that up a bit so I could have some support helping me watch the children just recently in this past week because he’s only going to work once a week now. So, I think that’s helpful for me ‘cause it’s been very hard, you know. But I think I have been finding ways, of course, that we need to organize. I do a lot of backend support without having to go out, like with our bail fund group that we have here, working, doing hotlines. And then doing searching for people where they’re at to help families find their loved ones.

A mutual aid group, being backend support for our mutual aid group I co-started with my friend, Christina, who’s part of Black Lives Matter San Diego, and March for Black Womxn. Together, we started a mutual aid right away when this pandemic started. So, we’re working on the backend support of that: working with volunteers, dispatching people who are able to go outside. I mean, these are the ways that people in Disability Justice movements have always done, you know, like you mentioned earlier, about distance communication with one another, right? So, I mean, these are the ways that we can learn a lot from Disability Justice movements. And this is how we’re showing up for one another. It may not be physically out there, but we are doing it in the ways that we can safely with one another. Yeah. [chuckles softly]

[electronica Hip Hop music break]

CHRIS: And I read something that you said maybe about a year ago. You gave an interview with Medium, and you said, you know, what do you do to sort of anchor your days? And you said, well, I look at my kids, you know. You said that you used to have quotes up all the time and that you would read those quotes and that those would really get you fired up. But now it’s your kids that you see, hoping. So, that got me thinking, too. Like how were you anchoring your days? And does hope have anything to do with that?

KANDI: Hmm. Yeah! That’s a good question in this time, right? It’s been hard. I’ll be honest with you. It’s been really hard. Because there’s so much fear right now. And when there’s fear, it’s hard because also, I’m working in survival mode, too. Like, immediately when everything happened, it was, I got to take care of my children. I didn’t even have time to feel! And I know I have a feeling here. It’s lingering somewhere. But I’m like, you know what? I gotta compartmentalize, shelve right here because I can’t afford to feel right now. Because right now, I gotta take care for my children. Plan for this. Plan for that. Get some medic supplies to be prepared for whatever needs to be prepared for. I’ve had to then think about like, OK, what do we need to do for our communities? You know, start mutual aids. We gotta do this. We gotta do that. We gotta do this. So, but I think…I know hope is there, and it’s critical hope, which is so much more different than hope, right? It’s that critical hope, because knowing that even in these times of despair, we have to be reflective of the mistakes we’ve made in the past, the systems that are in place, and then how does hope look like in going forward? But being critical, how that hope looks like. So, that’s why that critical hope is so key.

So, I know that the hope is there even though I may not feel it at times because all I feel is fear:  fear for my friends who are rightfully uprising in this moment out on those streets. Fear for everybody else under COVID. Fear for these white nationalists that are out there. Fear of a system that has been so killing us almost every day, a lot of us, in so many multiple ways. [laughs gently] And then all these fear, I know that if I’m in survival mode, I know that the feeling of hope is there, because that’s why we are fighting for it. So, my hope is that we are in this together. My hope is that I see us there together. And I think I cling to that hope. That’s why I’m working towards there with my children, with my family, with all my loved ones. I see all of us on that other side. And we don’t know what that looks like, but we sure aren’t gonna figure it out if we don’t get there together. And so, I cling to it. It’s almost like it’s in a far distance somewhere out there, but I feel like it’s so there. It’s so close. And that alone is enough for me to keep on going and pushing. I strive to get there together as much as possible. Because even if I may not get there, I know others will, you know. And then that’s what I hope for. And that’s why I see that freedom.

And it feels so good because I’m dreaming of it. Like I said, it goes back to our original beginning conversation of like a feeling of coming home. I already feel it. And I think even if I place my feeling somewhere, sometimes in a need to just have moments to just go through it daily. I know it’s there, and that’s what I hang onto. I remember my children like certain songs, and I’ll play it. And I remember tearing up and choking in my tears a bit because I hadn’t allowed myself to cry. And I wanted one of those good cries, kinds where you curl into yourself and sulk. And I hadn’t given myself that a bit. And so, even when I had those tears shed while I was putting them to nap, it felt so good to just do that. Because it’s that humanization piece that makes us loving, more caring, and it guides us to where we really wanna go. So, feeling is so important. It’s so important because that’s where the hope is, when you feel. And I know this. [electronica Hip Hop music plays through the next few lines] And I know it’s there even when I put it aside sometimes, because sometimes when I’m having to be in survival mode, the emotions sometimes get so wrapped up, and I get stuck sometimes even with the feelings. But I know it’s there, and that’s what guides me.

JILL: Thanks for listening. Be well, keep your distance, send us your comments, questions, and your submissions for Oaklee Thiele to hello@DisArtNow.org. Please make sure to follow the My Dearest Friends project on Instagram, Facebook, and DisArtNow.org. And thanks again to the Ford Foundation for their support of this work and to cat enthusiast Cheryl Green for the transcription of this podcast episode.

Music: “Fragmented Mind” by Shaolin Dub. (Source: FreeMusicArchive.org. Licensed under a Attribution-NonCommericial-NoDerivatives 4.0 license.]