Learning from Organizers – Dev Ramsawakh

Dev Ramsawakh is a disabled, transmasculine, and diasporic Indo-Caribbean multidisciplinary storyteller, producer, and educator. Their written, audio, and video work focuses on their intersecting identities, on community, and on deconstructing colonial systems, and it has appeared in a wide range of outlets, venues, and events, both grassroots and mainstream. 

They are also a co-founder of the CRIP Collective, a group of Toronto-based disabled educators and artists who lead anti-ableism, anti-oppression, and disability justice-related workshops, and various other kinds of popular education and community-building initiatives with disabled people. Though the collective is currently on hiatus, Ramsawakh continues to do similar work independently. Their latest project is a YouTube channel.

The Media Co-op: What are a couple of important things you’ve learned from struggles that you, yourself, are not directly involved in, and why are they important?

Dev Ramsawakh: While I believe that all struggles are interconnected — meaning if you’re involved in one struggle, you’re involved in all of them — I’d say I only understand that from listening to Black and Indigenous activists and artists, especially those that have experienced abject poverty or have been unhoused at some point in their lives. So I’d consider that the first important thing I learned. 

They taught me that we just have to look at history to see how nearly all oppression can be traced back to colonialism and white supremacy and how poverty is the most vital tool used to create oppression. Our economy, our educational institutions, and every other social structure has been designed to perpetuate ongoing cycles of violence by asserting the idea that individualism, greed, and brutality are inherent human traits.

That brings me to the second important thing I’ve learned from these struggles, which is that we have to stay connected to the histories of our struggles through intergenerational community building. While youth are pivotal to asking new questions and envisioning new futures, they still have to be grounded in the historical struggles of our elders and ancestors so we don’t end up repeating old mistakes. I’ve seen community organizing led by groups who’ve been insulated from the actual lived experience of their predecessors, who end up pushing back against progress we’ve made because they don’t understand the material conditions that past organizers were responding to.

It bears repeating that these youth still play vital roles in doing “The Work,” but we need to be building reciprocal intergenerational relationships, not one-sided ones.

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you aren’t involved in that you’ve found to be particularly useful or important? 

DR: The most important source you can have is community and the only way to access the incredible wealth of knowledge there is by asking questions. In my experience, every time I’ve thought that I had all the answers, I ended up confronted with the consequences of my own ignorance — which often was learning how I was actually repeating talking points that have been used to oppress even more marginalized people than myself. 

It’s very easy to focus on how much privilege other people have that we don’t, but it’s not as easy to reflect on where we can also still have privilege that others don’t. That’s the thing about privilege: It doesn’t automatically propel us into power but instead convinces us that our experience is “normal,” making it easier to ignore the struggles we don’t face.

When I, rather unknowingly, took the first steps in my activist journey, it was during a time when the internet was this new frontier where you had to know how to code in HTML and CSS if you wanted a web page that was more than just plain text on a white background. It was one of the few spaces that wasn’t already under the control of dominant classes. But that’s not true anymore. 

Unfortunately, the truth is that many of the publications and outlets that were crucial in my education haven’t survived the digital gentrification of the internet. Now the dominant voices rule digital landscapes as much as physical ones. That’s why I started to go looking for the perspectives I wasn’t already privy to and began constantly asking myself, “If I’m struggling this hard, what are people who don’t have [insert privilege here] going through?” 

TMC: What are a couple of key things about struggles that you are involved in, or about your approach to activism and organizing, that you would like other people to know more about?

DR: I hope it doesn’t sound like it’s cheating to repeat that our oppressions are linked. 

I believe that nearly all forms of oppression are also forms of ableism. But that’s coming from  how I define ableism: rather than discrimination against disabled people, as many would define it, I see it as the belief in a normative body as the default, which leads to the pathologization of anything that falls outside of that. A lot of disabled activists and scholars will talk about models of disability, more specifically the medical model (seeing disability as something “wrong” within the individual) and the social model (seeing disability as the intentional exclusion of certain bodyminds through the design of society).

Starting there, you might see how both of those models apply to other marginalized groups. In fact, in the “Age of Enlightenment” when Europe and North America began to (supposedly) move towards secularism, they also found ways to medicalize race, homosexuality, gender non-conformance, and poverty. They invented pseudosciences like a “mental illness” called drapetomania to explain why enslaved people fled their enslavers; homosexuality, “transsexuality,” and “hysteria” were medical diagnoses they tried to “cure” mostly through medical abuse. It’s why the disability rights movement modelled their activism after (and sometimes in tandem with) the civil rights movement.

But in my experience, that doesn’t mean that white cisgender and heterosexual disabled people experience those other oppressions — they’re the collateral damage. While some disabled people will say that disability is often left out of these other movements, these marginalized groups have been fighting against conditions that cause higher rates of disability in their communities, like medical racism and “Trans Broken Arm Syndrome.” This is despite often being denied the diagnoses that label them as disabled and therefore also denied the resources to treat them. To be honest, I often have an easier time getting racialized and trans “non-disabled” people (who often realize they are disabled later) to understand ableism than for white and cisgender disabled people to understand racism and transphobia. 

This is why performance collective Sins Invalid coined the term “Disability Justice” in the first place. There are times where disabled people have co-opted the work of these movements only to perpetuate the oppression they experience. Like, I still see white disabled people argue that we should retire the phrase “self-care” because white women co-opted the term coined by Audre Lorde, a Black queer feminist who lived with cancer. She had coined it specifically for Black women who neglected to care for themselves while they took care of their communities.

The cycle needs to end now if we really want to achieve collective access and liberation. 

TMC: What are a couple of sources related to struggles that you are involved in or to your approach to activism and organizing that you would want other people to read/watch/listen to/learn from?

DR: I’ve gone through and hyperlinked a lot of sources in the last question because I always recommend reading deeper on these issues for yourself. But I’ve also experienced a lot of people speak over me in many spaces because they don’t know the depth of my work. So I’m gonna take this opportunity to provide a list of my work as well as a list of other activists I’d recommend checking out. 

My work:

Other Activists:

Talking Radical: Resources is a collaboration betweenThe Media Co-op and theTalking Radical project. In these interviews, activists and organizers from across so-called Canada connect you with ideas and with tools for learning related to struggles for justice and collective liberation. They talk about how they have learned, and about ways that you can learn.

Scott Neigh is a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author oftwo books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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