Farzana creates the capacity for transformation. Through the lens of her experience as a youth and community worker, a writer, a director and a leader of Healing Justice London, she asks what it would take to envision abolition in our lifetime and to truly practise freedom. She works with communities to imagine and organise around visions that reimagine public health and to build eco structures of health and healing from them. She explores how we can live in integrity – in congruence with our reality, holding our emotional, spiritual and energetic experiences intact like landscapes.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.
Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
I am sat near a lake very close to my apartment. And what I can see is the waters, the ducks. You can maybe even hear the ducks, some of the swans, and a few children with grandparents, and in particular I can see a child who’s wearing a unicorn hat and a tie dye T-shirt, it’s very joyful and exactly the tone that I wanted to begin this conversation.
I’ll let the ducks have a moment. They’re coming very close.
So my name’s Farzana Khan. My background has been in youth and community organising. I didn’t choose it, it chose me, but also it was responding to the context in which I was growing up: in a very working class, council estate, you know, EDL marching, rampant racism, rampant Islamophobia in Tower Hamlets. You know, really experiencing the hostile environment and the deep experiences of unbelonging and wanting to know how we kind of like navigate. And in youth work and community work really thinking about how we do that as racialized people, as working class people. You know, through my youth work, but also, you know, academically I was exploring radical education, creativity and social transformation. Those have always been kind of like key components, and by the time I was 20 I was running my own arts education program called Active Arts in East London, working with different council estates and in libraries and different spaces to really think about how we respond to the issues around us, but also constantly accessing our imagination in ways that are powerful and transformative. Though I didn’t have that language then.
Jo: When you say you didn’t choose the work, it chose you. Maybe you could just expand on that a little bit? I’m just really interested in what that actually means in terms of what you felt and how you saw your decision making emerge as you grew up, as you sort of came into the world, realised what the world was and saw what you were going to do in that world.
Assata Shakur, she says something like, no one would choose this. Like, no one would choose – like in a liberated world, I would love to be like a herbalist or a florist or, you know, a maker, you know, that’s the stuff that we want to be, we wouldn’t be choosing to have these fields or these sectors around trying to overturn oppression and injustice. You know, I didn’t think that this is what I was going to, I didn’t think this is a career and I don’t think it’s a career so much as a spiritual practice in a lot of ways or my craft.
You know, when I was very young, I was always having it mirrored that I was very bright that, you know, I would, in quotations, “do well”. You know, I did very well in school despite, you know, I didn’t grow up in a house with books. My parents were both in and out of hospital, and everyone around me, you know, it was brilliant and I see the estate that I grew up is just like filled with geniuses in so many different ways. But, you know, in the kind of formalised academic sense, I didn’t, that wasn’t what I was exposed to and I was an anomaly in a lot of ways. Like I was, you know, the first, woman, a guy hadn’t even gone to like the type of university I’d ended up going to. So I was always like, made aware that like my formal education was like a passport, and that I would, I’d be able to like, get out. And for me that wasn’t a desirable thing because that felt like loneliness, that felt like, the people who were enabling my survival – you know, we grew up in an estate where neighbours were taking care of you, picking up from school. You know, it was a very much an ecosystem to buffer all the ways that people were not surviving. I couldn’t imagine where I would be going without leaving everything that was life to me behind. And there’s nowhere I want to go where I’m leaving people behind. Along the way, everything kind of lined up, like I did my master’s degree on radical education and through creativity and critical resistance. So things were informed by one another. And that brought me, I guess, to here. And it always feels like, yeah, things are aligning.
This work is so relational. There’s no way to do it and then you know, if you’re doing relational work, that’s becoming skillful in a way that, you know, there’s no job description for it. There’s no blueprint. There’s no way you can go and just like Google it and learn it. It is such a tactile, constantly being worked, way of being. And that’s why I always say like youth workers and community workers, I like some of the best people to look to because they’re constantly engaged in relational work. But young people are like bullshit detectors. So you can’t, it’s not a place where you can be in pretence and be successful. You have to be authentic. So you’re exercised and rehearsing being relational in a way that I think in other sectors or fields or other spaces you can get away with and you just can’t, it’s just not effective.
Jo: Could you just actually break down what you mean by authentic? In terms of in practice, in terms of what it feels like to you and what is inauthentic perhaps?
I think for me, authentic is living and moving with integrity, as much as it’s available, like we all come out of integrity all the time and by integrity I mean the alignment of what we say, what we do, what we’re, you know, calling in. Even how we’re feeling, like do those things match up, do all the facets of ourselves match up as much as possible, and is it congruent with our reality?
And this is also why I think the trauma work is really interesting because it allows us to have an appropriate response. You know, like sometimes rage is appropriate and that’s the integrity of the situation. Sometimes like deep grief, deep, you know, protesting all of these different things are appropriate. So I think integrity is being able to be in congruence with your reality, holding your emotional, physical, spiritual, energetic, like landscapes in, in as much tact as possible, and consistently,
Jo: Could you talk a little bit about Healing Justice London and give some very concrete examples of things that you do as an organisation?
We are launching our, the kind of next two years at Healing Justice. We emerged out of a lot of frontline community practice, deep learning, deep reflection, deep iteration to now really thinking about like, what is the structural transformation that we can support? And we often use this phrase, like we create capacity for transformation. So a lot of the spaces when we’re thinking about marginalised communities, racialised communities, or in different communities that are experiencing oppression, where like they should lead change, da-da-da, all of the stuff without thinking about what’s the resourcing: material, emotional, spatial, temporal, all of the different types of resourcing that person needs. So it’s not extractive participation, but it’s like meaningful, impactful, consequential presence that is then determining and shaping reality.
And so at Healing Justice London, we’ve been sitting a lot with like, what would abolition look like in our lifetime? And recognizing that we have to practise, that liberation is a practice and we are what we practise. So we have a vision or a two-year strategy model that we’re exploring that understands, you know, community centred health coming from those most marginalised and already are like building as an appropriate way to respond to kind of carceral or policing structures like, the police, but also psychiatric institutions, also housing structures, also job centres, entire infrastructures that like operate from a very carceral logic, operate from a place of anti-life essentially, and anti particular types of life. And so we’re looking at, what’s the infrastructure that needs to be built that is life affirming? And we, our strategy is framed around a concept that Ruth Gilmore Wilson put together, which is rehearsing freedoms, and it just coins our work very well because how do we practise freedom? How to practise liberation, and that it is a practice. And what we’re doing over the next two years is thinking about collective capacity building and collective opportunities to vision together, to organise around a vision, which is around re-imagining public health, which is around building alternative health eco structures and healing eco structures.
And so that’s what we’re building towards. And in our work in rehearsing freedoms, we have this very multi-layered strategy because we know that there needs to be lots of different entry points, and we’re all coming from different spaces. So we have things that are much more on a grassroots level to then a policy level to a cultural level to coalition and movement building. And rehearsing freedoms has two tracks, one track, which is really looking at community resourcing and internal capacity building within our communities. And that can be building language together, having tools to, to move through and re-pattern trauma, to deepen our understandings of what racialized trauma is, what oppression based trauma is. So really trying to build opportunity to resource ourselves in that kind of community public program, but also to, you know, self determine what the work is to be, and what is it we need, and what’s the analysis and what’s the language we need.
The second dimension of that track is socialising our most radical ideas because there’s so much genius here, so much wisdom, so much brilliance, but it often is situated in the margins. What we want to do is not mainstream it in terms of coming to the centre and diluting, but actually amplifying our radical ideas in a way that is socialised and applies to every, you know, applies and is in, tactile is in everyone’s hands. So how does a framework of healing justice support us? You know, how does embodied trauma work, support all of us and how can that be in the hands of everyone? And we’re all skillful at it because if we’re trying to make policing structures redundant, then we have to be able to have community accountability.
The third area of that is our cultural strategy and really holding, uh, there’s a brilliant Turkish chef Musa, who, I forget his surname, I’m really sorry, but he says culture is what everybody lives. And so how do we have a cultural strategy that is creating opportunity for us to reimagine the alternatives. Because imagination is a muscle, it has to be strengthened, and often we are imagining within the confines of oppression. So having a cultural strategy where we’re practising imagining together.
And then a fourth area around building like a people’s power base and the people’s power bases we’ve got next year are a festival, which is site-specific over a prolonged time, we’re going to do a lot of applied teachings for rehearsing freedoms. Like what does it mean to rehearse consent when someone is experiencing distress? What does it mean to rehearse, in a non-reactionary way, deregulating or de-escalating a stop and search? Or how do we rehearse dealing with disclosure? So we’re moving out of reactionary – although sometimes we do need to be reactionary, so I don’t want to dismiss it – but actually that we are practised in it, we’re skillful in it, and we’re able to present choices aside from what is our default or our dominant in moments of pressure. And that will kind of culminate in a people’s assembly and a people’s kind of health manifesto or charter that then takes us towards iterating a model of public health or public health provision.
And that’s on a really kind of civic people’s, you know – our common sense, our public, like in our hands, everybody, all of us. But the second side, track is much more on people who are leading already and building practice and innovating and driving change from lived experience communities, from marginalised communities, and really supporting, you know, connection and becoming connective tissue in that muscle. And then also like strengthening it. And so we’re doing, you know, embodied transformation work with leaders to sustain our movements, but also the places where our leadership might have tensions or needs opportunity to like innovate and explore without our work or our practice being seen as failure or burning out. So we’ve got a kind of a strand of work that it really is to support and to build the field, to build the work, to build a landscape towards this. Seeing it in a very applied sense. So from, you know, trainings to test spaces where we’re, you know, exploring ideas together and hacking things to then rejoining with the festival where we’re doing the kind of rehearsing together of, you know, the skills we’ll need for revolution and the skills we’ll need to actualize the world we’re calling in for.
Jo: In your first lot of interviews, you spoke about an anti-colonial perspective of what time is, which I really liked. Could you take a deep breath and maybe expand on that a bit more?
I come from a Muslim tradition, and while I don’t essentialise like God or, or Spirit, whatever, and I draw in and from lots of different spiritual traditions, I think Islam has this really beautiful concept when we’re thinking about time. Cause you know, a lot of the time, time is constructed in this very linear way. But it’s in the service of coloniality and also racial capitalism, in which is time is loss, and we’re always losing time and we’re always running out of time. It’s something that exists within these kinds of logics. And actually, you know, growing up and exploring this concept of Tawhid, and Tawhid is – I think loads of Indigenous and spiritual traditions have this – but this essentially is a state of deep unity and oneness where time and space collapse, and time and space are seen as forms of separation.
And in that space, you know, we are, you know, you might touch it in like, a deep meditative space where you’re just like everything and everyone. And I like to see it as like the reversal of, say, coloniality and colonisation relied on this Cartesian logic of, ‘I think therefore I am’. And so what that did was mean that rational thinking or the totalising of reason affirmed existence. And it also meant that to externalise your self worth, it was because you thought that you existed.
In the Quran we have Kun fayakun, ‘be and it is’. And I see the kind of, ‘I think therefore I am’ as like the state of separation and externalising of self worth, but the ‘be and it is’, is the kind of, you are and therefore it is. Like therefore, you know? And so it’s this, a version of that logic, but also that the state of beingness of like these questions of ontology, which we’re not. And when we think about race and June Jordan says, says it in, you know, in one of her and I’m going to paraphrase really badly, but she says something like the most pertinent question in America is for the Black body is, how can I be who I am? And I think oppression is always trying to fold you into falsehood, is always trying to like make you other than what you are, but it’s also denying you like the existence and also becoming because we’re always in states of becoming, and it doesn’t allow that. And we see that in racism, we see it in Islamophobia that it fixes us into these states, which are removed and fragmented. And so I think concepts like Tawhid, and the collapse of time and space bring us to the, we are and so it is. Be and so it is, and so I’m always thinking about what that offers us.
But then when we bring it into the trauma field and, you know, we’re thinking about trauma and, and the ways in which we heal. And we also understand, like, you know, what we know one of the things that, Nkem Need from Lumos Tranforms and she’s a, I think, a pioneer in the trauma field. I remember her once saying the body never lies, but it’s not always on time. And, you know, and I think there’s something really powerful about the body has the truth, holds the truth of your experiences and your realities and, as a very protective mechanism, says to you, like, this is when you can know, this is when you can access. And so it’s in time and not in time and it holds both of those things right? And so I think that there’s something really powerful in the ways in which we can explore time outside of racial capitalism in the ways of like it puts us into productivity and value. You know, when you’re a child you’re not valuable when you’re an elder, you’re not valuable.And actually like a lot of indigenous traditions don’t think about that. We think about things much more cyclical, much more interdependent. And also that, you know, I know like again, drawing from Islam, you know, the child and the elder, the, you know, because the child is the soul that just came into the body and the elder is returning they’re the closest to truth because they’re not in the facades of social constructs. And so there’s always so much wisdom in the soul of the child and truth, and also why we’re often encouraged to spend time with elders and people who are passing because they’re touching the space outside of this, these constructs. There’s I think a lot of stuff there.
Jo: One of the questions, which on purpose was an impossible question in the prompts you you got was describing the current moment that we’re in. And that was interesting for us because New Constellations started before the pandemic, but then the pandemic happened and it suddenly sort of, everything was just talking about, build back better blah blah and it changed the whole narrative. But we were kind of already in a place before that, where everything was rising to a kind of bubble, you know, it just feels like we’re still in part of that to me. How would you go about describing, what are some things in the current moment that you think are specific to this moment and that are pressing on your work or influencing your work or you’re responding to?
I think we’re definitely in a time where we’re realising a lot of the ways in which the world has been organised is so profoundly unsustainable and unsustainable for everyone except for the elite few that are protected from the consequences of it. But also don’t, they don’t win. Right? Like the way, I always understand violence as disconnection and the ways in which we’re disconnected from our bodies, disconnected from our communities, constantly in states of like disconnection and, and so, and forms of like forced separation and actually like even the elite occupied positions and live out positions of like deep separation and disembodiment that allows them to keep, I mean for example you know, some of the stuff that we’ve been seeing right now with Ukraine and how a lot of people, you know, came on to TV and media and establishment folks were like, oh, these are civilised people. Um, these types of refugees, not, um, not like, you know, people in Syria or Muslims here or black folk, it’s like really having this kind of really, you know, using that colonial language of like barbarian and the civilised. For me, what is arresting and stunning, is that like to hold that position is actually from a diminished space of humanity like that to me is uncivilised, like to move from a space where you cannot, your empathy is only extends to what looks like you. And then also not being able to hold the conditions and contexts that created refugees, that’s created wars, that’s created, you know, all the forms of violences that exist on racialised people, on Muslims. All of that, despite the profound amount of information, evidence, and to choose to be so deeply in affinity to your sense of self it’s not real, you know, whiteness is a construct, it’s a social construct. And so to be so tied to that sense is a diminished humanity. And like, that’s really sad to me. That’s really sad that you didn’t afford yourself more life. Like you chose that. And so I think that there’s something where right now we are in reckoning, like it’s such a reckoning of all of those deep cumulative, the slow violence, the long-term like chronic unsustainable social constructs that are, you know, coming to a head or we’re seeing them manifest in everything, in every way, as being unsustainable and also just for people who want to hold onto that, for whatever reason, it’s like deeply sad and pathetic and, but also it’s fatal. Like it’s also fatal it has consequences, you know, when folks go on TV and say that it has, has consequences. And so I think that that bit is, is very much here, and right now.
You can see I’m nerding out.
Jo: That’s exactly what I want and hoped. Well, I’ve gone completely off track. So I’m just going to have a think if there’s anything, which I think is super important before I ask you what is in you that you want to let out, but before I do that, can I ask you about you as, and as an artist and as a, like, I mean, I guess like actually starting from like the part of you that wants to make things.
I have to be more than what I’m fighting and I didn’t choose this. So I’m always, and how do we, like, I’m always thinking about what happens when we like realise what we long for. And I think part of what I’m in – this work, the liberation work is so deeply fueled by desire. Like that were longing for like these deeply, just, connective worlds that I also believe is possible. And I think, um, you know my practice as an artist or a cultural producer, there’s lots of facets to it. One is that I’ve always been creative and that may have been like a survival strategy. And also like growing up in ends you’re constantly like having to like survive and always like trying to practise the genius of like reimagining outside of something and then also being dyslexic and so, you know, knowing that sometimes my modalities of expression yeah just have to be much more adaptive and being curious like, I think I’ve always been really curious about what else is possible here. And then having, marrying that with the practicalities of like, you know, challenging injustice and like in our lifetimes, how do we do this? And so I’ve been reluctant over the years to call myself an artist. I don’t have the right language for it and one of my mentors, David A Bailey you know, he was the first person to say you’re a curator. And like seeing my work as like curating, building relationships, mapping relationships, doing that connective work mapping, connect like concepts, bringing things together and identifying a set of relations and how they can move together and strengthen or pull apart like those or not exist and exist. So like really seeing that as part of my work on a structural level, but also on a very deeply intimate level. And then I think there’s another part of me as an artist, which I didn’t realise it was just from doing the work, is as a producer that I produced. And I think over the years loads of people have called me cultural producer, executive producer, and I have, you know, I’ve done the kind of formal sides I have been to film school and script writing, you know, all different types of kind of writing and all of these types of things, but more on that kind of like social sculpting or doing the kind of configuring reality level, seeing the kind of like as a producer, what I love about producing is that it does two things. It thinks about space and time. It thinks about how you create space, how you create time on a spreadsheet. And I love a spreadsheet. And how you do, how do you practically do that? And then how do you take something that is so intangible, so unimaginable and how do you set up and line up the conditions that take us towards that? And so I think having the kind of skills as a producer to sorry, to be like, Hey, okay, this is like completely out there and unimaginable. And what does that look like? You know, as a producer, you might be like, this is how it looks on the screen. This is how it looks as a, um, you know, on a, on a platform. This is how it looks. But I love that, that, and saying like, how do we make things possible? How do we translate? How do we, those types of skills I think are really critical for the diligent organising we need, especially if we want to stay hopeful and have, as Marine Caver says ‘hope as a discipline’, but also to be visionary, like to be able to like, okay know what’s outside of everything we’re living and how do we dream it? How do we kind of like, you know, make windows and portals for it? So I think as an artist,I’m still feeling my way around what that is, but I know I have a craft and I know I have a practice and it shapeshifts. And I, and I also see how different autistic disciplines have grown me. Last year I started singing and learning how to sing and just learnt how to breathe actually, and what it meant for, for me to fill my body with a breath. And then, just really practical things of like the breath as an infinite resource. And when you have nothing, can I just come back to breath and how can I offer myself breath, pause?. So, yeah, just recognising the different disciplines and art forms is also like really necessary skills for the time at hand, which Tony Morrison says, this is ‘when it’s despair, artists go to work’. And so, it’s time.
Jo: I really like what you say about producing, it really makes sense to me. In radio and TV, the producer has looked as this person who doesn’t do anything and you know the writer is always thought of as a special creative person. And that’s always, I’ve always just felt that it’s the wrong way of thinking about it. It’s just wrong, because everybody’s creative, like, and there’s so much creativity in those other types of roles.
Like I think about admin and I think about logistics and I think about operations. And for me, those things are sexy because they’re so integral to how we do things. And I think it’s how we’re looking, and this moment in time when we are trying, when we know all these systems of oppression are like, they roll out, like in the invisible, they roll out in the internalised, they build and accumulate. And so the how matters. And so I’m always looking at the how, like how was this made? How was this designed? How does this exist? How is this maintained? You know, how is this used? What context, which conditions? I think the how really matters. And so. The people who are doing that work and then also thinking about labour divisions, like so much of that is invisibilised, gendered. You know, we don’t think about, about it as like the, you know, you know, we want a charismatic, iconic leader, but actually it’s the deep practice, the deep you know, the deep codes that we work with, the deep kind of making and unmaking and learning is actually where the depth of growth happens. Like it’s the depth of it. And I, and I looked at, you know, some of the best and most visionary people and they do all of it like they do, and they don’t always have to be doing that. I think there’s, you should be appropriately placed at different points in your life, but actually they’ve been on that journey of like, you know, they will sit down on, they’ll do the budgets, they’ll sit, they’ll organise an event. They’ll be at the frontline.
And actually all of that kind of skill building, one helps you value invisibilized labour, which also relates to power dynamics, but it also helps you respect and appreciate what it takes to make a thing, what it takes to realise and I also, personally and it’s probably the thing that I want to say is when I reflect on my life and I’ve spent most, more than half my life now organising and in forms of activism. And it’s always bittersweet for me because as I said, it’s not a choice, but there’s nowhere else I would be. And I have agency. And I’ve been growing that agency. And I think that there’s something really that I reflect on and that my kind of closest people around me will say, you know, Farazna you make a lot of this look easy. And so there’s an assumption that the work, the level of depth of rigour, rigour, and rigour and relentless organising work, just happens. And some of the reasons you don’t get to visibalise it is purely on capacity, like you just don’t have time to visibilize all the work. The other is that you don’t want to like dishearten people. You want to stay, you know, nurture hope. And then the other side of it, I think is also around, like coming from ends, you have a, you’re always choosing a battle.
So it’s like, what are you going to talk about today? Are you going to get disheartened by every bump, every bruise.There’s an element of like enduring and moving through. And that also has its, has its place and not, but I think that the thing that I’m recognising and learning is like, it is really important to visibalise and, uh, it’s a responsibility to find ways to visibalize. And some of it, you it’s, the onus is not on you, other people have to go and do the work and be proactive around that deep, detailed depth of work. And we do have a culture which is so instantaneous, which is like, we’re moving across lots of different things, everyone has to do everything instead of really becoming skilled and having that depth of practice and craft, which then that’s where you kind of and Immy Kaur call from Civic Square really often reminds me of this is like the more that you’re deepening in one thing, that’s when you see, oh, that’s a particular type of bump. You know, what’s the relationship two years in, what are your responsibilities to a community five years on, what are your relationships, you know, to a community after Grenfell, you know, like or something like Grenfell, so I think that there’s this element, when it comes to the producers, the kind of those deep roots and branches and the kind of the vessels like, I see as the kind of invisible like maps and routes and roads, like, how do we visiblize it as this is what it takes to do this work without cushioning the brunt of it, but cushioning how like heavy and, and deep and, and, and dark some of that work can be. But also reminding people that it can be really exciting and fun and fruitful, and, you know, you, we’re so intelligent and like, if we brought our curiosity to that, and if we brought like, Hey, actually, like how do I try this in a different way? I just think we’d be in a different space. And so I’m really excited to also be in a place where I’m now really advocating for the sexy work of admin and logistics and producing cause it really is, there is a quiet revolution there.
I just, I don’t know why I just think, I want us to try. I think that’s where I am today. I think today, um, I think so much is possible. We have nothing to lose, so let’s go, like let’s just try and yeah that’s where I’m at today. Like really we have, we have nothing to lose. So all in. And particularly today I tweeted about it, which is, I said, you know, my Jummah feelings, my reflections for Friday are abolition in our lifetimes. Let’s go, you know.