Interview with Ilaj, a social activist and trainer — Advaya

Activism & Leadership

Interview With Ilaj, a Social Activist and Trainer

Article with Ilaj, Tammy Gan on Monday 11th April 2022

We talk to Ilaj, project lead for Ulex Project’s LGBTQI+ psycho-social resilience and holistic security programme, about deconstructing internalised systems of oppression, working with body-based methods and facilitation within activist spaces, how we heal and regenerate, and more.

Ilaj Ulex Project

Ilaj was a speaker at Regenerative Activism 2021, in the event Facing Repression: Building Movement Resilience. Regenerative Activism is back for its fifth iteration this year, co-hosted with Ulex Project. Find out more and register here.

Advaya: Could you tell us about your work, and what your work looks like on a day to day basis?

ILAJ: I’m part of the core team of the Ulex Project. All of my work is related to the to the Ulex Project. On a day to day basis, I do a lot of admin work, but the core of my work is facilitation: facilitating courses, but also supporting different social movements and groups. It depends on the on the season, because as the Ulex Project we host residential trainings here. We are just coming up to the our busier season: I’m on courses and working with activists, human rights defenders, people involved in social and environmental justice, mostly across Europe, sometimes from outside of Europe as well.

My facilitation work is mostly about the topics of psychosocial resilience and security, burnout prevention, regenerative activism, collaboration within groups, anti-oppression (or what we call active solidarity in Ulex). And also, I do a lot of work that revolves around body-based methods, body awareness methods, in my facilitation.

Advaya: How did you come to do this work, with Ulex, and also with body-based methods? How did you decide on, or stumble into, this work? And perhaps more generally, how did you come into the movement?

ILAJ: I was involved in different kinds of grassroots activism from my late teens, mostly in Poland (where I am originally from), and then later on, also in Portugal. Those were mostly direct action kind of activism, specifically a lot of housing rights activism.

At some point I was intuiting or feeling a certain almost lack of depth in those movements. It was like a sense that there’s something that we are doing wrong. We were losing people along the way, people would burn out, we failed at taking care of each other, we failed at making meaningful change or knowing what that change looks like.#

So I got more interested in facilitating movements, exploring group dynamics and what happens when we work together, how we reproduce differences, how we harm each other, and how we can avoid doing that.

I came across a course on regenerative activism and burnout, at the point where I was quite burned out with my activism. That was life changing. From then on, I explored a lot of things around working with trauma: in the beginning, it was specifically trauma related to direct action and police violence, but then later it expanded into more politicised trauma—related to systems of oppression. Then I started doing facilitation work, and I was connected with Ulex, and ended up working full-time for them and living here in Catalunya.

In terms of body-based practice… My background was in movement theatre, I’ve been moving since I was very young. And that was life-saving for me. For a long time, those two realms were very separate—my movement and dance practice, and political engagement were really separate. I wanted to find a way to merge those together, knowing that my movement practice really builds my resilience and really supports me and my activism, and that it’s really political in many ways. I eventually came across different methodologies that were trying to do that; I trained in feminist self-defense, generative somatics…

Advaya: It’s really timely to hear about facilitation work, and how you came into that. It’s so relevant nowadays, with activist movements, where we’ve almost come to a point where everyone feels very… not just burnt out, but also there’s a real lack of solidarity, and not just in the sort of aligning movements kind of way, but in like a heart-to-heart kind of solidarity.

But let’s go back to when you were saying that you saw that you were losing people along the way, and that you felt that movements lacked something—that depth. Could you expand on what that looked like, and what that felt like within the movement? And whether or not you think that these problems still exist today?

ILAJ: It felt like I was lacking a sense of meaning. It felt like a lot of the things we are doing are reactive, that we are reacting to what’s happening in the external world. We want to deconstruct things, fight things, and there’s “us” and “them”, and it all felt superficial and hopeless. We don’t know why we are doing it, and where we are going with all that reactive action.

I think a lot of it is connected with the kind of activism I was doing, but also had to do with my social experience, growing up in Poland, being quite cut off from spirituality. The main religion in Poland is Catholicism, which is very oppressive. The church institution is very oppressive. I didn’t have anything to lean into, in terms of having hope.

And all of the organising was really rational, really separated from our emotions. Really patriarchal, in many ways: focused on outcomes and, change that we wanted to see here and now without a broad, more historical perspective.

Without knowing what happened in the past, how our ancestors fought for the things we are fighting now, and what they’ve learned and how what we can learn from them, how we can lean into that into the history of our movements, and imagining the future beyond our present times as well. What are we building for those that will come after us?#

I do think that it’s changed massively—movements are different now. I don’t think we have found a way to engage with that depth quite yet, we are still figuring that part out. But a big difference now is that we are no longer denying that we are emotional beings, and we’re beginning to see that we need to construct, and not only deconstruct.

Advaya: Let’s talk about your work with body awareness, as you say, as “a radical means of deconstructing internalised systems of oppression”. And along with that idea of not just thinking about deconstructing, could you tell us what you mean by the phrase “internalised systems of oppression”? We don’t have enough of an understanding of how we’ve internalised the system—which is very much related to what you were talking about earlier, because without an awareness of how these are internalised, we can’t resolve them, and we can’t get to that “depth”.

ILAJ: It speaks, I think, to that sense that I had in my early times of organising, where we were really outwardly focused, on those “bad” people that are out there doing “bad” things, without recognising the interrelated nature of those things that like we grew up in: in colonial, patriarchal capitalism. All of the ways that we relate to ourselves, to our bodies, to other people, to the world, they are all based in that.

It’s difficult, because it’s like the air we breathe: so we don’t realise, we sometimes don’t know.#

I see internalised systems of oppression in all the transphobia that I have internalised, as a trans person: all the transphobic thoughts I have in my head, how I treat myself because of those messages that I was getting. I see them in how I relate to people within a certain social positionality: like, how do I use my body when I speak with someone that I read as more powerful within social structures? And then more broadly, how do we reproduce systems of oppression when we speak to each other, when we organise? How do we care, or not care, for each other? How ready, or not ready, are we to talk about difficult things, admit mistakes?

The impact of internalised systems of oppression on us is so big, and it feels so big that I don’t know how to talk about it—I wish I did.

Advaya: We’ve done entire courses on things like embodiment and somatics, so it is an ongoing discussion, and there are entire organisations dedicated to talking about this. It was a great stab at the question nonetheless!

How do we then deconstruct these internalised systems of oppression? Here, it might be good to bring in the original definition of “radical”, which means “of the root”, rather than how we define “radical” in our contemporary vocabulary. It’s really essential that we get to the root of these systems of oppression, which means getting to the internalised systems of oppression. How do we begin to deconstruct them?

ILAJ: The key thing that comes to mind is disconnection.

What those systems of oppression thrive on is disconnection. Capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, they want to disconnect us from each other, and ourselves from ourselves, and from nature. We are socialised into being individuals, rather than recognising the interconnection.#

We need to be really aware, because we are not aware that we are disconnected. Awareness is the first step: creating more connection, trusting our bodies more—our bodies are so wise. All the information we need about what’s happening, what’s good for us, what’s bad for us, is all in here. We are just taught not to listen to it, to override it with rational thoughts and ideas and views. But we can reclaim the ability to tune in to all these informations. So reclaiming intuition, reclaiming being in connection with our bodies, knowing what different signals from our body tell us. If we learn to read these informations, it would be revolutionary. It would make us feel more connected to ourselves, to our environment, and to other people.

The other thing that comes to mind is shame, blame, punishment and reward, that we are really socialised into as well. The aim of which is to socialise us to binaries of like, some people are “good”, some people are “bad”, which leads to the idea that “bad” people go to prison, and “good” people are outside, and so on. That just doesn’t make any sense—people are not either “bad” or “good”. We do bad things sometimes. So we need to be deconstructing those binaries, and looking for more connection. And I think maybe binaries is another another clue to it. We do want to simplify things, but how we can learn to embrace complexity? Create resilience? Not have an answer sometimes? Or try something out, make a mistake and adapt? Not look for the right answers? Be comfortable with flexibility?

A lot of that will happen on the body level, such as through building awareness on the body level through different practices: noticing what’s happening in our body, in our thoughts, which will create more choice, because we don’t fall into automatic responses that we are socialised into.

We create a gap for choice where we notice what is happening, what judgements we are making, why we are doing it, so that we can choose the actions we take, rather than just fall into patterns.#

Advaya: There’s a lot definitely there to unpack, and all these ideas are just building onto each other and forming this bigger, moving and changing bigger picture.

But let’s move more into your work, and what you shared last year on the Regenerative Activism 2021 panel. You said that: “it’s important that we are “working with [the] basics around stress and trauma, because often, living in a really hostile environment has a toll on our bodies, that then will show up in the ways we build relationships, in the ways we cooperate, how much energy we have to stay involved”. This, of course, relates to your work with psychosocial resilience and holistic security. What is “holistic security”? It’s been defined as “a deeply personal, subjective and gendered concept”, but could you unpack it a little for us?

ILAJ: “Holistic” basically relates to systems theory. So it looks as a system and doesn’t reduce the system into just its parts. It acknowledges that different parts of the system will interact differently and create new meanings, that you cannot understand the system through boiling it down to its parts. It looks at relationships and relations in context.

“Holistic security” means that we don’t only look at physical security, which often is what comes to mind. Instead we take into account the psychosocial resilience, the broader social context, and digital security. So it involves looking at different aspects of security. And it also means that we look at different strategies. Often, when we think about security, we think about protection. But actually, protection is not the only thing we need to do. We do need to protect ourselves, but we also need to have deterrent strategies or strategies that will build support, and so on.

We want to make a really thorough context analysis, because there is no universal way of creating safety or security. It’s going to really depend on our context: who we are, our life history, and our experiences, what kind of work we do, where do we do it, with whom we work, what kind of experiences we had with security and safety in the past, our social structure, and so on. So taking all that into account, and also acknowledging that it’s going to change: it’s not that we have a fixed security strategy that’s good until the end of our lives. It’s something that we need to reevaluate as individuals, as groups, all the time, and to adapt and be flexible.

Advaya: Perhaps it is useful to ground the question in talking about people who face systemic oppression, and people whose bodies hold a lot of trauma. In thinking about security in the context of marginalised and oppressed peoples in particular, how are their senses of security impacted by system? And we would love to hear more specific contexts that you’ve worked with before.

ILAJ: I’ve been recently mostly working in Eastern Europe, with LGBTQI movements. That’s a very specific context, especially when you look at the socio political context, the history, the political history, but also social awareness and social attitudes towards the LGBTQI community. These hugely affect what people can do and how people can do it, and it also affects activists differently. It’s very different from doing LGBTQI activism in Western Europe, where there is a lot of social acceptance. In Eastern Europe, there is a lot of pushback, and so we are working in a very hostile environment.

So people who experience marginalisation are deprived a sense of safety and security in the world because of this hostile environment. For example, for myself as a trans person in Poland, at the moment, the main political and media discourse in Poland is very transphobic, and so I’m deprived of a sense of security. And what that’s like is that when I go out on the street, my senses are heightened, I’m expecting something to happen, because I know I’m in an environment that’s hostile towards me. Though that might not necessarily be true, because of the environment in general, that’s the information that my system receives. So my trauma response, my hyper-vigilance is being triggered, meaning that I’m going to perceive more threats than there actually are.

When we don’t have those kinds of [marginalised] experiences, we might fall into a lower [and even too low a] perception of threats, whereby we don’t perceive threats that are actually there. So when we think about security, what we want to do is to level that up or down, and to perceive the threats that are [realistically] there, rather than a heightened nor too low perception of threats. This is where work with our own wellbeing comes into play. Because working through our own traumas, with our own difficult experiences will mean that we will be able to rebuild our resilience, and accurately assess the situation, which means that we live under less amount of stress.

And it’s tricky because we do have a lot of agency in building our resilience and in managing our own stress. Though at the same time, the amount of stress we are under is not our fault: for example, it’s the transphobic, LGBTQI-phobic environment that creates that stress.

But we have the agency over our own bodies, over our own nervous systems and we can build our resilience up. It is exhausting, living under a constant amount of high stress, and sometimes we can’t do it anymore, but there is agency in it.#

We can increase our own well being, on our own, with others, we can create different organising cultures. We can talk about security, about how we can take care of each other and ourselves.

Advaya: There is a fine line, and we have to be very nuanced: recognising that we do have agency in controlling the amount of stress, but at the same time we also have to move to fix systems, because systems are the other half of the solution.

So the concept of psychosocial resilience, as you’ve explained, is very helpful for people who have marginalised identities, but for broader activist movements, how does psychosocial resilience play into regenerating our movements? How do we do it? Why is it important for activist movements to build that kind of resilience?

ILAJ: Because if we are engaged in social, environmental change work, we will often work against the way things are, we are working against some systems of oppression. Those systems of oppression, they don’t only affect marginalised people, they affect all of us. We all live in colonial patriarchal capitalism, and it makes all of our lives miserable. We are all affected by the system directly. So recognising that interlinked nature of how we organise will have an effect on ourselves, and on our actions as well.

How can we reinvent activism and social engagement in a way that does not reproduce those systems of oppression?#

How can we make it such that it’s not becoming something that drains us, but something that is regenerative, that brings us joy, that brings us hope, that we want to engage with, because that’s an expression of our deepest values. How do we avoid acting from a place of hatred, destruction, how do we avoid a deconstructive approach?

This doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t need to fight. Fighting is important at times, and we do need to fight, but what fuels that fight makes a huge difference, and will make a huge difference on how it affects us as individuals, as groups. If we are fuelled by joy and hope, we can actually attract more people into our movements, and it will mean that we can take care of ourselves better, we won’t lose people along the way. I think that’s a constant exploration and reflection here. We need to engage with the questions of: how do we do things differently? How do we not reproduce capitalism? How do we not reproduce individualism in our groups? How do we not only fight against that company, or this law being passed, or this politician getting into power, but how we also create as we fight against, or as we want to change things?

Advaya: And jumping right into our last question… You said in the Regenerative Activism panel in 2021: “I think we often might have this tendency of pushing our emotions down and being like ‘we need to fight here and we need to focus on fighting through that’, rather than creating space for those emotions to inform our action in a more conscious way.” And so with that, we wanted to ask you aside from being more aware in our daily life, how else can we not reproduce the system, and how else can we create space to feel through our emotions and work through these things? Since this is exactly what Ulex Project does, you could share directly about what you do.

ILAJ: A lot of our work is around changing the culture of organising, changing group culture, but also movement culture. This involves starting to have difficult conversations, looking at how do we reproduce these systems of oppression inside of our groups, thinking about, for example, who our groups are accessible to, and who they’re not, and whether or not that is intentional, how we can bring more awareness into our strategic planning, into choosing which means of action we use, into our movements.

So a lot of our work is to encourage people to have difficult conversations, to go into those difficult places, places of pain and anger and miscommunication and conflict, to look at what’s behind that, why they’re there. And you asked about emotions: we definitely need to think about remaking cultures, about how we create communities, how we relate to each other.

We need to be making more space to talk about emotions, finding new ways of engaging with emotions collectively, rather than simply putting them aside, or judging them, or thinking about them as something unnecessary.#

Conflict is also a big part of it, thinking about how we navigate conflict in our groups, in our movements. We are so socialised into competition: how do we overcome that urge to compete with each other, how do we find ways of cooperating, how do we find ways of moving away from the prison industrial complex and finding ways to accountability, keeping each other accountable, with care, accountability that will encourage us to grow and express our deepest values, rather than shame and blame each other.

Advaya: These are such great places for folks to start thinking about. And these are very big concepts and frameworks in themselves, and there are entire movements built around these words, and folks can definitely take the time to go through them slowly.

Ilaj #

Ilaj is project lead for Ulex’s LGBTQI+ psycho-social resilience and holistic security programme.

Read Ilaj’s profile

Tammy Gan #

Tammy Gan is the Head of Content and Storytelling at Advaya.

Read Tammy Gan’s profile