Reimagining Belonging with a CoFED Racial Justice Fellow

Written by Kriss Mincey, 2019 CoFED Racial Justice Fellow

When I applied for the CoFED Racial Justice Fellowship, I wrote that racial justice is about making the case for belonging, and that belonging is about “who gets to imagine themselves here.” I proposed a Universal Design Sensory Food Garden™ (UDSFG) accessible to people using wheelchairs and with otherwise variant mobility. I think this work is incredibly important because it can heal the effects of gendered racial trauma, ableism, and other experiences that are symptomatic of being marginalized as “other” in proximity to whiteness (1).

But the lesson that meant the most over the course of this fellowship was being reminded, to no avail, frankly, that I could finally stop making the case for my belonging.

By indulging the reflex I think we all experience to get the go-ahead of approval from “allies,” potential funders–writing endlessly, emoting endlessly, explaining and defining and naming endlessly–we reinforce the notion that we have to exist in their imagination, not ours, in order to be real, valid and worth loving.

Who am I in my own mind? Do I belong yet? Can I stretch my imagination big enough to hold and accept myself when I have nothing to show [in terms of a product/deliverable]?

The wholeness that racial justice work promises cannot happen if we refuse to interrogate and shed ourselves of the overseer that insists we perform, put out, and show and prove in order to buy our freedom from self-shame. There is an obsession with proving and fixing and posturing that is filtering out what is truest in our relationships. Where relationships are absent, transactions take their place, extraction persists; and erasure, by the same hands of movements meant to serve us, ensues.

Black woman smiling while placing food on long table with beautiful fresh herbs and produce.
Image: The first installment of “Eat Together”, an initiative Kriss launched to challenge radicalized food insecurity within Americorps. Credit: Kriss Mincey

If I sincerely intend to liberate myself–not even my community, or any other grand feat that would mark me as somebody else’s hero, just myself–then this work has to happen outside a capitalistic mindset in which the relationships I nurture over the course of a project are measured by what I can present for public review.

If I say I want racial justice, what I’m really saying is I want to see myself, accept her, and act on behalf of her already-deserved humanity, without the extrinsic insistence that I be more like someone else who’s more human than me, or do more in order to be more than I already am.

Justice happens in the spiritual realm; it was my relationship with my mother in the last six months that especially illuminated this learning for me.

This is an excerpt from an extended piece where I develop this framework. Click here to view.

“I felt guilty being able to access a garden in ways my mom couldn’t yet. Ableism operates as an extension of capitalism, I think, because it marks people as normal or not, based on the extent to which their bodies can do labor to be used in the marketplace.

I believe in a world where “diversity” means designing spaces for all Black bodies’ mobility types, invisible limitations, and various kinds of intelligence. And, true to history, when we design our institutions and spaces with the most marginalized (2) among us in mind, it benefits everyone.

I believe these things. But my unlearning is deep. My mom’s perceived suffering became about my discomfort. I pitched the project with assumptions before even asking her about herself, and how she felt in green spaces. I wanted to find answers so I could stop feeling uncomfortable. Admittedly, armed with ambition, I was afraid my mom’s physical “brokenness” would expose my own frayed self-image.

When I stopped trying to be her superhero with this project, and realized she just wanted me to see her all the way–like anybody–the more vulnerable I felt. Seeing her as someone just like me meant connecting: I couldn’t be superhuman anymore, or impenetrable the way Black girls are raised to be (by our parents, teachers, media and academics whose missteps have shaped government programming and public opinion to Black girls’, women’s and femmes’ detriment.)

None of us want to be “fixed” in the way racial justice work can prompt us to think. This is the nonprofit industrial complex at work. But we all want to serve and be served.

After dozens of recorded interviews with my mom, I didn’t share them, because this felt like a breach of trust and boundaries, to which I hadn’t found a more suitable alternative for seeing how we had changed in response to the writings, questions and conversations that have happened within and alongside this fellowship.

I want to learn more about what work is being done and has been done in the field in order to break this dynamic.”

Black hand holding up a bowl of big and small red tomatoes in front of a garden with tall sunflowers and tomatoes.
Image: Kriss holding a bowl of tomatoes from her first harvest this summer at her garden. Credit: Kriss Mincey

Under capitalism, a tenet of white supremacy working in concert with racism, anti-blackness, patriarchy, and ableism, as my experiences have revealed, human relationships exist to be extractive. We build relationships under the guise that we can use what we’ve found to guide our research, extract knowledge and put it up for show in order to get buy-in. We “invest” in our relationships in order to get a return. We do emotional “labor.” We “trade” across racial, ethnic and class lines in a clumsy (albeit sincere in my experience) attempt to restore that which can never be restored. We love so that we can get love back. We serve justice so that we might feel justified. It turns out I don’t want to live like that.

I want to explore what racial justice means when it is unseen. That which is invisible is the most powerful, so perhaps we can rethink impact and progress, so that our worth as humans and our sense of self-imagination won’t be so mercilessly tied to metrics that are simply not human at all.

Black woman playfully holding large pale green cucumber to her ear like a phone!
Image: Kriss holding up the largest cucumber from her second harvest this summer at her garden. Credit: Kriss Mincey


1. Whiteness trauma™ is what I’ll call this; it shifts our focus from the groups of people who are most vulnerable to the effects of whiteness, to the active perpetrator of trauma, which I argue is whiteness itself.

2. In using “marginalized,” a becomed-euphemism for “disposable,” I am specifically referring to the compoundedness of our various relationships to oppression, a phenomenon in which each layer of less-than-1st-class citizenship pushes us closer to the margins of society; none of us are inherently marginal, which I think we risk communicating when “marginalized”, and terms like it become platitudes. We begin to assume that because it’s now normal, that it is natural.