What Does Freedom Feel Like?

by maya finoh

What does Utopia mean to you?

I think this is a really good question because it’s forcing me to really imagine. I think that “Utopia” is a guiding vision for what I see as liberation. I think that this vision is very much informed by people that I organize in a community with, collaborate with, people who I see as educators as well as ancestors who have framed my thinking and my politics. Utopia is when I think of a world without all of these systems of dominance and hierarchy…what that feels and tastes like. When I think of Utopia, one of the first thoughts I have is how it makes my body feel, and it’s relaxed. So I think that Utopia is the goal of being able to exist freely, to live freely…to have life without the current, horrible, toxic things and systems that are trying to lead us toward premature death. Currently, it’s capitalism, racism, cisheteropatriarchy, ableism, fatphobia, so on and so forth. I guess my idea of Utopia is my vision of the world without the other things that are currently keeping us from Utopia.

That was beautiful. You already mentioned this a bit, but could you elaborate more on if Utopia were a feeling, what would it be?

I imagine it as joyous. It’s both a place but also a world framed around being able to smile easily, enjoyment, and laughter. I see it as pleasurable. A brilliant immigration defense organizer and lawyer I follow on instagram, Farhia Tato, has in their bio the statement “desires are needs.” Our dreams and our desires are not something that we should take frivolously and superficially or even something to push down against or talk down on. Actually, our desires teach us a lot about what we actually need. And so I acknowledge that feeling as well when I think about Utopia. It’s a feeling of no shame or guilt, being able to exist as you are and express yourself. I’m feeling there’d be lots of joy, lots of pleasure, lots of laughter. Lots of desires being met. You’d feel seen and recognized. You’d feel like you’re in some form of community or collectiveness. Because of this communal aspect, Utopia will also have to be about—as Toni Morrison said—the freedom to choose the responsibilities you want too.

In Utopia, you will need to be able to show up as all the parts of yourself day to day without having to hide or negotiate parts of your identity away… being able to show up as all the pieces of you that make up who you are. I don’t think that loneliness is something that can or should exist in Utopia. I recently had a conversation where somebody was very explicitly telling me, “You should not feel ashamed about needing to be replenished constantly. You need care and reciprocity and replenishment. If you’re trying to be a caretaker, or involved in social justice work, you actually need to be replenished and held and cared for. You should never apologize for that. It’s a requirement for your work.” I feel in Utopia we shouldn’t even think about guilt or shame around needing to take a break, or needing to rest. All of that should just be something that is built into the infrastructure.

Why do you think reciprocity is essential for building utopia?

I think that we, as humans, inherently have to exist in relationship to one another. I also think isolation is very capitalist, and very new. So many of us come from cultures that inherently require collaboration. I think about how growing up as a West African, so much of our food is family style, having huge dishes around, like a big pot of plasas (stew) that everybody gets portions from. I think about this practice called susu in the African diaspora where a group of folks pile money together continuously, like once a month, and rotate who gets all the money each time. Things like that are literally built into our cultural strategies. To me, that is the definition of reciprocity. Saying that, “I’m gonna put in now, knowing that at the end of the day, whether it be two months from now or even six months from now, this money is gonna come back to me, but also in the meantime it’s gonna go to various people part of this collective.” Everybody gets something back… it’s all reciprocity. Everybody gets replenished at some point from putting something in.

How do we cultivate the trust necessary to fully be in reciprocity?

I feel like that’s actually one of the biggest mandates of our time that we’re working towards now. I think that building trust is not something that can happen overnight. It’s something that takes a foundation. I think that it happens in the little interactions we have with one another… I don’t know, getting to know your neighbor or choosing to engage in your community or with your loved ones or people who will become loved ones. I think it takes a lot of bravery to sort of say, “I want to live in a collective or in a communal way, and I want to build trust with others.” I think it really starts with the little day to day things within our communities like supporting projects and events programming and joining organizations.

Programming like Open Edu is a really good way of building trust because of the sheer amount of information that is shared and just the fact that it’s almost an archival library on the website, just feels like this is something that is very clearly for the public. It’s not behind paywalls or rooted in elitist academic forms of knowledge sharing that are invested in colonialism and capitalism. I feel like that is building trust. It just takes a while. There’s no formula to it. We’re just trying to relate to each other as human beings to get to the point where we can start caring for one another and holding one another when things get hard. But I feel like the best way to begin practicing that is with friendships and offering grace, when your friends cannot hold something and to also ask for grace though that’s hard too. I feel like that is something that is folded into the trust building as well.

How can you, or do you, apply the idea of Utopia to your work? And how can we use it if not already, to push your work forward?

Whether it be political education or human rights policy advocacy which is my day job, or modeling which also has creative elements as well, a big part of my framing is actual world building, which can be another word for Utopia. Part of world building is trying to exist, and also push for the existence of things that we haven’t seen before. A big part of that is not being content with the status quo, or not being content with how things are. So I try to very often ask, “Why not this? Why not that?” which is a lot like my politics. I’ve been a prison abolitionist since 2015, and I feel so lucky to have entered it from a student organizing perspective. I was a part of a student collective called Students Against the Prison-Industrial Complex at my university. A lot of abolition, especially before 2020, was quite literally having to contend with the fact that most people think that you’re delusional to want to live in a world with no police and no prisons. Part of the work is, on a day to day level, choosing not to call the police but offering other solutions like having in place a safety pod made up of people you trust, or asking how can we relate to one another in ways that don’t require police presence or immediately deferring to calling 911? That is a way of building Utopia or building freedom and world building practices.

I try to apply these practices in the modeling world where it’s very white supremacist, fatphobic, and ableist. Most models are and have been white and thin—that’s just inherent to it. And so for me, I’m the opposite; I’m fat, Black, queer, non-binary… so when I do engage in modeling, it feels like a way of world building. Working with photographers who are Black and queer, explicitly being aligned with other people who are thinking of themselves as more than just creatives but as cultural workers, feels so fundamental to creating or leaving evidence that the world and joy and pleasure and fashion doesn’t have to simply be the status quo, or these very eurocentric, tiny, rigid beauty standards that we know are rooted in colonialism.

Something that has been really interesting in this process is when you ask people about utopia, and even when you were talking about your work in abolition is that when you ask people to imagine a utopian world, sometimes the first thing they imagine is a dystopian world. Imagining new ways of doing things is really radical.

I feel like the real work is building the world from the ashes. That’s what I’m more concerned with. And I get why people think that, but there is a really good article by professor and political theorist Bedour Alagraa in which she talks about how there has always been a real fear of oppressors of vengeance coming from the colonized and marginalized. The fear of, “Oh my God, what happens if they do to us what we did to them?” And what I thought was particularly great about that article is that Alagraa brought up the Haitian Revolution, where the burning of plantations and revenge, yes, happened but that was only one small part of the revolutionary process. That happened, and then the work shifted focus to build a Black Republic. It’s interesting how people are set in this fear of vengeance, and how destruction is going to take up the entire scope of years and years, though most revolutions have shown us that it’s only one small part of a larger vision around freedom dreams.

So what’s the role of healing in this journey towards freedom?

I think that healing cannot happen without justice. Actually, my concern with freedom or healing is that sometimes there is a bit too much of a focus on pacifist visions that don’t really speak to how difficult it will be to reconcile, or how difficult it will be for true justice and transformation to happen because I think it will be very messy. I don’t think it’s something that’s gonna be easy at all. When I imagine healing, I imagine it being prioritized upon marginalized people, colonized people and people who are experiencing social marginalization currently. I think that the focus should always be on survivors of violence.

The role of healing, especially for Utopia, should be around how the needs and the desires of people who are currently survivors, currently colonized, and currently oppressed can be met. A lot of the oppression that’s currently happening is socioeconomically based. So what does a world with people not having to worry about housing, access to delicious food, or no policing, or health care look like? Healing will be very material, very much tied into making sure that people can live with ease. There’s also of course that spiritual element of healing, like ancestral trauma… the spiritual healing that happens parallel to material, economic healing.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is healing is reparations. Healing has to be reparations, fundamentally, and that is both material but also spiritual as well.

So how do we practice these acts of freedom and be prepared to receive reparations despite the trauma of 100s of years of oppression? As you said, reciprocity is building trust. Even within our communities we face internalized “isms”, so how do we move forward internally and with others to get free?

I feel like that is a question that requires such a communal answer. The first thing that comes to me is that there has to be truth from the get go. The trauma you’re talking about, like internalized anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, all the internalized “isms”… all of that has to be laid bare. Organizing across differences requires being honest about the differences that we have, and the different needs we require, and also recognizing that we don’t have to have exactly the same needs globally. I feel like the idea that we’re all going to have the same desires or the same needs feels very white supremacist in the way that white people have tried to create these global blanket view of truth and knowledge. Western European scientists have tried to create this “one truth” or “one universal way” of seeing the world, when the reality is that there are so many different truths and so many different forms of knowledge and sciences in our world. I think that that’s also a part of how we practice freedom… in that we all don’t need to practice freedom in the same way.

For example, the prison industrial complex has tried to put a one size fits all punitive approach to “crime” and has only increased violence. Our approach to transformation or healing or freedom is not at all a one size fits all approach. We should consider really imagining and being okay with a world, and a Utopia with a bunch of various autonomous communities… where hundreds or thousands, or millions of communities who have various desires and needs. I don’t think that there has to be a breakout of war if all those communities have what they need and we aren’t moving with a scarcity mindset. This can’t be the way that the world is currently set up where the global north is using and consuming so many resources at the expense of the Global South. We’re gonna practice freedom in varying ways. We have to tell the truth to one another and reckon with the truth that we do have 500 years of trauma as people because colonization didn’t just generationally impact the colonized, but also colonizers who have spent hundreds of years conducting violence. That’s also something that needs to be healed and worked through, and there needs to be justice for that as well.

We have been touching on this a little bit, but more explicitly, what is the relationship with the Black Freedom Movement in terms of Utopia, both in the past and then looking ahead?

The vision of utopia that I have, when I think about the Black freedom struggle, is definitely influenced by professor Robin D.G. Kelley who wrote a book called Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination, where he articulates that the Black radical imagination has been instrumental to various political movements like Black Marxism, Black Feminism, and the campaign to get reparations for chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation. All of these things are guided by Black people imagining a freedom that they’ve never experienced in this currently constructed anti-Black world. Some Black folks have imagined the United States living up to its ideals of a more perfect union, which for some folks is an example of Utopia.

As an abolitionist, I imagine an end to the United States as a settler-colonial state and this anti-Black world. That dream has guided my work and my vision of the Black freedom struggle. It’s very helpful to draw on the long arc of the Black freedom struggle and the Black radical imagination in this way because I think that for a lot of people, things like abolition feel very scary. But then I think once you remind folks that there were a lot of Black people who were enslaved or freed, who had no idea what a world without slavery would look like in the 1600s or 1700s but still, were like, “I’m gonna organize, I’m gonna rebel. I’m gonna start insurrections.” We saw a very successful example in Haiti, where people said “I know that this current world isn’t working, I don’t know what the next world might be. I don’t know what Utopia might exactly look like. But I know that this needs to go.”

How can readers apply utopia? You can speak to it generally, or you could speak specifically towards Black folk and the Black liberation movement.

When I think about how folks can apply Utopia, I think it might be worthwhile to begin thinking with yourself, but also with others that you’re in community with or that you organized with, or share politics with to write down and imagine, what things are necessary for you to live free or feel free, or to embody freedom. ### When I say embody, I’m talking about what feelings come up when you imagine utopia and what does it take to get there? Does it take having good food? Does it take having clean water? Does it take having free housing or having infrastructure around you that is rooted in a human rights framework, or in creating sustainable living? I think that all of those things, of course, are fundamentally necessary. But it would be helpful for people to engage in some sort of exercise where they literally do the imagination work, and imagine in their head what freedom looks like to you? And what does it feel like? What are the policies and practices that you think are necessary to get there? Once you have that or have a vision of that, I’m sure that you can find some people who have already been organizing for that for decades, and plug into the movement. I really believe that the vision of Utopia—every radical social movement, whether it be against climate catastrophe, against anti-Black racism, against patriarchy, against imperialism and militarism—all of these things, try to work us towards a world in which we can really feel and live Utopia. Applied Utopia is getting involved in the movement of the Global Majority, against all these systems of dominance and hierarchy.