Margins as Thresholds

Just before my second birthday, my mother, older brother and I immigrated from New Delhi, Delhi to East Hartford, Connecticut. We joined my father, who like many immigrants, came to the United States with very little money and high hopes of more opportunities for his children. We moved into the Burnside Apartments, a U-shaped, two-storey, brick building, taking up residence in a small 2-bedroom apartment across the hall from my uncle’s family. Our families and the African American family living below us were the only people of color in the 20-unit apartment building, which housed a majority of white, working class tenants.

I went to Burnside Elementary School, and while there, found no friends. In my memory, I was invisible to my classmates except when my skin color and perplexing ethnic and racial identity became the cause for ridicule, and occasional physical assault.

In my early childhood, the margins were a place of lack.

A lack of safety.

A lack of belonging.

My experience of other-ing fomented into a deep set rage that, over time, metabolized into a sense of kinship to others marginalized by a dominant culture fueled by the myths of whiteness, individualism, and meritocracy. By young adulthood, I was committed to working with those who were denied access to economic wealth and political power and became an organizer. I first worked among African American and Indigenous (Lumbee) young people and single mothers in a rural county in North Carolina, and then with churches and unions based in low-income communities of color in Providence, RI.

As an organize, the margins continued to be a place of lack.

A lack of decision making power.      

A lack of affordable housing and culturally competent health care.

Trained in an Alinsky-style model, my organizing was fueled by three assumptions:

  1. There are resources and opportunities missing in our communities and we have to fight those with economic and political power to get them;

  2. Our fight will be focused on mobilizing mass numbers to hold financial institutions and public officials accountable to existing laws and policies, and expand these laws and policies for greater equality; and

  3. Power lies at the center and needs to be redistributed from there.

As an organizer, the margins were also a place of demanding from centers of political and economic power.

Demanding accountability.      

Demanding redistribution.

After five years of organizing work rooted in these assumptions, I burnt out. Like all moments of disintegration in living systems, this burn out became an opportunity to reimagine my self and the values that guided me. At the time, I was studying Afro-Caribbean percussion avocationally with Robertico Arias, a Dominican master drummer. Woven into his lessons on folkloric rhythms was a history that illuminated how African descended people who were enslaved in the Caribbean practiced at the margins. In this history, African descended people used their cultural and music traditions to:

sustain ancestral traditions and co-create new cultural forms;

build community and cultivate solidarity; and  

resist slavery and forge pathways to freedom.

In my study with Robertico, the margins became a place which catalyzed innovation.

Innovation of new cultural forms.    

Innovation of new paths to liberation.

Twenty years later, through experiments in cultural organizing with young people enduring incarceration, women of color-led organizations, and small, multiracial gatherings of neighbors, the margins continues to be this place for me. And as I look to others who are innovating at the margins, I witness people most impacted by societal inequities continuing to use spiritual and cultural tools - people’s songs, somatic practice, rituals honoring earth cycles, hip hop lyricism,  storytelling, creative play and the raising of life-giving food - to plumb the depths of our being and expand our visions in the co-creation of a multiplicity of new worlds.

In profound ways, these courageous new world makers invite us all to recover the marginalized places within ourselves. They encourage us to leave behind centralized forms of extractive and consolidating power. They beckon us to (re)turn to ancient and emergent ways of being.

What would happen if instead of seeing the margins as a place of the disadvantaged, neediest,  at-risk,  underserved, most vulnerable, and powerless, we saw the margins as a threshold to sustainable and liberatory ways of being?