Erica Woodland (Interview)

Art by Sam Liacos.

Founding Director of the National Queer & Trans Therapist of Color Network (NQTTCN) on how he’s utilized his role in the movement to help others detangle trauma and the work in organizing Black trans people have done.

There’s a mental task in dealing with police violence or watching on repeat on the news. As more men and women and even children take to the front lines for various protests and demonstrations, the likelihood that they will run into their own moments of trauma. The lives of Black men and women have been amplified tremendously in the past three weeks but so have the names of Black trans men and women killed at the hands of violence not just by police but in the community as well. Founding Director of the National Queer & Trans Therapist of Color Network Erica Woodland is a Baltimore native and has utilized his role in the movement to help others detangle the traumas that have affected their lives.

“My default is sitting and listening,” Woodard tells me. A Black trans and genderqueer facilitator, consultant, and healing practitioner, he speaks to how some traditions, such as speaking out about trauma, have been rooted in white supremacy and more. But how do we avoid becoming desensitized to these things? How do we find our voices to participate?

The concept of therapy, not just for cis Black men and women, but also for the LGBTQ community, has been such an open topic in recent years, because therapy has become so more en vogue, I would say, and more people are discussing it. What brought you to this line of work?

Oh, that’s a great question. How long you have? [Laughs

My first response was intergenerational trauma. I think that [since I was] little, I cared deeply about my family, I cared deeply about my community. I’m originally from Baltimore, and I had a real obsession with things not being fair and not being just, and it really bothered me. I always wanted to be a service in some way. When you are Black and from a poor working-class background, sometimes those options, to make it are few. It’s like, well, you can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer, right? I actually came into the helping profession via the medical route. I was pre-med, and then I made a decision after learning about the medical-industrial complex; I was not interested in that system as a system of care because it’s super harmful. So, I turned toward psychology and eventually social work that I think was about wanting to deeply understand why human beings do what they do, why they make the hard choices they make, and how we have these really amazing capacities to respond to suffering and to transform our suffering collectively. 

I came into being a therapist sort of by accident. I was interested in psychology. But after college, I really started doing work around HIV/AIDS and harm reduction. Then, I started organizing around the prison industrial complex political prisoners specifically and organizing around the freedom of Marshall Eddie Conway, who was a mentor and friend. He was a former Panther and former political prisoner. I was doing a lot of work where I was working with Black folks that had way more trauma than I knew how to handle. I thought it was irresponsible to not have the skill set to respond to that trauma. Because I had a certain kind of educational privilege, I chose social work as a way to get those skills. I was trying to actually be accountable to the people I was working with. I was like, ‘I’m young, I’m in my early 20s.’ I’m going in and out of prison in jails, working with folks who have all kinds of trauma and experiencing violence around incarceration. That’s not my direct lived experience. Plus, I don’t have skills like that. Even though I’m Black, that’s disrespectful.

‘Cause your lens is from an academic standpoint, would you say that therapy in this age is helping a lot of people get their shit out?would you say that therapy at this time is helping people remove trauma and be vocal about it?

I think therapy is a tool like other tools, and I don’t prop it up as a tool that’s better than some of the other tools that we have available. I’ll keep it real: I have a lot of complicated feelings about my profession. I do. You know, I am a therapist by training. I have a small private practice, and I provide clinical supervision to folks who are getting licensed or people who are doing this work who aren’t clinicians; we’re kind of holding down like frontline trauma response work, but they’re not necessarily trying to become therapists. What I’ll say is that ultimately, therapy is a tool for storytelling and healing. And, especially as Black folks, we have a lot of those traditions already in our communities. But a lot of those traditions have been taken from us. Some of those traditions are also kind of rooted in internalized white supremacy or queer transphobia and so, therefore, are inaccessible. So even though I’m trained in a lot of different things, not just psychotherapy, trained in other kinds of healing modalities, my default is listening. 

The other good thing about therapy is that then you can also support people around [you] connect to their own wisdom around how to heal, because I don’t have the answers. I can just create a container for you to do the healing work that then is inside of you.

It’s a fascinating time for you and the concept of therapy, right now. Under the groundswell of the Black Lives Matter across the globe are the names of trans men and women who need to be amplified and heard just as loudly as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, or George Floyd. It’s not just police brutality in regards to the deaths of Black trans men and women, but death by violence. I wonder how exactly do you bring people in to discuss that level of trauma?
In my work with people in the community or with people outside the community?

Both, actually.
I love Black trans people. I identify as trans and genderqueer. I love us because we will put our bodies on the line for Black liberation, even though we’re in communities where a lot of Black folks don’t have our back.

Which is terrifying.
Right, but it’s also true of the broader community now having Black cisgender women’s backs. There’s some questions, some things we need to talk about, like the Black family meeting. That’s not really the business of the broader society, right? Because Black trans people, Black genderqueer people, Black nonbinary people, we occupy so many intersections. We understand how all of these systems of domination and violence are connected. We understand and we embody [that] you can’t have Black liberation if you were in a community where trans women, primarily, and trans men are experiencing violence at the hands of their own community.

We understand those things. I think we experience a different kind of trauma. Then, our experiences are also our experiences of that trauma [which] are raised, and we not only get gaslighted by white people, but we get gaslit by other Black people. Yeah, it’s been really interesting to hear, because I’m not out in the streets. That’s not what my work looks like right now because of my health and because of my skill set. I’m really supporting people who are out in the streets, but it’s been interesting to hear stories of Black trans people who are at these protests, and who have signs, like Black Trans Lives Matter, and just the way that our community is responding to their own people. 

Hating on queer and trans people in your own community, that’s anti-Blackness. 

Erica Woodland

I would say a similar thing to folks who are outside of our community, which is, in my opinion, and this is an opinion a lot of Black queer trans people share: Guess what? Hating on queer and trans people in your own community, that’s anti-Blackness. That’s how that works, you know what I mean? It’s really kind of hilarious that you have people who are against white supremacy, but then not being able to see how they’re doing the work of white supremacy by hating on people in their own community. And again, you know, cisgender straight women have been experiencing this stuff too. [I want] to also point out that if you’re only talking about race and you’re not talking about patriarchy, you’re not talking about queer transphobia and you’re not talking about ableism, and dare I say, you’re not talking about capitalism; we’re just going to be in this place, again, as a community. But I think these are conversations people are having. 

Do you think that with the giant groundswell of everyone trying to include all the minorities, all the oppressed, that there’s going to be a change? There’s gonna be a change in language and change in the treatment of trans individuals and there’s going to be a greater acceptance?
That’s a really interesting question.

Even-though JK Rowling is definitely not doing anybody a service?
Yeah, JK is doing the most in all the wrong ways. [Laughs]

I want to give much respect to my mentor Marshall Eddie Conway because he, among many things, as a historian…when I first met him, he really helped me understand these kinds of cycles in history.  We’re in a long game struggle, right?  The reason that you and I can have a conversation about trans people, and Black trans people specifically, is because of the legacy and work in organizing of Black trans people throughout time. Right now I’m talking about Marsha P. Johnson, who is an ancestor.  I’m thinking about Miss Major, who is out here killing the game. I’m thinking about just all of the Black trans leadership that is visible right now. And visibility doesn’t mean we’ve arrived, right? But there is a new conversation. I do think that, in general, even in my kind of lifetime of activism, people are talking about this in different ways. BLM as a movement is led by Black queer and trans people– that’s the truth.

BLM as a movement is led by Black queer and trans people– that’s the truth.

Erica Woodland

We are in a moment where because we’re in a moment of crisis, there’s actually a lot of change that can happen. In a short amount of time, we’re seeing that. I track what’s happening on CNN, but I’m like, ‘What are these people talking about’? I’m literally amazed that people are grappling with the concept of abolition, like, not just defunding the police, but actually they don’t agree with abolition, but they’re grappling with it as a concept on national television. I’m like, ‘That’s different.’ Now, it doesn’t equal our liberation. For me, it’s important that we take note of the shifts that are happening, and that we continue this long term work. As a person in the world who’s committed to our healing and liberation, I’m a continuation of so much work that happened before me. I’m a continuation of Harriet Tubman’s work and Malcolm X’s work and James Baldwin’s work…

Baynard Rustin.
Yeah, I think of Baynard Rustin. I think a lot of things are possible. But we have to do the work and there’s a lot of work to do and we all have different roles to play.

Speaking of roles, have you personally noticed anyone in your circle become galvanized by all this?
My circles are already galvanized, but I do think that people are getting much more clarity about the specific work that only they can do and they’re doing it right. Again, I work with a whole community of queer and trans practitioners of color who have been in this game and been in this work, but one of the things that I’ve seen is a lot more people starting psychotherapy funds, or a lot more people trying to pull together mental health resources, things that like we’ve always needed, we’ve always had, but just increased energy towards these things that were always important, but they’re even more important now. I think it’s really inspiring to see people get galvanized. One concern that I have is that people who are kind of newer to organizing and activism, and or just being woke,  [one] of the common mistakes [is] that people don’t do their homework around how to plug in. 

Sometimes people are creating things or trying to start things that already exist or they’re doing things that are not aligned with many, many, many years of work that people are pushing for right now. I love that folks are trying to figure out how they can support and there’s so many different ways.  We actually need everybody to play their position. I really hope that people do two things: The first is to actually do deep learning. I’ve been in this work 20 years. I feel like in the past few weeks, I’ve learned more about white supremacy than I have in a long time–even though it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about grappling with and talking about, cause just because you’re Black doesn’t mean you know what to do, right? A lot of non-Black people are trying to figure out how they fit into the conversation as well. 

What about those individuals who may not be clued into the movement? How do you think they can help?
I think that when we have these activated moments around police violence, people forget that you have whole Black people in your life that you probably are not treating properly. This is specifically for non-Black people. I work with several organizations where I’m like, ‘Oh, y’all are so upset about what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade and Ahmaud, but you are really disrespectful to your Black employees.’ There’s some internal work people need to do to start at home and really look at the ways they’ve internalized [and] how that stuff is playing out in their relationships. I know a lot of people are also trying to have difficult conversations in their friend groups and with their families. We need to study. The level of analysis that I wish more people had at this moment, it’s not there, like some of the tasks, but some of us are just now arriving at this conversation. Please get some books. Create a community of learning around this stuff and do it consistently and not just now. 

There’s a generation now who’ve grown up with these videos of Black death and we don’t want them to get cyclical. They were in middle school when Trayvon Martin was killed,and they’ve had to protest for so much. Do you believe that having an outlet such as yours is important?
I really appreciate the radical authenticity of young people too, because there’s certain things even people in my generation [that] we’re still a little bit slow on and they’re like, ‘We’re going to talk about trauma.’ Young people now know we’re talking about intergenerational trauma, ‘Here’s what it is, here’s how it shows up in my life.’ And I’m like, ‘What? You’re literally 19.’ I feel really excited, because they are not willing to accept certain things that older generations have either had to accept or were willing to accept. 

Do you think there are ways for people to detach from watching the news and also not being too far away from participating? To not be so consumed in work?
That’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. I’m working with folks who are organizers and activists and really trying to confront these structural issues. You’ve got COVID-19, but then also with uprisings, I have consumed a lot more media. And actually, I feel like I need to do that. Even a practice of people checking in with themselves–before they go on Facebook, before they go on Instagram, before they turn on the news–to really be like, do I need to do this right now? Am I in an emotional, spiritual, physical space to do this? With my time limit, what’s my purpose?

If we consume too much, we can become desensitized and numb, right? I think there’s a risk of that. If we completely avoid, that’s not great either. But as it relates to Black folks specifically, we have to do what we have to do to survive. One of the things I have recommended to some groups that I work with is, especially if you’re doing work where you literally have to track the news because it’s part of your advocacy and policy work, to actually do a grounding practice before and to do a grounding practice after as an acknowledgment that the things we’re consuming have an effect on your body and your spirit and your emotions. We’re in constant, vicarious, traumatization right now, in addition to the risk that people are putting themselves in by attending protests.

What have you found to be best for you?
I’m a nature boy. Being able to spend time in nature is really integral to my care practices. I know since COVID-19, I’ve worked with a lot of Black folks, and I’m like,’Have you been outside this week?’ Even if you just find a patch of sun somewhere in front of where you live or stick your head out the window. There’s something for me about the reconnection to land that is really important. I do think that there’s these kinds of other spiritual strategies that we have access to better [are] the reason that Black folks have survived and continue to resist today.

 Being Black in the United States means that all of your trauma is minimized, ignored, or people literally are like, ‘That didn’t happen.’ 

Erica Woodland

What particular trauma do you think is the greatest that we have to overcome in the midst of all this?
That’s a hard question to answer because being Black in the United States means that all of your trauma is minimized, ignored, or people literally are like, ‘That didn’t happen.’ I think as it relates to Black folks who are the descendant of enslaved Africans, the trauma of the Middle Passage, and the trauma of slavery specifically, is very connected to what we’re experiencing now. We’re of a generation where we can have a certain conversation about healing that our ancestors might not have been able to; there’s way less stigma even around mental health.

I think all these things are connected; you’re not going to have police violence without slavery, right? You’re not going to have slavery without the stealing of the land and the genocide of indigenous folks. So there is a way that I think we can and are doing some of the intergenerational healing work in this moment by our resistance to the systems and structures, but also prioritizing the healing work, whether that’s in therapy or other modalities.

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