“Radical freedom is reclaiming rest” says activist Elle Moxley

Elle Moxley, founder of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute
Photo: Irvin Rivera

Our beloved ancestor Fannie Lou Hamer’s often-quoted words, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” are an anthem we should not still be repeating in 2022. Yet, for those of us living under the daily threats of violence for simply being who we are, those like me (a Black trans woman), that phrase reverberates in my mind, body and soul on a daily basis.

Intertwined in my life with the assault on our democracy – from voting rights being under siege to the January 6 insurrection – were the COVID-19 pandemic (I lost my uncle to the virus), family pain (I also lost my brother and best friend), and just getting by like regular folks do every day.

Related: This Black nonbinary activist says Fannie Lou Hamer taught them key lessons about radical change

I’m not ashamed to admit it was, at times, too much for me to handle. I leaned into the benefit of understanding how to claim and stand in my own power and realized I needed to step away.

As executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI), an organization I founded to protect and defend the human rights of Black trans people, I was in the thick of it, juggling the toll of the ongoing racial and political divides coupled with the sheer number of murders of trans people every year. Fannie Lou Hamer’s sentiment weighed on my soul.

Living the multi-hyphenate identity lives so many of us do, I needed to step away to continue the critical work of MPJI and to rejuvenate and restore my mental, physical and spiritual health and shore up my activist energy. I had the opportunity and privilege to take a three-month sabbatical, and I make no apologies for putting everything external in my life on pause to focus on myself.

The break hammered home the notion of discovering self-freedom within and not taking one day for granted. It is overused and cliché, but after far too many funerals of people close to me, the devastation of grief has taught me to live for today.

At times, you just need access to space that will remind you that you are the only one who can take time for yourself. You are the only one who can say when you need a break. Building this organization and the ongoing visibility as a world leader is great, but at the end of the day, I’m still my best project. Having that space to consider myself is something every single person should have available to them.

The trans community, particularly the Black trans community, is the most excellent model of what it means to transform and to find freedom, to step out of the constraints society puts upon us, the shoulds and the definitions, and to stop asking permission, stop waiting and start giving that freedom to ourselves.

I’m often asked to write or talk about things specific to trans people. While I appreciate that, it can feel very limiting; any human alive and breathing can be transformed. I don’t just believe in the transformative nature of the trans community. I believe in the power of anyone to take that space to work on themselves, to find the freedom within, even if it’s five minutes of radical acceptance and peace.

The sabbatical allowed me to reimagine and reframe the work of MPJI and to build a new phase of our existence. For example, when the pandemic began, providing direct cash relief was not something that originated with us. But, with our power, we were able to take it to a very different level and fund more than 900 individuals with nearly $500,000 for them to do what was best for them in that moment. No strings attached.

This year, we aim to continue that work by offering programs for artists and others that enable people to step into their own power, to not be sick and tired but to recommit themselves to finding personal freedom and joy in their lives, in their community and in their work, no matter what is happening in the world. We are going to give our community permission to focus on their mind, body and spirit. We are going to rest, and we are going to find our peace.

And we’re going to live our lives doing the things that we love. Doing the things you love should not be a once-in-a-lifetime event; it should be a daily practice while you have the opportunity and privilege. Freedom isn’t an abstract or something to work towards. It’s within each of us, and at a time in history when tragedy is ever-present and ongoing, we must remember that.

Elle Moxley is the founder and executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, an organization dedicated to advocacy for the Black trans community.

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