Office of Inclusive Excellence

What We Pay Attention to Grows …

February 7, 2023

By Sara Salazar Hughes

As I continue to evolve and grow, so do my dreams and speculations” (Nnedi Okorafor, pp. 87). 

When I’m asked to participate in Diverse Perspectives, my impulse is to share things I am learning, words that are resonating with me, and ideas that are feeling good. In a previous issue, I contributed a piece called “Good Teachers,” sharing some of what I am learning from abolition, decolonization/indigenous resurgence, and anti-racism about process, love and reciprocity, and collectivity. I am going to call good teachers into this piece, as well. Here is some of what I am learning about feminist abolition …

Feminist abolition is described by Davis, Dent, Meiners, & Richie as “a praxis–a politically informed practice–that demands intentional movement and insightful responses to the violence of systemic oppression” (pp. 4). Abolition is a tradition, a philosophy, and a theory of change. It is both a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal, aimed at ending not just the literal incarceration of bodies deemed disposable but also at ending a broader set of cruel constraints that incapacitate and police whole communities (p. 47). Not everyone is an abolitionist. Prison-industrial complex (PIC) abolition requires a commitment to some basic principles: calling for the elimination of policing, imprisonment, and surveillance; rejecting the expansion or legitimation of all aspects of the PIC; refusing premature death and organized abandonment (Mariame Kaba, p. 133-4). Instead, abolition is about imagining and growing alternatives that actually ensure our safety and well-being. Abolition centers care, love, and healing – it centers those things because, as adrienne maree brown says, “What we pay attention to grows” (p. 34).

Maybe I was learning feminist abolition before I even knew it. Maybe my long-running obsession with speculative fiction, particularly the work of Octavia Butler, primed the pump. Sci-fi offers up other worlds, other possibilities, other imaginaries more viable than our current reality. Butler’s work consistently explores complex futures for humanity, different ways of being, adaptation, our capacity for change. What I know now that I am moving more deeply into feminist abolition is that I’m seeing Octavia Butler’s work everywhere, frequently cited directly. And I love it.

In order to grow just alternatives, abolition requires imagining a different kind of world, the world we want and need. This requires a kind of sci-fi mentality because we have not lived in a world that centers care, love, and healing. As a friend shared, we have to lean into the dream side of our minds. Then, to get there, we have to embody that world in ways big and small. Davis, Dent, Meiners, & Richie “say yes to Octavia Butler’s brilliant speculativeness: we will dream our way out; we must imagine beyond the given. We also say yes to the daily practice of organizers such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Fay Honey Knopp: do the work, every day, any way” (p. 16). This takes both long-term vision and slow work, and also urgency. Abolition also requires that we become the people we need to be to live in that transformed world. adrienne maree brown puts it this way: “What we are all really asking–what Octavia was asking–is how do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to practice being different? How do we have to be for justice to truly be transformative?” (pp. 164). 

As many feminist abolitionists (Mariame Kaba, Davis, Dent, Meiners, & Richie, Richie Reseda, etc.) have shown, abolition is not just (or even primarily) about tearing down (prisons, policing, disposability, racial capitalism, white supremacy …); it is about growing alternatives that actually ensure our safety and well being. Increasingly I see this vision everywhere, in every aspect of my life and learning; in how I approach my relationships, my work, my teaching, my research, my ways of being in the world. The more I learn about abolition, the more I think we have to experiment, dream, and grow alternatives in every area of our lives. We have to do everything differently. We have to live in alignment with our values. “The overarching question posed by contemporary abolitionists,” after all, is: “What would we have to change in our existing societies in order to render them less dependent on the putative security associated with carceral approaches to justice?” (Davis et al., p. 58). This is why one of the fundamental precepts of abolition is that “how we struggle, how our work enables future struggles, and how we stay clear about what we are fighting for matters” (p. 34). Practicing a different way of being is how we build the world we haven’t yet imagined; it’s how we learn to flex our imagination muscle. To transform the world, we have to transform ourselves. 

I see feminist abolition filling all the space I will give it and find myself discovering new spaces for it to grow. Mariame Kaba urges us to begin our abolitionist journey by asking: “What can we imagine for ourselves and the world?” (p. 5). As I pay attention to the principles and demands of abolition, my capacity to envision new futures, different ways of being, grows. 

If any of this speaks to you, sparks your interest, or raises questions, you should definitely read/listen to the following:

Sara Salazar Hughes, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies at CSUMB and a member of the Abolitionist and Decolonial Education Collective (ADEC). Her scholarship and teaching center on comparative settler colonial studies, cultural and political geography, and political ecology.