“The way that I see our role in activism is less about the people who we seek to change and more about the communities that we seek to center.”
—Firas Nasr ’15
Introduction: When I think about justice, I think about a world in which everyone can live free from violence. And that to me is something that we constantly work towards as activists every day, creating a world where we are seen, we are heard, and we do not face violence as a result of being who we are.
LP: You are listening to Midd Moment, a podcast of ideas from Middlebury’s leaders, independent thinkers who create community. I’m Laurie Patton, president of Middlebury and professor of religion. Firas Nasr is a Middlebury alum, Class of 2015. Firas is an activist, an organizer, and the founder of WERK for Peace. WERK for Peace, and that’s W-E-R-K, uses public displays of exuberant dance to promote justice around a breadth of intersectional causes, women’s rights, environment justice, immigrant and refugee rights, to name a few. WERK for Peace protests have gained the attention of the Washington Post, BBC, CNN, Vice, BuzzFeed, Time, NPR, and more. Together, we spoke about why Firas is not trying to change everyone’s mind, the importance of creating space for anger and joy in activism, and the connection between being seen and sustainability.
So many activists have a kind of moment of obligation, where there was a moment where they realized this is what I need to be doing in my life. Did you have a moment of obligation? Was there a moment when you sort of, everything came together and you said, “This is where I need to be”?
FN: Thank you for asking. This is a big question. That moment really came right after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. I was at a vigil in DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C. And a woman was standing on the mic, and she was looking at the crowd and saying, “You need to do something. You need to do something.” And that’s when it all clicked. Forty-nine individuals were just massacred on a dance floor. Let’s take the dance floor into the streets and assert that we are here, and we will dance, and we’re not going anywhere.
Recording: We’re here to work to support the marginalized communities that have built the LGBTQ movement.
And we’re here to celebrate our bodies, our health, our love for one another, and our community because health matters for everyone.
LP: We are in a space where people’s perspectives on LGBTIQ-plus communities are changing. So you’re part of that tide of change. Have you ever had an experience where you’ve been able, through your activism, to change even one person’s mind?
FN: I really appreciate this question. The way that I see our role in activism is less about the people who we seek to change and more about the communities that we seek to center. So when I think about my role as an activist, I’m thinking about centering the queer and trans community, and centering the most marginalized within our community, so trans women of color, centering queer disabled folks, etc., etc. So I’d like to really be intentional about centering our communities and acknowledging that our work is less about being out in the streets as a form of protest and more about being out in the streets as a form of celebrating the world that we seek to create and that we actively create every time we step outside of our homes.
LP: And I so appreciate your response because I think it strikes me in two different ways. The first is, it is in many ways a different approach to protest than a lot of people understand, and even that, taking that different approach, is a form of changing the world. And then another thing that really strikes me about what you’re saying is, the art form itself is part of what can bring people into understanding that different world. So talk a little bit about dance as a form of protest. How do you dance in that context? Do you dance in other contexts?
FN: I grew up in an Arab household, and dance has always been a huge part of my childhood. I remember one of my mom’s best friends taught me how to dance, and we were belly dancing together. There’s a whole cultural aspect of why dance is so important to me. I think for many people, dance is such a huge part of their livelihoods and their cultures. And in that way, dance becomes a universal form of us being able to connect with one another through movement.
LP: Part of what you do would also be an act of remembrance.
FN: Yeah. I think it’s really important for us to stay rooted in our histories. Right? Knowing where we come from is really important. And specifically, I mean, it’s not only the 49 individuals who were massacred at Pulse Nightclub. It’s also the trans women of color who stood up and fought back in Stonewall. It’s also the activists during Act Up, who fought for our right to receive medical care for having HIV.
LP: I’m thinking as you’re talking about something I’m only slightly familiar with as a scholar of religion, but trance dancing.
LP: And that is something that I’ve seen and understood in certain contemporary contexts as a form of healing. And I’m wondering if you would see a connection between dance and healing.
FN: Most definitely. And I come from a background of … I studied Reiki and I do energy healing. I meditate every day, and I love dance. And dance feels so freeing to me. It feels like such a mechanism for me to connect with my community. And when we also look back, we see that bars and clubs have been the spaces in which the queer community has felt most safe.
LP: I want to think about all the really prophetic and artistic work that you’re doing in relationship to anger, in relationship to laughter. Some of the things that can fuel burnout is a sense of anger that can exhaust you. The other thing that can inspire us and can create joy is laughter. So I’m wondering about how you think about both of those emotions in your life, and telling a story about an experience of anger and an experience of laughter in your work.
FN: You know, I think about WERK for Peace as one piece of a large puzzle. And within the movement, we adhere to a diversity of tactics. We are all on this journey together, and people are at different places in their journey. And some people right now need to express anger. And that anger is valid, and we need to create space for that to be expressed. Similarly, we need to create space where people can celebrate and can rejuvenate. And that’s I think where WERK for Peace is part of that puzzle.
LP: So what was a protest where you laughed the most?
FN: I’m thinking now.
LP: Or your favorite protest.
FN: I think my favorite protest was probably … I remember one moment we were actually leaving Mike Pence’s neighborhood. And a man came out with his two children to check out what was going on. And I just remember he put both of his fists in the air and yelled as loud as he could, “WERK for Peace.” And it was just the most beautiful experience for me to see a man and his children out celebrating with us.
LP: I want to read something that you were quoted as saying because I think it directly relates to what we were just talking about. You said, “I’m not a philosopher and I’m not a politician, but I’m an activist. But I do feel like on both ends, from the conservatives to the liberals, peaceful protest is not only powerful, but extremely necessary in a democratic process.” And there is that interesting interplay in that quote between listening and fighting to be heard and seen. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about any experiences you’ve had where you yourself feel like you might be part of a system that you want to change.
FN: Yeah. So I think for me here, what comes to mind is my self-care practice, actually, because I think that as individuals in general, it’s very easy for us to become comfortable with what we know. And the reason why we’re comfortable with that, I think, is because—at least this is just my thought process—is that it feels safe and it feels secure. And as humans, we desire a sense of safety and security. So it’s totally valid that we want to feel comfortable. But I do think that through this comfort, we develop an immunity to change. And that immunity can be dangerous when we are working to support younger generations because it doesn’t give us the space to really question our own beliefs and our own positions in the world. And I think that is vital. It’s vital to overcome that immunity.
LP: So bring that back to self-care and your own self-care practice.
FN: Sure. So I think that self-care really is a tool of giving yourself permission to explore that immunity. Part of my self-care practice is meditating and journaling every day. So meditation for me is a way of me being grounded in my body. And journaling is a way of me giving myself space to reflect on who I am in this moment. And I think that so often we neglect self-care as a means of being productive agents in society. In order for us to create an equitable society, we must start with ourselves.
LP: Yeah. And learning about you and learning about your work is that you live a question, or you’re really comfortable with question marks. So I have this way of thinking about education, and that is: What’s your question? What’s the one question that you’ll never know the answer to, but you’ll never get tired of asking? And I’m wondering if you have a way of thinking about a Firas’s question.
FN: Yeah. I think my question would really come back to how I relate to people, and specifically how I create space for people to be their whole selves, because I think part of that is because I would love for people to see me as my whole self, and to hear me as my whole self. But also because I believe that being seen and being heard is fundamentally such a powerful means of creating the world that we seek to create. So I guess my question would really be, am I being compassionate in this moment?
LP: I just want to say thank you for coming in. This was so much fun to talk to you. Please come back as often as you possibly can.
FN: Thank you so much.
Erin Davis: Hi. This is Erin Davis, producer of the show. Midd Moment is produced by myself and Juliette Luini, Class of ‘18.5, with help from Chris Spencer. If you have a Midd Moment to share, a time when things came together in a particularly Middlebury way, share your memory on social media using #MiddMoment. Or record a voice memo and email it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to include your Midd Moment in a future episode of the show. For more conversations like this, subscribe to Midd Moment on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening.