Michelle Johnson: I actually think if we really live into yoga and practice yoga that it demands that we understand that duality.
Kerri Kelly: Welcome to CTZN Podcast. I'm Kerri Kelly. I'm super excited about this week's episode where I sat down with Michelle Cassandra Johnson, social worker, yoga teacher, longtime race equity trainer, and now author of the book Skill In Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World. She is shaking things up in the yoga world and speaking all of the truths about toxic culture and white supremacy so that real healing is possible.
Okay. This episode is going to change your perspective about self care. Michelle Cassandra Johnson learned to be fierce and radical about her self care after her colleague, Cynthia Brown, passed away from cancer, which she believed in many ways was caused by white supremacy. It marked a huge turning point in her life. When she decided that she wasn't going to let this world kill her. She was going to thrive.
But in that process, she realized that it is impossible to heal when you're navigating a system that wasn't designed to heal you. And so she wrote a book called Skill In Action, to help us redefine and reclaim what yoga and wellness really looks like in a toxic culture. Yoga and contemplative practice is a pathway to healing, but only when we are willing to do the difficult and uncomfortable work of acknowledging and feeling into the truth of a culture that is dominated by ideologies of whiteness and individualism. The pain of that culture of separation demands to be felt, and that is the only way towards healing.
She challenges us to hold the reality that we are both one human interdependent family and, and this is a big and, and that we are living a very different experience based on how institutions and culture are set up for our particular identity and social location. There is a shared experience in how we get free, and there are unique roles and responsibilities that we each play given our location, and that is part of the skill in action that we need to cultivate.
The truth is, we are not really doing yoga. We are not really being mindful. We are not really well unless we center a level of consciousness that acknowledges the truth of who we are and how we got here. Otherwise we're just replicating the toxic systems that we're trying to transform. But Michelle reminds us that we are bigger than white supremacy, and we can do better. We can construct something better, and we have to, for the sake of all of us. Check it out.
Kerri Kelly: Let's say brilliant things on this podcast, shall we?
Michelle Johnson: We will. Always.
Kerri Kelly: All right. I'm here with my dear friend Michelle Cassandra Johnson, who is so many things. She's been a social worker, a race equity trainer for 20 years, former elected official. That's impressive. And of course a yoga teacher. I'm here with her in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where today she's done, and I'm not kidding you, a self care intervention with me.
Michelle Johnson: Yes.
Kerri Kelly: Because it's my first day off in, I don't know how long. And she made a mandatory rule that I wasn't allowed to open my computer. But somehow I convinced her to do this podcast with me, which really isn't work.
Michelle Johnson: No, it's fun.
Kerri Kelly: It's a labor of love.
Michelle Johnson: Yes, and it's birthing new things. We're creating.
Kerri Kelly: But you really model this way in which you do fierce, hardcore work in the world, and you have a relentless commitment to self care. How do you find the discipline to do that?
Michelle Johnson: I feel like the discipline around self care came after my colleague Cynthia Brown passed away. She passed away in the November of 2016, right after Trump was elected. A week after Trump was elected. I remember having a moment of feeling like I might die because of white supremacy, and Cynthia certainly had an awareness that she was sick. She had cancer because of white supremacy. She named that, she told me about it. I just felt like I'm not going to let this world kill me, because it's set up to kill me. So I'm really going to be fierce and radical about my self care because I'm doing big work in the world. And so for all of the big work that I'm doing in the world, I need that amount of self care to recover and to be able to persist. That's when it transformed for me.
Kerri Kelly: Is that when you wrote the book? Is that when you decided to write Skill In Action?
Michelle Johnson: The idea for the book happened, I think a month before that, and I didn't start writing until January of 2017. But Cynthia certainly had something to do with it, and she's in the book. I wrote a section about her and white supremacy, and how she was navigating cancer and trying to heal from cancer in a system that was set up to harm her because she was a black woman. I had a moment of feeling like, "It's impossible to heal when you're navigating a system that wasn't designed to heal you. So what do you do?"
Kerri Kelly: Or that's designed to heal some people and not all people.
Michelle Johnson: Right. Right.
Kerri Kelly: So the book is called Skill In Action: Radicalizing Your Yoga Practice to Create a Just World. In the book you say this, "The experience of being a black person in a whitewashed America takes my breath away. The experience of seeing people who look just like me, black, female, young, and ambitious, being murdered at the hands of police and white supremacy takes my breath away." That quote always break me wide open, and it brings me back to Eric Garner. That's what it reminds me of, and his quote, "I can't breathe," when he said that, at the hands of police in New York.
Kerri Kelly: I've heard you say in many of our trainings that it's a radical act to breathe, but I... It's funny, I have a really hard time breathing. You've told me this before. I just wonder how we're supposed to breathe in the face of what's happening in the world? How we can conjure the will and the conviction to keep breathing, to take care of ourselves. All the things that you're naming, we still need to do, despite what's constantly coming at us. How do we do it?
Michelle Johnson: We remember that we'll die if we don't breathe.
Kerri Kelly: Why is it a radical act?
Michelle Johnson: Because the culture's set up to kill most of us, or to harm most of us, or to limit our space to breathe. That's how the culture was constructed, and once we really understand that on a cellular level, then we'll understand the necessity of breathing. Because the dominant culture's not going to make space for us to do it, so we have to break through spaces and create breath, and do it collectively to heal and to breathe and to live.
Kerri Kelly: Can you define for our listeners what you mean by dominant culture?
Michelle Johnson: Yeah, the simplest way that I describe dominant culture is to talk about who decides who's normal and who's not. Who fits the norms and who doesn't. Who should be free and who should suffer or die. And dominant culture defines reality for itself and everyone else. If I think about myself and the way that I'm socially located or the way I'm positioned, I think about how many institutions I've navigated and my experience of not being able to define my reality in the institution.
For example, when I got to the doctor, the medical institution has been conditioned in a particular way by dominant culture not to see me as human, not to trust me as a black woman, not to believe that I know my body. So dominant culture has an idea about what it means for me to be in my body, and then makes decisions that define how I experience the system. And really then how I'm able to heal and live and receive medical services. I think about dominant culture as the group of people that say, "This is normal, and this isn't normal. We're going to push out anyone who is not normal."
Kerri Kelly: It's hard, and yet it's important for me to hear this because I live in a white body and I actually get to move in those spaces and in those systems like I belong. I feel like for white folks without proximity to people of color and without the consciousness of a system that's designed to keep some people well and keep some people sick, or leave some people out, you don't need to see it, unless you see it. White folks get to move in the world and see only what they need to see to take care of themselves, to take care of their families, to take care of their communities and cul de sacs.
What do you feel like are the ways in which, for white folks who are not yet conscious, not yet awake, not yet seeing, how do we get white people to see more clearly what's really happening in the world?
Michelle Johnson: I think on a spiritual and soul level white people have to recognize the reality around their... They're dying as a result of white supremacy. They have had to give up their traditions, their culture, their language, their customs to be white-
Kerri Kelly: To assimilate.
Michelle Johnson: Right? And that's the goal of institutional oppression or racism or cultural racism is to say, "Assimilate so you can be part of the white group and belong." But that means shedding layers of who you are. I feel like white people have to realize that or recognize it. I don't know if white people will be able to shift the reality around that. I feel like white people need to realize that to be able to understand people of color are moving in the world and having a very different experience, and having to shed layers all of the time. There's some common experience between you and me, right? That you have to shed layers to be white, and I have to shed layers to survive. Because the culture's set up for you to survive, based on race. Not based on other identities, but certainly based on race.
I feel like it has to do with white people recognizing that they're losing something. In a culture that's all about scarcity and competitiveness and individualism, that they're losing something on a spiritual, soul level, that they're harming people, that they're dying as a result of other people being harmed. That's what has to happen for transformation to happen.
Kerri Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I know that that's what it was for me. It was the understanding that my wellbeing couldn't be fully realized. My truth and my purpose couldn't be in full integrity if I were to not actually see systemic racism, see the culture, the indoctrination of white supremacy full on. I think that's when it became... It became my problem, too. I think for a lot of folks of privilege, they get to say, "That's not my problem," because they don't feel like it's impacting them directly. And yet we know that people are being impacted deeply by systems of oppression, by systems of racism, but the oppression, the burden of upholding white supremacy, of abandoning who we really are. Forfeiting our lineage, assimilating and conforming. So there's something around, when you go back to breathing, there's something around breathing into that radical expression and disruption and reclaiming that feels essential to becoming who we need to be together.
Michelle Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). In a culture that says, "Think. Don't breathe, and don't feel." That's part of the ask, right? To lean into whiteness, to live into whiteness, is to intellectualize everything, and not to feel. If you start to feel, then it means you're going to change. If you actually start to feel and open your eyes and see what's going on and understand that things are set up to be inequitable and that things are set up, meaning the institutions and culture, for some people to thrive and other people to die, that then calls people into something bigger. It asks, it requires something bigger. And the pressure and constraints from the culture are, "Just think your way through this. Just intellectualize, just be smart enough. Just be perfect enough. Don't feel, because if you start to feel, it means that the culture will shift."
Kerri Kelly: Well, then that feels like just another way of being a bystander. Is that where yoga comes in?
Michelle Johnson: Yes. I think yoga and contemplative practice is a pathway to transformation because, at least in this country, in the US, people usually enter the practice of yoga through a physical practice. Moving in their bodies. The culture of whiteness also says, "Don't really move in your body unless you're competing to be thin, or you're competing to be better." People enter the yoga practice, I feel like, and our body is the densest part of who we are, to start to transform. And then what's opened up for them is the, I think more subtle parts of who we are, and the deeper parts of who we are in a lot of ways underneath the physical body.
This is where I think it gets tricky, because the subtle and deeper parts are about the awareness that we are connected in a culture that says we're isolated. This is actually where spiritual bypassing comes in, because there's an idea that we are one and we're connected, and that's enough. It's absolutely not enough. So the practice is a pathway to move through all of the toxicity that the culture conditions us into, or inoculates. That's a word that you use a lot around it. The physical practice is a way to understand we actually can transform and change, and then we get into the real discomfort underneath the physical transformation and we're called into shifting the way we think and the way we are, and the way we relate, and the way we're in community.
Kerri Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). It's funny, because I hold this belief that if you really do the yoga fully, the whole work, it becomes inevitable that you begin to see what's really happening in the world. We're right now seeing so much speaking truth to power, and yet, even in wellness worlds that center embodiment, we still hear a lot of, "We are all human, we are all one, positive vibes only." It's a lot like the way feminism is whitewashed when framed in terms of, "We are all women." So how do we balance that knowing that our wellbeing is bound and we are interconnected and interdependent, and the kind of intersectionality that you're talking about?
Michelle Johnson: I think it's holding multiple truths in a culture that says we need to think in terms of a binary, so an either or, or right or wrong, or one way, or one truth, or a singular experience. I think it's holding the reality that we are one. I absolutely believe we are one. There is no separation. There's no separation between you and me in this conversation, and our lived experience. There's no separation in what's happening around us outside of my home and what's happening inside of this conversation. There's no separation in what's happening in the culture in the world and what's happening inside of this room right now.
It's holding that truth. We're one, there's no separation, and understanding that we're in a culture that says separate based on difference and identity. And understand we're living very different experiences based on how institutions and culture have been set up for us. So it's being able to hold the duality of that. What do we do with the reality that we're one and we don't actually get to move in the world in the same way?
Kerri Kelly: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, and the yoga, I feel like, allows us, invites us to build a capacity to actually hold that paradox.
Michelle Johnson: I actually think if we really live into yoga and practice yoga, that it demands that we understand that duality. It's not even an invitation. That's not how it feels.
Kerri Kelly: And if we're not, are we really doing the yoga?
Michelle Johnson: We're doing something, we're moving.
Kerri Kelly: We're moving our bodies.
Michelle Johnson: We're changing shapes. We're inhaling and exhaling.
Kerri Kelly: We're exercising.
Michelle Johnson: Right.
Kerri Kelly: I think that's such a powerful and provocative calling up of the yoga community. If we're not centering this level of consciousness and these kinds of conversations inside of the yoga community, then are we really doing yoga?
Michelle Johnson: Right. And more yogis need to ask that question. Like what am I doing, why am I doing it, what's motivating me? Is this yoga?
Kerri Kelly: We'll be right back after this with Michele Cassandra Johnson.
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Kerri Kelly: One of the things that you often ask and we often ask in our trainings together that I think is a really powerful practice is the question, "How are we replicating systems of oppression?" And I think it speaks to how insidious the ideology of white supremacy, of individualism, of capitalism is, even inside the most sacred spaces that we hold together. For me it feels like and everyday... Holding that question for myself feels like an everyday practice the same way that meditation feels like an everyday practice. I often find myself replicating before I even know that I'm doing it. Like I take on the shape of white supremacy before I even know I'm doing it. And even with all of the work I've done and all of the training, and all of the skill building, and all of the vocabulary that I have, I can be quick to shape shift into a superior and supreme state in the world. And that blows my mind how internalized it is-
Michelle Johnson: Right. Right.
Kerri Kelly: And how indoctrinated I am. I'm just curious about, what do you think that practice demands of us as activists, as yogis, as spiritual practitioners in the world, so that we can be a constant disruption to what we know is playing out over, and over, and over, and over, and over again?
Michelle Johnson: The practice of yoga demands that we remove the illusion. And it demands us to remember to remember. I always say this, that there's a cultural amnesia, and what oppression asks us to do is to deny and forget and pretend and lie about the truth. So yoga pushes against that and says, "Remove the illusion and actually see your true self." If we take that to collective experience and talk about it that way, not just my individual self, but the collective, which means we have to account for history. So yoga demands that we actually account for history and we name it and we understand how systems have been set up to serve some and not others. Yoga demands us to live into our dharma. To do our work in the world and to remember we're connected to something bigger than us. This moment is bigger than me, it's bigger than you, it's bigger than us in this room.
Yoga asks us to heal and reminds us we have the capacity to heal. Yoga asks us to move through discomfort, which is really resistance if we think about movement building and organizing and anti-racism work, resistance shows up because the paradigm has to shift. So yoga says, "Sit with your discomfort, move through your discomfort. Discomfort is different than pain." Yoga demands us to be a different way. It demands us to be countercultural if we think about dominant culture. It offers principles and philosophy and practices to move through when we're feeling uncomfortable.
I feel like everything is, if we truly understand what yoga is, everything is there for us to actually move through the moment that we're in right now, politically, the moment we're in culturally, the moment we're in institutionally. We just have to start practicing it in the way it was intended.
Kerri Kelly: For folks who are listening who may not identify as yogis, or who may not even think they're practicing yoga, how would you define yoga in an accessible way? What is the thing that you're describing that calls us up to interrogate and hold ourselves in integrity in the most holistic way possible?
Michelle Johnson: I always say, or often I say in meditations that the mind limits us. The mind actually, the monkey mind limits us and makes us create narratives and stories, and then we respond to those narratives. What yoga is about, it's about the breath, which the breath is life, and the breath has the capacity to connect us to our true self. So the essence of who I am, I will find that out through the breath. I will find that out through my inhales and exhales, which is really like my pathway to liberation.
So when I think of yoga, I'm not actually thinking about a physical movement in the body. I'm thinking about the reality of connecting to my true self in a culture that tells me all sorts of things about who I really am. The breath is the pathway to the essence of who I really am, which is counter to what the culture says I am, based on being in this black body and moving in the world. I don't mean... We do need to use our minds. I believe that. I more mean the stories that we've been told about who we are based on some people being superior and other people being inferior. That's what I mean when I say the mind will limit us, and then it makes us shape shift, as you named earlier. It makes us operate in particular ways. It makes us compete. It makes us power over, instead of build power together, stand in solidarity. That's what I mean when I say the mind will limit us. But the breath will actually allow us to be free and understand that our liberation is bound. The breath is that powerful, and that's yoga. That's all it is is breathing. That's how I think about it.
Kerri Kelly: And we see what you're describing in all sorts of spaces. In movement spaces, in political spaces, in change-making spaces. We're replicating, we're shape shifting. We're suffering from the disease of white supremacy everywhere. We see it everywhere.
Michelle Johnson: Everywhere, yes. It is everywhere. It is insidious. It is alive. It is pervasive. It informs almost everything we do, individually and as a collective. And it's powerful. Such that we can replicate it in the systems that we're trying to create to counter the culture that's harming all of us.
Kerri Kelly: Have you always been this convicted about anti-racism? Obviously you grew up a black woman, but were you born a resister and an activist? Was that always your calling?
Michelle Johnson: I believe so. I found out about my birth story about three years ago. I knew I was a preemie, so I was born two months early. I knew that from a very young age. My mother told me the story of my birth. But then three years ago she told me more about my birth, and she told me that the afterbirth came out before me, and that I wouldn't come out. And that the doctors said that I was small, they told her that, and she was terrified because she'd already lost a baby. They told her they had to do a C-section, an emergency C-section. So they put her under anesthesia and they pulled me out. I think it's significant that the afterbirth, which is after birth, it's not death, came out before I actually came out of the womb. I actually feel like I decided to come out in this lifetime. I feel like it was an act of, I have something to come into this lifetime to do, and I'm going to do it.
I was two pounds and three ounces-
Kerri Kelly: Whoa.
Michelle Johnson: So you could hold me in your hand. I really had to choose to survive. I had to say, "I'm going to live." I'm quite sure that that was my experience in the incubator for a month, that I was telling myself in my soul, "You have to live." I'm sure my ancestors told me that I had something to do and I needed to live. So I feel like I was a survivor in that way. I am a survivor, and that I was resisting in that moment in a culture that was not set up for a black baby who was two pounds and three ounces with a black woman who was birthing me, with no father around, to survive. Neither of us were meant to survive. We weren't set up in that way. And yet I did anyway, and my mother did. She was very sick when she had me. I feel like, yeah, I came out a resister. I came out an activist, because I had the will to survive.
Kerri Kelly: Is that resilience?
Michelle Johnson: I think that's resilience, I think that's resistance, I think that is the memory of my ancestors, I think that is the awareness that I am my ancestors' dreams.
Kerri Kelly: That sounds like a miracle, and also totally on purpose at the same time. I know that knowing you personally you call yourself a witch and are always using intuition and mysticism to navigate your way through racism and the world as we know it. How do those tools help you? How do they serve you in this work?
Michelle Johnson: I've always been intuitive. As a child I was a loner in some ways. In my neighborhood I was with myself a lot. I didn't have children my age in my neighborhood. At school obviously I'd interact with children, but I was by myself. I was a curious child. My mother has premonitions, my grandmother had premonitions, and I knew that from a young age. I remember feeling like I knew things, or that my curiosity was connected to magic in some way growing up. I understood that. But it wasn't until after George Zimmerman was acquitted and Trayvon Martin was murdered that I really started to lean into my magic and mysticism. The way it happened was George Zimmerman was acquitted, I fell to pieces. I fell apart. I cracked open, the world felt very different for me. I had PTSD in a way that I'd never had before, and I needed something to help me regain a sense of self and something to help me feel like there was some order in the world. And something to help me remember the expanse of the universe.
And so I started to go outside and hike and experience nature in a different way. Because when I was in nature it was the only thing that made sense. There's an order to nature. We're destroying that pretty quickly, but there's an order. We can see things in nature, we can see the ecosystem, we can see the connection between things, in a capitalist culture that doesn't actually allow us to see the connection between each other, right? One another. I started to go outside more and more, and then I started to listen to the natural world, and signs from the natural world. I started to become curious about my capacity to manifest things, to create, to birth.
It's sort of like faith. That's how I think about it. My mother and grandmother... My grandmother passed away in November, but my mother and grandmother, my mom's deeply devotional, my grandmother was deeply devotional. They believed in something bigger than them. I feel like I had to do that to survive what it meant to be in a world where police or where people can just harm black boys without being held accountable. I felt like I needed something to help me make sense of a world where Sandra Bland was murdered, and that could have been me. I needed something bigger to me that had an order and a system and a history to help me feel grounded. To help me feel connected in a world that was making no sense to me. That's how I got into magic.
Kerri Kelly: There's some that say that magic is unreal and unrealistic, and there are many that say that our systems are too broken to fix. That white supremacy is too big to be dismantled. What do we say to that?
Michelle Johnson: I think we say we're bigger than white supremacy. And I think we remember that white supremacy was constructed, because race was constructed. And so if it was made up, and yes it has real power, we can construct something else.
Kerri Kelly: I've heard you say that, "I will not let white supremacy steal my joy." What does that look like?
Michelle Johnson: It's related to radical self care. Because the culture's set up for me to die, that means the culture's set up for me to not feel joy, and my birthright is joy. I will not let this world and this culture take away my spirit and my joy. Because my intention is very different than the culture's intention around who I should be, or how I should be able to live and move. I'm fierce about it, actually, which you can probably hear in my voice.
Kerri Kelly: Well, you were fierce coming out of the womb.
Michelle Johnson: Totally.
Kerri Kelly: Shocker.
Michelle Johnson: Yes. There as ferocity there.
Kerri Kelly: And you're a Leo?
Michelle Johnson: Yes, I'm a Leo. Fire.
Kerri Kelly: And you're still blazing a trail.
Michelle Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kerri Kelly: And you are my fellow Leo.
Michelle Johnson: I know.
Kerri Kelly: I'm so grateful to be on this path with you.
Michelle Johnson: It's awesome.
Kerri Kelly: And it's so great to play with you. One of the things I respect about you and I admire and I appreciate about you is how gracefully you move in collaboration, especially with white folks like me and all of our mistake making, and catching up, and waking up, and replicating and failing and getting back up and trying to do better. So I just want to thank you for that, for-
Michelle Johnson: Thank you.
Kerri Kelly: The willingness and the capacity to do that and to move in the world with folks who have fucked up so much shit and believe that we can be better.
Michelle Johnson: And we have to be better.
Kerri Kelly: And we have to be better, for all of us.
Michelle Johnson: Right. We have to be better. And it's another gift from Cynthia. When Cynthia passed away, she said, "Don't leave anyone behind." That was her gift to the people around her when she passed away. I think I knew that, I was living into it, it just took a different shape when she said it. Never leave anyone behind. What that means, and I think this is my yoga practice in the world, what it means, in addition to radical self care and joy, it means that I don't actually want to beat up white people. That's not actually my dharma or work in the world, and I can separate out cultural conditioning from the person. I understand the culture enough to know how it's pushing us to shape shift into things that we're not and things that we were never meant to be. I can see that enough to extend compassion and grace.
Michelle Johnson: I feel like if I extend compassion and grace, I'm on the right path. If I extend harm, I'm just harming myself, because we're that deeply connected. So I think it's in the spirit of not leaving anyone behind.
Kerri Kelly: Well, and I've heard Adrienne Maree Brown call it not canceling people. I just want to say, as a white person, that that's not an invitation to be let off the hook.
Michelle Johnson: Absolutely.
Kerri Kelly: When I hear folks like you say that to me in relationship, it calls me up to hold myself to a higher bar, to hold myself accountable, to hold myself in integrity, to work harder, to try harder and to show up better. And so I'm grateful for, I feel like the generosity of what you're saying, and I just want to invite white folks who hear that to be called up.
Michelle Johnson: Right, because it says I will be here for you and I will extend grace in a world that has not extended grace to me.
Kerri Kelly: That's right.
Michelle Johnson: And a culture that did not extend grace to my ancestors. And I am willing to extend grace and compassion because I actually love you deeply enough to do that. And I love people I don't even know deeply enough to do that. What would the world be like if we could move in it that way? It would be so very different.
Kerri Kelly: I think that's the perfect end note.
Michelle Johnson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kerri Kelly: Thank you, I love you.
Michelle Johnson: I love you so much. So good.
Kerri Kelly: Until next time.
Michelle Johnson: Until next time, Kerri Kelly.
Kerri Kelly: While this episode is coming to and end, our work in the world is just beginning. This week's call to action is to acknowledge where in your life you might be replicating harmful systems of oppression, and to get more skilled in awareness and action. Her book is a really good place to start. Go to michellecjohnson.com to buy her book and follow her at Skill In Action.
Special thanks to our producer Trevor Exter and DJ Drez for the amazing soundtrack. You can check out his music at djdrez.com. And thank you for being here today. You can stay in the know and engaged by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, Well Read, at ctznwell.org. CTZN Podcast is community inspired and crowdsourced. That's how we keep it real. Join our community on Patreon for as little as one dollar per month so that we can keep doing the work of curating content that matters for citizens who care.
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