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“The thinking and doing are recursive.”

Patricia Hill Collins, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Sociology at the University of Maryland

I once was part of an academic organization in which a white woman scholar indirectly accused me of discriminating against her after I asked a question about her positionality during her seminar. In response, I walked out.

The organization turned upside down: there were people who thought I attacked her with my question. And there were those who knew she attacked me with her response.

This maelstrom had me drowning in this workplace, as I thought, all I want is to do work that helps make the world a better place. But how am I supposed to do that when it feels like I can’t breathe?

The Antidote: Dreamstorming

In my despair, I was reminded of dreamstorming, which is a term and concept I created in 2019 at the Critical-Interdisciplinary Sexual Violence Research Summit. At the time, I was steeped in my work on cultural betrayal trauma theory—including the unique harm of cultural betrayal found in Black male–perpetrated sexual abuse against Black female college students. At the summit, we were strategizing about needed changes in higher education that would address and ultimately prevent campus sexual violence. Through our iterative thinking, sexual violence—on and off campus—was easily exposed as a systemic problem embedded in rape culture, patriarchy, misogyny, white supremacy and bigotry and inequality of all kinds. As a result, we realized more and more how systemic solutions and fundamental changes to culture were needed.

However, instead of this focus on systems being hopeful for me, I remember feeling dwarfed by the limits of my own imagination, circling back to this thought: But eliminating campus sexual violence… it just isn’t possible. It was then that I realized that I was brainstorming—trapped in thinking only within our current world. But really, I needed to be tapping into different parts of my psyche, my intellect and my spirit.

As I explain in my recent book, The Cultural Betrayal of Black Women & Girls: A Black Feminist Approach to Healing from Sexual Abuse, “More than simple brainstorming or daydreaming, dreamstorming is the process of envisioning liberation, as well as the paths it would take to create and inhabit a world of true freedom.”

In dreamstorming, we focus our energies beyond strategies of mitigating harm. For instance, in thinking about how to transform the university into a violence- and oppression-free place, brainstorming can lead us to one-off trainings and minute changes to policy. In contrast, dreamstorming points our vision to fundamentally eradicating the interlocking systems of oppression that uphold violence and oppression in higher education and society.

As such, dreamstorming can not only save us from internalizing the violent and discriminatory shackles that bind but also help us strategize ways of destroying the shackles altogether. In breaking free, we can understand ourselves and each other better, thus creating space for effective collaborations in change making. This is vital for our peace and joy within academia now, and it can simultaneously help transform the higher education experience of those coming up behind us.

Dreamstorming in Our Work

As a sexual violence researcher, living in Doom and Gloom Land is very easy. Both the prevalence and costs of sexual violence remain high, and so often the world seems to vacillate between not knowing and not caring—especially when it comes to Black women and girls being sexually abused. In my new book, I center Black women and girls and our experiences of sexual abuse and discrimination as the harmful foundation that needs liberatory transformation. Specifically, I detail how intersectional oppression both promotes and erases cultural betrayal sexual trauma—that is, Black male–perpetrated sexual abuse against Black women and girls.

Beyond Doom and Gloom Land, however, I dreamstorm a path toward liberation:

  • How therapy—instead of being pathologizing and discriminatory—could actually be helpful for Black women and girls.
  • How radical healing is possible for Black girls and women who have experienced incest within their families.
  • How, through institutional courage, we individually and collectively have the power to transform this world into one that is both equitable and peaceful.

Dreamstorming in Action

As I dreamstorm, I psychically return to my old workplace: to that instance of a white woman’s discrimination catapulting the organization and me into chaos and helplessness.

I channeled my efforts into my chapter entitled “Institutional Courage to Change the World.” Infused with reality, I wrote a fictionalized case in which I amalgamated multiple examples of how white supremacy shows up in organizations—like how it did in my then workplace.

Most important, I dreamstormed a section in which I rewrote history via a present context in which Kenya, a Black trans woman, who mirrored me in my fictionalized story, wrote to Beth, the white woman discriminatory perpetrator. Kenya and I stood up for our joint self in this dreamstorming. With Kenya’s strength, I additionally wrote a dreamstormed world that was devoid of the kind of harm that I had experienced in real life.

Through my dreamstorming, I could breathe again.

Lessons While Dreamstorming

Throughout the years, I have gained hard-earned lessons while dreamstorming that I’d like to share. They include the following:

  • Know when to let go. The above lesson of channeling my frustration into my book is one I won’t easily forget. So I recommend to you: act on the wisdom of knowing when to let go and refocus your efforts elsewhere. Know when to refuse to fight here—in this setting, in that institution, with those journals, with that funding agency. Know when to withdraw your talent, your ethic of caring, your work, your passion, your mind and your spirit from those places.
  • Just say no to arrogance and pettiness. Underneath all the pain from injustices, oppression, discrimination and violence, I hold that shaming, degrading and dehumanizing others does not belong in social justice work. Neither is showcasing how much smarter and better you think you are while pointing out how much dumber and less worthy you think the other person or person(s) are.

In our efforts to make change—including communicating with others about our efforts—pettiness, arrogance, meanness, discursive violence and perpetrator behavior that resembles bullying on a playground while being dressed up in social justice language are unacceptable. Even more, they do not lead to transformation.

As such, we must commit to speaking, writing and sharing truths that are honest, critical, incisive, unpleasant and even difficult to hear. But simultaneously, we must actively discard petty, bratty, self-important, arrogant, condescending or abusive behavior that masquerades as truth-telling.

Distinct from tone-policing, this lesson comes from my objection to the discursively violent perpetration I witness in social justice spaces, where fighting the good fight has been replaced with adopting abusive behavior that dominates and ridicules others. These are spaces where the fight for equity and equality becomes incidental to the ego and arrogance of the speaker. And they are spaces where the words and efforts of our ancestors—like Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, bell hooks and many others—are twisted to serve one’s own egotistical master whose focus is on domination.

We have loved ones, communities, support systems and alone time where we can vent our screams of frustration in ways that display our less than charitable and respectful judgments of others. However, when we show up to change the world, we must do so in a way that is worthy of such a daunting task.

  • Enter humbly and collaboratively. I have borne witness to the convoluted labyrinths that tightly guard each systemic social injustice. I have learned the importance of entering change-making discussions with humility, while identifying shared goals between “the other side” and myself.

In doing so, we can say something like, “I’m concerned that X is happening. Could we talk through that concern and try to find a way to address it?”

This approach communicates an understanding of the complexity of a given issue—including that multiple facets of an issue may be unknown to you. It also opens the possibilities for multiple potential strategies and solutions. It further places everyone on the same side—thus reducing the likelihood of defensiveness, combativeness, hurt feelings and disengagement. Finally, this collaboration pulls from a core principle of social work that all of us can benefit from: the importance of relationships between and among people as an avenue for transformative change. For when it is possible for us to work together, we can move mountains far quicker than we ever could alone.

The Power of Dreamstorming

I opened this piece questioning if academia is a dream killer.

My answer: I don’t believe it has to be. There is no mandate that we grant higher education with such power over us. Moreover, the academy is not static. We are inside it. And we are changing it.

Our dreamstorming first promotes healing in ourselves and others. Next, and equally important, our dreamstorming advents and informs our transformative efforts that make leaps toward a free, liberatory world.

In our current world in where structural inequalities produce both violence and discrimination, one of my own goals of dreamstorming is that in 50 years, my work of today no longer resonates, because we will have moved so far beyond the banal, reckless, interpersonal, interconnected and systemic degradation of quotidian rape, sex trafficking, intersectional discrimination and oppressive higher education.

The world 50 years from now can be different. Dreamstorming can help get us there.

Jennifer M. Gómez is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, faculty affiliate at the Center for Innovation in Social Work & Health, and research affiliate at the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University. She is also chair of the research advisory committee at the Center for Institutional Courage. Her new book, The Cultural Betrayal of Black Women & Girls: A Black Feminist Approach to Healing from Sexual Abuse, uses dreamstorming to envision individual, interpersonal and structural healing.

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