This week, Off-Kilter continues our ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare—and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work. As we’ve explored a good bit in recent weeks as part of this series, the disability community harbors some of the greatest wisdom when it comes to radical self-care—with disabled people as modern-day oracles, as activist Alice Wong often puts it.
For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat down with Keith Jones, a longtime disability rights and justice activist, cofounder of Krip Hop Nation, president and CEO of Soul Touchin’ Experiences, and a visionary thinker when it comes to approaching social justice work itself as a form of radical self-care for the collective. As Keith puts it: “In order to build a stronger community, there must be a heart and soul commitment to those who need assistance in order to begin caring for themselves and in turn caring for others.”
They had a far-ranging conversation about one of the most significant barriers to self-care for people with disabilities: asset limits and other backwards policies that make “work until you die” the default retirement plan for a huge swath of the U.S. disability community; what it looks like to enter social justice work from the starting point that “everything has a soul”; how Keith has woven together hip hop music into his disability activism through Krip Hop Nation; and more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I talk with visionary leaders working to disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve. And this week, we’re continuing Off-Kilter’s ongoing series of conversations with social justice leaders digging into why, in the famous words of Audre Lorde, self-care is political warfare, and the role radical self-care plays in their own lives to sustain them in this work.
As we’ve explored a good bit in recent weeks as part of this series, the disability community harbors some of the greatest wisdom when it comes to radical self-care, with disabled people as modern-day oracles, as activist Alice Wong often puts it. For this week’s episode, I sat down with Keith Jones, a longtime disability rights and justice activist, co-founder of Krip Hop Nation, president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, and a visionary thinker when it comes to approaching social justice work itself as a form of radical self-care for the collective. As Keith puts it, “In order to build a stronger community, there must be a heart and soul commitment to those who need assistance in order to begin caring for themselves, and in turn, caring for others.”
We had a far-ranging conversation about one of the most significant barriers to self-care for people with disabilities: asset limits and other backwards policies that make work-until-you-die the default retirement plan for a huge swath of the U.S. disability community. We also explored what it looks like to enter social justice work from the starting point that everything has a soul, how Keith has woven together hip hop music into his disability activism through Krip Hop Nation, and lots more. So, without further ado, my conversation with Keith Jones. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
Keith, it is so fun to be back in conversation with you and thank you so much for taking the time to come back on the podcast.
KEITH JONES: Well, thank you for having me. It’s always good to talk to you. And thank you for thinking I’m interesting enough to have back. [laughs]
VALLAS: Oh, you are among the most interesting souls in my life, that is for sure. But I have been so excited to be back in conversation with you for this series that we’ve been doing on self-care as political warfare for a whole bunch of reasons, because I know you have a ton of wisdom to share on this topic. But before we get into self-care as political warfare and all of that, I’d really love to give you the chance to reintroduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners. You’ve been on the show a couple of times now, but talk a little bit about who you are and how you come to disability activism.
JONES: Okay. Well, again, my name is Keith Jones, and typically, the way I introduce myself is Keith Jones, president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences LLC and one of the three original founding members of, well, co-founders of Krip Hop Nation. But in my work as president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, I kind of came to this work by happenstance and by chance. My idea when I was growing up was to be an aeronautical engineer that rapped. So, I was supposed to be designing jet engines and making records. So, I’ve come to this work, honestly, by first entering it through obvious—well, not obvious—‘cause vocal as a Black man with cerebral palsy, having to confront one side of the policy and then being an advocate and an activist and working on the other side of policy, that kind of brought everything into focus as to why I do what I do, how I do what I do. And for the community, I can’t relax in my neighborhood if my neighborhood isn’t safe. So, I have to make sure the neighborhood’s safe. The neighborhood can’t be safe if the city’s not safe. The city can’t be safe if, you know. And so, it’s those concentric rings that have brought me to this work.
VALLAS: I love that. And I feel like it’s actually worth before we go any farther also giving you the chance to maybe define what you mean by safe. ‘Cause I suspect it might be a slightly broader definition than we sometimes hear when folks get into the kind of tough-on-crime narrative.
JONES: Yeah. Which is funny because the thing about “safe,” safe in terms of when you close your door and you go to sleep, you wake up, right? Safe in terms of you just having comfort and peace in your house so that when your kids go outside, you have a level of confidence that up until a certain point, there’s something you’ve done, and the community actually looks out. When we talk about safe, and just for context for the listeners, I’m a child of the ‘60s, right? Born at the end of the ‘60s. God, that was the last millennium! But safety in communities of color, communities of color, but particularly when it comes to disability, it’s not just about the crime narratives like you’re talking. The safety really is can I get out off of my stoop? Can I get out of my house? Can I get into the store? Can I, if I need to, in this crisis of a pandemic, will I be able to get to the doctor? Can I get a doctor’s appointment? If I’m in school, can I get into class, and will teachers treat me [inaudible]? Safety takes all of these kind of things. If I wanna be in a relationship, is somebody gonna honor my boundaries? Because as a person with a disability that is visible, people have violated my personal space consistently in terms of, [uses cloying, condescending voice] “Oh my God! You’re so amazing. Look at you. You’re out here. And can I pray for you?” [back to regular voice] And putting hands on shoulders, leaning on wheelchairs. So, safety has a real broad, overarching theme.
But in terms of community, it’s like, is the community safe? What does it mean about drug mitigation and violence prevention? Do we have safe spaces for young kids to play in the park? Are we giving afterschool programs and constructive time for youth so that the narrative is not another young kid of color committing this stereotypical crime because they had no outlet or opportunity to express themselves creatively? So, safety has a real broad umbrella, but there are very specific touchstones.
VALLAS: I love that. And I honestly feel like we could do an entire episode just pulling on all of the threads that you’ve just offered. But I love that as the place to start this conversation. And Keith, I feel like community, which you’ve mentioned now several times already, is a real throughline of how you approach your work. And it’s a big part of what you do, is build community, is impact our communities and how they show up. And you also, you spend a lot of your time trying to help people think differently about community.
VALLAS: And as I say that, I feel like this is a perfect segue into talking a little bit about your understanding of self-care as political warfare and how it shows up in your work. Self-care at the micro and at the macro level with that community frame really is core to your work with SoulTouchin’ Experiences.
JONES: Yes, it is.
VALLAS: And so, that’s really where I wanna start this conversation. And I’m just gonna bring in some of the words that appear on your website, and we’ve got a link in show notes for folks who wanna check out the work that you do through SoulTouchin’ Experiences. But on the site, you write, “In order to build a stronger community, there must be a heart and soul commitment to those who need assistance in order to begin caring for themselves, and in turn, caring for others.” Talk a little bit about the story behind SoulTouchin’ Experiences and how you became known as da soul toucha, which is also your handle on Twitter.
JONES: Yes. Well, thank you. SoulTouchin’ Experiences actually came about through, well, the story is rather, it should be a Hollywood movie because I was like, I hate everybody! No, I started, [laughs] I kind of came to SoulTouchin’ Experiences as an organization, as a company, it started in, you know, we actually are celebrating 25 years. It started in 1998, and it was an amalgamation of all my interests: my art, my music, community activism, policy, civic engagement. And through working in independent living centers and the cultural organizations, what I saw was this extreme disconnect between what we know people need and what people actually have access to getting. And that there was this intent. There seemed, and seems to be, an intentionality in keeping the barriers in place because it’s profitable. And so, when we talk about giving people the ability to take care of themselves, as a person with cerebral palsy who uses personal care assistants, there are certain things that I need assistance with in order to maintain my level of independence that I’ve set for me. And what the challenge has been is twofold. It’s getting the community, one, to acknowledge, regardless of how much help you need, you still have the right to your independence. Regardless if you are, if somebody has to put you in your chair, put you in your Hoyer lift, help you to go to the bathroom, get you dressed, that your independence is still yours. And so, the way that I approach it is saying that our independence is interdependence.
And so, when we talk about community, when we, in the general public, talk about disability, there’s a very Eurocentric, Western framework and specificity around the definition and diagnosis. But if you add a culture or an ethnic backdrop to it, that changes. And so, how do you mesh of somebody whose cultural background sees their humanity as bringing shame to the family or a curse and then still instilling in them that your life has value; your independence means something; your dreams, your hopes, your wishes are just as important and just as valuable as the next person? And so, the heart and soul commitment, for those of us who come to this work, it’s like, like, I used to tell people, we’re not making widgets. The things we’re trying to do are bringing substantial impact to people’s lives, and I don’t take that lightly. So, you can’t treat it like it’s flipping burgers at McDonald’s or selling hardware at a hardware store. This, you have to be absolutely committed to wanting the best for that human.
VALLAS: I love that. And I wanna pull on that thread a little further before we get any deeper into this. And another piece of what you have on your website, which actually, I think is the first sentence that ever jumped out to me when I was getting introduced to you by our mutual friend Rebecca Cokley, and I went, “Oh, I wanna know this person.”
JONES: [delighted chuckle]
VALLAS: You have a quote on the site, “Everything has a soul,” dot, dot, dot, right?
JONES: Everything, yes. Mmhmm.
VALLAS: And I really wanna give you a chance to talk a little bit about what that means to you and how that shows up in your work and your relationship to this work.
JONES: Ah, well, it’s a tagline, and everything has a soul because, well, one, I thought it was catchy. But the other part is that really, in order to do policy, if we’re talking about, let’s say we’re talking about reproductive health, I have to have a heart and soul commitment to this to get it right for the women, I mean, personally, for the women in my life, and professionally for the community at large. I can’t go into that thinking it’s flat and analytical ‘cause it’s not. This is, when you’re dealing in community and you’re talking about closing disparities, whether it’s health care, education, housing, employment, all of those things are not stand-alone. Those go to how do I exist in my life? Am I happy? Do I have the ability to take care of my family? Do I have the ability to at least attempt to chase my dreams? And for those of us who are intentional, whether that’s intentional in community organizing, intentional in policy shaping, intentionally engaging in political activity, the heart and soul commitment cannot be just to the things. It has to be to the people who will be impacted by it. And we can’t be great if we’re treating everybody like trash.
And so, the tagline really came from just personal experience being— I’ll tell you a real quick story. I was, as a skills specialist, I went to see a consumer, and we sat on her patio, elderly Black woman in her 60s. At the time I was in my late 30s. And she came to me, and I was the first person to actually visit her and ask her, “What do you want for your life?” And she looked at me and said, “You are a godsend. You are the first person to ever see me.” And to hear that and to be in the field where, “Independent living, you know, community living, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights!” But every step of the way, seeing people with disabilities not included in that. So, for me, having a heart and soul commitment to this work means that you can’t just parachute in, “Hey, we’re gonna do migrant rights” and then go back out to the suburbs. Because this is people’s lives, and that, I take that deathly serious. So, that’s really the impetus behind, “Everything has a soul.”
VALLAS: I appreciate so much you sharing that story and also just sharing this level of the work. It’s something that is, it touches on a real passion point for me as well. And I’m thinking about actually, a talk I was giving to law students yesterday at Georgetown talking about something very similar. Because there’s so much about how policy work and law reform and social change work kind of defined broadly, so much of that takes place in a way that really doesn’t, as you’re putting it, really see people, right?
VALLAS: You end up with lots of focus on the numbers or the budgets or even strategic plans or whatever the level of the work is. And yet, what we can often be missing is an awareness that we’re all actually engaged in the process of reality creation.
JONES: Right! [laughs]
VALLAS: And we’re doing that in a way that impacts not just ourselves but everybody else. And the responsibility that that comes with, right?
VALLAS: And the necessity for us to be aware that we’re all part of a larger interconnected whole as we engage in that reality creation work. So, I really appreciate you bringing that in, and I think I’ll probably try and come back to that later in this conversation. But I wanna give you a chance to talk a little bit about what SoulTouchin’ Experiences does and how you bring this perspective to the folks that you work with and that you teach and that you speak with. And talk a little bit about some of how you do this work through that organization.
JONES: Well, thank you. Oddly enough, the work really came through the policy. So, whether it’s through consulting, public speaking, project-driven, it really starts with how are we going to build the people so that we never have to come back to this issue again? So, to give an example what when we’re talking about Home and Community-Based Service, how do we write a policy that is not contingent upon somebody who is not ever going to suffer these, or be at the hands or the mercy of these kind of cuts? So, let’s take disability and marriage. Whatever your stance is, if the two individuals want to marry and have their thing because it’s really important in their life, but they’re two people with disabilities, we know what their problem is. And so, the way I work and the way we try to bring these things to whatever it is, is that let’s get to the core of what the issue is. It’s really easy to talk about things on the periphery, but how can we deal with the root cause of the problem? And how can we eliminate that root cause of the problem so that we never have to have this discussion again? So that this is not, “We got rid of this, but something else popped up over here.”
I use the analogy, people like, “Oh, we have a homeless problem.” Well, the solution is in the title, right? If you understand that people are housing insecure or unhoused or not able to get into rental accommodations because we have this credit system that penalizes you, and you basically have to do an audition for somebody to like you well enough to shelter yourself. When we talk about those policies, this is not, “Oh, well, 35 percent!” No, the numbers we’re talking about are people. Those are somebody’s mothers. That’s somebody’s father. That’s somebody’s brother, sister, son. So, the work is to really cut through the talking head stuff, really get down to what are we here for? Who are we here for? Because those of us who are sitting at the table having these discussions have to understand that we have privilege, that we have the ability to discuss and to affect positive change. So, whether it’s through consulting, whether it’s through public speaking, whether it’s through projects, or community organizing, the focus is always on elevating humanity, acknowledging people’s humanity, acknowledging the respect for their humanity. And then, how can we support their value set through whatever systems, whether that’s the educational system, how can we make sure young Black girls going through public education who may have a bad day, doesn’t get tracked off and stamped for the rest of their life? Because we know what the data points are, right? How can we make sure that kids who are having gender questions or seeing themselves in a different light, how can we support them and secure them during puberty, school, and people hating their humanity? So, really dealing with the issues at the core of humanity. Because 90 percent, 99 percent of the problems human face are human instigated. So, it’s really just dealing with reality in order to get to solutions so we can all go party.
VALLAS: Keith, I love that. And I have to say that might be in competition with, “Everything has a soul” as a tagline for you, right?
VALLAS: You know, “Ninety-nine percent of the problems that humans face are human instigated.” And man, is that true. So, I feel like that’s a perfect segue—
VALLAS: —to the next question I was gonna ask you, which was a big part of what we’ve been doing throughout this series, interrogating Audre Lorde’s wisdom when it comes to self-care being political warfare, is we’ve been trying to bridge the micro and the macro.
VALLAS: And so, we’ve been, you know, self-care is usually talked about in the context of individuals, and most of the time it’s bubble baths. We’ve been trying to get beyond the bubble baths.
JONES: Right, right.
VALLAS: But we’ve also been trying to get to the macro level, right, and engage in some interrogation of what are the structural barriers to caring for ourselves? And what are the ways in which we are facing structural barriers to caring for our larger collective organism that we’re all part of? And we’ve talked a lot about how rest is not equitably accessible in today’s society. The last few weeks, that has come through loud and clear with some of our guests. But another big structural barrier that especially impacts the disability community is that because of a variety of human-instigated choices, people with disabilities in a lot of cases are actually not allowed to save money.
JONES: Right, right.
VALLAS: And that’s not something that’s gonna be news to listeners of Off-Kilter, because it’s a rare conversation that I don’t figure out a way to bring in something like asset limits and other boneheaded policies that are really incredibly inhumane. This is a conversation you and I have talked a lot about at different points. And a way that it’s sometimes described—the result of that type of a policy choice, barring people from saving—the way that it’s often described is that people with disabilities, in many cases, have to work until they die.
VALLAS: And that might sound histrionic. That might sound dramatic. But it is actually true for a lot of folks who are impacted by policies like asset limits that can literally prohibit them from having even emergency savings, let alone saving for retirement. Talk a little bit about that as a structural barrier and how that shows up either for you personally or in the broader communities that you move in?
JONES: Well, I think the term “self-care,” and when you talked about the barriers, you know when somebody says “self-care,” I think people imagine themselves with mud masks and cucumbers on their eyes, right? They’re laying back, and they’re like, “Oh my God. It’s so peaceful.” But as a person with a disability, if you’re— Okay, and I’m Black with a disability in America. Those three things endemically, because of the intentional choices and policies, whether that’s people who are writing asset limit policy, whether those people who are setting the standard for what vacation time and leisure time looks like and who can have access to it, whether or not your human condition is even afforded the ability to relax. And when you talked about working till you are, you know, working without the ability to retire, I am that. I would love to rest, which is one of the reasons that we go so hard to do the issues and get them done and taken care of so they’re not perpetual. But self-care is a luxury, quite honestly. Self-care, though mandatory and people try to, functioning, like, let me get through my day, and then I’ll just, when I get home, I’ll take that five hours of sleep, and I gotta get up and get back at it again. The concept of self-care for people with disability is not new. The access and the ability to actually do it is rare and few and far between because you need to have resources in order to relax.
Like, how, if I’m constantly worried about do I have enough SSI to keep my lights on this month, then I have no time for leisure. If I have to worry about whether or not I have enough SSI to pay for the prescription drugs that keeps me alive, I have no chance to take care of myself. If I don’t have enough money to go to the park with a latte or juice or whatever, I can’t take care of myself. So, I have to come up with life hacks in order to steal 10 to 15 minutes apiece. And for me, as much as it says president, CEO, it sounds really fancy, my face is all…. I can’t retire. Like, there is not, I literally have enough to buy a cheeseburger and a coffee. And that’s not even talking about as a parent taking care of my kids. Like, I got three kids under the age of 16. And so, how do I do that in a place where if I go this way, I’m gonna be penalized because I can’t have assets over X amount, which doesn’t cover a month and a half of rent. But if I go this way, I’m in the capitalist system where access to capital as a Black man with a disability is zero. So, the self-care comes in, in picking and choosing moments of where can I steal joy? So, one of my sayings is you have to actively choose joy because there’s no way to necessarily get that self-care moment. My self-care is watching Avatar, the cartoon [chuckles], or watching Lord of the Rings just for three hours, because at that point, I’m not worried about do I have enough health care to get in the wheelchair? Do I have enough money to, you know, if my daughter needs something or my kids need something?
That’s a real stressor for the community because we know poverty is so steeped in disability. And so, it’s a balance. And most of the choices of why we can’t relax are not because, I’m pretty sure Rebecca doesn’t wake up like, “How can I be stressed today?” Like, nobody does that. Everybody wants to know, “How can I get through my day and just relax?” And so, the choices that we have are not great. So, self-care as a micro level is individual choice: What do I need to get from this point to the next? On a macro level, it’s stepping back and saying, even in the midst of COVID-19, people who are in places who can make substantial and significant policy choices and implement them still are working on a metric in which my level of humanity doesn’t rise to the standard of, “Yeah, we’d like him to breathe too.” So, it’s weighing those two different metrics and just trying to find your joy.
VALLAS: Talk a little bit more about what it looks like to find your joy. I love the reference to Avatar. And I have to say, if I’d known about your Lauter obsession, I would’ve suggested that we record this on Tolkien Day. And happy belated Tolkien Day to you.
JONES: Happy Belated…. [laughs]
VALLAS: But I love that. And joy is a theme that’s come up in a few of these conversations as part of this series. Aisha Nyandoro, in our kick-off episode, actually talked a lot about radical joy as a practice that she engages with. But talk a little bit more about finding your joy. That feels like something that’s worth digging into a little bit more because it’s one of those things that often, folks feel like, “Well, we’re in a pandemic, and also, look at all of the injustice around us.”
VALLAS: “And we should be really depressed all the time. We need to be really solemn all the time. Like, this is serious work.” But you are a real model, and you lead by example, by you’re always visibly having fun doing this work.
JONES: [laughs] Right!
VALLAS: And in fact, another one of your taglines that I will nominate ‘cause you bring it in to conversations in a way that often adds some much-needed levity talking about serious issues, is you say, “Let’s get all this work done so that we can go have that party,” right?
JONES: Yes!!! [laughs]
VALLAS: Let’s get to the party. What does it look like to choose joy?
JONES: Well, here. So, I often tell people when I’m being professional, or when I’m talking about my friends it’s situational awareness, right? But there’s the reality that we function here. To use a story, I went to London last year, and everybody was like, “Oh my God! Keith, there’s a pandemic. You should be scared! There’s a virus out there.” And they were like, “Aren’t you scared of traveling?” I’m like, “I’m a Black man in America.” Which literally means from the moment I leave my door, there’s no guarantee I’ll get to the bottom of my steps. When I leave my door, there’s no guarantee that I’ll make it back to that same door. So, the reality that I live in is that at any given point in life, somebody can look at me and say, “His disability doesn’t….” You know, “We look at his disability and say, ‘He shouldn’t be here. We can just snub him’.” Or if I’m a place and somebody calls the police, my life could be over. That reality is why I actively choose joy.
And so, actively choosing joy is not ignoring reality, but really honing in on that brings you peace. What brings you love? What makes you happy? What makes you happy that you can bring joy to the people who are important to you? How can that joy be infectious? How can you, in a country where my daughters don’t, literally don’t have the legal right to make a choice about [inaudible] and my mother and that my friends can be snuffed out, how do you find that joy? And the way that I try to lean into that is just by saying if we get this work done in terms of how do we get people with disabilities included in our society? And not included in oppression, but just included in day-to-day functionality. How do we get women to be on par with men in terms of pay so there’s no more pay disparity? How do we close the gaps between urban, suburban, and rural in terms of access to health care? Because ultimately, the reason we’re trying to do this is so that we can bask in the glow of our humanity. And understanding that this journey is difficult, but there’s joy in this. There’s something powerful and fun, actually, in watching somebody realize the beauty of themselves. And so, actively choosing joy is the motto, but it doesn’t mean being oblivious to the reality.
But there is that statement by James Baldwin, “To be Black America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And so, coming out of the ‘60s, into the ‘70s, into the ‘80s, and here we are in the 2020s, I think people need to realize that the struggles we’re facing, as daunting as they seem, are really just a matter of humans making better choices and acting accordingly. And so, with that hope, focusing on that potential possibility brings joy. And then putting on a good song, having a good drink. I won’t say nothing else ‘cause we’re on that radio! But, you know, just making sure that what, you know…. Some people don’t know what brings them joy. But if you at least step back and say, [big sigh] “You know what? Today was kind of all right. Some people got on my nerves, but it’s all right.” Just that moment is what I try to bring to people, which really helps me stay focused in this work.
VALLAS: Humans making choices, right, at every single level: the individual level, and then all the way up to the collective level, I love that.
VALLAS: I love that. And Keith, we gotta stay with joy for a minute here.
VALLAS: Because I gotta get you talking about Krip Hop Nation and the Krip Hop Institute.
VALLAS: You mentioned that just briefly before, but we have to spend some time talking about it. And I feel like that just connects beautifully to what you were just talking about in terms of choosing joy, but also creating spaces where one gets the opportunity to bask in the glow of their and others’ humanity.
VALLAS: What a beautiful way to put it. What is Krip Hop Nation? What is the Krip Hop Institute? Talk a little bit about the story behind that part of your work and how that connects to this broader conversation about radical self-care.
JONES: Well, okay. So, Krip Hop Nation…. Oh God, I’m old now. I just had to think about it. ‘Cause I got connected, well, we actually started with pre-My-, we met on Myspace. So, the story is Leroy and Rob—Leroy Moore and Rob Da’ Noize Temple—together the concept. Leroy found me on Myspace, God, ‘99. Yo, I’m so old. But Krip Hop, really, the mission and the impetus, and even now, is really about confronting socioeconomic and political barriers using art to get rid, to dismantle or to get rid of sexism, racism, homophobia, and ableism but using it through a collective of poets, dancers, rappers, singers, musicians. And so, the goal really has been to elevate the platf-, to elevate people with disabilities who are talented and show that the arbitrary decision about not signing me to a record deal because you are uncomfortable with me sitting in a wheelchair is stupid. So, it’s really, it’s the Institute and the Krip Hop Nation really is, esoterically, is a reflection to the community that yes, you can look like us and still do your art. Yes, you can look like us and still be an amazing poet. Yes, you can look like us and still elevate and chase your dreams. So, that’s the impetus behind it.
And so, as a collective, it’s bringing this, like, going to Africa. In certain parts of Africa, whether it’s Tanzania, Nigeria, the Congo, disability has a completely different construct in terms of community acceptance, right? And so, how do you bring those values about embracing your humanity in the face of the community that looks at you and says you have no value. So, the goal of Krip Hop Nation, and of basically all of that work, is to say solely because somebody else projecting their interpretation of worth on you, that doesn’t hold true. Your value is the way you see it.
And so, our work, whether it’s through performances, the Krip Hop Institute, which is Leroy Moore’s vision quest, is really to have not just a virtual space but a physical space where people can come and see themselves and have the ability to be like, “Wow. When I was in Nebraska, as the only disabled kid in the, you know, outside of Norman, you know, outside, in the woods, and now here I am in the cornfield. But I’ve found these people who are doing hip hop. And I’ve heard from people from as far away as Thailand, Australia, Calcutta, Brazil. There is a commonality in having, you know, like, if you see it, you can be it mentality. And so, the work behind that in the Institute is to help people understand what it means to be an effective advocate. What does it mean to understand the totality of an issue? But what does it mean to put on a dope hip hop concert or a [bleep] poetry slam or this amazing artwork? But really just again, centering the human, acknowledging the state of your human condition, but elevating that so that your art and your hope can be realized.
VALLAS: Do you have any particular favorite moments or stories or memories of, I don’t know, concerts or gatherings or anything that you’ve pulled together with that collective?
JONES: You know, it’s funny because, so, this is the first time I’m gonna say it publicly. There’s, behind the scenes, there’s been a slight shift in how the, I guess the leadership, if you wanna call us, is functioning. So, there’s a couple things, but I guess all good things have to come to an end. But in terms of the visual, some of the best memories I have are meeting Kalyn from Wheelchair Sports Camp years ago in Denver, Colorado, and then meeting Toni Hickman years ago in Atlanta, and then having, you know, and then being tagged on Twitter during Christmas, because a mother’s son had sang—Knox is his name—and he’s singing Mariah Carey’s song and her saying that she was glad to find Krip Hop Nation because looking for Black disabled role models for her son was important. And to find us and me to be an honorary uncle. Like, those are the kind of moments that you stand back and go, “Well, damn! I did something. Okay, cool!” At least when I go to my mama’s house, I can look in and say, “See? I turned out halfway all right.” But those are the moments it’s really just, I really get a kick out of.
Or, like, I’ll just share one with you. Working with kids, kids! Working with the students from Australia and Calcutta, we did a three-day intensive where in India and in Australia, they wrote raps in Bengali and English. And then these kids with disabilities, literally for the first time, their parents had heard them talk or rap or express themselves. And it completely changed the way they had seen their children. Those are the moments that make this work worthy of doing.
VALLAS: I love that story so much. I had a feeling you were gonna have something like that, so I’m really glad I asked that question.
So, speaking of kids, Keith, you are, in addition to being a disability activist, you are also a father. And so, part of what I would love to give you the chance to talk a little bit about and maybe reflect on is, what does it look like to do this work—this disability activism, but also community building and culture change and all the pieces you’ve been talking about—what does it look like to do this work as someone who’s also a father of children? And what does self-care look like as an activist who’s also a dad?
JONES: It’s funny because I have my son, Keith, laughing at me and saying, “I had kids in three different decades.” And so, it’s always fun to stand back and look at the work. But what does it look like to do this work as a parent? It absolutely gives you a different kind of tilt. The prism is when I do educational reform, where we’re talk about having universally designed language lesson planning and community engagement, it’s I’m not gon be here forever. What can I leave my kids? Where can I leave the community? What can I do to make sure at least I’ve tried, not just for them? Because they have friends, and their friends have families. How can I make sure that building these things leave the community in a better place? What’s the old adage? If you want a better world, you have to build it. You know, and I tell my kids, you don’t need to be, you don’t need to do what I’m doing. You just need to be a decent human being. You don’t need to like everybody, but you do need to respect their humanity. And that kind of ethos is what, as a parent, doing this kind of work, whether it’s, again, health care. I’ve got young daughters coming up. I’m absolutely impassioned about sexual assault/violence on campus, equal pay. What is it like, you know, the CROWN Act. Like, everybody’s talking about “protect Black women,” and then they go off, and it’s only up until a certain point.
It’s to really show the parent, to give these kids, my kids, a foundation that when you walk outta this door, you have a strong moral compass. You have this strong self-identity to stand on. ‘Cause, again, you’re a young Black girl. You are a young Black man in a country that until all of these issues are gone, you have to move in a certain kind of way. And so, it brings joy to see the boy is— Aw, he ain’t a boy. He’s old now. But the girls are blossoming. But the work really is to make sure that when my girls go out, they can just be who they are as opposed to having to worry about their skin tone or their hair textures or the fact that they identify as women. Just be you, be decent, function, be respectful, and have a great community. So, that’s the lens that being a parent brings to this work.
VALLAS: I love that. And that also takes me to another piece I wanted to come back to ‘cause we spoke a little bit before about the origin story of SoulTouchin’ Experiences and how you became, you came to be known as da soul toucha, and Twitter handle @DaSoulToucha.
VALLAS: But also, this notion that everything has a soul.
VALLAS: And part of what I really wanna make sure to give you a chance to talk a little bit about, and I’m actually very, very interested to hear where you go on this, ‘cause this is not a conversation that you and I have had. How does spirituality show up in your understanding of the relationship that you have to this work? Obviously, “soul” is a word that has an explicitly spiritual connection.
VALLAS: It can mean a lot of different things to different people.
VALLAS: And it can mean a lot of different things in different spiritual traditions. But I’m curious what you, where you wanna take that.
JONES: Well, it’s, you know, da soul toucha evolved from, actually, da soul toucha actually came around in 1991, ‘92. And it was part of my, it’s an alter ego to my alter ego in my hip hop life. Fezo da Mad One, AKA Leon Söze, da soul toucha. Leon Söze is, this, again, for those who don’t know hip hop, we going back when everybody had multiple names. Leon Söze is an amalgamation of two characters from the professional and from Usual Suspects. Both characters have disabilities. Leon, in The Confessional, is clearly a person who’s neurodivergent, but he’s the greatest hit man ever. And in The Usual Suspects, the person with the disability was the mastermind. So, that, you know, so I kinda took that on.
But in terms of how it evolved into SoulTouchin’ Experiences, the spirituality is my grandmother took us to church Monday to Monday [chuckles], Baptist church in St. Louis, Missouri. But coming from people where I could sit with my grandmother and my great grandmother and them talking about coming out of sharecropping and coming out of Reconstruction. And then they’re talking about, my grandmother talking about her great grandmother and what it was like when the soldiers came to free the slaves and what it was like when her grandmother was sold on the auction block. So, you can’t get through a day in America without clinging to some sort of faith that there’s a higher power, where literally, your melanin has criminalized your existing. So, the spirituality is that no matter what humans have arbitrarily decided they don’t like about you, that your soul is what makes you great. Your soul is what connects you to your community, to your family, to your friends, to the issues. You know, people like, “I’m passionate!” Well, that’s a soulful reaction. It’s emotional, but it’s coming from a place. That doesn’t mean that your souls are pure. It just means it has a connection.
So, faith and spirituality play a role in the fact that I look at humans, I look at other people, and I expect and I treat them as if their humanity is elevated and that they deserve the right to breathe, just like I do. And then I work with them accordingly, depending on their behavior. So, faith is really, the spirituality is probably the best way to say it, it’s not particularly driven by any religious construct, even though I was raised in the Baptist church. But there is that ethos that at the core of who we are, if our soul is at least empathetic to other souls and compassionate, we can be so much better as a community, as a city, as a state, as a nation, as a planet. And hopefully, I’ll live long enough for us to get there. But that’s kind of the ethos behind it.
VALLAS: Well, and just the phrase you just used actually makes me wanna ask a follow-up question here, which is you referenced you hope you live long enough in this lifetime to get to that place where you get to see that type of society.
VALLAS: But a conversation that I had a few weeks ago for the podcast with Jeremie Greer and Solana Rice from Liberation in a Generation was about knowing your place in the work in a way that transcends the current moment and connects you to the larger stream of change that we’re all part of. So, we talked about connecting backwards with your ancestors, connecting forwards with the folks who will pick up the baton at some point from us as a future generation, continuing to do this work.
VALLAS: I’m curious if you have any tips for folks within the disability rights and justice movement or folks just generally across issue spaces or across communities who are engaged in some way and oriented in some way towards social change? You’ve joked a couple of times during this conversation about that you’re feeling old, and you’re referencing how long you’ve been doing this work.
VALLAS: I think it’s fair to call you an elder within this work.
JONES: Yeah! [laughs]
VALLAS: So, I’m gonna put a little different spin on that.
VALLAS: ‘Cause I do love, I do love my elders. What wisdom do you have to share with folks when it comes to sustainability in doing this work and understanding that in a lot of ways the work isn’t going to be finished in one lifetime, but how you then relate to the piece of it that is yours?
JONES: Well, this, well, one of the things is you can’t have an ego. Like, you can’t come to this with an ego. You absolutely have to come, you have to be mission focused in terms of whatever the issue, whatever issues are, whatever. You have to be egoless and mission focused. Now, mission focused, in my definition, means that you need to see the totality of the connections. So, if you’re working in LGBTQIA+ rights, you can’t be then, say, “We want our rights,” and then you are completely dismissing the entire LGBTQIA+ community that is disabled. You can’t talk about protecting Black women and then completely dismiss the tragedy that is befalling Black trans women. You can’t talk about migrant rights and demand these things and then completely be, and completely disassociated to the murdered and missing Indigenous women. All of these things are interconnected. You can have your focus, but you cannot be oblivious to how all these things interconnect. So, my, again, no ego. But take time.
Even before you do it, after you do it, step back and say, “Why am I doing this work?” ‘Cause everybody’s like, “Gun rights, gun rights, gun rights.” And they’re like, “We need to have gun control, gun control, gun control.” But then what is the step back from it? Where did they come from? Why are people so passionate about instruments of death while at the same time not wanting to educate children on civics and health and proper sexual habits? So, being able to look at the picture entirely, even while understanding what your focus is, is probably the best way that I can give some kind of advice.
Not everybody’s good at it. Some people really suck at it. Some people are really good. Like, some people are really good at one issue, and they’re really passionate about it. They do it. They do it every, like, you know, it’s like, “Oh, Keith! I’m not racist.” And then I show up dating their daughter, “Why you bring this Negro home?” So, it’s being real about understanding that whatever biases, prejudices that you have, they don’t stop at the door once you walk in. Be aware of who you are. Be aware why you’re there. Be committed to that. Don’t have an ego. See the totality of the issue. And understand that you may not be able to do everything, but if you do your part, at least you’ll make some progress.
VALLAS: I love that. And at the same time as one checks the ego, also, that zooming out, that advice around zooming out and understanding the broader connections. It is so easy to get siloed in this work, right?
JONES: Oh, God, yes.
VALLAS: And I feel like that’s the structure, that’s the dominant structure within public policy especially, but also advocacy, activism in so many sectors. It’s like everybody’s got their piece of the pie.
VALLAS: And that can be really important from the standpoint of like, know your place in the work, so you’re not trying to do everything all at once. ‘Cause nobody can do everything and be everywhere.
VALLAS: But we see so much then of folks being like, “Well, this is my silo. These are the issues I work on.” And then there’s a closed-off nature that can come with that too, to seeing the interconnections across the issues.
VALLAS: And there can also be a competition that that fosters, right? Where it’s like folks are fighting for the same scarce dollars to support their work, and it’s like everyone’s in competition saying, “Oh, my issue is more important than that issue,” right?
VALLAS: So, yeah, I feel like what you’re saying is so incredibly important. You and I have been part of conversations actually talking to philanthropic leaders about that very subject before, so I know that’s something you’ve got a lot of thoughts on as well.
JONES: [laughs] Yeah.
VALLAS: Is there anything else you wanna share in terms of how to get out of the silos in a way that allows folks to be aware of that broader interconnectedness?
JONES: Well, it’s funny because I don’t know. So, typically, I do my obligatory social media presence posts, and it’s usually my statement of we are not a fully realized movement until we are a fully inclusive movement. That means that if you’re talking about Latino issues that you cannot ignore disabled Latinos. It means if you’re talking about women’s issues, you can’t ignore women who are not white. That means if you’re talking about migration policy, you cannot start picking— And you can be, you can be in your areas of expertise, but if you are doing that which you hate, meaning picking out somebody, picking a part of somebody’s human identity and saying, “This is the only part of their existence I’m gonna focus on,” then you’re doing not only them but yourself a disservice. And to break out of those silos is to understand that yes, I work on disability issues, but you’re not just disabled. You can be a mother, you could be Black, you can be white, you can be a migrant.
I tell people that identities are intricate mosaics, and as long as we understand that we are complex and we have multiple layers of who we are, then it makes it easier to see across issues. Yes, you can be dedicated to environmental justice, but you can’t talk about environmental justice without understanding racism, without understanding classism, without understanding ableism or sexism. So, if you’re proficient at what you do, you have all of these things in the background. And I think the way to break out of it is to be intentional in reaching outside of your comfort zone.
Now, going to the usual suspects. If you’re talking about environmental justice, go to the parts where the people look different than you. Go to the places where people are not as receptive to you. Because this work is hard. It’s not, oh, you know, everybody likes to be squishy, but this is hard. I’ve been to places where I’m the only anything darker than a sheet of paper with a disability. But our humanity is what connects us, not our issues, not our differences, but our commonalities in that we all live on the planet, we all breathe the air, we all want joy, we all want peace, we all want a life in which we are happy about. That fundamental commonality should drive everything.
VALLAS: I can’t think of a better note to end this conversation on. And Keith, I’m just gonna give you one last chance to plug anything that you’ve got coming up in your work that you’re excited about or that you’ve got on deck or anything else you wanna share.
JONES: Ah, joy. Well, okay. So, I guess I should say it out loud now. I’ve been asked, and honored to be known, as I will be an arts envoy for the United States going to Africa in June to do World Music Day in Niger. We are going to be doing something around hip hop and disability with an organization in October. And if demons who are, if the gremlins in the machine aren’t successful, we will be, again, getting ready to finally launch our streaming service again in October. So, those are the things that we’re looking forward to.
VALLAS: Well, congratulations on both. And I am so excited to hear more about this trip, and it sounds incredibly exciting. So, Keith, it sounds like maybe that’s the next time you come back on the show is to talk a little bit more about the hip hop work. But this has been such a fun conversation for me, and I’m really excited to send folks to your website, which we’ve got in show notes, to learn more about SoulTouchin’ Experiences and Krip Hop Nation and everything else that you’ve got going on. Keith Jones is president and CEO of SoulTouchin’ Experiences, and like I said, you can find lots more about his work in our show notes. Keith, thank you so much for taking the time. This was just such a fun conversation.
JONES: Aw, thank you for having me! And anytime you want me back, just holla at your boy! [laughs]
VALLAS: Oh, total highlight, always, every time I get to be in conversation with you. Take really good care.
JONES: You too. Take care, Rebecca. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: Off-Kilter is proud to be supported by the American Association of Health and Disability. Hey, Off-Kilter listeners, help us change the future of health. The American Association on Health and Disability has partnered with the All of Us Research Program. All of Us has a simple mission: to speed up health research. To do this, they’re asking 1 million or more people to share health information over time. In the future, researchers can use this to conduct thousands of health studies. This could improve health for generations to come. The American Association on Health and Disability hopes that all of us will support health research to benefit the disability community. That can only happen if people with disabilities join All of Us. Learn more about the AAHD inclusion statement, No Research About Us Without Us, at JoinAllOfUs.org/inclusion.
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