Unbuilding Walls!: A Conversation with carla joy bergman About her New Anthology Trust Kids!—
Stories on Youth Autonomy and Confronting Adult Supremacy
by Gabriel Zacuto
This November, AK Press published Trust Kids!— Stories on Youth Autonomy and Confronting Adult Supremacy, an anthology devised and edited by independent scholar, podcaster, and writer carla joy bergman. AK Press is worker run, collectively managed and one of the few widely distributed anarchist publishing houses in the so- called United States. In 2017, they published the highly influential text, Joyful Militancy, coauthored by bergman and Nick Montgomery. That book asked how critics of racial capitalism, state oppression, authoritarianism, and hetero-patriarchy can escape the rigidity, dogmatism, and masochistic tendencies that so often pervade the left.
Trust Kids! is not a direct follow-up, but both works deal with questions that are uncomfortable, necessary and productive. The new book draws from many voices and with some notable exceptions, most contributors to Trust Kids! are not professional writers and come from very diverse identities and backgrounds. Included are poems, essays, artwork and personal testimonials by young people, artists, teachers, thinkers, and parents who walk the pathways to autonomous youth liberation, asking questions along the way... myself included. The book also features illustrations by Southern California artist and Citric Acid cartoonist Grant Hoskins, as well as my partner Sara Zacuto, former progressive educator, blogger, and mother.
I first came to carla's work through Joyful Militancy. When my artwork brought me into carla's orbit, I reached out and when the conversation turned to mutual aid, competition, and my own lens as a leftist father, she asked if I'd be interested in contributing to Trust Kids! Initially I was hesitant. As a proponent of anarchism, I see patriarchy and authoritarianism as cancers, but like the rest of us, I was raised to understand these oppressions as normal.
The section of Southern California where I reside, Orange County, is a longtime bastion of reactionary politics and corporate wealth with an incredibly polarized demographic comprising a largely immigrant poor as well as entrenched white wealth. Obvious heads of the hydra range from the Nixon Library, an airport named for the openly racist movie star John Wayne, to the earthly manifestation of mega-conglomerate Disney which hungrily devours and transforms culture in its mission to amass wealth, possess childhood, and infiltrate the global mind. Raising two children in the shadow of these institutions makes critique of the dominant culture and in the case of Disney, it’s relationship to childhood, even more pressing. I came of age in this place, amidst this toxic culture and although I don’t wish to propagate its odious traits, they live inside me.
Being a parent has forced me to confront the authoritarianism and toxic cultural indoctrination I was raised with. I wondered if my own struggle to enact my beliefs made it inappropriate to write about liberation. I also realized that such purity standards are stultifying and precisely what Joyful Militancy sought to question.
Trust Kids! will resonate with anyone interested in the experiences of trans children, the nature of education, conscious parenting, or how this world regards young people in general. While I suspect that many readers of this book will be young radicals, we should all be considering the questions it poses. What follows is a conversation between carla and myself on youth autonomy, radical trust, and deprofessionalism.
Gabriel: What called you to the project? More specifically, how did the idea for Trust Kids! originate?
carla: When thinking about what brought me to live a life that aims to undo the social borders between
kids and adults, at least in my own life (but also beyond), It was becoming a parent. I identify as someone who is adamantly against hierarchy, so having a kid puts that value front and center, and in the everyday (and night)! So through the act of parenting is where I got to truly practice my ethos of abolishing hierarchies. And when I reflect further, I recall that I was someone who always pushed against this social border between kids and adults. Of course my desire to be treated with respect and trusted by the adults in my life, was often met with resistance and sometimes violence, but that only increased my resolve. So, I feel like I was always called to do the work (with others) to unbuild these socially constructed walls between us.
In 2002, when my eldest kid was seven, we got involved with alternatives to schools and a variety of youth liberation projects, as well as connecting to the larger conversations and work for youth autonomy and confronting adult supremacy. A decade later, I started using the phrase "Solidarity Begins at Home" because so much of what I was seeing in activism and organizing can be boiled down to two streams: either children and youth oppression is widely ignored or, alternatively, the conversation remains confined to schooling and school resistance. I have always been keen on centering the notion of solidarity in my work, thinking about youth oppression in an intersectional way (class, race, ability, etc), and working towards creating more autonomous-intergenerational thriving communities together, rather than working for a siloed-style liberation that benefits one group.
Centering in on the notion of Trust came naturally because the concept and the practice of trust is animated in all my work and writings. To me, trust flows best when the conditions are set up to allow for it. So, adult supremacy is the thing that prevents trust from flowing in relationships between kids and adults. Trust is always a risk, but it’s also worth it, and foundational to a thriving community, including in our homes.
I aimed to do a couple things with this book. One, is to disrupt the notion that school is the central part of children’s lives, or that the oppression of children hinges on schooling. Instead, I wanted to take a step
back and start at home, in our most private places. Because children cannot live alone, power and privilege are at play there, no matter the configuration. Secondly, I included stories and writings that went beyond the home, to include the many other ways (not only school) kids are in community across generations—places where oppression or autonomy is at play.
Trust Kids! aims to amplify stories and actions that reveal the liberatory potential of undoing the social borders that cut us off from each other and the world. Therefore, for youth autonomy and collective liberation to take hold, adults must also contend with their personal and social power while they actively work to undo adult supremacy. This constructed and often violent social border between adults and kids, is a massive barrier to youth and kids autonomy and intergenerational thriving. Unbuilding these walls will take a fierce commitment from us all.
Gabriel: Thank you for talking about your own experiences as a child and as a parent. The particular torments and joys of our lives shape the way we think in such varied ways. So many children grow up unheard and disrespected, fighting just to be trusted and treated as human. It gives me hope to think that your own struggle is part of what brought you to the work you do now. Imagine how much good could be done in a world where trust and respect are freely given!
As I mentioned in my introduction, you intentionally included a wide spectrum of voices in Trust Kids! Publishing writers who are less ‘polished’ is itself an extension of radical trust, and a needful intervention. Can you talk about how you selected the pieces and people that are included in Trust Kids?
carla: It began with trust. Trust in myself as a weaver. I have been bringing folks and their stories together in a myriad of mediums since 2007, and at the core of that work has been this idea of blending new or emerging storytellers with well known or more experienced writers. Animating the work, included kids and youth to ensure an intergenerational presence. Part of this is a profound trust in my own intuition. I have spent over twenty years living, reading, talking about, and researching youth liberation, and I also had questions. I was obsessed with how the conversation (and praxis) often remained on the margins, and often confined to education. Not all, of course. There have been successes for youth and kids gaining more rights and freedoms, but over all, youth oppression continues to be ignored by mainstream and radicals alike.
I also like to challenge who can be included as a writer, and part of that is about age, but it’s also about
pushing against professionalism and the gatekeepers who hold onto an outdated idea of what constitutes a writer. My work to date has been about creating alternatives to institutions and part of deinstitutionalizing our lives is actively deprofessionalizing them too. We need new and different stories, and new (kinds of) writers to help move this conversation along. Because as Audre Lorde so wisely said, "There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
With this framing, it became vital to extend this conversation beyond the usual youth liberation writers and activists, by also inviting folks who are not parents, or don’t work with kids and youth, to be part of the conversation. I did this because we’ve all been kids, and perhaps more generative conversations can come from that place. I am not collapsing us into sameness here, but rather highlighting this shared experience amid and within the uneven and unfair world. And, because confronting adult supremacy needs more adults doing the work!
So, it was about trust, questions, listening, and actively changing the landscape of who gets to contribute publicly to conversations and discourses. In the end though, it's also been about relationships and webs of friendships. Everyone in the book is connected in some way, either to each other, or to me.
Gabriel: In saying, 'we've all been kids'; I don't think you';re ignoring particularity or being reductive. You're speaking a simple truth that is often ignored—almost like a kind of childhood amnesia on the collective level. There' a denial of childhood so big that it actually strips children of their humanity. Unless we remind ourselves that we were once kids, I don't think we can be in solidarity with youth autonomy. And that's important isn't it? I'd like to ask you about youth autonomy and what differentiates it from youth liberation. I think there are parallels here between the anarchist critique of vanguardism or perhaps allyship vs solidarity but what does this mean when applied to adult supremacy?
carla: Yes, I like that. I often hear “but we all grow up from being kids, it’s the one oppression we escape!” This often gets said when I’ve attempted to include adult supremacy into the axes of oppression. Yes we do become adults, and of course the question that arises is: what gets stuck and internalized as we become adults? Lots!
I am interested in creating alternatives to the dominant order, from what we eat, to how we learn, to how we care for one another. And, exploring how we can fully recover these forms of lifes from the grips of Empire (capital, the state, and its institutions). Sewn into this work are the ideas and actions of autonomy. Autonomy can happen immediately in our relationships, across differences such as age, and in the home. An adult, or group of adults cannot liberate youth (no oppressive group can liberate the group they are oppressing!) but we can be in solidarity, offer concrete support and create ways for kids to experience more autonomy.
Gabriel: Yes, I don’t think collective liberation is possible from above, so to speak. How can adults
liberate youth when it is still considered 'normal' for children to be forced into prescribed roles for the perpetuation of economistic goals and the authoritarian status quo, without regard for free
creative development and the collective good? Speaking of collective liberation, when discussing
your choices as an editor and 'who can be included' you mentioned ‘pushing against
professionalism.’ Can you please say more about that?
carla: I think it’s good to center ideas and practices of mutual aid, because in many ways it's the antithesis to professionalism. And, as a de-professional myself (not professionally trained, and my praxis aims to undo professional modes of relating), I want to amplify the less heard voices and stories. Part of amplifying these stories (and writers) is collaborating and inviting writers in who have some social capital to be part of the work. This blending is rooted in mutuality, because how else will the unknown or marginalized stories get heard? Also, some of these more known writers and storytellers do amazing work, and it’s an added bonus that they are known.
Your essay in Trust Kids!, Gabriel, called "The Fire of Ata," did a terrific job at weaving in ideas of mutual aid, both in the home across age and by offering pathways towards unbuilding the ageist walls. For instance, how you told a marginalized true story about kids being shipwrecked on the island of Ata, who survived 6 months by engaging in cooperation and solidarity, amplified an important story in a profound way. This idea of bringing in new or different stories, was what I was hoping for when I asked folks like yourself to be part of Trust Kids! Thank you!
To me, we are not going to be able to professionalize our way out of this mess. Because a professional approach stratifies our relationships and ends up reinscribing hierarchies that keep the very systems we are fighting against in place. Thus, cutting us off from our intergenerational potential to thrive more and to break free of capitalism, white supremacy, ageism, colonialism and the rest of the oppressive systems’ (aka empires) fierce hold on us… but that’s my next book!
Gabriel: Professionalism is absolutely a mechanism of hierarchy and oppression and what you say reminds me of another Lorde quote, ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ Because you chose to use a different ‘toolbox’ altogether, I think a book like Trust Kids! can lead to conversations that might never happen otherwise. So many voices (the majority, in fact) are seen as marginal, unimportant, unprofessional, unprofitable, or just too radical, and professionalism works as an apparatus of conformity and control which silences them. We are led to internalize this process and forget how to hear.
As my partner (and mentor) Sara Zacuto writes in her Trust Kids! essay, "Listen To Children," “It is hard to step back and trust young children, because it requires relinquishing control. It requires us to let go of our desired outcomes, of the idea that our expectations should be met.” These expectations we have of children are the same ones which have been forced upon us and which make us miserable e.g. be a professional, productive citizen, follow the law, be a man, act like a lady, etc. This is how oppressions are perpetuated. As you say, carla, that reinscription is such a crucial impediment to breaking the fierce hold that Empire has on us, and I can’t think of anything more important than that. I look forward to your next book, because for collective liberation to be
realized, new conversations and voices will certainly be needed.
Thank you so much for including my essay in Trust Kids! I think it’s a truly important book. This conversation was enjoyable and is also much appreciated.
Purchase Trust Kids! through AK Press!
Gabriel Zacuto is a partner, parent, worker, artist, and writer surviving in Southern California. Anarchy lives in his heart.
carla joy bergman is a joyarchist who dabbles with poetry, writing, and storytelling, often opening realms of autonomy, art, creativity, and challenging empire. carla has spent the past two decades creating intergenerational multi-media projects with community that are rooted in trust, and with youth autonomy and undoing adult supremacy at the heart of all she does.