Welcome to the first installment of Three Gems Tea Breaks, where we have tea with our interesting pals doing interesting things! Today, we virtually visit Shengxiao Yu (she/her) — who goes by the nickname Sole ("sol-ley") — in Los Angeles.
How would you describe yourself and the work you do?
I am a social justice educator and community advocate deeply committed to building a liberatory world and believe that our transition process to that liberatory world must be grounded in justice, community care, and love.
What are your three gems for staying engaged in activism for the long haul & avoiding burnout?
Plants, nature, and interconnectedness: I have always felt a deep sense of wonderment in nature. Under the night time skies and in front of endless ocean waves, I have always known that we are deeply connected to the magical forces in nature that fuel and sustain everything. As I learn and grow in activist communities, I have learned so much more about grandmother earth, and I believe we can learn so much from her just by turning our attention to her. One of her magical powers is in regeneration: life growing out of past life forms. To stay engaged for the long haul, I turn to my indoor plants, the plants in my neighborhood, the mountains, the ocean, and beyond for a sense of regeneration.
Community and movement ancestors: Every time I learn about a piece of history, I feel more deeply connected to the wider community of activists. I know that my efforts and my stories are part of a much larger legacy of movement ancestors (both the living ones and the ones who have transitioned), and I call on their support. In community with them, I not only feel focused and engaged, but I also feel seen and loved and can ground my activism in the love of the community.
Grounding in our collective humanity: The author and scholar Layla Saad talks about negative feelings that come up when we learn about social injustices. She says that feelings of sadness and anger are an appropriate human response in the face of tragedy and oppression, and part of the reason that we weren't feeling these feelings before is because we had to shut down a part of our humanity in order to sustain white supremacy. I think about this idea often. That we have all had to shut down a part of ourselves to normalize racism, racial capitalism, ableism, and more. When negative feelings come up, I make space to process them with the understanding that these feelings are trying to teach me about my humanity and that ultimately, resurfacing and reconnecting with that part of my humanity is an act of resistance.
What do you wish more people knew about mindful activism?
I want to invite people to engage in deeper levels of analysis. When we see a social injustice, let's ask what are the conditions that allowed this injustice to occur? What conditions allow it to sustain? Then let's ask what are the structural solutions that will truly address the root of the injustice. For example, when we ask these deeper questions about police violence and the carceral state, we learn about the origin of policing in the U.S., which came out of slave patrols and protection of merchants' properties. We learn about what Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls "structural abandonment" - how decades of defunding of education, housing, and other social services have left communities structurally abandoned, and instead this money has been redirected to police, ICE, and prisons. We learn that it is much easier for public schools to receive funding for carceral-related line items like metal detectors than to receive funding for classroom supplies. Once we ask these structural level questions and understand the system, it becomes impossible to believe that body cameras are the solution. We learn that structural solutions must be grounded in the principles of transformative justice and be inspired by radical imaginations.
What are some resources you’d recommend for social justice education?
There are way more than I can list here, so I will highlight the ones that I am currently reading: Korean transracial adoptee and queer disability justice activist Mia Mingus (@mia.mingus), geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, activist and abolitionist Angela Davis, essayist and critical thinker on the nonprofit industrial complex and beyond Arundhati Roy, indigenous thinker and activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson. I am also slowly making my way through Pedagogy of the Oppressed (yes, I admit I have never read the book in its entirety). I am also curating resources on my Instagram and website.
What tea are you sipping?
Forever Spring Oolong. Opening the bag of the Forever Spring Oolong is like smelling the earth in bloom, and witnessing the leaves unfurl in water feels like looking directly at the force of life manifesting.
How do you brew tea at home?
I spent my childhood in Hangzhou, hometown of the Dragon Well tea, watching the adults drink their Dragon Well in white porcelain mugs, and enjoying green tea this way at home will always be nostalgic and close to my heart. In 2019, I traveled to Canton for the first time and was exposed to gong fu tea and loved it so much. My dream home tea set up is to eventually get the Three Gems gong fu tea set! (for real, they didn't pay me to say this 😂)
When and why do you take a tea break?
In quarantine life, I have started to literally schedule tea and food breaks in my planner because it can be so easy to move from one task to the next sitting at my desk without moving, and these intentional breaks really help me to care for my spirit. But in pandemic-free life, tea breaks usually meant intimate conversations with friends, and I am excited for those days to come back.