Q&A: The River Daily’s Kristen Trudo (‘14) on journaling for racial justice and liberation

Friday, July 31, 2020

Photo: Kristen Trudo

Q&A: The River Daily’s Kristen Trudo (‘14) on journaling for racial justice and liberation
By Raven Yamamoto

Following the murder of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, LMU alum Kristen Trudo (‘14) decided to call others to action in a way not many would expect—with a pen and paper. During their time at LMU, Trudo studied English and psychology and served as president of the Gryphon Circle Service Organization. In response to the times, they have since created The River Daily, a journaling project centered around racial justice that has since amassed nearly 500 participants.

The River Daily is a month-long program in which participants sign up to receive daily journaling prompts focused on questioning their relationship with race. Inspired by Michelle Alexander’s description of “the river,” Trudo designed the program to “excavate” our “interior worlds” and create movement within journalers by prompting self-reflection on their role in liberation work. The project is of no cost and will restart monthly, but those interested may register at any time.

Agency was able to catch up with Trudo after The River Daily’s first full month in action and before its August run to learn more about the person behind the prompts.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Raven Yamamoto (RY): In your interview with the Ignatian Solidarity Network (ISN) and on your website, you mention that journaling as a practice is really important to you personally. I was wondering what your journaling practice looks like.

Kristen Trudo (KT): I've always had some sort of vague writing practice, but then my friend gave me The Artist's Way. It's a twelve-week program that's meant to tap into your creative self and kind of reignite your relationship with your inner child and the creativity that comes from that part of you. And so I had heard of The Artist's Way multiple times before and I think I was finally at a point where I was ready for it and it fell into my lap. And one of the things that it “requires” of you is a journaling process. It's supposed to be three pages of long-form writing every morning, first thing before you do anything else.

I've been writing every morning since. I think that journaling practice kind of paralleled those feelings that I was just talking about of being scared of what would come out on paper. It's also a really challenging practice, I think, to sit with yourself every day and to write truthfully. 

RY: So after you started journaling, when did you decide to start The River Daily?

KT: One of my inspirations was The Isolation Journals. I did the first 30 days. And after that, it just became a little bit cumbersome since I have my own writing practice...I think that kind of gave me a framework for how you could offer reflection questions to other people.

So when George Floyd was murdered and when all of the uprisings started and all the protests, across the country—I live in St. Louis currently so I've witnessed that and at times tried to participate in protesting, but it was not a good fit for me. I think my anxiety is too high to be in that situation where there are so many unpredictable things. But what I was witnessing, like in the few days at the end of May that followed his murder, [was] just a lot of people who were angry on social media, obviously, who were mourning. But mostly just a lot of content being shared and to me, it seemed there was maybe sometimes a lack of discernment about what people were sharing. It's just like, "I saw a thing, I shared it, I saw a thing, I shared it," and I'm just wondering [if] we are actually reading the things that we're sharing and are we able to really reflect on those things? 

I thought that maybe a journaling practice around race could be beneficial for other people. And I have recently had a journaling practice, but I've never sat down and specifically journaled about race, you know? Just that for an extended period of time in a way that feels like a practice. So, I think it was something that I wanted to think about, those questions that I've offered to other people. I reached out to a group of about 20 people that I'm close with and they participated throughout June and I decided to share it more widely based on feedback and the process. 

RY: I can imagine that it took a long time to put together all the prompts and I was wondering what that process looked like, to take stock of your experiences.

KT: Yeah, I'm sure it was a lot of hours that I ended up devoting to the project, but the way that my partner describes it is like being plugged into the universe and just feeling like the right information is flowing through you and that you're a conduit. There's an ease about that. I've experienced that a handful of times in my life, but I think [with] this one, it felt like that's what was happening. I would just be driving or cooking, just doing everyday things and something would pop into my head as an idea and the words would just kind of be there. So I'd try to jot them down as quickly as possible just so that I didn't lose it.

I did it in chunks, I guess, to speak to the process. The first few, I think I probably did over the course of those first couple of days, like the end of May, and then I would just sit down periodically each week and then just kind of churn out like five. I was able to do one per month, one per day in June. And so I've recycled them, so they're the same ones that I'm using. I think maybe in the future, I'll have more of that come to me that I can share in a different way. But, there was a lot of ease, I think. It was a fair amount of time, but it was pretty easy.

Graphic: Kristen Trudo

RY: Going back to how you started with a smaller group and then opened it up to a bigger group to participate— in either group, has anybody shared any memorable feedback about how The River Daily has impacted them?

KT: I think the main gist is even if they've had a journaling practice, having a sustained practice to turn inward to think about race is not something that a lot of people have been offered or thought to do in their life. I think that's been probably the most rewarding feedback that I've gotten. My hope—and something that people have said—[is that] I think it takes a lot of the fear out of working with race. I frame it as more of a practice because I think the word practice is more gentle and spacious and it's something that you want to return to, you know, I want to be practicing and I want to be creating this space for myself. Whereas [with] work, very few people I know, talk about work in a way that's like, "Oh, I can't wait to go to work," you know? They're just two very different ways of looking at race.

Even as a Black person, I'm very afraid of messing up or "doing it wrong," doing the work wrong or saying the wrong thing, around other Black people. I have enough white people in my life and I know that that is an anxiety that they shared just like, "I don't want to fuck up and so I'm not gonna look at it at all because I don't want to mess this up." So my hope is that you just deal with yourself first instead of trying to impress others or perform or have all this shit on social media. In some ways, it's more safe because you're not going to be criticized by other people but in a lot of ways, it's more challenging to be with yourself.

RY: The phrase that really impacts me when you describe the project on the website is how it’s about "excavating your interior world.” I wanted to unpack what "excavate" and "interior world" mean if you wouldn't mind expanding.

KT: I think excavating for me is a sustained practice of searching and being curious. I think kind of with that image, calls to mind is the idea that you have to stick with it. You're not going to be rewarded right away, it's a commitment and I think that aligns with the idea of a practice. When I talk about yoga, I don't get on my mat every day and everything's perfect and I'm able to get into every posture that I can imagine, but it's the commitment to continue showing up. I think "searching" and "curiosity" are words that are really important to me with this process. You're trying to arrive without expectations or judgments of yourself and allow whatever comes out to come out and to observe it and to observe your emotions and responses to it.

That kind of goes along with what I was saying about social media, that there's so much content being shared. I've been on social media for a while and so I've been on social media when each of these murders has occurred, but this one, probably because of the pandemic, just felt really different. There was just so much more content. People just had more time to just share everything that they saw on their stories. And usually, it was white folks—and I don't say that with judgment. I'm just saying that, as an observation, it was white folks that I know, or that I followed who were sharing so much stuff over and over and it just seemed nonstop. And for me, that's a very external response to what's going on and it doesn't require a lot of discernment. It doesn't require you to look inwards, reading something really quick and then sharing it with everyone else. And so I think what the project is meant to challenge is that.

In my opinion, there's something more important than all of that stuff that you're sharing with everyone else. And that's what's going on inside. So it's like, "Okay, I just posted that online. Why did I do that? Let me explore that. What did that evoke in me? Why do I feel compelled to share it? Who am I trying to share it with? Who do I hope sees this?" I think that with all of those external actions that we do, there are a million questions that we can ask of them. 

When I moved to St. Louis from California, I felt a lot of pressure to show up in a particular way as a Black queer person. I felt kind of like a puppet or like I was parroting a lot of things that other people were saying without a lot of discernment. Just like, "I'm scared to not do this. I'm scared of being rejected if I don't do what all these people are saying, so I'm just going to do it."  It's only been in the last few months, I think, quarantine and isolation have offered along with the murder of George Floyd the space to be like, "Okay, how do I want to respond to this?  How have I responded previously? Why did I respond that way? Who was I doing that for?" So I think when I talk about the interior world, it's asking all of those questions about the actions that I'm taking externally.

RY: In making these prompts and encouraging people to take on this process, is there any prompt that is significant or special to you out of the many that you've prepared for the project?

KT: One, I think, is important to me, because it's one of the scariest ones and it's one that there are people that I will think of and be scared of how they would react to it. It's the one about isolation versus alienation. 

A lot of the teachings that I've learned in the realm of yoga have made their way into the project. My teacher training ended in December and I had the opportunity along with the rest of my cohort to learn from my teacher's teacher who came for a weekend, she's a Sanskrit scholar. We were reading about the Yoga Sutras. They're basically really short lessons about yoga, like threads. One of the things that she said was “A lot of you may start practicing and you're trying to take these teeth, these philosophical teachings, especially home to your family and teach them about yoga and the ways that it's transformed you spiritually," I think in a lot of ways being kind of arrogant about it. And she was saying like "And when those people in your life like reject it, or aren't sure about it, or it doesn't quite jive with them right away that you then decide to sever your relationship with them," like "well, you don't get it, so I'm not going to be in a relationship with you."

And that reflection made me laugh because that is how I was with Catholicism. I grew up Catholic, but my mom is Filipino and her family is Catholic. My grandparents, her parents, were very devout Catholics. And I love my grandparents and really wanted to connect with them. When I was practicing Catholicism and the rest of the people in my life weren't understanding it, I would push them away. Like "You don't get it, you're not holy enough," whatever. Just super arrogant.

But, I think because of the way that I often operate, I could have very easily fallen into that with yoga. And so the thing that [my teacher] said that was most important was that if the thing that you're practicing is dividing you from people instead of unifying you, that's not yoga. You're not practicing yoga. That really stuck with me and I think it was an opportunity to humble myself again, which I need when I'm like learning these philosophies and spiritual teachings.

Photo: Kristen Trudo

I think maybe because of that one lesson that she was sharing with us, I've been able to be more flexible and to not try to force that upon people and alienate people. The reason that's important to me is when I moved to St. Louis. St. Louis is just very different from what I grew up in. I'm. Filipino too, so I grew up in a pretty racially-diverse family, like there are a lot of mixed kids in my mom's family. Obviously, LMU is really white. My high school was really white, but what I wasn't used to was being around predominantly Black people at this time. Like, I was used to being around white people, I was used to being around Asian folks growing up in Southern California.

So, I think when I moved to St. Louis, St. Louis is very segregated racially and it's pretty much all Black and white. There's a line down the middle of the city that divides the Black side and the white side, which I know is in a lot of cities, but it was my first experience with that. But I think because I arrived here, on the heels of Ferguson and a little bit less than a year after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the city was still very much on fire, as it should be. But I think what I was experiencing was a lot of Black folks who had no space for relationships with white people or for anyone who wasn't Black. That was just really hard for me. That was not how I grew up. A lot of my friends were not Black and I think the messaging that I was getting, through a lot of it was that if you have relationships with people who are not Black, you're anti-Black. And I internalized that for a while and was trying to be what all these other people said was the right way to be Black and it caused a lot of distress and I was not integrated in any way. 

So the way that I connect that back to that yoga teaching is that I think what we're all searching for in these movements is liberation and freedom. To me, I don't think we reach liberation by alienating ourselves from other people or by hating other people. I think that those are the seeds of oppression. And I think that a lot of people disagree with that here and say that it's not safe to engage with people who are not Black and I understand that that's their experience, but that's not mine. I see an opportunity as a mixed person who has grown up in spaces that are not predominantly Black to be a bridge in that and to not push people away just because they don't happen to have a similar skin color as I do, you know? That reflection on liberation versus alienation and segregation— that one is really important to me and I think kind of represents the arc of my journey so far, I've been in St. Louis for five years. 

RY: I was wondering if you had any tips for folks who maybe aren't experienced with journaling. How can they put themselves in the best space to participate in projects like these?

KT: Don't force it. I think when you're ready, it'll show up. That was kinda my experience with The Artist's Way. I was invited to The Artist's Way two or three years ago and I didn't do it. I don't think I would have been in a place to really accept that offering or be able to show up to it every day with excitement. Not that you have to be excited to do race work, but I think that there is something exciting about turning inward and answering questions that no one has ever asked you.

I would never say, "You have to do this work, this is going to change your life. You have to do this project." Maybe it won't, maybe it's not for you. But I think if people see it and read it and they feel excited about it, I feel like that is enough to compel them to sit with it each day or once a week. I like to journal, journaling has been really transformative for me, but I don't necessarily think that that's for everyone. Even if you're just showing up to the prompts each day and just reading them, I think that's more internal work than most of us do each day about race, you know? So, even if you just plant that seed, plant that question, and it pops up a few times throughout the day, like "Hm, I don't know what the answer to that is," or it compels you to go share it with someone else like, "Look at this question, what's that answer for you?" 

If people have a very strong impulse not to do it, then I don't think that they shouldn't do it right now. I think it's probably not the time. I think that it'll maybe show back up in a different way down the road for people. I've had people sign up and then there are, of course, people who have unsubscribed. And my assumption is just like, "Okay, it's just not for you right now." Every day I have people who unsubscribe, but there are 500 people who are at least signed up for receiving them who are maybe reading them every day. So, I'm not going to worry about the one person who decided they're not ready right now. My offering is just to listen to yourself when you read what the project is about. I feel like you'll know if it's something that you're ready to do or not.

RY: You also recommend partnering with somebody when signing up to discuss responses to the prompts. What does the ideal partner look like to make these conversations productive?

KT: I'm in a recovery program and we have sponsors. I think that was kind of what I was envisioning with the project. I think the thing about sponsorship relationships is that those people are really just there to accompany you. Their job is not to pass judgment or to tell you what to do—it's literally just to listen and if you ask for advice, they might offer advice. When I think of a partner, I'm just imagining people who can be kind of spacious and who are good listeners who you don't have any fear of being judged by. These can be really vulnerable stories to share with people, your deepest thoughts about race and all the things that you're hoping to unlearn and all of the things that you're maybe ashamed about.

If there's any hesitation with that "I feel like they might judge me about that," then maybe right now, you don't do it with a partner, you know? The biggest thing is just a space that is nonjudgmental and curiosity being the main value in that space.

One of my concerns about working in partners is that people use it as an excuse not to go super deep and use the other person as an excuse to keep things on the surface. And so my hope is that people do this work individually first, for the most part. You really have an opportunity to sit with the prompts before you go and talk about it with someone else. That's my hope, that you're not answering questions that have come from someone else's mouth, but that there are actually more answers, you know? Then you go out and talk to someone else and then you have more perspective. I think the partnership is meant to open it up even more for you. You learn more about yourself and them when you sit and listen to how someone else took it, then it becomes even more spacious and expansive.

Those interested in participating in the August run of The River Daily can sign up here.

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