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Sass Borodkin on poverty, mutual aid, and healing in nature

This story was a collaboration between Sass Borodkin and NBEC's Stories for Change working group.


Interviewer: Sikwani Dana. Audio producer: Aubrey Calaway. Photographer: Jen Hazard.

Transcriber: Audrey Cole. Editors: Kalisto Nanen, Rachel Goldberg, and Bri Dostie.

Story coordinators: Tessa Shanteler and Emily Weyrauch. Music from Blue Dot Sessions.


Sikwani: What does the outdoors mean to you? 


Sass: I guess it depends on which part of me you’re asking. If you're asking younger me, it means danger. It means an inability to escape class injustice. Today me would say that the outdoors means therapy. It means food.


So my name is Sass Borodkin. I use they/them pronouns. I am a queer, nonbinary visual artist and poet and community organizer. I'm the Executive Director of Resources for Organizing and Social Change. And I am most importantly, a mother and a grandmother.


I think the first time that I really felt cognizant of my relationship with the outdoors came about because I was homeless. Well, I became homeless when I was 16, and then I remained that way until I was 23. And I stayed in a homeless shelter. It was not a permanent bed shelter, you would have to leave in the morning, and then come back at 3:30 in the afternoon and sign in, and they would search you and pat you down and everything, but in the interim, between the time that they kicked you out in the morning and when you came back to sign in, you were in the elements. And so I became very aware of my relationship with the outdoors because I was in the elements a lot in moments where I didn't want to be.


I moved to Maine when I was 28 years old, because I couldn't afford to live in Massachusetts anymore, and I became homeless yet again. And I was really lucky–somebody that I had met in one of the shelters that I lived in had moved to Maine, and she allowed me to move up here with my kids and move in with her. I was able to get in with that friend of mine, and get a place, and then I was able to go to school, and then I was able to get a scholarship to Unity. They used to require that you do a four day camping trip before your semester started for your first year, and I signed up for a canoeing trip, but it ended up being a hiking trip and I had to hike up a mountain. And I remember I got like a 16th of a mile in and I was like ‘I’m dying, I cannot do this.’ And they were like ‘You can do it’. And they were right. And I did. 


When I got to the top of that mountain, it was the first time that I had experienced doing something so physically difficult, and then having such an incredible payoff–to be able to turn around and overlook all these people's houses. And, I could see the world at large just sitting there kind of imagining myself in any one of these houses, and what do these people's lives look like. And, I'm just so tiny, I'm just one little person and the earth is gonna so outlive me. It was my first experience with realizing that the world was not just there to like– I mean, I didn't think the world was there to hurt me, but it had. The snow hurt, the rain hurt, the sun hurt, there was, I mean, a lot of the time that I was in that shelter that kicked me out, it was like spring and summertime, and so I got huge sunburns and stuff like that. And this was my first experience getting to see ways in which that you can heal being out in the outdoors is–I mean, it's so profound. It gives you such a long view. 


You know, when I'm standing on the top of a mountain, I am thinking about my responsibility to my grandchildren, and that changes the way that I behave. 


And it's really frustrating for me, because when I'm going through something that feels particularly challenging, I really like to do a hard climb, and I don't trust myself not to get myself killed going up a mountain by myself, because I don't know how to read a map, and I don't know how to use a compass, and I have not had access to that kind of learning. I didn't have any access to that kind of learning when I was younger, and then once I got older, one of the things that poverty costs you is time. And so I not only couldn't afford to take classes to teach me those things, I didn't have time to learn the skills.


Poverty just, like, it costs so much more than the material things that you don't have access to. It's way more than lack of access to food and lack of access to shelter. It is literally lack of access to relationship with the world around you. It's lack of ability to develop, you know the fact that I can't just traverse a mountain if I want to. It's literally making me almost cry as I say it, because I want to be in relationship with the earth in that way. I want to be able to have adventure therapy whenever I want it. And I can't and I need it right now. I have some very hard things happening for me, and I'm sitting in my living room dealing with it, instead of climbing a mountain, because I am afraid that I won't come off of it safely.


I do a lot of root cause work where I'm trying to chip away at oppressive systems, but I also do a lot of mutual aid work. And there are a lot of people who are in change work that feel like those two things are pretty mutually exclusive. And there's often judgment on mutual aid where it's like, ‘Oh, you're just helping the system do what it does, because you're not working on the reasons that people need mutual aid.’ But I wouldn't be able to do root cause work if there weren't people meeting my needs when I couldn't meet them. You have to stop the bleeding while you're trying to heal the wound. 


There are a lot of people who access the resources that I provide through mutual aid, but that's only the people that know that I exist. And so I think a lot about how many resources I maybe could have had, back then, that I didn't simply because I didn't know. And so, thinking about if you're going to do a guided hike, perhaps you create posters about it, and you actually place them at homeless shelters. You think about where people don't typically have access and the fact that not everybody has access to things like the internet.


People with resources should consistently be challenging themselves to redistribute those and to not only be willing to give that money to a 501(c)(3), they should be willing to meet people's basic needs. I am an executive director–I just started earning a median wage for that role, but I'm going to be poor for the rest of my life. Because I don't have teeth. I have dentures. Because I can't just climb a mountain. Because my kids have damage inside of them as human beings because of the ways that I couldn't parent them because of my lack of resources. It’s so hard to ask for help, because everybody thinks that you're choosing to need it. I wish people knew that poor people aren't choosing to be poor. I wish that they would stop blaming them for being on the suffering end of class oppression.


When I'm hiking by myself, I will stop a million times and literally hug trees. I will thank them. I often think about the networks underneath the ground between the trees. I ended up watching this documentary at one point that was talking about how trees communicate with each other even from afar, and so like you might cut down one tree, and literally, you know, 75 feet away from it, another tree gets sick because it was so connected. And so I often think about that while I'm outdoors, but my favorite way to experience the outdoors is when there's a new moon and I can just lay in a field and look at the stars. That's my favorite, favorite thing. It makes me feel so small and insignificant and it makes me feel so connected with my grandchildren and the people that came before me. I also love hiking, but it doesn't beat laying underneath the stars and just being like, “I am stardust!”


This story was created and published in October-December 2023

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