Today I’m sharing an interview with Petra Vega, a liberatory leadership coach, facilitator, radical social worker, and fellow emergent strategist. Petra’s work focuses on resourcing and supporting marginalized leaders who want to lead from a place of liberation, not oppression, and I love how she provides direct support for folks going through some of the critical challenges I witnessed in my own experience as a non-profit leader.
Marginalized folks in these settings are so often dealing with senior leadership frustrations, feeling undervalued, not knowing how to advocate for ourselves while balancing the mission and vision of the organization, and doing a lot of unpaid emotional and practical labor above and beyond the call of duty. And BIPOC and Queer leaders especially get the short end of the stick, so I’m inspired by the work Petra’s doing informed by her own experience and social work training, along with the Emergent Strategy lens, to provide crucial 1-on-1 support.
She’s also just wicked smart and creative, and I think y’all are going to enjoy this conversation where we vibe on composting metaphors, share love for the people-pleasers out there, and get specific about what care work means to us. She even shares a detailed exercise you can use for cultivating discernment, which is so critical for healing and perfect for Libra season.
Avory: Petra, I’m really excited to have a chance to chat with you in this space! To get started, I’d like to ask you to share a little bit about something that’s really lighting you up right now, big or small. It could be a theme, a project, an idea, something you’ve read or are noticing… what feels sparkly for you in this moment?
Petra: Oooo I love this question! There are a few things coming to mind. I’m thinking about the concept of discernment (it’s been an ongoing thing I came back to recently) and how complex it can be to judge well, and how for me, having folks I can trust to be compassionate and hold me accountable as I explore my own discernment about something… just how important it is to cultivate that kind of counsel.
I’m also thinking about composting as a metaphor. I don’t have the greenest thumb, but I wonder about how that process can be applied to difficult or uncomfortable experiences and how that could allow us to transform or convert something into something useful.
And I think discernment is super important in that mix, to know what is worthy or capable of becoming something else vs. something that should be left alone maybe, or whether we are even the right person in terms of skill or will to do the composting, even.
Avory: Okay, I love that you brought in the not-so-green thumb, because that is so me, and I’ve just been embracing it lately 😂
Yes to composting. I actually wrote about this earlier in the year, about how we can work with what I call the “legacies of our abandoned dreams,” because I think it’s so easy to try to judge our progress by how we hoped things would work out, and then we’re always going to feel like we’ve failed. But so often we do learn, grow, and think differently through challenge.
Composting makes me think of the Death card in the tarot, which is far less creepy than folks who don’t know tarot think—it’s all about change and surrender and how you have to actually release things to allow them to be composted, just like literal death feeds the soil.
I work a lot with mushrooms because I’m just fascinated by the way they’re the fruit of this decomposition process and remind us that composting is critical to experience. And a fun link to what you’re saying is that fungi communicate underground through these amazing mycelial networks that also serve as communication networks for trees… like, as that composting is happening, there’s also this conversation. “Who needs these nutrients? What can we feed?”
So that was my mushroom tangent, which I hope you’ll forgive as a fellow student of adrienne maree brown’s work. She’s one of the people who got me onto this whole “BUT Y’ALL! MUSHROOMS!” soapbox.
I want to ask about the discernment piece, because I think that can be especially hard for those of us who are neurodivergent in certain ways, as well as anyone who tends towards people-pleasing or maybe feels insecure about our own integrity.
I’ve been pretty public about my own stumbles here—I think I’m a person with a lot of integrity, and I also really have had fears about getting it wrong where I might end up working with stuff that isn’t mine, going way overboard in the name of harm reduction and not even realizing that I wasn’t the one causing the harm. The rigidity of my autistic brain, as well as the trauma of constantly misunderstanding others, can really compound this kind of thing.
One of the core things I like to work with folks on is self-trust and moving out of a mindset that everything you encounter is “yours” as a default, because you’ll get burnt the fuck out operating that way, and sometimes our stress around uncomfortable situations actually points to our integrity, because we’re compassionate humans who don’t want to mess up… but we can get stuck carrying others’ loads when we try to embody the capitalist ideal of perfection.
As I’ve cultivated my own self-trust more and more, I’ve found that I am more able to discern, and once I’ve decided something’s not mine I can be confident in that, and calm about my own integrity. But also, it’s still pretty hard!
I’ve found the tip you mentioned about working with trusted allies so helpful when I’m confused or uncertain. Do you have any other thoughts here, or maybe an example, to show how folks can cultivate discernment when they might not trust their own brains to “get it right?” (Besides, of course, working with an awesome coach like you, wink wink.)
Petra: I love all of this! Yes to adrienne for helping us all love up on mushrooms and consider how we can learn from them what community care looks like in practice.
Oh! People-pleasers have a special place in my heart. A lot of the students who I’ve supported as emerging social workers struggle with people-pleasing and I feel like it shows the extent to which humans can go to show care and protection for others even if it jeopardizes us in ways we know and may not know.
I feel like the work in this respect is about finding that balance and “right-sizing” that over-extension into self, or something else entirely. At the root we all want to belong, ya know? And it’s just about what we choose to do or “need” to do to belong in whatever ecosystem we’re in or trying to get access to.
I definitely agree that the self-trust piece here is huge. It feels like settling into an inner knowing that isn’t easily clouded by outside forces, because we’ve worked on listening to our gut and instincts—or for those of us with trauma, worked to heal some of those things in order to make room for that trust to emerge or take root.
I love this question about cultivating discernment. If there are ways for your readers to comment I would absolutely love to have folx chime in with their wisdom as well!
(Avory’s note: you can do that by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Tweeting @queermagical, and I’ll share those responses with Petra!)
So if we were in a coaching session and this was the thing someone wanted to work on with me, I’d be asking more questions to get a better sense of what discernment means for them, what their current tools and practices are to deepen that discernment, and ways that discernment has led them astray or towards alignment to get a better sense of where we’re situated in this moment in time. Without any of those details, here’s what I can offer (I encourage you all to feel into your own capacity with any of the exercises below):
1. Values-alignment: What principles guide you?
I love love love talking and thinking about the ways that we can be a living embodiment of what we care about or what we want to see more of in the world, so naturally I’m most curious to learn what values people are grounded in. I feel like this is one of the ways we can jack up discernment real quick!
We live in an oppressive, dehumanizing world that has a lot of unwritten (and written) rules that don’t benefit the collective mass of humans, and many of us have little to no say in deciding what is and is not okay, normal, worthy, etc.
But what if we did?
I feel like this is an opportunity we have, by articulating the values that we choose for ourselves— values that we get to use in times of decision-making or when we’re unsure of what is the “best choice” aligned with our integrity, as defined by us. I could go on and on about this but I’ll give you a little snippet of what I mean.
One of my guides is the Emergent Strategy principles. For example, there’s one principle called “Small is good, Small is all,” which for me translates to this idea that our incremental choices have the ability to accumulate to the larger, more systemic changes that we’d like to see in the world.
So if I want a world where care is centered and prioritized, one of those ways to grow that for me is to do something that I actually want to do, just for me. (This is also a shoutout to my beloved people-pleasers as a daily practice). Why? Because in a world where there are many things that are out of our control, one way to counteract this is by remembering and acting on the fact that we each have some level of agency and choice.
This can look like taking a nap, or ordering delivery, or having a dance party, or saying no, or re-watching your favorite series or movie. Whatever it might be for you, it’s about doing something you want to, just for you. Like Audre Lorde told us, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
If anyone would like to read more about what a principle like this can look like in practice, you can check out my blog post, Emergent Strategy: Small is good, Small is all (Part 1 of 9).
2. Where are the receipts?
I feel like this exercise could be useful for those of us who can be our own worst critic. I remember working with one fabulous human who thought the worst, most untrue things about themselves. And at the time, I couldn’t help but think, “what proof do you have to think these things?”
By proof, I mean: has this belief been affirmed or actualized, or has it remained in a corner of our heart covered in fear or shame or scarcity? Please note that this response, or rather the capacity to engage in an exercise like this, is going to be different for everyone given their history, awareness, etc. But when I asked this question, this particular human could not think of anything, so then we discussed the ways this belief functioned in their life—the good, bad and in between.
There will also be moments when folx have lots of receipts, proof that the thing they are afraid of or think might happen has actually come true in the past, and so that would take a different approach. We don’t want to gaslight or dismiss that history, but I imagine similarly to your “legacies of our abandoned dreams,” (without having read it yet!) that we would want to invite the wisdom and the lesson into future discernment.
(Avory’s note: don’t worry Petra and readers, that piece actually wasn’t up on the blog yet at the time we had this conversation! I’ve edited from the original version sent out to my newsletter subscribers, and it’s now available here.)
I find that this exercise can help us filter out the things that do not encourage or serve our discernment.
3. Worst-case scenario planning
Last one! Here’s one that I feel like may work with my people who are balls of anxiety like me. Bless our precious amygdalas, who keep us thinking of the worst things.
While for some, positive vibes and thinking may be the magic pill to help manage their worries, for others it’s facing those worst-case scenarios and considering how we might respond that helps to activate that inner knowing. An exercise like this can help us see all the potential directions for action, so we can cancel out some things that aren’t in the realm of reality or would not feel intuitively right to do.
This is an exercise where I would recommend getting support from a skilled confidante, to be able to share in holding the potential stretching that can come with such an activity, so as not to cause harm or triggering.
I’m always thinking about the skills that we’ll need for the future, and the tolerance for ambiguity seems like an important one related to this exercise.
Avory: Damn, such a generous share of your wisdom, thank you! And for real, people should 100% hire you if they’re interested in digging in deeper, I can vouch. 😉
Oof, yes! That Lorde quote is one of the ones I live by. So I have to ask, because I loved that you brought up self-care as political warfare, as well as worldbuilding to center and prioritize care through taking agency and prioritizing our own joy, and then also mentioned working with emerging social workers around people-pleasing… would you describe yourself as a care worker?
I also love that you came up with that using a value phrase to aid in decision-making, because I know that concept from business strategy but you’re deploying it in such a radical way—like no, actually I’m going to filter my priorities through the lens of self-care, thanks. It all feels very justice-oriented.
(Btw, folks, I totally reference “Small Is All” as a guiding principle in one of my favorite sections of the (Un)productive audio course, around how we can do worldbuilding towards a healthier collective relationship with capacity and resources. So check that out if you’re interested, launch price is still available 😉)
Petra: Yes, I hope folks find it helpful, too, and I’d love to work with folks who have been in your orbit. And ahhhh, I am so excited for (Un)Productive to be out in the world! I can’t wait to see the impact and how folks use, customize and make use of your wisdom. And to have it on demand in audio form, woo!
Ya know, care is reallyyyy important to me and somehow, I’ve never defined myself as a care worker. Maybe it’s time to change that!? So thank you for that.
As I was thinking about this question, I thought about the fact that one of the things you and I are aligned on is building a business that can contribute to liberation and challenge oppression. And I think about what would be needed for that to be possible from where I sit, and I would say that it’s care, right?
What if we lived in a world that really gave a shit about people and the planet? I would say care is a practice in giving a shit, and having to hold, process, compost and experience all of the mixed emotions that are involved when you really care.
As I’m growing my company, I know that care is a value that I’m using to ground and filter (as you so beautifully described) how I do this work and how I work with other folks. I’d love to know what care means to you and what that looks like in your work? Relationships? Life?
For me, I’m describing it as knowing how to fill our own and each other’s cups as fundamental to what we do and how we live. It’s about rejecting the hustle culture that normalizes scarcity, hoarding and working yourself until there’s nothing left. It’s about giving ourselves grace during difficult moments and extending compassion like we would do for a small child or our best friend.
In a more practical sense, it looks like making adjustments to timelines that are not fit for a human’s pace (especially when we consider access needs), asking “how are you?” (forreal forreal!), reminding ourselves that there is nothing wrong with us, being mindful of the language we use, and keeping up with our care practices.
Okay, back to the question I want to offer to you: What does care mean to you and what does it look like in your work? Relationships? Life?
Absolutely, I think care has to be at the center of our work for liberation, and I think the beautiful thing about that is that care is an orientation that allows you to be flexible.
I’ve been absorbing the wisdom Ari Felix recently shared in their teaching, Love Exalted, around what it means to practice love at the level of principle, rather than circumstance. In other words, when love isn’t just about your individual relationships, but a stance towards how you show up.
One of the things I love about this perspective, and about my own practice of relationship anarchy, a model that Ari calls a “rigorous love ethic,” is that it doesn’t say “love is X” or “care is Y,” but it demands context. The way I love you is not the way I love this other person or the way I love my community or the way I love my favorite tree or the way I love my clients through my work, but they’re all connected.
Sometimes in movement spaces, or on social media, we can get really binary and prescriptive, you know, “if you cared, you would believe X.” And I think this comes from a place of genuine pain and genuine need, and my intention isn’t to tone-police folks expressing pain, but when we start to see these tactics as a universal response, we’re narrowing our options and perhaps operating from a place of internalized punishment dynamics rather than a place of care.
So for me, care is a loving stance that is responsive to needs, both my own and others’, with access to a whole spectrum of tactics. It’s not rigid or formulaic.
In an interpersonal sense, one of my challenges as a neuroemergent person is that my attempts at care don’t always fully land, because I might misunderstand a need or offer care in a way that isn’t received as such (e.g., “let me make you a spreadsheet for that!) But the gift is that it’s given me a lot of practice in learning to ask about needs and also set boundaries.
There are kinds of care that I just can’t offer, and that doesn’t make me less. I’m becoming more aware of the ways I default to offering care, as well (back to that people pleasing!) and learning to confirm that someone does in fact want the thing I’m offering before I jump into it 😂
Ideally, I also want to move beyond thinking of care as a 1-to-1 tradeoff or transaction. In a community there’s a lot more ability to collectively meet needs and receive care, where we’re all more focused on our capacities and needs than on keeping a score sheet.
There’s a capitalist myth that we can reduce everything down to something measurable—money, but also “points” or IOUs. And this is hard to transcend because a lot of us don’t have relational networks in place with strong sort of mycelial fibers of trust along which resources can flow. So of course there’s fear and a desire to control how care flows to avoid our own exhaustion.
On the one hand, I’ve felt way more resourced than some people given how solo polyamory (as a specific model), relationship anarchy (as a stance or worldview), and being a relationship educator for a number of years (as a practice in communicating these concepts and also widening my perspective beyond my own) helped me to see things generatively and practice a different approach to care, at least at a small scale.
I first came to polyamory circa 2008 because I needed to be able to give care in ways that are comfortable and sustainable for me, and know that my partners would also be resourced in receiving in other areas, rather than needing all our romantic and sexual needs to be met in one container. As an introvert, and also a person on the ace-spectrum, I didn’t relate to love and sex in quite the way I saw others doing so, and I needed a lot more space and the freedom to prioritize other things, without it being selfish or meaning that I had no romantic connections. So solo polyamory worked really well for me as a model, even before that term was in circulation!
This outlook helps me to both set firm personal boundaries and operate from a creative, expansive place. It means that I can, for example, have relationships with people who need some of their partners to be sexually attracted to them, but are open to a mix, without pressure to experience sexual attraction myself.
But I’ve also just felt a lot of collective exhaustion, at a practical level. Even before 2020, I found it hard to ask for help in communities where pretty much everyone I knew was disabled and struggling. There was a kind of joke among my friends that we just needed some random able-bodied well-resourced white man to come do the damn chores!
We don’t value care work collectively, and we’re at a point of crisis. But I do find possibility in asking what could care look like right here, right now?
I mean even, the sweetest fucking thing, my first week on the West Coast I didn’t even have an actual home yet, since I had planned to move in early April 2020 and ended up speed-packing over a weekend and flying cross-country two weeks early. I was doing six-hour blocks of calls with East Coast staff remotely from my partners’ couch, no breaks, and on that first day one of my partners, who wasn’t working at the time, just handed me a warm bowl of rice and veggies and tofu around lunchtime.
I must have made the most hilarious face on the Zoom! I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of care, and at that moment it felt like literally the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. I’m vegan and I struggle in other people’s kitchens, and in the chaos of the surprise speed-move I had just been kind of planning to eat granola bars all week and power through. So I just felt really seen in that moment and cared for right at the point of what I needed, y’know?
Petra: Ooooo I love what you’re pulling here. And yayyy for relationship anarchy! The thing that’s coming up for me is that care/love is malleable and responsive. It makes me think about one of the things I’ve started to add to my emails, which is that if at any point, what I’m sharing no longer feels good to you, please unsubscribe (as an act of love). No need to allow anyone in your space that doesn’t bring you good feels or isn’t generative for you!
Also LMAO to the needing some able-bodied, well-resourced white guy. I was just joking with one of my friends who I’m doing my IG Live series with that we will happily be someone’s sugar-person and send poems, so I totally feels you. I feel like in that instance, care is humor, levity, shared struggle.
Food is care. Being considered is care. Not having to make another decision (#MealTimesStressMeOut) is care. Yes! Yes! Yes!
Avory: Care and love are malleable and responsive, exactly, shout that to the rooftops!! And ha, we absolutely need to be able to laugh about ourselves a little, I love that so much about how you show up. This shit’s serious and also part of being human is bringing a sense of play to it all.
Okay, so in that spirit, my last question to you, because I like to wrap with a fun one and you tee-ed me up for it with your stressed out mealtimes: what is you go-to weird food combination, like “I have no spoons and no one is watching” kind of meal or snack?
Petra: Okay, so I immediately thought pizza or chicken parm or chicharron but then I thought, weirddd and my partner always gets on me about this one quirk I have. I looovvveee chocolate and am on the hunt for good-ass, ethically sourced chocolate (not dark chocolate, #SorryNotSorry), but in the meantime I’m munching on Reese’s cups. But I don’t like peanut butter, so I eat around it. And I like to eat like, ten, to get a proper chocolate fix.
What’s your strange comfort meal or snack!?
Avory: Okay, that’s hilarious, I’m just imagining little lumps of peanut butter on a plate! I kept trying to think of one and honestly, it’s mostly just the most basic-ass white person move ever 😂 I love garlic mayo on pretty much everything. Like, Beyoncé’s got hot sauce in her bag, and if I’m going out somewhere with fries, I’ve got vegan garlic mayo in mine. Mayo on fries is less weird in Europe, admittedly, but Americans usually look at me funny.
Before we go—where should folks go if they want to learn more about your work? And is there anything you’re currently promoting that you’d especially like them to check out?
Petra: I’m obsessed with garlic aioli right now so I. GET!
Since I imagine your folks would be just as interested in change-making as we are, I’d love to invite folks to check out my A Daily Practice Workbook, inspired by adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy. In this workbook folx can shape change with intentional practices, identify what’s not working, and deepen trust, collaboration and resiliency.
You can also come say hi to me on Instagram @createmorepossibilities.
Thank you, Avory, for inviting me into your space, allowing me to share some offerings with your people, and encouraging me to think deeply. Appreciate you!
Avory: Appreciate you so much, Petra! I deeply enjoyed this conversation and it’s given me so much to think about. Folks, we would love to hear your reflections as well. You can find Petra at the IG link above, me @queermagical on Twitter, and of course feel free to e-mail me if you’re not on social media. I’m at email@example.com, but you can also sign up to my newsletter to get posts like this in your inbox and easily reply directly!
Petra Vega (She/Ella) of Create More Possibilities is the Liberatory Leadership, Facilitator, Radical Social Worker and Emergent Strategist. Petra’s background includes over a decade of experience in building power with parents and neighbors, challenging toxic workplaces into care-centered spaces, developing facilitation as an art for consensus-based decision-making and inclusive, participatory engagement, as well as training the next generation of social workers to trust the people as experts in their own lives, interrogate the savior complex within us and to heal ourselves in order to heal the collective.
As the Founder of Create More Possibilities, Petra helps marginalized leaders (think BIPOC, Queer, neurodivergent, basically folks who’s mere existence challenges the status quo) cultivate liberatory power so they can show up powerfully and fully to make deeper impact for themselves, their people and future generations to come.
Editor’s Note: Purchases of Emergent Strategy through the links above support me as well as local independent bookstores!