Dirty pain, clean pain, and the necessity of healing

A monthly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.


When I began doing this work I was suffering from something, impacted by the collision of my brown skin and mass incarceration. I began community organizing because I needed a place to heal and a place to use my strength to heal others.

I spent years in prison suffering in isolation, so I embarked on a journey of self-discovery. I spent years reflecting, growing, and healing, knowing when I showed up in the community to do this work, all the pain and trauma I had been through needed to be metabolized so that it shows up as clean pain.

Clean pain is a term that comes from Resmaa Menakem’s powerful book My Grandmother’s Hands. Resmaa defines clean pain as choosing integrity over fear and standing in that fear with integrity and moving towards the unknown.

The alternative path is responding from dirty pain. Dirty pain is when we respond to fear and conflict from our most wounded parts. Responding from dirty pain only creates more pain, both for ourselves and for other people.


Our whole team has benefitted from Resmaa’s wisdom, both in person and through his writing. The framing of clean pain and dirty pain has been important to understand because it helps us see that the root of so much that we see is not negative actions or words, but actual pain. Framing as pain, even though we know responses can come out as clean or dirty, allows me to be compassionate, even when feeling wronged or attacked.

Building on Resmaa’s framing, I have been also thinking about power. It seems that power can show up as clean or dirty, as well. For example, when we believe that you having power or voice means that mine is silenced or that power is a zero-sum game, I think we are acting from dirty power.

But, when we see that power can grow across communities, that it can be a source of community transformation and well-being, and that we are all stronger when we see, hear, and find solidarity with each other, I believe we are acting into clean power.


Understanding the power of responding to trauma and conflict from a place of clean pain has been at the center of my work. When traumatic changes occurred in my personal life, I was able to respond with clarity.

When transitions occurred organizationally, I was able to respond from what is best for the work. And when tragedies occurred in the community, I was able respond with how can I be a part of the solution. Being able to respond from clean pain as a place of peace and clarity has helped me heal.

Over the years, Vina and I have had many reflective strategic conversations discussing both mishaps and victories. When things are not looking so good, our meetings will take place on our balancing rock, and the question is always, “How do we act our way through it?” Acting our way through conflict and uncertainty has been how we model responding from clean pain.

As an organizer, it has given me great pride to work with an organization that is not focused on getting everything right the first time, but instead committed to serving the community as a place to heal and transform from the historical trauma that poor people and people of color have been living with on these shores for centuries. Through that work in building relationships and agency, we see that trauma transform into the energy to fight for racial justice.


We have been on this journey together at Voices of seeing the necessity, as Kevin shares, of modeling and offering spaces for organizers to build together while healing from the ongoing trauma of structural racism. Necessity is a word I have come to in thinking about healing justice.

When we first began using that phrase at Voices, it was easy to see it as an add-on to our work to train organizers, develop policy tools, and work for change in our communities. But after having been in deep conversation and work to practice healing justice within our organization and in our communities through all of that training, convening, research, and policy advocacy, I see this as absolutely necessary.

We know that hurt people hurt people. Or as our friend and mentor Ricardo Levins Morales says, “Trauma always returns to the scene of the crime.” Our communities are suffering from collective hurt and trauma from the systems of dominance and racism that permeate everything. Shifting from dirty pain to clean pain, from dirty power to clean power, is part of our healing, and is absolutely necessary for our survival.


Vina Kay, executive director of Voices for Racial Justice, and Kevin Reese are participants in Voices for Racial Justice’s “BRIDGE Partnership.” Vina and Kevin plan to continue their dialogue monthly over the next year, culminating in Kevin’s release in February 2019.

Reader responses are welcome to info@voicesforracialjustice.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.