For Premala Matthen and Nic Wayara, what makes their friendship special is also what brings success to their social change work. Whether it’s bonding over their astrological signs or co-hosting Seen, their podcast on healing through personal and collective transformation, one thing is always at the heart of it all — giving each other the freedom to be their authentic selves.
As Black and brown queer women, Matthen and Wayara know there are limited spaces for them to find refuge from racism, cis-heteropatriarchy and the other tendrils of injustice that seem to engulf our world. So they created their own space with Seen — somewhere they could share and imagine an existence beyond these harmful realities.
From their early days of recording in studios at the Vancouver Public Library to hosting community conversations at local bookstores like Massy Books, the podcast has become a shared space for Matthen, Wayara and their listeners to reflect on everything from sexual liberation to social media and the full complexity of their identities.
Making space for people to be themselves is crucial in their other work, too. Matthen is a therapist and co-founder of the Healing in Colour non-profit, which began as a directory for connecting with BIPOC therapists committed to anti-oppressive values. Wayara is the founder of Hook or Crook Consulting Co., working on equity, diversity and inclusion with people at the individual, group and organization levels. At a time when many feel unsupported without adequate mental health care and conflict seems inescapable while social injustice continues, offering ways to sort through it together feels necessary and reassuring.
It's the feeling I get while listening to Matthen and Wayara chat, in their podcast and during our interview — like a cozy conversation between best friends to remind you that you’re not alone. These experiences of personal and collective change are, in Matthen’s words, “inextricable.”
“We live in such an individualistic and perfectionist culture that there's so much temptation for people to want to just go and do their personal healing work by themselves,” says Matthen. “The fact is that healing, just like harm, happens in relationships.”
Wayara agrees. “I found that there's no greater mirror of my own personal growth or healing than community.”
Matthen and Wayara share their thoughts on how we can heal by learning to trust ourselves and each other, and what allows us to do that. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Tyee: Something that strikes me about Seen is the powerful intimacy of your conversations — it feels possible because of the safety in your friendship. How do we make space for those deeply vulnerable yet safe connections in our lives?
Nic Wayara: I've only been able to create that through being more aware of and accountable to what it is I need. Having those needs is one thing, but knowing that those needs are possible to be met, and that you can speak those out and people who love you will care about those needs, I think that's important. How can we better invite people in our life to tell us, What do you need? That’s a really challenging place to be for a lot of us, where we're taught that you're supposed to be self-sufficient. Rugged individualism, all these ideas about having no needs, that’s never resonated for me.
Premala Matthen: It’s so important to be able to be aware of and really comfortable with our needs, with our boundaries. That’s how we get to learn who we can build safety with. Once I was able to be more comfortable and believe myself when it came to what I was feeling, then when somebody's not respecting a boundary or unwilling to try to meet a need, I know I can move away from that relationship. When there's people who are showing up that are really happy to hear what my needs and boundaries are, and really work to try to meet me on that level, then I know that's where I can invest more of my time and energy, and we can build that intimacy and build that safety together.
Inviting others into asking how we can support each other feels like something you do in the podcast with each other, and with the audience. How else can people learn to have those conversations?
PM: Therapy can be really helpful. It’s working with somebody who hopefully has a lot of those tools and can help you to build them. Of course, not everyone has access to therapy or wants to pursue that particular tool. But it's just so important to be able to connect with ourselves. Being able to connect to what we're feeling emotionally, what we're feeling in our bodies.
In this world, it can be so loud and there's so many distractions, it can be really difficult to tune into that. Being in nature, having gentle movement, quiet time with ourselves, journalling, there's so many ways. But I think the more that we can feel connected, so we can really hear what our bodies are telling us — they will give us a lot of information about when something doesn't feel good, or when something makes us feel open and safe and expansive — that is the foundation that, once you can hear that voice, then you can start to communicate that voice to the other people in your life.
NW: I'm a pretty direct person, so I can say to folks, Hey, the way that this interaction is happening feels shitty for me. Just being very blunt about it. But that's come with a lot of practice. Like Lala [Premala] said, once you know how to tune into that part of yourself that's giving you that information, communicating it is also practice. It becomes easier when you're around other people who are trying to also tune into their own bodies. There have been instances I've had with friends where I'm like, How do you feel? Asking them first how they feel about a thing is an invitation for them to consider it, and then I can share how I feel, too.
Your episode “Are you afraid to fight with your friends?” is a great example because it invited everyone to communicate honestly and grow together, even when it’s difficult. What’s significant about choosing to pursue that growth, especially when it’s challenging?
NW: When I've seen the deep friendships that I've had, where I've seen such deep amounts of transformation over like 20, 10, five years, whatever, it has always reaffirmed that change is possible, and also it's inevitable. The personal growth side of things is like me sort of acquiescing and being like, you know what, shit’s gonna change, I might as well ride the wave, let's make this enjoyable. Let me fall deeper in love with and in deeper connection with myself, because I can see how when I do that, it creates these ripples with other people in my life who are also invested in their own growth.
PM: To me, growth is our natural state. It can sometimes feel paradoxical that showing up to your personal growth work — maybe it feels more scary in the moment, maybe it feels more painful in the moment to actually face what's going on within you that you have to unearth, in order to do that growth work. But ultimately, it's much less painful. It leads to a much more easeful life when we don't resist those natural processes of change and growth.
What would you say to people who want to pursue that kind of personal growth, but don’t know where to begin?
NW: Something that I always try to share with clients of mine is we definitely have these self-resourced tools. Those tools include things like humility, reflection, vigilance — which just means checking in with ourselves — and multiplicity, or “both and.” I'm a big proponent of starting with myself. Starting with yourself is always the hardest part. It's so much easier to be like, That person is the problem, the system is the problem, but also not see how these systems live inside of us and affect us. Start with, How do you feel when you begin to think about that?
PM: We live in such an expert-centred culture. And I think that's patriarchy, that's white supremacy, that's colonialism. Sometimes we get lost in feeling like there's some kind of perfect formula of how we're supposed to be doing this type of work, and we need to uncover what that is somehow by buying the right book, or paying the right expert to tell us. Ultimately, we've all survived up until now in our lives. There's brilliance in that, there's resourcefulness, we already have a lot of tools for coping, adapting and surviving. A lot of it is about learning to see that brilliance within ourselves.
Seen specifically centres Black and brown queer women. The website says, “healing and liberation are possible. We feel this possibility when we're together — just us.” What are the kinds of things that are only possible for you in these spaces, like with Seen?
PM: Living in this world where we are made marginalized, where we are subject to the gaze of whiteness, men and the cis-heteropatriarchy, it really limits our ability to be our full selves because we're so busy having to survive. Having to make ourselves more palatable so that we can minimize the violence against us. That's so toxic to our health and well-being. Creating those spaces where we don't have to be navigating, dodging and adapting to those violent, oppressive ways of being relationally — it’s so important that we can just have spaces to be away from that. Not having to explain everything — we can just be who we are, without having to navigate the violence, is just so essential.
NW: What you just said Lala, about not having to explain — what a weight that gets taken off of your shoulders. When I have to be like, Let me tell you something — like I want to pop off, I'm really angry and I might not be my best self, I might not be the person that other people expect me to be, I can be that person with somebody who I trust so much. Who understands my intentions, what I hope for myself, and is also invested in bringing that part of me out, and won't hold me to an unrealistic standard but will allow me to be human.
Hope is often viewed as an abstract and overly sentimental concept, but writer and organizer Mariame Kaba says “hope is a discipline” instead in her work. How would you describe the way hope shows up in your work?
NW: In my work with Seen, it's about believing that personal healing and collective liberation are linked, so the more that I am able to show up in one area, I can transform the other space. In my consulting work it's the same kind of ethos, where I have to be able to invite folks to believe that the ways that we show up can change the things that maybe we didn't know were harming other people. Hope is the invitation.
Without hope it can be like all we're doing is fighting, as opposed to also affirming what we're fighting for. We're fighting for and hoping for our humanity to be affirmed — all of those kinds of ephemeral things that are the other side of fighting systems of oppression, we also need to be able to cultivate. Because fighting is depleting a lot of the time. So how are we replenishing ourselves? Hope is the thread that runs in between.
PM: Nothing is possible without hope. Too often, people do see it as this ephemeral thing or this extreme, sort of sunny, naive optimism. But without hope, why would we get up and live another day? Why would anyone have children? Why would anyone start a new relationship? It's really important to tune into the ways that hope already exists within us. We are only here because of the hope of the people who came before us and our ancestors, and all the people who right now are working to support us.
What are the spaces that allow you to practise the type of radical hope that keeps you grounded in your work, communities and life?
NW: The way that I've been able to contribute what I have to community in different ways has in part been possible because I have people in my life who share my values. It's so important to be supported by folks who believe that what you're doing is important. That comes from people seeing what you have as a value and as a gift, and looking to get obstacles out of your way so that you can continue to do what it is that they see you can do so well. That creates this amazing amount of space that's really generative, because you don't have to convince somebody that this work is important.
PM: There is something about this intersection of love and freedom, where it's people who love you in a way that allows you to be free to be the full version of who you are, and who want to support that growth. That's a very unselfish kind of love. It’s so precious when you find that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add to today’s conversation?
PM: Actually, I want to address one of the questions that you sent. I really love the question you asked about the apocalyptic times that we live in and how a lot of people feel that urgency. On one hand, it’s so grounding to remember that there have been apocalyptic conditions in different ways, for our ancestors for a long time. Folks have found a way to keep showing up, and to keep just doing the best that we all can to love and support each other to survive. That can be really calming and help us to refocus on our resilience and brilliance at this apocalyptic time.
On the other hand, I also think that death shapes life, and being aware of the fact that we don't have forever can really help us to show up and be present. Instead of checking out and thinking, I'll get to it later, centring what's really important and cutting out the things that aren't.
NW: The urgency stuff has been really challenging for me over the pandemic, but it also — the apocalyptic nature of everything, COVID, as well as the sort of social justice reckoning on race — was the pressure cooker for Hook or Crook to come to be. Seeing that urgency in the context of things much greater, and then really recalibrating ourselves to, Okay, and what do I have to offer? Focusing on that. Otherwise I'm just succumbing to the dread and the fear, that I'm left immobilized and unaccountable for the ways that I have agency and power to shape something, even if it's something really small.