Mama Lila Cabbil Tribute: Pushing Us Toward Deeper Thought, Still

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I always knew Mama Lila Cabbil did a lot. There was rarely an anti-racism event, a water justice event, or a social justice event that I didn’t see her at. She stretched herself beyond measure, while caring for her mother, her husband, and her community.

Mama Lila was a profound anti-racism organizer and instructor. She has taught about privilege and white supremacy for decades. I have been following her lead since I made a commitment to anti-racism organizing about seven years ago.

Mama Lila pulled no punches. If she disagreed with you, you knew it. At times, she has challenged my ideals around anti-racism organizing, and I appreciated her for it. She was my mentor and trainer.

In recent years, I have stepped away from calling on white people to testify to their privilege, and have asked them to self-reflect on how much they have been forced to detach from their humanity in order to live up to the notion of white superiority/supremacy.

Mama Lila wasn’t convinced of my new direction, but she listened to me, and she challenged my thinking. She was present at most of my talks, ready to deepen the dialogue and push me to strengthen my argument. As busy as she always was, she would still stay afterward to continue the discussion with me. I am a better organizer and anti-racism educator because of Mama Lila’s guidance.

Through my organizing and teaching, I have asked that anti-racist circles step away from performative testimonials of privilege for whites and lack of privilege for Black and Brown people. I have asked that all allies move from ally-ship towards co-liberation, with the belief that we can only make systemic change if we understand our liberation is tied up with one another’s. My historical and current analysis of this moment pushes me to interrogate the notion that (most) white people “benefit” from their forced relationship with white supremacy.

I have asked that white allies (aspiring co-liberators) seek to understand the impact that the myth of white superiority and the system of white supremacy has had on their own communities. I have asked them to deal with school shootings in their communities, opioid abuse, domestic violence, and rising incidents of suicide. I have asked them if they truly believe what they say when they testify to their privilege.

For many, this way of thinking may not appear to answer the questions that plague Black and Brown people in America. However, I am of the mindset that a dehumanized being cannot see another as fully human. I am of the mindset that the white children who are shooting up schools have fallen victim to trying to live up to the myth of white superiority.

White men, even in progressive circles, are taught they are superior to white women, Black women, and every other living being on the planet. What would it mean for the anti-racism movement to teach white men that they have the furthest to go in efforts to reach their full humanity? What would it look like if they don’t enter spaces acting inherently superior (privileged), but rather with a lot of work to do to shed the legacy of violence that comes with their perception of superiority?

We can’t always see what our Elders are preparing us for. I certainly wasn’t prepared to grieve for Mama Lila. But I have learned that when we tune in, when we to Elders who sacrifice their time to offer decades of wisdom, we are afforded a profound opportunity to leverage their guidance to do real, systemic work.

Mama Lila was a champion for humanity. She gave her life to causes too numerous to name. I only hope she knows the impact of the love she waged on all of us, namely me.

Rest in Power Mama Lila!! I will remain committed to anti-racism organizing. I will always declare water as a human right. I will continue to deepen the questions I ask myself, while pursuing the wisdom of my Elders and of you, my newly-gained ancestor.

May the Ancestors welcome you home with loving arms and a warm embrace. Until we meet again.

Thank you for feeding my mind, body and soul!

Tawana “Honeycomb” Petty is a mother, social justice organizer, youth advocate, poet and author. She was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan and is intricately involved in water rights advocacy, visionary organizing and data justice work. Petty is a member of the Riverwise editorial staff.