TransGenerational Theatre Project on autonomy, creating new scripts, and tra-la-la moments

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The TransGenerational Theatre Project interview participants include: Kai (she, 22), Christian (35, she/they), L (they, 37), Renée (she, 70) . It is impossible to capture in text the dynamicism and vibrance of this group interview, which included refrains of hoots, hollers, and “yaaaas”-es. Extra thanks to TGTP for being gracious and forgiving with the delay on publishing this piece. Throw them some cash to continue their beautiful & important work! 

Tell me about the work you’re doing.

Christian: The project started as a thesis project for the masters’ program I was in in applied theater. Applied Theater is a radical framework that uses theater as a tool for organizing and community building. We use the tool of playbuilding — a process of providing people with the tools to be able to create small pieces of theater and drawing specific ideas or themes from whatever they create. We use those themes as a foundation for creating more theatre. It builds from where the participants are at and what’s important to them.

Renee: Capitalism needs division to thrive. If there isn’t divide and conquer, capitalism cannot exist. This happens even in our community. We’re reflecting the question of — what would this world be like and how would people express themselves if we didn’t have to deal with all this shit? How many people have been driven insane by capitalism and by oppression? Who otherwise would be healthy, vibrant people, but because of oppression have been driven to the brink? I look at this as a revolutionary project. I’m 69 years old. What makes me most proud of working on this project is bridging the gaps between generations. We provoke people into thought. Our audience and our participants have been marginalized in this capitalist society by racism and/or gender oppression, and now they’ve been given tools to navigate a creativity that maybe they never knew they had. We’ve seen people blossom into their emerging realness.

Christian: A lot of it is based on Paulo Freire’s educational models from Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Every session we’ll do two games that development theater and improvisation skills. Then we give a prompt and we break into small groups and create a short piece of theatre. We only plan one session at a time because every session is planned based on the previous one — like, who’s in the room, what skills do they need, what themes are already coming up that we want to explore or even challenge. It’s a fluid process.

That sounds like a really adaptive approach.

Christian: It has to be in order to do it with intention and in a way that focuses on the needs and ideas of the participants. In the past two years we’ve created final pieces that have three scenes based on a theme, and interspersed those pieces with individual performances which has been really cool. There’s something special about giving trans people the opportunity to shine individually.

L: It’s such a unique and exciting place — I can’t think of any other space in this city that creates these opportunities for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. The mode of applied theatre provides an opportunity for us to explore how to change the world. By creating a piece of what the world looks like or can look like, trans people can re-envision a new world for ourselves. We’re all about challenging system norms like the gender binary and other fundamental ideas. That kind of challenging can de-stabilize systems that oppress us. What we’re doing has an opportunity for true social justice.

Kai: I was in the project as a member the first year, and was asked to come on as a facilitator for the second year. Now we’re in year three. I’m often the youngest person in the room, but I’m able to connect with people on a powerful level. I never thought I’d be able to have friends like Renee, who is older than me and shows me how to be fierce, you know? It’s nice. I get to learn from them while they’re learning from me.

Renee: That’s a great way to put it, Kai. I love that.

I’m appreciating how you’re all talking about the project being powerful being on an individual level, as well as the building up collectively, in and beyond your group.

Christian: I facilitated the creation of the Trans Day of Remembrance at SAGE, the organization we do this at. It was my first time being around trans older adults, and it had a profound impact on me because I didn’t realize that it was something I was missing and needed in my life. I was like, oh shit, all trans people need to experience this; this is important. A lot of other intergenerational separate people by age and try to define what they’re going to learn from each other. We try to break that down, inspired in part by the fact that we’re all in different stages of transition and gender exploration, and recognizing the fluidity of age in relation to the fluidity of gender.

Renee: Young and old is not always defined by a number. To violate every script that they want me to read, I’m gonna write my own fuckin’ script. That is liberating. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are some of the greatest revolutionaries of all time. You know what they had? A Masters and phD of the street. They were graduates of the university of the stoop, like me. That’s where I came up. I never graduated high school.

Kai: I barely graduated high school. I had so much gender dysphoria going on; by the end of my senior year I was not there. I had horrible anxiety. Every day by second period I’d want to throw up. Sometimes I’d walk out, go to the music room, and play piano.

Renee: I know people who have Masters degrees whose critical thinking compared to Kai is lost in the dust! Not to be anti-education, that’s not the point. When I came back from the war in Vietnam, I read any book I could get my hands on. I know a lot of brainwashed people. My intention is not to hurt them, but to shock them into rethinking their processes. I’ve spoken to a handful of cisgendered people who have seen our work who have said, you’ve caused me to rethink a lot of shit. What better sense of accomplishment? My ambition is to contribute to changing human nature, period.

I feel like something interesting about age and trans folks is, whether we were aware of it or not, the majority of us didn’t get to live our childhood and youth as we saw or experienced ourselves. I can imagine how theatre would allow for a lot of playfulness to re-explore being able to be however old you are.

Kai: You know how Oprah has her ‘aha’ moments? I think about the trans ‘aha’s’ in my life, and call them my tra-la-la’s. My first year at private school had this imagination station where you could go and pretend to be whatever we wanted. There was this red scarf. I would always use that scarf as my hair and really enjoy that. I was always like this. But I knew I had to act like a boy. There was this girl who came into class with short hair, shorts, and a t-shirt, and I was like, you’re a boy! Everyone was like, no, she’s a girl. I was like, I don’t understand — why does she get to be a girl and I don’t get to be a girl? Being with people while we have the chance to use theatre to reflect on those tra-la-la moments in our lives has been one of my favorite parts about this.

17191630_1808942979356692_2556745845006903962_o.jpgWhat is the world you all want to live in?

Kai: I want to live in a world where people treat each other how they want to be treated. I don’t want to be treated like shit so I’ll never treat another person like shit. I want to leave this world a better place than I found it. I want to live in a world where I don’t get harassed. People say New York is the best place to live if you’re trans but things happen here too. You never know who you’re going to run into. I want to live in a world where I can feel safe and content walking around just being who I am. I want to live in a world that’s constantly growing and moving forward as a society. I want to live in a healthy society. Our society isn’t healthy.

L: I want to live in a world where I don’t have to constantly remind people who I am even after I’ve told them. I want to live in a world where people can say who they are and have everyone including our government recognize that. Where we don’t need special paperwork or to prove ourselves. Just to be accepted exactly as we are for what they are and for children to be able to explore and figure out what that is. There isn’t one particular way that somebody is even throughout their lifetime.

Christian: I want to live in a world where everyone has agency and autonomy over their body and their gender.

Kai: What’s autonomy?

Christian: Autonomy means you own it for yourself. Your body belongs to you so people can’t necessarily pass laws or judgements over your body.

Kai: Wow.

Christian: Yeah. I want to live in a world where gender is considered a galaxy and everyone is their own star. I want to live in a world without capitalism, and with bridges instead of borders. An anarchist paradise would be lovely. A world in which we’re living in harmony with each other and with the earth, and uplifting the needs and desires of each person and allow people to explore their desire to create.

Kai: I want to live in a world where you can walk up to a stranger and ask them for a hug. Sometimes I just want a hug. I want to live in a world where a lot of things that aren’t socially acceptable, are, like to high five people on the street. I want to live in a world where going outside isn’t a scary thing because people are nice. I want people to feel warm.

Renee: I want to live in a world where racism is dead. I want to live in a world where members of my community are not living in a prison cell the size of their body. I want to live in a world where people talk to each other. People don’t talk to each other. Well, women in the women’s room always talk. My memories of men’s rooms is, everyone’s quiet as shit and stares at the wall. It’s like what the fuck! People always say, this is human nature. Fuck that! Change human nature! We’re gonna change it.

If nature can evolve, why not human nature?

Renee: Thank you!

Thank you! Y’all have such an affirming chorus, it’s so nice!

(Clapping, giggles, yaaas’es echo through the room.)

It’s cool doing a group interview with you all because on a micro-level, it seems like what’s in the room that you’re in is the world you want to live in.  What do you feel are the things in your lives and the culture surrounding you that are supportive to you helping to create this world and what are the things that feel like they make it harder for you to create this world?

Kai: Enthusiasm toward the project is really supportive. A barrier is people who choose ignorance. People decide that they’re just going to just not, you know? My mom had this moment where she was just like, you do whatever you want to do at this point, but do it on your own. Now she’s like, heyyyy Kai. We just had this conversation and she is starting to understand the pronoun ‘they’. When people don’t want to learn to change or grow or be corrected, that stubbornness is a hinderance. I’m stubborn, but only when I need to be, okay?

L: A stubbornness that doesn’t impose your values on other people.

Kai: Yes!

Renee: Or they on us. I don’t mean to be self-centered, but when we walk down the street in the present state of society, we’re a revolution. I tell people sincerely, I don’t do it for me, I do it for you. Because maybe me exhibiting my realness will inspire others to release their inner realness that they have been intimidated from presenting to the world. It’s a permanent revolution.

Christian: Something that supports me is thinking about who came before us, particularly some of our trans ancestors — our transcestors — who didn’t have the resources that I do. I keep that in mind and think about how much they would love to participate if they could. Well, I don’t know if Sylvia would have, but Marsha would have been up in here in a minute. That supports me. I think also seeing how people have been changed by the project both within it, and people who have witnessed it.

Something that makes doing this work difficult is having to survive in capitalism and having to spread my energy and time very thin because of that. We are a community of people under attack. We experience marginalization to an incredible degree, particularly the trans women of color in our community. This is very emotional work. It takes a lot out of you. After the first year, I was like, oh fuck I’m not doing this again. And I did it again. After the second year I was like, ugh fuck, I’m gonna have to do this again. And I fucking did it again because it’s so important. It’s really, really hard. But we get up and do it.

Renee: It is hard. It can be exhausting but it’s not fatiguing. Not like when I worked in a factory for eight dollars an hour right up the street. I could be as tired physically, but not emotionally. Emotionally it’s been invigorating for me. I’m also a disabled trans woman, which is not an issue that has been focused on as much as I’d like in our community, frankly. Let me just say this. In my view, the number one problem in America is racism. Racism is like a pillar that upholds patriarchy, oppression, women’s oppression, these are like pillars that hold up capitalism. The development of people’s own human nature and we’re violating that. We’re outlaws! 

Kai: I’m a rebel!

20031945_1867824903468499_5114679362619107098_n.pngRenee: That’s right! We used to have some t-shirts years ago that we were outlaws. When I was younger, people were worried about what would other people think about them if they think about us in a positive way. A lot of that has disintegrated from 30 years ago. I’m talking about the people who say listen, I’m not homophobic or transphobic, I just don’t want to be seen with you because I don’t want my friends to think I’m like you, or want to be like you. You don’t have to be like me or want to be like me to communicate and share thoughts. These are some of the greatest obstacles in human development. That’s why I say that transition is perpetual. It’s not like there’s *this* goal. We don’t even know what’s beyond that’s horizon. But it’s coming. It’s inevitable. The only thing that hasn’t changed are the violent psychotics, who as many people know, are mostly closet cases. When they see us, we remind them of something they feel inside about themselves that they hate, and they’re going to punish us for it.

Kai: Or try to.

Renee: Every year we have a litany of names of slaughtered trans people, just for being their true selves. You know what? As Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary.” We will defend ourselves. Thirty years ago, if you had 100 pennies in a sock in your purse, the cops couldn’t arrest you for it. And you know what? It worked. Mostly just as an intimidating factor.

Kai: Then they leave you alone.

L: When we’re talking about capitalism and social oppression, what directly impacts our work is financial support and lack thereof. Statistically our community does not have the same access to jobs, education, and housing, especially queer and trans people of color. We also see trans artists not having financial support. For a program of queer and trans artists it’s hard to get the support we need, especially since we’re not formalized with a 501c3 status. We rely on support from community members and friends to cover basic needs, like making sure people have the means to get here, and that we have food for people so that they can come here during the time they would usually eat. A lot comes out of the facilitators’ own pockets. We’ve been grateful for the support we’ve received, but in today’s climate of giving or lack thereof, it is that much harder to do get that really basic support that we need.

C: Thanks for reminding us L that we need fucking money!

Are you all familiar with Peacock Rebellion? They’re a QTPOC, transfemme-centered org that also does performance work who I interviewed for WWW. In our conversation, they were talking about the balance of doing “tapdancing” for funders in order to get financial support to make their work sustainable. [Devi] was saying how those kinds of funders want you to talk about your trauma and other things that fit the tragedy narrative of trans women. It seems like you all are much more focused on the empowering, the zap, the lightening of what you have, like Peacock Rebellion.

Christian: The only grants we applied to was the Trans Justice Fund. We just haven’t been interested in engaging with the foundational industrial complex and shit like that. I don’t think we ever will.

Who are some people who serve as guidance and inspiration for this work?

Renee: Trancestors of this community gave everything to us. They sacrificed everything to help develop emerging realness that people never knew they had. I think back to my milieu which basically is Paris is Burning. Not those fuckin’ intellectuals in their ivory tower with the fuckin’ asterisk next to trans who sit there and anoint themselves as the determiners of who is cis and who is trans. They oughta be ashamed of themselves. Where would those people be now without us street fighters? Sylvia, Miss Major, and many others of us were in the street in different capacities, as street fighters, street workers, and sex workers.

You constantly had a perimeter around you. How many people know that when we walk down the street we often deliberately walk against the flow of traffic, ‘cause nobody can chase you down if you’re walking against traffic, right? Little things like that. Scout out every street from midtown to Chelsea to the village, every alley way, every inlet, every possible escape route. We don’t do that like that was modus operandi every day. We were soldiers. Now, I’m almost shocked by the acceptance I get. I try to tell people, Marsha P. Johnson died for you. She did.  I try to make them understand what I mean by that obsessively. I am obsessed with it. I think about it every day.

Let me also say this. Trancestors, we owe our young people. A lot of them say, you’re an inspiration. I say, you don’t think you’re inspiring us to charge our batteries? This emerging realness has been the greatest therapy I could ever get. I can say this for other older trans women as well, it has even caused many older people to re-blossom. We may not have done that without Kai.

Kai: I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I guess I did that! I’m inspired by Janet Mock and other people who grew up in the streets and frontlines and got to a place where they could reach such a wider audience, and who give back to people who don’t have that exposure, and educate others on trans experience. Also, as a younger person, I really look up to Renee. I learn from her every time I’m around her. It’s people like her who actively want people to know what our community has been through and where we are going and where we are now and where we have been. It’s great.

L: For me, the most influential trans folk who I’ve known have been the young people I’ve worked with. In doing development work with young people, one of them brought in a grid of different non-binary identities and I was like wow, there are all these other identities? I did some research and found one at the time that fit me. I was like oh my god, other people also feel this way. At the time it was demi-gender — people feeling like they have cis parts of themselves but also fluid or genderqueer parts to themselves. It was a tra-la-la for me. It was like a switch that was flipped. If I hadn’t been working with those young people I don’t know if that ever would have happened. LGBTQ youth have always challenged how I see the world and how I see myself, especially around the various points of identities. I’ll always be thankful for that.20106700_1867824910135165_790858535922830057_n.png

Do you want to share any other thoughts or feelings coming up in this conversation?

Christian: When I was in my masters program, one of the moments that clicked for me about this work was its capacity to envision the world that we want through theater. It has that capacity in a way that very few other mediums do. Afro-futurism and other queer futurism are really inspiring to me, and the foundations of a trans-futurism are in this work. Our first year, we did were the past, present, and future of the trans experience in three scenes. Young people are naturally amazing at imagination, but anyone is capable of playing and and exploring. That’s a part that I love that feeds me and challenges me to think more creatively and expansively about my own gender.

This is the first year I’ll be doing this project on hormones. I credit participating in the project and meeting more trans people for giving me more tools to think creatively about my gender, my body, and outside of the boring and limiting narratives the media gives trans people.

Renee: The Transgenerational Theatre Project did not save my life. But it saved the rest of my life.

The TransGenerational Theatre Project is a group of multigenerational trans and gender nonconforming people co-creating original theatre from our own ideas and experiences. Through our highly collaborative process we foster connections, TGNC community and joy. We stand for equity, social justice, and the dismantling of transphobia, transmisogyny, ageism, racism, and and all linked forms of systemic oppression. We center the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elders, particularly people of color. Please support TGTP by contributing to their GoFundMe fundraiser!

Christian is a radical non-binary trans femme arts activist and performer. They co-founded The TransGenerational Theatre Project, a multigenerational devised theatre project for trans and gender non-conforming people, and they are proud to be facilitating the project for a third year in preparation for a performance in the Trans Theatre Festival. They are a graduate of the CUNY Masters in Applied Theatre program and work as the Women’s Program and Arts & Culture Program Coordinator at the Edie Windsor SAGE Center.  They also create solo performance that explores trans rage, grief, ritual, and futures.

This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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a note from freddie, on radio silence & what’s to come

Dear friends & followers of this project,

I fell off the map without explanation since publishing the previous interview in August 2018 and for that I’m sorry! There’s not a ton of explanation to share other than the dust from my Saturn return settling and life staying busy.

I’ve had one more interview slated for publication for months, with several lovely folks from the TransGenerational Theatre Project in New York. I am sorry it’s been so long but their work and their words are as relevant as ever in 2019. This interview will be published next Thursday, March 6th.

As for what comes next, I have to be realistic with myself that my current paid and unpaid work have shifted my energy and capacity away from this project. I am not making plans for future World We Want interviews for the time being. That said, for me, facilitating this project continues to be a gift — I frequently think of interviewees’ wisdom and perspective in my day-to-day life and ongoing spiritual and emotional processes. And while I received positive feedback about each and every interview, I believe there are many more people who would benefit from reading the interviews who haven’t yet done so. Personally, I’m much more likely to enjoy reading something I can hold in my hands versus having to scroll on a screen. So, I intend to memorialize this project in zine form! 

I was initially interested in trying to get this project some outside funding for a slightly fancier publication, but I recently published my first ever zine and appreciate the autonomy and room for creativity that the process lends itself to. (If you’re interested in checking out my zine, it’s called grief: holding on & letting go, and you can order a copy here.)

I intend to get started with the editing and formatting process soon, with the goal of getting something printed and ready for distribution by the end of May. (Which sounds far away as the rains pour down on me here in occupied Coastal Miwok territory, but I suspect will be upon us sooner than I realize…) I suspect I will print in black and white to keep costs down. If you or anyone you know has a printing hook up you’re willing to share, please shoot me an email at cheersfreddie at gmail.

Thanks again for the support in this project, for your patience with my lack of consistency, and for being a part of building the world you want to live in.

xo freddie

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image: me at the ocean on the sonoma coast with my N-95 mask around the back of my head, in november 2018 during the most recent disastrous northern california wildfires. photo by my friend carbo. 

Kiran on nutrition as healthcare, interdependence, and valuing one’s own labor

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[Image: Kiran stands with her hands in her pockets on the sidewalk in Philadelphia at night. Photo by Maren Abromowitz.]
What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is kiran marie nigam. I identify as brown, mixed race, multicultural, queer, and disabled with an invisible disability. I have hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). I also identify as a facilitator, teacher, healthcare worker, and an auntie to a lot of kids.

How are you doing?

I’m coming out of a period of a lot of transition and doing remarkably well. Instead of feeling stressful it’s felt liberating, which tells me the transitions are right. In the last six months, I quit my job of eight years at AORTA, the co-op I founded with five other people. I moved across the country back home to the bay. In doing so I’m also transitioning my relationship because of the realities of living across the country. I’m in a moment of initiation and possibility — so many projects and ideas. It feels like spring in my life.

Tell me about the projects and direction that are energizing you.

I’m starting up a new business to meld a lot of the things I have done for a while. I’m doing facilitation work, which I have been doing for almost 20 years now. I’m doing one-on-one nutritional consulting and functional nutrition work. As part of my nutrition work, I’m opening up a series of nutrition education workshops which are more financially accessible than one-on-one counseling. It’s easier to make dietary and lifestyle shifts in your life if you’re with other people who are doing them, even if theirs are different. I’m also offering support for people with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which I’ve been doing forever, but am now doing formally and with a nutrition lens. I’m helping people identify what net of care providers they need in their world, getting missing pieces filled in, and assisting with lifestyle and emotional support pieces.

I’ve got a million creative visions I’m trying to spend more time on, like my artwork. I’m part-way through writing three books. I’m writing and illustrating a children’s book on natural home-birth with my friend Michelle. I wrote another children’s book on my own called Together We’re Strong, which involves a song so I’m looking for a musician who wants to collaborate and record the song to be included in the book. It’s about cultivating strong relationships and remembering our inner strength and wisdom. I’m co-writing a curriculum kit called How can we make more money?, which is a values-based finance education kit that I’m working on with AORTA and three other organizations. We are centering people who have felt uncomfortable, fearful, pushed out, isolated, or otherwise excluded in money conversations, like women, trans folks, folks of color, and communities that are disinvested and marginalized by capitalism. That’s who we’re centering and who we are. It’s meant for people who are in group-oriented spaces where they’re talking about finances.

Can you share a bit about your relationship to AORTA and what that is?

AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance) is a worker-owned cooperative, democratically owned and run by the people who work in it. Myself and five other people founded it in 2010. AORTA members work as educators, facilitators, and consultants. The goal is to build movements for social justice and a solidarity economy, which is an economy that values people and their wellbeing over the accumulation of profit. They do workshops and consulting on organizational transformation through an analysis of systemic power, which is what I was doing for a long time. But I got tired of talking about and teaching about white supremacy and systemic power day in and day out. I put my time in. I’m excited to leave behind some of that work. Bless AORTA for continuing to do it.

I see collectives and cooperatives as spaces of experimentation for how we want to work and be, where we can try and fail and learn and reflect and try again. In doing so, we’re building the skills we want for the bigger picture. There’s so many spaces where we’re lacking models, and the needs of each group are a bit different. Something that works really well in one space isn’t gonna work somewhere else. I think of them as laboratories or petri dishes where we’re experimenting and building our skills.

A lot of people aren’t able to integrate the things that they care about and are skilled at into their paid work. It sounds like a lot of the stuff you’re excited about doing actually supports you financially.

Yeah. I’ve asked myself, how can I do the things I love and not have them be separate from what sustains me? Where’s my passion, where’s my love, and where are my skills and how can I make those make me money? I’m disabled and have varying levels of capacity to do things from day-to-day and week-to-week. Having a model of income that allows my capacity to ebb and flow is necessary for me. I don’t  fit well under capitalism — I’m not consistently able-bodied, but I’m not consistently disabled to the point where I can’t work, which means it’s very hard for me to access disability benefits. Something that has been a long-growing edge for me is understanding that I deserve fair pay. Just because I like doing something doesn’t mean I have to do it for free, especially as someone who’s disabled and at the brunt end of a lot of systemic violence and oppression. It’s been a journey to recognize and honor my experience and skills.

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[Image: Kiran in front of railroad tracks running through lush greenery. Photo by Chanelle Gallant.] 
That concept has come up a lot in these interviews. What has your process of getting to a point where you are more comfortable in acknowledging you deserve to be fairly paid?

One way I’ve gotten there is time. I’m 35. I’ve had some time to heal from trauma, build my understanding of my own worth, and build up real skillsets. I’ve been doing this for a while and have experience and expertise. A huge chunk of it is my peers — other women of color and queer and trans folks of color lifting each other up, witnessing each other, and pep talking each other all the time. It’s invaluable. A friend of mine who’s a queer woman of color and chronically ill was like, we especially deserve to get paid fairly, because we need it! She reminded me: you don’t want a yacht, you’re not even looking to buy a house right now, you want healthcare! I was like, oh right — I want to make money to meet my body’s needs. I mean, yes, I do want to be able to own a home someday, but right now, I want to be able to pay for healthcare.  My peers and community lift me up in being able to claim and own that.

I’m transitioning out of a pattern of working too hard for too little for too long, which has wrecked my body. My body is more sensitive than many and the impacts of that are large and long-affecting. I’m unwilling to do that anymore, which means I have to be able to work a healthy amount, for enough, instead of too much for too little. It doesn’t feel like an option to work more.

Part of where that growth in me has come is through other disabled folks and the disability justice movement in general — questioning a paradigm of crisis-based organizing, rapid response to everything all the time. These last few months, being self employed, I’ve been centering building a healthy workload.  After eight years of feeling over capacity and overworked I don’t feel that way right now, and that is building up my health. This doesn’t feel like a compromise to me anymore. How can I work for justice more broadly if I don’t do that for myself? If I can’t look at my own self with compassion and want myself to feel healthy and well? The internal and external have to happen at the same time. If I’m enacting harm on myself and my process of trying to work for justice, then I’m not building the world I want to live in. I have to be doing my transformation work with me as part of the equation.

Not to mention you don’t actually have the offerings you want to offer the world if you’re not well enough to be okay. To complicate this conversation a little more… I imagine you’re offering your skills and expertise to people with less means. How do you hold the tension of being paid fairly with making your services accessible to communities you care about?

I’m feeling that in my nutrition work because I’m focusing on other people with EDS. We don’t have a lot of money because it often goes to healthcare. I keep track of all the hours I work, even unpaid hours. I can see what my ratio of paid to unpaid work is. Right now my sliding scale for my one-on-one consultations is dependent on people paying on the high end; the low end only works if people pay on the high end. I’m trying this out for six months and then will assess: if I look at my hours and pay and decide it’s not working I’m going to have a tiered sliding scale — once the lowest tier fills up for a month, people can either pay the next tier up or book out longer where that lower tier is still available so it balances itself out and that the low end stays as low as it is. I also do work for free; I just document it as if it’s work. I invoice the full amount of the cost and the full amount as a discount, just so my hours are in my bookkeeping. I find when I do this, it helps folks understand that my pro bono work is me investing in them and their labor.

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[Image: Maren and Kiran at a rally. Kiran is holding a sign that says “Become Ungovernable”.] 
How has that been received?

It’s been received really well. People are into it. It shifts the way people see my labor. They realize, oh, you chose to do this for me or for our organization because you want to support our work.

What’s your role in creating the world you want to live in?

The uniting piece of all the work I do is to fortify the health of individuals and communities so we can better engage in work for justice. That connects to my facilitation work, my nutrition work, my artistic labor, and my mediation work. If you’re fortified, you can go out into the world and do a lot.

It sounds like a lot of what you’re doing is trying to make living and working more sustainable for yourself and others. What are the things that support you in taking on and doing this work and what are barriers to that being sustainable?

My community is a big support. I’ve lived in the bay since 2000, save for leaving and coming back a couple times. I have many long-term friendships that are family that support me hugely. I can’t ignore the fact that we’re all interdependent upon each other. Some people can pretend that away. The reality is very in-my-face, as someone who’s more disabled than many others. It’s through people and relationships and the generosity of others that I’m here.

There’s logistical things. Being my own boss means I set my own hours and work as much as I’m able to; it also means knowing that I’m the one responsible for making sure I get paid. That can feel scary, but there’s a lot of ways it works really well for me.

Living on the east coast, I realized there were many things about the Bay Area I took for granted that decreased the amount of time, energy, and money I invested in my health . The climate here is pretty stable and steady so I’m in a lot less pain. The culture of accessibility is stronger and more supportive: the disability rights and disability justice movements have a strong history here. It is pretty common for movement spaces to be low-scent and for people to name and think about accessibility. I manage so much of my health via food, which is more affordable here,  where the food is grown and fresh year-round.

Barriers are racial capitalism and a lack of access to quality healthcare in the U.S. I fantasize about moving somewhere with socialized healthcare but in reality I don’t want to leave my community. Even if I had a pretty good health insurance program, much of my care isn’t covered by insurance because it’s preventative and maintenance care — like nutritionists, acupuncturists, osteopaths, herbalists, food, supplements, personal trainers, and physical therapists. That feels like the biggest barrier to me actualizing my full self in so many ways.

What do you mean when you say you can’t ignore your relationship to interdependence?

The reality is that we are all temporarily able-bodied and that we are interdependent: we need each other. However, some folks are able to deny that reality more easily than others. My physical ability shifts from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. I feel very aware of my interdependence. My close relationships neccessitate me sharing access needs, not just once, but as they shift day-to-day.

For example, sometimes I am exceptionally low energy and can’t go out, or need to ask for support with basic house chores. I often can’t lift heavy things. Sometimes I can bike or walk places, sometimes I can’t. I’ve gone through phases of my life where I have relied on others to  help me dress, cook my food, clean up, and do my laundry. I moved recently, and asked friends to help move my things, but felt bad not helping out, so I did. I ended up injured and in pain for three weeks. I had to see an osteopath twice in that time, which ended up being more expensive than if I had just hired movers. A lot of things that people do for themselves, I call a friend for. I sometimes feel isolated. There’s a lot of organizing events I want to go to but can’t because they’re too loud, stimulating, or late at night.

We rely on the support of others all the time. If you have a hard day and call your sibling or your best friend, that’s interdependence. We need each other to live. People who don’t have community often struggle. This fact is very present for me. The intimacy I build to be able to call someone and ask for help requires a lot of vulnerability. It can also build intimacy and strength and trust in relationships, and give others permission to share their needs and get them met.

What is the world you want to live in?

The world I want to live in celebrates interdependence and is set up for us to thrive. It’s obviously anti-capitalist because it’s one where competition isn’t the underlying ideology. It’s a world where collaboration, cooperation, and seeking to support each other is the underlying outlook. It’s locally based. Things that are rights, are rights — like access to clean water, clean air, clean ground, stable and healthy housing, healthcare, and education that teaches us about our peoples, our value, our worth, our power. Teaches us how to communicate with each other, to collaborate, to negotiate, move through conflict, and is easily accessible and free. It’s got a lot of art and color. Things are sometimes done for beauty or joy, rather than efficiency. It’s a world that celebrates the beauty of craftsmanship — placing intention and care into something with the intent of it sticking around. Where no one’s disposable and where everyone is seen as valuable. That includes our home — our land and animal co-habitators. We’re caring for something precious and sacred. Wouldn’t that be amazing, to walk down the street and know and feel that everyone who looks at you is looking for the beauty in you, and vice versa? That’s what I want.

I’m wondering about your relationship to hope in this. For me, it’s easy to get bummed out and feel hopeless. The palpable way you’re talking about this world makes it seems like you have glimpses or experiences of it already.

I definitely have hope because it’s the only way we can survive. Me, my sweetie, and a few other folks started this sci-fi book club a few years back and realized a lot of the books we were reading were dystopian, so we started seeking out books that were utopian or contained moments of utopian sci-fi in them. It felt really exciting. I started writing out — what is my utopian world? It’s a skill, to be able to articulate that. We get trained out of it. More commonly we are trained to articulate what are we against. Yes, we need people doing resistance work and stopping unjust things that are happening. And we need to be building what we envision and dream of. Not just protecting against losses, but expanding and building.

Where I clearly see my work is in creating and building what I want. I see it in moments when I’m facilitating and a group melts and is able to talk across difference in a way that they couldn’t before. I watch their barriers drop. I see it when I give one-on-one care to someone who’s used to being treated inhumanely and then is stunned by being treated with love and care. I see it on long meditation retreats when I watch people start to shift and look at each other like we’re something precious and valuable. I’ve experienced it — I know it’s possible. For me, the question is, how do we extend those moments, multiply those spaces? Those moments are there. They pop up, they’re amazing, people get moved by them. How do we lengthen and grow them?

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[Image: Kiran selfies in the cold with a furry hooded jacket.] 
Where are you at today with that question of lengthening and growing?

For me it’s been through intentionally engaging in spiritual practice and growth and integrating that with the other work I’m doing. I don’t feel I can do movement work without spiritual practice. It can be different spiritual practice for everyone. For me, understanding my relationship to the sacred, and how my values connect to my action is necessary for lengthening and growing those spaces. Those spaces shine light on the divine and the beauty within us. The more I dive deeply into my own personal spiritual practice the more I see these spaces around me. I can’t help but assume part of that is because something in me is transforming that allows me to contribute to the creation of spaces like that, and builds my capacity to be compassionate towards others. It’s building my capacity to be with other people who are going through their own stuff and not take it personally.

Do you feel like sharing or describing any piece of your spiritual life and practices?

I have been studying Buddhism for 12 years now. My mom is Catholic, my dad’s family is Hindu, and my dad is atheist. I grew up with a mishmash of Hindu and Catholic culture and going to a Catholic after-school program. In middle school I went up to my mom and said, ‘I don’t ever want to go there again; I don’t believe in god.’ She stayed still and quiet for a long time and then she just went, okay. Shining star moment for her. I didn’t believe in that god because they were teaching me to fear that god. It wasn’t right.

I have always been very spiritual. I studied tai chi and meditation for health, then was exposed to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. I go to the East Bay Meditation Center. They have a POC Sangha every Thursday night, 7-9pm. This year I joined the Sangha’s coordinating committee, which is an exciting way for me to give to that space and deepen my own practice. I’ve done weeklong retreats both at meditation centers and one of Thich Nhat Hahn’s monasteries learning from the monks and nuns, reading books, and going to teachings. I’m choosing it as a path of study and watching my whole life transform around me as I do it.

Kemi Alabi, another World We Want interviewee, also talked about EBMC being a transformative place for them.

It’s a jewel! They run on gift economics. Everything is offered freely and the request is that you give to help other people access that space. It is a radical shift. It’s not even a sliding scale with no one turned away — it’s an offering. We ask that you offer what you can so that others may receive it. That’s the only way it’s going to exist tomorrow or next month, if those of us who are here today give so people in a month can go. That’s outside of the capitalist paradigm and that’s the future.

In addition to your spiritual life and practices, what else is inspiring and guiding you in this moment?

I just read the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisen. So much of it spoke to how empires fall, over and over again. It’s shifting the way I look at this world and this empire. Historically, every empire that has been, has fallen. That is awesome. This empire is going to fall, you know?

I’ve been friend-building with Mia Mingus this year, hanging out and talking about disability justice, gender, transformative justice, healthcare, and the intersections of all of our interests. It’s exciting and inspirational to plot how we might collaborate. Collaborations in general are really inspiring me right now.  Going to some of my friends and expressing, ‘I’m starry eyed for you and your work, can we collaborate?’

I feel inspired by the coalition that just stopped Urban Shield here in Oakland, and the years of labor it took to do that. I recently saw Angela Davis speak and it felt inspirational to hear from an elder who has a long haul perspective. When I was living in Michigan a while back I got to share space with Grace Lee Boggs. She revolutionized the way I thought about things. She talked about how she used to think about, how’s the work we’re doing now going to affect us in a decade. Then she started shifting to a century: how’s the work we’re doing now going to affect us in a century?

Another form of generational thinking is the folks that are running the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. The first indigenous women’s-led land trust are returning Ohlone lands back to Ohlone stewardship. Their work is incredibly inspirational and hopeful. They’re looking to gain access to land so they can steward its wellbeing and community wellbeing. It’s the opposite of how many folks in the Bay Area are thinking about land right now. That is the future I want to live in, right now. They’re doing revolutionary, beautiful work for all of us. The graciousness of doing that work for all of us. It’s not like, we’re getting our land back so we can have it, which could be so easy to feel that way and to message it that way! But instead, this land needs our care. If we’re all gonna live on it it needs to be healthy, and we want to make sure that it is. That’s that same long-vision as Grace Lee Boggs. How are we setting our descendants up 100 years from now? How are we shifting things for them? That inspires me.

It’s good to hear these reminders of these ways that people are already building and creating this the world we want to live in.

If you can see it, you can resource yourself from that. Take hope from what they’re doing and then do the piece that fits. That was a big shift for me. Coming out of doing so much political education and organizing work and shifting to realize, I’m still doing work that builds a left movement. But I’m not doing it for the movement, I’m doing it for the people. The shift feels more centered in heart and in our wellbeing. It’s deeply informed by left movement and all of the mentors, elders, and peers that have guided me along the way. ‘The movement’ is an intangible thing that I have experienced as treating me as disposal, just like capitalism has treated me. With all love to the left movement, it not yet strong in caring for people with disabilities. Many people I care about can’t see through this paradigm to what it could be like. Can’t even see what they’re doing when a mirror is held up to them. If I keep doing my work from a people-focus, that’s gonna help shift what things look like in the future.

kiran nigam, NTC, is an educator, facilitator, organization consultant, certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant, and Virgo magician whose goal is to help fortify our communities so that we may be healthier, happier, stronger, and more effective in bringing about justice and transformation. Through Fortify Community Health, kiran works with individuals and organizations to support healing, health, and well being at all levels. She is a current member of the Coordinating Committee for the People of Color Sangha at the East Bay Meditation Center, and a former co-founder and worker-owner of AORTA: Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance.

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[Image: Kiran sits on a couch with their arms spread out. Photo by Sam Smith.] 

Sol on building the foundation, web-weaving, and the role of plant allies

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What’s your name and how do you identify yourself?

My name is Sol. I use they/them pronouns. I identify as an able-bodied, mixed, white-looking genderqueer human in diaspora with both Native ancestors and white ancestors. I identify as a community organizer, community believer, brujx apprentice, a listener — I am often energetically responding. I am here to support folks in their healing and return to themselves. I am here to bring in the ways that I can support manifestations of justice, alignment, healing, community, and reconnection.

How are you doing?

I am okay. I’m thinking a lot about Puerto Rico, Palestine, Venezuela, and these wild times of collapse we are living in. So I’m… okay. I think I would be worse but in more recent years I’ve been forced to work on healing myself & taking care of myself. I’ve been practicing that more diligently and developing more deeply supportive relationships with plant allies. I feel in grief, and overwhelmed, and like there’s endless work to do. Simultaneously I feel supported and grounded. I feel a more renewed access to love and empathy, which is a feat for me.

Can you say more about what it means to be forced into having to take care of yourself?

I’ve been doing community organizing for about six years, four of them being institutionally supported by organizations or unions. It’s emotional, transformational, and really under-resourced work. I am often overworked because I’m so emotionally invested, because it is so critical, and because the work is literally endless. A few years ago, I was organizing with a union and working about 60-80 hours a week. My boundaries were disregarded & I was seriously emotionally manipulated. I had to quit after four months due to health deterioration and experienced what I understood to be ‘movement heartbreak’ along with worsened anxiety and depression. In that moment, I considered never returning to movement organizing because of how burnt out I felt. I later realized I couldn’t do the work I came here to do if I was not also deliberately, almost stubbornly, taking care of myself.

The other day my organizer friend asked me how I learned that my boundaries were more important than the work. For me, the work is not just the material doing of things. The work is also the principles, integrity, and spiritual alignment involved in community building, space holding, and in imagining and strategizing. My spirituality recognizes power dynamics, the history of colonization, and the healing necessary for honest accountability to take place. My boundaries are rooted in me being sustainable, much like a plant. If I am not taking care of myself I will wither and be unable to be present and aligned. There’s so much pain everywhere and I believe community is a critical medicine of life, a well from which to gather most of our resources.

So, I’m committed to doing things differently from now on. I’m re-grounding and reconnecting with plants which remind me that I can actually do more work if I move slower, because it is more rooted and aligned work. Ideally I’ll take care of myself out of the spirit of taking care of myself, but we all know we’re not encouraged to do so. My life experience forced me into understanding that I cannot play the role I need to play of support, reflection, space-holding, and network building in an aligned and principled way if I’m not also well. If not, my vision is blurred. I won’t be able to understand what’s the best way because I’m running on empty and thinking about ways to escape my body and community as opposed to being present within it.

The necessity of healing and making our work sustainable comes up a lot with folks in these interviews. What does that look like when the work is really dire — if you’re called on in a moment you intended to reserve for self-care?

Previously, when I was emotionally struggling, I would find windows and be like, I’m going to bring in a crystal, which will ground me and “heal” me. Over and over again I would lose the crystal — I think it was running away from me because I was not respecting it. It was an in-and-out relationship with healing and support as opposed to a disciplined, respectful one. I am creating a more disciplined support network for myself, to where if I’m called in a moment I can respond, and my center isn’t so distant because I nourished it yesterday or the day before. Part of my own learning is figuring out how I can take care of my future self. I won’t always know what my future self will need or want but at least I’ll ensure that someone is setting some support and nourishment for future Sol.

I’ve been working on committing five minutes of the morning to meditating. Before I got into that routine, I couldn’t imagine setting aside five minutes in the morning. But as I’ve entwined my survival into it, the cumulative effect has been noticeable and impactful. Maybe I didn’t meditate today, but because I meditated yesterday and the day before, I can respond to this thing today with a little more clarity. Discipline is involved. I’m constantly wanting to support other people. I know folks are struggling — my Palestinian, Boricua siblings — what can I do? In those small moments where I can hold myself, I know if I’m not able to do that tomorrow, I’ll have today to rely on. So it’s preemptive work.

IMG_9988I’m currently in an herbal apprenticeship class for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) with Seed, Root + Bloom and it’s shifting things for me, including reflections on how similar the body system is to community systems is to Earth systems. A return to the body is analogous to a return to community and a return to the Earth. You never know when crisis is going to shock your body or your community. How can you be nourishing and supporting your body so that when crises come your base level is more stable? Talking about medicine is inherently facing the reality that there is crisis, pain, death, and trauma. How can we incorporate a root support for when we know something shocking might happen? Because it will. How can we on a day-to-day sustain and/or build a stronger foundation? How can we strengthen our roots? How can our community strengthen its roots? This is often more accessible than we are led to believe.

Roots and the Earth are ultimately what hold everything up. A lot of us have traumatized and confused roots that inform how we respond to stress. The more connected I feel with myself, the more honest I’m able to be in deciding if I have the capacity to support someone in the way they deserve. Maybe I’m supporting them and drinking my tea, or I have my citrine, fluorite, or obsidian stones. It is wild how helpful it is. We can be assured that crisis is gonna come. How can I do some nourishing and grounding in preparation for that — the discipline, the everyday?

What led you to be on a path of working with plants?

Plants have always held me up. Plants have always been there and they have an incredible amount of love to give. They’re the largely feminine forces that do the behind-the-scenes work and don’t get credit. Whether it’s the relationship I built with cannabis, or teas and plants that sustained my mother while she was healing from breast cancer. I intend for the relationship I’m building with plants now to be respectful, informed, and aligned with my values so I may share medicine from a place of integrity.

In Venezuela we say se aprende a los coñazos it often takes pain for me to learn new behaviors. I hadn’t been in a place where I could recognize that I was allowed to heal and give space for plants and medicine in my life until the moment I was falling apart. I have always felt very air, mind-based and in my brain, and its blocked deeper connections with plant medicine. Relationship with plants is profoundly body-based for me. I’ve struggled with body my whole life, especially being a queer survivor in diaspora. I am constantly moving and seeking stability. I am always reflecting on what home means and it has always felt far and out of reach. Recently I’ve been thinking, what if THIS is the House? Ultimately whatever happens, this body-home is what goes through the storms.

I am returning to my body and committing my life to respecting my existence spiritually and humbly. My spirituality holds that my body is a reflection, channel, and manifestation of Spirit, so listening to my body is akin to listening to Spirit. Learning how to build spiritual relationships with plants has pushed me to be willing to listen with my hands, my mouth, my fear. The whiteness in mainstream, white herbalism is so fucked up, disrespectful, and holds terribly destructive energy. I’m so thankful for the BIPOC in the ‘U.S.’ and around the world asking us to remember what honor-full relationships with the Earth look like.

La Tierra and plants have things to say! What does the earth of Palestine have to say right now? What does Venezuela’s water want you to know? (deep sigh)IMG_2805.JPG

I’m excited for you and that that program exists. I’m glad it feels like such a sustaining force right now. What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I think a lot about webs and spiders, because they’re brilliant network makers. I think of my role as a spider in the ways they bring nodes together, trusting the nodes to collaborate and make the web stronger. My political analysis as a community organizer is rooted in knowing how capitalism and white supremacy create alienation, isolation, and a feeling of scarcity in support. I also believe the resources we need are already available within community but need to be strengthened, validated, and/or uplifted. Sometimes the energy of the spider resembles how I feel — like, “gotta weave! gotta connect!” The spider energy trusts the community’s inherent potential to create resilient connections and to catch resources given they are offered the resources and time to do so. I have had the privilege of bearing witness to what community can do, and the healing and systemic/cultural rupture that can happen when community shows up for itself. That’s how I see my role — like, “you’re seeking XYZ? I know a healer of color in community who wants to teach this class. Let’s see if there’s a way they can be paid but also the community can receive the services affordably and/or for free.” What could that strategy look like — where folks are receiving what they need and it’s ultimately coming from community itself, recognizing the abundance that exists within community. Maybe it doesn’t always work out but I think it’s worth the experimentation.

I’ve also been making sure to incorporate myself into the network building instead of excluding myself from it. Right now, I’m deeply supporting a community member, and to my friends I’ve been like, hey, do you think you can make food for me tonight because I can’t imagine making anything! Folks are like, absolutely. Folks are often waiting to be asked to provide support.

And it’s humanizing, to be like, I don’t have to do all the work for you, we’re here for each other.

It’s so important. It challenges how capitalism tells us that only one person can support or hold the key. Services — as opposed to community organizing — are important but I’m not in that line of work because I don’t want to create reliance on me. I can support this person because my housemates made me a ton of food yesterday and because my other friend came and held space for me. Or because different friends are like hey, I see the work you’re doing, do you need anything? That is the web-making.

I’m touched hearing you describe asking someone to cook for you, and actively seeking support at the same time you’re giving it. There’s ways in which people are already creating the world we want to live in in spite of the many obstacles and violences we face. What is the world you want to live in?

As the current world collapses, a new one is already being born. I wrote a poem the other day asking what a plant might feel before it ruptures through soil. I imagine it to be terrifying, painful, and reliant on hope that it’s worth all of the hard work to bloom. There is an essence of doula work that shows up in birthing a new world. We’re creating the conditions right for it to bloom, to be born, to be extravagant. That’s how I see it. I’m able to do the work because I know I am collaborating with legacies, communities, friends to create conditions for this new world to rupture soil.

I want to live in a world where I can be a trans organizer and can hold all of my identities at once. Community is not there right now, and it makes it really hard to organize as a queer and trans person. I want a world where sex workers are free, resourced, and leading conversations on public policy and safety, specifically trans sex workers of color. I want a world with strong communities and without police. I want a world with free transportation, schools, housing, healthcare, and organic, nourishing foods for everyone. I want accessible “herbalism” and gardens for children of color everywhere. I want a world where indigenous folks and their medicines are stewarding conversations on healing, and where Native medicines and practices are named and respected as such. I want a world where all white people prioritize listening and giving.

I want a world that goes slow and sees our healing, our cooking, and our snuggling as work that is deserving of time, space, and respect. I want a world where domestic workers are valued and provided with resources to care for themselves as they provide care.

I want to follow the lead of Black queer, trans organizers. I want the world they want.

I want a world where I can go to Venezuela and don’t have other people telling me what my political opinion and feelings should be on Venezuela. I want Venezuela to be the leftist paradise that everyone imagines it to be but it’s really far from. I really want to move back to Venezuela and be freely queer and non-binary there.

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To me, what it sounds like you’re describing is people having their needs met in a way that isn’t a strain on them. It also sounds like it’s in your worldview that the way these needs can be met are already within us and in our communities.

Yeah. It’s a process for community to allow themselves to recognize what is available because often our disconnections and trauma don’t allow us to connect with and identify what is abundant. It makes abundance in community more difficult when not only are we under-resourced but we also deny ourselves and undervalue what we do have.

What feel like the barriers to building this world and what feels like the supports in place?

Capitalism is a barrier! Prisons and white liberal politics are a barrier! The need to rely on foundation money with strings attached in order to run programs and get resources to communities is a barrier! I think about the amount of time and money spent on trying to get time and money. Imagine if we spent that time doing all of these other things. It’s a cycle that never ends. Barriers are also individual and collective anxiety that has people on a survival, fight-or-flight response, which is really valid, and also makes for reproducing of trauma and violence.

Other barriers include white folks’ trauma. Whiteness is an incredibly anxious phenomenon and white folks have so much trauma, pain, embarrassment, and shame that when unaddressed, becomes violent ignorance and hoarding of resources. They take, talk over each other, and self-victimize over and over again. It makes it incredibly difficult for Black, indigenous, and white folks to get what they need when this whirlwind of pain, guilt, trauma, embarrassment, shame is ricocheting between white folks as opposed to internal healing and reconnection. It’s hard to do a deep assessment about where we’re at if white folks are not honest, realistic, and truthful with themselves. The way whiteness has distorted our relationship to the earth is a deep barrier. It is of consumption, of power-over, of entitlement. It doesn’t allow the flourishing of other types of relationships which the earth needs and wants. Whiteness tries to apply a mono-cultural relationship to the earth as opposed to uplifting different types of relationships that are possible and necessary. A barrier is the gender binary, and all of the different ways the binary restricts what we allow ourselves and what we deem as possible and accessible.

Our community has deep wisdom. Conversations with my friends — mostly feminine people of color — feel like scripture. I’m like, what you’re saying and how it’s resonating in my heart is deep, it’s a spiritual experience to listen to you speak. Our community has beautiful, powerful freedom fighters that are making sure we’re able to see other realities. If folks with money and financial stability could work through their class privilege we could be honest about the financial abundance that is available. That’s within capitalism; ideally we won’t need that.

Our community has plants, who are so sweet and loving. The other day I was having an anxiety attack while supporting a community member. I was really anxious, I was like oh my god, I need to do 17,000 things right now. Then I drank red clover with holy basil and rose and I was just like (deep breath). Alright. I can not do those things and I can do these things, and that’s what I’ll do today, and I am going to allow that to be enough. That was a spiritual experience, allowing this plant to bring me safely back to earth. They’re ready to do that if we allow them to.

Our communities are able to be abundant, caring, empathetic, and responsive. Oftentimes we feel so helpless and without strategy that we don’t know what to do. The work of community organizers is important in providing people with strategic outlets for grieving and for birthing anew.

Thank you for sharing those reflections. I want to ask about how you refer to plants being ready and willing to offer healing. Why do plants want to help us?

My spiritual worldview is that we’re manifestations of the same things that they are. Something that comes with whiteness is a feeling of a disconnect from the earth and the feeling that we’re not supposed to be here because we’re so destructive. In reality we are not so destructive; whiteness and capitalism are. When people are like, humans are so messed up to the earth, that’s disrespectful and erasing of different forms of relating and loving the earth that have existed and continue to exist through lineages of Native folks around the world and otherwise. Plants are invested in the future as much as we are because our future is intertwined. They’ll outlive us, if need be. But I think that they’re empathetic and community-oriented. To me that means being giving, grounding, and sometimes making you face the hard shit with tenderness, intention, and purpose. Plants want to support us not because they’re like, I think humans need support, but because it’s the natural foundation of the systems of the earth which are giving, intertwined, and spiritually alive. I’m theorizing, but maybe plants are also like, come back, I have medicine for you, I have love for you, please remember our interconnections. Please listen to the earth, please listen to us. Sometimes a way to convince us to come back is by moving through our bodies, and having our bodies be what tell us that we need to return to the earth, our roots, and medicine and healing to survive.

Thank you for expanding; I’m going to appreciate thinking about that moving forward. What do you need right now to be where you’re at and do what you’re doing?

Love, support, tenderness, forgiveness, accountability. More organized QTIPOC (queer, trans intersex folks of color) community.

I need people to keep an eye on Venezuela, to be critical and not listen to most information coming from either the U.S. or Venezuelan government but to be actively seeking more community-based narratives. I’m terrified that the U.S. government is gonna take advantage of this, “intervene,” and steal the oil and our futures.

I need reminders to drink water, more skill shares, more dancing, more poetry. I need to sing more. I have a serious energetic block in my throat and I’m trying to figure out how to address it. I think I need to sing more.

I want to say that if a person finds themselves in a position where they can provide community support, I encourage them to. It’s not only beneficial to the community but it’s also personally healing to reclaim control of our lives and our communities through the giving and receiving of support — emotional, resources, tenderness, food, money. To be able to recognize what you can provide and to do so is powerful and important for all of us to thrive. I think, if community can, community should. That’s what I’ll leave it at.

Sol (they/them) is a queer, mixed brujx and community organizer living, writing and learning on the land of the Wampanoag, currently known as Boston, MA. They are currently Community Organizer with Matahari Women Workers’ Center and Volunteer Coordinator with Feminine Empowerment Movement Slam (FEMS). They’ve been trained by United Students Against Sweatshops, Gibrán X. Rivera’s Evolutionary Leadership Program, and life experience. They love poetry, plant wisdom, stretching, their spiritual guides, their tarot cards and their mentors. Their heart and spirit are committed to healing and justice. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Amina on collectivizing, rethinking roles, and balancing community accessibility with personal sustainability

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Photo by Eva Wô

What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name’s Amina. If I’m doing music or art or running my mouth about politics, I identify myself as Amina Shareef Ali. If I’m putting on a professional hat in my work as a therapist, I identify myself with a different name.

How are you doing?

Right in the moment, I feel good. In life in general, I’m good. I love my relationships, my kid, my clients, the people I get to share my music with, and the people I’m in community with. It’s that middle level that’s trickiest — between the right this second and the bigger picture. Depression has been wafting in and out over the last several weeks. It’s hard to get to the bottom of. Sometimes it helps to be a therapist to conceptualize your own mental stuff, and sometimes it really doesn’t. Sometimes I think depression can be productive, to use a loaded word — it’s doing something. I’m depressed because my psyche is working through something.

How are you moving through depression at the moment?

I try to keep a handle on different places where it could adversely impact things. I have not yet been in a space where I couldn’t fully show up for clients. I take that seriously. I’ve been heartened to discover that often if I’m struggling, doing therapy work with someone else often helps me. I can put myself aside and show up for them in a way that feels good. I can feel my strength. I want to be thankful for that and not exploit it by overbooking myself, and not let any structure exploit it. Extra reserves of energy should be honored as a gift from your deeper self.

I feel like that’s the feminized labor of one’s psyche. What do you make of that experience — that being in pain is where you find strength to show up for others?

I lived through my twenties as a boy and transitioned almost a year ago. Something I distinctly remember from before my transition was that women, femme, or AFAB (assigned female at birth) people in my life would be the ones expressing distress. I would move into this role of being the rock, the stabilizing force. I want to be able to describe this without judgement, because there were situations where that was valuable and appreciated. As a boy, there was a way of shoring up my feelings of self control and masculine composure. Now, I’m femme, I’m more emotionally competent than ever before in my life, and I also cry and break down more than I ever did in my life. How do we understand that? I think about this position where I’m vulnerable and have a lot of feelings I can’t control, and then I pull it together and hold space for someone else, a role that I previously would have conceptualized as masculine. I’m in both of these roles. This first one gets devalued and isn’t seen as work. But it is. It’s work that my psyche is doing. Maybe it makes the other one possible.

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Amina and her partner Claire. Photo by Eva Wô.

Dang, I’m not ready for this today… Thank you for sharing that. What do you see as your role and work in creating the world you want to live in?

I want to track some of my evolution as a radical. I got my first liberal arts college canned social justice framework in the early 2000s. It blew my mind at the time, but it didn’t dig deeper or ask, where did this come from, what was there before, and how is it made and re-made every day? How can we fight it and how can’t we? I became a radical around 2011 when Occupy popped off. In the Oakland radical scene there were lots of smashy anarchists. My dear friend Brian Belknap, my favorite songwriter in the Bay and an old Leninist, became my de facto mentor for a while. I felt pulled between those sides. You see the hammer and sickle on my arm. I feel somewhat aligned with a Marxist tradition and materialism; I also saw the intellectual and moral poverty of existing socialist groupings. It’s like, this is the theory I align with so these should be my people. But I look at how y’all act in response to difference, and I’m like, no, you’re not my team. I also felt critical of certain strains of anarchism that seemed self-satisfied to work on these projects that seemed really isolated. I didn’t feel like I could join a team and I really wanted to. Then three and a half years ago, my kid Hazel was born. I haven’t engaged in anything that would be recognized as political. I’m not going to no meetings; I’m not going to many actions in the streets. It’s caused me to rethink.

I read in one of your posts that many people have mentioned Emergent Strategy. My partner Hannah was captivated by it and motivated to put together a reading group. Hannah came into my life four months after Hazel was born, after I already had a full life of parenting, music, trying to do politics, and having another partner. Shortly after that I would go back to school to become a therapist. I felt instinctively it was important to be a part of this group, not because of the book itself but because what I and we need to be doing is building theoretical knowledge with people we’re already in relationship with — rather than having a canned theory and being like, that’s your team, go over there. How you’re in relationship and how you show up and how your lives are weaved together is what matters. The group has met a handful of times, and catalyzed a lot of churning around of my process.

I see the overall landscape as pretty fucking bleak. I see decades of the Left disintegrating and getting less organized and less rigorous. You have people scrambling trying to recruit and build big organizations quickly. But y’all have no history together. You don’t have any real bonds except for what you believe and some lil’ roster. It’s relatively easy to build an organization that has some espoused beliefs, is good at recruiting people, and in the end, is gonna tell people to hold their nose and vote for a Democrat. It’s harder to build something with versatility to be like yo, can we join this fight to stop this person from being evicted? Can we raise children together? Can we support this person in crisis? That flexibility has to happen on a small scale with the people you already have relationships and trust with.

There’s tension between, how do we apply our ideals around autonomy and collectivity, and see how they play out in relationship and in community; versus knowing that capitalism and all these other systems are always going to undermine us so we can’t actually build a utopia in a little bubble, and that there has to be a fight for revolution and abolition of all these structures. In my mind, the former is more anarchist-aligned and the latter is more communist or socialist aligned. And I’ve been guilty of undervaluing that first strategy; I felt it was important and participated in it, but I also undervalued it. The conception I have now is, it’s necessary but not sufficient. My internalized anarchist makes the error of knowing that it’s necessary, but forgetting it’s not sufficient; my internalized communist makes the error of knowing it’s not sufficient, but forgetting that it’s still necessary.

For one, I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about not plugging in to overtly political work. There are good fights happening all the time that need support. I know that I don’t have capacity to bottomline something. I’m open to being called on to give to this person’s bail fund, or show up to swell the crowd, but I’m not trying to seek out something to give myself to. I think that’s really okay for where I am in life. My life is very full trying to keep my relationships strong, parent my child, do my therapy work, and have enough left to do things that bring me joy. I want to understand those things as being enough — I feel implicitly that they are.

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Amina and her partner Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô.

It’s so funny the way that we’re talking about certain kinds of labor being devalued and erased. In the course of this conversation I find myself in a dance between trying to not do that and then still doing it, for all those things i just described. Like, the labor of being a therapist is really valorized. Hannah checked me on this and I’m super grateful for that. I believe what I do is valuable, but there’s a way in which we find ourselves conceding to a more conservative logic if we’re not careful. Recently I was feeling devalued by someone and I responded like, ‘Fuck that, I’m doing good work as a therapist and I’m supporting a lot of queers who’ve been through a lot of trauma and I’m helping them heal and that’s valuable.’ Hannah has done paid work as a peer counselor and a direct care provider and now works in landscaping, and shows up for people whether they’re in crisis or just need a hand. They actively seeks out trainings to work on their shit and lend support, and they watch Hazel one day a week. And they told me, ‘I don’t do anything that is ever gonna be valorized as therapy is and I probably never will. But what I do isn’t less valuable.’ I realized they were right and I’d been tripping. I don’t want to devalue other people or myself in that way.  

My therapy work and parenting are both held up and valorized in a particular way.  But there’s also just showing up in my relationships. A couple years ago I thought I was pretty good at being in relationships but these last years have really turned my head around. I’ve learned about really nurturing them. Creating chosen family isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch. There’s a material base for nuclear formations and for people to revert back to that. How do we materially try to undo that without getting assimilated into heteropatriarchy? How do webecome more collective? Our family structure has been a chain of five or six partners over the past few years, with no one along the way dating each other. We’re all bound together one-to-one-to-one, so making decisions like who lives with who, how we spend time, who’s responsible for finding childcare, etcetera reverts to couples. How do we collectivize and facilitate everyone being able to talk to everyone else, not just through their partners? Our lives are linked together already, but if we don’t want to just disintegrate into individual couples, that’s something that needs to happen.

Why is it important to collectivize and materialize ideals that aren’t the heteropatriarchy?

Our heritage as humans is collectivity. What ties our family together is we’re all involved in Hazel’s life to some extent. We’re all seeing and spending time with Hazel at least once a week. Parenting can be really isolating, even if you’re on a more upwardly mobile professional track. One of the ways in which people are recouped into bourgeois and heteropatriarchal structures is by professionalizing as much as possible so you can buy back the community support that doesn’t exist because of historical development. I’m not trying to get relief from parenting by paying someone else to replace me in that role. I’m not trying to perform a more valuable kind of labor and pay someone for their less valuable labor. Collectivity is the way to get relief that doesn’t involve assimilating in that way.

What is the world you want to live in?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about utopia — like what will life look like after the rev. After people don’t have to live in urban centers — where all the jobs are concentrated in places the workers can’t afford the rents — what will it look like when 10 years or 50 years or 100 years after? Without highways and sprawl? When there are cars built over 100 years ago are still being maintained but you don’t need very many of them, and these roads are just gardens or homes or wild space. What will gender look like? What will our families and relationships look like? I can fantasize that far-off, dream thing. There’s value in that.

But I’ve abandoned any strategy of how to get there. Like I said, the picture in the immediate term is pretty fucking bleak. I’m positioned where me and at least one of my partners are entering the petty bourgeoisie and will have professionalized careers where we’ll have hopefully some stability. I’ve chosen a path that banks on that. The question for me is: how do I want to live right now that can give myself, my loved ones, and my homies the best chances for joy, prosperity, and thriving — even in the hellscape — while not letting myself be assimilated? The pressure to be “respectable” is going to be really intense for the rest of my life. As a therapist I believe in providing free or low-cost mental health care to poor queers and queers of color. The LGBTQ counseling center where I work is jacking up their fees — our minimum fee is now 45 fuckin’ dollars. As if that’s not enough, it comes with a shit ton of ideological justification, like — this is why this is okay, this is why actually people can afford it. I’m expected to swallow that. If I call bullshit too loudly I put myself in danger. How do I speak up when it’s right, keep my head down when there’s not much to be gained, and not fucking drink the Kool Aid? I entered the field for a number of reasons, but one of them was certainly wanting to be more stable than being a broke musician kid. But when I enter private practice and it’s up to me to set the fees, what am I gonna charge? What do I hope to make?  What do I see as being my purpose of doing this work? How am I gonna square those? The sliding scale will always be at odds with my own individual prosperity. Most people just say fuck it. I’m gonna have to resist that my whole career if I want to actually still be able to help the people who wouldn’t be able to access it any other way.

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Claire, Amina, Hazel, and Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô

What are the barriers and the supports in making the work that you’re doing sustainable?

I don’t know if there’s another field besides therapy that has more of a gulf between its self-concept as a progressive force and the actuality of it. I’m an outsider in the professional psychology environments I’ve been in, but there are some homies, and I need to link up with them. We need to hold each other in community, support each other, and hold each other accountable. That’s one of the biggest projects of what I want to take on in this field. That will be both work and a support for me once I can get it going — once we can get it going. The alternatives are either assimilate or be completely fucking isolated and burned out.

Your vision of collectivizing in relationship to your therapy work feels connected to what we were talking about in your personal relationships — creating microcosms of the world you want to live in. Are there people, books, or works of art you want to shout out as things that guide your heart and mind on your path?

Not really. I feel like for any given radical person who may read this, you’ve got a sense of what your values are. You probably feel like, here are some things I know and feel good about, and here are some people who are babies and don’t know as much as me, and here are some people who’ve been at it way longer and know way more than me. Even if that’s true and there’s different quantities of knowledge and experience, we can hold that without judgement. Of course there are people who have been here longer than you because you’ve been around exactly how long you’ve been around. Wherever you’re hoping to go, you don’t need to go experience the things that the people you feel know more than you have experienced or read the things that they’ve read. It doesn’t really matter what you read. You should find something you’re interested in that people around you are interested in and go in on it together. If there’s difference, find a way to share it. The process of doing that is going to be the most valuable thing.

It’s less about the what and more about the how.

Yeah, because these are people you already have relationships with. You already eat meals together, work on a project together, work in the same workplace, share a household. It’s like okay, so we have some sense of how to work together and we’re linked up on a material level. So let’s build our knowledge together from that. And build relationships that’s based on building that together, and bring other people in.

Amina Shareef Ali is, in any order, a folksinger jerk, a therapist in training, a partner and parent, an enemy of capital and the state, and a flagrant mixed race queer transgirl. She hails from St. Louis and lives in Oakland. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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