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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Kemi on healing intergenerational trauma, culture shift work, and how creativity makes them come alive

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Photo by Ally Almore

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

My name is Kemi Alabi. I am a Black, queer, non-binary femme. Child of immigrants — an immigrant father and a mother with lineage in the south. Leo sun, Capricorn rising, Scorpio moon.

How are you doing?

I just saw Black Panther twice within the last twelve hours. Engaging with cultural products that have a rigorous imagination around Black communities thriving is incredibly refreshing. As someone with a Nigerian father and Black American mother, it’s invigorating to engage with something looking at the continent from outside of the colonial gaze — not that that hasn’t had its influence on the film or how it was made. It’s radical to imagine that future and to have it so widely distributed. It’s been an exciting weekend to engage with other Black folks around this imaginative opportunity for us. I’m buzzing from that. The theater was full of Black people who were just living — all dressed up, and the way we’re engaged with these powerful moments felt liberatory. I’m excited for what we can imagine next — healthy, thriving Black communities that exist without centering whiteness or the anti-Black narratives that have been the through line that gets created and distributed in this county.

That’s so good. I first met you seeing you perform your poetry in college. Do you still spend time on poetry?

Yeah, that’s still a huge part of my life. I value cultural space as a place where communities build narrative power for themselves. Culture and politics are so inextricably linked. I’ve been writing beyond college and that’s been really gratifying. I also work for Forward Together. We hold cultural and movement building strategies, and grassroots power-building strategies. Recently I got to work with poets for our Trans Day of Resilience project where we paired poets with a visual artist and together they imagined a future where trans folks of color could thrive. To cultivate imagination is already a radical act, but to be able to have the resources to be able to distribute it as a cultural process that other people are engaging with is something I’m really grateful to be involved with.

I also manage Echoing Ida, a program for Black women and non-binary writers which engages us in the narrative power of journalism like op-eds, reported features, and interviews. Narrative and culture shift is interwoven in my everyday, whether it’s facilitating it through my professional work or doing it myself as a writer.

I’d love to hear you talk more about why that’s where you’ve chosen to put your energy. What is powerful about culture shift work for you and for a broader ‘us’?

We live in a world with material consequences and material inequality. When I was coming up, I thought that to engage with that work was purely about building a very particular type of power to move institutional levers. But especially as someone socialized as a Black girl growing up in Wisconsin with an immigrant father, there’s also a truth to what it means to unlearn these hegemonic ideals that actually create our political space. There’s a clear interplay between our political systems and our cultural ideas. I studied political science and philosophy, and one of the main things I learned is — basically a bunch of white dudes got to write whole worlds into being. They created arguments that justified them and planted seeds of ideas that were taken as truths and built empires. I really believe in the power of ideas. Race, gender, and nation-states are upheld by ideas that are like the air we breathe. So what does it mean to try to re-program what people think is common sense? Where I grew up, trying to untangle what is common sense is not a matter of voter registration and winning an election, it’s a matter of changing the cultural products people are engaging with in the day-to-day. What type of narratives are taught in our schools, what type of narratives are in popular culture? That’s where we get these formative ideas.

There’s this quote at [our alma mater] Boston University’s Howard Thurman Center: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I’m not an organizer. I have always loved words and writing. I come alive when I’m interacting with narratives, stories, and creative space. Culture shift work is where I get the juice. It’s perhaps less valued as a site for justice work to happen, and seen as less tangible than our political institutions. But once we name what the dominant narratives are, we can then do the work of changing them.

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Photo by Ally Almore

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I ask this question of myself a lot, because who knows. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have the skills I need to make change. I consider myself in the role of student and listener, and trying to figure out what it means to be in community and engage in cultural work. I am in a reflective place with my writing. My role is someone who’s trying to imagine freedom, and use my tools and facilitation skills to get other people to think about and answer that question. I find myself in community with other Black queer artists and writers grappling with the question of what it means to heal ourselves and our communities, and thinking about how to engage with that in our work and create space for one another.

People always talk about self-care and healing as if it’s a side project from the real work. What’s your perspective on how healing fits into movement work?

When I first tried to engage in organizing spaces, I was coming with so much trauma. We’re all working through our traumas. Doing so in interdependent community requires that we show up in a different way. The healing work that I’ve begun I’ve learned from other Black women and femmes I’ve been in movement spaces with. As I was trying to engage with this political work that’s deeply personal, there was no other option. It was like, engage with the hard-as-fuck work of healing… or collapse, and don’t do the work at all.

We as Black queer and trans folks are carrying intergenerational trauma in our bodies and within our families. The work of imagining something else is deeply challenging. I see healing as the gateway. I see it as a facilitative process to be able to engage with our deeply fucked political system in a sustainable way without burning out, giving up, and re-traumatizing one another. To be able to be in right relationship with one another well enough to move forward together requires that we handle our shit.

I’d love to hear about some components of your healing process.

I was raised Baptist christian, in a church that was not affirming, grounding, or engaging in the political world with integrity. I left in righteous anger, but in a way that also estranged me from my own spirit, intuition, and relationship with myself. I’ve been encountering Black folks who engage with more ancestral practices — practices that are less connected with colonization, white supremacy, capitalism, and the enlightenment rational-thought-over-everything-mindset. They’ve introduced me to some altar and ancestor practices that have connected me deeply with my intuition. I have a beautiful hella Black, hella queer tarot deck I pull from — Shrine of the Black Medusa by Casey Rocheteau, a Black queer poet out of Detroit. Whether or not I’m practicing the nuts and bolts of Orishas, Yoruba, and other African spiritual practices, these practices reconnect me with my intuition, my body, and the idea that our emotions are information to be valued and listened to. That has been deeply healing. Spiritual practices that allow me to trust and listen to myself again allow me to better be in community with other people. My practice involves my altar setup, with photos of my family, some artwork, crystals that I engage with, candles, and the deck I mentioned. Because I’m a queerdo, I think about chosen ancestors. As opposed to a blood lineage, I think about lineages of purpose. Whose purposes am I continuing here on this earth and how am I in communication with those folks? I’m a depressed and anxious person. It’s way easier for me to live in this life if I think I’m not figuring this out from scratch, there are so many people who came before me. I’m a continuation of a lineage and a purpose and that’s why I’m here. Every day I ask for an invitation by pulling a card and let it invite a question I can interrogate. Something to guide me through. Meditation has been huge for me. As someone who’s really estranged from my body, the practice of meditating and thinking about my chakras has been wild. In Oakland I started going to East Bay Meditation Center which is a deeply politicized spiritual space. I can’t explain what that space did for me as far as what it healed between my mind and my body and my spirit to be able to engage in a meditation practice.

I noticed you said ‘reconnecting,’ instead of just connecting. What is that in reference to?

It’s in reference to capitalism. We live within a system that relies on estranging our bodies from our minds. Our labor is divorced from ourself because it belongs to someone else. My mom and brothers are still working themselves to death in jobs that aren’t aligned with purpose just to grab some coin and get out of debt. Black folks have no wealth. Blackness was created to exploit the labor of stolen people. The premise of capitalism is estrangement from the self, for the purposes of giving our labor to amass wealth for white people. That estrangement exists in every level of our lives. It exists within the self, within our body, in our minds and spirits. It exists in our relationships with each other and with the earth, because capitalism has informed how we are in relationships of extraction. We’re born into systems that rely on and cultivate that estrangement. I find it necessary to transform those relationships into something that’s more balanced, harmonious, and connected. When I say reconnect, I mean that I believe we’re not creating a brand new future. I think about indigenous peoples and pre-colonized societies. There’s knowledge we have lost rather than knowledge that we’ve never had. These systems are interruptive. The healing we do is a way to return to right relationship as opposed to getting them for the first time. But as someone born into these systems and of my particular background, I cannot exactly know a time when I was connected with my body, intuition, neighbors, or family.

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Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

I think it’s Movement Generation that says the foundation of society is not the individual but the relationship. I think about right relationship a lot. What it really means to be able to name our needs for one another and to meet those needs in community, to really be interdependent with one another. Not extracting from one another but figuring out what that sustainable relationship is with one another and ourselves, what it means to live and thrive on this earth. People have different answers but I think it’s a matter of developing all the resources that we need to manifest these lives of dignity and purpose. What does it mean to reimagine a city, or any community where what is produced is shared with all its community members? The first step is cultivating imagination and trust. You can’t just dismantle capitalism and expect everyone to know where to go. We’re estranged from what we actually want and need from life and from one another.

I can’t name what the world should look like. But I know that it takes building completely different types of relationships with one another and being able to meet each others’ needs without these hierarchal goal systems that extract whatever skills and labor we have and move it somewhere else. If we had already imagined a system that vibed with everyone, there’d be a train there by now, but that’s part of the problem, right? We’re waging these wars where the opposition already has a very clear image of what they want the world to look like, because it’s what the world looks like now. One of the huge barriers to victory for any type of movement for justice is not being able to present a shared vision of what another world looks like. Right now, people are in deeply imagining spaces so that folks can invite more people in to movement work by presenting real valuable alternatives. It’s in process. I’m excited to see what those are and what they can be.

Our imaginations are battlegrounds. We cede so much imagination to those who keep power from us. If you look at literature of people who have lived under fascism and study how language and certain cultural products are disseminated under particular types of governments, it’s always been very much in the interest of power to control ideas of people. That shit really works. If you can’t imagine it, you can’t fight for it, and you can’t build it. Our imaginations have always been under siege in a very particular way.

I’d love to hear what you see in your life as the supports and resources for you being in this work, and what are the things that feel like barriers or limitations for you to be in this work in a sustainable way?

It’s hard to say everything I’m saying about radical imagination when folks don’t have money. I have a family with debt and histories of incarceration and addiction. I’m in a relative position of access to capital and resources and sometimes think I just gotta hustle to provide for my folks and to be a stabilizing force — you know, participate in capitalism, hoard resources, and be on my Black capitalist tip. There are immediate material needs to be met. The reality, stress, confusion, and deeply depressing parts of that feel like the biggest limiting factor.

Engaging with all of the horrors of this world is really overwhelming. I don’t necessarily have the constitution. I just moved to Chicago, where I’m not really in community with folks in the way I imagine as liberatory. It’s community that I’m working on building and I’m excited to plug in. But to be without a sense of place and interdependence means the work I want to engage with is largely theoretical at this point. But all of the amazing Black writers and artists who I’ve connected with here are engaging with invaluable ideas and narrative shifts. Everyone has been bringing up the idea of darkness. I just met up with a new writer friend of mine, R.L. Watson, who does visual art and writes fiction, poetry, and plays. She’s thinking about the reframe of darkness — away from the binary opposition to white and to light, which serves a clear purpose within our society. So many people are on a similar wavelength creatively. We’re all feeling this juju. Thinking about the visibility of Black poetry and Black art in general over the last few years, I don’t want to jinx it by calling it a renaissance, but we’re in a cultural moment that feels significant. Connecting with people who are exploring similar ideas of Black liberation in their work feels sustaining to me. To be riding similar wavelengths with other Black artists locally and figuring out ways that we can work together and build work off of one another as opposed to working separately feels really sustaining to me. Then through Forward Together to be able to combine culture shift projects with movement building, and bring this narrative and culture shift work to organizations around the country feels powerful. The barriers are trying to hold on to how much I value culture shift work, and being bombarded with the immediate material needs of myself, my family, and the people around me.

I don’t know if you listened to the episode of [adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown’s podcast] “How to Survive the End of the World,” when one of the sisters describes something as her darkest moment and corrects herself to instead call it her palest moment.

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

It’s such a simple reframe, but also very powerful.

The artist I was talking with this morning is R.L. Watson. She’s getting her phD in literature and engaging with the history of lynching and the white imagination of Black people. She’s engaging with old racist texts for her research, and was struck by how horrifically simple the idea of anti-Black racism is. White identity formation is based on the othering and imagined evil of people with dark skin. Distinct European folks created a shared identity that gave them the numbers to have power, which has persisted and is integrated into all of our culture. She was struck. She was like, this is a stupid text, the prose was awful, but it’s a very simple, powerful idea. The systems that are oppressing us are built on these simple but powerful ideas. It can be dumbfounding to figure out how to meaningfully engage in the realm of ideas, but when you get down to it, they’re powerful, small, stupid, simple ideas we’re waging a battle against. I’m excited that some seeds of it, like this idea of darkness, are being turned over. I’m excited to see what other levers can be simultaneously pushed by writers, artists, and cultural makers as we untangle white supremacy together. White supremacy is such a simple, terrible idea.

It’s so interesting to think about something being simultaneously so fragile and simple, and also so insidious and empowered by its proliferation.

Absolutely. I was really empowered by Toni Morrison, who’s a great writer and thinker, published an essay called Mourning for Whiteness. It did a very simple thing for me, but it was huge. It took power away from whiteness by not framing our current political moment as a moment of white empowerment, but as the last throes of empire. More specifically, she was mourning the humanity of white people — seeing this political moment as a clear sign of humanity lost and estranged from an entire people. That idea was to relocate power elsewhere and not in necessarily who is owning and exercising power through political systems, but who is in right relationship with their humanity. This lightning-shocked me. Narrative shifts that resonate with people are important for being able to locate power in oneself and one’s community. Everyone should read that essay.

That perspective is so true, but it takes so much compassion to acknowledge that what’s really under all the violence and oppression of white supremacy is the disconnection and loss of humanity. Of course compassion is not in contradiction to righteous anger, but ultimately it’s gonna be more sustainable, right?

Right, and that’s what I think about — what is sustainable? What is an empowering narrative? I’m all about some righteous anger. But also it’s really important to relocate power in other ways.

Who are the other artists, writers, and works who are inspiring and guiding you right now?

I mentioned my chosen ancestors. I’m also trying to discover who my poetic elders are. I’m in community with so many Black writers and poets; I’m getting so much from so many people. Whether it’s the greats like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin or contemporary poets like Danez Smith, whose latest connection was Don’t Call Us Dead, which was about the idea that the death of murdered Black boys is not a spiritual death — that there is more freedom in death, a life and joy beyond. So transformative. Black artists have engaged with this idea for a long time, even in popular culture. In Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s “Never Catch Me”  music video directed by Hiro Murai, we see a funeral for two children. As soon as the song kicks up, the children rise from their caskets and start dancing. No one in the pews notices — they still see dead children — but we as the audience see them dance out of the pews with this ridiculous amount of joy. They leave the funeral parlor, jump into the back of a hearse, and drive the hearse down the street with all of these kids running after it.

For Black Futures Month, Black Lives Matter paired artists with writers to imagine liberated Black futures. We’re in a cultural moment where we’re imagining Black joy and freedom throughout a lot of different disciplines. It’s not new. Black artists have always been doing that interrogation and that reaching beyond. I’m only engaging with work by Black artists because I’m trying to be in that particular space of imagination. I’m very excited to then engage with other writers of color and indigenous writers who are doing that work. But I’m finding it really important for me to locate that within Black folks first.

Is anything else coming up for you in the course of this conversation?

I’m just a person who’s trying to live with integrity and a sense of freedom in a deeply unfree place. I’m so in process, and I’ve been in a space of trying to be deeply compassionate with myself as I figure out how to show up in movement and organizing spaces. Especially as someone who’s just moved to a new city, I find myself in a point of deep transition. I’m like, what work am I doing, what is actually happening? I am just a person who is asking a lot of questions and figuring out how I can best be in service of people around me and of the communities I come from. That service might look different a few months or a year or decades from now, and hopefully it does. As I keep gaining skills and knowledge, and engaging with different people in different communities, I’ll find that I have the skills to fill the different needs that arise. But who knows what I’m doing now. Just trying to figure out how to thrive.

Kemi Alabi is a writer, editor and teaching artist from Wisconsin. Their poetry and essays live in The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic, The Guardian, TEDx, Catapult, Apogee Journal, Winter Tangerine, BOAAT, Nat. Brut and elsewhere. As editorial manager of Forward Together, they hold down Echoing Ida, a home for Black women and nonbinary writers. They’re also a poetry reader for Muzzle Magazine. Kemi lives in Chicago and believes in Black queer futures. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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Photo by Mika Munoz

Bridget on accessible herbalism, ‘wellness’ as a construct, and living in the world her ancestors would have wanted to

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

My name is Bridget. I am an herbalist, a queer person of color, a femme, an Iranian-American, and a lot of other things.

How are you doing?

I’m doing a lot better than I was a year ago. Like many others, I was in a dark place post-election. This year has included challenges, deep sadnesses, and frustrations, but it’s also been tempered with hope, community, and feeling more held. I’m doing better.

Are there material shifts in your life you can trace to that change?

I am in healthier relationships now than I was in the past. I’ve come out more to my family and to the world. I’ve been ‘out’ to friends since I moved here five years ago, but it’s been a slow coming out process to other people in my family and to the public. That’s felt good. I also got a well-paying, nice job at a bakery, Sweet Adeline’s, two blocks down the street where I show up, do my easy job with nice people, and make good money. That made a huge difference for me. I was struggling to thrive on herbalism stuff and not making enough money.

How has coming out as a queer person been for you?

I’ve known I was queer for a long time. My dad’s family is in Iran, so I grew up with my mom’s family. Most of them are liberal-leaning democrat-types, but the patriarch and matriarch — my mom’s parents — are Trump-supporting assholes who love their family but no one outside of it. It’s strange to be a racially mixed person in that family, and also queer, and nobody knows it. I hear both homophobic things as well as blatantly racist and Islamophobic things people say while knowing I’m middle-eastern and my dad is Muslim. Because of that and because of my identity as a femme it was easy to pretend to be straight. I was in a relationship with a cis guy and people would leave me alone. But more and more I want to be authentic to myself and care less about what other people are gonna think, say, and do. I’m not going to be someone else for your benefit. It’s taken a long time to arrive at and to be honest with my family about how painful it’s been being a mixed Middle Eastern person in a group where everybody else was white and christian. It’s been hard and super devastating, but being on the other side of it, it was a good idea. Ultimately I want to have more authentic connections with people including family members. If they can get to a place where they understand who I am and want to still engage with me, great. If not, it’s not a worthwhile connection for me anymore.

How did you come to herbalism and what does that work look like in your life today?

I came to herbalism from a health crisis. A decade ago I developed Graves Disease, an overactive thyroid immune disorder. The ‘normal’ treatment is to get your thyroid irradiated. I was 20, getting stressed out with heart palpitations and other weird symptoms. I went to a specialist’s office and waited an hour and a half for my appointment. I got in and the doctor was looking down at her chart when she walked in the door and didn’t even make eye contact with me. She was like, okay you have Grave’s Disease, when would you like to schedule your radiation? I was like, whoa — step one is to destroy this organ that isn’t working with radioactivity — so badly I can’t touch people for three days? I was like, is there nothing else I could possibly do? She said no. I decided to go home and do some research, and started trying some plants instead. After a year of taking a formula with lemon balm, I have totally normal lab work and I have ever since. My other option would have been to destroy this organ that’s basically the conductor of your entire system. I would have had to take a pill to replace it for the rest of my life and if I didn’t, I would die.

After that I was student teaching and it was really challenging. I was 22, teaching 17 year-olds U.S. history at 7:30 in the morning their last semester of high school. There were 35 kids in my classes; there were kids in the class who couldn’t read in the same class with kids applying to Ivy League schools. I wanted to be a history teacher so I could change the world by making people think differently and showing them the truth. But all the kids I was taking care of were so ill all the time. They were getting coughs, colds, sore throats, stomach aches, and they were stressed and depressed. I realized I wanted to work at a different point in the line, and focus on more bodily and mind healing as opposed to political considerations.

unnamedI came out here with the plan of going to school at the California School of Herbal Studies. When I moved out here I was just like, oh I’ll just save up money for a little bit and then be able to pay for it. Then I got to the Bay Area and realized that’s a joke, no one saves money out here. So, I have a deathly pine nut allergy. I ate something from Berkeley Bowl with pine nuts in it that was improperly labeled and ended up almost dying. I was blue and practically unconscious and having seizures when I got to the hospital. I ended up suing Berkeley Bowl, which I was torn about at first because I didn’t want to fuck up a local company. Then I realized their insurance company in Kentucky was going to give me money, not them, and was like, okay. They gave me just enough money to pay to go to school immediately.

While I learned a lot about plants and met some of the most important people in my life at CSHS, the school itself sucked. It’s a bunch of white hippies appropriating indigenous, Asian, and other cultures, and not addressing it. It was horrible. It was hard being one of only two people of color in the whole class. When I was done I told myself I wouldn’t do a second year herbalism program unless it was in Oakland, in my price range, and taught by queer women of color. A year later, Ancestral Apothecary opened. I just finished my second year with them. It was the exact opposite of California School of Herbal Studies. Everything came from a place of — figure out what your ancestors did and cultivate that. Everybody has indigenous medicine in their line. You can share in that respectfully and not act like it’s yours.

These days I go out into the hills to harvest things, and have a little garden going here. I’m learning more about the plants my ancestors used. In terms of having it as a business, that’s been challenging. Since herbalists aren’t covered by insurance, all the successful herbalists I know charge around $200 to see them for the first time. That is way too much for the population I’m interested in serving. Instead I’ve been charging people sliding scale to $0, which I feel privileged to be able to do. I respect my teachers and other folks who are charging that much money because they deserve to be able to survive on what they make. For me, my partner makes a good amount of money and I don’t think it’s necessary for me to make that much. I would prefer to be able to serve people who are broke and need attention in that way and not make too much money off of it and work at a bakery three days a week.

The transition from teaching to herbalism is an interesting one, especially in the context of you always seeking to do political work. What do you think is important about supporting people in healing their minds and bodies, especially in a political context?

I want to assist my extended community in feeling the way they want to feel. That’s different than being healthy or ‘well’. There’s this big idea about wellness in the health community. Being ‘well’ is not reasonable for everyone; that’s a normative social construct. There are mad people, there are disabled people, and there are chronically ill people who are never going to fit into what other people determine to be well or healthy. That’s okay. Maybe I can help someone who is manic — they don’t want to stop being manic entirely, but maybe they want to feel less exhausted after a manic episode, or have their episodes to be more manageable, or feel less pain during that time. Whatever their personal goals are, I want to help people to achieve that without people needing to strive for some ridiculous idea of perfection. The more our community feels the way they want to feel, the more they’ll be able to do their work, whatever that is. If they feel better about getting out of bed if they want to, or working from bed if they want to do that. I want to be able to help people to feel more comfortable in themselves.

If there was an inverse of that doctor walking in the room staring at your chart, telling you what to do, then looking at you, that’s it. You’re coming in the room, looking at the person, and helping write that chart together.

Yeah. The first time I had a health practitioner sit with me for an hour was transformative. I’d never experienced that kind of care before. So much of the healing was just in somebody sitting with me and being like, the floor is yours. Letting people conduct and craft the path that we’re gonna go down, not hounding them for answers, not forcing certain things, but just being like okay, what do you need? A lot of it’s talk therapy, honestly. It’s holding space for people while they talk about their lives and what’s hard, what works and what doesn’t, what’s been hurting, and why they’re tired and how sick they are and how frustrating that is. I’ve considered going to school to be a therapist or social worker but in this country you can’t actually combine herbalism with either of those. I couldn’t see someone as a therapist and then prescribe herbs. I’d have to have two separate practices.

Wait, herbalism is regulated even though it’s not covered by insurance?

Yes. It sucks. So I recently decided I’m going to go to school for acupuncture, for a few reasons; one of them being acupuncture is the most covered by insurance of any alternative medicine in this country because there are the most western studies proving its efficacy. As an acupuncturist you can do whatever you want with a patient and bill it as acupuncture — talk therapy, herbs, massage, all kinds of modalities. You don’t have to stick people at all if they don’t want that. I see becoming an acupuncturist as a way to become more accessible. I also like acupuncture because the needling itself is a way to bring someone immediate pain relief, which can be  important for people who are experiencing pain right now, as opposed to herbs which often take time.

As someone who moves through the world with a myriad of identities which I assume requires a lot of emotional labor and emotional self-protection all the time, what is it like for emotional labor to also be a huge element of your herbalism work?

There’s certain grounding techniques and practices I’ll do to protect myself from people’s energies who I’m working with. Sometimes I’ll wear certain plants or stones on my body or use flower essences like yarrow to make sure that I have a boundary but not a wall between myself and other people. The population I work with is often people who have been pierced with all these swords — who have been abused, broke, homeless. Hearing these stories can be heavy and I do have that inclination of wanting to fall into it and give them everything. Thankfully, since I was raised in a family of nurses including my mom, I tend to get calmer the more escalated something or someone tends to be. I can just be like, okay, you just gave me a long list of terrible things that have happened to you — let’s see what we can do.

What is the world you want to live in?

I think a lot about my family members who live in Iran. I started going there when I was 22 and it changed my life and perspective a hell of a lot. A lot in that culture is beautiful and I wish we had more of it here; and there’s certain things that are really restrictive because of the political and government situation. I know I already live in the world a lot of my ancestors wanted to live in. Even though there’s war and death, my little piece of the world is already what my ancestors wish they could have lived in and even what a lot of my family members would also want to live in if they had the space to think about it. I want the kind of world where more people could enjoy and appreciate the joy, freedom, and expansiveness I’ve been able to experience. Happiness, freedom, and expansiveness is everyone’s birthright. I want a world where I don’t have to get nervous about flying back and forth between Iran and the US and I can bring my partners with me, and that world doesn’t exist yet.

My dad’s country has been through so much war in his lifetime. Millions of people were gassed in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s; they lost so much of their population. Over here, we have a certain flavor of anxiety and depression — we feel like the world might end, but we’ve never actually seen it happen. Over there, the world has already ended, many times, and then it starts again. People keep going, people start over. I know there are folks for whom the world is ending or the world has ended already. The resilience that people have is incredible. I would love to see a world where the only kind of deaths and world-endings that we’re dealing with are the kind that are just about the life-death-life cycle that nature has, that people also deserve to have.

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What do you see as your role in helping to build that world?

Being a healer is a part of that role — helping people who are in pain and being able to mitigate suffering. Bring down the pain, bring some grounding in. Another element of my role is expression, which is slowly coming along — writing, making art, and making music that expresses my perspective. Trying to reach out and connect with people in that way. One of my roles in this world is to honor my ancestors and do good by them. Like, hey, I’m alive, none of you are, so I should be doing good work, enjoying this, and honoring what you have done for me.

What are the things in your life that support you on the path you’re on to making that sustainable, and what are the things that feel like barriers?

There’s so many things that are necessary and helpful for that. Connecting with nature and water especially is really important. I grew up right on the water and it’s one of the most cleansing things for me. When I engage with it I feel renewed, like it helps to wash off other energies. Music, dancing, and being able to get out of my head and into my body is helpful. Engaging with other people with shared goals and experiences — carving out time to spend with other femmes of color because it’s uplifting and supportive to be together in that way.

This part is hard for me — but being okay with when I’m not actively doing anything, and trying not to guilt trip. Spending a day where I don’t do anything except play guitar and make myself some dinner, and being okay with that. That’s not me being lazy or not contributing to the cause, I do think there’s a mentality about having to be ‘on’ every day. That really doesn’t work for me. I get super burnt out. Then I really can’t do anything for a while.

I believe and identify as a witch and I believe in magic. And it’s all magic. Taking care of yourself is magic, taking care of other people is magic. Hanging out with plants is magic. We all deserve to have authentic experiences, and we don’t have to give that up to push forward politically. That is the end goal, that we can all just have authentic experiences with ourselves and others and not have to worry about it. We should get a taste of that now.

Are there people, books, plants, works, art, etc that are inspiring you and helping guide the path you’re on?

Rosemary has been my big star for the past couple years. Rosemary is about energetic protection and connecting, especially with feminine ancestors. I’ve called upon rosemary to protect myself from energies that are intrusive false authorities like cops, the law, all of that. She comes through from multiple of my ancestral lines — Italian and the Iranian side — so I feel her strongly. I love her a lot.

I believe in the dream world as a real place where a lot of my magic comes through. I want us all to be able to pay more attention to our dreams, which is a luxury a lot of people don’t have. When you wake up you cant just lay there and think about your dreams and consider them and take in their messages, you have to run to work. But dreams are important. I’ve had some of my most profound experiences in my life in that world. We all deserve to engage with that because a lot of messages from our ancestors, from earth, and from ourselves come through there — but we have to be able to listen. I’m inspired by the messages that come through in dreams and I like to listen to, hold space for, and honor that. I’m inspired by my grandma on my dad’s side who is a dream healer. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

Are there any other thoughts or feelings coming up in the course of this conversation that you want to share?

This is important work. This is my second interview in two weeks; prior to that I don’t think I’ve ever been interviewed before. The other interview was someone doing her thesis on queer American Iranians. It was empowering to talk about my experience and to hear about others’. We need to tell our stories to each other more. It’s easy to get bogged down by all the hard, sad things, and to get too tired and stressed out to engage, hear people’s stories, or to be vulnerable enough to share yours. But it feels good to do this. Every time I read someone else’s story on The World We Want to Live In or in general, it’s like wow, they’re doing such amazing things! But I’m sure when they’re alone they have the same kind of process as me, like they’re depressed and anxious and freaked out and don’t know if they’re doing anything right. Then they talk about what they’re doing, and it’s like, wow, that’s amazing actually. I hope we can all keep validating each other in that way.

Bridget Afsonna is a queer SWANA femme dream witch living on unceded Ohlone land. As an herbalist she is particularly focused on supporting queer, POC, formerly incarcerated, trans and gender-nonconforming, sex worker, indigenous, fat, neurodivergent, and low-income individuals. She does not believe in blaming people for their health statuses or circumstances, but acknowledges that our culture denies many kinds of people access to health and healthcare. She is interested in lifting queer people up with plants and magic so they can experience whatever they fancy. You can find her at bluewillowherbals.comThis interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

Apologies for the radio silence. More to come!

Hello dear friends and others in community,

I just wanted to write a brief note to say that while I am no longer publishing interviews with any regularity, I am still committed to and excited about this project. This week I will be talking with several people who are some conglomeration of parents, herbalists, musicians, poets, and activists — all such crucial roles to play in building the world we want to live in.

I also just wanted to share some people and works and things that have been supporting me recently in taking heart, making connections, and accepting power amidst the rise of fascism and other systems of violence:

  • Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. Several interviewees in this project name this book as a source of energy, ideas, and hope. I experience it similarly and am so grateful for it as a political and personal resource.
  • Salt by Nayyirah Waheed. Beautiful, poignant, mostly short poems. If you’re not ready to buy the book she is a great follow on instagram @nayyirahwaheed.
  • How to Survive the End of the World, a podcast by sisters (!) adrienne maree brown and Autumn Brown. ‘Completion Matters’ was my favorite episode.
  • Rose quartz. This magical stone returned to my consciousness after reading my friend Kemi’s (an upcoming interviewee) poignant instagram post about the TSA digging theirs out of their bag.
  • Introducing tarot to my self-care routine and spiritual life. I’ve been using the Wild Unknown deck — I don’t love the accompanying book and prefer my own and loved ones’ interpretations, but the cards are totally beautiful and striking.
  • Several of my friends’ music, poetry, and work, including but not limited to the poetry and music of Jessica White, the music of Erica Russo, and other witchy magical friends who tend to prefer their privacy…

Thank you so much for reading and supporting this project. Stay tuned.

xo freddie

Panda on reinvention, drag as a tool of resistance, and learning to be a better friend to herself

rupaul's drag con 2017 aaron jay young
photo by Aaron Jay Young

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

My name is Kyle Chu, or Panda Dulce. I am a fourth generation Chinese-American, born and raised in San Francisco, queer person, and drag queen. I use she/her/hers pronouns.

How are you doing?

I’m okay. I’m in an upswing after some ups and downs. 2017 has been a big year — a lot’s happened in the world and in my personal orbit. A friend recently passed who I’ve known from the punk scene since I was young, angry, and becoming. I also made some new friends and began reinventing.

I’m sorry to hear about your losses. What do you mean when you say you’ve been reinventing?

I was heavily involved in direct action and protests since the inauguration. I was very action-oriented, pursuing a lot of creative projects, and working to make my extended family who may have resigned themselves to be politically complacent more cognizant of the issues we’re facing. Given my context, coming out of direct practice social work, I totally burned out on this path. It was holistically consuming. I tried to funnel my energy into drag and looks that would coax action but I ended up self-isolating and retreating because I needed to heal myself, rest, and actually sleep. In the process of doing some high profile work I needed privacy and downtime to recharge.

There’s an expression that says you’ve been building a house your entire life and when you go through your Saturn Return you burn it all down. I just finished my Saturn Return in November. For so long I’ve been on a clear path of activism, social justice, creativity, and have felt intimately connected to the community we’re fortunate to have in the Bay Area. There was a shift that had to something to do with the onslaught of depressing as hell news, the toxicity of social media, and events that happened within our micro-communities in the Bay Area punk scene. A high-profile local scene celebrity was outed as someone who had sexually predated on a lot of women. There was a messy DIY accountability process; people were wheatpasting posters lambasting his character — and others’ in his cadre — all across town. I hated it, I thought it was necessary, and of course, I don’t have a perfect, let alone “better” resolution for this kind of thing. With anything we’re trying to build ourselves, it was new, unfamiliar and more or less Macgyvian.

I saw people get subdued, fall, and steward each others’ trauma in unsustainable ways. Which brought me here. I needed to reinvent myself and the way I process these issues. I’ve withdrawn from a lot of my activism and in its stead, I’ve taken to one-on-one drag mothering queers I meet. Even though drag can also be tiring — editing tracks, hours of makeup, cooking up concepts, looks, and adopting funky side hustles to fund them, it’s reinvigorating to teach someone a craft and watch them learn something new and aesthetically rebirth themselves to reflect their suppressed inner knowings. There’s also something to be said for creating your own makeshift chosen families in that way. I went from trying to impact a huge world that seemed insurmountable to meeting a queer 18-year-old who had experienced a lot of trauma and just wanted to look like a non-terrestrial ball of light.

It sounds like a mutually humanizing experience. Can you speak to the idea of drag as resistance?

I’m reading RuPaul’s autobiography right now just for funzies. One of the things she says is that drag as a queer art form is openly mocking all of the roles that we have internalized and so tightly cling to that we’re unable to see the performance of it anymore. The corners have disappeared. Her whole throughline is “don’t take anything too seriously.” This is not a directive to be problematically carefree, colorblind, and ignore patriarchy. It’s more so to say that drag as a vessel is teaching us to take life more lightly and to laugh in order not to cry. The reason why I enjoy drag is because any fantasy you imagine can be rendered real, palpable, and transmitted through social media. It’s futurist in that sense, like a continual practice of creating boundless “what if” scenarios. Like a lot of art, it’s being able to imagine beyond the scope of your immediate individual work and impact. It’s being able to visualize what you want and bring it to life through crappy CVS products. 

In terms of gender, I have spent a lot of time as a young person feeling very self conscious and having an adversarial relationship with my body, where certain physical aspects and wants have been at stark odds with expectations of me as a partner due to my race and perceived role and stature. I’ve felt that old pain and pull that I must drastically change myself in order to experience love by myself or others/or to participate in a love that is often communicated as solely eros-based, epically Hollywood, traditionally-attractive, able-bodied, hairy, and white. Drag has become a way for that to not be as destructive and as inwardly debilitating as your inner voice can sometimes make it. Drag can become a place to meditate and spend time with yourself. When you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the sequence of them putting on makeup and getting into face lasts five minutes, but when you’re just starting out, drag actually takes three to four hours to get into face and to get to your look. That’s you looking at a mirror at yourself for hours. It’s me sitting, being present, listening to SZA and spending time with myself, forcing myself to confront the reality of who I am, and convincing yourself that you can be as beautiful, as grotesque, as shocking, as whatever as any vision you commit your brush to. That in and of itself has been healing. It’s learning to find love for yourself again, and putting that on blast.

this world is not my own - i'm just passing through
Photo by Urvi Navgrani

When you’re in that meditative process of looking in the mirror and putting intention and imagination into your craft, what do you think is possible for yourself and for the people who witness you?

There’s the aspect of reinvention where you can put on a look that shifts the narrative, either onstage or just for yourself. I’ve always wanted to be a hot girl. It’s being able to revel in showing people everything you’ve held onto internally that you haven’t felt safe enough to manifest physically. Letting it explode. Drag wants a reaction from people. Everything is big. The earrings and hair are big, you make your eyes and lips bigger, you overdraw everything. It’s like yelling at someone to look at you, the inverse of how invisible I’ve felt for a long time. It’s kind of punk. The act of declaring yourself a wild tropical bird you have to look at is arresting in and of itself. It flips everything I’ve experienced in the gay community so far; it makes me feel powerful and big in a milieu that often makes me feel small, irrelevant, and ignored.

What do you see as your role and work in this political moment in your shift to focusing on intimate, emotional connections and work?

I’ve always been in a nurturing or coaching role. I have a twin brother with a disability and I have been coaching, teaching, and guiding him and others who come in contact with him for my entire life. Working with people with disabilities introduced me to working with people of other marginalized identities in social work. I’m fortunate through my art to have met a lot of young drag queens and punks from similar backgrounds who are coming up. The capacity I feel most comfortable with is bringing people up and trying to help them become their best selves. When people find what it is that invigorates them I like to be someone who can help them magnify that.

I appreciate you naming that as work. Many of us have internalized the emotional labor we and others do for granted, work that is often feminized labor and really crucial for building the world we want to live in. What is the world you want to live in?

You know that Lauryn Hill adage, “how are you gon’ win if you ain’t right within?” You need to start with yourself before you assume anything external. I’m addressing the queer male community in particular when I say this —  everyone is struggling to fit a limiting image — fit, white, masculine, and other valued attributes that causes immense splitting and only actually applies to a small hegemonic portion of the community. It’s suffocating, yet everyone is indoctrinated to want it. So the ones who embody this end up presiding over the rest in what ultimately resembles in-crowd go-go dancers looking down upon the rest of their stratified small town high school cafeteria. It’s kinda bleak. I feel like I’m operating in a parallel dimension where everyone I choose to hang with is compassionate, political, and sensitive to others. Those are the values I personally appreciate, and what I want to see arbitrate my community. We need to reimagine who we champion and what we see as beautiful and ideal. That starts with who we, as individuals, proclaim as ideal partners and community members.

reverse genocide oregon trail pilgim barbie
Reverse Genocide Oregon Trail Pilgim Barbie. Photo by Robin Chu.

Care and compassion are so important but I feel like those concepts get simplified into: love trumps hate, and that’s that. It’s harder to convey the depth and power that comes from true compassion and deeply honoring people’s identities and experiences, and standing together in collective struggle.

The ‘love trumps hate’ idea is very white liberalism. It’s also starkly at odds with how the gay male community is so focused on instant visible gratification. I’m still learning how to have meaningful relationships with gay men that aren’t transactional and based on exclusively sexual exchanges. I’ve worked with younger queer people who are just coming out and coming onto the scene and see my younger self in them so much in a way I hope changes. I see them coming into the club and using substances in a way where they have spent so much time isolated and it took them so much work and grit to get to this moment and what this is. For them to get here to be just as disillusioned with the shallowness of how we’re expected to relate to each other is really harrowing! There’s so many beautiful creative, brilliant young people with potential who I see fall prey to debilitating substances due to self-consciousness and unresolved feelings of belonging based on this physical fluid swap culture.

It’s sounds like you’re working on bringing softness, connection, and humanity to a scene where you haven’t experienced a lot of that. I imagine that takes some courage and grit to not succumb to old demons even though I’m sure intellectually you know that type of culture is bullshit.

It’s isolating. I haven’t done drag for very long. Before then I was in punk and hung out with a very intentional/action-driven crew. Most of my friends are women and queer and trans people who are very vocal of their antipathy towards cis men. I’m trying to unlearn that and relearn openness. It’s a tough pill. Recently I acknowledged that I definitely move through the world like a cis man even though it doesn’t entirely feel that way to me personally. A lot of people I am intimate with are cis men and I want to reconnect in a way where I’m not psychologically distorting and writing them all off as toxic.

One of the reasons I started drag is because it often takes place in the gay male sphere. A lot of the gay men I meet still subscribe to poisonous ideas about anyone who deviates from the standard I mentioned earlier. I am somewhat of a black sheep in vocalizing my opinion to say that’s actually kind of messed up. Trying to assert people’s humanity in this context can be exhausting. The whole point of drag is making fun of all of these roles that we’re firmly attached to- including racial caricatures that make me routinely cringe. I’m coming from this context where everyone is trying to be sensitive to these issues, trying to use the correct pronouns, and trying to not step on people’s toes when it comes to issues of race, etcetera; then in the drag sphere we’re encouraging each other to do Asian caricature for laughs, you know? It’s a very different approach to handle complex issues. It’s been a tough transition for me but I can also see its liberating potential.

I’d like to believe it’s not a binary, that you can have this irreverence and levity without making anyone feel really bad, right? That has to be possible. What do you come up against when you’re pushing drag culture to hold more anti-oppressive values?

I’m a special case because I joined the Rice Rockettes, an all Asian drag family. We have a monthly show and attract a primarily Asian crowd, so it feels like everyone’s in on the joke. That feels different than if I were to go on RuPaul’s Drag Race and perform exaggerated Asianness in line with a lineage of images that have historically drawn hilarity to a presumably majority-white crowd- certainly not mine. Taking the audience into account impacts my approach. It’s like code-switching. My drag sisters welcome irreverence and laugh everything off, which I am still learning to do. When I’m hanging out with my other friends, there’s a lot of reticence around that. You’re right. It’s certainly not a binary. It’s a spectrum where you balance the weight of systems with the levity of living. There’s gonna be tons of ways to approach that in between. It’s something I’m still figuring out, case-by-case.

Yeah of course. There’s also can be so much richness when you can find the strength and resources to bridge the gaps. I know what you mean when you talk about a culture of disposability, and feel like there’s a lot of power in being able to connect with people who might not be on the same page as you, but who see you and your humanity.

Totally. When I say compassion, I’m referring to callout culture as well. I don’t have the perfect solution for addressing harm. But it’s come to a place where our micro-culture resembles a punitive church. If you’re not subscribing to this code of beliefs in this specific way and using this specific language, you are blanket problematic and that is grounds for total alienation. The problem that I have with the way that one accountability process happened is that the maligning of character painted this person as inherently fucked up, whereas we should be focusing on his actions and behavior. In clinical social work, you never focus on the person, you’re focusing on the behaviors so they can understand that the issue is not them as people; rather it’s something that they’re doing. Behaviors are perceived as more dynamic than total beings. Language has a way of pathologizing. Speaking of reinvention, we need to reinvent the ways we approach accountability and the language that we use around how somebody can improve themselves or reduce harm.

carmen miranda homage gabriela hasbun
Carmen Miranda homage. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

I really feel you on that. It’s painful to see all our traumas getting acted out on each other. It’s a conversation I’ve had a million times with friends that still leaves me at a loss sometimes. What do you feel are the things in your life that support you in playing the role you’re playing, and what are the things that feel like barriers to making the work sustainable?

I have a constant internal monologue with looping messages. Journaling and having the time to enact them on paper has been really supportive and is critical for revealing the patterns in how you think. There was a period of time in high school that I kept a journal every day. I recently unearthed a couple of them and realized how dude-centric my writing was — I was very concentrated on if this guy likes me which is arguably typical high school behavior, but it made me realize things about my attachment style and how I found value in myself from others. I see the ghost of it in my writing now, and think about how drag can also become an external validation model. It’s important to be aware of it and see when it’s happening so you can interrupt that cycle and be able to ask yourself more assertively what you’d like to see instead.

I’ve spent a lot of time drinking tea and taking baths and being kind of an old lady. I like going on pinterest and letting myself wander the creative playground of drag — just appreciating the craft of others and getting ideas for new looks. It’s humbling to remind yourself of how big the world is, and on the flip, how insignificant you are. I’m trying to find more international queens who bring something different. There’s this one queen in Thailand my sister introduced me to who finds ways to wear household objects and appliances. She’ll put a Dell computer on her shoulder, a keyboard over her crotch, and just type type types clackity clack clack as she walks an imaginary catwalk. Her stuff makes me happy. There’s also makeup prodigy in Hawaii, Bretman Rock, who is a flaming ball of comedic light. Just remembering to connect with comedy and very brightly burning creatures in the world is supportive.

In terms of obstacles, I don’t want to say finances because I feel like that’s such a San Francisco answer, but… finances! I chose a very expensive craft. Sometimes you can keep the tag on an outfit and return it, sometimes you can’t. I picked up a couple side jobs to support it.

I identify as a multipotentialite, which is based on this Ted Talk I saw once. It means I do a lot of different things. I do drag, writing, film, and music. A significant obstacle for me is being able to focus. This is a world of specialists. When you’re little people ask you, what do you want to be when I grow up? Nobody’s gonna say I want to be a freelance journalist, filmmaker, social worker, and a drag queen. I want to accept the fact that some of us just do a lot of things and there’s no one way to be successful or express yourself.

The last interview I did was with this rad activist/healer/organizer/witchy herbalist person who also brought up that Ted Talk, and talked about stepping into their power as someone who does a lot of different things. The pressure to specialize is a capitalistic idea to have one mastered offering for the world that makes you valuable. I think it’s great you’re interested in and engaged with a bunch of different things! Are there other artists and work you consider as inspiration and resource for your own art and craft?

I’m thinking this drag artist who is a total visionary; her name is Hungry. Her looks are like Rorschach ink blots — extremely surreal and imaginative, like a Kabuki wet dream. I think she’s Asian too which is part of what inspires me. It’s good to see my people getting it in the drag world. Her work is just unreal. She makes her nose disappear; she’ll make multiple eyes and elongate them with these sclera contacts that cover the entire eye. She’s been getting a lot of attention and with good reason. She recently collaborated with Bjork’s look on her new album. Andrew Thomas Huang is another artist who imagines looks or scenarios like dark witchy rituals and fantastical alien creatures playing the flute that bring to life a huge, expansive vision of what you can be. They make this amazing, totally unpredictable artwork. And then a lot of local artists and friends like the writer Nia King, Blue Scholars, FKA Twigs, and my friends Claudia Leung and Muriel Leung. Princess Nokia.

You told me a little bit about the world you want to live in and I’ve also heard you talk about the role you’re playing in helping to get us there. Flashing forward to this imagined world in progress, where there is more compassion and community care and an anti-disposability politic, what role would you play there?

Makeup artist (laughs). I see myself teaching and collaborating. Right now I’m working as a counselor at an arts college. I work with young artists to clarify their visions and to get granular about what they want to do in their field or how to build a bridge towards their broader visions. Being able to help people be their best selves really brings me my light. That’s definitely the intersection where I thrive: on creativity and justice and helping people hone their craft in service of their vision.

I would want to work with youth. Youth are amazing. While they can be extremely honest and cruel and playgrounds can be sites of a lot of pain, they also are so excited about the world. I miss that. I used to teach second grade. Kids that age are so impressionable. Everything they absorb has such a big impact and it feels like such important work.

You sometimes do Drag Queen Story Hour, reading to children and infants. What is it like for kids to witness and engage with your drag self?

It’s been amazing. When I was a teacher, there were a lot of homophobic taunts and insults being hurled around on the playground. It was one thing to be able to interrupt that as an adult authority figure. Teachers have differing philosophies about whether or not they should disclose if they are queer or bring queer content into the curricula. There’s significant stigma around queer educators and children. What’s cool about drag queen story hour is not only is it expanding the child’s imagination of what you can be and giving them different types of queer role models, but I also get to blur that line. I don’t have to sidestep an integral part of myself in order to connect, which is is something I felt was expected of me in the classroom. It’s great to be one of my authentic selves and not have to hold anything back. I think it’s important for them to see.

A lot of gay and safe spaces began at the bars, so a lot of the drag world is very nightlife-focused. It’s also cool to be able to not only be able to bring my authentic self into youth spaces, but also be able to engage with straight parents and queer parents and queer kids or any amalgamation of those. That never happens because of stigma and the historical underpinnings of safe gay spaces. It’s cool for me to be able to interact with kids instead of just drunk patrons. It’s so fun! Sometimes babies don’t really know how to compute. Some will look at me with utter delight and joy and others are terrified and screech.

That’s fair, it’s a lot to take in.

Yeah. I’m essentially a cartoon character to them.

Given that it’s January 1st, can you share any hopes or intentions for the coming year?

I hope 2018 is a harbinger of good things. I want to learn how to listen to what my body needs. Sounds basic, but so fundamental. I have a lot of ambitions and goals in very different fields that feel very distant, and in service of all of these goals, I neglect what I need in the current moment. I want to learn how to listen to and be a better friend to my needs — on the granular, get more sleep and drink more water.

You can learn more about Kyle’s work on her website (don’t miss her powerful political writings), and you will be very glad you followed her on Instagram! This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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