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

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

Tell me about the work you’re doing.

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

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

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

That sounds like a really adaptive approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kai: What’s autonomy?

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

Kai: Wow.

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

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

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

If nature can evolve, why not human nature?

Renee: Thank you!

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

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

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

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

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

Kai: Yes!

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

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

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

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

Kai: I’m a rebel!

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

Kai: Or try to.

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

Kai: Then they leave you alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tgtp cast1

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.

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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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Lexi and Devi on the lifesaving power of art & using comedy as a tool to build collective power

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Lexi & Devi at the Trans Life & Liberation art opening April 2017. Photo courtesy of CultureStrike and by Miki Vargas Photography.

What is Peacock Rebellion and who makes up the organization?

Lexi: Peacock Rebellion started out as a queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) arts organization Devi founded in collaboration with other artists/activists/healers. Devi was involved with organizations including Mangos with Chili and other QTPOC arts organizations we’re in community with. Devi used to talk about bringing Peacock Rebellion to a national level. Given the way the political climate has shifted, we’re rethinking our place and what strategies we employ and the ways we’re engaging with the wider world through our art.

Brouhaha is our big comedy show which has run for the past four years. Brouhaha’s stand-up comedy training program has prioritized trans women of color (TWOC) since 2015, with a new sketch comedy training we launched last year that’s open to a broader range of trans people of color. The main component to Brouhaha is forming a cohort of artists and teaching them the basics of comedy and how to utilize comedy as a tool for social justice.

Devi: We started Peacock in part because I was burning out on nonprofit-based community organizing and thought I was more effective with a microphone than a megaphone. With Peacock, our artists can crack jokes, shift cultural perspective, and disrupt the status quo through entertainment. A lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be down to come to a march or a protest would be totally down to come to a comedy show.

Everybody in the artistic core has some kind of healing practice. Everyone is an activist, a community organizer, healer, cultural worker, and an artist. A friend of ours made a shirt for the last Brouhaha that said “Sass Heals.” That’s totally us. We do snarky, sassy, sexy, subversive work, and talk about white supremacy, christian hegemony, anti-Black racism, and structural oppression without jargon or talking down to people. We’re able to get 800 people to a show on a Tuesday because a lot of folks are willing to want to come be entertained, and we’re like, oh we’ll entertain you, and you’re gonna come here and learn some shit.

We use the art to get people into a room and then they will be invited to show up to do court support for trans women of color, they’ll get talking points around Thankstaking. Folks who are going to sit at a dinner table with their families who have different political perspectives, and we want to equip them with resources. We want to get our people practical tools. So we have a guide to low-cost mental health support services for queer and trans people of color and other rapid response guides. We do healing justice clinics for free. Lexi started a program along those lines last year.

Lexi: We got some funding to have a cohort of 20 people, primarily trans folks of color, go through four months of training workshops on empowering advocacy skills. We were able to pay them to participate. We oriented folks on the court processes for legal name and gender change documents; we had a self defense workshop, we talked about navigating the medical industrial complex, street safety, and intervening in street harassment. Now there’s 20 more folks out in the world who have those skills. After 45 got elected, there was a big surge in community clinics to get trans folks name change forms done. A number of participants in the program went on to help Transgender Law Center and St. James Infirmary organize some of those. It was great.

Devi: We just merged with one of our sibling organizations, a QTPOC makerspace oriented toward social justice. They’re now a program of Peacock. Now we run free maker days every month. QTPOC can come learn how to make zines, make videos, use 3D printers, all kinds of stuff, on social justice themes.

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From left: Devi Peacock, Brouhaha artists Elena Rose and The Lady Ms Vagina Jenkins, Lexi Adsit. Photo by Lance Yamamoto for the East Bay Express.

Did you always imagine that Peacock would have all these elements of different programs to support folks in navigating the world in legal and social spheres, or is this something that’s happened organically?

Lexi: With our artists, it wasn’t just about artistic development, but also showing up for everybody as holistic people. Most of our job is actually emotional labor — showing up for folks when they’re in crisis and making sure that we’re all alive next week. We feel if we’re able to acquire the resources to provide those extra services, we should. We’re getting back into thinking long-term and constantly referencing adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy book and concepts as our new compass.

What is it like for you as people who are facing violence and oppression, and also holding a lot for the community in terms of offering support?

Lexi: We’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of recognition and visibility, and knowing that everybody who’s participating in the organization is a QTPOC dealing with some degree of mental health atypicality, whether that’s anxiety or depression or the revolving door of ideation.

Both Devi and I had intense instances of burnout within nonprofits which led us here. For me, something that counteracts the burnout like an anti-inflammatory is being able to create art. I get to do that at Peacock. Creating is part of my job. You don’t learn how to take care of yourself  in a staff position at a nonprofit. Everybody talks about a work-life balance, but there’s no tools or training on how to actually do that. Devi and I also have roles as emotional supports for people, which is not a completely draining thing, it’s something really special I get to offer for folks who I care about. At the same time, I know it means I have to take care of myself to be able to show up in the best way for this job and for other people I’m taking care of.

Devi: I work at Peacock 60 hours a week until busy season; then it ramps up. For four and a half of the past five years, I didn’t pay myself; I had paying gigs outside of Peacock. Starting in January of this year I started paying myself and having health, dental, and vision. The pay is terrible but it’s what we can afford right now.

The power of art is very real. We are working on keeping ourselves and each other alive. We’re trying to get people out of dangerous situations. I’m not great with boundaries around that. We’re starting to shift and incorporating the Emergent Strategy framework. Part of it was saying no to a whole bunch of bullshit. We moved from a broadly QTPOC arts organization into a lot more trans women of color and transfemme of color centered. Suddenly we became a shiny, sexy organization. We get hit up at least a couple times a week if anyone wants to find a token TWOC to throw into a show so they can check off a box on their grants. I’m getting better at saying no which is helping so that we can focus on building our collective power.

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Brouhaha 2017 producers Devi Peacock, Lexi Adsit, and Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

But we’re not a collective. We’re largely collectively-run, but there is a hierarchy; I am the boss. Like Lexi was saying, a lot of people come into the organization burned out and struggling after traumatic experiences at nonprofits. Some folks come here thinking it’s a magical utopia. But it isn’t perfect. We’re still a project of a non-profit, we still have some tap dancing we have to do for funders.

But I really, deeply believe in this dream. Part of my original intent was that we would focus on building collective power, not individual artistic careers. We’re hoping to use art to build cultures of collective liberation. To do that, we think it helps to weave art and cultural practice across our work, instead of disconnecting it from healing or from community organizing. It’s all connected.

We have a touring production in February in Austin with a new show called The Femmes of Your Dreams. We’re dreaming futures with femmes at the center. We’ll be using stand-up comedy to talk about mental health and sexual violence and all these things. We’re going to write ourselves into the future.

Lexi, you mentioned art as something that helps keeps you going as you’re facing whatever you’re facing and also holding so much for the community, and Devi, you mentioned it as being a core value of the work that Peacock is doing. Can you say more about the impact of art, both on folks in the cohort and people who get to experience Peacock’s work?

Lexi: Something we always say in the trainings is, comedy is tragedy plus time. I came into this organization with a lot of tragedy. It’s like therapy. People are listening to you and validating you. There’s something strangely intoxicating about being on a stage and talking about the shit you’ve gone through and being able to challenge systems of power through a smart approach. The shows have covered navigating the medical industrial complex and Kaiser support groups, dating and how problematic it can be…

Devi: Intimate partner violence, being physically attacked, surviving sexual violence, surviving a lot. But then there’s also been things around dreams. Like, what are people wanting for themselves and for each other?

Lexi: We’re able to collectively turn those traumas into a moment of laughter. Being able to address these topics helps heal not just our artists but also the audience. Mainstream comedy can be so problematic — racist, sexist, or whatever. In mainstream comedy, the purpose is often to get a cheap laugh, often through making fun of fat folks, trans folks, homeless folks, poor folks, and that’s not what we want to perpetuate or participate in. I’ve heard from so many people who’ve attended Brouhaha that it’s actually funny, because we’re not making fun of somebody who’s sitting in the room. Though occasionally we make fun of white folks.

Devi: But we’re very careful about it, right? We want to use it to actually challenge white supremacy. We’ll link our jokes to something that’s a structural issue. At the end of the day we are trying to come from a solidarity framework. Part of what Lexi’s talking about is the absence of the “punching down” stuff. We use the BDSM red light/yellow light/green light system in our training programs. Red light means you’re punching down and saying some shit that’s not getting on our stage. A yellow light is either punching across or it’s just not funny enough. We recognize that all the artists are trans women of color, but if the audience is not largely TWOC, we want to be conscious about who is the listener. We want nuance and strategy. Our goal is to have jokes and comedy sets that are all green lights. Green lights actively punch up at the system. We go hard. I want to live in a world where we’re tearing out patriarchy at its roots.

We also want to be able to poke fun at ourselves around these things. The Bay Area can be a little bit of a bubble, it’s like the island of misfit toys. A bunch of people including me came here to run away from trauma. We’ll make jokes about everything from callout culture to isolation or disposability. In a 90-minute show how can we get people to love each other a little bit better and then actually organize around it? That’s a guiding question for our work.

What is the world you wanna live in and what do you see as Peacock’s role in creating that?

Lexi: At the root of it I want to live in a world where we WANT to live in. I want to live in a world where we’re not being exploited and where we are able to create for everybody’s survival. I want to live in a world where everybody can dream, not just those of us with enough privilege and access to do so. I want to live in a world without targeted violence and poverty. I want my work to build collective community versus building my own career — reflecting those collective communal knowledges, herstories, and ancestors and trying to remember that these things are bigger than just me in this moment, and paying homage to that.

Devi: In the world I want to see, people are good to each other and there’s space for messiness. I believe that people are always gonna harm and hurt each other. So what are the ways that people can actually take accountability — individually and collectively? For me, I think of a village model, like, hey actually everybody raises the kids and everyone is accountable to each other and we are in circle together. I’m imagining a world where instead of such a hyperfocus on extracting resources we’re like, oh how do we actually listen to the earth? What does restoration of the earth look like? I’m curious about that. What can global indigeneity look like?

Everybody deserves free access to culturally competent care, love, and basic human needs. As for Peacock’s role, I want Peacock to exist for as long as we are useful and relevant to the people we need to serve. Peacock is here to serve. That is our work. Like the Allied Media Projects’ Network Principles, we begin by listening. I want a world where everyone begins by listening, and there’s a lot more empathy for each other, and there’s real frameworks — practiced, taught, and learned — across generations, around solidarity. Not the savior complex, not any of the other bullshit. I want a world where love is emergent strategy, for everyone.

Would you be willing to define Emergent Strategy for people reading who might not know what that means?

Devi: Yeah! I’m actually gonna pull it up from the prophet herself because I like her words. She writes that it was initially a way of describing ‘the adaptive and relational leadership model under the work of Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler and others. It turned into plans of action and practices, collective organizing tools, and linked into biomimicry and permaculture.’ Emergent Strategy is a leadership model that prioritizes relationship. Relationships are actually what fuel radical structural change.

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Peacock Rebellion Aristic Core 2016-2017, clockwise from top left: Q Quintero, Lexi Adsit, Devi Peacock, Luna Merbruja, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

At Peacock, one of the things we’re trying to shift around is productivity. We’re whole beings. How do we support each other? Last fall we essentially shut the organization down for a month because someone close to us was in crisis. That’s the scale we need to operate in: being flexible and adaptive and resilient is a fundamental of emergent strategy. We do pick and choose what are the relationships we want to cultivate and who do we want to build with.

We turned five two weeks ago. Within five years, we are part of a campaign that has bought a building and the land underneath. It is the last QTPOC block in Oakland and it’s the first time in U.S. history that QTPOC have been able to do a hybrid commercial-residential land trust. We’re a major part of that. We have the first TWOC show in U.S. history, and not only the artists are trans women of color, but also the trainers, the producers, and the majority of the production crew are trans people of color. We’ve been able to do the the things we’re able to do because of the relationships. We are not doing mass-based organizing. We get targeted by hate at least several times a year, sometimes several times a month. We would not be able to survive the PTSD from a skinhead coming to our door and holding sharp shit up to my neck if we did not have very strong, deep powerful networks of relationship. We build a lot deeper than we build wide, which is an important distinction. I want us to eventually become a national organization if that makes sense, but it cannot be led by a handful of people in Oakland. We have to listen to leadership of the people on the ground and if they want it, we can build something together.

I appreciate your shout out to adrienne maree brown. Are there other people or bodies of work who are inspirations you’d like to name?

Devi: Neither Lexi nor I are Black — I want to call into the space the collective brilliance of the Black queer and trans folks who have significantly shaped Peacock. The majority of our artists and trainers are Black folks, which was intentional in challenging anti-Black racism in QTPOC spaces. I want to lift up Micia Mosley and Nia King, who developed the first curriculum for Brouhaha in 2014. Nia also has the podcast We Want the Airwaves and books interviewing queer and trans artists of color. She’s a living historian of queer and trans artists of color. 

Lexi: There’s an advisory board of elders that oversees Devi and holds them accountable to community and the work that we’re doing. A number of those folks are just really amazing and involved with the organizations we were birthed out of. Most of what they do is emotional labor too.

Devi: I want to shout out Vanessa Rochelle Lewis. Luna Merbruja, who’s in our artistic core and who was our first trainer for our all-TWOC show. We’ve worked with around 65 artists over these five years. That’s a shit ton of people who’ve all led Peacock in different ways. We were birthed out of Mangos with Chili, Sins Invalid, QWOCMAP, and Poor Magazine all gave us a lot of support in thinking through what Peacock would eventually become.

If you enjoyed this interview, learn more about Peacock Rebellion and consider making a donation. You can also visit Lexi’s website to watch her standup and read her writings. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

Lindsey on visibility, being vocal, & uplifting Black and brown talent

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How do you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a creative, an artist, a musician, and a social activist — but I feel like I never really had a choice in that ‘cos when you’re born into a certain type of body there’s a need to carve out safe spaces and equal access. I’m an empath. I feel some folks have difficulty caring about experiences they don’t share. When I hear youth I work with talk about how they can’t focus their first day of middle school because they don’t know if their mom or dad will be there when they get home from school because of the ICE raids that have been happening. That makes me feel like I gotta do something, even if I’m not sure what that is.

It sounds like there’s a lot that compels you to be engaged in the work that you’re doing. Did you have examples of that growing up?

My mom is a persistent go-getter. She worked a bajillion jobs so that me and my three brothers could thrive. I remember her saying, I want you to have every opportunity so people with different privileges can’t make you feel they have something you can’t access. I get my independence from my mom — trying and saying yes to so many things. The hard part about that is, I feel my mom doesn’t know how to ask for help when she needs it and I saw how this negatively affected her mental health. I ask myself, are you checking in with yourself? I can’t be running around ’til my body can’t go anymore. It’s not sustainable. I’m getting better at saying no. With theater, people were always asking me to stage manage stuff. But when I stage manage I can’t play music, ‘cause I’m not getting home until midnight and drumming is loud! Once I set some boundaries and requested music-related roles in theater instead, it started to happen. I’m living in this space of realizing the worst thing that can happen is someone says no. Hearing no stinks but I would be so much more pressed if I didn’t bother asking.

I’d love to hear about creative, personal, or political projects you have going on right now. What’s on your mind?

I’m working on putting together a soft punk style zine, which my friend suggested because of what I post on instagram. It’s geared towards Black and brown gender nonconforming people. There aren’t many resources for gender non-conforming Black and brown people to talk about dysphoria and what kinds of clothes could feel good.

I drum in a band called Hula School. Drumming is really fun and that in and of itself always feels like an act of resistance. I get to hit stuff in time to music and it’s cool.

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photo by Nina Corcoran

I went to Pitchfork Music Festival to take photos for Tom Tom Magazine. I am the web manager for the magazine which focuses on music, art, and more recently, politics. I’m focusing on getting more gender non-conforming and Black and brown people to write and be be featured on the website. They’re doing a good job at it now but there could still be more. I wrote a piece about how to move forward post-Women’s March. Because I’m just like okay that’s cute, but also there were a lot of things that were hurtful and here’s why. It’s nice to write a full narrative instead of a thread on twitter, like 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 is 👏🏾 why 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 blows!

I’d love to hear you talk more about putting your voice out there. There’s vulnerability in doing that publicly. What about that felt empowering and energizing, and what felt hard?

I took the time to let people know that this is the first step to make more inclusive events. Me in 2010 would have never thought using body parts as a signifier of what it means to be a woman would be upsetting to folks who don’t relate to that experience. It was empowering to know there were so many people reading that otherwise wouldn’t have thought beyond their own experience.

What was kind of nerve-wracking was you never know how people are gonna react. I was like, oh my god, am I gonna get like hate mail? People get in their feelings. Then I thought about how there are people who are gonna be mean to me just ‘cause and I quickly made peace with the fact that some people may not like the piece. I got over wanting to be liked by everyone a super long time ago. I’m proud of myself for that. I believe if no one’s peeved, you’re probably a little bit off. I got energized from that. I’m like, ooh, this could make someone pissed. That’s kind of cool too.

Can you say more about drumming and making music as acts of resistance in and of themselves?

I have always been interested in percussion. In middle school we had to take either band or choir. I didn’t want to do choir because I felt like everyone was expecting me to sing. I want to do band and I want to do something percussive. But I got stuck with the fricking clarinet! My teacher didn’t really know how to play it or how to teach me. I almost failed that class. After that I figured I’d do choir for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how to get access to learning how to play percussion and didn’t have any Black women role models who drummed. It wasn’t until I did Girls Rock in 2013 when I realized I can do that. After that I finally started drumming lessons. I picked it up fast. I was like wow, this is what I needed for all those years.

This week I came back to Girls Rock and there were so many more Black and brown girls which made me so happy. A young Black girl saw me sitting on the drum thrones. She looks at me and she’s like, I didn’t know black girls could drum. I told her, absolutely, we can do anything we want. She’s like, ohhh. There are still so many Black girls and Black people that feel that way; feel that there are experiences and feelings we’re not allowed to access. One reason I did Girls Rock this session is because they need more Black and brown representation in the program, so I’m like, let me roll in real quick. I’m so glad I did. Just the conversation with that one young person, she now realizes that she can drum too. I was that girl.

Being visible in music is important. A lot of people praise the Boston music scene, and it’s great, but it’s not really representative of the people that live here. A local music journalism magazine called Allston Pudding was uplifting the same generic all-white-dude bands every week. When they said they needed more writers, I’m like, okay, let’s do this. Black and brown percussive representation in Boston exists, but no one’s making the trek outside of their bubble to access it. I’m excited to start writing for them and bring new content to their website.

We met at a few years ago at an LGBTQ theater company that at the time had mostly white leadership. I’m hearing from your experience of going into Girls Rock Camp and starting to write for Allston Pudding that part of what you’re doing is infiltrating dominantly white organizations. It seems like that must be an intentional choice because I imagine it comes with its fair share of bullshit.

Oh yeah. I got so tired of seeing all these white people prospering in mediocrity. I love music and art so much but people are still not making space. Folks say they want to make space for voices other than their own, but they stay in their bubbles. I’m excited to infiltrate even though it comes with nonsense. I don’t put up with it anymore. I’m asking the hard-hitting questions they need to hear and won’t if I’m not there.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

On an emotional level, what are you’ doing to fortify yourself around experiencing that nonsense?

I consume a lot of television where the majority of the cast are Black and brown. Instagram is therapeutic for me as well. I love watching videos of skateboarders, and tutorials with rad Black makeup artists where they do their makeup and slay their hair. When I don’t have the capacity for social media, it’s skateboarding, napping, and pizza. Thankfully connecting with the people I live with is a form of self-care. I feel grateful to have access to so many different forms of caring for myself.

What role does community play in your life?

People in my community are my biggest cheerleaders and they plant seeds I never would have thought about. Without them, I would never have pursued a lot of the things I’m involved in. I never expected I would be a part of a community outside of my family.

A lot of the things I do weren’t served to me on a silver platter. Growing up, I thought all I had access to was sports because my mom was such a sports fanatic and my brothers did sports. Then I was in my first school play — the Music Man — and it was fun but I didn’t know how to pursue that interest further. In high school I did a performing arts program that involved acting, musical theater, and stage management. I went to school for theater before realizing I wanted to integrate social justice into the arts. That’s when I got the internship [at the aforementioned LGBTQ theater company]. It was cool, but after some time I didn’t really like working at a white-run organization that focused on serving people of color and yet weren’t receptive to feedback from the folks of color on staff and in the community. I bounced to infiltrate different spaces that would be receptive to hearing what I have to say around making things more inclusive.

It seems pretty special to be able to integrate the arts to engage in social justice and to build a better world. I feel like those things are really compartmentalized for a lot of people. On another note, I know that there’s bad news all the time; I’m also feeling aware that the news out of Charlottesville last night is really intense. [Note: we had this conversation on August 13th, a day after a protestor was killed at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville]. Broadly speaking, how are you doing?

Honestly, I’m doing great. This is upsetting, but like most people of color have been saying, none of this is surprising. This has been around for so long but people weren’t affected by it unless they were Black or brown, so they’re just like, that only happens in the south, love wins, blah blah blah. I’m just like fuuuuck, no. There’s a map of all the 900+ active hate groups in America. I was like wow, that one is in the neighborhood I grew up in. That one is a T ride away from my house.

It’s a rollercoaster, it’s an I told you so, it’s a where have y’all been? When stuff like Charlottesville happens, everyone’s upset, then after a week it dies down and people forget about it. Charlottesville is happening every single second of every single day. I’m interested in seeing the trajectory of people’s’ desire to combat this. It’s hard to be optimistic. My mom recently talked to me about having kids but I don’t feel comfortable bringing a lil’ Black bundle of joy into this nonsense. I don’t want them to ever have to feel like they don’t have the space to be themselves because some white boy in their second grade class called them a n*gger because they wouldn’t share their crayons. I would be fighting kids and I can’t do that.

It was difficult to unplug yesterday because you get into this cycle of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and you’re like, omg stop! Sometimes I feel weird leaving my house. I feel weird seeing white people on the train. Sometimes I can feel people calling me a slur. Living in east Boston and watching it gentrify so quickly is upsetting and sad. Sometimes I sit down and I’m like, jesus christ, is the world ever gonna look the way I want it to look? Is it ever gonna be safe and secure for me to have some little Lindseys running around? Most of the time I just don’t think so.

What does the world you want to live in look like?

The world that I want to live in looks like people having the space to experience the things they want to and be who they want to be. Where they can decide day-to-day what pronouns feel good and people are just like, ‘yeah sure absolutely!’ That’s the world I want to live in, where people are like, you wanna try something to live in your most comfortable self? Absolutely, do that. I want to live in a space where bathrooms are gender neutral and you’re not stressed about trying to pee.

I want to live in a space where basic human needs are free. It’s bullshit that people have to pay for housing and food and being able to get around to their jobs. It’s wack that people have to work so many jobs just to get by. The wack ass sexual health stuff taught to young people is bullshit. I would live in a world that’s not heteronormative. I want to live in a world where talking about mental health is normalized and people have access to therapy without going broke. I would love to live in a world where people aren’t working to live but because they want to.

I just want to live in a world where people can feel comfortable because there’s only a portion of people in the world who feel comfortable just living and that’s fucked up. There are so many people who are born and don’t even know the amount of discomfort that’s in store for them. We’re not here for that long, and it blows to have people be uncomfortable for so much of the time they’re here.

Your world sounds good.

Thanks. I definitely think about it a lot. If I had one wish I would have to make it into the biggest run-on sentence of my life but it would be worth it. I have to perfect that run-on sentence.

What do you see as your role and your work in helping to create the world you’re describing?

My role is visibility and being vocal. A lot of people like to hear what I have to say, whether it be purely comedic or about a social issue that’s been bugging me. I love being vocal about the media we consume. I watched this trash show on Netflix, Blow, which is about televised women’s wrestling in the 80’s. I didn’t understand what people saw in it. They had super racist character names that weren’t even historically accurate. I’m like wow, y’all really tryin’ it. I have a problem with period pieces because it feels like being able to say racist things is literally why some folks pick certain time periods. I was tweeting out my thoughts and feelings about the show and one of my friends was like wow, thank you so much, this is gonna help me better engage with media and think about why I like stuff. I’m glad that me yelling about how extra this show was was helpful for them. I love making sure that myself and others are active consumers of media and that when they make media, they’re not perpetuating the same issues we see in current TV, movies, and books.

Being visible in art spaces where I’m not usually seen is also very helpful. I know for the kid I mentioned earlier, seeing me at Girls Rock was helpful for her to understand she has access to everything. I know that me pursuing things I’m passionate about is making space for others to do the same. I’m excited to not be the only one or one of a few. With all of my self-care and with my community, I feel properly supported emotionally and spiritually to put myself in these heavily white spaces. Having support systems and community I’m just like, (gasp) I have a safety net to catch me while I scream about stuff! Then after I’ve screamed, I can come back and make an informed piece, like the one I did about the Women’s March. I screamed all day, took a nap, and when I woke up I started typing.

It seems like you’re really coming to everything you’re doing as a whole person and giving yourself space to feel the frustration and anger and then kind of being like, okay, here we go.

Writing has been really helpful. It’s great in terms of expanding my vocabulary and making accessible pieces folks can wrap their mind around. Sometimes I read some stuff where people are using all these big words for no reason. That’s one of the things that can be scary for people trying to get information. Everyone learns and ingests information differently. I feel I’m good at sharing information in an accessible way. Instead of speaking from a heady academic place, it feels more like a conversation and not, let me tell you about this👏🏾because 👏🏾 I 👏🏾 know👏🏾 everything! 👏🏾

As someone who’s so immersed in the music and arts world, I would be remiss to not ask you about the music and art that’s inspiring you right now.

The music that’s inspiring me is still A Seat at the Table [by Solange]. That entire album is so open and unfiltered. Her vulnerability and her want to take up space with her Blackness and her strangeness resonates with me. I’ve always felt strange. I always felt like my nerdiness and my weirdness never mixed with my Blackness so Solange is inspiring to me. She shows me that all of these things about myself can live in the same space as my Blackness. Seeing that there’s no limit to what Black is has been really helpful.

I really like the new Tyler the Creator album. He made this really beautiful, soft record I never would have expected in which he talks about his queerness. He always rubbed me the wrong way and I perceived him as really aggressive. Naming his album Flowerboy and having the cover be an image of him standing in a field of sunflowers is really lovely.

I really like the new Downtown Boys record. I’ve always appreciated them because seeing people of color in punk is so inspiring. I love punk music but the community is so white. Whenever there’s something musically and culturally cool I figure it has to have been lifted from communities of color. There’s no way in hell that this isn’t something a community of color put together as a form of self care, visibility, and being able to play music really loud. 

I’m going through all of the old R&B and soul my mom would play. Every single Sunday I wake up, wash my face, and listen to Sade. I have been getting into Chaka Khan’s deep cuts after growing up listening to the notable hits that most folks know. I love seeing black women taking up space in music. It shows me that the limit does not exist. There’s still so much space to take up and I’m moved to take up that space and I’m excited for the little girl I talked to at Girls Rock Camp to take up that space too.

Is there anything coming up for you in course of this conversation you feel like sharing?

In terms of taking stock of what my focus is and what I’m focusing my time on, this conversation was really invigorating. I was feeling like I just wanted to sleep for a million years, but now I can’t wait to go home and practice drums, I can’t wait to write things. Talking through stuff is a form of self-care. Sometimes I get caught up and don’t feel like my work is making an impact. Then I talk about it and think about the bigger scheme of things and remember there’s someone, somewhere who will read this and it’s changing the way they’re going to think. I want to show people that all of the things that live inside them can work in harmony. Just because you’re one thing doesn’t mean it lessens this other thing that also lives inside of you.

I’m interested in seeing the ways in which art is gonna expand. So many people are feeling empowered by A Seat at the Table and a lot of other records. Seeing Issa Rae come from Youtube and now have Insecure on HBO empowered a lot of people — so many more people of color are taking the time to make web series and tell their stories on Youtube. That’s what I think about when things are looking so bleak. I look at the art that other people of color are making and I’m just like, okay, maybe it’s not the MOST bleak and maybe we can make it to the other side.

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You can find Lindsey Anderson on Instagram @snackkween. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in

Adrienne on trans superheroes, creating a rock opera, & the power of community

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Photo by Baruch Porras-Hernandez

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

My name is Adrienne Price. I identify myself as a trans woman artist-activist.

How are you doing?

In this moment, I feel a sense of relaxation and joy, which is in a sea of anxiety, fear, and worry that a lot of us are dealing with right now.

What do you mean when you say a lot of us are dealing with that right now?

We’re living through a time that feels more unpredictable than a lot of us have experienced in our lifetimes, which is related to the current administration but is more complex than that. Because of technology and media we are so aware of so much going on in the world. That can lead to a sense of desire to change things but also a feeling of helplessness that we could never fix all the things that need to be fixed. That leads to this anxiety, this perpetual state of worry about the world and how we’re going to survive it.

That’s well put. Because I know you and you’re my friend, I know you do a lot of creative and interesting pursuits, even when you’re dealing with anxiety and fear. Can you share about what you’re doing right now in response to some of those feelings?

The big project I’m working on right now is The Red Shades, a rock opera about trans superheroes. It comes from a deep part of me — a need for healing and for connection to histories of resistance. It’s set in the sixties and draws on histories of resistance in trans communities in New York and San Francisco. It shows the ways our ancestors resisted and pushed back against transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in moments where that felt almost impossible. The odds were stacked against them, yet they managed not only to survive but to prevail and create social change that ripples out to the present day. I’m so inspired by getting to learn about those stories. It takes very little exaggeration to turns trans history into a superhero story.

Red Shades Black Revised.jpgThat sounds like an amazing project. How did you choose that format and what was your process for getting started?

It came about accidentally. I started unwittingly working on it when I had to commute a lot for a job I didn’t particularly like. I passed the time by writing songs and recording them on my phone. At some point they started to take on a narrative. I started to realize I was trying to tell a story and then I started to shape it.

At first I was trying to tell stories inspired by my experiences. What grew was a desire to project outward and to imagine different possibilities for rebellion and justice. The first act is a fictionalized connection to my own experiences, coming from a place of reckoning with my past. The second and third act are based on the history of resistance and communities that came together. That’s a dream for me — how I wish things could be and in some ways how they are since I’ve come out and claimed my identity. The Red Shades is a long process that’s still coming together. The seeds of it are looking at my personal story, connecting it to history, and then imagining a triumphant movement or triumphant building of power.

Thats a lot to encompass. Where are you in the process now?

I’ve written the first act and I’m working on the second. I’ve written 14 or 15 songs and am getting a band together. Instead of having a traditional reading like a play often has, we’re gonna have a concert so people can hear the music and give feedback. That’s the next step. I’m applying to a residency this summer to develop the project more and stage it out and see what happens. There’s a lot of pieces up in the air but it feels good that there’s a lot of excitement generated around it.

Could you share something you’ve learned about queer and trans histories of resistance that stands out to you as particularly important?

Miss Major Griffin Lacy is a person who is endlessly inspiring and incredible. She is a Black transwoman who participated in the Stonewall Riots, then was imprisoned essentially for being trans. She served time at Attica State Prison, where she was radicalized and was part of the Attica State uprising. Then she did activism during the AIDS era of the late 80’s and 90’s. Miss Major continues to be an activist and outspoken advocate for the community. I saw the documentary about her, Major!, that came out a year ago or so. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her speak a couple times and once I got to perform stand up comedy in front of her at a queer open mic which was one of the greatest nights of my life, no exaggeration.

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Adrienne & Miss Major

Was she laughing?

She was laughing, she liked it! I went up to her after the show and got a picture and thanked her for everything that she’s done. It was so incredible to get that connection to a living legend. I was drawn to learning about those histories even before I knew I was writing about them. To learn her story and then to meet her and see she’s a real person who’s lived the most incredible life, a life where just to have survived everything that she’s survived is extraordinary, let alone to be a leader and change what we think of as trans rights or trans liberation movement, would never have existed without her. I’m endlessly amazed by Miss Major.

It’s so wonderful you were able to meet someone who is not just a hero to you and so many in your community, and that it helped to inspire your work. Once the rock opera comes to fruition, what do you hope people get from it?

The primary audience is trans folks and queer folks, and queer and trans folks of color. What I hope that they get out of it is a sense of what is possible through the power of community. Not in a corny way but in the reality that change occurs because of people coming together and getting fed up and saying hell no, we aren’t gonna keep living like this. If you get enough people together, there’s so much that you can do. That story seems really important right now in a time where people are feeling really stuck and demoralized — to be reminded that there have been times in our history where people have felt stuck and demoralized and that’s when the most change has happened.

What do you think is the possibility of the power of community today?

There’s so much potential for people to come together and say, hell no, we’re not gonna live like this, and we can do better than this. Capitalism has been able to sustain itself partly because it controls people’s imaginations of what’s possible. People think this is the best we can do, so we might as well make do with what we have. But once you cut that cord and allow yourself to imagine what could be better than this… so many things could be better than this! You can start to talk to other people who feel that way and dream up new possibilities for every aspect of our existence. From the food we eat to the way we communicate to the way that we resolve conflict to the way that we create our environment. Every single aspect of our world can be changed and be made better. We’ve just gotta pick something and find other people who care about that. I believe that’s when the change can come.

What do you see as your role or work in helping be a part of that change?

I see myself doing a lot of the imagination work, to help people realize what change is possible. That’s one thing that art can do particularly well. I think I’m also humble in the sense that there’s so many things that I want to change and so many things I want to be involved with, but I’m still learning and growing and figuring out the best ways for me to plug in. I keep thinking about this activist group of queer artists in the 90’s called Gran FuryTheir motto was “art is not enough.” I want to balance the importance of the imagination work and artwork with recognizing I have to push in other ways for justice. I’m figuring out what those ways are.

What in your life supports the work that you’re doing and where does it feel like your needs aren’t getting met in terms of support?

Thinking about the rock opera in particular, there’s a lot of people who want to help out and want to see it come to fruition. Part of the growing pains for me is learning how to coordinate and harness people’s’ energy in a way that’s productive. I’m really grateful that people care about the work I’m doing. But I want to make sure that I’m getting help organizing things in a way that allow the process to be truly collaborative and not just plugging people in in a way that just replicates capitalism.

21687433_614856168684640_2274018330630126536_nWhat about on a personal level? You mentioned being in a space of some fear and anxiety. How does that play into what you are or aren’t able to take on in a given moment?

I am always in a constant state of flux. In my emotional world, I have moments of high energy, excitement, creativity, and production, followed by periods of static, withdrawal, stepping back, and taking care of myself. It’s a constant balancing act. It’s why I’m drawn to doing as much work as possible on my own so that I can allow myself to go through those natural rhythms rather than having someone hovering over me expecting me to produce a certain amount and follow a timetable that doesn’t make sense for me.

One of the biggest things for me right now is learning to be gentle with myself — take breaks when I need to, focus on healing when I need to. Make decisions based on what’s best for me rather than on some sense of obligation. That’s what I try to do as much as possible. My friends are important to me. Being surrounded by queer and trans community is important to me which is why I live in Oakland. I have therapy which is supportive. Meditation and spirituality can be supportive.

What does spirituality look like for you?

Spirituality is something that weaves through my life in a way that is not really possible to separate it out from anything I do. Mindfulness and meditation have been important ways of trying to connect with the present moment and connect with what’s going on personally with me. Spiritual community can be valuable. I have been a part of the East Bay Meditation Center since I moved to Oakland a couple of years ago. I’m also involved in Jewish community with the Kehillah synagogue. I’m still trying to put together the pieces of my whole belief system but mostly it revolves around how I make sense of the world and how I survive day to day — the spiritual forces I can call upon to help me.

Since you see yourself as part of the imagination of building a better world, I’d love to hear a picture of what you imagine for the world you want to live in.

One of the things that breaks my heart most about capitalism and neoliberalism is our alienation and estrangement from one another. It makes me sad moving through the world feeling like I’m surrounded by people I have no connection to. I want to live in a world where I care and know about the people I live with and around, and that we have relationships where we can support each other and work together to build community. I would like for us to live in harmony with the natural environment and see ourselves as a part of it rather than as a distinct outlier that rules over everything. I imagine a world full of joy and laughter and fun, the pleasure of being present and being together, where people can truly heal from oppression. I want the elimination of social class hierarchies, just seeing that we’re all just people. It’s corny but there’s no need for hierarchies when we care about the people around us. It’s heartbreaking the way our world creates false divisions and pits us against each other.

In this dreamy world where we’ve ended oppression and we are connected, what do you imagine could be your role in community?

I would want to be doing a lot of the same things I’m doing now in terms of using art as a form of healing. I imagine there’ll be a lot of different work to be done. I’m open to learning about how I can best fulfill the needs of the community.

What are the other forms of art you do?

I am a stand up comic, I play music, I have just started puppetry. I’ve written screenplays and have worked on films before — a lot of theater, storytelling, and work in the music genre.

Why do you think storytelling and these different forms of art are important?

Because people tell me that they are. I’ve definitely done plenty of projects that didn’t move people, so I tried to move away from those kinds of works. Different art works in different ways. Comedy is a funny slippery creature. It can be healing for people to let themselves revel in the absurdity of the world we live in and find the frictions and false realities that we all inhabit. What I do with comedy make a mockery of what seems to be solid, objective truth, but which is really just a bunch of bullshit.

Do you have any favorite jokes you’re telling recently?

When I moved to the Bay Area I discovered this phenomenon of white women apologizing for doing yoga. It’s usually cis white women who feel conflicted about being appropriative by doing yoga or doing something very bourgeois, but feeling a need to integrate it into their self care. Part of comedy is getting people to chill out about things which seem very weighted and intense but really are kind of ridiculous. To not take anything so seriously, both the big scary things, and oneself.

What art inspires you? What are you into these days in that realm?

There’s this amazing thing through SF Moma where you can text a word or a phrase and they’ll text you back an image from their collection that captures what you’re talking about. One day I texted ‘queer rage’ to that number and they texted back work by Jerome Caja, an early 90’s queercore performance and visual artist, a fuckin’ badass who dealt a lot with the hypocrisy of religion and how their Catholic upbringing had been oppressive and absurd. It was exciting to learn more about that artist.

As I’m researching more about rock operas I’ve come across some exciting gems. There’s a concept album considered a rock opera called “SF Sorrow” by The Pretty Things, which predated and helped pave the way for Tommy. There’s a hip hop opera concept album called “Tricks of the Shade” by the band the Goats, which is brilliant, politically insightful and super sharp. Those have both been sources of inspiration even though they are lesser known works that didn’t get their due.

I’m always trying to keep my eyes open to local shows and theater. I recently saw a series of short plays at Z Space Theater. One of them took place in the bathroom of the theater; we were all in there together. It was about a gay meeting in a Russian public toilet and interweaved the histories of homophobic state oppression in Russia. It made me realize how much can be done in small confined spaces with few resources. I just happened to be there the one day it was performed. There’s little exciting things happening all over the place.

Are there other things in having this conversation you feel like sharing?

I am at such a fluid stage in my life. I’m still exploring and so whatever we have talked about today may be completely different from the way I feel in a week from now. Not completely but I might have different priorities or things I care about. I guess that’s part of being human.

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Adrienne invites you to attend the first musical showcase for The Red Shades, her trans superhero rock opera on December 6th at El Rio in San Francisco. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in

Iman on de-coupling work from worth & science as the safest place for 21st century witches

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photo by Aaron Wojack

How do you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a queer Black woman. I’m a student and an activist. I’m a witch. I’ve recently begun to also claim my identity as an artist.  I’m doing a phD at UC Berkeley, which takes up a fair amount of my time and emotional space.

How are you doing?

I’m in a period of transition. I’m trying to decouple my work from my worth. My job will be ending soon. Now would be the time to start applying for careers because I’m going to have this pretty bomb ass degree. I just don’t wanna work! It’s both anti-capitalism and just plain exhaustion that make me feel this way. Since I was five years old I have been waking up every weekday to report to an institution. I don’t want to show up for these powerful white men anymore, or to allow them to profit off my body and my mind. I’m considering being unemployed for up to a year to figure out what I truly want to do, but that’s obviously risky. I have so many blessings I’m grateful for, but I’m also like… what happens next?

Could you share more about decoupling your work from your worth? How has that been for you logistically and emotionally, and where are you at in that process?

This summer was my Art Summer. Since I’m plan to finish my degree in December, I probably should have been applying for jobs. Most people in my position and field have applied to 50 or 60 positions by now. I applied to three and then I felt done. Considering I have such a strong work ethic, I had to ask myself why I was not trying? Like, “I’m just not giving a fuck, why is that?” A lot of it has to do with the psychic exhaustion of being associated with the university. UC Berkeley is a toxic and violent space right now, with all the white supremacist rallies and neo-nazis on campus. Part of me needs to take space away from Cal — and science — to figure out where my time, energy, love, and labor is best spent.

For years I’ve experience anti-Black racism at the university in subtle ways — the low demographic representation of Black students and faculty and a myriad of micro-aggressions. Now this sentiment has manifested in physical violence. I’m not surprised it’s happening because we’ve had all this shit just underneath the surface, Trump and Milo just made us really have to look at it. So the idea of applying for a job to be a professor at a university — I’m like, fuck that, why would I wanna stay in this war zone forever? That’s a hard realization after spending 12 years trying to attain this degree. Now that I’m finally close to having my dissertation completed I realize I don’t really want it. But I’m not going to quit because I’m too deep into it.

What is the degree or field you’re in?

I’m doing a phD in microbiology. 

It seems intense to be intimately familiar with these systems and working under white-male-dominated institutions for so long. I can imagine why you’d want to be bursting out of that.

I’m skilled and qualified so I’m good at these jobs but I’m not invested in them. At some point it’s like, who am I doing this for? I want to take time to find out what I want to do for myself and my community. That’s the decoupling I mentioned earlier. I feel like I can do this best through travel, but that’s also escapism. I wanted to move to Paris, but then Trump got elected and I felt I had to stay here and fight.

Where are you at with the question of figuring out what you want to do for yourself and for the world?

I’m pretty sure about how I want to contribute; I don’t know how to pay my bills while doing that. I know I want to be employed by the resistance, but who funds an insurgent revolution?

17264879_10154222680016035_6969942839344591044_nMy main focus is environmental justice. I study microbial ecology and work in public housing. I compare microbes and toxic mold in market rate housing and federally subsidized housing. My data shows what people have been saying for decades —if you’re black, brown, low-income, or an immigrant, you’re gonna be exposed to more toxic molds. That’s a basic environmental justice issue but now we have the data to prove it. That’s the work I want to do for the rest of my life. How do we protect marginalized communities from environmental pollutants, from climate change, from oppression and exploitation of resources? How can we use science to protect our communities, keep us safe and healthy, and use law to hold polluters accountable?

I have a dream of starting a Queer Radical Science Institute (qRSI). I spent my most memorable summers at biological stations, which are basically summer camps for adults. There are these forested plots you can go to to conduct long term ecological research. They are so fun and nerdy, and I acknowledge I’ve been blessed at spaces like those where I’ve met other enthusiastic natural historians, but when I look back I realize they are implicitly white spaces. This is largely due of the push-out of People of Color from the community of science. People with any sort of spiritual practice are shunned in these spaces. It selects for a very particular kind of ideology and identity. And It’s a goddamn shame.

I want to create more space, and find new ways to do and teach science through a framework of de-colonizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In this new paradigm, what are the questions that we ask, what are the methods that we use? Western modern science operates under a framework of white supremacy and capitalism, which means it is merely a tool of those pre-existent powerful and oppressive structures. At qRSI I want to explore what it would mean to uplift traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous views of the world rather than just the scientific method? If we do that, what are our final products? When do we know when the experiment is done? I want to move away from thinking about publishing papers as the final product. How about a campaign or artwork as the final product? What does it mean to do science that doesn’t end up in these elitist universities or journals? What does it mean to democratize the knowledge? These are all questions and beautiful dreams I don’t yet know how to manifest.

It’s cool to hear you bring up spirituality and art in reference to science because the white mainstream view places them in opposition to one another. You also mentioned coming into your artistry and identifying as an artist and a witch. What do those things look like in your life right now?

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photo by Brooke Anderson

I always say one of the safest places for a 21st century witch is in science because you get to make magic in the laboratory. In the lab you can tinker; you can make things explode, you can transform, and deconstruct. Science is an incredible way to come to know and love The Mother:Nature. But due to patriarchy and misogyny, of course, witches had to go underground for safety. The history of witchcraft is based in resistance. I’ve been fascinated by witchy spaces since I was a kid. When I was maybe 13 I went into a store looking for a book and the shopkeeper called me a green witch. I didn’t know what that meant but now it all makes sense. The way I interact with the earth and nature is witchcraft. It’s voodoo. It’s root work. It’s also called ‘ecology’.

I started to experience activist burnout doing work in the Black Lives Matter movement around 2014. So often I was antagonized by police and felt hopeless. The system is fully inundated with injustice. What is the point of putting one more Black body on the line? It was getting so heavy emotionally. Then one life-changing night, I picked up a textbook from my Alma Mater, Howard University, called Black Magic. The book contains the history of root work and magic in Black America, starting with how slaves conjured against their enslavers. I thought that was so dope that our witchcraft comes from slave rebellion.

I think it’s common for Black folx to have fantasies of being slaves who would run away on the underground railroad, bravely heading North to freedom. But the reality is maybe you might have been a slave who couldn’t run. So what do you do? You hear about some stories of kitchen/Big House slave women who poisoned their masters. Someone’s gonna figure that out and your ass would be whipped or killed. But there other ways to subvert, and conjure and hexing was a part of that tradition.I started to dig into root work and curses against white supremacy to re-activate and reclaim this knowledge in my own activism. It was empowering at the beginning, but over time I started to feel like I was putting too much negative energy into the universe and needed to find a way to balance this with more positive vibes. All the curses we make come back times three, even though I’m responding to a curse that’s been put on me by subjugation. I started thinking about community healing work and how to sustain people in the movement. What kind of herbs can we use as adaptogens? How can we think about ways to heal our communities rather than just hex others? That’s where I feel more comfortable and where I’m at today. I don’t want to put negative out. I want to cultivate positive. I talk a lot about this on the radio show I co-host with a local DJ, Namaste Shawty and MC Queens D. Light on lowergrandradio.com.

Plants help me to find beauty in this fucked up system. They’ve taken a beating from capitalism with deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. Nonetheless the plants are resilient. I started looking at sage and lavender in urban city settings. How can these incredibly medicinal healing plants survive in Oakland and San Francisco? If they can do it, I can do it. These are my allies. Covered in soot but still so lovely. I take a lesson from them.

Is this research you’re doing on your own or in relationship to your school work?

It is in no way related to my school! If I told people at my school they would think I was crazy. I collect medicinal plants on campus sometimes and people always give me the side eye. What I’ve shared with you are lessons and inspiration that sustain me. Now I’m doing [an activist group called] Queer Magic for the Resistance, touching base with other down witches and brujas and showing up for community with healing herbs.

I don’t think I was so cognizant of my body before I started getting into witchcraft. I realized my body is mortal and I’m interacting with forces that intend to take apart my body. The police would gladly kill me, and these racist institutions intend to annihilate me. My material body became more of a focus than my brain, the main thing driving my career up until this point. A lot of work I do with herbs is about healing the body — making bath salts or body butter or teas to soothe the material tissue. Exploring my queer identity has been interesting too, looking at my body and asking what do I like about it? What am I not comfortable with? How does that relate to patriarchy and heteronormativity? That’s all part of the magic!

You’re doing a lot of different kinds of art right now right?

noncommittalMusic, visual art, the Las Brujas Radio podcast, and a videogame. That has been an exploration in play and anti-capitalist views of time. If you’re not working and you’re not making money, then is your time valuable? Capitalism thwarts your creativity because you make it about dollars rather than creation. I have decided that I’m gonna make this collage just because I want to make this collage! I’m not gonna market or sell it. I’m gonna make it because it feels good and I’m entitled to my time and to pleasure. If I want to create, I can. I’m trying to not feel guilty about things I ‘should’ be doing instead.

So first I started playing with collage than I started playing with sound. Now I’m playing with audio collage. I dropped my debut album ‘Noncommital’ on bandcamp at the end of Virgo Season. I started playing in a band. I’m just reclaiming my time. I realized that the days belong to me — not the institution, and definitely not the market.

It’s hard though because like you said earlier, you know what you want to do for yourself and in the world but you don’t know how to pay the rent at the same time. Ideally we’re all trying to reclaim our time, but we also experience barriers to that.

Reclaiming my time is not without recourse. My advisor is my boss, and he’s threatened to stop paying me. I got to a point where I was like, if you’re gonna kick me out, then just go on and kick me out, but until then, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m six years into my PhD now and I’m kinda losing steam for science, but also I’m just interested in lots of other things  and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes when I’m kicking ass in other projects I’m able to plug back into science and have an awesome productive day. But it’s gonna be a day, it’s not gonna be my week. 

Right, it’s not taking over your life so much.

I gotta find space for me. The institutions erase your individuality. They make you a worker. I came here to be a thinker and to tinker, and to learn about fungi.

Outside of a capitalist framework, can you imagine what would you be doing for yourself and for your community?

By virtue of being human I believe everyone is entitled to food, housing, water, education, healthcare, and a suitable form of labor that makes life sweet. In my dream of the world everyone would have that. There’s a cool way to decouple labor from basic needs being met. Instead of working so much just to have a roof to put over your head and keep the lights on, what if we decided everyone’s entitled to these things just because you need them — what would you do with your time? The world would be so much more beautiful. People would create. People would care. Some people call it universal basic income, some call it socialism or anarchism, I’m also comfortable calling it welfare. There’s so much waste in capitalism. Anyone who qualifies should fucking get their food stamps. This system is providing so much junk we don’t need that’s having this awful environmental impact. Get your shit from the government. The government should care for you simply because you exist. I dream that.

In terms of my economic political standings, I want a big government that cares for all the people. I hate the laissez-faire market. I don’t want free market capitalism to drive any of our policies. I liked the idea of the share economy that tech is creating, minus the tech influence and the fact that the bottom-line is profit. But they’re onto something really — we don’t all need to have a car, you know? We don’t all need to own the land, but we can all utilize it. I love the idea of not exchanging money for services ever again.

What would you do and how would you contribute in this world?

I’d be working in outdoor education, still hanging out with plants and looking at fungi. Biodiversity is so beautiful and I love natural history. I’d probably be a storyteller. I’d tell people about what we’re seeing in our environment and how to engage with it and what other people do with these things. I’d wanna tell the stories of the forest and cultivate spaces where those stories could be told. The ways to tell that story would be numerous. You can paint it, you can sing it, you can have the bonfire, you can lead a mushroom hunt through the pristine woods, or abandoned urban lots.

What do you think is important about telling those stories?

They’re fascinating. It helps you to find your place if you know that the world is much bigger than you. I’m finding it humbling to realize how complex all of these interactions between soil, microbes, climate, weather, water, micronutrients, plants, and animals are. You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how this little ecosystem works. I’m just one little player in this beautiful construction. I love that. It means some of these decisions I make and stress over aren’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

I also think it’s important to just worship the land that you’re on and acknowledge the space you occupy as sacred. We’d engage a lot differently if we put ourselves in the context of the place and the space and hold ourselves and that space as not distinct from one another, and to acknowledge land as profound and beautiful.

It’s cool to hear you talk about your relationship to nature and science as being humbling. I feel like a lot of what has turned me off from mainstream science is the doctrine, the knowing, the framework that research happens for the purpose of ownership and dominance. It’s cool to hear how you are engaged in science and nature from a totally different perspective and seeking to unravel more mystery and wonder.

Yeah. There were anthropologists in the twenties who explored this demarcation between science, religion, and magic. It was in this ideation that “primitive” cultures have magic and religion basically because they are ignorant, and “civilized” cultures have science, because they understand and dominate their environments. Academics were suggesting that cultures who don’t have an understanding of their environment just ‘leave it up to the elements’ and pray to their gods because they don’t understand, and once you gain some knowledge of the earth you move towards magic so you can manipulate it, and then once you truly know it and demonstrate mastery then a cultures has science. This is obviously whack, because all of these things exist simultaneously and one person or entire cultures can go these different modes of wonder, ignorance, and knowledge every cycle, and/or every single day.

It’s a lot queerer.

Exactly. I want to get to a point where magic is viewed on the same plane as science, and privileged without having to be called “pseudo-science”.

Magic and science aren’t in opposition to each other. I recently learned that avocados change their sex multiple times a day.

So the flowers change or drop? That’s really interesting. That’s a lot of development and the genetics must be really intense and what kind environmental cues trigger those changes… How can we not be humbled and get off this dichotomy, you know? You are either male or female — no, there’s so many options, really. I love the idea of perfect flowers, which in botany is a term used to describe hermaphroditic flowers.

Maybe future check boxes on forms could have us choose between avocados and perfect flowers. It’s wonderful to hear about all the work you’re exploring. What do you need to support you in these processes and helping to create this world?

Instinctively I would say money but I want to move away from that. Part of me feels like a land trust is the move. What would it mean to have a spot where we do this Queer Radical Science Institute and just start by occupying? We just get there and start cultivating the world we want to see. We’ve seen that happen when you think about community gardens in Los Angeles or Detroit. People just took up hoes in urban space and developers come claim it once it’s poppin’.

I’m still figuring my shit out. It’d be cool if people were down to dream with me and offer their time and energy. All I really need is love and community. Money sucks. Capitalism is the reason my family, my ancestors were enslaved. I don’t want that to be what determines whether or not I’m a valuable contribution to society. Fuck the money. Share the love.

Is your goal to transform the institutions, to tear them down, or work completely outside of them?

I have been battling this question for so long. My second and third year at Cal, the only Black woman faculty member in my entire college, Carolyn Finney, was denied tenure. At the time there were only two Black professors, so all of the women of color flock to this one faculty member for mentorship. Because she was overloaded with doing community care work, she wasn’t able to produce as much academic stuff, which is the only thing the university really values. I started wondering, if we get her tenure, if more of us stay, can we shift it? Can we fix it from the inside? Maybe that is possible, but I’m not gonna be the one to do it, because that is not the timescale I wanna work on. Now bricks go through our windows and buildings get set on fire because people are so frustrated with the institution and want to tear it down. I think this absolutely needs to happen, but I don’t want to be the one to do that either. I want to work wholly outside of it. I don’t want to destroy it, I don’t want to sit around inside of it and wait for it to change, I want to do my own thing elsewhere. If folks wanna get down, come holler at me. But I’m not engaging in this shit anymore. I once heard a wise youth say, “everyone is invited to the revolution, but not everyone will come.”

You mentioned love and community as two things that can support you in doing that. Can you tell me what it looks like to show up for each other in community?

Sometimes it’s the simplest things. Sometimes after going to a protest, having a friend who’s cooked you a meal and made you tea and is there to give you a hug is huge. Having a friend go with you to the protest is also amazing. I get a lot of tarot readings from my friends and spend a lot of time in beer gardens debriefing and processing. I spend a lot of time in nature, in the rivers and forests. I go mushroom hunting every weekend. Take a hike and get away. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far. I spend a lot of time in the Piedmont Cemetery. That’s in Oakland, but I’m getting away from the exchange of money and capitalism. I sit with the realities that time is limited. Your life is precious. You only have a couple of years to do whatever it is you’re doing. And then once you’re done with that you’re gonna give all your atoms back to the universe.

Is this conversation bringing up any other thoughts you have about creating the world you want to live in?

We as activists struggle to feel like we’re doing enough. The issues are so vast and so big. It can be disheartening. I’ve seen many people turn away from the movement because sometimes you feel like you’re never gonna win. I’ve grappled with that, but then I think about all the major victories we’ve accomplished in the last couple years. Something I’m proud of is that we got the University of California to divest in for-profit prisons. That’s a big deal. But it’s so easily overshadowed when the same university that divested is giving a “Free Speech Week” platform to white supremacists. You can get so inundated in the everyday struggle, forget how powerful you really are, and question if you’re doing enough. I used to feel like if i don’t go how can I expect anyone else to? This year I’ve gotten better about trusting that if I don’t show up, someone else will. Since the inauguration I think people are getting it. This shit is urgent.

There’s a certain level of privilege that comes from being associated with the university. I’ve been arrested and had my Cal ID on top of my state ID and the cops let me walk away. There are some things I can do other working class folks cannot. I don’t really have to show up at school tomorrow at 8am, I can go to jail tonight. I don’t want to go to jail, but it’s better me — the single student — to go to jail than somebody else who has to feed a child. If I get a job, which is what I’m trying to avoid for the rest of my life, I won’t have this particular freedom. So while I do, it’s critical for me to utilize it. I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of privileges I have besides maybe my citizenship, my education, and being cisgendered. The few that I have, I’m gonna fucking work ‘em and put them to use.

The revolution will be pleasurable! I have been so blessed by the people in my life, especially the activist community. I have started using the phrase ‘Lover-Homie-Comrade’ just to acknowledge the ways people flow through relationships. Some can be romantic, some can be platonic, sometimes I’ll throw down with you in a protest, maybe we’ll spend the night together in jail. It’s hard work, but these are labors of love. We’re out here waging love y’all.

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You can find Iman’s work all over! Listen to Iman’s album, band, and Las Brujas Radio. Check out Iman’s visual art and support the conceptual demo of her video game. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in