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

Keely on farming, food justice, & harnessing potential

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Photo by Carl Jones.

How you identify yourself in the world?

Queer, Nipmuc or indigenous, either of those work. Nipmucs are from Massachusetts, of this particular place. Able-bodied, cis female, white-passing, a farmer, sexual health educator, youth worker, caregiver to children, homemaker, sibling, person of here.

How are you doing in the world?

Today I’m fine. I cope pretty well in the day-to-day. I’m privileged in this world and in the way I get to move through this world. That said, I can’t be unaffected by what’s happening in the world, so I ebb and flow between some extremes. Sometimes I don’t want to leave my bed. That is mostly a product of the world happening around us. I love the work I do and the people I’ve prioritized in my life and those things bring me a lot of joy.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.42.20 PM.pngWill you tell me a little bit about the work that you’re doing?

I’m a farmer. Between eight and ten months a year, I work 40-60 hours a week doing vegetable production on small organic farms. I’m currently at a farm called Brookwood Community Farm south of Boston. I do everything from seeding and weeding to tractor work to distribution to managing a market. I also get to do really cool and gratifying unpaid work sometimes. Last week I helped work with my tribe on gardening projects and teaching kids about farming things. When I’m not working, I’m sleeping or eating good food with good people.

What brought you to farming?

I started farming in 2008 when I was 14. This organization called The Food Project hired teenagers from all areas of greater Boston. I thought it was just going to be a summer job. The relationships I built that first summer farming brought me into the fall doing it as a school year gig, and I haven’t left farming since. The relationship building and thinking intentionally about social justice issues in relationship to farming have always made sense to me and became the most important thing I’ve ever committed to. Farming has been the one consistent thing in my life. I haven’t missed a summer since I was 14. Now I am a full-time farmer. Everything I do for my job is related to working the land and producing food. It’s built into my being, my DNA, and my spirituality.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.48.07 PM.pngHow does farming feel connected to social justice issues?

Food connects every single person on this planet. It’s universal. No matter what element in food you work, you can’t escape thinking about social justice issues. Who can afford to buy this food that I’m producing, the ways we choose to distribute the food, all of our decisions relate to somebody else’s well being. How we treat our environment affects the person who lives next to the farm and the person who has to carry away the trash from our farm. It’s so connected. On a daily basis, I might be alone in a field in the middle of nowhere, but nothing about farming stays right there. You’re constantly witnessing all these things that are so interconnected.

I’m hearing you talk a lot about the impact of farming on other people and on the earth, and I’m wondering how it impacts you personally as someone who’s doing 40 to 60 hours a week?

Spiritually I feel very fulfilled. I feel so grateful I have a job where I’m outside every single day. When I think about long-term commitments, I want to be growing food. That’s what keeps me going on the 60-hour weeks. There’s something so ritualistic and hopeful about seeing the sun rise every morning to greet you. In getting to see a piece of land change seasonally, I’m never going to miss a certain bloom happening, or a storm, or watching clouds roll in. Something about that is just magnificent. To watch and witness this is magic.

This is my tenth season farming. It’s the first year I’ve started to feel achy and tired in a way that’s different than any other season. The physical wear and tear is exhausting. I’ve decided to prioritize self care in a big way. I need so much rest, sleep, and time to myself. Socializing can be rejuvenating in its own way. But it’s hard to find people on the wavelength of needing the kind of restoration I need.

I’ve started bartering for massages which has been huge. It’s hard to remember the value of what you do. I’m trying to remember that vegetables, something I have ready access to, are a valuable gift I can give, and I’ve found someone who’s excited about receiving them. I get a massage every one to two weeks. Never in my life could I have imagined affording that. Sometimes that’s the only time I’ve set aside for myself in a week, to really just be in existence. People think of phones and the internet that as their downtime, like, oh let me just scroll. I engage in that, but it exhausts me. Committing an hour to being present in my physical body is like *ahhhh*! It’s so good!

What is the value of what you do and what was your process in realizing that?

It’s invaluable. We need farmers in a huge way. Providing someone the food that sustains them is pretty awesome. If I didn’t get to witness that part early on I don’t think I would have stuck with it. When you have a conversation with the people who are going to consume your food, whether it’s at a soup kitchen, a farmer’s market, or the CSA pickup, all of those people are eating the same thing you produced. The relationship building with the folks who are so appreciative of what you’re providing is what makes it feel invaluable and like I couldn’t give it up.

Are there any interactions that stand out in your mind as you’re saying that?

Mei Mei Street Kitchen is a restaurant in the Fenway area who works really hard to source all of their food locally. I’ve gone to the restaurant a handful of times and it’s wonderful food. It’s a stark contrast of going to this fancy restaurant where you’re buying a $15 dish and seeing how artistically the food is expressed and how the people are enjoying that food in a totally different way.

My favorite organization I ever worked in was My Brother’s Table in Lynn, a soup kitchen that does a meal every afternoon. It’s not necessarily outward joy or expressively luxurious, like you might see at a restaurant. Rather you witness this ‘I feel sustained and I’m taking a moment to rest from my exhausting day or life, and this food is nourishing me.’ I’m lucky to be witness to the food being appreciated in different contexts. Watching kids pick a cherry tomato and eat it like it’s a starburst is so wonderful. Those are the moments where I know I do this because food brings people joy and nourishment.

I’m grateful for you that you get to have those experiences and witness it. I’m sure a lot of people aren’t able to see the fruits of their labor. I know this is a big question, but why is food important?

Food nourishes people, and we need nourishment to survive. It’s a daily interaction we have with ourselves. It connects every single person. I have had so many conversations with people across so many walks of life because everyone has experiences and connotations with it. Food justice speaks to me because food can be good for the planet, the people who are consuming it and producing it, and can be culturally appropriate. We’ve lost our way in food in this particular country and society in a big way.

What does food production and consumption look like in the world you want to live in?

I want people to be more connected to their food through knowledge and decision-making. I see transformation when people are given access to knowledge. In the world I would love to live in, folks are able to make conscious, informed decisions about their food because the barriers have been alleviated.

Even just the knowing is enough. Being able to bear witness to what growing food really entails, whether it’s watching a Youtube video or going to visit a farm. I’ve gotten to be a part of that for a lot of folks in watching their world open up when they realize how their food got in front of them, or all of the things that are influencing that, or the person who is suffering to produce their food. It’s part of what I want for my world and for the people who are living in it. I want people to know, and think about it, and maybe value it — at least a little bit.

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“I am constantly trying to harness potential… That’s why I have this reminder on my arm every day.”

How do you interact with the earth and land is in this work?

I’m manipulating the earth every day, right? I’m trying to make the best circumstance for a seed to survive and thrive. I am constantly trying to harness potential. That’s the only hope I have in interacting with the land as a farmer. To tread lightly and not fuck it up.

Right now I’m sitting in this grass. If I was on the farm I would be pulling all of these out because they’re weeds, right? I’m fighting my urge because I know that here, it should just grow and exist. My relationship to the land and nature is a higher consciousness of how things could and should be in an ideal world. Especially in terms of nature and land and what we’re cultivating versus when you should be leaving a field to rest, or when you should not be messing with that bird’s habitat. It’s all interconnected. The more you spend time farming or outside or working with land you develop a connection and a sense of what is okay and not okay on land and in nature.

What are you listening to when you have that sense? Where’s that coming from?

It’s a developed instinct. You’ll see someone who walks onto the farm for the first time and they can see that they shouldn’t walk on a row of plants. I do a lot of repetitive observing. If you walk onto the same field in the same way every day, you’re gonna know there’s been an animal that’s scurried through because it’s left its droppings or eaten something. I’ve become so much more conscious of if a storm will roll through, or if these plants need this or that. I’m spending hours witnessing them that’s engaged that instinct. I’m in a heightened state when I’m farming or on land.

How does being indigenous to this land connect to the work you’re doing?

It took me a number of years to make the connection of working land that potentially ancestors may have also worked. It makes it feel that much more important. I’m maybe the only person from my tribe who is farming in Massachusetts right now. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the work I do. I’m still young and I try not to hold too much pressure on myself. I also feel confident that this is a thing that I love and want to be doing. I’ve spent my entire farming career working for white people who are not of this land. I’ve been lucky that a lot of them give a fuck about that perspective and engage with it. But it feels complicated and strange. My chief is my friend Nia’s mom. We’re a matrilineal tribe so it feels like there’s an extra layer of expectation that women will run shit.

There’s a lot I have to learn in terms of historical growing practices. If the goal is food sovereignty, we would have evolved had colonization not happened anyhow. There’s this piece of pulling from both modern agriculture as well as indigenous practices that feels really important. I feel a responsibility to be teaching. I don’t want to be the only person from my tribe who’s farming. I talk about this with my chief and other people from my tribe all the time. They’re like, we need to get you land so you can farm food to be putting into our community ASAP. I fought that for a little while or felt I don’t know enough, and now I’m like you know what? Fuck it. None of us are ever gonna know enough. It’s so fucking important that people from my tribe grow food on our land and that we are in control of some of these resources and right now we’re just not. Making that shift feels like my life’s work. It feels weird to be 23 and be able to say that.

Do you personally or collectively have goals about owning land and farming on it?

I would love to own and/or manage land. I want my tribe to acquire a lot more of our land back and have access to some of the land that we shouldn’t have ever had taken away from us. I wish it were as simple as going into a town hall and being like, so you see this piece of land? It feels weird to interact with the system and need titles and deeds for land, but I understand that it’s the only way to be protected after pouring all your energy and resources in. I’m figuring out how to go through that with integrity and figuring out how to interact with people who have integrity.

Between the day-to-day physical exhaustion to the bigger picture of food justice and injustice, it seems like you are grappling with a lot. Who and what in your life support you doing this work and make it possible for you to keep doing it?

I think back to talking about how isolating and solitary farming can be, especially in the intersections of identity. I think about older indigenous folks doing food sovereignty work in rural spaces who went years without ever connecting to anyone outside of their tribe. The internet can be a saving grace. The first time I saw another queer-identifying native person was on instagram. I learn more about conferences and farms I can get guidance from, or seedkeepers who are keeping seeds that are indigenous to here. It’s dope to have community affirmation. I don’t feel like I’m chipping at farming alone in relationship to my tribe, but I feel like if I left it might not happen. I don’t think there’s a way to fix that. It’s just something I have to accept. I appreciate how many people are chipping at it in their own communities and having connection to that feels important.

I lucked out committing to a career I’m passionate about that doesn’t require a college education; I didn’t really do college. My friends and bio-family are supportive for the most part since I’ve done it for a number of years and proved I can make my life work. But sometimes they think I’m going to fail. They still push me to get a college education. You asked about what supports are there but I think it’s important to acknowledge the frustrating moments.

It’s hard to love and be in relationship with a farmer. I grew up in the city. Most of my friends are city people who have never been on a farm. After so many years they understand what it’ll mean to be friends with me if I committed myself to a piece of land that’s in a more rural setting. I feel lucky that so many of them will love and support that no matter what. I have future CSA members in my community. I feel confident that I’m not gonna lose them over my commitment and I commit myself to farming first. Many of my friends care about or pay attention to farming in a broader context so that they can stay close to me and I appreciate that.

I have a great appreciation for the partners I’ve had. I’ve always been the exhausted partner who comes home and doesn’t have energy to make dinner or can never give a massage but needs one, or can’t follow through with the plans that go past 10 pm because I need to be in bed. I value the love I have received when I’m not the most lovable. I’ve committed a tremendous amount of my energy and existence to farming and that makes me have minimal energy for other people. Sometimes I can’t have some of the important conversations I want to be having ‘cos I’m exhausted. I’ll have had conversations in my head in the field all day, and then when it comes down to the actual opportunity, I fall asleep. I’m a social being so I have a lot of people I want to be able to give my energy to. I think that’s just going to be something I have to come to terms with over and over. Because you just only have the time you have.

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

I’m providing food. That’s sustenance. When I was younger I wanted to be a mover and shaker and be at every protest and lobby at the state house. While I am still gonna show up to things and care deeply about showing up in those ways, I’m comfortable with my role as the person providing food for my community.

I’m a homemaker, I’m a homebody. I love giving people food, I love having people over for food. Food is the center of my world. I have the ability to give vegetables to friends who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. I’ve managed to carve out a community and world for myself in a tiny way. That feels dope. If I’m able to give people even a moment of refuge in food, that is enough for me.

I’m never gonna feel like I’m doing enough. That’s capitalistic bullshit we’ve been socialized to feel. I try to hold onto moments of hearing and realizing I maybe am doing enough. If I look at the internet at Trump’s nonsense or turn on NPR and it’s all of this stateside and international nonsense… fuck. Fuck! I listen to all the ‘fuck’ but then I go micro and I’m like, I have a stable place to live that I can afford. I can provide food for myself and other people. I’m putting out more good than bad in this world. I am comfortable and happy with my role as a food provider, producer, and educator. That’s where I want to be in this movement, that’s where I wanna be in my impact. Everyone comes home tired from a protest and I can grow you some vegetables. Maybe I wasn’t there but shoot, you got some good food to nourish you, so that’s an okay role to play.

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Keely Curliss is highly google-able and uses her full name on all the social media platforms including her veggie-tastic instagram. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in