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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 8
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 2
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Hewan Aberra.jpg
Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Mika Munoz 2.JPG
Photo by Mika Munoz

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

unnamed-2

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

unnamed-1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18402303_562916973878560_5778604899302226476_o
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.

13988121_427618390741753_6503140762998036984_o
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.

20861579_152596045319265_8634463466783455990_o

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

aaron wojack
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?

brooke anderson
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.

12795102_10153247656481213_2609463179327213415_o.jpg

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

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.54.27 PM.png
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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.46.01 PM.png
“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.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.53.19 PM

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