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

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

What is Peacock Rebellion and who makes up the organization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

reflections from the first round of interviews

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grove of the old trees, sonoma county, california

Dear friends,

In lieu of a new interview, today I will share some reflections and appreciations from this project so far.

It’s such a privilege to have conversations about labor, creativity, oppression, and revolution with inspiring people from various communities. Each interview has been special in its own way and helped to highlight different aspects of what makes creative and generative work important. Each interview helps me believe and feel the power and necessity of this work to build the world we want to live in — in spite of all the internalized messages that tells me that the feminized, invisibilized, and creative labor that I and so many people from my communities engage in are frivolous contributions without any real impact.

On a small scale, my hope for the impact of this project is that it lifts peoples’ spirits, that reading these interviews is much-needed antidote to all the terrible news about the rise of repression that many of us are directly impacted by, and many others of us consume obsessively to the point of feeling helpless. On a loftier, more visionary scale, my hope for the impact of this project is that it empowers people to entertain the possibilities for resistance and regeneration in their own lives, even if their work and time does not feel overtly political or connected to liberation. As someone who struggles to dream big for fear of disappointing myself and others, I challenge all of us to bring to life the realm of possibilities that only require us to see them and to act on them.

In case you are reading this and have not yet caught up on all the interviews that have already been posted, I wanted to share some connections that linger with me:

  • Iman mentioning how meaningful it is to come home from a protest to find a friend has been cooking a nourishing meal to share, and Keely talking about being the one to grow and cook food to nourish her friends throwing down at demos.
  • Jonah and Iman each referring to medicinal plant communities as allies and models of resilience in the face of capitalism
  • Keely and Lindsey talking about the double edged sword of social media — how the “endless scrolling” can be exhausting and destructive, but connecting to others with similar work and values feels nourishing and important
  • Adrienne and Jonah talking about the importance of being creative and visionary when thinking about the world we want to live in, in spite of the constraints capitalism puts on our imaginations
  • Nearly all the interviewees describing a desire for a deeper sense of collective connection to land and earth’s natural resources
  • Several to-be-published interviews all naming adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Stategy as a force that shapes and directs their work

On a personal level it’s also been energizing and nourishing to more intentionally connect with the people and resources in my life I have access to, and integrating these interviews so holistically into my life — last night to mark the first night of Hanukah, I burned Narrow Bridge Candles, and felt more connected to the ritual in knowing they were crafted by Jonah with such care and intention. Last week I attended the showcase of The Red Shades, Adrienne’s trans superhero rock opera in progress — I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so politically energized by theater, and I’m so confident this work could inspire well beyond our community of Bay Area queer and transfolk. It’s so healing and moving to remember the incredible people I am in community with, even when I feel isolated and hopeless.

Please reach out if you feel open to sharing any reflections or feedback about what you’ve read so far, and please also reach out if you or someone you know might be a good interviewee in the project. I have been humbled and grateful for the folks who’ve taken the time to do this so far.

I hope to be back on track with publishing new interviews starting next week — upcoming interviews include Devi & Lexi of QTPOC arts organization Peacock Rebellion, bodyworker Dusty, and more TBA.

With love, humility, and hope,

xo freddie