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

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photo by Aaron Jay Young

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Urvi Navgrani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reverse Genocide Oregon Trail Pilgim Barbie. Photo by Robin Chu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carmen Miranda homage. Photo by Gabriela Hasbun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s fair, it’s a lot to take in.

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

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

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

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

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Dusty on grounding their bodywork in consent and bodies as strongholds

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

My name is Dusty and I am a white, chronically ill, queer femme bodyworker.

What fills your days?

I’ve had a lot of solo time lately. In that time I’ve been trying to get outside more. I’ve been going to the Oakland Redwoods. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘woo’ stuff related to tarot, astrology, and learning about ancestor work and practices. I’ve been doing a lot of internal thinking and development work.

What does ancestor work mean to you?

I started listening to Bespoken Bones, this amazing podcast by a somatic sex therapist in San Francisco, Pavini Moray. It’s an exploration of how intergenerational trauma connects to the present, and how that connects to somatic and sexual wellness and capabilities. I’m thinking a lot about how I’m a white person from European ancestry and haven’t felt connected to family cultures or traditions. I need more history and context to anchor my work as a healer. I’m exploring this idea of acknowledging that I as a white person come from somewhere, and am connected to and must be accountable for things that have come before me. That idea feels powerful and important and like it’s going to become a bigger part of my life and practice.

I’m excited to hear how that progresses for you. What does being a healer look like in your life?

I am a massage therapist and bodyworker. That is my primary occupation and something I put a lot of time, love, and energy into learning about. The majority of my practice is working with queer and trans people, many of whom identify as being chronically ill, in chronic pain, disabled, or some combination of those things. I do a lot of work with bodies that are oftentimes ‘othered’ by society.

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What do those bodies call for in bodywork?

Part of what I do is be open to meeting someone where they are, day to day and moment to moment. There’s been a great undoing of expectations in terms of what might constitute progress or a successful session according to the thinking I was taught originally, in a clinical framework.

A core idea of my practice is that it’s strongly consent-oriented. I’m not showing up to a session and imposing my preconceived agenda on someone’s body. We always start off by having a conversation and negotiating what’s going to feel good today. There is space for my guidance and connections I might make, but ultimately I do work that someone is feeling excited about and ready for on a given day. Communication and consent is an important part of that process.

I also love to be creative. I’m always studying something new because I’m a body nerd. Having a variety of tools to pull from means there’s a variety of ways I can meet someone’s needs. My work is rooted in the idea of starting wherever someone is, even if that doesn’t look like glamorous pain-free change, or if the shifts are more subtle to tune into.

When you feel a session has gone well, what is the ideal impact of your work?

Some of the most immediate feedback I might get from someone is both verbal and visual — maybe someone comes into a session carrying a certain amount of stress, anxiety, and pain. Maybe their nervous system is activated. The first and the biggest thing is asking, what can I do to help someone access a space of deep and intentional relaxation? From there, all other things may be possible.

What’s the importance of helping someone access that place of deep and intentional relaxation?

Feeling good and relaxing have so many important benefits, even just on a mental level. If you’re living with chronic pain or a chronic illness and carrying some baseline of discomfort or pain with you every day, feeling good in your body can seem so out of reach. Having the chance for your mind and body to re-shape the narrative of what’s possible for you in torlderms of sensation and pain, even for an hour of your day, is huge. On the scientific anatomy side, when you get to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system — the rest and digest part, the opposite of the fight or flight system, where we normally spend a lot of time in this world and in the day to day — that is where restore and repair happens on an emotional and cellular level.

Bodies are an amazing mystery. There should not be expectations or parameters for everyone to try to fit themselves into because different things are possible for different bodies at different times. That said, a reduction in pain is definitely possible in an acute musculoskeletal way, and pain reduction is possible in terms of degrees of intensity of chronic pain. Having a safe and nurturing space to be present in your body can be part of rewiring patterns associated with trauma. Sometimes I see greater access to range of motion or mobility.

I worked with a client today who has been suffering from chronic migraines and at this point in time is no longer experiencing them. That’s not entirely because of our work together though that’s certainly a part of it. But I think bodywork creates the opportunity for you to cultivate an inner awareness and also to internalize some of the feeling of: I am worthy of care, time, and attention. Which is huge! A lot of us don’t feel that on a regular basis. Feeling good in a session is often a starting point that leads to other kinds of intentional care being more possible in a person’s life.

That sounds really powerful. What it’s like for you to facilitate and witness that kind of transformational experience as a provider?

As a provider this work can be really exciting. It’s amazing that my job is getting to help people feel good and be more in touch with themselves. It’s a moment in my day of feeling uplifted and sometimes more connected to hope. Seeing things that have seemed impossible start to open to the possibility of change is something that’s very hopeful.

A lot of times it’s also really hard. I’m bearing witness to a lot of intense stories, a lot of people who are in very real and immediate pain, or who are dissatisfied with something about how their body is currently or permanently functioning. In addition to the hopefulness there is also sometimes a heaviness. A heaviness and an intensity because a lot of people have tried a lot of things to feel better or feel differently, and that can make it feel like the stakes are high. I have to figure out how to hold and sit with that, while acknowledging and helping to coach someone’s awareness that we’re gonna see what’s possible, but we don’t always know, and it’s definitely going to take time.

Does it ever feel like you’re taking on someone’s pain or trauma, either physically or emotionally?

It definitely did much more when I was first getting started. I’ve had to be intentional about the ways that I take care of myself and ground myself before and after sessions to avoid taking on things that aren’t mine.

For example, I do massage at a facility for adults who are navigating physical and mental disabilities, most of which affect motor system control. Some of the stories that get shared with me while I’m working are about really difficult life experiences. While I often end my day feeling better than when I started, and feeling more able to tap into hope, sometimes bearing witness to people’s stories echoes and amplifies the structural inequalities and oppressions in the world that oftentimes contribute to someone feeling they way they’re feeling and why they’re coming in for a session.

What does it look like to practice self-care and ground yourself?

It’s a work in progress. Over the last year I’ve had to get realistic about how much work I’m physically able to do given my own chronic conditions. I would like to strengthen connections to community. Especially when I’m mainly working in private practice, I develop strong one-on-one connections with the people coming to see me, but there can be isolation from other practitioners and other things going on. I definitely feel this sometimes.

I get bodywork myself; that’s important. I’m trying to find foods that make me feel good and nourish me. The big thing I’m working on right now is how to incorporate more movement into my life, because movement is something that feels good but isn’t always accessible with my fatigue levels. The physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — all the things need tending to. I have to think about it as part of my job.

IMG_9188.JPGWhat does the world you want to live in look like?

It’s hard for me to dream and connect into a longer-term vision of what the magical future might look like. I don’t let myself go there very often and get stuck in the day-to-day. For myself, I would love to work with a team of informed practitioners who actually give a shit about providing intentional care, and who are working together to holistically support people in their goals, in an integrated health center where people can access services for free.

A life where we’re more connected to the land and the earth is important. I would like to live in a world where people and bodies aren’t marginalized due to physical or mental ability, and where we know we’re not disposable because we’re not able to do copious amounts of work. I would like to live in a world that enacts networks of mutual aid and mutual care for each other.

What do you see as your role and work in the current world we’re living in?

I struggle with that question a lot. I want to be doing more and I am figuring out how I might. At the same time, the work I’m doing one-on-one with people is really valuable. I have internalized the tendency to devalue femme and healing labor. I have to remind myself I make a lot of efforts to make my services accessible to whoever needs them. The people I’m working with are teachers, social workers, activists, artists — other people who are working for change in serious ways. I’m part of their care teams, and that’s a job; that’s important! The world needs people at protests, and also people cooking food and holding decompression space after protests. That’s how I feel connected on a smaller level. I would like to figure out a way to better leverage my skills and resources for change on a bigger, systemic level. I’m working on that.

What are the people or frameworks helping you push against internalized bullshit and expectations of doing copious amounts of work, toward something that feels more holistic and healing?

A big resource for that is the disability justice movement, especially Sins Invalid’s work. Mia Mingus’s writings have been especially helpful. Sins Invalid has a wonderful disability justice primer and lots of articles. That feels like a political home for me. I will be in a lifelong struggle of undoing internalized ableism. Connecting with these ideas that are anti-disposability of all people are really powerful.

I feel inspired by people who are doing creative work to envision alternate futures. The work and writing of adrienne maree brown is really exciting — I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now! Some of her visions and the Octavia Butler-inspired framework she works from speaks to my sci-fi nerd, future-imagining self.

What are the things in your life support and sustain you, and what are the barriers to making this work truly sustainable?

I feel supported by my friends, by my partner, by therapy. Most of the time I’ve been working I’ve also been taking classes, and I have a few teachers who I connect with. Having support from people who have been doing this work for a long time feels really helpful. The evils of the internet are real, but in a way I feel supported getting to read and connect with ideas of other kinds of healers. That feels like a more broad sense of community. I’m experiencing some some challenges right now with my physical body that can affect the presence that I can show up with to this work and how much I can do it. And I’m still figuring out the financial piece of things.

What’s importance of caring for our bodies, both for people who are experiencing consistent and frequent pain, and for those of us who aren’t in a place where we’ve chosen or been able to pay much attention to our bodies? How do our bodies connect to our lives beyond being the thing that we use to eat and sleep and breathe?

Everything’s connected. It’s really true. I see that it’s common for people who hold one or more marginalized identities in the world to exist in a state of partial or total disassociation from their bodies. It makes a lot of sense when you learn about trauma. Disassociation is a survival mechanism that helps you move through the world and stay as safe as you can. It’s scary to go into that place of: Oh, I can feel emotions. What is this feeling? What’s going on in my body?

Something I appreciate about bodywork is that we can move at whatever pace an individual needs to move. Even if we’re working with something that’s deeply held or is chronic and not going anywhere, shifts can happen in terms of how we relate to our bodies and the range of emotional and physical sensations we have access to. I believe and continue to study different theories about trauma for this purpose. The more in touch we are with what’s going on for us on a bodily level as far as where and how emotions are showing up, the better resourced we will be to deal with all of the other stimulation that’s coming in from the world.

Your body is your stronghold. Bodies are so wise, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Our bodies are taking us through the world, and pain and dysfunction, or things being weird or “off” are often a body trying to let you know that something needs attention. There’s techniques and frameworks that work with trauma healing, not through talk therapy, but through neural pathways in the body. The body can be a site of profound movement and healing. It’s hard, scary, and slow work. Ultimately, working to become embodied is part of our individual and collective wellness. As we’re navigating the current socio-political landscape in America, I believe it’s going to become more and more important to devote some resources to the idea of being embodied because it’s one of the things that will give us strength to continue in other kinds of work.

A big part of the reason I do this work is because it feeds me too. I learn so much from and am so inspired by the people I work with. Functioning as the container for the experience of a session pushes me to grow as a person and take a hard look at my own trauma and how I’m continually growing and relating to my experiences. It makes doing that personal transformation work necessary, not optional. I receive a lot of nourishment from doing this work! It’s an exchange. Money is part of the exchange, and the exchange of energy and space is supportive and inspiring for me.

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If you live in the Bay Area, you are able to learn more about Dusty’s practice and book a massage session on their website. You can also ‘like’ Dusty Vogt Bodywork on Facebook. 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.

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