Amina on collectivizing, rethinking roles, and balancing community accessibility with personal sustainability

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Photo by Eva Wô

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

My name’s Amina. If I’m doing music or art or running my mouth about politics, I identify myself as Amina Shareef Ali. If I’m putting on a professional hat in my work as a therapist, I identify myself with a different name.

How are you doing?

Right in the moment, I feel good. In life in general, I’m good. I love my relationships, my kid, my clients, the people I get to share my music with, and the people I’m in community with. It’s that middle level that’s trickiest — between the right this second and the bigger picture. Depression has been wafting in and out over the last several weeks. It’s hard to get to the bottom of. Sometimes it helps to be a therapist to conceptualize your own mental stuff, and sometimes it really doesn’t. Sometimes I think depression can be productive, to use a loaded word — it’s doing something. I’m depressed because my psyche is working through something.

How are you moving through depression at the moment?

I try to keep a handle on different places where it could adversely impact things. I have not yet been in a space where I couldn’t fully show up for clients. I take that seriously. I’ve been heartened to discover that often if I’m struggling, doing therapy work with someone else often helps me. I can put myself aside and show up for them in a way that feels good. I can feel my strength. I want to be thankful for that and not exploit it by overbooking myself, and not let any structure exploit it. Extra reserves of energy should be honored as a gift from your deeper self.

I feel like that’s the feminized labor of one’s psyche. What do you make of that experience — that being in pain is where you find strength to show up for others?

I lived through my twenties as a boy and transitioned almost a year ago. Something I distinctly remember from before my transition was that women, femme, or AFAB (assigned female at birth) people in my life would be the ones expressing distress. I would move into this role of being the rock, the stabilizing force. I want to be able to describe this without judgement, because there were situations where that was valuable and appreciated. As a boy, there was a way of shoring up my feelings of self control and masculine composure. Now, I’m femme, I’m more emotionally competent than ever before in my life, and I also cry and break down more than I ever did in my life. How do we understand that? I think about this position where I’m vulnerable and have a lot of feelings I can’t control, and then I pull it together and hold space for someone else, a role that I previously would have conceptualized as masculine. I’m in both of these roles. This first one gets devalued and isn’t seen as work. But it is. It’s work that my psyche is doing. Maybe it makes the other one possible.

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Amina and her partner Claire. Photo by Eva Wô.

Dang, I’m not ready for this today… Thank you for sharing that. What do you see as your role and work in creating the world you want to live in?

I want to track some of my evolution as a radical. I got my first liberal arts college canned social justice framework in the early 2000s. It blew my mind at the time, but it didn’t dig deeper or ask, where did this come from, what was there before, and how is it made and re-made every day? How can we fight it and how can’t we? I became a radical around 2011 when Occupy popped off. In the Oakland radical scene there were lots of smashy anarchists. My dear friend Brian Belknap, my favorite songwriter in the Bay and an old Leninist, became my de facto mentor for a while. I felt pulled between those sides. You see the hammer and sickle on my arm. I feel somewhat aligned with a Marxist tradition and materialism; I also saw the intellectual and moral poverty of existing socialist groupings. It’s like, this is the theory I align with so these should be my people. But I look at how y’all act in response to difference, and I’m like, no, you’re not my team. I also felt critical of certain strains of anarchism that seemed self-satisfied to work on these projects that seemed really isolated. I didn’t feel like I could join a team and I really wanted to. Then three and a half years ago, my kid Hazel was born. I haven’t engaged in anything that would be recognized as political. I’m not going to no meetings; I’m not going to many actions in the streets. It’s caused me to rethink.

I read in one of your posts that many people have mentioned Emergent Strategy. My partner Hannah was captivated by it and motivated to put together a reading group. Hannah came into my life four months after Hazel was born, after I already had a full life of parenting, music, trying to do politics, and having another partner. Shortly after that I would go back to school to become a therapist. I felt instinctively it was important to be a part of this group, not because of the book itself but because what I and we need to be doing is building theoretical knowledge with people we’re already in relationship with — rather than having a canned theory and being like, that’s your team, go over there. How you’re in relationship and how you show up and how your lives are weaved together is what matters. The group has met a handful of times, and catalyzed a lot of churning around of my process.

I see the overall landscape as pretty fucking bleak. I see decades of the Left disintegrating and getting less organized and less rigorous. You have people scrambling trying to recruit and build big organizations quickly. But y’all have no history together. You don’t have any real bonds except for what you believe and some lil’ roster. It’s relatively easy to build an organization that has some espoused beliefs, is good at recruiting people, and in the end, is gonna tell people to hold their nose and vote for a Democrat. It’s harder to build something with versatility to be like yo, can we join this fight to stop this person from being evicted? Can we raise children together? Can we support this person in crisis? That flexibility has to happen on a small scale with the people you already have relationships and trust with.

There’s tension between, how do we apply our ideals around autonomy and collectivity, and see how they play out in relationship and in community; versus knowing that capitalism and all these other systems are always going to undermine us so we can’t actually build a utopia in a little bubble, and that there has to be a fight for revolution and abolition of all these structures. In my mind, the former is more anarchist-aligned and the latter is more communist or socialist aligned. And I’ve been guilty of undervaluing that first strategy; I felt it was important and participated in it, but I also undervalued it. The conception I have now is, it’s necessary but not sufficient. My internalized anarchist makes the error of knowing that it’s necessary, but forgetting it’s not sufficient; my internalized communist makes the error of knowing it’s not sufficient, but forgetting that it’s still necessary.

For one, I am giving myself permission to not feel guilty about not plugging in to overtly political work. There are good fights happening all the time that need support. I know that I don’t have capacity to bottomline something. I’m open to being called on to give to this person’s bail fund, or show up to swell the crowd, but I’m not trying to seek out something to give myself to. I think that’s really okay for where I am in life. My life is very full trying to keep my relationships strong, parent my child, do my therapy work, and have enough left to do things that bring me joy. I want to understand those things as being enough — I feel implicitly that they are.

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Amina and her partner Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô.

It’s so funny the way that we’re talking about certain kinds of labor being devalued and erased. In the course of this conversation I find myself in a dance between trying to not do that and then still doing it, for all those things i just described. Like, the labor of being a therapist is really valorized. Hannah checked me on this and I’m super grateful for that. I believe what I do is valuable, but there’s a way in which we find ourselves conceding to a more conservative logic if we’re not careful. Recently I was feeling devalued by someone and I responded like, ‘Fuck that, I’m doing good work as a therapist and I’m supporting a lot of queers who’ve been through a lot of trauma and I’m helping them heal and that’s valuable.’ Hannah has done paid work as a peer counselor and a direct care provider and now works in landscaping, and shows up for people whether they’re in crisis or just need a hand. They actively seeks out trainings to work on their shit and lend support, and they watch Hazel one day a week. And they told me, ‘I don’t do anything that is ever gonna be valorized as therapy is and I probably never will. But what I do isn’t less valuable.’ I realized they were right and I’d been tripping. I don’t want to devalue other people or myself in that way.  

My therapy work and parenting are both held up and valorized in a particular way.  But there’s also just showing up in my relationships. A couple years ago I thought I was pretty good at being in relationships but these last years have really turned my head around. I’ve learned about really nurturing them. Creating chosen family isn’t as simple as just flipping a switch. There’s a material base for nuclear formations and for people to revert back to that. How do we materially try to undo that without getting assimilated into heteropatriarchy? How do webecome more collective? Our family structure has been a chain of five or six partners over the past few years, with no one along the way dating each other. We’re all bound together one-to-one-to-one, so making decisions like who lives with who, how we spend time, who’s responsible for finding childcare, etcetera reverts to couples. How do we collectivize and facilitate everyone being able to talk to everyone else, not just through their partners? Our lives are linked together already, but if we don’t want to just disintegrate into individual couples, that’s something that needs to happen.

Why is it important to collectivize and materialize ideals that aren’t the heteropatriarchy?

Our heritage as humans is collectivity. What ties our family together is we’re all involved in Hazel’s life to some extent. We’re all seeing and spending time with Hazel at least once a week. Parenting can be really isolating, even if you’re on a more upwardly mobile professional track. One of the ways in which people are recouped into bourgeois and heteropatriarchal structures is by professionalizing as much as possible so you can buy back the community support that doesn’t exist because of historical development. I’m not trying to get relief from parenting by paying someone else to replace me in that role. I’m not trying to perform a more valuable kind of labor and pay someone for their less valuable labor. Collectivity is the way to get relief that doesn’t involve assimilating in that way.

What is the world you want to live in?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about utopia — like what will life look like after the rev. After people don’t have to live in urban centers — where all the jobs are concentrated in places the workers can’t afford the rents — what will it look like when 10 years or 50 years or 100 years after? Without highways and sprawl? When there are cars built over 100 years ago are still being maintained but you don’t need very many of them, and these roads are just gardens or homes or wild space. What will gender look like? What will our families and relationships look like? I can fantasize that far-off, dream thing. There’s value in that.

But I’ve abandoned any strategy of how to get there. Like I said, the picture in the immediate term is pretty fucking bleak. I’m positioned where me and at least one of my partners are entering the petty bourgeoisie and will have professionalized careers where we’ll have hopefully some stability. I’ve chosen a path that banks on that. The question for me is: how do I want to live right now that can give myself, my loved ones, and my homies the best chances for joy, prosperity, and thriving — even in the hellscape — while not letting myself be assimilated? The pressure to be “respectable” is going to be really intense for the rest of my life. As a therapist I believe in providing free or low-cost mental health care to poor queers and queers of color. The LGBTQ counseling center where I work is jacking up their fees — our minimum fee is now 45 fuckin’ dollars. As if that’s not enough, it comes with a shit ton of ideological justification, like — this is why this is okay, this is why actually people can afford it. I’m expected to swallow that. If I call bullshit too loudly I put myself in danger. How do I speak up when it’s right, keep my head down when there’s not much to be gained, and not fucking drink the Kool Aid? I entered the field for a number of reasons, but one of them was certainly wanting to be more stable than being a broke musician kid. But when I enter private practice and it’s up to me to set the fees, what am I gonna charge? What do I hope to make?  What do I see as being my purpose of doing this work? How am I gonna square those? The sliding scale will always be at odds with my own individual prosperity. Most people just say fuck it. I’m gonna have to resist that my whole career if I want to actually still be able to help the people who wouldn’t be able to access it any other way.

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Claire, Amina, Hazel, and Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô

What are the barriers and the supports in making the work that you’re doing sustainable?

I don’t know if there’s another field besides therapy that has more of a gulf between its self-concept as a progressive force and the actuality of it. I’m an outsider in the professional psychology environments I’ve been in, but there are some homies, and I need to link up with them. We need to hold each other in community, support each other, and hold each other accountable. That’s one of the biggest projects of what I want to take on in this field. That will be both work and a support for me once I can get it going — once we can get it going. The alternatives are either assimilate or be completely fucking isolated and burned out.

Your vision of collectivizing in relationship to your therapy work feels connected to what we were talking about in your personal relationships — creating microcosms of the world you want to live in. Are there people, books, or works of art you want to shout out as things that guide your heart and mind on your path?

Not really. I feel like for any given radical person who may read this, you’ve got a sense of what your values are. You probably feel like, here are some things I know and feel good about, and here are some people who are babies and don’t know as much as me, and here are some people who’ve been at it way longer and know way more than me. Even if that’s true and there’s different quantities of knowledge and experience, we can hold that without judgement. Of course there are people who have been here longer than you because you’ve been around exactly how long you’ve been around. Wherever you’re hoping to go, you don’t need to go experience the things that the people you feel know more than you have experienced or read the things that they’ve read. It doesn’t really matter what you read. You should find something you’re interested in that people around you are interested in and go in on it together. If there’s difference, find a way to share it. The process of doing that is going to be the most valuable thing.

It’s less about the what and more about the how.

Yeah, because these are people you already have relationships with. You already eat meals together, work on a project together, work in the same workplace, share a household. It’s like okay, so we have some sense of how to work together and we’re linked up on a material level. So let’s build our knowledge together from that. And build relationships that’s based on building that together, and bring other people in.

Amina Shareef Ali is, in any order, a folksinger jerk, a therapist in training, a partner and parent, an enemy of capital and the state, and a flagrant mixed race queer transgirl. She hails from St. Louis and lives in Oakland. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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

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Photo by Baruch Porras-Hernandez

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Adrienne & Miss Major

Was she laughing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does spirituality look like for you?

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

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

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

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

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

What are the other forms of art you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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