Sol on building the foundation, web-weaving, and the role of plant allies

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

My name is Sol. I use they/them pronouns. I identify as an able-bodied, mixed, white-looking genderqueer human in diaspora with both Native ancestors and white ancestors. I identify as a community organizer, community believer, brujx apprentice, a listener — I am often energetically responding. I am here to support folks in their healing and return to themselves. I am here to bring in the ways that I can support manifestations of justice, alignment, healing, community, and reconnection.

How are you doing?

I am okay. I’m thinking a lot about Puerto Rico, Palestine, Venezuela, and these wild times of collapse we are living in. So I’m… okay. I think I would be worse but in more recent years I’ve been forced to work on healing myself & taking care of myself. I’ve been practicing that more diligently and developing more deeply supportive relationships with plant allies. I feel in grief, and overwhelmed, and like there’s endless work to do. Simultaneously I feel supported and grounded. I feel a more renewed access to love and empathy, which is a feat for me.

Can you say more about what it means to be forced into having to take care of yourself?

I’ve been doing community organizing for about six years, four of them being institutionally supported by organizations or unions. It’s emotional, transformational, and really under-resourced work. I am often overworked because I’m so emotionally invested, because it is so critical, and because the work is literally endless. A few years ago, I was organizing with a union and working about 60-80 hours a week. My boundaries were disregarded & I was seriously emotionally manipulated. I had to quit after four months due to health deterioration and experienced what I understood to be ‘movement heartbreak’ along with worsened anxiety and depression. In that moment, I considered never returning to movement organizing because of how burnt out I felt. I later realized I couldn’t do the work I came here to do if I was not also deliberately, almost stubbornly, taking care of myself.

The other day my organizer friend asked me how I learned that my boundaries were more important than the work. For me, the work is not just the material doing of things. The work is also the principles, integrity, and spiritual alignment involved in community building, space holding, and in imagining and strategizing. My spirituality recognizes power dynamics, the history of colonization, and the healing necessary for honest accountability to take place. My boundaries are rooted in me being sustainable, much like a plant. If I am not taking care of myself I will wither and be unable to be present and aligned. There’s so much pain everywhere and I believe community is a critical medicine of life, a well from which to gather most of our resources.

So, I’m committed to doing things differently from now on. I’m re-grounding and reconnecting with plants which remind me that I can actually do more work if I move slower, because it is more rooted and aligned work. Ideally I’ll take care of myself out of the spirit of taking care of myself, but we all know we’re not encouraged to do so. My life experience forced me into understanding that I cannot play the role I need to play of support, reflection, space-holding, and network building in an aligned and principled way if I’m not also well. If not, my vision is blurred. I won’t be able to understand what’s the best way because I’m running on empty and thinking about ways to escape my body and community as opposed to being present within it.

The necessity of healing and making our work sustainable comes up a lot with folks in these interviews. What does that look like when the work is really dire — if you’re called on in a moment you intended to reserve for self-care?

Previously, when I was emotionally struggling, I would find windows and be like, I’m going to bring in a crystal, which will ground me and “heal” me. Over and over again I would lose the crystal — I think it was running away from me because I was not respecting it. It was an in-and-out relationship with healing and support as opposed to a disciplined, respectful one. I am creating a more disciplined support network for myself, to where if I’m called in a moment I can respond, and my center isn’t so distant because I nourished it yesterday or the day before. Part of my own learning is figuring out how I can take care of my future self. I won’t always know what my future self will need or want but at least I’ll ensure that someone is setting some support and nourishment for future Sol.

I’ve been working on committing five minutes of the morning to meditating. Before I got into that routine, I couldn’t imagine setting aside five minutes in the morning. But as I’ve entwined my survival into it, the cumulative effect has been noticeable and impactful. Maybe I didn’t meditate today, but because I meditated yesterday and the day before, I can respond to this thing today with a little more clarity. Discipline is involved. I’m constantly wanting to support other people. I know folks are struggling — my Palestinian, Boricua siblings — what can I do? In those small moments where I can hold myself, I know if I’m not able to do that tomorrow, I’ll have today to rely on. So it’s preemptive work.

IMG_9988I’m currently in an herbal apprenticeship class for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) with Seed, Root + Bloom and it’s shifting things for me, including reflections on how similar the body system is to community systems is to Earth systems. A return to the body is analogous to a return to community and a return to the Earth. You never know when crisis is going to shock your body or your community. How can you be nourishing and supporting your body so that when crises come your base level is more stable? Talking about medicine is inherently facing the reality that there is crisis, pain, death, and trauma. How can we incorporate a root support for when we know something shocking might happen? Because it will. How can we on a day-to-day sustain and/or build a stronger foundation? How can we strengthen our roots? How can our community strengthen its roots? This is often more accessible than we are led to believe.

Roots and the Earth are ultimately what hold everything up. A lot of us have traumatized and confused roots that inform how we respond to stress. The more connected I feel with myself, the more honest I’m able to be in deciding if I have the capacity to support someone in the way they deserve. Maybe I’m supporting them and drinking my tea, or I have my citrine, fluorite, or obsidian stones. It is wild how helpful it is. We can be assured that crisis is gonna come. How can I do some nourishing and grounding in preparation for that — the discipline, the everyday?

What led you to be on a path of working with plants?

Plants have always held me up. Plants have always been there and they have an incredible amount of love to give. They’re the largely feminine forces that do the behind-the-scenes work and don’t get credit. Whether it’s the relationship I built with cannabis, or teas and plants that sustained my mother while she was healing from breast cancer. I intend for the relationship I’m building with plants now to be respectful, informed, and aligned with my values so I may share medicine from a place of integrity.

In Venezuela we say se aprende a los coñazos it often takes pain for me to learn new behaviors. I hadn’t been in a place where I could recognize that I was allowed to heal and give space for plants and medicine in my life until the moment I was falling apart. I have always felt very air, mind-based and in my brain, and its blocked deeper connections with plant medicine. Relationship with plants is profoundly body-based for me. I’ve struggled with body my whole life, especially being a queer survivor in diaspora. I am constantly moving and seeking stability. I am always reflecting on what home means and it has always felt far and out of reach. Recently I’ve been thinking, what if THIS is the House? Ultimately whatever happens, this body-home is what goes through the storms.

I am returning to my body and committing my life to respecting my existence spiritually and humbly. My spirituality holds that my body is a reflection, channel, and manifestation of Spirit, so listening to my body is akin to listening to Spirit. Learning how to build spiritual relationships with plants has pushed me to be willing to listen with my hands, my mouth, my fear. The whiteness in mainstream, white herbalism is so fucked up, disrespectful, and holds terribly destructive energy. I’m so thankful for the BIPOC in the ‘U.S.’ and around the world asking us to remember what honor-full relationships with the Earth look like.

La Tierra and plants have things to say! What does the earth of Palestine have to say right now? What does Venezuela’s water want you to know? (deep sigh)IMG_2805.JPG

I’m excited for you and that that program exists. I’m glad it feels like such a sustaining force right now. What do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I think a lot about webs and spiders, because they’re brilliant network makers. I think of my role as a spider in the ways they bring nodes together, trusting the nodes to collaborate and make the web stronger. My political analysis as a community organizer is rooted in knowing how capitalism and white supremacy create alienation, isolation, and a feeling of scarcity in support. I also believe the resources we need are already available within community but need to be strengthened, validated, and/or uplifted. Sometimes the energy of the spider resembles how I feel — like, “gotta weave! gotta connect!” The spider energy trusts the community’s inherent potential to create resilient connections and to catch resources given they are offered the resources and time to do so. I have had the privilege of bearing witness to what community can do, and the healing and systemic/cultural rupture that can happen when community shows up for itself. That’s how I see my role — like, “you’re seeking XYZ? I know a healer of color in community who wants to teach this class. Let’s see if there’s a way they can be paid but also the community can receive the services affordably and/or for free.” What could that strategy look like — where folks are receiving what they need and it’s ultimately coming from community itself, recognizing the abundance that exists within community. Maybe it doesn’t always work out but I think it’s worth the experimentation.

I’ve also been making sure to incorporate myself into the network building instead of excluding myself from it. Right now, I’m deeply supporting a community member, and to my friends I’ve been like, hey, do you think you can make food for me tonight because I can’t imagine making anything! Folks are like, absolutely. Folks are often waiting to be asked to provide support.

And it’s humanizing, to be like, I don’t have to do all the work for you, we’re here for each other.

It’s so important. It challenges how capitalism tells us that only one person can support or hold the key. Services — as opposed to community organizing — are important but I’m not in that line of work because I don’t want to create reliance on me. I can support this person because my housemates made me a ton of food yesterday and because my other friend came and held space for me. Or because different friends are like hey, I see the work you’re doing, do you need anything? That is the web-making.

I’m touched hearing you describe asking someone to cook for you, and actively seeking support at the same time you’re giving it. There’s ways in which people are already creating the world we want to live in in spite of the many obstacles and violences we face. What is the world you want to live in?

As the current world collapses, a new one is already being born. I wrote a poem the other day asking what a plant might feel before it ruptures through soil. I imagine it to be terrifying, painful, and reliant on hope that it’s worth all of the hard work to bloom. There is an essence of doula work that shows up in birthing a new world. We’re creating the conditions right for it to bloom, to be born, to be extravagant. That’s how I see it. I’m able to do the work because I know I am collaborating with legacies, communities, friends to create conditions for this new world to rupture soil.

I want to live in a world where I can be a trans organizer and can hold all of my identities at once. Community is not there right now, and it makes it really hard to organize as a queer and trans person. I want a world where sex workers are free, resourced, and leading conversations on public policy and safety, specifically trans sex workers of color. I want a world with strong communities and without police. I want a world with free transportation, schools, housing, healthcare, and organic, nourishing foods for everyone. I want accessible “herbalism” and gardens for children of color everywhere. I want a world where indigenous folks and their medicines are stewarding conversations on healing, and where Native medicines and practices are named and respected as such. I want a world where all white people prioritize listening and giving.

I want a world that goes slow and sees our healing, our cooking, and our snuggling as work that is deserving of time, space, and respect. I want a world where domestic workers are valued and provided with resources to care for themselves as they provide care.

I want to follow the lead of Black queer, trans organizers. I want the world they want.

I want a world where I can go to Venezuela and don’t have other people telling me what my political opinion and feelings should be on Venezuela. I want Venezuela to be the leftist paradise that everyone imagines it to be but it’s really far from. I really want to move back to Venezuela and be freely queer and non-binary there.

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To me, what it sounds like you’re describing is people having their needs met in a way that isn’t a strain on them. It also sounds like it’s in your worldview that the way these needs can be met are already within us and in our communities.

Yeah. It’s a process for community to allow themselves to recognize what is available because often our disconnections and trauma don’t allow us to connect with and identify what is abundant. It makes abundance in community more difficult when not only are we under-resourced but we also deny ourselves and undervalue what we do have.

What feel like the barriers to building this world and what feels like the supports in place?

Capitalism is a barrier! Prisons and white liberal politics are a barrier! The need to rely on foundation money with strings attached in order to run programs and get resources to communities is a barrier! I think about the amount of time and money spent on trying to get time and money. Imagine if we spent that time doing all of these other things. It’s a cycle that never ends. Barriers are also individual and collective anxiety that has people on a survival, fight-or-flight response, which is really valid, and also makes for reproducing of trauma and violence.

Other barriers include white folks’ trauma. Whiteness is an incredibly anxious phenomenon and white folks have so much trauma, pain, embarrassment, and shame that when unaddressed, becomes violent ignorance and hoarding of resources. They take, talk over each other, and self-victimize over and over again. It makes it incredibly difficult for Black, indigenous, and white folks to get what they need when this whirlwind of pain, guilt, trauma, embarrassment, shame is ricocheting between white folks as opposed to internal healing and reconnection. It’s hard to do a deep assessment about where we’re at if white folks are not honest, realistic, and truthful with themselves. The way whiteness has distorted our relationship to the earth is a deep barrier. It is of consumption, of power-over, of entitlement. It doesn’t allow the flourishing of other types of relationships which the earth needs and wants. Whiteness tries to apply a mono-cultural relationship to the earth as opposed to uplifting different types of relationships that are possible and necessary. A barrier is the gender binary, and all of the different ways the binary restricts what we allow ourselves and what we deem as possible and accessible.

Our community has deep wisdom. Conversations with my friends — mostly feminine people of color — feel like scripture. I’m like, what you’re saying and how it’s resonating in my heart is deep, it’s a spiritual experience to listen to you speak. Our community has beautiful, powerful freedom fighters that are making sure we’re able to see other realities. If folks with money and financial stability could work through their class privilege we could be honest about the financial abundance that is available. That’s within capitalism; ideally we won’t need that.

Our community has plants, who are so sweet and loving. The other day I was having an anxiety attack while supporting a community member. I was really anxious, I was like oh my god, I need to do 17,000 things right now. Then I drank red clover with holy basil and rose and I was just like (deep breath). Alright. I can not do those things and I can do these things, and that’s what I’ll do today, and I am going to allow that to be enough. That was a spiritual experience, allowing this plant to bring me safely back to earth. They’re ready to do that if we allow them to.

Our communities are able to be abundant, caring, empathetic, and responsive. Oftentimes we feel so helpless and without strategy that we don’t know what to do. The work of community organizers is important in providing people with strategic outlets for grieving and for birthing anew.

Thank you for sharing those reflections. I want to ask about how you refer to plants being ready and willing to offer healing. Why do plants want to help us?

My spiritual worldview is that we’re manifestations of the same things that they are. Something that comes with whiteness is a feeling of a disconnect from the earth and the feeling that we’re not supposed to be here because we’re so destructive. In reality we are not so destructive; whiteness and capitalism are. When people are like, humans are so messed up to the earth, that’s disrespectful and erasing of different forms of relating and loving the earth that have existed and continue to exist through lineages of Native folks around the world and otherwise. Plants are invested in the future as much as we are because our future is intertwined. They’ll outlive us, if need be. But I think that they’re empathetic and community-oriented. To me that means being giving, grounding, and sometimes making you face the hard shit with tenderness, intention, and purpose. Plants want to support us not because they’re like, I think humans need support, but because it’s the natural foundation of the systems of the earth which are giving, intertwined, and spiritually alive. I’m theorizing, but maybe plants are also like, come back, I have medicine for you, I have love for you, please remember our interconnections. Please listen to the earth, please listen to us. Sometimes a way to convince us to come back is by moving through our bodies, and having our bodies be what tell us that we need to return to the earth, our roots, and medicine and healing to survive.

Thank you for expanding; I’m going to appreciate thinking about that moving forward. What do you need right now to be where you’re at and do what you’re doing?

Love, support, tenderness, forgiveness, accountability. More organized QTIPOC (queer, trans intersex folks of color) community.

I need people to keep an eye on Venezuela, to be critical and not listen to most information coming from either the U.S. or Venezuelan government but to be actively seeking more community-based narratives. I’m terrified that the U.S. government is gonna take advantage of this, “intervene,” and steal the oil and our futures.

I need reminders to drink water, more skill shares, more dancing, more poetry. I need to sing more. I have a serious energetic block in my throat and I’m trying to figure out how to address it. I think I need to sing more.

I want to say that if a person finds themselves in a position where they can provide community support, I encourage them to. It’s not only beneficial to the community but it’s also personally healing to reclaim control of our lives and our communities through the giving and receiving of support — emotional, resources, tenderness, food, money. To be able to recognize what you can provide and to do so is powerful and important for all of us to thrive. I think, if community can, community should. That’s what I’ll leave it at.

Sol (they/them) is a queer, mixed brujx and community organizer living, writing and learning on the land of the Wampanoag, currently known as Boston, MA. They are currently Community Organizer with Matahari Women Workers’ Center and Volunteer Coordinator with Feminine Empowerment Movement Slam (FEMS). They’ve been trained by United Students Against Sweatshops, Gibrán X. Rivera’s Evolutionary Leadership Program, and life experience. They love poetry, plant wisdom, stretching, their spiritual guides, their tarot cards and their mentors. Their heart and spirit are committed to healing and justice. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 8
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 2
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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