TransGenerational Theatre Project on autonomy, creating new scripts, and tra-la-la moments

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The TransGenerational Theatre Project interview participants include: Kai (she, 22), Christian (35, she/they), L (they, 37), Renée (she, 70) . It is impossible to capture in text the dynamicism and vibrance of this group interview, which included refrains of hoots, hollers, and “yaaaas”-es. Extra thanks to TGTP for being gracious and forgiving with the delay on publishing this piece. Throw them some cash to continue their beautiful & important work! 

Tell me about the work you’re doing.

Christian: The project started as a thesis project for the masters’ program I was in in applied theater. Applied Theater is a radical framework that uses theater as a tool for organizing and community building. We use the tool of playbuilding — a process of providing people with the tools to be able to create small pieces of theater and drawing specific ideas or themes from whatever they create. We use those themes as a foundation for creating more theatre. It builds from where the participants are at and what’s important to them.

Renee: Capitalism needs division to thrive. If there isn’t divide and conquer, capitalism cannot exist. This happens even in our community. We’re reflecting the question of — what would this world be like and how would people express themselves if we didn’t have to deal with all this shit? How many people have been driven insane by capitalism and by oppression? Who otherwise would be healthy, vibrant people, but because of oppression have been driven to the brink? I look at this as a revolutionary project. I’m 69 years old. What makes me most proud of working on this project is bridging the gaps between generations. We provoke people into thought. Our audience and our participants have been marginalized in this capitalist society by racism and/or gender oppression, and now they’ve been given tools to navigate a creativity that maybe they never knew they had. We’ve seen people blossom into their emerging realness.

Christian: A lot of it is based on Paulo Freire’s educational models from Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Every session we’ll do two games that development theater and improvisation skills. Then we give a prompt and we break into small groups and create a short piece of theatre. We only plan one session at a time because every session is planned based on the previous one — like, who’s in the room, what skills do they need, what themes are already coming up that we want to explore or even challenge. It’s a fluid process.

That sounds like a really adaptive approach.

Christian: It has to be in order to do it with intention and in a way that focuses on the needs and ideas of the participants. In the past two years we’ve created final pieces that have three scenes based on a theme, and interspersed those pieces with individual performances which has been really cool. There’s something special about giving trans people the opportunity to shine individually.

L: It’s such a unique and exciting place — I can’t think of any other space in this city that creates these opportunities for trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. The mode of applied theatre provides an opportunity for us to explore how to change the world. By creating a piece of what the world looks like or can look like, trans people can re-envision a new world for ourselves. We’re all about challenging system norms like the gender binary and other fundamental ideas. That kind of challenging can de-stabilize systems that oppress us. What we’re doing has an opportunity for true social justice.

Kai: I was in the project as a member the first year, and was asked to come on as a facilitator for the second year. Now we’re in year three. I’m often the youngest person in the room, but I’m able to connect with people on a powerful level. I never thought I’d be able to have friends like Renee, who is older than me and shows me how to be fierce, you know? It’s nice. I get to learn from them while they’re learning from me.

Renee: That’s a great way to put it, Kai. I love that.

I’m appreciating how you’re all talking about the project being powerful being on an individual level, as well as the building up collectively, in and beyond your group.

Christian: I facilitated the creation of the Trans Day of Remembrance at SAGE, the organization we do this at. It was my first time being around trans older adults, and it had a profound impact on me because I didn’t realize that it was something I was missing and needed in my life. I was like, oh shit, all trans people need to experience this; this is important. A lot of other intergenerational separate people by age and try to define what they’re going to learn from each other. We try to break that down, inspired in part by the fact that we’re all in different stages of transition and gender exploration, and recognizing the fluidity of age in relation to the fluidity of gender.

Renee: Young and old is not always defined by a number. To violate every script that they want me to read, I’m gonna write my own fuckin’ script. That is liberating. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera are some of the greatest revolutionaries of all time. You know what they had? A Masters and phD of the street. They were graduates of the university of the stoop, like me. That’s where I came up. I never graduated high school.

Kai: I barely graduated high school. I had so much gender dysphoria going on; by the end of my senior year I was not there. I had horrible anxiety. Every day by second period I’d want to throw up. Sometimes I’d walk out, go to the music room, and play piano.

Renee: I know people who have Masters degrees whose critical thinking compared to Kai is lost in the dust! Not to be anti-education, that’s not the point. When I came back from the war in Vietnam, I read any book I could get my hands on. I know a lot of brainwashed people. My intention is not to hurt them, but to shock them into rethinking their processes. I’ve spoken to a handful of cisgendered people who have seen our work who have said, you’ve caused me to rethink a lot of shit. What better sense of accomplishment? My ambition is to contribute to changing human nature, period.

I feel like something interesting about age and trans folks is, whether we were aware of it or not, the majority of us didn’t get to live our childhood and youth as we saw or experienced ourselves. I can imagine how theatre would allow for a lot of playfulness to re-explore being able to be however old you are.

Kai: You know how Oprah has her ‘aha’ moments? I think about the trans ‘aha’s’ in my life, and call them my tra-la-la’s. My first year at private school had this imagination station where you could go and pretend to be whatever we wanted. There was this red scarf. I would always use that scarf as my hair and really enjoy that. I was always like this. But I knew I had to act like a boy. There was this girl who came into class with short hair, shorts, and a t-shirt, and I was like, you’re a boy! Everyone was like, no, she’s a girl. I was like, I don’t understand — why does she get to be a girl and I don’t get to be a girl? Being with people while we have the chance to use theatre to reflect on those tra-la-la moments in our lives has been one of my favorite parts about this.

17191630_1808942979356692_2556745845006903962_o.jpgWhat is the world you all want to live in?

Kai: I want to live in a world where people treat each other how they want to be treated. I don’t want to be treated like shit so I’ll never treat another person like shit. I want to leave this world a better place than I found it. I want to live in a world where I don’t get harassed. People say New York is the best place to live if you’re trans but things happen here too. You never know who you’re going to run into. I want to live in a world where I can feel safe and content walking around just being who I am. I want to live in a world that’s constantly growing and moving forward as a society. I want to live in a healthy society. Our society isn’t healthy.

L: I want to live in a world where I don’t have to constantly remind people who I am even after I’ve told them. I want to live in a world where people can say who they are and have everyone including our government recognize that. Where we don’t need special paperwork or to prove ourselves. Just to be accepted exactly as we are for what they are and for children to be able to explore and figure out what that is. There isn’t one particular way that somebody is even throughout their lifetime.

Christian: I want to live in a world where everyone has agency and autonomy over their body and their gender.

Kai: What’s autonomy?

Christian: Autonomy means you own it for yourself. Your body belongs to you so people can’t necessarily pass laws or judgements over your body.

Kai: Wow.

Christian: Yeah. I want to live in a world where gender is considered a galaxy and everyone is their own star. I want to live in a world without capitalism, and with bridges instead of borders. An anarchist paradise would be lovely. A world in which we’re living in harmony with each other and with the earth, and uplifting the needs and desires of each person and allow people to explore their desire to create.

Kai: I want to live in a world where you can walk up to a stranger and ask them for a hug. Sometimes I just want a hug. I want to live in a world where a lot of things that aren’t socially acceptable, are, like to high five people on the street. I want to live in a world where going outside isn’t a scary thing because people are nice. I want people to feel warm.

Renee: I want to live in a world where racism is dead. I want to live in a world where members of my community are not living in a prison cell the size of their body. I want to live in a world where people talk to each other. People don’t talk to each other. Well, women in the women’s room always talk. My memories of men’s rooms is, everyone’s quiet as shit and stares at the wall. It’s like what the fuck! People always say, this is human nature. Fuck that! Change human nature! We’re gonna change it.

If nature can evolve, why not human nature?

Renee: Thank you!

Thank you! Y’all have such an affirming chorus, it’s so nice!

(Clapping, giggles, yaaas’es echo through the room.)

It’s cool doing a group interview with you all because on a micro-level, it seems like what’s in the room that you’re in is the world you want to live in.  What do you feel are the things in your lives and the culture surrounding you that are supportive to you helping to create this world and what are the things that feel like they make it harder for you to create this world?

Kai: Enthusiasm toward the project is really supportive. A barrier is people who choose ignorance. People decide that they’re just going to just not, you know? My mom had this moment where she was just like, you do whatever you want to do at this point, but do it on your own. Now she’s like, heyyyy Kai. We just had this conversation and she is starting to understand the pronoun ‘they’. When people don’t want to learn to change or grow or be corrected, that stubbornness is a hinderance. I’m stubborn, but only when I need to be, okay?

L: A stubbornness that doesn’t impose your values on other people.

Kai: Yes!

Renee: Or they on us. I don’t mean to be self-centered, but when we walk down the street in the present state of society, we’re a revolution. I tell people sincerely, I don’t do it for me, I do it for you. Because maybe me exhibiting my realness will inspire others to release their inner realness that they have been intimidated from presenting to the world. It’s a permanent revolution.

Christian: Something that supports me is thinking about who came before us, particularly some of our trans ancestors — our transcestors — who didn’t have the resources that I do. I keep that in mind and think about how much they would love to participate if they could. Well, I don’t know if Sylvia would have, but Marsha would have been up in here in a minute. That supports me. I think also seeing how people have been changed by the project both within it, and people who have witnessed it.

Something that makes doing this work difficult is having to survive in capitalism and having to spread my energy and time very thin because of that. We are a community of people under attack. We experience marginalization to an incredible degree, particularly the trans women of color in our community. This is very emotional work. It takes a lot out of you. After the first year, I was like, oh fuck I’m not doing this again. And I did it again. After the second year I was like, ugh fuck, I’m gonna have to do this again. And I fucking did it again because it’s so important. It’s really, really hard. But we get up and do it.

Renee: It is hard. It can be exhausting but it’s not fatiguing. Not like when I worked in a factory for eight dollars an hour right up the street. I could be as tired physically, but not emotionally. Emotionally it’s been invigorating for me. I’m also a disabled trans woman, which is not an issue that has been focused on as much as I’d like in our community, frankly. Let me just say this. In my view, the number one problem in America is racism. Racism is like a pillar that upholds patriarchy, oppression, women’s oppression, these are like pillars that hold up capitalism. The development of people’s own human nature and we’re violating that. We’re outlaws! 

Kai: I’m a rebel!

20031945_1867824903468499_5114679362619107098_n.pngRenee: That’s right! We used to have some t-shirts years ago that we were outlaws. When I was younger, people were worried about what would other people think about them if they think about us in a positive way. A lot of that has disintegrated from 30 years ago. I’m talking about the people who say listen, I’m not homophobic or transphobic, I just don’t want to be seen with you because I don’t want my friends to think I’m like you, or want to be like you. You don’t have to be like me or want to be like me to communicate and share thoughts. These are some of the greatest obstacles in human development. That’s why I say that transition is perpetual. It’s not like there’s *this* goal. We don’t even know what’s beyond that’s horizon. But it’s coming. It’s inevitable. The only thing that hasn’t changed are the violent psychotics, who as many people know, are mostly closet cases. When they see us, we remind them of something they feel inside about themselves that they hate, and they’re going to punish us for it.

Kai: Or try to.

Renee: Every year we have a litany of names of slaughtered trans people, just for being their true selves. You know what? As Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary.” We will defend ourselves. Thirty years ago, if you had 100 pennies in a sock in your purse, the cops couldn’t arrest you for it. And you know what? It worked. Mostly just as an intimidating factor.

Kai: Then they leave you alone.

L: When we’re talking about capitalism and social oppression, what directly impacts our work is financial support and lack thereof. Statistically our community does not have the same access to jobs, education, and housing, especially queer and trans people of color. We also see trans artists not having financial support. For a program of queer and trans artists it’s hard to get the support we need, especially since we’re not formalized with a 501c3 status. We rely on support from community members and friends to cover basic needs, like making sure people have the means to get here, and that we have food for people so that they can come here during the time they would usually eat. A lot comes out of the facilitators’ own pockets. We’ve been grateful for the support we’ve received, but in today’s climate of giving or lack thereof, it is that much harder to do get that really basic support that we need.

C: Thanks for reminding us L that we need fucking money!

Are you all familiar with Peacock Rebellion? They’re a QTPOC, transfemme-centered org that also does performance work who I interviewed for WWW. In our conversation, they were talking about the balance of doing “tapdancing” for funders in order to get financial support to make their work sustainable. [Devi] was saying how those kinds of funders want you to talk about your trauma and other things that fit the tragedy narrative of trans women. It seems like you all are much more focused on the empowering, the zap, the lightening of what you have, like Peacock Rebellion.

Christian: The only grants we applied to was the Trans Justice Fund. We just haven’t been interested in engaging with the foundational industrial complex and shit like that. I don’t think we ever will.

Who are some people who serve as guidance and inspiration for this work?

Renee: Trancestors of this community gave everything to us. They sacrificed everything to help develop emerging realness that people never knew they had. I think back to my milieu which basically is Paris is Burning. Not those fuckin’ intellectuals in their ivory tower with the fuckin’ asterisk next to trans who sit there and anoint themselves as the determiners of who is cis and who is trans. They oughta be ashamed of themselves. Where would those people be now without us street fighters? Sylvia, Miss Major, and many others of us were in the street in different capacities, as street fighters, street workers, and sex workers.

You constantly had a perimeter around you. How many people know that when we walk down the street we often deliberately walk against the flow of traffic, ‘cause nobody can chase you down if you’re walking against traffic, right? Little things like that. Scout out every street from midtown to Chelsea to the village, every alley way, every inlet, every possible escape route. We don’t do that like that was modus operandi every day. We were soldiers. Now, I’m almost shocked by the acceptance I get. I try to tell people, Marsha P. Johnson died for you. She did.  I try to make them understand what I mean by that obsessively. I am obsessed with it. I think about it every day.

Let me also say this. Trancestors, we owe our young people. A lot of them say, you’re an inspiration. I say, you don’t think you’re inspiring us to charge our batteries? This emerging realness has been the greatest therapy I could ever get. I can say this for other older trans women as well, it has even caused many older people to re-blossom. We may not have done that without Kai.

Kai: I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I guess I did that! I’m inspired by Janet Mock and other people who grew up in the streets and frontlines and got to a place where they could reach such a wider audience, and who give back to people who don’t have that exposure, and educate others on trans experience. Also, as a younger person, I really look up to Renee. I learn from her every time I’m around her. It’s people like her who actively want people to know what our community has been through and where we are going and where we are now and where we have been. It’s great.

L: For me, the most influential trans folk who I’ve known have been the young people I’ve worked with. In doing development work with young people, one of them brought in a grid of different non-binary identities and I was like wow, there are all these other identities? I did some research and found one at the time that fit me. I was like oh my god, other people also feel this way. At the time it was demi-gender — people feeling like they have cis parts of themselves but also fluid or genderqueer parts to themselves. It was a tra-la-la for me. It was like a switch that was flipped. If I hadn’t been working with those young people I don’t know if that ever would have happened. LGBTQ youth have always challenged how I see the world and how I see myself, especially around the various points of identities. I’ll always be thankful for that.20106700_1867824910135165_790858535922830057_n.png

Do you want to share any other thoughts or feelings coming up in this conversation?

Christian: When I was in my masters program, one of the moments that clicked for me about this work was its capacity to envision the world that we want through theater. It has that capacity in a way that very few other mediums do. Afro-futurism and other queer futurism are really inspiring to me, and the foundations of a trans-futurism are in this work. Our first year, we did were the past, present, and future of the trans experience in three scenes. Young people are naturally amazing at imagination, but anyone is capable of playing and and exploring. That’s a part that I love that feeds me and challenges me to think more creatively and expansively about my own gender.

This is the first year I’ll be doing this project on hormones. I credit participating in the project and meeting more trans people for giving me more tools to think creatively about my gender, my body, and outside of the boring and limiting narratives the media gives trans people.

Renee: The Transgenerational Theatre Project did not save my life. But it saved the rest of my life.

The TransGenerational Theatre Project is a group of multigenerational trans and gender nonconforming people co-creating original theatre from our own ideas and experiences. Through our highly collaborative process we foster connections, TGNC community and joy. We stand for equity, social justice, and the dismantling of transphobia, transmisogyny, ageism, racism, and and all linked forms of systemic oppression. We center the voices and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elders, particularly people of color. Please support TGTP by contributing to their GoFundMe fundraiser!

Christian is a radical non-binary trans femme arts activist and performer. They co-founded The TransGenerational Theatre Project, a multigenerational devised theatre project for trans and gender non-conforming people, and they are proud to be facilitating the project for a third year in preparation for a performance in the Trans Theatre Festival. They are a graduate of the CUNY Masters in Applied Theatre program and work as the Women’s Program and Arts & Culture Program Coordinator at the Edie Windsor SAGE Center.  They also create solo performance that explores trans rage, grief, ritual, and futures.

This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lindsey on visibility, being vocal, & uplifting Black and brown talent

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How do you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a creative, an artist, a musician, and a social activist — but I feel like I never really had a choice in that ‘cos when you’re born into a certain type of body there’s a need to carve out safe spaces and equal access. I’m an empath. I feel some folks have difficulty caring about experiences they don’t share. When I hear youth I work with talk about how they can’t focus their first day of middle school because they don’t know if their mom or dad will be there when they get home from school because of the ICE raids that have been happening. That makes me feel like I gotta do something, even if I’m not sure what that is.

It sounds like there’s a lot that compels you to be engaged in the work that you’re doing. Did you have examples of that growing up?

My mom is a persistent go-getter. She worked a bajillion jobs so that me and my three brothers could thrive. I remember her saying, I want you to have every opportunity so people with different privileges can’t make you feel they have something you can’t access. I get my independence from my mom — trying and saying yes to so many things. The hard part about that is, I feel my mom doesn’t know how to ask for help when she needs it and I saw how this negatively affected her mental health. I ask myself, are you checking in with yourself? I can’t be running around ’til my body can’t go anymore. It’s not sustainable. I’m getting better at saying no. With theater, people were always asking me to stage manage stuff. But when I stage manage I can’t play music, ‘cause I’m not getting home until midnight and drumming is loud! Once I set some boundaries and requested music-related roles in theater instead, it started to happen. I’m living in this space of realizing the worst thing that can happen is someone says no. Hearing no stinks but I would be so much more pressed if I didn’t bother asking.

I’d love to hear about creative, personal, or political projects you have going on right now. What’s on your mind?

I’m working on putting together a soft punk style zine, which my friend suggested because of what I post on instagram. It’s geared towards Black and brown gender nonconforming people. There aren’t many resources for gender non-conforming Black and brown people to talk about dysphoria and what kinds of clothes could feel good.

I drum in a band called Hula School. Drumming is really fun and that in and of itself always feels like an act of resistance. I get to hit stuff in time to music and it’s cool.

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photo by Nina Corcoran

I went to Pitchfork Music Festival to take photos for Tom Tom Magazine. I am the web manager for the magazine which focuses on music, art, and more recently, politics. I’m focusing on getting more gender non-conforming and Black and brown people to write and be be featured on the website. They’re doing a good job at it now but there could still be more. I wrote a piece about how to move forward post-Women’s March. Because I’m just like okay that’s cute, but also there were a lot of things that were hurtful and here’s why. It’s nice to write a full narrative instead of a thread on twitter, like 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 is 👏🏾 why 👏🏾 this 👏🏾 blows!

I’d love to hear you talk more about putting your voice out there. There’s vulnerability in doing that publicly. What about that felt empowering and energizing, and what felt hard?

I took the time to let people know that this is the first step to make more inclusive events. Me in 2010 would have never thought using body parts as a signifier of what it means to be a woman would be upsetting to folks who don’t relate to that experience. It was empowering to know there were so many people reading that otherwise wouldn’t have thought beyond their own experience.

What was kind of nerve-wracking was you never know how people are gonna react. I was like, oh my god, am I gonna get like hate mail? People get in their feelings. Then I thought about how there are people who are gonna be mean to me just ‘cause and I quickly made peace with the fact that some people may not like the piece. I got over wanting to be liked by everyone a super long time ago. I’m proud of myself for that. I believe if no one’s peeved, you’re probably a little bit off. I got energized from that. I’m like, ooh, this could make someone pissed. That’s kind of cool too.

Can you say more about drumming and making music as acts of resistance in and of themselves?

I have always been interested in percussion. In middle school we had to take either band or choir. I didn’t want to do choir because I felt like everyone was expecting me to sing. I want to do band and I want to do something percussive. But I got stuck with the fricking clarinet! My teacher didn’t really know how to play it or how to teach me. I almost failed that class. After that I figured I’d do choir for the rest of my life. I didn’t know how to get access to learning how to play percussion and didn’t have any Black women role models who drummed. It wasn’t until I did Girls Rock in 2013 when I realized I can do that. After that I finally started drumming lessons. I picked it up fast. I was like wow, this is what I needed for all those years.

This week I came back to Girls Rock and there were so many more Black and brown girls which made me so happy. A young Black girl saw me sitting on the drum thrones. She looks at me and she’s like, I didn’t know black girls could drum. I told her, absolutely, we can do anything we want. She’s like, ohhh. There are still so many Black girls and Black people that feel that way; feel that there are experiences and feelings we’re not allowed to access. One reason I did Girls Rock this session is because they need more Black and brown representation in the program, so I’m like, let me roll in real quick. I’m so glad I did. Just the conversation with that one young person, she now realizes that she can drum too. I was that girl.

Being visible in music is important. A lot of people praise the Boston music scene, and it’s great, but it’s not really representative of the people that live here. A local music journalism magazine called Allston Pudding was uplifting the same generic all-white-dude bands every week. When they said they needed more writers, I’m like, okay, let’s do this. Black and brown percussive representation in Boston exists, but no one’s making the trek outside of their bubble to access it. I’m excited to start writing for them and bring new content to their website.

We met at a few years ago at an LGBTQ theater company that at the time had mostly white leadership. I’m hearing from your experience of going into Girls Rock Camp and starting to write for Allston Pudding that part of what you’re doing is infiltrating dominantly white organizations. It seems like that must be an intentional choice because I imagine it comes with its fair share of bullshit.

Oh yeah. I got so tired of seeing all these white people prospering in mediocrity. I love music and art so much but people are still not making space. Folks say they want to make space for voices other than their own, but they stay in their bubbles. I’m excited to infiltrate even though it comes with nonsense. I don’t put up with it anymore. I’m asking the hard-hitting questions they need to hear and won’t if I’m not there.

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Photo by Nina Corcoran

On an emotional level, what are you’ doing to fortify yourself around experiencing that nonsense?

I consume a lot of television where the majority of the cast are Black and brown. Instagram is therapeutic for me as well. I love watching videos of skateboarders, and tutorials with rad Black makeup artists where they do their makeup and slay their hair. When I don’t have the capacity for social media, it’s skateboarding, napping, and pizza. Thankfully connecting with the people I live with is a form of self-care. I feel grateful to have access to so many different forms of caring for myself.

What role does community play in your life?

People in my community are my biggest cheerleaders and they plant seeds I never would have thought about. Without them, I would never have pursued a lot of the things I’m involved in. I never expected I would be a part of a community outside of my family.

A lot of the things I do weren’t served to me on a silver platter. Growing up, I thought all I had access to was sports because my mom was such a sports fanatic and my brothers did sports. Then I was in my first school play — the Music Man — and it was fun but I didn’t know how to pursue that interest further. In high school I did a performing arts program that involved acting, musical theater, and stage management. I went to school for theater before realizing I wanted to integrate social justice into the arts. That’s when I got the internship [at the aforementioned LGBTQ theater company]. It was cool, but after some time I didn’t really like working at a white-run organization that focused on serving people of color and yet weren’t receptive to feedback from the folks of color on staff and in the community. I bounced to infiltrate different spaces that would be receptive to hearing what I have to say around making things more inclusive.

It seems pretty special to be able to integrate the arts to engage in social justice and to build a better world. I feel like those things are really compartmentalized for a lot of people. On another note, I know that there’s bad news all the time; I’m also feeling aware that the news out of Charlottesville last night is really intense. [Note: we had this conversation on August 13th, a day after a protestor was killed at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville]. Broadly speaking, how are you doing?

Honestly, I’m doing great. This is upsetting, but like most people of color have been saying, none of this is surprising. This has been around for so long but people weren’t affected by it unless they were Black or brown, so they’re just like, that only happens in the south, love wins, blah blah blah. I’m just like fuuuuck, no. There’s a map of all the 900+ active hate groups in America. I was like wow, that one is in the neighborhood I grew up in. That one is a T ride away from my house.

It’s a rollercoaster, it’s an I told you so, it’s a where have y’all been? When stuff like Charlottesville happens, everyone’s upset, then after a week it dies down and people forget about it. Charlottesville is happening every single second of every single day. I’m interested in seeing the trajectory of people’s’ desire to combat this. It’s hard to be optimistic. My mom recently talked to me about having kids but I don’t feel comfortable bringing a lil’ Black bundle of joy into this nonsense. I don’t want them to ever have to feel like they don’t have the space to be themselves because some white boy in their second grade class called them a n*gger because they wouldn’t share their crayons. I would be fighting kids and I can’t do that.

It was difficult to unplug yesterday because you get into this cycle of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and you’re like, omg stop! Sometimes I feel weird leaving my house. I feel weird seeing white people on the train. Sometimes I can feel people calling me a slur. Living in east Boston and watching it gentrify so quickly is upsetting and sad. Sometimes I sit down and I’m like, jesus christ, is the world ever gonna look the way I want it to look? Is it ever gonna be safe and secure for me to have some little Lindseys running around? Most of the time I just don’t think so.

What does the world you want to live in look like?

The world that I want to live in looks like people having the space to experience the things they want to and be who they want to be. Where they can decide day-to-day what pronouns feel good and people are just like, ‘yeah sure absolutely!’ That’s the world I want to live in, where people are like, you wanna try something to live in your most comfortable self? Absolutely, do that. I want to live in a space where bathrooms are gender neutral and you’re not stressed about trying to pee.

I want to live in a space where basic human needs are free. It’s bullshit that people have to pay for housing and food and being able to get around to their jobs. It’s wack that people have to work so many jobs just to get by. The wack ass sexual health stuff taught to young people is bullshit. I would live in a world that’s not heteronormative. I want to live in a world where talking about mental health is normalized and people have access to therapy without going broke. I would love to live in a world where people aren’t working to live but because they want to.

I just want to live in a world where people can feel comfortable because there’s only a portion of people in the world who feel comfortable just living and that’s fucked up. There are so many people who are born and don’t even know the amount of discomfort that’s in store for them. We’re not here for that long, and it blows to have people be uncomfortable for so much of the time they’re here.

Your world sounds good.

Thanks. I definitely think about it a lot. If I had one wish I would have to make it into the biggest run-on sentence of my life but it would be worth it. I have to perfect that run-on sentence.

What do you see as your role and your work in helping to create the world you’re describing?

My role is visibility and being vocal. A lot of people like to hear what I have to say, whether it be purely comedic or about a social issue that’s been bugging me. I love being vocal about the media we consume. I watched this trash show on Netflix, Blow, which is about televised women’s wrestling in the 80’s. I didn’t understand what people saw in it. They had super racist character names that weren’t even historically accurate. I’m like wow, y’all really tryin’ it. I have a problem with period pieces because it feels like being able to say racist things is literally why some folks pick certain time periods. I was tweeting out my thoughts and feelings about the show and one of my friends was like wow, thank you so much, this is gonna help me better engage with media and think about why I like stuff. I’m glad that me yelling about how extra this show was was helpful for them. I love making sure that myself and others are active consumers of media and that when they make media, they’re not perpetuating the same issues we see in current TV, movies, and books.

Being visible in art spaces where I’m not usually seen is also very helpful. I know for the kid I mentioned earlier, seeing me at Girls Rock was helpful for her to understand she has access to everything. I know that me pursuing things I’m passionate about is making space for others to do the same. I’m excited to not be the only one or one of a few. With all of my self-care and with my community, I feel properly supported emotionally and spiritually to put myself in these heavily white spaces. Having support systems and community I’m just like, (gasp) I have a safety net to catch me while I scream about stuff! Then after I’ve screamed, I can come back and make an informed piece, like the one I did about the Women’s March. I screamed all day, took a nap, and when I woke up I started typing.

It seems like you’re really coming to everything you’re doing as a whole person and giving yourself space to feel the frustration and anger and then kind of being like, okay, here we go.

Writing has been really helpful. It’s great in terms of expanding my vocabulary and making accessible pieces folks can wrap their mind around. Sometimes I read some stuff where people are using all these big words for no reason. That’s one of the things that can be scary for people trying to get information. Everyone learns and ingests information differently. I feel I’m good at sharing information in an accessible way. Instead of speaking from a heady academic place, it feels more like a conversation and not, let me tell you about this👏🏾because 👏🏾 I 👏🏾 know👏🏾 everything! 👏🏾

As someone who’s so immersed in the music and arts world, I would be remiss to not ask you about the music and art that’s inspiring you right now.

The music that’s inspiring me is still A Seat at the Table [by Solange]. That entire album is so open and unfiltered. Her vulnerability and her want to take up space with her Blackness and her strangeness resonates with me. I’ve always felt strange. I always felt like my nerdiness and my weirdness never mixed with my Blackness so Solange is inspiring to me. She shows me that all of these things about myself can live in the same space as my Blackness. Seeing that there’s no limit to what Black is has been really helpful.

I really like the new Tyler the Creator album. He made this really beautiful, soft record I never would have expected in which he talks about his queerness. He always rubbed me the wrong way and I perceived him as really aggressive. Naming his album Flowerboy and having the cover be an image of him standing in a field of sunflowers is really lovely.

I really like the new Downtown Boys record. I’ve always appreciated them because seeing people of color in punk is so inspiring. I love punk music but the community is so white. Whenever there’s something musically and culturally cool I figure it has to have been lifted from communities of color. There’s no way in hell that this isn’t something a community of color put together as a form of self care, visibility, and being able to play music really loud. 

I’m going through all of the old R&B and soul my mom would play. Every single Sunday I wake up, wash my face, and listen to Sade. I have been getting into Chaka Khan’s deep cuts after growing up listening to the notable hits that most folks know. I love seeing black women taking up space in music. It shows me that the limit does not exist. There’s still so much space to take up and I’m moved to take up that space and I’m excited for the little girl I talked to at Girls Rock Camp to take up that space too.

Is there anything coming up for you in course of this conversation you feel like sharing?

In terms of taking stock of what my focus is and what I’m focusing my time on, this conversation was really invigorating. I was feeling like I just wanted to sleep for a million years, but now I can’t wait to go home and practice drums, I can’t wait to write things. Talking through stuff is a form of self-care. Sometimes I get caught up and don’t feel like my work is making an impact. Then I talk about it and think about the bigger scheme of things and remember there’s someone, somewhere who will read this and it’s changing the way they’re going to think. I want to show people that all of the things that live inside them can work in harmony. Just because you’re one thing doesn’t mean it lessens this other thing that also lives inside of you.

I’m interested in seeing the ways in which art is gonna expand. So many people are feeling empowered by A Seat at the Table and a lot of other records. Seeing Issa Rae come from Youtube and now have Insecure on HBO empowered a lot of people — so many more people of color are taking the time to make web series and tell their stories on Youtube. That’s what I think about when things are looking so bleak. I look at the art that other people of color are making and I’m just like, okay, maybe it’s not the MOST bleak and maybe we can make it to the other side.

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You can find Lindsey Anderson on Instagram @snackkween. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in