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

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Photo by Eva Wô

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

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

How are you doing?

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

How are you moving through depression at the moment?

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

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

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

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Amina and her partner Claire. Photo by Eva Wô.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amina and her partner Hannah. Photo by Eva Wô.

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

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

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

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

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jonah on craftsmanship, plants as allies, and the power of candles to hold space

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How you identify yourself in the world?

I identify as a queer, non-binary femme, anti-Zionist Jew, disabled, chronically ill, rural person. I identify as a white anti-racist person, struggling against white supremacy and working for decolonization. I identify as a healer and a magical intuitive person. I am a herbalist, a medicinal plant grower, a ritual candlemaker, a beekeeper, a witch, and a radical anti-capitalist small business owner.

How are you doing in the day to day?

I’m doing pretty well right now. After a long period of being really impacted by my geographical and social isolation, I’m in a moment where I’m dropping into being with myself and where I am, and actually feeling that I’m not alone, even though there are not people here besides me most of the time.

Is there anything material that happened from which you can trace that shift?

One of the things I’ve been working towards since I’ve been here is feeling into the deep and wide web of connectivity and community I live inside of. There are so many amazing plants and animals here. I’m here with the land, with the weather and the wind, with the stars and the sky, and with the water. I’m broadening how I experience community in a daily way through my own presence, my own ritual, rhythms, attention, acknowledgement, and magic.

I have been able to shift out of being so focused on what is wrong with me and what is missing in my life here and just be. This past year, I’ve been able to reign in my projects a bit to focus on what I most long for and what meets my needs. Getting clearer about my physical, emotional, and spiritual capacity and my material, emotional, and spiritual needs has freed up all kinds of energy that has allowed me to be more in my power and have more to offer my relationships and my communities. I long for transformative love and partnership in my life and collaborative creative partnerships in business and magic. I’m now able to be really clear about those longings and extend toward them, instead of being sad or defeated that I don’t have them all yet.

Can I ask you to take a step back and describe what ‘here’ is?

I live on a 52-acre agricultural property south of Cloverdale, which is Makahmo Southern Pomo territory, in the northern tip of Sonoma County, California. My home space is a rented single wide mobile home and a 12×20 redwood shed space I did a pretty major renovation on to create the home of my candle-making business, Narrow Bridge Candles, and of my herbal business, Plants as Allies. I tend about half an acre and have a greenhouse and 40-50 different medicinal plants growing on a range of scales.

Bringing up Narrow Bridge Candles and Plants as Allies feels like a great segue to the main question I want to ask you which is, what do you see as your role and work in this political moment?

I’ve been putting my body, my heart, and my spirit in a place where I can be in deeper contact with my power and offerings in a way I’ve not been able to do in a city space. Wild and rural spaces are frequently unsafe or inaccessible in a variety of ways to queer and trans people, people of color, and people with disabilities. I’ve been working to create and tend wild and rural space here that is safer and more accessible for people at the intersections of all of these identities. I’ve poured my heart, soul, energy, and money into building something that is welcoming, beautiful, soothing, safe, and as accessible as possible, which has been supportive to my life and a lot of people.

When I first lived in the Bay Area, I remember people commonly describing it as a radical, queer, or movement “bubble.” I had that reframed for me — rather than it being a bubble, it is a stronghold, where people are holding down a depth of radical politics and a high level of organization and history around movement work. When I first moved out here, I thought of my home as an escape from the city for me and the folks visiting me. I now understand this as a place for me to grow and deepen into my power and my offerings, and a place for other folks, many of whom are doing important work and living in difficult conditions, to have a little bit of space and be in a place where they can have a bodily experience outside of the pressure cooker that cities and movement spaces can be.

A reminder that rest is not just a break or an escape from the important stuff, but is important in and of itself. So I guess I feel my home is a tiny stronghold — a place where beauty and femme-ness and rest and access are deeply valued, practiced and held up.

What happens in this space? What’s happening right now?

Right now I am braiding Havdallah candles. Havdallah is a Jewish ritual, the transition between Shabbat and the rest of the week. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, begins Friday night at sundown and ends Saturday night at sundown. In Havdallah observance, this candle gets lit on Saturday night at sundown. I’ve dipped these long thin pieces of wick in beeswax and now they are ready for plaiting into large candles.

Can you tell me more broadly what happens here?

I’m passionate about growing medicinal plants and about having a healing, non-exploitative, decolonial relationship with land. I still feel like I’m just beginning to learn how to do all of those things. I studied herbal medicine with Karyn Sanders and Sarah Holmes at the Blue Otter School of Herbal Medicine up in Siskiyou County. The focus of my study has been on the spiritual and energetic properties of plants — understanding plants as not just passive things to be consumed, but as things with their own spirit, energy, even voice and personality.

I care deeply about making medicine in a way that respects wild medicinal plant communities which are an important part of our environment and our ecosystems, in and of themselves. A lot of foraging and wildcrafting culture orients to things growing and producing something useful to humans — as if it’s just there for the taking and “going to waste” unless humans pick and consume it.  They actually have value in and of themselves.  Medicinal plants live in communities in delicate and dynamic relationships with birds and insects, water, weather, soil, spirit and energetics of a space. These communities are threatened by pollution, urban and suburban sprawl, development in general, climate chaos, and to a smaller degree, irresponsible herbal harvesting practices. A lot of wildcrafting is more oriented towards taking and selling than to the sustainability of plant communities.

I do very little “wildcrafting” — partly because I am a settler on this land and if I don’t have relationships with the indigenous peoples of the land, I don’t feel I have permission to harvest. And if I am not deeply familiar with that place and that ecosystem over a many years period of time, I can’t really see the impact of my harvesting or asses if the ecosystem can support my taking. I’m more interested in caring for wild plant communities and growing what I can. And trading medicine with other folks who are growing things I can’t grow!

jonah wateringWas there anything in your life or experience that led you to be on this path with plants?

I have a picture of myself as a small child watering little rows of vegetables. My mom is a big gardener — she loves flowers. I grew up with a lot of really powerful plants in the garden. I knew their names, and loved and appreciated them, and picked them and brought them to my friends and teachers, but didn’t necessarily orient to them as medicinal or as holding me in any way. And I think they were really holding me. It took me a long time to be aware of that.

What about candle making?

In my life here, I’m occasionally struck with the thought, wait, I’m a… candlemaker? Is that an actual job people have in 2017? If I think about the things that satisfy me, give me pleasure, and soothe my nervous system, they are mostly sensory. Touching everything, smelling and tasting, taking in the sight of things that are vibrantly beautiful. And also tiny, satisfying tasks that I can do perfectly, like putting stickers and labels on things and pouring liquid from one vessel to another. This list is pretty much my job description.

IMG_1939My work as a ritual candlemaker means living in deep relationship with the element of fire, honoring its contained expression in balance and right relationship, and sharing that magic, awe, and honor with my communities in material form. Candles have this incredible capacity to hold space. I think my role is holding space too. I originally started making ritual candles as a way to be more actively engaged with the ritual items I was using in my life. I wasn’t satisfied to buy ritual items and not know more about where they came from. In 2010 I created Narrow Bridge Candles which is a Jewish ritual candlemaking project in support of the full 2005 call from Palestinian Civil Society for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israel. Narrow Bridge Candles is a political and a spiritual project. It plays a role in extricating Jewish ritual, cultural, spiritual and religious practices from Zionism and provides ritual candles that are not made in Israel, allowing people who want to buy Jewish ritual candles to honor the boycott. Narrow Bridge Candles is able to donate more money to BDS organizations and domestic racial justice and decolonization struggles every year.

Are there challenges to stay connected to the deeper political and spiritual meanings of your work when it is your job and livelihood?

Yes. I attended the National Member Meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace as a vendor this year. I talked with almost 100 people who thanked me for my candles and told me that they loved them. Some of them cried and told me how meaningful my work has been for them in making space for them to re-connect with Jewish spiritual practice in a way that’s politically resonant with their convictions, principles, and beliefs.

It was a big deal to meet the people who buy the candles from me. It was markedly different than what my daily life sometimes feels like — that I’m just sort of plodding along making all the candles and sending them out to people and people send me money. I know theoretically what I’m making is valued beyond money, and that there are people all over the world who are using the candles to mark their sacred days, transitions, and life events, to hold space in political, cultural, and spiritual ritual space. And I’m not there. Especially when I’m tired and working really hard and not feeling connected to all of the life around me, it’s hard for me to remember that’s happening.

IMG_0123 (1)We are living in late stage capitalism. I, and I dare say so many of us, have deeply internalized capitalism in all kind of ways that I am working to heal from as a witch, as a disabled person, as a craftsperson, and as a radical. Running a small business doesn’t mean I’m a capitalist, but it does mean I’m holding some serious tensions. Sometimes I feel like I am a machine producing a product in exchange for money and I feel alienated from my own labor, my own hands, my own body. More and more I am aware of how deeply skilled my work is, and I’m learning how to value myself as a craftsperson. I can feel inside of myself, in my lineage, and my embodiment, a time and a place in which craftspeople and their creations were deeply valued. In which something made by someone’s skilled hands was a treasure. I’m learning how to live in this magical space, to know this is true and make this true with my own disabled femme genius craftsperson magic.

I’m gonna get dreamy as fuck for a minute and ask you to do the same. Tell me what you think your work and role would be in the world you want to live in.

It’s an important thing to be visioning. The framework I have is a village or small community in which there are people who grow food, people who grow medicine, people who make the things that people need and use. I’d be excited to be a community herbalist and candlemaker and have a place to live and work and people to share meals with and to play an active role in supporting the health of a community living in balance and right relationship with the earth, and with other communities of people, plants, and animals.

Given that we’re living in the time and place and world we’re living in, I know we’ve got a ways to go. I’d love to hear about the things or people that inspire you, and what you do for self care.

The plants and animals I share this space with are a big part of what inspires me. Central to the Blue Otter teachings is that a deep understanding of my own energetics is required for me to learn from and connect with the energetic and spiritual properties of plants, and to connect deeply with clients in a clinical herbalist capacity. How deeply I am willing to go in my own self work with my own healing, self knowledge, and transformation is the limiting factor on how deep I’m able to go with clients. I haven’t been able to be connected with my own energetics, vitality, or pacing in a city space. A big part of my being here has been about learning — not just getting out of the city to escape the city, but choosing intentionally to be in a space with low electromagnetic fields, low pollution and toxicity, and low social stimulation. Living where and in the way that I do has allowed me to learn how to regulate my own nervous system, how to live inside of my own rhythms and pacing, and feel my own power and what I want to give this beautiful planet.

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a portrait of Boy Boy

Taking care of myself right now means getting enough sleep and rest, and being in a solid routine, eating meals that have vegetable and protein, and water in my body and my body  in water frequently. I take herbs, I do plant meditations, and I have some somatic bodywork and therapy that helps me continue to learn about my own energetic and emotional patterns. Being with my kitty is a big part of my self care. He has totally saved me, I couldn’t be here without other people, without him. Being around Boy Boy, who seems to have such an incredible capacity for love and connection, has also been so opening and instructive. I’ve never had this kind of relationship with an non-human companion. I love him so, so much.

Something I’m thinking about right now is just that energy is real. Energetics are hugely formative in everyone’s life and in the cultures we live inside of. There’s a lot happening under the surface that influences what is possible, what is happening, what is tolerated. For a lot of people, under the surface is unseen and therefore it doesn’t exist. Everyone is impacted by energetics, and some of us can feel and attune to it, and for me a big part of radical transformative magic is making those “hidden” currents visible and felt.

There’s a lot of need for magic around shifting conditions. It’s not about denying the material; I’m not saying magical thinking or a positive attitude will be enough to overcome tyranny and fascism and oppression. We have to be in real, honest connection with the material conditions we’re inside, fighting and protecting those of us who are most vulnerable to the violence and oppression of our time, and be deeply transforming all of those relationships in trying to make the world that we want in material, magical, and energetic realms. This dreamy liberated world after the revolution is not some future destination. It is a path that we make with our work, our magic, our relationships, our hearts, and our spirits, and our bodies. How we move and be inside of that path is essential. That’s what I’m learning to embody and extend toward these days.

Place your 2017/5778 Hanukkah Order through November while supplies last! Narrow Bridge Candles are available on a sliding scale and they are worth it. Learn more about Jonah’s herbalism work at Plants as Allies. You can also find Jonah on instagram. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.

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