Kiran on nutrition as healthcare, interdependence, and valuing one’s own labor

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[Image: Kiran stands with her hands in her pockets on the sidewalk in Philadelphia at night. Photo by Maren Abromowitz.]
What’s your name and how do you identify yourself in the world?

My name is kiran marie nigam. I identify as brown, mixed race, multicultural, queer, and disabled with an invisible disability. I have hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). I also identify as a facilitator, teacher, healthcare worker, and an auntie to a lot of kids.

How are you doing?

I’m coming out of a period of a lot of transition and doing remarkably well. Instead of feeling stressful it’s felt liberating, which tells me the transitions are right. In the last six months, I quit my job of eight years at AORTA, the co-op I founded with five other people. I moved across the country back home to the bay. In doing so I’m also transitioning my relationship because of the realities of living across the country. I’m in a moment of initiation and possibility — so many projects and ideas. It feels like spring in my life.

Tell me about the projects and direction that are energizing you.

I’m starting up a new business to meld a lot of the things I have done for a while. I’m doing facilitation work, which I have been doing for almost 20 years now. I’m doing one-on-one nutritional consulting and functional nutrition work. As part of my nutrition work, I’m opening up a series of nutrition education workshops which are more financially accessible than one-on-one counseling. It’s easier to make dietary and lifestyle shifts in your life if you’re with other people who are doing them, even if theirs are different. I’m also offering support for people with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which I’ve been doing forever, but am now doing formally and with a nutrition lens. I’m helping people identify what net of care providers they need in their world, getting missing pieces filled in, and assisting with lifestyle and emotional support pieces.

I’ve got a million creative visions I’m trying to spend more time on, like my artwork. I’m part-way through writing three books. I’m writing and illustrating a children’s book on natural home-birth with my friend Michelle. I wrote another children’s book on my own called Together We’re Strong, which involves a song so I’m looking for a musician who wants to collaborate and record the song to be included in the book. It’s about cultivating strong relationships and remembering our inner strength and wisdom. I’m co-writing a curriculum kit called How can we make more money?, which is a values-based finance education kit that I’m working on with AORTA and three other organizations. We are centering people who have felt uncomfortable, fearful, pushed out, isolated, or otherwise excluded in money conversations, like women, trans folks, folks of color, and communities that are disinvested and marginalized by capitalism. That’s who we’re centering and who we are. It’s meant for people who are in group-oriented spaces where they’re talking about finances.

Can you share a bit about your relationship to AORTA and what that is?

AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance) is a worker-owned cooperative, democratically owned and run by the people who work in it. Myself and five other people founded it in 2010. AORTA members work as educators, facilitators, and consultants. The goal is to build movements for social justice and a solidarity economy, which is an economy that values people and their wellbeing over the accumulation of profit. They do workshops and consulting on organizational transformation through an analysis of systemic power, which is what I was doing for a long time. But I got tired of talking about and teaching about white supremacy and systemic power day in and day out. I put my time in. I’m excited to leave behind some of that work. Bless AORTA for continuing to do it.

I see collectives and cooperatives as spaces of experimentation for how we want to work and be, where we can try and fail and learn and reflect and try again. In doing so, we’re building the skills we want for the bigger picture. There’s so many spaces where we’re lacking models, and the needs of each group are a bit different. Something that works really well in one space isn’t gonna work somewhere else. I think of them as laboratories or petri dishes where we’re experimenting and building our skills.

A lot of people aren’t able to integrate the things that they care about and are skilled at into their paid work. It sounds like a lot of the stuff you’re excited about doing actually supports you financially.

Yeah. I’ve asked myself, how can I do the things I love and not have them be separate from what sustains me? Where’s my passion, where’s my love, and where are my skills and how can I make those make me money? I’m disabled and have varying levels of capacity to do things from day-to-day and week-to-week. Having a model of income that allows my capacity to ebb and flow is necessary for me. I don’t  fit well under capitalism — I’m not consistently able-bodied, but I’m not consistently disabled to the point where I can’t work, which means it’s very hard for me to access disability benefits. Something that has been a long-growing edge for me is understanding that I deserve fair pay. Just because I like doing something doesn’t mean I have to do it for free, especially as someone who’s disabled and at the brunt end of a lot of systemic violence and oppression. It’s been a journey to recognize and honor my experience and skills.

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[Image: Kiran in front of railroad tracks running through lush greenery. Photo by Chanelle Gallant.] 
That concept has come up a lot in these interviews. What has your process of getting to a point where you are more comfortable in acknowledging you deserve to be fairly paid?

One way I’ve gotten there is time. I’m 35. I’ve had some time to heal from trauma, build my understanding of my own worth, and build up real skillsets. I’ve been doing this for a while and have experience and expertise. A huge chunk of it is my peers — other women of color and queer and trans folks of color lifting each other up, witnessing each other, and pep talking each other all the time. It’s invaluable. A friend of mine who’s a queer woman of color and chronically ill was like, we especially deserve to get paid fairly, because we need it! She reminded me: you don’t want a yacht, you’re not even looking to buy a house right now, you want healthcare! I was like, oh right — I want to make money to meet my body’s needs. I mean, yes, I do want to be able to own a home someday, but right now, I want to be able to pay for healthcare.  My peers and community lift me up in being able to claim and own that.

I’m transitioning out of a pattern of working too hard for too little for too long, which has wrecked my body. My body is more sensitive than many and the impacts of that are large and long-affecting. I’m unwilling to do that anymore, which means I have to be able to work a healthy amount, for enough, instead of too much for too little. It doesn’t feel like an option to work more.

Part of where that growth in me has come is through other disabled folks and the disability justice movement in general — questioning a paradigm of crisis-based organizing, rapid response to everything all the time. These last few months, being self employed, I’ve been centering building a healthy workload.  After eight years of feeling over capacity and overworked I don’t feel that way right now, and that is building up my health. This doesn’t feel like a compromise to me anymore. How can I work for justice more broadly if I don’t do that for myself? If I can’t look at my own self with compassion and want myself to feel healthy and well? The internal and external have to happen at the same time. If I’m enacting harm on myself and my process of trying to work for justice, then I’m not building the world I want to live in. I have to be doing my transformation work with me as part of the equation.

Not to mention you don’t actually have the offerings you want to offer the world if you’re not well enough to be okay. To complicate this conversation a little more… I imagine you’re offering your skills and expertise to people with less means. How do you hold the tension of being paid fairly with making your services accessible to communities you care about?

I’m feeling that in my nutrition work because I’m focusing on other people with EDS. We don’t have a lot of money because it often goes to healthcare. I keep track of all the hours I work, even unpaid hours. I can see what my ratio of paid to unpaid work is. Right now my sliding scale for my one-on-one consultations is dependent on people paying on the high end; the low end only works if people pay on the high end. I’m trying this out for six months and then will assess: if I look at my hours and pay and decide it’s not working I’m going to have a tiered sliding scale — once the lowest tier fills up for a month, people can either pay the next tier up or book out longer where that lower tier is still available so it balances itself out and that the low end stays as low as it is. I also do work for free; I just document it as if it’s work. I invoice the full amount of the cost and the full amount as a discount, just so my hours are in my bookkeeping. I find when I do this, it helps folks understand that my pro bono work is me investing in them and their labor.

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[Image: Maren and Kiran at a rally. Kiran is holding a sign that says “Become Ungovernable”.] 
How has that been received?

It’s been received really well. People are into it. It shifts the way people see my labor. They realize, oh, you chose to do this for me or for our organization because you want to support our work.

What’s your role in creating the world you want to live in?

The uniting piece of all the work I do is to fortify the health of individuals and communities so we can better engage in work for justice. That connects to my facilitation work, my nutrition work, my artistic labor, and my mediation work. If you’re fortified, you can go out into the world and do a lot.

It sounds like a lot of what you’re doing is trying to make living and working more sustainable for yourself and others. What are the things that support you in taking on and doing this work and what are barriers to that being sustainable?

My community is a big support. I’ve lived in the bay since 2000, save for leaving and coming back a couple times. I have many long-term friendships that are family that support me hugely. I can’t ignore the fact that we’re all interdependent upon each other. Some people can pretend that away. The reality is very in-my-face, as someone who’s more disabled than many others. It’s through people and relationships and the generosity of others that I’m here.

There’s logistical things. Being my own boss means I set my own hours and work as much as I’m able to; it also means knowing that I’m the one responsible for making sure I get paid. That can feel scary, but there’s a lot of ways it works really well for me.

Living on the east coast, I realized there were many things about the Bay Area I took for granted that decreased the amount of time, energy, and money I invested in my health . The climate here is pretty stable and steady so I’m in a lot less pain. The culture of accessibility is stronger and more supportive: the disability rights and disability justice movements have a strong history here. It is pretty common for movement spaces to be low-scent and for people to name and think about accessibility. I manage so much of my health via food, which is more affordable here,  where the food is grown and fresh year-round.

Barriers are racial capitalism and a lack of access to quality healthcare in the U.S. I fantasize about moving somewhere with socialized healthcare but in reality I don’t want to leave my community. Even if I had a pretty good health insurance program, much of my care isn’t covered by insurance because it’s preventative and maintenance care — like nutritionists, acupuncturists, osteopaths, herbalists, food, supplements, personal trainers, and physical therapists. That feels like the biggest barrier to me actualizing my full self in so many ways.

What do you mean when you say you can’t ignore your relationship to interdependence?

The reality is that we are all temporarily able-bodied and that we are interdependent: we need each other. However, some folks are able to deny that reality more easily than others. My physical ability shifts from day to day, sometimes hour to hour. I feel very aware of my interdependence. My close relationships neccessitate me sharing access needs, not just once, but as they shift day-to-day.

For example, sometimes I am exceptionally low energy and can’t go out, or need to ask for support with basic house chores. I often can’t lift heavy things. Sometimes I can bike or walk places, sometimes I can’t. I’ve gone through phases of my life where I have relied on others to  help me dress, cook my food, clean up, and do my laundry. I moved recently, and asked friends to help move my things, but felt bad not helping out, so I did. I ended up injured and in pain for three weeks. I had to see an osteopath twice in that time, which ended up being more expensive than if I had just hired movers. A lot of things that people do for themselves, I call a friend for. I sometimes feel isolated. There’s a lot of organizing events I want to go to but can’t because they’re too loud, stimulating, or late at night.

We rely on the support of others all the time. If you have a hard day and call your sibling or your best friend, that’s interdependence. We need each other to live. People who don’t have community often struggle. This fact is very present for me. The intimacy I build to be able to call someone and ask for help requires a lot of vulnerability. It can also build intimacy and strength and trust in relationships, and give others permission to share their needs and get them met.

What is the world you want to live in?

The world I want to live in celebrates interdependence and is set up for us to thrive. It’s obviously anti-capitalist because it’s one where competition isn’t the underlying ideology. It’s a world where collaboration, cooperation, and seeking to support each other is the underlying outlook. It’s locally based. Things that are rights, are rights — like access to clean water, clean air, clean ground, stable and healthy housing, healthcare, and education that teaches us about our peoples, our value, our worth, our power. Teaches us how to communicate with each other, to collaborate, to negotiate, move through conflict, and is easily accessible and free. It’s got a lot of art and color. Things are sometimes done for beauty or joy, rather than efficiency. It’s a world that celebrates the beauty of craftsmanship — placing intention and care into something with the intent of it sticking around. Where no one’s disposable and where everyone is seen as valuable. That includes our home — our land and animal co-habitators. We’re caring for something precious and sacred. Wouldn’t that be amazing, to walk down the street and know and feel that everyone who looks at you is looking for the beauty in you, and vice versa? That’s what I want.

I’m wondering about your relationship to hope in this. For me, it’s easy to get bummed out and feel hopeless. The palpable way you’re talking about this world makes it seems like you have glimpses or experiences of it already.

I definitely have hope because it’s the only way we can survive. Me, my sweetie, and a few other folks started this sci-fi book club a few years back and realized a lot of the books we were reading were dystopian, so we started seeking out books that were utopian or contained moments of utopian sci-fi in them. It felt really exciting. I started writing out — what is my utopian world? It’s a skill, to be able to articulate that. We get trained out of it. More commonly we are trained to articulate what are we against. Yes, we need people doing resistance work and stopping unjust things that are happening. And we need to be building what we envision and dream of. Not just protecting against losses, but expanding and building.

Where I clearly see my work is in creating and building what I want. I see it in moments when I’m facilitating and a group melts and is able to talk across difference in a way that they couldn’t before. I watch their barriers drop. I see it when I give one-on-one care to someone who’s used to being treated inhumanely and then is stunned by being treated with love and care. I see it on long meditation retreats when I watch people start to shift and look at each other like we’re something precious and valuable. I’ve experienced it — I know it’s possible. For me, the question is, how do we extend those moments, multiply those spaces? Those moments are there. They pop up, they’re amazing, people get moved by them. How do we lengthen and grow them?

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[Image: Kiran selfies in the cold with a furry hooded jacket.] 
Where are you at today with that question of lengthening and growing?

For me it’s been through intentionally engaging in spiritual practice and growth and integrating that with the other work I’m doing. I don’t feel I can do movement work without spiritual practice. It can be different spiritual practice for everyone. For me, understanding my relationship to the sacred, and how my values connect to my action is necessary for lengthening and growing those spaces. Those spaces shine light on the divine and the beauty within us. The more I dive deeply into my own personal spiritual practice the more I see these spaces around me. I can’t help but assume part of that is because something in me is transforming that allows me to contribute to the creation of spaces like that, and builds my capacity to be compassionate towards others. It’s building my capacity to be with other people who are going through their own stuff and not take it personally.

Do you feel like sharing or describing any piece of your spiritual life and practices?

I have been studying Buddhism for 12 years now. My mom is Catholic, my dad’s family is Hindu, and my dad is atheist. I grew up with a mishmash of Hindu and Catholic culture and going to a Catholic after-school program. In middle school I went up to my mom and said, ‘I don’t ever want to go there again; I don’t believe in god.’ She stayed still and quiet for a long time and then she just went, okay. Shining star moment for her. I didn’t believe in that god because they were teaching me to fear that god. It wasn’t right.

I have always been very spiritual. I studied tai chi and meditation for health, then was exposed to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. I go to the East Bay Meditation Center. They have a POC Sangha every Thursday night, 7-9pm. This year I joined the Sangha’s coordinating committee, which is an exciting way for me to give to that space and deepen my own practice. I’ve done weeklong retreats both at meditation centers and one of Thich Nhat Hahn’s monasteries learning from the monks and nuns, reading books, and going to teachings. I’m choosing it as a path of study and watching my whole life transform around me as I do it.

Kemi Alabi, another World We Want interviewee, also talked about EBMC being a transformative place for them.

It’s a jewel! They run on gift economics. Everything is offered freely and the request is that you give to help other people access that space. It is a radical shift. It’s not even a sliding scale with no one turned away — it’s an offering. We ask that you offer what you can so that others may receive it. That’s the only way it’s going to exist tomorrow or next month, if those of us who are here today give so people in a month can go. That’s outside of the capitalist paradigm and that’s the future.

In addition to your spiritual life and practices, what else is inspiring and guiding you in this moment?

I just read the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisen. So much of it spoke to how empires fall, over and over again. It’s shifting the way I look at this world and this empire. Historically, every empire that has been, has fallen. That is awesome. This empire is going to fall, you know?

I’ve been friend-building with Mia Mingus this year, hanging out and talking about disability justice, gender, transformative justice, healthcare, and the intersections of all of our interests. It’s exciting and inspirational to plot how we might collaborate. Collaborations in general are really inspiring me right now.  Going to some of my friends and expressing, ‘I’m starry eyed for you and your work, can we collaborate?’

I feel inspired by the coalition that just stopped Urban Shield here in Oakland, and the years of labor it took to do that. I recently saw Angela Davis speak and it felt inspirational to hear from an elder who has a long haul perspective. When I was living in Michigan a while back I got to share space with Grace Lee Boggs. She revolutionized the way I thought about things. She talked about how she used to think about, how’s the work we’re doing now going to affect us in a decade. Then she started shifting to a century: how’s the work we’re doing now going to affect us in a century?

Another form of generational thinking is the folks that are running the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust. The first indigenous women’s-led land trust are returning Ohlone lands back to Ohlone stewardship. Their work is incredibly inspirational and hopeful. They’re looking to gain access to land so they can steward its wellbeing and community wellbeing. It’s the opposite of how many folks in the Bay Area are thinking about land right now. That is the future I want to live in, right now. They’re doing revolutionary, beautiful work for all of us. The graciousness of doing that work for all of us. It’s not like, we’re getting our land back so we can have it, which could be so easy to feel that way and to message it that way! But instead, this land needs our care. If we’re all gonna live on it it needs to be healthy, and we want to make sure that it is. That’s that same long-vision as Grace Lee Boggs. How are we setting our descendants up 100 years from now? How are we shifting things for them? That inspires me.

It’s good to hear these reminders of these ways that people are already building and creating this the world we want to live in.

If you can see it, you can resource yourself from that. Take hope from what they’re doing and then do the piece that fits. That was a big shift for me. Coming out of doing so much political education and organizing work and shifting to realize, I’m still doing work that builds a left movement. But I’m not doing it for the movement, I’m doing it for the people. The shift feels more centered in heart and in our wellbeing. It’s deeply informed by left movement and all of the mentors, elders, and peers that have guided me along the way. ‘The movement’ is an intangible thing that I have experienced as treating me as disposal, just like capitalism has treated me. With all love to the left movement, it not yet strong in caring for people with disabilities. Many people I care about can’t see through this paradigm to what it could be like. Can’t even see what they’re doing when a mirror is held up to them. If I keep doing my work from a people-focus, that’s gonna help shift what things look like in the future.

kiran nigam, NTC, is an educator, facilitator, organization consultant, certified Nutritional Therapy Consultant, and Virgo magician whose goal is to help fortify our communities so that we may be healthier, happier, stronger, and more effective in bringing about justice and transformation. Through Fortify Community Health, kiran works with individuals and organizations to support healing, health, and well being at all levels. She is a current member of the Coordinating Committee for the People of Color Sangha at the East Bay Meditation Center, and a former co-founder and worker-owner of AORTA: Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance.

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[Image: Kiran sits on a couch with their arms spread out. Photo by Sam Smith.] 

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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