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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 8
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

How are you doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Ally Almore 2
Photo by Ally Almore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kemi Alabi by Hewan Aberra.jpg
Photo by Hewan Aberra

What is the world you want to live in?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I didn’t, that’s amazing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Mika Munoz

Dusty on grounding their bodywork in consent and bodies as strongholds

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

My name is Dusty and I am a white, chronically ill, queer femme bodyworker.

What fills your days?

I’ve had a lot of solo time lately. In that time I’ve been trying to get outside more. I’ve been going to the Oakland Redwoods. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘woo’ stuff related to tarot, astrology, and learning about ancestor work and practices. I’ve been doing a lot of internal thinking and development work.

What does ancestor work mean to you?

I started listening to Bespoken Bones, this amazing podcast by a somatic sex therapist in San Francisco, Pavini Moray. It’s an exploration of how intergenerational trauma connects to the present, and how that connects to somatic and sexual wellness and capabilities. I’m thinking a lot about how I’m a white person from European ancestry and haven’t felt connected to family cultures or traditions. I need more history and context to anchor my work as a healer. I’m exploring this idea of acknowledging that I as a white person come from somewhere, and am connected to and must be accountable for things that have come before me. That idea feels powerful and important and like it’s going to become a bigger part of my life and practice.

I’m excited to hear how that progresses for you. What does being a healer look like in your life?

I am a massage therapist and bodyworker. That is my primary occupation and something I put a lot of time, love, and energy into learning about. The majority of my practice is working with queer and trans people, many of whom identify as being chronically ill, in chronic pain, disabled, or some combination of those things. I do a lot of work with bodies that are oftentimes ‘othered’ by society.

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What do those bodies call for in bodywork?

Part of what I do is be open to meeting someone where they are, day to day and moment to moment. There’s been a great undoing of expectations in terms of what might constitute progress or a successful session according to the thinking I was taught originally, in a clinical framework.

A core idea of my practice is that it’s strongly consent-oriented. I’m not showing up to a session and imposing my preconceived agenda on someone’s body. We always start off by having a conversation and negotiating what’s going to feel good today. There is space for my guidance and connections I might make, but ultimately I do work that someone is feeling excited about and ready for on a given day. Communication and consent is an important part of that process.

I also love to be creative. I’m always studying something new because I’m a body nerd. Having a variety of tools to pull from means there’s a variety of ways I can meet someone’s needs. My work is rooted in the idea of starting wherever someone is, even if that doesn’t look like glamorous pain-free change, or if the shifts are more subtle to tune into.

When you feel a session has gone well, what is the ideal impact of your work?

Some of the most immediate feedback I might get from someone is both verbal and visual — maybe someone comes into a session carrying a certain amount of stress, anxiety, and pain. Maybe their nervous system is activated. The first and the biggest thing is asking, what can I do to help someone access a space of deep and intentional relaxation? From there, all other things may be possible.

What’s the importance of helping someone access that place of deep and intentional relaxation?

Feeling good and relaxing have so many important benefits, even just on a mental level. If you’re living with chronic pain or a chronic illness and carrying some baseline of discomfort or pain with you every day, feeling good in your body can seem so out of reach. Having the chance for your mind and body to re-shape the narrative of what’s possible for you in torlderms of sensation and pain, even for an hour of your day, is huge. On the scientific anatomy side, when you get to tap into your parasympathetic nervous system — the rest and digest part, the opposite of the fight or flight system, where we normally spend a lot of time in this world and in the day to day — that is where restore and repair happens on an emotional and cellular level.

Bodies are an amazing mystery. There should not be expectations or parameters for everyone to try to fit themselves into because different things are possible for different bodies at different times. That said, a reduction in pain is definitely possible in an acute musculoskeletal way, and pain reduction is possible in terms of degrees of intensity of chronic pain. Having a safe and nurturing space to be present in your body can be part of rewiring patterns associated with trauma. Sometimes I see greater access to range of motion or mobility.

I worked with a client today who has been suffering from chronic migraines and at this point in time is no longer experiencing them. That’s not entirely because of our work together though that’s certainly a part of it. But I think bodywork creates the opportunity for you to cultivate an inner awareness and also to internalize some of the feeling of: I am worthy of care, time, and attention. Which is huge! A lot of us don’t feel that on a regular basis. Feeling good in a session is often a starting point that leads to other kinds of intentional care being more possible in a person’s life.

That sounds really powerful. What it’s like for you to facilitate and witness that kind of transformational experience as a provider?

As a provider this work can be really exciting. It’s amazing that my job is getting to help people feel good and be more in touch with themselves. It’s a moment in my day of feeling uplifted and sometimes more connected to hope. Seeing things that have seemed impossible start to open to the possibility of change is something that’s very hopeful.

A lot of times it’s also really hard. I’m bearing witness to a lot of intense stories, a lot of people who are in very real and immediate pain, or who are dissatisfied with something about how their body is currently or permanently functioning. In addition to the hopefulness there is also sometimes a heaviness. A heaviness and an intensity because a lot of people have tried a lot of things to feel better or feel differently, and that can make it feel like the stakes are high. I have to figure out how to hold and sit with that, while acknowledging and helping to coach someone’s awareness that we’re gonna see what’s possible, but we don’t always know, and it’s definitely going to take time.

Does it ever feel like you’re taking on someone’s pain or trauma, either physically or emotionally?

It definitely did much more when I was first getting started. I’ve had to be intentional about the ways that I take care of myself and ground myself before and after sessions to avoid taking on things that aren’t mine.

For example, I do massage at a facility for adults who are navigating physical and mental disabilities, most of which affect motor system control. Some of the stories that get shared with me while I’m working are about really difficult life experiences. While I often end my day feeling better than when I started, and feeling more able to tap into hope, sometimes bearing witness to people’s stories echoes and amplifies the structural inequalities and oppressions in the world that oftentimes contribute to someone feeling they way they’re feeling and why they’re coming in for a session.

What does it look like to practice self-care and ground yourself?

It’s a work in progress. Over the last year I’ve had to get realistic about how much work I’m physically able to do given my own chronic conditions. I would like to strengthen connections to community. Especially when I’m mainly working in private practice, I develop strong one-on-one connections with the people coming to see me, but there can be isolation from other practitioners and other things going on. I definitely feel this sometimes.

I get bodywork myself; that’s important. I’m trying to find foods that make me feel good and nourish me. The big thing I’m working on right now is how to incorporate more movement into my life, because movement is something that feels good but isn’t always accessible with my fatigue levels. The physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — all the things need tending to. I have to think about it as part of my job.

IMG_9188.JPGWhat does the world you want to live in look like?

It’s hard for me to dream and connect into a longer-term vision of what the magical future might look like. I don’t let myself go there very often and get stuck in the day-to-day. For myself, I would love to work with a team of informed practitioners who actually give a shit about providing intentional care, and who are working together to holistically support people in their goals, in an integrated health center where people can access services for free.

A life where we’re more connected to the land and the earth is important. I would like to live in a world where people and bodies aren’t marginalized due to physical or mental ability, and where we know we’re not disposable because we’re not able to do copious amounts of work. I would like to live in a world that enacts networks of mutual aid and mutual care for each other.

What do you see as your role and work in the current world we’re living in?

I struggle with that question a lot. I want to be doing more and I am figuring out how I might. At the same time, the work I’m doing one-on-one with people is really valuable. I have internalized the tendency to devalue femme and healing labor. I have to remind myself I make a lot of efforts to make my services accessible to whoever needs them. The people I’m working with are teachers, social workers, activists, artists — other people who are working for change in serious ways. I’m part of their care teams, and that’s a job; that’s important! The world needs people at protests, and also people cooking food and holding decompression space after protests. That’s how I feel connected on a smaller level. I would like to figure out a way to better leverage my skills and resources for change on a bigger, systemic level. I’m working on that.

What are the people or frameworks helping you push against internalized bullshit and expectations of doing copious amounts of work, toward something that feels more holistic and healing?

A big resource for that is the disability justice movement, especially Sins Invalid’s work. Mia Mingus’s writings have been especially helpful. Sins Invalid has a wonderful disability justice primer and lots of articles. That feels like a political home for me. I will be in a lifelong struggle of undoing internalized ableism. Connecting with these ideas that are anti-disposability of all people are really powerful.

I feel inspired by people who are doing creative work to envision alternate futures. The work and writing of adrienne maree brown is really exciting — I’m reading Emergent Strategy right now! Some of her visions and the Octavia Butler-inspired framework she works from speaks to my sci-fi nerd, future-imagining self.

What are the things in your life support and sustain you, and what are the barriers to making this work truly sustainable?

I feel supported by my friends, by my partner, by therapy. Most of the time I’ve been working I’ve also been taking classes, and I have a few teachers who I connect with. Having support from people who have been doing this work for a long time feels really helpful. The evils of the internet are real, but in a way I feel supported getting to read and connect with ideas of other kinds of healers. That feels like a more broad sense of community. I’m experiencing some some challenges right now with my physical body that can affect the presence that I can show up with to this work and how much I can do it. And I’m still figuring out the financial piece of things.

What’s importance of caring for our bodies, both for people who are experiencing consistent and frequent pain, and for those of us who aren’t in a place where we’ve chosen or been able to pay much attention to our bodies? How do our bodies connect to our lives beyond being the thing that we use to eat and sleep and breathe?

Everything’s connected. It’s really true. I see that it’s common for people who hold one or more marginalized identities in the world to exist in a state of partial or total disassociation from their bodies. It makes a lot of sense when you learn about trauma. Disassociation is a survival mechanism that helps you move through the world and stay as safe as you can. It’s scary to go into that place of: Oh, I can feel emotions. What is this feeling? What’s going on in my body?

Something I appreciate about bodywork is that we can move at whatever pace an individual needs to move. Even if we’re working with something that’s deeply held or is chronic and not going anywhere, shifts can happen in terms of how we relate to our bodies and the range of emotional and physical sensations we have access to. I believe and continue to study different theories about trauma for this purpose. The more in touch we are with what’s going on for us on a bodily level as far as where and how emotions are showing up, the better resourced we will be to deal with all of the other stimulation that’s coming in from the world.

Your body is your stronghold. Bodies are so wise, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. Our bodies are taking us through the world, and pain and dysfunction, or things being weird or “off” are often a body trying to let you know that something needs attention. There’s techniques and frameworks that work with trauma healing, not through talk therapy, but through neural pathways in the body. The body can be a site of profound movement and healing. It’s hard, scary, and slow work. Ultimately, working to become embodied is part of our individual and collective wellness. As we’re navigating the current socio-political landscape in America, I believe it’s going to become more and more important to devote some resources to the idea of being embodied because it’s one of the things that will give us strength to continue in other kinds of work.

A big part of the reason I do this work is because it feeds me too. I learn so much from and am so inspired by the people I work with. Functioning as the container for the experience of a session pushes me to grow as a person and take a hard look at my own trauma and how I’m continually growing and relating to my experiences. It makes doing that personal transformation work necessary, not optional. I receive a lot of nourishment from doing this work! It’s an exchange. Money is part of the exchange, and the exchange of energy and space is supportive and inspiring for me.

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If you live in the Bay Area, you are able to learn more about Dusty’s practice and book a massage session on their website. You can also ‘like’ Dusty Vogt Bodywork on Facebook. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in

Lexi and Devi on the lifesaving power of art & using comedy as a tool to build collective power

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Lexi & Devi at the Trans Life & Liberation art opening April 2017. Photo courtesy of CultureStrike and by Miki Vargas Photography.

What is Peacock Rebellion and who makes up the organization?

Lexi: Peacock Rebellion started out as a queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) arts organization Devi founded in collaboration with other artists/activists/healers. Devi was involved with organizations including Mangos with Chili and other QTPOC arts organizations we’re in community with. Devi used to talk about bringing Peacock Rebellion to a national level. Given the way the political climate has shifted, we’re rethinking our place and what strategies we employ and the ways we’re engaging with the wider world through our art.

Brouhaha is our big comedy show which has run for the past four years. Brouhaha’s stand-up comedy training program has prioritized trans women of color (TWOC) since 2015, with a new sketch comedy training we launched last year that’s open to a broader range of trans people of color. The main component to Brouhaha is forming a cohort of artists and teaching them the basics of comedy and how to utilize comedy as a tool for social justice.

Devi: We started Peacock in part because I was burning out on nonprofit-based community organizing and thought I was more effective with a microphone than a megaphone. With Peacock, our artists can crack jokes, shift cultural perspective, and disrupt the status quo through entertainment. A lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be down to come to a march or a protest would be totally down to come to a comedy show.

Everybody in the artistic core has some kind of healing practice. Everyone is an activist, a community organizer, healer, cultural worker, and an artist. A friend of ours made a shirt for the last Brouhaha that said “Sass Heals.” That’s totally us. We do snarky, sassy, sexy, subversive work, and talk about white supremacy, christian hegemony, anti-Black racism, and structural oppression without jargon or talking down to people. We’re able to get 800 people to a show on a Tuesday because a lot of folks are willing to want to come be entertained, and we’re like, oh we’ll entertain you, and you’re gonna come here and learn some shit.

We use the art to get people into a room and then they will be invited to show up to do court support for trans women of color, they’ll get talking points around Thankstaking. Folks who are going to sit at a dinner table with their families who have different political perspectives, and we want to equip them with resources. We want to get our people practical tools. So we have a guide to low-cost mental health support services for queer and trans people of color and other rapid response guides. We do healing justice clinics for free. Lexi started a program along those lines last year.

Lexi: We got some funding to have a cohort of 20 people, primarily trans folks of color, go through four months of training workshops on empowering advocacy skills. We were able to pay them to participate. We oriented folks on the court processes for legal name and gender change documents; we had a self defense workshop, we talked about navigating the medical industrial complex, street safety, and intervening in street harassment. Now there’s 20 more folks out in the world who have those skills. After 45 got elected, there was a big surge in community clinics to get trans folks name change forms done. A number of participants in the program went on to help Transgender Law Center and St. James Infirmary organize some of those. It was great.

Devi: We just merged with one of our sibling organizations, a QTPOC makerspace oriented toward social justice. They’re now a program of Peacock. Now we run free maker days every month. QTPOC can come learn how to make zines, make videos, use 3D printers, all kinds of stuff, on social justice themes.

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From left: Devi Peacock, Brouhaha artists Elena Rose and The Lady Ms Vagina Jenkins, Lexi Adsit. Photo by Lance Yamamoto for the East Bay Express.

Did you always imagine that Peacock would have all these elements of different programs to support folks in navigating the world in legal and social spheres, or is this something that’s happened organically?

Lexi: With our artists, it wasn’t just about artistic development, but also showing up for everybody as holistic people. Most of our job is actually emotional labor — showing up for folks when they’re in crisis and making sure that we’re all alive next week. We feel if we’re able to acquire the resources to provide those extra services, we should. We’re getting back into thinking long-term and constantly referencing adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy book and concepts as our new compass.

What is it like for you as people who are facing violence and oppression, and also holding a lot for the community in terms of offering support?

Lexi: We’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of recognition and visibility, and knowing that everybody who’s participating in the organization is a QTPOC dealing with some degree of mental health atypicality, whether that’s anxiety or depression or the revolving door of ideation.

Both Devi and I had intense instances of burnout within nonprofits which led us here. For me, something that counteracts the burnout like an anti-inflammatory is being able to create art. I get to do that at Peacock. Creating is part of my job. You don’t learn how to take care of yourself  in a staff position at a nonprofit. Everybody talks about a work-life balance, but there’s no tools or training on how to actually do that. Devi and I also have roles as emotional supports for people, which is not a completely draining thing, it’s something really special I get to offer for folks who I care about. At the same time, I know it means I have to take care of myself to be able to show up in the best way for this job and for other people I’m taking care of.

Devi: I work at Peacock 60 hours a week until busy season; then it ramps up. For four and a half of the past five years, I didn’t pay myself; I had paying gigs outside of Peacock. Starting in January of this year I started paying myself and having health, dental, and vision. The pay is terrible but it’s what we can afford right now.

The power of art is very real. We are working on keeping ourselves and each other alive. We’re trying to get people out of dangerous situations. I’m not great with boundaries around that. We’re starting to shift and incorporating the Emergent Strategy framework. Part of it was saying no to a whole bunch of bullshit. We moved from a broadly QTPOC arts organization into a lot more trans women of color and transfemme of color centered. Suddenly we became a shiny, sexy organization. We get hit up at least a couple times a week if anyone wants to find a token TWOC to throw into a show so they can check off a box on their grants. I’m getting better at saying no which is helping so that we can focus on building our collective power.

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Brouhaha 2017 producers Devi Peacock, Lexi Adsit, and Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

But we’re not a collective. We’re largely collectively-run, but there is a hierarchy; I am the boss. Like Lexi was saying, a lot of people come into the organization burned out and struggling after traumatic experiences at nonprofits. Some folks come here thinking it’s a magical utopia. But it isn’t perfect. We’re still a project of a non-profit, we still have some tap dancing we have to do for funders.

But I really, deeply believe in this dream. Part of my original intent was that we would focus on building collective power, not individual artistic careers. We’re hoping to use art to build cultures of collective liberation. To do that, we think it helps to weave art and cultural practice across our work, instead of disconnecting it from healing or from community organizing. It’s all connected.

We have a touring production in February in Austin with a new show called The Femmes of Your Dreams. We’re dreaming futures with femmes at the center. We’ll be using stand-up comedy to talk about mental health and sexual violence and all these things. We’re going to write ourselves into the future.

Lexi, you mentioned art as something that helps keeps you going as you’re facing whatever you’re facing and also holding so much for the community, and Devi, you mentioned it as being a core value of the work that Peacock is doing. Can you say more about the impact of art, both on folks in the cohort and people who get to experience Peacock’s work?

Lexi: Something we always say in the trainings is, comedy is tragedy plus time. I came into this organization with a lot of tragedy. It’s like therapy. People are listening to you and validating you. There’s something strangely intoxicating about being on a stage and talking about the shit you’ve gone through and being able to challenge systems of power through a smart approach. The shows have covered navigating the medical industrial complex and Kaiser support groups, dating and how problematic it can be…

Devi: Intimate partner violence, being physically attacked, surviving sexual violence, surviving a lot. But then there’s also been things around dreams. Like, what are people wanting for themselves and for each other?

Lexi: We’re able to collectively turn those traumas into a moment of laughter. Being able to address these topics helps heal not just our artists but also the audience. Mainstream comedy can be so problematic — racist, sexist, or whatever. In mainstream comedy, the purpose is often to get a cheap laugh, often through making fun of fat folks, trans folks, homeless folks, poor folks, and that’s not what we want to perpetuate or participate in. I’ve heard from so many people who’ve attended Brouhaha that it’s actually funny, because we’re not making fun of somebody who’s sitting in the room. Though occasionally we make fun of white folks.

Devi: But we’re very careful about it, right? We want to use it to actually challenge white supremacy. We’ll link our jokes to something that’s a structural issue. At the end of the day we are trying to come from a solidarity framework. Part of what Lexi’s talking about is the absence of the “punching down” stuff. We use the BDSM red light/yellow light/green light system in our training programs. Red light means you’re punching down and saying some shit that’s not getting on our stage. A yellow light is either punching across or it’s just not funny enough. We recognize that all the artists are trans women of color, but if the audience is not largely TWOC, we want to be conscious about who is the listener. We want nuance and strategy. Our goal is to have jokes and comedy sets that are all green lights. Green lights actively punch up at the system. We go hard. I want to live in a world where we’re tearing out patriarchy at its roots.

We also want to be able to poke fun at ourselves around these things. The Bay Area can be a little bit of a bubble, it’s like the island of misfit toys. A bunch of people including me came here to run away from trauma. We’ll make jokes about everything from callout culture to isolation or disposability. In a 90-minute show how can we get people to love each other a little bit better and then actually organize around it? That’s a guiding question for our work.

What is the world you wanna live in and what do you see as Peacock’s role in creating that?

Lexi: At the root of it I want to live in a world where we WANT to live in. I want to live in a world where we’re not being exploited and where we are able to create for everybody’s survival. I want to live in a world where everybody can dream, not just those of us with enough privilege and access to do so. I want to live in a world without targeted violence and poverty. I want my work to build collective community versus building my own career — reflecting those collective communal knowledges, herstories, and ancestors and trying to remember that these things are bigger than just me in this moment, and paying homage to that.

Devi: In the world I want to see, people are good to each other and there’s space for messiness. I believe that people are always gonna harm and hurt each other. So what are the ways that people can actually take accountability — individually and collectively? For me, I think of a village model, like, hey actually everybody raises the kids and everyone is accountable to each other and we are in circle together. I’m imagining a world where instead of such a hyperfocus on extracting resources we’re like, oh how do we actually listen to the earth? What does restoration of the earth look like? I’m curious about that. What can global indigeneity look like?

Everybody deserves free access to culturally competent care, love, and basic human needs. As for Peacock’s role, I want Peacock to exist for as long as we are useful and relevant to the people we need to serve. Peacock is here to serve. That is our work. Like the Allied Media Projects’ Network Principles, we begin by listening. I want a world where everyone begins by listening, and there’s a lot more empathy for each other, and there’s real frameworks — practiced, taught, and learned — across generations, around solidarity. Not the savior complex, not any of the other bullshit. I want a world where love is emergent strategy, for everyone.

Would you be willing to define Emergent Strategy for people reading who might not know what that means?

Devi: Yeah! I’m actually gonna pull it up from the prophet herself because I like her words. She writes that it was initially a way of describing ‘the adaptive and relational leadership model under the work of Black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler and others. It turned into plans of action and practices, collective organizing tools, and linked into biomimicry and permaculture.’ Emergent Strategy is a leadership model that prioritizes relationship. Relationships are actually what fuel radical structural change.

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Peacock Rebellion Aristic Core 2016-2017, clockwise from top left: Q Quintero, Lexi Adsit, Devi Peacock, Luna Merbruja, Vanessa Rochelle Lewis

At Peacock, one of the things we’re trying to shift around is productivity. We’re whole beings. How do we support each other? Last fall we essentially shut the organization down for a month because someone close to us was in crisis. That’s the scale we need to operate in: being flexible and adaptive and resilient is a fundamental of emergent strategy. We do pick and choose what are the relationships we want to cultivate and who do we want to build with.

We turned five two weeks ago. Within five years, we are part of a campaign that has bought a building and the land underneath. It is the last QTPOC block in Oakland and it’s the first time in U.S. history that QTPOC have been able to do a hybrid commercial-residential land trust. We’re a major part of that. We have the first TWOC show in U.S. history, and not only the artists are trans women of color, but also the trainers, the producers, and the majority of the production crew are trans people of color. We’ve been able to do the the things we’re able to do because of the relationships. We are not doing mass-based organizing. We get targeted by hate at least several times a year, sometimes several times a month. We would not be able to survive the PTSD from a skinhead coming to our door and holding sharp shit up to my neck if we did not have very strong, deep powerful networks of relationship. We build a lot deeper than we build wide, which is an important distinction. I want us to eventually become a national organization if that makes sense, but it cannot be led by a handful of people in Oakland. We have to listen to leadership of the people on the ground and if they want it, we can build something together.

I appreciate your shout out to adrienne maree brown. Are there other people or bodies of work who are inspirations you’d like to name?

Devi: Neither Lexi nor I are Black — I want to call into the space the collective brilliance of the Black queer and trans folks who have significantly shaped Peacock. The majority of our artists and trainers are Black folks, which was intentional in challenging anti-Black racism in QTPOC spaces. I want to lift up Micia Mosley and Nia King, who developed the first curriculum for Brouhaha in 2014. Nia also has the podcast We Want the Airwaves and books interviewing queer and trans artists of color. She’s a living historian of queer and trans artists of color. 

Lexi: There’s an advisory board of elders that oversees Devi and holds them accountable to community and the work that we’re doing. A number of those folks are just really amazing and involved with the organizations we were birthed out of. Most of what they do is emotional labor too.

Devi: I want to shout out Vanessa Rochelle Lewis. Luna Merbruja, who’s in our artistic core and who was our first trainer for our all-TWOC show. We’ve worked with around 65 artists over these five years. That’s a shit ton of people who’ve all led Peacock in different ways. We were birthed out of Mangos with Chili, Sins Invalid, QWOCMAP, and Poor Magazine all gave us a lot of support in thinking through what Peacock would eventually become.

If you enjoyed this interview, learn more about Peacock Rebellion and consider making a donation. You can also visit Lexi’s website to watch her standup and read her writings. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in.