this interview is part of the world we want to live in series.
How do you identify yourself in the world?
I identify as a queer Black woman. I’m a student and an activist. I’m a witch. I’ve recently begun to also claim my identity as an artist. I’m doing a phD at UC Berkeley, which takes up a fair amount of my time and emotional space.
How are you doing?
I’m in a period of transition. I’m trying to decouple my work from my worth. My job will be ending soon. Now would be the time to start applying for careers because I’m going to have this pretty bomb ass degree. I just don’t wanna work! It’s both anti-capitalism and just plain exhaustion that make me feel this way. Since I was five years old I have been waking up every weekday to report to an institution. I don’t want to show up for these powerful white men anymore, or to allow them to profit off my body and my mind. I’m considering being unemployed for up to a year to figure out what I truly want to do, but that’s obviously risky. I have so many blessings I’m grateful for, but I’m also like… what happens next?
Could you share more about decoupling your work from your worth? How has that been for you logistically and emotionally, and where are you at in that process?
This summer was my Art Summer. Since I’m plan to finish my degree in December, I probably should have been applying for jobs. Most people in my position and field have applied to 50 or 60 positions by now. I applied to three and then I felt done. Considering I have such a strong work ethic, I had to ask myself why I was not trying? Like, “I’m just not giving a fuck, why is that?” A lot of it has to do with the psychic exhaustion of being associated with the university. UC Berkeley is a toxic and violent space right now, with all the white supremacist rallies and neo-nazis on campus. Part of me needs to take space away from Cal — and science — to figure out where my time, energy, love, and labor is best spent.
For years I’ve experience anti-Black racism at the university in subtle ways — the low demographic representation of Black students and faculty and a myriad of micro-aggressions. Now this sentiment has manifested in physical violence. I’m not surprised it’s happening because we’ve had all this shit just underneath the surface, Trump and Milo just made us really have to look at it. So the idea of applying for a job to be a professor at a university — I’m like, fuck that, why would I wanna stay in this war zone forever? That’s a hard realization after spending 12 years trying to attain this degree. Now that I’m finally close to having my dissertation completed I realize I don’t really want it. But I’m not going to quit because I’m too deep into it.
What is the degree or field you’re in?
I’m doing a phD in microbiology.
It seems intense to be intimately familiar with these systems and working under white-male-dominated institutions for so long. I can imagine why you’d want to be bursting out of that.
I’m skilled and qualified so I’m good at these jobs but I’m not invested in them. At some point it’s like, who am I doing this for? I want to take time to find out what I want to do for myself and my community. That’s the decoupling I mentioned earlier. I feel like I can do this best through travel, but that’s also escapism. I wanted to move to Paris, but then Trump got elected and I felt I had to stay here and fight.
Where are you at with the question of figuring out what you want to do for yourself and for the world?
I’m pretty sure about how I want to contribute; I don’t know how to pay my bills while doing that. I know I want to be employed by the resistance, but who funds an insurgent revolution?
My main focus is environmental justice. I study microbial ecology and work in public housing. I compare microbes and toxic mold in market rate housing and federally subsidized housing. My data shows what people have been saying for decades —if you’re black, brown, low-income, or an immigrant, you’re gonna be exposed to more toxic molds. That’s a basic environmental justice issue but now we have the data to prove it. That’s the work I want to do for the rest of my life. How do we protect marginalized communities from environmental pollutants, from climate change, from oppression and exploitation of resources? How can we use science to protect our communities, keep us safe and healthy, and use law to hold polluters accountable?
I have a dream of starting a Queer Radical Science Institute (qRSI). I spent my most memorable summers at biological stations, which are basically summer camps for adults. There are these forested plots you can go to to conduct long term ecological research. They are so fun and nerdy, and I acknowledge I’ve been blessed at spaces like those where I’ve met other enthusiastic natural historians, but when I look back I realize they are implicitly white spaces. This is largely due of the push-out of People of Color from the community of science. People with any sort of spiritual practice are shunned in these spaces. It selects for a very particular kind of ideology and identity. And It’s a goddamn shame.
I want to create more space, and find new ways to do and teach science through a framework of de-colonizing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In this new paradigm, what are the questions that we ask, what are the methods that we use? Western modern science operates under a framework of white supremacy and capitalism, which means it is merely a tool of those pre-existent powerful and oppressive structures. At qRSI I want to explore what it would mean to uplift traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous views of the world rather than just the scientific method? If we do that, what are our final products? When do we know when the experiment is done? I want to move away from thinking about publishing papers as the final product. How about a campaign or artwork as the final product? What does it mean to do science that doesn’t end up in these elitist universities or journals? What does it mean to democratize the knowledge? These are all questions and beautiful dreams I don’t yet know how to manifest.
It’s cool to hear you bring up spirituality and art in reference to science because the white mainstream view places them in opposition to one another. You also mentioned coming into your artistry and identifying as an artist and a witch. What do those things look like in your life right now?
I always say one of the safest places for a 21st century witch is in science because you get to make magic in the laboratory. In the lab you can tinker; you can make things explode, you can transform, and deconstruct. Science is an incredible way to come to know and love The Mother:Nature. But due to patriarchy and misogyny, of course, witches had to go underground for safety. The history of witchcraft is based in resistance. I’ve been fascinated by witchy spaces since I was a kid. When I was maybe 13 I went into a store looking for a book and the shopkeeper called me a green witch. I didn’t know what that meant but now it all makes sense. The way I interact with the earth and nature is witchcraft. It’s voodoo. It’s root work. It’s also called ‘ecology’.
I started to experience activist burnout doing work in the Black Lives Matter movement around 2014. So often I was antagonized by police and felt hopeless. The system is fully inundated with injustice. What is the point of putting one more Black body on the line? It was getting so heavy emotionally. Then one life-changing night, I picked up a textbook from my Alma Mater, Howard University, called Black Magic. The book contains the history of root work and magic in Black America, starting with how slaves conjured against their enslavers. I thought that was so dope that our witchcraft comes from slave rebellion.
I think it’s common for Black folx to have fantasies of being slaves who would run away on the underground railroad, bravely heading North to freedom. But the reality is maybe you might have been a slave who couldn’t run. So what do you do? You hear about some stories of kitchen/Big House slave women who poisoned their masters. Someone’s gonna figure that out and your ass would be whipped or killed. But there other ways to subvert, and conjure and hexing was a part of that tradition.I started to dig into root work and curses against white supremacy to re-activate and reclaim this knowledge in my own activism. It was empowering at the beginning, but over time I started to feel like I was putting too much negative energy into the universe and needed to find a way to balance this with more positive vibes. All the curses we make come back times three, even though I’m responding to a curse that’s been put on me by subjugation. I started thinking about community healing work and how to sustain people in the movement. What kind of herbs can we use as adaptogens? How can we think about ways to heal our communities rather than just hex others? That’s where I feel more comfortable and where I’m at today. I don’t want to put negative out. I want to cultivate positive. I talk a lot about this on the radio show I co-host with a local DJ, Namaste Shawty and MC Queens D. Light on lowergrandradio.com.
Plants help me to find beauty in this fucked up system. They’ve taken a beating from capitalism with deforestation and exploitation of natural resources. Nonetheless the plants are resilient. I started looking at sage and lavender in urban city settings. How can these incredibly medicinal healing plants survive in Oakland and San Francisco? If they can do it, I can do it. These are my allies. Covered in soot but still so lovely. I take a lesson from them.
Is this research you’re doing on your own or in relationship to your school work?
It is in no way related to my school! If I told people at my school they would think I was crazy. I collect medicinal plants on campus sometimes and people always give me the side eye. What I’ve shared with you are lessons and inspiration that sustain me. Now I’m doing [an activist group called] Queer Magic for the Resistance, touching base with other down witches and brujas and showing up for community with healing herbs.
I don’t think I was so cognizant of my body before I started getting into witchcraft. I realized my body is mortal and I’m interacting with forces that intend to take apart my body. The police would gladly kill me, and these racist institutions intend to annihilate me. My material body became more of a focus than my brain, the main thing driving my career up until this point. A lot of work I do with herbs is about healing the body — making bath salts or body butter or teas to soothe the material tissue. Exploring my queer identity has been interesting too, looking at my body and asking what do I like about it? What am I not comfortable with? How does that relate to patriarchy and heteronormativity? That’s all part of the magic!
You’re doing a lot of different kinds of art right now right?
Music, visual art, the Las Brujas Radio podcast, and a videogame. That has been an exploration in play and anti-capitalist views of time. If you’re not working and you’re not making money, then is your time valuable? Capitalism thwarts your creativity because you make it about dollars rather than creation. I have decided that I’m gonna make this collage just because I want to make this collage! I’m not gonna market or sell it. I’m gonna make it because it feels good and I’m entitled to my time and to pleasure. If I want to create, I can. I’m trying to not feel guilty about things I ‘should’ be doing instead.
So first I started playing with collage than I started playing with sound. Now I’m playing with audio collage. I dropped my debut album ‘Noncommital’ on bandcamp at the end of Virgo Season. I started playing in a band. I’m just reclaiming my time. I realized that the days belong to me — not the institution, and definitely not the market.
It’s hard though because like you said earlier, you know what you want to do for yourself and in the world but you don’t know how to pay the rent at the same time. Ideally we’re all trying to reclaim our time, but we also experience barriers to that.
Reclaiming my time is not without recourse. My advisor is my boss, and he’s threatened to stop paying me. I got to a point where I was like, if you’re gonna kick me out, then just go on and kick me out, but until then, this is what I’m gonna do. I’m six years into my PhD now and I’m kinda losing steam for science, but also I’m just interested in lots of other things and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Sometimes when I’m kicking ass in other projects I’m able to plug back into science and have an awesome productive day. But it’s gonna be a day, it’s not gonna be my week.
Right, it’s not taking over your life so much.
I gotta find space for me. The institutions erase your individuality. They make you a worker. I came here to be a thinker and to tinker, and to learn about fungi.
Outside of a capitalist framework, can you imagine what would you be doing for yourself and for your community?
By virtue of being human I believe everyone is entitled to food, housing, water, education, healthcare, and a suitable form of labor that makes life sweet. In my dream of the world everyone would have that. There’s a cool way to decouple labor from basic needs being met. Instead of working so much just to have a roof to put over your head and keep the lights on, what if we decided everyone’s entitled to these things just because you need them — what would you do with your time? The world would be so much more beautiful. People would create. People would care. Some people call it universal basic income, some call it socialism or anarchism, I’m also comfortable calling it welfare. There’s so much waste in capitalism. Anyone who qualifies should fucking get their food stamps. This system is providing so much junk we don’t need that’s having this awful environmental impact. Get your shit from the government. The government should care for you simply because you exist. I dream that.
In terms of my economic political standings, I want a big government that cares for all the people. I hate the laissez-faire market. I don’t want free market capitalism to drive any of our policies. I liked the idea of the share economy that tech is creating, minus the tech influence and the fact that the bottom-line is profit. But they’re onto something really — we don’t all need to have a car, you know? We don’t all need to own the land, but we can all utilize it. I love the idea of not exchanging money for services ever again.
What would you do and how would you contribute in this world?
I’d be working in outdoor education, still hanging out with plants and looking at fungi. Biodiversity is so beautiful and I love natural history. I’d probably be a storyteller. I’d tell people about what we’re seeing in our environment and how to engage with it and what other people do with these things. I’d wanna tell the stories of the forest and cultivate spaces where those stories could be told. The ways to tell that story would be numerous. You can paint it, you can sing it, you can have the bonfire, you can lead a mushroom hunt through the pristine woods, or abandoned urban lots.
What do you think is important about telling those stories?
They’re fascinating. It helps you to find your place if you know that the world is much bigger than you. I’m finding it humbling to realize how complex all of these interactions between soil, microbes, climate, weather, water, micronutrients, plants, and animals are. You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out how this little ecosystem works. I’m just one little player in this beautiful construction. I love that. It means some of these decisions I make and stress over aren’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
I also think it’s important to just worship the land that you’re on and acknowledge the space you occupy as sacred. We’d engage a lot differently if we put ourselves in the context of the place and the space and hold ourselves and that space as not distinct from one another, and to acknowledge land as profound and beautiful.
It’s cool to hear you talk about your relationship to nature and science as being humbling. I feel like a lot of what has turned me off from mainstream science is the doctrine, the knowing, the framework that research happens for the purpose of ownership and dominance. It’s cool to hear how you are engaged in science and nature from a totally different perspective and seeking to unravel more mystery and wonder.
Yeah. There were anthropologists in the twenties who explored this demarcation between science, religion, and magic. It was in this ideation that “primitive” cultures have magic and religion basically because they are ignorant, and “civilized” cultures have science, because they understand and dominate their environments. Academics were suggesting that cultures who don’t have an understanding of their environment just ‘leave it up to the elements’ and pray to their gods because they don’t understand, and once you gain some knowledge of the earth you move towards magic so you can manipulate it, and then once you truly know it and demonstrate mastery then a cultures has science. This is obviously whack, because all of these things exist simultaneously and one person or entire cultures can go these different modes of wonder, ignorance, and knowledge every cycle, and/or every single day.
It’s a lot queerer.
Exactly. I want to get to a point where magic is viewed on the same plane as science, and privileged without having to be called “pseudo-science”.
Magic and science aren’t in opposition to each other. I recently learned that avocados change their sex multiple times a day.
So the flowers change or drop? That’s really interesting. That’s a lot of development and the genetics must be really intense and what kind environmental cues trigger those changes… How can we not be humbled and get off this dichotomy, you know? You are either male or female — no, there’s so many options, really. I love the idea of perfect flowers, which in botany is a term used to describe hermaphroditic flowers.
Maybe future check boxes on forms could have us choose between avocados and perfect flowers. It’s wonderful to hear about all the work you’re exploring. What do you need to support you in these processes and helping to create this world?
Instinctively I would say money but I want to move away from that. Part of me feels like a land trust is the move. What would it mean to have a spot where we do this Queer Radical Science Institute and just start by occupying? We just get there and start cultivating the world we want to see. We’ve seen that happen when you think about community gardens in Los Angeles or Detroit. People just took up hoes in urban space and developers come claim it once it’s poppin’.
I’m still figuring my shit out. It’d be cool if people were down to dream with me and offer their time and energy. All I really need is love and community. Money sucks. Capitalism is the reason my family, my ancestors were enslaved. I don’t want that to be what determines whether or not I’m a valuable contribution to society. Fuck the money. Share the love.
Is your goal to transform the institutions, to tear them down, or work completely outside of them?
I have been battling this question for so long. My second and third year at Cal, the only Black woman faculty member in my entire college, Carolyn Finney, was denied tenure. At the time there were only two Black professors, so all of the women of color flock to this one faculty member for mentorship. Because she was overloaded with doing community care work, she wasn’t able to produce as much academic stuff, which is the only thing the university really values. I started wondering, if we get her tenure, if more of us stay, can we shift it? Can we fix it from the inside? Maybe that is possible, but I’m not gonna be the one to do it, because that is not the timescale I wanna work on. Now bricks go through our windows and buildings get set on fire because people are so frustrated with the institution and want to tear it down. I think this absolutely needs to happen, but I don’t want to be the one to do that either. I want to work wholly outside of it. I don’t want to destroy it, I don’t want to sit around inside of it and wait for it to change, I want to do my own thing elsewhere. If folks wanna get down, come holler at me. But I’m not engaging in this shit anymore. I once heard a wise youth say, “everyone is invited to the revolution, but not everyone will come.”
You mentioned love and community as two things that can support you in doing that. Can you tell me what it looks like to show up for each other in community?
Sometimes it’s the simplest things. Sometimes after going to a protest, having a friend who’s cooked you a meal and made you tea and is there to give you a hug is huge. Having a friend go with you to the protest is also amazing. I get a lot of tarot readings from my friends and spend a lot of time in beer gardens debriefing and processing. I spend a lot of time in nature, in the rivers and forests. I go mushroom hunting every weekend. Take a hike and get away. Sometimes you don’t have to go very far. I spend a lot of time in the Piedmont Cemetery. That’s in Oakland, but I’m getting away from the exchange of money and capitalism. I sit with the realities that time is limited. Your life is precious. You only have a couple of years to do whatever it is you’re doing. And then once you’re done with that you’re gonna give all your atoms back to the universe.
Is this conversation bringing up any other thoughts you have about creating the world you want to live in?
We as activists struggle to feel like we’re doing enough. The issues are so vast and so big. It can be disheartening. I’ve seen many people turn away from the movement because sometimes you feel like you’re never gonna win. I’ve grappled with that, but then I think about all the major victories we’ve accomplished in the last couple years. Something I’m proud of is that we got the University of California to divest in for-profit prisons. That’s a big deal. But it’s so easily overshadowed when the same university that divested is giving a “Free Speech Week” platform to white supremacists. You can get so inundated in the everyday struggle, forget how powerful you really are, and question if you’re doing enough. I used to feel like if i don’t go how can I expect anyone else to? This year I’ve gotten better about trusting that if I don’t show up, someone else will. Since the inauguration I think people are getting it. This shit is urgent.
There’s a certain level of privilege that comes from being associated with the university. I’ve been arrested and had my Cal ID on top of my state ID and the cops let me walk away. There are some things I can do other working class folks cannot. I don’t really have to show up at school tomorrow at 8am, I can go to jail tonight. I don’t want to go to jail, but it’s better me — the single student — to go to jail than somebody else who has to feed a child. If I get a job, which is what I’m trying to avoid for the rest of my life, I won’t have this particular freedom. So while I do, it’s critical for me to utilize it. I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot of privileges I have besides maybe my citizenship, my education, and being cisgendered. The few that I have, I’m gonna fucking work ‘em and put them to use.
The revolution will be pleasurable! I have been so blessed by the people in my life, especially the activist community. I have started using the phrase ‘Lover-Homie-Comrade’ just to acknowledge the ways people flow through relationships. Some can be romantic, some can be platonic, sometimes I’ll throw down with you in a protest, maybe we’ll spend the night together in jail. It’s hard work, but these are labors of love. We’re out here waging love y’all.
You can find Iman’s work all over! Listen to Iman’s album, band, and Las Brujas Radio. Check out Iman’s visual art and support the conceptual demo of her video game.