this interview is part of the world we want to live in series
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.
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.
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?
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.