Welcome to KQED Arts’ Bay Brilliant, a series celebrating 10 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2018. Driven by passion for their own disciplines—music, dance, theater, visual art, performance, writing, illustration and more—these artists are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Using humor and imagination as survival tools is a guiding principle for Peacock Rebellion, an East Oakland-based art and activism collective composed of queer and trans people of color. Led by Devi Peacock, Lexi Adsit, Q Quintero, Kathrin Cantin and Luna Merbruja, the group leverages its many creative talents to engage their communities in social justice causes.
Peacock Rebellion may be primarily known for Brouhaha, a hilarious and moving comedic storytelling showcase with a cast of trans women of color. But the group also offers services to the community: They banded together with several other activist-minded collectives to purchase a mixed-use building on 23rd Avenue in Oakland through a land trust deal, securing affordable housing and commercial rent for activist groups and low-income residents. In their new headquarters, they lead performance workshops, offer access to technologies like 3D printers and industrial sewing machines, provide a low-cost event space and host events to activate their community in local politics.
The artist-activists in Peacock Rebellion reject the notion that big, bureaucratic nonprofits hold the keys to a more equitable future; instead, their focus is on people power. (They have a board of elders instead of a board of directors, consisting of Cherry Galette of Mangos with Chili, writer-activist Jen-Mei Wu, game developer and author Micha Cárdenas, Kebo Drew of Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, Pam Peniston of the Queer Cultural Center and musician and filmmaker StormMiguel Florez.)
Despite the many institutional barriers and -isms faced by queer and trans people of color, Peacock Rebellion fights for change through their artistry, always keeping their vision for a better world front of mind.
How would you sum up the mission of Peacock Rebellion?
Devi: How do we sum up the mission? Oh, my gosh. First, it came out of a lot of stuff I was doing with [the queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) performance collective] Mangos With Chili, and then I was performing in Queer Rebels and a bunch of these QTPOC groups in the Bay. I was also in art school at Goddard, and I dropped out of art school because I was spending more time organizing students and faculty of color dealing with institutionalized racism than I was working on my art.
That's the one part, and then the other part was I was burning out as an organizer. I was way more effective with a microphone than a megaphone. I was able to move people on stage with social justice messages through my comedy, but in my organizing I wasn't necessarily reaching the people who weren't already coming to a march or a protest.
Lexi: I guess I would also just add that in recent years we've really centered the organization around trans women of color and trans femmes of color. When I entered the organization in 2012, I was a part of the stand-up cohort. There was a transphobia that came up in that cohort, and me and a number of other trans women of color at the time were really noticing a lack of visible trans women of color artists and art shows. I think Devi did a really amazing job in giving Peacock the space and platform where trans women of color and trans femmes of color can access free, quality arts training and support in that way.
It seems like the power of the collective is very important to your vision. You guys have a core leadership group of five people, right? Could you talk about the importance of collaboration in making your projects possible?
Lexi: Yeah, I think Devi and I both have a lot of experience navigating the nonprofit industrial complex. There's such a hierarchy [within nonprofits] that repeats very problematic power dynamics. For us, we're really unique in the sense that we also have a board of elders that don't really get seen as much but they're super amazing and provide us a lot of really wonderful feedback and insights.
Our structure is really set up in a way where it's not just one person making the decisions. There's the core group of five of us, but we're all still receiving feedback from our artists all the time, or the board of elders all the time, or our community partners and other organizations that we work closely with all the time. We use all that information to really inform our politics and the things that we promote in terms of our newsletter or calls to action.
Devi: Yeah, for me, the idea that somehow the success of an organization is dependent on one person is just such bullsh-t. Everybody's brilliance actually creates the whole.
We need to center femme leadership. That's why actually almost all of what we do is, I would say, femme emotional labor. The last Brouhaha, we turned it into a festival and 800 people came. Then within a matter of days, all these people showed up for court support [for someone in our community], and to donate directly to trans women of color, and call the DA to drop charges against a trans woman of color who was defending herself against an abuser.
All of that stuff is ultimately about the power of the collective. For us, it's very low infrastructure on purpose, so that we can move very quickly.
It's been over six months now since you guys officially bought your building on 23rd Avenue in Oakland. What have been some of the biggest challenges of that and the biggest rewards since buying it?
Lexi: I think we're just really fortunate in the situation that we're in with the work that we do—with the cost of rent, the cost of living—we're just truly really blessed to have this amazing space on this amazing block, and to have such awesome community partners like Eastside Arts Alliance, Sustaining Ourselves Locally (SOL), The Bikery—all these places that are just right next door to us that are kinship partners.
Devi: For me, I think similarly the blessings around it are because of the collective power. For example, the day that we got that email from our landlord being like, "Hey, I'm going to sell the building in 90 days," I absolutely cried. And then very quickly we rolled up our sleeves and were like, "All right, well, I guess we're buying a building."
Our reality as mostly marginalized people is that we're struggling just to survive day-to-day on top of everything else. The Bikery got robbed a couple days ago. Yesterday there was a fire at The Village, which is just down the block, and we have a close relationship with them as well.
How do we, as a collective of collectives, shape something, go out of crisis mode? How do we dream futures where we're at the center and we can actually thrive?
What programs are you currently running out of your space in addition to Brouhaha?
Lexi: Currently, our office is closed for renovations, but when we are not closed for renovations we run a monthly maker day. We have this industrial sewing machine, we have 3D printers, we have a strong base of coders and folks involved in tech.
We're currently in talks with an organization to do a writing group. Then we're preparing for a big spring show, and that's going to be more of a cabaret-style show, and it's going to be on mental health.
Devi: Yeah. The spring show is called Magic Mirrors. Luna Merbruja is artistic-directing it. As it's scheduled, it's all trans people of color and looking at mental illness as a kind of brilliance.
Then we just had a call yesterday to firm up the writing series. It's a month-long series that's all trans femmes. That is in collaboration with Heartspark Press, which is an amazing trans press. Luna is actually also teaching that workshop series.
The maker days are all focused around social justice. One recent maker day was called We Are Gems. Nastia, brace yourself, because it is all on Steven Universe. You've seen Steven Universe, yeah?
Oh, I actually haven't.
Devi: I just watched all five seasons in like two weeks. That's like a couple hundred episodes. It's because I cannot believe that that show is on TV, that the government has not shut it down, because I'm like, "This is f-cking incredible." There's a lot of queer and trans visibility in the characters, and it's all about social justice.
I had no idea!
Devi: Yeah, like all around empire, capitalism, PTSD, police brutality. There's all this stuff they cover somehow on this children's cartoon. So we had this maker day called We Are Gems. Each character [in the show] is a gem, like an amethyst, a rose quartz or that kind of thing. People would actually have to design their gem and then identify their own personal traits in their relationship to social justice.
Then we encouraged them to think about what are your core values, and how do you see them in terms of shaping the cultural practices in Oakland? The City of Oakland's Cultural Plan is being rewritten for the first time in 30 years, and the last version of the cultural plan is not even a little about equity.
We had copies of the City of Oakland's Cultural Plan, and people, together as a collective of people who had never met before, [used the gem project] to shape their own talking points. We took those talking points, and then we had stations set up for people to call and email the City of Oakland with their ideas about what they want to see in the Cultural Plan. Then we sent the collectively written talking points to our email list with a call-to-action button.
What would be your wildest dreams of what you can do with your new space?
Lexi: Something we are dreaming about and thinking about how to make happen is we want to turn one of the back rooms into a sound studio. People would be able to do podcasts, or record music or audio, or we would be able to run programs out of there.
Devi: I'm also interested in shifting the maker days into an Emergent Strategy training series [based on Adrienne Maree Brown's radical self-help book]. We'd be taking people through a yearlong study of the Emergent Strategy framework and book. One example is that a couple months ago someone lit a blanket on fire and threw it over the fence and half of the yard next to us burned. The fire department never came.
Oh my god, that's terrible.
Devi: We had gone through training on how to use fire extinguishers and stuff, so people from The Bikery ran over and put out the fire. We need to be able to be ready to provide our own solutions, and this is something a lot of people in the building are talking about. So, how do we build out safety teams? We had a skinhead come to the door a couple weeks after the election. I was the only one there, and the person held up this sharpened object to my neck. Spoiler alert, I'm still here. I'm alive.
That sounds terrifying!
Devi: Yeah, it was not the highlight of my day, I will say that. The thing about that, this sh-t is real and I never thought that that would happen in East Oakland, like ever. But, yeah, this sh-t is everywhere.
Yeah, so being like what does that look like, what does that look like if there were a giant earthquake or whatever it is, something happens and you lose your communication channels, what do you do? What skills do you have, what can you contribute to the thing, how do you communicate to your crew, who is your crew, what are your plans that are in place.
And then also I just want to write some f-cking jokes. You know how there's Saturday Night Live? I want to do a thing that's called Sunday Night Dead, and do kind of a weekly in-person show where we actually talk about the news, but we talk about it in a way that's not just trauma-informed but healing-centered with our people, but all comedy.
What does your ideal future look like for artists in the Bay Area?
Lexi: That is super easy to answer. I guess starting with the basics, I would love artists to have the ability to live in the Bay Area, survive in the Bay Area.
Devi: Instantly when you said that, I was just like, "Artists need to get paid!" You know? But the truth is, we also need an end to capitalism.
What's true is that our people's survival always depends on creativity. We have to be able to imagine worlds with ourselves going beyond survival. What I'm hoping for and I think what we're trying to plant seeds for is that everyone actually sees themselves as an artist and as a creative person, and that we can through that collective creativity imagine worlds together and build worlds together where everyone is held, and cherished, and valued, everybody has dignity, everybody has love, everybody has access. Frankly, around the basics also, everyone should have free, clean access to water and clean air.