Lexi Onset, Vanessa Lewis, and Devi Peacock
On a scorching hot afternoon in May, we had the delight of sitting down with Lexi Onset (Managing Director aka Supreme Overlord under Construction), Vanessa Lewis (Artistic Core aka Resident Fairy Princess Mermaid Gangster for the Revolution), and Devi Peacock (Artistic Director & Executive Director) of Peacock Rebellion.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How did you come into this work?
Lexi: This is my tenth year doing movement-based community organizing. I first got involved with Peacock Rebellion four years ago when we were running the first two Brouhaha stand-up comedy training programs. After that we decided to shift gears and make a space for trans women of color. We had a lot of amazing artists who hadn’t explored comedy before in that first cohort, and now this is my third year on production! It's been so different from the typical nonprofit things - sometimes with a microphone you can be more effective than with a megaphone. That's been one of the things that kept me anchored here.
Vanessa: I've been doing activism via creative writing, essay writing, and theater my whole life. I wrote this article called “Standing Up to Stand-up Comedy” about how stand-up often exploits marginalized people and marginalized experiences for humor. I referenced some really radical comedians who lift up oppressed people, and one of those people was Devi. Devi reached out to me and was like “I have this dream”...and here we are! I love and adore Peacock. And it also gives me access to flirt with mega babes.
Devi: I was this Hindu queer who was cracking jokes to survive. My main topic was the KKK in my hometown - my first art project was a documentary on the KKK when I was 12. I became an executive director when I was 14 and I've been in nonprofits ever since. In 2004 I started working on this musical comedy about the nonprofit industrial complex. The more I interviewed people for the show, the bigger the project got. Eventually, that material became the foundation of Peacock. I was more effective at the microphone than a megaphone. I was not a great community organizer. And in my ancestor lineage, there have always been storytellers and there's always been healers and I wanted something that could do both: Healing from the trauma of the nonprofit industrial complex and also inspire a cultural shift for mass social movements. I wanted to use humor and sass and sexiness to promote a politic.
The other part was that I spent two years in this infamous QTPOC cabaret called Mangos with Chili, and I really wanted high quality artistic training. I went to an MFA program, but I was spending more time doing anti-racist organizing than I was working on my art. So I dropped out and started Peacock. When we have shows we have concrete things the audience can plug into and we move a certain message. It’s not that trans women of color are dying, it’s that trans women are being killed. The shows are not about visibility, they’re about doing stuff.
Tell us about Peacock’s program and the vision that drives your work.
Lexi: We have a lot of different projects! This year we collaborated with the Transgender Law Center on the Transgender Community Wellness Project. After the election there was a lot of fear, especially in the trans community, around legal documents and all the things that could be impacted by the wave of conservatism happening across the country. We got funding to put together a training program for trans community members to learn and level up their leadership and peer advocacy skills, including training around the legal name change process. We also teach self-defense in the streets, de-escalation, and issues around immigration. It’s 20 folks, which are mostly low-income black trans women of color.
Vanessa: Peacock is not just a performance space; it is a training space. For each of our productions, artists get trained by teachers in community. Collections are being made. Space is being created. Ideas are being exchanged. We offer training for the trainers and many of our students go on to become teachers in Peacock programs, such as Lexi. One of my favorite events was the STAY Festival where we gathered to share ideas, concepts, and practice for people that have lived in Oakland long-term. We celebrated and affirmed their legacies to ensure that there is an economy that is not just centered around people who move here, but also centered around the incredible art and legacy of the people that has made Oakland so beautiful and that has made Oakland a place where people want to live.
Devi: There is a distinction between art and cultural organizing. The STAY Festival was all queer and trans people of color using dance, theater, and music to push social justice messages to crowds who wouldn't march or go to a protest. We're trying to reach audiences much larger and to move messages more broadly. Also, these trainings we offer are free. It is so rare that people of color, particularly trans people of color, actually get access to any training. And it means we have to support our participants - we bought someone in the cohort a phone so that she could participate more fully in things. These are the things that you have to think about in community; most of what we do is emotional labor. The STAY Festival had three themes: Stay Rooted, Stay Ready, and Stay Close. The advocacy training program is a kinship-based network. Right. It is not trying to advance people's management skills within a nonprofit. These people are already leaders; we are trying to lift the skills and the relationships that people already have.
What do you mean by a kinship network?
Devi: I think of the people who keep me alive. For example, I got a concussion recently and Lexi organized a care team for me. Lexi will tell me when I’m moving too fast and need to slow down. The other part is that we can do all we are doing because of the relationships. I mean, we just bought a building because we raised $88,000 in a few weeks! This is the last QTPOC spot in Oakland so we have to preserve it. We have to be resilient and adapt, especially because we don’t get a lot of funding. I only get paid $2,000 a month.
How do you know that your strategy is reaching people and getting the results that you care about?
Lexi: It's not just that we have art shows; it's that we are working with our folks in community. Our folks are growing as artists, they are getting much larger gigs now that include political messages. With Brouhaha, we’ve had many trans women of color in the shows, particularly folks that have been burnt out from nonprofits and organizing, but because of the healing of our work, are now back in it. And our impact is in how trans women of color are seen in the world. Peacock is one of the very few organizations that successfully balances so many of these different things. Our participants really recognize that and affirm that. Leading with love, and rooted in our visions, that is seen.
Vanessa: When I first did Brouhaha, it was what I always wanted from grad school. I got my creative writing degree and there was a lot of conversation about aestheticism - it was so didactic. I'd feel so emotionally displaced, and financially displaced. When I think of artists I think of artists like Lucille Clifton or Giovanni - people who are speaking from their heart. Being at an institution that is focused on audience and on performance I think was dehumanizing. At Brouhaha, a lot of people want to focus on being funny, which is critical and important. But the funniness is lazy, because it wasn't in consideration of people in their humanity and their experiences of hurt. And so we pushed our participants to think about ways to create jokes and make art that welcomes everyone in, through which everyone's humanity gets seen, and their potential for goodness is supported. We laugh at ourselves as a way of healing, but there’s a difference between laughing with each other vs. laughing at each other. So we held our participants to the standards that I wish my professors had held themselves to. I am now part of a cohort of artists that are interested in the radical ways that art can transform a culture as opposed to just being doing what will get you the knee slaps.
What is the message you are sending both personally and as an organization?
Lexi: There are so many messages. Each person comes in needing a different message. For me, it was who I am as a person is just as if not more important than the work I do. And that art is a venue for doing resistance and social justice work. For other folks, it’s that creativity can be a gateway for transformation. And that art is a tool for healing, not just for the individual, but also for the rest of the community and your kinship network.
Vanessa: I think everyone deserves to feel good. Everyone should be able to access pleasure and joy and the sense of abundance. Whatever abundance means for you. For me, abundance means flirting and getting lots of attention! What does it mean to imagine pleasure and joy and happiness in a way that lifts everyone up, and that's not at the expense of other people? Everyone is magical and everyone is special and I'm really interested in helping people find their magic. The magic that lives underneath their social isolation, the magic that lives underneath their armor in order to survive. What does your magic look like when you're not trying to assimilate for safety and how can we as as a community create a space where you don't have to live simply for safety? When we have space for that magic, there is harmony and balance. As a larger society we are not in balance, we are not in harmony. So I'm really curious about how I can use self-pleasure as a way to create systemic and social harmony.
Devi: One of our artists, Ms. Major, keeps saying this thing: “We are still fucking here”. That’s part of it for me. We are not here just for visibility, although for some folks it is. Brouhaha was the first all trans women of color show in U.S. history. For folks to see versions of themselves reflected on stage is a big deal. But also, if we aren’t rooted, I know how I act. I’m at my worse. How do we return to our bodies and do this work in a grounded way? We don’t know what’s coming, so we need to be ready, we have to be adaptable. Stay Rooted, Stay Ready, and Stay Close. How do we actually stay close to each other? If we leave the room, how do we come back. I’m all about taking space - Vanessa had to leave Peacock for a while because I fucked up our relationship - but how do we return? That’s what I’m interested in.
Vanessa: I also love about Peacock is the space. Healing is messy. In liberation and social justice spaces we expect each other to be the perfect activist, we expect each other to be there and not hurt each other. But we do all the time. How do we hold the doors open for each other to come back in? At Peacock there is space for conflict, there is healing in conflict. That’s the space where we become our biggest and most beautiful selves. I’ve learned that power doesn’t look like taking something from someone. Power looks like what we build with each other.
There is a mural on the side of your building that states that “culture is a weapon”. What does that mean to you?
Vanessa: I am not a fighter. I’m a lover. I'm not interested in seeing death, blood, and pain, though I know it exists. I'm constantly dreaming and imagining how do we, as oppressed people, participate in revolution without death. With as little pain as possible. That looks like establishing something different - that's so concrete and so tangible and so beautiful and so delicious and so decadent and feels so good and so heartwarming that you need to be a part of it. When I think of culture as a weapon, I think of it as creating a space for us to live and thrive.
Lexi: Giving trans women of color the opportunity and the ability to create. Whether that creates space or create art or create dreams of where they want to go or see or do in the world. All of those are exemplary moments for me.
When we look back at history, from Marsha P Johnson to modern day folks, the deaths and murders have been consistent. The institutional acts of violence have been consistent. The ways that we are helping these folks shift that - that’s the most ultimate form of resistance, especially for a community that is so marginalized.
What is difficult about interacting with the funding world? How are you resisting the professionalization that philanthropy entails?
Lexi: With the funding world, it’s been a struggle. We are invested in our work and are making space for marginalized folks in spaces that aren’t previously welcoming. This has hurt us. It’s very reminiscent to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. If we bite the hand that feeds us, we get crumbs.
Devi: Because we’ve gotten funding, we have been able to take risks that other groups have not. Queer and trans groups are often pitted against each other for crumbs. For performing arts, the longest running group was Mango's of Chile in the U.S. and they lasted 10 years. They got very little funding. Fundraising was really tough for them. Lexi get paid shit compared to what is appropriate.
We do get funding from ticket sales, but that also puts us at risk. But then we get charged with reverse racism. Our shows are kind of like the hunger games because they sell out and they are seen as popular and sexy. White folks and upper middle class people of color will buy tickets earlier and then there won’t be tickets at the door for people who don’t have predictable incomes or work schedules. Inevitably someone will post saying ‘white people don’t come’. Then people complain that it puts white people on a pedestal, this white savior thing. And we are caught in the middle.
Most of our money this year is from rapid response money, so we won’t have it next year. That’s really scary. All our fundraising is going towards preserving this building, rather than our operations.
What is your vision for the next five years?
Lexi: Having a home base here and having an established pipeline for leadership development in Peacock. To your point about spurning professional standards, Peacock has been the most compassionate organization I have ever worked with, mostly because it’s Devi and Devi has so much compassion! So I want to see our training programs around comedy, and growing nationally to spread the Peacock message and take our training programs to other geographic areas.
Devi: In five years, this space will be an incubator for queer and trans people of color collectively owned, creative businesses. Our people need more than one artist stipend once a year. We need dependable income that spurns cooperative businesses and power. Second, we will be a national organization by then. We will be a national QTPOC national organizing network, because our people deserve that. Especially in places like the midwest. Third, we will seriously integrate the disability justice and healing justice frameworks into the organization on a much deeper and more profound level. Our garden outside will become a CSA. We will be looking at these frames of interconnection, inter-dependence, intersectionality, and transnationalism. Sketch comedy, storytelling, and improv are just the beginning. We're getting radical poets out there and trained on a much bigger scale. Now we think about the scale of thousands, I want to be thinking on the scale of millions reached. And, in five years I will not be running it, because we'll have a more collective leadership model!
What do you want to say to folks that are trying to become allies to the movements that you are building?
Vanessa: Take care of each other. Especially white people. Becoming an ally is hard work. You are disrupting everything you grew up with. All the messages and the things that privilege you. If you are doing it, it’s one of the most vulnerable things to do. And it will hurt. So, don't lash out at each other, hold each other. Don’t rely on QTPOC to be your teachers or your leaders. Take care of each other, love each, have compassion for each other, forgive each other. When a white person is on my Facebook page causing a ruckus I don't want white people to lash out at them. I want them to be nice. I want them to be vulnerable. I want people to be honest about their mistakes. Tell the story about that time you said a really racist thing and someone called you in. Talk about how you were embarrassed. Talk about the time you lashed back. Be real so you can do the work to move forward and work with us without weird power dynamics. Defensiveness is natural - I’m defensive. But that doesn’t have to be where you stay. Growing and healing is a very gradual process, but it needs to be an intentional process.
Lexi: It’s a process. All of it takes time and is not easy. Keep learning and stretching. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Rogue One movie. Throughout the movie - spoiler alert - you see these folks that give their lives for a movement and a resistance. In the scheme of things, it only pushes things a little bit. For a lot of us, it’s that little bit of progress we are all fighting for and to know we all helped make that happen is powerful.
Devi: Stay. As difficult as it is, stay. Stay with the discomfort, breathe the discomfort, and stay with the trauma and the suffering of this of this era. If we stay together through this, we will turn the tide.
Vanessa: White folks need to acknowledge their pain. Intersectionality applies to all of us. We need to move away from oppression and harm being a competition. Understanding something does not have to be rooted in shame, it can be rooted in change. Learning is an opportunity - a privilege - for us to get closer. Privilege is not a death sentence, it’s just an opportunity. So take the opportunity.