In this episode of Who Belongs?, we're debuting Cultures of Care, a special new miniseries hosted by Evan Bissell and Giovanna Fischer. This series celebrates people that practice collective care in unconventional and insurgent ways. Care is an essential, immediate and practical way to create belonging. Perhaps most vitally in our urgent times, at the heart of each profile you will find provocations that are seeds for reshaping society and how we relate to each other and the world. Visit the project and read more about our interviewees at belonging.berkeley.edu/cultures-of-care.

We spoke with Nicki Jizz and Kristina Wong for this episode.

Nicki is a Black, San Francisco-based drag queen who founded Reparations: an all-Black Drag Show in June of 2020. In the monthly online show, Nicki creates a vibrant online space centered around beautiful, hilarious, thought-provoking and sensual performances by Black performers. Check out Reparations at Oasis here, www.sfoasis.com/reparations, and follow Nicki on her social media to keep up with her work: @nicki_jizz on Instagram, @nickijizz on Facebook, and @NickiJizz on Twitter.

Kristina is a comedian and performance artist who founded the Auntie Sewing Squad, a network of hundreds of Aunties across the United States who have sewn and shipped tens of thousands of masks to First Nations, farmworkers, migrants seeking asylum, incarcerated communities and poor communities of color. Learn more about the Aunties here at their website, auntiesewingsquad.com, and keep up with Kristina's work here at www.kristinawong.com.

These interviews were edited by Majo Calderon and adapted for podcast by Erfan Moradi, with custom music created by Alex Lemire Pasternak. Additional music in this episode is by Emily Sprague, Puddle of Infinity, and Silent Partner.

Thanks for listening!


TRANSCRIPT

Nicki: I wanted to do a show where it was an all Black cast, with Black DJs, Black performers, or burlesque, drag, queens, kings — anything. If you were a Black entertainer and wanted to showcase your talent, I wanted to give a platform for that.

Kristina: I remembered watching our cities in complete chaos and unrest, and I remember typing, "If this is the end, we go down sewing."

Gio: The pandemic, the uprisings of 2020 and constant stressors of the climate crisis are vivid reminders that care is an essential practice of creating belonging. At times over the last two years, care sprang up in unexpected and new ways. At other times we relied on the continuation and wisdom of long-standing practices. What we’ve seen is that care — especially collective forms of care — can connect, restore, build power and expand the possibilities of radical social transformation.

Welcome to Cultures of Care, a project of the Othering & Belonging Institute. Here we will amplify the work — and the people and practices driving the work — that is reshaping our future by centering care.

I’m Giovanna Fischer, an educator and strategist working at the intersection of creative industry and education.

Evan: And I’m Evan Bissell. I’m the Arts & Cultural Strategy coordinator at the Othering & Belonging Institute. I’m an artist, a researcher, an organizer, a parent.

The mention of the year 2020, the word “pandemic” itself — it all carries so much weight and lands in and on all of us differently.

Gio: I still feel like its 2020.

Evan: Definitely. It's hard to imagine we are in 2022 now. There are moments where it only felt heavy, and it only continues to feel heavy. While the heavy truth of it is pretty constant, there are moments when the heavy coexists with inspiration, awe, and gratitude. These feelings definitely surface for me when thinking about the stories of collective care we’ve been learning about this year: people come together and continue to come together to show up for their closest ones, for neighbors, and for strangers.

Geo and I were really in awe of the frequency of innovation that people tapped into at the start of the pandemic and uprisings of 2020 as they sought to care for others — often in ways dominant systems were not caring for the people.

Gio: And how people have sustained those, now two years in.

Evan: Yeah, people got adaptive, they got funky, they remixed their skills, they applied them in different ways, all in service of collective care. People really showed up!

Gio: They did. And sometimes this was because new gaps opened up, because things couldn’t be done in the same way or new needs surfaced.

We profiled two performers who did this in really different, and really beautiful ways. So many hats (or wigs) need be worn to put on your own production in the time of Covid. And Nicki Jizz and Kristina Wong — both performance artists — channeled humor, charisma, and sewing skills (just to name a few of their talents) to bring people together to care for one another during a time where people were disconnected, isolated and in real material need.

The ways Nicki and Kristina showed up were very different. But they show how performance and humor can create essential spaces for collective care. And by doing so, they illuminate really important questions about who we care for, who does the labor of caring, and how we can support each other in caretaking. We’ll hear from Nicki first and then Kristina. Stay with us!

Nicki: Honestly, I don't know what I would do if I wasn't still able to do drag and see other performers and still be able to make content. I love doing this, and I love making people happy and entertaining people.

Gio: Nicki Jizz — voted best drag queen of the Bay Area in 2020 — hosts Reparations, an all Black drag show which she founded in June 2020. In the monthly show, Nicki creates a vibrant online space centered around Black drag performers who are beautiful, hilarious, thought-provoking and sensual.

Nicki: With everything that was happening in the summer, after George Floyd, after Breonna Taylor, I was really emotional and really scared. That was like a different feeling than I've ever really felt — like I've felt those emotions at times...

At one point, we're in shelter-in-place: you're at home, you can't distract yourself from what's going on in the world. You have to face it. So it was one of those things where you're having to deal with it; with the uprising and the Black Lives Matter protests, you're seeing it on your screens, you're seeing Black people being murdered on your screens every day.

I didn't feel right doing a show that wasn't about what's happening right now. There's real stuff happening in this world.

I still wanted to do it [drag] — but I was like, how can I do this and be respectful and also bring light to what I'm feeling right now, what everyone is feeling who looks like myself? I wanted to do a show that was like, "This is for you, I know how you feel," and I wanted to do something where there's always the Black girl in the show and forever.

I had never really been an activist, or really went out protesting and did things like that. That was never something I really did. And I wanted to contribute in some kind of way. I didn't really feel safe and comfortable being out in the streets because of being in a pandemic.

So I wanted to do Reparations, and I wanted to do a show where it was an all-Black cast, with Black DJs, Black performers, burlesque, drag, queens, kings, anything. If you were a Black entertainer and wanted to showcase your talent I wanted to give a platform for that.

It's an outlet for others. Drag is an outlet, whether it be for the performer or the audience. It's a way for you to let go and enjoy the art that is what we do. If I can do that every day for the rest of my life, I'm happy with that. It keeps me sane, as much as getting all this together drives me crazy sometimes, it keeps me sane at the same time.

So I think me bringing together my queerness and the idea of reparations is something that — as a queer, Black, cis man — doing something like that is very important to me. I deal with discrimination, whether it be I'm queer or Black or both. The idea of having reparations, of being paid back restoration for all the struggles that our ancestors have gone through, that we continue to go through, and especially as queer people we go through that as well — I think that just adds double, you know, just saying. I mean, I'll take double pay for that.

It's rough some days, but I think people have to fight for what they want and speak up and that's what I'm doing.

I have finally had a passion with this. I have people who message me telling me that Reparations is their favorite show, that it means so much to them, that they’re glad that there are shows like this because there's not many shows like this. A lot of performers, if you're in drag and if you're Black or POC [a person of color], you are tokenized, you only get asked to do shows when it's Nicki Minaj night or it's Beyonce night or if you need to do Lady Marmalade and you need a Lil’ Kim, you hit me up. I don't wanna always be that person.

It felt really beautiful that — I don't know — Black content was actually like being seen and cared about. It's the only way that they feel free or comfortable with themselves. Drag helped me find who I was. So I understand that, like I can't imagine my life without it right now. I used to think like, "Oh, a drag show is nothing but it's just like another gig. It's another paycheck or I'm out having fun." But it really means so much more to people especially now because this is our way — it's my way — of connecting with my friends and people who live in middle America or people who live down the street who have never seen this now have these people.

So like I do have a responsibility to my community and to myself to be honest and be truthful.

We've worn many hats, many wigs, but now we wear many hats as well. Like before we were makeup artists, seamstresses; we made our own clothes, our wigs, things like that. But now we have to do our own lighting, we edit our own videos. I do it all. I could win an Oscar — who knows, maybe. There should be a Drag Oscars! That'd be awesome! It's a lot of work that goes into this. It's so much work that I’ve never done before.

This is what we do, this is our lives. Whether you're DJ or burlesque or a drag queen, or you do all of it, this is our lives and right now our lives have been put on hold in a sense. It gets so more important now for us to have things like this because this shows real community, it doesn't rely on being in the clubs or being around others. I do it because I love it.

We're in a Panda Express. We're in a Panoramic Panasonic Pepperoni Pizza Roll Pandemic right now. You can't be with your friends in the way that you used to. I was at the bar, maybe three to four times a week, whether performing [or not]. I feel like it's really beautiful that we at least still can communicate and connect with each other, even if it's through the internet I'm still able to catch up on my friends and see them perform and see them work on their craft you know. There's some friends I haven't seen since this started, but I watch their shows every time and I’ve seen their makeup grow. I know what's going on 'cause I'm in their shows and I'm in their chat. I tune in to see my friends and they tune in to watch my shows. It's a way for us to still be connected because it's all we have.

In the queer community, some people don't have their given family, their biological families; not everyone's on good terms with their families. Your friends, your chosen family are what you have. If you wanna stay safe and healthy, you have to stay away from people, and at least with this, you can still be with your chosen family. It's not the same. It's nowhere near it. I miss seeing people's faces. I miss hugging my friends, hugging fans, taking pictures with people. I miss snatching money out of people's hands — I really miss that! I really do.

If we just take this one, two mask at a time, we can do this and we can be back with our community. I think it'll make us stronger as a community because especially the queer community, we've endured so much over time. Especially queer POCs, we've definitely endured a lot. So I feel like if anything we're just gonna be stronger out of this and come out of this braver and tougher and more thankful after this.I love that we have, now I have this platform and this fanbase that is bigger than, the seven-by-seven miles of San Francisco. This is like something that's greater than myself.

I think one of the good things about digital drag once we moved it, once drag moved to the internet, is that it became accessible for everyone. Drag became something that was attainable from everyone who had internet. It didn't matter if you had the money to pay a cover or if you're over 21 to get into the bar. Everyone was able to attend a drag show now.

There were some things I never really paid attention to before. It made it accessible not [just] in that sense — like financially — but also there are people who are disabled, who can't go out to clubs because maybe the bar doesn't have the right access for them to get in there or it's not sanitized or healthy enough for them, because some people can't go out because their immune systems are so low and have to stay at home.

But now they're able to be a part of this. They're able to be a part of it. It sucks that it took a pandemic for people to make everything accessible for others who can't have that access. But now everything is accessible for everyone because it affects everyone; but before no one really cared, and that's something that I am glad that we are learning that we can do with Twitch and online stuff 'cause we can make this accessible. And when things open up I'm gonna continue to stream Reparations and some capacity, like I will still have it streamed at the club if I'm doing it there. I will still want my fans and friends in Utah, Japan — wherever they may be — I want them still to be able to be a part of the show that they really love.

Just because we went to the club doesn't mean that they still can't be a part of it.

Evan: Nicki is such an amazing and beautiful performer. We really can’t do her, or the many performers at Reparations, justice through an audio podcast. So for those of you listening, I really encourage you to check out the links for her twitch and socials. And if you're in San Francisco at any point, check out Reparations at Oasis.

It was such a fun conversation with Nicki. What did you love about talking with Nicki, Gio?

Gio: It was so fun. Nicki just held space for the multiple truths of that moment in time, of this moment in time, of the pandemic — both the longing for snatching dollars out of people's hands in the bar, and also the ways in which the pandemic has pushed her to really think about how to make drag shows more accessible for those who could not or chose not to got to the bar. All the nuance.

Evan: Yeah, I mean I had been watching Nicki perform and host Reparations since pretty early on when it first started. So when we first started the interview, I was a little bit in awe. But it was so nice because she showed up with like — she was still putting on her eye makeup. She’s just such a generous spirit, and just kind of inviting in that way that she sets the space but also cracking humor too, which is always wonderful. I’m not ready for in-person events yet but I’ll be there soon I hope.

So lets turn to Kristina Wong, another fearless performer.

Kristina Wong is a performance artist and comedian who founded Auntie Sewing Squad on March 24, 2020 — in California, I think that's two weeks after we went into lockdown. The acronym for Auntie Sewing Squad is A-S-S, or ASS, which is a network of hundreds of Aunties across the United States who have sewn and shipped tens of thousands of masks to First Nations, farm workers, migrants seeking asylum, incarcerated communities, and poor communities of color.

Kristina: I actually didn't know what mutual aid was. People were like, “what you're doing is mutual aid” and I had to look up a YouTube video on it and I was like, oh! It's like charity, but without the condescending, patronizing thing about it.

We're literally like watching our cities in complete chaos with unrest and stuff, and I remember typing, “If this is the end, we go down sewing.”I heard that there was a need for home-sewn masks. It was a moment where I was like, I have an essential skill. I didn't become a nurse, but I can help a nurse. I was like okay, I’ve only sewn my set pieces, vagina costumes, like completely crude props, all sorts of fabric genitalia — never made medical equipment, never expected to save anyone’s life with this kind of stuff, but let me do this!

I started sewing masks and I offered very naïvely — you know, with my half yard of cotton fabric — “Oh, I'll make you a mask.” And that quickly escalated into hundreds of requests, very scary requests from people who are afraid to go to work. I’m talking about nurses, people working at homeless shelters, delivery people, [people] who were like “I don’t know what to do,” or “They're telling us at the hospital to tie bandanas around our face.”

So, you know, I was totally overwhelmed.

The gift of Audrey just sort of planting that image in my head as we were like on the street, and they handed me their pre-cuts and said, “You know, my hands are actually best made for breaking bread, so I can't cut any more, but I'll find you other volunteers. They all have to be Chinese” — which was really weird.

But planting this idea of Aunties in my head was great because I think it sort of takes the pressure off of ‘professional seamstresses making masks’ or ‘anonymous people with no faces who labor for you’. Like that's to me what a lot of these other groups are implying. But something about saying “Auntie” in the group has given folks a script for how to enter the group, it sort of casts them, gives them a role to play in the group.

The fact that we can reference each other — and some Aunties still go “Hey ladies!” and I'm always like… because I feel like it's better to say “Aunties” because it's just so much sweeter.

But yeah, I think it implies a sort of care.

I usually try to just say “Thank you, Auntie” — like, I don't know what gender they identify with — but I think people like that because they feel like, “Oh, I'm part of this community. I'm an Auntie, I'm in this family.”

For a lot of the Aunties, they’re very social in the group and love talking and sharing, and this has been their comfort in this time. This has been their community in a very scary time. It has given them a sense of purpose that keeps them from feeling helpless but also making sure that they feel like they are directly connected to who they are sending their masks to.

So when we have a request from a community, we offer it out to the group. It's not an automatic “okay, we'll send those over.” It's we can put up your request and the Aunties decide whether or not they're going to stay up through the night or whatever their process is to sew those masks.

I think for me it's very important for the recipients to… because we've gotten so Amazon Primed to understand that you can just get things by pressing buttons, you forget that there's someone on the other end who did that. But occasionally I get a request that felt like they were treating me like a free version of the 99-cent store or that like I just have nothing to do all day and I just love sewing free stuff for people. I felt like I wanted to give dignity that labor.

We have a whole team of Super Aunties, and those are the Aunties who maintain our spreadsheets and vet the requests that we get from organizations. Yeah, we have all sorts of positions that have been invented over the last nine months.

We have Haggle Aunties, these are these ago who, at one point when it was really hard to get materials, would go into the Garment District and their job is to bargain for the lowest price. We have a Wheel-and-Deal’em Auntie; she’s Korean and she found a Korean guy who sells inkjet cartridges and medical equipment. We have Cutting Aunties who cut the fabric. We have Driver Aunties.

I find also in the Asian American community that's being used as a reference more and more to create a certain kind of pride around getting older, like “I'm an Auntie, I’m one of those Aunties sitting around watching TV.” And it sort of gives us a sense of pride versus self-loathing around getting older or being without child or whatever.

We have to find other ways for this work to create value and meaning for us who are performing it or else we’re just gonna croak, pop, get exploited by these systems. It feels like this weird performance, like I’m building this platform — with help, right — but it's also about reminding people that this labor takes time.

But really, at this point, that’s why we just see it as solidarity work. At this point, this is unpaid labor supporting groups that are invisible.

So that's when the shift began to happen, where it began to feel more political in the sense of, when you begin to look at who these communities are: a lot of them are indigenous; a lot of them are undocumented; a lot are immigrants; a lot don't have access to water, to food, to health care. That's when it begins to feel political because it feels like why didn’t the government help provide for these folks who, you know, provide our food table for us.

There's sort of an immediacy with mutual aid that government can't fit. But also I feel like FEMA should be abolished and replaced with us — like with salaries — but we could totally do it way better. We could find those communities. But I do feel like there's sort of a culture of care and actual human connection that is missing from how care is delivered, and there's something I think really amazing about receiving a box of home-sewn masks versus like a giant crate of factory-made masks. Like yes, both serve the same function, but there's something about making that heart-to-heart connection with the community that we do that we would love to figure out how FEMA could also do.

I don't want to preserve the pandemic part of this, but one thing I really loved is the care and the respect that I feel for people that I never really had time to do before. Like, I never really had time to sit and contemplate and connect with these folks who, in any other situation, I could see myself meeting them and just like not getting along with them or not finding a way to connect. But something about doing this project together has connected us for life.

They say that the Merriam-Webster Word of the Year is “pandemic.” I really feel like it’s “care” and it’s about thinking how radical an idea it is to care for people you’ve never seen, to put your care and energy into people who are actually indirectly caring for you — whether it’s farm workers, or day laborers, teachers or medical professionals. You might be in the hospital, but it is so radical to think about, like, I can put my labor towards these communities that keep us going, that keep our economy going, that keep food moving through our cities.

And that's huge.

Evan: I find myself chuckling every time I listen to this interview. There are so many good lines in it.

Gio: I know, I love how she’s like one day "I’m sewing vagina costumes" and then she’s like "how can I use my skills to show up for this pandemic?"

Evan: Totally. Also, if you get a chance to see Kristina do her performance where she's in the vagina costume, it's also wonderful and hilarious. I loved how she breaks down mutual aid, just kinda cuts throug any of the conceptions of what it is. And I love when she’s like, "I’ve never sewn on medical equipment before, but lets do this." And also how she reframes the word of the year, and kind of the framing of the year 2020 around pandemic to actually thinking about care and how we showed up for each other.

Reparations Drag and The Auntie Sewing Squad are models of spaces — they're not necessarily physical spaces — but they're spaces where over the last two years or eighteen months where people could collectively care for one another. The lesson for us was that: everyone can show up in the ways they know how. We all have skills and talents that can care for each other, that can care for ourselves — we don’t always have to lead those efforts, a lot of times we just need to show up in the spaces that are being set.

Gio: Yeah. And let's cross-polinate. Let’s work across disciplines and sectors. How we care for one another can take so many different forms: a virtual stage for Drag Queens of color to perform (and get paid), or a collective crew of Aunties across the country united in making personal protective equipment for people that needed it the most because the government did not provide. This is what a culture of care looks like.

We will be back next month. However, in the meantime, if you want to deepen into this conversation — you're thirsty for some more learning — you can find all the profiles, essays, learning guides, videos, and more at the Cultures of Care website, belonging.berkeley.edu/cultures-of-care.

Evan: Yeah, or drop us a line if you want to connect, if you have questions on the learning guide, or any of the research or even the videos. Or tag us on Instagram @otheringandbelonging or Twitter @oandbinstitute, and shout out your own cultures of care activities and practitioners with the hashtag #culturesofcare.

Cultures of Care is produced by myself Evan Bissell —

Gio: and me, Giovanna Fischer.

Evan: Heh, thanks Gio. Erfan Moradi is on podcast edits, Majo Calderon is on interview edits. Alex Lemire Pasternak is on sound and music, with additional music by Emily Sprague, Puddle of Infinity, and Silent Partner. Many thanks to the Hewlett Foundation for their support in making this possible. Cultures of Care is a project of the Othering and Belonging Institute.

Thanks for being with us and see you next month!