Kristiana Rae Colón (she/her) is a poet, playwright, actor, educator, creator of Black Sex Matters, one half of brother-sister duo April Fools, co-director of the #LetUsBreathe Collective and hub director for Envisioning Justice at the Breathing Room. She is a wearer of many hats and force of nature in every piece of work she is a part of.
I became aware of Kristiana through mutual comrades, and grew to know her work and learn from the intricacies within it all. As time went on, I had the pleasure of sharing a work space with Colón, and experienced her play “florissant & canfield,” written to shed light on the Ferguson Uprising and the murder of Mike Brown. It was an unforgettable moment.
The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists who come together, organizing through a creative lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The Collective operates the Breathing Room, a Black-led liberation headquarters for arts, organizing, and healing on Chicago’s South Side.
This article was edited for length and clarity.
Miranda Goosby: What does Chicago mean to you and how you feel its energy affects people?
Kristiana Rae Colón: Chicago for me means life. I have lived in Chicago all my life. It keeps calling me back even though I have tried to escape. Chicago is a city filled with some of the most corruption and also some of the most courageous and successful organizing resistance overall. Chicago will always affect how I represent myself when I travel. It is home. I am often asked when I travel to spaces such as London and Peru if I am “scared” as if bullets are flying all the time. I believe that I am a steward of the city’s culture.
MG: How has community building been a part of your life over the years?
KRC: Over the years, I have grown to understand that we are a part of various types of communities, and I think of community building through an organizing and resistance context. I originally grew up in the theatre community and began my experience with community building there, which can look different from the social justice community but has overlapping similarities. The reason why I fell in love with being a playwright and why I fell in love with theatre is because I grew up in it. My first poem was published at six and called “I Am Stronger than Hate.” I proclaimed then that, “I am stronger than hate, I will open the gate, the gate to a kingdom of love, it doesn’t matter what your race, or the color of your face. I am stronger than hate,” and of why I am a poet and playwright. This work is about community.
When I wrote my first play and it was produced, I got to experience how many different talents have to come and work together to manifest a vision that I originated. So when a play of mine is produced, it means that a director and a cast who each have a very specific craft, along with the set designer, choreographer, costume, sound designer, etc. … and combine their different disciplines to come together and collaborate to manifest a cohesive vision. The concoction of it all is intoxicating and is unlike any other artistic practice I have been a part of. The theatre context is the context that I come to social justice work from. Coming from this context, these skills and bad habits that I have learned from theatre both inspired, and can create problems in, my organizing. Bringing that producing mindset to organizing spaces is not always conducive to the space as well. I have to negotiate how my individualism and individual vision shows up in spaces. I am learning how to be mindful of the supremacy of one’s individual vision and how one’s own pristine result is not better than the community result.
How I view community building through the theatre context and how it has evolved through my social justice practice originated through my always being a political artist. What really changed everything for me was the trajectory from Trayvon to Mike Brown. That galvanized me from political artist to activist. During the George Zimmerman trial, the bubbles of rage began to build within me and I wanted to DO something like drive to Florida, but it was too far. When I heard of the Ferguson Uprising after the murder of Mike Brown and how protestors were being tear-gassed, I didn’t understand how the fuck are they were going to kill us and be mad when we got mad, so my brother and I decided to drive down to Fergeson, which is what ultimately began the #LetUsBreathe Collective.
Through the theatre and organizing spaces, I see how in both you have to pull together multiple parts to manifest a cohesive vision.
MG: What is the #LetUsbreathe Collective and what do you feel is the Breathing Room’s space in the community?
KRC: The #LetUsBreathe Collective is an alliance of artists and activists aligning through a collective lens to imagine a world without prisons and police. The Collective was not originally a collective but at first, just the four or five people who were down, and through continued action the Collective was built. We hold an identity of abolition and we feel that the most important function in our actions lies within imagining alternative systems to the violent systems we wish to dismantle.
From August 2014 to April 2015, we participated in and helped to coordinate consistent direct action, but it is important to always remember that it is a privilege to be able to turn up on the opposition. After this time period, the #LetUsBreathe Collective’s identity pivoted, and one of our first events that we were a part of was the Remembering Rekia event in Douglas Park. We had decided that instead of shutting things down, which didn’t feel right, we would remix the art of protest as artists by passing out books, passing out food, holding a pop-up open mic with a rolling sound system, and inviting community members to come up off their porch and tell their stories. Within the Collective, we challenge the ideas on how we as people use our art to build political power in our communities, which has become the model of community building that we are trying to improve upon.
The Breathing Room is a space where we hope to dismantle the violent systems we wish to diminish by creating a space to incubate visionaries. Within the space the we have a Free Store, a Library, a Mental Health and Wellness Lounge and more. The Breathing Room hosts a monthly Breathing Room Series, art classes, yoga, and reiki classes also take place and the space also hosts teaching artists and holds forums on the changing political climate amongst many other things. I believe that the job of the artist is to challenge folks beyond what they can see in front of them, then comes the job of building the shit. It is important that we provide resources for us to heal ourselves, because a lot of us come to activists spaces broken looking for an outlet from their pain. The healing is essential here so that the brokenness is not repeated.
MG: Can you tell us about the hub’s mantra and what it means to you?
KRC: The Breathing Room has many mantras. We also have our Brave Space Agreements which set the grounds for how we would like to function in the space and are a part of our politic. The first, which I feel is vital, is, “We are what we need,” which is painted on the hub’s gate. In the early days of the #LetUsBreathe Collective, the philosophy emerged around manifesting the material things that we needed to do, the things that we envisioned. We did not have a budget then. 2018 is the first year we have had a budget and are challenging our original paradigm. We believe in acknowledging our ability to manifest and that abundance is the natural law. Scarcity is engineered, and engineered scarcity equals capitalism. We ultimately want to break down the barriers of access to healing. The ingenuity of people is all we need.The generosity of people is everything we need. The abundance of the earth is everything that we need. Everything else is engineered scarcity.
MG: How do you feel that your work as a creative impacts this space?
KRC: As we talked about, the way that I move in theatre spaces is really transformed by my work that I do in the Breathing Room and in activist spaces, because I feel accountable to these communities first. Before, the end goal was maybe to have a show on Broadway, but now I realize I may never, because I am not playing with these white people. I will not try to compromise on certain values on how my work gets done. Even on a small storefront scale, I find myself pushing these spaces that want to be more diverse and inclusive, I find myself pushing for these spaces to be more radical spaces. It is not fair for people to book me for being the sexy edgy playwright for folks to program into their season because of the work I do in communities, and then for the work to not be accessible to the communities or not hold the values I uphold in those spaces. I believe that it is important for my communities to feel comfortable in spaces. It is important to me to break the down false identities that exist in those spaces when it comes to people from my community.
MG: How do you feel about working with your brother Damon?
KRC: Well … the work would not be, if it weren’t for my relationship with my brother. Before it all, Damon and I were writing and recording as April Fools. We grew together artistically in this journey as our work took a political turn. Out of our artistic collaboration in a piece we performed together at Victory Garden’s called “Lack on Lack” he became my partner when driving down to Ferguson and so it goes. We also made the #LetUsBreathe Collective a hashtag after fundraising for gas masks for community members in Ferguson, MO.
Damon is the smartest person I know. In the earlier days of our collaboration, I would help him edit his poems, mentor and guide him but now I feel that he is the wiser of the bunch. I seek his council, I learn from him. One of the challenges is that we are always working. I miss being with him, but because there is so much work to do so much of our interaction is around the things that need to get done. He helps me to challenge my own individualism internally and he is the first person to eject that analysis. There is no one I trust more with the direction of the Collective.
MG: How do you feel that your organization is affected by and affects the Chicago legal system?
KRC: The Collective’s impact on the legal system is that we intentionally prefer to not engage with the legal system in further ways. We do not negotiate with terrorists (the opposing system). We do not call the police. I do know that we have been heavily surveyed and that we have been brazen with our abolitionist politic because people are realizing that the opposing system’s ways do not have to exist. In the ways that we do participate in work, we practically work with the Chicago Bond Fund and other organizations like it but ultimately we do not allow the opposing system to pretend that it’s suppose to function the way it does, because it does not.
MG: What do you envision the future of the #LetUsBreathe Collective being?
KRC: I envision the Collective’s capacity to be at 100 percent. We are at 45 now. We are trying to succeed where the Black Panthers failed. We hope to not capitulate paranoia and internal drama and distrust. We are building a breakfast program, to stay open consistently and to have more arts activism in Chicago. We now have a Mental Health and Wellness Studio, a library, coworking spaces, a digital media lab, and are working on a music studio collaboration with Free Writes. We hope to also launch studios for individual artists to launch their visions.
MG: How do you feel about Black August this year and can you explain a little bit about what Black August means for those who don’t know?
KRC: Black August is a celebration specifically of political prisoners in the Black Radical Tradition and I am proud to be a part of that lineage. Freedom Square was firmly rooted in the work of the Black Radical Tradition, and took place in August. Black August helped me to see how precious space is, and how Black people need space to be because we need be and interact and standing on street corners is considered gang activity type shit. I am grateful that we have the space to dedicate and educate people on the work in the Black Radical Tradition and can uplift the work of those in the work.
MG: What is a personal mantra that you have that continues to inspire and pushes you to do the work?
KRC: My personal mantra is [from] Assata Shakur. “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
As political as I thought I was, Ferguson was the shift towards more radical political organizing in my life. It felt like waking up from the Matrix. It made me reassess how I was really going to get free. It can’t just be showing up at a meeting, what else. So many of us are moving through life taking for granted that the broken harmful things that we have learned to cope with are the way things are and the way they should will be, and we can mitigate the immediate harm close to ourselves and those closest to us, then do our social justice deeds and feel good about the widespread dying. Not just physical violence, or police brutality, I mean the spiritual dying as well. How we give 40 hours of our life over to capitalism every week. The words “We have nothing to lose but our chains” creates an antidote to the fear that people have that they will lose something that is oppressing us or confining us and really those are the chains we have to let go.
Featured Image: Kristiana Rae Colón pictured in a black dress and beautiful orange beaded necklace. Photo by Chris ThoughtPoet Brown.
Miranda Goosby is a 23-year-old creative from the DMV. She believes in authenticity and expressing one’s truth because you can’t allow someone else to tell your story. In the words of one of her favorite writers, Audre Lorde, “your silence will not save you.” After reading that, she was inspired to write about pieces that express the times we live in and the hard truths that set us free. Miranda is involved with community organizing and also enjoys creating moments through dinner gatherings and think tanks amongst other writers like herself. She feels that her writing allows one to tap into her mind and the minds of other young, like-minded Black people. Miranda believes in the community coming together creating change through using their collective voice. Miranda is also a Writer-in-Residence at The Breathing Room as part of Sixty’s Envisioning Justice Residency. She hopes to bring a warm energy, an open mind and a strong work ethic.