Inside Jezz Chung’s Guide to Building Revolutionary Queer Community

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Brian Vu

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“God is change,” wrote the visionary science fiction author Octavia Butler in her 1993 classic, Parable of the Sower, a meditation on what it means to face impossible circumstances with both fluidity and resolve. Over the past four years, the series has become a touchstone for a generation of activists and advocates, reaching the New York Times bestseller list almost fifteen years after Butler’s death. The books speak to a question at the heart of our lives: As change whirls around us in unpredictable and terrifying ways, how can we harness it toward collective liberation and safety? And how exactly do we practice change in our daily lives, which so often feel entrenched in the hustle and monotony of simply trying to pay rent?

These questions are at the center of the writer, actor, and artist Jezz Chung’s new book This Way to Change: A Gentle Guide to Personal Transformation and Collective Liberation, out now from Chronicle Prism. Chung began to write the current version of the book in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic, movement for Black Lives, and demands for abolition transformed our country. In New York City, where we both live, justice felt inevitable, as ready to bloom as the hydrangeas bursting through the sidewalk gardens. It was a period of hope, unyielding grief, and color-coded Google Doc spreadsheets alive with “Anonymous Platypuses” supporting mutual aid projects in every corner of the city.

Around the same time, Chung decided to leave their eight-year career in marketing to work as an artist full-time. Through that process, they had an epiphany. “I realized, it's not just about making work, disseminating information, helping to educate, and trying to tell these stories,” they told me via Zoom on a recent winter afternoon. “It's about changing the world within me, too.”

In many ways, the book is a culmination of these learnings. There are guided questions to help navigate conversations that encourage psychological safety (“I need to vent. Are you in a place to listen?”) and diagrams to help find community (“explore new pleasures, collaborate on a project, if you agree to attend, try to show up and follow up”). Perhaps most importantly, it is also a tool for our present moment, drawing on the work of ancestors, like Butler, to remind us that people have always imagined and embodied alternate ways forward, even at the most dire moments in human history.

Fortifying it all is Jezz Chung's gentle encouragement that with patience, the community — and world — you dream of will emerge. Their life is evidence.

Below, we discuss how community is an antidote to depression, the endless magic of queer friendship, and how protest can tether us to the world we yearn for.

<cite class="credit">Brian Vu</cite>
Brian Vu

How are you feeling with your first book out in the world?

I'm a mixed bag of emotions. The state of the world has been really heavy on me. It feels very hard to release a book into the world and promote something in the midst of so much horror, trauma, and grief. But I keep having to remind myself that I am an artist, and as Nina Simone says, “The duty of an artist is to reflect your times." This book is definitely a reflection of the past few years. My hope is that it can be an offering for all of the change and transition we're going through.

Where were the seeds for this book first planted for you?

I actually started trying to write a book while I was working in advertising. I wanted to write a workplace survival guide for people of color. That's what I started working on with my agent. I had sample chapters and everything, and then the pandemic hit and I quit my job.

Everything changed, especially with the Black Lives Matter uprisings. I started going to Black Lives Matter meetings in about 2016 in LA, so I'd been part of the movement, and I've always been very passionate about Black and Asian solidarity. There was this combination of leaving my job, the uprisings, the pandemic, learning about disability justice, coming deeper into my queerness, and divesting from gender binaries. I was playing with my pronouns. Every aspect of your life that can possibly change, I was like, “All right. Might as well.”

The book starts with one of my favorite quotes from Grace Lee Boggs, “Transform yourself to transform the world.” I saw on Instagram you also had a portrait of Boggs tattooed on your body.

I got it when I finished the manuscript as a marker, a celebration.

Amazing. What does it mean to you?

I discovered Grace’s work when I was exploring the history of Black and Asian solidarity. I wanted to know about revolutionary thinkers who are also Asian American women. I wanted models; I call them guiding stars. As I was studying, all of the things that I was reading were changing me. I thought, “How can I deepen my role in this lifetime to contribute to collective liberation? If I know for certain that collective liberation is one of my missions in this lifetime, how can I do that more deeply?"”That's something that I'm going to be on a journey for the rest of my life. Once I realized I had done as much as I could in corporate spaces, I decided to step away and pursue my own projects and be an artist full-time.

I wrote in my notebook that “a protest is an attempt to keep something alive,” and we're keeping love alive.

You write, “Community is a network of relationships, always shifting, adapting, and growing. This wasn't something I always had access to. It's something I've intentionally built over time. My sense of community has changed drastically as I've become clearer about my values.” Can you walk me through the process of cultivating those networks of queer kinships and how it's changed you?

Queer friendship is one of my favorite things to talk about ever. I started writing this book at the end of 2020, and then I found queer community in New York in April 2021. That completely changed my life. I found it because of Sammy Kim, an artist and nightlife organizer in New York, who brought people together for this event called Protect Asian Lives. Angela Dimayuga, a chef, artist and author, reached out to me and asked me to MC the event.

It was such an honor, especially because I was not plugged into the New York queer community or community in general. I had friends I knew from working in advertising, but I didn't really have queer friendships. I was still new to understanding my queerness and being vocal about it. I was dangerously lonely for the first three years that I was in New York. It was a really hard time. I remember there were days I would sit in my room, starfish position on my bed, staring at the ceiling, being like, “Is everyone this lonely? Is life meant to be this lonely?”

I think there's so much shame around loneliness, which then actually replicates the conditions in which we feel lonely. But really I’ve learned friendship and cultivating networks of care is the balm.

Yes to all of it, especially the networks of care part. Once I discovered the language of abolition in 2020, which to me can be summarized as “divesting from harm, investing in care,” I realized, Oh, I need to devote my life to creating a culture of care. As adrienne maree brown says, “Our relationships are a frontline to practice liberation.”

Once I made friends through that organizing event, it was a reminder that if I continue to devote my life to the movement for collective liberation, if I continue showing up in this way, transforming myself and strengthening my values, I'm going to meet people who are on similar paths. We're like magnets. We're all doing this work, and then we meet each other, and then we amplify each other's power and learn from each other.

<cite class="credit">Brian Vu</cite>
Brian Vu

Can you talk a little bit about the “avenues of intimacies” chart in the book, which details how people can find that values-aligned community in their own lives?

Yes! Community building is a verb. It's about developing and sustaining relationships with people that we can practice with. I think a lot of us within queer space are versed in the language of liberation, but it's very different to put it into practice. It's different to know it intellectually and then practice it somatically.

I am very open about my life online, and one of the main questions that I get asked is, “How did you find friends? How did you build community? You seem to have such a strong support system.” I thought, “Wow, that's so affirming to hear,” because when I first started therapy in 2018, I remember my therapist asking me, “Do you have a strong support system?” And I said, “No.” I could not say yes to that question.

That's why I think a lot of my work, too, is encouraging people to start where they are. It doesn't matter if you feel like you're late. My autistic neurodivergent brain is very much, Step one, step two, step three. Here are the steps and this is a how-to.” I love how-tos because these are things that, as you said, they're not really talked about. They’re not written out. I really wanted to write a guide that explained, “Okay, what are the different ways that you can experience intimacy?” because intimacy is a core human need.

I have a theory: If we experience more intimacy, we would experience less depression, because depression is a disconnection to our core human needs. I wrote this chart while thinking about all the places where I found community and all the ways that I found my people. I found them by doing things that I love, doing things that I'm passionate about, including marching, organizing, and protesting.

You write that as part of our transformation processes, we can look for evidence supporting the world you want to see. What evidence have you seen recently of that?

From October to December, I was going out to marches for the first time in years. I used to get so overstimulated at protests that I would need weeks to recover. I realized this wasn’t a sustainable way for me to participate in this work, but I started going back out again, and I wrote a poem about this, actually.

A conversation with Dr. Sa’ed Atshan about the rise in LGBTQ\+ solidarity with Palestine and the reductionism of its backlash.

It's in a zine that I wrote, called How to Build a World, which is the title of the first poem in the book. I wrote about how there are things they don't tell you about what it's like to be there. You see puppies, babies, and strollers. There’s drumming and people with these beautiful works of art and this surge of energy. You feel part of something bigger than you, and you find meaning and purpose. You realize this is so worthy, to work towards making the world safer and freer.

I find evidence when I'm in spaces that are committed to addressing collective safety and needs. I get emotional thinking about it because I imagine all of us moving in unison. I wrote in my notebook that “a protest is an attempt to keep something alive,” and we're keeping love alive. There's all of us coming together. After witnessing truly one of the worst horrors that we have seen as humans, we're sitting together to say, “Hey, this isn't okay, and we demand something better. We believe in something better.“ What a beautiful thing to believe in a better world and take action towards it and source power, safety, and love among each other. That is what I live for.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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Originally Appeared on them.