The Set on Freedom Retreat:
Generating Collective Power, Visibility, and Healing to Uplift the Work of Queer, Trans, Gender Non-Conforming, Women of Color Artists

The Set on Freedom Retreat brought together about 30 queer, trans, gender non-conforming and women of color artists at the Queens Museum on July 2nd and 3rd, 2016. In the midst of the violent tragedies like the mass shooting at Pulse and the most recent acts of police brutality that took the lives of more Black brothers, the retreat was urgently needed. It was a space of healing, nurturing and support for communities that continue to be subjected to the racism, sexism, classism and homophobia that still invade this country, and for artists that still do not have mainstream access, recognition, and platform to do their work. The retreat was as a space for creative self-expression, healing, reflection, sharing of resources. We inspired, celebrated and uplifted one another while remembering the political context in which we do our work.

Beginning by contextualizing our work under the political framework that drives our art as queer, trans, gender non-conforming, and women of color was very critical during this retreat. Our art is political in nature and it serves as a catalyst for social change around the issues impacting our lives and the lives of our communities. Our artistic works address issues of immigration, the prison industrial complex, police brutality, gender, sexuality, homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism and the many other “isms” that we urgently confront through our work. As artists we hold the power and responsibility to highlight and bring visibility to the stories of our people, which otherwise do not get the deserved attention in mainstream artist circles.

The Set on Freedom Retreat was critical during times when violence instills fear and breaks down our spirits as queer, trans, gender non-conforming and women of color. For this reason, it was important to honor our ancestors and our traditional spiritual practices through collectively building an altar, and by being in ritual with one another. The art and magic of ritual opened and closed the retreat, and was the foundation for our work. We healed together through a morning meditation followed by centering exercises that helped us connect to our minds, bodies and spirits while caring for one another. Healing in community is crucial particularly during times of collective grief and violence and reminds us of the importance of slowing down and practicing self-love in order to return to our work replenished and strong.

The retreat was also a space to be valued, celebrated and acknowledged. A whole wall covered with envelopes labeled with our names provided a space in where we could all write and drop off recognitions for one another throughout the weekend. In a society that would much rather see many of us dead or silent, having a moment to be recognized and acknowledged was a powerful tool to boost our spirits and remind us of who we are in the world.

During the weekend we also had the opportunity to nurture our creativity by being able to paint, draw, collage, write, or bring in our own forms of self-expression. We fed our creative fire together and broke the isolation that at times comes with our artistic work.   

Sharing resources to uplift and strengthen our work was also crucial throughout the weekend. Recognizing that the opportunities to support and sustain our work are not easily accessible in mainstream society, spurred a dialogue about sharing knowledge of the resources that do exist to make our work possible. We also generated possibilities for collective self-sustainability so that we do not have to always rely on institutions for support, since many of them at times do not share our vision and values or hold a genuine commitment to our work. Coming together to share and pool resources is a powerful strategy to sustain our work as artists.

We also identified the importance of not just sustaining our artistic work, but also ourselves. The “Artistic Self-Care Kit” discussion helped us highlight what we need from ourselves and our communities in order to practice self-care prior to, during and after our artistic creations/productions. Carving out time for ourselves after gifting our creative energy, and learning to ask for what we need from those that support our work is an empowering way to walk as artists and it allows us to sustain our work in the long-run.

Through the “Artistic Lineage Exercise”, we reflected and shared about the people that have influenced our artistic practices. We acknowledged that our work does not live in a vacuum and that as people of color our creations are inspired by and rooted in the history of our ancestors, families, teachers, guides, and mentors. Remembering these important figures and sharing their stories in relation to us was very healing for many, since it helped us recognize that we do not walk alone, and that we can always go back to those original sources of inspiration and support.

Another highlight of the retreat, which helped bring all the discussions we had back into concrete “real world” examples, was a discussion panel. Artists Lade Dane Figueroa Edidi, DJ Rekha and Sandra de la Loza all shared their life stories and their trajectories as full-time artists. They shared their struggles, successes, political stands, and how they have managed to challenge oppression and discrimination, and overcome barriers in order to lead successful artistic careers. It was inspiring to witness a panel of queer, trans, gender-non-conforming, women of color committed to challenging the status quo, and bringing visibility to the stories of our people, while also sustaining themselves through their art. These are the “real world” examples in our communities that we can look up to as reminders that our work and political commitment as artists does not have to be compromised. Lade Dane, DJ Rekha, and Sandra have certainly paved the way for the younger generations to follow their footsteps.

In essence, The Set on Freedom Retreat brought us back to the importance of collective power, building community, bringing visibility, healing, uplifting and supporting one another, while walking connected to those who have come before us and those who love and support who we are in the world. Continuing to generate these types of spaces feed and strengthen our work as a community, and affirm our work as we return back to our respective communities.

—Tania Romero, poet, youth worker, healer, herbalist