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Petals Sandcastle on Tripping, Radical Acceptance and Shattering the Binary

The Ann Arbor Is Burning producer on what it will take to heal a divided America

Sarah Bricker Hunt

Petals Sandcastle, founder and CEO of Ann Arbor’s Express Your Yes and NOW Studios, has had a very busy 2023 so far. In between traveling around the continent, hosting events at the studio space and spearheading Ann Arbor Is Burning, a “radically queer takeover” of the city’s annual Summer Fest, Sandcastle has been focused on healing our collective soul.

Sandcastle sat down with Pride Source over Zoom recently to discuss the challenges related to radical acceptance, living in America in 2023 as a queer person and bridging the gaps that exist throughout overlapping yet disconnected segments of society.

So, how are you?

I'm well. I'm on an endless cyclical roller coaster of being alive. I just had a super great last meeting, but how are you?

Well, we have a tornado watch, it’s very humid and I just wish the storm would get it over with already.

Yes! Rip the Band-Aid off, terrorize us and get on with it. Well, I’m in New York, where we don’t have a tornado watch.

What brought you to New York?

Being in small places or small towns, or the Midwest in general, even a place like Ann Arbor, becomes, well, a bit of a sardine can, if you will — a bit muted and not expansive enough to really engage the fullness of who I am and all the nuance and depths. And so, I routinely have to retreat to places where I just feel a great amount of inertia, like last night, I was at a “RuPaul's Drag Race” event with Sasha Velour, a book talk. I’m chatting with Sasha Velour and listening to her mind, and it’s like that all the time. There’s just so much possibility and life in big cities that we’re deprived of in the Midwest.

So, that’s my long, circular answer. I’m coming to recharge my batteries so I can get back to the work.

Is this something you're trying to pull into your work in Ann Arbor, the idea that there’s a whole big world we’re all connected to? 

That is a huge, huge, huge part of it. I think we're conditioned from a very young age to have this sense of fear and anxiety around the “other.” But if the goal is to keep people voting for the lesser of evils and being OK with trillion dollar war budgets and unfettered capitalism, then the only real way, I think, to keep people running on the hamster wheel is to keep us separated and divided and afraid of each other.

And once you really start to travel out there, whether that's in a book or actually geographically or through mushrooms or a drag show or whatever, you really start to dislodge some truths that feel contradictory to what we've always been taught and conditioned through education and religion and everything from a very young age. So certainly existentially, philosophically, that is a huge tenant of it. But also just creatively and artistically thinking about, you know, even if we were never to make any sort of political inroads just like I think there's something to be said about creativity for creativity's sake.

On the Express Your Yes/NOW Studios website, you mention concepts like “radical acceptance” when it comes to gathering community together in your space there. What does that mean to you in 2023?

Well, this is actually the challenging tightrope walk that I think those of us who consider ourselves activists or artivists have to walk because we want to create a radically served, non-normative base. Not only for the LGBT community, not only for queers, you know? But we’re thinking about neurodivergent folks, thinking about BIPOC folks, thinking about people who just don't fit into the recipe.

Our space is radically safe. It’s a space for all of the margins to gather to really come together and see each other and shingle a single roof above our overlapping dreams and persecutions. I think that you know there's a real concerted effort to keep us divided and thinking that our causes are not similar. And so a real desire of mine is to really not only find the overlap but celebrate the overlap and stick with the overlap.

If life is a trust game, how do we move from constantly being on the defense? How do we move from endlessly reacting to the systems’ moves and sort of reclaim the power in the chest, becoming the grandmasters ourselves and sort of leverage our collective ability to be taken seriously and also be heard and not tokenized?

NOW studios is like our fifth or sixth iteration of space. And really the challenge is like, how do you make really safe spaces for people who need it while also facilitating? And how do you create the incredibly necessary and nuanced dialogue between the disparate parts? How do you both create space for Trump supporters and their queer sons to come together and hash it out and also have radically safe space?

Hmm, yes, how do you do that?

Well, it is a big charge and it is a big task, and I think a lot of folks are very confused by our organization and what we're trying to do. I've had many people in our queer community who are like, “You can't simultaneously say you're a safe space for the margins and also say you’re trying to have a discourse with the normative society that marginalized us.” But I think that's the only thing we can do at this point. Those of us who've been deserted by the system, and we heal, and we go out and we really set it all down and we re-establish our baseline. You know, we really refine our joy and realize birth is our permission.

I also realize that I'm coming up against existential rubs with that entire landscape and concept, which I've really devoted so much time to because the reality is, who wants truth if it's a hard bed — that kind of idea. And I think a lot of Black and brown and clear and neurodivergent artists are just disinterested, like they have zero interest, in negotiating their rightful place to just exist and thrive.

Why do you think that is? Fear? How do you convince people to overcome inherent fears and distrust and gather together?

The thing is, 75, 76 million people voted for Donald Trump, and those people aren’t going away, and so if the goal is to not continue the binary games, until we are literally siloed off at the polls, we have to figure it out. Not to get all doomsday here, but I do think there is a very concerted effort by nihilists without dreams.

A lot of people who’ve lost touch with their inner child and their creative connective ability to see we’re all entangled in this gorgeous quantum soup, you know? And all the eight plus billion others are our siblings.

Do you think Michigan and Ann Arbor are good places to have these conversations?

Well, it can feel naive here or, sometimes, intentionally phony. Like Ann Arbor gets voted Best City in America, but there’s a disconnect between the brochures and what’s actually happening on the pavement. Closing that disconnect requires some really challenging, difficult stuff. There must be structures and containers where we can unpack all of this and unwind all of this and stand soul naked in space with people who we don’t like, who we are afraid of. It’s super conservative folks being in a room full of, say, Black, empowered trans people and the margins having to hold space to be compassionate and empathetic and open to people who feel like tyrants.

But in that difficult space, there’s this post-binary space — drugs can help get us there, travel can help, meditation, too. Just quieting the outside world and getting back to a grounded, neutral, connected place with the entire universe. And once you’re there, once you realize you’re divinely interconnected with the entire universe then, suddenly, it really does open this new space up, this new compassion, this new empathy for people.

So yes, we run events with these goals in mind right in Ann Arbor. Like our Say Yes Fest, a two-month festival where we took over Main Street and we had silent discos where some of them had over a thousand people, every color, race, gender, size, shape, all coming together.

What drew so many people to the events, do you think?

I think it’s the power of creativity. It’s pre-language, like dance and flow and movement and art and theater and drama. Sunsets, babies crying and cooing. These are the things that I think feel like they are pre-language, you know; we can connect regardless of how you show up in reality or how life has led you to the place you're in with your mental landscape. We can all just come together and look at the sun setting and be like, holy shit, you know?

Have you been able to find that kind of common ground in your own life?

I’m from a suburb of Flint and one of 11 kids. Really, I’m the fruit that fell from the family tree and kept tumbling. I left home for undergrad (at UM), and I was a high school teacher in New York City for a few years, and that was really the first time that the curtain was really pulled from my face. Everything was kind of theoretical up to that point, but really being in the trenches and having 120 predominantly Black and brown and mostly Dominican kids in the inner city to teach, and I’m 22 and from this very small place.

Coming from where I’m from, I was totally blindsided by how much the system is designed to fail certain people. During World War II, they taught basically functional illiterate people to read in less than six months, but somehow in the inner city, 13 years of education can go by and you still have kids who don’t know the difference between t-o-o and t-w-o.

Anyway, so it was a long way from Flint to New York City, and teaching really broke my heart. After two and a half years, I was just like “Holy fuck.” I resigned and was like, “I need to leave America.” None of it made sense, and I fled overseas for a few years, couch surfing my way around the planet. Fifty couches, 30 countries. And in, I think, 2008, everything kind of stopped making sense. I resigned from that life that stopped making sense. And it was a winding back 18 years or so, to the place I’m at now. It was a recalibration, finding my due north.

And for you, that eventually meant returning home to Michigan?

My reason for being alive and my existential “why” came through an immense amount of travel and traveling, not only geographically, but traveling through ideas and cultures and religions and states of mind and structures and just really exploring the full breadth and width of what's here. Lots of deep meditation, which sends us into different states, delta states, places where we can get in touch with the trees. The trees can speak to us, our ancestors can speak to us. I just kept coming back to Michigan.

Visit expressyouryes.com to learn more about NOW Studios (715 N. University, Ann Arbor), including weekly open mics and other events.

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