Where Astrology and Social Justice Meet: A Q&A With Chani Nicholas

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Culture & Conversation Human Rights

Where Astrology and Social Justice Meet: A Q&A With Chani Nicholas

Raquel Willis

In a dim, bustling bar at the San Francisco Four Seasons, Nicholas spoke with me about her childhood, her journey to astrology, and how she inspires social justice movements through her work.

Chani Nicholas is used to telling people more about themselves than herself. The popular astrologer’s work has resonated with digital astrology aficionados since 2010. Her unique approach to horoscopes has now taken on new prominence in a time of mass socio-political activism. If you read her work, you’re sure to find guidance based on your astrological signs, but you may also encounter a reading that invites you to consider your place within social justice movements.

On Thursday, Nicholas will be honored by the Astraea Foundation in Los Angeles for the impact her work has had on inspiring and nourishing queer and intersectional feminist spaces. It is shocking to even Nicholas that the cultural sustenance that she has provided for so many people, often free, is being elevated alongside activist heavy hitters Alicia Garza, Malkia Cyril, and Jeanne Córdova. But her effect on her many devoted readers is unquestionable.

Last Saturday, Nicholas and I met up for a conversation during the downtime of the Yerba Buena Arts Center’s YBCA 100 Summit, of which she was also an honoree. In a dim, bustling bar at the San Francisco Four Seasons, we discussed her childhood, her journey to astrology, and how she inspires social justice movements through her work.

Raquel Willis: You use rising signs more than anything else. Do you think sun sign astrology is dated? I listened to an interview of you way back when and you were talking about a major book about sun signs.

Chani Nicholas: Oh, that’s Linda Goodman. It’s the most popular book of astrology in history. She ended up dying penniless and alone. She was swindled by her publishers, but [the book] has outsold everything. She took the idea of suns signs and made it really popular because it’s easy to know what it is. Everyone’s really self-obsessed and the minute you can give them something that tells them about themselves, it’s going to catch on because we’re always looking for a reflection of who we are.

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RW: It was a relief to discover your work, so that I could have a reason not to focus on my [Gemini] sun sign. Everyone gives us shit.

CN: (laughter) What’s your rising? Oh, you’re a Libra.

RW: Yep, I’m a Libra rising. I meet a lot of Libra risings and we just click. Is that common with a lot of people with the same rising sign?

CN: Yeah, maybe. I click with a lot of different folks I’m not supposed to. It’s more about the way the charts are set up.

RW: I feel like I have a lot of chosen family who I either share a moon sign or my rising sign with.

CN: The moon sign makes sense because then you know comfort in the same way. You may know nourishment in the same way and you might know family in the same way.

RW: You view astrology differently than your predecessors. What I mean by that is, you tie it to identity and social location. How did you come to make those connections?

CN: If we’re talking about one’s own experience of something, how does that not get contextualized within the larger structures that we’re operating in? How can we not take into consideration our cultures and lineages and the ways in which the people we come from had to function to survive and/or perpetuated certain types of violence? That’s our story. It’s something my mind is always immersed in.

All of the stuff I do online is essentially free, and I do that as a labor of love. I think about astrology in terms of people, movements, and climates. What’s the temperament? I want to think about the larger archetypal meanings of the planet and the experiences we’re living through as humans. There’s just a natural marriage between the two.

RW: Do you feel that astrology is needed now more than other times?

CN: It’s been around for much of human civilization and it’s a tool used by humans. Depending on how we use it, it can be helpful or harmful. Ronald Reagan used an astrologer and I don’t agree with any of his decisions (laughter). I think what is needed now is whatever can help us to hold a multitude of realities, complex solutions, situations, identities, and experiences. Everything has a very individual way of needing to be held or dealt with. Everything has a context or need.

RW: How would you tie this current socio-political era to past eras astrologically?

CN: Well, you would take a specific topic whether it’s something to do with gender-based violence, war, or fascism being on the rise. The last time Uranus was in Taurus was 83 years ago and that was the rise of fascism in Germany. Astrologers study these cycles and many noticed that Uranus was going to come back around this time. At the same time, Pluto is in Capricorn, which is where it was when the United States was born.

RW: So there’s a birth chart for the United States?

CN: Yeah, it’s called the Sibley Chart.

RW: What are your spiritual origins?

CN: I was raised in [Nelson, British Columbia,] where I was the only Jew. I was raised in the middle of nowhere, in Canada, in the mountains and in a time without internet. The closest city was Spokane, Washington, and the next closest city was Vancouver, which was eight hours away. There were 10,000 people. It was tiny.

My mom came from the Bronx, New York. My dad was born and raised in Nelson. He has one of those hillbilly stories. He was one of 13 kids and their dad left them. He left school at 13 to take care of the family. They were the poorest family in town and they had to fight everybody. The Nicholases were like the bad kids from the bad family. When I went to high school, I had teachers who would read my name on the first day of class like, “Nicholas?! Are you Tony’s daughter?”

RW: And you got into astrology after y’all did a family reading when you were 12?

CN: Well, my parents broke up when I was like 2. When my dad left his second family, he moved to Toronto with his third wife and her mother was a reiki master. That’s when my life changed.

At 12, I found astrology and had my first reading. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was talking to adults who weren’t spending all of their energy getting high. It was like, “So you’re sober and caring about healing and thinking deeply about what makes a person tick?” It was so captivating to me. I felt like it was the first time anybody looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re human and you exist, and you’re made in a certain way and it’s perfect.” It floored me.

I had never had that experience with anyone. I’d had a couple teachers who were able to reflect that, but I was so starving for it. The language of astrology immediately made sense to me. It was like someone lit a fire in my brain.

She wrote a book, I read it, and I started doing readings.

RW: What was this astrologer’s name?

CN: I can only remember her first name, Tanya. She was never a famous astrologer, but she wrote this book that I’ve never seen again.

RW: Do you think she’s still around?

CN: I have no idea. If she is, she’s like in her mid-to-late 60s.

My second stepmom—my dad’s third wife—her mom had dedicated her life to healing, reiki, and all of these methods. When I was like 13, she trained me in reiki.

RW: How did that get started?

CN: I begged her. She was like, “Little girl, you’re a baby. You can’t come and do this stuff. It’s like deep intense therapy.” I just kept asking and asking. I don’t know what possessed me, but when I met her I had an awakening. I was 11 and it felt like a total body experience. It was like I met my teacher.

RW: But you didn’t know immediately that you could make a career out of it, right? Didn’t you move to Los Angeles as an actress?

CN: Acting got me here. I moved when I was 29. I was old. You’ve got to get into acting at like 2. (Laughter.) I moved to LA without any job, any money, or knowing anybody. I had one friend who hooked me up with a place to stay. It was 2004.

I was in and out of acting and different types of art-making, and I was in and out of activism and community-based work. I worked with youth, an LGBTQ hotline, different community centers, and ran different programming. I was a waitress and a bartender. I did a lot of different jobs. I would go back and forth between healing work and expressing myself.

RW: Beyond Ms. Tanya, who are your inspirations for your work and life?

CN: You and all of us. We have access to each other now in ways we never did. My wife, Yolo [Akili], and Tarana [Burke]. All of the people living their lives and making a mark. Any of us who make an effort to make a difference in some way is immediately inspiring to me. There are these millions of human movements every day that are stitching everything and making meaning out of really bizarre and horrible situations.

RW: Why do you think it’s important to emphasize healing justice?

CN: It’s everything. Nothing can happen if we don’t feel, and healing can not be based on people having massive amounts of economic stability. That is not a sustainable way to feel. Justice has to be about healing, and healing has to be justice. Otherwise, we’re simply talking about policy and some big concept of changing things without taking care of the people doing the work in the process. We have to take care of one another. If we’re not allowed time, space, and the resources to heal, we’re not going to make the best decisions for us, each other, and our work.

RW: How can we connect to our ancestors and future generations through our connection to heavenly bodies and the supernatural world?

CN: I think everyone has their own way of connecting to their ancestors depending on their relationship to both family present and where they are in healing their lineage. In terms of astrology, you can pull up your ancestor’s birth charts. I use the cyclical rhythms of the moon to reset one’s relationship with life. It’s a very Jewish practice.

RW: What do calls to action look like in your work? I’ve been reading you for a few years and I’ve seen them in your work, whether it was related to the 2016 election or something else major happening in the news. At what point did you realize there was a means to push people to action through your work?

CN: My uncle told me this story that when I was about 11, we were out eating pizza in New York and he grabbed a stack of napkins. He dabbed our pizza with it and I said, ”What are you doing? Napkins come from trees.” He told me this story again a few years ago and I realized I’ve always been this way. It’s not a conscious thing. There’s always, to some degree, an alarm going off in me. I think that’s as strong now as my feelings of us needing to take care of and love each other. I want us to keep figuring out how we find the love and compassion for ourselves. How do we live and serve and be of use here?

RW: Your work is a testament to being involved in social justice, no matter what your lane is. On the surface, you wouldn’t connect social justice to astrology. In a U.S. context, astrology has long been a very “me, me, me” approach, and you’re doing something more about how the self can be improved for the collective.

CN: I’ve never been interested in writing anything else. A lot of times I’m just talking to myself and reminding myself what’s important to live for. When we write things, we’re writing for ourselves to look at things differently and consider different viewpoints. It’s about contextualizing something for another person and holding more realities.

Now it’s hip and popular to talk about social justice issues, but it took so much tragedy in the last few years to break that layer over social consciousness.

RW: What is the importance of building community and what has that looked like for you? Has it changed?

CN: Now, my community exists with a lot of people I’ve met online or whose work I admire or who’ve connected to my work. Community is safety and the way we break down the isolation these systems would love to keep us in. It’s how we find our lifeline especially if we’re estranged from family. It’s how we build things, party, celebrate, and there’s no life without it. We’re in ourselves all day and if we have key people to connect with, it’s how we remind ourselves that we’re not alone.

RW: Do you have an astrology community?

CN: Not really. It’s almost like a cis, white, male-dominated academic space.

RW: Wait … really? For astrology? Who listens to cishet white men in this economy?

CN: (laughter) It’s getting more “diverse” right now. I definitely have friends who are astrologers. It’s like queer community and you get these little niches of people.

RW: When I was in Atlanta, I had my crew of best friends who were Black queer femmes. We went through our whole astrological awakening together. We would ask each other, “Oh, did you read Chani today?” It was a whole thing. Even still, we send each other stuff about our charts.

CN: I think in terms of community that’s the most fulfilling part of my work. It’s knowing that it goes out and it has its own life and own relationship with everybody. I get to be the mom who meets their kids’ friends like, “Oh my God, you guys are so great.”

It’s not about me, but it’s brought so many amazing people into my life. I just have such an amazing relationship to the work, and as someone who grew up so isolated, that’s something beyond my wildest dreams. It’s beautiful to be in relationship with that. If the work can be supportive of communities, then that’s my greatest wish for it. I want people to feel cared for and held through whatever they’re going through.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.