The Sidewalk Project

Article by Deb Kavis

It’s Thursday morning and I’m watching the Zoom room for signs of artist and dominatrix Soma Snakeoil. She appears on my screen promptly at the stroke of 9am, ready to discuss her passion for outreach.

An Interview with Soma Snakeoil

Her organization, The Sidewalk Project, operates with an emphasis on community and wellness through direct action. At a time when the world is in such dire need of healing, the efforts of The Sidewalk Project have a deep and lasting impact in the local Los Angeles community and beyond.   

What was your inspiration to start The Sidewalk Project?

I started The Sidewalk Project about three and a half years ago. It’s a lived experience organization and it’s really based on community activism and the experiences of other people who work with the organization. At the time, I was writing Home Street Home and I was newly sober. I’d been working on [Home Street Home] for about ten years with my ex, Fat Mike.

When you’re freshly sober, it’s a little bit like being born. Your eyes are really fresh with everything and you’re more sensitive to everything in the world. I really felt like I couldn’t just write about these experiences, I felt it needed direct action. I’ve been unhoused and I’m a former person who uses drugs and a longtime sex worker, so it felt really important to give back to the community.

We had a lot of conversations first, like “What do we actually want to do?” When it came to this idea of wellness through the arts – which was something that was a constant through each of our lives – we felt that it was something that uplifts community. So that was really the start of The Sidewalk Project. Somewhere along the line we ended up doing harm reduction and then it got really intense. It was like “How did we go from this very sweet art and music organization to doing crisis response on the street?”.

How do you see the world of art intersecting with that of public health?

One of the things that we say at The Sidewalk Project is: “Happiness grows as it’s shared.” It sounds really sweet, but there’s actually science behind that. When we were founding The Sidewalk Project, we did a lot of research around the idea of community and the idea that people experience more wellness when they are in groups of people in a community. When there are groups of happy people, the happiness spreads. And conversely, the same happens with groups of unhappy people. So, we want to be a group of people that shares happiness.

You can think of that in terms of what that looks like in large scales around social recovery. Right now, there are awful things that are happening in Los Angeles right down the road in my neighborhood where there’s massive oppression of unhoused people in a pandemic when before it was actually a happy community of unhoused people just banding together in a park in a terrible time of economic crisis. We know there are going to be more unhoused people on the street in the next few years. And then you bring in a bunch of riot cops with guns and batons and rubber bullets and all of that stuff and that is the opposite of public health and happiness and wellness. That’s trauma for the entire community and you can see it all over the news. Everyone in the neighborhood is unhappy. Whereas, when you look at community building activities where people are painting murals together and playing music and eating food together, that’s community building. That’s social recovery. That’s the opposite of trauma and that’s what we want to see in society: Anti-trauma.

How has your career in the adult industry inspired your world view?

I think it’s greatly affected my world view in a very positive way. There’s just more flexibility on a larger scale about how sex positive people view the world. You can look at it around sexuality, but that can actually transfer to other aspects of life. If there’s an ease to one aspect, that might carry over to other places in life. And, if you’re getting laid, you’re probably happier. And we know this through science. Your blood pressure drops, it’s better for prostate health, it’s better for digestion, etc.

It’s good to fuck, right?

In the BDSM world, things like service to your community is really held to the forefront in a very big way. Both as submissives, but also, we really think it’s important to take care of other people and family is important. We have BDSM families and that’s a very big aspect to my world view. And I’ve taken that over into how I function within activism.

What projects do you have currently coming up?

The Sidewalk Project is ongoing, so it happens every single day. It’s a living, breathing project and always evolving. One of the things I’m really excited about that we’re working on is a “Bad Date” List. The list is specifically for street-based sex workers. We take information on bad, violent, negative dates with street-based sex workers anonymously while we do our rounds with the needle exchange. This is a vital aspect to harm reduction for sex workers because it’s based in this anonymous, autonomous, and empowering way to offer information between sex workers so that they can make choices about which cars to get into.

This very much feeds into not just sex positivity, but this idea of empowerment as opposed to salvation. Within the sex worker community, we say: “Support not salvation” and that’s such a vital thing. In this time right now when there’s so much rhetoric around human trafficking and the conflation of human trafficking and sex work and misunderstanding about what’s going on. We had this very bad policy, SESTA/FOSTA, that’s hurt a lot of our people in our community and has actually pushed people back out onto the street. It’s dangerous for street-based sex workers, so we need to be able to offer support systems. Also, it’s feminist as fuck. I love that.

We’re also on a team with The Sidewalk Project where we’re doing education and engagement with the houseless community to let them know about COVID vaccinations. We actually take people to get their vaccinations. And I’m really excited to be involved with that because that feels very lifesaving.

Also, Punk Rock and Paintbrushes, which I’ve been a part of for quite a few years now, put out a book with a bunch of musicians and people from the punk rock community and I’m in that book. I share some of my stories and some of my art and the book is being released pretty soon. There’s going to be a signing at Alex’s Bar in Long Beach. It will be outdoors and it’s really cool because we haven’t been able to do any in person events for the punk community. We’re doing a COVID-safe event. People have been starting to vaccinate and it’s an outdoor event with a limited capacity, people wearing masks, social distancing. I’m happy to do that.

What goals do you have for the future of The Sidewalk Project and your art?

I have so many goals and then sometimes I think about how right now I already work so hard every day and so many people already work so hard every day. And we think of these ideas of the goals for the future, and we all have to have these goals. Even though I do have them, I was just thinking about how we are so conditioned by capitalism. We’ve always got to do the next bigger, better, more glamorous thing. And sometimes I just want to let it be.

One of the goals that I have for The Sidewalk Project is a kibbutz or a village of some sort. We keep talking about what that looks like and sometimes we want to just do it right now because they’re sweeping the streets and now there’s riot cops and it’s just like this fascist occupation out there. It’s like “Can we find a piece of land already to put a bunch of people on it?” There’s just such an impulse to find safe spaces for humans. There’s definitely that sense of ‘What does a community look like?’ It’s about people being empowered to make their own choices as we move forward.

How can people get involved with The Sidewalk Project?

We are accepting volunteers both for in-person and online. We do a lot of activism, so if people want to get involved and they’re not comfortable leaving their homes, they can get involved with online activism, raising donations, or putting together hygiene kits. Fighting back against bad policies is also really great. Also, come out with us. One of things we say is: “Wherever there’s a sidewalk, there’s an opportunity for a Sidewalk Project.” You can also just be nice to people. Hand someone a bottle of water. We like to think of it as a movement rather than just this idea of one set organized experience. Be good to yourself and be good to your neighbors.

Video: Matt Nathanson
Photography: Michael Diaz / Surgeon Studios

The need for something like The Sidewalk Project underlines how far we still need to travel in caring for everyone. You can help. Whether that be a little or a lot, please do. Pay it forward.