Margins as Thresholds

Just before my second birthday, my mother, older brother and I immigrated from New Delhi, Delhi to East Hartford, Connecticut. We joined my father, who like many immigrants, came to the United States with very little money and high hopes of more opportunities for his children. We moved into the Burnside Apartments, a U-shaped, two-storey, brick building, taking up residence in a small 2-bedroom apartment across the hall from my uncle’s family. Our families and the African American family living below us were the only people of color in the 20-unit apartment building, which housed a majority of white, working class tenants.

I went to Burnside Elementary School, and while there, found no friends. In my memory, I was invisible to my classmates except when my skin color and perplexing ethnic and racial identity became the cause for ridicule, and occasional physical assault.

In my early childhood, the margins were a place of lack.

A lack of safety.

A lack of belonging.

My experience of other-ing fomented into a deep set rage that, over time, metabolized into a sense of kinship to others marginalized by a dominant culture fueled by the myths of whiteness, individualism, and meritocracy. By young adulthood, I was committed to working with those who were denied access to economic wealth and political power and became an organizer. I first worked among African American and Indigenous (Lumbee) young people and single mothers in a rural county in North Carolina, and then with churches and unions based in low-income communities of color in Providence, RI.

As an organize, the margins continued to be a place of lack.

A lack of decision making power.      

A lack of affordable housing and culturally competent health care.

Trained in an Alinsky-style model, my organizing was fueled by three assumptions:

  1. There are resources and opportunities missing in our communities and we have to fight those with economic and political power to get them;

  2. Our fight will be focused on mobilizing mass numbers to hold financial institutions and public officials accountable to existing laws and policies, and expand these laws and policies for greater equality; and

  3. Power lies at the center and needs to be redistributed from there.

As an organizer, the margins were also a place of demanding from centers of political and economic power.

Demanding accountability.      

Demanding redistribution.

After five years of organizing work rooted in these assumptions, I burnt out. Like all moments of disintegration in living systems, this burn out became an opportunity to reimagine my self and the values that guided me. At the time, I was studying Afro-Caribbean percussion avocationally with Robertico Arias, a Dominican master drummer. Woven into his lessons on folkloric rhythms was a history that illuminated how African descended people who were enslaved in the Caribbean practiced at the margins. In this history, African descended people used their cultural and music traditions to:

sustain ancestral traditions and co-create new cultural forms;

build community and cultivate solidarity; and  

resist slavery and forge pathways to freedom.

In my study with Robertico, the margins became a place which catalyzed innovation.

Innovation of new cultural forms.    

Innovation of new paths to liberation.

Twenty years later, through experiments in cultural organizing with young people enduring incarceration, women of color-led organizations, and small, multiracial gatherings of neighbors, the margins continues to be this place for me. And as I look to others who are innovating at the margins, I witness people most impacted by societal inequities continuing to use spiritual and cultural tools - people’s songs, somatic practice, rituals honoring earth cycles, hip hop lyricism,  storytelling, creative play and the raising of life-giving food - to plumb the depths of our being and expand our visions in the co-creation of a multiplicity of new worlds.

In profound ways, these courageous new world makers invite us all to recover the marginalized places within ourselves. They encourage us to leave behind centralized forms of extractive and consolidating power. They beckon us to (re)turn to ancient and emergent ways of being.

What would happen if instead of seeing the margins as a place of the disadvantaged, neediest,  at-risk,  underserved, most vulnerable, and powerless, we saw the margins as a threshold to sustainable and liberatory ways of being?

 

 

 

 

Focus and Spaciousness

Recently, I participated in a zoom video conference call involving three cohorts of peers who have gone through the life-changing and world-making Evolutionary Leadership Workshop with master facilitator, Gibrán Rivera. We came together to build relationships across cohorts and to share our hopes for a summer reunion which is intended to prepare us to take our evolutionary leadership projects to the next level.

Gibrán is keenly adept at creating intimacy and deep conversation between members of a group whether gathering in a Hollyhock retreat lodge on Cortes Island or a virtual meeting room. Two core practices I’ve observed in his facilitation of virtual spaces are scheduling one hour calls and centering the conversation around 1-2 important questions that will help the group move together in a direction not fully known beforehand. As a participant, I experience the moving together prioritized over coming to a definitive outcome. This sense of moving together is cultivated through focus and spaciousness in conversation that stimulates co-creation and nurtures connection. In every virtual gathering, something powerful and beautiful emerges.

Too often, we experience focus and spaciousness at odds in meetings. Focus in these contexts is driven by the need to get a lot done in a limited amount of time. Focus feels like a corralling of attention rather than a bringing of what is essential into clearer view. Coming to decisions is prioritized over moving together even when our intention is to create an equitable container for discussion. There is a lurking sense that we are racing against insufficient time.

In Gibrán’s facilitation, I experience a practice of abundance. He regularly reminds me that we have the time to ask essential questions and to respond to these from the depth of our being and the expansiveness of our imaginations.

The current crises and potentialities of our communities demand no less.

 

Creating Conditions for Resonance

res·o·nance /rezənəns/

noun

  1. the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating.

  2. the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.

Naaz Hosseini is a voice empowerment coach, sound shifter, and gestalt therapist. I am standing in her living room. The drawn curtains on the windows and at the room’s threshold, an oscillating space heater, and the soft decorative rug beneath my feet create a cozy, womb-like effect. Naaz faces me a few feet away. She wears a tiger orange shag sweater and black cotton pants that billow at the ends.

She invites me to sense my feet on the ground. “Do they feel wavy or solid?” she asks. I become aware of how lightly my heels touch the floor and the uneven contact across the pads of my feet. “Wavy.” I answer.

“See if you can make contact with the ground on both the pinky toe and big toe sides of your foot.”

I take a few moments to adjust my stance.

“Let the inner heel of your right foot connect with the ground.” I’m amazed that Naaz has perceived its slightly raised position. Becoming aware of my inner heel, I rest it more solidly.

“In your left foot, lower the outer part of your heel.” I do this and feel a lift in my knees and torso. GROUNDING allows my spine to expand.

“Strange to start work on the voice with your feet, isn’t it?” Naaz says, chuckling . Her piercing eyes soften and a knowing warmth spreads across her face.

Naaz then asks me to breathe naturally and to notice how far down and up the breath travels when I inhale and exhale. At first, I notice the breath traveling down to the top of my belly and rising to the bridge of my nose. With a few more inhales, I notice the breath flowing down to my core and ascending to the top of my eyelids.

Over the next several breaths, Naaz invites me to breathe and feel the flow of breath between my shoulders. I notice my chest expand and sense large, steel blue wings at my sides. On the last round of breaths, she calls my attention to breath flowing from my heart to the front and back of my body.

The process awakens a sense of expansive SPACE within me.

Naaz demonstrates a yawn and invites me to follow. As I do so, she asks me to notice the rise at the back of my mouth. Holding her right hand upright in a cupped position, she hits it lightly with her left hand.  “When you sing, you want your voice to resonate against the back of your mouth.”

She turns to the side and lifts her head up. “If your head is raised too high, you collapse the area where the voice can resonate. She turns her head downward and points out how this, too, constricts the area at the back of the mouth.

“Keep your chin level.” Naaz encourages. My head aligns with the groundedness of my feet.

Naaz then invites me through a progression of vocalizations, beginning with a hum. The hum resonates all around my chest cavity. We progress to the sounds of “ah”, “ee”, “oo”.

“It is these open sounds that resonate. The consonants are percussion.” Naaz notes.

For the next several moments, I draw in full breaths and remain aware of the spaciousness in my torso and mouth. I try to let open vowel sounds emerge as I exhale. I feel a gap between the exhale of breath and the sound of tones. It is surprising how unnatural it feels to express open sounds from a sense of spaciousness. After a few more rounds, I begin to feel a buzzing at the back of my mouth and in my cheek bones.

Naaz then invites me to continue to breathe fully and to sing-say the words, “I am here.”

“I-I-I-I-I-A-A-A-A-A-M-M-M-M-H-E.”

My breath runs out.

“I-I-I-I-I-A-A-A-A-A-M-M-M-M-H-E-E.”

“More breath.” Naaz offers.

I-I-I-I-I-A-A-A-A-A-M-M-M-M-H-E-E-E-R-R.”

After many attempts, I am able to utter the full sentence and to sense greater flow between my breath and the words. When I say the sentence the last time, I notice that both my breath and conscious embrace of this declarative statement call my WHOLE BEING into this space.

Groundedness.

Spaciousness.

Whole Being.

It takes all three to create resonance in a single voice.

What would be the impact on our conversations if we created these conditions for resonance in every voice in the room?

 

It's your job to keep the fire going

One overcast day in early December, I went to a leaf clearing work day at a cooperative pool club my family belongs to. One of the first to arrive, I was greeted by the work day organizer and another volunteer. Both stood near a raised fire pit with a tall, brick chimney at the center of the pool club grounds. In the fireplace, several thick logs were ablaze, sending out much appreciated warmth on that nippy morning.

The volunteer told me that one of the first tasks to be done was to clear the fallen branches strewn across the green. He explained that clearing would allow the leaf blowers to work more effectively. I started in one corner of the field, and made several trips to the fireplace balancing piles of logs in my arms.  After several rounds, the organizer, a square-faced man with a leaf blower strapped around his torso, approached me. He lowered the power on his blower and said with great insistence, “It will go a lot faster if you use a tarp.” He pointed me in the direction of his pickup truck with an attached flatbed that held several garbage bins bulging with bright blue and orange tarps  I headed over to the bins, fished one out, and took it to the spot where I had left off. After spreading it on the ground, I resumed my gathering.

More volunteers arrived, all white men. Between the options of a hand held rake and a powered leaf blower, most chose the latter. What had been a quiet field, now filled with the cumulative roar of several mechanized yard tools.

When my tarp looked full enough, I hauled it to the fireplace. Another volunteer stood before the fire, sipping coffee from a large styrofoam cup. In between sips, he fed the dancing flames more branches from a pile I started on the ground nearby. I asked him whether I should unload my new batch of wood on the raised stone platform around the fireplace or continue dispensing on the ground. He shrugged and said it was up to me. I piled the logs on the ground and set out for another round of gathering. I continued to be the sole wood gatherer, the only woman, and the only person of color.

By the time I returned, the fire had diminished significantly. Tendrils of smoke rose from the blackened and charcoal grey logs that held only a few sparkling embers. Small flames licked around the edges of the disintegrating pile, hungry for fresh wood. The same man I had encountered before, arrived at the fire when I did. He threw in a few logs and then turned to me and said, “The fire almost went out. It’s your job to keep the fire going.”

It’s your job to keep the fire going.

I let his words sink in.

I went back out with a new sense of urgency. There was a section of the green that several men with leaf blowers were closing in on. I hurried there and laid down my tarp. Quickly and steadily, I collected wood. Bending, gathering, rising, tossing. Bending, gathering, rising, tossing. I kept just ahead of the men flanking one another in a long line across the field. I thought about the importance of both gathering enough wood and returning to the fire in time to keep the blaze going. I sensed I could reach one edge of the field and still get back in time.

I hauled a full tarp back to the fire. It was smaller but not in danger of going out as it was before. Without asking for directions, I began arranging branches in a square around the flickering flares, and then criss cross within. The fire grew in intensity and before long its flames danced high, radiating heat in all directions. The sound of crackling wood rose over the din of leaf blowers now at a far end of the grounds. I lingered and let the fire’s energy spread across my body.

It’s your job to keep the fire going.

As a facilitator, writer, and singer-songwriter, these words continue to reverberate in my heart and bring another dimension of clarity to the nature of this work. This call to purpose also raises many questions:

Who are the firekeepers in our communities (for me, they include the ritual makers, healers, teachers, young people, elders, and artists of all mediums) and do we value their work through recognition and just compensation?

How do we tend to the fire within ourselves, communities, organizations, and networks while also responding to the urgency of this moment, one with growing climate crises and increasing disparities?

In organizational development, network building, or systems change work, what is the fire we need to sustain in order for processes to be transformative and life giving?

It’s your job to keep the fire going. Let’s get to work.

 

Composting Thanksgiving

In the days before November 23rd, I struggled to return people’s wishes of “Happy Thanksgiving.” This is not a new struggle, but this year,  the dis/ease caused by the lie of Thanksgiving overwhelmed me. Being a mama has a lot to do with this. At four years old, my child is taking stock of natural and social forces more deeply than before. Allowing him to ingest the fraudulent claim of Indigenous people helping European settlers through a hard season, and then gathering with them for a feast of gratitude, is like feeding him a poison that damages his vision.  

“Have a renewing break.” I said in response to others’ greetings. It is a small act. A first step in creating a ritual around a history unimaginably violent and cruel. It is not the violence and cruelty that I hope to ritualize, but a re-membering of what happened, for it is only by re-membering that we can hope to create pathways to healing and transformation.

The Other Slavery

On a recent Hidden Brain podcast, the host, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed Andrés Reséndez, a historian, professor, and author about his book, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. In the interview, Reséndez shared that from 1492 to 1900, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous people throughout the Americas were enslaved.  He noted that this enslavement began within three years of Columbus’s arrival, when in response to mounting financial problems, he sent back 550 captives to Spain to sell in Spain’s slave markets.

Reséndez also recounted a chilling tale of a childhood friend of Columbus, who in a letter to the conquistador expressed his desire for sex with an Indigenous woman he had seen naked.  Soon after this, Columbus “gave” the woman to him as a gift. Reséndez used this story to highlight that in the enslavement practices of Spanish invaders, Indigenous women and children were valued higher – in the case of women, 50 – 60% more - than men. He attributed this to the reproductive power of women, and the adaptability of children in learning languages and skills desired by slave masters. Reséndez posited that the practice of enslaving Indigenous women and children is the historic antecedent of modern day sex trafficking.

Reséndez also revealed that while the enslavement of Indigenous people was outlawed by the Spanish colonists in 1542, colonists and settlers used a multiplicity of labor practices that essentially amounted to slavery. These included the forcible removal of Indigenous people from their places of origin, using threats of violence to force compliance, and creating indebtedness and buying an Indigenous person’s debt to enforce work with little to no pay. Such practices sound eerily familiar in this age of global capitalism, which has spawned numerous ecological and human disasters, including the displacement of millions and the plundering of natural resources on a massive, irrevocable scale. Both alarming developments make it increasingly difficult for local communities to sustain themselves using local resources. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that 45 million people in the world are currently enslaved in ways reminiscent of Indigenous people’s enslavement in the Americas over a period of 400 years.

No Mud, No Lotus

In a strategic planning retreat I attended recently, a participant quoted her mother saying, “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t see where you’re going.” The failure of the United States to remember its history with honesty enables a continuity in systems and practices of oppression that violate some and dehumanize all.

How do I break this cycle with my child, family, and community?

The Zen Buddhist master, peace activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh says, “No mud. No lotus.” to convey that those things which nourish us – beauty, love, art, courage, vision, and relationships – often grow out of our suffering.  Thich Naht Hanh’s teaching calls to heart compost, which transforms leaves, grass clippings, wood debris and food scraps into dark, rich, productive soil. Stable compost goes through a thermophilic, or high temperature, decomposition phase and then a slow stabilization or airing phase. During the high temperature phase, a curing process takes place in which all pathogens and weed seeds are killed. This phase is critical to compost being able to move into its airing phase when it slowly releases nutrients for plants and conditioner for soils. (Go to the Deeproot Blog for more on the power of compost.)

The lessons of compost are encouraging. They incite me to imagine spaces where we create the conditions for curing the violent energy that fueled the conquest of the lands and peoples of the Americas. It is this same energy which drives the ongoing, relentless extraction of natural resources and human labor for an illusory sense of profit and wealth. 

What might these conditions be? Are we brave enough to create them? What are the processes that generate enough life force in our individual and collective bodies and consciousness to transform denial into an energy that nourishes life?

I do not know for certain, but I have some inklings. As I begin to experiment with these, I feel my dis/ease abating.

 

Where we begin determines the change we make

A good friend, film maker and cultural educator, once told me that it was "f@cked up" to begin African American history with the slave trade. For him, beginning with bondage, coercion, and relative powerlessness was damaging to the psyche of African American children and young people. With his home schooled children and his students, he wisely began with the rich cultural traditions of central and western Africa and times of sovereignty and innovation in the fields of mathematics, architecture, science and music.

As a teacher of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and history, I began with European colonization of Caribbean lands, the forced assimilation, displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the capture and enslavement of Africans from hundreds of distinct ethnic groups. I did so to set a context for the role of musical traditions in the lives of enslaved people. My main message in 15 years of cultural work was that In the context of cultural erasure, forced labor, and the subjugation of body, mind and spirit, music was a tool of survival and resistance. My hubris, at first, blinded me to participants' inherent (ancestral) knowledge of this and and the ways they lived this out through the musical traditions they claimed as their own.

I’ve worked with many people and organizations who feel the locus of their power in the fight against injustice. Certainly, when we come together in a common struggle for access to basic human rights of quality housing, education, and health care and living wage work within an extractive and exploitative economic and political system and WIN, there is a sense of collective power that emboldens the spirit and strengthens the heart. 

But this beginning with what we don’t have has never sat right with me. After five years of honing my skills as an organizer, my discomfort became so acute that I leapt from this vocational path to an experimental journey in collective music making. What I loved most about music as a means of justice making, was that the groups I gathered with began with a sense of cultural riches and collective abundance. The locus of our power was not in an external fight, but in the sinew and blood of our bodies, in the spiritual wisdom of ancestors, in the vibrant rhythms and songs we sounded together. We did not have to fight to have power, but rooted in our power we were compelled to change the conditions that suppressed or denied its full exercising and expression. 

When our starting point is sovereignty and abundance and not oppression and scarcity the vital work of transformative justice becomes one of coming full circle to our intrinsic power - power that can never be taken from us.

Where is the locus of power for you?