A Recipe for Change: Integrating African Spirituality & Social Activism
An Interview with Rose Sackey-Milligan
Rose Sackey-Milligan, Ph.D. is of Afro-West Indian heritage and grew up in the Caribbean in the 1960s, at a time when the spirit of de-colonialization had overtaken the black world. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, as well as the movements for political independence in the Caribbean and across the African continent inspired a widespread pan-Caribbean and pan-African fervor.
Rose’s life and work has been deeply shaped and influenced by this particular historical moment, and she has spent a significant portion of her life committed to service through reversing social, political and economic injustices. Rose also received full Lùkùmí priesthood ordination and acquired 20 years of study and practice in the Lùkùmí/Yorùbá faiths. Thus, her commitment to inner transformation has also had a significant impact on how she approaches social justice work.
In this dialogue, I interview Rose about her early years during the Civil Rights Movement and her personal entrance into the African spiritual traditions. We then discuss the relationship between spirituality and social activism and investigate the gifts and limitations of both spiritual and social activist approaches to change, while advocating for a deeper integration of both. We also explore the deep impacts of racism and race experience in shaping human consciousness.
Rose Sackey-Milligan is a writer, educator, and award winning socio-cultural anthropologist who received full ordination into the Lùkùmí priesthood in 1997. She has been practicing and studying African traditional religions since 1991.
Rose has traveled extensively in Southern and West Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States. She is also co-director of c-Integral, Inc., a non-profit education and research organization that educates, trains and mentors social change agents in an integral approach to liberation and transformation. She formerly served as Director of the Social Justice Program, Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and Program Director, Peace Development Fund.
Rose received her Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy degrees in Anthropology from the University of Connecticut. At present, she is a Program Officer at the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities and coordinates the “Literature and Medicine: Humanities at the Heart of Healthcare” program.
Check out Rose’s forthcoming book: Ifá/Òrìsà and Lùkùmí Voice on the Evolution of Consciousness, Culture and the Future of Humanity
*This Dialogue was recorded on March 1, 2012
Vanessa: Welcome to the dialogue series, Dancing in the Liminal: A Global, Border-Crossing Inquiry into Art, Activism, Spirituality and Leadership for the 21st Century. I’m your dialogue hostess, Vanessa Fisher, and I’m here with my honored guest, Rose Sackey~Milligan, to engage our topic, “A Recipe for Change: Integrating Spirituality and Social Activism.”
(see Rose’s bio above)
Rose and I have just recently gotten to know each other, and one thing that I’ve really appreciated in getting to know Rose and her work is the depth of her experience, which really shines through in the groundedness and maturity of her perspective on issues of spirituality and social change. I also just appreciate the seasoned and humble presence that I feel she brings to the topics.
I feel really grateful to have Rose here today, and for her taking the leap to be my first guest on my Dialogue Series. I’m really honored to have you here Rose. Welcome to Dancing in the Liminal.
Rose: Thank you Vanessa, it’s my joy and my pleasure to be here, and I’m looking forward to exploring the various themes that we’ve outlined for our conversation.
Vanessa: I thought we could start by having you share a bit about your own history—your early years growing up during the civil rights movement and how that informed and brought you to some of your early social activist work.
Rose: Absolutely, in looking back I realize how impressionable I was during those early years. I remember it was around the age of sixteen that I really got politicized, and by that I mean I really got a sense of the world around me. Prior to that, I just really did not know what was happening in the world.
There was a turning point at sixteen when I participated in a summer program with other young people. There was this awareness, this knowledge, that was shared about the black world in general, and an understanding of colonialism as well as the impact of colonialism and imperialism in the black world. That was connected to what was happening in the Caribbean, and what was happening to African Americans on the US continent.
It was at that point that a light bulb went on—an epiphany took place. That awareness and study continued, and it was connected to the awareness of all of the political work that was happening in West Africa, Ghana, and around the Caribbean. We continued to study on our own. We would get books, and we would meet on Saturday mornings so that is how my involvement deepened. Although there wasn’t any political action that was happening on St. Croix, there was just this burst of energy and interest in myself as a woman of African ancestry, and there was a pride that arose that here we are, and here I am, part of this energy and movement for black liberation.
That was such a positive influence in my life and in the lives of my peers. We began to read a lot of texts. Soul on Ice was a very popular book at the time. I don’t remember the author, but he was definitely part of the Black Panther movement in the United States. We read James Baldwin, Franz Fanon, Langston Hughes. There was just this burgeoning interest in the black self. We began to wear our Afros—huge Afros. It was just a time of recognition of the value of blackness.
I offer that as the beginning of my own political understanding and a deep sense of pride in blackness, much to my parents fear and worry because there was a fear of being too black, or stepping out and being recognized for blackness. That fear was understandable given who they were, and given their own experience growing up on the island where it was not safe to be black. Stepping out like that was being targeted and putting yourself in danger. To be a revolutionary and to be perceived as a revolutionary thinker was not something they wanted to encourage. They thought our path should be about going to church, getting an education and going to college. While all those things were important, I think my own politicization as a young person was equally important and that sent me on a trajectory that continues today.
Vanessa: It sounds like you started out as a very idealistic revolutionary, in a good sense.
Rose: Absolutely, I grew up at a time when I could see black people could be organized in a very powerful way to achieve very progressive causes that were right and just. Yes, I saw people making those attempts, and that certainly boosted my morale as a person of that ancestry.
Vanessa: You talked in another interview about being quite involved in activist work in your younger years, and then there was a turning point when something crashed for you. I was curious if you could share a bit about that.
Rose: Yes, after I was politicized when I was sixteen, I wasn’t very much on the frontlines of the activist world. I spent a lot of years in academia, and a lot of years really understanding the politics of my region and the politics of my world.
When I was in college, I was very involved with causes that had to do with student rights and things of that nature. That continued in a limited way until I completed my first degree and then went on to do advanced work at the University of Connecticut in the field of anthropology. While there, my political education deepened even more. I went to study with a South African who was a Marxist educator and philosopher, and my greatest learning came out of the Marxist critique of capitalism. That opened my eyes even more politically, yet my workload at the University didn’t allow me to be that active politically.
At the end of my advanced degrees, I became very involved in my first career job as a social change philanthropist. I had the distinct opportunity of working with an organization that financially supported social justice movements in the United States. That is the place in which I was able to use all my accumulated knowledge of the politics of race, the politics of gender, and the politics of all aspects of marginalized communities. That was where I was really able to become actively engaged in supporting the causes that communities on the margins were determining were important for their own liberation.
We supported organizing efforts around immigration, around sex workers and domestic violence. We supported a whole range of social justice issues. We helped communities who were organizing to challenge city council, and challenging both local and federal governments to reverse injustices in communities across the country. We were also very heavily involved in supporting the anti-apartheid movement in the United States and internationally as well.
I did that work very intensely for many years. I was committed and very zealous, and really believed that complete and total liberation from racism, sexism and all the other “isms” was possible. There was never a doubt in my mind.
So I entered the field and the work with that commitment, only to realize that social change takes a significantly long time. I realized that change doesn’t happen in the way that my colleagues and I had thought it would. We thought that because you attended one or two workshops on racism, for example, that somehow your consciousness would be raised and that would be it. But the reality of the depth of the challenges and injustices that we face as a community, as a nation, and as a planet—those injustices are deeply deeply entrenched.
Raising awareness and helping people to develop the will to move beyond individual self-interest really takes a significant amount of time and effort. I think once that realization set in for me, there was this moment of apathy and burnout. I had been convinced that I would see changes in my lifetime—I knew it and could feel it deeply in my bones—but the reality was that it was not happening in that way at all.
Vanessa: As I was preparing for this call, I was watching a very long documentary on the history of racism. Something that you are saying that really resonates is that when you look at the history of what has happened to the black population, and that even after slavery was abolished, the dynamics of racism stayed entrenched within the systems and within people’s internal consciousness. Even when we abolish slavery and create Civil Rights movements, we still see how deep these dynamics of racism are.
Rose: Right, because you can’t legislate these kinds of changes. It happens at a deeper level of being and consciousness, and that was the understanding that I really did not have. I think many people don’t have that kind of understanding.
Even when we look at this country, we see tremendous amounts of changes have happened, but there is still this deep-seated, unconscious sense that one group of people have more capacity or are smarter. It is still so pervasive on both sides. There are those people who believe in that kind of worldview, and who perpetuate the notion that white culture is better. But by the same token, there are those who are the receivers of that kind of thinking that start to believe that maybe this is true. Once you believe that, it’s very hard to reverse the notion that people of color in this country can make strides in significant ways, and that it has absolutely nothing to do with color, and even that the concept of race does not even exist. So these are deeply deeply entrenched dynamics.
Therefore, while at the fund, I went into this deep space of apathy, depression, burnout and exhaustion. That was the turning point because I understood somehow intuitively that there was something missing. That the revolutionary process, or the process of change and transformation that we want the world to undergo requires more than politics, more than a workshop, more than legislation, more than asking corporations to behave and act differently. It requires a different kind of Beingness, a recognition that there is something more than ourselves that we need to be in relationship with.
We need to allow that deeper Beingness to lead us, as opposed to the human ego and the smaller aspects of self. That was the point at which I went on this quest, so to speak, to find something. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew what I had, and the vision that I had for the world, was incomplete.
Vanessa: How did you come into the African faiths through all this?
Rose: When I began to realize that the social justice movement and work, particularly in the United States, needed to include another dimension, I was also starting to feel this desire to create some space from my work. I thought I would travel, and maybe that would be the thing that would fill this emptiness that I was feeling internally. I traveled extensively in Africa and Latin America supporting communities in Tanzania and being of service to organizations in Central America.
I had some friends in my community who were very focused on community empowerment and they had a vision that the communities that they were working with—mostly Latino communities—that there was a sense that they were not connected to their cultural and ancestral roots. A big part of the empowerment process is to know where you are from, to understand your cultural background, and to understand the value that your culture brings for you and other people.
Therefore, my friends organized a workshop on African traditional religion, and I decided I would go. After listening to the facilitator, who herself had been an initiate into the Lùkùmí priesthood—the Lùkùmí tradition being an outgrowth of the Yoruba spiritual tradition, as it emerged and morphed when it arrived in Cuba in the 19th century—I came home and said “This is it, this is it!” Meaning that I had found the thing I had been looking for.
Although I wasn’t sure how this spirituality could be used as part of social activism, I was just so excited that I had found what I thought was the thing that was missing in our process of transforming communities and transforming the world. I believed it was the spiritual component was what was absent, and here is a worldview that I felt, once incorporated, could change our communities and have some meaning for our work.
That was another turning point in my life that then led me to the place that I am today.
Vanessa: Was there something specific about the Lùkùmí faith that brought that realization for you? Was it because it was connected to your own cultural background?
Rose: I think because it was connected to my own cultural background, it was an opening for me to pay attention to it. It resonated in a way that my own Catholic background did not. The other thing is that at the time I had begun to explore meditation as a practice, and I could see the results of that practice in my own life and work and how I was relating to other people that had begun to make a difference. While I didn’t put these two things together as a recipe that we needed to offer the social justice movement, I began to realize, as I developed my own meditation practice and began to learn more about the Lùkùmí faith, that it was having an impact on me.
One of the central aspects of the Lùkùmí faith is that it is grounded in Ifá. Ifá is both a divinatory system, as well an ethical, scientific and healing system that comes from the Yoruba people. It has a sacred text in which is lodged the moral and ethical values that guide those following the faith. One of the principle ethical guidelines is ìwàp|l}, which is good character. To be guided by this space of good character means that one lives out ones life in a way that is grounded in the way we connect and are in relationship with each other—in our families, our communities, and our world.
The implication is that if I am an activist, and I am working and organizing in a community, that my relationship is guided by good character. It means I do nothing to disrespect the other person. That I treat the other person with deep respect and recognize the legitimacy and humanity of the other person. Even if I have a different opinion, and even if this person might be contributing to processes of toxic environmental destruction in my community by their corporate practices, that doesn’t mean it gives me license to treat or confront the corporate structure or city council person in a way that does not honor the humanity of that person.
That was the grounding that really began to guide my way of thinking and my relationship to social justice activism. That was important for me to feel and embrace, because the activist world in general is not guided by that. The activist world is often guided by a sense of zealousness; it is guided by a sense of anger; it is guided by a sense of arrogance and self-righteousness. It’s not to say everyone in a movement is guided by that, but there is a sense in which, to be a good activist, means that you have to be in the other person’s face and that you have to challenge and lead from a place that does not honor the humanity of the other person.
I think we have seen on the left, that that behavior and that principle of being, is not very constructive. This is particularly true if you are trying to organize individuals that might have a different mindset, or if you are trying to organize in communities that are much more conservative. People are put off by that way of being.
That’s not to say I’m not in support of organizers that are passionate and committed to their cause, but I think there is a way in which activism has a larger and more effective power if it is guided by an aspect of being that is deeper and wider and more spacious than the ego, and that really recognizes the humanity of all individuals. It is a way of being that comes from a deep place of peace, compassion, kindness, respect and love.
To be an activist, I know is guided from a place of love, yet that expression of love is not romantic love. It is a love that recognizes that at the deepest core of our being there is indeed a Oneness that drives and guides this universe that we are all a part of.
I am very committed to that. Therefore, my early years of embracing Ifá and the Lùkùmí spiritual tradition has really set the pace and tone for my world and life.
Vanessa: One of the issues I’ve always been curious about is the role of anger, or the energy of anger in change and transformation. I’ve always felt that that energy is really important, but there is also a need to temper it with a kind of wisdom. I’ve known some beautiful and brilliant activists, but who have so much aggression in how they approach things, and I’ve definitely felt the limits of that. I was curious if you could speak to that a bit, and how you work with that?
Rose: I really want to say at the outset that I believe anger and aggression and passion and all of those energies are important. I’m not suggesting that they are not important. They are important fuel. I think that if we cannot get angry at injustice, then we are dead—we are lifeless and have nothing to contribute. If the things in the world don’t move us to action, than what are we here on this planet for?
It is important that we feel that energy deeply in our heart and bones. Yet at the same time, while I think it is important fuel, I think that we have to recognize it, see it, feel it, but not allow it to consume us. If it consumes us and eats us up, then we are no good to ourselves or others. And if we allow that energy to drive our actions in the world—if we are angry and hateful—than we are fundamentally no better than the very thing that we claim to be working against.
That’s why it is important to have a practice, be it yoga, or prayer, or tai chi. Something that allows the ego to be softened. A tool that opens us up to our Beingness as who we really are—the deepest part of self. That spacious, unknowable, unimaginable aspect of our being. Once we recognize that deeper self that we are, and realize that we are not the aspects of mind or negative ego aspects of self, we can allow that to move and guide us and speak to us. We can allow that intuitive aspect to direct and guide our life as our hearts soften and open.
Vanessa: Something I really like about your approach, and why I was drawn to your work is that I feel you do bring that deep honoring of the intuitive and following of interior guidance, as well as this deep understanding of the dynamics of oppression, privilege and structural power in the world. That is perhaps something that is a bit more rare. In spiritual communities, there may be less of that knowledge of those political dynamics. It’s really bringing those two strands of the spiritual and the political together and how they inform each other that I find interesting.
Rose: Yes, because politics without the guidance of the intuitive has the potential of being unguided missiles, whereas spirituality without the politics can become self-focused. The latter becomes your attempt at personal liberation without realizing your connection to the rest of humanity. It can become a kind of spiritual narcissism—me, myself and I.
I think for those individuals who are committed to their spiritual growth, there is nothing wrong with focusing on self-development, but my concern is when it is done in isolation of your community and the world.
Also, my experience has shown me that there are many people who see the wrongs of the world and they want to make a change, and they think that through their spirituality, because they are becoming a better person, that that is enough. They feel they are being transformed and really looking at themselves and their shadow. And while those things are important, I still feel that just merely focusing on spirituality or spiritual growth and transformation without a recognition that in white culture those same individuals are also reaping tremendous benefits of privilege and power because of their whiteness, is a grave blind spot.
That is the piece that I think most individuals who focus on themselves don’t recognize. They are quick to say “We are all One, and that is all that is important.” And while that is true, I think it is also a very grave denial of the ways that white culture affords them lots of privilege and power that people of color on the margins are not afforded. Many people don’t see that. The focus on spirituality actually blinds them to that effect. This focus on “We are all One” blinds them to that understanding, that awareness and that recognition.
I personally maintain that it is through the recognition that, “Yes, I am a spiritual being, and I’m pursuing my spiritual transformation, and I recognize that because of the way the world is socially constructed, that as a white person, I am reaping tremendous benefits and power because of my whiteness.”
Once that recognition has happened, coupled with the spiritual transformation. That, in and of itself, is a tremendous doorway into more spiritual growth and development.
I also want to add that this liberation is two sides of the same coin. Meaning that the liberation of those that are privileged and powerful and those that are not, are connected. One cannot happen without the other. A recognition of that mutuality of liberation, that dual connection of liberation, is so important to recognize. And it is not about guilt, or blame, or anything of that sort.
My liberation as a woman of African ancestry, and as an underprivileged person in this Western social construction, is connected to your liberation as a white woman. There is no separation. The hope is in the recognition, we can do this together and that we do this in a way that supports all of us.
It’s not that you need to feel guilty about the society that you were brought into and which we are both sharing. Guilt is not a useful energy in this conversation and process. Once you can let go of that, and let go of all the obstacles that get in the way of your looking at society and its social construction on behalf of some people and at the expense of others, then there is mutuality in our capacity to explore this socially constructed society and understand the grounding of how racism works. Then, using a spiritual lens to guide that process of reflection and exploration, we can find a liberation in that. We want to use these tools in the service of liberation for all of us, because all of us are hurt by this system.
Vanessa: Yes, these constructs seem to be empowering one group, but in the end they keep us all imprisoned.
Rose: Exactly, all of us are imprisoned by this social construction. If we recognize and see that we are all indeed connected, and that we can all be free of this through our spirituality as well as a recognition of the politics happening simultaneously. Then the simultaneity of that recognition becomes the doorway into our deeper aspects of Beingness.
Then we can really legitimately talk about a Oneness. I don’t think we can talk about this Oneness of Being when one group of people who are pursuing their spirituality are not willing to look at the context from which they are benefiting. In my view, you cannot talk about your being a spiritually evolved person when you are benefiting from a system that is oppressive to others, and not be aware of that. That is why I think it is so important for this tandem exploration to happen, and I think most people don’t want to touch it cause its hard, and they don’t want to be blamed, and they feel guilty or bad. But it is precisely in that exploration that the liberation is possible.
Vanessa: I wanted to share a story that feels pertinent to this conversation. I consider myself a pretty aware person. I’m someone who has grown up in a post-colonial period, and I’m very aware of race and oppression issues. Yet there was something I found very interesting when I moved to South Korea.
I started volunteering here with an organization that is trying to raise awareness about the “comfort women.” These were women who were taken as sex slaves during the Asia-Pacific war—during the time of the second world war. The Japanese invaded and took over many of parts of Asia and took about 200,000 Korean women because Korea had been a colony of Japan at the time. They also took women from Taiwan as well as China and other parts of Asia and had used them as sex slaves as they were conquering different parts of Asia.
It was interesting because we aired a film here in South Korea to raise awareness about the issue, and in the film they had interviews with women from all the different places that Japan had taken over. There was one white woman from Holland on the film. This woman had been living in Indonesia at the time of the Japanese takeover because there was some colonization that had happened in Indonesia, and therefore there were some white people living there at the time. When Japan invaded parts of Indonesia, they took a very small portion of white women as comfort slaves.
What was interesting was when the first Korean woman came out in the 1990s to speak about what happened—this was 50 years after the war when the first Korean woman came out—no one was listening. The Japanese government wasn’t listening, the Korean government wasn’t listening and the American government wasn’t listening.
There was a movement that started with the Korean women who were trying to get recognition on the issue, and this one woman from Holland found out about the movement and it inspired her to come out about her experience as a sex slave during that time. She talked about how she knew that because she was a white woman that if she came out it would give recognition to these women. And it did. When she came out, it became an international issue and the press got more involved.
Of course, this did support the Asian women, but it is interesting that this woman from Holland had been part of a rich middle class family that had been part of colonizing parts of Indonesia. Of course, she shouldn’t have gone through that, and she was only sixteen years old at the time, but it is interesting how her story catapulted the issue into international awareness. Japan also paid compensation to the Dutch women, and has yet to fully pay to the Asian women.
The reason it is interesting is that as I was watching this video they were showing the life stories of the woman from China, the woman from the Philippines, the woman from Korea and then the woman from Holland. I watched in my own experience that when it came to the woman from Holland talking about her experience, suddenly it hit me. Suddenly, when she was saying what happened to her, it hit me. Of course I had felt sad about the whole thing, and I was very aware of feeling called to the issue, but there was some way in which, when this woman from Holland talked about it, it became real for me. And how deep the pain of what these women went through became real for me.
I was actually taken aback myself in that experience, and I started crying because I realized at a subtle level that I was still seeing these Asian women as other. Of course, I had compassion, but there was some fundamental way in which I was distancing, or not really taking in what had happened to them, until this woman from Holland spoke about her experience and I could resonate with her because she was more like me.
I share that more just to illuminate that even for those of us that are very aware, these dynamics are really so deep in us.
Rose: Absolutely, and what I find valuable about the story is that I think practice allows you to see that. There is a consciousness, a realization, a recognition that this is happening. I can probably bet that for people who may not have a meditative practice of some sort, that they may miss that. They may miss that feeling in their body and that awareness that pops up. Therefore, I think what your story affirms is really the value of being aware and being present to whatever it is that is happening in the moment. Of course, that is not a very easy thing to do. I know this for myself also.
I know my own ways of thinking and being have really shifted because of this path and connection to a deeper sense of Being. I carry the stories of my grandparents and their lives, and the difficulty of being squatters on the Island, and the difficulty of living under a very draconian system of laws that were instituted in the 1700s and 1800s for people who were of African descent. I grew up with those stories and felt that deep anger of what it might mean to be enslaved. Just hearing those stories were so jolting that I internalized these things. And for many years I just did not have any relationship with white culture. I refused to engage or commit or have any relationships with individuals who came from that culture, because it was just very painful.
But now is very different. My whole worldview has shifted 365 degrees and I am much more free and openhearted and compassionate. I am much more able to recognize that there is indeed this space of Oneness that really connects us all. That has allowed me to release a lot of the debilitating anger and pain that used to guide my life.
So I can’t encourage enough, for those who are just beginning their activist work and their service in the world, to take up a spiritual practice. It really makes a difference in terms of what you give and receive and how you are able to negotiate the world.
Vanessa: In closing, I just wanted to give you an opportunity to share anything about your book or your upcoming projects.
Rose: Yes, I have been working on my book actively for the past three years. It’s been incubating for probably about ten years. Essentially, I am very concerned with the notion that African traditional religions are not given the respect and legitimacy and viewed as a contributing body of knowledge to the evolutionary process that is unfolding in this century and beyond. I think particularly Ifá, and our sacred texts of the Yoruba people, with its emphasis on morals, ethics, philosophy, medicine, the arts and so on, can contribute to the very discussions we have been having.
How may our sacred text offer some considerations of how we might view issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, ablism and so forth? What do the African traditional religions and sacred texts have to say about these issues? What might they bring? What might they contribute to the discussion and dialogue that might contribute to the evolution of humanity?
My work is about looking at the sacred texts and distilling and pulling out selected pieces of that text and offering the wisdom of those texts to the world. When we talk about the major religions of the world, we speak about Islam, Judaism and Christianity, or even Buddhism or Hinduism. But we never ever include or even consider African traditional religions, so that is what my book is about. I know that it may be controversial, even within my own community, because of the interpretations I bring to the text. But I offer it nonetheless as a contribution the discussion of the evolution of humanity and the African contribution to that process.
Vanessa: Awesome. I like controversial!
Thank you so much for joining me, Rose. It has really been a delight to do the talk with you, and thank you for taking the risk to be my first guest. I really appreciate that.
Rose: I don’t mind being the first. There is something special about being the first. Thank you for the opportunity to share and offer my perspectives.