Beyond Spiritual Activism: Creating a Just and Sustainable Movement for Change
Crossposted on Tikkun Daily
By Be Scofield
Editor’s note: this post has generated a very lively discussion on Tikkun Daily and very strong objections from leaders from the main organization that is critiqued here. This organization is preparing a list of what they consider to be factual inaccuracies, and will be given space on Tikkun Daily to respond fully.
Seane Corn - International celebrity yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World.
In "Feminism Without Borders" Chandra Mohanty shows the problems of an assumed "global sisterhood" or "planetary feminism" framed by white, euro-centric feminists.
I could not imagine that she would actually use that racist word anywhere, let alone in Africa!...Monkey? There was no way. I shook my head, succumbed to massive denial, and thought that I must have heard wrong. I walked away...Never in a million years did I think that I would have had to talk to a group of educated women about appropriate language. Never would it have occurred to me to have to write a list of the racist terms that should never be used, whether in Africa or anywhere! I assumed that anyone who grew up in America, post-civil rights era, knows which words are right and which are, undeniably, wrong. I assumed very incorrectly...I can't assume that because someone does yoga or is educated exempts them from being ignorant or sheltered or even sensitive to the realities and complexities of racism or culture.While it is admirable that she publicly wrote about this, her response to this situation is telling about the actual depth of her racism or diversity training. Had she not been under the impression that we were living in a post-racial society, she would have known that white people saying racist things and acting in racist ways is still commonplace. Corn admits that up until this incident, she assumed that because we live in a post-civil rights era and that someone is educated and does yoga they would understand racism. But of course nothing could be further from the truth. Again, taking the best of what is taught on the mat off into the world isn't sufficient to create just and sustainable communities. In one of her blog posts she describes what she believes to be important to reflect on while doing activism:
It is critical for all of us to explore perceptions, assumptions, prejudices, elitism, understand racial and class division and exclusion and be conscious of not projecting our experience, traditions or heritage onto the people of this or any culture. In service or outreach, there is often a desire to "fix" someone or a situation. To interfere without truly understanding the ways in which a culture operates, and respect how it defines and supports itself no matter the socio-economic-political circumstance, is arrogant and presumptuous. Which, by the way, I've certainly been guilty of being. Over the years, I have learned that when I come to serve, I need to understand, respect and work within the culture I'm serving and not impose my beliefs, customs, politics or comforts, unless invited to do so.What does it mean to not impose "my beliefs, customs, politics or comforts" on a culture "I'm serving?" What type of diversity training do Off the Mat participants receive? If this is so important and Corn has learned from her mistakes, it would be helpful to the rest of us for her to pass on this wisdom. These four sentences, among dozens of pages of writing, illustrate very little about her actual depth of understanding of these issues, not to mention her participants'. Her short talking point is on the right track, but it's clear that it is superficial at best. Just look at the cultural insensitivity she shows in the same blog, written from Uganda, "Africa is a culture of ritual, dance and song," "So each day, before we go out into Africa we first connect to God," and "I breathed deep the thick African air." One of the many racist stereotypes about Africa is that its numerous countries, varieties of religious practices and diverse identities and cultures can be reduced down into one monolithic understanding. This is the same type of colonialism that invented Hinduism and Buddhism by lumping diverse religious practices together (See "Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and the Mystic East" by Richard King). In addition to the above statements, Off the Mat advertised this trip to Uganda as "Seva Challenge Africa." This monolithic understanding of Africa has traditionally meant one of a few stereotypes. All Africans are poor, desperate, and lacking. All African cultures can be boiled down to "ritual, dance and song." And if I didn't know any better I would have assumed her quote about connecting to God before going out into Africa was said by a Christian missionary. Another example of Corn's lack of cultural awareness also happened while in Uganda. The OTM group had traveled to Uganda to work with Shanti Uganda to build birthing clinics and one day she witnessed a birth taking place in the village where she was volunteering. When Corne and her co-leader Suzanne went to check up on the group they saw three of their members helping a local woman in labor. Corn describes her experience in a long blog post called "A Soul Enters this World:"
She stroked her head gently and told us her name was to be "Miriam," just like her own. It made me wonder if this child was the product of a rape, because it is customary for the father to name the child and with Miriam naming her herself, and no mother-in-law present, this suggested that no father was available. I began to choke up with this realization and felt compelled to reach over and touch Miriam on her cheek and said "Thank you, you have given me the greatest gift in my life...."Before we left, I kissed Miriam and the baby and gave her some money, certainly not much by our standards, but perhaps an entire year's salary to her. I put it in her hand and squeezed, and then touched the baby's head and said "Please, an education, okay? You understand?" "Yes," Miriam said and smiled, still looking down at her daughter, "She will go to school..." Miriam's birth was one of the most remarkable experiences in my life. She was beautiful, like a wild animal, and with loving guidance and encouragement allowed her body to do what it was meant to instinctively. I can't imagine going through that process without the love and support of a partner, parent or friend. It breaks my heart to know that women have to go through an experience as intense as labor and birth in conditions that are unsafe, unsanitary and unsacred, when it is, indeed, the most holy of moments and should be honored as such.comments section:
This is one of the most offensive things I have ever read. Your inherent belief that your 'way' is better/truer, your blatant disregard (even contempt) for the knowledge of the local midwives who staff the clinic and lack the 'spirit of birth', your assumption that the lack of care is a result of anything other than colonization is striking and scary. You speak so poorly of the staff midwife (who didn't offer the care and love that you did). But did you ever consider who would have stepped in if there had been an emergency? Did you ever consider that her attitude might have shifted with you, the white women, in the room? You even assume that three women who have never attended a birth or spent more than a few weeks in a country know more about birth than the midwife and the woman giving birth herself. This comes from a long line of colonized thinking and quite frankly, it's not helpful. Yes there are problems in Uganda (not hardly as many in the area you are working in than in the war torn North), but they are systematic. You don't change them by just bringing in a western model. This has been done before, and what you see now are the results. The reason that the 'spirit' of birth has been lost in most developing countries is because of poverty that is a direct result of western influence gone wrong. The history of the West in Uganda makes it more than a problem for white women to come in and assume they can show Ugandans how to have 'compassionate' births. Of course there is room for cultural exchange, but an essay for western women to read that is full of self congratulations and disdain for the local midwives is no way to start that relationship. Second, giving money out to women sets up some of the worst stereotypes and dependence on the west that we can imagine. I urge you all to look beyond the criticism as 'vicious' and see it as the beginning of constructive dialogue. If you are truly invested in creating sustainable projects that go beyond your own experience, then you better start recognizing the very basic problems of your project. Without real awareness we just get more of the same. I have been a midwife in Uganda for many years and I know the problems you speak of, and time and time again I see white people come in and try to 'help' and end up creating more problems then were there to start. Cultural competence is of the utmost importance - and Seane certainly doesn't exhibit any of this.In her blog post Seane describes what she thought was an abortion happening next to Miriam while she was giving birth. But the Ugandan midwife offers a different perspective:
The term 'abortion' is the British term for miscarriage. There is no way that the doctor was performing an illegal abortion out in a public space. The woman in the room had a miscarriage and had retained membranes which the doctor was most likely removing. Please get your facts straight before you post in such a public way. And giving money to a woman for education just because you liked her? Whoah, so problematic I don't even know where to begin. What about all of the other women who 'need' school? If you really want to talk about sustainability you need to do your research and start thinking beyond 'your' experience. Read 'Dead Aid', read Spivaks work on responsibility, please, just read something beyond yoga texts and counting on the one 'woman of color' in your group to call on you for social responsibility. Ughh.An international public health professional also commented:
As a public health professional with over a decade of experience in international public health (and a serious yoga practice), I find this essay profoundly offensive and inappropriate. There is definite need for time and space to reflect on cultural immersion experiences, but Oprah.com is not such a place. This essay is very personal and on its own merits a beautifully and honestly-written expression of Seane's experience. However, it is lacking any analysis of the larger sociopolitical context and fails to recognize the complex social structures within which this birth took place. Furthermore, it fails to give proper agency to the new mother, her newborn, their family and community, and the healthcare providers supporting them. This essay paints a picture of a new spin on the oldest form of colonialism that I see increasingly poking up throughout the developing world: New Age Missionaries. While I applaud sustainable public health projects that appropriately engage communities and local and national government ministries, the framing of this article does not any way suggest that that is in fact what is going on. Please, Oprah.com, Seane Corn, be more responsible with the expression of your compassion.Another person:
Oh, my dears, where to begin? Perhaps with the comment by one of the women who went on this trip: "indeed, my life was changed forever and I am inspired to keep growing loving and evolving my service" It really is all about you, isn't it? And your own self-development. This is exactly what I meant when I talked about ego. Another team member wrote, "Did my visit to Uganda really make a difference? It has changed my life and inspired me to continue finding ways to be of service in the world." Well, bully for you. I mean come on, women. Listen to the criticisms and see where there is merit. Just because you had a life-changing experience does not mean there are not problems with your methods. And why be so exotic? Can't you see that there is suffering right here in your own back yard? Ah, but then you wouldn't get to go on a cool trip abroad. Don't you know any history at all? White people have been traveling to foreign countries for centuries trying to "improve" native ways.These important voices highlight why Seane Corn shouldn't be training the next breed of U.S. spiritual activists thousands of miles away in Uganda, Cambodia or South Africa. They echo the counter oppressive lens that many activists, feminists, academics and grassroots organizers from the U.S. and across the globe recognize. These commenters know all to well that the legacy of colonialism and cultural imperialism lives in unexamined power relations, notions of cultural and moral superiority, racism and white privilege. Of course it isn't as thrilling to write about on the blog or raise money for a local project designed to stop a pollution plant from being placed in a poor neighborhood. And it might not create as strong feelings of goodness or lead to the same levels of personal and spiritual transformation. But that's the point: Uganda shouldn't be used to "uncover our own hidden landscapes and excavate the hidden jewels, as well as the rocks and stones that often trip us up," as Seane states. But ultimately when there is little to no accountability as the above comments illustrate, when no long-term relationships are established, when cultural imperialism is predominant, when there is no feminist or anti-racist lens, when representation distorts reality and when activism is tied to feel-good, rewarding, personal growth experiences in "exotic" far away lands it is a recipe for disaster. As Barbara Heron states in Desire for Development: Whiteness, Gender and the Urge to Help, "When we feel compelled to 'help' by rushing to the rescue of a situation or persons, especially -- but not only -- Others, elsewhere we need to ask ourselves to what extent colonial legacies of racialized relations of comparison, planetary consciousness, obligation and entitlement are at play compounded by our internalized socialization as good women." One of the co-founders of Off the Mat, Suzanne Sterling defends Seane and the organization in the same comments section.
I understand that this trip and the accompanying story may sound judgmental to some readers at first glance, but I know, as one of the founders and facilitators of Off the Mat, that a huge part of our focus is uncovering some of the underlying assumptions and judgements that we make regarding being of "service" and that taking responsibility for our own unconscious projections is a big focus in our trainings and intensives. We are actually very careful not to simply come into a culture with an arrogant assumption about what is needed to make a situation more stable and self sustaining. As the other participants mentioned already, we consciously work with organizations that are in deep, long term dialogue and interaction with the communities involved in the projects that we are supporting. We do not just come in for a few weeks of work and then leave chaos in our wake. We are funding long term projects, buildings and training programs that are co-created with the local communities and we have continuing support programs for the projects that we initiate.... As the others have said, there was INCREDIBLE love in the room that day, for both the young mother, the beautiful baby and the nurses who were working so hard in that clinic...and love is NEVER out of place. I am so deeply grateful for that day...indeed, my life was changed forever and I am inspired to keep growing loving and evolving my service toward a world that treats all living beings with inherent respect and affirmation. I will continue to question my motives, assumptions and judgements, and will do my best to show up fully present to the needs of each situation I encounter. Will I show up perfectly every time? Perhaps not, but I will be clear that it will not serve anyone for me to wait until I am perfect in order to be of service. I will not let my fear, guilt or "privilege" as an American keep me from taking a step toward connection with others and a willingness to live in the ways that we must embrace in order to create a world beyond separation and war.Sterling recognizes the need for a conscious engagement with the communities that OTM are engaged with and this is commendable. And the acknowledgment of deep, long term relationships is important. Also, uncovering the underlying assumptions and judgments about motivations of serving is crucial. Sterling and OTM definitely realize the significance of these elements and are open to incorporating them into their programs. I've never doubted the intentions of Seane or anyone at Off the Mat, but good intentions don't mean preventing harmful impact. I've already mentioned the intentions of Christian missionaries were well-meaning. While Sterling and OTM demonstrate some level of awareness regarding issues of oppression, there is more room to grow. The reality is that these women do come in for a few weeks and then leave. And they do impose cultural biases. Seane wrote an offensive blog post about her experience, perpetuated stereotypes about Africa, and one member called the children in the village monkeys. And Seane referred to Miriam the mother as a wild animal while wondering out loud if she was raped and stated that her baby was "the greatest gift in my life." Is calling a Ugandan woman a wild animal that much different than referring to the children as monkeys? Just imagine how any the OTM members would feel if a Ugandan woman had come to the U.S. and had wondered out loud on a widely read blog if their child was the product of rape. And sometimes love is out of place, because again the Christian missionaries did what they did in the name of love. The Off the Mat participants never get a chance to hear first-hand from people like the Ugandan midwife, or actually see the long term effects of their actions. They can simply dismiss them in the comments section on a blog. One common question that is certainly relevant here is, what happens when the money that Off the Mat has poured into these agencies runs out? Anyone who knows about the troubled legacy of Western development projects in Africa knows that donors can provide large amounts of money for new projects, buildings and programs, and then when it dries up the organization collapses for not having sustainable funding. It would be helpful to know the details of how OTM members are taught about race, culture and privilege in addition to more information about the long-term relationships with the partner organizations. Without a much more transparent reflection and demonstration by OTM that they understand the various problematic dimensions of oppression in the work in which they are engaged, they will continue to face critics. Because it is one thing to say that service is being done in the name of love and cultural awareness, it is another to illustrate a working knowledge of colonialism, racism and oppression. Sacred Justice The case may be argued that imperial culture exercised its power not so much through physical coercion, which was relatively minimal though always a threat, but through its cognitive dimension: its comprehensive symbolic order which constituted permissible thinking and action and prevented other worlds from emerging. - Helen Callaway At the Spiritual Activation panel at the 2008 Yoga Journal Conference in San Francisco Julia Butterfly Hill made a number of statements that emphasized a different approach than what Seane Corn (who was also on the panel) was describing. Hill said, "You don't have to travel anywhere to do activism," "Sometimes yoga is the last thing that a community needs," (here speaking about inner-cities) and "We have a lot of privileges and it is important to recognize this." Perhaps Hill recognizes that if 20 million yogi activists followed Seane Corn's example and trained themselves in Africa and Asia it would be quite problematic. Off the Mat's local trainings which are held around the country and designed to empower yogis to engage in the world are closer to the local activism that Hill was referring to. However, similar dynamics of oppression come into play locally as do they globally and if OTM wants to continue to broaden its perspective a more thorough anti-racist and counter oppressive training can be incorporated. I don't have a problem with the term spiritual activism, as I still use it myself. But I want to introduce the concept of sacred justice as an alternative idea to illustrate the differences between the two. As environmental justice diverges from environmentalism I'm simply arguing for the inclusion of an anti-racist and feminist framework of organizing into the growing spiritual activism field. This would look like an increase of an awareness of white privilege, racism, oppression and cultural imperialism. A great place to start for white people is Peggy McIntosh's now classic "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Napsack" (PDF). Also, participating in some form of unlearning racism or white privilege workshop would help broaden the perspective of those leading and participating in the spiritual activism movement. And again here is the link to the resources on my website about white privilege and oppression. There is currently a large gap between those activists who come from an anti-racist perspective and those who don't understand white privilege, racism or oppression. This is evident by the differing responses to Off the Mat's "Seva challenge" program. Those with whom I've discussed or to whom I've shown this article who come from a decolonizing and counter oppressive perspective immediately see the problems and know that they wouldn't fly to Uganda to participate in this program. For those who don't have this frame of knowledge it is more difficult to see how Off the Mat reproduces oppression. My goal is both to begin a conversation between these two groups and, most importantly, to inspire activists to build a peaceful and just world through activism that is aware of the dynamics of oppression, both internally and externally. "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." - Australian Aboriginal Activist, Lila Watson. Be Scofield is a certified yoga instructor, writer, anti-racist educator, founder of www.godblessthewholeworld.org and a Dr. King scholar. He writes and blogs forTikkunMagazine and his work has appeared on Alternet.org and Integral World among others. Be is pursuing a Master's of Divinity in the Unitarian Universalist tradition with a dual certificate in women studies in religion and sacred dance with a concentration in Buddhism. See here for a full bio. For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest orvisit us online.