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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.

It's the latest term being used to describe how the search for the highest self can be bridged with social change: spiritual activism. Now more than ever you can hear yoga instructors, meditation teachers, small groups and personal life coaches speaking about the value of taking spiritual principles into the world for the betterment of the planet. Yoga Kula [formerly Yoga Sangha], a San Francisco studio, hosted a "Spiritual Activation" series in 2007 where inspirational talks by John Robbins, Julia Butterfly Hill and Jack Kornfield were followed by a yoga class. For the yogi or engaged Buddhists seeking to become involved in activism, there are numerous new organizations and opportunities: you can volunteer to teach yoga in prisons or the juvenile justice system, fly to Cambodia or Africa to serve people, create your own local service project for social change, take a yoga class for cancer and HIV awareness, or support yoga teachers in Africa. Transformation is in the air. What was once the domain for an individual's spiritual and physical growth is quickly becoming a useful resource to harness a new force for social justice. And with over 20 million yoga practitioners in America, and as more and more people seek spirituality in non-religious ways, it has the potential to be a powerful movement. This new spirit of transformation is all wonderful, right? Not exactly. As an activist and yoga instructor I'm all for inspiring people to make a difference in the world. And this new spiritual activism movement has lots of potential. But taking the best of what is taught on the yoga mat off into the world, as one program advertises, isn't enough to create just and sustainable communities for social change. Nor is meditation or a personal spiritual practice. Why not? Because yoga or meditation do not teach about how power functions to maintain oppressive systems such as racism, cultural imperialism, and patriarchy. Without this perspective we stand the risk of reproducing some of the most harmful effects of them. In Acting With Compassion: Buddhism, Feminism and the Environmental Crisis, Stephanie Kaza illustrates the importance of bridging spirituality with an understanding power dynamics, "Political, economic, and personal power can serve the environment, if illuminated by awareness and social consciousness of the logic of domination. Without this awareness, the critical role of power can be overlooked by the Buddhist practitioner focusing on the beauty and miracle of interdependence." Recognizing that our activism -- despite peaceful and loving intentions -- can actually cause harm with or without our being aware of it is a crucial component to a just and sustainable future. In other words the impact of our actions is more important than our intentions. This awareness is a central component of an anti-racist approach to social justice. Let's remember that the intentions of the 18th & 19th century Christian missionaries were mostly good as they sought to help civilize and educate.

Seane Corn - International celebrity yoga teacher and founder of Off the Mat, Into the World.

One of the most prominent leaders of this fast growing spiritual activism movement is the international yoga celebrity Seane Corn. As a pioneer in the field she has successfully combined the art of yoga with motivational leadership designed to empower people to make a difference in the world. Corn got her start teaching yoga to at-risk teenage girls in L.A. and became a YouthAIDS ambassador in 2005 to help raise funds and awareness about the HIV/AIDS crisis. She received both harsh criticism and support in 2001 when she represented Nike and took part in a commercial for them called, "Nike Goddess." She defended her actions by saying that Nike explained to her that they had made progress in their manufacturing efforts in the global south. With her non-profit Off the Mat Into the World (OTM) she is now trying to bridge spirituality and activism and train a new breed of leaders by tapping into the market of 20 million yogis in the United States. One of the central projects are their "Seva Challenge" or "Bare Witness" trips which lead people to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service. As I illustrate below, this well-known spiritual activism group is well-intentioned but it produces problematic issues of paternalism, "feel-good" service, white U.S.-centric privilege and racism. Understanding how this program reproduces some of these forms of oppression can provide some insights for the future of the spiritual activism movement. And for those combining yoga -- still a predominantly white middle class phenomenon -- with service, lessons can be gained about the more complex dimensions of social justice. There is a long legacy of activists and movements (some of the best our country has produced) that have struggled to understand both the subtle and overt dimensions of oppression. The failure to understand this crucial component has diminished our collective human potential for transformation. Those voices that have been historically marginalized -- women, people of color, queer, poor, disabled...etc -- have all been central to the evolution and advancement of the best of our American democratic ideals; freedom, liberty and human rights. Failing to recognize, listen to or understand these voices has meant and continues to mean that our efforts for social transformation are negatively impacted by their exclusion. Certainly the civil rights, women's and queer liberation movements have advanced the struggle to end racism, sexism, and homophobia. However, oppressive systems didn't just disappear after the 1960's, rather they morphed into more elusive forms which continue to affect us all. Knowing how these systems operate is important for the emerging spiritual activism movement to understand. You might be saying, "But, wait, none of this applies to me because I'm not a racist, I don't oppress people." I'm not talking about believing in a hierarchy of the races or advocating racism. Rather, I'm referring to a perspective that views power and oppression not just as an apartheid type situation or an individual act of racism but rather as a complex system of institutionalized policies, beliefs, and practices that shape and influence all of us. To different degrees everyone is implicated because the way we think, act, and relate is deeply affected by the long held prejudices and biases that define U.S. culture. And individual instances of oppression -- whether they are racist, sexist or homophobic statements, acts, or thoughts -- are to be expected even amongst the most passionate advocates for social justice. Why? Again because in the U.S. we live in a racist, sexist, classist and homophobic culture. As a white middle class male I am not immune from reproducing these forms of oppression. In fact no one in our culture is. When I walk onto a plane and I see two black pilots, I may have an unwanted reaction of doubting their credibility. Likewise, if my doctor is a woman I may perceive her as less qualified. And I may say something to a group of friends or act in a certain way that is offensive to a certain population. It is easier for me to make oppressive statements because I'm used to living in a world that privileges my social location and identity. In other words, there have been hundreds of years of affirmative action for white people, heterosexuals, men, the able-bodied, and the middle and upper classes. Thus anything that I do as a white middle class male, including activism, is tainted by the dominant narratives, privileges and beliefs that have shaped American and Western cultures. And it isn't just about being white. Gay people can oppress transgender people, men of color can be sexist, poor people can be racist, citizens of the U.S. can be imperialistic, and any number of combinations of these. See the article "Who Me?" by Allan Johnson for a further understanding of institutional oppression. And I've compiled a starter list of white privilege and anti-racism resources on my website here. That pop-American spirituality and those who teach it, whether it is yoga or The Secret (see my article "When Positive Thinking Becomes Religion"), lack an awareness of how oppression operates is not surprising because these are subsets of our culture at large which is mostly ignorant of white privilege and the varieties of oppression. Many experts in Hinduism, yoga, and eastern philosophy are critical of the appropriation and often superficial understandings of these traditions in the West. In the same way, experts in social change, about which a great deal has been understood in the last century or so, are critical when superficial understandings of social change are exhibited by the new spiritual activists. As there are gross misunderstandings of the true nature of yoga in its deeper philosophical and practical dimensions there are more complex, thorough, and responsible (i.e., anti-racist, feminist, grassroots and participatory) approaches to activism. Just as the deeper and more nuanced elements of yoga are often ignored by yoga teachers, the leaders of this growing spiritual activism movement don't discuss privilege, race or institutional oppression. Of course there are those well known people, both past and present who have worked to combine spirituality with issues of justice and oppression: Cornel West, bell hooks, Michael Lerner, Starhawk, Dr. King, Gandhi, Joanna Macy, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, Simone Weil, Caesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela and Thich Nhat Hanh among others. Anti-racist and counter oppressive leaders across the country are doing extraordinary work to challenge the systems of domination that continue to diminish our lives. When I speak of the contemporary spiritual activism movement I am speaking specifically of a fast growing phenomenon that is attempting to bridge service with spirituality in the yoga, Buddhist, meditation and personal transformation communities. It is a movement that, like much of U.S. culture, hasn't developed consciousness regarding issues of race, privilege and oppression. The spiritual activism movement can develop this level of awareness and I would like to briefly explain how two other prominent activist movements have successfully done so. The Feminist Movementand Environmental Justice

In "Feminism Without Borders" Chandra Mohanty shows the problems of an assumed "global sisterhood" or "planetary feminism" framed by white, euro-centric feminists.

It took more than one hundred years for white feminists to recognize and address their complicity in racism in the U.S. Black women were discriminated against, protested and discouraged in many ways from joining the struggle for enfranchisement by 19th and 20th century white feminists. Feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who used racial epitaphs and described white women as superior and more deserving of the vote stated, "If Saxon men have legislated thus for their own mothers, wives and daughters, what can we hope for at the hands of Chinese, Indians, and Africans?... I protest against the enfranchisement of another man of any race or clime until the daughters of Jefferson, Hancock, and Adams are crowned with their rights." In the second wave of feminism born out of the revolutionary 1960's, white women participated in the civil rights movement for racial equality but failed to accurately describe the plight of women. "Woman" was written and theorized about solely from the perspective of the white middle and upper class college educated woman, which denied the unique oppression that women of color experienced by claiming that the oppression of all women could be understood similarly. While feminists of color critiqued the white feminist establishment, beginning in the 1980's, feminists from Africa, Asia and across the globe critiqued U.S centric and western feminists for speaking about women without acknowledging how cultural ethnocentrism shaped their views. At the center of this analysis was a critique of "planetary feminism," which questioned the universality of womanhood and its articulation from a Western perspective. Despite its rocky struggle a contemporary feminist analysis incorporates dimensions of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality and ethnocentrism.

Van Jones is one of the leading voices in the environmental justice movement

Environmentalism, sometimes dubbed the "green" movement, has historically focused on subjects such as wilderness preservation and endangered species and can be recognized today by the cultural shift towards hybrid cars, organic food, recycling, fair-trade products, solar panels, and vegetarianism. The environmental justice movement, while affirming the importance of protecting nature and animals, seeks to expand our notions of "environment" to include where we work, play, live, and go to school. This emerging movement diverges from old-school environmentalism in that it is concerned with how pollution, toxins, unfair environmental policies and the placing of waste facilities affect communities and livelihoods, especially in the case of the poor and people of color. It specifically addresses environmental racism and class discrimination and seeks to undo institutional oppression related to environmental degradation. Van Jones, a leader in the environmental justice movement asks, "green for whom?" and like others working in the field brings race, class and gender awareness into our environmental and social change efforts. I believe the emerging spiritual activism movement is comparable to both the first wave of feminism and the environmental movement (and mainstream U.S. culture) in that it lacks a basic understanding of how race, class and other means of oppression operate. This doesn't mean this growing phenomenon isn't valuable or should be discarded. As bell hooks said in 1983, "Every women's movement in America from its earliest origin to the present day has been built on a racist foundation -- a fact which in no way invalidates feminism as a political ideology." The same applies to the modern spiritual activism movement. And just as the feminist movement evolved so can spiritual activism. What follows is an analysis of the yoga teacher Seane Corn's "Off the Mat, Into the World." I believe she is a pioneer, visionary and important voice in this spiritual activism movement. However I have concerns about the way her model of activism is being carried out because it echoes too loudly the naivetes of the early feminist and environmentalist movements. I want to be clear that I don't perceive myself as any better than Seane Corn. As I illustrated above, because we live in a culture rooted in various systems of domination we all have serious work to do when it comes to privilege and oppression. As a feminist and anti-racist activist and scholar I've spent a lot of time trying to understand and unlearn these systems both academically and experientially. Specifically my area of interest is in activism and the ways in which service can reproduce some harmful elements of oppressive systems. In the white privilege groups I've led we've spent much of our time discussing the various racist and prejudice thoughts or actions, either conscious or unconscious that we have engaged in. We explore fears about what losing white privilege and power might mean and discuss what it means to be an ally to people of color who still face racism on a daily basis. Off the Mat Into the World: Activism Gets En-Whitened Seane Corn, Hala Khouri and Suzzane Sterling created Off the Mat, Into the World (OTM) in 2007 as a project of the Engage Network (which also works with Van Jones' Green For All). Corn is a white, upper class woman from the U.S. who leads women, almost all of whom are white, to Cambodia, Uganda and South Africa for service projects that are advertised as opportunities for self-discovery. Called the "Seva Challenge" or "Bare Witness" participants can travel with Seane (and practice yoga each day) to one of the countries if they raise $20,000. As the largest yoga non-profit in America, Off the Mat and Into the World aims to help empower individuals to become involved in social activism in the local and global community. By trying to create effective and sustainable change they incorporate yoga practice, educational and experiential lessons and in-depth self-exploration. Weeklong intensive workshops are taught around the country by the founders who focus on four categories: self-inquiry, transformational journey work, community, and action. The end result is to collaborate with the group to create an action or some form of service project that has been inspired by the weeklong workshop. In 2011 the organization is leading a youth empowering seva challenge in Los Angeles. While I understand the meaning behind the slogan "Off the Mat and Into the World," it actually illustrates a central dynamic in the problem with activism that is lacking an understanding of oppression. White people are used to having their experiences be the unexamined norm against which the rest of the world is evaluated. In this case the program's title highlights the artificial separation that somehow the "mat," ie. the institution of yoga and the yogi is not of this world. The world is "out there," in Cambodia, South Africa, Uganda or to be discovered serving in soup kitchens while the life of the yogi is mostly rendered invisible to examination. The mat (or meditation cushion) and who is on it is generally not considered part of the world, nor part of the problem when working for social justice. Thus, the institutions, communities and teachers of yoga just like white people in general never arrive in the "world" as legitimate sites for social examination themselves. The yogi's most often white and middle class privilege grants the power, s/he believes, to exist mostly outside of the "world," beyond the realm of description, location and identity. bell hooks describes this well, "In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem that their experience is representative." Off the Mat reproduces a paternalistic, feel-good philanthropy that is rooted in 19th century Christian missionary work. To begin with, Cambodia, South Africa and Uganda are "exotic" and traveling to any of the three involves a sense of thrill and adventure. It's kind of like the popular television show Survivor. Where will the next foreign and exotic location be? Connecting activism with tourism, travel, adventure, reward and leisure is central to their project. During the Cambodia trip participants could visit the Royal Palace, National Museums, or travel in a boat along the Mekong River (and then return to their "5-star premier hotel" in Phnom Phen.) The program description captures this sense of adventure, "After the leadership training you have an opportunity to add one of the wonders of the world onto your journey: a trip to the historic Angkor Wat, where beautiful temples and sunrises await." The experience is framed in the context of a rewarding transformation: "The 'Bare Witness' opportunity is a reward for those individuals who raise the money, as this will be a transforming experience for both them and the children they will connect with in Cambodia." One of the rewards for participating in the Cambodia trip was that each participant got to hand-select a child and sponsor him or her for free (normally a $100 per month value). Most troubling is that these emerging leaders are being taught that they can "expand their self-confidence and capabilities by exposing them to unique physical and spiritual challenges" by traveling thousands of miles to "exotic" foreign locations. As I illustrate below this can be extremely problematic. On the 2009 trip to Uganda, one white group member on several occasions referred to young children in the village as monkeys. Apparently an innocent mistake, the woman claimed that she calls all children monkeys as a term of endearment. Unaware of the racist use of this term to refer to black people as inferior, the woman was caught off guard when other members described to her the problematic use of the term. Seane wrote about this experience in a blog post for Oprah.com called "The Good and Bad Sides of Activism." But what in my opinion is most significant here is not that a white person made a racist statement but that Corn (who claims to provide diversity trainings to participants) is utterly shocked at this happening:
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.

Seane Corn with baby Miriam

A midwife in Uganda replied on Oprah.com in the 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.