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ILI reflection: Part 2, NOLA

Updated: May 29

The Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) is a year-long intensive leadership program for artists, culture bearers, and arts practitioners. It is a collaboration of Alternate ROOTS, First Peoples Fund, NALAC, PA’I Foundation, Sipp Culture, First Alaskans Institute, and The International Association of Blacks in Dance. These organizations founded ILI based on their experiences with leadership programs that prioritized dominant cultural norms, which conflicted with their commitment to cultural equity. ILI's intercultural approach emphasizes shared experiences, mutual accountability, and the challenge of dominant social norms while honoring diverse histories and traditions. It aims to develop leaders in the arts and culture field who can respond to significant societal changes. As a peer cohort, ILI leaders enhance their personal and professional skills to impact local, national, and global communities, promoting greater awareness, resources, and action in the arts and culture sector.

As a member of the fifth cohort of ILI, I participated in monthly meetings and three cultural intensives alongside twenty four other creatives across the country. My experience in the cohort was challenging and enriching.  It taught me a lot about myself, others, other cultures, and ways of relating across cultural differences.  The following is a written scrapbook of my experience: a collection of quotes, observations, and reflections from ILI cohort 5 from my perspective.

Reflections from NOLA ILI intensive

“If there was no such thing as injustice, what would you do for your job/day?”

Pod 1 offered several opportunities for self care, connection, and conversation on Saturday morning and paired these options with reflections questions. One question in particular stayed with me for all of the day.  Every new answer to the question left me with a mix of very strong feelings: longing, sadness, grief, anger, determination. I felt myself grappling with possibilities and solutions that seem unattainable.  

Leading up to the trip, I talked with home friends about the itinerary.  They told me about the history behind the Whitney Plantation and what the organization was trying to do: truth telling in the midst of a place that covers up the truth. I was ready for a hard but necessary visit.  Our tour guide seemed knowledgeable and principled.  She repeated several times, “there is no such thing as kindness in the institution of slavery.  Quite the opposite.”  “You may have heard it said this way, I tell you that is not the truth.”  

Each time she repeated these phrases, I tried to dig deep to uncover the times when I’d been taught or believed the lies rather than the truth.  I couldn’t think of times that I’d thought there was kindness within the institution of slavery.  Even though I couldn’t unearth this myth within my own upbringing, I knew the myth existed in the environment around me.  For example, I’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  

“How do we address a problem if we cannot find the origin?  What happens when we cannot get at the root because the root is so deep?”  

Anthony Torres provided really helpful insight:

What does it take to change a culture that is built on trauma and lies when the trauma is so deep you can’t get at the very root of it?

I tried to contextualize myself in the space.  As a white person, what is my role and responsibility to undo the legacy of the institution of slavery?  What is mine to take on?  What is not mine to carry?  

The experience I had in the healing space was profound.  I was carrying the longing, sadness, grief, anger, determination, responsibility, and accountability.  I was still asking “If there was no such thing as injustice, what would you do for your job/day?”  And “How do we get at the root?”  The prayers and song and gifts of the healing circle were strengthening and provided release.  The breath practice, anointing, eye contact, and healing words offered to me were so lush with generosity and love that I almost felt like I needed to resist them.  I didn’t feel worthy of forgiveness, peace, or healing.  I allowed myself to feel the power of them and to sense a release, but I also felt myself holding onto some of the pain.  I didn’t think I was worthy of full healing.  

I get embarrassed when folks see me feeling big feelings.  I try to remain composed in public.  I could feel that my face was giving me away, so I took some deep breaths and boarded the bus for lunch.  One of the fellows- a person I do not feel safe around and who has dismissed me several times- saw me in my feelings.  I tried to answer by talking about the quote Anthony shared with me, but the person got distracted and moved on to a conversation with another person before I could finish unpacking my thought. 

On the Ashe day, our visit to the cultural center was so full of good things.  The space felt so welcoming, warm, and empowering,  I really enjoyed listening to Wood and Mama Carol speak about the beauty and growth of the center.  I was inspired by the Sifa and was filled with hope at the statement of what the folks are about and what they are addressing.  The amount of wins felt celebratory!  

I was a little concerned about engaging in cultural arts that are not of my own tradition.  I worry sometimes that as a white person I might be accidentally participating in something that is actually not for me.  I want to be very careful not to participate in acculturation, knowingly or unknowingly.  I did the beading workshop and was so inspired by the facilitators.  Their stories were beautiful and their craft impeccable.

I really enjoyed the free time.  It was the only large block of free time that we had during daylight.  I felt safer to move about on my own.  I tend to be on my own a lot at IlI which is not something I experience at home.  At home, I move in packs of people.  It has been hard for me to find my groove and settle into a group of friends at IlI.  I’m ok with this, but it makes meals and free time a little trickier for me.  I was grateful for someone offering to walk with folks to the Baldwin bookstore.  It was just what I needed.  It was a really good day.

When we got back to Ashe, the facilitators said that we were going to have fellows only time.   Group dynamics, conversation dominators, and discussion themes tend to develop within the fellows only conversation that I am uncomfortable with. I don’t like this about me and I am trying to change it, but for now, the best I can do is stay present and breath deeply during the fellows-only conversations.  I find myself simply listening.   I’ve tried to do a lot of self reflection to figure out what’s going on in me that makes me so uncomfortable and afraid in the fellows-only setting.  

I wish IlI had a sifa that we repeat frequently aloud.  I think having a very clear way of naming our values and what we are working for/against would be really helpful in staying on track.

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