DoTS #9 Recap - 400 Years of Structural Inequality: A Difficult Truth To Sit With

Feb 24, 2020

Wednesday 19 February, Angel Acosta was Otto Scharmer's special guest speaker in the interactive online Dialogues on Transforming Society and Self, this time on the topic of "Collective Healing: Facing 400 Years of Structural Inequality".

Over 600 participants from over 50 countries registered for this session on "Collective Healing: Facing 400 Years of Structural Inequality", which featured the work of Angel Acosta, doctorate student at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is exploring healing-centered approaches to education.


An Ecology of Inequality

Otto kicked off the session by referring to the extremely high incarceration rate in the United States, which makes up 5% of the world's population, while having 21% of the world's prisons. He then went on to acknowledge the disproportionate number of African Americans among prisoners, being 5 times more likely to get incarcerated than white people. He noted:

"If we do not connect to the traumatic experiences that we collectively enact of the past, it is impossible to move into the future together."

Otto and Angel met during a conference on generative social fields, where Angel ran a session on restorative justice and contemplative practice. Angel shared: "We have a system now that incarcerates at an alarming rate, and restorative justice has been a movement that has been put in place to respond to the over-incarceration." 

He explained that, traditionally, we respond to disciplinary infractions with removing offenders from their communities, through detention or prison. By contrast, "a restorative justice approach puts the individual at the center of the community, whereby everybody who was harmed or impacted by the infraction or crime can address it. So, this restorative approach allows us to have more rich conversation around what are the harms that have occured, but more importantly, allows us to maintain folks in the community so that they can actually get the support." 

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Click image to enlarge - Participants at a timeline session

He emphasized how important this support is, as the development of humans and communities is severely disrupted by a traditional punitive approach. Moreover, Angel pointed out that "there's a direct connection between the system of the bondage that was in place in the origination of this country with the long-lasting trajectory of the prison industrial complex.” He went on to stress that “what’s happened in this country is really an ecology of inequality. And that ecology now requires us to see it for what it is, and how it’s impacting not just black people, but many other people, including women, including white laborers, including LGBTQIA folks."


Restorative Justice and Mindfulness

Angel partly attributes his current involvement with restorative justice work to his studies in anthropology and extensive travels, which allowed him to understand “a little bit more about the cultural dynamics around the world, but also looking back at the US and some of the ways that we were struggling to address issues of inequity and structural inequality... So the formative experience for me was university and being exposed to the life of the mind.” 

He continued to share that: “The question that I’ve been asking myself for last several years, is: What is the connection between social justice and mindfulness?" Having explored deep structural social justice issues on the one hand, but also "this power of the mind and body to create ease and peace and mindfulness" on the other, he says that "what I’ve come to learn is that at the center of all of that is healing. This idea of providing a space for healing, restoration, and reconciliation.” 


Steadfast in Having the Conversation

When asked whether he sees any progress in the US around reckoning with the past, Angel responded: “A lot of Americans don’t understand the depth of the complex history that makes up this beautiful country... I think that it’s an interesting pendulum where folks do not know, and have a level of ignorance that enforces a point of view, in terms of how we see each other, but on the other hand, that there’s this hunger to connect, to really build community.”

He continued by touching on the polarizing social climate in place: “Now, the question is whether the leadership in place has the skill-set to navigate bridging those gaps, because what we see is that some of the broad-based leadership is exploiting the polarization for political and economic gain. So, in terms of whether we’re progressing or regressing: I think we’re in a difficult moment, yes, but I think history is about progress and about regress. So, for me, I stay steadfast in having the conversation, knowing that now we have a very tumultuous moment, politically.”


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Click image to enlarge - Participants at a timeline session


400 Years of Inequality

Before presenting the timeline outlining 400 years of inequality in the US, Angel explained that “the year 2019 marked this 400-year anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans” to the American continent that “really begins the process of enslavement in the colonies.” He also highlighted a growing movement in many progressive circles around acknowledging this 400-year period and its impact on the social fabric of American culture, naming The New York Times’ The 1619 Project as an example.

He then shared: “I’ve been part of a beautiful committee, that’s called the 400 Years of Inequality project, based at The New School in NYC, and what that project did was to create a long, 4 by 20-foot timeline that would walk people through history that originated with those first 20 enslaved Africans, but also brought us to the present moment, and revealed how we’ve been instituting laws and social values that have reinforced inequality in this country -- that have created not just racism, but also income inequality, gender disparity, etc.” 

Naming this timeline as a powerful tool for collective healing, he pointed out that: “Yes, there has to be attending to the pain and the trauma, while also keeping in touch with the possibilities of restoration and reconciliation. So, right now, there are people and communities having rich conversations around: ‘What does it mean to reckon with our past?’ ‘What does it mean to look at who we are and make amends, and build new institutions that reinforce the equality the constitution promises?’”

Inviting people into the timeline experience, Angel acknowledged: “The timeline is not perfect. There’s so much history that’s not there. It’s just one assemblage of facts that allows us to explore our history.” Moreover, he prepared the audience, saying: “The timeline has an intensity, so it’s important to settle our minds and hearts before jumping into it.” With that said, he guided the group into a two-minute contemplative practice, sitting in stillness with the image below.


A Difficult Truth To Sit With

Starting off with some images of the timeline sessions held across the entire US, Angel said: “I have facilitated this for about 2000 people throughout the country. We have invited folks to really sit with our collective past in order to think about what it really means to plan for our collective future; healing being a central component in all of this.” Angel then introduced the digital image of the timeline, saying:

“Take a few moments to really glance through this timeline. Take in the red texts, from actual people in history, many of whom organized, resisted, rebelled to bring us to this beautiful moment.”

He then zoomed in on some particular parts of the timeline, highlighting some specific events, such as “the year 1619, recognizing the unfortunate fate of the two dozen Africans who were forced to come to this side of the pond... See, part of what we do now is acknowledge and reckon with that arrival, and how that arrival still sits with us. It’s a difficult truth to sit with.” The year 1636 displayed the design of a slave ship named Desire. “Just think about that. At some point we were extracting value from human bodies, destroying families, and part of the enterprise - in this case the ship - we named it Desire.” 


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Click image to enlarge - Timeline Part 1

He included the year 1838, depicting the Trail of Tears, where 1000s of Native Americans and First Peoples were removed from their original territory, and were made to walk across states, with many dying along the way. "This is all to acknowledge that the beautiful country that we have today was seeded, founded upon the bodies of communities who we failed often to recognize.”

Angel also pointed out examples of incredible resilience and power, for instance 1917, when 10.000 African Americans and supporters marched on 5th Avenue to stand up against the racist structures. “Can you imagine the energy, the power of people coming together at that point to support the civil rights?” In addition, he included events affecting other groups, such as women and LGBTQIA people, for instance the Stonewall Riots.

He pointed to the violence of racism and xenophobia, the many murders that were committed due to race, including names like Trayvon Martin and Rodney King. He concluded, remarking:

“I want to end with 2001, with 9/11 and the power of that moment in terms of shaking us to our core as an American public. There is a direct connection between the historical legacy of inequality in our country and in our foreign policy with that moment. It is crucial that we sit with our complicated past... in order to create space for us to heal.”


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Click image to enlarge - Timeline Part 2


Collective Resonance Practice

Angel then invited Otto to guide the Collective Resonance Practice, which went as follows:

  1. Individual seeing: in Otto’s words “stay in this moment and connect with everything we just saw, we just heard, we just felt”.
  2. Collective seeing: everyone was invited to share what emerged for them from the timeline experience, using the sentence structures "I see...", "I sense...", or "I feel..."
  3. Sharing: in small breakout groups, participants then continued the sharing along the following questions:
    1. Introduce yourself: Name, location
    2. Share about what resonated with you from the timeline experience
    3. How does this relate to your own connection to history and place?

Some of the collective seeing that came up in step 2:

I feel despair

I see inequality

I feel release from pain

I feel strength and resilient

I feel ashamed

I see truth

I feel a sense of unity

I sense we got the same issues here in Latin America

I sense anger

I see a parallel to South Africa

I see pain

I feel hope

I feel the responsibility of healing

I see the difficulty connecting on a deeper level

I feel empathy

I sense how fear and separation pervade in our history

I sense a need for deep listening


Grounding in Each Other's Narratives

After the breakout session, everyone came back to the central room for a plenary dialogue, led by co-host Rachel Hentsch. She asked what thoughts, patterns, or questions might have emerged in the small-group conversations. 

One participant from Trinidad, dialing in from Saint Lucia, remarked that her country “shares some similarities with the timeline... [Trinidad] was a country that was colonialized by Europeans, the Spanish first, who wiped out the Indigenous population there, who brought in enslaved Africans and then Indian indentured laborers and Chinese indentured laborers and it actually became a place where people fled to.” She continued:

“Because it’s just 1.3 million people living in a place that is smaller than the state of Delaware, we’re forced to rub up against each other... You have to mingle, you have to interact with people. And in doing so, I think you are able to hear the narratives of people a little bit more, people who are different from you. So, the experience of African people, of Indian people, it’s known to everyone…” 

She concluded that what struck her “watching that timeline, is people having aha-moments and so on… The lack of information and the lack of grounding in other people’s narratives and other people’s truths, it inhibits empathy. You can’t empathize unless you really know what other people’s story is: where they come from and what their experiences are.” She then shared about the Global Challenges Retreat initiative, in which a diverse community comes together with a focus on building empathetic capacities.


A Pattern of Exclusion

Then a second participant shared: “I felt invisible, and I felt excluded… I was born and raised in Puerto Rico… We are a colony of the United States, and we’ve been suffering for hundred and some years… We are excluded… Even though we have almost 5 million Puerto Ricans in the States, our suffering here in the country is different. Our women have been used to test anti-conception pills, the agents that we use in Vietnam were tested here in Puerto Rico before… We haven’t received help after the hurricane of 2017 and the earthquake of last January… I think this history is a part of all of it. So, how can we reconcile with all of that?”

Angel responded to him, sharing that he himself was born in Puerto Rico and saying: “My heart is with you. I think that the feeling of being ignored and being invisible, when it comes to the timeline specifically, are very real and the timeline itself only mentions Puerto Rico maybe once or twice, but that actually represents a pattern... I think that, when it comes to the timeline, and when people feel alone and disregarded, that’s when the space to center that person or that community into dialogue happens. So, for example, you step forward and we hold you and we hold Puerto Rico, and we recognize the historical legacy of colonialism on the island and the current negligence when it comes to supporting the island.”


Holding Shame and Sadness

A last participant shared: “My question is: Once we open up to the reality of what happened in our history, how do we not get overwhelmed by the pain, or shame, or sadness that comes with that? I’m Indian-American. I was born and raised in America, but I’ve spent the last few years in rural India. And what I’ve been around in rural India is a lot of hope and inspiration, actually. But what I find when I come to America -- I find a lot of the space being filled with a lot of sadness, with discussions about this bringing up shame in others, which I think is such a difficult piece to hold. So, I would love to hear if you have any recommendations on how to have conversations about this and not be anchored in the negative.”


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Click image to enlarge - Participants at a timeline session


Angel responded: “We know that intergenerational trauma is real. We also know that intergenerational healing is also possible. So, what we know about the brain’s neurochemistry, when it’s triggered by really intense experiences or conversations like this, the old reptilian part of the brain is activated. One of the ways that we reduce the anxiety there, is to engage in particular breathing and mindfulness techniques. That’s why I have begun to integrate contemplative practices and mindfulness before doing any intense work. So, what I recommend folks to do, before doing any intense work like this, is to ground themselves in the body, in the breath, and then gradually throughout the conversation taking moments to pause.”


Relaxing With Feeling Uncomfortable

Angel then invited Otto to share his thoughts, who referred to the power of “staying with”. He talked about holding space for difficult emotions, “which on a cognitive level requires us to be comfortable with not knowing, but on an emotional level requires us to be relaxed with feeling uncomfortable.” He stressed that this is a collective process that also requires us to loosen up any “rigid definition we might hold about the 'we'.”

He reflected: “There is no positive or negative, there’s only reality... The ultimate choice we all have in each moment of disruption and our life is: are we leaning into and engaging with reality or are we turning away? And this leaning into, engaging and holding without... even the necessity of feeling good or positive about something -- I think those are capabilities we need to strengthen if, as a collective, we want to make progress." In addition to direct violence and structural violence, he noted, “there is a third type of violence: attentional violence, which is essentially not being seen… That really brings us back to restorative justice, which is in this gesture that you explained to us, Angel. It’s really turning towards the issue."



Angel closed off by saying: “I want to stay around this idea of the wounds and the shame, the despair, the sadness. It’s an interesting paradox; on the one hand, the impulse is to suppress, to absence, to push away, turn away. But even though there is this impulse, … there’s always this desire to feel the things we tend to not be able to reach. So, I think that creating those containers in a safe way really could move us forward.” He acknowledged that “what my colleague from the Caribbean said around the inhibition of empathy, and how not knowing each other’s stories reduces our capacity to empathize, that’s a major point."

About his work, he said: “Thinking about it as collective healing is one way of doing it. I am still reflecting on this, I’m still thinking through it. I’m not sure if collective healing is the thing, but I know that gives me a lot of language to get us to the next level, to be able to have this conversation... So, part of what we do is harness the power of mindfulness and do what my colleague Stephen Shigematsu calls “Heartfulness”: bringing all the attention down from the mind to the heart. Using our entire bodies...  to fully feel into the moment, and to fully reach out and connect to each other as human beings.”


Integrating Shadow and Light

Kelvy, who scribed during the entire session, was then asked to share some reflections. She said: “I knew this was going to be a challenge, and the challenge was in the heart. It’s not in being able to hear the information, it’s in being able to hold it.” She noted that Presencing and Absencing came together in her image like an egg: “Then I thought of the moon and the dynamics of the earth, when we stay in shadow and when we have light from the sun. Somehow they go together, so they're not separable, really.”


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Click image to enlarge - Kelvy Bird's scribing image for the DoTS 9 session


When she noticed that part of the visual was starting to look like a muscle, it reminded her of “this collective muscle that we’re trying to become aware of and build that involves empathy, and heartfulness, and grounding in our breath.” She concluded by saying: “It struck me that, in the shadow, while we’re building muscles, there’s a need to still face the light and leave space for that.”



After the session, Angel shared some resources:

  1. Timeline Printing Instructions & Curriculum Resources
  2. Growing Facebook Community
  3. NYC Healing Collect Podcast on Apple Podcasts & on SoundCloud
  4. Contemplative Practitioner Training in NYC


Video Recording

You can watch the video recording of the session below:

DoTS episode #10 will take place on Thursday 19th March at 10 am EDT / 3 pm CET. The session will feature special guest speaker Drew Jones from ENroads / Climate Interactive. For more information, keep an eye on the DoTS announcement page.