A Shotgun Marriage to Change the World

I want to tell you about a marriage (of sorts) catalyzed by current events, and how it will change the world. At the end I’ll invite you — or someone you know who resonates — to join me in the result.

Travel back with me a few decades.

Sometime in 1993, I attended an informational meeting for the California Institute of Integral Studies then-nascent Transformational Leadership Development PhD program. While there, I met a tall human with a rich booming voice, deep belly laugh, and captivating ideas. So captivating that, after knowing him less than ten minutes, I did something I do not think I have done before or since.

I grabbed his arm.

I withdrew my hand immediately, slightly mortified.

He saw that I was embarrassed, and took my hand, and gently put it back on his arm…as if to say It’s really okay that you grabbed my arm.

I laughed. He laughed. I laughed some more. This went on for quite some time. In some ways, this is all you really need to know about this human — everything else, as the old Jewish saying goes, is commentary.

That night, that human and I had a deep and meandering three-hour conversation that rocked my world and changed the direction of my life. In that conversation, I learned what white supremacy really was — not some folks in hoods burning crosses on lawns, but the everyday system of words, images, beliefs, and behaviors that reflect people of European descent as the apex of what is most true, good, beautiful, trustworthy, and worthwhile. I learned that the terms gay and lesbian, and symbols like the pink triangle and rainbow flag reflect the white supremacist, Eurocentric values, and also signal a culture harmful to same-gender-loving (homosexual and bisexual) people of African descent. From that exceptional human, I learned by example how to tell hard truths while maintaining a loving connection. I’m still learning.

That human was — and is — Cleo Manago.

In the intervening years, even through long stretches of falling out of touch, our friendship deepened. More wee hour conversations. Deep support during troubled times. So much learning, from listening to his views. And always, the laughter — so much laughter. Here’s a picture from March of 2020:

The caption: So so so happy to have some precious time with this dear being…twenty-seven years of raucous laughter about nothing, gritty talk about everything, fomenting plans for repairing the world, and holding each other in our sacred brokenness. I love you, Cleo Manago!

We each continued to evolve our perspectives. Dr. Manago developed an incredible body of work on Black health and wellness. He founded the AmASSI Centers for Black Wellness & Culture where he is CEO, as well as Black Men’s Xchange National (BMX), an anti-oppression, cultural literacy, policy, defense and advocacy organization, where he is Chief Advisor. He also developed the critically noted Critical Thinking and Cultural Affirmation (or CTCA) preventive health intervention.

Major and minor news networks, scholarly journals and periodicals continue to feature him and his work. Many social services agencies have emulated his models. In 2015, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) included Dr. Manago’s work in its compendium of evidence-based, preventive health interventions. After so many decades of work, his insights and practices are finally reaching these levels of recognition and adoption. I am thrilled. And, much work remains to be done.

Meanwhile, as some of you know, I have also been hard at work. I published 100+ articles, edited a couple of books, and developed a somatic healing practice called Wisdom of the Body, and along with it, a set of personal growth and transformation practices I have taught in a year-long program called the Immersion. I created EvolutionaryWorkplace.com to bring some of those insights and practices to a larger audience.

I continued to take classes like Undoing White Supremacy, and Untraining White Liberal Racism, and I include cultural awareness work in some of my trainings. However, I had not taken large leadership steps in dismantling white supremacy, since the early 90s. I had been more active in the 80s on the East Coast.

Out here in California, I found it hard to engage white people, even the most liberal, and even those closest to me, in talking about race issues. Maybe I was “too” passionate. Maybe the time was not ripe. In any case, my leadership around dismantling white supremacy lay rather dormant for decades.

During that time, I kind of felt like I was leading a double life. On the one hand, my social justice perspectives and training that began in my teens still felt very alive. On the other hand, my identity and practice in the world was very tied up with these burgeoning personal growth and somatic healing tools that I was coming to be known by. I hadn’t seen a way to integrate them, nor even known that it was possible.

Until now.

For better or for worse, Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd seemed to at long last send a wave of wakefulness across a too-long-asleep segment of the white population. (I say “segment” because it’s just some — other white folks never will wake up to white supremacist injustice — they are too invested in its mythology.) Yet, at the same time, many voices of many backgrounds also came forward denouncing white fragility, white tears, and essentially, any white person’s process of openly grappling with what’s hard for them about dismantling white supremacy.

I get this. I think we need to follow Susan Silk and Barry Goldman’s “Ring theory” for cancer patients. It goes, “Comfort in, Dump out.” In other words, offer support to those most affected by a phenomenon, and choose others more resourced and less affected to be there for you.

I agree that in the case of racism and white supremacy, people with white skin privilege need to bring our tears and fragility to each other, or to people of African, Latino/a/x, Indigenous and Asian descent only by consent. We need to learn how to get out of the habit of foregrounding our own experience, and make space for those traditionally marginalized.

At the same time, I see a whole hell of a lot of white healing that needs to happen around white supremacy, because it hurts us too. As a Jewish woman, I experience both the history of half my people slaughtered, including my own blood relatives, by the ideology of white supremacy. I also experience white skin privilege in the United States of America. The sacrifices white supremacy demands of white people in exchange for privileges are harsh, invisible, and largely unaddressed.

I feel them.

I want to bring white leaders together to work through this, and help usher in the 22nd century with our hearts, minds, and consciences intact.

I thought, Now is the time! Now is when I could bring my dismantling white supremacy background together with my somatic counseling work, and create a safe and effective space for white to work through their fragility, tears, and everything else that comes up, and move into alliehood and advocacy. That inner work enables and supports the outer work.

So with the help of an amazing life purpose coach, Holly Woods, a hybrid offering finally came out of me. I developed a program for white leaders that would include the inner and outer work of dismantling white supremacy along with many of the other transformational tools I have created along the way. Finally, a path forward!

Yet something was missing. Although I felt (and still feel) I could offer a lot on my own as a white person, I knew I would enjoy and also be more effective working alongside a Black person. It would also make it more likely — and more workable — to be able to create a a multicultural program.

Cleo came to mind.

Hmm.

I knew full well he rarely worked with white people. I knew he was extremely busy. I knew the Black community desperately needed his self-loving Black-loving take-no-prisoners anti-white-supremacy medicine.

Who was I to suggest he step away from that?

At the same time, I strongly suspected he and I would have a blast working together, as well as create an amazing offering, perhaps beyond what either of us could do on our own. Maybe…just maybe…

After some inner hemming and hawing, I screwed up my chutzpah and asked Dr. Manago if he would consider partnering with me on a leadership program that foregrounded dismantling white supremacy. (I get a bit of butterflies in my stomach recalling this moment!)

He said yes.

Just like that.

In a text.

And he wanted to meet to learn more details.

I nearly leapt through the ceiling.

Then I paused.

“Do you mean you need to learn more details before you commit, or you are committing now, and we’ll meet to discuss details?

I’m in. I trust you.”

My insides got all wobbly.

He said I trust you.

This brought up all my fears of inadequacy — would I be able to live up to his trust? Why should he trust me, a white person? Why would any Black person trust any white person?

And then I released tears of grief for all of the extremely good reasons for Black mistrust of white people.

Tears for my own years of healing of being cast out of my family for my own truth-telling, then years later, now receiving this delicious affirmation of unconditional trust from a public figure who built his reputation on ideas outcast for years because others couldn’t handle the truth he told and continues to tell.

I think this is one of the reasons I feel so resonant with Cleo — in him I see a mirror of my own allergy to lies and illusions.

I have lost family because I chose truth over continued pretense. That loss tortured me for years. Time — and croning into my golden years — has helped me find a new center. I no longer miss them.

When you expose the illusions of those who aren’t ready to face them, sometimes they lash out at you.

It takes resilience — and yes, builds resilience — to press on, truth in hand.

This is why I feel so passionate about dismantling the white supremacy myth. It has so many people of all backgrounds in its trance. Whether it’s based in possessive investment in whiteness, internalized white supremacy, ancestrally-based survival patterns, plain old fear of loss or change, or some combination, the backlash against challenging white supremacy is real. And painful. I watched Cleo time and again speak the truth in the face of baseless opposition.

Now people come to him and pay him to teach those same truths.

So I also cried tears of joy for the possibility of bringing together our two incredibly rich bodies of work, each far outside their respective boxes, and each unavailable anywhere else. I got joyously excited about the gifts we together could bring to leaders and others ready to do this work.

Did I mention I had trouble sleeping for a few days because I was so giddy?

My nerves began to settle. After all, now there was work to do!

Cleo and I began to plan.

As is often our mode, our meetings began with laughter. What you laughing at? What are you laughing at? I’m laughing because you’re laughing! No, you started it! I smile whenever I think about those moments.

More than anyone I have ever known, this man embodies the four archetypes of teacher, healer, warrior, and visionary, with all the gifts of each. He’s also incredibly funny. And warm.

I love him, and I am in awe of him. He has a knack for connecting with peoples’ hearts, while also helping to unravel their illusions. I am beyond excited to blend our passions to support leaders of all backgrounds in their journeys.

I am glad, because we have very few models to do the work needed in this unfolding cultural moment.

It’s almost as if we need a hand from our future selves to give us a leg up.

So we put our combined 75 years of groundbreaking work together and created 22nd Century Leaders.

You might be wondering why Cleo decided to co-facilitate a multicultural, white-originated program, given his life’s work. I wondered too, and asked him. Here’s what he said:

“In response to national outrage about George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, I have witnessed young whites come out in unprecedented droves to join BLM protests. They seem sincere, and also desperate to publicly dissociate themselves from a widely viewed example of an unarmed Black man’s racist slaying.

“They touted signs that read, “White Silence = Violence,” but nothing making it clear to onlookers that they were reflecting on how they benefitted from the same structure leading to the murder they protested. I want to believe their intentions are good.

“I am joining Jill because I want the threat to Black bodies to cease. I want to tap into the sincerity of young whites, leaders, and others interested in seizing this rare moment of cross-cultural consideration. I believe that together, we can effectively move participants past the desire to dissociate from white racism, to a path of real transformation toward achieving multicultural justice and equity.

Working both together and separately, peoples of European, African, Asian, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x descent will join in April of 2021 in a nine-month mostly virtual (pending COVID-19 developments) program of training, support, and deep personal growth, like-minded community to do the work with, an accountability structure and “Brass Tacks Business Labs” for putting our work into the world.

Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

Cleo and I have both lived on the East and West coasts at different times. Our version of evolution is not a West Coast, feel-good, heal-yourself-only path. Nor is it an East Coast bust-your-ass, fight-and-howl-for-social- change-until-you-drop-and-piss-off-everyone-who-loves-you path.

So we are creating a new path — with support and challenge; love and truth; mourning and celebration.

Should you join us, you’ll engage with a truly multicultural group, working from the inside out, to lead the truly multicultural future we envision. We’ll work in microcosm to affect the macrocosm. I know Cleo’s and my gifts, as well as the community we’ll form, will uplift and equip leaders who want to evolve themselves and the planet.

If you or someone you know resonates with this, please take a look at our offering. Please also share this letter as your intuition guides you.

With much love,

Jill

Now accepting applications for the 22nd Century Leaders program. EvolutionaryWorkplace.com.

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