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The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe


Lyla June / Sodizin

Lyla June, of Diné and European heritage, is an Indigenous water protector active in the struggle at Standing Rock. Her spoken word/musical recording, “All Nations Rise“, has received almost 2 million views since posted on Facebook last fall. In the post that accompanies the video on FB, Lyla writes: “I want to acknowledge that some of the first Indigenous Peopel’s that were forced into hiding were the medicine women of Old Europe. They estimate that 6-9 million women were raped, beaten, tortured, burned alive or drowned alive for being “witches.” Let us reclaim our Earth Selves no matter what “race” you are and do it soon! The earth may depend on it.”

In the following essay, which Lyla has graciously allowed us to repost on White Awake, she shares her personal story of connecting with loving ancestors from ancient, “Indigenous Europe”. May her story inspire our own, whatever our heritage may be. May those of us who have directly inherited the legacy of European colonization – through our biological ancestry – be empowered to seek healing from the “genocide within”, and wake up to our true nature as children of this beautiful Earth … and may we do this for the benefit of all beings.

The original title of this piece is: “The Story of How Humanity Fell in Love with Itself Once Again”


Photo: Sami Indigenous Peoples of Norway, circa 1900 / Wikicommons

I spend a lot of time honoring and calling upon my Native American ancestors. I am keenly aware that my father’s people hold a venerable medicine as well. He has ancestry from the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe.

I have been called a half breed. I have been called a mutt. Impure. I have been told my mixed blood is my bane. That I’m cursed to have an Indian for a mother and a cowboy for a father.

But one day, as I sat in the ceremonial house of my mother’s people, a wondrous revelation landed delicately inside of my soul. It sang within me a song I can still hear today. This song was woven from the voices of my European grandmothers and grandfathers. Their songs were made of love.

They sang to me of their life before the witch trials and before the crusades. They spoke to me of a time before serfdoms and before Roman tithes. They spoke to me of a time before the plague; before the Medici; before the guillotine; a time before their people were extinguished or enslaved by dark forces. They spoke to me of a time before the English language existed. A time most of us have forgotten.

These grandmothers and grandfathers set the ancient medicine of Welsh blue stone upon my aching heart. Their chants danced like the flickering light of Tuscan cave-fires. Their joyous laughter echoed on and on like Baltic waves against Scandinavian shores. They blew worlds through my mind like windswept snow over Alpine mountain crests. They showed to me the vast and beautiful world of Indigenous Europe. This precious world can scarcely be found in any literature, but lives quietly within us like a dream we can’t quite remember.

As all this was happening, I peered into the flames of our Diné hoghan fireplace. These Ancient Europe voices whispered to my heart to help me understand. “See, our songs are not so different from your Diné songs,” they seemed to say with a smile.

In this moment, the moment I first acknowledged and connected with my beautiful European ancestors, I could do nothing but cry. It was one of those messy, snotty, shuddering cries, where my face flowed over with tears of joy and sorrow. It was the cry of a woman who met her grandmother for the first time. I always wondered where she was. What she looked like. What her voice sounded like. Who she was. And now, for the first time, I could feel her delicate hands run through my hair as she told me she loved me. I sobbed and I sobbed and I sobbed.

Intermixed in there were also tears of regret. My whole life I was taught to hide my European “side.” All I knew was that my father came from Dallas and that was all I needed to know. These pale-skinned mothers and fathers were to be forgotten, I was taught. They carried violence in their blood and avarice in their smile, I was taught. They were rubbish, I was taught. There was no need to ask questions about them or think about them, I was taught. Whenever I wrote down my race on official forms, I would only write “Native American,” as I was taught.

But then, as thousands of European ancestors swirled around me and reassured my fearful heart, I wished I had honored them sooner. I wished I hadn’t disowned them. I wished I knew how beautiful they were. I wished I could have seen through the thin wall of time that dominates our understanding of Europe. I wish I could have realized the days when Indigenous Europeans were deeply connected to the earth and to kinship. In my mind I told them I was so, so sorry for forsaking them. But, of course, they did not care. They only held me tighter and assured me they would be with me to the end.

The sweetness of this precious experience changed me forever. I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

Now I see I have a double-duty. I must not only honor and revitalize my Diné culture, but also that of my European ancestors. This ancient Indigenous European culture is just as beautiful as Native American culture and was just as tragically murdered and hidden from history books.

And so, some years later, armed with this new understanding, I traveled to Europe. I scaled a beautiful mountain in Switzerland to see if I might hear hints of ceremonial songs in the wind. I stepped upon the earth guided by those grandmother and grandfather whispers. I plucked a strand of hair from my scalp and placed the offering upon the earth, still wet from morning dew. I ambled through the forests enchanted by the new sights and smells. And I did see glimmers of visions of the villages of yesteryear. And they were full of Earth People living out harmonious community. And, they had beautiful music.

As the sun went down, I fell back on the grass and looked up to the sky. At the time, I was going through a very painful separation from a person I loved. To my surprise, it felt as if the earth was pulling all the sorrow I was carrying down into her core where she could transform it into beauty. The sky was speaking to me about how I didn’t need to worry, that I would be happy again one day. The earth and the sky healed me that day from the great weight I had carried for months. It was a special reunion with the mountains of my foremothers.

My mountain experiment yielded astounding results: the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe is still alive and breathing and waiting for her children to come home! She is waiting for us to ask her for songs so that we may sing to her once again. She is waiting for us to scratch past the surface of time, into the B.C. period when our languages were thriving and our dancing feet kissed the face of the earth. She is waiting. She is waiting for us to remember who we are. If you hold this descent, or any forgotten descent for that matter, I am asking you to join me in this prayer to remember who we are. I have a feeling this prayer will heal the whole world.

In 2009, archaeologists came across a female effigy believed to be the Goddess of the Earth buried inside of German soil. The radiocarbon dating tests came back. They indicate that this clay deity was molded by European hands 40,000 years ago. 40,00 years ago. This is the time she beckons us to. This is the world she hopes we will remember: where man and woman alike held the soil in their hands and saw the value and sanctity of women and of the Mother Earth. This is the world that still flows through our veins, however deafened we have become to it. With prayer we can learn to hear it once again.

I compare this earth-based, Indigenous European culture to the witch-burning psychosis of the first and second millennia. I cannot help but ask myself, when and how did this egalitarian, earth-loving, woman-honoring culture, become the colonial, genocidal conquerors that washed upon American shores? Could it be that our beloved Indigenous European ancestors were raped and tortured for so many thousands of years that they forgot who they were? Could it be they lived in a pressure cooker of oppression for so long that conquer-or-be-conquered is all they knew? Yes, I believe so.

Our task is to shake the amnesia. To not be ashamed of our European-ness, but to reclaim our beautiful grandmothers, to reclaim our venerable grandfathers, to reclaim our lost languages, our lost ceremonies, our lost homelands and become one with the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe once again. The European diaspora is spread all throughout the world, searching the planet for something that lives is inside. I promise you will hear it when who climb the mountains of Switzerland! Of Scotland! Of Tuscany! Of Hungary! Of Portugal! Of the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe! Just because bad things happened upon her bosom does not mean she is bad.

Our task is to honor our ancestors, even those who caved beneath the weight of systematic destruction and became conquerors themselves. Our task is to remember that we are those beautiful Earth People. The ones whose love and prayers were so strong that they could carry 25-ton blue stone monoliths for miles and miles and build the sacred place of prayer known as Stonehenge. That is who we are. When we remember this, the healing of our lineages comes full circle. When we remember this, we will no longer need to borrow spiritual practices from other cultures (although that can be very helpful when there is nothing else to hold onto.) When we remember this, we will remember that the fates of all beings are intertwined with our own. When I remembered this, I found whole-ness in my self—no longer a half-breed, but a daughter of Two Great Lineages, Two Great Rivers that ran together to make one precious child.

This is the story of how I became whole. Some days, it feels like both fire and water live within me. They dance and swirl around one another. In the morning when I wake up, each bows to the other, honoring themselves as equals, as beautiful. When I go to sleep at night they wish each other good dreams. They teach me how it could have been when Columbus first stepped upon Taino shores: a meeting of two long lost brothers, embracing each other and celebrating their unique cultures. They teach me how things can be for our children in the future.

Because that’s what matters most, doesn’t it? Not how the story goes… but how it ends. We each hold a pen. Let us co-author a story of how humanity fell in love with itself and its Mother Earth once again.

All Nations Rise | Performed by Lyla June at the 2016 Black Hills Unity Concert

Lyla June Johnston was raised in Taos, New Mexico and is a descendent of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages. Her personal mission in life is to grow closer to Creator by learning how to love deeper. This prayer has taken her on many journeys and materializes in diverse ways.

In recent months this journey has taken Lyla to Standing Rock: “In the face of this we pray,” she says. “In the face of this we love. In the face of this we forgive. Because the vast majority of the water protectors know that this is the greatest battle of all: to keep our hearts intact.” (EcoWatch)

“Who Are My People?” – Darcy Ottey’s ancestral journey

“Your culture is your medicine.” – Jeff Duncan-Andrade

Each of us belongs to a collective body of people with a story (or stories) that reach before us and after us in time. Before we were ever classified as “white”, our ancestors were distinct peoples with their own unique culture – their own unique “medicine” (to quote Dr. Duncan-Andrade). Many of us who have been socially categorized as white do not know or possess the medicine of our ancestors. We may not even know their stories, or who “we” were before we were white.

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Darcy Ottey

In this post Darcy Ottey, co-founder of Youth Passageways, shares with us her own experience of seeking this ancestral medicine, and exploring questions such as: “Who am I? Who were my original, indigenous ancestors? What is the story of my own ethnic identity, and at what point did my family become “white”? What happened to them, and what did they do to others? What wisdom can I bring back from these stories into my own life, and how can I use this wisdom to strengthen my work for liberation of all Peoples?”

What we find in Darcy’s journey are not clear answers, but rather koans, or riddles, for our own reflection. Perhaps Darcy’s experience will inspire you to explore your own ancestry and family story more deeply – not as a trivial pursuit, but as a means to recovering cultural, personal “medicine” that you can bring into social movements for liberation, equity, and much needed social change.

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Oahu, Hawaii / Photo credit: Johnny Silvercloud

Part One: Who Are My People?

As I waited to board my connecting flight from Honolulu to Hilo, I caught sight of a thickly tattooed Latino man with carrying drums standing around the same gate. I knew instantly he was bound for the same destination as I was. We were two of about 100 people who were about to come together for the Global Passageways conference, exploring the need for rites of passage for young people during these times of great cultural and ecological changes.

This relatively small group represented many different backgrounds. Folks came from as far away as Argentina, Ecuador, and Australia. Gwich’n, Lakota, Dineh, Cherokee, African-American, Latino, and European-American were just some of the cultures represented. Folks crossed the lifespan, from late teens to elder years, and we were also professionally diverse: writers, youth workers, vision quest guides, and community leaders, among others. We shared a common passion for bringing forth healthy young people and healthy communities in a complex, changing world.  

There were parts of this conference more beautiful than anything I’d ever experienced. The first morning we arose very early, making it to the volcanically-fed Warm Ponds before dawn. Here, underground hot springs mix with cool waves coming in from the ocean, creating a still, warm, Olympic-sized natural pool. Silently, one by one, members of our group submerged themselves. For about fifteen minutes, all was silent and calm as we drifted in the warm water.  

Soon, the contingent of Hawaiian hosts began to gather on the rocky berm, waves crashing at their feet, and the rest of us followed. It felt like a dream as they began to sing a Hawaiian chant when the sun broke the horizon.

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Active volcano near Hilo, HI / Photo credit: Sathish J

But all was not magically idyllic during our week together. The conference mirrored the explosive energy of the island, alive with active volcanic forces and constantly weathered by the forces of wind and wave. Race, ethnicity, gender, age—all were sources of struggle in bringing together 100 people used to taking strong leadership in their communities. Individual egos were bruised as cultural conflict erupted, to the point where many participants deemed the conference a resounding and utter failure.

The experience was not a failure for me: it was transformative. I got my first schooling in the great difficulty of weaving community across diverse lines, and learned for the first time directly from indigenous community leaders. I had the opportunity to meet people whom I had long admired: individuals whose books I had read since college and whose work was legendary in my world. I was in awe of the ceremonies, the protocols, the teachings, things I had only read about in books. I was pretty overwhelmed, and very…humbled. I quickly retreated into myself, afraid of offending, of sounding stupid, of revealing my total ignorance. I watched, I listened, I made big mistakes—and I learned a lot.

One thing I noticed about many of the indigenous folks and people of color at the gathering was how deeply connected with their ancestry they appeared to be. This seemed different from many of the white folks present, and it was definitely different from me. Experiencing the Hawaiian hosts welcome us and introduce us to their culture through traditional chants and dances, and sharing the lineage of these traditions, I reflected on my own lack of songs and stories passed down through the generations. Hearing Paul Hill, Jr, describe his program, in which three generations of young Black men and women have been initiated into their African heritage, made me reflect on the lack of a clear cultural context within my own work. These experiences and others helped me to realize how essential it is that we each have a sense of ancestral and cultural inheritance.

As I listened to the stories, new and different ways people related to themselves and their communities, I realized that I had never considered myself as having a culture–even though as a social scientist, I knew I did. As conference participants talked about the practices and beliefs among “their People,” I began to ask: Who are my People? I began to inspect the landscapes, bloodlines, and social realities that made me who I am.

This question has guided me ever since, in my work and in my spiritual journey, leading me last year to the lands of my ancestors, to understand more the ancient traditions of My People, and what forces caused them to be lost, destroyed, and abandoned, eventually leading my family to come to the lands of Turtle Island and become White.

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Photo credit: Darcy Ottey

Part Two: A Pilgrimage to My Ancestral Homelands

In the summer of 2016, I traveled over the moors of the British Isles, along the steppes and rivers of Ukraine, and through the forests of Pennsylvania, exploring my family lineage. I carried these questions:

What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?

What happened to disconnect them from the lands where they had lived for millennia?

What forces caused them to leave Europe, and travel far across the ocean to what would become known as the United States, where eventually they became white Americans?

Over time I began to see these questions less as riddles in need of an answer, but rather as koans for quiet contemplation.

Included in this post is Darcy’s exploration of the first of these questions during her time in the British Isles. This material is originally posted on her blog here. To read more about Darcy’s travels you can also read Part Two and Part Three of the “In Search of Lineage” series on her blog.

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Summer Solstice sunrise at Stonehenge / Photo credit: Darcy Ottey

British Isles: What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?

“Indigenous survival as peoples is due to centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations…this survival is dynamic, not passive.” –Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Her intact bone bundle was found wrapped in a bear skin, tenderly preserved in an ancient grave high up on the moors. The discovery of this burial cistvaen (pronounced kist-vayn, a pre-Celtic word for a stone burial box) was a boon for archaeologists in 2011, providing keen insights into the lives of the region thousands of year ago. Other long-buried treasures were nestled inside also: a necklace made of clay, tin, and amber; a bracelet made of animal fibers and tin studs; hand-turned ear studs made of spindlewood; and remnants of meadowsweet flowers.

Found on White Horse Hill in Dartmoor, in the midst of an ancient ritual landscape, these remains come from a woman who walked the landscape 4,000 years ago. They call her White Horse Hill Woman. I heard this story during a fire ceremony at Merripit Farm, part of a magical evening offered by musicians and land stewards Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw. This particular concert centered around songs from their album from twenty years ago, Songs of the Ancestors.

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Round House at Merripit Farm / Photo credit: Darcy Ottey

My ticket said “Fire Ritual 6pm.” At the appointed time, I dutifully followed the narrow pathway toward the Round House, joining my shoes with the others surrounding the dark entrance. As I stepped inside, I made my way to the bench around the periphery, my eyes adjusting to the dim light of a small fire at the center. I soon gave up my seat to an older person and found myself instead on a soft, thick woolskin pelt on the floor, close to the fire.

We sat in silence, waiting for others to join. Next to me sat a woman who was clearly the ceremonial leader, a drum the size of a small coffee table sitting in front of her. When the space was full, this commanding yet gentle woman, Carolyn Hillyer, broke the silence by offering us a song, beating in time with her drum like a low, patient heartbeat.

She soon shared the story of White Horse Hill Woman. She told us that when the bones were removed from the earth by archaeologists, her community gathered the bones of wild horses from the high moors and built their own small cistvaen on their land, in solidarity with White Horse Hill woman.

She then passed around a bowl of earth, inviting us each to take a pinch to make our own offerings to the land, or to the cistvaen dedicated to White Horse Hill woman twenty or so yards away from the Round House entrance.

“Blessed this hearth, Blessed this ground, Blessed this prayer that we pass around” we sang as the bowl moved from person to person, across the circle.  Then Carolyn taught us a song that she had recently composed from proto-Celtic words, saying “these are words that would have been understandable to our early ancestors here on the moors.”

Early on during my time in Britain, weeks before I found myself in the Round House at Lower Merripit Farm, I visited West Kennet Barrow near Avebury. West Kennet Barrow is a stone age burial site that once held the remains of a handful of people placed there over several hundred years. The remains, which came from men, women, adults, elders, and infants, had been long since removed, spirited away to the halls of scientific inquiry.

Natalie, my friend and guide for much of my time in England, played interference with other visitors as I entered the barrow. “My friend is here on ancestral pilgrimage from the United States,” she said to a young couple as they came up behind us. “Do you mind giving her a few minutes alone inside?” As I slipped behind the stone that marked the entrance, and into the cool, dark cave, I felt grateful she had known to create a personal moment for me. A small altar with offerings of candles, ribbons, and other treasures had been built along the far wall; swallows had made their home in the ledges once housing human remains. It felt good to be in that space, without other humans, feeling into this portal to the underworld, a space that had housed the ancient ancestors of my ancestors.


West Kennet Barrow / Photo credit: Slave2TehTink

Yet being in this space, I also felt its profound, vacuum-like emptiness. My stone age ancestors had vast knowledge systems that made them capable of moving gigantic stones from the Preseli Hills of Wales to a distance five hundred miles away, where they erected them with precision to catch a certain light at a certain angle on certain days of the year. They knew how to live and thrive without any of the modern conveniences on which I am fully dependent. They knew how to use the ancient crypt in which I found myself to honor their ancestors, and did so for unknown generations. How many of us today can fully comprehend what wisdom they carried, to be able to do all these seemingly magical feats?

Everywhere I went throughout Europe, visiting these ancient holy sites that now attract throngs of tourists, I saw signs that spoke of ancient knowledge with judgments framed as scientific fact: “Stone age peoples believed in superstitions like…”

In the barrow, I felt the grief of a people who no longer have claim to the bones of their ancestors. I felt the emptiness of a people who don’t understand that this is part of the loss that we keep desperately trying to fill with more and more stuff. I felt gratitude for the indigenous peoples whose lands I live on, who keep fighting for their right to the remains of their ancestors, the right to choose when and how and if the tools of Western science will be applied to them.

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West Kennet Barrow / Photo credit: Rockman of Zymurgy

Hearing Carolyn tell the story of White Horse Hill Woman, I saw clearly and undeniably that there are people surviving in the lands of Britain, so long ago colonized, still quietly tending to the Bones of their Ancestors.

Many native peoples of the Americas ask to be spoken of in present tense, for others to remember that They Are Still Here. With Carolyn, I saw confirmation that though the museums and interpretive centers consistently speak of the earth-based traditions of the British Isles in past tense, there are living traditions that remain. There is an unbroken line–however thin and frayed it may be–of indigeneity that remains in lands long occupied. There is a resistance that has existed for thousands of years.

More recently, I attended a performing arts show on Maui, Hawai’i called ‘Ululena, a beautiful telling of the history of Hawaii from the birth of the Islands to modern times through dance. Throughout the performance, a lone figure kept appearing: a man dressed in traditional clothing, carrying the bones of the ancestors in a bundle on his back. Again, I was struck by the power of staying in physical connection with ancestral remains.

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Clootie Tree, Britain / Photo credit: Darcy Ottey

Western culture has become radically desensitized to the subtleties of spiritual power. Like the delicate flavors of freshly harvested vegetables compared with a salty bag of potato chips, our palate has become used to associating power with wealth, technology, politics. Yet while many of us may not be attuned to it, the physical remains of our dead carry spiritual power. They give us access to insights, to the wisdom of the generations. Our fear of death makes us turn away, sanitizing the power we feel intuitively by turning it into scientific curiosity. And with this, we lose opportunities to stay connected to our Beloved Dead, to access our ancestors and loved ones on the other side.

Since I’ve returned, I haven’t known what to do with this experiential lesson I received. My grandmother’s ashes sit at my mom’s house, in the box that we selected after her death. There is a calling I feel to be closer to them, to bring them into my ceremonial practices, but it all feels clumsy and foreign. I have not yet made my way into a comfort and ease with the dead and dying, or with death itself. Bringing human remains into ceremony feels so taboo, so against everything that I was taught, that I am afraid. And yet, this is part of the ways of my ancestors, part of the wisdom that my lineage has lost.

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“A tree spirit near Castell Henllys, a 2,000 year old Celtic hillfort in Wales. Look closely to see a female icon on the tree” / Photo credit: Darcy Ottey

Darcy Ottey has been exploring the role of ceremony in building healthy community since her rite of passage at age 13. She recently helped to birth Youth Passageways, a diverse network of individuals, organizations, and communities working to support the initiation of young people into mature adulthood in these transition times.

As an initiated European-American woman (British/Ukrainian descent), Darcy is passionate about helping people who are disconnected from traditional rites of passage reclaim and create rites and practices meaningful and relevant in their lives and communities at this time, in ways that are in solidarity with the liberation with all Peoples, and all beings. Darcy currently consults with programs and organizations on topics related to rites of passage and social justice.

Jeff Duncan-Andrade quote: La Cultura Cura

Claiming the Legacy of Oppression: “I am my white ancestors,” says artist Anne Mavor

In the 2018 online workshop series “Before We Were White“, co-facilitators Darcy Ottey and Eleanor Hancock lead participants through four guiding questions:

  • Who were our indigenous ancestors, living with deep ties to land and place?
  • When did our ancestors experience domination and destruction of traditional ways of life?
  • How did our ancestors participate in violence and subjugation of other people’s?
  • Who were the ancestors who resisted these things?
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Anne Mavor

Oregon artist Anne Mavor dug deep into the question: “How did my ancestors participate in violence and subjugation of other people’s?” when she found herself bypassing this history to connect with ancestral relationship to sacred sites.

The result of this inquiry is the multimedia project: “I Am My White Ancestors,” an exploration of Anne’s progenitors’ relationship to white supremacy and other forms of oppression. Anne dug deep into her family history to produce this body of work. Her research led her back through the ages: to Christian crusades and witchcraft trials in the “Old World”, as well as slavery and anti-Indian campaigns in North America/Turtle Island.

Based on her research, Anne created audio diaries and life-sized self-portraits of her ancestors — complete with period costumes, makeup and hair — for a traveling installation and website designed to educate audiences and provoke discussion. The following interview with Anne Mavor gives us a window into her process creating this body of work and relating to the various ancestors who emerged during her journey. A sampling of photo portraits from the installation follows the article.

Note that, while Anne has used the descriptor “white” as an artistic device, “white people” did not exist, as a social category, until the late 1600’s, when white supremacy was legally formalized as a divide and rule social strategy. This interview was originally published on Anne’s site here, and is re-posted with permission


Ring of Brodgar / Mounds and Stones Series

Why did you do the project?

I did it as a challenge to myself as an artist and a human being. At the time I had just completed a series of paintings of ancient sacred sites in England and Scotland. Many of them were based on research photos my father had taken in the 1960’s and 70’s with my mother posing in them for scale. As I painted them, I could feel the landscapes where my ancient family lived. So when I was thinking over my next project, I thought of asking a Native American artist to collaborate with me on a project comparing our relationships to our sacred sites.

Around this time I was sitting among a predominantly white audience at Portland State University’s Native American Student and Community Center when all of a sudden it felt like the woman on stage was speaking directly to her: “You need to go back and find your own people and claim your own people.”

At that moment I decided to drop the idea and start over. I realized that, like many well-meaning white people, I had side stepped [a significant portion of] my own heritage and instead was using a person of color to legitimize my artwork.

So as an experiment, I asked myself, “What if I turned it around completely? What if I claimed my own people instead and took responsibility for their racism and other actions? What would that look like?” I was stunned by the speed and specificity of the answer. It was essentially the exact project you see before you, including the title. I knew it would stretch my skills. But I was too curious to let that stop me. Who I would I find? Would there be enough ancestors connected to oppressive institutions? What would they teach me? Could I use my family history to model what taking responsibility looked like? And beyond that, could I fully claim and understand my white identity, then give it up and join the rest of the human race?

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Anne and photographer Jane Keating beside Sir Nicholas Baganel

How did you do it?

The short answer is that I divided it into manageable chunks, a technique that I hope never to forget. Sometimes those chunks were small and concrete. Like, today I will hand sew nine buttonholes on Mark’s jacket or draw the grid for King Edward’s backdrop. A larger goal was to read a book about the Norman invasion of England and take notes of any references to Roger de Montgomery. Day by day the tasks added up.

I started with Eugenia as the prototype because I knew a little about her and had matching portraits of her and her husband John hanging in our apartment. I knew they had been slaveholders and allegedly Confederate spies. Photographer Jane Keating assisted by her husband Jim Skates and I worked together to figure out how to photograph her and get the image printed on fabric. When “Eugenia” arrived in the mail and we unrolled the print I knew the project was possible. I began to look for the eleven remaining ancestors.

The phases of the project were 1) Research and identify ancestors, 2) Design and produce costumes and photograph portraits, 3) Research, write, and record audio diary scripts, 4) Write Teacher Guide, 5) Design and produce the exhibit catalog, 6) Print self-portraits, design signage and hanging system, create comment station. Simultaneously I was fundraising, building partnerships with organizations, and researching potential venues for touring the show.

What was it like to become your ancestors?

It was odd and illuminating and profound. These characters were like relatives you barely know who have the same nose or way of walking. I wished I could know what they were really feeling about their lives and why they made certain decisions. This information was impossible to find, but I did the next best thing. In preparation for writing the scripts for the audio diaries I interviewed each ancestor by journaling. I was amazed at the different voices that emerged. Some, like King Edward and Sir Nicholas, resisted sharing any feelings while with others the feelings spilled out as if they had been waiting for centuries for someone to ask.

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Getting into the mail shirt with help from make up and hair expert Diane Trapp

Putting on the costumes and preparing for the photo shoots was another moment when I could experience the persona. I was uncomfortable impersonating the male ancestors. They were in general less sympathetic and I found myself wanting to act silly to offset that discomfort. This was especially true with John Salley, the first man we photographed. I found him distasteful and couldn’t wait to get out of his hot and heavy wool suit. The moment Diane glued on the moustache for Mark Mawer I felt goofy. His ill-fitting new suit only increased that feeling. I imagined him a little drunk to escape the awful feeling of condemning a neighbor to death. I tried to avoid wearing armor for Roger of Montgomery, the 11th century Norman knight because of the weight. But I really wanted to have at least one knight with armor and chain mail was the lightest option. I was struck to learn how physically hard it was to be a knight. Battles went on all day and night. They also wore more mail than I did: leggings, neck coverings, plus carried a shield and heavier swords. How could they walk into a battle knowing they would likely die that day? Yet for those who fought and won, there was wealth to be had from plundering.

I felt more empathy towards the female characters. I understood their lives and choices better. On the whole they were less horrible than the men. Their oppressive actions were often filtered through their husband’s and father’s lives. The exceptions were Ragnhilde and Magdalen who both took actions that directly hurt others. The more noble, the less freedom the women had. Katherine Wydeville was trapped in a life she did not make, illustrated by her long and heavy formal dress and the uncomfortable headpiece threatening to topple off her head. If I could be any ancestor I would be Sibylla. She changed her life, found a community, and got to travel to a warmer climate.

Would you have acted similarly to your ancestors?

Given their situation and choices, I assume so. I can understand wanting to be free, own property, and be powerful and rich and use whatever ways I could to reach that goal. Could I have enslaved people? I hope not but I don’t know for sure. I often prefer to stand silently by and protect myself rather than challenge the system.

When I bike in my city of Portland, Oregon I always pass groups of homeless people. Recently I rode past a young woman walking slowly while dragging her pants and coat. I turned to look at her face. She was crying. Maybe she had been raped or assaulted somehow. I started to feel badly about her but then my mind shifted into what I call my oppressor mind. “It was all just a ploy to get sympathy and money. And even if she was really in trouble, what could I do?” All the way home I wondered if she could have gone to the police. Then she faded from my mind.

What have you learned?

I learned that we are connected to our ancestors in ways we may not realize. With each character I could see revealed a trail of beliefs and behavior patterns that are still alive in me. They are both positive and negative, life affirming and oppressive to others. They include ambition, courage, intelligence, loyalty, obedience, rigidity, fear, arrogance, greed, and superiority.

Most of the time I can successfully ignore suffering around me, both past and present. It’s as though I am numb. Why can’t I feel the horror of slavery or war? But after doing this enormous project, I can feel the numbness starting to melt. I now have twinges of horror and anger and outrage, and despair. This is a cause for celebration. The more I can feel, the closer I am to the rest of humanity.

Meet some of Anne Mavor’s ancestors:

Slaveholder Eugenia Mary Felder Buchanan, 1823-98

Eugenia Mary Felder Buchanan, 1823-1898, SC, AL, TX
Slaveholder and wife of a Confederate raider

Anne Mavor as her ancestor John Salley, a Revolutionary War-era Indian fighter

John Salley 1740-1794, Orangeburg, SC
Plantation owner and slaveholder

Mark Mawer, Scottish farmer

Mark Mawer, 1640-1685, Urquhart, Moray, Scotland
Juror on a Scottish witch trial

Desire Howland Gorham, 1623-1683

Desire Howland Gorham, 1623-1683, Plymouth Colony, MA
Daughter of Pilgrim settlers to Plymouth Colony

Sir Nicholas Baganel, 1510-1590

Sir Nicholas Baganel, 1510-1590, England and Ireland
English mercenary soldier who helped colonize Ireland

Magdalen Stronman, 1320-1375

Magdalen Stronman, 1320-1375, Basel, Switzerland
Cheesemonger who supported the execution of Jews
during the Black Death

King Edward I of England, 1239-1307

King Edward I of England, 1239-1307
Monarch who conquered Wales, invaded Scotland and
expelled the Jews from England

French nun Sibylla d'Anjou, 1112-1165

Sibylla d’Anjou, 1112-1165, Flanders, Kingdom of Jerusalem Crusader nun who lived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem

Roger de Montgomery, 1022-1094

Roger de Montgomery, 1022-1094, Normandy and England
Norman knight who helped Duke William conquer England

Viking noblewoman Ragnhilde Hrolfsdottir, 830-916

Ragnhilde Hrolfsdottir, 830-916, Norway and Orkney
Viking noblewoman who invaded Orkney

Anne Mavor is a visual artist and writer whose work combines a variety of art forms and disciplines. Over her career this has included painting, printmaking, book arts, sculpture, installation, performance, and music. Originally from Massachusetts, in 1976 she moved across the country to Los Angeles to join the feminist art and performance movement. Together with the collaborative performance art group, The Waitresses, she toured nationally, as well as performing solo pieces. Her 1987 performance Mouth Piece was a lounge act about stuttering. In 1996 she published the book Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists who are Mothers tell their Stories. She has a BA in art from Kirkland College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, LA.

“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power

Greg Snyder is a dharma teacher and senior priest at Brooklyn Zen Center, which he co-founded with his wife, Laura O’Loughlin. He is also a professor of Buddhism at Union Theological Seminary. As a priest, teacher, and community leader, much of Greg’s work is oriented around peace-building and social justice initiatives. The following post is an interview with Greg conducted by Eleanor Hancock, director of White Awake.

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Greg Snyder

Born in 1969, Greg grew up in a close-knit Pennsylvania Dutch community. At 13 years of age, Greg encountered his first experience of assimilation when his family moved out of this community, in central Pennsylvania, and relocated in Houston, Texas. Greg characterizes this assimilation from an ethnic to non ethnic white identity as a consequence of being poor in a capitalist society, and distinguishes his experience as one of loss. In reflecting on his own story, as well as on the experiences of other people who are socially categorized and socialized as white, Greg points out that when this loss of identity occurs intimacy and connection is traded for positions of relative social power.

Greg’s story is unique, in part, because he has lived through a transition from ethnic to assimilated “white” culture (with all the ensuing white racial privilege that this imparts) within his lifetime. For many white people, assimilation occurred generations ago, such that we may not have the same type of personal insight into this trade-off (of intimacy for power) that Greg brings.

Please note that the Pennsylvania Dutch are a cultural group formed by early German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and their descendants. The word “Dutch” does not refer to the Dutch people or the Dutch language, but to these German settlers (ie “Dutch” = Deutsch = German). 

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Rural Pennsylvania

Eleanor Hancock:  What was it like to grow up Pennsylvania Dutch? How was it different than growing up white in the suburbs?

Greg Snyder:  The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves.

EH:  How did your ancestors come to Pennsylvania Dutch country?

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Amish cemetery, Lancaster PA

GS:  My family came to the area in two waves. The first wave of Pennsylvania Dutch families was in the late 1680s; another was in the 1720s. One line of my family actually bought our family farm from the son of William Penn, the early Quaker after whom Pennsylvania is named. If you visited local graveyards, in my childhood, all the gravestones bore Pennsylvania Dutch names. So you had a feeling of an internalized “we.” “We are living here; we’ve been living here.” There wasn’t much discussion of who we took that land from. But there was a sense of “we have an identity in this land as a people.” In strict Pennsylvania Dutch circles, like the Amish community, the word for outsiders is “English.” I grew up with a really strong sense that New Englanders and WASPs looked down on us and that we didn’t like them; there was a huge bias in the community against WASP culture that probably had to do with ethnicity and class going back to early years in the US.

EH: Did you grow up speaking English?

GS:  Yes. All of my grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch – which is a version of German dating from the late 17th or early 18th century. It’s a version of German with old constructions mixed into it, so that to modern German ears it would sound odd. Television and our education system has destroyed ethnic communities in the U.S. In the 1950s there were still Czech-speaking communities in Texas, French-speaking communities in Louisiana, and communities speaking PD. All that has shifted dramatically; people began speaking English instead. I wish our elders would have taught us PD, because now it’s a dying language that will soon be gone.

EH:  Were Germans involved in genocide as they cleared the land in your area?

GS:  In short, of course, but maybe not in the horrifically and overtly violent ways we know from other areas of the country. My elders and many of the Pennsylvania Dutch like to say that they lived alongside  the indigenous groups, rather than driving them away. Is it true? Highly doubtful. Maybe some families to a certain extent, but the fact is that the Susquehannock are not there anymore; they were forced to move north and south as a result of wars — joining the Delaware tribe, joining the Iroquois — until finally they were gone. Something happened. And another thing that is very suspicious: the first U.S. school created to re-educate Indian children — to try to drive their culture out of them — was in Carlisle, Penn., right in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This school was probably considered compassionate by the Christians  who founded it. After all, the early American prisons were founded by Quakers as places of contemplation. But when the vanquishers  say they were kind to the vanquished, well, it’s not so trustworthy.

Carlisle Memorial ceremony

Memorial ceremony at the Carlisle Indian cemetery

EH:  Would you say more about PD culture and the environment you grew up in?  

GS:  On the one hand it’s wonderful to grow up in a farm environment where you go to one neighbor for a lamb shank and another neighbor for potatoes and everyone grows food around you. My family still does that to this day. My cousins buy their meat and their vegetables from people around them and go to the grocery store for packaged, processed stuff. As a child you could go outside with a deep sense of safety in that environment. In summer I could take a bag lunch and be out all day.

I had a deep sense of being Pennsylvania Dutch, of community, a deep sense that this land is the land of my people; we were all farmers. I also had a deep sense that I was not ethnically the same as the rest of the United States. People in the community would wear t-shirts that said “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” There was an ethnic elitism.

I don’t want to pretend that it’s all wonderful being Pennsylvania Dutch. In fact it was difficult and complicated. It was a community where everyone paid attention to what everyone else was doing. We are talking about a very deep German Protestant patriarchy. The way children were raised, it was “Don’t be seen or heard; fall in line.” That’s one of the shadow sides. There’s a lot of patriarchal violence in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. You were sculpted to be a certain kind of a man. People beat their kids. I don’t know if it’s that way anymore, but when I was growing up it was. Most of my childhood traumas had to do with patriarchy.

EH: How rural were you? What sort of technology and modern amenities did you have?

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Family garden, PA Dutch country

GS: My mother’s family came from Mennonites; she lived her whole life on a farm. My father lived on a farm when he was young, then moved to a small town. His family came from Lutherans, who are allowed to do everything, including drive cars. Mennonites have cars but it’s a simple life. Although the simplicity of my life was not because of a Mennonite commitment. It was because of poverty. Old farm houses with outhouses. My mother always had a large garden, where we grew some of our food. There were times when we lived in farm houses with other people, and times when we were really broke and we lived in trailer parks. We moved a lot — often because we were unable to pay the rent. Yet where I had a real sense of rootedness and strength was in my extended family. My grandmother’s house was where everybody came together. Sundays and holidays there was a big meal – my cousins and everybody were often there, the elders sitting around speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

EH:  You and your family had less than the other Pennsylvania Dutch?

GS:  Yes. There were many days, as a child, when the free lunch at school was my meal for the day. We’d go to farmers who had already picked their green beans and we’d pick what was left over.

EH: When did you first become conscious of race?

GS:  I never heard anyone talk about race in Pennsylvania — except once, driving through the black part of town, when my dad locked the doors. When I was 13 my family moved to Houston, Texas, for work. That was the first place I ever heard about race; it was non-stop. I would hear things like “Mexicans are lazy” — while watching literally all the work being done by Mexican Americans. Coming from the outside, that was mind-blowing. Soon after we got to Texas the Saudi royalty was buying up the energy industry, and local stores were selling baseball caps that said “Sand n*****s keep out.” I remember thinking, “Why would anybody buy that hat?”

I came into that culture not as a northern liberal but as someone completely protected from talk of race. In Pennsylvania, if there was any trash talk as kids, it was against middle-class WASPy types who looked down on us.

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Houston, TX

EH:  Coming from a close-knit Pennsylvania Dutch community, what was the transition like for you? Did you move to a mostly white part of Houston?

GS:  Our neighborhood in Houston was mixed; Mexican and white folks, mostly. What changed for me is that I didn’t have a people anymore. I felt this painfully and I didn’t know how to talk or act with people, and I didn’t understand what unified people. But ultimately it was really good, because I went from thinking that a French surname was exotic, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, to the situation in Houston where I had everyone in my school: South Asians, East Asians, people from the black and Mexican communities. I ended up making friends with a lot of different people — some white, some black, some from China and Vietnam and Mexico and Guatemala. I walked into U.S. racial dynamics that I didn’t consciously know a thing about. I remember asking the dumbest questions.

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection.

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Marcellus shale formation, eastern PA

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up?

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Weather worn sign, Kutztown PA

During October where I grew up, there was still a tradition of Oktoberfest, which was rooted in a celebration at the end of the harvest. Because of the beer drinking, Oktoberfest has become a gimmick now in the U.S, like St. Patrick’s Day. Yet it actually still had meaning in our Pennsylvania Dutch community. As a kid we had something in February called “Fastnacht” — the night before the fast, the night before you go into Lent. All the churches make fastnachts — little round donuts without holes — and families  would eat them together. There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power?

EH:  In antiracist circles ethnicity and class are sometimes conflated, where white is taken to mean middle class. Would you talk about your own experience of ethnicity and class and what you’ve learned?

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Pennsylvania German barn

GS:  When I was young in Pennsylvania, we didn’t have much money and it was obvious, so I was tortured by other kids. Suburbs were beginning to be built in the farmlands, so we began to have a mix of farm kids and suburban kids — sons and daughters of professionals who worked in Harrisburg and places like that. In sixth grade two boys, older than me, decided to encourage the whole bus of children to cheer every time I got off the bus. They would also shove me out of my seat so I would have to sit in the black, wet walkway between seats. They did that for a long time. I think as a kid who was smaller and obviously poor, I was an easy target for this kind of aggression.

In reaction I decided to be better than these rich white kids. I was going to read everything they read. I was going to educate myself, to go beyond all of them so they couldn’t touch me. I gave myself reading lists. One summer it was Russian novels. I would read them all and then go on to the next thing.

Over the years I framed this as a kind of rebellion. But one day – I’d already finished college — it hit me that I didn’t rebel against wealthy white people; I became them. I lost my accent; I can’t even imitate a PD accent anymore, though I can imitate a Texas accent in a heartbeat. So assimilation, I get it. I get how you fool yourself into thinking you’re rebelling and gaining power. Which you are. But you’re assimilating in the process and an enormous amount is lost.

I realized I had been taught to hate myself — where I came from and the people I came from — because the broader world convinced me we were hicks. It’s painful to believe that your customs and your ways of doing things – based on class and ethnicity — are improper, stupid, ugly. “You don’t eat at the table the right way; you have to learn how to hold a fork and a knife the right way.” Bullshit. That’s the WASP way, not the proper way. It would be really helpful if we all stopped all stopped thinking that the WASP way of doing things is the only proper way to do things. I think this is beginning to change.

EH:  What did you do with this realization?

Blessed Year Hex DutchHexSign

Blessed Year hex

GS:  I went through a process of saying “no, I affirm my Pennsylvania Dutch identity.” So now I have a Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbol on my front door – one of those round paintings that are on barns and front doors all over Pennsylvania Dutch country. They’re paintings that come from Germany; they welcome people. I’m not reducible to my Pennsylvania Dutch identity, but I try as much as possible to go back to my annual family reunions. There’s this huge ritual when we go to the family farm: we visit the graves of all my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandparents and family members tell stories about our ancestors.

EH:  I’ve heard you talk about anger, saying that anger can be different depending on one’s background. And that anger can, in fact, be generative.

GS:  Yes, I’ll give you an example: As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Understanding myself to be in a network of support, I get angry on behalf of my community. I was 9 or 10 when the accident at Three-Mile Island nuclear plant happened; 144,000 people abandoned the area. The U.S. government said no meltdown ever happened, but the leukemia rate for children shot through the roof. It was a lie, a complete cover up. The whole community felt that together. You don’t have that experience if you’re an educated, white middle-class person in a suburb that doesn’t have a dump next to it. Instead everything is individualized. A whole community can experience this kind of violence collectively while a wider narrative covers it up. The collective experience is sometimes the only thing that keeps one from feeling insane in a world that denies one’s experience of reality.

As a Zen teacher, when somebody starts talking about their anger, I see it differently depending on who’s talking. White middle-class, educated persons usually talk about themselves and their anger. It’s usually framed as a single person against the world. I also have students who are working class, immigrants, Dominican, Haitian, black American, etc; they talk about their communities a lot more. I’ve heard some in the Zen community say these people are avoiding their personal work and feelings by focusing on the community. This is not necessarily the case. It is very possible that this is a  felt sense of self that isn’t as strictly individualized in the way mainstream white culture is.

There can be a real difference in where one’s anger is coming from. Is it coming from a “we” or an “I” or both? Some people have never really experienced, outside of their family unit, the anger of a “we.” In our Undoing Racism workshops, those who came out the most pissed off were working-class ethnic whites. I’ve seen working-class white people leave with a lot of anger when they realized what had been done to them. And some became real allies to people of color as a result.

This interview was conducted and transcribed with support from Margo Mallar, and edited by Cathy Cockrell. Thank you Margo and Cathy!

Photo creditsRural PA: Nicholas A. Tonelli / Amish Cemetery: Allie Caulfield / Memorial service at Carlisle Indian School cemetery: White Bison / Houston, TX: Joe Wolf / Pennsylvania German barn: Wood Natural Restorations / Blessed Year hex: Dutch Hex Sign

We Can’t Move Forward Without Looking Back

OnBeing columnist Courtney E. Martin introduces her neighbor and friend, Louise Dunlap, whose reflections on land and her settler-colonial ancestors model truth-telling and accountability. Louise offers guidance on how to engage, and a wealth of resources (via links in the text) on decolonizing and other relevant topics. This essay was originally published at and is reprinted here with permission.

in the shadows steve corey

“To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.”

So says Buddha. Which is a fitting way for me to introduce you to Louise, my 78-year-old neighbor and friend. She’s a writer, a teacher, and a Buddhist activist. She’s, quite possibly, closed the gap between how she lives and what she believes more than any other human I’ve ever encountered.

Even when it comes to race — a place where so many otherwise impassioned white activists, especially of a certain age, have deep moral failings. Louise may have failed, she may continue to fail in various ways, but she has no delusions about her culpability or the ways in which her freedom is tied up in taking responsibility.

As this letter demonstrates, she is committed to telling truth about her own family’s story and how it’s wrapped up in the larger national history of racialized violence and economic exploitation. She’s teaching me, through these words and her actions, how to walk the maze of human life with more courage, especially at this cataclysmic moment.

– Courtney Martin

Dear Courtney,

Just last summer we were on the deck at my family’s place in the woods — you and me and your two little girls — waiting for our friends to arrive for a picnic. Enjoying the dry, hot air, cooled just a little by huge spreading live oaks — a perfect northern California day on the edge of the Napa Valley. We were on this futon where my mother used to sleep outdoors with her grandchildren. Baby Stella had sprawled out dozing and I was telling Maya about sleeping here and sometimes seeing wild animals. I was about to go on about bobcats and skunks, when she startled both of us.

“I see a animal,” she said in her confident three-year-old voice, looking out towards the field. Hardly believing her, I turned and followed her gaze beyond the dark arms of the oaks. And there he was, not ten yards away, lying in a patch of shade surrounded by sunlight — a little buck with upright horns. He looked so peaceful, resting there in the heat of the day, and didn’t seem to mind our excitement, how we passed the binoculars to Maya, showed her how to use them, and praised her clear seeing, marveling at her openness to the natural world.

Next time you’re here with Maya, we have to figure out how to tell her some of the history that surrounds this place. It’s hard to know how the land can be so lovely and peaceful. It’s “ours” only because my great, great grandfather bought it during the terrible period after statehood when the early people of California were being hunted down in what we would later name genocide.

So far as I know he wasn’t in any of the militias that wiped out peaceful villages, killing women and even babies in ways too horrible to tell Maya. But he was in the state legislature when they voted to pay those militias, and likely shared the common view that Indians should be “exterminated” from land that hadn’t already been cleared. That was their code for genocide at the time. I’m guessing my ancestor voted in 1860 — right before the Civil War — to strengthen state laws that permitted kidnapping and sale of Native children into indenture — which was really slavery. Even though he was a union supporter, the census for that year listed two people who were likely indentured Indians living in his own home. In a nearby town, an observer said almost every household had one to three Indian child servants.

California was particularly violent, but the story holds true in different ways throughout the country, whether our white ancestors were actually there for the killing or immigrated later and moved into places that had been conquered. Free land, some of them thought. We know the real story in our hearts but don’t want to look at it. There’s too much fear and grief. But not acknowledging keeps us locked into self-destructive patterns. We’re living with the kind of shadow Jung talked about — played out in our political life, denial of climate change, and lack of true respect for darker-skinned people. As long as we don’t look back, the wound deepens and we can’t move forward. Like with PTSD.

Under the oaks last summer, we hadn’t known the election outcome or seen how deeply into this shadow our country would move.  And now, we’re reeling from it, casting about — so many of us — to see how we can step up our good work, our resistance to new waves of atrocity. Now things look very hard, with a government that seems not to care about the earth or understand that none of us can be free (or our country “great”) unless we embrace those who’ve been left out and repair the harm done to them.

You tell me I have wisdom to impart — maybe because I’m nearly 80 and have spent over half my years focusing on this racial karma. Your trust is a little daunting to me. I’m just as subject to dread as anyone else — perhaps because I know too much about what we’re historically capable of, what some of our revered founding fathers specifically did that has never been grieved or repaired. But I can tell you what I’m doing and encouraging others to do.

  • Gather with others. We need to sit down with other people, especially other white people — in person if possible — to share our fears, our heartbreak, and the steps we’re taking. As you know so well, this is where real understanding develops, and the power to move forward.
  • Look even more deeply for colonial mind in ourselves. No matter how many friends, courses, or roommates of color we’ve had as white people, there’s more to learn, ways to grow beyond guilt and discomfort into compassion and understanding. One good way is to look back into our own histories on the continent: when did our people immigrate and how did their stories mesh with the narrative of colonization? This makes for great discussion when we gather. After all these years, I still need more looking deeply. Right now I’m stuck about talking to a particular white person whose superior attitude caused some real harm. Why can’t I just tell her about it? To me this says I, myself, still have some of that same colonial mind that I see in others. When I can forgive my own mistakes and love myself, I’ll be free and able to talk with love and equanimity to anyone. But it’s a long process.
  • More action than before, especially local action. I don’t mean we should all get busier, but these next four years call us to keep our history in mind in every action and to find new ways to focus our longstanding interests. I’m rethinking my own projects and looking for ones that bring it home to where I live. I’m excited that young friends have returned from Standing Rock fired up about what tribes lived here in our area, what their issues are now, and how to support as allies. The Ohlone people have been organizing for years here to gain a land base and preserve the oldest sacred site in the Bay Area from development. Now many new supporters are showing up to help.
  • Remember that positive change is happening. Watching how racial karma affects our body politic and researching family history in the light of genocide can be discouraging, but when you look closely, there are enormous shifts in consciousness. We’re not stuck. Looking back to some of the little known stories of the Civil Rights Movement and the women’s movement, people before us changed some very deep attitudes. And when I worry about how hard it is to decolonize the very mind of a society, I think about how it’s actually been happening over the generations in my own family. Starting with the great, great grandfather who bought this land — so deeply grounded in the racist thinking of Manifest Destiny. Nothing changed much in the next generation, but then my grandmother’s views shifted just a little, and her sons began to express some real questions. On the other side, my mother — descended from slaveholders — became the only white mom I knew in the 1950s who would speak up against the “n-word” whenever she heard it. Consciousness changes are happening right in our own families. Seeing these slow-moving changes in collective consciousness humanizes my ancestors for me and even makes them lovable. Some traditions even say these ancestors are trying to help us undo the harm of their legacy.

And what a time to be doing decolonizing work in America! Dozens of groups are finding remarkable new ways to look at white peoples’ complicity, without the guilt-tripping of the old ways (Louise references White Awake as an example in her original article). Ta-Nehisi Coates has affected us; white people really are starting to wake up.

Many say we wouldn’t be doing these things with the same passion and urgency if another candidate had been elected. We wouldn’t be finding the ways to deal with our founding wounds that I think we’ll see in the next four years — not in the headlines maybe — but in our hearts and our grassroots institutions. Four years from now — 2020, when our next president is inaugurated — will also be the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s landing at Plymouth, a time that was far more traumatic for both colonists and Indigenous than our schoolbook histories say.

As we hold the ground in our democracy, this coming four years will be a good time for us to collectively look back and change the public narrative, which will mean we can really move forward. I hope that will be a story we can share with Maya the next time we’re up in the woods.


Louise Dunlap reads a book with Courtney Martin and her daughter Maya.

louise--150x150Louise Dunlap is a fifth-generation Californian, who has taught writing for 53 years at UMass Boston, Tufts University, MIT, U.C. Berkeley and more. In quiet ways, she is active on many environmental and social justice issues. She is the author of Undoing the Silence, a book for writers. She is now writing about land and her settler-colonial ancestors.

CourtneyMartinCourtney Martin is a columnist for On Being. Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Feature photo credit: Steve Corey

Empathy and Privilege in an Interdependent World

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Miki Kashtan

Miki Kashtan (international teacher of NVC, author, and co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication), draws on the complexities of her experience of privilege and oppression as a Jew and an Israeli immigrant to explore the topics of empathy and privilege. The fruit of her inquiry is wisdom and guidance for dominant groups seeking to redress the harm done in their name, by their actions, and/or as a form of inheritance. This article has been slightly abbreviated for White Awake. You can read the full piece here. To access Miki’s latest work, check out her blog “Facing Privilege“.

For some years now, I’ve been pondering this sentence I’ve heard, often, from my colleague and friend Kit Miller, director of the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and former director of BayNVC: “Empathy doesn’t flow uphill very easily.” Oppressed people already know it doesn’t flow downhill easily. As my late sister Inbal put it, when oppression is present, those in power see the oppressed as subhuman, the oppressed see those in power as inhuman, and neither sees the other’s humanity. When there is a strong power difference, and that power is used to oppress a group, empathy gets blocked – both as a precondition for and an outcome of the oppression.

I can immediately see the appeal of the conclusion, or dream, that bringing individuals together from across lines of oppression, and getting them to hear each other’s stories and develop empathy, would be a step towards transforming the oppression. After all, empathy is liberating, whether we receive it in response to our own suffering, or when we open our hearts widely to shine its light on others and to recover our sense of their humanity.

Except that in practice, what I have seen in groups I’ve been part of is not supporting this hypothesis. Instead, what I have seen and heard of, in contexts of power differences, has finally led me to the opposite conclusion. Unless some very specific ways to focus attention and choice are part of the picture, I now believe that the goal of having “both sides hear each other” reinforces rather than transcends the power differences.


1986: I am living in Manhattan, and my very first German friend is visiting. He has had too much to drink, which worries me a bit. Then he starts crying. I learn that both his parents were Nazi identified; his mother was in the Hitler Jugend, and his father in the Wehrmacht. He wails as he recognizes that the violence of all this is deeply situated in his body, and will never leave him. I had never before spoken intimately with any German, let alone the son of Nazi parents. I realize how much easier it is to be on the side of the victim, when morality is on my side.


1988: I am in Israel, visiting, in the middle of the first Intifada. I am in a room full of about 100 Israeli women who came to hear from a few Palestinian women, as part of ongoing efforts by women across the lines to create peace. (Incidentally, as has been the fate of women for so long, their work was never publicly recognized when the talks leading to the Oslo accord took place, on ground prepared by them.) Everyone is open, clear, present, curious – until the Palestinian women start sharing personal stories about what happened to their families and beyond at the hands of Israelis. At that moment, the Israeli women become furious and start shouting.


2004: I am co-leading the BayNVC Leadership Program with Julie Greene. There are about 25 participants in the program, of which about 8 are men, and yet we count, over the first few days, that much more than half of the time, men were the first to speak in response to a question, and spoke longer and more often than the women in the room. (This is not an unusual occurrence. This is documented statistically, and I have been obsessively observing this phenomenon for decades in pretty much all groups I am part of or lead.) Julie and I decide to dedicate a session in the program to engaging with this and learning from it. At the next large group session, we make the observation and invite a discussion about it. The men protest, crying out to be seen as individuals and not just members of a group.


2009: I am in Auschwitz, as part of a nano-delegation of four women: one each from Germany, Poland, Israel (though living in the US), and USA. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “In the midst of the ruins of the human heart, we experienced magic amongst us as we walked around the camps, primarily speechless, but united in our quest for love and healing, especially a desire to understand the unimaginable: what made it possible to do it… We tried to imagine being staff at the camp, getting up in the morning to go to work, how to do it. I feel more whole for having done this, for having managed to make some small progress toward being able to imagine what it could have meant. It feels somehow essential to the integrity of doing the work of teaching NVC as a spiritual path to be able to see and understand the human logic that led to these choices.” I am also reminded now, as I am writing this piece, of the moment in which, while reading Alice Miller’s account about Hitler’s life, I felt compassion for the child that Hitler was and the brutality of his life. I knew right then that my own liberation became that much closer for being able to hold him with compassion, even if only as a child.


2015: I am talking with an African-American woman about the various ideas I’ve had in preparation for writing this piece. She is excited, and spontaneously shares a personal example. At a gathering specifically designed to explore matters of race and privilege, she is paired up with a white man. When it is her turn, she speaks about how much she wants to be able to have contexts where she can just talk about her experiences as an African-American woman and be heard, without defensiveness, without responses, without being asked, indirectly, to then hear someone else. The agreement for the activity is that each person speaks for themselves, not in response to what another said. She is done, and it’s then the turn of the man she was paired up with. He proceeds to speak about how hard it was for him to hear what she said, and what he wants to be seen for.

Built-in Asymmetry

It is a little later in 2015 in Oakland, and a group of participants in a workshop are listening in as I am talking with my friend and colleague Aya Caspi, also from Israel, who has just come back from leading a small group of Palestinians and Israelis in an NVC Family Camp in Vashon Island, Washington State. The intensity is visible on her face as she tells me some of what happened when Israelis and Palestinians were trying to listen to each other. Aya had a particular concern about how to be open to Palestinians’ pain without dehumanizing Israelis. As I listen more, I realize that Aya, like many Israelis, is only familiar with the official story we both grew up on, even as she is open to the possibility that all or some of it is not true. Her heart is weeping with grief for the plight of the Palestinians, and yet she hasn’t chosen, until this conversation, to look deeply into what happened. I have found sources that, to me, are incontrovertible (though of course others would dispute; such is the nature of major political conflicts), with quotes from early Zionist leaders that leave me shivering with anguish, struggling to breathe. I can barely look at it, and yet I can’t not.

As I listen to Aya and navigate the complexity of the situation – there is this person I love dearly, whose pure heart I trust beyond measure; there is the pervasive and deeply reinforced collective ignorance and denial hanging in the air, even as we both challenge it, of what we have done to get to have a country and language we can call our own after 2,000 years of ongoing persecution; there are the people, a whole group of students, listening to our conversation, watching how we navigate the challenge; and there is the intensity itself, within me – all the pieces suddenly come together for me, and I see a path forward. It is an asymmetrical path, completely different from the simple frame of “we are both wounded and need empathy.” I realize, finally, that this frame itself is a challenge to breakthrough.

This is a path of paradox.

Path of Liberation

I still believe that what I have always intuited and experienced is true, that opening to the humanity of the oppressor is, indeed, a fast track to inner freedom and liberation… EXCEPT I now realize that it cannot be expected of the oppressed person. Given the pervasiveness of pain, suffering, and especially the inner and outer assault on the dignity of the oppressed, this expectation then becomes one more aspect of the oppression, regardless of how liberating it would be if done voluntarily.

Because I am both in privileged groups (e.g. an Israeli Jew, and a person with access to white privilege and untold amount of educational privilege) and in oppressed groups (e.g. a Jew, with the history this entails, and a woman in a world dominated by men), I can recognize the strength and rigor of this kind of commitment. As the one with privilege, I want to remember to always welcome and never expect someone else to hear me if it’s not their complete and voluntary choice; all the more so if that person is a member of a group that mine continues to oppress. As the one without privilege, I experience the space to choose to move towards my own liberation on my own terms, without expectations, without a timetable. I smell the freedom, I want it, and I can only go there when I can, even though I know that going there will accelerate my liberation.

However appealing being heard might be, I now believe that what is most liberating for the oppressor, the member of a privileged group, is to focus, instead, deliberately and deeply, on looking as openly as our human heart can tolerate at the actions done in our name or even by us, with or without knowing, with or without intention.

This is clearly not an easy path. How many of us have enough sense of self, enough trust in our human beauty, that we can continue to hold onto it when we hear of harm we have done to others? Few. This is, in my mind, why the Israeli women became angry at the Palestinian women.

Hearing the suffering of the Palestinian women could not lead to the expected compassion and care because it interfered with the “official story” that was the justification for the treatment of Palestinians. Their real life experience, their basic human suffering, was threatening the trust in the self, making it that much harder to maintain a positive moral self-image.

I still remember, with immense sorrow and tenderness, a time when I acted like the man in the last vignette above. It was 2005, and I was oblivious to the dynamics of what was happening in the room. Despite years of participating in talking, feeling, reading, writing, and struggling to transform relations of power, I was entirely absorbed in wanting my innocence to be seen. I was focused on how much my intention had been misunderstood, clearly leaving unattended the effect: the pain of the African-American woman who was responding to the action I had taken.

Like all human beings, we have a deep need, a true hunger, to be seen in the fullness of our own humanity, especially our own suffering and the meaning that our actions have for us, separately from any pain we may have created in the world. We habitually allow this very understandable longing to make us unable to be fully present to the ones suffering as a result of actions we or members of our group took. Opening our hearts to the effects of our actions is a powerful antidote to that tendency. Of course we need to be seen for every small bit of our humanity. And yet we can only receive this gift from those who choose to give it to us.

For more information on the 1988 vignette see: “The Pain, The Anger, and the Hope: Women Peace Workers in Israel,” Magazine of Creation Spirituality, March 1992.

Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and the NVC North America leadership program. She is inspired by the role of visionary leadership in shaping a livable future, and works toward that vision by sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication through mediation, meeting facilitation, consulting, and training for organizations and for committed individuals. Miki blogs at the Facing Privilege. She is the author of three books (including Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future), and her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Tikkun magazine, Shareable, Peace and Conflict, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

Creating the WTR Passover Seder

This interview with Cara Michelle Silverberg gives context, and shares the story, of her creation of the Work that Reconnects Passover Seder, found on our site here. We are thankful for Cara’s generosity in sharing the haggadah, and her story, with us! If you would like to more fully understand how White Awake frame’s this type of cultural, spiritual practice within the context of our work, please see our Community Practice section.


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The first Freedom Seder, held in 1969 on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death

The WTR Passover Seder draws inspiration from the original Freedom Seder, created by Rabbi Arthur Waskow – a radical elder in the Jewish justice and environmental movements – in response to the events of the civil rights movement, and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King. On April 4, 1969, 800 people gathered in the basement of Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, D.C. There Jews and Christians, rabbis and ministers, black and white, used Rabbi Waskow’s haggadah to build a new Passover ritual together.

Deep Ecology (and Black Prophetic Fire)

32 years of Passover seders may have prepared Cara Michelle Silverberg to lead the Jewish ritual and feast, but it didn’t inspire a passionate desire to do so. It took the work of activists Joanna Macy and Cornel West to do that.

Joanna Macy is widely known for a body of work called the Work that Reconnects (WTR). Based in deep ecology, systems theory and Buddhist traditions, the WTR helps people take part in the epochal shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization. It is a style of group work (usually shared in workshop settings) that uses experiential activities to help participants connect with one another and with the intelligence, self-healing powers of life. The goal of the WTR is to “enliven” and motivate participants to play an active role in the creation of a life sustaining society. Cara first encountered this work in workshops within the Jewish environmental community. She joined the Earth Leadership Cohort in September 2014 and began to immerse herself in Macy’s four-stage spiral of gratitude, honoring our pain, seeing with new eyes and going forth.

“Joanna Macy founded this work in the 60s and 70s to create space for people to feel the grief that came up in the age of nuclear activity,” says Cara. “What she found was that when people delved into their despair in a well-facilitated process, they began to discover wellsprings of hope. She was able to dive into these places with people and reemerge with more powerful tools for personal and collective transformation.”

Understanding anti-Jewish Oppression

“I’m presently in a pretty deep process of understanding anti-Jewish oppression, how it shapes the world that I live in, and how I’ve internalized it. Day to day I live very comfortably. I’m openly Jewish – personally and professionally. No swastikas are painted on my house, my business isn’t being burned, my family isn’t being threatened. But just because anti-Jewish oppression isn’t overtly visible in my day-to-day life doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

When we think of oppression, we often think of poverty, labor exploitation, mass incarceration. Anti-Jewish oppression generally looks different. Jews have historically been allowed by dominant groups to be just successful enough that they maintain an appearance – and to varying extents throughout history, a reality of – power and privilege. Then, when it serves dominant groups, Jews are scapegoated and blamed for overarching societal problems. This is where ideas like “global Jewish domination,” “greedy and wealthy,” and “killers of God” come into play, and the phenomenon has occurred over and over throughout history. Oppression doesn’t go away until and unless there is a massive social movement to transform its underpinnings. Just seventy years ago, one in three Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Was there a subsequent mass movement to transform the anti-Semitism that provoked my people’s slaughter? If so, I missed it.”

Crafting a Freedom Seder around the Work that Reconnects, and the four questions of W.E.B. DuBois

In early 2016, Cara received an email asking for suggestions for kicking off a Work That Reconnects retreat with a Passover seder. The compatibility of the four traditional cups of wine and the four stations of the spiral immediately inspired Cara with ideas and a desire to lead the ritual. Cara had two goals in compiling the Work That Reconnects Passover Seder: 1) providing integrity for the Jewish community whose cultural tradition the seder is based in; and 2) using the broader themes of liberation and oppression to make it accessible to the interfaith and Work That Reconnects community.

“The Passover seder is more than a ritual recitation of a story. It is meant to be a visceral experience in which participants go into ancestral memories and bodily experiences of slavery and liberation. One of the ways we do this is by asking questions,” Cara says. “Critical questioning enables us go deeper into the societal and spiritual structures that hold us back, that divide us, that create oppression hierarchies in the first place.”

In order to meaningfully address current systems of oppression, Cara integrated into the seder a speech she attended by Cornel West on the four questions that civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with: How shall integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force?

The result was a ritual in which Jews could feel the presence of their ancient tradition, and all in attendance were invited to delve into their own narratives of grief and gratitude, oppression and liberation, resistance and resilience. Cara says, “I hope people will use this seder as a launch point for their own community explorations, and make it their own.”

Cara Michelle Silverberg works in the field of youth leadership and environmental and social justice programs, with a focus in Jewish and interfaith community building. She is pursuing a Master of Arts in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. You can contact her on LinkedIn or follow her blog:

The interview with Cara, and initial draft of this article, was conducted/created by Margo Mallar, a member of the staff at the Insight Meditation Society, a Buddhist retreat center in Barre, Massachusetts. Many thanks to Mara for her contributions to the site!

The Earth Leadership Cohort is an immersion in the Work That Reconnects for young folks age 18-30, and was an important piece of Cara’s process in creating the WTR Passover Seder. If you are interested in participating in the 2017 cohort, you can view the complete announcement here.

Work That Reconnects Passover Seder

“Even before Christianity emerged, Jews were a troublesome people to ruling classes of the ancient world, because they had emerged with a revolutionary message, articulated in the Exodus story: the message that ruling classes were not inevitable, that the world could be fundamentally transformed …”

– Rabbi Michael Lerner, from Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin, by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Doctor Cornel West

This special seder, created in the spirit of the original Freedom Seder of 1969, and drawing on both The Promised Land Haggadah and The Ma’ayan Passover Haggadah, was created by Cara Michelle Silverberg for a Work that Reconnects (WTR) five day workshop that began the first day of Passover, 2016.

Within her haggadah, Cara integrated embodiment work coming out of the deep ecology movement (spiral of the WTR) and a social justice framing via the “four questions” that W.E.B. DuBois poised to future generations of organizers and civil rights activists – four questions that were given new life through the Black Prophetic Fire of Cornel West in his opening remarks for the Left Forum conference in New York City, 2014.

dandelion spiral croppedWe hope that our readers will find value and inspiration in this liberatory Passover seder. White Awake has embedded a few links into the haggadah online, to help those less familiar with the form to visualize the instructions given.

Those of you who are Jewish may be inspired to incorporate elements of this haggadah into a Passover seder with your family, friends, and/or community. This haggadah is available to be used and reinterpreted as you see fit.

If you want to hold a ritualized meal that intentionally explores systems of oppression, but don’t have access to Jewish community with whom you can hold a Passover seder, the WTR Passover Seder haggadah might be a lovely source of inspiration for a different type of event. As with all things, it is important to learn the roots and honor the sources of traditions and teachings.

If you would like to read more about Cara’s process creating this haggadah, see our interview with her here. If you would like to more fully understand how White Awake frame’s this type of cultural, spiritual practice within the context of our work, please see our Community Practice section.

How to use this Haggadah:

bill wetzel the seder table• A circular or square table setting in which all participants can see each other is ideal. This seder was first led for 32 people, sitting at six tables positioned in a open rectangle (with no seats in the center). We set each table with its own set of ritual items – a seder plate, a bowl/towel/pitcher, a plate of matzah, a bowl of charoset, and a bottle of grape juice and wine. We also included flowers on the tables, and four pairs of candles for the candle lighting (tea lights, so they burned out by the end of the seder and were not so tall as to cause a hazard).

• The blessing for lighting the candles in the beginning of the seder was originally composed for a seder occurring on Shabbat.

• Participants take turns reading aloud, except sections designated “Leader.”

• Blessings and text between two ∞ symbols are intended to be read in unison by all present, according to participants desire and ability.

• The notes in [ ] brackets indicate the estimated amount of time necessary for the following section. There are four sections in this seder, which each correspond to one station of the Work That Reconnects spiral.

• Please keep in mind that this is a very long ritual, with almost all of the traditional elements included, and a lengthy discussion around DuBois’s four questions in the middle. To complete this entire haggadah with a group, you will need about three and a half hours.

Songs used in the seder can be found on their own page, here.

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Kavannah (Intention)

Leader: Let us all take a few moments to arrive, breathe and make silence together. The intention of this seder is to honor the stories of oppression and liberation that have shaped human history, and the experiences of destruction and rebirth that have shaped this Earth throughout all time.

May our stories of oppression and liberation give power to our collective process of claiming the sacredness of life – in every moment, in every species, in every generation. May this seder bring us closer to understanding and being forces of tikkun olam (repair of the world soul).

Introductory Notes

Seder means “order” in Hebrew and is the name of this ritual meal. The haggadah, or booklet we are reading from, means “telling” in Hebrew and refers to the telling of the story of the Exodus. It also refers to the sharing of anecdotes, songs and prayers that relate to our experiences of oppression and liberation.

A Passover seder is not simply a series of ritual actions. It is a process by which we actively engage in an intellectual and spiritual process of questioning the systems of injustice that pervade our world. One way of doing this is asking questions. At some Passover seders, adults even do silly and strange things just to get the children to ask questions! You are invited and encouraged throughout this seder to ask clarifying questions, rhetorical questions, any questions that help to open your mind and heart.

There are many different versions of the haggadah, all designed to emphasize certain dimensions of the Passover story. Some parts of this seder have been slightly rearranged from the traditional order as a way to adapt it to this unique community. This haggadah is inspired by the Freedom Seder by Rabbi Arthur Waskow (a radical elder in the Jewish justice and environmental movements who created the first Freedom Seder during the Civil Rights Movement); The Promised Land Haggadah by Lynn Lebow Nadeau; and The Ma’ayan Passover Haggadah by the Jewish Women’s Project.

While Hebrew is a gendered language, some Jewish feminists and humanists have created blessing alternatives to the traditional masculine gender constructions of Jewish prayers. This haggadah switches between feminine and non-gendered grammatical formulations of blessings in order to honor the mother Earth from which all is born and a world beyond gender binaries. This wording is different from what one would hear at a more traditional seder or Jewish prayer service. For those present who prefer to use traditional Hebrew blessings with masculine grammatical formulations, this is perfectly welcome.

Participants may also choose to use English words such as Creator, Mystery, Peacemaker, Mother of Life, etc. to represent their own concepts of sacred energy. Please feel free to use whatever words feel right to you and refrain from words that do not. Should you feel inclined to listen to blessings and readings rather than speak them aloud, this is also perfectly welcome.

Candle Lighting (when Seder falls on Shabbat)

Sundown tonight is the beginning of Passover and the beginning of Shabbat. We will now kindle the festival and Sabbath lights.

During six days of the week, we work, worry and bustle about, guided by the six directions and their energies of activity and movement – north, south, east, west, sky, earth. On Shabbat, and on this festival night of Passover, we retreat from the world of work and worry, we give ourselves space to explore the transformational power within each of us, and we return to the seventh direction from which we all come – the center, the source.

(Turn out all the lights. Participants near the candles each light one. Recite together:)

Yitromeim l’beinu, t’shovav, nafshenu,

B’hadlakat neir shel Shabbat v’shel yom tov.

May our hearts be lifted, our spirits refreshed,

as we light the Sabbath candles.

Blessing The Children (when Seder falls on Shabbat)

Another traditional blessing on Shabbat is the blessing over the children. While this blessing is generally said by parents for their own children, tonight we will say a blessing for all children as well as the children present here with us.

(Leader offers a blessing for the children.)

[GRATITUDE – 35 min, all the way through the 1st cup of wine]

Miriam’s Cup

This is Miriam’s Cup. (Leader holds up Miriam’s Cup.) When the Hebrews wandered in the desert, Miriam the Prophetess manifested water wherever they traveled. Miriam’s Well, as it came to be known, nourished the people as they wandered.

We will go around the room introducing ourselves by name and sharing a single word about something we are grateful for. As we share, we will pass around Miriam’s Cup and each pour a drop of water from our own water glass into her Cup.

(Whoever is near Miriam’s Cup, begin the sharing and pass to your left. When the sharing is complete, readers continue below.)

This cup, now overflowing with our gratitude, brings our hearts and minds together. It will remain on our seder table throughout the meal, as a reminder of all that nourishes us, even in times of struggle.

(Leader introduces a partner exercise. At its conclusion, Leader brings the group’s attention back together.)

Leader: Please turn to someone sitting next to you, introduce yourself, and take turns completing the following sentence: “I feel truly free when … ”

While your partner is speaking, your job is to simply and lovingly listen – no responses or questions. When I ding the bell, you’ll switch who is speaking and listening. Again, the prompt is, “I feel truly free when …” Please find your partner, and begin your sharing.

(Bring the group back together with a bell and a song.)

First Cup of Wine

Sanctifying a cup of wine is one of the most common Jewish traditions. Wine is a symbol of joy, of the flowing cup of life. By blessing wine, we make it, and the moment we mark by drinking it, sacred. For those of you who do not wish to drink wine, grape juice is available.

Tonight, we will drink four cups of wine (or grape juice), each symbolizing stages in the process of liberation. We begin with this first cup, which honors our gratitude and appreciation for the world and each other. With this first cup, we also recite a traditional Hebrew blessing expressing gratitude for our arrival together in this precious moment.

Leader: Pour just an ounce or so of wine or juice in your glass. You do not need to drink it all at once, but you will want to finish it by the time we reach the blessing for the second cup (about a half hour from now).

N’vareykh et Eyn Hahayim matzmihat p’ri hagefen.

Let us bless the Source of Life that ripens the fruit on the vine.

B’rucha at yah Eloheinu Ruach haolam shehecheyatnu v’kiyimatnu v’higiyatnu lazman hazeh.

You are Blessed, Breath of the World, who has kept us in life and sustained us, enabling us to reach this season.

Urchatz (first ritual hand washing)

Twice during this meal, we perform a ritual hand washing as an act of cleansing and sanctifying.

For this first washing, the seder leader will symbolically wash their hands for all of us. All are invited to raise their hands in the air, look around at the hands of ourselves and others, and meditate upon the sacred work our hands undertake in this world.

[HONORING OUR PAIN – 45 min, all the way through 2nd cup of wine]

Karpas (parsley in salt water)

(Leader introduces a partner exercise. After the exercise, the leader brings the attention of the group back together and readers continue below.)

Leader: Turn again to the person you shared with before in the open sentence exercise. Tap your partner on the shoulder – whoever tapped first is partner A speaking first, and the other person is partner B lovingly listening first. When I ding the bell, you will switch roles. Take turns completing the following sentence: “A form of oppression I see in the world is … and when I turn my attention toward it, I feel … ”

Try to trust your body and emotive instincts and really sink into your feelings. I will ring the bell at two minutes so you can switch who is speaking and listening.

(Bring the group back together with a bell.)

We come now to the karpas – parsley and salt water. The green karpas represents spring awakening, the force that waits behind grief and loss.

To ignite this awakening, we must deeply honor our grief and loss. We dip the karpas in salt water, empathizing with the tears of all those who feel pain, oppression and destruction. We dip, and we join together in the following blessing:

B’rucha at yah eloheinu ruach ha’olam boreit p’ri ha’adamah.

You are Blessed, Breath of the World, who creates fruit of the earth.

Yachatz (breaking the middle matzah)

At any other Jewish festival meal, we break bread and eat it. At this meal, we break bread and later hide it, reminding us that this seder is both a celebration of freedom and a search for it.

At each table, there is a stack of three matzot. Someone at each table may remove the middle matzah from the plate and break it in two.

Leave the two pieces on the plate to remind us of the fracturing of our world and all that needs healing.

Maggid (the story)

This is the part of the seder when we examine the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. We begin by explaining each of the items on the seder plate.

(As readers explain each item on the plate, someone near the item should hold it up for others to see.)

The matzah, or unleavened bread, was the bread eaten by the Jews during their hasty departure from Egypt, as their bread did not have time to rise. The communion wafer used in the Catholic mass is based on the matzah used at the Last Supper.

The maror, or bitter herb (horseradish root), represents the bitterness of slavery – of the Jews in Egypt and of all beings who are enslaved and abused.

The charoset, a mixture of fruit, nuts and wine, represents the mortar out of which our ancestors were forced to make bricks when they were slaves in Egypt. The sweet taste reminds us that all labor has its dignity and satisfactions.

Traditional seder plates include the z’roa (shank bone), which symbolizes the sacrificial lamb whose blood saved the Jewish children while the plague of slaying of the first born took the lives of Egyptian children. The Talmud, a sacred Jewish text, says that vegetarians may use a beet instead of a shank bone because it also “bleeds.”

The karpas (green vegetable) represents the perpetual rebirth and freedom of Springtime, even when the frozen winters have diminished our hope.

The beitzah (roasted hard boiled egg) represents the cycle of life and death.

The orange, first added to the seder plate by Jewish feminists to represent women’s rights and strength in Jewish leadership, has come to represent a wider expression of Jewish feminism and LGBTQ identity and solidarity.

The Four Questions

In the traditional “Four Questions” we ask, “Why is this night different than all other nights?” The act of questioning opens our minds to the possibility that the conventional way things are is not the way they have to be. Tonight, we will ask four questions to examine the systems of power that surround us and to wonder: does it have to be this way?

Dr. Cornel West says: “W.E.B. DuBois, in 1957 at the age of 89 years old, decides to write love letters to the younger generation. It’s almost as if he knew that there would be another wave of marvelous, new, moral and spiritual militancy among a younger generation, who are hungry and thirsty—something beyond the superficial culture of spectacle … He says, ‘I’ve been wrestling with four questions all of my life, and every generation has to come to terms with these questions.’”

(Leader explains how the Four Questions discussion exercise will work.)

Leader: Each table will focus on one of the Four Questions. Your table’s question is printed on one side of a card on your table. Focus only on the question – not the quote on the other side of the table card. You will have approximately 10 minutes to discuss within your group, and then we will all come back together to share one or two points related to each question.

1. The first question: “How shall integrity face oppression?”

– What is integrity? In what part/s of your life do you feel the most integrity? In what situations do you find it hard to act with integrity?

2. That second question DuBois raises: “What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does it mean to aspire to be an honest person?”

– Do you speak your truth? What is the impact of truth telling?

3. The third question: “What does decency do in the face of insult?”

– How do you stand up for your values and beliefs when challenged or offended? How do you stand up for others?

4. The last query: “How does virtue meet brute force?”

(Cornel West on this question: “The last query is, in some ways, the most difficult one, because we don’t like to talk about it—DuBois says, how does virtue meet brute force? Because anybody who has the audacity to be fundamentally committed to integrity, honesty, and decency may sooner or later have to come to terms with brute force, with repression…”)

– Are you willing to put your body on the line for justice? What does this look like for you?

(Leader brings group back together with a bell and a song. Time allowing, each small group may share 2-3 things that came up for them in their discussion. This can also be led in paired sharings, as opposed to whole table conversations.)

Ten Plagues

We now recite the 10 plagues that God wrought upon the Egyptians while the Hebrews were enslaved. As we recite each plague in Hebrew and in English, we remove a drop of wine for our cups, using our small finger to dip from the cup onto our plate. This removal of wine from our own cups reminds us that freedom comes at a cost, that our pleasure is always in tension with the suffering of the world, including the suffering of oppressors.

(All together, recite the Ten Plagues.)

Killing of the firstborn

A common, modern interpretation of the Ten Plagues of the Exodus story is that they were not lightning bolts flung by a Super-Pharaoh in the sky, but rather ecological disasters brought about by the arrogance and stubbornness of Pharaoh.

We ask ourselves: Who and what are the Pharaohs of our modern day? What Plagues are these Pharaohs bringing on our Earth? To what extent do we contribute to the onslaught of these Plagues? For each modern Plague, we drop some more wine or grape juice from our glasses:

  • Mass incarceration, and the systemic plague of police violence and excessive use of force, especially against indigenous people and people of color.
  • Ongoing physical and cultural genocide against indigenous people’s of the world.
  • Unheard-of droughts in Africa and the Middle East, setting off hunger, starvation, civil wars and genocide.
  • Decimated mountaintops and dead coal-miners in Appalachia.
  • Erratic weather patterns that destroy staple food crops and ruin millions of homes and lives.
  • Systemic racism, rampant Islamophobia and xenophobia, violence against women.
  • Water contaminated by fracking and agricultural runoff.
  • Inability of wildlife to successfully reproduce due to massive oil spills.

What other plagues are impacting humans and more-than-human beings across this planet?

(Leader makes time for participants to name other modern plagues.)

Second cup of wine

Leader: We now come to our second cup of wine. We bless and drink this second cup to honor our pain for the world.

N’vareykh et Eyn Hahayim matzmihat p’ri hagefen.

Let us bless the Source of Life that ripens the fruit on the vine.

Rachtzah (second ritual hand washing)

Dismantling injustice takes many hands and many hearts. Deep grieving requires community. As a way of supporting each other now, use the bowl, pitcher and towel on your table to wash the hands of the person to your left, using the bowl as a catchment for the water you pour over your neighbor’s hands. Remember the water of Miriam’s Cup and the deep nourishment this cleansing can offer. As you wash, we will sing a Hebrew song of healing, the words and translation for which can be found in the listing of songs that accompany this haggadah.

N’vareykh et Eyn Hahayim matzmihat p’ri hagefen.

Let us bless the Source of Life that ripens the fruit on the vine.

[SEEING WITH NEW EYES – 30 min, all the way to 3rd cup of wine and singing]

Deep Time (WTR terminology)

On the Shabbat just before Passover, we read the last passage of the last of the Prophets, Malachi, who proclaims on behalf of the Breath of Life:

“Before the coming of the great and awesome day when the Breath of Life may become a Hurricane of Change, I will send the Prophet Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest the earth be utterly destroyed.”

This passage reminds us that for healing to come, the generations must turn their hearts to each other. We turn our hearts to the generations before us to honor them, and we turn our hearts to the generations after us to care for them. Each gives us a special wisdom.

(Leader leads a meditative exercise. Afterwards, readers continue.)

Adaptation of the Seventh Generation exercise (WTR form)

Leader: If you are able, please stand with you feet about hip width apart, comfortable and relaxed, your back long tall. If you cannot stand, please sit with your limbs uncrossed, relaxing the weight of your body into your chair, and bringing some attention to the alignment of your back.

Breathe into your belly and lower back, and feel the structure and weight of your body as you stand or sit. (brief pause) Now imagine you are a tree, and the roots of this tree extend downward from your tailbone, connecting you deep into the center of the earth. Flowing up from the top of your spine, your shoulders, neck, and head is the fork of the trunk that leads to branches. These branches extend out above your head, reaching for the sky while the roots extend down into the earth. Breath, relax, and feel or imagine this rootedness in earth and extension towards sky. (brief pause)

Now imagine your ancestors stretching behind you, one after the other, back through time. And imagine the future generations stretching out in a line in front of you, one after the other, extending throughout all time. Is there a message these ancestors and future generations have for you? (brief pause) Do you hear the message, see the message, feel this message? (brief pause) Hold the message or messages you receive in your hands like a precious gem. (brief pause) Notice if there is a place in your body you want to store it, so you can always come back and contemplate this message again. (brief pause)

(Once the meditation is complete, return to participant readers.)

The following Hebrew text is one of the paramount texts Jews are obligated to say as part of the Passover seder. It reminds us that our duty of working towards liberation for all is never complete, that every generation must be part of the struggle for justice and healing. Please read this text with me.

B’chol dor vador chayavim anu lirot et atzmeinu k’ilu yatzanu mi mitzrayim

In every generation, it is our duty to consider ourselves as if we had personally come forth from Egypt.

We thank you ancestors and we thank you future generations for joining us here and blessing us with your wisdom. It gives us spiritual fuel to pursue justice and healing.

Blessings Over the Ritual Foods

Physical nourishment is also essential for pursuing justice and healing. We have almost reached the festive meal. But first, we look to the seder plate.

Each person should take a piece of the broken matzah, as well as a piece of a whole matzah. Each person should take a bit of maror (horseradish), as well as a bit of charoset (fruit and nuts).

As we eat these ritual foods, we contemplate their symbolism. The traditional order of blessings and eating is included below for those who would like to bless and eat in the ritual order. For those who prefer to take in this physical nourishment in your own way, please do so now.

Please also pour yourself more wine or juice in preparation for our group blessing over the third cup in just a few moments – but don’t drink yet!

Motzi Matzah (bread)

B’rucha at ya, eloheinu ruach ha’olam hamotzi’ah lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Breath of the World, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Yitromeim libeinu, t’shovav nafsheinu ba’achilat matzah.

As we eat the matzah, may we enter the spirit of our liberation.

Maror (bitter herbs)

B’rucha at yah, eloheinu ruach ha’olam asher kidshatnu b’mitzvoteha v’tzivatnu al achilat maror.

You are Blessed, Breath of the World, who makes us holy with mitzvot and commands us to eat bitter herbs.

Koreich (Hillel sandwich)

The second-century sage Hillel interpreted the biblical commandment to eat the matzah, maror and charoset as a commandment to mix all three together, combining the symbols of slavery and freedom into one “sandwich.”

(Leader encourages participants to create and take a bite of the Hillel sandwich now.)

Bareich (third cup of wine)

Leader: We now raise up our third cup of wine. We bless and drink this cup to honor the new ways of seeing the world that this community and seder has offered us.

N’vareykh et Eyn Hahayim matzmihat p’ri hagefen.

Let us bless the Source of Life that ripens the fruit on the vine.

(Leader brings closure to Seeing With New Eyes section by leading the song “I Am Determined To Walk In Freedom”, encouraging participants to stand, sing, dance, and shake it out! All songs used in the seder can be found here.)

[FESTIVE MEAL & GOING FORTH – 60 min for Chef’s intro, the meal and afikomen]

Shulchan Oreich (festive meal)

Leader: We now get to enjoy our festive meal! This time of eating, drinking, and talking together holds the space for the final stage in the spiral: “going forth”. We hope you will use your dinner conversation to follow up on our discussion of W.E.B. DuBois’ four questions, share with one another the actions that call to you, and talk about how you may be finding new ways to focus your longstanding interests on liberatory social change.

Towards the end of the meal, please listen for the bell so that we can bring our attention back to the whole group, and finish the seder together.

(Leader introduces the Chef, who explains what the meal is and how getting food will work. Clean up occurs AFTER the entire ritual is complete.

Everyone now joins in the meal together, talking and socializing as they please.

When people are almost done eating the Leader brings group’s attention back together. It is fine if people are not seated, so long as they are all paying attention and able to hear.)

Tzafun (search for the afikomen)

Leader: Earlier in the seder, when you all broke the middle matzah to symbolize the fracturing of the world, I took the middle matzah, wrapped it in a napkin and hid it! Remember: Justice and healing is something we must search and strive for and we can engage in this process with joy! Traditionally, all the children at the seder search for this afikomen (dessert). I cordially invite you to find your inner child and participate on a search for the afikomen! Once it is found, we will join back together at the table to conclude our seder. For those who wish to recite the birkat hamazon, this is a good time to do so.

Whoever finds the afikomen will get a prize! GO!

[CONCLUSION – 15 min]

Nirtzah (conclusion)

Leader: Standing O for our chef!

Elijah the Prophet is said to be the messenger of peace whose arrival tells us that the world we dream of has come. We open the door now for a few moments to invite Elijah to join us. Let us make silence together and determine our intentions for how we contribute to this peace.

Leader: “We fill Elijah’s Cup with wine by each pouring in a drop from our own glasses, symbolizing our contributions to this Great Turning. While passing around Elijah’s Cup, we will sing a song in three parts – listen to catch on and stay on a part that you feel comfortable with.” (Leader leads the group in singing “We Are The Ones by Sweet Honey In The Rock.” All songs used in the seder can be found here.)

(Leader facilitates the ritual of pouring into Elijah’s Cup.)

Leader: We now come to bless our fourth cup of wine. With this cup, we recognize the strength and resilience we possess in bringing healing to our world.

N’vareykh et Eyn Hahayim matzmihat p’ri hagefen.

Let us bless the Source of Life that ripens the fruit on the vine.

Closing Words:

All will come again into its strength

the fields undivided, the waters undammed,

the trees towering and the walls built low.

And in the valleys, people as strong

And varied as the land.

You too, God, will find your strength.

We who must live in this time

Cannot imagine how strong you will become.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours

Leader: Our seder is officially complete. You are welcome to continue drinking, singing and helping clean up. Thank you all for your presence and participation.

“This hagaddah may be revised, adapted and used in other contexts, in whole or in part. Please honor prior sources and contributors in order to honor the tradition, elders and leaders involved in its evolution.” (C.M. Silverberg, 2016)

White Awake has made slight adaptations to Cara’s original haggadah, in keeping with our website format and organizational focus. If you are not Jewish, please respect that this is a Jewish cultural form. While you may be inspired by this seder to create a ritual meal of your own, please do not hold a seder without participation and/or input from Jews.

Photo credits: Dori Midnight / Bill WetzelEwan Munro

Cara Michelle Silverberg works in the field of youth leadership and environmental and social justice programs, with a focus in Jewish and interfaith community building. She is pursuing a Master of Arts in Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont. You can contact her on LinkedIn or follow her blog:

WTR Passover Seder / Freedom Songs

These songs were compiled by Cara Michelle Silverberg as part of the Work that Reconnects Passover Seder that she created for a WTR workshop in 2016. An article describing Cara’s process and inspiration in creating the Passover seder can be found here.

meaning of easter flickr cropped

Mi Shebeirach
by Debbie Friedman and Drorah Setel, based on traditional Jewish healing prayer

G        Em           Bm C   D
Mi shebeirach avoteinu (The one who blessed our fathers)

G                         Em  Bm    C D
M’kor hab’racha l’imoteinu (Source of blessing for our mothers)

Em                            Bm
May the source of strength,

C                                         G
Who blessed the ones before us,

C                               G                          C                             G
Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing,

C                    D G
and let us say, Amen.

Second verse
Mi shebeirach imoteinu (The one who blessed our mothers)

M’kor habrachah l’avoteinu (Source of blessing for our fathers)

Bless those in need of healing with r’fuah sh’leimah, (complete healing)

The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,

And let us say, Amen

When The World Is Sick (3-part round)
from original song by Silver Mt. Zion, taught at Occupy Wall Street

When the world is sick

Can’t no one be well

But I dreamt we was all beautiful and strong

Redemption Song / Mi Chamocha
Hebrew words from Song of the Sea, Book of Exodus
Music and English words by Bob Marley

G          Em                      C   C/B  Am
Mi chamocha ba-elim Adonai

G        Em          C       C/B        Am
Mi kamocha nedar bakodesh

G         Em          C      C/B Am
Nora tehilot oseh feleh

G         Em           C           D
Nora tehilot oseh feleh

G    C              D                G
Won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom

C       D      Em    C      D                   G
Cause all I ever had…redemption song

Translation of Hebrew:
Who is like you among the gods, REDEEMER?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness?

Awesome in splendor, working wonders

Sing Our Own Song
Original by UB40, chorus adapted

Part 1: Shoo-bee doo-bee doo-bee dum dum…

Part 2: Bee-dum ba-da-da-da dee-dum-bum…

Part 3: And we will fight for the right to be free

And we will build our own society

And we will sing, we will sing, we will sing

Our own song, our own song

Dayenu/ More Than Enough
by Holy Taya / Taya Shere
listen to track here

If only we be gentle and wise.

If only we see through compassionate eyes.

If only we free our true voice to rise. Dayenu.

If only we protect earth mother.

If only we respect sister and brother.

If only we connect with each other. Dayenu.

If only we flow forth in love.

If only we know God below and above.

If only we seed all we dream of. Dayenu.

If only we emanate conscious vibes.

If only we co-create with our tribe.

If only we shift survive into thrive. Dayenu.

If only we embody divine.

If only we take our sweet time.

If only we root as we climb. Dayenu.

I am more than enough.

You are more than enough.

We are more than enough.

I Give Myself Permission
taught by Alisa Starkweather

I give myself permission to be all I can be

I give myself permission to be powerful and free

Let Us See The Beauty
by Laurence Cole, original words from the poem “The Invitation” by Oriah Mountain Dreamer

Part 1: Let us see the beauty every day, and source our lives from

its presence

Part 2: I want to know if you can see the beauty, even when it’s not

pretty every day

I want to know if you can see the beauty, and source your life from its presence

Olam Chesed Yibaneh
Hebrew words from Book of Psalms
Music and English words by Rabbi Menachem Creditor

עוֹ ָלם ֶח ֶסד יִ ָבּנֶה

Olam chesed yibaneh…yai dai dai

I will build this world from love… yai dai dai

And you must build this world from love… yai dai dai

And if we build this world from love… yai dai dai

Then G-d will build this world from love… yai dai dai

Brich Rachamana
Aramaic words from the Talmud
English words by Rabbi Shefa Gold

Brich rachamana malka de’alma marey dehai pita

You are the Source of Life for all that is and your blessing flows through me.

We Give Thanks for Unknown Blessings
original by Ben Bochner, chorus adapted by Vermont Wilderness School

We give thanks for unknown blessings already on the way…

We Are The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For
author unknown, music by Sweet Honey In The Rock

Part 1: We are the ones, we are the ones, we’ve been waiting…

Part 2: We are the ones, we are the ones, we’ve been waiting…

Part 3: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, we are the ones we’ve

been waiting for…

I Am Determined To Walk In Freedom
African American spiritual song

I am determined to walk in freedom, yes I am

I am determined to walk in freedom, yes I am

Through all trials and tribulations

Persecutions, I am determined

I am determined to walk in freedom, yes I am

This Is The Day
taught by Cara Trezise as learned at PYE Global

Parts 1 and 2: This is the day to celebrate all life…



Photo credit: johnninetwentyfive

The Election: Of Hate, Grief, and a New Story

Charles Eisenstein (author of Sacred Economics) brings valuable post-election commentary in this piece on the breaking down of an old story, and the opening for something new. Especially fitting for White Awake, Eisenstein encourages us not to fall into the blame-game but, instead, to center ourselves in love and possibilities that flow from there. This is an abridged article, reposted from the original on Charles’s site.


Normal is coming unhinged. For the last eight years it has been possible for most people (at least in the relatively privileged classes) to believe that society is sound, that the system, though creaky, basically works, and that the progressive deterioration of everything from ecology to economy is a temporary deviation from the evolutionary imperative of progress.

A Clinton Presidency would have offered four more years of that pretense. A woman President following a black President would have meant to many that things are getting better. It would have obscured the reality of continued neoliberal economics, imperial wars, and resource extraction behind a veil of faux-progressive feminism. Now that we have, in the words of my friend Kelly Brogan, rejected a wolf in sheep’s clothing in favor of a wolf in wolf’s clothing, that illusion will be impossible to maintain.

The wolf, Donald Trump (and I’m not sure he’d be offended by that moniker) will not provide the usual sugarcoating on the poison pills the policy elites have foisted on us for the last forty years. The prison-industrial complex, the endless wars, the surveillance state, the pipelines, the nuclear weapons expansion were easier for liberals to swallow when they came with a dose, albeit grudging, of LGBTQ rights under an African-American President.

We are entering a time of great uncertainty. Institutions so enduring as to seem identical to reality itself may lose their legitimacy and dissolve. It may seem that the world is falling apart. For many, that process started on election night, when Trump’s victory provoked incredulity, shock, even vertigo. “I can’t believe this is happening!”

At such moments, it is a normal response to find someone to blame, (as if identifying fault could restore the lost normality) and to lash out in anger. Hate and blame are convenient ways of making meaning out of a bewildering situation. Anyone who disputes the blame narrative may receive more hostility than the opponents themselves, as in wartime when pacifists are more reviled than the enemy.

Racism and misogyny are devastatingly real in this country, but to blame bigotry and sexism for voters’ repudiation of the Establishment is to deny the validity of their deep sense of betrayal and alienation. The vast majority of Trump voters were expressing extreme dissatisfaction with the system in the way most readily available to them. (See here, here, here) Millions of Obama voters voted for Trump (six states who went for Obama twice switched to Trump). Did they suddenly become racists in the last four years? The blame-the-racists (the fools, the yokels…) narrative generates a clear demarcation between good (us) and evil (them), but it does violence to the truth. It also obscures an important root of racism – anger displaced away from an oppressive system and its elites and onto other victims of that system. Finally, it employs the same dehumanization of the other that is the essence of racism and the precondition for war. Such is the cost of preserving a dying story. That is one reason why paroxysms of violence so often accompany a culture-defining story’s demise.

The dissolution of the old order that is now officially in progress is going to intensify. That presents a tremendous opportunity and danger, because when normal falls apart the ensuing vacuum draws in formerly unthinkable ideas from the margins. Unthinkable ideas range from rounding up the Muslims in concentration camps, to dismantling the military-industrial complex and closing down overseas military bases. They range from nationwide stop-and-frisk to replacing criminal punishment with restorative justice. Anything becomes possible with the collapse of dominant institutions. When the animating force behind these new ideas is hate or fear, all manner of fascistic and totalitarian nightmares can ensue, whether enacted by existing powers or those that arise in revolution against them.

That is why, as we enter a period of intensifying disorder, it is important to introduce a different kind of force to animate the structures that might appear after the old ones crumble. I would call it love if it weren’t for the risk of triggering your New Age bullshit detector, and besides, how does one practically bring love into the world in the realm of politics? So let’s start with empathy. Politically, empathy is akin to solidarity, born of the understanding that we are all in this together. In what together? For starters, we are in the uncertainty together.

We are exiting an old story that explained to us the way of the world and our place in it. Some may cling to it all the more desperately as it dissolves, looking perhaps to Donald Trump to restore it, but their savior has not the power to bring back the dead. Neither would Clinton have been able to preserve America as we’d known it for too much longer. We as a society are entering a space between stories, in which everything that had seemed so real, true, right, and permanent comes into doubt.

For a while, segments of society have remained insulated from this breakdown (whether by fortune, talent, or privilege), living in a bubble as the containing economic and ecological systems deteriorate. But not for much longer. Not even the elites are immune to this doubt. They grasp at straws of past glories and obsolete strategies; they create perfunctory and unconvincing shibboleths (Putin!), wandering aimlessly from “doctrine” to “doctrine” – and they have no idea what to do. Their haplessness and half-heartedness was plain to see in this election, their disbelief in their own propaganda, their cynicism. When even the custodians of the story no longer believe the story, you know its days are numbered. It is a shell with no engine, running on habit and momentum.

We are entering a space between stories. What would it take for it to embody love, compassion, and interbeing? I see its lineaments in those marginal structures and practices that we call holistic, alternative, regenerative, and restorative. All of them source from empathy, the result of the compassionate inquiry: What is it like to be you?

It is time now to bring this question and the empathy it arouses into our political discourse as a new animating force. If you are appalled at the election outcome and feel the call of hate, perhaps try asking yourself, “What is it like to be a Trump supporter?” Ask what confluence of circumstances, social, economic, and biographical, may have brought them there.

My acupuncturist Sarah Fields wrote to me, “Hate is just a bodyguard for grief. When people lose the hate, they are forced to deal with the pain beneath.” I think the pain beneath is fundamentally the same pain that animates misogyny and racism – hate in a different form. Please stop thinking you are better than these people! We are all victims of the same world-dominating machine, suffering different mutations of the same wound of separation. Something hurts in there.

We live in a civilization that has robbed nearly all of us of deep community, intimate connection with nature, unconditional love, freedom to explore the kingdom of childhood, and so much more. The acute trauma endured by the incarcerated, the abused, the raped, the trafficked, the starved, the murdered, and the dispossessed does not exempt the perpetrators. They feel it in mirror image, adding damage to their souls atop the damage that compels them to violence. Thus it is that suicide is the leading cause of death in the U.S. military. Thus it is that addiction is rampant among the police. Thus it is that depression is epidemic in the upper middle class. We are all in this together.

Something hurts in there. Can you feel it? We are all in this together. One earth, one tribe, one people.

We have entertained teachings like these long enough in our spiritual retreats, meditations, and prayers. Can we take them now into the political world and create an eye of compassion inside the political hate vortex? This does not mean to withdraw from political conversation, but to rewrite its vocabulary. It is to speak hard truths with love. It is to offer acute political analysis that doesn’t carry the implicit message of “Aren’t those people horrible?” Such analysis is rare. Usually, those evangelizing compassion do not write about politics, and sometimes they veer into passivity. We need to confront an unjust, ecocidal system. Each time we do we will receive an invitation to give in to the dark side and hate “the deplorables.” We must not shy away from those confrontations. Instead, we can engage them empowered by the inner mantra that my friend Pancho Ramos-Stierle uses in confrontations with his jailers:

“Brother, your soul is too beautiful to be doing this work.”

If we can stare hate in the face and never waver from that knowledge, we will access inexhaustible tools of creative engagement, and hold a compelling invitation to the haters to fulfill their beauty.

bio / Eisenstein

Photo: Creative Commons – Abhi Ryan