Brandon Sturdivant of Mass Liberation Project argues that addressing personal trauma can help transform the work and lives of Black organizers, and make systemic change all the more possible.

In 2019, I went to Africa as part of a cohort focused on healing in an effort to grapple with years of trauma I had experienced. As a community organizer, I understood the importance of healing for formerly incarcerated people and their families. But, even at 35 years old, I had not truly acknowledged the interlocking traumas that terrorized me from within. I was good at hiding the pain. Yet, as I helped pass policies, build organizations, and coach leaders all across the United States, I struggled internally. In the end, I became ineffective and, at times, harmful. As I stood upon the shores of the Ghanaian coast, I felt like I’d finally awoken from a long nightmare.

There are few places where we center healing for Black organizers as part of the work; many of us are fighting systems that are the source of our pain. I believe focusing on healing can give most Black organizers the capacity to truly do the work of abolition and the ability to, step by step, build a new world from the inside out. And I believe that for many of us living in the Americas, going home to Ghana can be a crucial part of that. I, like many other organizers, entered the movement attempting to shrink vast internal wounds by transforming systems outside of me. I’ve found that my work is most impactful and that I am a better ally, comrade, and coalition member when I am actively healing and ridding myself of the internalized effects of forces like white supremacy and patriarchy.

I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and I am one of the few men in my family and community I grew up in to not go to prison. These traumas lingered as shadows and loomed above all my relationships. After years of suppressing my traumas, I suddenly felt unsafe in my body –– stuck and cemented to the floor like a statue from the severe anxiety and shame I held within. I could not lead anymore. I exploded at every disagreement. If a strategy I developed was challenged, I perceived that challenge as an irredeemable insult. The shadow of trauma darkened my life into a nightmare of addiction, unaddressed harm, and broken relationships. The more I tried to ignore what I had experienced, the more it engulfed me. 

For far too long the movement has ignored personal transformation to focus on political struggles at the cost of individual and communal healing. Only a fraction of the resources allocated to social justice work focuses on supporting the healing of those harmed by the very systems they work to transform. 

Healing is necessary, and now is the time to center healing in the same ways that we center policy change, elections, and even traditional base-building work. In healing, we begin to unwind the complicated relationship between internal and external safety. We reconcile the need to create conditions that are safe in the world, while simultaneously accessing a felt sense of safety that allows us to build healthy relationships, organizations, coalitions, and strategies that have the large-scale reach and political power to get us to freedom. We cannot do that without individual and collective healing.

Ghana changed me. For the first time in my life, I began to understand my origins. I understood myself as a descendant of people who survived the worst kind of trauma and injustice and managed to still love. Standing there on the shore, I understood the importance of looking back as a way of moving forward. I understood that my lineage existed past the harms that I experienced, that I was bigger than the worst that happened to me or the worst thing that I’ve done. I understood that other Black people who experienced incarceration or were family members of those incarcerated in the United States deserve the opportunity to stand on these same shores and return home on their quest for healing.   

In 2009, I began working as a community organizer to transform the U.S. criminal legal system. More than 10 years later, and two years after my initial voyage home to West Africa, I worked with my colleagues at the Mass Liberation Project to create Return & Reclaim, an act of Black healing. The program is a six-month somatic healing journey for Black movement leaders that revolves around a somatic-based healing trip to Ghana. During Return & Reclaim we acknowledge the inimical effects of transatlantic slavery and draw a connection between the slave dungeons on the shores of Ghana and contemporary U.S. prisons in an effort to help participants heal their trauma. Generative Somatics, an organization dedicated to movement healing, defines trauma as an injury to our dignity, belonging, and/or safety. Leveraging this definition, Return & Reclaim views Black bodies impacted by the criminal legal system as having experienced trauma due to isolation, physical violence, and dehumanization they experience. Further, we view racial slavery as the original trauma that Black folks inherit while attempting to live in a modern white supremacist world. 

In Return & Reclaim, we support participants as they confront years of suppressed trauma. Before traveling to Ghana, folks bond with each other through guided practices that engender platonic intimacy and foster close connection. We call the connections we create a sacred container, a space where people are asked to bring their whole selves, to be messy and unfinished in their pain and challenges and yet intentionally transform. We start an arc of transformation where participants begin to feel themselves, their emotions, and physical sensations, and notice their internal narrative in ways they never have. Experience with the criminal legal system often robs us of our capacity to be aware of our bodies, and what we truly want. They also learn to experience platonic intimacy, share longings, desires for transformation, and even physical space and touch, offering and receiving a unique vulnerability through their bodies. This emerging somatic awareness, as our friends at Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD), Generative Somatics, and Strozzi Institute say, allows for a deeper connection to the land, to the people, and to themselves and each other as a cohort.

This container holds the group in Ghana. There, participants experience self and communal healing through somatic practices that alert them to triggering moments (going to the slave dungeons) and practices that allow participants to feel and know safety within their bodies. These practices are augmented by real experiences of resilience, like walks through the 145 square miles of dense forestry of Kakum National Park, time with other Black folks on the beach, and nights of cultural music. It is this tension between addressing trauma and embracing safety that made my first journey to Ghana an emotional roller coaster. 

I moved from tears of confusion as I walked in reverse through the Door of Return (an entrance repurposed from the Door of No Return, the exiting place for many of our ancestors), to anger as I felt the bars of the slave dungeons (that not long ago held countless Black bodies), and learned the intricate processes of racial capitalism that fed on the trade of my ancestors. I experienced grief as I embraced the historical source of the U.S. criminal legal system and why I have never felt safe in my body in the U.S. But I began to heal as my body shifted from confronting trauma to embracing resilience undergirded by internal safety. Joy washed over me like a wave from the Atlantic as I listened to Ghanaian drums and was met by generous hospitality that reminded me of a family reunion; or when I heard the sound of “akwaaba” (welcome home) as I engaged with distant kin. As an antecedent to Return & Reclaim, my initial journey to Ghana healed me in ways that I did not know that I needed.

Since my first trip, I have led over 70 people back to Ghana through Return & Reclaim with the Mass Liberation Project and the Black Men Maroon Space, another initiative of mine focused on addressing white supremacy, patriarchy, and racial capitalism with Black men in the movement. Every participant has experienced significant healing through the trips. Some folks describe feeling safe in their body for the first time and moving closer to their aliveness and purpose. As their internal sense of safety grows, some have changed their roles in the movement, from strategists to healers, elections to base building, and overall working to create environments where abolitionist imagination and creativity can flourish. Others take on a more Afrocentric approach in rejecting the binary logics of white bourgeois ways of knowing the world and center the diaspora to build a sharper analysis of global white supremacy and anti-Blackness in order to organize and craft more robust policies. And like me, they all experience growth in their leadership.

Ghana prepared me to lead teams of people during the pandemic, help build organizations, and win an unprecedented election in Florida. The healing work I did allowed me to move into a co-foundership in Mass Liberation and share power in ways I never imagined. We’ve gone from supporting 6 organizations to close to two dozen who can call themselves part of the Mass Lib family. And in many areas like Michigan, Arizona, Nevada, and the DMV they are the vanguard of abolitionist thinking and organizing. 

I was once the lone ranger, the one you would call to learn what could go wrong as I chipped away at the criminal legal system. Now I serve as a mirror and hold space for collective healing so that individuals and organizations alike can transform to make abolition more possible. Return & Reclaim demonstrates the need for more resources for healing leaders in movement—and the potential impact if that level of healing was made possible.

Through the lessons garnered from Return & Reclaim, we aim to create a global abolitionist movement home for the diaspora in Ghana, a cornerstone in Pan-Africanism. As we learn from Ruth Gilmore, abolition is a place. Also, abolition is happening now, and all around us. Therefore, this diasporic center will give abolition a place and allow all the work that is happening now to cross-pollinate in the only country in Africa that has Pan-Africanism written into its constitution. Ghana still has its struggles, and I denounce the recent anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation passed by the legislature in Ghana. But through diasporic connection, we can create a world beyond—. 

The dash represents the endless possibilities for a better future. We are creating a world beyond capitalism, sexism, racism, and any other system that is not based on interdependence and mutual care. And of course, all of this work begins with healing and personal transformation. So let us return home, to the Continent, and to our bodies.


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