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Sankofa— Learn from the Past
FILLING OUT MY FIRST U.S. CENSUS FORM, I went back and forth, turning the form one way and then another, searching for a category that acknowledged my
Latino roots. I felt a loud thud in my heart as I finally checked the Caucasian box. Latinos were not recognized as a group by the U.S. government until the 1980 Census. The need to be accepted for who you are is a very deep longing in all people, but particularly in communities of color, whose members have been relegated to a minority status and measured by a White ideal. As I filled out the form, I heard my grandmother's sweet voice, "Aye mi jita, nunca olvides quien eres y de donde venistes." ("Oh, my dearest little daughter, never forget who you are and where you came from.")
This notion of remembering your roots and staying connected to your ancestry is of biblical import in Black, Latino, and American Indian communities. Forgetting where you came from is known as selling out, becoming an Uncle Tom or an Oreo or a coconut (Black or Brown on the outside, but White on the inside). Staying connected to one's roots includes being in tune with the history and struggles of one's people. Communities of color relate to the past as the "wisdom teacher," the source from which culture flows.
Sankofa, the mythical bird from West Africa who looks backward, symbolizes the respect African Americans have for the insight and knowledge acquired from the past. Sankofa reminds us that our roots ground and nourish us, hold us firm when the winds of change howl, and offer perspective about what is lasting and significant. Although Sankofa rests on the foundation of the past, its feet are facing forward. This ancient symbol counsels us that the past is a pathway to understanding the present and creating a strong future. Sankofa invites us to bring forward the meaningful and useful—including the values and spiritual traditions passed from previous generations—to learn from experience, and to avoid the dead ends and pitfalls of history. As the song that is considered the Black national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," proclaims: "Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us." The song also inspires hope, because despite past trials and tribulations, people survived and are now thriving.
Latinos connect to the past during El Dia de los Muertos by recognizing the gifts inherited from their antepasados and reflecting on the wisdom their ancestors have passed on. On this day, many Latinos compose an altar with pictures of their mother, father, abuelos, and other family members who have passed on. Surrounded by marigold flowers, flickering candles, and perhaps a mantle embroidered by their grandmother, they play old songs and tell stories about these relatives. Fried plantains, arroz y frijoles, rice pudding, or other special foods are made. Brandy, chocolate, strong coffee, and other delicious treats are left on altars so that those who came before know they are welcome, loved, and remembered. Latinos also take flowers and food to family burial plots, and thus the roots of the past are affirmed and strengthened.
American Indians believe their ancestors, the venerable ones, walk right alongside them and are accessible even though they have passed on to the spirit world. Prayers are made to the grandfathers and grandmothers, asking for their blessings and good counsel. The Navajos honor this connection each time they introduce themselves by referring to their heritage and lineage: "I am the grandson of ... and the great grandson of ..." Indian history, culture, morals, and values are passed on through the oral tradition in stories and fables that often enumerate the feats of those that came before. "Learn from the past," a slogan for the Native American College Fund, encapsulates the belief that by understanding history, people will not repeat past mistakes and can create a better future.
Through time-honored traditions, these cultures keep the past alive and accessible so it feeds the present. Since their history is a tale of conquest, cultural oppression, and racism, reclaiming and remedying the past is crucial to recovering power and wholeness. For many, this is not about times gone by, but their recent family history. Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Ana Escobedo Cabral grew up in a migrant family in the Santa Clara Valley, listening to the stories of her grandparents and great grandparents. She says, "I feel very fortunate that I lived with several generations. I learned about the struggles they endured—losing children to disease and hunger, coming across the Rio Grande, and walking all the way from Texas to California with no money and then working in the fields." Cabral believes this motivates her to improve the lives of others. "One thing that will always be culturally important is the connection to your own family history. Through that you'll understand people's pain, suffering, and struggle."
Healing the Past
IT MAY BE DIFFICULT for many people to understand why we need to reconcile the past in order to build a pluralistic society and fashion multicultural leadership. Yet the vestiges of the past and the inequities that existed for centuries continue to impede inclusiveness and equity. For example, imbedded racism, which has its roots in slavery, was evident in the television images of the destitute and homeless Black people after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. Inequality has lingered long after emancipation. Similarly, five hundred years after the conquistadores slashed their way through this hemisphere, Latinos still struggle with being colonized people. An example of this discrimination is that Latino wages are actually falling even as their labor participation increases. They are working more and earning less. Another is that Latino high school dropout rates hover at 40 percent, which is attributed to inadequate and poorly funded schools in high-density Latino neighborhoods. By understanding the historical systems that continue this type of discrimination, Latinos can remain resolute and stay the course.
Indian lands were snatched from them way back during pioneer times. After the Indians were rounded up and confined to reservations, Christian ministers baptized them and banned many of their religious practices. Children were sent to boarding schools to learn the "White man's ways." Stripped of their spirituality and land, this great and noble people could have had their heritage wiped out like the bison that once grazed the open range. The movement to reinstate tribal lands took shape only in the 1960s when the first Indian lawyers examined the old treaties. The Indian's battle for tribal sovereignty and cultural preservation persists today.
These examples shed light on how history continues to affect people of color and the reconciliation that is needed to create a truly inclusive future. Understanding and healing the past can move people beyond the vestiges of oppression and old transgressions. The reconciliation movement in South Africa sheds light on how the past can be a force for change and new beginnings. After people had suffered under the cruelty of apartheid, leaders urged them to come forward and publicly acknowledge their grievances and transgressions so that the past could be healed and a new country could be born.
In practicing Sankofa, our starting point will be the genesis of America. The convergence of certain European philosophies drove the exodus across the Atlantic and made the settling of the western hemisphere a de facto conquest based on the oppression of indigenous people. These antecedents set in motion a leadership form that was exclusionary and denied the history and contributions of diverse people. For mainstream leaders, understanding the history that gave rise to ethnocentricity is perhaps the most difficult step in transforming leadership to an inclusive, multicultural form. Sankofa beckons us to look at the past courageously and to learn from history, and it assures us that this will generate the clarity and power to construct a better future.
History recounts the events of the past, but not from an objective frame of reference. Depending on who wrote it, a certain perspective is espoused. Women in the last century, for example, were enlightened by the realization that males wrote history and how this affected their current status, self-concept, and collective empowerment. His-story and not her-story revealed a past in which men were the great heroes and women's contributions were lost like etchings in the sand. Likewise, people of color know the prevailing history is also not our-story, but reflects instead an Anglo and European philosophy and worldview. Communities of color see history in a different light. Sharing this perspective can level the historical playing field. Constructing a future that integrates the perspectives of all Americans must start with an inclusive historical foundation.
Whitewashing the Settling of America
OKAY, I'LL ADMIT IT. I am "old school." I was raised in the 1950s, when the settling of America was presented in a romantic and adventurous way. "In fourteen-ninety-two," my classmates chorused, "Columbus sailed the ocean blue." I envisioned the first Pilgrims in their crisp white collars stepping off their boats, amazed at this vast and beautiful land, unspoiled and untamed. The first Thanksgiving was a wondrous feast with helpful Indians serving up hearty portions of squash and corn. My vivid child's imagination saw covered wagons forging across the rugged plains to settle the wild, wild West. American history at that time was written of, by, and for the people who conquered this land; it described what happened from their point of view. And I believed every word of it.
What kind of trauma do persons of color undergo when the reality of what really happened to their ancestors unfolds like a jarring nightmare in the dark night? I remember my grandmother admonishing me, "Don't wear your skirts too short, like I did." As a Central American Indian she blamed herself, and did not understand that the ravishing of young native girls was a tradition carried over from the conquistadores, who took what they wanted. In fact, the Mestizo or mixed race throughout Central and South America is the offspring of the forced integration between Indians and Spaniards. For Indian women, it didn't matter how long or short their skirts were.
The story of the settling of America is a cultural construct. The sugarcoating of history is a hard pill to swallow if it was your grandmother who was abused or your native soil that was lost. To build a multicultural nation, we must peer through a different looking glass. Are we going to refer to this as the discovery and settling of America or are we going to call it a conquest, colonization, attempted genocide? Was the land free or stolen? What really happened after Christopher Columbus set foot on the coast of San Salvador and the Pilgrims eagerly followed, landing at Plymouth Rock?
Looking at the past from this frame of reference may be disturbing, may be seen as irrelevant, or, worse, may create resistance. Contemporary American culture lives in the ahora—the present. Getting things done now is imperative! The past is tucked away, mythologized, and certainly not seen as the backdrop for the present. Others may claim, "This is old hat! Do we have to revisit the antecedents of racism, again? Haven't we done enough of this? Besides, it wasn't me!" The individualist nature of American culture makes it difficult to assume a collective understanding of or responsibility for how the past structures our current reality and affects us today. Cultural amnesia results, so people have no memory of the trials and tribulations of the past.
Can we go down a different road? Is it possible that, by getting right up in the face of historical whitewashing, we can heal the social disease that finds justifications for why one group is better than another? Can we uproot the mind-set that proclaimed that this hemisphere was here for the taking and its inhabitants were savages? When the past is reconstructed in the bright light of honesty—or at least when everyone's story is told—we can begin restructuring leadership from a Eurocentric form to one that's more diverse and inclusive. We can construct a new leadership covenant that reflects and respects the history and culture of all Americans.
Bueno; to do this, our story must start before the Pilgrims and conquistadores began their stressful journeys. We must understand that the estimates of the native population in the Americas in pre-Columbian times ranged from a low of 12.5 million to a high of 25 million. Central Mexico alone, it is conjectured, contained almost ten times the number of people in England at that time.
So why did Columbus sail the ocean blue in 1492, and why did the inhabitants of this hemisphere stay home?
The cultures of the western hemisphere as we will explore later were rooted to their homelands, whereas Columbus's landing in America spurred an exodus among the greatest in history.
The European Exodus
BEGINNING IN THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, religion, politics, and economics converged in Europe, setting forth a new worldview. It defined man's nature as acquisitive and competitive, supported the advent of capitalism, and provided a strong rationale—even a religious mandate—for conquering the Americas. The Protestant reformation was in full swing. When Martin Luther, a devout Catholic priest and a purist by nature, nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, man's very relationship to God was turned upside down. A central facet of Protestantism was that the individual did not need an intermediary such as a priest, a saint, or even Santa Maria—the Holy Mother of God—to communicate or have direct contact with God. This was heresy to the Catholic Church, which for centuries had controlled the pipeline to the deity through their black-clad priests and holy saints.
Fueled by Calvinism which had spread across Europe, the Protestant ethic propagated industriousness, duty, hard work, progress, and the accumulation of wealth. This was a 180-degree turn from the partnership-oriented early cultures that had stressed sharing and living in harmony with nature. Furthermore, Protestantism ran a pretty tight ship. Rules, formal regulations, subduing of the "pleasures of life," self-control, and rationalism reigned. A diligent person would be working too hard to have time for such frivolities.
It was the entrée of economist Adam Smith's idea of capitalism in 1776, however, that hammered the nails into the coffin of the mutually assisting early cultures. Capitalism compelled individuals to go in search of personal wealth. As the free-market economy proliferated, the belief in self-interest took precedence over public welfare or social good. The individual was now unfettered from the need to consider the effects of his actions on the collective. The free market economy, competition, and "survival of the fittest" replaced early communalism. Now the operating words were looking out for numero uno—every man for himself.
Political theorist and influential thinker Thomas Hobbes capped this off by espousing that the fundamental motivation of human nature was selfishness. Individuals, he believed, were in a perpetual struggle for advantage, power, and gain. Hobbes argued that society was simply a group of selfish individuals united together to maximize safety and protect themselves from one another. His social contract was based on human beings wanting a moral authority to safeguard them from their own selfish nature. This is evidenced today in the mushrooming number of laws intended to contain and police human behavior.
Excerpted from Salsa, Soul, and Spirit by Juana Bordas Copyright © 2007 by Juana Bordas. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Special Contributions: Profiles of Leaders xv
Introduction: Diversity Is Transforming Leadership 1
Part 1 A New Social Covenant 23
Principle 1 Sankofa
Learn from the Past 27
Principle 2 I to We
From Individualism to Collective Identity 46
Principle 3 Mi Casa Es Su Casa
A Spirit of Generosity 59
Part 2 Leadership Styles in Communities of Color 79
Principle 4 A Leader Among Equals
Community-Conferred Leadership 84
Principle 5 Leaders as Guardians of Public Values
A Tradition of Activism 98
Principle 6 Leaders as Community Stewards
Working for the Common Good 118
Part 3 Creating the Circle of Leadership 139
Principle 7 The Seventh-Generation Rule
Intergenerational Leadership 142
Principle 8 All My Relatives
La Familia, the Village, the Tribe 162
Principle 9 Gracias
Gratitude, Hope, and Forgiveness 178
Part 4 Leadership for a Multicultural Age
Making the Commitment: Personal, Organizational, and Political 195
About the Author 232
Posted July 10, 2012
“In just one decade, a majority of Americans under age eighteen will be non-white.”
I was prepared that Juana's book would read like a text...so I got ready to prep myself like any good student. Wrong, from the first page this “text” read like a novel, excitement and adventure on every page...I stopped underlining her quotes with my yellow pen, and just started reading what felt like another beautiful novel from Isabel Allende, same colorful and intense style. Surely they must be childhood friends!
There is more to Juana's quest for leadership from within the Black, Native American, and Latinos communities...we bring traditions that have formed our families, and can bring values to the American way of life...our country is changing. In Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, Juana shows us where those changes are taking place, and why. We have a responsibility to reach down to help others, bring them up to join us as we take our place in this society. Juana moved me with her I to We message, as Blacks, Native Peoples, or Hispanics we must stand together to build the new community, working together like we did in the fields...making our lives better.
Juana Bordas hits you with information that has to impact where we will be in the next ten or twenty years, her Preface on the first page is a wake up call: “In just one decade, a majority of Americans under age eighteen will be non-white.” If you are planning to retire soon, who will be paying into Social Security to fund your nest? Bordas shocks you but opens the door to solutions that challenge your common bias toward Western or European influenced way of life. But then her experience comes back to us with solutions gained from her family and extended family of friends...and from her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chile. She has a beautiful way to bring us together with this experience...she follows us and does not lead us forward.
If I were to ask that you read and then read again what Juana tells us about the Iroquois Seventh Generation Rule, I would hope we can share this with our current and future leaders, to always consider the impact of our decisions on our children, their children's children, and unto seven generations...it is so little to ask as Juana tells us. The Iroquois have given us something to bring to the next generation; a generation that will soon be mostly non-white and under eighteen!