Isoke Femi on transformative learning and loving Blackness
We recently sat down with Isoke Femi, GLIDE’s Maven of Transformative Learning with our Center for Social Justice, to talk about the inspiration and philosophy that ground her approach to group facilitation, and what gives her hope for the realization of a just, equitable and loving future.
Your title at GLIDE is Maven of Transformative Learning. Can you tell us what transformative learning is and how you implement it?
Isoke Femi: In honesty, my definition of transformative learning is ever-changing. The first thing I would say is that transformative learning is in service to a more progressive agenda, an agenda that’s more inclusive—not just of different kinds of people but different ways of looking at things, and different ways of doing things. In a sense, transformative learning asks us, “Even if you don’t like something, can you relate to it? Can you engage with it?” What’s wonderful about that is that you don’t have to go outside of yourself to find that otherness to relate to—because we’re just walking around like little colonies of difference. Each of us has within us what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. First to our families that we’re born into, in our communities, and then to ourselves, because we internalize the family’s belief that, let’s say, loudness is not acceptable. I tend to be a loud person. So what happens is that a war inside ensues between the part of me that has conformed to quiet, to be more placid, and the one inside who wants to yell or who wants to just call out across the room instead of walking over politely. So we’re all each a little laboratory. We don’t really need to go away from home to discover that there are many conflicts inside, and transformative learning is about engaging those conflicts.
That’s the basis for being able to relate to other points of view, right? Because there’s some part of you that’s sort of already there, that understands.
Isoke: Yes! I often think of it as an uncovering, and an undoing, too. I feel like since the election we’ve become really acutely aware of things that before would just stay hidden. They were just beneath the surface and we knew they were there, but we sort of let sleeping dogs lie. And now that doesn’t seem to be possible. I’ve been imagining that as part of a great undoing. We want to build something beautiful, and democratic, and holistic and all that, but we want to build it on top of a bunch of crap! And we can’t! In a way that uncovering is about uncovering the crap, so that whatever we do build is more authentic and more sustainable.
We don’t really need to go away from home to discover that there are many conflicts inside, and transformative learning is about engaging those conflicts.
On a better foundation . . .
Isoke: And one that’s based on the truth. Not the truth as in true or false . . . There’s a Greek term, aletheia. It means “truth as an unconcealedness.” Which is different from “This is the Truth, objective truth.” The kind of truth we’re going for is the truth that arises when we uncover stuff. When we take the lid off, what kind of truth comes? There’s a beauty and a goodness in that kind of truth that’s different from the kind of truth that says two plus two equals four.
The other thing I would say about transformative learning—and I’m only recently getting clear on this—is that what stops us from deep, deep truth-telling is fear. So transformative learning is an attempt to lower the fear factor. That’s where you get into the “how” of transformative learning: creating the conditions that allow for fear to be lowered so that the truth can come. In some ways, as a transformative facilitator, I am at odds with the approach that brings a sledgehammer, that pretty much says, “Are you woke? If you’re not, we’re going to wake you up!” The approach there can raise the fear factor, so people end up just trying to be good. Trying to be like, “Well, let me just be good so I can get out of this situation.”
I want to ask, “What gets in the way of love?” It’s not enough to not hate, to not want injustice. What about just loving?
Can you talk about how you’re using transformative learning as a facilitator to address Black History Month at GLIDE?
Isoke: Well, it’s not political. In some way everything’s political, but my approach is not political. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but my goal this month was to help people to love Blackness. Which is an interesting thing, I’ve been thinking about this too, that in our country we frame the conversation around race as, “If you’re against someone, then you’re prejudiced or you’re racist.” We could stay lost in that conversation forever. But I want to ask, “What gets in the way of love?” It’s not enough to not hate, to not want injustice. What about just loving? What can you uncover in yourself that will allow you to truly love black folks? This is where it gets political, if you want to say that. The history of black folks in the world is a history of ridicule and rejection and disgust, everything that says, “You are not lovable.” That’s the message that has been pumped into the minds and hearts of Americans, and other parts of the world, since the slave trade. So what if we took the approach of saying, “Let’s focus on what’s lovable about a people”.
To that end, I’ve been trying to help people to see the roots of black soul that we all partake in and that we don’t give credit. The music of black folks is the defining music of the last, you know, 400 years. It’s very deep. Black people were in the homes, raising the kids, cooking the food . . . just so immersed. We’re loving this, and this, and this, but we have to twist it into something. Because if we really love it, we may have to change the relationship.
If you acknowledge the love, you have to admit equal humanity. And then on what basis could you continue the system?
Isoke: Right. So, I use primarily music [as an example], but people already know the music, so what’s different? What a lot of people don’t know is that the roots of that music come from a very deep cosmology. This ability to bring the spirit down into a community through song and through rhythm and surrendering to it. Part of the cosmology is that you surrender to it. Whereas in our Western training, you’re defended from anything that’s going to make your body do weird things, or make you look crazy, or make you look “primitive.” Because primitive belongs to “them.” I wanted to deepen the knowledge about why you appreciate it. Even a lot of black people don’t know that we came to this so-called “new world” having had thousands of years of accepting that feelings are a way of knowing. And we’re not the only ones. It’s just that everything that’s a distraction from soul force was taken from us, so that’s all we had! So we preserved it. And it wasn’t even conscious. We have to sing, we have to dance, we have to preach, we have to praise the spirit, to celebrate all that stuff [because] we don’t have a choice anymore.
Love is arising. It’s just not noisy. Love is not noisy like hatred is, like divisiveness is.
You’re describing that instinct to survive, this will to live, but then the flip side is all that it gifts to the rest of the culture.
Isoke: Right, that then goes unacknowledged, unappreciated and exploited.
Do you see progress? Both in self-love of Blackness, and in terms of people loving Blackness?
Isoke: Well, yes, because in my work I get exposed to a lot of, I call them parallel universes. On the one hand, everything looks like it’s going down the toilet. Everything good, everything holy, everything that gives us hope is being flushed. At the same time, on the ground, there are millions of people who are not buying it. Who are done with that. They’re ready for something else. That movement doesn’t get much attention, and it’s not a “movement” [in an organized sense] anyway, it’s more and more white people saying, “I have white-skin privilege.” When I started doing this work, people would lose their minds at the mention of such a thing. I feel there’s some revolution that’s really slow, so you can’t tell. There’s this other crazy stuff happening that’s getting all the attention—but there’s this other movement that’s holding it all, and it’s love. Love is arising. It’s just not noisy. Love is not noisy like hatred is, like divisiveness is. But I do feel that.
We have to sing, we have to dance, we have to preach, we have to praise the spirit, to celebrate all that stuff [because] we don’t have a choice anymore.
I learned a metaphor, and it’s about the butterfly. The story is that when the caterpillar finishes feeding and is ready to build its chrysalis, its body begins to liquefy. It’s soup, it’s goop. If you were to cut it open, you would destroy the whole process. It’s in this thing, this soup. There are probably lots of things happening [in it], but there are two dynamics that I got turned on to. One is what they call imaginal cells—the not-yet-visible forms of the butterfly. Everything that the butterfly is going to be is in this soup, in the form of these imaginal cells. Already the antennae, the eye, they’re all distinct but they’re not joined. The other thing that’s happening is the immune system of the caterpillar is attacking these imaginal cells. But as soon as the imaginal cells find their way to each other they begin to colonize, and at that point they are immune to the caterpillar’s immune system.
Well, to me, that’s the best story of hope ever. Because it’s taken directly from nature—it’s not anything anybody can argue is not true, and it’s a beautiful metaphor for what we’re in. If you were to just open and see that, you’d think “Oh my god there’s nothing there, it’s just goop.” But if you could see more deeply, if you could see microscopically what’s happening, you’d think, “Oh, this has to happen. This has to happen for the butterfly to emerge.” I tell myself that those antibodies—you could call them the antibodies to transformation—are not just in the Trumps of the world, they’re in all of us. That fear of what’s trying to arise. For example, if somebody flips me off, the old immune system attacks. It’s hard-wired to react that way. But this new thing that’s trying to arise doesn’t respond that way. Because—and this is where I get into my metaphysics—that’s where it isn’t afraid. It knows what it is, and it’s not afraid of this. The part of me that wants to go over there and get into an argument is part of this antibody system that’s keeping the new thing from being born. But the new thing is going to happen.