Dr Angel Acosta:
the fertile soil for surprise
Angel has a voice like medicine. It heals. He is a pioneer of the emerging field of healing-centred education – helping children and adults experience and channel the wisdom, pain and potential that resides in our bodies as well as our minds. In exploring his own heritage, he illuminates what is possible when we discover and act from a place of deep connectedness. We have to act from the future we dream of, he says, or we will find ourselves living in one dreamt up by others.
Made by Jo Barratt. Conceived by Jo Barratt and Gemma Mortensen, with Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.
Music is made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.
In the year 2080, I imagine my nephew Javian walking home from teaching. He’s a professor now, and he’s just looking up as he walks home, looking at the zipping cars and the zipping trains right above each other. And he’s looking for the sun, he’s looking to be sunkissed. He’s also thinking about his students who now have the ability to not just have access to the world’s information, but to be in tune with ancestral pasts and his task as a professor is to awaken a curiosity in them so that they can use the wisdom of the past to continuously forge a new forward, a new future for the human present. I see he sees himself as an instigator of human curiosity, and he has an opportunity to teach the next generation to be different, to have a grander vision of who and what they can be.
Introductions are interesting to me. Where do you begin? Santiago, Monte Adentro, my grandfather’s house. I remember visiting every summer from the ages of 10 to about 17. His name was Angel Acosta. I get my name from him. He and my grandmother, Delores Acosta had 11 children and those 11 children bore 30 children. I’m one of the 30 or so grandchildren. I can think of no other time in my life where I had experienced so much peace. Um, there was something so healing about walking on that land. Uh, my grandfather was a tobacco farmer, and what you could call a sharecropper, he would tend to many lands. And that land of his was located, nestled, right almost in the corner of a road. But it was nestled deep enough that you had a little bit of privacy. So when you entered the, you know, you could call it a little bit of a small estate or kind of a farm, you would have this huge mango tree towering above the other smaller trees: the palm trees, the tamarind trees and the coconut trees. And it was just magic to be able to be so close to rural life. We were raised in New York city so being able to spend the summers in a more remote space and place was just a gift. It was a true gift. I think my relationship to nature was deeply fostered there. My relationship to the skies is as well. I remember watching my first shooting star as I walked back to the house with my cousin and making a wish and taking that wish so seriously. For me, I am, my family was, uh, constellated by all kinds of skin textures and hair textures. And so it was good as a young boy of color to, within a family that was already fairly diverse, to see people, more people who look like me and, just to live and see and be with my father’s family all of whom are a little darker in complexion. It just felt so much as though I had arrived, as I was home and walking barefoot on the land, you know, picking up a mango and just eating a fresh mango. And I just deeply appreciate the gift of having that opportunity.
One question that helps me to introduce myself is what is emerging. And I think the notion of emergence has been a staple and a consistent motif in my life. When I was younger, you know, especially in high school and even in college, I had no clue what I was going to become or be or the job I was going to take. In fact, I was, um, just following a series of emergence, of emergent phenomena. You know, I remember loving anthropology and being just profoundly influenced by a course that I was taking my freshman year, and that was emerging, and I decided to study anthropology. I studied abroad in different countries, in Senegal and the Czech Republic. And Mexico and just really, really leaned into that. Just pursuing what was most present in my heart.
I certainly admit that the times are dark, but I’m incredibly optimistic about the future and not a kind of divorced, idealistic optimism though, more a grounded, realistic one. It made me think of the work of Bayo Akomolafe when he talks about going into the cracks, going into the places where we tend not to see the shadow. And it is there, the void, the confusion that erupts from being in a liminal place, like the edge, like the cracks, that creates the exact fertile soil for surprise, for possibilities, for potentialities. Obviously we have the challenges before us and one that’s kind of grounded in a sense of not faith in time, but faith in relationships that somehow we will continue to relate to each other in ways that even through conflict and even through turmoil, even through catastrophe would allow us to step closer to each other. And in so doing and perfectly, we will have a future. We will have a future indeed. I mean, we are curious species of course, but a creative one at that, a precocious one at that. Thinking beyond the present challenges and the more aligned community that we can be, oof, I get excited about that. Obviously we’re going to be challenged with dealing with climate change, structural inequality, obviously gender disparity, wealth distribution and wealth gap and supporting countries that have experienced the legacy of colonisation and the signs point to just difficult times ahead, um, in terms of maybe global consensus, you could say. We might need to plan for having our hearts broken open with the surprise that even at the final hour, we might just get it together. That makes me optimistic.
It was 2008 during the market crash so I was kind of afraid of the job market. So I stayed in school and I dove into leadership, dove into understanding how different theories of leadership, different approaches to leadership. And I learned so much when I kind of finished that. I, what emerged was another opportunity, an opportunity to work in the field of education for a nonprofit that did work around the country, helping low-income students get access to higher education. And I spent almost eight years traveling around the country, working in New York, Florida, the Lakota Sioux nation, and standing rock North Dakota. And in about eight years I probably worked with, and touched the lives of, about 30,000 young people. And that just gave me a profound sense for the state of public education in the United States. And during that process at the tail end of it, I felt like there was more, there was more that I had to do. There was more that I had to explore and had some mentors invite me to consider doctoral applications. And I somewhat leaned into that, those questions around what would I study if I could go back to school one more time. One last time. I had some very particular questions you know I had been exposed to inequality in the ways in which public school systems across the country operate in the communities that are in those schools, especially the communities of colour or communities that are historically marginalised. So I wanted to think about education more broadly, kind of think about it through a sense of perspective of wellness, maybe. I was very curious about the mindfulness movement and many contemplative practices that are part of that wave. I also was a firm believer in social justice education and teaching our young people and people in general, how to understand the structures that be and power and how it circulates, how it reinforces particular systems of oppression.
So, as I started my journey, I asked those questions, that question, and I began to think more about healing and healing-centered education, because part of understanding the matrix of power and domination and all kinds of ways in which inequality, in particular in the United States, has been entrenched is that trauma has been so real – structural trauma, community trauma, individual trauma. So I began to read more about trauma and its impact and community, began to read more about healing and the role of healing in this moment and in the field of education as a serious subject in terms of curriculum, in terms of policy, in terms of practice and with a particular focus on developing teachers and educators and practitioners, racial literacy development, meaning their ability to decipher, understand, unpack, and address issues of race and racism in their communities, in their schools and their neighbourhood. And throughout that process, I’ve just become a more robust thinker. You know, I’ve continued to expand my horizons in terms of the work that I do facilitating restorative circles for organisations, facilitating and designing learning experiences for, for institutions that want to go deeper in terms of understanding these issues and particularly creating the climate at work or the climate and the organisational settings to have these kinds of difficult conversations, especially during a time like ours.
In my hand, I’m holding a ring. This ring is incredibly beautiful. It has all kinds of stones. In fact, the stone that it’s made out of is a fire Opal. So it’s like a red shimmery, almost coral in nature, and it was made by a third generation Navajo jeweller and this ring, he made it with the four directions in mind. I believe the North represented strength. I believe the East represented balance. I believe the West represented harmony and South protection. It makes me feel centered with a readiness to take on whatever comes. It represents for me an opportunity to support an artist, an opportunity to have a relationship with a family, a family of people who have carried the jewellry, making tradition in their hands it’s an opportunity to marvel at the incredible art and genius of the indigenous communities of this country. It’s massive, it takes up like the whole first third of my ring finger on my right hand. It’s incredible. I wear it when I’m nervous or I need some energy.
If the status quo is denial of the ecological imbalance that is before us excessive consumerism, political context, if the status quo is the continuous rearing of the head of racism in the face of people who are continuously vilified then I just don’t connect to, relate, agree with the status quo. And it’s unfair to say that mainstream America, in this case, the US is, um, complicit in all of that, but there’s something to the status quo that invites us to think that either folks think that’s okay or folks think it’s okay to ignore, or folks think it’s okay to deny. We are undergoing many, many, many, many changes, many crises, including the pandemic, which has impacted my ability to even record it, these recordings.
I don’t identify beyond the fact that I’m in relationship to people who might be part of the status quo. And I, you know, we’re living in the time where we must be in a relationship with each other in order to face what’s before us. And I remember feeling a moment of considering other ways of doing and living. One of the first times, I’ve probably felt that was that trip, I was on studying abroad in Senegal. Actually I was 19 years old and I was studying anthropology in local communities there. And I, we went to the rural, the rural villages in the region of Kédougou and we spent a week and a half there visiting communities that were isolated, that had no running water, no electricity. I remember going down to the Bedik people and being blown away by a different sense of pace, a different sense of life, a more immediate… of course they worked hard but were so in tune with the rhythm of nature, were so in tuned with their livelihoods and moving their bodies to, to make ends meet in terms of tending to land, tending to children, tending to each other. That was a really profound moment for me to see different ways of being, different ways of knowing in terms of the animism that was very present in the religious and spiritual orientation of that people, the relationship to trees, the relationship to soil, the relationship to cows or relationship to every entity in that space. You can sense there was a, a nice, uh, gentle rhythm, but between the people and their surroundings, and that I remember vividly, you know, coming from the Bronx, coming from New York city, being in rural, rural Senegal on top of a mountain that I had climbed two hours to get there and had set up a tent in the village of about 120 people surrounded by Baobab trees that were 40 feet in diameter. It was profound. It allowed me to step into the remaining years of my development with a sense of openness and curiosity towards people who are different than people who have different perspectives and ways of being and ways of living.
I’ve experienced all kinds of love in my life. The love of my family, my God, huge family, five brothers and sisters, both of my parents present, you know, almost a good 12 cousins, 12 nephews and nieces, and then extended family that goes beyond that and beyond kin. So I very much vividly feel like I was raised by the village and that, um, communal love infused me with a particular kind of ethic and orientation when it comes to being of service and just being present to the community’s needs, at least the family needs. And of course, love from friends, love from romantic partners. I feel blessed, humble that I was, that I have been able to experience all kinds of different loves and love. And it really has, thinking about it now, it definitely has shaped and full in my sense of trust in people, even though boundaries need to be set and past partners, present and past partners. But my, my willingness to believe in humanity maybe is connected to just the overwhelming love I experienced through family, friends.
And I think all those kinds of love are incredibly important when we’re going through such a turbulent time in our society at this time, it can feel very disorienting to see such gargantuan changes happen every single week and the uncertainty of the moment with the pandemic and the way it’s disrupted our lives. So there’s something about the kinds of love that we’ve experienced in the totality of that experience and the kind of groundedness that we experience in the face of uncertainty. So there’s something about the profound love that creates a fortitude of sorts, a fortification.
I just waited for my wife to stop walking, upstairs, but, um, you know, it’s such a special thing to behold and to witness the unconditional love from an intimate partner. You know, I’m just so grateful for having a partner in life, to get through not just a pandemic, but through the ups and downs of, of life, you know?
What I gravitate towards is also passion and purposeful – being purposeful, feeling purposeful, full of purpose, connected and in relationship with others. So I would say a combination of purposefulness, passion and a sense of tenderness, maybe in the context of relationships, those really steer my course and my choices and at work in my life. There’s something about those emotions that help with just trying to stay sane. I think there are many emotions that drive people, that drive people to change or drive change, you know, sometimes inspiration and motivation, those emotions of being inspired and motivated, they can push people to engage in the process of change, you know, sometimes shame and guilt move people to change. And I think sometimes their lack of certain emotions also might drive change as well or a lack of change. So for example, hate, oftentimes drives a lack of change. People stuck in old paradigms, dysfunctional points of views in terms of how they shape, how they see people who are different, not just in terms of culture, but also in terms of sexual orientation or class or immigration status. So on the one hand hate and selfishness, putting oneself constantly before the other, and that may be also connected to individualism and the selfishness that’s oftentimes individualism breeds, which creates some difficulty when trying to make a collectivist decisions or decisions that will impact the whole layout of the community or the collective as a nation or country.
Whether they’re meditation, whether they’re mindfulness-based, finding time in the day to pause, to sit, to presence, silence. I know it’s hard. I struggle with it too, but really finding practices that allow you to come back to your body. Those are some of the best practices that we can engage in now to stay centered in the face of the uncertainty that’s before us.
I’m waiting for more relationships. I’m waiting for more collaborations. I’m waiting for more rest. I’m waiting for more time, more time to play, more time to be creative. I’m waiting for more peace, a shared sense of peace. It is right, I think, where there is a moment of letting go and a moment of letting in, created in uncertainty that comes with moving beyond the old paradigm. It is in that space we might be jolted into transformation, into creating the world anew.
In this moment, I would invite people who are scared to let go, who are scared to move beyond the old paradigms, beyond the old ways of thinking that created a narrowing of understanding. I would invite them to reflect on their attachment to those paradigms, to the ways of seeing. And to re-examine where there can be some space, some letting go, some detachment, some relaxation into a process of change. For true transformation to happen, the will has to be involved. Even in the difficulty of the change, there has to be a decision to change the decision, to be different, to become something else.
And in that process of becoming something else, you have to leave certain things behind. One of the first things you want to let go of is those heavier objects, those weighty thoughts that come with worry, those heavy feelings that come with trauma, leaving those behind, or at least resting them aside, preserving the warmth and tender feelings that get activated from the connection to others. The sweet connection to self, the trust that comes from being nurtured, being loved, being cared for. We preserve those feelings and sentiments in order to trust more and more in the face of having our hearts broken again and again. I personally am prepared to show up as present as possible in my teaching and my parenting in my loving and my being, just being more present and responsive and gentle.