Read the companion piece:
To the reader:
I was invited to contribute a piece to the journal Othering & Belonging on an emergent arts-based synthesis that I have co-created with others that speaks to the intersection of belonging, liberation, and well-being. To hold myself accountable to the very things the frame espouses, all I could think about was addressing and dedicating this to my daughter and her peers. She and her friends and so many other youth have articulated: ‘We didn’t bring these injustices on; work together with us to solve them and heal them!’ She also has been asking me for years when she and others her age might be more deeply exposed to the worlds of equity and justice I’ve been working with for years. Since she was born 15 years ago, I have dreamed of writing her essays and poems, not just dedicated to her, but to her. Writing directly to her also forced me to strip away much of the energetic desire I believe a lot of us in this work have around pleasing, cajoling, influencing, or controlling the experience of the reader.
I have created much in my life around equity and justice. None has been more emotional, more from the heart, and more vital to put forward in this time of deep political and spiritual turmoil and stress than this piece.
– Sonali Sangeeta Balajee
My dearest Shanthi,
Fifteen years ago, on a quiet Sunday afternoon in February, after 20 minutes of opening up my body in ways I never believed I was meant to do, midwives caught you and placed you on my belly. You inched your way towards me, without guidance, which is something I’d thought was always a tall tale about those first few moments after birth. I tenderly reached out to hold you as you moved closer to me. As your eyes began to slowly open and lock with mine, I said something I didn’t remember saying in the moment, which the midwives would relay to me later, “I’ve missed you. It’s been such a long, long time.”
I don’t know how long I stayed like that looking at you. When I finally looked at the midwives, all three were crying, and our lead midwife, Ellie, said quietly, “Do you know what you just said?” I couldn’t make sense of what she saying. I didn’t have a memory of what my first words were to you, but I did have one of the most embodied moments of connection I remember ever having in my life. She then proceeded to tell me what I said, and then again later, to make sure I understood the depth of the moment.
Through those many initial months and years, I’d reflect on this moment with wonder. It was a powerful concentrated moment that brought webs of past, present, and future generations together. It was a moment I worked on with the midwives and doctors for months, facilitated by many visualizations and meditations about getting out of my own way, for what was to happen, in whatever way or method, was self-evident and fundamentally built in to what it means to be human. A time of life, death, rebirth, and growth, all at once, and then one month at a time.
To do this thing well, this parenting thing, has required dying a little bit every day… to old habits, patterns, unreasonable cultural standards I’ve subconsciously chosen to embody that sometimes bring me pain and exhaustion. And it’s required me to open to grace, to something larger than me, from which to derive energy, meaning, and guidance used to bring greater health and ease to you. Justin Vernon aptly describes this expansive ego-diminishing feeling in the song “Holocene:” “and at once I knew… I was not magnificent… yeah, I can see for miles, miles, and miles.” It’s a constant process, a struggle, a push and pull, of awakenings that bring me to my knees in deep humility of things I don’t cognitively understand, of pain in the all-consuming growth.
I start this letter with this experience to center what you mean to me, which words cannot quite fully bring shape to nor hold. Additionally, the processes of birth, death, and deep caring extend for me beyond the individual, to the social, speaking to the very work of belonging, spirituality, and liberation that this work I’m sharing animates.
There is a lot in this piece, love. My hope for greater health and ease in your life and the generations around you. A desire to share my most recent work with you on belonging and well-being, and the importance of the spirit and social connection, called the Embodying Belonging and Co-iberation Frame (which appears more in-depth in the second half of this letter as an embedded essay). I’ve also integrated some incredible quotes, lyrics, and arts-based content to bring life to the information. I’ve tried to summarize how this frame came about and why, and have also included some basic definitions, so you can have some anchors in this text.
You’ll see that this letter intentionally integrates Uncle Samy’s work. As an artist yourself, I invite you to sit with his pieces as the very same frame on belonging embodied in another form – take in the content, the colors, his words about what and how he painted applies to the research, my words and other shared research. The arts-based residency he and I engaged in to create these works is also an innovative and understated organizing method. I look forward to sitting over tea and some of your favorite marzipan sweets sometime soon to unpack this with you.
Why was creating this frame so important?
Daughter to mother, you have asked me for over a decade when you’ll “learn the things that Amma does at work.” (our family’s language for mother, can also be Ammi). I’ve replied that your classes in school will most likely not cover subject matter that I’ve been engaged with for almost 25 years, like racial equity, decolonization, critical thinking, collective liberation and spirituality, or the development of an analysis that engages any of the above. So far, I have been sadly spot on.
Ammi has been studying health and healing, grounded in spirituality and especially in our traditions of yoga and mindfulness, since a very young age. Thanks to the lineage of Tha-tha and Nanna [Shanthi’s grandfather and grandmother from India and Sri Lanka], we have a wealth of lived and learned experience around what we believe and know to be the already-joined worlds of spiritual and social change.
However, love, even with our depth of cultural and familial experience, we must watch the desire to be seen as “innocent” in terms of living out patterns of oppression and colonization as individuals and as groups. This work requires holding tensions, which is a hallmark of spiritual practice; our traditions I just spoke of also carry dark oppressive pasts and presence of homophobia, female infanticide, and caste systems.
As individuals and as communities, we need to shift and make better alignments to what is healthy for us. More movements globally are seeking to examine their own hetero-patriarchal ways, and are choosing to lead with people experiencing marginalization who also carry multiple cognitive and spiritual maps and a wealth of experience and wisdom. Mass media (both social and entertainment-based) are centering the voices of people of color, other marginalized populations and our liberatory movements. The strategies of creating new and bringing forth older forms of knowledge production are on the rise. Decolonization efforts, led and defined by people of color and world indigenous movements are gaining momentum.
A provocative and real truth in the bigger work of belonging is that all of these strategies of deconstructing, expanding our lenses, healing, leading with ways of being that shift consciousness, critical examination, are within us. These areas are all a part of what it means to be human. But we have the keys and the maps. They are self-evident, and are now emerging in unstoppable ways.
An 11-year-old spoke of these truths in her brief speech at the March For Our Lives event this past winter that was organized in 800+ sites around the world. From Naomi Wadler:
“People have said that I’m too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be 11 and we might be in elementary school, but we know. We know life isn’t equal for everyone, and we know what is right and wrong. We also know that we stand in the shadow of the capitol, and we know we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote. So I’m here today to honor the words of Toni Morrison: ‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.’”
We need more of these voices at the helm. As adults, we can confuse wanting younger generations such as yours as meaning that we need to get out of the way entirely. This is socially irresponsible. Our role is to take the knowledge and experience we have, apply deeper critical questioning and thinking on power, remove as many barriers as we can to your leadership, and fund and support the alternatives to the damaging status quo.
So much is changing as we speak, my sweet daughter. What we can do to move through this change together across generations is to root more intentionally in the social and spiritual connection available to us, strive to create more ease and stillness, and behold our own beliefs and actions as clearly, critically, and accurately as possible. All moving towards building greater power, embodying belonging as we go, and deconstructing what is harmful to our overall health. And here is something incredibly important: I do not see the above as just beneficial just for our family and cultures. The research from multiple disciplines, including those of other indigenous societies, tells us that these areas on their own along with their synthesis, can bring about greater community and individual health benefits.
From these vantage points, I’m also seeing suffering more holistically and in greater relief. More and more of my colleagues and family, let alone so many of our earth’s people, are experiencing surplus suffering (which is avoidable and preventable) and experiencing negative health – especially those of us based in justice and caring work. And you have been sharing with me for years your concern for the planet, watching climate conditions and other effects of pollution bring on deeper negative impacts every year. We’re all in this together, in positive and negative health. Intrinsically linked to the health of the earth and being its inhabitants, our collective rhythms that are borne to be in sync with those of our ecosystem are also off.
Creating frames like this that seek to liberate, decolonize, and promote health are vital if our ecosystem is to survive and thrive, of which our survival and thriving as a human species plays a part. So much occurs unconsciously. I believe that in order to see a truer mapping, we need to expand and widen what we use to make meaning.
A note about the words used here, my dear. Words such as ‘decolonize,’ ‘othering,’ and ‘belonging’ can be interpreted in so many different ways, often depending on who is speaking them and to what ends. My work here is just one multidisciplinary- and arts-based attempt at providing more holistic usable definitions to help guide and more accurately anchor our social strategies. I’ve included more on these definitions here, along with names of many researchers and thinkers who have contributed to these definitions after each one. Are these the end-all, be-all? No. But they are well-researched approximations, and they do ground and run through every aspect of the frame.
After leaving 13 years of leading racial equity efforts in government in a multitude of ways, I was fortunate to have a deep year of reflection, research synthesis, and arts creation as part of a Senior Fellowship with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society to research the root causes of belonging and health. The following questions served as my north star: What do we need to better collectively and spiritually understand to best navigate and heal through such political, social, and spiritual deprivation? What ways of being do we need to lead with and how might they be arranged, moving us towards greater belonging, co-liberation, and well-being? What do these terms mean and why are they important?
What I did know and what was central to the fellowship was that I wouldn’t ‘produce’ something that was typical of such research opportunities such as a book, a series of articles, or other usual outcomes. I knew I would put together more of a synthesis as opposed to analysis of what the social body looks and feels like moving towards well-being. A synthesis is not just a collection of things or experiences, but a more integrated set of arrangements that are linked by threads that shape each of its various parts. Kind of like a mobile that hangs over a baby’s crib, or like a tree that thrives as a result of many parts working together with sustained and healthy roots.
With the gathered stories and narratives of the 41+ people I interviewed and just as many books from multiple disciplines, webs of core concepts, practices, and key areas of being began to come forth and take shape. What emerged looked almost like a skeletal structure, with the muscle and the heart of a body of belonging. I called this evolutionary roadmap the Embodying Belonging and Co-liberation Frame. This is an informed take of key underlying interlocking mechanisms and ways of being that can lead to greater health and well-being. The key interlocking areas that emerged were (starting from the roots of belonging to their flowering and blooming): Beloved, Bestill, Behold, Believe, Becoming, and Belonging and Coliberation towards Well-being.
What ‘being the work’ can mean, and how we did this to create this piece:
To reflect on this requires that I share what it means to “be” in the work. Much of Amma’s efforts in racial equity has been grounded in my larger work around the healing of the individual body through yoga and other practices, and around the healing of the social body by working in relationship with other activists, institutional change agents, thinkers, artists and researchers. These efforts require relying on such approximations that move us towards greater health, which includes knowing what needs to be let go of, to die in a way, to change. Listening to many who work with me and those like me, my approach has been likened to that of a social naturopath, sometimes a surgeon of the body politic depending on the nature of the task. A focus of this role at both the individual and social levels is to create more ease in whatever living system is in front of me, and promote less presence and experience of undue or surplus illness and suffering.
While I believe in the choice we all have as individuals and as groups around our health, I see the various social illnesses and how our unexamined embodiment of them are affecting our collective resiliency. I see how we continue to approach the very issues we say are oppressive, hateful, divisive, and colonizing, in deeply similar ways. And this approach as a social and environmental health practitioner grounded in taking the lead from living systems is not a new concept nor reality. Writers, activists, and prolific theorists such as Vandana Shiva, Adrienne Maree Brown, Judy Iseke, Janine Benyus, John Mohawk, Carl Sagan, Joanna Macy, Nina Simons, Riyad Shahjahan, and countless others past and present have been holding up and applying living systems practices to our social and individual illnesses, inequities, and issues.
Ultimately, I believe we are living systems, and so are the institutions, laws, practices, ways of being, and policies we wish to see improved and moving towards greater justice. Living systems move in the direction of the questions they ask, and are hard-wired for well-being, balance, and ease.
Love, just like holistic health practitioners who are also trained in these truths, I am not neutral in what I put forward. Racism and othering of any form infused with power-over paradigms hurt our collective health. The hope is that more and more frames continue to emerge such as the one you will read about soon, that put forward recommendations based on wholeness and the journey towards greater ease. Belonging, in the service of greater ease and well-being. Spiritual and social change, in the service of greater ease and well-being. Decolonization and equity, in the service of greater collective health.
Another lead approach and practice to move towards belonging and greater health is by engaging through the arts in multiple ways. I remember watching Nanna play the piano when I was young, her hands gliding across the keys and the music warming our house and hearts. The role of music (and additionally, for me, dance) in our lives as a healing agent and creative catalyst has been so so core for our resilience and our creative engagement with the world, right? I have learned so very much from you, my dear, especially on these topics. Your artistry with violin and with the visual arts stun me every single time I get to experience them, and your passion is palpable. The intensity with which you create pieces, and then what you create, open me up to new spaces of uplift and inspiration I don’t feel I’ve occupied before being with you.
Arts-based writer and activist Arlene Goldbard profoundly ties culture and art together, stating: “[Culture]…is the sum-total of human creativity and invention: language, signs and symbols, systems of belief, customs, clothes, cooking, tools, toys, and adornments, everything we build and everything we use to fill it up including art, the concentrated essence of culture.” (The Culture of Possibility, 12) Interdisciplinary arts practitioner Carmen Denison adds that arts, at its core, is a collaborative endeavor. It requires looking at things from multiple points of view. To engage with the arts towards liberation is in itself a profoundly spirit-based strategy… engaging often with our hearts, minds, and feelings simultaneously. Sometimes with our bodies. Samy shares, “[as an artist,] I feel there’s a responsibility to engage society… you want to provoke and have people think, about controversial subjects…’” For a long time, artists have gotten together in residencies alone or in collectives to explore and further their own work and journeys, but it’s not often, as Samy shared, that artists are asked to come together for the purpose of learning or re-learning about decolonization, belonging, and co-liberation.
I invited Samy to share in this piece to bring his visions, talent, and expression to better animate this frame. I sought to play with and employ methods and practices that spoke to belonging and decolonizing in and of themselves, opening up our creative space to multiple perspectives, specifically those of people of color and world indigenous populations.
To do this, Samy and I held an arts-based residency to work on the e letter and essay. We stayed together in Portland during a rainy weekend for about a day-and-a-half talking, sharing, and creating. We spent a fair amount of time first grounding in the role of artists in social change and liberation via reading and discussing The Creative Process by James Baldwin (1964). From there, we viewed Moonlight screenwriter and playwright Terell Alvin McCraney’s keynote at the Othering and Belonging conference. We tied in the work of artist and activist Gloria Anzaldua and prolific thinker Sarah Ahmed. All spoke to the importance of ‘correcting delusions’ society falls prey to, orienting ourselves towards liberation (Baldwin, 1964), and how the discourse and dialogue with the collective imagination spurs action and commitment. Based on all of that, the artistic creation of the visual pieces you’ll see later in this letter emerged, not as compliments nor additions to the research and the work, but as direct embodiments of the work.
Love, the process to get to this letter was so life-giving! A core lived experience I am hearing about more and more which is also evidenced in others’ stories of activism through time is that if we choose to do this work in more embodied, health-ful, authentic, and critically engaging ways, there can be energy that comes back to us.
The process matters, and it is an important product. This intentional grounding opened up the spaces between us as co-creators, amongst the authors and artists we were engaging with, between past and present experiences, and with the emerging visual art yet to be born. That space of ease helped both of us move beyond and question our own constrained thinking. And after some good food and a few minutes of quiet, Samy asked to go to a room to paint. He painted 14 pieces throughout the span of roughly a day, seven of which appear in this piece!
You’ll see that Samy’s paintings appear according to the main areas from Beloved to Belonging and Coliberation. Samy and I came together to intentionally synthesize the visual and verbal narratives from the past several days – we surrounded ourselves with all the paintings surrounding us, while keeping the fellowship research in front of us.
By listening to Samy describe how he came to what was in his pieces based on our prior conversations, I was able to clarify my intent and hopes for the frame, while further expanding its content with what he saw and was able to behold. You will see what I mean as we go into the various sections. I couldn’t start this letter to you without this process. This was one of the most provocative learning experiences I’ve ever had in my life, and did more for the emerging work than some of the seminars I’ve held with various leaders in the field. I wonder if you’ll engage in such, my dear, over time. I highly recommend it for all of the above reasons.
The Embodying Belonging and Co-Liberation frame is just one of many emerging working models that center ways of being, political invitations, and artistic pieces for you, other young people, and other interested activists to embody. Samy’s and my suggestion is to read through, and simply to take note of the following: what sparks come about in relation to the reader’s work or life or practice? Does any of this compel you towards any new ideas relationships, connections, actions? He shared that his pieces alone might be perceived a certain way, that that in context with the frame’s concepts and strategies, hopefully they will offer a visual response that integrates into a discussion or that sparks a conversation.
I hope this letter gives you comfort, inspiration, and necessarily challenges you as you continue along your paths through high school, into your communities, and onto further learning. And may this be a strong invitation to work together, both with your peers and cross-generationally, to re-activate what already lays in the fabric of our social system to draw wisdom and energy from: relationships and networks already mapped and geared towards bringing our body politic to greater belonging and well-being.
One word of caution: adults across the country from all parties and affiliations are moved and buoyed by yours and other young people’s conviction, articulation of the issues, and drive for change that will benefit our collective health. However, do not let us tell you that you and your peers are the ones who will and who need to save the day. I despised hearing that as I and my friends entered rooms of older adults in bureaucracies as younger versions of our activist selves, and were told that very thing. In so many cases saying this absolved the adults from clearly identifying the barriers to belonging and justice, including where they themselves were actively complicit in the perpetuation of such oppressions. As I shared earlier, my dear, I am blown away by the tenacity, tenderness, solidarity, and astuteness of you and other young people in this work. And I think the most responsible thing we can do is to reorganize around our collective priorities centered by your experiences and realities, and use whatever expanded and decolonized understandings of power and privilege we have as adults to (1) resource your efforts and (2) remove structural and relational barriers that negatively impact your organizing and all of our well-being.
Choosing names for new additions to our family is culturally one of the most significant acts in life. One’s namesake serves as a way to connect a new life to what’s old and ancient, to provide protection and luck as amulets that get reactivated every time one’s name is uttered, and to bring more beauty into the world, each time one’s name is spoken.
As I continued to first hold you in the tender silence of that February morning in 2003, I waited for any intuitive clue, voice, or sign as to what name would be yours in this life.After a little bit of time passed, it was decided. It would be Shanthi, which means peace. And spelled with a ‘-thi’ at the end, to integrate its Sri Lankan spelling.
You have brought so much peace, love, and light into my world and those around you.
There are a lot of unknowns, love, as we move into the future together. I hold the tears you’ve shed with me, talking about this uncertainty and what this means for you and the planet. And you have my word and commitment to strive (and at times struggle) to embody the things in this letter in our connection, with our family and our communities, with our ecosystem and greater surroundings, and in the relationships that weave all of that together. I hope other people from all walks of life will continue to live out this commitment if they’ve already made it, and that those who are not on this path or who are actively disengaging with this path will choose to join.
I will always be here for you, in all the forms that may take. I close this letter with a blessing we say every night together, used at the end of countless of our sacred Buddhist and Hindu texts and verses. Through its repeated chanting and envisioning, we believe we are able to better align with a basic inherent wholeness, goodness, and rhythm of life that run through all things:
Om, Shanthi, Shanthi, Shanthi.
Om (the sound of the beginning of time and the universe),
Peace to one’s self,
Peace to each other,
And Peace to the world.