Through meditation and spoken word poetry, an Oakland group creates a “communal space for men”
on October 2, 2019
On Saturday afternoon, a group of four older men in white pants and linen shirts sat in front of a stage at the center of a room filled with art, books and mismatched chairs. These men, all from the group Urban Healers, a men’s group that focuses on brotherhood and spiritual betterment, chatted amongst themselves, and to several men wearing yellow shirts and white pants who walked around the room greeting people, snacking on hard boiled eggs and bananas and setting up a circle of chairs.
The men dressed in white, referred to as “roving elders,” and the ones in yellow, called “living ancestors,” were preparing for the Citywide Ceremony for Healthy Manhood, which would involve meditation, spoken word poetry, folk music, and a hip-hop performance by Gino Pastori-Ng and the group’s leader, Jewel Love.
Before the event began at 1:30, Love had not yet arrived. He and a number of others were out on the streets of Oakland on scooters, riding around Lake Merritt waving flags bearing the Urban Healers logo—a rainbow snake—to make people aware of the upcoming ceremony, and invite them to join.
When Love arrived, he was the only one wearing a green tunic. On his face, he wore a smile and stripes of yellow paint across his cheeks. As he strolled about the space, he greeted attendees and performers individually, often shaking their hands or giving a hug. Of around 50 attendees, there were six women present, three of whom were Love’s relatives.
“Urban Healers is really a communal space for men to come together through these rituals,” said Love, a psychotherapist who specializes in working with Black men who have corporate jobs, in an interview after the event. “We have five rituals, and then a citywide ceremony with the vision of flags waving all throughout Oakland for people to recognize that there’s this community for men to talk about vulnerabilities, insecurities, things that we love about ourselves, things that we’re insecure about ourselves and want to heal from—and that alone in and of itself is a healing experience for many men.”
The group, which has been together since 2018, hosts workshops and ceremonies where men gather to discuss issues like sexual consent, power in the workplace, Latino/Latinx mental health, belonging and what the group’s website referred to as the experiences of “same gender loving black men.”
Love said that the goal of the event was to bring awareness to the concept of healthy manhood. He said that the ceremony was not to demonstrate “how to be a man,” but for the participants to celebrate each other, to have open conversations, and to support each other.
Love explained that “living ancestors” are a concept that the group uses and that it comes from archetypal psychology, which is a method of framing the psyche through metaphors, images or roles. Love said that his spiritual belief is that he has a mission to be here, stemming from “the spiritual realm, some say the ancestor realm.”
“So, a mission and a purpose,” he continued. “But it’s not random; it’s on some level pre-ordained, and I’m here to remember it and then carry it out for the benefit of those to come—the unborn ancestors.”
Love said that he is one in the line of many in the group call themselves a “cast.” “Because we’re on stage now—on the stage of life, he said. “We’re the ones playing these roles and characters.”
Dave Klaus, a public defender in Oakland and one of the group’s living ancestors, said that the preparations for the ceremony started early in the day. “There’s been a group of men that met this morning at 9,” Klaus said. “We’ve been doing some ceremony and ritual and sharing all morning. And also, some dancing and singing. Our goal as a group was to come together today to basically hold a container of space so that we can do this ceremony.”
Klaus said that as a living ancestor his role is “trying to hold the energy of the past, and the future of our ancestors that came before, and the ones that are coming after.”
As the ceremony started, the men seated in a circle of chairs around the perimeter of the room looked intently focused and relaxed. After an introduction from Butterfly Williams, a roving elder led a visualization during which the men sat or laid upon the carpeted floor and visualized themselves ascending a mountain and coming down from a multi-week journey.
After some folk music and hearty dancing, Michael Ansa led an activity with the crowd during which they meditated on a moment when they each felt safe in life. Then, they formed a circle to act out a movement—which Ansa called a “mudra”—to represent this feeling. At first, the leader of the exercise demonstrated his movement in the center of the circle, and the group of men surrounding him performed the same thing. Next, individual men came forward to demonstrate their own movements, and watched everyone move the way they had. Some movements were arm-heavy, with people circling their arms left and right. Another time, all the men would hug themselves and sway.
Ophir Haberer, a men’s work organizer and program facilitator, said the ceremony would be considered effective if the men felt safer with themselves—and if people in their lives feel safer around them—after engaging in the activities.
Attendee Chandler Macik said that he came to the event after finishing a three-month “warriorship” workshop with one of the Urban Healers members. He said that he has been interested in men’s work, specifically work in the the mythopoetic vein. The mythopoetic men’s movement originated in the 1980’s as a vehicle for self-help through therapeutic activities like retreats and drumming.
JJ Harris, a filmmaker and photographer who had attended the Urban Healers Consent Kings Workshop, which provides a forum for men to share experiences about sexual consent and learn about the topic, said that he came to be a living ancestor after Love invited him.
“He just reached out to me and he was like, ‘Hey, does this resonate with you? And what does this mean for you?’” Harris said. “He’s the type of leader—he gives you a framework, then it’s all about your interpretation of what that means.”
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