Sankofa – Learn from the Past

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Principle #1

When I read the description of Sankofa, it sounded like something I could agree with, and something I continually do with myself and my children. It isn’t something forgotten by white culture and only remembered by communities of color – though the term may belong to them:

Sankofa, the mythical bird who looks backward, symbolizes African Americans’ respect for insight and knowledge acquired from the past. A legacy of their West African ancestors, 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 face 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.

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (p. 28). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

But when looking at the past it is important to not base our knowledge on inaccurate facts, or assumptions about the world being like we expect it to be. I think about a local historian where I grew up talking about the community of “Little Flats” being the same as the community of “South Corning” because of how the historical text in front of him described its relationship to the location of the Chemung River.  It took my grandmother to point out that at the time the text was written, the river had been in a different spot. Time and erosion had moved the river south since then. The “Little Flats” of the text no longer existed, because it had been eroded away – it wasn’t the modern “South Corning.”

Why such a long digression? Because I feel the same subtle shiftings of facts, interpretations and viewpoints in this chapter. See this example of Sankofa:

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. This set in motion an exclusionary leadership form that 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.

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (pp. 30-31). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

With that the author goes on to describe America’s history before and after the European arrival. In Europe:

 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.

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (p. 33). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Pushed out of Europe by overpopulation and the broken promises of the Industrial Revolution, the Europeans practiced a series of “raids and irresponsible and criminal behavior,” on an indigenous population that had no frame of reference for such actions.

The indigenous cultures in America could not understand or withstand this avaricious and acquisitive behavior. They had no frame of reference for dealing with a world-view so divergent from their own. Pre-Columbian cultures were tightly interwoven. The group took precedence over the individual. People shared what they had and cared for one another . Cooperation, not competition , nurtured the collective and group harmony…

Out of over a thousand distinct pre-Columbian cultures in the western hemisphere, only three can be described as acquisitive— the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas. Although these cultures built empires that might be considered akin to the European model of expansion, they were also decentralized and, historical studies suggest, often preserved the cultures and languages of subjugated people. It is safe to suggest, then, that the cultures in the western hemisphere were overwhelmingly collective, lived in harmony with nature, and valued cooperation.

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (p. 35-36). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

This is what the author gets out of our history. Me, I just read agape, until my mind begins to process again. In that first paragraph from page 35, I think I discover a clue. The indigenous cultures could not understand the Europeans? They didn’t have a multi-cultural perspective? That must have been the whole problem.  If they had only had a multi-cultural perspective they would have been able to deal with what was going on around them!

Next she fast-forwards to de Tocqueville and a quote I keep hearing people use to say something I never got out of the text when I read it myself.

Alexis de Tocqueville clearly warned that if individualism was not continuously balanced by other habits that would reinforce the social context and fabric of community, it would inevitably lead to separation and division.

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (p. 38). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Because this was balanced by de Tocqueville’s admiration for how Americans came together in self-organized groups to get done what needed to be done. But he and the author are correct about how American has tended toward isolation in the last three-quarters of a century.  But what the author misses, is that it isn’t individualism that has done this, but governmental communalism.  Since Government has stepped in, people no longer need to do their self-organized groups – sometimes government doesn’t let them, so they do more individual activities. From my perspective the cause is backwards of what they are saying.

But the author sees a solution, again missing something I see as a key point:

The good news is that the trend toward community disintegration and social isolation is being reversed by younger generations who use technology to build community, act collectively, and stay connected (almost constantly).

Bordas, Juana (2012-03-26). Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age (p. 38). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

But why and how are these youth doing this? Around and without and outside of government intervention. On their individual initiative.

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