“My life’s work is really finding ways to remind people of, and validate, what they already know.” Ricardo Levins Morales thinks of his art as a medicinal practice, dedicated to treating both our cultural immediate diagnoses and the underlying inflammations, helping people to see their realities with more clarity. “The underlying inflammation in our society is hopelessness, despair, and disappointment,” but drawing on the cycles of the natural world, Ricardo reminds us of our places in the deep liberatory cycles of the world, and how awareness of these timelines is a necessary ingredient for hope.
If despair shuts down our ability to take in information, hope is the practice of awareness of our current condition and what’s happening beyond our field of vision, bringing us to a greater sense of agency, power, and mutual responsibility to each other and the earth. Using this as a frame, Ricardo and Dwight grapple with what it would mean to embrace the cycles and focus on changing the soil in order to plant the seeds of new worlds.
Ricardo Levins Morales is an artist and organizer based in Minneapolis. He considers his art political medicine to support individual and collective healing from the injuries and ongoing reality of oppression. He was born into the anti-colonial movement in Puerto Rico and was drawn into activism in Chicago when his family moved there in 1967. This began with the Black Panther Defense Committee and has included organizing for labor, racial justice, and environmental struggles.
Learn more about Ricardo’s work by visiting https://www.rlmartstudio.com/
View Ricardo’s June 2020 Pendle Hill First Monday lecture, “Planting in an Earthquake,” here: https://youtu.be/DWqBIcwxsTk
The Seed asks guests to share a quote or text that has been transformational to them. Ricardo shared the following quote from Amilcar Cabral’s essay “Tell No Lies, Claim No Easy Victories”:
“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”
Find the transcript of this episode here.
The Seed is a project of Pendle Hill, a Quaker center, open to all, for Spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, on the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape people.
Follow us @pendlehillseed on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and subscribe to The Seed wherever you get your podcasts to get episodes in your library as they're released. To learn more, visit pendlehill.org/podcast.
This project is made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. & Mary Williams Shoemaker Fund.
The more you know about reality, the more you understand that it's not hopeless. The things that feel discouraging are easier to manage if we understand the cycles that they're part of.
[“I Rise” plays]
Welcome, everyone, to The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope, a Pendle Hill podcast where Quakers and other seekers come together to explore visions of the world that is growing up through the cracks of our broken systems. I'm your host, Dwight Dunston.
Today we are welcoming Ricardo Levins Morales onto the show. Ricardo is an artist and organizer based in Minneapolis. He uses his art as a form of political medicine to support collective and individual healing from the injuries and ongoing realities of oppression. He has a long-standing relationship with Pendle Hill, where he as offered workshops, lectures, and mentorship, and has also found space to focus on his own art and writing.
So we are here with Ricardo Levins Morales. So excited, so grateful! I feel filled up already.
Well it's good, good to be with you.
So, on this podcast, we like to begin with a question for our guest. And I want to just ask you, what is it like being Ricardo today?
Ooh, well, that's a good question that I have not asked myself today. I came over here on my bicycle. It's a drizzly cool day in Minnesota, which after a period of a lot of heat waves, it's very much a relief. So, I'm feeling pretty good.
I hear enjoying that weather, enjoying some movement. Wow. On this podcast, we talk a lot about transformation, and both within ourselves and in the world as a whole. And we'd like to ask our guests to bring in a quote, or a text, or a poem that changed the way that you think about the world and the world we're working towards, and maybe even give you some insight to how do we get there. So I know that you brought a quote for us today, and I'm wondering if you can read it, and then tell us a bit about why you chose it.
Okay, so this quote is from Amilcar Cabral, who was a visionary leader of the anti-colonial movement in his native Guinea Bissau in Cape Verde Islands in Africa. And he's influenced me in a lot of ways. But in this quote, he says,
"Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone's head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children."
Why that quote for you, why?
Well, I love the way he keeps it real. You know, I mean, all of those things that he's talking about are the big ideas, right? We can talk about decolonization, we can talk about liberation, we can talk about whatever vision for the future, but [what it] comes down to are those elements of everyday life. We want to live well. We want to be connected to other people. We want to have access to food and the things that this bountiful world offers us.
Yeah. Do you remember when you came across this quote? Do you remember the first time you saw it?
When I was in my probably late teens, I came across Amilcar Cabral's writings and got a couple of books of his writings and speeches. And they're so dog-eared, I read them over so many times, you know, on the bus going to work in a factory or you know, carrying my pack if I was traveling, right? So, it's the texts that I've gone back to many times.
Yeah, I just got this image of teenage Ricardo, I'm imagining what was swirling around you in terms of the landscape, or, you know, the city you were in, but I'm also thinking about politically what might have been swirling around you and then for you to come to this quote. You know, so just maybe talk to us a little bit about coming to Amilcar?
And yeah, what was going on for you in your life externally, and maybe even internally?
I landed with my family in Chicago from Puerto Rico in 1967. So what was going on then? O-m-g, right? Yeah, it was immigration and adolescence and revolution. I mean, kind of the perfect storm, right. But my experience in Puerto Rico wasn't as an activist--I was a kid--but my parents were involved in the independence movement there. So that meant that anti-colonial movements all over the world were visible to me. And coming to the US, the social movements of the day really were borrowing the language of the anti-colonial national liberation struggles, right? Even terms like Black Liberation, and Gay Liberation Front, right? The Women's Liberation Movement--those were really borrowings from the third world. And that language just made a lot of sense to me. And Cabral was somebody who really helped to shine a light on what was happening under the surface. One of the things that he said that really stuck with me because I was already making art. I mean, it wasn't my form of activism. It was political art. It was cartoons, it was designs that could become posters, but I was just any other activist kid, a lot of people didn't even know I made art, right. But Cabral talks about culture, and one of the things he says is that a culture is the collective personality of the people. Right? And that colonialism robs people of their own story, of their own culture, and liberation brings it back. And thinking about that, I came up with my own add-on: that if culture is the personality of the people, then the arts are the collective dream life, right? Because art: what does it do? It's like a dream, right? When you go to bed at night, whatever it is you absolutely don't want to be thinking about during the day, it's waiting for you.
And the arts are like that: it bubbles up from the subconscious of a culture of a people and all the things that we might want to avoid, or not see clearly. And that's why dictatorships are usually pretty aware that they need to shut down culture and discourse, and poetry, and literature, and control it and define truth-telling art as not being "real art."
Yeah, I'm a hip-hop artist. So, so much of what you were sharing about, right, the truth-telling nature of, of art making, and I love how you talked about collective dreaming--that art is waiting for us when we lay our heads down, you know. I've heard a lot of hip-hop artists talk about songs, or raps, or movements coming to them right at the end of the day, or when they least expect it, it bubbles up. I love how you mentioned, Amilcar went under the surface. And on this podcast, you know, I'm thinking about the surface, I'm thinking about soil, and I'm thinking about seeds, you know. You use images and metaphors around seeds. This podcast is called The Seed because we talk a lot about the work of planting seeds of a new world, a world that is growing up through the cracks of crumbling systems. And so I'm curious how you would describe the crisis or the crises? Maybe there's multiple of our current moment. And what do you see as the seeds of resistance to the crises to the crumbling, to the destruction that we see?
That's a really big question. And I think that the crises of the moment have different layers. It's like nature moves in cycles. You have daily cycles, you have cycles that happen in our body every second, you have menstrual cycles and lunar cycles and seasonal cycles, right. And so there are crises happening on a number of different levels. There's the crisis of the US empire, right. And the US political system that's embedded in that. And that's nested within the crisis of the entire sort of colonial capitalist arc, right, that began 500 years ago, and it's reaching its point of exhaustion and depletion. So it's not just, oh, well, this is a time when Empire will decline, and another will take its place. No, that can't happen, because the entire model involves depleting the earth. And that has reached the end of its ability to sustain capitalist appetite, which actually only accelerates. So all these different levels of crisis in sort of what we're living here in the United States. I guess, as an activist, I would call it a crisis of the soil.
One of the sort of lenses that the cultural worker current within social movements, sees as a way to grapple with how to organize is that the soil is more important than the seeds. It's kind of my organizing mantra--that is to say, the beliefs, the ideologies, the culture, the assumptions, the so-called common sense, that exists in a society or population determines what seeds will grow. What campaigns, what organizations, what reforms, what new ideas, right? And if the soil is toxic, it doesn't matter how good your seed is, it's hard to make it grow. And for the last 40 years or so, the right wing forces in this country, both the racist right and the corporate right, have been cultivating the soil. They've been spreading their ideas of how the world works. Whereas people on the half of social justice have been planting seeds. We have great seeds. We have great ideas, but we haven't been working to change the overall culture in the same way that the right has. So that, for example, if what we're trying to do is win more funding and better conditions for school teachers, that's gonna be hard to do if everybody knows, quote unquote, that teachers are greedy and selfish and don't care about children and are opportunistic, right. So if those ideas have been spread throughout the society, and we've allowed that to happen, we haven't challenged that, then we're not going to win the battles, right? You know, likewise, if you want to gain telephone access for incarcerated people, if everyone is certain that these are the worst of the worst, they're predators, and not really people, we're not going to win that.
So changing basically how we think about each other, how we think about our relationship to the world as a reciprocal relationship, rather than one of extraction. These are kind of the fundamental underlying truths that always need to be incorporated into our organizing. Right? So now, of course, we have to organize, of course we have to plant seeds, but those seeds need to be for efforts that will also improve the soil. For example, I could plant the wild lupin, right, it's a flower, that's also a legume, which will fix nitrogen into the soil, which puts chemicals into the soil that protect other plants from the toxins of invasive species, right? That whatever we do in our organizing has to be reinforcing hope, it has to be reinforcing people's sense of their own capacity, and of our mutual responsibility. And the work of the right wing is to break those threads. Because when people think of themselves in very individualistic terms, then solidarity becomes impossible. Right? The belief that we all make our own good fortune, right? That if you have, it's because you're good, if you don't have it's because you're just not as good, right? That you block out realities, such as racism, and class and colonialism, and patriarchy.
Knowing what you know about this moment, and I love the metaphor of the soil--like where are we putting the seed into? And if the soil is toxic, no matter how good the seed is, it's just not going to germinate, it's not going to have a healthy life, we won't be able to eat what it produces, right? It'll be toxic. So how do you see your art helping to make that soil healthy and rich.
So I think about my art as a medicinal practice, and in healing, there are multiple levels of diagnosis, right? People can be suffering from cancer, or from the flu or from, you know, all these different conditions. And what has been found is that it was so much more susceptible to all of those things. Because our bodies in this society are experiencing systemic inflammation, that we're bombarded with so many toxins, whether they be chemical or social, that our nervous system and our immune systems are always in a state of hypervigilance and hyperdefensiveness. So that to really heal people, we need to be treating both the immediate condition that they're suffering and also the underlying inflammation, which will have all kinds of other effects. So I would say that the underlying inflammation in our society is hopelessness, hopelessness, despair and disappointment, right. So that any art that I create has to be addressing whatever issue it is, but also addressing those underlying concerns, right.
I mean, part of it has to do with clarity, I think part of the medicine helps people to think clearly. If our reactivity is lowered, right, if we're not like hyper vigilant all the time, we can see things in clear terms. And that's really important because any organism needs to have accurate information about what's going on around them in order to not get eaten for one thing, and to find the foods that we need. And so in my art, for example, I never demonize anyone. There are no evil people, right? Because if we believe that we're putting ourselves in danger, because that's not really the way the world works, right? There are all kinds of reasons that people can be oppressive. And there's a fear that often people have to say, "Well, if we recognize everybody's full humanity, we're gonna end up with sort of this mushy liberal idea that it's all one big misunderstanding, and we just have to sit down and have a beer summit, and everything's gonna be okay," right. Or, on the other hand, if you say, "Well, if we have a really clear, sharp analysis of the harms that are caused by racism, by institutions, by colonialism, then we'll end up just demonizing people." And I think actually that the two approaches are really complementary. That to understand accurately, we have to understand how people become embedded in oppressive systems. And what do we need to do to loosen that grip?
My father used to say that the vast majority of the people fighting us have either been fooled or scared or bribed into doing so. And they don't have a real vested interest in harming us, right. And one of the lessons I learned as a young person in Chicago, from the organizing being done by the Black Panthers, under the leadership of Fred Hampton, is that the way you organize people, is you make them a better offer. When they reached out to the white Appalachian street gangs with all their Confederate flags, symbolism and all that, they didn't say, "We're going to meet you halfway." They didn't say "Let's build bridges between us and find a halfway point that is half-racist and half-liberatory." They said, "No, we have a better offer. Our vision is big enough to include you."
I am really grateful for the visionary nature of your art-making, and just your--what I would say, as a spiritual person--your spirit, right, the ways that you cultivate your medicines for hopelessness, despair and disappointment, right. And just thinking about your art as medicine, to me, that's a very spiritually-rooted act.
And, you know, you're very connected to Pendle Hill, which has had many faith and spiritual leaders over the years. I'm curious, what grounds you spiritually as someone who has been involved in movement spaces for decades, and specifically thinking about your own spirituality, what supports you through that hopelessness, that despair, that disappointment?
I think my grounding is very much nature-based, you know, it's the same principle that a bird needs to be aware of foxes and predator birds and other things to survive. It's like, the more you know about reality, actually, the more you understand that it's not hopeless. Right, the things that feel so discouraging are easier to manage if we understand the cycles that they're part of. This didn't just come out of the blue. This is 'Oh, this is what happens at this stage in the decline of a global empire.' Right? Of course, it becomes more authoritarian, right. And they work harder to divide people, you know, and that doesn't make it feel good. But it also makes it not an existential crisis. Now, for reasons that I don't necessarily completely understand--I have some theories--I don't actually experience despair. I experience all those other things, right. You know, I can be angry, I can be frustrated, I can be disappointed. I can be heartbroken, right? But those are all emotions. And emotions are how we interpret what our senses tell us. And process that in order to know what to do, right.
Despair, I finally concluded, is not an emotion. It's a malfunction of the emotional immune system. Because it shuts down our ability to take in information, because it's message is, why bother? Since it's hopeless, you know, don't bother looking for a path through that tangled jungle, because there isn't one. There's no point. If you start out with the conviction that of course there's a path through, then you'll start noticing anything that might be an opening, that might be a path, right? So hope, in that sense, is really a commitment that is self-generating.
I often think, having worked with young people, I'm curious if there's anyone else, just in your ecosystem growing up... Baldwin said that young people "have never been very good at listening to the elders, but they've never failed to imitate them." Right?
[laughs] That's brilliant!
I'm just thinking about who might you have been imitating or how might that have been nurtured in you? I'm curious if there's anyone that comes to mind that you saw just move through the hopelessness and the despair and disappointment in that way that that you might have absorbed from them.
I think that unquestionably my parents were a primary source. Their commitment to long term change that the knew they would not live to see, you know, was a model for how you deal with the cycles. Because when everything doesn't work out the first time, it's not crushing, because you know that things don't work out the first time. Or the second or the third, but you're accumulating capacity. Right? I mean, how many slave rebellions did it take before people in various countries won emancipation, right? And it's not anything particular that they told or taught or indoctrinated us kids in, it's simply the way they lived. You know, that, and then, you know, I've referred a lot to growing up playing in the forest, right. And seeing how everything in the forest is cyclical. And nothing on a mountain side has a fast forward button or a pause button or blinky light. And it doesn't go beep--well, some of them go beep.
[Dwight and Ricardo laugh]
And again, there's a cycle, sometimes you have the rainy season reliably, but then sometimes you have a drought instead of a rainy season, because there are even bigger cycles at play. So that also taught me to pay attention to what you can't see, you can't hear with your senses at the moment. But it's happening anyway. Yeah, I grew up in an area where people grew coffee, you know, either worked on other farms, grew their own. And when you're growing Arabica coffee, the beans ripen at different rates. So you can have a tree that has green ones and red ones, but you want to harvest the red ones, because that's what will get you the good price, right. And so you're always going back and picking from the same trees. But if there's a hurricane on the way, forming in the Lesser Antilles, arcing up through the Caribbean, and it looks like it's going toward Puerto Rico, and you're checking it out on the radio, right? Then you go out there before it hits, and you pick all the beans, green and red. Verde y rojo, because you want to save the harvest. And you want to at least get some from it, even though the price won't be as good. Right?
So, what that teaches us is that walking out into your coffee Grove, on a nice sunny day, doesn't tell you anything about what's happening in the bigger world. But having that knowledge of what's happening beyond your field of vision will really determine a very different strategy. Right? So all of these levels of awareness that we need to practice, that the more we can absorb that, the more agency we have. Right? If you're just thinking in terms of my immediate experience: a hurricane hits, you lose everything, it is oh, you know, was a tragedy and act of God, whatever it was right. And it's devastating. In part, because you didn't know, in part because you didn't prepare. And that's partly where we are right now. And where did Trump come from? Trump came from a lack of preparation, the people fighting for justice didn't realize that they could put forth a bold vision, was very timid because they didn't want to enter the people. They had to meet people where they're at is the slogan, right? Which is useful insight, but not if you take it too far. Because then you're just pandering to their prejudices. Right, as the right wing was willing to put forth bold ideas, even though they knew they had no chance of winning, and put forth like anti-choice or racist or anti-voter legislation in state after state that they knew they were going to lose. But they were preparing the soil, they were preparing conditions for the long run, whereas sort of left and liberal think tanks, they only want to get involved in campaigns that they know they can win. So it's very short term thinking, right? They only want the red beans. And they don't know that there's a hurricane coming. Now the hurricane is here.
Nature as teacher. I just love the ways that nature has been your teacher. And now through this conversation, it's become my teacher, it's becoming our listeners' teacher. And maybe it is for our listeners. It has been for me in some ways, but I'm just so grateful for the ways you're bringing in your learnings from from Mother Earth, from the natural world. Yeah.
I think everything we learned is from nature.
But sometimes there are distortions of nature, right? So for example, the capitalist system is based on natural cycles, but some of the functionality has been disabled, right, so that we all have ways in which we regulate, right? We regulate our nervous system, we have impulses, like excitatory impulses that get us to do something. And then we have impulses that come after those so that we don't do reckless things. It's a feedback loop. In capitalism, that feedback loop is disabled. So all you have are excitatory impulses. You can do whatever you want, and don't worry about the fact that it destroys the water, the environment, etc. You know, it's called deregulation. And it really has spilled over into people's personal, emotional, psychological structures. So that being deregulated means nobody tells me what to do. Right, I can have impulses, I can say whatever pops into my head. I don't have to be concerned about being considerate about other people. Which is why the emergence of Donald Trump felt so liberating to people feeling constrained in their lives and hemmed in on all sides and having to obey and not having satisfaction being disappointed in what life has had to offer.
And so, 'Oh, this is really, really cool. Regulation is bad.' You know, and that's backed up by corporate interests, because if you accept the idea that we need to regulate ourselves, that we have to not do whatever we want in order to support the common good, then that means the entire economic model is not compatible with that. And that's why the battle over climate change is so fierce, because accepting that climate change is being created by the system we live under means that we actually have to change everything and be in a reciprocal relationship with nature and with each other. And that destroys their entire world. You the world of the 1% is to them a beautiful world, you know, with the crystaline sounds of return on investments and stock options. And, you know, the, you know, almost sort of magical transformations of hedge funds, right? You know, who would want to damage that to save some little bug? You know, it makes no sense.
There's so much to learn. There's so much and I know for me, in my own journey, I'm continuing to learn and grow too, and maybe our listeners, you're listening. And yeah, curious how all of this is resonating with you. I want to move us to close. It's been such an enriching conversation. And really, the close is simple. It's just if there's anything else that you want to share with us here that you feel like you haven't gotten the chance to share.
Mhmm. Well, I think what I have concluded is that my life's work really is finding ways to remind people of and validate what they already know, the fact that we are embedded in nature, that can't be changed, right, but the fact that we have become so disconnected from that knowledge can be changed. Right? So I think there's a deep listening involved, that we know a tremendous amount. And when you think about the term 'wisdom,' right, wisdom comes to us usually in the form of proverbs and sayings, things that are passed down, right? Make hay while the sun shines, right, so you don't lose your crop, don't spit into the wind, that's pretty obvious why you want to do that. All of these things, you know, the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step right? What they're telling us to do is to align our personal choices with the way nature works, rather than mimicking the oppressive system that has all these techniques, right, and trying to mimic that in order to come to their power.
We just really need to have those reminders and listening to those reminders of how the deep cycles work and how we can align with them. Butterflies, the monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico, don't just strain their little wings, paddling against all these little breezes and getting knocked into buildings. They ride an updraft up to 11,000 feet, find a current going their way and float. Right. So we can do that--not fight the current, but figure out where [is] the power flowing? How do we tap into that? Then we can really tap into that future that awaits us.
Wow, I feel tapped in! I feel like I'm tapping in through this conversation and through your sharings, through your experiences, through your wisdom, you're once again bringing nature's wisdom to this conversation.
And our time together never ends, right? I mean, this is true of all the people listening. It's like, we're in this together. We're doing this.
We're in this together. We're doing this. We're doing this, we're tilling the land, we're in the soil, we're planting the seeds.
Ricardo, just thank you so much, so so much, for this time.
Thank you. It's been lovely.
So grateful to be with you, family.
Pendle Hill is a Quaker center, open to all, for Spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, PA, on the traditional territory of the Lenni Lenape people. Visit us at www.pendlehill.org.
To learn more about Ricardos work, visit rlmartstudio.com.
The podcast was produced and edited by Ariel Goodman, with the support of Pendle Hill education director Frances Kreimer and education associate Anna Hill. Our episodes were mixed by Leah Shaw Dameron. Our theme music is the I Rise Project by Reverend Rhetta Morgan and Bennett Kuhn, produced by Astronautical Records.
If you're listening to these last 30 seconds, you made it to the end with us and we would so love it if you could subscribe rate or review us wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us to keep planting those seeds. This project was made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. and Mary William Shoemaker Fund.