Inner solid structures as the foundation to achieve beauty and justice
A conversation between Sebabatso Manoeli, Senior Director for Strategic Programmes the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, and Adama Sanneh, Moleskine Foundation CEO.
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Adama Sanneh: When we talk, when I ask you about this idea of this concept that we are exploring of creativity for social change, what would be your three words and why those three words?
Sebabatso Manoeli: And I can choose any of my two sets of three words Adama?
[AS] Anything you want.
[SM] OK. Yeah, creativity for social change, I mean, I think for me, the word beauty and justice, those two words seem to be really connected to what it means to use and deploy creativity to bring about the kind of social change that’s positive and beneficial to people. What’s interesting for me about the combination of both beauty and justice is that, of course, the latter is about achieving the right to the relationship between humans and more than human, creatures so the planet that we’re on, so justice has so many different dimensions, but there’s a way in which beauty takes us out of a kind of moral plain and allows us to engage with something that awakens wonder within us something more transcendent than questions of what’s right and wrong, something that lifts a stop and allows us to imagine in more expensive ways. And so I always find that justice alone feels like it’s not enough for the laboratory work that we’re all engaging in, the kind of social change that we feel like we all need. That beauty allows us to lift our gaze a little higher, to expand and explore and get out of the diet of right and wrong, get out of the binaries of good and bad into something that just is. The reason I think that’s important is because I think it’s easy in the work of justice to be caught up in a sense of self-righteousness and a sense of feeling like you’ve got all the answers and other people are all together, perhaps not right altogether awful. And there’s something that allows us to get outside of ourselves in the beauty that I think can be a powerful combination. It allows us to explore the power of concepts like love in the work of liberation and freedom.
[AS] You missed one.
[SM] Oh, the third word, OK, so all three, Adama, I’ve got so many words, so justice and beauty for sure, and I connected to it to wonder a little bit. I guess structure is an interesting word for me because it’s much more functional than that. The former to and yet in many ways, I feel like it allows there to be a dance between them. So I find a structure to be this sort of thing that allows us to move from formlessness to form from this expansive sometimes nothingness to something that’s a vision and a direction and a path. And as someone working in the leadership development space, thinking of structure is something that’s quite important for me because it allows us, at least for me is somebody operating in the spaces I operate into to enable it to be able to communicate clearly to people around me. So in many ways, I feel like beauty depends on structure. And I think social change in part requires the kind of structure that holds, it’s a bit of infrastructure. What is that? What is the sort of thing that allows us to hold the changes that we’re seeking to bring about in the world? Very structures that have multiple dimensions, right I’ve talked a little bit about that social aspect of it, how we relate and teams working together, using structure to bring about the kind of change we envision. But I always think that there’s also an inner infrastructure that can be quite powerful. What is that deep capacity within myself, ourselves that allows us to endure challenging times, to be able to proceed along a path of clarity despite the odds there’s some kind of inner metal that structure also harkens for me about my own posture in the world that allows me to stand upright in the fullness of my dignity? So those are my thoughts of my three words: justice, beauty, and structure.
[AS] So this is this is extremely interesting. And, you know, I love to go a little bit deeper with some of those words, because the first question I would have and this is related to you, to where do you choose justice? Obviously, that’s a very important word and concept that stays within your work as a professional, as an academic, as a researcher, but I found the word justice takes a very interesting connotation with you because you were born in Lesotho and you live now in South Africa. You studied in the U.K., you worked in the US. And at the moment, you know, what you’re doing is at the crossroad of all this and much more. You also have a Ph.D. that has a lot to do with the concept of justice. And when we look at the way justice is conceptualized across different cultures and we take it, obviously we can take some parts of the African continent, you work in South Sudan, but then you have also a lot of experience in the concept of justice within the South African world, but then also obviously have a lot of knowledge in the Western world. And so the UK working and studying a lecture in Oxford University and now in the US. Is justice a universal concept?
[SM] What an interesting question, Adama. Yeah, I mean, I think there’s something sort of, you know, this is of course outside of my field, but I think there is something evolutionarily necessary in justice that there’s something in the way humans have come to be as they are today, that requires us to make wrong things right to account or to hold those who wrong others to account, to compensate those who are victims, that there’s something elementary and it feels to be intrinsic in the ways that I, as a layperson, understand human cultural evolution over time. And I think in that sense, justice as an impulse in its rudimentary form feels certainly universal, its expressions, how people understand it, its bounds, its orientation, all of that does seem socially, historically constructed, shaped by cultural notions and the moral universes that people inhabit and those feel to me to be really different. And I think that also accounts for the kinds of distinctions, differences, the inability for different people to sometimes see eye to eye or cross-cultural and other types of divides because of the kinds of world views that shape how people understand justice to be constructed. What’s interesting is that while justice is this sort of emotional impulse within us, from my perspective, there is an interesting intellectual aspect to it, so it is possible without that a gut-level emotional response to being able to reason with one another and arrive at an articulation of why something is just and why something is not. And so I am interested in how those logics are communicated across cultural differences. And, you know, just judging from the state of the world today, it does feel to me like that ability to communicate, articulate, describe, explain and reason for justice feels to be of incredible import. Certainly, that’s the case in places where there have been tremendous human rights abuses, crimes against humanity, places like South Africa, places like Sudan, South Sudan, places like the United States. We have such different conceptions of histories as people coming from different groups, different understandings of the present, different interpretations. And so justice, as conceived by one group, is sometimes not the same for other groups. No grievances form. So it feels to me like an incredibly fertile, rich space that is open for narrative construction of all kinds of perspectives and purposes. But I think it also just speaks to the ability of human beings to also bridge across differences through reasoning. And I think that that’s an interesting aspect of justice.
[AS] Yeah, it is. Because I think there is an element of, I don’t know, sometimes I feel that having a shared idea of what justice means and, you know, can help us to develop a language that allows us to move forward. You run the fellowship, the Atlantic Fellowship for Racial Equity and I’m wondering what part of justice is connected to that concept of equity.
[SM] Yeah, so like you’re saying I hit up the fellowship wing of the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. In fact, it’s actually something that our executive director says to me that I find quite striking in the shape of how Afri, as we call the organization for short, orients itself around the notion of justice. And that’s really drawing on the wisdom of our drug lord, who prophetically, as it were, said that really we have no patterns of relating across human difference as equals. And in many ways, the work we’re trying to do at the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity is to be part of serving the racial equity landscapes within South Africa and the United States by, of course, strengthening the leadership within the fields by doing so in a way that opens up the imagination for the development, for the creation, for the testing out and experimentation of these new patterns and really offering the world new ways of thinking and being. I remember I used to I did a little bit of work for the African Union a few years ago around transitional justice as a consultant for the inaugural Transitional Justice Forum and what was interesting for me, as somebody just dabbling within that field, I came in at it through the sort of military history work that I’ve done on South Sudan so that kind of civil wars world is how I entered the field of transitional justice and AGD in that was quite struck by the kinds of debates within the field where they talked about justice being either perpetrator centric or victim-centric and that, of course, in the West Western societies in general, there’s an orientation towards focusing on perpetrators such that when a crime is committed, the focus is placed on imprisoning the wrongdoer and ensuring that they’re punished for what they’ve done. Whereas in other societies there is a sense of being victim-centered and making sure that there’s recompense restoration for the person who’s been harmed. What’s interesting for me in the work that we’re doing in Africa, that I think that there’s a sense in which there is an emerging third way which feels to me to be an orientation towards justice, that’s future-oriented, that’s imaginative, that’s patterned creating, that’s trying to set precedents, that’s trying to draw on what Howard Zinn calls these dissident moments, as it were, how come I’m forgetting this right now? But he talks about these fugitive moments of human interaction that are actually full of kindness rather than of hatred, as is the long history that we witness of war across the world. And so there is something really interesting in the work that we’re trying to do just around what are the fugitive moments? What does it look like to find other impulses within us that draw us to imagine new ways of being? How do we draw on the old and the new? How do we find the unrecorded? What are the ways people on the continent were thinking of political orientation and organization in the twelve hundreds? What were the responses to climate change a millennium ago in southern Africa, for example, and what could the future be? So those are the range of questions that we’re asking ourselves because for us the work of the imagination is central to true liberation, which is at the heart of bringing about justice. So in short, it’s not just about making right what has gone wrong in the past, but it’s allowing the creation of new structures, new ways of being new social relations that enable us to imagine a future where we’re offering.
[AS] You know this resonates a lot with some of our ideas as a foundation and it resonates with the title of this podcast you know that is creativity for social change because there is a connection in our mind that we need creativity to foster new language, you need creativity to foster radical imagination and then out of this radical imagination, then new models for society can arise. I also think that it’s often difficult to convey this message, you know, it’s sometimes it feels a little bit too abstract, you know, and so we know that throughout history and I’m sure, like in your experience, you had moments, episode examples that you can share in which you say these this moment, this fugitive moment you were describing, you know, came about and can you tell us something about it? Can you give us a concrete example of what you just articulated?
[SM] No, absolutely. I’m with you on how abstract it sounds. And it’s interesting because when you actually started speaking about how challenging it is to communicate this, I started thinking about what it takes or how do we really mobilize groups of people around a movement, around a slogan, and in general, it feels as though social movements across history and time, the most successful ones tend to be ones that are driven by a sense of grievance, a sense of injustice rooted in that emotion of anger and, of course, anger is legitimate in the face of grave injustice or any kind of injustice, really. So it makes complete sense. It is, of course, challenging to galvanize people around something beautiful. And there’s, I think, beauty it opens us up in a way that’s, of course, disarming, but evokes an emotion or a set of emotions that’s not as easy to galvanize, to tap into, to translate into social action as easily, what it does or what it does do, however, is open up the field of possibility in ways that allow new political realities to emerge and be possible. And so I think part of what’s interesting for me in the abstraction of these kinds of conversations is how difficult it is for us to understand ourselves as humans, as creatures of the story that we find ourselves we make sense of the world through narrative. Something has a start and a middle and an end. That narrative arc shapes all of our logic and our thinking and our doing and I think that’s what’s interesting for me and the power of these ideas of beauty that drive justice or creativity for social change as you’ve mentioned it, is the narrative potential of it all. An example that speaks to this power of story, this power of the imagination to bring about different political futures and possibilities is a story or an incident from 1600 in what is today Angola but at the time the Kingdom of the Congo, where a woman by the name of Kimpa Vita, who came from a decently significant political family, was, of course, a contemporary of Queen Nzingha, she led a political movement that was quite interesting to me in that realm of the imagination for many reasons, including its resonance to the present as well as the power of the imagination that she was able to tap into. But the Kingdom of the Congo at the time had interesting relations with the Portuguese as well as the Catholic Church in Rome. They had embassies in Europe and vice versa, that their elites were trained there without that colonial connection, holding them together so I’m also really interested in what are the histories of contact between Africa and the rest of the world, including Europe, that aren’t rooted in occupation, in subjugation, because I think it’s those moments that tell us something interesting around what is possible in terms of human relating across geographical divides. But back to the story of Kimpa Vita. And the missionaries from Rome Catholic missionaries arrived in or, of course, proselytizing, as they do under the bed of sort of no political occupation, as we, of course, saw two decades later, two centuries later in the rest of the continent. What was interesting for me is her ability to weld together and amalgamate traditional African religions with Catholicism in ways that were wielded for new political possibilities in the Kingdom of the Congo, she said and experienced herself as being possessed by the spirit of a Catholic Saint, St. Anthony, and at that moment, in space of being possessed by the spirit of St. Anthony, of course, is doing really interesting things, gender-bending things that are, of course, foreign to the European missionaries there in her ability to take on and inhabit the kinds of powers that were given to men and, of course, claiming someone who came in the spirit of someone who acclaimed and sanctified as a saint in that way, of course. So there are all sorts of interesting power things that she was doing at that moment. But what was striking to was she ended up talking about how the pope was a liar, which, of course, is very difficult to imagine anyone saying to the missionaries at the time or any time, really, and the reason she mentioned that was that she said, in fact, Mary and Joseph and Jesus were Congolese. They were African, they were black like her. What’s striking for me is, of course, James Baldwin, a writer or thinker who, of course, has shaped a lot of how many of us imagine the black experience sense of it in the face of white supremacy, and that this is the century that has just closed off, is that he, of course, talked about the power of the Nation of Islam when he was in Harlem watching it because of its ability to enable people to see God as black like them. And in fact, this reminds me of a song, welcome to the Sabies Mind Train. So just hop with me and hear me for a little bit but a song by a mutual friend of ours, Adama, Akua Naru, who’s got that song “On Beauty”, and in it she talks about black as the face of God. It samples lines from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Anyway, I make these connections between Kimpa Vita, James Baldwin, and Akua Naru in ways that to say that there is power and being able to frame and shape people’s imaginations about the cosmic in ways that led to a political revolution in the kingdom of Congo and the overthrow of the aristocracy, in the region, but that, of course, happened after she was burned at the stake. Her legacy is, of course, remembered for hundred years later but all that to say the connections between story and political outcomes are really strong in her example. But there’s an enduring four-century-long story there about how do we imagine ourselves in relation to cosmic realities and in ways that shape how we understand our rights in the present as political agents. So I hope that provides something concrete even as we talk about abstract concepts.
[AS] We’re expecting like an example that happened last week and you brought us in the past few hundred years of history, it’s been asked for anything better because I hear this idea of, What I hear is this idea that in order to change the world, you need to first change the narrative of the world. But also, like in your story, there is also there’s also a storyteller or there’s always there is somebody who creates the language and so at some point, there is an individual, at least in this story, there is an individual that creates a certain language or embody and is able to articulate a sensation and a possibility that that exists in society and I think that’s interesting and I’m wondering whether you have somehow this in mind when you run a fellowship because a fellowship is a very, very peculiar model before one of these, where the structure, the structure that connects to do it to make it happen and a fellowship is a very peculiar model for social change because, at the end of the day, you invest a lot of money in very few people to then build structural change. How does that work, how can you tell us a little bit about the functionality of this model, and why we should believe in this model.
[SM] That’s a great question, Adama. I mean, I think at the end of the day, like you’re saying, we have humans as agents and certain individuals actions have a significant consequence on a large number of people in ways that a hundred people’s actions cumulatively might not be able to have the same kind of impact. And so I think that question of what is the power of the individual? What kinds of individuals are invested in order to bring about that kind of change? Who can be catalytic? I’m just thinking of, you know, someone like Nelson Mandela within South Africa story. He, of course, is a complicated figure whose legacy and history are, of course, being examined in light of each new generation’s experience of post-apartheid South Africa. Nevertheless, he’s an example of someone whose life had an outsized impact. So, I mean, I think a lot of us working in fellowship and leadership development spaces are driven by an understanding of that catalytic power of one. Or what Margaret Mead talked about, as you know, never underestimate the impact of a few committed citizens, of course, this is my paraphrasing. So there is something about a group of people, individuals, the power of a set of relationships that are generative, whose collective impact can be larger than individuals operating on their own and I and I think that’s really at the heart of what we’re wanting to do. We, of course, are living a lot of us in democratic societies where their elected officials are activists to lead organizations where their hierarchies and all of that jazz, even in egalitarian, leaderless movements, there are people whose impact, whose shaping, whose ideas, whose visions shape and impact a collective in ways that are distinctive and different and outsized compared to others. So there is something about that social dynamics and of how change comes about that makes investment in the individual difficult to overlook. But what’s interesting for me, too, is that there are so many different ways of leading right, you one can lead as someone, of course, at the front of a room in visible ways but there are many ways that are less visible that are nevertheless as impactful, I think, of the people who are doing sometimes really dark and unhelpful and in fact, criminal things. I’m thinking of Bell Pottinger and their involvement in South Africa is the development of politically evocative narratives in the past few years, especially my state capture years and then some administration here where, you know, the development of very specific targeted messages enabled many people to galvanize around destructive processes so I’m thinking of the narratives of white monopoly capitalism, which of course has great resonance within the South African context. The economy is definitely not racially representative. It’s very much following the same structures of the past. But this was a deployment of specific stories for the enablement of particular patronage networks to arise within that administration. And so what’s interesting for me, too, is the development of leadership in places that are less visible in places that are perhaps influential, but in ways that aren’t going to be recognized for say so. Who are the people who are creating the algorithms? Who are the people doing the deep research, understanding what electorates are needing and would respond to at any given time, point in time, who is crafting these messages, and so on? And so was I think so I think leadership and individuals and their power operate on so many different levels. I think the trick is to not have a stale perspective on where you expect leadership to emerge and where you expect influential people to be located. I think of the civil rights movement in the sixties, where it was always a handful of very visible men, preachers like Martin Luther King Junior, whose impact is, of course, questionable in terms of its impact, nevertheless, there were women in the movement whose names are forever forgotten, but who whose impact is felt in movements more broadly. And so I think the trick in the fellowship of fellowships, in general, is to move away from those charismatic, singular leaders whose impact it follows a stylized way of understanding leads to find people and in different places whose ideas are nevertheless as important to them.
[AS] Let me be a bit provocative here. So you mention, for example, obviously, Dr. King, before you mentioned, somebody like Malcolm X, you mentioned Mandela, you mentioned this idea of leaders that at some point you mentioned other obviously as leaders, they then were able to influence an incredible amount of people and change history, build a new narrative, build a new possibility as on and so forth. At the same time, if we look at one of the latest movements in the US but around the world, like, for example, the black life movement or the Me Too movement that has, I believe, accomplished quite incredible things, all of these movements are faceless. There is not a clear and very specific leadership, the same things now in Nigeria with ANZAAS, it seems that we are going into a different model that is not necessarily leadership individualistic and leadership based, but is somehow a movement that is diffuse, that is able to aggregate meaning and activism in really unique ways. So how do two things become?
[SB] No, I absolutely that’s exactly it. Adama, I think it’s the old style of leadership that is the man in front of a congregation who, you know, we can point to the leader. I think we’re in a really productive moment where like you’re saying, there’s there faceless, leaderless movements and there are so, so and so. I think we’re moving in a really productive and exciting direction. And just as an aside, I’m always interested in the authenticity of questions of leaderlessness, I think leadership perhaps operates in different ways and so perhaps when people are saying leaderlessness, they mean it’s egalitarian. But of course, you can lead in an egalitarian way. So there are there were questions for me around, OK, how do we articulate this? But in general, I think the trend is fantastic and that’s exactly why I’m interested in where this influence sits and who is whose ideas are shaping what’s emerging even in the anti-apartheid movement. That, of course, was decades old. There were many nodes of action, activists operating on different levels in terms of regional, local others who are working on more continental levels, others connected to political parties. But these movements, like the anti-apartheid movement, relied tremendously on these nodes that are connected to broader networks because of their ability to galvanize others behind an idea. So I guess in general, for me, in my understanding is that leadership is in service of the whole whether or not history remembers your name or other people even know that you exist the ability to serve the world by contributing ideas is where leadership, I think is rooted, be they fresh ideas or ideas that are applied from one place to another or galvanizing a group of people behind ideas constructed elsewhere, that ability to connect people and drive action in a particular way doesn’t need to be a face, it doesn’t need to have a name or two to have a hierarchy to justify it. And so I think that’s what’s exciting for me, is the ability to place groups social change above the self and I think that that’s the kind of leadership that the world needs today because I think that there are significant problems with an individualistic, self-serving approach to leadership. So I think there is something quite healthy about the security that comes with something today.
[AS] My question here is, as an educator, so you run a fellowship program is a very large fellowship, always very prominent and basically you select these incredible people in the field of racial equity and then you invest a lot in them in terms of forming, giving the possibility of ideas connected to lifelong learning to connecting them with the network and so forth, to basically allow them to be more impactful of what they already are. But then the question is, are you still forming people still education? That’s right and in the end, the question is, how do you keep it up? What I mean is that there’s no indication. There is always, at least historically, there is always this almost Intercrime. You know, there is this issue with time, you know, whatever is happening at the educational level may be a little bit obsolete in terms of language development models and so forth compared to what is happening in the world. It is always like this. This gap of time will act like this because even if and this is probably part of the question, even if now we are praising and we absolutely interested, fascinated about these new models of leadership, of activism and movement and so forth of a social movement. That is not necessarily been articulated yet. We don’t necessarily know how that exactly works. Therefore, it becomes extremely difficult to create, you know, a program that is able to inform this. Now, the question here and this is obviously is happening more and more and more because of technology, because of a number of reasons, the curve of innovation in society is now so steep, it is almost impossible to predict what is happening tomorrow and the tools that we have in order to stay within this time are changing or more, because we know we almost can’t keep up. So now the question is, you, as an educator, how do you bridge that gap? How do you interpret that gap and how do you bridge it?
[SM] Yeah, so I think social change, you know, when we talk about that, we tend to think about movements alone but movements are one conduit or driver of change. The policy change is a tremendously important vehicle. There are laws that are changed, I live in a country that where the law was the instrument of oppression and the crime against humanity. And so I think legal change, policy change is also a dimension of change to remember that doesn’t necessarily follow the shape of activism. And it’s evolving, It’s even an evolutionary process. There’s also narrative change that also has a different dimension and action process of your action. So all that to say, yes, there are new and interesting, exciting formations that are emerging and ways that leadership is being understood in certain dimensions but there are others that are old and others that are new, others that are evolving in different directions and so there are many different planes of change is just the first thing I wanted to say. But in terms of the pedagogical question, the question of the lag between what is the educational process as well as the innovation that we can keep up within society, I'm with you on that I think it is very difficult to be altogether current about content in that way and so I think in many ways, for us, content isn’t at the heart of what we or perhaps that that particular content, that particular sort of learning of models isn’t at the heart of what our fellowship experience entails. What’s at the heart of the leadership experience for us is a multidimensional appreciation of what of the human experience. So for us, there’s this certainly that learning dimension that where we’re wanting to support fellows to have a deeper, complicated understanding of how structural racism operates in different societies, not just the ones that they’re living in, again, that’s a space to acquire, to be curious, but also to expand the imagination in interesting ways. But in addition to that, we’re exploring personal, interpersonal, and collective leadership, what does it look like to lead in different ways? What does it look like to lead from a place of wholeness, from a place of durability, in the face of weathering hardships? What does it look like to really embrace the rhythms of longevity that refresh oneself and now allows yourself to rest in the middle of lengthy struggles? What does it look like to connect yourself to your purpose and to your vision in those spaces? So those questions, so so there’s a learning dimension, the leadership dimension, but there’s a communal dimension, What does it look like to cultivate a community that cares for one another, that challenges one another, that powers one another, that has empathy, and that is building something with one another that learns how to dialog across differences? And then finally, what does it look like to support people, to be able to translate ideas into action, to lean into strategy, to lean into the processes of connecting themselves to ideas, to people, and to resources that are needed. So all of these different dimensions of the self, the learning, the leading, the leaning on one another, and leaping from idea to action really shapes what’s at the heart for us that allows us to have a little bit of an evergreen approach to leadership that enables us to support activists, leaders, professors, scholars, thinkers, artists, too, who are often on the front lines, who are often responding to many different types of immediate requirements, often reacting to challenges, often serving in our strained to have the luxury of time and space to ask themselves new questions, to embrace a spirit of wonder, to experience, beauty, relationship, to reconnect with the self, to have all of those, to have the kind of vantage point that enables them to understand their particular fields, the current questions from a complex perspective where you just get to be a learner in some ways, learning from one another’s peers and from best practices in the field. So with all of that, what I’m trying to say is that I think at the heart of what we’re wanting to do is a belief that when we are connected to ourselves from a place of power rooted and grounded in a sense of a larger story of our ancestral and social connections, a reconciliation with ourselves in the places where we’re not whole or in alignment within ourselves, our connections to the work that we’re wanting to do, to have a long term ability to serve without being burnt out and connections with relationships with people who allow us to who call us to account. We think that that that combination, of course, combined with that courage to act on new ideas, that combination allows for the kind of leadership that’s deep, that’s catalytic, and that’s just and embraces justice without necessarily just being reactive. And so really, what we’re wanting to do is connect people to themselves and also expand the imagination to allow new things to grow.
[AS] Can you give us a few examples about some of your fellows who are some of the leaders that you are supporting through the fellowship?
[SM] Yeah, absolutely. We’ve got such an incredible range of people who are doing wonderful work. There’s Constance Mahallah, who works on rural land rights in South Africa and leads an organization that’s really one of the few that’s tackling the reinforcement of really patriarchal traditional authority structures in rural areas that are in many ways eroding South Africa’s democracy and in so doing, help, support and empower women and other people living in on the margins of South African society in many ways and contributing to the land questions and debates through constructive and really tangible ways so working on agrarian and food security issues in rural areas. So there’s Connie. And that way we’ve also got Betsy Hodges, the former mayor of Minneapolis, who’s currently working on a book focused on white people, and she’s done a lot of work on addressing white supremacy and engaging other white people like herself within the political structures and in Minneapolis itself but really thinking about what does it look like to establish models of thinking about governance in the United States through liberatory lenses and so, again, leveraging her personality to talk to people within her cultural and racial background in that way. So we’ve got a wide range of people working on a wide range of issues, one is Binkin Marciani here in South Africa and she runs a domestic workers union in the country. So what’s interesting for us is really not so much the position of prominence, of course, is leading people in many ways and not necessarily the size of an organization. We don’t even look at a resume or receive a CV as part of our fellowship application process. For us, it’s a question of how people understand their fallibility. So one of the application questions for us is to tell us about a time you’ve been wrong about race and how did you learn. So that kind of reflexivity for us signals an ability to reflect, a desire to to learn, to connect, and an understanding of the self as not necessarily having all the answers within oneself in that way, the need for others, the need for learning and being on a learning journey throughout, and also humility about the fact that all of us can get it wrong. And in that part of the work is leading from a place of empathy. And so those sorts of values, those sorts of that ethos really is at the heart of the kind of community we’re wanting to build. And so for us, that’s the hallmark of learning and community.
[AS] That makes total sense and I think it resonates a lot with what you said before about finding leadership sometimes in unconventional places and in unconventional ways. And I think it also speaks to this idea of you know not necessarily look at people from a knowledge-based perspective, but you do get people on their capacity to really interpret themselves and interpret society at large, because going back to that conversation that we had before about how innovation, how education can keep up, probably if you don’t have people, has those some of those features of critical thinking, creative thinking, creative doing, lifelong learning, having a change, making attitude and having those skills that they are able somehow to embrace and build through the fellowship they get sometimes even amplified and or consolidated that kind of, it seems that I like them the almost like the basic ingredients in which you need in order to meet, to nurture in order to create leadership or to build leadership in such a fast-changing world of the moment. And it also helps to build a new language by having new people at the table and new stories, a new conversation, a new experience at the table of social change. That’s fantastic. You just started a podcast and I think is pretty interesting. It’s called Race Beyond Borders. Why did you decide to start a podcast and what do you think is there about podcasting, about what’s the value-added value of conversations?
[SM] Yeah, so we started race beyond borders, really in response to an observation we had about the global conversation about race at the moment, and it’s been the case for some time where for many good reasons, the conversations about race in general and blackness in the particular center on the American experience. So they’re constrained by and defined by the experiences of racialization in the United States in a way that inadvertently enables that story to have what some would call discursive dominance or hegemony. And what’s interesting for me and in all of that is that in many ways, a blackness that is is centered through a presentist lens or a narrow historical period of four hundred years or four hundred and one, based on when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, the United States and its blackness is then constructed in response to white supremacy in that way. And so for us, it’s really an exploration of what does blackness look like beyond the Western experiences of the United States as the principal leader, but then, of course, other English speaking places like the United Kingdom and then some exceptions from Africa, like South Africa, to begin to ask the kinds of questions that open up the aperture for interesting reclamation’s of race thinking and blackness from drawing from a wide range of geographical and historical experiences to imagine the future. So for us, the creation of new patterns requires the population of our imaginations with a wide range of stories that allow for that kind of that magical spark of innovation to emerge. It’s really, you know, we’re, of course beginning by putting South Africa and the United States in conversation with one another. So because our first episode was what is the African and African-American exploring the connections of a black diaspora from the experiences of an American black woman and see, but we’re also exploring the biomechanics of black hair and what science enables us to see about race, from that prism. So it’s, again, putting different disciplines and backgrounds in conversation with race, which is, of course, a conversation that tends to lean on history, politics, and the humanities in general. In the second season, we’re really excited about deliberately exploring race beyond geographical boundaries so really tapping into the black experience in places like Iran and places like Colombia. What does anti-black racism look like in places like India or the Aboriginal experience to allow us to populate our imaginations with experiences that are bigger than just North America or…
[AS] And Italy!
[SM] And Italy absolutely! absolutely, and for me, it’s places like that are such important case studies because they allow us to see the emergence of anti-black racism and in a place that isn’t rooted in white supremacy, but that has different socio-historical drivers, as it were. But also, you know, so not just black oppression, but what does black joy look like in different places? But your question about what does the medium of podcasts achieve? Why is conversation important for me that there’s something about that African oral tradition, a history that we have here, right where the power of the spoken word, the power of hearing one another of storytelling through an embodied medium is such a critical part of the wisdom of how our histories on this continent have been conveyed in various societies over time, that there’s something of the wisdom of that medium that I think is an inspiration for a lot of us delving into enabling us to have this platform and like you’re saying, it is a conduit for conversation. What does it look like to have different voices in conversation with one another? I think and then finally, for me, one of the unexpected joys of the podcast has been the spontaneity, the laughter, and actually hearing people’s distinctive voices that convey so much more than the written word, which, of course, is hailed as all things in the West. So it’s disruptive in an interesting way.
[AS] Thank you so much. This was incredible and I would continue to ask you so many other questions and keep exploring within this idea of beauty, justice, and structure but we need to stay try to stay within the time of this podcast and I hope that we had the chance to continue this conversation too.
[SM] Thanks, Adama. I’d love to hear more about some of these questions from you, so at some point, I’d love to flip it all on you and ask you what are your three words and why you know, why this podcast for you? Because I think that that’s learning from your experiences would be lovely for me, too. And just having a bit of a conversation so either now or another time, no pressure. But it’s it really has been a pleasure to be in conversation with you. It’s been stretching and interesting, you’ve asked me, I think, the kinds of questions that are needed in a moment like this so I really appreciate that now.
[AS] But I had this burning question because I think it will be so helpful for so many people who are going to be whoever is going to be able to listen because you have a very institutional high level classical educational background, you know, top university, Rhodes Scholar, a lecturer at Oxford, Ph.D. at Oxford University. So and now you are, you’re not only running a fellowship for racial equity, you are a thinker in this field, You are an author, and as an author, you are a creative author and you are an author that works in history and also in social change and political discourse. How do you keep the balance? How do you stay creative, because often what happens is that when you have so much education, the institutions were built for a different purpose? How do you nurture the ability to think in a different way, to think with novelty, to think in an unconventional way? How do you nurture and keep that ability?
[SM] That’s a really interesting question. And I think for me, it’s having lived on the margins, being a marginalized person in those very institutions, and above all, wanting to live from a place that’s authentic. I’ve never felt like I could alienate myself from my inquiries and so all of my dissertations, my work, my approach to my work is rooted in an existential desire for integration and a genuine curiosity and a sense of conviction in that way and so I really love the margins, I think that interstitial place between different disciplines, different sets of ideas, is just incredibly productive. Putting philosophy in conversation with history from colonial Khartoum in the 20s, putting Canadian thinking in conversation with that what do you get when you put those two together? And so what’s the classical education as you’ve as you phrase it at Adama does for me is provide a structure and a method, a pattern, the kinds of infrastructures that, as it were, through which a wide variety of questions that are unusual, perhaps that are perhaps not supposed to be together. What I’m trying to say is that the structure enables me to transgress and I love transgressing, I love troubling set assumptions in a way not necessarily from a place of just wanting to be disruptive for its own sake, which I’m sure is great for many people. It’s just not my impulse, my impulse is, is that deep curiosity, the questions I explore are ones that keep me up at night, that has constantly been what has driven me and I think perhaps there’s a tremendous amount of privilege in being able to I guess you begin by, you know, mustering a little bit of courage to transgress the little and then one is struck by the how that is well received or that resonates and that there’s space for that and so then you take more and more courage, space or comfort, as it were, to allow yourself to embrace that spirit of wonder, but for me, the structure is that the basis for new patterns to emerge that are that achieve both beauty and justice. And so those have been the waters I’ve been swimming in and that the formality hasn’t constrained. And by and large, I think for me, my creativity, if anything, I think at some point when the imposter syndrome wears off of a woman, a black woman from an obscure part of the world, as it were, all of that stuff and all of those paid off, and that a person has the confidence to say, well, actually by being authentic, by deliberately pursuing the margins and in asking questions from there, one is able to create new and interesting things. So why not keep doing it?
[AS] Beautiful. Thank you so much.
[SM] Thanks Adama, thanks for the question. How about you? How do you keep creative? I mean, how do you say creative? With all the responsibilities of being a CEO in an institution of significance regionally and internationally.
[AS] I think that it’s the privilege of my work at this moment is that I need to do it. It’s the core of our mission and so I have the big fortune to be able to speak with people like you to be constantly inspired by many of the young people that are part of our educational programs, I think that I’m just the first beneficiary of the ecosystem that the Moleskine Foundation is building and has built so far. And that allows me to always try to see things from an unconventional perspective and I really love what you say about finding meaning in the margins and discovering leadership and experiences in places that normally are not necessarily looking at. And when you do that, it’s really incredible to see how much meaning and how much new language arrives that really allows you to just build a new dynamic and different patterns and just be able to imagine possible future so I guess that I’m just very lucky at the moment to be part of all this.
[SM] No, absolutely, and I resonate with that idea of an ecosystem, I think creativity requires cultivation in the community. So there is something in that’s another notch for fellowship community that that’s essential for the creative enterprise.
[AS] Absolutely. And I think that is probably there is a synthesis there between the individual community, obviously, that they represented to symbolically also in the work that you do between and more South African idea of a society of the world compared to an American one. And to find a synthesis in this new approach and this kind of very apparent duality between an individual and a community and really find new ways and build a new language, that’s extremely interesting. And I think that that’s also part of the again, the person the luck, the personal luck that I think you have and I had I have of being always, always being in the margin between cultures, within minorities of various kinds, and not having somehow the structure to dictate the assumptions that you would never have to question in your life. So I think that’s kind of the element that where that happened, I think it’s you know, it’s just like an interesting journey when you decide to do it.
[SM] Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I think, you know, as a black woman doing racial equity work, it’s it could be easy to be at the center of that discourse and so I’m tremendously excited about exploring how blackness exists outside of my experiences in the world of it and that exercise of disinterring the self and the identities connected with the self, I think can be both liberating, but also really important for the continual work of disruption. And I think it’s so easy to reinforce the very patterns of inequality on the margins that we were that we fight with the center and so I think being able to constantly find the margins, to constantly make the margins the center, that is such an iterative process that I think is so productive in general as a way of being but I think at the heart of driving, certainly my own politics, but the work that we try to do is really explore what does increasing belonging look like? How can more and more people be included in the beloved community? Has the work to Bell Hooks is where it’s there and that then makes the work of the innovation work of centering the margins have greater meaning than just creativity for its own sake or innovation for its own sake, it allows to be part of a larger justice project that’s less about the people who are on the wrong or the right, and more about a more beautiful project of finding new ways of relating across differences equals.
[AS] Absolutely. You mentioned Audre Lorde obviously, we all remember this idea that you know, that “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, that we need new tools or you have to, you know, in a different way Albert Einstein saying that we will never be able to solve a problem at the same level of consciousness that created it. And question is, what is that place where we can create those tools? What is that place where we can create that, where we can find that consciousness? And that probably that starts from the margin, but then within that, there is I think something is important, there is an intentional act of keep searching and keeps those tools because it is always so easy to go back and reinstalling certain mechanisms. You know, the answers to that so subtly that sometimes we don’t even realize that. So there is an element of action. There is an element of intentionality. There is an element of making this part of your own mission, and I think it’s it’s important to keep in our minds and our hearts because that’s probably one of the bigger risks that we tend to have to encounter.
[SM] I mean, I think, as you say, that about the master’s tools you know, would never like Audre Lorde said, we need to find new tools in the master’s tools in order to dismantle his house, othering is has been the way the master has crafted his house through colonialism and through slavery, through all so that that process of othering and allowing for a very small group of people to express and be seen as fully human, express their humanity and be seen as fully human. There is something about flipping that othering instinct on its head and the beyond transgressing boundaries, expanding and really pushing into belonging and exploring what it looks like for all of us to be part of a community that’s not, as you know, constrained by sameness. So that project feels like it has endless possibilities, but it also feels like it is very much not the master’s tools.
[AS] Sabby, again thank you so much. And yeah, I mean, we’re together.
Sebabatso Manoeli serves as a Senior Director for Strategic Programmes the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity at Columbia University — an innovative leadership development program designed to combat anti-Black racism in South Africa and the United States. Dr. Manoeli is also the author of Sudan’s “Southern Problem”: Race, Rhetoric, and International Relations. Previously, at the Cape Town-based DG Murray Trust, a public innovator and strategic investor operating at the nexus of public policy and development practice, Dr. Sebabatso Manoeli served as Acting Deputy CEO and Innovation Director. Sebabatso has worked in the fields of politics, academia, and development practice. She worked on Transitional Justice and Governance for the Department of Political Affairs at the African Union Commission as a consultant.
In academia, she taught both Masters and Undergraduate students. Most recently, she was a Departmental Lecturer in African History at the University of Oxford, where she was the first African woman faculty member. She has also a Lecturer at Stanford University’s Bing Centre for Overseas Studies and a Teaching Fellow at the University of Fort Hare Institute of Social and Economic Research (FHISER). At the economic policy advisory firm, the Brenthurst Foundation, she was awarded the Machel-Mandela Fellowship, there, her research focused on Lesotho’s textile industry and Chinese SMMEs in five African countries. She has provided research support for the Dynamics of State Failure and Violence project at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, and the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations.
Her passion for leadership development on the continent led her to work at the Africa List at the CDC Group in London, where she focused on private-sector leadership in ten African countries, and at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. She was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, where she earned a DPhil in History and an MSc in African Studies. At Amherst College, where she earned a BA in Political Science and Black Studies, Sebabatso was a Mandela Scholar. Dr. Manoeli is also a Senior Fellow of the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa, and a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow.
This conversation was recorded as one of the Episodes of “Creativity Pioneers”, a podcast by the Moleskine Foundation.
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