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Psychedelic Organizations Make Efforts to Address Racism

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Psychedelic Organizations Make Efforts to Address Racism

At the height of this summer’s protests spurred by the murder of George Floyd, across the psychedelics field statements were issued in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. To many observers, it was the first widespread recognition of the systematic and institutional racism that has long been a shadow aspect of the psychedelic scene. 

But what actions have psychedelic organizations taken to make good on the sentiments expressed in those statements? 

Lucid News reached out to a representative sampling of companies, nonprofit organizations, and community groups across the country to find out what specific programs and policies they have implemented to address the effects of racism in the wake of the protests. 

As it turns out, quite a lot has happened. 

In this article, we review some of this activity. The aim is not to be comprehensive, but rather to demonstrate a range of concrete steps that are being pursued toward an important goal, while much clearly remains to be done. 

This article is the first of a series that will periodically revisit how psychedelic organizations are following through on stated commitments to countering systemic racism. By identifying significant problems and expressing empathy, the solidarity statements have real value. But actions speak louder than words. Here we bring attention to how these fine sentiments are translating into concrete changes over the long haul.  

As a reminder of the intractable nature of systemic racism, this week protests erupted across the country in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Real change requires an ongoing commitment to the hard work of change.

Pre-protest activity

The murder of George Floyd did not spark an entirely unprecedented awareness within the psychedelic world. Since the aughts, some psychedelic communities have objected to the white-washing of prominent psychedelic voices. Throughout the 20th century, figureheads in the scene – from Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley to Terence McKenna and Alan Watts – have been primarily white men. 

This imbalanced representation of voices belies the long held, rich traditions involving psychedelics within indigenous cultures, as well as the women and BIPOC who have participated in psychedelic culture over the years. In 2020, over 50 years since the international banker Gordon Wasson sat in ceremony with the Mazatec curandera María Sabina and introduced the Western world to psilocybin mushrooms, psychedelics conferences are still dominated by white men.

Over the past decade, organizations have acknowledged the need for structural change, and made steps towards addressing the lack of diversity in psychedelic spaces. 

Since 2014, MAPS has organized panels and published articles around racial trauma within the psychedelic community, speaking to policy reform, the war on drugs, and social justice

In 2018, they set up an internal group process called PAINT (Psychedelic Allies for Intersectional Navigation and Transformation). PAINT is divided into different working groups that specifically focus on internal, external, and clinical projects. 

PAINT hosts regular staff-wide consciousness raising sessions called “Collective Liberation Hour,” in which they discuss how MAPS can participate in social justice movements, and “reflect on ways [they] can build equitable practical into every level” of the organization. 

In 2018 and 2019, MAPS hosted a number of workshops and retreats oriented around cultural sensitivity and inclusivity, including the Catalyst Project, a daylong anti-racism workshop, and Psychedelics and Cultural Trauma, an open community workshop addressing socio-political and historical causes of trauma, and the barriers to acceptance of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy in communities of color; and an MDMA Therapy Training Retreat for Communities of Color.   

The San Francisco Psychedelic Society (SFPS) tells Lucid News they have consistently made efforts to host a diverse array of speakers, and have cultivated relationships with indigenous leaders, locally and abroad, for “advisory, collaborations, and reciprocity.” 

SFPS also supports indigenous communities financially by hosting fundraising events with indigenous leaders from Huni Kuin and Wixarika tribes, and giving the majority of proceeds back to those communities. They regularly sell indigenous visionary art at events and online, giving 50% of the proceeds to indigenous communities in South America. 

Last year, the New York Psychedelic Society began organizing Psychedelic Integration Circles for people of color. Yarelix Estrada, who currently is the society’s sole organizer, says the group is a place where BIPOC can openly share their experiences using psychedelics in the dangerous context of a drug war that disproportionately targets BIPOC, particularly in the “highly militarized” city of New York.

“We are also able to support one another and acknowledge each other’s experience without having to do the educating that we might have to do in predominantly white psychedelic spaces,” says Estrada. 

At the 2019 Women’s Visionary Congress, held in Oakland, California, nine of the 21 speakers were women of color, as were the majority of the paid and volunteer event staff. (Full disclosure: Ann Harrison, founder of the WVC, is co-founder and business editor of Lucid News.)

Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines, an organization that provides education and cultural understanding around ceremonial uses of plant medicines, instituted a program specifically to promote voices of color. According to their website, Chacruna’s “Racial Equity and Access Committee,” a consortium of researchers, advocates, and artists, aims to ensure that “traditionally marginalized racial, ethnic, and indigenous communities have access to these healing medicines and are actively included in the field of psychedelic studies at all levels.” They also actively call for articles that “address historic and contemporary challenges to access and inclusion in the psychedelic community, leadership, and research.” 

On May 19, one week before the murder of George Floyd catalyzed a wave of protests, Orthogonal Thinker, a platform company focused on psychedelic compounds for health and wellbeing, announced the launch of the Emotional Intelligence Foundation, a program aimed to “catalyze and uplift the movement for expanded safe access to plant medicine.” Orthogonal tells Lucid News they are “committed to working hand in hand with organizations seeking to use plant medicine to assist in anti-racist consciousness building and/or support collective healing from the traumas of systemic racism.” As of this writing, the foundation has yet to announce specific programs. 

New Content – Programs begun since the protests

Since the Black Lives Matter protests erupted nationwide, organizations have stepped up to show solidarity with the movement by increasing the amount of content programming dedicated to addressing racism in the psychedelics field. 

During the height of the protests, many psychedelic community groups shared information about how and where to support the street actions. The San Francisco Psychedelic Society used social media to also provide resources on legal rights, and bail bond contact numbers for unlawfully arrested protestors. In addition, they posted about black-owned businesses for people to support. 

SFPS say they are planning to produce a “series of events to explore the 13th amendment” – the amendment which abolished slavery – “and the impact of the drug war on civil rights.” 

DanceSafe, a peer-based harm reduction organization, says they’re in the process of “having conversations about how they’ll be integrating racial justice and awareness of white privilege” into their training program. They also pledge to become more racial justice-oriented in the content they distribute, “publishing strong and clearly-stated stances on our positions on issues of race and justice, and enforcing strict community standards of anti-racism for our supporters and volunteers.”

Chacruna says they will be launching a new webinar series centered on race and empowering BIPOC. 

Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics, the annual conference at New York’s Cooper Union, sheds light on the racial dimensions of Covid-19 and psychedelics with the release of their first movie, “Covid-19, Black Lives, and Psychedelics.” Looking towards next year’s programming, Horizons says they’ll be featuring an “event looking at this spring’s wave of activism, a forum on social justice, a cultural sensitivity training for professional therapists, as well as a forum focused on indigenous communities.” 

Field Trip, a Toronto-based mental wellness company that runs ketamine-assisted psychotherapy clinics in Canada and the U.S., says their first formal step towards addressing systemic racism is joining The BlackNorth Initiative. Created by The Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism, the initiative “challenges senior Canadian business leaders to sign a CEO Pledge committing their companies to specific actions and targets designed to end anti-Black systemic racism and create opportunities for all of those in the underrepresented BIPOC community,” according to their website. 

The BlackNorth Initiative’s CEO pledge lays out seven actionable steps that they’ll be taking towards fostering inclusivity and diversity within the business community in Canada, including the implementation of antiracism education, and establishing a diversity leadership council. 

Grants and Donations

A number of psychedelic organizations offer scholarship programs to ensure that opportunities to learn and acquire skills within psychedelic spaces are accessible to people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Black and indigenous women of color have been empowered by Cosmic Sister, an environmental feminist advocacy group founded in 2007 that has been lifting women’s voices through a number of grants and projects. “BIWOC make up about one third of Cosmic Sister’s Expert Advisory Circle,” says Cosmic Sister founder Zoe Helene, “and there are thousands of BIWOC in the Cosmic Sisterhood.” 

Since the Black Lives Matter protests started, Cosmic Sister has been providing grants, awards, and scholarships exclusively to BIWOC, and supporting their businesses through giveaway promotions (in which Cosmic Sister pays for the items). 

“We’ll need to get back to lifting all women’s voices,” says Helene, “but we’ll continue to give proportionally more to BIWOC until we see fair access and representation in the psychedelic community.” Helene will also be paying for the college tuition of a Shipibo forestry student in Pucallpa, Peru. 

Fluence, a platform that provides education for psychedelic therapists, has created a Diversity Fund, which will be used to provide “direct scholarship support for individuals from diverse backgrounds and those who will enhance availability of professionals trained in this area to diverse communities,” according to their website. They add that the funds may also be used for “program development, consultation, compensation of guest speakers, and other activities that directly relate to the fund’s mission.”

Another fund is being established by Horizons, producer of the annual New York-based psychedelics conference, which has “formalized an ongoing scholarship system” to make their “year-round programs more inclusive and accessible,” including their monthly events around individual topics, and continuing education classes for health professionals working with psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. 

Along similar lines, Lucid News has announced that it is starting a Psychedelic Journalism Fund, “to underwrite and support black and other POC journalists who are looking for training and experience covering the emerging psychedelics industry.” The program begins in September.  

The San Francisco Psychedelic Society says they are in the process of crafting a BIPOC scholarship program, in addition to their standard scholarships, which will be available for all of their events. 

The Center for Optimal Living, a New York treatment and professional training center whose “Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program” assists people seeking to integrate their psychedelic experiences, have pledged to donate a percentage of the income generated from upcoming workshops and events to organizations that support social justice efforts for black and indigenous communities. They have also made a donation to the George Floyd Memorial Fund, which provides financial support to Floyd’s family. 

Hiring BIPOC

Some psychedelic organizations have expressed an active and ongoing effort to hire BIPOC, and maintain a diversity of representation amongst their staff. 

MAPS Public Benefit Corporation, a subsidiary of the MAPS nonprofit organization which conducts the group’s research initiatives, recently reviewed and revised their hiring process, resulting in the hire of almost a dozen new staff members of color. 

In response to the nationwide civil rights protests, The San Francisco Psychedelic Society has stated that they are “actively bringing BIPOC into leadership positions.” 

Similarly, The Women’s Visionary Council, the nonprofit conference organizer behind The Women’s Visionary Congress that also funds and promotes women researchers, healers, activists, and artists in psychedelic spaces, is expanding their board of directors, which is presently composed exclusively of white women, with the addition of two women of color. 

Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately described Fluence’s Diversity Fund. It has been corrected.

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