“I am the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world,” says Quanita Roberson, “and my work is to heal trauma wherever it is, on the individual, interpersonal and organizational levels, bringing peace and building bridges between individuals and communities.”
Roberson grew up until the age of seven with her maternal grand parents, in a house always open to all. She was raised religious and attended regularly her grandfather’s church, a Protestant non denominational church in Mount Auburn, Cincinnati, where he was the minister; and after the age of seven, practiced Catholicism, when her mother married a white Catholic man.
“I was also later exposed to Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she says, “my mother and stepfather having converted to their religion when I was 15; and to the Unitarian Universalists when I was 16, having lived then for a year with a family who belonged to their faith.”
Growing up, Roberson was thus exposed to different religions and incorporated a little of each in her beliefs, but it is the spiritual teaching of the Dagara medicine wheel from Burkina Faso, West Africa, to which she was introduced at the age of 20, that resonated the most with her.
“Dagara is about spiritual healing,” she says, “also about community building and how we are together and how we each live our purpose.”
According to the Dagara wheel, each individual, depending on the last digit of her/his birth year, represents one of the 5 elements of Fire, Water, Earth, Mineral, Nature. Roberson falls in the “Water” people category, usually considered the peacemakers, the ones with the ability to reconcile differences within the self and with one another.
“I am a water spirit and I bring forgiveness, reconciliation, peace building, the medicine of the emotions,” she states.
Four years ago Roberson complemented her knowledge of the Dagara by completing a year long apprenticeship with Fanchon Shur, a Cincinnati-based movement artist, movement therapist and choreographer who has been practicing movement and trauma healing since the 70’s.
“I learned from Fanchon about healing through movement, how water responds to it, moving and shifting in our body, and how it affects us.”
Actually, trauma had been part of Roberson’s life from a young age. At fifteen, she went to court and pressed charges against her stepfather for sexually abusing her. Her religious family forgave him but she was initially unable to do so herself and went through a deep depressive phase. Facing at that time the choice to heal or to die, she let herself go to the spirit, was pulled and saved by it, and said yes to life.
Later in life, she worked for the Red Cross as an instructor and an instructor trainer, predominently in the area of HIV infection. She thus met many individuals suffering from AIDS or infected with the virus and was very touched by their condition and their traumatic experience.
“I saw individuals and coworkers dying from AIDs, and parents suffering from the loss of their loved ones,” says Roberson. “I lived their pain, witnessed their grief and wanted to help them and ease their agony.”
After the Red Cross, she joined for a couple of years Public Allies participating in their activist work and in their yearly retreats focusing on social justice. But when her son was born, she decided to quit her job and stay at home.
“I was already in my late 20’s,” she says, “and I felt the need to complete my education and so went back to school.”
Roberson received a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Wilmington College, then a Master’s degree in Organizational Management and Development with a concentration in Integral Theory from Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, CA.
“I wanted to help people heal from their trauma, also do organizational development work, and wanted to approach both from a holistic perspective.”
This is when Roberson established her own practice and started coaching.
“My coaching is reconciling internally, interpersonally or organizationally,” says Roberson. “I lead individuals, families and organizations through grief rituals, help them learn to grieve, to empty out and make room for the new to come in. I do it one on one, also through workshops and retreats.”
In helping others do their grief work, Roberson, in addition to easing their pain, takes them on a forgiveness and reconciliation journey, freeing their spirit and thus allowing them more space for love and compassion. She has been doing coaching for seventeen years now and in five countries. Her feminism healing retreats, for instance, help empower women; and her work through the Center for Progressive Leadership, helps activists and politicians in the state of Ohio widen their perspective, discover greater choices and acquire more personal internal power.
One of Roberson’s main interests, however, is healing the ancestors legacy of slavery, not only for African Americans, but “for all Americans,” as she is quick to precise. She is currently finishing writing a book on that same topic; it is titled ‘The Innerground Railroad: A 40 Day Journey to Remembering Self and Spirit.’ In it Roberson uses the Dagara wheel and takes the reader on a 40 days journey through which she shares her own story.
“I am a dark skinned African American girl, raised in a biracial family, formerly married to a white man who lives on the Kentucky side of the Ohio river, and my kids are multiracial descendants of slaves and of the sons and daughters of the Revolution,” she states. “I grew up exposed to diversity, born in both cultures and do not hold either as victim. We can shift and become connected and that’s what community is about.”
In addition to coaching, Roberson has been heavily involved in organizational development work.
Partnering with Tenneson Woolf from Utah, a facilitator and a workshop leader, she has been conducting yearly retreats involving young pastors from the United Church of Christ, guiding them into team building and into community engagement.
Working with the Kellog Foundation, she serves as both an evaluator and a participant in their grants on truth, racial healing and transformation. As an organizational development person she will help in the local training of their grantees for community engagement.
With People’s Action she is currently collaborating on a project designed to identify, across the country, rural communities which voted for Obama and later for Trump, trying to determine within them the thread of conversations around race, religion and immigration. The purpose is to pin point the messages that made it through pop cultures, and learn how we can better listen to each other and build improved relationships.
In New Jersey, Roberson trained both community and police members in trauma-informed responses to violence. She tried to remove their preexisting biases and bring instead their commonality and complementarity, reinforcing what one participant simply stated, that “they’re all trying to get home safe to their families…”
Addressing diversity and inclusion in the workplace, Roberson helped design a self assessment tool for managers, stresssing an approach that will shift the topic from just being a subject of discussion to becoming an actual practice.
Roberson is also very concerned about the activists in the community, about their need to tend to their own healing in order to become healthier and able to continue their engaged work. She is considering partnering with JustLove to develop an activist cohort to address their issues and, and as a result, to increase the efficacy of their involvement.
In addition to her coaching and organizational development work Roberson is involved in various social justice activities locally, nationally and internationally.
In collaboration with the YWCA, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the Freedom Center, she arranged for the screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary based on James Baldwin’s writings and that explores the history of racism in the US. It was followed by a Q&A session led by Aisha Kiefer Smart, Baldwin’s niece, and by Roberson herself. Conversations on race, open to the public, will continue later around the city, also facilitated by her.
“The movie connects past to present,” she says, “but we also need to connect present to place and examine what race means to us in Cincinnati and what we want to be together.”
In 2016 Roberson was the Keynote Speaker for The National Diversity Conference in Brazil, also a presenter on Community/Police Relations at the NAACP National Convention in Cincinnati.
Going from there Roberson would like to spend time reinforcing the initiatory process in our country.
“We’re still an adolescent country,” she says. “We need to become initiated adults in order to initiate our youth.”
Asked what she means by initiation, Roberson states that it is how we grow up, how we make our purpose and our calling clear, how our soul meets ourself, and how we become spirit instead of only earth-centered and earth-led in our decisions. She is currently planning, with Tennison Woolf, a 3 year cohort for individuals age 40 and under, focused on that issue. Since initiation is culturally specific, Roberson will ask participants to have their ancestral DNA study done and the information available prior to joining the group.
For Roberson the essence has always been community. Through trauma healing and through organizational development she has always tried to empower individuals, families and organizations, to create bridges between themselves and to reinforce communities throughout the world. She will continue using the wisdom of the Dagara Medicine Wheel, her water spirit, her skills and knowledge to contribute to peace in all settings and wherever she is.
What is the Dagara Medicine Wheel A Medicine Wheel is the basis of the cosmology and five element rituals of the Dagaratribe of West Africa. In Dagara, people are categorized according to the five elements of fire, water, mineral, earth and nature, each imparting to its respective people a very specific role they are supposed to fulfill in order to keep the community together. Fire, the original element, is seen as a most potent connection to the spirit world. It puts people back on their spiritual track by consuming that which stands between them and their purpose. It is also the state the ancestors are in. Fire people are the link between the village and the world of the ancestors. Water brings cleansing, purification, reconciliation; it is essential to the spiritual journey. Water people are considered peacemakers, with the ability to reconcile differences, both within the self and with one another. Earth, the central element in the Wheel, is the mother who is inviting us to come home to the community and to the earth, our true home. The Earth person takes care of others and, like a grandmother, wants all people to be fed and to feel content, respected and loved. Mineral is the elemental energy that invites us to remember, through ritual, who we are and why we are here. In Dagara physiology the bones, not the brains, are the storage place of memory. Mineral individuals are story tellers; their gift to society is that of remembering. Nature is plants and animals and landscapes. It invites us to welcome change and to open ourselves to transformation in order to realize our true and authentic selves. Nature people have the key to the evolution of our consciousness; they make us understand what change, transformation and adaptation mean.
Religious Peacemakers is a regular column published in Streetvibes; it highlights Greater Cincinnati individuals who use their faith and religious beliefs for peace and justice and for a better world.
It is authored by Saad Ghosn, founder and president of SOS (Save Our Souls) ART.