Learn to build a world where everyone belongs. Take free classes at OBI University.   Start Now

After thirteen months of critical PAR “camp”—cotraining and learning, strategy building, healing with each other (good enough), and building (deep enough) relationships and a (close enough) collective analysis—H.O.L.L.A! program organizers and a cadre of eight Black youth and one white youth created a grassroots-movement-based participatory format for ancestral ceremonies called H.O.L.L.A!’s Healing Justice Movement Circle Process.26

The ceremony engages Black youth and communities of color in a process of healing interpersonal relationships to sustain and build spirit and collective hope for grassroot movement building. H.O.L.L.A!’s Healing Justice Movement Circle Process is a ritual of shared and mutual vulnerability, storytelling, Afrikan artistic expression, and cultural ceremony so that relationship building can take and sustain root. The process incorporates hip-hop, poetry, vibration, incense, sage, media, activities, interactive one-on-one dialogues, and group circles into a healing circle ritual or ceremony to discuss violence, the power of youth organizing, collective healing, and liberation. 

Ancestral ceremonies are rituals rooted in the traditions of the ancestors (i.e., spirit). These ceremonies honor Afrikan, Indigenous, and local community members’ (her)historical relationships to land, body, and spirit. Ancestral ceremonies engage spiritual,27 psychological,28 and emotional healing29 as epistemology or as a knowledge system. They create sacred spaces to communicate with the spirit world about personal, social, political, and professional realities and energies. They also allow individuals within a community to be in a space of authenticity; accepting what is true within this world as well as what is true in other realms of spirit and realities of consciousness. 

The pedagogy of ancestral ceremonies is a process of connecting to the invisible, as an intentional practice to locate yourself to truly and honestly see others or to know others or to find the other within you. Ancestral ceremonies are cultural ritual, tactics, and methods related to cosmology, ontology, and epistemology to connect humanity, and all living things, to spirit. They are rituals in which the local community and people call in spirit (i.e., ancestors) to be the driver of activities30 or, said differently, allow spirit to be the generator of culture and knowledge production within the participatory and communal process. Ancestral ceremonies sustain joy, culture, and methods of survival and resurrection.

Types of Knowledge Ancestral Ceremonies Generate

H.O.L.L.A!’s Healing Justice Movement Circle Process was politically and theoretically situated to study learnings at the intersections of multiple youth experiences, generational knowledge, and community-specific approaches to healing. Ancestral ceremonies assisted participants with reaching their dreams, connecting culturally with others, nurturing dreams of liberation, embodying new ways to be human, and practicing the “how” of healing. These ceremonies were important in H.O.L.L.A!’s participatory research process for providing hope and spirit to individuals and communities committed to grassroots organizing for collective healing and liberation. 

To learn and study this process, H.O.L.L.A! conducted participatory data analysis—critical ethnographic, thematic coding and grounded theory. The analysis yielded six key findings of interpersonal healing to sustain and build a grassroots movement.

  1. Wisdom from Ancestors and Elders sustains youth development and healing. 
  2. Journeying, through community learning, gives youth the ability to heal each other and with each other. 
  3. Grassroots and community specific rituals for survival and healing are important for healing youth in the process of building/sustaining movements (i.e., community and society development); 
  4. The Art of Cultivating Vulnerability as Emotional Knowledge for Healing; 
  5. Hope and Spirit to Build/Sustain Grassroots Movement by providing energy needed to sustain healing, organizing, and interpersonal relationships along the journey (i.e., grassroots movement building and radical healing process); and 
  6. Building grassroots movement in itself is a source of personal and communal healing that spans across generations, identities, social context, and the visible and invisible worlds.

These areas of knowledge were developed by integrating a community assessment survey and workshop evaluation process with the ancestral ceremonies. The assessment survey was shared with participants before the process started. The evaluation was given after the closing ceremony (Assata Shakur Black Liberation Chant).

H.O.L.L.A! developed the assessment survey with the advice and feedback from community members and academic experts. After six months together, H.O.L.L.A! began to examine survey development within academic literature. H.O.L.L.A! studied the Morris Justice Project’s “Polling for Justice,”31 the “What’s Your Issue” survey,32 the Community Assessment to Study the Philadelphia “Negro Problem,33 and The People’s Report34 to better understand survey construction. H.O.L.L.A! began crafting their assessment, and many drafts were sent out to local community organizers, university students, PAR scholars, and seniors and elders for feedback, revision, and to deepen the analysis. After many rounds and ten months of dialogue and engagement on survey questions and factors development, H.O.L.L.A! completed a survey to assess youth of color experiences and expressions of historical, structural, and interpersonal violence, and youth desires to heal. The final version included three sections or factors:

  1. If willing, please share experiences of structural and interpersonal harm.
  2. If willing, please share desires to heal from structural and interpersonal harm.
  3. If willing, please share who you are.

H.O.L.L.A! developed an evaluation with the advice and feedback from multiple tiers of community members and elders. The primary emphasis of the evaluation was to center feedback from other Black youth and communities of color who experienced H.O.L.L.A!’s Healing Justice Movement Circle Process. H.O.L.L.A! wanted to find out what went well and what did not go well during the process, as well as if anyone was committed to join the movement. In addition, the evaluation was created to learn if any healing took place, and if so, in which form. The final evaluation was one page and asked eight questions.

How Ancestral Ceremonies Can Build Relationships and People Power

This intimate practice of ancestral ceremonies with self, spirit, and community helps to build internal power within people and within the internal relationships of people who are engaged in the grassroots movements for collective healing and liberation. Ancestral ceremonies support individuals, communities, and spirits to see each other beyond this material world, and assist individuals and communities to connect to ancestors as a source of wisdom and power.35 Ancestral ceremonies are useful in participatory processes because “our souls and spirits require rituals to stay whole.”36 Ancestral ceremonies aid Afrikan,37 Indigenous, and local communities of color in identifying obstacles and problem-solving solutions they may see because of human limitations.

Group of people standing outside with chalk writing


Time, Capacity and Resources, and Tools Needed

To build power through ancestral ceremonies, H.O.L.L.A! began outreaching to youth throughout NYC to organize relationship healing and preparing to launch their Healing Justice Movement Circle Process. To begin, H.O.L.L.A! compiled a list of eighty potential sites, locations, and organizations where Black youth hang out at. H.O.L.L.A! contacted each site and consequently led over seventy healing circles (some organizations experienced two to four circles each) from December 2016 to June 2019, servicing a wide range of organizations and institutions, including Rikers Island, community-based organizations, social services agencies, and schools. As H.O.L.L.A! began facilitating their Healing Justice Movement Circle Process across the city, word spread and people from inside and outside NYC began reaching out to engage in a ceremony.

Every ancestral ceremony has its own unique flow, properties, community, and needs specific to resources, times, people, and spirit. Before going into an ancestral ceremony process of individual and collective healing, we are often asked to think about our ancestors and the questions they posed to us years ago. One such question is, “Are you sure that you want to be well?”38 There are many more questions to ask, but you, your community, and ancestors are best situated to know what is needed to ground your spirit for the journey.39

Pitfalls, Challenges, and Myths

Ancestral ceremonies “are a dance with spirit, the soul’s way of interacting with the other worlds, the human psyche’s opportunity to develop a relationship with the symbols of this world and the spirits of the other.”40

There are many types of ancestral ceremonies at different levels of community and self and self-community.41 It is important to recognize what is and is not an ancestral ceremony. Symbols are a key element of ancestral ceremonies. Symbols help connect the material world to the spirit, ancestor, invisible world(s). Healing Justice Circles’ talking pieces and altars are examples of symbols. Spirit, children, elders, youth, and adults are all welcome to ancestral ceremonies.

Artifacts sitting on a table

Ancestral ceremonies have their own unique energies, spirits, and ancestors driving the relationships, expressions, and activities. People and community participating, facilitating, and invoking ancestral ceremonies determine the elements needed, time commitment, and values to make the ritual work. These ceremonies require intentions and stated purposes. They take the form of Afrikan, Indigenous, and local communities’ practices of prayer, folklore, religion (infused with indignity), rap ciphering, healing circling, poetry, drumming, dancing, radical imagination, murals, movement building and sustaining (i.e., organizing), smudging, and much more. Anytime people gather, under the protection of spirit, that triggers an emotional energy aimed toward bringing the people tightly together or to bring a person more tightly together with themselves, an ancestral ceremony of one type or another is in effect.42

Weaving Cultural Strategy

To participate in ancestral ceremonies (i.e., ritual) is to know a whole line of ancestors are behind you.43 The practices of ancestral ceremonies are integral to the healing of researchers and local communities. Grassroots movement-building frameworks of scholarship and other critical frameworks honor Afrikan, Indigenous, and local communities’ methods and praxis of knowledge production to help ground the researcher spirit throughout the research engagement and activities. Ancestral ceremonies require researchers, practitioners, and community members to pause from hyperproductive professionalism to dive into self-purging, historical study, and emotional rebalancing that is directly connected to rigorous empirical study and personal transformation,44 which is needed to develop further praxis within the field of scholarship and beyond. These ceremonies as a pedagogical praxis allow space for researchers and organizers to connect to their own purpose within the research process and have the opportunity to align their own purpose with multiple purposes of those they research with.45

Related Resources

  • 26How Our Lives Link Altogether! (H.O.L.L.A!) is a grassroots organization based in New York City that creates pathways and spaces for healthy cultural, social, spiritual, and political development for Black/Afrikan youth and communities of color to fight against and heal from the war on the seven neighborhoods in NYC that historically feed over 75% of the New York State prison system.
  • 27Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, “The Return to the Sacred Path: Healing from historical trauma and historical unresolved grief among the Lakota,” unpublished doctoral dissertation, Smith College, Northampton, MA, 1995.
  • 28Shawn A. Ginwright, Hope and Healing in Urban Education: How Urban Activists and Teachers Are Reclaiming Matters of the Heart (Routledge: Taylor & Francis Group, 2016).
  • 29bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).
  • 30Malidoma Patrice Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community (New York: J. P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999).
  • 31Madeline Fox, "The Knowing Body: Participatory Artistic-Embodied Methodologies for Re-Imagining Adolescence,” CUNY Academic Works (2014).
  • 32M. Fine, M. E. Torre, D. M. Frost, and A. L. Cabana, “Queer Solidarities: New Activisms Erupting at the Intersection of Structural Precarity and Radical Misrecognition,” Journal of Social and Political Psychology 6, no. 2 (2018): 608–30, https://doi.org/10.5964/jspp.v6i2.905.
  • 33W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899).
  • 34Y. A. Payne, “The People’s Report: The link between structural violence and crime in Wilmington, Delaware,” 2013, https://www.thepeoplesreport.com/images/pdf/The_Peoples_Report_final_draft_9-12-13.pdf.
  • 35Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community.
  • 36Sobonfu Somé, The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (Harper Collins, 2000).
  • 37Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community.
  • 38Toni Bambara, The Salt Eaters (London: Penguin Books, 2021).
  • 39Tanya Smith Brice and Denise McLane-Davison, “The Strength of Black families: The elusive ties of perspective and praxis in social work education,” University of Kansas Libraries (2020), https://kuscholarworks.ku.edu/handle/1808/30253.
  • 40Somé, The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community.
  • 41Ibid
  • 42Ibid.
  • 43Somé, The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships.
  • 44hooks, Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery.
  • 45Cynthia B. Dillard, Daa’Iyah Abdur-Rashid, and Cynthia A. Tyson, “My Soul Is a Witness: Affirming Pedagogies of the Spirit,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 13, no. 5 (2000): 447–62, https://doi.org/10.1080/09518390050156404.