an interview with Zakiya Harris
Photography by Bethanie Hines
WorldChanging Managing Editor
A co-founder of nationally recognized projects Impact Hub Oakland, Grind for the Green, Hack The Hood, Earthseed Consulting, and a past Fellow of Green For All and Bold Food, Zakiya Harris is a force for good who just keeps going. She is retained as a consultant to manage programs where culturally relevant education and cross-sector collaboration are seen as assets. Applying her performing arts talents as a dancer, vocalist and actor, Zakiya has taught culturally and creatively-driven classes to students from ages 2 to 62. We spent an hour with her in Oakland to explore what is underneath the surface of her life and work.
“It’s this ant’s view of the world. You’re not even an eagle, you’re a star.”
Jennifer: What is the heart behind the statement “My name is Zakiya and I am a cultural architect.”
Zakiya: I believe that people need to get “life titles” not “job titles”. Job titles come and go, and your job title doesn’t really define who you are. If you ask most people what their job title is, they could answer they have a certain job title and they have a side hustle, they have a passion project, they have volunteer work.
Job titles are pretty much obsolete. My mission is to be a force of transformation on this planet. I’m building culture with my child who’s twelve. I build culture every time I’m on stage. I’m building new ways of thinking, remembering and going to the indigenous ways, and in creating a co-working space in Oakland that’s about new ways of working and coming together. I’m creating curriculum to help students grasp the future of work and who we are in working together. So in everything that I do, I’m an architect of culture.
Jennifer: We believe the approach an individual takes in creating social change is what tends to truly fuel the outcomes. How does your work inform that viewpoint?
Zakiya: There’s a quote, “The greatest teachers teach by their very presence.” It’s the presence that’s the teaching. When they walk into the room, they’re teaching. Whether it’s the way that they move, the choices that they make, or how they began their day, the teaching is embodied. That means I have to do the self-work; confront my fears and dreams, not play small, not dim my light. I must be authentic and transparent, comfortable with being vulnerable, and cultivate a vibrational frequency. And that frequency can magnetize others who connect to that light. So it’s not linear. It’s about embodiment and intention. I’m always asking myself ‘what is my intention for the day?’ and ‘what is my intention for this project?’ or ‘what is my intention for this meeting?’ and that really guides my process.
Jennifer: How do you define a changemaker?
Zakiya: I think that can show up in a lot of different ways. You’re a changemaker when you decide to eat different foods and live a healthier lifestyle. You’re committed to loving people differently. It’s the small changes, those minute shifts that add up to do big work. Big shifts are amazing but if you really study big shifts, or big changes, or big movements like the civil rights movement, you see that they emerged from many small meetings, small changes and small disruptions that preceded the big thing. Everything big is a culmination of a lot of small things.It’s the small changes, those minute shifts that add up to do big work. Big shifts are amazing but if you really study big shifts, or big changes, or big movements like the civil rights movement, you see that they emerged from many… Click To Tweet
One of my missions in life is to be a force of transformation on the planet and people might ask me ‘well, what does transformation look like to you?’ and what that is to me is disrupting this whole patriarchal, linear world we have lived in and reconnecting us back to the holistic, creative, and more feminine side of who we are. I’m about uprooting that old world because that old world has gotten us to the place we are today. The world needs a lot of changes. So, I view changemakers as people who are making the commitment to do the changes in small ways every day. Every time you get up and spend any money. You don’t have to wait to vote, you vote every moment with everything you buy, with every decision. I think we get disempowered when we interpret social change purely through an external, story-telling lens, because change truly begins inside and then reshapes how we work in the world. Changemakers are people making the commitment to disruption and disruption does not have to be messy. You’re making a commitment to building, planting, seeding something holistic that ultimately is going to move us towards a new paradigm.
You mention ‘playing small’. What is it that blocks us?
Most western societies never ask people what their gifts are. I can’t tell you how many adults and college students I work with when I ask them ‘what do you love to do?’, they can’t even tell you. Because from the moment they’ve been in school they’ve been handed a piece of paper with a bunch of check boxes, and instruct you to choose a box, rather than allowing your spirit to choose the box that you’re here to do. So how can you not feel lesser than if you’re not in alignment with your destiny, if you’re not in alignment with your gifts and your strengths? How can you not feel small when you don’t understand that you have a sense of purpose; if you don’t know who you are?
The struggles for most of us emerge from childhood trauma. I don’t think you can be alive in this world and not have some level of childhood trauma. Every one of us is born into a level of a trauma. I think a lot of that trauma comes from being raised in a white supremacist male patriarchal society. Before we are born, we are in this womb, this holistic place, and the moment we come out of the womb we’re having to battle with systems of oppression. They’re disconnected, invasive, and tell us we’re separate from our spirit, which is separate from our work, and separate from who we love, and we’re separate from the earth. There are all these levels of disconnection, so how can you grow up in this society and not feel small?
As an African in America, I have 400 years of extreme trauma in my family. So the work becomes remembering wisely. How do we reconnect? The term I use is indigenous cosmology. Cosmology is a way that you view the world. It’s how you look at animals and plants, it shapes your connection to the earth.
Before the western system, every indigenous community, even Europeans, had a cosmology that was holistic, inter-connected, and earth-based. We may have used different names for different gods and titles, but the systems were the same. And those systems, albeit their flaws, didn’t create the level of disconnection we have today. We didn’t have words like homelessness. I think that sometimes what happens is we’re so steeped in this patriarchal, white supremacist mindset, that it doesn’t matter what race you are. Even our solutions emerge from within that system. So my freedom is going to come because I have to vote in the system.
Jennifer: How is it we need to change ourselves in order to do our work, and what is “the work”?
Zakiya: The first step is tapping in to your divine purpose which means self-reflection and self-observation. Many people have never done this. The path of destiny isn’t linear. It changes and shifts. In the western view, it’s stagnant. But your true purpose is always alive, growing in its embodiment. What does it mean to have the courage to die? When I gave birth to my daughter at home, my midwife told me to let myself die, meaning to let go. Birth teaches that the moment you can truly allow yourself to surrender, or to die, your birth will progress.
There’s no way around it, the work of changing what’s going on out there begins with a part of you dying in order to birth this new life. Every breath becomes a prayer. Every time I blink I can reset my life. That’s what it takes to keep getting into the practice of renewal and of doing that self-work. The work itself is a practice. It’s something you have to get up and do every day. Some days I practice better than other times. Sometimes I fail. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.
Jennifer: What does it mean to be your most authentic self and what does it take?
Zakiya: Being your most authentic self has a lot to do with vulnerability. You know there’s this western way of “I’m okay”, “Everybody’s okay”. You ask people how they’re doing and they answer “I’m good.” Well, are you good? “Everything is fine.” Is it fine? You know we have these one-word responses. Again going back to some indigenous cultures, they didn’t even have words in their language for good or bad. I think there’s a tribe in Africa that rather than asking, “how are you doing?” they ask, “how are your children?” You don’t have to ask me how I’m doing, I’m going to ask you how the children are. “How are the children of your village?” was the way they greet each other because the way you’re children are doing is a reflection of how you are doing. Tapping into that level of vulnerability is connected to a more holistic world view because it also allows us to tap in to a more feminine principle. Whatever your gender is, we have this feminine principle in all of us. We’ve been taught that what it means to be strong is masculine, but the real strength is surrender.
Surrender is the most powerful strength you can ever have. Tap in like water; be able to be like water. Water can take the shape of any form. Pour water in a glass, water takes up the glass. Pour water on the floor, water takes up the floor. It’s not trying to fight what it is in. Water is like, hey I’m free, I’m surrendering, wherever I go I’m finding my own momentum. That is the ultimate power to me; when you’re so clear about your essence. If you understand your birthright, you’re already holy from the moment you were born. There is nothing you have to do. Surrender and just be. One of my teachers used to say, are you being a “human doing” right now? Or are you a “human being”? Most of us are “human doings”. Doing, doing, doing. We need to understand how powerful we are just by being who we are, being in this magical universe that birthed us. We have so many gifts to give, and we just get “to be” every day.
I understand how that takes courage. Because from the moment you walk outside, speaking for me, I’m bombarded with images that are telling me I am less than, I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m black, I’m too this, or too that. From the moment I walk outside my door, pretty much nothing is going to affirm my being. For example, I’m having a conversation with you (Jennifer) right now and for me it’s like I am filling my cup. But it’s not like there are all these other opportunities all the time. I fill my cup because part of my work out there is helping young people understand who they are.
I have a morning practice and there are some people who may think perhaps it’s not important enough or that it’s so random. But, getting up in the morning is one of the most important times of the day. Having a morning practice – making time for solitude, meditation, prayer, whatever that looks like – to really tap in to who I am so I can go out into the world and do my work is important. Nobody said it was easy. You know when animals are in the jungle, they’re not thinking of an easy life. They have no concept of easy. You live your life and you can get preyed upon; you can get eaten. Every other society was able to come to terms with that. We can think, oh that’s being mean – no, that’s just the way the system works. The natural system. So, what is the inner work that has to happen so we can go and fulfill the outer work? That is something we can ask ourselves. Every moment. We experience the expression of our authentic selves as we do the work.
You live by the mantra “It only seems impossible until it’s done.” How?
Years ago, I experienced a myriad of life challenges, all around the same time. I was married. I wasn’t happily married. I was a home owner, running my own successful non-profit, employing over 20 young people of color. Our educational organization leveraged hip-hop for environmental justice and social change. But I wasn’t fulfilled. Everyone on the outside thought we were this model up and coming family. My husband and I created music together, worked together, and people saw us as a power couple. And I told the universe, I’m not happy, I’m not fulfilled. I would go for walks and dream of being powerful, in-tune and bold. And I would come out of that daydream and think, “I could never be that.” Life was compartmentalized. One version of me showed up at work, and another showed up when I was doing my spiritual work, another showed up in my creative artistry, and none of these people were really friends. They weren’t talking to each other, even though they were all parts of me. So I asked the universe for help. And, in a blink of an eye, we got a notice that our home would be foreclosed. The non-profit I ran lost its funding. I got divorced and became a single mother. I had to ask myself “Who am I,” in every aspect of who I thought I was. Homeowner, wife, and business owner were all stripped away. That’s where I discovered that my essence is like water. Really water became my teacher.
Nine years later, I founded two more start-ups that won awards, I’m earning more than ever before, I have an amazing partner, a woman, and a great relationship with my ex-husband. I would never have thought that this life would be possible. You know before you give birth there’s that ring of fire you go through, or you think of the phoenix rising from the ashes. Sometimes we are afraid of our own fire. We think, “I have fear here and so I shouldn’t be doing this.” I was still fearful, but I had to move through it anyway. You start realizing the strength of your spirit. I’m so clear that I’m not in control of anything even though I’m a master planner who loves to plan. When I see that things are not flowing or there are little flags on the field or my intuition tells me something doesn’t feel right, I go with it. Again it comes back to that surrender.
Your support system is key. You know there’s a saying, “Only the visionary sees the vision.” Only the person with the vision can see it. So how do you cultivate a supportive system within the challenges around you? Your “tribe” will enable you to do this work in a way that is going to feed your soul. It all takes a lot of courage.
Jennifer: What is that courage?
Zakiya: It’s feeling the fear and doing it anyway. You distinguish your intuition from fear. You learn to say, ‘Hi fear, I feel you, I see that you’re here, we’ve both shown up and you’re going to be standing next to me. But I’m going to do this thing.’ And I think all that goes back to having sense of who you are, which in turn goes back to the daily practice of understanding who you are. When you understand who you are, you don’t let all these external influences move you away from your purpose in the work that you’ve come to do.
You get more courage as you do more courageous things. We gain more courage as we get out of our comfort zones. When life is compartmentalized and linear, courage becomes harder. We stay in our comfort zones. Courageous people stretch out of their comfort zone in frequent, small ways, whether it’s eating new food or making difficult choices in relationships. Then there is also having a ‘why’, a deeper ‘why’ that is bigger than yourself.
I believe all of our purposes are connected to making the world a better place. So, when we empower people to tap into who they are, we empower the world. Click To Tweet
Jennifer: Let’s talk about your “Why”. What do you think you empower people to do or to be?
Zakiya: My work is about empowering people to be their highest self; to tap into their purpose. I believe all of our purposes are connected to making the world a better place. So, when we empower people to tap into who they are, we empower the world. We all have these problems that we’re facing not just individually, but as a people. How do we solve these things? If your ‘why’ doesn’t scare the hell out of you then that’s not the ‘why’. Sometimes I say our ‘why’ even haunts us. It comes to us in our daydreams and nightdreams. Money stops mattering. It’s going to tap you on the side of your shoulder and say, ‘I’m still here, I’m not going anywhere, so are we going to do this work?’
Jennifer: How have you had to change yourself, and by extension how you work with others, in order to create breakthroughs?
Zakiya: Wow. I guess in some ways the universe is always giving us the lessons we need for our own growth. Some of us learn, some of us repeat, and at times, a little bit of both. It’s all part of the journey. Personally, it’s been about heeding the lesson. When I was wrapped up in my marriage and I knew I wasn’t happy, the lesson was: do you have the courage to speak the truth? I had to learn that lesson. I had to learn that I can earn a lot of money but if I don’t love what I’m doing, I’m not going to be fulfilled.
Being open to the lessons empowers our work with others. We are all navigating that journey, riding the waves, and those ebbs and flows affect how change comes about. I tap into the new moon, embracing all that happens within twenty-eight days, and I can seed new ideas, and know when to let go. There are seasons for a reason. There’s something we can learn from them. This takes a level of presence and stillness. Have a seat. You don’t have to do anything. That’s the hard part. But that’s the work.
Jennifer: How do our current social conditions hinder or fertilize growth? How do you see our current society shaping what’s possible for individuals committed to change?
Zakiya: The collective feeling is that we are in transition; a great paradigm shift. Part of this paradigm shift means that we are giving hospice to the old way and we are midwifing the new. The old way hasn’t really died. And the new way – well, we’re all out here building new models, new ways, but we haven’t lived in a fully realized society. We need to understand we’re in a transitional phase. The old system is dying. We don’t have to worry about that, but death is not easy to watch. We watched the real estate market crash, and our banking industry almost collapse. The music industry was one of the first things to collapse. Now we’re wondering when our governmental system will collapse.
So even though the mainstream paradigm bombards us with images of things going wrong, statistically there is more good going down than negativity. If you turn on the news, or if you’re looking on the internet, you are being bombarded with negativity. But I actually think the world is in a very good place right now because we’re witnessing the death of one system while we’re midwifing another. That might be easy to say but it’s a lot harder to live in reality.
We started in the wombs of our mothers in pitch blackness. Almost everything you eat starts its life in pitch blackness. Before it can reach light, it has to reach further into the darkness. I don’t think that there’s ever been a time in history where we’ve been more uncertain. There is no sense of security. As a practice, I have a face mask I put on that allows me to experience pitch blackness with my eyes open. That’s where the magic happens. That’s why our ancestors began the calendar year with the winter solstice – this place of going into this dark period so that the light can come. The only thing that comes after the darkness is the light. So when people talk about this time and this period, I say, hold on. Hold on, you don’t know what’s coming. Did we know that we would get here? Who are we to look with our own two eyes and make judgements about the world and what is coming and what is happening? We have to tap in to something deeper than what we can see.