6: Creating a liberated zone

liberation [lĭb′ə-rā′shən]

n. the act or state of being (getting) freed or unbound by traditional social roles

sacred [sey-krid]

n. reverently dedicated to some person, purpose, or object; regarded with reverence; a sense of right

love [ˈləv]

n. strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties, a beloved person

v. to like or desire actively, to take pleasure in, to thrive in

Often in training and leadership development spaces, our primary focus is on content and curriculum. Transformative organizing focuses on long-term vision, self-awareness, naming and addressing the oppression that is replicated in our strategies, and the healing of personal suffering. In order for this deep personal work to happen within our organizing, particularly with impacted leaders, we need to co-create the conditions for individuals to bring their full selves into the room and for the group to try on new, more affirming ways of being together.

We do this by co-creating a “Liberated Zone,” a concept inspired by so many revered teachers and organizers from Ella Baker to Paulo Freire to Octavia Butler to Ed Whitfield and George Lakey. But it is the women of Community Change’s women’s fellowship and Power 50 programs who are really teaching us what goes into co-creating a liberated zone and what this can mean for our movements. These are the pieces of our practice that they have highlighted for us.

Deep time spent creating and reengaging with community commitments

Community commitments are often bullet points we gather from the group at the beginning of a meeting or retreat and paste up on a wall, hoping that they will keep us safe from conflict. When we’re co-creating a liberated zone, we develop community commitments through a process adapted from BYP100 that asks participants to really consider and name what safety, transparency, trust, validation, affirmation, accountability, and joy feel like and look like in action. These descriptions form the basis for our community commitments. We began each day by assessing our fidelity to our commitments the previous day and repeated this check-in practice at each reconvening (See Creating the Container).

Shared analysis about what disorganizes us

As we built our commitments we learned together about the culture and systems harming us, disorganizing us, and keeping us from living into our commitments. Namely we talked about the impact of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism on our lives and our work. We also discussed the ways that we have internalized the culture stemming from these systems and how this can show up in our space even if white people, men, and money are not physically present.

Spiritual & Cultural Practices

Frequently, we are asked to show up fully prepared to think and strategize about a more just world while our cultural knowledge and spiritual practices based in love and justice are left outside. We adorned our spaces with fabrics, images, music, plants, books, art, and activities to remind us to draw on the many forms of wisdom available to us.

Somatic practices that bring us back to our bodies

We recognize that there are multiple ways of knowing and that many of us have learned to disassociate from the wisdom in our bodies. Under the leadership of healing justice practitioners like Viveka Chen (who works with Power 50) and Holiday Simmons (who works closely with the women’s fellowship) we tapped into practices rooted in Generative Somatics, Tai Chi, yoga and other ancient teachings to learn how to both physically and mentally return to center. Some of these practices are in Cultural Work Resources.

We commit to the process/not to the agenda

Tammy Alsada of the women’s fellowship reminded us how often time is used as a form of social control, particularly in our incarceration system and in spaces where poor people and people of color are at the margins. While we respect the labor of those who have come prepared to lead conversations and give space for all to participate, our first commitment was always to “the conversation that only these people in this room can have.” For the facilitation team, that meant being very clear about essential outcomes for the day and the overall retreat and conveying that clearly to the cohort to engage them as partners in adjusting the agenda to meet our shared goals (See “Heart of the Heart” in Program Reflection & Reimagination.)

At its best, a Liberated Zone creates an opening, a wholly inclusive space to test ideas and solidarity, not to constrain relationship building through othering or canceling folks. In many ways, it functions as a co-created initiation of the women into shared purpose and healing. In a Liberated Zone, grace and love are abundant and available to all.

How to know if participants are embracing our liberated zone

In their writings about the five elements of building a “thriving justice ecosystem,” Change Elemental talks about embracing “multiple ways of knowing.” By the time many of our participants enter into our program spaces, years of schooling and “professional development” have cut them off from some of their most essential tools for making meaning of the world around them - art, cultural practices, and hidden talents, even cooking. As facilitators, the re-emergence of these tools is one of our clearest indicators that participants are embracing and co-creating the Liberated Zone:

Poetry: Some of the most powerful program moments come when participants request space to share a poem they wrote the night prior as they reflected on the sessions of the day. These pieces tend to add nuance and complexity to the conversations that deepen the thinking of everyone in the room. One Power 50 participant, Nkenge Browner of Mothering Justice, even went as far as to write a poem honoring what she had learned from each participant in the program. These poems allowed her fellow cohort members to be fully seen and deeply appreciated in a way that the wider world often misses (see sidebar p. 67).

Speak by Nkenge Browner

For Joleen who said “no this is how it goes”

You filled the space with words

Other than English

Feed us words

That didn’t taste like

Hundreds of years of oppression

A song that an almond skinned grandmother

Would sing and sway her hips too

You filled this space with a language

That hadn’t been beat into the backs of brown people

A tongue that outran colonialism

White assimilation

And the American watering-down of

Every damn thing

You made us speak



Brown skin


Healing is not a certification, it is our inheritance.

Jonel Beavais,
women's fellowship

Creating community is an intentional act. But before we start thinking of what community is for us collectively it is important that we have a clear understanding of what that looks like for us individually.

Aida Cuadrado Bozzo

Cultural Healing Practices: We also see participants bringing forms of healing into the space that are rooted in their own cultural traditions and offered to all. women’s fellowship participant, Jonel Beauvais, a Mohawk woman from the Akwesasne region, carried a medicine bag with her physically and spiritually which she shared generously with her sisters. Whether leading the circle in an ancient chant, a welcoming ceremony (see Edge of the Woods Ceremony in Woc Centering & Healing Practices) or smudging with sacred sage on the beach, Jonel reminded us of our ability to offer ourselves and each other comfort.

Decolonizing a space

There are visual cues associated with co-creating a liberated zone, particularly the element of inviting in spiritual and cultural practices. When we gather in-person, we create a large circle to signal our responsibility to each other and demonstrate we are all both teacher and learner. We decorate the room with fabrics, images, music, plants, books, art, and draw activities from facilitators’ cultures and those of the people in the room to remind us that we have many forms of wisdom available.

Choosing a physical location

Every location in which we gather is carefully chosen. We look for spaces that feel intimate and are close to nature. While we seek spaces that feel like a step away from most of the women's day-to-day environment, we also try to retreat close to a local WoC-led organization (often the workplace of one of the program participants) to connect with and learn from.

Virtual space

Our WoC programs have always included virtual gatherings between physical retreats, but virtual gatherings are currently the only spaces available for building community during the global pandemic. The facilitation team adheres to the same principles of incorporating culturally-rooted music, images, activities and art into our agendas, and whenever possible, we mail items to participants to recreate some of the sensory experiences they might have if we were meeting in-person, such lavender so that we are all smelling something in common or shea butter so we are all experiencing a similar touch.

Real Time Liberation

Now I have 9 women that I can call and I know they’re going to pick up and they’re going to do whatever they can do for me. I mean I just hit Jonel up the other day and she gave me some sage. The first time at the Women’s Gathering, she saged me. And I told her, I felt like-- I said, after I left, I went to another level. And so when we were in Florida, I told her, I said “Jonel, I had a vision.” And she was like, “What?” And I said, “I need you to sage me and it has to be at sunset or sunrise,” because that’s how I saw it in my head. I said, “Because I’m at the point now, it’s time for me to go to another level and you took me to my last level and so I need you to do it for me again so I can go again.” And so we did it at Fort Lauderdale and I recorded it, it was so beautiful. So when we got ready to leave, she said, “I got a gift for you.” She had bought me some sage and she was telling me about this ceremony that they have to do where she’d have to give flesh and she showed me where they cut her arms. On each side of her arms, she has a scar where they cut a piece of meat to sacrifice her skin. And she was like, “We did all that over this sage,” so this is some serious sage that she prayed over and gave part of her flesh for it and she gave it to me. I got a shell to put it in, the whole thing for me to be able to use it whenever I need it. And so the other day, when I saw all of that [previous stressful incident], I felt like I needed to do it so I called her and she was with me. She answered and she was with me. And that’s not something I’m used to. I’m used to being alone.

- women’s fellowship evaluation comment

Accompanying Journaling Prompts & Coloring Pages:

Journaling Prompt: Take a look again at the practices (starting on page 67) that go into creating a liberated zone. Which of these do you feel most comfortable building into the workshop or program you are developing? Where might you need some help?

Coloring Page: Native American dreamcatcher is a talisman of protection and comfort used to protect sleepers from bad dreams.