Hanifa Nayo Washington’s warm personality, strong vision, and authentic embodiment of her identity quickly become apparent upon meeting her. Even without meeting her, one need not look further than the title she gave herself at Fireside Project to ascertain these qualities: “Cultivator of Beloved Community.”

Like the journeys of many who now work in the psychedelic space, Hanifa’s journey to co-found Fireside Project, the psychedelic peer support line launched in early 2021, has been unique and unanticipated. Nevertheless, there is a curious way in which her many talents and skills, from being an artist to building spiritual community, filter directly into her leadership role at Fireside.

In this interview, Hanifa reflects on key elements of her background and worldview that led her to co-found Fireside, as well as how her understanding of the importance of community informs not only the non-profit support line’s values, but the organization’s very way of being.

Sacred Plants in the Americas II: Global Psychedelic Summit; April 23-25, 2021

Recordings are now available to watch here

Sean Lawlor: How did your interest in working with psychedelics begin?

Hanifa Nayo Washington: My awareness of psychedelics began when I was in college more than 20 years ago. I had my first experiences then, and they were profound. There was no guide, no intention setting, no ceremony. It was purely recreational, and still, I returned to myself and felt alive and playful in ways that I hadn’t before.

About 10 years ago, I came into practice of my own transformational healing process, doing work with plant-based medicine that was not psychedelic in nature, and then moving into more psychedelic usage and practice in community. There was a process of preparing and being in the ceremony, then having integration and growth after ceremony.

For me, psychedelics have been primarily a ceremonial experience and relationship. It is something that I find great refuge in for cleansing and recentering processes that are coupled with a lot of before-care and after-care. The integration of the things that come through or that I release during ceremony has been significant in my ability to be my whole self, to be a leader and a healer. I’ve been doing healing work for many years now as a Reiki Master Practitioner and holding space for people individually and in small groups.

Through my personal work in ceremony, I wanted more people to have access and realization that this was a path toward healing, particularly around childhood trauma, stress, and the impacts of systems of oppression—which I feel is tied up for me personally with trauma. The thing is, with any medicine or any process of healing, you have to be aware that there’s actually harm and pain happening. For a long time, I was unaware of the impacts of the stress from living in a society and world fraught with injustice. What is that doing to how I am thinking and seeing and being in the world, with how I think about and hold myself? How is that impacting my relationships with my family, with my dear ones, with people who I don’t know?

Just because you’ve had a healing experience doesn’t mean that’s going to last forever.

During some of my experiences with psychedelics, particularly with ayahuasca and psilocybin, going through a guided process with some support helped me see where I was holding or tensing in my body, where the pain lives, because I’ve been constantly returning to a society that is sick and broken. It’s important for any healing practices, including those with psychedelics, to have an integration process and community, because you can return to spaces and relationships that cause harm. Just because you’ve had a healing experience doesn’t mean that’s going to last forever.  Learning how to incorporate the learning and to be resilient in a society and in systems that are structured to be dehumanizing and destabilizing has been lifesaving for me, giving me resource and language and the possibility of being able to guide people into a healthy and restorative practice with psychedelics.

So, my experience with psychedelics started as very personal, with my own healing and transformation; quickly learning that that they are wildly impactful for undoing and transmuting the harm. Because it’s the nature of who I am, I wanted to help more people, particularly Black and brown women, to know the beauty and safety that can be found in ceremony with psychedelics. There’s a lot of fear and stigma around psychedelics, so it’s been really important for me to create spaces of healing where integration and community are centered.

SL: I’m hearing that community and relationship is a key part of that integration. That’s something I don’t hear as much in the psychotherapeutic models, where there is a lot of focus on the individual and their relationship with the therapist.

HNW: I’m nothing without community. I grew up in the Baptist Church, in the choir when I was five, doing Sunday school. My grandmother was, and still is, a “mother” of the church, and so I was always there. There was always a sense of people all around the community doing things together, having dinners, supporting each other, so that was baked into me at a very young age. We do things together, share our resources, and share our gifts together. We’re stronger together, and we thrive together.

I have learned that when I try to do things on my own, including healing work or starting a project, it often either fails or I’m super stressed out. I can attest to that in my healing process. For years, I was just alone in my therapy. There was a stigma—you didn’t tell people you were going to therapy. I think now there is understanding that it’s a wonderful thing, but for me, having the support of community is super important.

Indigenous Reciprocity Initiative of the Americas

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My entire psychedelic experience has been completely attached to community. It’s important to have space for one-on-one support and care, but without returning to a community that can also hold you and see you and reflect, there is a lot to be lost.

My entire psychedelic experience has been completely attached to community. It’s important to have space for one-on-one support and care, but without returning to a community that can also hold you and see you and reflect, there is a lot to be lost. Things are different for all people, but I think that, at the very nature of humanity, we are social beings. We are wired to be together, and I have found that to be delightful in my journey so far.

SL: Your position at Fireside Project is the Cultivator of Beloved Community. I’m curious what that role looks like, and also how you came to be a co-founder of Fireside.

HNW: The Cultivator of Beloved Community is the title that I created and gave myself. I am an artist. I’m a musician and a songwriter/singer. I’m also a creative designer, so I have a lot of skill in graphic design and designing space. I am someone who has upwards to ten years of facilitating healing experiences as well as doing work in DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion], so I have a background in organizational development. I’ve started a couple of different non-profits and community-serving organizations, and I can design and build websites; I have a lot of different skills.

In college, my major was communications and Russian and Soviet studies: a fun combo. I’ve always been fascinated with the psychology of how we communicate. Studying media and mass communication was illuminating and fundamental to the development of my worldview. How we gather, why we gather, and how we are while gathering are all super important.

With all that said, I can surmise that I’m a community builder and community connector. I’m a cultural activist as well, combining art and justice work to contribute to my community, to my world, to my people. Everything I do is aligned with those things. It’s about helping people to gather well together. It’s also about creating a space of inclusion, belonging, power-sharing, and joy.

Joshua White and I met at Burning Man in 2019—

SL: Cool! I was there in 2018.

HFW: Awesome! It was my first burn. It was wild. Joshua and I met through mutual friends, we shared contact information, and around this time last year ,we synced up again. He was sharing this beginning idea around this thing that didn’t have a name yet.

One of the practices that I do is being a thought partner. I support people, hold people, and ask the questions that help to propel them forward, that might challenge their assumptions about something. We started to meet every other Sunday or so, and then he invited me to be part of the Advisory Board. Through our meetings, it became obvious we were working together, and there was an invitation for me to be a part of this. I sat down for a minute, I was like, Yeah, this feels really aligned.

I had this desire, what I felt was an assignment, to bring all the things I have done in my life into this emerging psychedelic ecosystem—bringing my understanding of healing work, somatic work, and interpersonal work and combining that with my DEI work to create something new, which I call a Culture of Belonging. It’s not necessarily new, but it comes down to how we want to be together in a different way.

How do we build safety within ourselves? How do we build trust? How do we build the skills and the practices of holding difficult conversations and still be in it with each other? How do we not run away when there is a difference and conflict? How do we see each other? How do we understand and relate to each other? How do I get to actually know who you are?

When I think about belonging, there’s a piece where you make yourself belong, but the system and the people that you are with also have a responsibility to share the power and the space-making so that you feel like you can show up fully without negating their ability to show up fully. It’s very different than a shaming model or a shaming way of being, and what I call the “Skittles Game.” It’s not about the number—though I totally understand that representation matters.

So, I felt excited that this was launching, thinking, “How cool is it to bring my passion for justice and for belonging and for access, particularly to support when people are having a psychedelic experience, when they need to be just seen, or things are difficult and they need grounding?” And the integration piece is massive. You’ve had an experience and you need support unpacking it and understanding it, whether that was last night or five years ago. To know that there’s a place for anybody, regardless of whether they can afford a psychedelic integration coach—that there’s someone that can pick up a phone and say, “I’m here.”

We operate at our core from a Culture of Belonging not because we are seeking to look good or receive validation from our peers in the community, but because it is the way.

That was so inspiring, and so I was like, Yes, I want to do this. I want to bring my skills as a facilitator and a space holder for the outer container, to ensure that what we are doing is imbued completely with these principles of belonging, wholeness, relationship-building, and realness. It goes for everything—how we’re making decisions, how we do our outreach, how we train the volunteers. To know that I can contribute to that in a real way, and that that is happening from the ground up and not out of a reactionary place, but this is actually just the way it is. We operate at our core from a Culture of Belonging not because we are seeking to look good or receive validation from our peers in the community, but because it is the way.

My work as the Cultivator of Beloved Community is about ensuring that we have practices that allow us to power-share and hold each other accountable, practices by which we are hearing from all people, and that there is a process to hold conversations when there may be conflict. Also—thinking about how we are engaging the community—networking and coalition-building with individuals and organizations that have been traditionally excluded and marginalized by systems of oppression, who should know and have access to this service. Building those bridges, those ways in, and ensuring there is a way for all identities, all lived experiences, to be on the volunteer side of things. And also, those folks will have access on the calling and texting side of things.

That’s not something where you just push a button and it’s done. It’s a long process. I definitely intend to continue to lead and to be an example with my co-founders and volunteers. And it’s also everyone’s job, which is something I often say.

At Fireside Project, we are making space to be together collectively as we do the inner work. We’re bringing the inner work into the work.

The other piece is around the inner work. I think the work of the North Star Pledge is really wonderful. I see this piece of the work that I’m doing with Fireside as putting that into action. They talk about commitment to inner work a lot in the North Star Pledge. Often, it’s like, “Well, how do you do that?” Who knows that you’re doing it? How are you being held accountable? At Fireside Project, we are making space to be together collectively as we do the inner work. We’re bringing the inner work into the work.

We hold sessions every other month with volunteers and staff called Culture of Belonging. We go through different exercises and reflective practices together that span across all realms of justice and transformation. We use story-sharing as one of the methodologies for how we talk about these things. We do reflective writing. We listen to different speakers and video clips and have discussions. We introduce them to basic vocabulary building, so that when we say “racism,” “white privilege,” or “the myth of white supremacy,” we all understand what those things mean. It’s a space of reflective listening.

So much of relationship-building is listening, and our society does not teach us how to listen very well. We hear things, and often in our minds we are getting ready to respond, either to outdo someone else or just say something because we feel we need to. There’s a lot of practice of mindfulness, of slowing down, of listening to people sharing the impact of experiences they’ve had due to systems of oppression and violence. In holding this little space, people can keep going deeper and know that it is a safe space where you can have challenging conversations without breaking the relationships and walking away. Cultivating that space inside of the work that we’re doing is part of my role as the Cultivator of Beloved Community at Fireside Project.

SL: You’ve referenced issues around access, which are talked about often in the psychedelic space. What other systems of oppression and harm do you witness playing out in the psychedelic world?

HNW: The ways in which harm is playing out in the psychedelic space are the same ways harm is playing out in the non-psychedelic space.

A few weeks ago, someone published something about the hundred most influential people in psychedelics. An image came with the title, and it had, I don’t even know—12 white men? I didn’t click in to even look at the rest of the list, because I was appalled that in some group of people, there had to be a channel of communication and decision-making that went into that image and that title being spread throughout social media. That that channel existed to think that was okay and real and acceptable? It took a little bit of air out of my lungs.

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I know that people have a long way to go for healing and for being equitable and thoughtful. But as a Black woman stepping into the psychedelic space, it was appalling and disturbing. And it represented this larger issue of the narrative. Who’s controlling the narrative in the psychedelic space? We often use this term, “the psychedelic movement.” But whose movement is it? Who is a part of that movement? What is it moving toward?

People often say, “There’s not enough people of color in the psychedelic space,” and I respond, “Because I don’t think we’re talking about the same things!” When we say “movement,” is that relegated to certain psychedelics getting legalized and decriminalized? Is the movement for psychedelics and plant-based medicines and other substances that create altered mind states to be accessible to all people?

When I think of movements, I think about the Civil Rights Movement, for example. To me, a movement shouldn’t just last forever, and if the psychedelic movement has been going on since… the 60s? The 80s? I’m not sure. But a movement needs to evolve in order to be actualized as a part of society. If a movement lasts forever, it’s not doing very well.

Who controls the narrative? Who gets to say who’s at the top, what the objectives are? That image was a huge indicator of how alive and well inequality is in the psychedelic space.

And then, it was amazing, because three or four days later, a group of people got together who made their own list and image that was truly representative of all types of different people, including Indigenous people. To me, it felt like, “Yes, that is the psychedelic movement that I’m a part of.” This group of people who understand the relics, who have been in the psychedelic movement for a long time, and also see the dangers of the corporate monopoly of psychedelics that’s happening. And so, how do we create and keep an ecosystem of holders who have the intention of respecting these medicines and substances, protecting them and ensuring that access is available to them, and ensuring that the narrative around all of it is reflective of all of those people, and all the people to come?

If you look at who has a voice in the space now, it starts to become the same people, usually white males. I think it’s important for the space to have an identity-diverse group of folks who are holding the narrative, who are changing the narrative, and that the narrative doesn’t center the patriarchy or capitalism, that it doesn’t create duality, but that it is emergent and multi-identity. That’s the movement I am a part of.

Art by Mariom Luna.

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