Starting at the center: A Conversation with Adaku Utah
Adaku Utah, a National Trainer with BOLD, is an award-winning teacher, organizer, healer and ritual artist. Her work centers in movements for radical social change, with a focus on gender, reproductive, race, youth and healing justice. She has been recognized as a 2017 Essence Magazine Woke 100 Change Maker and is a recent recipient of the 2017 Gye Nyame Empowerment Project My Sister’s Keeper Award.
Who Are Your Ancestors?
Adaku grew up in Lagos, Nigeria to Igbo parents who had survived the Biafran War.
My people grew up during a time of deep famine, starvation, and war and had to rely on community organizing, the earth, and the plants and ritual…My mom’s grandmother Rose Madu who raised her was a farmer, healer, witch – a short, stout woman with a lot of fire in her mouth, and such a lover of plants and people. She taught her a lot about plant medicine and my mom taught me. She’s the person who she learned about love from.
How Did Your Healing Work Become Political?
My healing work is part of a long legacy of Nigerian organizing that is committed to shifting violent systemic and generational conditions in order to build more safety, dignity, belonging and trust within us and around us. Healing for me has always been political. I grew up spending time with marxist organizers and farmers making medicine and building campaigns to ensure migrants, poor, and chronically ill folx like myself had access to transformative practices that reignited our intuitive healing capacity and built people’s power.
I learned early that care was commodified based on who is deemed “healthy” and not “healthy” and who is worthy of care based on race, gender, sexuality, disability, immigration and class. Under capitalism, people are considered material goods. My connection and commitment to my people instilled a deep longing to cultivate care that is accessible in multiple ways, restores our communities, and undermines systems of oppression.
Harriet’s Apothecary originally started off as a one-time event in response to the pain and trauma Black Indigenous, and people of color were experiencing at the hands of state sanctioned violence. When we did the work, there was such a resonance. Seven years later, we have grown to a 15 person all Black team that cultivates spaces where our people, locally and internationally, can reconnect, remember, restore their power, aliveness and wholeness. We also work to apply abolitionist and healing justice principles within our movements to grow our individual and collective power and resilience.
How Is Your Practice Evolving in this Challenging Moment?
As a BOLD trainer, organizer and healer, it is my responsibility to grow my level of competence and care to match the scale of interdependence and power I want with Black people…so I have really strong, consistent spiritual practices, meditation practices, and nature practices. Practices that ground me towards my north star and build up my capacity to be in integrity with my Black body and Black people. In this challenging moment, it has been really important for me to slow down to be with the grief of so much loss that I and we are experiencing. Being more congruent with my feelings, leaning in to support, and softening my tendencies towards overfunctioning. Therapy has also been deeply necessary in these times. As someone who constantly holds space for others, having a regular practice and relationships where I can feel held in my sorrow, rage, and grief has been vital.
What Is Your BOLD Story?
I was taking a generative somatics course and [Lisa Thomas Adeyemo] and Alta [Starr] were my first teachers in the field of somatics. When I did the course, I was so moved, transformed, scared, and overwhelmed. And it became clearer to me that I wanted this to be part of my path. And I really wanted mentorship as well. The Ferguson uprising happened and generative somatics organized all Black practitioners to go to Ferguson to support Black organizers. Mawulisa invited me to join the team. The team went with Patrisse [Kahn-Cullors] and that was the first time I met Denise, and I was like who are you? Such a powerhouse who is deeply grounded. I felt instantly moved by her articulation and embodiment of BOLD’s vision and asked how I could be a part of this sacred project. And as Denise Perry so beautifully does for so many of us, she guided me into and through my role as a BOLD teacher and coach.
What Work is Keeping You Grounded?
My organizing work with the National Network of Abortion Funds has been amplified and made more necessary in these times. It feels like I’m in the right spaces to exercise my purpose in this moment of awakening and transformation, and I don’t feel alone. I feel connected, and that’s very fortifying given the incredible amount of loss and isolation we are moving through.
We are working to ensure access to reproductive care and justice…building trustworthy and accountable systems of care that are nimble and adaptive…so that we have something to lean into in times of crisis and devastation.
It has also been a blessing to be home for a whole planting season. This year, part of the local mutual aid organizing work I’ve been doing in Brooklyn has been farming and creating medicine with elders and my neighbours. This practice has deepened my relationship with this land and grown my connection with community.