The Ancestor Project is helping BIPOC reclaim psychedelics

Jon Bregel

Media coverage of psychedelics use in recent years has typically zeroed in on its potential as a Silicon Valley “productivity hack.” Tech bros swear by microdosing psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin to enhance their alertness, creativity, and concentration, the narrative more or less goes, allowing them to work for longer stretches of time. But a class called “Microdosing to Dismantle Your Oppression,” hosted by The Ancestor Project, a Black-led platform for psychedelic education and harm reduction, wants to show people that psychedelics promise so much more.

“We wanted to spin that narrative on its head and talk about the sacred relationship that you can build with a microdosing practice and how you can use it to actually help you deprogram those very colonized, capitalist patriarchal thought patterns of needing to produce and work all of the time,” explains Charlotte James, who co-founded The Ancestor Project with Undrea Wright. Microdosing can help us build self-awareness, as well as connection with our community and environment, she says, enabling us to disrupt these thought patterns.

The class reflects the Baltimore-based Ancestor Project’s belief in the power of psychedelics as they’ve been traditionally used — in sacred ceremonies, often in communities of color — to liberate all oppressed peoples. The platform seeks to shift the narrative of psychedelics as portals to “self-optimization” and “something white boys do to party” to a ceremonial rite of passage that can help you reconnect with your purpose, better positioning you to recognize and dismantle systems of oppression. Through workshops, ceremonies, and other offerings, it creates safe spaces for BIPOC to use psychedelics in order to take control of their own stories.

James and Wright see ancestral practice as a form of harm reduction. “We’re only talking about harm reduction because people are coming to these medicines in ways that are unsafe and unhealthy,” say, by mixing them without intention, or taking them with people they don’t know, Wright tells Mic. But we might not need to have that conversation if they used them as they were originally intended — after doing the inner work to prepare for the experience, as part of a ceremony to support their health and that of their community, under the guidance of an elder.

The Ancestor Project

Learning to use psychedelics as our ancestors used them can be a way to reclaim practices from which systemic racism has excluded us. Although the past few years have seen burgeoning interest in the benefits of psychedelics, “the reality is that our ancestors did the research, have been doing the research for millennia,” James says. “It’s really the process of colonization that comes in and demonizes, then suppresses, then appropriates and capitalizes.”

Indeed, the disproportionate criminalization of Black and brown people for drug use contributes to the stigma against psychedelics in many BIPOC communities. Black Americans are nearly three times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses as their white counterparts, according to the Hamilton Project, even if both groups use and sell drugs at comparable rates. As a result, a wariness toward psychedelics often persists in BIPOC communities, Wright says.

Besides stigma, access also poses a barrier to psychedelics use in these communities. “These medicines in general are accessible to folks who have significant privilege,” Wright says. They tend to gravitate to them for a fun experience, divorced from their cultural and spiritual context. Meanwhile, several biopharmaceutical companies are eager to profit from psychedelic medicine.

James and Wright met through a mutual friend about two years ago. James had worked as a harm reductionist for more than a decade, while Wright had helped with the decriminalization of cannabis and its legalization for medical use in Maryland, according to The Ancestor Project website. James tells Mic that they both recognized the need for safe spaces for integration — that is, processing and gaining insights from psychedelic experiences — for BIPOC, as well as education on the history of psychedelics in their communities as a means to destigmatize these substances.

To this end, The Ancestor Project holds a free, virtual psychedelic integration circle for BIPOC every other week, as well as one-on-one sessions for those who are preparing for a psychedelic experience or want to integrate one they’ve already taken, James says. To help BIPOC feel safe enough to express themselves and be vulnerable in these spaces, Wright explains, the facilitators are BIPOC and have experiences similar to those of the attendees.

These spaces are also mindful of the ongoing trauma that BIPOC experience in addition to the trauma that might have brought them to a psychedelic ceremony in the first place, he adds. Yes, white people and BIPOC alike typically turn to these ceremonies to heal from a past trauma that they can’t stop reliving. But in addition to this trauma, BIPOC live within a structure that continues to oppress and target them, even after the ceremony ends.

“It never stops for people of color,” Wright says. “You really need to create a space so that folks of color feel that they can be nurtured, but there’s some additional care and consideration for those wounds that are constantly being ripped open.”

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For The Ancestor Project, dismantling the stigma around psychedelics in BIPOC communities also involves helping BIPOC reconnect with ancestral psychedelic practices. James tells me about a virtual conversation The Ancestor Project hosted earlier this year with Gabonese elders in the Bwiti tradition, who use the psychedelic plant iboga in their ceremonies. Other offerings include ceremonies that use the legal psychoactive substances Kambo and Rapeh.

"I think this is part of the reason that we focus on the ancestral and Indigenous practice, is to show people truly, these are the places that you come from, and these are the medicine traditions that were practiced in those places," she says.

Destigmatizing psychedelics in this way can allow us BIPOC to fully tap their healing potential. When used with intention, psychedelics can help us to take control of our narratives. “The goal is to live a life of ceremony, so the thoughtfulness, reverence, and respect you bring to ceremony, you bring to your life,” Wright tells Mic. While we still need to navigate an oppressive society, now we can manage it more effectively, without being triggered as easily.

“We have a structure that is constantly telling people of color they’re not good enough, or they’re dangerous, or they’re not lovable, and when you’re listening to that noise, you react to it, you capitulate it, you self-replicate those stories that you have bought into,” Wright says. “Now imagine disconnecting from that narrative and creating your own.”

Learning to craft our own narratives can also help us BIPOC learn to resist the more insidious ones we've internalized. Wright’s mother, for instance, often cautioned against excitement and overconfidence when he was a kid. While this might have been intended as a way to prepare him for a society that would oppress him, it also essentially encouraged him to mute himself.

As more of us get vaccinated, he and James are excited about gathering in-person again. They’re also hyped about the psychedelic anti-racism course they plan to offer in the summer, which includes a workbook on how to build intentions and integrations around dismantling white supremacy and working toward Black liberation. More than a productivity hack, psychedelics can help us imagine a future where all of us are free.