An Interview Series with Human Performance Specialist Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport
by Dustin Washington
During my 20+ years of anti-racist organizing work, I have often wondered why so many of us who verbalize language of justice and radical social transformation treat ourselves and each other in stunningly inhumane and unjust ways. At times, it has felt like every other day I was bombarded with stories of strife, division and turmoil within the Seattle organizing community. These painful stories would often leave me deeply depressed and wanting to distance myself from the movement.
On a personal level, I felt a deep longing for more purpose and happiness in my life. Indeed, while so much of our organizing work with EPIC and PINW has been around dismantling the prison industrial complex, I felt incarcerated in my own prison cell of past trauma and abuse that I experienced. I could not unlock these chains and release myself from the pain I endured as a child. I’ve received many accolades for the body of anti-racist work I’ve contributed to over the years but deep inside I still felt unfulfilled, numb and emotionally disconnected; and a profound, unrelenting sadness.
“Ego serves as the fundamental barrier to each of us stepping into our fullest sense of power.”
It was this context of deep spiritual malaise that led me into a Life Coaching process with my People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond fellow Core-Trainer and comrade, Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport. Mahdi introduced me to the transforming concept of Ego and how Ego serves as the fundamental barrier to each of us stepping into our fullest sense of power.
Mahdi’s Life Coaching is about lifting us all to our highest self: who we were born to be. Maybe the most damaging aspect of racism is how it’s caused us to fundamentally devalue ourselves and live and relate to each other in ways that are not reflective of our inherent Greatness. Racism has taken us away from our spiritual connection with each other and our higher self.
It’s been said that when we bring individual unhealed pathologies into a collective organizing experience all we can create is a toxic environment. This is not the path we want to be on individually or collectively. Mahdi’s message and life’s work holds understanding for all of us as we move from Ego to Power.
I have been so enormously transformed from my work with Mahdi that I decided to interview him and dig deep into the concept of the ego and how it affects People of Color, Organizers and Activists; how we can identify and move out of ego and into self-healing and true power.
(DW) It is an honor to be able to do this interview with you – especially as a comrade, Brother and mentor. I’m really excited for the world to be able to hear more of your voice, your ideas and your philosophy for how we all can become stronger in ourselves and in our work in the world.
I’ve had the benefit of doing the Life Coaching experience with you and one of the things I’ve heard you mention is seeking to please other people and the desire for people to like you. I’ve heard you talk about that many times in the context of the ego. Could you expand a bit more in terms of how the ego serves as a barrier from us getting what we want?
(BMD) The average person knows little about the ego but it plays a major role in our lives. Carl Jung says: the world will ask you who you are and when you are unable to tell the world who you are the world will proceed to tell you who you are – and who the world tells you you are, becomes your ego.
I simplified the definition… from working with thousands of people from around the country: The ego is who you are trying to be for other people or who you think you should be for other people.
In other words, most of us have spent most of our lives sacrificing our own desires for the idea of trying to fulfill the desires of other people or more importantly, for trying to make other people more comfortable with who we are.
“We are trading being liked for being powerful.”
Now if you think about internalized oppression, inferiority and superiority, those are both two good examples [of ego]. When you look at the manifestations of inferiority those are all the things People of Color are trying to be or think they should be based on the race-based construct in this world. Whites on top and Blacks on the bottom and Blacks doing their best to prove to Whites that we’re good enough!
And the same things would be true for White people who have a sense of superiority in relationship to race and racism. Who they think they should be or are trying to be for other people…based on this “compare and contrast” that racism generates in the world.
So many of us have been trying to be things for other people, consciously and unconsciously, and essentially…we’ve been being led by our ego. Cause our ego is all about pleasing other people, proving something to other people, comparing to other people, competing with other people and…criticizing other people. These are the five habits that the ego brings us all down the road on.
And what happens is when we are led by our ego we are completely outside of our power. There is no power in the ego, only force, because the ego isn’t real.
What would you tell people to begin to do to look at how ego manifests in their lives in ways that keep them from their power and keep them from their authentic self?
A good exercise would be for them to look into their lives and look at all of the promises they’ve made to themselves that they haven’t kept. Or that they failed to keep. I want them to notice the reasons why they’ve failed to keep them.
They didn’t fail to keep them because they were inadequate or they just didn’t have the tools to fulfill their promises. But they will notice that they failed to keep their promises because they were trying to keep other promises to other people which had very little do – almost nothing to do – with what they really wanted for themselves.
If they look at how much time they’ve spent trying to make other people feel comfortable with who they are, then they’ll see why their life is not as powerful as it can be; because they’ve been trying to please people and one of things that you’re going to discover is that it’s impossible to please people.
I want people to look at and notice that pull inside of us to want to be liked and to really examine what’s that about and to see how that desire to be liked is preventing us from being powerful.
We are trading being liked for being powerful. But as soon as you start choosing what you desire and you start committing and being loyal to yourself, what you’re going to see is that there’s power in it. You are developing your power, you’re owning your power and that’s a whole different life than you walking around just trying to please other people.
Mahdi, during our first official session together you asked me how loyal I am to myself and it was a trip for me to not be able to say 100%. Can you talk a little bit in the context of ego about self-loyalty?
This is how the ego works. The ego tells you that you’re not good enough yet. That you need to get your degree first, THEN you can be good enough. And then once you do that, it says, “Well you need a certain amount of money. When you start making this amount of money, you can go be your true self.”
“We are constantly acting as if there’s something else we have to do to qualify for who we are already.”
And [the Ego] keeps coming up with prerequisites for being your authentic self and every time you fall for that trick you are disloyal to yourself.
Cause what you’re doing is buying into more doubt. Every time you buy into some sort of prerequisite that your ego gives you in order to be good enough you’re buying into your own doubt and, in doing that, you’re being disloyal. You’re being disloyal to yourself; you’re being disloyal to your design; you’re going against your own integrity every time you do it.
Mahdi, when I think of our people, Black people, People of Color there is so much pain – so much death – so much violence from racism how does letting go of ego contribute to a liberation from that oppression? And the second question is can you talk about whiteness and internalized superiority and ego?
In terms of internalized superiority for White people: #1, the thing we’ve got to understand is that there is no fulfillment in the ego. So no matter how much you give the ego, it is never going to be happy; it is never going to be fulfilled; it is never going to be satisfied; always going to want more. So just the very nature of what the ego is prevents happiness from happening.
So it creates [for White people] a new level of frustration: “Okay, I have all this stuff. I’m in charge of all this stuff. Yet I’m still not happy; yet I’m still not fulfilled.” [White people] have been socialized to believe and see themselves a certain way and they believe they have to be [perceived] this way or they’re less of a human being … which is all ego.
But there’s a movement happening all around the world of people really wanting to come into their power because we need it now! Because we’ve almost destroyed the planet from us being in ego and not being in our original self.
Now, as it relates to People of Color, this work of disappearing the ego – I shouldn’t say disappearing, I should say outgrowing our ego – is essential to our healing. Inferiority is just the ego on another level. It’s the ego as a victim. It’s the ego as, “I don’t have enough resources.” It’s the ego as, “I’m not good enough.”
“So, as People of Color, our salvation is in outgrowing our ego…Our salvation is in the undoing of the internalized oppression that has been made possible by the ego.”
It’s the same thing. White people struggle with the same thing, secretly – but on different levels. They…have been socialized to believe they are better than people of color. But it’s still all ego; still playing to the same thing: us being small human beings and not going to our greatness.
So, as People of Color, our salvation is in outgrowing our ego. Outgrowing our ego looks like us no longer trying to prove our worth to White people…us no longer marching and protesting. It’s us taking our focus off of White people and putting it in ourselves, our communities, families and vision…creating what we desire for ourselves. It’s us no longer living our lives as if it’s democracy or as if we’re in a beauty contest trying to impress the judges. Our salvation is in the undoing of the internalized oppression that has been made possible by the ego.
Watch for Parts 2 and 3 in the New Woke series with Berwick “Mahdi” Davenport and Dustin Washington: Stepping Into Our Power & Moving From Survival to Beyond
Dustin Washington is the Director of the Community Justice Program with the American Friends Service Committee, Core Trainer with the People’s institute for Survival and Beyond and Clinical Faculty at the School of Public Health at the University of Washington. Dustin’s work centers around developing humanistic, anti-racist leadership across the nation and beyond via the Freedom School and YUIR projects. He is the winner of numerous awards: Faith Action Network Social Justice Award, Fellowships of Reconciliation Martin Luther King Jr. Award and Seattle Human Services Coalition’s Ron Chisolm Anti-racist Leader Award.
Featured image is a cc licensed image via Jason Hunter/Flickr