The Social Justice Artist
For three decades, Rha Goddess has focused her skills as a performance artist and activist on issues of racial equality, electoral politics, assistance for inmates returning to society, and juvenile mental health programs. In 2008, she received the Freedom Flame Award from the National Museum of Voting Rights, in Selma, Alabama. She was invited to the White House in 2009 to initiate a national dialogue on civic participation. Also in 2009, she was appointed as a US Cultural Envoy to Rwanda. Nominated by Eve Ensler, Rha was a finalist in the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World program.
Aliss Terrell: How do you define your work at Move The Crowd?
We are an entrepreneurial training company dedicated to helping people stay true, get paid, and do good. We provide coaching programs, live trainings and online courses that help entrepreneurs find their passion, pursue their purpose, and devise financially profitable strategies that enable them to do the work they love and make a difference in the world.
We lead a nine-month coaching and mentoring training called the True Paid Good Academy and another course for creatives. These are robust, multi-faceted programs with holistic engagement, taking people at different stages of the entrepreneurial cycle, from ideation to strategy, for viability, sustainability, and profitability.
Where do the trainings take place?
We are based in New Jersey and do a significant amount of our programming in the New York Metro area. However, as our movement grows, we also engage with communities in other parts of the country. The True Paid Good Academy is a virtual academy. Eighty-five percent of the programming happens online. Once a year, we hold our True Paid Good Summit in Manhattan, where all of our current members and alumni gather.
Who are Move The Crowd’s entrepreneurs?
They are purpose-driven artists, healers, teachers, leaders and change-makers, people who are deeply passionate about making a difference in the world, and just as adamant about creating sustainable and profitable strategies to do so. They come from all walks of life and operate in various industries. Their products are primarily information- or service-based. All of them see their work as influencing and shifting culture, and we define culture as attitudes, beliefs, perceptions, lexicon and behavior, around any pressing social issue.
What particular projects are these entrepreneurs developing with Move The Crowd?
The entrepreneurs we serve have a wide array of areas and issues. Whether it’s young girls and STEM, gender parity in the boardroom, healing trauma through yoga, transforming implicit bias and mindfulness with physicians, or authentic story telling with the next generation of world leaders, our entrepreneurs’ ultimate aim is to change the way we treat ourselves and each other and to create a world where more people can thrive and prosper.
Examples of our members and alumni include Gabrielle Bernstein, NY Times bestselling author and Oprah-branded Thought Leader; Reshma Saujani, NY Times bestselling author, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code; Claudia Chan, founder and CEO of S.H.E. Summit; Heather Box, founder and CEO of The Million Person Project, to name just a few.
What social issues are you currently focusing on through Move The Crowd?
We are deeply concerned about the current state of leadership, considering the most vulnerable populations and communities within the USA and beyond. We are interested in helping to develop more empowered citizens, people who aspire to make their own brand of contribution and are willing to develop the internal and external capacity necessary to make that contribution. We believe this is where genuine, transformative leadership is headed, back into the hands of everyday people who are passionate about caring for the triple bottom line of: people, planet and profit. To that end, we are also deeply concerned about the state of our economy from the perspective of who gets to thrive and who doesn’t. Our fundamental aim is to help transform the culture of capitalism from its current state to one that is more just, accessible, and sustainable for us all. This is our mandate, one entrepreneur at a time.
What makes Move The Crowd unique?
We’re an entrepreneurial community of practice. Not only are we putting forth principles and ideals, we’re actually creating an environment where the entrepreneurs we work with receive the knowledge and training to achieve their vision, apply what they are learning in community with others who share the same values, and figure out how to live them every day in the context of what they’re building.
Why is this important right now?
I believe we’re moving away from the Age of Celebrity to the Age of the Citizen. “Who am I, what is it I’m here to do in this world? How am I making that contribution in alignment with who I am and why I’m here?” We’re in a moment where many people are searching for that, specifically.
I think in this Age of the Citizen, we’re being invited to stop looking at who’s going to rescue us, who’s going to save us, or who are the special people of the world who are going to get it all done, and asking what’s my part, what’s my role, what am I here to do? How do I facilitate the process that enables me to arrive at my most authentic self and my highest contribution?
We believe that success is about alignment with vision, mission, and purpose. We believe success is a whole-self proposition. To be successful you don’t have to sacrifice parts of yourself. The more healthy and whole we are, aligned with our most authentic selves, the more we’re able to deliver the greatest impact on humanity and our planet.
How did your personal journey lead you to develop the activist/artist/entrepreneur concept at the heart of your work?
My first identity was one of activist. At a very young age, I was aware that some of us were more fortunate than others. My parents were really passionate about community, family, education, and giving back. If you had any opportunity or advantage, you had a responsibility to make a way for other people. That was instilled in all of us, my siblings and myself growing up, and was very much what shaped my own reality. Both my parents were involved in the major organizations and institutions of that time, from the NAACP to the Urban League, really moving the Civil Rights agenda. My mother worked for Operation Push, so I met Jesse Jackson when I was 11 years old. Being active, engaged, and civically aware of the challenges and opportunities that faced our communities, our cities, and nation, was always very much right there for me. I was born into the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Hip Hop movement.
I came to my art kicking and screaming, not intending to be an artist, which is usually not the case. Usually people want nothing more than to do their art and not have to do the other things! But most of the artists I knew growing up were really struggling or crazy or broke, and I was like, “Hmmmm, I don’t think I want to do that.” And then I went through a come-to-Jesus moment with the universe where I was going to do this or I wasn’t going to do much of anything.
Frustrated and impatient with the Civil Rights movement, you turned to Hip Hop in your teens. But when you lost several people close to you everything changed. I understand that’s when you started writing and performing in earnest?
Yes, that was the place where I surrendered to my art. My activist self came along because it was so much of who I already was.
Then the entrepreneur piece came about 12 years ago, when I had finally surrendered to my purpose but couldn’t pay my rent. As much as I know I’m moving the needle on important social issues and believe I’m building global family, if it isn’t economically sustainable, what’s the point? I’m not going to get very far! So, I had to figure the money out. That’s how I came to combine all three parts of my identity—activist, artist, and entrepreneur and it was also my impetus for starting the company.
As a Hip Hop MC, you worked with artists Zulu Nation, The Last Poets, and Chuck D, creating your own label and releasing your solo album Soulah Vibe. In your TEDxBroadStreet talk you tell how you rebelled against the rampant and very lucrative misogyny the genre developed in the 90’s, inventing the term floetry to describe your unique style of rhythm, poetry, and political engagement to “rock the mike, save the hood, and heal the planet.” Did your name emerge from your Hip Hop career?
It synced with my work as an artist, but it’s not just a Hip Hop moniker, it’s part of my spiritual journey. In 1986, I went through a cleansing, fast, and vision quest with an incredible woman by the name of Queen Afua, who’s a holistic healer, working in the toughest communities around the world for the last 40-plus years. In my visioning, channeling, and meditative work, the name Rha Goddess came to me. I was very afraid of it in the beginning. I was like, “Who am I, I can’t hold this, and what is this supposed to mean?” It was revealed to me that my charge was to be a bearer of the light and truth and to hold the space for the highest form of love that there is. So every time I see my name or speak it, it’s a constant reminder of that commitment I made, to live into my purpose every single day in the work that I do.
What do you think we’ve learned as a nation since Trump was elected? Has this changed the focus of your work?
I felt from the very beginning of his presidency that as a company and as a movement, we were going to be very, very busy. What we’ve learned is that this is our nation. If we have a vision for a more united, equitable, peaceful, sustainable world, then we have to show up for it. We can’t rely on somebody else to deliver on that for us. This is our world, this is our watch, bigger than any figurehead, bigger than any one leader. We all have to show up to the party if we want the party to look any different, to deliver on the vision of a world we want to leave to our children.
There is no savior, there is no great rescuer; it’s us.
The other thing is, Trump has given us an opportunity to really deepen and strengthen our commitment to what we say is important and what we say we value. Because of the extremes, more people are being activated and awakening in new ways. They’re looking for guidance to get closer to their truth, their true selves, however they define that.
We’re learning that leadership isn’t just about who can win the contest, but about who can do the job. What does the job of leadership require in terms of an internal capacity for maturity, compassion, and accountability? When that is not present in leadership, what are the ripple effects on society?
I was in Paris when Obama was elected in 2008, as commentators in the usually cynical French media exclaimed that America had “wiped out 400 years of karma in one night,” while others predicted a backlash, which was unthinkable in the euphoria of the moment. Since then, forces more powerful than we knew have come forth to be dealt with. Do you think the election of Trump is a backlash to the Obama presidency?
I see Trump’s election as the last big hiccup of a dying paradigm. I actually call him The Grand Accelerator because he’s providing a quickening energy for us to move through the disparity between our potential and how we are showing up right now. What it’s laying bare is the fundamental wound of humanity we’re being called to heal. We’re being invited to ask how we really want to live, in love or in fear?
As the driving force at the center of the Move The Crowd community, how do you maintain what you call the “human conversation” among the diverse voices in your network?
The human conversation is the only conversation there is. We stand for love and that’s baked into every facet of how we express ourselves. It isn’t just the neat, wonderful words on Move the Crowd’s website, it’s in every interaction we have with the members of our team, every interaction with the entrepreneurs we serve, and with the people who want to work with us. In my mind, it’s the only way you fully align and embody your commitment to what you say you’re about.
As we’ve come into these times, there have been people who have been part of our movement but who have also been enticed into the negative-speak of our current administration. We’ve had to have internal family conversations about that. In other words, if we’re standing for love, that’s a universal commitment That doesn’t mean, “Oh I’m about love if I agree with you. Or I’m about love if you think the things I think.”
Your Move The Crowd staff of coaches is very diverse in terms of race and gender and based in different parts of the country. After the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, you videoed several of your conversations as a team and posted them on YouTube. The series is called “Uncensored Team Transformation.” I was blown away by the way you frame your discussion, not in terms of color or sexual orientation, but viewing racism, intolerance, and privilege as social constructs we all contribute to and must therefore assume responsibility for changing. In the context of our current political polarization it’s very brave. How did this come about?
One of our team members actually lived in Charlottesville, on the street where the driver ran down the protestors. She was deeply affected by what was happening, in her home, in that community, but she had very little capacity and few places where she could talk about it. She was undergoing her own personal awakening around the forces of inequality, what it looked like, what hatred looked like. She had never seen this kind of organized hate and certainly not on her front lawn.
She also had a very deep attachment to the Confederate statues because the dialog around them was an integral part of her upbringing and taught her about the history of this nation. She recognized that she didn’t have a long history of activism as we would have described it and she felt she didn’t have the “right language” to discuss any of these issues or events. So we decided we needed to exchange as a team and kick all these things up. We saw that we were coming from very different places around all of this and we began to have deep internal conversations with our larger community about it. We asked if they would be willing to engage in a transparent process and that was the impetus, to enable us to move from a place of finger pointing to a place of ownership and accountability.
I was at a recent gathering where Brené Brown spoke about her new work in Braving the Wilderness. She shared that one of the hardest issues we’re navigating is the fact that we’ve organized ourselves in very neat little echo chambers of people who think like us and that’s creating deeper entrenchment and polarization. I would agree. It’s easy to dehumanize people who don’t share our opinions and we have to pay super attention to that, right now, as we’re engaging.
How can we heal the divisions in our country? How do you see the way forward?
I think it’s possible and we need to develop new capacities to do it. In other words, we’re all being called, in our citizenship, to a new level of engagement, a new level of being. Our capacity to build bridges and find common ground, even when we disagree, is critical. To be in difficult and challenging dialog, we’ve got to develop deep listening, an ability to love ourselves and care for ourselves in ways that give us more love and compassion for others. Those things are actually deeply connected.
Most people who are not good to other people don’t love themselves. Egoic grandiosity or arrogance is absolutely not love, or self-love. It’s actually quite the opposite.
Our capacity to imagine something different than what we see is also critical. In other words, when we see a world of disruption and chaos, our ability to step above it, to become transcendent and actually say, “Regardless of what my external eyes may be showing me, I know something else is possible, and I’m willing to imagine it. I’m willing to breathe life into it, breathe words into it, breathe actions into it,” as opposed to nurturing our own resignation or allowing our fear and doubt to win the day. We need to connect to one another, to move beyond the silos of isolation. If we develop these new capacities we can heal the divisions.
Can we find common values with people at the opposite extremes of the spectrum?
Yes, I believe there are shared interests. As we get caught in the rhetoric, we may have arguments about how to get there, about what level of priority it should be or is, but we all want a world where our children can be safe. We all want clean water and healthy food. The work we need to do is about re-humanizing ourselves and the other. It’s about healing the perception that anyone is more or less entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of something better, or more or less entitled to clean water and fresh air, the fundamental things necessary for our humanity.
As a lifelong advocate for social justice, what has been your most memorable moment?
I’ve had so many moments, like every day, but I would say a formative moment for me was when Jesse Jackson ran for president, the first time around, back in 1984. My mother was the District Leader for the Rainbow Coalition in Westchester County just outside New York City and I actually ran the voter registration center, at 17 years old. It was a pivotal moment, the first time a black man was running for president. In addition to overseeing all the registrars, I had to do my own voter registration work and I remember one day, in one of the more dangerous housing projects in our community, coming into an apartment, meeting a 92-year old woman, and registering her to vote. She signed her name with an x and her granddaughter had to sign as the witness, underneath her x, underneath her mark. I remember her saying to me, “I never had a reason to want to vote until now.” I’ll never forget it. This woman, at 92, chose to step into her civic rights and felt that she finally had an impetus and an inspiration to do that. What stayed with me was that any time we talk about wanting to lead people somewhere, wanting to invite people somewhere, it always must carry the promise of something better. It’s our job to meet them wherever they are, in whatever shape they’re in. It’s our job to deliver on the promise of something better. That’s what Move The Crowd endeavors to do.
Who and what are your inspirations right now?
I’m inspired by the people we serve, the leaders and entrepreneurs creating innovative solutions every single day to shift culture.
This moment inspires me because as much as we experience the devastation, we’re seeing how people are rising to find each other's humanity, going above and beyond the call of duty to be that bridge. It’s very easy to focus on the tragedy, to get caught in the swirl of the fear, but the truth is that in every one of those moments of deep tragedy, there have been people who rushed in to try to hold those communities, to be part of the solution. Because we have the capacity to be both, because we often are both, our instinct is to move from love, to find each other. Every single moment of every single day that I have the opportunity to be present to that, I’m inspired by it.
And I’m inspired by Oprah's speech at the Golden Globes. It’s rare to watch paradigms shift and movements "tip" in real time. She embodied so much in everything she said and didn't say. I felt my ancestors when she spoke. I saw my Aunt Betty, one of the first black certified NYC Public School Teachers, I saw my mother's mother Ida Mae Fletcher who, with very little education, raised 7 children on her own after losing her husband in a hunting "accident”. I felt Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hammer, Sojourner Truth and Ella Baker raise a glass as they batted their wings sitting up in heaven. I felt it all. AND I saw the clear path to a future so bright, that it became palpable for anyone with a pulse. These moments are rare and should be honored, cherished and elevated as an integral part of our culture. This is what real leadership looks like, this is what a new day for women looks like, this is what a true moment of long overdue recognition for black women looks like. As I relive this moment over and over in my head and heart, probably for years to come, I believe that not only will little girls around the globe sit taller in class now, I believe that each of us will reach a little higher today to touch our dreams.
How do you see 2018?
2017 was year of extremes. It posed an incredible challenge for us to harness and ride the wave of growth and change. I’ve been calling it the beautiful chaos because it was awe inspiring in terms of the more challenging things and the great things that happened. It was both personal and universal.
We got a new president, a new era of twitter/tabloid-dominated leadership, and a new era of activation as millions of women took the streets all over the world in January. We were rocked by the events of Charlottesville, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, and the wrath of Mother Nature. From hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria to the wildfires across Northern California, she let us know that we have to be better stewards to planet earth.
We were deeply inspired by the story of Karen Kline, the anti-bullying school bus monitor who received $700,000 in donations when a cell phone video of her went viral. She’s now become a philanthropist and created her own foundation to stop bullying.
There were incredible moments. I think of Colin Kaepernick and the take-a-knee movement, the tipping point we’re currently experiencing around sexual harassment and the next frontier for gender equality, all the women who have been raising their voices in the #metoo movement, encouraging us to up the ante for our culture, so that women can reclaim their agency in terms of their bodies, minds and spirits. It’s a watershed moment that came about within the span of one year.
I think the energy of 2018 is carrying a much gentler vibe, a year of forward movement, of massive integrity, a year where we trade in the hard edge for a kinder, gentler version of ourselves.
My message for 2018: “Go within, open your heart, and answer the call. ”
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