Shabrae Jackson shares reflections on the importance of movement in Black history, the migrant experience, and her own story
"For my ancestors, bodily movement was a way to exhibit our freedom, to speak out against the oppressive boundaries set by race, class, and gender. From the early days of the Black American Church, dance and movement has been a part of the experience. This is no accident, but by design. This was one space where we could be free, where we could move. The simple act of being able to safely move and express oneself can bring healing and restoration. I’m not sure if our ancestors knew this as they danced during church or out in the fields. But perhaps their own bodies knew what they needed, what was required to shake off their bondage. To endure. To resist. By finding space to move freely they could imagine another life and be reminded that they were not just slaves in the master’s fields. They were human beings made in the image of God; created to breathe and have movement and dignity.” - Shabrae Jackson, Voices Rising
These powerful reflections are from “Black Girls Do” in Voices Rising, written by Shabrae Jackson. Shabrae is the Co-Director of Learning and Collaboration with Servant Partners, and an expressive arts facilitator and trainer with over 25 years of experience walking with diverse communities through peacebuilding, trauma and emotional healing, and urban transformation. Throughout her own story and ministry, she returns to a central theme: movement.
“Movement has always been a part of the Black story,” she said. “We still live in days where movement is very dangerous for Black and brown people, where it’s been controlled and threatened. But it’s also a very comfortable expression of celebration, relaxation, and being with others. Whether forced or chosen, the movement of my ancestors opened up the possibility that I, too, could move to go beyond what was known to me.”
For Shabrae, the forced movement of her ancestors, the Northward movement of her parents in the Great Migration, and her own movements to follow Jesus are all linked together. Originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, Shabrae lived in Mexico City, Mexico for 15 years. As she’s moved, Shabrae has found herself among communities on their own move—migrants and refugees. In 2018, she co-founded UMBRAL with her close friend and colleague Lyd Pensado to accompany organizations, churches, and groups providing arts-based psychosocial trauma support among migrants at the Tijuana and Guatemala-Mexico borders.
“For communities experiencing trauma or difficulty, movement can be very healing,” she said. “Trauma can make us frozen or numb—both physically and emotionally—and when we engage in movement, there’s something that helps to awaken the body, senses, and healing. For migrants and refugees, the journey is often traumatic. Movement is both freeing and constricted. It reminds me of the underground railroad—the high risks in movement, the danger of being harmed, the crossing of lines that you are told you can’t. For people at the border, this is the reality: you can only move so far with these papers—and you may not have a place to return to.”
She continues, “Part of movement is hope–that which keeps you going, the imagination of what awaits you when you’re there. Even if past caravans have turned back, there’s always a sense that things will be different for us. I can only imagine, for my ancestors who had to cross many of those lines, of the hope that carries them.”
“The work of justice and transformation is always an invitation towards movement.
In addition to training humanitarian workers for engaging with migrants, Shabrae co-leads Servant Partners’ Learning and Collaboration efforts. She loves collaborating with people and catalyzing leaders, and facilitating connections in groups. She often uses the arts to engage senses and build towards alternative ways of knowing and being.
“The work of justice and transformation is always an invitation towards movement,” she said. “And not everyone will be comfortable with the moves we make. But each micro-move we make–simply in response to what is emerging or opening up–becomes this larger choreography, a larger move. There’s something prophetic about it.”
You can read more of Shabrae’s story in Servant Partners Press publication Voices Rising at www.servantpartnerspress.org/voicesrising.