The website for the Sophia Institute is full of belabored bromides that get harder to decipher as they go on.
The words reveal no guiding doctrine, per se, but there are clues of inclinations toward Eastern religions, meditation, and even yoga in the paragraphs that make up the “About Us” section.
“Sophia works out of a principle of wholeness where the sacredness of the feminine is in unity with the masculine,” the site reads, citing a recurring theme in the ideology of Carolyn Rivers, the 67-year-old founder and director of the Sophia Institute.
Sitting in a conference room in a shared office space downtown, Rivers is soft-spoken yet talkative as she explains that the idea of partnering the masculine with the feminine was partly inspired by Taoism, though she maintains that she respects, and is inspired by, all religions.
“A more enlightened man knows that he carries both a feminine and masculine aspect of his own deeper nature, as a woman does a feminine and masculine aspect too. So that’s that yin and yang symbol,” she says. “You know what I’m talking about?”
Rivers founded the organization in 2001 after leaving a 15-year career at a Chicago-based educational publisher. The original mission of Sophia — promoting an egalitarian society that eschews the current patriarchal mode — hasn’t changed much since the beginning, but the killing of nine black worshippers by a white supremacist at Mother Emanuel in 2015 added a more pronounced racial component to the institute’s lofty goals.
“I was so disturbed by it,” Rivers said. “I could feel that something new was coming for me, a new edge of our vision-mission.”
Thus came the institute’s Social Justice Racial Equity Collaborative in 2016. Its most recent and notable accomplishment was the drafting of a resolution apologizing for Charleston’s role in the slavery apparatus. A committee of Charleston City Council members, city staff, and representatives from the mayor’s office made edits, which did away with much of the history for the sake of brevity.
“What we attempted to do was to not lose that flavor, but to try to condense it as much as we could so that it could be a document that you don’t have to sit down for like you’re reading a novel,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, who helped edit the resolution.
During a council meeting on Juneteenth, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg (who, along with his wife Sandy, is listed as an “engagement partner” in the Collaborative’s website) went over the systematic abuse of African-Americans in the Holy City with tears in his eyes, recounting how the city issued badges to keep track of slaves who were hired out by their owners.
The slavery apology was formally adopted that night. But the narrow vote betrayed the racial divisions that still plague the city, which will celebrate its 350th anniversary next year.
“I can honestly say that I don’t look at my comrades and see color, and I can say that with my heart,” said 23-year-old Councilman Harry Griffin. He dismissed the resolution as “backwards” before voting against it.
These days, the Sophia Institute hosts a wide breadth of vaguely related events that promote Rivers’ interests, including everything from speeches by acupuncturists who want to improve your immune system to “Living Your Truth” events where panelists speak about their experiences with race in Charleston (something a prospective attendee wouldn’t know from reading the website, which describes the talks as “series of conversations with those on the front lines, who bravely and gracefully live the truth of their hearts within their formidable lives.”)
On a crisp Tuesday evening in January, Melissa Maddox-Evans, an attorney with the city’s Housing Authority, and Rev. Bill Stanfield, CEO of the Metanoia Community Development Corporation in North Charleston, had a thoughtful discussion about the history of redlining and unequal lending that has divided neighborhoods along racial lines for decades, and, in turn, furthered the disproportionate policing of African-Americans.
The mixed-race audience of 70 watched as Maddox-Evans, an African-American woman of Caribbean and Latino heritage, and Stanfield, a white man, reckoned with their childhoods.
Maddox-Evans described the culture shock of moving from the Bronx, where schools were predominantly black and Latino, to New Jersey, where she was enrolled in a mostly white private school in which fellow students asked about the texture of her hair and questioned her academic aptitude.
“You tended to always feel like you had to justify your presence because you were there,” she said. “It also introduced me to the aspect that, from this point on, you’re gonna have to justify everything.”
Only two of the 12 board members of the Sophia Institute are black. Five testimonials from white members tout the institute’s transformative power. Write-ups on the website favor flowery affirmations over the uncomfortable truths of racism and white supremacy — an awkward state of affairs for the organization that wrote an apology on behalf of the American port city where 40 percent of enslaved African people were brought to be sold off.
Patricia Williams Lessane, the executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, was one of the institute’s two black board members until recently. She resigned last month to pursue activist work more in line with her vision, she told the City Paper.
“I just feel like black people’s struggle really needs to be led by black people,” she said. “I just have felt like, in the last two years or so, social justice has taken on — it’s like this catchphrase, everything is social justice, and what does that really mean?”
Williams Lessane’s breaking point came when Marianne Williamson, an author and celebrity spiritual advisor who recently announced her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, delivered a speech hosted by the Sophia Institute at Circular Congregational Church as part of her “Love America Tour.” (An event description quotes Martin Luther King Jr. twice, but does little to reveal the point of her talk.) During a Q&A session, a public school teacher stood up and asked what she could do to help students who lag behind and don’t have the necessary resources to catch up.
“Marianne was like, ‘You should run for office!'” Williams Lessane remembered. “There was nothing in what this girl said that even remotely made me think she was fit for office, but it was in that post-#MeToo moment where, if you have a problem, you have a voice, just run for office!”
At a party that night, Williamson admitted that she didn’t know about Gullah culture. She was also unaware of the city’s stark racial inequality, which was studied by the Avery Center and published in a report in 2017.
“She didn’t know there were major disparities in terms of income in Charleston, so why is she some credible person to talk and help Charlestonians get to the next place?” Williams Lessane said.
Williamson later asked her if she had thought about running for office.
“This is all smoke and mirrors,” she added. “There is this elitism, and a lot of times, I sense it from white liberal women. You are going to hijack the work that other people are doing. And you know what? It’s fine, because maybe their cachet is that they’re white and women and can move something forward.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m done.”
Williams Lessane plans on resigning from the city commission in charge of planning the 350th anniversary of Charles Towne Landing, the first permanent English settlement in Carolina. She’s unhappy with the city’s lack of consideration for racially diverse project managers to oversee the celebration.
A city spokesman told CP that the city has received three responses from interested candidates, but that their identities could not be revealed due to procurement policy.
“How can you do that and, at the same time, you got my black behind and all these other black people on the board?” Williams Lessane asked.
Cookie Washington, a local artist and arts advocate, says she’s also taking a break from the Sophia Institute to spend time working on “more inclusive or more uplifting” projects for the black community.
“I think they’re going through some growing pains right now, and when any of us are going through a period of growth, we are not always at our best,” she said of the institute. “But on the other side of that period of growth, I hope they will come out a stronger, better organization with a more focused identity that will serve the Charleston community.”
Washington and Williams Lessane suggested that the institute’s work feels performative, especially since its leadership remains drastically racially unbalanced.
Tara Seabrook says she was one of the few paid employees at the institute in 2018. After spending three months as a coordinator of programs, marketing, and communications, Seabrook says she resigned citing workload and leadership issues.
“It is abundantly clear to me that the culture, work environment, and leadership style of Sophia are incompatible with my need to be aligned with an organization that not only has clarity and conviction about its mission, but tangible ways of achieving and reflecting it,” Seabrook wrote in a resignation letter dated April 12, 2018 and provided to CP.
The Sophia Institute has not confirmed details of Seabrook’s employment or departure.
Seabrook says that Rivers asked about improving outreach to the black community. All of the group’s one-time supporters agreed that the founder’s efforts come from a good place.
Rivers denies hearing any concerns about the institute’s programming.
“Nobody’s told me that,” she said. “I probably need to address that in ways I haven’t thought of, because nobody said, ‘I feel that way,’ to me.”
She doesn’t believe the Sophia Institute to have a race problem, she says.
Gregorie, one of four black City Council members, says he hasn’t heard rumblings of discomfort from anyone in the institute.
“Anyone that says that, to me, doesn’t have a true sense of the commitment that the institute has to attempting to right the wrongs of the past,” he said. “Particularly as it relates to racial parity and equity.”
Councilwoman Carol Jackson, who sits on the institute’s housing affordability committee, says there are parts of its philosophy that she doesn’t agree with. Her Anglican religion is sometimes at odds with the spiritual aspect of Sophia, for example. But race is not something she sees the institute struggling with, she says.
“I don’t think I would be the repository for things like that,” she said. “I really just attach myself for the social justice collaborative.”
The city gave Sophia a $7,500 community assistance grant for 2019. The mayor’s office did not respond to an interview request from CP.
Both council members say they continue to work with the institute to fulfill the promises in the slavery apology. Last month, the City of Charleston announced they will add a “manager of diversity, racial reconciliation, and tolerance” come July. The position stems directly from the language in the apology.
During her interview with CP, Rivers listed African-Americans who work closely with the organization. She’s not opposed to racial parity, but she says it’s difficult to find people who can give up their time to join the volunteer board.
“I don’t know why they would leave,” Rivers said of black members who have chosen to distance themselves. “That’s disappointing. I don’t know how to address it.”