Zoe Helene founded Cosmic Sister, an ecocentric feminist educational advocacy group fiscally sponsored by MAPS. Psychedelic Feminism by Cosmic Sister grants educational advocacy awards to women speakers, writers, and photographers in the psychedelic community in support of women’s voices in the field (and beyond). I talked with Zoe about her background; why the arts and sciences, ecological awareness, feminism, and diversity are so important, and what Cosmic Sister is doing to bring underrepresented voices in the psychedelic space.
Thanks so much for speaking with us, Zoe. I’m a big fan of your work. Can you share a little bit about your background and what led you to this kind of advocacy work?
I was lucky to grow up in an unusually progressive scene—the opposite of mainstream “white bread” culture. I was born in 1964, in the height of the counterculture revolution. That’s the last year of the boomers, so I’m officially on the cusp, which I definitely feel. My father was a science and mathematics teacher who taught gifted performing arts students at the North Carolina School of the Arts, a merit-based conservatory. He was founding faculty, and during that time the campus community was a fabulously diverse and highly creative environment, and my dad’s students were brilliant and talented teenagers who, for me, seemed like adults. They brought me into their circles when it was appropriate. Of course, I never tried psychedelics then (children are by nature psychedelic beings!), but they were all around me in imaginative and (mostly) positive ways. I remember the vibrant creativity, the robust outpouring of love, hope, and coming-togetherness—the divine color and music. And around that time, other important movements against systemic racism and sexism and in defense of precious wildlife and wilderness habitats were emerging. My mother, a ceramic artist, got “woke” early in life. She brought me to marches and included me in adult conversations about these movements, and I was passionately engaged. Every time I see a little girl marching with her mother, I tear up, and when I think back on my first ten years in the United States during that most remarkable breakout era, I realize the experience laid the groundwork for deeply appreciating the value of psychedelics.
The fact that my father taught science to art students was significant, because I was surrounded by master scientists and artists, so I understood that true talent was a prerequisite, but discipline, hard work, and training (not necessarily formal training) were also important if you wanted to consistently excel. That factors into the work I do today. There’s some good science happening with psychedelics, but there is also a lot of great art, and I think far too often, they are arbitrarily separated, with the arts generally being seen as auxiliary entertainment or decoration rather than high forms of exploration and expression of the psychedelic experience. Part of my work is to elevate fine art and high science as allies in equal partnership. One of my messages to the community is that “reductionist” science such as research done in little white rooms with a psychologist holding a clipboard or desk-bound academics writing about other people’s field work, is not actually superior and should not be valued over full-on intentional journeying experiences—preferably in natural environments. Pioneer fields always attract some of our best talents.
My family moved to Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 1974. Most people in the USA had no idea where New Zealand was, and there weren’t many Americans living there at the time. We moved around a lot, and at one point we lived in a coal mining town that was predominantly Māori, and they were not used to having Pākehā (which used to mean “white,” but has evolved to mean any non-Māori New Zealander). We were the odd ones out, and at first, the racism my sisters and I endured was severe. We were teased for being different—brutally, constantly, publicly, and without mercy—until one day one of the most popular Māori boys announced he had a crush on me (which, by the way, was mutual). I’ll never forget the day he turned to me and said, “You look half-cast,” meaning I looked half Māori. Once he embraced me, his entire extended family embraced me, followed by the entire town. And then—they embraced my family. I’m of mixed heritage, but my two sisters inherited more of the Celtic genes on my father’s side, while I take after my mom’s Greek side, so I didn’t look like a typical Pākehā. The experience of being fully welcomed into a tribe and then as honored family after being treated as shunned outcasts was profound, and it set the stage for my work today.
I should also mention that my mother, who was born during the Great Depression, is Greek-American, and back when she was growing up, everybody outside of the community was viewed as “other.” Greeks are very, very tribal people. To give you a perspective, my mother’s parents would refer to my father as a “white boy.” For real. This wasn’t mean-spirited. It was just how they differentiated the “tribes” in the new country because they felt foreign, too, and were trying to find where they belonged…and because, well, because they didn’t know any better. My mother’s parents were good-hearted people who just happened to land in Charlotte, North Carolina. They came to America fleeing war and persecution and ended up opening a now legendary fine dining establishment, The Epicurean, that catered to a wealthy clientele and was held in high esteem, so as a family of immigrants, my mother’s family wound up with some cultural influence. When the mayor asked my grandfather to make a critical business choice to support the civil rights movement, they did the right thing—and it actually made a difference. My papou (grandfather) was especially proud of this and told me the story many times.
So, there was this tribal element to my upbringing on my mother’s side, which helps me understand the work I do today with my husband, ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, with indigenous people in sustainable global plant medicine trade. Identifying as mixed heritage, being born female in a male-dominated culture, being raised progressive in a mostly ultra-conservative state, and being raised agnostic in the Bible Belt meant learning how to find ways to navigate subcultures with respect and love. It was like that with standard mainstream American culture too—I may have lived in a progressive, alternative bubble, and I may have been “white passing” much of the time, but I still had to deal with public school in the South as a kid who many deemed as “not quite white,” so I do carry childhood trauma associated with racism, although clearly not at the same level as some of the boys and girls of color who I played with in school or the Cherokee mountain kids, who also faced hostile prejudice. Racism is a barbaric, antiquated construct that, like sexism, has no place anywhere—let alone in cannabis liberation and the psychedelic renaissance.
Diversity is one of the greatest strengths of our species, and it should be proactively encouraged and celebrated. And by proactively, that means the psychedelic powers that be need to invite more people who identity as other-than-white male to the table. I mean as a priority. And if they don’t want to do this work themselves, they can support projects like Cosmic Sister. There are wonderful people out there who just need to feel welcomed into the community.
All of these experiences put me on the path of exploring the phenomenon of human condition, looking at how we cultivate tribe, develop tradition, create culture, and how the shadow side of these things can bind, blind, and divide us, causing needless human and non-human suffering and destruction. This is what the heart of my work with psychedelics is primarily about.
That’s a fascinating story. Let’s talk about psychedelic feminism. What do you consider it to be, exactly, and how are you putting it into practice?
Psychedelic Feminism by Cosmic Sister is an initiative I created in part to popularize our core educational advocacy work, which is about embracing the power of psychedelics for women’s healing, self-liberation, and empowerment. We’re interested in intentional journeying with psychedelic evolutionary allies from nature—the sacred plants (and fungi)—in a safe, legal set and setting. We co-evolved with these beautiful beings, and they can help us access the wilderness of our psyches, in part to identify, explore, and hopefully heal unhealthy roots of human suffering, such as wounds and disempowering social programming related to being female in a male-dominated society. There is also pain and suffering caused by trauma and grief, which are simply part of human condition. However, females are conditioned to process these sorts of things in unhealthy ways.
Females have been oppressed by an extreme power imbalance for millennia, and this imbalance has warped and continues to warp the way we are evolving as a species. We’re not just carrying trauma from misogynist actions such as rape, but we’re also carrying a multitude of compounded wounds from a steady bombardment of barbaric cultural “norms” dished out to us through systemic sexist messaging in business, politics, education, academia, marketing, entertainment, media—even the arts and sciences. Cosmic Sister is not at all about victim consciousness. We’re about acknowledging that we have been victimized and continue to be victimized by our culture, and that we carry that burden, and that it does damage.
And yes, males are also conditioned and wounded by the patriarchy, so they, too, are victimized by antiquated cultural traditions. I’m very interested in hosting some cannabis talking circles for men, too, following the same structure as the ones I’ve been leading with women only. Quite a few men have expressed keen interest, which is exciting and hopeful.
The hashtag #PsychedelicFeminism is getting popular!
I coined the phrase Psychedelic Feminism and popularized the hashtag #PsychedelicFeminism to empower Cosmic Sister’s mission. That doesn’t mean I created feminism in psychedelics. I just gave it a name—and I’m proud of that. Feminists have been working with psychedelics since the beginning of time. The word feminism wasn’t around back then, but there have always been women struggling with oppressive patriarchal forces and stepping up and speaking out against it.
I’ve put years of work and tens of thousands of personal dollars into popularizing #psychedelicfeminism and #psychedelicfeminist, but of course, nothing can stop someone from using either hashtag. We ask that people credit us as inspiration because acknowledgement matters. It’s not just about ethics, it’s also about respect. People who use Psychedelic Feminism in association with a professional project (their “brand,” essentially) and without a positive reference to us—that’s piracy for profit. Not only is that not in the spirit of Psychedelic Feminism, it also runs counter to the work we are trying to accomplish. We’re super friendly about this, but we’re also empowered, so we will defend our project when pushed.
If you think the hashtag is cool and are inspired to use it because you relate—that’s wonderful. We simply ask you use it with a tip of the hat to #cosmcsister because that supports the work we’re doing for women and shows your appreciation for our contributions to the movement. And It gives you access to audiences we have worked hard to develop.
What are the Psychedelic Feminism projects?
One aspect of Psychedelic Feminism is to promote diversity and gender equality in the psychedelic field. This is going surprisingly well, but we there’s still a lot of work to do. Another dimension of Psychedelic Feminism is to promote individual empowerment and self-realization through intentional work with psychedelic allies from nature in a safe, legal set and setting. Our Psychedelic Feminism educational advocacy grants support this mission in real-world ways, by funding women’s sacred medicine journeys and supporting their voices through grants for public presentations, photography and writing—and most of that writing is on-location immersion journalism, which I’m particularly excited about.
When I talk about feminism in psychedelics, what I’m really getting to is a very basic diversity dimension that we have not yet achieved in the psychedelic community. Humans are diverse in gender and heritage, and that needs to be reflected in the psychedelic community. There is a disproportionate number of silver-haired males (who mostly identify as “cis white”) with stronghold power positions in this movement. Many of those men are loving and extraordinary—I’m married to one of them—and this isn’t at all about dissing or dethroning them. This is about balance. We’re interested in educating ethical leaders in the community about the various forms of sexism we endure, including subtle forms, and how that sexism hurts the movement as well as individuals. We’re also open to confronting sexual misconduct because it’s simply unacceptable in a community of truth-seekers promoting higher consciousness.
We need to continue to foster diversity in order to make positive change happen. I try to diversify speakers and writers in the space with the Psychedelic Feminism grants, which work to include these very important voices. One of my goals is to help more women of color achieve name and face recognition in the psychedelic community. That’s going well. Only a few women who identify as Asian-American have applied for grants, which is a shame, and I’m also trying to make more contact with Indigenous women in the United States. Ladies—please reach out!
I’m also very supportive of good men in the psychedelic space. I’m very strong about that—I don’t think the so-called “rabid feminist” or “toxic feminism” approach is helpful or healthy. Blaming men for everything is sexist, no matter how much of women’s rage is righteous. It’s really important that we discern and welcome males who are our allies and who are interested in learning and growing when it comes to their own gender programming. I’d like to see more men join the conversation about feminism. My focus is on women and Indigenous cultures, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about everyone who falls outside of that group. I’m not looking for matriarchy—that would not be balanced, and it would not be healthy. It’s all about balance and working together and coexisting in exquisite diversity.
We know that gender expression is a spectrum, biologically and from the perspective of manner (how we are taught to speak, sit, walk, etc.). The voices of people who identify as “genderqueer” and non-binary also need to be fostered in the psychedelic community. I support some of this work through Cosmic Sister, and I wish I had the bandwidth to take on more.
Bottom line is, the psychedelic scene is white, cis-gendered male heavy. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with being a white, cis-gendered male, but there is something wrong (or at the very least, unjust and unhealthy) with a long-standing imbalance of power. We can do better, and doing better will be better for everyone.
Diversity is central to all of this. I learned in my permaculture training that nature loves diversity and that diverse ecosystems are far more fertile and resilient than homogenous systems like mono-cropping.
Yes, exactly—diversity is healthy! Nature is diverse, and we are part of nature. So, when we try to make everything the same or similar, or when we start these hierarchies where we judge one type of natural, healthy feature or attribute as more valuable than another, that’s when we begin to fall apart as a species. That’s our lower selves coming out. Our higher selves understand that diversity is an expression of nature’s divine creativity—and as such, should be celebrated and cultivated.
Mainstream American culture tends to homogenize things—and then we spread that homogenized ideal around the world like a psychological pathogen. Mainstream trash consumerism, mainstream processed food and clone-like cookie-cutter concepts of beauty. Even in the natural products industry, natural body care products that appear white rather than their natural color sell better. I think that’s a perfect example of the obsession our culture has with whiteness and homogenizing everything. We’re better than that.
Our psychedelic culture is supposed to be leading in a more enlightened way. Supposedly we’re all about love and higher consciousness. That’s the overarching intention, isn’t it? Isn’t evolution the heart of this movement? And diversity is a basic, fundamental aspect of cultural evolution that we should be fighting for within our community. It’s a celebration, even as pain and suffering needs to be acknowledged. There are real wounds. At least half of the population is forced to live in a world that is abusive towards them, and it’s important to acknowledge that women can’t avoid these “micro aggressions” and that they collect in our psyches like bad juju spirits, adding up to “phantom illness” (illnesses that defy diagnosis yet remain problematic) or symptoms such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, low self-esteem, etc., which can be debilitating. Psychedelics help us release those, but first we need to openly acknowledge these cultural disorders do actual damage. Mainstream culture teaches us to sweep these things under the rug or behind the door—but that’s repression, and repression always catches up with you.
Indeed. Cosmic Sister has a strong ecological basis as well. Can you speak on that and how it ties in to the psychedelic movement?
Nature is the heart of the matter. Human beings are animals. I know that sounds ridiculously simple, but most people don’t think about themselves in that way. I was brought up to consider that fundamental truth on a day-to-day basis. I’ve always loved non-human animals, and I spent a great deal of time in the forests in the USA and in jungles, rivers, estuaries, and remote beaches in New Zealand. I was in nature constantly. Nature rejuvenates and inspires.
Bearing witness to human’s inhumanity towards the miracles of nature and life is heart-breaking. I have faith in our species; I know we are capable of greatness, but I also acknowledge that we are systematically destroying—devouring, raping and pillaging—our own home. Wildlife biologists know that, in almost every case, wild animals only soil their dens when they are sick, cornered, or held captive. It goes against their evolutionary nature. As human beings, we are spoiling our own den, which is the planet Earth. Does that mean we are sick, cornered, and held captive? Some may feel that way. But in the process of destroying ourselves, we are also destroying these other amazing lifeforms that we share the earth with. This saddens me deeply. It also pisses me off.
How does this relate to psychedelics? Simple. If we do not rapidly evolve as a species, we will kill ourselves, along with many (maybe even all) other species. If we do that, we will not just be a failed species, we will also be a horrifying one, as in we are the horror story. As Earth’s apex predators, our responsibility is to steward this planet and ensure that other species don’t just survive but thrive. In my half a century living on this planet, I have not seen anything even remotely close to psychedelics in terms of waking humans up to a healthy self-awareness, which helps us to grow and change—to evolve ethically.
There is nothing more important than environmentalism right now. If we don’t work on it, then it’s game over. I’m a hopeful, optimistic person. I’ve even been accused of being an idealist, and that may well be true. I think psychedelics—and especially psychedelic feminism—can help in a big way, because it’s all about healing, reinventing, and restoring balance.
I couldn’t agree more. Can you share what inspired you to start Cosmic Sister? Was it a psychedelic experience?
I had some major ayahuasca experiences that were part of the genesis of Cosmic Sister. I’ve told this story many times, so I’ll keep it short, but once in a vision I was challenged by a powerful, ancient goddess figure to step up to the plate and do something with the privilege I was born with. My family lived modestly, so my privilege was definitely not coming from money. My privilege is more about having devoted parents and grandparents who consistently encouraged me to follow my dreams and develop my gifts. And yes, I also have relative “white privilege,” which means I felt mostly safe and free in the USA.
In the ayahuasca vision, I realized I had “turned inwards” after surviving three years of sexually motivated psychological harassment by a bitter and controlling graduate school professor. I saw that my creative work, which had been much more public and heavily collaborative, had mostly shifted to working solo or with a single artistic partner in a private studio. I also supported other people’s talents, which isn’t a bad thing, but it was at least in part a way of expressing my own creativity through another because that way I could avoid being targeted by hostiles. That’s not so good.
We know now, with the #metoo movement, that what I survived is a typical thing that happens to females in this male-dominated world (#metoo is also for men who have survived sexual misconduct). It harms us into silence, which is a type of censoring. Finding and freeing your voice is something a lot of women deal with. We often work on that in the maloka with ayahuasca, or in my cannabis talking circles. How do you get to the core of why your voice has been suppressed? How can we get rid of that blockage so we can free that wonderful voice? Every single human voice is unique and matters. We have to free ourselves from social conditioning and trauma to achieve self-liberation and empowerment, and intentional work with sacred plants and fungi can help us do that.
That’s beautiful. How can people get in touch with you or apply for a Cosmic Sister grant?
Women (and men too) are reaching out to me from all over the world, and that is so cool. I love it when I get a new message from somebody saying, “I didn’t even know Psychedelic Feminism existed, that’s so me!” I get mothers and fathers reaching out about their daughters, too, asking for guidance. That’s such an honor. Some of our most generous donations have come from appreciative mothers and fathers.
I’ve made it really easy. Social media is a great way, or use the contact form on Cosmic Sister’s website. I get a lot of grant inquiries, and I don’t want that to stop because I love all of these great people reaching out. However, I can only do what I can do with the money I have. Without donations, it will not grow. MAPS is our fiscal sponsor, for which I’m very grateful, and that means all donations are tax deductible. It does not mean MAPS funds our work. Every little bit helps. If hundreds of people give a little bit, it adds up—and if thousands do, then it really adds up. I hope you will be inspired enough to give a little at least a little, via the cosmicsister.com/support page.
Featured image by Tracey Eller