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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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Chasejamison Manar-Spears in Ghana. (Mural by Sage Art) Chasejamison Manar-Spears in Ghana. (Mural by Sage Art)

Seven Generations Into the Future

Chasejamison Manar-Spears, SDSU’s Zahn Spirit of Innovation award recipient for 2020, spent a transformational year in Ghana.
By Jeff Ristine

“I think there’s just something magical about Ghana...and the creative community there inspired me beyond words.”

Ghana seemed to offer everything Chasejamison Akilah Manar-Spears needed to clear her mind and break away from the San Diego State University campus for a while.

And it did. As she connected with her roots, she developed a commitment to environmental and social justice that helped lead to her selection as SDSU’s Zahn Spirit of Innovation award recipient for 2020. Its effect on her life, however, is just beginning.

Raised in Oakland, granddaughter of a Black Panther, the Class of 2020 graduate recognizes Africa as her ancestral land. Ghana is where famed sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, whom Manar-Spears greatly admires, decided to live out his life after a visit, determined to contribute to the pan-Africanism movement.

“I really wanted to be, for the first time in my life, in a space where everybody around me was black,” she said after returning home to celebrate completion of her bachelor’s degree. “I needed it. I craved it.”

Ghana also is the birthplace of sankofa, a symbol for taking knowledge from the past and bringing it to the present for progress, a concept she learned of in a freshman Africana Studies class taught by Bonnie Reddick. “Sankofa means you’re supposed to go back and get the things that you’ve lost,” Manar-Spears said.

So with the help of SDSU’s International Programs, Manar-Spears (who also goes by just CJ), decided to spend a full year in the west African nation of 30 million, located just north of the equator.

She studied in the coastal city of Accra, at the University of Ghana, where she, a group of other California State University students studying abroad, and community leaders created Roots Collective, a worker-owned co-operative which sells consumer products repurposed from plastic waste.

Innovation award

Funded by Irwin Zahn and the Moxie Foundation, the Zahn Spirit of Innovation award recognizes a graduating senior who has shown exceptional entrepreneurial achievement as an undergraduate. The award is now in its fifth year and comes with a $25,000 scholarship.

Manar-Spears was nominated by Lisa Gates, director and adviser for the leadership minor in the School of Education who was impressed by Roots Collective, her capstone project for the minor.

“Chase is an extraordinary student,” Gates wrote when the award was announced.

Roots Collective was inspired by plastic waste found at Ghana beaches. There’s a lot of it: Ghana tap water is not potable, so drinking water is sold in plastic bottles and sachets. Drainage systems carry some of the discards to the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic Ocean.

“A bunch of us international students just started doing beach cleanups,” Manar-Spears said. “Each time, a lot of us got more and more frustrated.”

After an All-African Peoples’ Conference, hosted at the University of Ghana, she began thinking about the relationship between colonialism, capitalism, and waste.

“I started to gain this just very ancestral centricity in myself and the shoulders that I stand on, to even have the privilege to travel to Ghana while in university. I was thinking about the next seven generations and the future,” she said, using a time reference that’s common to discussions of sustainability, “and what am I going to do with this knowledge.”

Roots Collective’s upcycled products include backpacks, caps, wallets and purses. (Its webpage is under revision; an Instagram page can be found here.)

Manar-Spears described Ghana as a spiritual experience, deepening her sense of self, of the world and of others.

“It was a very beautiful place,” she said. “Not only in the sense of so naturally green and vibrant and lush, it’s that you know God is real when you look at the trees and all the shades of green. Also, in the sense of community and creativity, and it’s so connected to my history, my lineage as a black person.”

“I think there’s just something magical about Ghana...and the creative community there inspired me beyond words.”

It was hard to come back, Manar-Spears said.

So she has decided to return, sometime later this year, possibly with one or more of the co-founders of Roots Collective.

Not for a vacation, and not for a year, but for good. “The ticket is a one-way ticket,” she said. “I plan to raise my children and die on the continent of Africa.”

The hope is for the group to become a self-sustaining organization in Ghana. She’s taking a business course over the summer and getting advice from a wide variety of sources including East Oakland’s Black Cultural Zone, where her mother serves as director, SDSU’s Black Resource Center and Black Voices United, a San Diego community group.

It comes back to sankofa, she explained, and its symbol of a bird looking backward, an egg on its back.

“That’s what it’s all about. It’s about going back and looking at that seed inside of you,” she said. “That thing you need the most, that you lost.”