Psychedelics are having a mainstream moment.
They continue to gain a bigger presence in our cultural awareness beyond their druggy stereotype over the last several decades.
Psychedelics also continue to grow as an approach to treating certain mental health conditions leading many people to rethink the role of these drugs from solely being dangerous to possible catalysts of healing.
Over the last several years, studies using psychedelics like Ketamine and MDMA have been released focusing on complex PTSD and depression in individuals who had what was dubbed “treatment resistant.”
The early results and continued results show incredible promise and are beginning to stretch views on the use of psychedelics beyond just party drugs and into powerful and legitimate supports to healing.
So, I started doing my own review of the research to find trusted resources to learn from who also understood the many layers–clinically, socially, economically, and legally–surrounding psychedelics as they gain a more mainstream lens and more people are using them to support their mental wellbeing.
My inquiries led me to today’s incredible and wholehearted Unburdened Leader guest.
Victor Alfonso Cabral is a collaborative and strategic leader who is committed to making an impact on historical inequalities in his community and beyond. Victor serves as the Director of Policy and Regulatory Affairs for Fluence Training, a company that provides evidence-based training in psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic harm reduction and integration services (PHRI) to clinicians across the world. Victor is also a Licensed Social Worker and practicing psychotherapist with training in Internal Family Systems, psychedelic-assisted therapy, and psychedelic harm reduction and integration. He is listed on Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s list of 40 Under 40 Outstanding BIPOC Leaders in Drug Policy in the United States and received the 2022 Emerging Social Work Leader Award from the National Association of Social Workers of Pennsylvania.
Please note: Much of what is discussed is still not legal in most states and studies. This is a conversation and not a blanket permission slip to use these powerful substances without specialized and caring support. Stay curious and discerning.
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Victor Cabral: From a liberation perspective, healing is also about joy, it’s about having fun, it’s about spending time in community, all of these things. And so, some of these medicines are catalysts for those kinds of experiences and are often used in seeking that. And so, again, I’ll go back to harm reduction. I think it’s very important that we’re taking that approach versus, “You shouldn't do that,” especially with college kids. They're gonna end up doing it anyway, and so, how can we provide that support and make sure they're safe.
Rebecca Ching: Psychedelics are having a mainstream moment. They continue to gain a bigger presence in our cultural awareness beyond their druggie stereotype over the last several decades. Psychedelics also continue to grow as an approach to treating certain mental health conditions, leading many people (including myself) to rethink the role of these drugs from solely being dangerous to a possible catalyst for healing.
Now, I still don't know where I land with all this, but I am incredibly curious and cautiously open, and I’ve spent the last handful of years reading, listening, and learning, hearing how psychedelics led to powerful healing experiences and also learning about the harm done with these drugs through cultural appropriation and abuse of ethics and power roles.
So, I’m left with more questions than answers, which led me to do this special Unburdened Leader episode where I explore questions like what else do we need to study as we consider the use of psychedelics, and what support systems need to be in place to support harm reduction, and how can our laws and public policy support this mode of healing so it’s accessible to all and not just those with resources?
Now, and please make sure you're subscribed to The Unburdened Leader so you don't miss an episode. I’d be honored if you rated and reviewed this show and shared it with someone you think might benefit from this episode, and this helps the show reach more people, and your support means the world to me and to my guests.
I'm Rebecca Ching, and you're listening to The Unburdened Leader, the show that goes deep with humans who navigate life’s challenges and lead in their own ways. Our goal is to learn how they address the burdens they carry, how they learn from them and become better and more impactful leaders of themselves and others.
Several years ago, studies using psychedelics like Ketamine and MDMA came to my attention, focusing on complex PTSD and depression with individuals who had been dubbed “treatment-resistant.” The early results and continued results show incredible promise and began to stretch my views on the use of psychedelics beyond just the party drug stereotype and into a powerful and legitimate support to healing.
Now, I continue to be deeply moved hearing testimonies from individuals in these studies sharing their relief from their chronic mental struggles after years, even decades, of struggling to find adequate treatment. My curiosity piqued even further hearing how the integration of Internal Family Systems in these studies showed even more promise in healing potential when used in structured protocols administered in these studies.
Now, I still have parts of me cautious about the normalization of psychedelics after two decades of working with clients who numbed and comforted their trauma and pain through abusing all forms of drugs and alcohol, and I continue to hear about psychedelics being used in ways that do not support healing or harm reduction, but this new research and the growing number of moving testimonials caused me to pause and learn more about psychedelics while also confronting my own beliefs and biases about psychedelics.
Now, I grew up in a home where drugs, alcohol, and tobacco were used and abused, and when I was in middle school and high school, I witnessed friends lose their minds and their bodies abusing psychedelics and other drugs. I also grew up with a heavy dose of eighties pop culture anti-drug PSAs that played on repeat like on MTV and during other youth-favored programs like the infamous commercial, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs,” showing two eggs frying in a frying pan. Some of you may remember this. (I’m dating myself.) And I still remember a particular ABC afterschool special -- if you know, you know -- where a high school student smoked some pot laced with a psychedelic unbeknownst to him, and he ended up hallucinating he could fly, and jumped off the roof where the party was being held to his death. And I cannot forget to mention the failed Just Say No To Drugs campaign also of the eighties era.
Now, the policies and laws implemented during the Just Say No era created a drug-focused political agenda that still impacts many in our country today, particularly those who are Black, brown, and from other marginalized communities. As the legalization of psychedelics gains momentum with a more mainstream lens, many aspects of our culture and public policy are being confronted. Now, I also see schools scrambling in various trainings and graduate programs ramping up their offerings to mental health professionals or practitioners to train future therapists and practitioners to administer these drugs through structured protocols while also many entrepreneurial start-ups are raining millions and millions of dollars as they wait for the laws to catch up with what the research is showing.
So, I started doing my own research to find a trusted resource to learn from and also understand the many layers clinically, socially, economically, spiritually, legally surrounding psychedelics as they gain a more mainstream lens, and more people are using them to support their mental wellbeing. My inquiries paid off and led to today’s incredible and wholehearted Unburdened Leader guest.
Victor Alfonso Cabral is a collaborative and strategic leader who is committed to making an impact on historical inequities in his community and beyond. Victor serves as the director of policy and regulatory affairs for Fluence Training, a company that provides evidence-based training and psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic harm reduction and integration services to clinicians across the globe. Victor is also a licensed clinical social worker and a practicing psychotherapist with training in Internal Family Systems along with psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic harm-reduction and integration. He is listed on the Students for Sensible Drug Policy’s list of “40 Under 40 Outstanding BIPOC Leaders in Drug Policy in the United States” and received the 2022 Emerging Social Work Leader Award from the National Association of Social Workers of Pennsylvania.
Now, pay attention to Victor’s healing journey and how his own personal work fuels his work around psychedelic policy and harm reduction today. Notice how important it was for Victor as he learned more about psychedelics and how this form of healing could help so many in his community, that the more he knew, he needed to be engaged in all levels of community and public policy. And listen for the connection Victor makes with healing, liberation, and joy.
Now, please note, much of what is discussed is still not legal in most states and studies continue. This is a conversation and not a blanket permission slip to use these powerful substances without specialized and caring support. So, please stay curious and discerning. Now, please welcome Victor Alfonso Cabral to The Unburdened Leader podcast.
Victor Cabral: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here, Rebecca.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to this conversation, and I thought it would be good just to start off with just to take me back to what led you to your advocacy and consulting work today that is so focused on psychedelic treatment and policy? How did you get into doing this work?
Victor Cabral: It’s been quite a road. I think it’s been my entire life, my entire life experience that has kind of led me to this work. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant. My mother, her and my father didn't have access to education, came here to try to give me and my siblings a better opportunity. And so, I grew up in poverty, and I grew up just experiencing a lot of trauma and seeing the struggles that my parents had to go through, and so, I’ve always had this kind of inclination towards justice and towards helping others. My mother was always someone who would help other people. I remember she owned a grocery store, and there was a pregnant woman who came there who was experiencing domestic violence, and we brought her home with us for the night, or another woman who lost her husband who lived with us for years, like for a year or two after that happened to her. So, I also observed my mom kind of doing that community work in a way that wasn't recognized at the time or in the way that she was doing it.
And so, my personal experience kind of led me down this path of always caring for others, and then through my own bouts of mental health and being kicked out of school, I was 300 pounds at one point, I found myself kind of on a healing path, and plant medicine was pivotal to my growth and my personal development and just my spirituality and every aspect of me after the first experience I had. And I knew at that moment that this was something that I needed to offer to my community or empower my community to be able to access these medicines.
And so, ever since that first experience for me in 2016, it was really clear that I was going to end up doing this work, and in the meantime, it was about learning and how to navigate the systems, getting my education, and really understanding that in order to make meaningful change in my community, I had to be engaged at all levels (at the community level, at the policy level), and then I had to be kind of engaging with the community in different ways (though art, through education, through all of these different things). And so, that’s kind of what’s led to this really broad focus in the work that I do. I tell people there is a method to the madness, even though it might not seem that way sometimes.
Rebecca Ching: Well, thank you for sharing that, and I’d love to follow up with you talked about getting on your own healing journey. Can you just take me back a little bit to that specifically even pre-your experience with psychedelics, but just what was the turning point for you that led you -- you talked about getting kicked out of school. You talked about not physically being well. What led you to start your own healing journey?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, for me, now that I’m an adult, I'm almost certain that I was gifted and fell through the cracks when I was in school, right?
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Victor Cabral: In high school, etcetera, so I struggled academically up until maybe eighth grade when I started playing sports and found some teachers that could give me some added support. And so, when I went to college, that support wasn't there anymore, right? Those teachers that would support me and would make sure that I was okay, or my parents really didn't have any kind of knowledge about the college system, so they couldn't really help me. And so, at that point in my life, I feel like the pressure of college, the not fitting in there, feeling like I’m a kid from the hood, and so, I don't fit in at home anymore because I’m a college kid, and I don't fit in at college because I’m the kid from the hood. And so, being in that situation, at that point, the trauma that I had experienced, I have an ACES score (an Average Childhood Experience Score) of eight. So, at that point in my life, I feel like those things start to catch up to me.
And so, by the time that I was a senior in college in 2009/2010, I had gone from being a basketball player my entire life to being 300 pounds, having my blood pressure checked on a weekly basis, lost my financial aid due to not making academic progress, and then also lost my apartment. I was evicted due to a situation that occurred with my roommate. So, that completely upended my life, and I felt this pressure of being the one that went to college, the one that’s supposed to succeed, and I had to come back home with my head down, and I got a job at a steel mill as a utility person.
So, I went from being a college kid working at the mall to this really heavy job with swing shifts, and something inside me knew that I just couldn't do that. For me, there was something that I wanted to do that was larger than what I was doing at the time, and that led me to being eventually promoted into the business development office within that company which is what I thought I wanted.
And then about six months into that -- and so, I forgot to mention that throughout that whole time, this was about a two-year period, when I was at my lowest, I decided, “Well, I’m gonna lose weight because that’s the thing that I have control over right now. I can't get back in school right now. All of these other options aren't available to me.” And so, over that period of two years, I lost 120 pounds, and so, that really gave me this sense of purpose and sense that I could devote myself to something or my personal growth and that I could accomplish it.
So, that was my first healing experience in terms of me really focusing on myself, but I got that promotion, and about six months into it, I decided to quit. I just quit my job, and I sold everything that I had, and I moved back into my neighborhood, and I started working as a truancy officer at a charter school, and through those interactions of knocking on kids’ doors and finding out why they weren't going to school, was when I started to see myself reflect in and saying, “Well, that happened to me. I experienced that.” So, I would knock on kids’ doors and find out that they didn't have food to eat or that they had a parent who was struggling with addiction or that they had been bullied severely and were struggling with anxiety or a host of things, and that really inspired me to start doing my own work as well as get deeper into the community work that I was doing. It was a parallel process, so the more that I poured myself into my community, the more that I was able to learn about myself and started therapy, started to do that work with a therapist, and that’s really where I think it started. It was really the youth in my community that inspired me to work on myself.
Rebecca Ching: Wow, that’s powerful. Thank you for sharing that. And so, what was that step from starting therapy to bringing in psychedelics into your own personal healing journey?
Victor Cabral: So, around 2013 is when I started to see a therapist consistently. It was helpful at the time, but I kept feeling like there was something that I wasn't getting to, and eventually, I reached this point -- so, I was diagnosed with adult ADHD, major depression, anxiety, and I was put on, it started with Zoloft and then it was Zoloft and Adderall, and then it was Zoloft, Adderall, and Xanax. And over the course of a year or two, I was on all these different medications trying to get to the root of this weight that I was carrying and realizing that I was going down this rabbit hole with medications that wasn't really working for me.
And so, I really just started to explore what are the different ways that I can get to that place that I’m trying to get to. I didn't really quite know what it was or where or how I was gonna get there, but I remembered a story that a good friend of mine in college told me about his experience with psychedelics (with mushrooms, psilocybin mushrooms). And he was older than me, so when he told me the story, he was talking about a subconscious mind and all of these things, and at the time, I didn't have the maturity level. I was like, “This guy is crazy, but this sounds interesting, so I’m gonna archive his story.”
And so, when I got to that point in my own awareness of needing that deeper healing and starting to learn about mental health and doing that work in my community, that story came back to me. And so, I started to do my research, and I think I might have run across an article or a podcast with Rick Doblin on it at the time, and I spent about six months to a year researching on reading people’s reports of their experiences, reading whatever science was available at the time, and then deciding at that point, after that point, to go ahead with that first experience.
Rebecca Ching: Thank you for that. I want to spend a little time just talking about psychedelics and even the polarities that they bring up. And I know a lot of people, when I talk to them, they think it’s about tripping, whether on their own or at a party or at a rave (this is such a stereotype) or like some hippie commune, you know? [Laughs] But they clearly are, and I’ve been digging in over the last several years, too, seeing how they can be used as a powerful therapeutic tool.
So, I’m curious, how do you help people navigate their assumptions and misconceptions because I know you're having conversations at the government level, of all levels of government (state, local, federal, and now international, too). How do you help people navigate these assumptions and misconceptions around psychedelics?
Victor Cabral: I think it really depends on where people are at with their education around it. I think right now where the general pop culture is around these things, around these medicines and the conversations that are happening, people are at least aware that they have some positive potential, so it makes those conversations a little bit easier. People are a little bit more interested, and you're not preaching about them as much as you are just kind of feeling out where people are with their level of education and meeting them where they're at.
My personal approach in any of the work that I do is usually to really share my personal experience and share what I’ve been able to gain from them, and then pepper that with science and the empirical evidence that we have to support this when we’re talking about legislators or we’re talking about the different levels of government. There’s the education around what these substances are, what the effects are, what the potential is. And then if I’m talking to legislators or decision makers, there’s an economic perspective that you have to also consider when you’re talking about the cost of mental health, etcetera. On a more personal level, when I’m working with folks in the community or maybe I’m working with a client that has questions or who I’m helping integrate, I provide a lot of resources. I try not to do as much storytelling, probably not at all, because it sets expectations for the client that their experience may be the same. So, my role there is really to just make sure to reduce harm (harm reduction), make sure that they’re safe, make sure that they're educated.
But generally, I think these medicines, even in the hippie commune or in the rave or in these other different settings, they can have therapeutic potential. It’s really about people being safe, right, and really making sure that they are approaching these medicines with respect and that they understand the power that they have and that they’re operating from a harm-reduction perspective and that the set and setting, the support is there to ensure the safety. So yeah, it really depends on who I’m talking to, but if I’m in Montana, for example, I’m not gonna go there and talk about decriminalizing all psychedelics, you know?
Versus if I’m in an Oregon or Colorado or California, then I can have different conversations. So, it really depends on -- yeah, I was just in Iceland, and the conversation was sensitive around these topics. So, it really depends on the audience and where they're at.
Rebecca Ching: I’m an eighties kid, so I grew up -- [Laughs] I was like the .0001% of folks when Nancy Reagan said, “Just say no,” that I was like, “Okay,” you know? But I think probably it was my own family of origin, right, where substances were abused immensely, and that was very scary. So, I was the drug of control and perfectionism, right? But I also just really feared what I saw and didn't want to lose my mind because I knew that was, for me, what was helping me get away from what I was seeing at home. And then seeing just what’s happened to some of these kids, set and setting is a big thing, and I’m hearing that a lot around psychedelics and when folks are using them for therapeutic experiences talk about, from a therapeutic perspective, what are some things to think about where this is setting people up for success.
Victor Cabral: Yeah, so, when we think about a harm-reduction perspective, it’s educating folks on how to test the substances that they're gonna be taking, educating folks on how to plan for safety with their friends and the people that they’ll be with, educating folks about not mixing certain substances or maybe alcohol with whatever.
Rebecca Ching: Right.
Victor Cabral: You know, because people are going to do what they're going to do, and so, I think --
Rebecca Ching: Exactly.
Victor Cabral: -- our jobs are really to try to make it as safe as possible. And so, those are the kind of things, the conversations that we have when we’re talking about harm reduction is really educating folks on what can happen here, right, what can go wrong, and how can you set yourself up for the maximum amount of safety in the context in which you plan to engage with these substances.
If that’s a rave, then we’re talking about not mixing certain substances, hydration, having a plan of action with your friends, having a meeting point if you lose each other, all of these things, educating folks on conditions that they might have that don't go well with certain substances so that they understand the risk that they're taking if they choose to engage with those substances. But generally, from a liberation perspective, healing is also about joy. It’s about having fun. It’s about spending time in community, all of these things. And so, some of these medicines are catalysts for those kinds of experiences and are often used in seeking that. And so, I think, again, I’ll go back to harm reduction. I think it’s very important that we’re taking that approach versus, “You shouldn't do that,” because, especially with college kids, they're gonna end up doing it anyway, and so, how can we provide that support and make sure they're safe?
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, that really lands. I mean, I think I’m coming from a perspective -- people are in my office because they had really bad things happen. They weren't engaging with these substances from a harm-reduction perspective, and some really bad things happened. So, I’ve seen a segment of that population. Are there any other red flags around that you worry about when it comes to the use of psychedelics?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, and I also want to acknowledge that there is a potential for things not to go well, right? I think part of the conversation around these medicines is that we’re so excited about the potential and the healing potential that we often don't spend enough time talking about the risks.
And so, I think folks with serious mental health conditions could have adverse effects, could end up having a negative experience, folks who are not in a good state of mind, generally, or have a lot of stress in their lives, folks who don't have support, right? And so, if you have this really opening, healing experience, and then you don't have integration support on the other end of that or you're going back into an environment that’s abusive or dangerous, that can cause significant harm to folks. And so, those are some of the things that are things to consider.
There’s also, if you're someone who’s going and seeking experiences in underground spaces or in ceremonial spaces, then there’s added risk there, too. And even sometimes it even happens with folks that are doing the work above ground, right? But there is a potential for abuse there, and so, there are other red flags with regard to who’s facilitating and where you are and who knows where you are and all of these other things that add to the safety and where there’s also potential harm that could happen.
Rebecca Ching: So, when we’re talking about psychedelics, what is included in that broad term and what is not included when you're talking about psychedelics?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, so, right now, the medicines are -- some people argue this from a mechanism of action, some people argue this point from does the medicine produce a mystical experience or an expansion or an altered consciousness, etcetera, but generally, the medicines that right now are talked about as psychedelics are MDMA, Ketamine, Psilocybin Mushrooms, Dimethyltryptamine or DMT which is an active ingredient in Ayahuasca --
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Victor Cabral: -- Mescaline, which is Peyote, San Pedro, or Watchuma. And LSD is another one.
So generally, I think it depends on which -- if you're talking to the community and what is psychedelics, you get one response. In the medical community, you might get a more -- you have the classic psychedelics which are LSD, Psilocybin, etcetera. Some people refer to it as plant medicine and focus on or don't include the molecules that are developed in a lab. So, there’s a debate and argument happening around that, but generally, medicines that produce that altered state of consciousness that usually could produce a mystical experience is generally what we call psychedelics, and that word psychedelics is mind-revealing, and so, those medicines help us get to that state are usually included within them. It just depends on who you're talking to about it.
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I want to shift the conversation to something that I’ve been thinking a lot about as I’m listening and learning. Now, you're on the frontlines helping decolonize medicine as a whole and therapy, in a time (and I’m seeing this real-time, too) where businesses are gearing up to profit substantially on the business of psychedelics. And I’d love for you to share what are you worrying about when it comes to psychedelics and the potential for cultural appropriation, inequitable enforcement, and unjust distribution of the profits?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, I appreciate the question. So, with regard to cultural appropriation and inequitable distribution and also inequitable enforcement, I think one of the things that I keep in mind is that the psychedelic space (psychedelic medicine or however we want to refer to it) is still being developed and structured and built out within a white supremacist, patriarchal society. And so, it’s not disconnected from the same issues that we see in any other commercial industry or that we see in our government systems, etcetera.
And so, all of those issues that we see everywhere else are also part of psychedelic medicine. And so, we have to be intentional about leaning into those conversations, ensuring that we are making space for diverse voices to be at the table deciding on where this goes.
So, I share all of those concerns, and I also have to do my own internal work to ensure that I’m not perpetuating those things because I am not part of white supremacy and being part of this society is that you also internalize a lot of those things. And so, not only do I have to be -- first and foremost, I have to be accountable myself and doing that work myself to decolonize, and then through being and through action and the way that I show up in these spaces, opening the conversation up for those things to also be happening externally.
My hope, right, what I lean into, is the immense amount of freedom and liberation that I‘ve experienced and that I’ve seen people of color experience in their relationship with these medicines is a different kind of empowerment than what we’ve seen before, and I think it’s that connection to that inner wisdom, for me personally, has changed my relationship to these systems and changed the way in which I engage with them. And so, my hope is that once these medicines are out on the medicalized side, the reality is that folks that can access them are going to want to have community-level infrastructure and they’re gonna create access within their communities.
And so, I think that what we’re seeing in terms of medicalization is the first wave, commercialization is the first wave, that’s going to bring these medicines into public consciousness, and then we’ll see communities saying, “Well, I can't afford $3,000 for that session. How can I create a safe environment in my community and have my community support me in this healing,” which is really at the core of how these medicines have been held by First Peoples of First Nations or Indigenous folks. Many of these medicines (I won’t say all of them) have been held in that way, but we know that the way in which we offer support, the collective community, and that wisdom comes from those lineages have given us a way to engage with these medicines.
And so, that’s where, when I lean into hope, and when I lean into a good future, my hope is that there’s a safe community model for each community to decide how they want to engage with these medicines.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, thank you for that. You mentioned how your healing experience with plant medicine has impacted how you engage with these systems that have burdened us, these cultural burdens. Can you tell me a little bit more about the shifts that you’ve experienced and how you engage with society as a whole as a result of your personal healing?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, so from my very first experience, there was this realization that all of the labels, all of the stereotypes, and all of the burdens that had been fed to me my entire life were not mine to hold, and as I’ve done more healing work and I’ve continued on the spiritual path for the last five or six years, that I’ve gone from knowing these things to maturing and being able to embody and integrate them.
And so, as I’ve grown, I’ve realized that I have power and I have agency and that even the burdens that were handed to me -- which I’m Level One IFS trained, and so, even that, I did my training through Black Therapists Rock -- understanding that even the burdens that I carry with me that were handed down intergenerationally are something that I have a choice over, right? That I can decide when I pick that up or when I want to put it down.
And so, that changed my life completely because I realized that I’m the master of my reality. I am the master of myself, and with that also comes accountability, and it was also looking at myself in the mirror and asking myself, “How am I perpetuating homophobia? How am I perpetuating misogyny?” How am I perpetuating all of these other things that I was screaming and yelling about to everyone else but not looking in the mirror and dealing with myself. And so, really, the freedom has come from me unburdening myself, unburdening my parts, unburdening my soul, my core, and through that, being able to live more authentically and more fully and show up genuinely and demonstrate and model what that healing looks like, at least for me. And before, the narrative that I had for myself was that I was stuck in this system and that there was nothing that I could do about it, that I was just gonna be crushed by it for the rest of my life. The reality is that there’s so much joy, there’s so much happiness to be had, it just depends on where I’m looking and what I value and what I’m putting my energy into.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Victor Cabral: And that’s my personal experience is that life has kind of turned into a video game in some ways where it’s fun, and I’m able to look at what needs to change and what’s not okay, but also I’m able to look at everything that is beautiful and filled with love, and I hug my kids differently, and I kiss my wife differently, and I hug my friends differently. It’s just like a joy and a happiness that I -- you know, even talking about it now, I can feel in my body the energy flowing through.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, it’s coming across our call for sure, too. I’m feeling it, and I’m just imagining you sitting with those who are in positions of power of these institutions, level of government, organizations, education, policy makers, folks in law enforcement. What are you noticing as you are in those conversions and hearing their concerns, their curiosities? How are you showing up in those conversations and what has been impactful in really helping folks who are in positions to continue to perpetuate these burdens or shift it to what are you noticing in those conversations when you're sitting down with them?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, I spent three years in government, and during that time, I learned a lot about how the system is already structured in a way that it doesn't even operate.
Oftentimes, you can put the most progressive, the most forward-thinking, well-intended leader in place, and the system is designed in such a way that it’s a barrier to them actually making the change that they want to make, all right? Everything takes a year and a half or two years. If you want to get funding to a certain community, there are gatekeepers.
Rebecca Ching: Yep.
Victor Cabral: So, there’s all this bureaucracy and red tape. So, in that, what I learned was, okay, so what can I do to navigate around these barriers, and how much can I actually influence the folks that I’m speaking with and that I’m managing or, not managing, but that I’m engaging with. And so, when I show up in these spaces, I educate, I connect, and I try my best to present as much information as I can to get folks to shift their thinking around what’s possible. But really, my passion and my focus is at the community level because if you can collectively change how we relate to the system, then the system is forced to move. And so, I think while I do understand the relevance and the significance of policy and decision makers and being able to influence those conversations, I think that the more important part is in showing that my community is empowered to access their inner healer, to access their inner power, and to understand that their relationship to the system and how, when we shift that as a collective together in community, how, then, the system will respond to us rather than the other way around -- us, you know, screaming at the sky.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs]
Victor Cabral: So, it’s a constant flux between what can be done at this level and then coming back to what matters to me which is people.
Rebecca Ching: I really appreciate that. As somebody who’s worked at all levels of government (local, state, and federal), I hear you on the bureaucracy and the time it takes to maintain how people can burnout for that. But for you, just drilling down and focusing on what does matter. Yeah, the system will have to respond with that collective for sure. I really appreciate that.
I want to switch now to talk about your involvement with the Transcendence project. I’d love for you to tell me what it is and how did it come to fruition. We’ll just start there.
Victor Cabral: So, Esteban Serrano and Eric Blackerby -- Esteban has been at MTV for about 20 years. He’s the creator/producer for Yo! MTV Raps, and I met him when I was at the governor’s office. He and Eric had made a film about the solidarity symbol which is a mural that was painted outside of Philadelphia during the George Floyd protest that went viral. And so, together we worked together on highlighting this project with the first lady’s office, and that eventually snowballed, and it turned into this beautiful establishing the first Racial Day of Healing in Pennsylvania history, and it happened in front of this mural. It was a beautiful thing. And so, I met him at a showing of his film, and right afterwards I said -- I had talked to my friends two weeks before, and I said, “I want to make a movie about the way that we are in relationship as men and how psychedelics have helped us develop that.”
So, I brought that idea up to him, and I was like, “This guy probably thinks I’m crazy,” but eventually, after we did all that beautiful work together, he told me he wanted to make the film.
And so, the film has now evolved, and the name has changed. So, the name is now We Are The Medicine.
Rebecca Ching: Oh!
Victor Cabral: And you can watch the trailer at www.pictureacolorfulworld.com, and it really has evolved to this story that’s exploring the reemergence of psychedelics from the perspective of people of color. And so, it’s exploring the personal stories of myself and my friends that are involved, but also talking to BIPOC researchers, talking to BIPOC and thiogenic practitioners or shamans, talking to folks from all over, the global majority.
And then Deran and I -- Deran Young, who’s a close friend and has been just really supportive and actually introduced me to IFS and all of that beautiful work, she wanted to take a group of therapists back to Africa. And so, in talking with her, and when we started working on this project, it just made sense that we would tie it all together. And so, it’s this beautiful throughline of healing among men, of healers going back and doing deeper healing in the motherland, and in the middle of all that, educating our community through a lens of hip-hop culture. And so, Sway Calloway, who’s a legend, journalist, and in the hip-hop community is the executive producer and has been a tremendous support to the film project, and really, what this is is our attempt at justice and our attempt at having our voices heard as a collective. It’s my baby.
Rebecca Ching: I just saw you take a deep breath right there, almost like you caught your breath. What just happened right now? And look, you're smiling so big, too!
Victor Cabral: Yeah, I was just thinking about how far-fetched of an idea this was --
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Victor Cabral: -- in March when we started filming and coming back from Iceland and having the film team there with me and talking to Rick Doblin on camera and Danielle Schlosser who was at Compass until recently, and then having them capture the beautiful scenery in Iceland, and that all being part of the film, and celebrities lending their voices to it, and it’s just like a dream unfolding before all of our eyes. None of us thought that -- I didn't think this was actually gonna happen until it started happening. So, maybe some overwhelm from excitement knowing what’s coming. We have a new sizzle reel that we’re working on that’s gonna be released soon and a fundraising event. So, if you go to the website www.pictureacolorfulworld.com, you can subscribe there, and as those announcements happen, then we’ll send that out. But there’s so much. We have footage from celebrities that have lent their voices to this, a BIPOC dinner that we had in New York City, Iceland, and it’s just gonna be a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Rebecca Ching: I can't wait to see it, and when I was prepping for our conversation, I did watch yours and Deran’s interview on the Sway show, and Deran, who’s a friend of the podcast and a colleague of mine in the IFS space -- when I was watching the interview, one thing stood out to me is there was this sense of trepidation with both you and Deran. And so, I see the excitement now, but even in that conversation, there was this sense of concern, of vulnerability around this message you’re putting out there becoming so public and so seen.
Can you walk me through what’s going through your mind as you prepare for this in that sense, too, as you prepare for this project to be released to the world?
Victor Cabral: Yeah, I know exactly what you're talking about because I remember the feeling of going up to Sway and understanding the level of responsibility that came with that moment for me and for Deran and the way in which we were gonna bring this conversation to the forefront. And for me, personally, it was the fear, at that time, was am I doing the right thing, and what are the potential implications of what I’m sharing, and is my community going to be safe, and am I communicating in a responsible manner about these things? And I think since then, I feel a lot more confident. I have a lot more community. There are a lot more resources out there. I have The Fireside Project (www.firesideproject.org), which is a beautiful organization that offers integration services and support services for folks, and they also offer affinity support. So, if you're a veteran, if you're part of the LGBTQ+ community, or if you're a person of color, you can request that kind of support when you call or text, and they’ll try to pair you with a peer.
So, since then, there’s been a lot of personal learning. There’s been a lot of clarity around what my responsibility is in messaging. Really, what I feel that my responsibility is is to educate and to empower, not to preach, not to tell everyone that they should try, but to give people a good education about what these medicines are, what their history is, where they come from, their potential, and how they can get involved.
Rebecca Ching: Mm-hmm.
Victor Cabral: And so, I don't feel the fear that I did in the beginning. I think I’ve grown into the work that I’m doing.
In terms of being vulnerable with my own story, I don't feel a lot of fear around that anymore as well. I feel pretty rooted in the community that’s around me -- Black Therapists Rock and just people around me. And when I think about the fear that I have around this coming out and being exposed to the world, it’s just really making sure that the folks that choose to be part of this film or tell their stories on this film, that they're protected, that they're safe, and that any communities that we decide to engage with throughout the process, ensuring that there’s reciprocity and respect there and that we’re also not perpetuating white supremacy and appropriation and those other things.
Rebecca Ching: And so, just another quick follow-up on that, then, too, thinking you’ve got different organizations. You mentioned The Fireside, which is more making sure there’s support for the integration experience. So, there’s one thing to use psychedelics, but to really have the work metabolize. [Laughs] It’s important to do that integration piece and to be held. It seems like there’s still a significant gap in these drugs being understood, these medicines being understood, and they’re still not legal in most places, too. [Laughs]
Victor Cabral: Yeah.
Rebecca Ching: So, just want to know if you can speak to that as this film is getting ready to go out into the world and there’s still this disparity and real issue around legality and how that’s enforced.
Victor Cabral: So, my main job right now, my full-time job, is I work as a director of policy and regulatory affairs for Fluence Training, and our focus is to educate licensed professionals and graduate students on psychedelic-assisted therapy and psychedelic harm reduction and integration, which is harm reduction and integration are at the core of every single class, program that we offer, etcetera.
But one of the things that I’ve enjoyed in being in that position is, not only do I get to engage in building curriculum and mentoring students, but the policy piece also allows me to offer these states or at the federal level or local level that education and get involved in those conversations. So, I know from larger conversations that there are efforts to educate state governments, to educate EMS, to educate local law enforcement. And so, there are different organizations, larger organizations like MAPS like some of the other organizations at the forefront are thinking about these things and trying to do that work.
And with regard to this film, that’s part of our goal is to provide that education about what these medicines are and the safety and all of those things because this is coming already, right? And so, once it gets medicalized and legalized, maybe in 50 states, right -- let’s say MDMA is legalized now. It’s FDA approved, it’s rescheduled, and you're telling folks that they can heal their PTSD (because they can, right) through the therapeutic use of MDMA, that’s going to increase use, that’s going to increase the questions people have about these substances. It’s going to increase the demand, the supply. So, I think the film coming out is an opportunity to get ahead of those things and provide that education and the harm reduction in a responsible way because the frame is moving and it’s coming, and so, how can we insert ourselves and educate our communities, which are often not in the hearts and minds of large billion-dollar corporations?
Rebecca Ching: One hundred percent. Thank you for that, and we’ll make sure to put links to all the resources that you’ve listed in the show notes.
I want to talk to you about success, and it’s such a big word, and it’s an interesting construct on its own, but in light of everything you just shared, too, I’m curious what success looks like for you today and how is it different from what you were taught?
Victor Cabral: It’s completely different. Yeah, when I was growing up, I’m a first-generation immigrant, so that American Dream of, “Get an education. Get a house” -- and, for me, as a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic, it’s like, “Get an education, get a house, make money, and then take care of your family,” which we know is increasingly harder now, right, to do. The American Dream is not real. And so, I very quickly learned as I ascended through different points in my career, that once I would get to these places, what I thought was the mirage that I thought was happiness that was gonna be there or whatever it is that I was reaching for wasn't there. And I talked earlier about my spiritual journey and my healing journey, and part of that has been to recognize that there’s nothing outside of myself and the people that I love that are around me and the people I care about and the communities that I work for. There’s nothing outside of that that’s gonna bring me any happiness.
And so, success, for me, is to continue to be liberated and continue to be me, and to create a space in the world and create a life where I can be my fullest authentic self, and where I can make sure that my family’s safe and taken care of, where I’m doing meaningful work and serving others and serving my community in meaningful ways.
That is success, to me. That’s a successful life, that I know that I can go to my death bed and be proud of who I was as a human being, and that I left a legacy of service and love and authenticity. And, you know, just to my kids, right? That they are able to look at their dad, at their father, and say, “My father was a good human being, and he did everything that he could to make the world a better place.” Do I still have to pay my mortgage? Yes, you know? But that’s not really what gets me up every day, and so, success is completely different for me now. Success is me living in joy and ease and service.
Rebecca Ching: Mm, I feel that. [Sighs] Thank you for this conversation. I want to wrap up with just some quick-fire questions if you're ready for them. What are you reading right now, Victor?
Victor Cabral: Right now, I am reading Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Maree Brown.
Rebecca Ching: Oh. Such a --
Victor Cabral: It’s given --
Rebecca Ching: It’s so good.
Victor Cabral: I feel like I found my person that gets me.
Rebecca Ching: Yeah, she’s got a great book that she wrote with Sonya Renee Taylor just even on your relationship with your body, too, but that book is one you almost have to -- for me, I’m gonna have to reread on repeat. It’s not a one and done.
What song are you playing on repeat right now?
Victor Cabral: “Changes” by 2Pac.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] What is the best TV show or movie you’ve seen recently?
Victor Cabral: Atlanta season two. Donald Glover.
Rebecca Ching: This might be hit or miss -- I’m a big eighties person -- do you have a favorite eighties movie or piece of eighties pop culture that you love?
Victor Cabral: Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee.
Rebecca Ching: [Laughs] What is your mantra right now?
Victor Cabral: Carry water, chop wood.
Rebecca Ching: Ooh. What is an unpopular opinion you hold?
Victor Cabral: Pineapple definitely belongs on pizza.
Rebecca Ching: Oh, dude.
Victor Cabral: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: All right. [Laughs] It’s such a polarizing topic. [Laughs]
Victor Cabral: [Laughs]
Rebecca Ching: Who or what inspires you to be a better leader and human?
Victor Cabral: My children.
Rebecca Ching: Mm.
Victor Cabral: Yeah, in all of my healing work that I’ve done, the thing that has been the most hard to face is the ways in which I have -- the work that I need to do as a father and as a husband is usually at the core of what comes up for me. Yeah, my children absolutely are the thing that inspires me the most.
Rebecca Ching: Amen to that. Victor, where can people find you if they want to connect with you and your work?
Victor Cabral: So, the best place to connect with me is either on LinkedIn, Victor Alfonso Cabral. You can find me there. I’m really active. And then the other place is my Instagram account. So, it’s @awondrousmind. And I’m also very active on there. I'm still working on a website, and to be quite honest, I have, like, a thousand things going on, so it’s on the backburner, but I’m usually very active on Instagram, and I post a lot about dates and just try to post inspirational things for folks.
Rebecca Ching: When is We Are The Medicine gonna be open to the world or when will we be able to watch it? Do you have a set date yet or a date-ish?
Victor Cabral: So, one of the things that we decided when we started this project was that we weren't gonna sell it to a studio. I think, at this point, we probably have enough footage to be able to do that if we wanted to, but we wanted to really own the story.
And so, we’re still in the fundraising for pre-production, and so, we don't have a set date for when the movie’s gonna come out. Right now, we’re just working on fundraising. And so, a lot of what you’ll see come out over the next few months is, really, the footage that we’ve gathered to garner more support and be able to fund the budget for the film and be able to make it.
Rebecca Ching: And are we able to donate now towards that fundraising at www.wearethemedicine.com? Is that where we can be a part of that if we wanted to?
Victor Cabral: The website is www.pictureacolorfulworld.com. You can donate. The trailer is there. The old trailer that still says Transcendence. And then there’s also a mailing list that you can subscribe to. And so, in the coming weeks, there’s gonna be a lot of updates and a lot of stuff happening. So, you definitely want to subscribe, so when the new trailer comes out with all the beautiful scenery from Iceland, you get to see it.
Rebecca Ching: I saw some of what you posted on Instagram, and it was amazing. I can't wait! Victor, this was an honor, and I cannot wait to see the fruits of all the things that you have been doing, how they’re gonna benefit the world, but also as you continue to grow into your own leadership. It’s been a real honor to have this conversation with you today. So, thank you so much!
Victor Cabral: Thank you for the invitation. It was great talking!
Rebecca Ching: Before you go, let’s take a moment to reflect on what you heard and learned from Victor today. While the legal use of psychedelics is far from expansive, and further study of psychedelics is happening and will continue, we still need to be cautious about who we listen to and learn from on this topic. With so much money to be made and the ability for so much harm to be done, when in such a vulnerable state, we must proceed with caution and open curiosity, yet we have to note that the potential to help and heal so many is so promising and exciting.
I cannot underestimate the gift of this conversation today. No matter where you land on the use of psychedelics, Victor leads with such heart and consistency, and it stands out in our noisy world. He walked us through his own personal journey with psychedelics and his own approach to psychedelic-assisted therapy and harm reduction. So, I’m curious. What stigmas and stereotypes around psychedelics were confronted in you by this conversation? What surprised you as you listened and learned from Victor? And what questions remain unanswered, and what do you need to learn more about psychedelics as a mode for healing?
Now, Victor reminded us the powerful connection between healing, liberation, and joy, and he also showed us the power of doing our own healing and how that can inspire our life’s work, and this is the work of an Unburdened Leader.
Thank you so much for joining this special episode of The Unburdened Leader. If you love this, I’d be honored if you could rank it, rate it, and send it to someone who you think may benefit from it, and you can find this episode, show notes, free Unburdened Leader resources, and ways to sign up for our weekly Unburdened Leader email at www.rebeccaching.com.