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CohobaFest Is a Social Justice Psychedelic Therapy Party

July 30 event at the VAPA Center dedicated to arts, community and psychedelic education

Rykia Clark kneels down in the grass beside a large, colorful peace sign
Rykia Clark will moderate a discussion at CohobaFest. (Courtesy of CohobaFest)

“I started peeling back the layers, the labels, the expectations,” says Dominican American psychotherapist and licensed social worker Victor A. Cabral, “until I got to the core of who I was, and … that was love.”  

The quote is from the documentary Transcendence, which explores the reemergence of therapeutic and ceremonial psychedelic medicine through the experiences of  Black people, indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC). The film is a work in progress, produced by Cabral, and a working clip from it will be shown in Charlotte on July 30 at the OBRA Collective gallery within the Visual & Performing Arts (VAPA) Center in Uptown Charlotte. 

The screening is just one part of a party called CohobaFest, a night of arts, community, and psychedelic education hosted by a local nonprofit organization called Cohoba. The organization, which includes licensed clinical social workers, massage therapists, a digital marketer and an art director on its staff, advocates for equitable psychedelic assisted therapy — and you are cordially invited to the party, says Cohoba co-founder, nonprofit manager and licensed clinical social worker (LSCW) Laura Camilo.

“I want people to understand that we exist. It’s our community coming out,” Camilo says. “We want to bring this conversation [about psychedelic therapy] out of the shadows, and we want to highlight the fact that people from different walks of life are partaking in psychedelic experiences.”

To that end, the Transcendence clip screening at Cohoba’s home in the VAPA Center will be followed by a discussion moderated by massage therapist Rykia Clark. Before that, the open house will feature a workshop called The Basics of Herbalism: Teas, Tinctures and Elixirs by herbalist Elena Vargas of Virsiren Herbs.

“[Vargas’] focus is working with Latin women and conditions that are common [with them] like lupus and diabetes,” Camilo says. At the same time, CohobaFest will also host the talents of local BIPOC artists and allies in a psychedelic gallery show, curated by Cohoba’s art director, and Camilo’s husband, Jonathan Camilo. Featured artists include Asia Hanon, Ian Wegener, Yael A. Hernandez, Arthur Brouthers, Tiara Tiana, Megan Gonzalez and more. 

“[The pieces] are very much about celebration, resistance and joy for people of color,” Camilo says. 

Many of the artists also have ties with nonprofit and interdisciplinary Latinx arts group OBRA, which stands for Observe, Bridge, Respond, Art. The festival illustrates the close link between Cohoba and OBRA, who are neighbors at VAPA, Camilo offers.    

“With OBRA’s mission to promote immigrant rights and culture in the art world, and with Cohoba’s mission to bring mental health support to marginalized people, which includes immigrant populations, it was a natural fit to work together,” she says.

This is not your cliché psychedelic party — an opportunity for attendees to microdose mushrooms or nibble on weed edibles. Any information offered in consultations/sessions, or in this case a community celebration, does not encourage or condone the use, purchase, or sale of illicit substances, Camilo emphasizes.

In addition to being a fun and educational experience, CohobaFest is a bit of a family affair. The communal affair wraps up with a performance by Drums 4 Life followed by dancing and mingling to tunes spun by DJ Rio Cruz, a.k.a. Dario De La Cruz, Cohoba co-founder and LCSW Daniel De La Cruz’s cousin.

A social justice and psychedelic education

A Dominican American born in New York, Camilo was raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 6 years old. Her family moved around, landing in Charlotte just in time for her junior year at Myers Park High School. She characterizes her upbringing as slightly sheltered until graduation in 2006, when she became aware of the ongoing plight of the Dreamers — immigrants who arrived in America as youths and qualify for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act — who are consistently and currently under attack by conservative lawmakers and judges.

Attending UNC Charlotte, Camilo interned at the Latin American Coalition. She immersed herself in supporting the immigrant rights movement while earning a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies. Seeing the horrifying results of stripping people of their documentation, Camilo realized she was not cut out to do legal advocacy work. Her attention turned to the community support issues.

She also turned her attention to the world of psychedelics. She enjoyed her first experience with psilocybin mushrooms, but her path soon led to disappointment. She felt the spiritualism of the psychedelic experience was tied to watered down Buddhism or Hinduism — or a hodgepodge of New Age beliefs.

A headshot of Laura Camilo
Laura Camilo, Cohoba co-founder, nonprofit manager and licensed clinical social worker. (Courtesy of CohobaFest)

“I think I wasted a lot of time going to kundalini yoga classes,” Camilo says. Then she discovered that Yogi Bhajan, the founder of kundalini yoga in the west, has been implicated in dozens of sexual assault and harassment claims.

“It was also a very white space, and I didn’t feel the people of color who were there were supported the way they needed to be,” Camilo says. “I started to realize it was a lot of noise. I’d take substances that supposedly dismantle the way that way you think about things, then you end up in a community where all people are repeating the same things anyway.” 

Disappointed and at a low ebb in her life, Camilo fortuitously met fellow Dominican American Daniel De La Cruz at an east Charlotte house party in 2015. At the time, De La Cruz was also at UNC Charlotte working on a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree. He was also interested in the intersection of social justice, equity and power, as well as the burgeoning psychedelic therapy industry. Noting she had already done social justice work, De La Cruz convinced Camilo to return to school to earn an MSW.

At UNC Charlotte, Camilo completed her MSW research capstone, a task akin to a final project, in psychedelic-assisted therapy and potential applications for Charlotte’s Latinx communities. Upon graduation in 2018, she and De La Cruz began talking about founding a nonprofit, one that would combine their interests in social justice and psychedelic therapy.

They started attending conferences that would keep them appraised of national developments in their field, particularly the distinct possibility that the FDA would soon approve the use of MDMA (3,4-Methyl​enedioxy​methamphetamine) for study and clinical therapy.

Making plans for molly

MDMA, known on the street as molly or ecstasy, is not a classic psychedelic, like psilocybin or peyote, that is used ceremonially by indigenous people, but Camilo and De La Cruz focused on MDMA-assisted therapy because it’s slated for legal clearance in June 2023. 

Camilo, who is particularly interested in helping people with PTSD, notes that MDMA is being studied especially for use in treating PTSD. 

MDMA’s effect on any user is that it opens them up to themselves and other people. 

“You peel back layers in a way,” Camilo says. “People with PTSD have trouble allowing themselves to be with traumatic memories. It’s like your whole body is fighting, so that you never have to think about it again.” 

Unfortunately, that’s not how trauma resolves itself. It needs to be seen and examined, Camilo maintains. MDMA allows people to do that for a longer amount of time and in a deeper way.

Camilo and De La Cruz began training with MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), the national organization that has been advocating for research and policy implementation for MDMA therapy since it was founded in 1986 by psychedelic pioneer Rick Doblin. In the meantime, Camilo and De La Cruz also filed their nonprofit paperwork in late 2019. By January 2020, Cohoba had launched, chosen a board and started having board meetings.

Camilo and De La Cruz chose the name Cohoba for their nascent nonprofit because it draws on their Dominican ancestry. Cohoba is the name of a Taino ceremony in Santo Domingo where people inhaled a psychedelic snuff powder. It is posited that DMT (N, N-Dimethyltryptamine) was the psychoactive ingredient in the powder. 

“When you ingest DMT, it slows everything down, and gives you a much longer trip,” Camilo says. She notes there is a Cohoba deity and a Cohoba ritual, but we don’t know exactly what the Taino believed.

Since Cohoba can’t do psychedelic assisted therapies yet, it is focusing on harm reduction.

“When people hear harm reduction they’re thinking about how it applies to alcohol and opiates,” Camilo says. “Any person can go to their qualified therapist and say, ‘I’m planning on going on a cocaine and alcohol binge this weekend, but I don’t want to die. How do I do this?’”

Since abstinence doesn’t work, harm reduction theory allows therapists to give people necessary information so they understand dosage, substances they shouldn’t be taking together, and more. Cohoba is currently applying that model to psychedelics.

“You [also] bring in issues about the law and what happens if a person feels they need to go to the hospital — can you take them to the hospital and not get arrested?” Camilo says.

Psychedelic therapy in color

Cohoba is a by-and-for BIPOC nonprofit, because there’s a deeper understanding between a person of color working with a practitioner of color, Camilo says. “Therapy should be a two-way street, a dynamic of both people opening up. What happens when you add race to that?”

She cites an example that occurred during her MAPS training. A white therapist said that since therapy is an inner-directed experience, externals like race and color shouldn’t be considered important. Black and POC therapists pointed out that race is not an external characteristic in today’s world. It has a profound effect on the way people are treated.

“PTSD can happen from a bad car crash or an abusive relationship,” Camilo says. “ It can also happen from being a person of color in this country.”

To that end, Camilo’s interests go beyond individual therapy. Cohoba’s mission also adopts a community mental health model.

“It [becomes important] when you can start to see more change in populations, particularly with Charlotte,” Camilo says. “We’re still stratified in this city — who lives where and who can access resources.” Resources are often scant when it comes to treating underserved, and often immigrant, communities. 

“We want to raise money so that we can sustain and serve people, particularly those with PTSD,” Camilo says, noting that the cost of a full round of psychedelic therapy sessions for a PTSD patient ranges from $5,000 to $7,000.

Originally, CohobaFest was going to be a more modest community affair, she says. On a training trip to New York in 2018, she and De La Cruz met fellow Dominican American Cabral and learned about his documentary Transcendence. The film follows Cabral and a group of men in his hometown who meet occasionally to trip and discuss their reactions and experiences.

”Then [the film] branches out into the bigger story: The psychedelic renaissance, and how it’s affecting people of color,” Camilo says.

“CohobaFest didn’t start out as a party. The idea was to bring Victor Cabral’s documentary Transcendence, screen it, and get a conversation going,” Camilo says. Instead, CohobaFest is going to be part of the larger documentary. “There will be some filming going on at the fest. It’s all totally meta.”

Then the Cohoba members realized that since they were in an arts building, surrounded by  several creative people, why not utilize the talent and good energy suffusing VAPA? Why not get to know folks in a creative way, and turn a screening into a celebration?

“I want to make cultural events a big part of Cohoba,” says Camilo, who points out that the nonprofit also hosts social and informational Charlotte Psychedelic Society meetings the last Wednesday of every month. “We’re talking mental health and therapy, but it’s a community mental health model that we’re trying to build.”

“We’re talking about trauma and all these very difficult things that people have stacked up against them right now, but celebration can be a huge cornerstone of resistance for marginalized people.”

She repeats a saying she heard and later embraced during her MAPS training: “People say POC means people of color but I like people of celebration.”

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