Words do not come easy for me. I am inspired to write only when I have something to say that goes beyond what I have seen published or posted. That doesn’t happen often. And it happened less this year than usual. I write today for two reasons. First, this post is something of a diary entry, a way to track where I’ve been in 2018. Secondly, some have expressed interest in hearing how I work through my life choices around anti-racism and activism. So, this is also for those who are curious about how I’ve allocated my time and attention this year.
I’ll begin with the most profound. This process is one that increasingly drew me in, month by month, until it has become a weekly, ongoing commitment. My dog Ally and I take about half of a day each weekend to visit an elder activist named Ariana, who is currently living in a health care center. (We’ve actually been visiting her for over 3 years, but visits were sporadic for the first two years, with the time commitment increasing radically in 2018.)
Ariana’s current medical challenges leave her without the ability to turn herself over, leave her bed, access the internet, or even read a printed book or magazine. While her body is exceedingly weak, her mind is strong. After 50 years of activism, her identity is inextricably tied to her ability to take action, to make a difference. This means that she has been questioning her worth since her contributions are now limited to sharing her perspective and stories.
I envision my own future when I look at her. Neither of us have children. I admit that my belief in karma likely played a strong early role in my motivation to begin making visits. (I pray someone will care about me enough to take time out of their busy life someday.) The motivation for the visits has shifted markedly from those earlier days, however. I benefit from the wisdom this elder has to share and she benefits from the sharing. I relish our visits, and we have come to love one another.
Ariana also loves my dog, Ally. One of her greatest joys is when Ally jumps onto her bed and licks her face when we arrive. (Watching this exchange has become one of my favorite moments of the week as well.) Ally lays by her side for a couple of hours while Ariana and I talk about our lives, justice, activism, the movements in the world, and the audiobooks I ensure she has access to each week.
I write all of this not to elicit kudos. Quite the contrary. I feel prompted to share this because of how much I struggled to embrace this commitment of time and energy. For months, a gnawing voice in the back of my mind critiqued this allocation of time because this elder is white, someone I met through AWARE-LA. I questioned myself, internally telling myself that I should, instead, be spending time supporting people of color more directly. I spent months justifying my visits as being a valid use of time (from a justice perspective) because it is in service of allyship to LGBTQ folks, as this is an element of our social identities where we differ.
I am not proud of these mental gymnastics. In fact, I consider this to be an upsetting indication of how deep white supremacy culture continues to live within me. It undermines my experience of community as it eviscerates the value of simply providing comfort to another human being. It causes me to fail to see the humanity in front of me for the sake of ensuring that every move I make hits some proscribed mark of white anti-racist solidarity partnership.
This is all the more infuriating because of how much this elder has helped me work through my own questions and concerns over this last year. One of the most pronounced has been noticing that many in my activist community have taken on stances that I experience as increasingly radical. It’s been a struggle to keep up with the analysis underlying their positions. I’ve had to push myself to engage more fully to keep learning, growing, and staying connected.
What I realized is that if I am having trouble staying fully on board, it’s likely that others who are new to anti-racism might also struggle and may need some bridging support. So, I spent a significant amount of time this year reading, working on a sermon, and developing curricular resources that seek to uplift the need for those of us invested in racial justice to remain supportive of radical visionaries even if (and especially when) we hold seemingly conflicting perspectives. The fundamental question posed in the sermon was, how do we stand in solidarity when we disagree? (You can listen to it here, if you’d like.)
All of this has been in the context of my experiencing a real shift in my work life. A little over a year ago I, very gratefully, was able to step down from my position as Chair of the Education Department at the University where I work. This change has allowed me to devote myself to re-imagining our Liberal Studies major, the major taken by our undergraduates who intend to become elementary school teachers. New threads running through their coursework now include a focus on critical questioning, equity, and advocacy. It’s been a huge undertaking, one that I have immersed myself in with much excitement and pleasure.
So much time spent on this work-related project has also meant having less time available for writing, activism, and presentations. My internal self-questioning experienced some significant amplification around this. However, on this matter, the focus landed on who I am serving and how I can make the most impact. The program I now co-direct serves about 80% young women of color. Ensuring that I bring the best of myself to the task seems to be a matter of justice. At least that’s what I tell myself whenever I need to say no to a request related to work revolving around issues of white identity.
And yet, there is one request I could not stop myself from accepting. For those of you reading this, you likely already know that I am now hosting monthly online dialogues for white folks who do not have access to a practitioner’s support group like AWARE-LA. What you may not know is that this pushes up against an area in which I have really struggled.
In terms of my personal self-concept, I have never seen myself as a leader, and I have more often than not pushed against leadership positions. Yes, I admit that I have been considered a leader within AWARE-LA for many years. And yes, I have taken lead on some projects. That said, my strength does not lie in leadership development or program expansion. I know this about myself.
For this reason, I’m grateful to one of my closest colleagues in AWARE-LA who does have this skill set. Jason initiated a process whereby we could both extract ourselves from some of the work we had been doing for many years so that we might commit ourselves to new projects that have an expanded reach beyond what we’ve been doing. As I look toward 2019, I have a feeling this growing and solidifying online support group for white folks committed to anti-racism is likely to continue and expand. I’m taking it slow though, and we’ll see how it develops.
A final note on the year is how odd it is that the project I spent so much time on for the first half of 2018 seems so far away from me right now. The Living in the Tension curriculum series is something of which I am truly proud. There’s a lot of depth to it, and I do believe it includes some essential keys that we’ll need to sustain our forward movement. I will also be the first to admit that it hasn’t yet found its audience. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to allocate time and attention to promoting this resource as fully as it requires. It’s okay, though, because this truly is a marathon, not a sprint. And I’m still moving forward even if this work is proceeding at a much slower pace than originally imagined. Besides, I have a feeling that where this work really needs to go will be be far more local and far less public than my previous work. We’ll see, but that’s my current intuition.
As I reflect on this reflection, what strikes me is how utterly incomplete it is. As it turns out, this is just a small slice of the year. It does, however, capture what has moved me the most, uplifted me, confused me, and made me strive to become my better self.
As we move into 2019, I hope for each of us evocative and productive challenges, the kind that inspire growth, joyful exuberance, gratitude, and strengthened community ties.