Building inclusive communities

MM, Phiwa, Amy Lewis.1.JPG

On January 15, 2018, Phiwa Langeni of The Salus Center in Lansing, Amy Lewis of Black Lives Matter Lansing, and I were the guest speakers at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Endowed Scholarship Community Dinner at Michigan State University. The theme of the event was “Building Inclusive Communities.” I shared these words that night:

Twenty-eight years ago, when I was wrestling mightily with vocational decisions, I had the privilege of hearing the late poet, essayist, and activist Audre Lorde speak. She introduced herself that night by saying: "I am a black, feminist, socialist, lesbian, mother, poet, doing my work. Who are you? And are you doing your work?” I could have sworn she looked right at me when she asked those questions, but my hunch is that everyone in that auditorium would have said she looked at them.

She went on to explain that how and where we do the work of social justice will differ, depending on our social locations and identities. She said, for example, if you are a white woman, your work will be different from the work I do as a black woman even if we are working toward the common goal of dismantling of white supremacy. Then she issued a warning I have never forgotten, "If you do not use the power of who you are in the service of what you say you believe, someone else will use you, and probably to my detriment."

Hundreds of people filled the auditorium that night. As soon as she began to speak, the room was hushed and the audience completely engaged because she spoke with power. She did not overpower us; she spoke as one who had authority. The authority that comes from knowing who you are and what your work is. The authority that comes from living with personal and spiritual congruence, from using the power of who you are in the service of what you say you believe.

I left the auditorium that night with Audre Lorde’s questions ringing in my ears: "Who are you? And are you doing your work?"

And then – not long after -- a second soul-stretching encounter occurred. An African-American friend and colleague, Lynnette Stallworth, challenged me to examine why I, as a white woman, so often looked to her as the expert on racism, depending on her to call me out or advise me when racist words, behaviors, or policies were at play.

“What happens when I’m not here, Melanie?” Lynnette asked. “How are you, as a white person, holding other white people accountable? How are other white people doing that for you? Racism is a white problem and it’s long past time for you all to do your own work!” 

I was at first stunned and tempted to hide behind hurt feelings. But I chose instead to listen and when I did, I was deeply convicted by Lynnette’s challenge and I heard Audre Lorde’s questions echoing in her challenge. I had to acknowledge that I, and many of my well-intentioned white friends, did not have vocabulary to talk about racism in an everyday kind of way. We were not conscious enough of the privilege we carried into every situation as white people. We assumed that our good intentions were enough. We came into racially diverse conversations and organizations expecting to be liked and trusted simply because we finally showed up. We were frequently mired in feelings of guilt or shame. When we encountered racism where we lived, worked, studied, volunteered or worshipped, we could not be counted on to speak up and confront it. Too often, we fell mute, became confused, feared we’d say the wrong thing and make things worse, or simply wanted to disappear. I could see that I was not trust-worthy. I had long espoused a belief in racial justice, but I was not using the power of who I was in the service of what I said I believed.

Those two experiences inspired me to launch Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People. I have been co-facilitating Doing Our Own Work for the past 24 years and hundreds of people have gone through this program that meets for six days over the course of three months time. We don’t finish the work in six days because the work is never finished, but we help each other move through places where white people too often get stuck so that we can step up with humility and consistency to participate in movements led by people of color and help move other white people to greater anti-racist awareness and action.  

Building inclusive communities requires arduous, soul-stretching, never-end work on so many levels. It isn’t something to be dabbled in. We can’t adequately address racial justice if we aren’t also working on gender justice, disability justice, economic justice, and environmental justice. As we work to build inclusive communities, we’ll be asked to open our minds and hearts far wider than we could have imagined and yet changing individual hearts and minds is not enough. Truly inclusive community also requires a radical realignment of institutional priorities and a fundamental redistribution of power. A commitment to building inclusive communities requires that we shine a light on every program, policy, and endeavor in our institutions or organizations, asking: Whose voices are being sought out and heard? Whose cultural perspectives are overrepresented and whose are underrepresented? Who is seen as important to the mission and who is seen as less important?

Building inclusive communities is not for the faint of heart. To stay on this journey, we need to nurture truth-telling relationships of support and accountability where there is a shared commitment to hearing each other all the way through; where we can mourn the inevitable defeats and losses, celebrate even the smallest breakthroughs and triumphs, and help each other find the strength to carry on.

Dr. King proclaimed: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t think he was saying that justice would arrive regardless of what we do or fail to do. He was declaring that the struggle may be long, but hope is longer.

Therefore, using the power of who we are in the service of what we say we believe, let’s keep bending that arc toward justice – on earth as it is in heaven. Let’s bend that arc so that racial profiling, police brutality, and mass incarceration cease. Let’s bend that arc so that every child may flourish and every person in this country has full and equitable access to a quality education, health care, and a living wage. Let’s bend that arc toward justice by holding our elected officials accountable when they enact racist policies and endorse white supremacist ideologies. Let’s bend that arc toward justice so that no voice is eclipsed, marginalized, or silenced. Let’s keep bending that arc toward justice by boldly and tenaciously nurturing radically inclusive communities.