Monday, July 29, 2013

Learning about Community Leaders from the Outside

A friend told me I hadn't written in awhile, which is true, partially because I'm in a time of transition and nothing's official and partially because some of my thoughts I've been afraid of expressing, but then I remembered my pact of being my true self here. So I'll elaborate on the latter and a blog post very soon on the former.

The whole Zimmerman case has caused a lot of interesting discussions and for me realizations. I'm sure you've seen the pictures of 1950s vs. 2013 and sad thing is the pictures replicate each other. Not even an exaggeration. I won't go into my personal feelings on the event, only to say that I've realized how segregated we still are as a society and how important race still needs to be. What do I mean by that? Of course, I wish I lived in a colorblind world, where it didn't matter. But after this past year being surrounded by various ethnicities, I realized how important it was to not only acknowledge diversity, but discuss it. Assumptions are made before I do/say anything just because of who I am; and why should I being from a "privileged background" be handed any information from others who didn't have that same "easy path"?

This question has really resonated with me this week as I began to attend community events. I attended one neighborhood event and I kid you not, aside from the photographer and a councilman candidate, I was the ONLY non-African-American, and even they didn't stay til the end. I don't even mean to say "white person"; I truly mean it was all African-Americans. To me this was sad, sad that so many didn't have the opportunity to learn about their visions for their neighborhood, to hear the beautiful music sang/played, to watch the amazing stomp dancing and spoken word presentations. From the moment I entered, I knew I was an anomaly attending this event, even though it said "everyone welcomed" and I was invited by a community member. I especially knew this when they thanked people for coming and the speaker smiled and stared at me. 'Who's the white girl at the table?' was certainly the question running through everyone's mind.

I tried to "act normal" and striked up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, but when it turned into an interview format, I decided it would be best to let it go. But just as I was about to give up, he asked me, "so..who are you?" This was my chance. I started to describe to him I was new to the area and what I am trying to build in the community emphasizing the community-based part of the elevator pitch. He politely nodded and acquiesced my request, giving me his email to send him the one-pager. The community member who invited me then told me all the people I should meet, but it was hard. I had to approach them and even then there was an invisible barrier. People wanted to see their friends and people they hadn't talked to in a long time; not the random white girl at the event. I had to truly push through this, and even then, I felt the disinterest. I acquired a few more business cards and returned to my seat.

It was only then, when my role turned to merely as an observer of the meeting, that I was truly able to see who each of these individuals were and when their true identities radiated. I was so impacted by these individuals, their words, their voices, their thoughts. Finding out the man I had spoken to was a former high school principal who impacted another adult present at the meeting to continue school and was now a business owner. Another was the only African American in the House of Representatives, one fought for the Red Cap Room name at the historical Union Depot in honor of his father. One fought for the presence of minority businesses in the Square and it was her daughter's shop that was there.

These individuals' identities shone brighter than an LED neon glow stick and their stories so powerful, but it was only in the presence of the community. I asked myself selfishly why I wasn't able to see this power when I conversed with them? And then the whole "privileged background" and being handed information from others who were constantly oppressed conversation from the year really resonated with me.

All of a sudden there was a large division of "we" vs "them." And how could there not be? "They" put a highway straight through "our" neighborhood, "they" weren't even going to stop the lightrail in "our" neighborhood, just have it go straight to downtown so "we" couldn't utilize it, and "we" are going to have to fight to keep living in "our" neighborhood as taxes/house value increases with this light rail so "they" don't kick us out. All of these statements are completely fair and I don't blame the mistrust.

But leaving that meeting, I had a question in mind: how can we show the power of being a community leader outside "our people"? How can we communicate our story, our identities, our backgrounds? Isn't that how impact is sustained, when we do something outside our own turf? As I truly value building a program that is community-based, how can I do this authentically? Especially when there are so many different cultures within that one community.

This is my dream. This is my hope of bringing different walks of life together through music. That we can realize it's not about the color of our skin, it's about the wisdom, the stories, the compassion, and the friendships we build, both within our own communities and with others different from ourselves. In my mind, this is the only way, we will be able to start to have the conversations needed to be empathetic towards all.

And now I'll close with part of a spoken word poem by Joshua Akpan, a freshman highschooler from Brooklyn park.

"People are always talking about the stereotypes of a young, black boy. That's right. I will rob you.
Rob you of your ignorance...I will sell you a drug...a drug of wisdom." I wish I remembered more, but that's a poem that will stay with me a long while.

What are your thoughts?

1 comment:

  1. This story gave me an odd sense of inspiration - odd because I wouldn't usually a simple community meeting anecdote to do so! But I share your sentiment - "how can we share the power of being a ... leader ... outside 'our people'?" I've been having this trouble myself recently, trying to share any wisdom I might have learned from my life in my 2 year absence amongst people who are not so privy to the experiences I have had. And it's been very tough.

    So far what I have learned in answer to the question is that we must a) back ourselves to the hilt , regardless. What we believe in is what we believe in and we have to try *extra* hard outside of our comfort zone b) despite this, STILL be open to being wrong.

    Achieving that balance takes talent, I dare say.