It all started during the Sistema fellowship. Each fellow took a turn to teach something. I had just led a session on choral warm-ups. Our fellow class..well there were some tumultuous times..to say it nicely. Let's just say I know what happens when you put 10 alpha dogs in one room and it's not pretty. I also learned SOS for group dynamics and the toxic 4 horsemen of stonewalling, contempt, ignoring, and resignation. It was in this toxic context that I asked a fellow fellow we'll call Susie when she was going to do lead her session. She opened up to me and said something to the following effect, though now that it's been 3 years some of this may be paraphrased/reinterpreted, "Honestly, Sara? You've seen our group dynamic. Why should I [in a truthfully posing a question, non-contemptuous way, tone is impossible to communicate by text!)? And as enthusiastic as you are about underwater basketweaving (changed for identity protection), what do I owe Sara Zanussi, a privileged, white woman [about this topic]? I gathered this knowledge and am a master teacher and it's really special. Why should I pass it onto you?" This was one of those conversations that stung, but was truthful and brutally honest; she had no duty or obligation to teach me. It made me incredibly uncomfortable and full of guilt as many white privilege conversations then did, but I truthfully had no response. I'm sure at the time I said something like, "I'd just like to learn more about it, but if you're not comfortable doing so I guess I understand and I'm sorry," and shuffled away.
I can count the amount of brutally honest conversations I've had like this on one hand. But they're also the kind of conversations that stay with you and bring about what Stanford Business Review claims to be the most important characteristic of leadership: self-awareness. Despite being discriminated against in Tanzania for a full year, I was situationally unaware of the privilege I held during this fellowship purely because of my racial background. European Americans as I like to call "white" people like myself, were the minority in our fellowship. But despite being the minority, this was the first time I realized even being the minority I held the institutionalized privilege and thus my situational awareness began. I wanted to do something. I wanted to tell Susie, "Because I value your knowledge. Because I truly want to learn about underwater basketweaving. Because as you said you're a master teacher and I trust you." But I didn't. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
Working in a community of color, there are meetings where I am the one and only "white girl" in the room. Where I really can't empathize with some of the situations some of the participants in the room have been in, overcome, or identify with. I thought I couldn't possibly be a teacher of cultural resiliency, helping youth maintain/develop their cultural identity. Because I thought of it purely in racial/ethnic terms. How could I represent youth-of-color's culture not being of-color or from the community myself? How can that be my job?!
But a wise colleague helped me realize, cultural resiliency is cultivating and maintaining any part of one's culture- that of youth, that of music, that of being a community leader, that of one's ancestry, and with that I could certainly be on board. That wise colleague helped me realize that sure it was evident, I was the minority, the "little white girl" in the room. But I wouldn't have been invited to that meeting if I weren't trusted. If I weren't valued. If my opinions were ignored or my questions unanswered. And since then when that discomfort arises as being the clear outsider, I think of it no different than a physical-a necessary, important thing to do even if it involves exposing yourself in order to understand what's going on and live a healthy life. It keeps my mind open and I've seen community members feel safe to become vulnerable and talk about their challenges. And my job as an outsider in those moments? To just listen and let that person be heard. To not offer a suggestion or provide a solution or try to empathize with something I can't. To learn his/her story so I can develop an authentic relationship. So often, "acting out" (basically most of the evil doings in the world) happens when one doesn't feel heard. If we all felt we were heard, the world would be a VERY different place.
So now three years later working in a community of color, I think of Susie's words often. How am I representing myself because I am a privileged European American and there is nothing i can do to change that fact? I realized the biggest thing I can do is create that awareness for others and not let it be a blind spot or ignored. Tonight was my first action towards awareness. My professor, a Scandinavian, older male, was telling us about the guest speakers that were coming in and I couldn't help but notice, all of them were white, older males. "We were going to have [a woman CEO] next week, but she couldn't make it." After my Integrative Leadership seminar course, I gutsily went up to him and said, "I was just curious. Are we going to have any diverse speakers? I couldn't help but notice all the people in our syllabus are white males." He sheepishly looked at me and said, "I know, but in these fields it's really hard to find someone and with our connections.." I understood this to mean, no. But then he thanked me and told me it was on his mind and he really was hoping for at least this woman CEO to come, but she cancelled. I told him I couldn't help but notice the diverse make-up of the class and how one of the biggest things I had learned in my cross-sector work were different perspectives from different backgrounds. I also admitted after some of the comments tonight in our debate it would be really good for our class to hear a different perspective. (During the debate, we were talking about if Hubert Humphrey's passage of the Civil Rights Act was an example of integrative leadership. The pro side argued it was cross-sector because of the constituent diversity (there were women, whites, blacks) as if that were the same as cross-sector. I was pretty taken aback and offended by the comment. "Diversity" does not mean cross-sector!)
Anyway, the professor told me last year they had a person-of-color come in to speak, but it's really hard with the topics and their networks and if I had any suggestions to write them down. He said, "There was a girl last year who asked the same thing. We really should...and it's one of my biggest struggles. But thank you. I'm really glad you brought it up." And after that, I realized I was representing the community I serve. I was uncovering a blindspot and not letting it be ignored. I was giving my youthMy Me a voice in a majorly predominantly "white" field. And while I by no means mean for this to be a self-congratulatory post, I do recognize the metamorphosis and awareness that all began with Susie's comment 3 years ago.