There are things in our lives that make sense. Those are the things we talk about. There are other things in our lives that don’t make sense. Those are the things we hide.
Today was our staff retreat and to understand its importance, you need to understand the back-story of our organization and how I got there.
Three years ago I worked for a group, where on the first day I was charged to build a coalition of faith, nonprofit, civic and business leaders to end poverty in Washington DC. I showed up to a small office with a staff of two and spent a lot of time meeting people and figuring out how to make things happen with few resources. We made progress on recruiting small business leaders. We won budget increases for adult literacy providers and supported and worked on behalf of issues of affordable housing. We were just getting started laying a framework when we closed.
That’s right we closed. Our funder decided no more money. Our board let it happen. And I decided after lots of tears and anguish that never again did I want to let a bunch of white advocates control my future. I never wanted to be a puppet. I wanted to go work in my own community, building and dreaming of a city with my own people.
I wanted to reclaim and reconcile my blackness.
It never made sense to me that as the daughter of two drug addicted parents who were products of DCPS, that my life had ended up so much differently from my friends and love ones. Simultaneously, I had a college degree and no longer felt connected to folks I had grown up with in Edgewood Terrance where my mother lived or on 3rd and P where my grandmother lived for most of my life. I had explored places where “black professionals” frequented and I didn’t belong there either. Those people seemed more concerned with (organizing publicity-friendly) days of service and charity happy hours than community transformation. I was always the radical idealist in those settings.
Regardless, I wanted to figure out how to relate to middle class young black professionals. The opportunity arose to organize in a small neighborhood with a significant number of people around issues of employment, housing and educational was there. The words that got thrown around to describe the organization were “start up” and “innovation”.
Perfect place to test co-op models and develop leaders. To think about job creation and entrepreneurship, to get a recreation center built and preserve one of the few pockets of the DC of my youth.
But in the words my G, ”Baby some things are just too good to be true”. I came into a place of chaos, hierarchy and sheer confusion about what we were doing and whom it was for.
So I did what my two emotional responses are as the daughter of addicts - I fought, resisted, argued and I made it known this place was bullshit. Probably not great for first impressions. When that response resulted in further isolation and marginalization, I shrunk. Because educated black people have always been the thorn in my side and it was easier to feign disinterest than admit my feelings were hurt and that I wasn’t part of the “inner circle” I functioned for a while. I got some stuff done. I built a playground, launched a community action team, did a safety walk, worked with young people on a civic engagement project, and recruited for programming. But those weren’t the things I was interested in or wanted to do.
I wanted a big win. My own development depended on it. Meanwhile, people were leaving, our systems ems were failing and we had many different leaders. Since I didn’t ever think leadership started from the top, I was fine. But I realized I stopped talking in meetings, I was reserved, calculated and unwilling to take risks. All things nobody who really knows me would believe.
So with new leadership the retreat was the manna for me. The place I would look to as a symbol of what was to come and what I needed. So today was a big deal.
I arrived at the retreat space grumpy because I had stayed up all night reading and watching what was going on in Ferguson with the young man who was slain in the streets unarmed. And I was grumpy because we as an organization hadn’t talked about it and it was weighing on me. And because black respectability politics is rampant and I’m tired of hearing that pulling up our pants, not listening to little boosie and cutting our dreads will cure all that ails us.
And I started to think about a friend of mine who told me “Nicole. When you’re in a place of hardness open your hands, whether its emotional hard places or conversations that are difficult just open them.”
And I did. I took a walk, I meditated and I said, “Open your hands Nicole. Don’t try to control the outcome, don’t worry about perfection or who’s unhappy open your hands. “
And I started to wonder if open hands and surrender went together. Did Mike Brown? Did Renisha McBride? Did Trayvon Martin? Did Garrett, my ex who was stabbed in he streets of DC at the hands of someone who looked like him? Did Ezell Ford? Did they open their hands?
If so, what were they surrendering to?
What will I?
Will I be the person I know I am or continue to wear a mask to fit in? Do I owe these deceased young people’s legacies to be my most honest self?
Some people die slow deaths as they cling to ideas and beliefs that hurt them. Other people die at the hands of those sworn to protect them. Either way death is always a place of surrender.
Will you open your hands?