I am a daughter, granddaughter, sister, friend, Jesus Freak, book worm, poet writer, community organizer, activist, builder of things, lover of people. There was a time when this list was in a very different order where I started with organizer and activist and moved slowly to the rest of those things. My priorities were always work focused.
If you take anything away from this talk today, we are not what we do. We are not titles and accolades. We are not our collections of accomplishments. We are not justice seekers who move from cause to cause to fill the holes that exist in our own souls. We are not defined by our lack or abundance of faith. So today my talk will not call you out. It wont call you out into the world to act or out for your racism, sexism, homophobia or classism. This talk was designed to call you in. Into your own story. Into your own body. Into yourself so that you may come more fully alive to the world. Maybe the only way we can truly go out into the world is to do it from a place of wholeness in ourselves first. If we want to serve well we must not only ask the question of who is my neighbor? But who am I?
We are who we be. Our first name is beloved. And no amount of service acts, or hustling/doing changes the fact that we are special and unique and loved. And what communities need more than acts of charity is people who understand the role they play in society and commit to being just and not doing justice.
Justice and service are important but not substitutes for our own sense of self love and worth. And if we are to do act of justice. It must be out of a place of mutuality and reciprocity. So my question is how do we connect with others? How to we serve others from a place of seeing their own worth when we don’t see it in ourselves?
Now I am not saying there are not systems of power and privilege that we must work to dismantle but I am saying that how we do the dismantling must be from a place of connectedness and integration. We must embody and practiced that which we want to create. And if we can not dream it, taste it touch it, yearn for it and have glimpses of it, how can we manifest it?
I have had the pleasure over the last few years, to have jobs that allowed me the space to find out who I am and be that person and am here today to share a little of what I gave learned with you.
(even though I am terrified)
When I was a little girl my mother tells the story of me coming home really upset. A young white girl in my class has invited everyone to her birthday sleepover but had told me I could not come because her father did not like black people. My mother said she was terrified and wanted to make sure she handled this situation well. She said I knew my response and this experience would form you for the rest of your life. She said she did the only thing she knew how to do with me. Her 7-year-old child who loved reading books on the bus and dancing in front of company. The child with a million questions and her favorite question being WHY? She was honest. She explained racism and prejudice. She told me I was exceptional and that it didn’t matter, or change who I was or that I was loved and surrounded by a community that loved me and supported me. She did the best she could with what she had to give me.
And then she says I did something that has been forever etched in her memory. something I don’t remember. I looked up and said to her. Its okay. Her dad is probably mean to her too.
I tell this story not because I want to talk to you about race or racism, even though I think and live a life that is shaped by it existence but because I want to talk about how our journey in life, is a journey back to our child selves. That somehow all the tenderness, vulnerability and authenticity that children display as second nature gets beat out of us by this life that tells us those things are liabilities. Authenticity has taken me further than anything else. And sometimes it looks messy and unpolished and honest and afraid and yet it always shows up.
We can not understand others, seek meaningful connections with people of difference if we are not fully alive to who we are. If we can not be at peace with all our imperfections our attempts to build bridges will produce little more than guilt and shame based actions that are not rooted in the needs of others.
And yes I have done some cool things. As an organizer and activist; developed curriculum, trained people, started my own business and tried to hold politicians and powerful people accountable but the what I have done is not the most important. The how and the why matter most.
"Bridging boundaries, borders and walls".
This theme resonated with me. Because boundaries, borders and walls are all structures.
Things that are created. They don’t just emerge. We have to consciously construct them. So if we consciously construct them we have the power, the resources and capacity to deconstruct them
But the only way to do that is
1. Authenticity which I talked a little about before.
Courage for me is about being seen. Walking in all of who you are and owning the parts of you that have developed over time. I used to imagine myself as some new soul India aired natural hair wearing, farmers market shopping person and although I’m some of that. There was always a picture in my head of who I was suppose to me. The longer I ran from that. The more I did the cupid shuffle for people’s approval and time and energy the unhappier I was, the less content I was and the more my work left be unfulfilled and drained.
A few years ago when I was talking to someone about my work and in the middle of the convo they exclaimed! You’re in an estuary place. *Thank you Pastor Leila Ortiz and Kristen Kane
I was describing how my formation of being born black and female in the US and all of what that carries with me, had prepared me for this work. But how terrified of failing I was. How a wrong turn in a community meeting, or planning an agenda or being stood up for a meeting with a leader all made me doubt myself. How in the face of corrupt politicians I would muster courage but felt utterly convinced I was an imposter!
My life had made the work absolutely necessary and gave me purpose. But the deeper I got in the work, the more formal analysis and organizing language I learned the harder to relate to the base of people I was building with. The pain and struggle had done more to prepare me for this time in my life yet I felt I couldn't talk about it. My experiences were not valid in organizing spaces only the books I read, the categories I fell neatly into. And because I was removed from the experience of the people I was working with all I had was memories. I was no longer living that life and often felt guilty about it.
So when the person said estuaries! I was like what's that?
Estuaries form a transition zones between river environments and sea environments. They have both to sea influences—such as tides, waves, and the influx of saline water—and to river influences—such as flows of fresh water and sediment. The inflows of both sea water and fresh water provide high levels of nutrients both in the water column and in sediment, making estuaries rich in nutrients and unique places
There are some things that can only live in the mixture of fresh and salt water. Some organisms that survive the in between places. My work and I live in those places.
Learning that I was not the first thing to be shaped by a myriad of different environments let my work take different shape! I could be who I was AND who I was becoming. I could pay homage to my past and work to create a different future. My organizing work became more about what could be possible in the places between the world I lived in and the world I wanted to see.
I became possible. I no longer had to regulate myself to some outside position I could show up the full sum of my parts. Admit the good and no be bound by the bad. I could relate to folks in the neighborhood not out of a place of trying to prove myself but out of a place of authentic connection that allowed my story to be valid.
See the thing about stuff that grows out of estuaries its needs the balance the mix to thrive. To much of one thing causes imbalance I am like that in organizing- to much idealism and I start to want to make concrete ask and do something about the things happening now in communities in our countries. To much concrete traditional campaign work and I long for the creative the visionary. That which is unseen. The mysterious.
I wonder often if those of us who are organisms who need these environments like estuaries are fundamental parts of the things that will create change. We know how to get nutrients from many places. We are not attached to one environment over another. We exist in places where transition is happening and can hold the contradictions of multiple things.
Maybe these are the only places where the work can be done. In places where we aren't attached to what we know or absolutes. Where we are curious instead of right. Maybe it's only the mixtures of a lot of things that give the possibility for new life.
And that is why courage is critical. Because this is never an easy process. It difficult and requires sacrifice and negotiation. It requires us to die to all that which has propped us up.
I have never claimed my identity fully as a poet. Namely because I was always comparing myself to other more accomplished poets.
And one day in the middle of a serious political education training when we talked about the black liberation movement hero’s and shero’s and I was asked to name mine. The names I spoke were Lucille Clifton, Nicki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan and Audre Lorde who had been with me and spoke to me and politicized me and for whom art was critical to movement work and a form of resistance.
And I asked a friend of mine how she sustained herself as a writer and she said is it in your space? Put it there first.
So I hung post it its all around my house that said. Writing is how I sustain myself and others.
And I begin think about how writing and creating poems was a labor of love
One that allowed me to be more fully who I am
Maybe you’re not a poet but find what part of you that is creative. If you aren’t creating, how are you living? How are you contributing. Live in that space. Because it will impact all other parts of your life. Creation is not limited to music or art or poetry. Some people create spaces, some people create technical things. Some people create meaning. There has to be room for the dynamic and spontaneous in our lives.
So I leave you with this poem.
Do you truly know how powerful you are?
Before the world beats no into your brow
Before heartbreak can be spotted in your eyes
Before you lips learn protection as you first language
Your creation was majestic
Your being enough
Do you know how enough you all are?