A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at a storytelling event hosted by Manitoba Council for International Cooperation. I shared a story about the journey that lead me from the work I once did in international development to the work I now do.
Here’s the audio recording of that talk… (even though it looks like a video, don’t be fooled – it’s audio)
And here are the notes from the talk I gave…
Building relationships that bridge differences
It all started with a blog post.
In December of 2004, in the same year that Wikipedia says blogs became mainstream, I wrote my first blog post. I think my sister-in-law was the only person who read it.
The blog post represented a personal quest I’ve been on for a good part of my life – a quest to build meaningful relationships that bridge differences.
At the time I was preparing for my first trip to Africa. I was the newly-minted Director of Communication and Education at Canadian Foodgrains Bank and I was going on a food study tour to learn more about what the organization did.
I had long dreamed of going to Africa, ever since the first time I could remember a missionary carrying their slide projector into the tiny rural church I grew up in. When I saw those vivid, sun-drenched images, I dreamed of going to Africa, but I didn’t dream of being a missionary. Instead, I wanted to be a gypsy. I wanted to dance around open campfires, live in a caravan, and change my scenery every day. I wanted to live on the edge of civilization. And I wanted to do it with the beautiful people I saw on those slides.
Despite my long-held dream, a trip to Africa presented a challenge for me. The challenge was that I didn’t know how to bridge the differences that I knew would be there. I didn’t know how to step peacefully onto African soil, with my white skin undeniably connecting me to colonialism and my role as “donor” undeniably creating a power imbalance between myself and the people I’d meet. I didn’t know how I’d create the kind of space for one of the things that most ignites me – meaningful, openhearted, reciprocal conversation.
I didn’t know how, but I wanted to try. Here’s the commitment I wrote on that blog post…
I won’t preach from my white-washed Bible. I won’t expect that my English words are somehow endued with greater wisdom than theirs. I will listen and let them teach me. I will open my heart to the hope and the hurt. I will tread lightly on their soil and let the colours wash over me. I will allow the journey to stretch me and I will come back larger than before.
I did indeed come back stretched, and I’d fallen in love with Africa, as I knew I would, but I also came back troubled. Despite my best efforts, there were many times on that trip when my white skin, my English words, and my purpose for being there served as a barrier. I hadn’t figured out what to do to meet them in an equitable way. I was no gypsy, dancing around the fire with them.
In one of the most memorable moments of that trip, we traveled to a remote village in Tanzania to be part of a food distribution in a region where people had suffered from a few years of drought. I traveled with the local bishop, a jolly man whose position afforded him a fancy car, a patient driver, and the adoration of many parishioners.
Along the way, we stopped at a grocery store and the driver ran inside for bread and juice boxes. “It’s for my diabetes,” the bishop said, passing some to the backseat. I felt like I was receiving communion.
When we arrived at the food distribution site, the car was instantly surrounded by hundreds of people who wanted to get close to the bishop and his distinguished white guests from Canada. As I stepped out of the car, hands reached out to touch my clothes, my hair, and my skin. It was suffocating and I felt completely unworthy. This was what I’d least wanted on this trip – a painful reminder that I was undeniably “other” and undeniably privileged.
We were quickly ushered toward the place where hundreds – maybe thousands – of local people were waiting patiently for their food. They’d been waiting since sunrise in the heat of the sun and it was now mid-afternoon. The local authorities had insisted that nobody could take a bag of maize home until the Canadian donors had arrived.
The Bishop stepped forward to speak to the people. He spoke of how God was blessing them by sending them food in their time of hunger. He told them they needed to repent of their sins so that they could continue to receive God’s abundance. As I listened, I wondered what the villagers thought of us, traveling halfway across the world on the wings of our privilege. Did they assume we must be closer to God?
Then it was our turn – each of the Canadians in our delegation was pulled forward and invited to speak to the crowd through a translator. My throat felt tight. What would I say? How would I speak to them in a way that felt meaningful and not arrogant? How would I live up to my commitment to build a bridge?
Of course, in that moment, I was doomed to fail, but I did the best that I could. I reached into my own history of being raised poor on a farm that depended on the weather for good crops and told them I had some knowledge of their struggle and some empathy for what they were going through. It was a feeble attempt, and yes, it still smacked of privilege, but it was the only thing I could think of at the moment.
After we spoke, we were invited to scoop some of the maize into their bags for a “benevolent donors” photo op and then we were whisked away to not one but two feasts. “Eat halfly,” the bishop said with a chuckle at the first feast. “A second village also wants to honour you with a feast.” Though the local people had to wait for hours in the sun for a bag of maize, we were being whisked from one plentiful table to the next. It was hard to swallow.
A few years later, still wrestling with how to challenge the imbalance of power and privilege and meet people in the middle, I went to Bangladesh. I had a camera crew with me, and as we traveled, I kept looking for some little bit of magic that would allow us to enter the story not as privileged donors from a wealthy developed country, but as humans sitting with other humans in their time of need.
I decided that the theme of our video would be the many ways in which we are all connected. Through translators, we taught the local villagers to say “we are all connected” in English and then we learned to say it in their languages, hoping that would help us build a bridge. Of course, it was a bridge that took us only a few feet across the great divide, but it was a start. My favourite memory from that trip was the day a young girl in a red sari followed me around the village and kept popping up at my elbow and saying “we are all connected!” It was the only way she knew how to say hello to me and she simply wanted to be my friend.
My time at Canadian Foodgrains Bank was a rich time of learning, and I got better at telling the stories of development in ethical ways meant to connect rather than divide donors from recipients, but, after six years there, I realized I hadn’t ever fully satisfied the quest I’d laid out in that first blog post. Some of that came with the limitations of my job – as a communicator and fundraiser, I was tasked with storytelling in only one direction, for one primary purpose, and that made reciprocity nearly impossible and reinforced my own access to power and privilege.
I quit my job in 2009 and instead of being a Director of Communication, I became a Facilitator of Conversations. My personal quest had let me to drop both the hierarchical title and the one-directional sharing of stories.
The first thing I did after leaving the Foodgrains Bank was to attend a workshop on The Circle Way – a methodology that invites people to sit in circle for meaningful conversation. This is something that had long intrigued me, and I sensed that it might give me some direction. I was right – it did. The circle changed everything. It changed the way I listened, it changed the way I spoke, it changed the way I sat across from people, and it changed the way I engaged power and privilege.
The circle is an inherently reciprocal shape with a leader in every chair. Every person in a circle holds equal responsibility for whatever happens in that circle and only with each person holding the rim is that circle strong. Often in the circle, we pass a talking piece so that only one person speaks at a time and everyone else listens. This focuses the conversation and teaches us to be fully present for each story. It also flattens the hierarchy and removes the structural symbols of power that felt so painful to me when I stood in front of rows and rows of people in that Tanzanian village.
Before long, the circle was part of every aspect of my life. I began to use it in university classrooms where I taught, I use it in retreats and workshops, and I even use it in one-on-one coaching sessions on Skype. Rarely do I stand in front of a crowd like I’m doing tonight. Instead, I sit with people, shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart. The practice is teaching me to be a more attentive, less controlling listener. It’s also teaching me how to challenge my own privilege, honour the differences in the room, and focus primarily on storycatching rather than storytellng.
I imagine each person I speak with is holding a talking piece and I can only speak when the piece is literally or figuratively passed to me. It doesn’t matter how much power or privilege you have – if you don’t hold the talking piece, you don’t speak.
In early 2015, another blog post changed my life. More than 1500 blog posts later, I was still wrestling with the same question I’d asked on the first post, but this time, I was ready to offer what I thought might be an answer. In my circle work, I’d come across the term “holding space” and the more I understood it, the more it connected with what I’d envisioned 11 years earlier.
Holding space is what we do for people when we listen without judging, walk alongside without trying to fix, empower without trying to control, and guide without inserting our own egos. In that blog post, I wrote about how a palliative care nurse had held space for my mom and my siblings and me when Mom was dying. Though she knew more than we did about how to support the dying, she never took our power away and she made us believe we had enough wisdom and strength to make the right decisions on our mom’s behalf.
Unlike my first blog post, this one was read by half a million people and, a year later, I still get almost daily emails from people about it. I am deeply humbled to know that there are many, many people on the same quest I’m on, trying to figure out how we can walk alongside people in meaningful, openhearted, and reciprocal ways without judging, fixing, or controlling their stories.
Around the same time as that blog post was catching fire, I had an opportunity to revisit the commitment I made on my original blog post, but this time it was closer to home. Winnipeg had just been named the most racist city in Canada and I felt a nudging to get involved in changing that. Together with Rosanna Deerchild, a talented Indigenous poet and broadcaster, I hosted a series of conversations about racism in our city. We invited people of all races and all levels of power and privilege to sit in circles, shoulder to shoulder and heart to heart, and we invited them to share their stories.
We may not have changed the city, but each of us who sat in those circles was changed by the conversations we had.
Unlike the stifling feeling at the front of the crowd in Tanzania, this time I felt my heart opening and I could breathe. I’ve still got a long way to go in understanding all of the complexities of how to build relationships that bridge differences, but at least I’m on the right path.
Won’t you join me on this ongoing quest?