Centring marginalized voices and decolonizing my bookshelf

books - James Baldwin quote

At the beginning of 2016, I made a commitment to read only books by authors who weren’t from the dominant culture. My intent was to broaden my education and stretch myself by staying away from books written by white able-bodied cisgender heterosexuals. Books have always helped me make sense of the world, and I knew that if I wanted to catch glimpses of the world through lenses that were different from mine, books would help me get there. Though my bookshelves reflect some diversity, I knew there was much more I could do.

It was harder than I expected. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of books by other voices – there are, but I had to dig harder to find them. It became clear, early on, that few publishers and booksellers are willing to bank on books by marginalized voices. They don’t invest in them as often and don’t put them front and centre in the bookstores. Walk through almost any bookstore (or at least those that I’m most familiar with, in North America), or browse through Amazon, and you’ll see fairly quickly what types of books get the most space and attention. Those voices that feel most “safe” for the average bookstore shopper will sell the most books, and I think it’s fairly safe to say that the “average bookstore shopper” is expected to be a white person with privilege.

That was one of my first realizations in this year-long quest… It is far more challenging to find a publisher and make a living from your writing if you do not fit the dominant paradigm. Other voices have to work twice as hard just to get a spot on the bookshelf. Like any other space ruled by capitalism, the bookstore centres those with privilege.

It was easiest to find books by marginalized voices in the fiction section, so I started there. Friends gave me lots of recommendation and my nightstand quickly filled with borrowed books. I started with Indigenous authors (in Canada, those are the voices that are often the most marginalized) and moved on to people of colour from the U.S., Africa, and Southeast Asia. Many of those books were gritty and challenging, and some of them brought up my white guilt. There were moments when I questioned why I was putting myself through this. Reading was starting to feel more like a chore and less like a pleasure. (Note: scroll down for a list of some of the books I read.)

Though I enjoy fiction, I don’t read nearly as much of it as I used to, and soon found myself searching for the kinds of books I lean toward – memoirs, books about the human condition, cultural exploration, leadership books, and other non-fiction. These became increasingly more difficult to find. Memoirs were fairly plentiful, once I started digging deeper than the typical bookstore shelves (and I found some great ones by writers who gave me a new perspective on what it means to be gender non-binary, what it’s like to be raised by a residential school survivor, etc.), but the hardest to find were the non-fiction books I tend to read that are relevant for my work.

I’m not sure how to define the books I most love to read, because they don’t tend to fit bookstore categorization. I read a lot of “ideas and culture” books – on leadership, spirituality, feminism, trauma, engagement, facilitation, personal development, etc. When I turned my attention to these books, my quest became the most challenging. Very few of these books are written by people who aren’t from the dominant culture.

And this was my second major realization in this quest… While we may be willing to read fiction, and sometimes memoirs by people who don’t look like us, we very rarely will accept as experts anyone who doesn’t fit the dominant paradigm. This is where the white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender voice is the most centred. Storytelling may have become a more equal playing field, but the fields of knowledge and expertise are still colonized by those with more power and privilege. And the higher you go up the “knowledge food chain” the more white women are eliminated as well.

In the Spring of 2016, just when I was looking for more of these kinds of books, something happened in my personal life that derailed my year-long commitment and made the absence of these voices even more obvious. As I’ve written before, I hit burnout. A combination of stresses in my life – divorce, single parenthood, home renovations, and the continued high demands that followed my viral blog post – left me feeling wobbly and exhausted. I stepped off social media, pulled away from some of my commitments, and sought therapy to help me get my feet back on the ground.

As is my tendency when I journey through something that shakes me up and requires a deepening of my emotional and spiritual growth, I turned to books for comfort and a way forward. At first I tried to maintain my commitment to marginalized voices, but the effort required felt like one more stressor, so I let myself off the hook. Instead, I read about body healinggenerational trauma, and spirituality from some of the prominent writers in those fields – all of them from the dominant culture.

This healing period in my year is worth mentioning for a few important reasons.

1.) It highlights the lack of marginalized voices in books related to trauma/therapy/spirituality/body wisdom/etc. This begs the question: Where do people who aren’t from the dominant culture turn to find voices like them speaking to the deep healing work that they need to do? If you’ve experienced oppression, it’s very difficult to find healing from among the people who represent your oppressors.

2.) To stay on the quest for a deepening understanding of injustice, racism, etc., and to be able to continue to examine my own place within the systems that oppress people, I needed to turn inward for awhile to find my own strength and resilience. A deepening understanding of trauma, for example, helped me to heal some of my own so that I am more equipped to hold space for others who’ve faced trauma. I can enter into other people’s stories better when I have healed my own.

3.) My ability to find the voices that speak to my experience and help me heal is part of my privilege. I didn’t have to look very hard to find a therapist who looks like me and has enough education and training to support me and I didn’t have to look very hard to find suitable books that helped me understand my life experiences. My voice is well-represented and healing is relatively easy to find.

After a few months, I renewed my original commitment. I found I wasn’t quite ready for the heaviness of some of my earlier reading, so I looked for lighter reading. Comedic marginalized voices provided a nice balance and, in a surprising way, helped to normalize “the other” even more. When you’ve entered into the humour of a lived experience that is different from yours, you realize the threads that bind us together and give us common humanity. In a book on growing up Muslim in Canada, for example, I found myself chuckling at how similar some of the experiences were to my own Mennonite upbringing. Just as I felt like an outsider in my small town for the things I couldn’t do as a child (no dancing, drinking, attending community bingo nights, etc.), a young Muslim girl feels set apart for living a more restricted life.

By the end of 2016, I wasn’t ready to quit reading books by marginalized voice. Having worked through the earlier challenges of finding books that interested me, I now have a stack of books waiting for me and a long wish list of ones I want to get to eventually.

I have learned more than I can say from the reading I’ve done so far and I know I have much more to learn. At the beginning, I was learning about what it means to be Indigenous, black, brown, disabled, LGBTQ+, non-gender-binary, etc., but at some point I realized I was learning something that was equally important. By witnessing, if only for a fleeting moment, the world through their eyes, I was learning more about what it means to be a white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis-gender woman and what privilege comes from those pieces of my identity.

When you’re a member of the dominant paradigm, you rarely have to look back at yourself in any kind of intentional self-reflection. The world is set up to support you, to centre you, to make you safe, and to make you feel normal, so you don’t have to work very hard at figuring it all out and there’s no need to challenge it. 

I have the privilege of navigating the world with a kind of obliviousness in ways that others don’t, and my reading this year helped me see that more clearly. Since reading all of those books, I am more aware of, for example, how safe a bathroom might feel for a transgender person,  or how accessible a space might be for a disabled person. I am also more aware of how little I’ve had to pay attention to either of those issues, and, more importantly, how I have contributed to the challenges marginalized people face and how I represent that which is unsafe for them.

Two terms came into my consciousness this year and both were made more clear by the reading I did – kyriachy and intersectionality.

From Wikipedia:

Kyriarchy, pronounced /ˈkaɪriɑːrki/, is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, classism, economic injustice, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.

Intersectionality (or intersectional theory) is a term first coined in 1989 by American civil rights advocate and leading scholar of critical race theory, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw. It is the study of what Crenshaw contends are overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression, domination, or discrimination. Intersectionality is the idea that multiple identities intersect to create a whole that is different from the component identities. These identities that can intersect include gender, race, social class, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, age, mental disability, physical disability, mental illness, and physical illness as well as other forms of identity. These aspects of identity are not “unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather…reciprocally constructing phenomena.” The theory proposes that we think of each element or trait of a person as inextricably linked with all of the other elements in order to fully understand one’s identity.

The broad range of my reading has contributed to my understanding of what it means to be intersectional AND someone who benefits from the kyriarchy. My life is impacted not just by one aspect of who I am, but by the intersection of multiple identities. I am never “just a woman” or “just a white person”. I stand at the intersection of those identities, just as every other person stands at their own intersection. My intersection means that I am both oppressor and oppressed, both settler and sexually colonized. Their intersection means something entirely different, and I can’t presume to understand it until I ask and until I sit and listen to their stories. Embracing their stories means embracing complexity. 

Individually and collectively, we need to examine our wounds, our trauma, our privilege, our oppression, our marginalization, our power, and our guilt. As we do so, we need to be conscious of how our intersectional identities might impact other people.

I started out trying to diversify my bookshelf, but what I learned instead was that I needed to work on decolonizing my bookshelf and, consequently, my life. Diversity would only get me part way there. It might give me a collection of stories and ideas about what it was like to be marginalized. But a diversity lens still allows me to centre myself and my story and do little to challenge my privilege. Decolonizing is different – it invites me to examine myself and my place in the kyriarchy, deconstruct my own narrative of domination, and challenge that which allows me to live with privilege while others can’t.

I don’t want to make it sound like it was all drudgery and hard work, though. It wasn’t. Many of the lessons of this year were beautiful ones. Adding all of these voices to my life was like adding colour to a monochrome kaleidoscope – it added depth, beauty and texture to my view of the world and allowed me to see what I’d been missing. I found common threads in the stories that made me feel more connected to the humanity of all of the people I encountered.

Though I started the year feeling like it was my duty, as a white person, to challenge myself and stretch my worldview, I can now say that it is also my pleasure and privilege. I have fallen in love with these voices and I want more and more of their stories and their wisdom. They have challenged me and they have blessed me. They have pushed me past my own fragility and helped me listen more intently to what I couldn’t hear before. My life is richer for what they continue to bring to my world.

I still have much to learn and many teachers to teach me. For now, I will continue to centre those voices that are not centred on the bookstore shelves, because it is only in doing so that I can see myself and the world more clearly.
Though I wasn’t vigilant in keeping track of the books I read this year, here are the ones I remember and recommend (in no particular order:

The books I read for healing/growth (not from marginalized voices)

Safety: My privilege, my trap, and my right

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1. Safety – my privilege

The atmosphere was rather festive as my daughters and I made banners for the women’s march. They’re not new to political activism, having been raised in a home where political dialogue is as common as mashed potatoes, but this was the first time all four of us were going to a march together and the first time we were all making our own banners. One chose a Star Wars reference and another chose Hamilton – their pop culture of choice. They dressed up and I teased them with “this is the resistance – not a fashion parade.” They retorted with “Feminism has evolved, Mom. Our generation believes we can look cute AND resist at the same time.”

On the way downtown, we picked up Saleha, a Muslim friend who’s lived in Canada for 10 years. She was excited and passionate about the march – her first political action of this kind.

The meeting place quickly filled with thousands of marchers – predominantly white women, some wearing pink pussy hats, some holding signs. As people gathered, one of the organizers announced that an Indigenous elder would be smudging whoever was interested. Saleha was eager for the opportunity, so we got in line. I stood by and watched a beautiful moment unfold – Saleha opening her hijab like a tent to let the smoke touch her face and her ears, while the elder offered gentle guidance. When Saleha turned away, the emotion on her face told me how moving it had been.

Leaning on a rail on the second floor of the meeting space, we watched the speakers and drumming group on stage. A mix of intersectional voices – Indigenous, immigrants, transgender, and women of colour – inspired us to consider ALL human rights, not just those that have been too often centred in marches like these (able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual white women).

Slowly, the crowd made its way onto the street. As soon as we stepped onto the street, I sensed something had changed in Saleha’s demeanour. I turned toward her. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Suddenly I don’t feel safe anymore.”

“Would you like me to hold your hand?” I asked.

“Yes, I think I need you to,” she responded.

Holding hands, we followed the crowd. Looking around, I tried to find at least one other woman on the street in a hijab, but I could see none. Nor were there many women of colour or Indigenous women. It was mostly women who looked like me – a crowd of white feminists, probably mostly unaware of who was missing. Did all of those other, more marginalized women, avoid the march because they sensed the same feeling of insecurity that was coming up for Saleha?

More than once I turned to her and said “If it feels unsafe to be here, we can step out and leave the crowd.”

“No,” she said. “I want to do this. I’ll stay in it as long as I can.” We kept walking and the stories began to spill. “It’s illegal to protest like this where I come from,” she said. “I once witnessed a friend yanked off the street by the authorities. We didn’t see him again after that.”

“The day after the Paris attacks, I was waiting for a train in Amsterdam when a man shoved his face just inches from mine and started verbally attacking me. Nobody stepped in to stop him.”

On and on it went – the many times she had felt unsafe, just because she was a woman on the street wearing a hijab. The airport security checks when customs officers discovered her last name was the same as one of the 9-11 terrorists, the times she’s dropped her children off at school and teachers or other moms ignored her until they realized she spoke English like them, the drunk man on the street who told her to go back home in front of her children.

“I don’t know why these are all coming up right now,” she said. “Each time something happened, I stuffed it away and told myself I was okay. It was the only way I could carry on – to convince myself I was safe. But I’m not safe. Since coming to Canada, I’ve done everything I can to blend in and to convince people that I’m not a threat. I worked so hard to learn English. And now I will probably cancel my post-grad studies in the U.S. because I’ll be even less safe there.”

More than once, as we walked, she apologized for saying things that might make me, a white woman, feel badly for what people like me had done or said to her. “I don’t want to be somebody who blames white people.”

“Stop,” I said. “You don’t need to apologize. If I am your friend, I need to be able to hear the ways that you feel unsafe around people like me. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, I need to listen. You are not responsible for looking after me in this situation.”

“But I’m not used to this kind of conversation,” she said. “I am much more used to doing whatever it takes to make white women like you feel safe.”

As we walked, I glanced ahead to where my daughters walked, and was suddenly hit with these two realizations:

  1. I and my daughters never once considered that we might be unsafe on the street. My safety to march is just one of the many privileges I take for granted. So is my safety to go grocery shopping, to drop my kids off at school, and to ride the bus without being verbally attacked. Although there are some places I wouldn’t feel safe, especially at night, I have access to enough privilege (ie. my own vehicle, a house in a relatively safe part of town, etc.) that I rarely have to place myself in situations where I am at risk.
  2. Although I consider myself to be as non-threatening as a person could be, my white skin and my place within the dominant culture make me unsafe for some people. In order to stay safe themselves, others often need to contort themselves in order to make me feel safe. White women like me might present a particular risk because we’re the ones that the police would probably respond to most quickly if we were feeling threatened.

2. Safety – my cage

My friend Desiree is fierce and bold. She says things on her Facebook stream that I don’t have the courage to say and she doesn’t apologize if people take offence to them. Rather than coddling people, she expects them to take responsibility for their own emotional response.

We are quite different in our communication styles and I’ve often wondered about the many factors that contribute to that difference. I chalk up my more conciliatory, sometimes timid communication style to my pacifist, Mennonite, Canadian roots, but lately I’ve considered that it may be more than that. We may have been intentionally conditioned differently by the patriarchy.

For nearly seven years now, Desiree and I have been having periodic conversations about the ways in which we’ve learned to respond to the world differently. As a Black woman living in the southern U.S., her lived experience is quite different from mine. We’re passionate about many of the same things, but we came to these issues from different directions.

After the women’s march, Desiree and I talked about what the march represented, what happened during the march, whose voices were heard, etc. One of our most profound conversations was about the images on social media that portrayed police officers wearing pink pussy hats at the marches.

“When white women show up to protest,” Desiree said, “police wear pink pussy hats. But when people of colour show up to protest, they wear riot gear.”

We went back and forth about what that meant. Did the police just assume that, because the Women’s March was predominantly white women, there would be no danger involved? Was it a purely race-related difference?

And then, something new emerged in our conversation – the possibility that the police were serving as agents of the patriarchy, keeping white women in line by appeasing them and convincing them they were there to protect THEM from outside forces rather than protecting OTHERS from them. When they show up with riot gear, they’re protecting the community from the protestors. When they put on pussy hats, they’re signalling that they’re protecting the protestors.

And that, we theorized, is one of the reasons that there is fragility among white women (and why someone like me might adopt a more timid, conciliatory communication style) – because we have been conditioned by the hierarchy to believe that our fragility keeps us safe. As long as we are fragile, the patriarchy protects us. When we are no longer fragile, the patriarchy withdraws its protection and we are at risk.

The patriarchy benefits from the fragility of white women.

Women of colour, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being fragile. They are taught to survive at whatever cost, usually by their own means and without the help of those in authority. They don’t grow up assuming that the police will protect them if they are fragile. They grow up with images of the police protecting the community from them, not the other way around.

This is how the patriarchy keeps us both in line – by keeping us separate and at odds. It’s the same way that apartheid worked in South Africa. The white establishment created fractions between the local tribes, giving some more access to education, jobs, etc. When they were fighting amongst themselves, they did not present a threat to those in power. If you look around at the places where women are gathering to develop political actions such as the Women’s March, you’ll see the same kind of dissension. Groups with differing access to privilege, power, and protection have a hard time hearing each other’s concerns.

(I would add that those police officers in pussy hats and riot gear are also being controlled and wounded by the patriarchy, though they probably don’t recognize it. It’s a flawed system that is doing damage to us all.)

Two more realizations:

  1. Fragility in white women is real AND it’s tool of the patriarchy in order to keep us silent and weak. If I don’t challenge it in myself, I stay trapped and nothing changes.
  2. If I place too high a value on my own safety, I won’t risk stepping into conversations that make me uncomfortable and I won’t be able to build better relationships with women of colour and other groups that have been oppressed by the patriarchy.

3. Safety – my right

A few days ago, I was part of a text conversation of another kind. My friend Jo shared that she had been verbally abused in a conversation on social media. She’d been invited into a conversation about whether or not patriarchy is real, and though she intuitively felt unsafe as the only women surrounded by opinionated men, trying to explain something that they had all benefited from, she took the risk because she cared about the person who invited her. She stated her discomfort, but that discomfort was used as a weapon against her to make her feel shame for wanting a “safe space”.

Jo’s story reminded me of the times when I too have felt unsafe, trying to explain sexism or discrimination to those who had more power than me. Several years ago, I wrote a letter addressing some sexist behaviour on the board of an organization I was part of and I sent it to the three men I thought needed to be aware of it. My letter was ignored by one, dismissed by another, and responded to only with a back-handed comment by the third. I was left feeling small and ashamed for “over-reacting” and unsafe to raise any such concerns again in the future.

I know, from listening to my friends who are Indigenous and people of colour, that they feel similarly when white people ask them to explain racism, or when they need to challenge racism in their workplace. It is unfair to expect the people who’ve been oppressed to explain to those who’ve benefited from the oppression. It puts them in a dangerous position where they are often targeted with more abuse for “over-reacting”, “being too sensitive”, etc. Some people even lose their jobs for daring to challenge the system.

Though I have to recognize safety as my privilege and my trap, I also believe that it is a human right. Those who dismiss my safety as irrelevant or who tell me I’m over-reacting and need to calm down are attempting to gaslight me – making me think that I’m crazy or weak for needing safety. That’s how oppressors win.

As I mentioned in my last post, trauma further complicates this issue. Unhealed trauma convinces us that we are unsafe even when we aren’t. And much of that trauma is hard to pinpoint because we may have inherited it or it may have been caused before we were old enough to know what was going on. The fear that comes up when a trauma memory is triggered is as real as the fear we felt when the trauma happened.

Two more realizations:

  1. Next to air, water, and food, safety is our most basic need. We will do almost anything to find safety, including contorting ourselves in the presence of those who make us feel unsafe. Those who’ve been oppressed are usually masterful at contortion, and if they’re not, they are at greater risk.
  2. When we have experienced trauma, our need for safety is easily triggered and our bodies respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Often we don’t recognize that we are being triggered and then it’s easy to feel shame for over-reacting. Those with more power usually don’t recognize (or choose to ignore) that they are triggering our fear and our shame because their lived experience is very different.

Note: All three of the friends mentioned in this post gave permission for their stories to be shared.

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Waking up is hard to do

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Waking up is hard to do.

First, you wake up to your own oppression,
to the ways you’ve been silenced,
to the many little stories you carry about why
your words are worth less than those who
benefit most from the old story.

You wake up to the truth that
your view of yourself wasn’t only constructed by you.
It was shaped for a purpose – to keep you small,
to keep you silent.

Then you wake up to your own anger,
to the fierce determination not to obey,
not to listen to the stories,
not to stay small.

But then, one day later on,
after you’ve learned to speak,
there’s another awakening.
You wake up to the fact that
your frustration taught you to adapt rather than to rise above.
You shape-shifted to be more like them,
to work in their hallways of power,
to survive in a world that didn’t want your voice.
You became one of them to be heard by them.

Then your anger wakes up once again,
and you have a new determination.
This time, you speak with your true voice
whether or not it is heard.
You begin to live in the centre of your true life
whether or not it is acceptable to them.
You risk dismissal and disdain
because you are no longer willing to go back to sleep.

But then, one day later on,
you realize that there is something else going on,
and this will require yet another awakening.
This will require that you look with more clear eyes
and speak with an even more clear voice.

You begin to wake up to other people’s narrative,
other people’s oppression, other people’s silence.
You begin to see that those whose skin
is different from yours,
whose gender and love is different from yours,
are waking up too,
and their waking up is asking you to be uncomfortable.

Their waking up
is asking you to look more clearly and unblinkingly
at your own life.
Then you begin to wake up to your own privilege,
to the ways that you have benefitted from their oppression.
You begin to wake up to the pain in them,
and you begin to hear the cries of the silenced,
“we want to be heard too!”

This waking up is the hardest,
and you want to ignore it,
to resist it, to deny what you now see.
You want to return to your own narrative,
to your own uprising,
because in that you can feel victorious and liberated.
In that, you don’t have to face the truth
that maybe you, even you, are holding the keys
to someone else’s chains.

But finally, you can deny it no longer.
Your awakened eyes see that you are only truly free
if they are free too.

And so you wake up,
and you face the hard truths.
And you feel the hurt
when your micro-aggressions,
and white fragility are pointed out.
And you do the hard work to peer with unwavering eyes
on yourself,
and to see both the shadow and the light,
and the space in between.

And when you are awake,
you begin to see it all,
and you can’t look away.
And finally you see,
that when you are truly awake
and truly honest about your place in the world,
it is no longer threatening to stand by those
who are also waking up.

And your anger burns anew.
And your fierce determination rises up once again.
And this time, your love is big enough,
to hold their hurt along with your own.
And this time, your voice is strong enough,
to speak their truth along with your own.
And this time, your courage is deep enough,
to let them speak a truth that is
different from your own.

On holding space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege

“…whenever I dehumanize another, I necessarily dehumanize all that is human—including myself.”
– from the book Anatomy of Peace


There continues to be interest in my two articles about holding space (every week or two, there is another wave of subscribers to this newsletter and I know it’s been shared again), so I thought I’d explore some other aspects of what it means to hold space for other people.

This week, I’ve been thinking about how we hold space when there is an imbalance in power or privilege.

This has been a long-time inquiry for me. Though I didn’t use the same language at the time, I wrote my first blog post about how I might hold space for people I was about to meet in Africa whose socio-economic status was very different from mine.

I had long dreamed of going to Africa, but ten and a half years ago, when I was getting ready for my first trip, I was feeling nervous about it. I wasn’t nervous about snakes or bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements – I was nervous about the way relationships would unfold.

I was traveling with the non-profit I worked for at the time and we were visiting some of the villages where our funding had supported hunger-related projects. That meant that, in almost every encounter I’d have, I would represent the donor and they would be the recipients. I was pretty sure that those two predetermined roles would change how we’d interact. My desire to be in authentic and reciprocal relationship with them would be hindered by their perceived need to “keep the donor happy”.

That challenge was further exacerbated by:

  • a history of colonization in the countries where I was visiting, which meant that my white skin would automatically be associated with the colonizers
  • my own history of growing up in a church where white missionaries often visited and told us about how they were working in Africa to convert the heathens

In that first blog post, I wrestled with what it would mean to carry that baggage with me to Africa. I ended the post with this… 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.

In another blog post, after the trip, I wrote about how hard it was to find the right words to say to the people who’d gathered at a food distribution site…What can I say that is worthy of this moment? How can I assure them I long for friendship, not reverence?

That trip, and other subsequent ones to Ethiopia, India, and Bangladesh, stretched and challenged me. Each time I went, I wrestled with the way that my privilege and access to power would change my interactions. I became more and more intentional about entering into relationships with humility, grace, and openheartedness. I did my best to treat each person with dignity and respect, to learn from them, and to challenge my own assumptions and prejudice.

Nowadays, I don’t have the same travel opportunities, but I still find myself in a variety of situations in which there is imbalance. Sometimes I have been the one with less privilege and power (like when I used to work in corporate environments with male scientists, or when I traveled with and offered support to mostly male politicians). Other times, I have access to more power and/or privilege than others in the room (like when I am the teacher at the front of the classroom, or I am meeting with people of Indigenous descent). In each situation, I find myself aware of how the imbalance impacts the way we interact.

This week in Canada, the final report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings related to Residential Schools has come out and it raises this question for all of us across the country. Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the commission, has urged us to take action to address the cultural genocide of residential schools on aboriginal communities. Those are strong words (and necessary, I believe) and they call all of us to acknowledge the divide in power and privilege between the Indigenous people and those of us who are Settlers in this nation.

How do we hold space in a country in which there has been genocide? How do we who are settlers acknowledge our own privilege and the wounds inflicted by our ancestors in an effort to bring healing to us all?

This is life-long learning for me, and I don’t always get it right (as I shared after our first race relations conversation), but I keep trying because I know this is important. I know this matters, no matter which side of the power imbalance I stand on.

If we want to see real change in the world, we need to know how to be in meaningful relationships with people who stand on the other side of the power imbalance.

Here are some of my thoughts on what it takes to hold space for people when there is a power imbalance.

  1. Don’t pretend “we’re all the same”. White-washing or ignoring the imbalance in the room does not serve anyone. Acknowledging who holds the privilege and power helps open the space for more honest dialogue. If you are the person with power, say it out loud and do your best to share that power. Listen more than you speak, for example, or decide that any decisions that need to be made will be made collectively. If you lack power, say that too, in as gracious and non-blaming a way as possible.
  2. Change the physical space. It may seem like a small thing to move the chairs, to step away from the podium, or to step out from behind a desk, but it can make a big difference. A conversation in circle, where each person is at the same level, is very different from one in which a person is at the front of the room and others are in rows looking up at that person. In physical space that suggests equality, people are more inclined to open up.
  3. Invite contribution from everyone. Giving each person a voice (by using a talking piece when you’re sharing stories, for example) goes a long way to acknowledging their dignity and humanity. Allowing people to share their gifts (by hosting a potluck, or asking people to volunteer their organizational skills, for example) makes people feel valued and respected.
  4. Create safety for difficult conversations. When you enter into challenging conversations with people on different sides of a power imbalance, you open the door for anger, frustration, grief, and blaming. Using the circle to hold such conversations helps diffuse these heightened emotions. Participants are invited to pour their stories and emotions into the center instead of dumping them on whoever they choose to blame.
  5. Don’t pretend to know how the other person feels. Each of us has a different lived experience and the only way we can begin to understand what another person brings to the conversation (no matter what side of the imbalance they’re on) is to give them space to share their stories. Acting like you already know how they feel dismisses their emotions and will probably cause them to remain silent.
  6. Offer friendship rather than sympathy. If you want to build a reciprocal relationship, sympathy is the wrong place to start. Sympathy is a one-way street that broadens the power gap between you. Friendship, on the other hand, has well-worn paths in both directions. Sympathy builds power structures and walls. Friendship breaks down the walls and puts up couches and tables. Sympathy creates a divide. Friendship builds a bridge.
  7. Even if you have little access to power or privilege, trust that your listening and compassion can impact the outcome. I was struck by a recent story of how a group of Muslims invited anti-Muslim protestors with guns into their mosque for evening prayers. An action like that can have significant impact, cracking open the hearts of those who’ve let themselves be ruled by hatred.
  8. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know the way through. Real change happens only when there is openness to paths that haven’t been discovered yet. If you walk into a conversation assuming you know how it needs to turn out, you won’t invite authenticity and openness into the room. Your vulnerability and openheartedness invites it in others.
  9. Don’t try this alone. This kind of work requires strong partnerships. People from all sides of the power or privilege divide need to not only be in the conversation, but be part of the hosting and planning teams. That’s the only way to ensure all voices are heard and all cultural sensitivities are honoured.

I welcome your thoughts on this. What have you found that makes a difference for conversations where there is an imbalance?

 

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My 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 4.37.56 PMNote: Please read all the way to the bottom to find out how you can participate in a special anniversary project and be entered to win a prize.

Ten years ago, I started my first blog. It was called Fumbling for Words, because I am a passionate gatherer of words and am always fumbling for the right ones to articulate the complicated things that show up in my brain. And I really, really wanted to find the right words that would connect me with people because, even more than words, I love people. And I love meaningful conversations that connect me to those people.

In the beginning, there was a very particular reason for my blog. I was preparing for my first trip to Africa, a trip I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. I was traveling there in my role as Director of Communications for the non-profit organization I worked for at the time. Though I was delighted with the opportunity, the reason for going complicated the trip for me. I didn’t want to arrive on African soil as a “donor” meeting up with people who were “recipients“. That created too much power differential for me. I wanted to arrive as an equal, a story-catcher, and a listener.

I thought a lot about that, and when I think about things a lot I write about them. Writing is like breathing for me – it helps me exhale what doesn’t serve me and inhale what I need. Here’s an excerpt from my very first blog post.

Will African soil welcome me? Will the colours be as rich as those in my dreams? Will the zebras and lions gaze at me knowingly with eyes that say “we knew you’d come some day”? Will it make me feel hopeful or sad? Or both? Hopeful that this world is a vast and intricate thing of beauty and there is so much more space for me to grow and learn. Or sad that somehow I have hurt these beautiful people by my western greed and western appetite.

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.

You can read the rest of the post here.

That trip changed me, as did subsequent trips to other parts of Africa and to India and Bangladesh. Each trip cracked me open in both hard Heather with Maasai womanand beautiful ways. They fueled my love of stories and ignited my passion for meaningful conversations that connect people across the barriers of race, gender, language, and class.

When you travel with an open heart, you have an opportunity to look deeply into your own heart to examine your privilege, your prejudice, your preconceptions, and your understanding of power. Traveling to Africa caused me to question how the seeds of colonialism had grown, unbeknownst to me, in my own heart. What subtle things do I do in relationships because I assume I have a right to this privilege? What ways do I take for granted that I am entitled to power? And in what ways am I uncomfortable when people assume I have power that I don’t feel I have?

I did my best to walk on African soil with a posture of humility. It’s not always easy though, when they receive you as “rich donor who brought us food”. When I found myself in uncomfortable situations, such as the day we visited a food distribution site and the villagers had been sitting in the hot sun for hours waiting for us to arrive so that we could speak with them and help distribute their food, I dug through my history for stories that might offer some sense of reciprocity and connection.

When I came home from Africa with the responsibility of sharing stories with Canadian donors about where their money was going, I did my best to offer dignity and respect to each person whose stories I shared. I was determined not to use images that branded people as helpless victims, and the stories I told were always about their resourcefulness and ability to thrive even in difficult circumstances. But still… there was always a restlessness in that work, because I was always telling stories for the purpose of raising money rather than sharing stories as a way to build bridges, change paradigms, and find mutual healing.

That work served as a catalyst for me to dig deeper and deeper into what it might mean to build healthy relationships and host meaningful conversations across power imbalances and racial divides. My ongoing inquiry brought me to The Circle Way and The Art of Hosting. The circle, I am convinced, is the best place to start. The circle invites each person in each chair to bring themselves fully into the conversation, to serve as leader and listener, change-maker and healer.

As I reflect back over my ten years of blogging, it’s clear that I keep circling back to the same inquiry that ignited my first blog post and that brought me to the circle. In the 1521 posts I’ve written, and in the work I now do, this question comes back again and again.

How do I create safe space for meaningful conversation where barriers are removed and real growth and change can happen for all of us?

circling arount to this question in spiral with backgroundThis question took me deeper and deeper into this work, inviting me into more and more challenging conversations and situations. It led me away from that non-profit job into self-employment, it helped me build relationships with people all over the world who are hosting conversations like this, and it led me again and again back to the circle. This blog became a kind of virtual circle, inviting people into the conversation. Collectively, those of us who have gathered here (and on connected social media) have been having meaningful conversations, removing barriers, and encouraging each other to change and grow.

Together we have been learning to live more authentically, more courageously, and more compassionately. We’ve stretched ourselves, we’ve shared grief stories, we’ve celebrated together, and we’ve grown our relationships.

As I look back over 10 years of blogging, I look back to where it all began – back to that place where my tender, open heart, was ready to be stretched and changed, and ready to be in relationship with people who would change me. You, my dear reader, have stretched and changed me, just like those people I met in Africa. For that I am deeply grateful.

Though I haven’t been back to Africa since I left that job, it continues to hold a place in my heart. It’s beautiful, yes, and I’ve met amazing people there, but I think the piece that keeps calling me back is the opportunity to peer into my own privilege and to dive in to relationships that help me grow.

These things are also possible here at home, and I’m finding more and more ways to engage with this inquiry right here where I live, where the most challenging issue is the way that we as descendents of the European settlers have separated ourselves from the First Nations people through colonization and margnalization. I am seeking to understand more about the intersection between power and love and how we can build bridges by understanding both.

When my business (and blog reach) was growing earlier this year (thanks to you), I knew that I needed to use whatever influence I have for good, beyond my own income. I wanted an opportunity to support people with access to less privilege than I enjoy without allowing my support of them to contribute to the power imbalance. The best way that I knew to do this was to let someone from within that community take the lead, someone who was stepping into her own power and was already working to serve a more beautiful world. I didn’t need to look far. My friend (who’d been a youth intern on my team for a year while I worked in non-profit) Nestar Lakot Okella had started a school in the village where she grew up in Uganda.

Because I already have a high level of trust in Nestar’s ability to lead and be a change-maker, it didn’t take much for me step alongside as an ally in support of Uganda Kitgum Education Foundation. I hosted my first fundraiser in celebration of my birthday in May, and with your help, my dear readers, we were able to send more than $2000 to the school. Since then I’ve been sending a portion of the proceeds from programs such as Mandala Discovery and The Spiral Path.

IMG_2819This past week, I received a set of photos from Nestar and they brought tears to my eyes. They were very simple photos of men making chairs, but they meant so much.

Nestar’s note said: “I wanted to share pictures we got from Kitgum. We are able to order 125 chairs and 125 tables and 1 bookshelf for every classroom. All the items are being made locally in Kitgum, so the local community can also benefit from our school project through the jobs created.

“Thank you for your contribution which has partially made this possible. No more learning on the floor for our students next year, YES! :)”

It delights me to no end to imagine the children returning to their classrooms after their winter break ends in January to find out they now have chairs, tables, and bookshelves in their classrooms!

Today, as I celebrate 10 years of blogging, it seems beautifully appropriate that what started as a way to capture my stories of Africa has brought me full circle to this place where I can use my blog as a platform to support the learning and empowerment of young people in Africa whose school was started by a leader from their own community. Some day I would love to be in relationship with the students of that school, not as a benefactor to beneficiaries, but as co-learners and co-creators, working to make the work a little bit better.

And that brings me to my special anniversary campaign.

I want to continue to support the education of children in Uganda AND I want to support my own dream of taking my writing to a broader audience.

I love the idea of us learning and growing together in separate parts of the world. I imagine myself sitting in one of those blue chairs in a circle with them, each of us stretching and growing into our capacity, reading books and writing books and learning to be loving, powerful change-makers and leaders.

This is where you come in. I want to invite you to support my 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project:

  1. The students at UKEF need textbooks. Nestar tells me that there are only one or two textbooks for each classroom and they want to buy more. A textbook costs approximately $12.50, so it wouldn’t take much for us to buy enough for every one of the 300 children at the school.
  2. I intend to publish a book in 2015. As many of you know, this has been a long held dream of mine. I completed what I thought would be my first published book two years ago, but I set it aside when my mom died and then it never really felt like it had evolved into what it was meant to be. The book is now evolving into one called “Circling around to this” and it will be the story of how I’ve been growing into the question above and how it has led me to circle, labyrinth, mandala, and spiral. (Who knows… I might even visit Africa on a future book tour!)

If we are able to raise $7500, there will be enough to buy textbooks for all of the students AND I’ll have most of what I need to publish a book.

If this blog (or my newsletters or any of my writing) has touched you in any way in the last ten years AND you believe all children should have access to education, there are two ways that you can support this dual fundraising goal:

  1. Make a donation using the form below. Half of all money donated will be sent to UKEF for textbooks (or for whatever else Nestar decides the money is best used for – I am determined to let her and the school leadership make the best decisions they need to make without this becoming donor-controlled). The other half will be set aside for the publishing costs associated with getting my book into print.
  2. Make a purchase of anything from my portfolio before December 19th and half of the proceeds will be donated to UKEF and half will go to my publishing fund. You can register for Mandala Discovery in January or for The Spiral Path in February, you can buy A Soulful Year or Lead with Your Wild Heart, you can sign up for coaching, or you can buy something from my Etsy shop.

To make this a little more interesting, I’ve put together a prize package. At 5 p.m. central on Friday, December 19th, I’ll pick a name from all of those who have contributed, and one lucky winner will receive the following (total value $204 + shipping):photo

Thank you in advance for making a contribution to the 10th Anniversary Book + Books Project!

Note: if you wish to dedicate your donation to only one of the two causes I’m fundraising for, indicate that in the comment box and I will honour your request.

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