Posted in Liberation
January 22, 2019
“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence.”
The quote above has been cited every now and then over the past dozen years or so that I have been with IISC, including a later line – “The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace.” Some combination of these words seem to come to mind and lips more frequently as many of the organizations and networks with which we work are are dealing with oppressive dynamics of overwork and urgency, whether they identify as activist or not.
These dynamics are increasingly recognized as an aspect of white dominant and supremacist culture and hyper-capitalist fervor that reduces many people to “producers” in the workplace and extracts as much labor as they can give. In our race equity and social change work, we see this as part and parcel of the structures that must be named and addressed for justice, liberation and sustainability to be realized.
In a recent workshop with an organization we are supporting through a two-year race, equity and inclusion transformation process, we invited the predominantly white staff into a dialogue circle to unpack their self-identified culture of overwork and urgency, to look more deeply at what they are gaining from this (and who in particular gains most), what they are losing (and who loses most), and what it would take to do commit to creating something different. Here is some of what we have heard, aspects of which are being echoed in various other organizations, networks and communities (curious to know what resonates): Read More
December 27, 2018
“I need love
Not some sentimental prison
I need god
Not the political church
I need fire
To melt the frozen sea inside me
I need love.”
– Sam Phillips
Image by Luke, Ma, “Love by Nature,” shared under provisions of Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.
I started this year with a post focused on love, and this idea that 2018 would be the year of love. This thinking wasn’t offered through rose-colored glasses, but from a shared sense and conviction that love would be required to see the year through. And not just any kind of love. In that original post there were a few definitions and quotes that we have been playing with at IISC, including these:
“All awakening to love is spiritual awakening… All the great social movements for freedom and justice in our society have promoted a love ethic.”
– bell hooks
“Justice is what love looks like in public.”
– Cornel West
“To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him [sic] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”
– William Sloane Coffin
“Love is seeing the other as a legitimate other.”
– Humberto Maturana
December 6, 2018
“The ultimate act of love is allowing ourselves and others to be complex.”
This week, my boss told me she loved me. It was not problematic, in fact it was beautiful. It was following a few days we had taken as the IISC network to get clear on our next strategic steps, considering how we are part of a movement of racial equity change makers.
While we have spoken for several years about how love is a central part of our collaborative change lens, we are doing an ever-better job of embodying it, first with ourselves and then with our clients.
Cornel West tells us that justice is what love looks like in public. He and others have revitalized a tradition that is more holistic and does not segregate love, both in the feeling state and the action state, from our work for equity. Many have preceded us who carry that wisdom. In gatherings of activists and change makers, I hear people yearning for our full humanity, to be able to have emotions as we work, to feel whole in our beings, to feel like we each belong. In our work spaces, especially when we are working at our life purpose, we yearn for satisfying and impactful spaces where we are paid what we need, can bring a wholeness, and can enjoy people and art. One of our labor foremothers in Lawrence, Rose Schneiderman, put it this way– “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
Over the past five years, we have been trying to center love. We do that in light ways, by using the word, and by bringing a variety of practices to our IISC and client spaces: intentional breathing and meditation, appreciations, embodying joy and love as we start a day, reclaiming space and time for fun and playfulness and relaxation. While these can be light touch, they are also not to be underestimated. Too frequently, we and others, make it through many a work day without any of this.
And this year we have been committing to dipping our toes in further. Some of the ways we are experimenting with and aspiring toward love at IISC:
- We prioritized a small group of practitioners to imagine what equity work with love at the center looks like and how that differs from an organizing or facts-based strategy
- We let each other know that everyone belongs and that everyone is loved.
- We take pauses before entering difficult work or conflict settings
- We try to start our own and other gatherings from a place of vision and abundance
- We are embedding more practices into our training and consulting and coaching work
Love is definitely an emotion and can be expressed in words. It can also be felt more fully if it is in everything we do from how we interact throughout the day, to how we design spaces, to how we use time and build in pauses, to how we deal with mistakes and conflict.
This week, as we gathered around what might be heady material, editing our theory of change and planning our next strategic steps, we used half a day to get to know each other and our cares through honoring ancestors, building an altar, and talking about our fears and anger. And this intent was spread throughout our time.
One activity that many found deeply connecting is described below. I am calling it “Greeting with love and joy.” It was intended to ground, to center joyfulness, and from there to greet one another in silence and with a depth of connection.
These are some of the ways the activities and spaciousness made me feel vulnerable, more willing to share more truth, more open to hearing others and more open to seeing them fully, less reactive, loved.
Love surely is the answer to many questions. And it is not easy. We need to honor the time it takes, and we need to take seriously how to prioritize and integrate love, especially during times of conflict, and in all our work, including finance!
We are curious how love comes to work for you. What are some examples? Where are you feeling challenged?
Greeting with Love and Joy
This activity starts with time in a standing meditation to get grounded and connected to the world around us, to “gather” some elements we might need and to recall a time of joy. We then spend time in silence, connecting to others in the gathering, by walking around and stopping to gaze at another person from that place of joy or love. We end with some music or a chant to allow people to shift back into sound and return to the circle.
Guided breathing to center and to gather elements.
Ask people to stand with legs shoulder-width apart and either eyes closed or gazing down. Lead them through a series of deep breathing:
- into their centers.
- into their length, grounding into the floor and connecting through the head to the sky, gathering an element from each place.
- into their back bodies to feel supported by ancestors and into the front body thinking about their commitment to the work.
- into their side bodies to connect to people on either side of them and in the broader community.
- back to center to imagine a moment of joy or love, to envision the sound and smells and feel that so they can carry that into the next piece of the activity.
Now let that picture and feeling of joy expand in your body from a kernel in your belly, out through your body, and to begin to expand beyond you.
Walk around for a minute with your eyes mostly down, feeling your joy in your step.
Now, raise your eyes and with the joy throughout your body, stop as you encounter another person. As you encounter each person, you are invited to pause for 10-30 seconds, as you are comfortable, and gaze directly into their eyes. You are bringing your joy & love to the greeting, you are seeing them in their joy, and you are receiving the love and joy in how they are silently greeting you.
Continue this for at least 5-10 minutes so that people can greet most others in the room. Consider integrating virtual participants by having multiple video stations so that participants in the room can stop by those stations to gaze at their colleagues who are remote.
Invite people to return to the circle/their seats. I ended with a short song/chant that I know as a way to bring sound back to the room and transition out of this intense moment of connecting. You can also ask people to journal or share feelings or an appreciation after they return. The intensity is both in insisting that we are connecting from love and in the silent but powerful eye gazing.
November 19, 2018
“By coming to the edges; by staying longer in the place that is supposedly without utility, empty, null and void; by dwelling with the bewildering awkwardness and staying with the trouble; other places of power become visible.”- Bayo Akomolafe
At a recent community of practice gathering of IISC consultants – a space in which we reveal our learnings and challenges – we explored the radical importance of creating spaciousness in our personal lives, as well as in our training and facilitation rooms. I believe spaciousness is the slow food of facilitation.
Slow food is used in progressive circles to describe living an unhurried life and taking time to enjoy meals and simple pleasures. It’s the complete opposite to fast food culture which, much like American work culture, is based on white and capitalist dominant norms of urgency, desperation, quantity over quality, and progress as always bigger and more.
We have forgotten to slow down. To say “no” lovingly. To just stop and pause lightly even for a few moments or minutes. IISC affiliate and former long-time Senior Associate Andrea Nagel shared at our community of practice session, “We can’t just talk our way into being. We need to be ‘in being.” Miriam Messinger, IISC’s director of practice, agreed and pointed out that “We have a fear of ‘being’ and we are rewarded for ‘doing’ in our culture.”
In our work with a client organization’s Race Equity Design Team, a member shared in a recent gathering, “We do have people who say no, but they have little power – we dismiss them. There is an unspoken sensation that we realize that ‘no’ is really not an acceptable word.” The team challenged themselves to slow down and get to the heart of things.
As facilitators and trainers, we can uproot white supremacy and capitalist culture just by adding spaciousness and slowness to our approach and design of meetings and gatherings. We can start with meditation and art, and we can focus on flow. Reduce the number of topics on an agenda. Pause to give people chances to breathe or take in moments of silence. Encourage people to empty their thoughts onto a page. Bring them into nature to walk and stretch. We can be firm on allowing at least one hour for people to eat lunch at day-long meetings so they can eat with intention and connect to people, and give no fewer than 15 minutes for a quality break. We can talk slower, walk around the room slower, and let space and time ebb and flow to allow people’s emergent thoughts to come into conversations. These thoughts are often the most strategic, brave, and authentic, and often the ones that allow new ideas to come into being and new cultural norms of collaboration to take hold.
There are times for high energy in a training or facilitation, but we can still offer spaciousness — more time for conversation and more time for self and group care. The rush of life and dominant culture will take us and our conversation over unless we intentionally create spaciousness. We have to re-condition ourselves to slow our minds and reduce or focus less on our “tasks”. If we disrupt the dominant pattern for one minute, one hour, or one day, it’s a victory in our current society. We can engage in practices to help us “be” in true and transformative collaborative relationship with one another.
Let’s breathe together. Thanks for listening.
October 10, 2018
The board and staff of Interaction Institute recently gathered to learn from others working to bring about racial equity and to talk about how we build a board structure that supports or propels our work in new ways. To start the day, we did an icebreaker I called, “Reclaim for Liberation.”
A colleague planted this seed. What are the qualities or traits we once had that have been taken from us—by family dynamics or trauma, by histories of oppression, or as we have become adults and try to live in the dominant culture? And which of these do we actually want back?
Sometimes, as we are reaching for liberation, we find ourselves fighting against what exists. What we need more of is the vision of what we are heading toward. And sometimes, we imagine that we need completely new tools and skills and ways of being to get to our vision. What if we actually know (or used to know) most of what we need for transformation?
Growing up in this culture and transforming ourselves to fit, particularly as women and/or people of color and/or queer people, we shed things that are not only elemental to us but deeply important for our ability to move forward. Much of this is related to how white supremacy impacts our ways of being and asks most of us to be much smaller than nature would have us be.
When we did the exercise below, people told each other short stories of what they wanted to reclaim for the journey. The words that came up included play, song, dance, carefree, silly, laughter. And then the members of each small group used their bodies to create a sculpture embodying the words and feelings of their group.
It would have been even more effective if we then had kept those ways of being fully present throughout the day, particularly when more challenging conversations emerged. I would like now for us to practice bringing those skills into difficult conversations and see if they help us to speak and solve together.
Try this meditation and share what you see in the group. Do more possibilities or new pathways forward emerge as a result?
Reclaim for Liberation
Allow 20-30 minutes, ideally.
Let people know that in this work for liberation we sometimes feel that we don’t have all we need for change. And perhaps some of what we need we have lost on the way or was taken from us. We are going to spend time individually and as a group reclaiming some of the lost qualities that can be important to us now.
1. Start with a guided meditation (5-6 minutes to set up and lead people in and out)
- Ask people to take up space in the room; to spread out; can stand or sit
- Get planted—feeling souls of feet on ground, butt on chair if seated; close eyes or soft gaze
- 10 deep breaths
- Feel your body planted—feel the souls of your feet touching the ground, feel your hands resting on your legs or by your side
- Roll each shoulder back—breath into your full breadth, feel connected to those around you
- Hear the sounds of the room
- Breathe to elongate—feel the roots shooting down from feet, up from the crown of the head reaching toward the sky—feel your full length and integrity
- Ask people to travel back in years; begin to imagine a place you felt joy or lightness, a sense of freedom
- What sounds do you hear?
- What are you seeing around you?
- Are there any smells?
- Look around
- Are you inside or outside?
- Is this a place you recognize or a specific setting that is important to your childhood?
- Are there people around you or are you alone?
- Play in this space, enjoy the feelings.
- Is there a piece of yourself that is present that you may have left behind? Is there a feeling or essence of that self that you want to bring forward and reclaim? Is there something (playful, clear, relaxed) that may be useful for your liberation today?
- Draw people back to the room – come back into your body, hear the sounds around you, become more conscious of your breathing again, take time to come back into the room, and – when you’re ready – open your eyes.
2. In Trios (8-10 minutes) [decide in advance if there are any instructions needed about how to form trios—such as with people you don’t know or with whom you work less frequently]
- Each person gets a minute to share the quality that you want to bring forward. Ask yourself: What did I see in my younger self that might serve me in my liberation work today? Share a picture, words or a posture.
- Each group decides on a way to share back with the full group—encourage a physical sculpture or representation that captures everyone’s words or the quality of what was shared
3. Share back with group—up to 1 minute per group.
4. Ask people to call out some of the other words or feelings they want to carry into the day. You may want to capture some on a chart so you have a visual for your time together.
5. Decide as a group how you will keep pulling in these useful ways of being. This can be particularly useful if you have decisions to make or tensions to address. Ask people to consider an embodiment of their word or quality before engaging in such a conversation.
July 11, 2018
Many articles have been devoted to running effective meetings that build collaboration among teams, yet many fail to discuss the hidden element that can destroy a meeting almost without fail.
Power dynamics – the ways in which power works in a setting – can either sink a meeting and negatively impact relationships for years, or produce more shared power and capacity to get things done. A lot of the difference comes down to how we attend to power dynamics in meetings, how well we plan our meetings, how well we determine what happens within and outside of meetings, and how well we facilitate in the moment.
In every organization, there are people who hold formal power and informal power. Formal power is attributed to someone by virtue of their title or position in the organization. People carry informal power if they have influence over others or their organization, either because of their experience, force of personality or persuasion, unearned privilege, or because they have strong relationships with decision-makers and peers. Power is also deeply influenced by diversity and equity dynamics. In most Western societies today, many decisions in organizations are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds: over 40, male, white/European, heterosexual, and middle class and wealthy people. Many feel empowered to lead, speak, and make decisions by virtue of the standing society gives to them on the basis of their background. They get a lot of practice leading and people are acculturated to following and respecting them.
Power — the capacity to get things done — is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. It’s all about how we construct, reconstruct, and practice power. Individuals can exercise their power in healthy ways if they stay focused on making space for others and growing power to achieve positive outcomes by building “power with” others. Individuals and groups can exercise their power in unhealthy ways if they are focused on establishing “power over” others or concentrating power in a few.
At IISC we have made some key observations about power in meetings:
- Power dynamics are always present in meetings whether we see them or not.
- Every meeting is a chance to build a group’s power and transform power dynamics. It’s important to design and facilitate meetings to create opportunities for power to be shared and openly discussed.
- Meeting designers and facilitators must attend to formal and informal power and the dynamics that come along with it.
- Meeting facilitators should be mindful of and acknowledge their own power and enact it in a way that builds the power of the group.
- Every element of meetings needs preparation to make power and decision-making transparent. Consider questions like: Who is at the meeting and who is not? Why or why not? What’s on the agenda and what’s not on the table for discussion that should be? Who will be making the decisions that flow from what will be discussed (both in the room and beyond)? Who plays which roles and why? What work will happen outside of the meeting? What information from the meeting should be shared and with whom?
So, what are some ways to attend to power dynamics in meetings?
- Assume power dynamics are always present in meetings. Design your meeting agenda to include multiple voices and perspectives. Lightly encourage people to step forward to lead and participate, especially if they have less power in the organization either because of role, positional status, race, gender, or other factors. Encourage people with traditional forms of formal power to do more listening than speaking.
- Build a culture of collaboration in meetings. Think of meetings as an opportunity for a team to build relationships, learn leadership, design good processes, and counteract unhealthy uses of power. Design your meetings for relationships, joy, and creativity. Good things will follow! Always build an agenda that allows people to first interact on a human basis, such as starting with opportunities for people to do a “check-in” to share how their day or week is going or to learn more about each other on a personal level. Ask people a question that surfaces their personal and professional purpose. Encourage honesty, vulnerability, and calling people “in”, instead of calling people “out”. Spread a little business love around the room, creating openings for people to feel heard and noticed, and to experience a sense of belonging and interconnectedness.
- Openly discuss power in meetings. Discuss openly with your team the question, what would be the benefits to our group if we shared power? Remind them that power is not a finite pie; rather, it can be infinite, expanded, and shared among people and leaders. Prompt them to explore how they can share “power with” each other instead of “power over.” Make a list of meeting agreements the group will use to share power. Ask people to monitor the agreements and be brave enough to intervene if people are not practicing them. Make a list of “power over” moves, so people learn the behaviors that reinforce dominant voices and power and exclude others. Have people take mental note of who is speaking the most and who is not. Make sure your discussions of power go beyond yourselves as colleagues to the people or communities you serve. How are they “at the table?” How are their priorities, assets, and skills driving the discussion?
- Remember that power is a social construct. We can design spaces where individuals and groups experience their own and others’ power differently. Be proactive about ways to amplify the power of people who are typically at the margins of the conversation. Challenge the group to pay at least as much attention to the expertise that comes from lived experience (say, of poverty) as from formal theories and data. Flip questions on their head by asking “why not do things differently?” instead of “how can we work within given boundaries?” Ensure that people who are affected by the issues you’re working on are at the center of the conversation and have meaningful roles in the work over time (inside meetings and beyond).
- Use your role intentionally and thoughtfully if you’re the meeting facilitator. Don’t dominate the discussion. Don’t come up with all the ideas. Stay as impartial as possible, even though you can never truly be completely neutral. If you want to contribute an idea or experience, tell the group you are switching from facilitator role to express your view as an individual and then step back into your facilitator role. Examine who gets to facilitate meetings and who doesn’t. Meeting facilitators can change the outcome of the meeting just by how they design and run it. Rotating facilitation and supporting people to learn how to facilitate and run meetings distributes power and makes meetings more dynamic.
The skills of meeting facilitation with a lens to share power are teachable and replicable. At IISC, we share some of those skills through training and consulting. We have learned that meetings that are both well facilitated and that attend to power dynamics can transform groups into highly functioning teams with deeper purpose and intention for social change.
April 16, 2018
At Passover, there is a song about being thankful for each thing we are blessed with. Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” It is a call to appreciate the small things and to recognize that they are enough. And yet, within the “enough” there is a simultaneous recognition that the first gift or step is not enough without the next one.
In a world where racism is rampant, and where the impacts are real – often deadly, even – is there an “enough” in terms of being collaborators for change? It feels like it is never enough when lives are at stake.
On the one hand, there is never enough until we have envisioned and called into being the liberated and equitable and pleasing community that allows us all to thrive. This reality requires a commitment that is bone deep. It is the kind of commitment that requires constant thinking and action to live into new ways. It is held knowing that upending racism and racist systems is something to die for.
On the other hand, each action, each change to the individual and to the system, needs to be celebrated. For that one moment, it is enough. As long as we know that a new moment emerges when more is needed, and the past action is certainly no longer enough.
What is the first step and what is the next one? For many white people striving to be collaborators, the work begins with learning and knowing and then shifting awareness, then teaching, then ultimately embodied anti-racism practice in relationship with other white people and people of color. Perhaps a move from external to internal; from pointing out the faults of others to seeing how, despite best intentions, we are each implicated in racist systems; from tight vigilance to looser living and correcting.
- Reading books and learning by black artists and intellectuals who have created parts of the world we want Dayenu
- Understanding the history of racism and how it got institutionalized in the US and globally Dayenu
- Bringing a new consciousness to my actions as I walk through the world Dayenu
- Naming racism in all-white spaces Dayenu
- Building authentic relationship across difference Dayenu
- Helping other white people along the journey through openness and kindness Dayenu
- Showing up as a vulnerable person who can acknowledge my mistakes and own my racism Dayenu
- Ongoing learning through books, workshops, conversation, community Dayenu
- Contributing to and investing in multi-racial community at work and at home Dayenu
- Putting my life on the line Dayenu
The work of a white ally or accomplice is never ending, to be sure. It requires a lot of effort. And yet, it should not be a slog. We are doing this for ourselves as much as for anyone else. We recognize that ending white privilege and white supremacy allows us to be full human beings as we disrupt the notion of superiority on which this country was founded.
In my work in trainings and coaching, I encourage both the ongoing effort and the need to celebrate.
Maybe this is one way to be gentle and joyful in our work for liberation – to celebrate each small step as if it were enough while also knowing that it is never enough until we are all free and that we need to want and to create more.
What does it mean to you to do equity work with both insistence and gentleness, step by step?
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach… What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
April 13, 2018
And you will be undone forever.
Pursuing racial equity and systems change is a forever equation. I am noticing that our clients and friends believe that if we just implement racial equity, diversity, and inclusion “the right way,” our organizations, movements, and networks will immediately become effective multiracial ecosystems that produce transformative results.
We will always be undone. People and systems – the very world we live in – are ever changing and reverting and that’s why I have to be honest that the work of racial equity will always be unfinished.
People are always coming in and out of our organizations, some with knowledge of our path to create racial justice and others completely unknowing and beginning the discovery of systemic racism. Even if we root out systems of injustice and racism in specific institutions or sectors, they will exist in other places and invariably slip back into our ecosystem. The world is encased in racial stratification. We can dismantle racism in one territory and it can spread elsewhere as people and their ideas travel.
Oppression cannot be fixed. It’s not a linear proposition. It swarms, grows, gets attacked at moments, dissipates, and then finds its way back into our systems as fearful ways of thinking and unproductive ways of doing. And because we are a species and planet dependent on each other, the chronic patterns of racism can reenter our minds and societies. We are imperfect people in deeply imperfect systems.
We are making progress but it’s not the kind where there’s a clear end in sight. We’re learning together. We’re trying new practices of shared power. We’re rooting out racist policies in our laws and organizations. Our systems are feeling the pressure because of our joint actions.
But we won’t do it “right” and we won’t get it “right.” We will be undone.
But don’t let this disappointment get in the way of persistent bold action.
We will have moments of clarity. Moments of seeing new possibilities. Months of progress in our leadership for equity and justice. Years of growth and learning. Examples of power shifting and sharing all around us. Detrimental laws defeated. It will feel like freedom, like less damage is around and inside of us.
Let’s see ourselves as equilibrium makers, re-introducing people to see the problem of racism once again, re-balancing power as the dynamics return, re-calibrating systems when they revert, revisiting change in ourselves and others with humility, and re-birthing our best nature and ideas toward liberation.
Each of us are needed to extricate the roots of racism. We can still be a constant catalyst for change all the while knowing that we will be undone.
March 22, 2018
This post was originally published on this date in 2016 and we find it enduringly relevant today. It contains a true story and a Facilitator’s Guide for handling situations like this.
A True Story
At a recent training I was leading for an all queer and multiracial group, an older white man “John” took offense to my use of the word queer. As an icebreaker, I had asked the group to share in a pair, when did you first know you were queer? During the debrief, John took time to explain how the Q-word brought back painful memories of the many ways he was shamed growing up. As he explained, he got emotional and then said “using the Q-word is like using the N-word for me.” And he actually said the N-word.
The air in the room suddenly got heavy and many people shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The three black men in the group looked stunned, and the rest of the people of color in the circle turned to me to do something. The white man kept talking, completely unaware of that this micro-aggression had caused a change in the room. I waited for a white person to address what happened. But folks remained silent, so just as the next person began sharing, I stopped the process.
“I want to stop and check something out with you and the group. Is it ok if I do that?” I asked John and turned to the group to seek their approval. “John, thank you for sharing the impact that I had on you when I used the Q-word in this circle. I want to account to you for that. I also heard you use the N-word and I am wondering if you would be open to hearing the impact that that word could have had in the space?”
February 2, 2018
February 5, we launch a connection/productivity experiment called Rays. It derives from a critical piece of team infrastructure we invented while working at IISC, the secret ingredient to our team’s performance. Without it, we noticed a gap and with it, the work (and our team) flowed more smoothly. That makes us think our little practice could benefit others. So we’ve decided to do an open call for participants.
The practice is a short, daily meeting: Rays. For less than 30 minutes, you will join an online call and share three things:
- RAY: something you are grateful for
- TASK: something you are doing that day
- BLOCK: something literal or existential in the way
There is no solving. It’s just reporting and listening.
We are inviting people to join us in February (starting as early as the 5th!). You commit to showing up to an online call for 5-days, up to 30 minutes, and sharing.
January 31, 2018
Power. Networks. Love. These three aspects of the IISC’s Collaborative Change Lens were not the official theme of the Victory Institute’s 2017 International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) Leaders Conference, but they were woven throughout everything that happened there.
The Victory Institute works to get LGBTQ people into elected and appointed office. Their annual conference brings together elected officials, leaders, and advocates for three-days. The content of the conference focuses on skill-building, information sharing, and formal and informal networking.
The first gathering of this group took place in 1984 with about a dozen people. Attendee John Heilman, city council member of West Hollywood, described the gathering as “more like a support group” than a conference. It has now grown to a convergence of over 500 attendees from all over the world.
The reclaiming of power is central to the mission of the Victory Institute: “LGBTQ Victory Institute works to increase the number of LGBTQ people in public office and to provide programming, service and other support to help ensure their success.”
Why do we need more LGBTQ people in public office? With characteristic wit and bluntness, former U.S. Representative Barney Frank, the first person in Congress to come out voluntarily, said, “If you are not at the table, you are likely on the menu.”
The data tells the story this way: there is a direct correlation between the number of LGBTQs in elected office and the inclusion and equality of a jurisdiction’s policies.
In traditional ways, conferences tend to have a strengthening effect on networks. At plenaries and breakouts, attendees of the Victory conference had opportunities to connect around shared interests and maybe even to flirt a little. But the conference used the opportunity of the traditional schmoozing times to amplify traditionally marginalized voices. There was a “Leading in Color” reception which lifted up people of color, an International reception, and a Women Out to Win reception. The Institute also strengthened their pipeline for young leaders with the Victory Congressional Internship Meet & Greet.
The feeling of love was palpable throughout the conference. Because of the bullying and harassment we’ve experienced, no one knows better than the LGBTQ community how much humans need to be celebrated and cheered. Whenever someone announced they were running for elected office, the audience burst into applause.
The spirit of love and humility was also present in a frequently repeated quote from Danika Roehm, the transgender metalhead stepmom, elected as the first openly transgender person to the Virginia Assembly – the first to serve in any state legislature actually. Roem won against Robert Marshall, the sponsor of a bill to restrict public bathroom use by transgender people, who referred to himself as Virginia’s “chief homophobe.” After the election, when asked if she had anything to say about Marshall, Roem said, “I don’t attack my constituents. Delegate Marshall is my constituent now.”
Pretty lucky constituent.
January 29, 2018
I migrated to the United States in 1998 via the F1 visa application process. This process allows a family member who is a citizen to apply for immediate relatives to become permanent residents. The premise of this process is one of family reunification and the applicant (citizen) must be a resident in the United States during the greater part of the application period. In my case, my mother was the applicant so this meant that during the better part of two years while I was in high school my mother had to live in the United States while my brother and I lived in Trinidad. Being separated wasn’t the only thing we all/each sacrificed; there are several ramifications of this process that go along with the privileges of becoming a US citizen. And, I don’t make light of those privileges, especially as my particular immigration story is indeed one of great privilege relative to the experiences of those who are currently under direct attack by the federal government and by the right wing media. (I say “currently” not to say that undocumented immigrants were not under attack by previous administrations, but to say that I do not know when naturalized citizens and permanent residents will be under direct attack, as well. We’ve already seen it begin with the “Muslim Ban.”) But this reflection isn’t about the politics of migration, although we would do well to continue to reflect deeply on that. Rather, I am contemplating the state of my heart as an immigrant.
One thing I have noticed over the time that I have been in the US is that my heart is always torn in two. As someone who straddles two different ways of being, two different nationalities, two different ways of looking at the world, it has been a doozy for reconciling identity. On the one hand, this is stressful, but on the other, like so many other third culture people I know, it is actually a great super power. I can see the world from different perspectives and can necessarily integrate them in a way that produces something better than the sum of the parts. Immigrants have super powers, y’all. We can take the best of many different worlds and create beautiful, delicious, vibrant expressions of what liberatory futures look like.
Today, one of the experiences that I’m yearning for that comes from my culture is the annual ritual of liberation we call Jouvay or J’ouvert. I won’t go into all the history of colonialism and slavery that gave rise to this tradition, but I will say that in the modern era it is a great spiritual cleansing and a public ritual of liberation that takes over the streets of Port of Spain during the climactic second-to-last morning of the Carnival season. (This year it will take place in mid-February.) Carnival itself is a letting go, a festival of liberation based on the pre-Lenten Catholic festivals of the French and Spanish when they gave one last hurrah to the vices and proclivities of the flesh before engaging in the 40-day long period of fasting beginning on Ash Wednesday. During our Jouvay, participants adorn themselves in handmade costumes, and in mud, oil, paint, and cocoa or baby powder, and they chip through the streets in great abandon under cover of darkness in the early hours of the morning until just after sunrise. Jouvay begins at 2:00 a.m. and ends around 7:00 a.m.! I am watching friends in Trinidad prepare for this day by gathering mud, by gathering the friends they want to be with on the road, and by beating the drum of anticipation for the ritual that allows for release and rebirth.
I crave this ritual or any other ritual of liberation that allows us to let go, to be free, without trappings and accoutrement, without fear. To experience what it is like to just have love, and music, and dance, and laughter, and spirit…and rum. I am craving stories of the feeling of liberation here in the US. I am craving a liberation praxis. So often when we are asked about liberation as activists, we describe the struggle, the fight, the organizing, the process towards liberation. But I want to know…what elements of liberation are people experiencing right now even in the midst of the struggle? Even if it is for just a moment or an hour, when do you feel free? What are the experiences we want to expand in our liberatory future because they make us feel a little bit free now?