Here’s to my dear friend, Rachel, who is the first to initiate a letter with me in this series. In it, Rachel discusses inclusion. My response is below.
The topic rose to the surface of her mind when she received an invitation to join a group that prided itself on its exclusivity. Always a critical thinker, she pondered this seriously before making any decision.
On one hand, as she notes, “Sometimes communities can suffer when they grow too large: they run out of food, some voices are muffled, or personal connections with everyone become too difficult.” However, it is important to observe the patterns. It is common knowledge that groups throughout history have excluded certain people not for those logistical reasons but out of spiteful bigotry or worse.
Rachel takes the conversation further in her “Last thought–
“Inclusivity might also be a privilege. You can’t be inclusive in some scenarios unless you have the time, money, and access to support different people or groups of people. We can’t help change the size of the table unless we’re already in the room with that table, so to speak.”
28 MAY 2018
I profoundly appreciate your thoughts and your bringing up this topic. Especially in the U.S. it seems like groups who were already different are drifting toward opposite ends. Dialogues that unite are desperately needed, but how do we find inclusion for everyone? And indeed, the ability to include is a privilege in itself!
In my most recent job in Chicago, one of my first tasks was to help implement an educational summer program. All of the young participants were students of color from the South and West Side of the city. I reached out to obstetricians, psychologists, police officers, game designers–the list of guest speakers was beautifully diverse in profession and background.
Then, July of 2016 began. Alton Sterling was shot by police while pinned to the ground in Baton Rouge. The next day, Philando Castile was shot near Minneapolis. One day after that, a peaceful protest in Dallas ended when an army veteran shot and killed five police officers and wounded nine other people. Over 200 people were arrested across multiple states, and the country felt like it was reliving all of its worst nightmares. However, there were marches which managed to keep peace while expressing deep frustration, too. One of the marches in Chicago was led by four young, black women from local high schools. They focused over a thousand who joined them on poetry, song, and non-violence. They worked directly with police escorts to maintain a clear, peaceful message.
Understandably, our students were morose and barely participated in simple ice-breaker activities during the first day of the summer program. Suddenly, my list of speakers did not seem enough. I saw that we needed to add voices who knew how to speak to this anguish in productive ways. Via Instagram, I reached out to the high school students who organized that Black Lives Matter Youth March in Chicago, and two of them agreed to come lead a session with our program participants. Having arranged it, I felt proud of myself and I took a seat in the room thinking I might have something to say.
Then, I learned something. I learned what you put words to in your letter.
In my seat in the corner, behind everyone else, I felt quite literally excluded from the table–a table I had set by inviting the speakers. At first, this met with my bit of pride in having arranged this session and I felt a sense of exclusion. Then, I heard the two young, black women speaking bluntly and openly about their experiences in Chicago; struggles of injustice, daily micro-aggression, but resilient hope and self-motivation through art, through unity and dialogue. I watched the glowing students who last week carried deadened eyes. I felt myself become irrelevant. And you know what–it was a perfectly beautiful feeling. It was such a necessary feeling. One of the young women even said things that I disagreed with, but I knew that my opinion was not necessary. I only listened.
I had had a privilege to be at the table from the beginning. It was a privilege to be able to bring a voice different than my own to that table. But, that is just the thing: it is a privilege to be included in a conversation, not a right.
In that moment, I tangibly felt that some needed conversations are happening without those of us white Americans who are used to being part of all the conversations in our lives. I believe that hearing those conversations is important. Also, I believe that it is not my right to contribute to them, unless invited. As one of my beloved heroes says in her song, Django Jane, “Move back, take a seat, you are not involved / And hit the mute button…”
As you stated, our presence at the table is a privilege. Some have fought for generations to claim a seat at the table. Others have defied all obstruction and built their own damn table. For me, both routes are acceptable. The full diversity of voices needs to be heard for all of us to heal together. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to hand that privilege to another and move back, take a seat, hitting our mute buttons, and elevating more voices.
I hope your voice can lend some more to this great conversation you started. Please tell me, what do you think?
Happily yours at some tables, and at others happily not,
I solicited a friend and kindred nomad, Dre Vidal, to exchange letters with me. Knowing he understands well what it means to live in isolated and misunderstood parts of the world I thought we might discuss that in depth. However, the irony of asking for a letter to be sent from somewhere isolated about being somewhere isolated was perhaps too much. In Dre’s own words, he replied, “Sounds like a great idea, but no.”
I am thankful for his response, because as Dre often does, he has made me consider my ideas from a wider range of perspectives. In doing so, the ideas become more rounded and inclusive. Dre hails from northern New Zealand. Thus, sending a letter to me in Chicago comprises more than a simple movement of paper. Beyond the use of ink and paper, it also contributes in its small way to burning 8,000 miles’ worth of jet fuel.
From my own time living on an island, I know that islanders tend to have a more practical understanding of what it means to use and to discard, because they have to. New Zealand and Polynesia, for example, suffer from the hole in the ozone layer, though it is other massive nations who contribute the most to the pollution which created it. In my own experience, I can remember thanking family members for packages but begging them to stop sending American-made goodies which often come wrapped in plastic, placed in cardboard, wrapped in more plastic, nestled in Styrofoam. Living on a small piece of land in the middle of the ocean makes finding spaces for all that useless material much more burdensome.
Dre prompts me to recall that way of living. As humans, we use. Surely, we can do this in more sustainable ways.
Thus, LETTER 4 will align its medium with its message and I will be a little more mindful of what it means to use and to waste.
This project, ‘LETTERS: What do you think?’ aims for us to better understand each other by putting words to our voices. Senders and recipients are encouraged to creatively document the correspondence. I believe that the best way to combat misunderstanding is through sharing our stories. By knowing each other, we might care for each other. In documenting these letters publicly I hope others will be inspired to get involved in the conversation, uniting us in the honest diversity of our stories and doing away with dangerous division.
This first letter is about reality.
Its recipient is my friend, Sara, and her response is below.
Signed in friendship, in solidarity, in storytelling -Tim
Sara’s response is available on her blog where she curates pieces of everyday wonder, Little Awesome Things. Some of her valuable words are here:
“We will never be able to have the exact same experiences as any one other person – the exact same realities. However, the capacity to which our own realities have the ability to influence our understanding of the world … we have to have empathy for this. We have to understand that someone else’s reality creates a utility in certain contexts that might be beyond our own personal perspective. In this way … we can start from a place of mutuality.
“What about in stickier, more socially uncomfortable situation? What about on the topic of racism or women’s rights?
“Here in lies the need for discomfort.
“In order to recognize the utility of someone else’s reality … we have to embrace the discomfort of “going there” … embrace the fact that while someone’s projected opinion is so adverse, and seemingly wrong to our own … that we can go a step further and start from a place of understanding how their reality came to be.
“I know this is hard. And, sometimes, the other person might not want to “go there” with you. I mean, I’m definitely not prepared in this moment to have this type of conversation on the topic of race relations with a KKK member. But, it is my opinion that persistent and relentless empathy can get us there.
“I’ll be a pioneer if you will.”
“Citizenship seems like something easily defined. A citizen is someone who belongs in a country. Right? … honestly, I am not sure. I am not so sure because I don’t know how to define ‘belong.’ I don’t even know how to define ‘country’ sometimes. How can I define citizenship when I cannot provide meaning for everything else it implies?”
This letter goes out to a dear friend and former roommate, Monica. Most of her youth and all of her young adult life were spent in Indiana. Despite this, she was not an American citizen until 21 because she and her parents were born in Mexico. She is multilingual, multinational, and multicultural. She understands what it feels like to be a ‘resident,’ a ‘visitor,’ a ‘citizen,’ and a ‘dual citizen,’ so I seek her advice now.
“I think of my students from Syria and Nepal. They are parents who left their homes out of desperation to give their children a safer life. The vast majority of them did not actually choose the United States. Rather, they were assigned … after a lengthy vetting process. Many of the Nepali students were stateless, too. For them, this means that they were culturally Nepali, but living in Bhutan. The government of Bhutan expelled them, but they were never full citizens of Nepal so that country didn’t accept them either.
“As someone who went through the naturalization process as a young adult you know the practicalities of citizenship better than many Americans. Certainly, there were things you couldn’t do before naturalization that you can now. For those like me who have been an American citizen since birth, we take these things for granted. Many have never thought about what life would be like if they weren’t born where they were to the parents they had. In taking this privilege for granted, they might not even understand what it means to be a citizen; rather, they just know that they are.
“So, I want to ask you what it means to be a citizen. What does it feel like to become one?
“What do you think?”
“… Having grown up with strong women around me I never questioned that women and girls could be powerful. I never thought of myself as misogynistic. However, just by existing in our society I was being shaped and molded by systems which discourage and marginalize women. Further, as a privileged male, I was largely unaware.”
“This is the earliest memory I have of wanting to make myself a stronger and more self-disciplined person. I made this decision based on a woman’s example.
“Why are women undervalued at a societal scale? Why does half the population need to prove itself as more than just contrary to a norm? What can we do to change this, and what does change look like?
“Please tell me, what do you think?”