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What The World Needs Now…

Updated: Jan 20

At the time of this post, racial tension nationwide has escalated to epic heights in light of the recent deaths or George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement. Add to that the false 911 report from Amy Cooper, claiming she was being threatened by a black man in Central Park.

Four officers were fired and one charged with murder in connection to George Floyd’s death. Amy Cooper was also fired as a result of video clearly showing her falsified report. As of this post, no officers have been charged in the the Breonna Taylor case. A FIGHT FOR BREONNA site has been established to create awareness and demand justice.

I’ve watched how many in our nation are getting involved visible ways: protests, riots, activism. I’ve noticed how news reports are spotlighting statistics regarding the disproportionate number of incarcerated black men, as well as the discrepancy of the median income across various races. Awareness is being raised. Questions are being raised.

The two questions I, and many others I know, are asking are:

What’s my response to all of this?

What am I supposed to do?

Big questions. Complicated questions. Questions for which the answers will demand time, attention, and action.

It can feel overwhelming. It can make us feel like just waiting it out until it blows over or until someone else figures it out.

That is one option.

I would suggest another way.

Courageous Curiosity

I recently attended a conference where Becky Naderman was a keynote speaker. Many of the Midwest conference attendees could related to Becky as she was:

  1. A wife

  2. A mother

  3. A working mother

  4. A friend

  5. Involved in church and community

  6. Dutiful, responsible

  7. Middle-class

  8. Middle-aged

  9. Midwestern

  10. White

Becky’s journey toward overcoming racial bias includes two seemingly small events that lead to a complete shift in her perspective, and her purpose.

First, a library book.

She wasn’t looking for anything in particular, so she grabbed one off the “recent arrivals” shelf. It just happened to be about a black man wrongfully accused and sentenced for a crime he didn’t commit. Though he could have become bitter and resentful, he turned his injustice into a message of hope for anyone he encountered. So much so, he was visited by the Dalai Lama before he was executed on death row (for a crime he didn’t commit.)

The story, based on actual events, stirred something in Becky. The man’s childhood, background and circumstances were nothing she had ever experienced, as she had grown up in relative suburbia in the Midwest. She wasn’t sure what she needed to do with what she learned. She just knew she had been moved.

Next, Becky was in a conversation with a coworker she was able to share life with. Becky learned that her coworker’s brother was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. Her coworker was black.

Once again unsure of what her response was supposed to be, but feeling compelled to do something, Becky started to ask questions – genuine questions about the situation. The more she learned, the more she saw two people caught up in circumstances bigger than themselves. Becky’s heart went out to her coworker and her brother. She was once again moved.

Becky, who had once considered serving in prison ministry, asked for permission to start writing to the coworker’s brother, Aaron. Becky thought her role could be to help provide hope to someone in a seemingly dark place. Little did she know the impact it would have on her.

Becky quickly realized that Aaron’s faith and spiritual walk were already strong. She could sense the joy he maintained despite his circumstances, and she wanted to find out more. If Aaron could find joy and peace in such a chaotic place, what could she learn from him to help her have the same in the “regular” world?

The relationship Becky and Aaron built across racial and socio-economic boundaries shows the power of courageous curiosity taking one step forward into discomfort – in order to really listen and learn from each other.

Through the course of their correspondence and conversations, Becky gained new perspectives:

  1. When we remove the lens of judgment, we can finally see a person for the person they really are – not the story we tell ourselves about who they are.

  2. “Loving your neighbor as yourself” includes those not like us. They may be the imprisoned just two miles from your home, as in Becky’s case, or they may be the family in your neighborhood who speaks English as a second language.

  3. In friendship, we feel accepted, valued, and understood. When we can accept the person in front of us, we can accept the person within us.

  4. Becky’s belief, “All drug dealers are bad,” needed to be challenged. Aaron had dealt drugs as young as 11 years old as a way to put food on the table for his siblings in light of his addicted single mom who wasn’t able to provide. It wasn’t an excuse, but it did offer an explanation as to his desperation to survive. Becky felt empathy and compassion for his situation. It also caused her to question what other judgments she held that may need to be questioned.

If you ever get a chance to see Becky’s presentation in person, I would highly recommend it. I would also encourage you to get her book – Walk With Me – for additional insights on the power of curiosity and connection.

I mentioned earlier that the two questions being asked most right now are: What’s my response to all this? What am I supposed to do?

I also suggested there may be an option that any one of us could do.

It takes courage to get beyond your story and into the other persons’ reality. Barb Ranck, Courageously Imperfect

We need to learn about others’ stories. We also need to tell our stories.

This is mine.

A limited lens

One of the reasons I could related to Becky’s story is because Becky and I have a lot in common. We grew up in the Midwest to married parents, safe neighborhoods, and fond childhood memories. We both got married and became working mothers. I could understand where she was coming from.

When I think back to where I encountered racial diversity growing up, I recall one one black family in the small town I lived in until I was 12. The daughter, Britni, was in my grade. I don’t recall a conversation with her beyond surface school topics.

When I was 12, I moved to a large school district with a little more diversity, but the conversations with non-white classmates were still limited to the upcoming games, where the party was that weekend, and what music we were listening to at the time.

In the 1980s, musical artists like LL Cool J, De La Soul, Salt-N-Pepa brought welcome hip hop vibes while Ice T, NWA and other rap artists moved into the mainstream. I happily consumed the beats and lyrics with friends but didn’t really give it much thought beyond that. It was just part of my formative years.

In 1989, Spike Lee released the movie, “Do the Right Thing.” While I recall only a few details of the movie, I clearly recall feeling challenged by what I saw. It was like nothing I’d experienced growing up. I knew it was a reflection of others’ lives…but no one I knew. (Or that I had asked.)

The movie soundtrack included the hit, “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. I clearly heard it as a critique on the abuse of power, though I couldn’t relate to what I was seeing and hearing, at least from my limited perspective.

I went on to college, which was a bit more diverse than high school. Once again, conversations I had with those of other races primarily focused on our coursework, finances (or lack thereof), parties, or what ever was happening at the time.

It wasn’t until I graduated college and moved to another state that my eyes were really opened, even if only a glimpse, to the true cultural diversity of our our nation. And I had to acknowledge that my lens had been limited.

Finding Truth in Prison

My college degree was in secondary English education, but I wasn’t having much luck landing a position.

It was around this time I secured a job as a G.E.D. teacher in an almost-maximum security prison. I found myself completely immersed in diversity of all kinds – racial, educational, socio-economic, language, gender identity, tattoos, etc. For the first time, I experienced what it was like to be the minority population. To say it was a shock would be to put it mildly.

Similar to Becky’s story, I found myself in a situation where I was compelled to lean in, listen, and ask questions. Except that my questions were pretty naive, as was I.

I remember when I was asked by a black student if I had ever been around black people growing up, to which I answered, “I’m color blind. I see everyone as a person, not for the color of their skin.” I thought it was the polite and political thing to say.

With compassion, the student explained that by saying that, it actually dismissed the fact that his skin is a different color, for which he was proud. He was proud of his family and the challenges they overcame, which was a very different experience than my own. If I dismissed his skin color, I basically said he and I were the same, which wasn’t true. I didn’t defend myself. I just kept listening.

Another time, a black student and I were having a discussion and I asked, honestly, “So, if I witnessed a black man committing a crime, how would I describe him to law enforcement? That it was a tall black man with brown hair?” Again, the response was compassionate, “Well, how would you describe features of a white suspect?” I said I would describe the hair, if it was curly or short or long, eye color, what he was wearing, and his height.

He said, “That’s how you’d do it for a black man, too. You’d describe him as bald, or short-haired, or maybe he had long, curly hair, or a hat. Maybe he had lighter skin or darker skin. We’re no different.”

I, in my limited experience, had been telling uplifting stories about how we’re all equal. By believing this, I didn’t have to question anything, get curious, or consider other perspectives.

I wasn’t yet sure what my role was in all this. I just realized I had to come to prison to find truth.

I know this post is long, so thanks for hanging in there. (When you’re ready to come back and spend a little more time, I encourage you to check out Robert Pate’s story in my post: My Time In Prison.)

It’s a journey…

Fast forward. I was working for a Fortune 500 financial services company who invests in employee development. I attended a session on diversity and inclusion, thinking I’ve gained a lot of wisdom through my post-college life experiences.

The instructor provided each of us colored balls, a clear glass jar, and a list of questions. We were to answer the questions on the list by dropping the appropriate-colored ball into our glass jar.

Some of the questions I recall were:

  1. What race were your parents?

  2. What race were your grandparents?

  3. Think of a mentor who influence you. What race was he or she?

  4. Think of a favorite teacher. What race was he/she?

  5. Think of your favorite book. What color is the author?

  6. Give yourself a red ball if you have friends at work from another race.

  7. Give yourself a purple ball if you have friends outside work from another race.

  8. Give yourself a green ball if you have friends who identify as GLBTQ.

  9. And so on…

The questions went on to silently, but visibly, validate that – at least in the Midwest – we share the pride in our common life perspectives. We just may not experience the richness of blended perspectives unless we are intentional.

Please hear me when I say that the point of the activity was NOT TO SHAME any of us for our backgrounds or history. That would miss the point.

The point was to simply acknowledge and admit that we were likely raised and influenced by those who look like us, think like us, and behave like us. Beyond that, unless we embrace connection with those not like us, we may only have a limited perspective of how complex and beautiful our world really is.

I’ve learned to push myself beyond my bubb…comfort zone. I’m proud of my extended family, which contains the richness of ethnic diversity and tradition. I continue to meet proud warriors who just want to be seen, heard, and known. Through these connections, I also feel seen, heard, and known.

Which brings me to… what each of us can do in response to the current times.

Courageous Curiosity

Everyone’s story is as unique as the individual. And everyone’s story, including yours and mine, deserves to be told. It’s what connects us to each other and helps us empathize with one another.

As I wrap up this post, I challenge you to get courageously curious.

Think of someone you could meet for coffee, or on Zoom, to start a conversation with, “Tell me your story.” Then just listen and learn. Ask questions, but don’t defend. It’s their story. You don’t have to agree. Just acknowledge and be aware.

Share your story. Maybe with someone you want to get to know better. Maybe in a blog for anyone to see. Maybe by using the comments section below.

It’s not going to change overnight, but every courageously curious conversation will bring us one step closer to deeper relationships and connections. This is what will drive true transformation.

And it only requires a conversation.

Schedule a 30-minute complimentary consultation to discuss your unique needs and the support that can help you move forward, faster.


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