On Monday I received some of the best Christmas gifts ever. Happened last Monday during a business meeting. Funny thing though; the gifts weren’t typical presents. In fact, they weren’t presents at all.
The reason they felt so good to receive is that the social justice work I do in the community can be hard. Really hard. It involves helping shift the way people think about social issues. The work can be messy, painful and progress feels agonizingly slow. It can also be isolating. In the case of the meeting that day, race was the social issue on which we were focused.
Race. The final frontier. The word that launched a thousand frowns. In the context of social justice, it’s a not so simple four-letter word that can stir up all manner of feelings, attitudes and beliefs. And disbeliefs. Affirmations and denials. The topic can be so controversial among some that it’s been unceremoniously lumped in with politics and religion as the subjects you shouldn’t discuss in polite company. Ridiculous.
There are more times than you’d probably care to know in which the work comes to what seems like a grinding halt because of communication problems. A sad truth is that disconnects are an immense barrier to any social justice process, not just matters of race. And I’m not talking dropped calls and lost emails. These disconnects in some cases refer to people understanding each other; that is, speaking the same language and using the same definitions of terms. Or in other cases, simply showing up for each other.
It’s in this context that I received the unexpected gifts. Instead of presents, I received presence. The presence of other people working toward the same goal of achieving racial equity. That presence did not consist of white folks and people of color holding hands to sing “Kumbaya.” Quite the opposite.
Yes we were in a circle and yes we were all in agreement that change needs to happen. However, there was significant conversation as to manner in which the work unfolds. There also was varying levels of knowledge and awareness pertaining to the subject. It made for a long, sometimes frustrating half-day, with fear, anxiety and misunderstanding all front and center.
There also was encouraging levels of hope, honesty, courage and sharing. What bound it all together was resilience – the sense that we all were on a common path. We were holding each other in the wake of our emotional tensions.
And amid all that, I received my gift. See, there are more folks than one might think working to address race issues (racism, discrimination, immigration, etc.). A big challenge to that work is understanding all the moving parts and even knowing there are parts out there moving. That’s why I treasure the gift of presence that I received.
It’s like sports teams; most win more games at home. Why? Because there’s a support system in place; a crowd of people, the majority of who believe and buoy the players on the field. Their very presence offers moral support, an energy to continue. The fans are not down on the field, but at the same time they are. Or at least their energy is. If you’ve ever attended a live ball game, you know what I mean.
It’s our team and we won. Or we lost. There’s a collective essence that exists, and it can be powerful. Sometimes it can even help determine the game’s outcome. Hence the term, home field advantage. This is the context in which I received this unexpected gift.
It’s the same at home with friends and family. All I want is presence; lots and lots of presence. How about you?