Getting to Justice: stories to heal me, heal America Pt 2

Justice must be hard-won over and over again. In these chaotic times, our centuries-old dueling narratives are shaped by identity politics and intersectional disputes.  The heart of each narrative is how we identify with our social groups  – and the biases, assumptions, and expectations that hide within the cultural stories we inhabit.

There is both personal work and collective work to be done to establish that every single story bears seeds of truths, that no single story is The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth.  To the degree that we fail to understand this, we will continue to duke it out, trying to make the world over in our small image of justice.

 

Here’s my cultural story

I’m an aging Jewish woman. That’s how I think of myself. “Aging” has to do with the seventy-three+  years I’ve been traveling around the sun in this body, which is both slowing down and holding up. “Jewish” has to do with my tribe and a world-view that feels like home. How I see myself: as a wanderer, question-asker, wrestler with God, inheritor/innovator of tradition, admired/envied/despised Other, repairer of breaches, restorer of justice, story-teller, lover of wordless melody, cycler through a liturgical year, devoted learner.

Please note, however, that both “aging” and “Jewish” are merely adjectives that modify my primary identity: “woman.” And my particular story about woman: strong, container, crafty survivor, undervalued, physically and economically vulnerable, home to mystery, darkness of all kinds, holder of the keys to life. My particular family lineage story about women also conveys an implicit story about men: not trustworthy, and mostly, not necessary, albeit they are in (undeserved) positions of power and authority.

If you ask for more, I’ll tell you I am “a post-war baby.” That’s World War II.  Only from within the viewpoint of my generation is World War II understood. Otherwise it’s a natural question to ask, post-war? Post which war? My generational view elaborates on the aging self: we keep our troubles to ourselves. And underpins my Jewish self: highly assimilated, rising middle class, infected with a post-war surge of optimism that masked the extermination of six million Jews – a trauma so fresh it could not be talked about.

Rising middle class doesn’t get the explicit role in my story it deserves relative to its influence: the unearned gifts – and limitations – it has showered on my life. My 1950s neighborhood was well-segregated from despair, penury, and violence. I regularly rode the Rapid Transit downtown with my mother. And I regularly asked her about poor people as we traveled through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I have yet to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

If you are wondering about the limitations of my secure middle-class upbringing, here are I few I can speak to: the primacy of appearances, caution or paralysis in violating norms, condescension to the less fortunate, expectations of safety and happiness, reverence for the intellect, and low emotional intelligence.

 

Here’s how I haven’t consistently thought of myself until recently: white. 

I have only selectively thought of myself as white  – not as a key part of my identity. I noticed my whiteness and its significance as my working life opened up to include relationships with many black people. When I worked in Baltimore City for a mission-driven non-profit founded and fueled by black churches. When I came to head that non-profit and set out to make it look more like the city itself. When I then had to figure out how to address expectations, assumptions and biases about “professional behaviors,”  and foster respect, cooperation, even friendship across employee racial divides. When we chose how to challenge public policies that enshrined institutional racism. Immersion in black culture was humbling. I stumbled. I had many patient guides and teachers.

Through those years, and others, when I team-taught diversity work to business, nonprofit and business leaders, I often took my work home with me. Still, I went home to my white neighborhood, prayed with my white progressive Jewish fellowship, and thoughtlessly enjoyed the comforts of being on the white side of privilege. 

 

These days, I am uncomfortably white most of the time 

I am pricked by my whiteness as I follow the daily news, pray for justice, sign petitions, join a march, read the black press or black-authored fiction, shake and wake myself and my white world,  indulge in mourning either my lost innocence or my “guilt,” and go about my still-protected white-charmed life.

I still move freely through my days with vastly confirmed expectations that wherever and however I show up 1) I am not in immanent physical or psychological danger and 2) I feel I actually “belong.” It requires thought, effort, a willingness to be vulnerable. To choose to show up where I am in danger of being called out on my cultural story and ignorance. To stumble as the ideal ally I wish to be!

And that implicit family story about men that figures so prominently, the untrustworthy men in (undeserved) positions of power and authority? Those are white men. I am married to a white man, which affords me numerous comforts and protections beyond those of my own white skin. More discomfort, as close to home as you can get.

 

Yet, I am not uncomfortably Jewish enough.

Meaning I am aware of how much more attuned, and motivated I am, when it comes to racial justice than anti-semitism. The trauma of the Holocaust that could not be talked about in my childhood is much more difficult for me to be uncomfortable with, read about, wrestle with, than racism.

Anti-semitism is not something Jews will ever “solve.” It takes non-Jews, whether motivated as religious believers or secular moralists.

Just as it takes legions of white people to dismantle ways of doing business that perpetuate racism, to hold space for the personal and societal telling of stories, for reconciliation and healing, for policy and procedural changes, for changes of heart.

And I am still left with my own bias: it’s white women I depend on. White men are my “Other,” and late to the party. “They” have a lot to lose: “their” unchallenged narrative of reality, based on an individual’s hard work and unbridled capacity to pull oneself up by the bootstraps. That’s my cultural narrative speaking.

 

These are a few broad strokes of my cultural story, what’s yours?

Understanding that the biases and expectations I have expressed live in my cultural stories brings me to a vital and wakeful noticing, and changes how I see myself, and even how I see the white men I Other, including the one I am married to. I hope it helps me to be a more intelligent, self-questioning and awake ally.

If I am ever going to really live in this body, the only one I have, I have no choice but to continue my personal work here, that includes engaging with you in the collective work of dismantling barriers, reconciling hearts, and pursuing a just world.

Together we must both bend with and shape that arc of the moral universe whose end remains beyond our sight.


Banner photo taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Read Part 1: Stories to heal what ails me, what ails America

 

Bend the Arc 100 : Come on in out of the cold

So you want to do your part to bend the arc towards justice? Then you’d better check you haven’t left some part of yourself out in the cold. You’re gonna want to bring your whole self with you. 

A week ago I basked in the company of eleven women ranging in age from their thirties to their seventies. We met to talk about how to mobilize our yearning and practice to bend the arc towards justice. We shared our intentions.

We practiced letting in all the parts of ourselves who showed up. 

We started there because we need every bit of our body, imagination and soul strength to bend the arc.

I want to share with you what I shared with them: a few words about inclusion from a nondual perspective. About its origins and power in what I call….

The Radical Oneness of existence, or the Universe, or Reality. Many spiritual traditions view the world in this way.  You could call this Oneness God, the One who Holds (as in He’s got the whole world in His hands), The Buddha-Nature, Isness, The Great Kindness, The Garment of Destiny (as Martin Luther King did), the Quantum Field (if you are a physics nerd.) My own roots are in Kabbalah, the Jewish wisdom tradition. I am partial to the Hebrew name Makom, which means The Place.

This is a Oneness so great that it holds every distinction, separation, split, pair  of opposites, conflict, suffering, goodness, and every known and unknown. This is a world that is One not because it is has not shattered, but because it includes every shattering and every shard and sliver.

We humans, on the other hand, split the world. It is our nature. Hard-wired. For our survival. We make distinctions: this/that, urban/rural, fashionable/out of style, essential/frivolous, normal, i.e. the norm/deviant. Then we go on to label them as “good” or “bad” and attempt to be/do/associate with the good-only. Or we inappropriately ride over, transcend, or erase differences, as in the view that we are a “post-racial” nation.

We do this splitting as we look out at the world. And we do this splitting as we look inward at ourselves. We tend to include the parts of ourselves that we like – that are up to our standards of behavior or performance or skill or kindness or morality. And to exclude other parts we don’t like.

For some of us, it’s the “good” parts we have trouble including, so we deny or minimize – that thing that I do, it’s not such a big deal.  Or diminish ourselves in comparison to someone “better.” Or fall into the mantra, “not good enough, not good enough, not good enough.”

The inner critic manages to keep close track of these. So does the task-master. So does the one intent on personal or spiritual growth, who often teams up with the critic/taskmaster to

–  wheedle, charm, or ring self-acceptance out of us

– turn us into an un-ending self-improvement project

– insist that we “let go of,”  “purify” or “transcend” or “see it as illusion” or otherwise get rid of/kill off the the parts of ourselves we don’t like

– shame us, a category all its own

Living in this gap between our idealized and our real self is a high-maintenance and exhausting job, all the more-so when we aren’t awake to it.

Nondual practice – rooted in Radical Oneness, turns our attention towards forging a path of deep self-acceptance and dedication to staying at our working edge. We do our best to listen to the intelligence of our strengths and limitations, the parts of ourselves that we like, the parts we hate or despair of, the parts we deny or minimize.

The more we can do this, include each of these parts, come into relationship with them, give them a place, the more wisdom we have access to, and the less our limitations are obstacles in our path. The more we can do this, the more we can be intelligent companions to all kinds of people. We have less compulsion to turn our  “opposites” into our “opposition.”  The more we can do this, the more we are neither larger nor smaller than we actually are. (This has been one of my specialities, going back and forth between messianic aspirations and goals and helplessness.)

It also turns out that as we can do this, the more that connection and Oneness shine through the multiplicity. The fabric shimmers, even while wet with tears. The more palpable God’s presence becomes in our daily lives. This is the work of healing and awakening.

What does this have to do with bending the arc?

  • Pragmatically, materially speaking, we need all the wisdom we can access, and all the wholeness we can muster, to meet life.
  • From the standpoint of healing and awakening, we are each born into this world to bend the arc in a particular way: that particular way of bending that we are born for, born to, heals our soul, and heals the world. Inseparably. Simultaneously. The very same life. That is what we are here for.
  • And we are not on our own in this work. Reality has our back.

We humans and God: together we bend the arc.

2017: the power to act weds healing and awakening

It’s 2017 and I’m determined to see that the power to act weds nondual healing and awakening in new ways – for my individual clients,  for the civic body, for the common good.

I was a reluctant student of power. And in my efforts to exercise power and speak truth to power, I burned out as a non-profit professional by the mid ’90s.

My life took a different turn. I learned about other kinds of power: the power of the body to heal itself, the powers of the plants, the transformative power of embodying the nondual. I grew into a healer and an herbalist. The social activist entered a long sleep even as other parts of me were awakening.  

Still, my years as a community organizer taught me to listen to my clients’ stories, to listen not only for the impact of their family life, but the impact of skin color, wealth, opportunity, gender, sexual identity, and the other societal constructs that shape us.

The Baltimore Uprising in April, 2015 woke up that sleeping seeker of justice. The November election energized me.

2017 promises me ample opportunities to explore the relationship between healing and empowerment, to marry the seeker of justice with the healer, to explore ways to heal our civic body.
What could that look like? How about we figure this out together?

 

Here’s my back story,  with a deep bow to remarkable teachers of mine.

I was a reluctant student of power.

Charm and subtle manipulation served me so effectively for so many years in the daughter-mother-wife-entrepreneur roles. And when my few strategies failed me, I had learned to simply withdraw. I was 36 and recently separated when I was hired by the Northeast Community Organization and underwent a week-end church-basement training in Alinsky-style organizing. Among other things, I learned that those who have not amassed wealth to spread their influence around had better learn to amass a lot of human bodies. Also that an opponent, aka enemy on one issue might well become a bedfellow on the next.

Over the next fifteen years, two black professionals tutored me in different aspects of power. I inherited Organizational Psychologist Michael F. Broom, Ph.D. as my mentor when I took over as Director of The Maryland Food Committee, a statewide anti-hunger organization where I’d been working for five years. He was the first person – yes, really – to talk with me about “use of self”: actual skills for becoming aware of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and using intention to choose behaviors that would optimize getting desired results and minimize or at least manage difficulties along the way.

A few months into working with me, Michael cut through my foggy persona like a knife through butter with five words: You’re not helpless, you know.

I certainly had been helpless up to that moment, given how unconscious I was about my – um thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

I went on to learn an enormous amount from Michael and his colleagues Edie and Charlie Seashore, deans in the field of organizational development. How to participate in and then facilitate race and gender conversations in organization settings. How to run multi-day large-group consensus-building processes to address social problems.

But to learn play in the political arena, I needed more street smarts than my tidy upbringing could ever have imagined. My tutor and role-model was Reverend (now Bishop) Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church. Doug also headed Baltimore United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church and neighborhood-based organization affiliated with Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). He picked up with me where the church-based week-end had left off. No, I never set out to learn how to preach from this master of conscience, nor inspire crowds to action as he did.

Doug taught me about the importance of relationships built on trust, and the time, skill and heart needed to develop them.

He taught me about the courage and inner strength human beings draw from standing together, walking a street together, powering a meeting together. About the importance of everyone being crystal clear about the goal and the negotiating position.

Twenty years later

When I left social justice work, my colleagues and I had made some inroads in opening up what we thought of as the real conversation: the poverty that fostered hunger and birthed hundreds of food pantries and dozens of soup kitchens. The resistance to naming and delving into next level of reality, the institutional racism that drove poverty that drove hunger – that resistance was fierce.

Now racism, and all its kin are the stuff of daily conversation, from the raw to the scholarly. The lid is off and #this is our history, #this is who we are. What are we – together – going to do about it?

I am determined to figure out how you and I can each use our life of practice to see that we wed the power to act to nondual healing and awakening in new ways – for our individual clients,  for the civic body, for the common good.

How can we open up meaningful conversations across the divides in our families and communities, make life-changing strides for our hurting kin, all while being our wise and foolish human selves?

Here’s my invitation:  Join me via Zoom, Tuesday, January 17, 7:30-8:30 pm EST

in observing Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

Let’s mobilize our yearning and our practice to bend the long arc towards justice.

TO REGISTER: email me at alifeofpractice@gmail.com

Please make Subject line BEND THE ARC