Mama in the Middle- Reflections on Building A Just World

In the past few weeks I’ve seen and read a lot more articles and social media posts and had dozens of new conversations about the concept of antiracism. Having spent my entire adult life learning about and working for peace THROUGH justice, understanding power dynamics is deeply embedded in my approach to building relationships, communicating effectively, and resisting oppression in all of its forms.

Over the last 20+ years, I have formally studied conflict, peace, and justice; participated in countless book groups and restorative circle sessions; organized and facilitated dialogues and workshops about racial and social inequity; designed and managed educational programs promoting cross-cultural relationships and coalition-building; supported dozens of progressive organizations with my time, energy, and money; founded and managed youth leadership and social change organizations; and mentored, taught, and co-created with hundreds of young people from every background and identity group. I have immeasurable love for my Black and Brown students and youth program participants and they have been the primary source of my understanding and commitment to all forms of anti-oppression and pro-justice movements.

When the flash-point events: stories and videos exposing continued anti-Black violence (murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Amy Cooper’s calling police to threaten Black “birdwatcher,” Christian Cooper) reached a critical mass of people already reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic (disproportionately affecting poor Black and Brown people) and decades of cumulative rage and despair from hearing, seeing, knowing, and living the experiences of oppression in our culture, mass demonstrations and civil unrest predictably ensued. What was/is unpredictable is how quickly the coordinated actions that started in Minneapolis (Where police officer, Derek Chauvin, murdered Mr. Floyd) spread around the country and the world and how many white people have become active in the Black Lives Matter movement.

My first thought when rebellion erupted was, “I need to make sure my ‘kids’ are okay.” Of course, they were not and are not okay. I needed to accept their not okay-ness and the discomfort that caused me. I needed to listen and really hear them. I needed to demonstrate my love and stand with them and for them. I needed to continue having a LOT of difficult conversations with my white colleagues, friends, and family members. I needed to reflect, think, and consider the best ways to apply my skills and experience to ongoing resistance to oppression AND demonstrating alternative, pro-justice principles.

Most of the young people I’ve worked with were participants in The Possibility Project-Rochester (formerly City at Peace-Rochester). They are young adults now, aged 22-30, and a lot of them are parents or soon-to-be. Their lives are full of the daily stresses and expectations we all experience and on top of those, Black and Brown alumni are also dealing with the structural and institutional oppression of our racist culture and the long-term impacts of serious childhood neglect, abuse, and community violence.

A significant number of our alumni are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Some are living in homes and neighborhoods where material resources are scarce. Others have more than enough material resources but are still seen by society, at large, as inherently suspect because of the color of their skin and/or their gender, sexuality, religion, IDENTITY. All are dealing with various manifestations of emotional and mental health challenges that are a direct result of their experiences of individual and collective trauma. All are dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 and other existential effects of global climate disruption.

Our young people are not okay. Our society is not okay. Our planet is not okay.

Initially, there was consensus among our active City at Peace/The Possibility Project-Rochester alumni group that they wanted to take action. We began discussing options for ways we could collaborate and create projects and demonstrations aligned with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. Through our Facebook group and Messenger threads and a number of Zoom meetings, various ideas emerged and started to develop. Soon, however, conflicts began to erupt- mainly around racial lines. Some of our white alumni were feeling pressured to “show up” more and protest alongside their Black peers, despite very significant health concerns and inability to leave their homes during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. Other alumni of all backgrounds were overwhelmed by everything that has happened and dealing with personal and family emotional and mental health crises. Others were just trying to make ends meet and needed to focus on work and home commitments.

I was and am “Mama in the middle,” trying to keep everyone focused on the justice-building and conflict resolution principles of our program, while juggling my full-time job, home, family, and community commitments. Some of our Black alumni felt hurt and angry that I wasn’t demonstrating enough loyalty to them. They perceived my attempts to reinforce constructive communication and acceptance of each member’s unique role in the group as being defensive on behalf of the white people. I felt stuck. I agreed with our most vocal Black members that this moment requires solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Movement and its demands. The means and methods for demonstrating solidarity, however, cannot realistically be homogeneous- we have different roles to play and different perspectives to offer and each has value. This is the heart of the work I’ve committed my life to doing.

I read and listen to a lot of Brene’ Brown’s work. She had this to say about the myth of ‘comparative suffering:’

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past decade, it’s that fear and scarcity immediately trigger comparison, and even pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. My husband died and that grief is worse than your grief over an empty nest. I’m not allowed to feel disappointed about being passed over for promotion when my friend just found out that his wife has cancer…The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce.”

In much the same way, what we are going through individually and collectively with the conditions of the pandemic, economic/social and environmental crises has created fear and scarcity and we are all triggered in some way. I don’t believe that I am giving any of the young people I love what they deserve from me if I am dismissing any of their very real feelings and concerns in order to demonstrate my solidarity with a particular, identity-based movement and those who are most impacted by structural racism.

To reiterate, I have been and continue to be committed to dismantling all structures of oppression and I accept that I have benefited from systems of cis-gender and white privilege, while experiencing negative impacts of patriarchy and antisemitism as a woman of Jewish heritage. I cannot prioritize my hardships over anyone else’s because we are all subject to the negative impacts of our imbalanced structures of social/political/economic power. There is no doubt in my mind that our collective future is imperiled by the design of our civilization because it is abundantly evident that power is always concentrated, corruption is always rampant, and abuses are pervasive and inevitable wherever hierarchy is the structural framework of our systems.

The way forward may be uncertain for many of us and that’s difficult to accept. I hope we can agree that complex systems can’t be dismantled with simple solutions. It’s going to be messy and very, very difficult. I believe that centering and keeping relationships, empathy, and love at the core of any strategy as we move through our local and global community transformation, however, will lead us to real, lasting, compassionate alternatives for ourselves and future generations of life on this fragile planet.

What do you think? Please comment or send me a message through the contact form on this site.

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