Liberty Bell Middle School & High School
January 13th, 2016
This is the text from a keynote given by Ilsa Govan.
I was born in a commune to parents who wanted to escape from society and reinvent a safe, loving, environment for their children. From a young age, I had a strong sense of fairness. Although my parents supported my critical thinking and wanted me make the world a better place, sometimes my whining, “That’s not fair!” wore down their hippy sensibilities.
“Life isn’t fair,” my parents told my sister and I when we’d argue about not getting to stay up late on a school night. “Life isn’t fair,” they repeated when we complained about who got to sit in the front of the car. Despite their good intentions, the clear message was, life isn’t ever going to be fair, so you need to live with unfairness. And many of you, like me, were probably taught to stop noticing because there’s nothing you can do to change it.
Well, there is. Today we’re going to look at examples of ways to be an ally for justice.
An ally is a person who is not experiencing oppression and still chooses to stand up for the rights of those who are. This may be a straight person who stands up for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, a cis gender person addressing transphobia, a male feminist, or a white person who is fighting racism. Some of the most meaningful work and relationships I’ve had in the past twenty years have been through my work as a white ally.
One of the things I was never taught in school was about white allies throughout history who had stood up against racism despite the cost to them personally. So when I decided I wanted to advocate for racial justice, I didn’t have a lot of role models or information on what that might mean. In my life, a white person either pretended not to notice race and tried to treat everyone the same, or was a racist.
Some of you may have noticed a twinge when I talk about being white or when I notice out loud that most of you are white. That might come from you also being told that talking about and noticing race was racist. But the opposite is true. The only way to end racism is to notice how different people are treated differently because of their race. If we don’t notice, or we pretend not to (I’m guessing most of you did notice my race, especially at an assembly honoring Dr. King) it makes it a lot harder to stand up against injustice. Turn to your neighbor and say, “You have to notice race to end racism.”
The silence in our history books about white allies can leave us wondering, what is my role?
Each one of you has the choice to be an ally in order to create the Beloved Community.
The idea of the Beloved Community comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Think about the kind of school community you want to experience every day. As explained by the King center, founded by Corretta Scott King, “Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
You can choose to create the Beloved Community at school every day where people look out for each other, where everyone’s humanity is respected. However, in order to do this you may have to give something up.
My question to you is, What are you willing to give up to honor and respect the dignity of another human being?
Keeping this question in mind, let’s look at some examples from the past. Since we’re celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s look at an image from the civil rights movement. For years, black people and their allies fought to end segregation. But winning the court case Brown vs Board of Education was just the beginning for black students. Here’s a picture of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock 9 going to Central High School. The Arkansas National Guard had to be called in to escort the students to school.
Notice the expressions on the faces of the white students. I wonder what they feared would happen when she entered their school?
What would they have to give up in order to welcome her as a part of the community? Possibly the approval of their friends and family. Even deeper than that, white students had to give up the idea that they were inherently superior and therefore deserving of better schools than black youth.
It is easy to see people who experience oppression as victims who need help, rather than recognizing the strength and resiliency they possess. As allies, it is important we don’t come from a place of thinking—they need me to fix them. I sometimes call this “white knight syndrome”, coming from the idea that the princess is incapable of helping herself and needs to be rescued.
In her book, Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine, told the story of the harassment they endured, including having acid poured on her eyes. She wrote of her friend Link, a white boy, who used to tell her about dangerous areas at the school or plots other white students had to hurt her. Many of the white students who were initially friendly, were beaten up or harassed throughout the year and stopped talking with the black students as a result. White allies had to give up their own safety.
Now for a moment, try to imagine the emotional impact of the fear the Little Rock Nine felt walking through the school halls every day. Day after day knowing they were literally risking their lives to get the high quality education everyone deserves. What toll might that take? Imagine how strong they must have been.
Here’s another historic example. About 112,000 Japanese Americans on the west coast, many Washington state farmers, store owners, and families, were incarcerated and held in camps during World War II.
What would the woman in this picture have to give up in order to welcome Japanese Americans into her community and honor their human dignity? Perhaps her fear of being unsafe, her belief they were the “other” rather than her neighbors. As in the case of school desegregation, there were those allies who stood up against the government and supported their neighbors by caring for their homes and land until they returned.
George Takei, the actor and writer who played Sulu in Star Trek, was put in an internment camp as a child and has produced a play about his experiences. This is what he has to say about our collective responsibility to our community.
Now for a moment, consider the emotional impact of being suddenly seen as criminal and forced to give up your freedom.
When I was in junior high, our school mascot was the Redmond Warrior. I remember when some people in the school community wanted to change the mascot. Even though I’d only gone to school there one year, I identified as a warrior. I’d played sports where people cheered for us Warriors.
For me to give up this mascot and honor the dignity of Native people was difficult. I had to give up part of my identity and acknowledge that I had unintentionally hurt people by celebrating a racist symbol. This was difficult, as I’ve always seen myself as a good, kind person and certainly not a racist. I imagine this is the way many Washington football and Cleveland baseball fans feel—they would have to give up the idea that they, as kind-hearted people, had hurt others.
It was through organizing in partnership with local Tribes that students from diverse ethnic backgrounds advocated for changing the mascot. Even though there weren’t many Native students at our school, we still listened to their concerns and honored their request. Through the efforts of allies following the lead of Native people, they secured a 95% vote from the student body to change the mascot.
Now think for a minute about the emotion impact on Native youth at my school having their rich culture reduced to stereotypical images and tomahawk chops.
Let’s look at a couple of examples from this past year. This is Kentucky court clerk Kim Davis. For those who don’t know, she is the woman who refused to sign the marriage certificates for lesbian and gay couples, even though the law said she must as part of her job.
What would she have to give up in order to honor the humanity of couples who were entitled to the same rights as her family?
She might have to sacrifice friends and family who shared her religious beliefs. She would have to give up the idea that her interpretation of the bible and God’s law was more important than the laws of the United States. Or she could hold on to those beliefs and give up her job.
I was at a friend’s house one time and he got frustrated with a video game he was playing. He threw the controller down and said, “Man, this game is so gay!”
I asked him, “You mean the game is homosexual?”
He said no, he just meant it was bad. We went back and forth for a while about how that insulted an entire group of people when he used “gay” as a slur. I finally ended up just asking him to not use the word in that way around me.
Even though there were no lesbian or gay people present, I spoke up because those comments rob all of us of our humanity. I want to live in a community free of bigotry. Not just because we don’t want to hurt someone in the room, but because it is the right thing to treat all people with respect.
Now think for a moment about the impact on the lives of lesbian and gay couples who, finally gaining the right to marry, were then turned away by a member of their community who didn’t believe in their inherent shared humanity and rights.
Here is another recent example. This one is painful to talk about. Many of you may recognize this is a picture of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered 9 black people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last summer while they were holding a prayer circle. He said his intent was to start a race war.
This image is of a white student who was protesting school integration at Central High School in Little Rock.
Following Roof’s horrific crime, retailers Wal-Mart, Amazon, Sears, Kmart, and Ebay all said they would stop selling merchandise with the Confederate flag. The flag was removed from cities across the south and taken off of specialty license plates in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina. In South Carolina, where the people were shot while praying in church, they passed a bill to remove the flag.
What did people have to give up in order to remove a flag that stood as a symbol of hate and struck fear in the lives of members of their community? What did they have to give up to say, we will not honor a flag that divides our community?
I imagine many people felt a connection with the flag to their history and independence. They had to be willing to believe that something they held dear would cause harm to others. And a part of their identity as proud southerners was tied to this flag.
Yet they chose to do it because, as these pictures so clearly illustrate, no matter what it meant to them, this flag had been used as a symbol of hatred.
Her white ally, James Ian Tyson, listened to her concerns and helped in the way she needed. He did not situate himself as center-stage, but rather, supported her in taking the action she wanted. Both of them were arrested.
It is important as allies that we don’t try to take over and do what we think is best, but rather we listen to the communities most impacted by oppression and follow their lead.
Now imagine the emotional impact of seeing a confederate flag in your community that was just used as a symbol of hatred by someone who killed nine people because of the color of their skin.
There are other words and symbols we can choose to let go of. I was in a workshop one time and a white man asked me why I wouldn’t say the “n-word”. He repeated the full word several times and insisted he should not have to be censored. I told him I chose not to use that word because it was a weapon of hate. My question to him was, knowing the harm it causes, why would you want to?
It takes a deep level of humility to accept feedback when someone tells you you’re causing harm, especially if that is not your intention. This is no easy task. So often we want to protect our identities, even if it means denying the truth.
Allies for justice know we will make mistakes and embrace the opportunity for truth telling. For it is only through telling the truth that we can have real reconciliation. And through truth and reconciliation, you can build the community you want.
One that honors and respects the dignity of all people.
One that chooses not to cause harm not because you have to, but because you want to.
One that believes life doesn’t have to be unfair.
Stand for fairness.
Stand for justice.
Stand for love.
Stand for dignity.
Stand in celebration of Dr. King’s message and your collective hope for your Beloved Community.
Louise Penberthy attended our Train the Trainer workshop in August 2015 and shared this reflection with us. Throughout the article she references the Norms for Courageous Conversations that helped her stay in a place of learning, despite the tension.
by Louise Penberthy, Productivity Coaching and Mediation
I took the training on “Strategies for Facilitating Conversations about Race” with Cultures Connecting and had a powerful, life-changing experience during the training. I want to tell you about it, and tell you what the trainers did that made it possible.
I was in the training because I want to help people talk about race, especially white people. I was also there because of a journey I started 15 years ago, when I fell in love with a friend of mine, married him, and started deliberately and continually learning about the community of color I married into.
Pointing out the tension in the room
At the end of the first day of the training, Dr. Hollins – who was leading this part of the training – asked if anyone wanted to share reflections on what we’d done that day. As a couple of people were sharing, I debated whether I should share a thought I had. Unconsciously remembering the norm Take Risks, I shared.
I said that I’d always been (mentally) hard on white boards of nonprofit organizations, because they weren’t diverse. I was thinking about my experience with white theaters, for example, how they do their one nonwhite play a year and wonder why that audience doesn’t come to the rest of their season, when the reason is obvious! But, I went on, maybe I didn’t have to be as hard on white boards, because white people and black people tend to support different organizations.
Then Dr. Hollins was walking closer to me.
She asked me, “Did you notice the reaction in the room?” Tired from two nights of not enough sleep and from an intense day of training, I was too frazzled to notice. Looking back on it, I remember frowns, looks of astonishment, sudden intakes of breath.
Asking me if I’d listen, be curious
Dr. Hollins asked me if I was willing to listen to some people in the room tell me their reaction to what I’d said, to be curious.
I’ve been cultivating my natural curiosity about people for many years, so of course I said yes.
Asking others if they’d share
So Dr. Hollins asked if anybody was willing to tell me their reaction to what I’d said. She called first on a white woman sitting nearby – I’ll call her Lucy.
As Lucy spoke to me, I practiced the norm Listen for Understanding. After 13 years as a mediator, I’m good at this, but anybody can do it. Just tell yourself, silently, that while the other person is speaking you’re going to accept everything they say as true.
When Lucy had finished, Dr. Hollins asked me if I would express in my own words what I understood Lucy to say. This is harder, but what I tell my mediation clients to do is to imagine that they have to faithfully pass on to a third person what someone has said. Unfortunately, at this point I don’t remember what Lucy said, but I know she pointed out ways I was mistaken.
Then Dr. Hollins called on a Latina woman I’ll call Josefina. Just as Lucy had done, Josefina embodied the norm Speak Your Truth.
What I heard in what Josefina said was her pain at being a token person of color, of people (white people) constantly interrupting her, of white people presenting her ideas and recommendations as though they were their own. She said that I shouldn’t go easier on white boards of nonprofits, but be even harder on them. That the reason they’re not diverse is the same reason that they don’t effectively serve communities of color.
It wasn’t easy for me to hear two people speak their truth about something I said that offended them. Especially in front of 60 people. I certainly did Experience Discomfort! One thing that helped me was how compassionate and supportive Dr. Hollins was in leading us through this conversation. Not only of me, but of Lucy and Josefina, too. I felt that she cared about all of us, and wanted us to get the most out of the exchange that we possibly could.
Sitting in nonclosure
After absorbing what I’d heard for a few minutes, took a breath. I got as far as “I apologize for offending you,” before Dr. Hollins gently cut off the rest of my apology. She told me that listening was the only thing I needed to do, the best gift I could give. I felt incomplete, but after all, another of the norms is Expect and Accept Non-Closure. And maybe she was urging me towards the norm No Fixing, to keep me from trying to “fix” Josefina’s pain, and the pain of everyone in the room.
At some point, Dr. Hollins asked Josefina how she – Josefina – would have been around me without Dr. Hollins’ intervention. Josefina said she would’ve avoided me for the rest of the training. When she said that, a lot of other people in the room nodded. I was horrified, realizing that I never would’ve known why people were avoiding me. But now? Dr. Hollins asked. Josefina said she was fine with me. (And in fact she sat next to me the next day, which was a great gift she gave me.)
Dr. Hollins asked the room how they would have felt if she hadn’t addressed the emotion in the room, hadn’t addressed how offended people were by what I said. Some people replied that they would’ve disengaged from the rest of the training. So it was important for Dr. Hollins to address the problem, otherwise she would’ve lost the trust of many people in the room.
Recognizing I’m not a bad person
Ilsa Govan was there, too, of course. I haven’t mentioned her because Dr. Hollins leading that part of the training, and Ilsa was mostly observing. But she did step in once, when I said something about “people like me” being offensive. She urged me, and everyone, to think of ourselves as “someone who’s done what I’ve done.” Rather than seeing myself as a horrible person, to realize that I’d said something offensive.
At the end, Dr. Hollins thanked everyone for their participation in the discussion, acknowledging that it’s not easy to do what we did.
I felt really self-conscious when I arrived for the second day of the training, but I remembered to Stay Engaged. It wasn’t easy, but then this work isn’t easy, and pretty soon I felt better.
What I learned
So I took another step on what my husband calls my Odyssey of understanding the experiences and the feelings of people of color in this country. Even more deeply than I ever had before, I heard the pain, frustration, anger, and exhaustion that people of color feel every single day of their lives.
I also experienced how acutely uncomfortable it is to accept truths about how you’ve affected people, especially when it comes to race and racism.
I can use all of this in my own work. Not just learning the facilitation techniques that the trainers were teaching, but also my experience of how difficult the work can be – I can be more compassionate of the people I work with.
Significant change, whether individual or within an organization can be challenging. Even when we want to change, it doesn’t happen easily. I recently heard implicit bias compared to a habit, albeit a bad one. Think about how hard it is to change a habit…
A couple of months ago, my brother in law was coming over to my house to pick up his dog after work. We’d talked earlier and he reminded me to leave the front door open for him. Then he sent me a text about 15 minutes before I was leaving as a second reminder. “Leave the door unlocked, leave the door unlocked,” I chanted in my head as I gathered my things to go. Then I went through my mental list of what I needed to bring with me, made sure I had it all, walked out, locked the door and left. His poor dog was locked inside.
Even though I wanted to change that habit and was focusing a lot of mental energy on doing something different, the moment I got distracted, I forgot and went back to what I do every day.
Now imagine there are a bunch of individuals trying to change an organization. But they’ve all learned and practiced habits of stereotypes, biases, and institutional oppression for years. Some have even gotten rewarded for this behavior by being told they’re a “good fit” at the company and getting promoted. Some are the founders of the organization or have worked there so long they see any mention of needed change as a personal affront. Others have been going along to get along, trying not to make waves by bringing up experiences of marginalization. They may even be telling themselves they imagined it or making excuses for oppressive behavior such as, “I know he didn’t mean it that way.”
When we come in to work with an organization we inform people it will be difficult and will likely bring to the surface issues that have existed for a while but never been said out loud. When we start a workshop, we tell people it is normal to experience discomfort and encourage them to lean into those feelings and wonder about what is going on at the root of the tension.
Yet when those moments happen, it is difficult to stay engaged and see this as a positive sign of change, rather than retreat to old habits. We’ve worked with organizations where after the workshop people of color are deeply concerned about stereotypes their white colleagues are talking openly about for the first time. Sometimes staff will say they feel more divided now that they’ve seen the ways white privilege and stereotypes can come between them and coworkers. The door opens for the conversation and if we’re lucky, people bring their hurt into the room. Unfortunately, we’re not automatically competent in the way we share our pain and can easily end up hurting others in the process.
People will ask for quick fixes and the “right tools”. They think somehow they can learn a strategy that is separate from having an authentic conversation with another person. When change doesn’t happen quickly, sometimes people get frustrated and disengage from conversations about the ways they’ve colluded with racism, insisting the conversation isn’t going to help. We want to protect our identities and don’t want to acknowledge our habits of bias.
This work is hard. It can feel easier to retreat, to blame the facilitator or the activity, to say, “I get it,” and shake our fists at others. In these moments, remember why we’re doing this in the first place.
Maybe it is for children, who we want to face fewer barriers in life. Maybe it is so we can bring our full selves into work and genuinely connect with other people. Maybe it is for the increased health benefits of not having to deal with the stress of racism. Maybe it is for our collective humanity. Because living with daily oppression is hard work. No, really it is. Seriously hard work.
And keep in mind, when we work collectively, it can also provide momentum for change. We can remind each other to leave the door unlocked and we’ll likely have multiple sets of keys.
I was born in a commune. Between the ages of 18 and 22 I lived part of a summer in a Volkswagen bus and another summer in a school bus. With my dog, of course. I went to 7 Grateful Dead shows and you can even see a clip of me at Jerry Garcia’s memorial from the documentary The End of the Road: Summer Tour ’95. I believe they chose to include the shot of me blowing bubbles because I personified the quintessential hippie.
This is a keynote I wrote for Peninsula High School’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Assembly on January 13th, 2012. Thanks to my many friends who contributed thoughts on what they wished they’d heard in high school, to Yarrow for the title idea, and to Caprice for her notes and ideas from similar presentations.
I’ve been an activist for social and environmental justice for most of my life. When I was 7 years old, my mom took me to my first Take Back the Night march to protest violence against women. When I was in high school in 1992, Buck Ghost Horse, a Lakota man I had been learning from, told me about a march, rally and protest commemorating the 500 year anniversary of Columbus Day. This was an event to highlight indigenous perspectives on Columbus, which, as you can imagine are quite different than mainstream European American ideas.