Self reflection: a key factor in social justice work
A local community member coordinated a six-week storytelling event, each week an African American elder of my community tells their story of living in this community. I love the use of storytelling for social justice work. I love how personal it is, how stories reach the heart in ways nothing else can, and I love how no one can argue it. No one can deny a statistic or question the research, it is just someone revealing their personal experiences. Obviously, I signed up right away.
So where can you find me friday evenings? With my friends in a club or bar? Out on a much needed kid free date with my partner? Nope, in a nearby annex building with about 15 middle aged community members, all strangers to me, listening intently to an elder’s life story. Because I am that cool.
No, but really, I was really excited about starting this series. I had been looking forward to it for weeks. But as I sat there for the first storytelling evening my response to it surprised me.
In all honesty and transparency, telling you about this experience makes me feel vulnerable and gives me a little anxiety. But I know that continuous self-reflection and self-accountability is crucial and non-negotiable if one wants to be an ally in any social justice movement. As parents we are in a powerful position to contribute to social change by teaching our kids how to self-reflect. I think the only real way to do this is by practicing and getting comfortable with the process, and then sharing your process with your kids. I’ll leave it to you to determine at which age your kids are developmentally ready for this.
It might look different ways. Maybe you share throughout the process “I thought I understood, but _______ happened and is making me think about it differently. I guess I need to do more research to get a fuller picture.”
Maybe you share afterward: “I used to think that, but now I think this” – or something along those lines.
Regardless, in the vein of teaching through modeling I am going to share my experience that forced me to think deeply about my own response to an elder man’s story.
Ok, deep breath, here goes.
I sat there listening to the man describe his job history, his success stories, his work that continues to have a positive impact in our community, his leadership positions.
And I was bored. Yes, bored. More than once I caught myself spacing off.
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to hear about the struggles. I knew he had them: he was born in the thirties and spent much of his life in this community, which has deep racist roots. I didn’t understand why he wasn’t sharing those experiences.
I wanted to get riled up. Stories about oppression piss me off. I get worked up. They motivated and fuel me to continue being engaged in social justice work.
But I caught myself. Something felt off about my reaction. And I knew I needed to do some serious thinking. I am still in process, here is where I am at so far…
1. It was an honor to be in the presence of someone sharing their personal story and whatever they choose to not share is none of my damn business.
2. Thinking back, I realize his story is actually quite remarkable. The amount of work he did, the quality of work he did, the amount it benefited others, and how it continues to benefit people everyday is nothing short of amazing.
3. I realized I don’t know jack about my community’s history. I know it has deep racist roots, but I don’t know much about actual details. If I did, I would probably have a more full understanding of just how remarkable his story is. Luckily the organizer of this series put together a packet of information about the historical racism of our state, including leads to get more information, so I have a gem of a resource with which I am digesting incredibly succinct, informative, and powerful content.
4. Also, I need to be considerably more careful about viewing people in one light. People are dynamic, communities are dynamic.
5. In the midst of my personal self-reflection process, a friend posted this article on facebook: How academia uses poverty, oppression, and pain for intellectual masturbation. And um, wow. A lot of my participation in social justice discussion does happen in academic circles. But even in work or friend circles I wonder how much this applies. Personally, I don’t think “intellectual masturbation” accounts for all of my discussion and engagement, but I definitely recognize myself in the truth of what she is saying. I am currently working on figuring out how much and in what avenues so that I can dismantle some of my own contribution to oppression.
Self reflection is a tool but also an essential skill that needs to be developed. Regardless of your age, you can develop it and position yourself so you contribute less to systems of oppression and more to systems of justice. Our kids benefit from our work in this area by learning how to do it at younger ages, which also enlarges their potential for social impact.