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Five Things: Dialogue and the American Spirit

We are, right now, in the midst of the largest moment of social clarity that we have experienced in almost two generations. It is hard. It will ask a great deal of everyone.

I take exception with anyone who thinks it is good. If you think that all the pain and destruction we are struggling through now is "good" you should should seek psychological help.

It is necessary. It would be "good" if it were not necessary because that would mean that we were probably having the right conversations all along. That is the major problem.

In America, we are told that there are certain things that we are never supposed to speak about in “polite” public forums. Sex. Money. Politics. Religion and Race.

The irony of this is that these are the things that get more people killed in the world than anything else, by far. These are the cultural touchstones that drive us the most. In fact. We are defined on very deep levels by these things. All of them. Most distressing to me about this is that the conversations about these things are happening, but not where they need to. The reason that these very human constructs do as much damage as they do is because the majority get to define how the issue is seen and engaged. That is almost never an honest dialogue (One MAJOR exception: The Kerner Commission Report). This usually leads to a degradation of those who do not fit into the narrow, power driven narrative. If you are not straight, your story is “perverted” (Sex). If you are poor, “laziness” probably has a lot to do with it. (Money). If you are not in the political mainstream (and sometimes if you are), your political beliefs are “radical/un-American” (Politics). If yours is not the dominant faith of the land, you can fall anywhere on the spectrum form “antichrist” to “terrorist” (Religion). And racially…. do I need to even go there?

This happens because whoever represents that dominant group has the power to make these things so. They have the power to not address their own faults and shortcoming within the same system. And this will never change unless power makes it change. I do not expect that “power” as expressed in big systems will just change the way it has operated for so long, but I do believe that “people” can. I know that a person can. The only way that can happen meaningfully is when individuals and communities take on a more critical role in the constructs that govern them.

Ours is a particularly outstanding one to do this with, but it requires an active, consistent, knowledge-based approach to civil discourse. Herein lies the problem. We were born into a political experiment that asks us to aspire to our “best” self and too often we have met it with something less.

As I say in one of the essays below, the mandates that are found in DE&I work reflect all of the explicit and implied issues our founding fathers address in our Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

One of the key components that we try to impart in the work we do is help people understand that every racial, ethnic, religious, and social group in America has been oppressed and ostracized at some point in its history in the U.S. or elsewhere. You do not have to mine down any one group's cultural story to deeply to find the stains that others put on them. They usually carry this as a central part of their narrative. In many respects, it is important that we do not matter who we have become. It gives us a sense of identity and purpose to fight for something better for ourselves, and hopefully for others.

For millions of people over time they chose to make America that place where they would make a new narrative for themselves. This was the land of freedom and opportunity. We can step out from under to our own broken and bloodied story and make ourselves something new. We will go to this place and make our claim. We will work hard and become something that could not have existed where we were before. We will not forget our past. We will not forget our stories, but we will become something different as well. We will become American. That was the deal.

I would assert that we have never truly kept pace with one of the most fundamental tenets of “The Deal”: Equity.

And for all of those who heard the narrative, but the story did not seem to apply the irony was never lost on them.

We can now see that for some, they can no longer live one irony’s edge.

It is important to note that not every group has endured the same indignity, but most have. The only differences were time, intensity, and rationale. The truth of any one’s individual cultural history should not be minimized. Some groups pain has gone longer and harder. That is just a fact. Before we start to play the oppression olympics, what I want people to focus on first is the biggest pictures: Power, Narrative & Systemics. I know this will be a provocative statement for some, but I believe that if you can help people understand the machine first, you can better understand why and how individual groups get ground up in the gears. The machine rarely changes. It just changes who it focuses on.

The damage done by colonialism, religious or cultural intolerance, slavery, military occupation, and genocide should never be pitted one against another. It is a zero-sum fight. It is also true that if we look at the whole, our own cultural, gender, national, or religious history, we have been in the role of the oppressor in one way or another, so casting blame in the here and now towards the misdeeds of those in the past is mostly an exercise in misplaced responsibility. By and large, it is also a counterproductive course. When it comes to moving forward from a posture of honest, open dialogue. We must all take responsibility of the whole of our human shortcomings and ask ourselves what is my place within the smaller system we are faced with.

“Upon the subject of education … I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people may

be engaged in.”

Abraham Lincoln (On the American experiment)

"One thing I have found about any marginalized group and the challenges they face is that they cannot change their condition on their own. They can do everything in their power to blunt the impact of their compromised stories and the problems that flow from it, but they cannot make it stop. They cannot move the wheel of power until it decides to move on its own."

This may sound controversial to some. But history and logic have consistently born this out.

  • Slaves did not vote for their emancipation

  • Women did not give themselves the right to vote

  • Children did not make it illegal to work below a certain age

Those are just a few examples of how we as Americans gave a bigger slice of dignity to those denied it in an earlier time.

Time will always be a factor in why we treat people the way we do. Put simply, we are an evolution from savagery to enlightenment. It always seems to take us time as a dominant culture for the weight of morality or the sheer force of change to move us. The biggest reason has to do with the unchecked power that comes with privilege and all the good stuff we get from it.

The fact that it took as long as it did to deal with these, and other indignities of the spirit spoke more to the character of the dominant group than it ever could to those they oppressed. Power will rationalize itself simply because it has the power to do so. It will go through a predictable series of steps that are designed to soften morality and dilute conscience. At its worst, the very oppression that groups are subject to; and all their byproducts become the very supporting rationale for why certain groups are not worthy of the equity they are denied. I.E: "It your own fault."

Here is the basic lens I want you to see everything that comes after through:

It has taken me most of life to come to a few realizations about why this seems to continue.

  1. We are, first, creature of comfort. When we have the power to do so, we often do not challenge what would take us out of our comfort zone.

  2. The majority (or dominant culture) bends the world to its will. Why? See number 1.

  3. We are, more than anything else our story (Narrative). True or false. Right or wrong. Our stories frame our reality.

  4. The dominant narrative Is usually the narrative of privilege. All privilege comes with a cost.

  5. Our narratives are intermingled, dirty and complicated. Those complications do not serve power or privilege. Why? See number 1. So, we simplify.

  6. Our inability to hear and understand the range non-dominant narratives will make us more emotionally and intellectually fragile and calcified as a society over time. This will come with a great cost.

It will be impossible to fix ANY of our societal problems till we start to realize this about ourselves first and then expand that humbling truth into the way we move through the world. The phrase "Speak Truth to Power" is where all conversations about the five things should start. Complicated. Honest. Humbling. Activating (Do Something!).

It is not an easy thing to just “do”. It will take some soul searching. It will take some unlearning. It will take some uncomfortable conversation. It will take time.

I hope that what I have assembled here can work as a beginning template for how you can move forward. Put simply:

  • See the diversity in self, so that you can see it in others.

  • Acknowledge the blessings and traps of your privilege and act accordingly.

  • Understand who needs your blessings and do what you can do.

This will elevate your dialogue. It will give you a fresh perspective on the critical part of you. It will make you stronger.

Trust me

“The best exercise for the human heart is reaching down to lift someone else up.”

Tim Russert

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