Full of Emptiness

The most exhausting phrase of 2020 is, “the pandemic has exacerbated the inequities that communities of color are experiencing, highlighting what was already there.” This has been uttered by cultural institutions, political leaders, media outlets, scicomm professionals and many businesses. I have even found myself saying it just to use language that felt like an entry point for discussion in many of the well meaning spaces I occupied. 

The fact of the matter is that inequities are not only experienced, they are imposed. Imposed through narratives institutions tell about them, on their behalf, for them, but ultimately without them or their expressed truths. Imposed through a lack of understanding the power of the stories they tell and withhold. Imposed through the programs they design for and not with. I say them, but I mean us. The intersections of my identity, hard earned lived experience and expertise walk into every room with me. And lately, less apologetically. Institutions must understand: what then is the story they’re telling? What is the narrative they’re pushing? And with whose permission?

Last summer, with my community organizer hat on, alongside many community members and in collaboration with Ben Wiehe from the MIT Museum, we led a series of conversations in direct response to the digital divide, distance learning and racial healing. I wanted organizations who were patting themselves on the back for making many of their resources available online and joining the theater crafting solidarity statements in support of black lives on their websites to realize that good intentions do not dismantle inequities and only drive further away the communities they are attempting to reach. What I didn't know then, was that there would be an emotional toll to pay. And I paid it, in full. 

You may be wondering why I am writing now about an effort that took place in the summer of 2020. I have many reasons. Here are three:

  1. I continue getting asked to share MY takeaways. 

More importantly,

  1. Sincere listening takes intentional time and space to process; we often think about listening as something that takes place in the moment and that action comes from what you hear. I offer that listening with sincerity IS action and pairing that with honest reflection and community members by your side, informing every decision, leads to meaningful change.
  2. It's important to go slow and reflect on the abyss of the last year with clear eyes and in defiance of the dominant cultural idea that faster is better. 

Many organizations and individuals try listening to understand when they should be focusing on understanding how to listen. They fail to make space for their own history or for the many ways they are intersectional. Scientific societies and cultural institutions are not separate from politics nor are they neutral. Their silence and inaction is a choice. They most certainly were built on a foundation of white supremacy and continue to wield the power of that supremacy. To my community, these statements have never been in dispute. Covid-19 and the visibility of racism did not bring anything to light for us. This social pandemic has always been there. If these institutions had prioritized understanding how to listen, their good intentions could have actually built meaningful relationships and would be much further along in the journey to serve with intention, responsiveness, relevancy and flexibility. Much of the process of trust-earning would be in place at least enough to build on that trust. We can't even get to the conversation of sustaining trust until the foundations are solidly built. 

On a loop, in my mind, weighing on my heart, are the many empty solidarity statements about the lives, freedoms and happiness of my people and the peoples I’m on a lifelong journey to be an effective ally for. These statements are not a new practice, we as a nation have been writing empty promises of solidarity and equality since the first line of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I don't want to make empty statements. I don't want to tell people's stories for them. I don't want to spoon feed my personal takeaways. I don't want to put on a performance. I don't want to reduce people down to a quote. And so I wont. I invite any and all to hold me accountable to this commitment. Today, however, I feel an obligation to amplify the truths that I heard during community listening sessions. 

  • “This is not distance learning, this is crisis teaching.”

  • “We don't have an achievement gap, we have an access gap.”  Students with equal access can achieve and to suggest otherwise is racist… happy to argue with anyone about this.

  • “White people, please don’t be offended when I say that I don't trust you.” How can we when many of you are just awakening to the reality communities of color have always experienced in these United States of America… United in a state of hate, savagery, bigotry, discrimation and denial. Denial.

  • “None of our institutions can be neutral or quiet about racism and discrimination.” Their silence will echo through time.
  • "You can't accept the many intersections of one's identity if you are stuck at I don't see color or we just need to all be kind to each other." Your privilege allows you not only to believe that, but to say it outloud and unapologetically. 

I’m going to stop here. The emotional labor of putting myself through reliving these thoughts is not worth the damage to my health. These conversations are there for you to spend time with. Inclusion is a journey of practice not a destination. Here is a link: https://sciencefestivals.org/blog/2020-community-engagement-listening-tour/

I will leave you with these thoughts. As all of our industries become more intersectional, meaning that the lines that separate us become blurred and we begin to go after the same funding pools, will you collaborate and share resources or hoard toilet paper? My hope is that you can slow down, meet with the teams you work with especially with those who are members of communities that are often othered and believe their truths and together unpack and unlearn. Explore how you perpetuate, co-op, hold in place inequities and sit with intention looking towards doing better. Please, we need you to do better. Especially white people in decision making roles. Be brave with your power or kindly get out of the way. No seriously, MOVE.

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