April 4, 1968.
I was a six-year-old white girl, living in a predominantly black neighborhood in Seattle when Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot. My parents, perpetual activists on topics including race, had been trying to help me understand the concept of racial inequity and to explain why one of our country’s most beloved change-agents had been murdered.
Later that week, at our local community center I saw a black man who looked remarkably like the images I’d seen of MLK on our grainy television. In fact, to my six-year-old self, he WAS Martin Luther King. I shouted, “Mom! It’s Martin Luther King and he is alive!” and sprinted to the front of the line where the man stood. I hugged him.
I have vague memories of the conversation that ensued between my mom and this stranger. Despite the embarrassing situation, they were able to talk openly about race, which was probably unusual in itself. They nervously chuckled and chalked up my inability to distinguish one black man from another to my youth.
The problem is, despite the years and maturity I’ve gained since then, I still struggle to process the differences between my white life and life as experienced by people of color.
I still say the wrong thing all too often.
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Just this week, I made the mistake of asking black friends to talk to me and teach me about how their experiences diverged from mine. They told me that asking them – the people in pain – to do more work so that I could learn was an unfair ask. It opened up their wounds and put the burden of teaching on them.
I was expecting people who were suffering to help me do better rather than figuring out how to do better myself.
For white people, the responsibility for learning and evolving is ours.
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So here’s what I’m going to do, and I hope you will join me.
As part of our ongoing conversations and desire to bring women together as strangers who become connected and supportive friends, Parlay House will help shine light on women, especially women of color, who want to share their truths, their knowledge, their organizations, and their ideas. We will be more thoughtful about making sure our speakers reflect the diversity of our membership. We will provide leads for people to take part in permanent change so we can support their initiatives.
We will be the facilitators for information and a conduit for all forms of support.
We have begun to compile:
- Reference materials for learning
- A chronicle of organizations that need funding
- Connections to black-owned businesses
- Examples and role models of black and brown leadership that dial up their messages, their work and their light
Let’s be honest. I fear making mistakes. These are charged times, and it’s easy to get it wrong.
But I am certain that the biggest mistake of all would be to extend acute lip service without being ready to commit to sustainable action.
When Dr. Serena Chen and I were working on the research for The Parlay Effect, we uncovered something that I deemed “the power of the witness.” Essentially, our quantitative research results proved that when inclusive, kind, generous, brave, and empathetic actions were observed by strangers, the observers tended to replicate those behaviors themselves, creating an outward cascade of good.
It’s easy to wonder how we as individuals can be part of crucial and monumental societal change when it feels so steeped in the discriminatory history of our nation and our unique experiences as humans.
It’s especially easy to do nothing for fear of getting it wrong.
But with every new and improved action we take, not only will we begin to internalize those behaviors so that they become rooted in who we are, but those observing us will follow as well.
Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize wrote, “Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.”
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How can you be a strong and sustainable part of the solution?
Share it Small: Ashlee Eiland, (someone I do not know) posted on Instagram, “Say what you need to on social media. Then put down your phone and pick up your life. Not many will see you learning, confessing, repenting, uprooting, retooling, forgiving, inviting, empowering. But we will see its fruit. The hidden work is the heart work is the hard work.”
If you are committing to doing something, post it, put down your phone, and get started.
Share it Big: As you read the books, listen to the leaders, consider your past actions and your future aspirations related to creating a more equitable and just society, invite others to join you. They might not know how to start, but they will help you extend your impact as you go about change together.
Share it with Me: We all learn from each other. If you have had a revelation, a break-through, an insight, or a triumph, we can learn from you so please tell me about it here! I’m collecting stories of these cascades of good for ongoing community building and to track The Parlay Effect in action. I would love nothing better than to hear how you lifted, were lifted, or observed something in others that made you feel good and recognize your own power.