By Damita Brown
Between the mindsets of “we must,” “we should” and “we can’t” is the reality that we are. We find ourselves in 2017 with intensifying political polarization, violence and mean-spirited policy agendas that threaten to blaze a path of destruction across the globe. As I see it, this is our situation. We have faced thousands of years of fear and aggression manifesting as genocide, war, slavery, ethnic cleansing, rape, greed, colonialism, ecocide, mass incarceration and more. Many people I have talked to want to repair our relationship with the earth, each other and ourselves so that the planet is a more livable place. This longing for a more workable world is an expression of the fundamental goodness of humanity. But has politics overshadowed our ability to see that goodness? What is the rest of this picture? After all, we are not made of politics.
When I taught poetry with young people who were incarcerated, we began by brainstorming a list of our human qualities that could not be taken away from us but that we often forget about. Their list included things like respect, intelligence, curiosity and love. We then discussed the stories about ourselves (our own and those of others) that we internalize whether they are true or not. We did some exercises that allowed us to understand how those stories (“mindsets”) operate in our lives and obscure our ability to relate to each other with clarity and compassion. And then we began to learn about and write haiku. We used contemplative exercises and interactive group work that allowed us to share our lives in a bigger space. I imagine the social change work we do together can benefit from a similar process.
Because we are all naturally loving, generous and kind without exception, we are already wired for problem-solving, already solutions-oriented. Respecting these innate qualities and sharing these abilities can be a guiding principle in how we work together. Uncovering these qualities can help us overcome ignorance.
By ignorance, I mean ignoring our innate excellent qualities. If we are busy ignoring who we are, we will ignore others as well. Our conditioning within fear- and aggression-based institutions has served to distort this capacity and create a false sense of separation.
Last month, millions of people across this country commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a man whose work in the service of justice was guided by a profound understanding of fearlessness, dignity, excellence and interdependence. The work of cultural transformation — changing the way we relate to each other as human beings, the way we think about each other — means digging into our fears and assumptions. Above all, it means changing the ways we relate to fear and aggression. To do so allows us to build a society that can sustain us. If the motivation for our work together comes from outside of us, or negativity or blame, it will be fragile and disconnected from true courage. But if our work is inspired by what we love, then the work itself is a source of strength and daring.
The Black, lesbian, feminist poet Audre Lorde reminds us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Accepting this premise compels me to question whether or not we fully appreciate the tenacity of our conditioning. Why do so many of us who genuinely care to create a better world struggle so mightily against our best interests and each other? Is the logic of dominance winning in our organizations? Have we done the work to unmask our investment in unhealthy power and privilege dynamics? Are we happy to continue this way? Are us vs. them dichotomies distorting our perceptions? Are we choosing blame or responsibility? Greed or sharing? Violence or kindness? What is a human being? Do we trust this collective human journey to teach us what we need to know?
If we accept our vulnerability, especially in these difficult times, it can be a source of strength and fearlessness. I believe this to be the case because I have faith in our goodness. All humanity, without exception, is good.
Damita Brown, PhD is a co-founder of Midwest Telegraph, a digital community work space for exploring cooperative pathways to social change. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 214.