This is the first in a series of articles to explore what you may be navigating at work, what to do about it and how to own your agency in the process.
by Bari Katz and Tanya O. Williams
Special Note: We believe in reflection. Reflection is both an invaluable skill and meaningful practice. We believe in time to let words and thoughts settle in, be processed, and continue to be worked with over time. None of this work is surface work. Our offerings to you will be content, questions and ideas that invite you into deeper reflection so you can make meaning of the experiences you’re currently having in your own life, specifically related to identity, power and privilege.
We talk to people all day, every day in workshops, in coaching sessions, in mediations, and in meetings. There is a strong pattern across positional roles, industry and organization that people are feeling unhappy at work, and it’s not just about us being in a global pandemic. There’s a lack of value being placed on relationships, both with other people and with ourselves. This article is the first in a series to explore what might be underneath the surface of the frustrations and disagreements that are happening in workplaces.
These three areas of exploration are just the tip of the iceberg. We invite you to reflect on how you see yourself in what’s named here, where you feel defense and/or resistance showing up, and what you might add based on your own wisdom.
Follow the experiences of our hypothetical client through our suggestions and their reflections on each other the points below:
Banya is frustrated by their work and finishes the work day feeling exhausted, demoralized and uninspired. They spend their days watching the clock, holding back on what they really want to say to their colleagues in meetings, and often feel invisible with their organization and unvalued for their contributions. They feel unmotivated and defeated, and are resigned to just “doing their job and leaving” rather than being fully invested in the work they’re doing.
Getting clear about your sense of purpose
Banya reflects and acknowledges that they took the current job that they are in out of fear. They’re in the job now and it doesn’t actually light them up. The job involves working with communities they were told they should be working with and doing a job that matches up with their degree. While all of that is misaligned with Banya’s authentic sense of purpose, it is possible for Banya to find a sense of purpose in their work at this organization. Some questions to consider:
Identity matters and the ways that identity has been constructed matters, too
Understand what power means to you and how that might impact the way you experience your work, colleagues, and supervisor/ees
As a result of these actions, Banya often feels like their voice is silenced or their perspective is not valued, though no one has said anything that is “racist” or “sexist”. The culture of Banya’s organization is one where power is coveted, and individual members of the organization are in constant competition with others for more power and/or to utilize the power they do have in ways that support this way of being rooted in domination.
Starting to notice how power is held by you, by others, and by the organization in which you work can support a clearer understanding of the dynamics at play. Some questions and resources to guide you in this exploration could be:
My favorite definition of social justice is from the faculty at the Social Justice Education Program at University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It reads,
Goal: Full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs. Social justice includes a vision of society in which the distribution of resources is equitable and all members are physically and psychologically safe and secure.
Process: The process for attaining the goal of social justice, should also be democratic and participatory, inclusive and affirming of human agency and human capacities for working collaboratively to create change.
It actually is not a singular, simple definition, but rather one that takes times to process and understand at multiple levels. Every time I share this definition with a group that I am facilitating I seem to think a new way about it. Or find myself realizing that it has so much depth than I thought the 101 times I have looked at it before this moment. The many ways that I dissect and strive to understand that definition is not what this post is about. Maybe I'll dig into that another time.
I share the definition today to reflect on the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the quote image above. Dr. King delivered these words as part of a Christmas eve sermon referring to the Vietnam War in 1967 only months before his assassination. A more complete quote reads,
And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. Every time we drop our bombs in North Vietnam, President Johnson talks eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but one day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek, but that it is a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. All of this is saying that, in the final analysis, means and ends must cohere because the end is preexistent in the means, and ultimately destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends.
--Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Christmas Sermon on Peace," The Trumpet of Conscience, 24 December 1967
I read this quote this morning as part of a devotional on this 2021 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day and I immediately thought about that definition of social justice that I shared above. Just as Dr. King preached, the means by which we strive toward the goal of social justice matters. As the definition states, the process matters. How we do anything is just important as what we are trying to arrive at. It is a basic logic problem. If you are striving for a socially just world or a racially just organization or an anti-ableist experience or an all gender celebratory experience - it is impossible to arrive at the goal without practicing in all ways of being (within your awareness) the very thing that you want to see happen or goal you are reaching for. And as your awareness grows, you practice from that state of awareness. Then from the next state of awareness. But we must practice.
The world we want, a socially just world, will be like a can that is continually kicked down the road with our every action and thought that is not with the intention and thoughtfulness of being socially just. And what's even cooler about striving for the process of social justice as we work toward the goal is that the process will lead us toward our own healing, our own alignment to our core values, and our own connection and alignment to our worth...which is at the very foundation of the change we seek.
Get clear about how you are going after social justice...because the means matters.
What are we going to create?
I’m not sure if we recognize it regularly, but we are creators. We create it all. Not the trees and the sky, per se, but indeed the life we live, the America we live in the world that our children, young people, and generations from now are inheriting and will inherit. And tomorrow we have the chance to either create it in a mindset of fear, or know the truth that as a powerful creator, the point of change starts with our minds and extends from there. Every single thing that we are doing right now - be it typing on our computer, reading this email, or drinking a cup of coffee - each one of those things started in a mind. Take the coffee for instance - the design of the cup…someone’s mind, the choice to taste coffee beans….someone’s mind, your want of coffee…your mind. Think about it, how many times have you decided that you “woke up on the wrong side of the bed” and thing after thing met you right where you were, on the “wrong” side? Even these systems of oppression like racism and classism…the first kernel of them - the need to keep power - was first created by someone’s mind and have morphed and grown into the behemoths that we challenge today. What if hope and possibility had the power to do that? It does.
So, my question to you is, what are you going to create tomorrow. Tomorrow isn’t about changing the world, it’s about holding firm and solid in your knowledge of yourself as a creator. A creator of change, a creator of hope, a creator of light, a creator of peace, a creator of possibility, a creator of a world where no one has to do without, a creator of a world where people can see someone hurting and reach out rather than turn away, a creator of a country where we see our differences as things to dive into and understand - while valuing each human and being even in its difference. Sure, folks might say that you are a “Pollyanna” - I’ve been called that my whole life…but what I now know is that Pollyanna was a bad ass. She held firm in the face of negativity. She chose to see a possibility and a promise in what some might call darkness. Try that some time - it’s not easy. It’s like standing in a stream while the flow of water wants to carry you away. Tomorrow’s water will want to carry you. Decide what you will choose to be tomorrow, today. And stand in your knowing. I invite you to join we in a few practices tomorrow that will help remain in your knowing:
Folks, we are creators. We have the ability to create a world that works for everyone. We do. We actually do. We first have to create a world in ourselves that moves through moments like this with presence and purpose.
The Commission on Presidential Debates (https://www.debates.org) is a non-profit organizational body run by a board of directors. After looking up some members of their board, I decided to send one of them an email (seriously!) and this is what it said:
Hello Ms. Hernandez,
This is a bit of a shot in the dark, but I just wanted to give a try at a possibility for influence. I looked up the Commission on Presidential Debates and read a little about the organization and the governing board and thought that I would reach out to you. Who knows if you’ll receive this, or read it, or take it into consideration, but I thought I would try.
I really love the thought that our country gives candidates an opportunity stand up, state their beliefs and potentially defend mistruths that might be in the public belief system - but what our debates have become in the Presidential realm are far from that. And it didn’t just start with the mockery of a debate that we saw this week. Candidates have long talked over one another, interrupted each other and ignored the moderator. We know if these debates were in a true debate competition, the candidates - both of them - would have been disqualified and escorted out of the building.
I don’t think your change of rules in the debate format will help - it actually might escalate things because when someone is shutdown (in this form of having their mic turned off) there is the potential of having someone feel like they have no voice which might trigger a reaction of yelling. This update to the format actually is a continued mockery of what is trying to be accomplished - to have the individual represent themselves, speak about their beliefs, values and plan for the country, and perhaps show themselves as an embodiment of the kind of leader we want to represent us in this democracy.
We need to see more than people yelling and talking over one another. We need to see more than people be silenced at the whim of an outside party. We need to see more than even the presentation, defense, and redirection that debates provide. We need the example of dialogue. We need to see our leaders consider what their opponent offers as a thought, the consideration and connection to that thought, and the presentation of a new idea or a question. Dialogue actually can be a model that helps people understand that the fractures that we are experiencing in our nation is not all that has to exist. Having been trained in dialogue, I know that something else is possible. There are many of us in the national that know that dialogue is a form of communication that transforms. Debate just gives the appearance of a fixed mindset. Dialogue offers the opportunity for curiosity and consideration - both of which is what is needed and what needs to be modeled. We need to see that the person with positional power in this country is more than someone who can deliver a quick retort, but rather model reflection, the ability to change their mind and hold the reality of complex thought. Even more than their platforms, these are the skills that I want to see - their platforms tell me little of their skill and only slightly more of their values. I expect more and need the commission to expect more, as well.
Again, who knows if you will read this, but I wanted to give it a try. Please feel free to reach out if you have further thoughts or questions.
take good care,
As a Texan by birth celebrating Juneteenth has always been part of my life. Hand cranked ice cream, Grandaddy on the barbecue pit, red soda water. Potato Salad. Watermelon. Yesterday felt a little surreal for the little younger Tanya that exists inside. As I talked with a friend on Friday - the word to describe what I was feeling came to me. Expansion. My friend, when I felt stumped about how to describe the feeling I felt on Friday, wondered if it was like when you know about a band or musical artist for years without them being recognized widely. Then the time finally comes where folks know them - having them hit “the big time”, everyone finally knowing about their magic, gift and skill. Yeah. It was something like that.
It was my joy to wish EVERYONE a Happy Juneteenth! EVERYONE. Without this holiday and the emancipation that we commemorate on this day, the United States and everyone in it would have a very different way of being. Not to say that the way of being we have now is where we settle in and get comfortable. But it would have been vastly different. As I watched White people wish me “Happy Juneteenth”, I wondered if they felt the importance of wishing themselves and other White people, the same. Though that day, June 19, 1865 was not a liberation of the psychological, mental, or material impacts of slavery and its grandaddy, White Supremacy, it was a moment of catalyst for everyone in the United States. Who would we be without it? What would we look like as a nation without it? Even with all that has yet to be transformed and changed, we need to all celebrate this day as a day of liberation and celebration. And therefore use it as such.
I’ll be honest. I want Juneteenth to be a holiday that is owned, directed and dictated by African Americans. I know the grubby little hands of greed/lack based capitalism is already in its back rooms devising how to get more money out of this “new and shiny toy.” And I will fight like the dickens to have it been seen as something more than that for the rest of my life. I want it to be seen than more than just a chance to try on “Black culture” for a day - you know, eat some soul food, wear some Kente cloth, get your hair braided kind of try on. And I want it to be more than just another history lesson where Black folks talk about how we got over. Where we drudge up every movie of how a Black figure - struggled against the system to defeat it and has a smiling white child at the end asking for an autograph to help us understand that we’ve made it.
Yes, it is a holiday whose catalyst was a moment in history, but the people who were emancipated that day only were around to be emancipated because they had been thinking about the future. The blood that is running through my veins belonged to ancestors that honored history, but did not get stuck there. They saw something out beyond and they worked in ways I can’t imagine to stay alive in unconscionable and horrific conditions so that I might put these words to the page. We can honor the day most by thinking about Black Futures. I will forever use this day to both read the narratives of enslaved ancestors and to dream about mine and others’ possibilities.
Part of the story of Black folks in the United States has been a story of waiting. Enslaved folks waited two years to get the news of their physical emancipation. I think we have internalized that in some harmful ways. When my friend and I were talking on Friday, I wondered if my feeling was about feeling finally seen by White people in this way. To have a day important to me, about the history of my people, acknowledging the truth of our struggle. As I stated earlier, we’ve been celebrating Juneteenth for eons...for me it’s been a 48 years. The celebration felt bigger on Friday, and I wondered if I had been caught in that same familiar manifestation of internalized racism, waiting to be seen and validated by whiteness and White people.
On my long walk Saturday morning, every person that I passed got the head nod and hello, whether we caught eyes or not - whether they returned it or not. It didn’t matter whether or not they saw me - the hello and head nod was for me. I was in an energy of wanting to acknowledge every being that I encountered. I realized I was not waiting to be seen, but I my hello was about me rather than it being about them. Whether they saw my head nod “hello” or heard it - it didn’t matter. I wasn’t waiting to be seen. It was great if they witnessed the hello, but it was still there whether they saw it or not.
There is a different energy in waiting to be seen, as opposed to being witnessed. To be seen - you’ve given all of your power over to someone else. You’re waiting for them to see you to give you worthiness and their notice of you gives you worth and meaning. In the witnessing, the power is retained and you are inviting others to bask in your brilliance with you. I needn’t wait any longer. Juneteenth is a beautiful space of not waiting to be seen, but having Blackness be being witnessed. And choosing into the brilliance of it right now. It is time for us, as the brilliant, the beautiful, the boundless - the Black - to know that liberation, emancipation, freedom, divinity, and worthiness can be our in an instant. Our world needs us to know that now.