level up US/ˈlev.əl/ -phrasal verb with level verb To gain enough points in a computer game (or life) to enable a player or character to go up to a higher level, gaining more skills or strength
We’ve had quite a week in the United States. A week of hope. A week of unrest. A week of fear for some. A week of cynicism for others. A week of deep reflection and exposed hearts. A week of exhaustion. A week of inspiration. A week of “where the hell have you been if you think this is new.” And a week of “I had no idea.”
And my guess is many of us are tired. Potentially overwhelmed and feeling the reality of the ever lengthening road ahead. The ever deepening of our awareness. The broadening of our analysis. The importance of the intention of our action. And the commitment to our allyship and accountability.
That’s what it is going to take…over and over. And over and over, again. So it’s time for us each to level up.
I enjoy video games. They are admittedly not as fun for me as a good, old fashioned board or card game that gathers people and usually includes some laughter… but video games can be fun. A friend of mine and I used to love to go to video arcades – do they still call them video arcades? We would bounce around from game to game - first pinball, then Astroids - one of her favorite favorites was Ms. Pac-Man. Obviously, I’m ageing myself because so much of video games available now are online. You only have to go the digital space to commune with others to play Fortnite or Minecraft.
No matter if you’re sitting in the comfort of your own home escaping into a video game, or dropping quarters into the elongated square box of the OG video games - “leveling up” is always the objective. The objective is always to gain new skills, to strengthen the skills that you already have, and to keep practicing those skills in order to build endurance in the game.
I’m sure that there are some folks out there who did things this past week that they never thought they would do. Words spoken. Risks taken. Thoughts about things that they might have previously been scared to think. That is what is required in the current context of our leveling up. And those of us who have been working at equity and social justice must level up, too.
I started my journey in “this work” in the late 1980s by joining Lamar High School’s Students to End Prejudice (STEP, for short) my junior or senior year of high school. The striving for racial justice and equity, clearly had been going on long before I showed up for that first meeting in that packed classroom, but that’s when I entered journey. Thirty years later, at almost 48 years old, I have watched “multiculturalism” become “diversity”, “diversity” become “inclusion”, “inclusion” become “equity and social justice”. The change in the terminology has yielded a slight change in our collective consciousness every time - each in different ways, and with each change, it meant that I had to “level up”. Sometimes that meant asking myself different questions. Sometimes that meant, pushing an edge and saying the thing to the person who had the hierarchical power in my organization. Sometimes that meant absolutely destroying my self-concept and letting the person that I thought I had to be completely dissolve so that I could live more boldly in the world.
Through my years of thinking about identity, power, systems, policies, values, and change, I’ve learned that this is a cyclical process. Sort of like a spiral cone. With each spin in the cycle, there is possibility to inch further forward. As a collective society, space between the cycle depends on the commitment of each individual to maintain their own responsibility to pushing their own edge. I think we are experiencing a collective leveling up - but to maintain the collective leveling up, we each have to commit to doing the thing that is a skill level higher than what we thought we could do before.
This continual evolving and pushing the edge calls to mind the beauty of the nautilus shell. I remember the first time that I learned about the cephalopods that inhabit those shells, my mind and heart were blown open at the genius of the natural world in presence of this creature. What I know of the nautilus is that as the animal inside the shell grows , it seals off the chamber that it has just emerged from. It then grows to fit this next chamber only to eventually emerge to a new chamber that is larger - and it seals off its old home in order to keep growing. I’m sure there are many out there that could explain this 20 times better than I just did, but what I know is that is exactly what we must do to maintain this collective leveling up.
Through a lens of white supremacy, you might read the story of the nautilus as an explanation about why you have to cut off the friends or family members that “you just can’t get through to” or “that just won’t listen”. Let’s read it differently.
The nautilus never leaves its whole shell behind - it just keeps reaching toward growth. It seals off the old chamber because it knows it won’t be comfortable in that smaller space. Sometimes in our fear of having the hard conversation, saying the thing that silences the room, or asking the question in a bumbly, awkward way is us striving toward that growth. Sometimes we fall back in to the silence of the smaller shell and it feels uncomfortable and inauthentic because we actually know more than we’re letting on in the moment. Be the nautilus. Don’t allow yourself to go back. The collective leveling up is counting on each of us.
You might be asking yourself, “What does my level up look like right now?” I’ve been asking myself that all week. And thankfully, you’re looking at it. Mine is putting my thinking out there in different ways. Its trying some curriculum and programs that I have long sat on out of a wasted and ridiculous fear. It’s pulling out my “white supremacy spotlight” and shrining it and lighting up thoughts, ways of being, practices and policies brought to us by a system, ideology, and internalization of white supremacy whenever I see, hear or smell it...even if I’m slightly off about it, because at least it will create a conversation and a wondering.
Figure out what will keep you in this work for the long game. Because that is exactly what this is. And the “this” in that sentence is creating a world that is centered on and framed by social justice. We’re in the long game. So how are you choosing to level up?