Sunday, January 22, 2012

Building bridges

In the last week and a half, I have been involved in deep reflection, and hard conversations, about diversity and community. The essay that I write here is one ephemeral moment of thinking and processing what I have learned up until this moment. I'm feeling my way through this, not knowing where I'll come out. As I write it, I am continuing to learn and find my next step forward.

Here's the setup

This all started in a conversation through TEDxGrandRapids, where I volunteer on the core team. We have been aware that we can do more to ensure great minds from every corner of our community--every discipline, every race, every industry, every social scene--are at least aware of the event, so that those who might benefit from it can choose to apply. We are trying to remove at least the barrier of awareness and invitation. So we've been meeting with many people, and entering into hard conversations about diversity.  Some people are really glad we're starting the conversation. Some people think we need to do a lot more before they're willing to trust us. Some people think both things. And I believe they are all right.

Here's where it gets complicated

Diversity and community mean a lot of things, to a lot of different people. Cultural context and personal experience create a layer of meaning, and that meaning may or may not be shared. Sometimes, it's not even clear what that meaning is, because it's a visceral, emotional thing buried deep inside us, and wrapped up in our identity.

I was sharply reminded that our contexts have emerged separately, divided by history and the experiences of our ancestors. I became keenly aware, again, that our personal experiences are informed by day after day of living in this world and interacting with each other. Those interactions are sometimes damaging. And the more we hurt each other, the more we undermine our ability to find common ground and create a better community, better society.

We lose sight of the compassion and good intention that is there. We become fearful. We hesitate to extend ourselves and build bridges, because, frankly, it hurts. It's a lonely and vulnerable place. Building bridges means not belonging to either side. It means residing in the murky, volatile mess of it all, and attempting to navigate by love anyway. It is no easy task.

It is personal

I love people. I love our human potential, and I am patient with our flaws. I place high value on broad perspectives and diverse experiences. Welcoming everyone is really important to me.

I start from trust and love, and a knowledge that I am imperfect, but that I will keep trying, and each time I try, I'll learn something that broadens my view, challenges and improves what I know about the world, and makes me a better person. I can't see any other way of existing in this world.

As I have struggled with defining my experience of the last week, and the reality of the pain that has surfaced through misunderstandings and missed opportunities, I was reminded by my friend Luisa that I am abnormal. I know she's right. My unique experiences span languages, religions, continents, art, science and literature. Poverty and wealth. Rural and urban. I am privileged to have shared in a huge portion of human experiences. I suppose this uniquely equips me to build bridges across many divides. Perhaps this is the gift I am meant to give the world.

My wish

That we can all embrace our abnormality, and love each other for it. I want to sit at a table with people from every corner of experience, and I want to share with them. I want to share responsibility, learning, perception, experience. I want us to find reconciliation, patience and goodwill.  I want a community that is willing to care for each other, hold each other accountable, trust each other, forgive each other. I can't help but believe this is possible.

I guess I have started to codify my work. And now I need to start thinking about how to bring it about.

Thanks for listening. This post isn't a defined body of articulate thought. It's a reflection at this single moment in time, my effort to learn and grow. If you have suggestions about bringing people together, and creating community, I'd love to hear them. I think we'll do this work in an unusual, unexpected way, but I don't know where the path leads, or even really how to recognize it. 

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