As #blacklivesmatter has returned to headline the international stage, I’ve been watching the stories and trying hard to figure out where my voice fits in to this movement and this moment. If you’re like me, you may see these awful events of violence against Black folks recurring all too frequently and wonder to yourself “what can I do?” You may find yourself feeling helpless at the magnitude of the problem, or suffering from the imposter syndrome of feeling that your voice doesn’t matter in this particular issue. Even as a Black woman, that’s something I’ve grappled with in particular lately as many efforts that I’ve been interested in joining have been attacked by other Blacks as “selling out” or “gatekeeping.” It’s made me second guess that my efforts were misguided, or that I needed to leave the work to others who had their thumb on the pulse of the issues more. But after searching my own soul, and discovering a drive to be involved that refuses to go away, I’ve found places where my voice does fit. I offer the following in support of others as they search for their own voice in this moment.
I want to start by noting that we all have strengths, privileges, weakness, and limitations. The easiest thing any of us can do regardless of what those are (and a great first step in general) is to educate ourselves. If you are comfortable doing nothing else in this movement, take the time to learn. Learn about racism in whatever areas that it may appear in your life – work, relationships, places, people. Read books or articles, watch videos or movies, talk to friends and family. If you’re not Black, talk with Black friends with whom you have an established and mutually trusting relationship. By all means, Google the unfamiliar. If you’re feeling very lost and confused in this moment, learning is the thing that will give you more understanding and guide your steps as you search for more substantial ways to get involved. It will help you wrap your mind around what is happening, how you feel about it, where you play into it, and ultimately what you can do about it.
Start Close to Home
I’ve found myself able to get involved the most meaningfully and comfortably in things that I know and that are near to me. For instance, when I started hearing about protests, I was very interested in participating, but I had concerns. I’m a mom to a small child, I have advanced cancer, I have a job with the federal government, there’s a pandemic happening right now. I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to run in blindly and put myself in harm’s way or find myself supporting a particular message I didn’t agree with. I’m part of a historic professional association for Black attorneys called the National Bar Association, through Lexington’s local John Rowe chapter. When I heard that our group was hosting a march with a panel discussion at the end featuring our Mayor and our Chief of Police, I immediately knew that this was the event for me. It was symbolic- starting at the police department, it included meaningful dialogue with our city leaders, and I would be among many people that I know and trust. The dialogue at the event really helped me sort through and solidify my own feelings about the movement and what direction our city could be moving to improve relationships between the police and the community. I heard specific ideas that citizens in my town could advocate for in conversation with our leaders, and left feeling more empowered to act. I would encourage you to find events in your own sphere. They may not always end up being exactly what you wanted or leave you feeling encouraged, but they are definitely a place to start processing your thoughts and figuring out what other opportunities you have to get involved.
Leverage Your Privilege
The march that was such a positive experience for me, was also the first in a series of negative encounters I’ve had in getting involved. I worked as a prosecutor for my first few years in practice, and a result have a tremendous amount of love and respect for the police. I do not believe they are above reproach, however, or that they are without the need for transparency and accountability to the citizens they serve. I recognize that they choose to be police and can walk away from it at anytime, which is a luxury that Blacks are not afforded. So, as someone who walks in both circles, I find it important that my events and approach include both. I want to use my unique position to act as a bridge between police and Black citizens. I felt that my group shared the same goal, as our (Black) police chief intended to march with us, and I was very excited about that. However, we drew immediate criticism from the folks who had been protesting in the streets every night for being “sellouts” and “gatekeepers.” I never dreamed the dissent at the march would come so strongly from other Blacks. But they didn’t identify with us. They saw us as “rich” and “bougie” and taking a weak approach because we were out of touch. It was a painful, but meaningful illustration that the Black experience is not monolithic. Rather than allow their anger to shame me into silence, though, I became stronger in my resolve to do as much as I could in my own lane to leverage change. My support for that notion came in a recent discussion with a group of college girlfriends. One of the women who is very active in politics and larger issues told us that she had attended an awesome training about bringing diversity into her particular sector. One of the instructors had told the group that they didn’t need to check their privilege, they needed to leverage it. This gave me the resolve I needed to push forward with another project I’d been invited to between citizens and city leaders that was drawing similar heat for being a “sellout” or “gatekeeper” endeavor. My privilege as an attorney is that I have a seat at the table with law and policy makers. I work with them, I know them personally, and I understand with detail and intricacy how everything in their world works. As an educated woman, and avid reader and writer, my privilege is that I express myself well. I’m articulate and I know how to garner an audience. So I have to be present when these conversations are happening. I have to be at the table, using my voice to speak for us. Someone has to, or we get nowhere. I can’t deny the part of the “gatekeeper” accusation that I have access and opportunity. But I can certainly deny that I use my access and opportunity to keep other Blacks down. Quite the opposite, I see an opportunity to use my access to help further our cause. So, when you’re searching for your own opportunities to get involved, what privilege are you able to leverage to further the cause? What people, spaces or resources do you have access to that you could use to help in this? I’m not trying to take on the entire cause. I’m focusing my efforts in my lane, because I feel like I can have an impact there. I work in the financial sector, so I want to come up with ideas to increase financial literacy within my city’s Black community. I believe this foundation will increase opportunities for home ownership, wealth building, lending, and financial prosperity where we as a group have been historically locked out. Not because I have been locked out, but because I have access.
So, as you spend your moments learning and searching for your place in all of this, know that your voice and your efforts matter. Every small step taken in furtherance of the goal of eradicating racism and moving people closer together is worthwhile. Whether you’re having conversations with individuals, making donations to causes that are doing work you’re not capable of doing, or just doing work on yourself within – keep going. Use your voice in every time and in every way that you can.