Thursday, September 26, 2013

Not all Fun and Kumbaya

I was privileged the other night to attend a dialogue with the Thandeka and Nontombi Tutu -  social rights activists, daughters of Desmond Tutu, and all around amazing women.    The dialogue - questions from the moderator and then opened to the public - centered around the experiences of apartheid, reconciliation, AIDS/HIV and how best to to an advocate and activist for social equality and healing.    These are some of the questions and answers as best I remember them.

Q:  How do you get your hands around problems as big as racial and gender inequality?

A:  People so often prescribe what others should do to solve a problem.    They point fingers and blame.  The first step in dealing with a problem is breaking it down into smaller bits and then finding something you can do about it.    Unless you stop suffering from a superiority complex, you will not be in a true relationship with the people you need to be working with.

Q:  Do you think we continue to rehash old solutions without looking to new ideas to solve these problems.

A:  Not necessarily.   There are often easy small solutions to parts of larger problems.  For example,  educating South African children is difficult  because they have no desks.  Writing and doing their lessons on their laps is very difficult.  We have started a program called TutuDesks which give a child a portable desk top, they own.  They bring it back and forth from home to school and therefore feel some ownership and investment in their education.   It is a small solution that is proving very effective both in their educational success and self esteem.

Q:  What do you feel is the biggest problem in the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS?

A:  We have a lot of educational resources.  There are posters and brochures and condoms everywhere.  People know what they are supposed to do.  But there is a huge gap between knowledge and actual behavior.  Not unlike religion - people know what they are supposed to do.  But the execution is difficult.  

Q:  How do you think we can heal the divide between races?

A:  For healing to happen, compassion starts with ourselves.   We have to sit in spaces with people we don’t trust. To listen to stories and perspectives of people we think are liars. To be among those who make us the most uncomfortable.   We have to see in the other person, gang, or school, church or not church, that they are hurting as much as we are. I  have to be willing to listen to people I don’t agree with, to have my feelings hurt in order for our community to heal. To put my comfort zone on the back burner for awhile.

Q:  How can we help whole communities heal, those affected by institutional and historical trauma?

A:   Allow them to address their trauma and validate that experience. My dad said it was important to validate and hear in their own words. Validate the fact that the trauma occurred.  That was the point of the reconciliation hearings after apartheid.   People were allowed to voice the wrongs that had been done to them.  That has not happened for people of color in America . . . or the Native Americans.

It’s also important to have everyone at the table, but it’s not likely. So let’s start the conversation and we can always reach out further.  Somebody is going to say something that makes us angry,or sounds stupid.  I will tell you it’s not all fun and kumbaya. It’s work.

And then a man came to the microphone, very angry and agitated,  and explained that he had driven 3 hours just to be able to ask this question.    Unfortunately his accent was so thick that I had trouble understanding his exact question, but it was something like this:

Q:  There was a man (I couldn’t discern the name)  who unleashed a virus on South Africa.  It was basically a weapon of mass destruction.  And yet this man is still walking the streets today.  He killed thousands, yet he is free.  How do you explain or condone that?

A:  That was the agreement through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission - if people told confessed what they had done, and were truthful, they received amnesty for their deeds.   Not everyone liked what happened, but that was the agreement.  it was part of the healing process.


Lately I have been very discouraged by things I see on the internet.    I really don’t care what side of an issue you are on - could we at least be civil?    And stop reducing people to stereotypes and calling them names?     Just today I saw things like:

Those Republican crazies

It may also be that O’bozo (O’Bama) has completely overplayed his hand

Besides I was getting pretty sick of "wing nut", "tea bagger", "dumb" and "stupid" comments from your side.

The yahoos on the school board

His brains are in his gonads.

And it goes on and on.  

I have worked in public service my whole adult life and one thing I do know - you don’t get anywhere calling people names.   You merely mark yourself as another obstacle. Like that old saying - if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.   If you are calling people names, you have now become part of  the problem.  

The history of human rights movements is filled with people who respected every person at the table.  They took the time to listen to their opponents and to try to understand the other side.  Can you imagine Dr. King or Nelson Mandela calling white folks crazy?  Or wingnuts? Or stupid?  Would that have advanced their vision?

If the Tutus could have endured apartheid and still not called one white person an ugly name, even a man who murdered thousands, I think the rest of us should be able to control ourselves too.    I feel like we are all in our own trenches, lobbing stones at anyone in a different trench - just because they are in the different trench.  No one wants to take the time or make the effort to understand why the other is in their trench.  

So it has become part of my personal crusade - to ask people to stop calling others ugly, derogatory names. Surely we do not have to curse at each other to make a point that we don’t agree on an issue. Every single person deserves respect, no matter what their religion or politics or sins.  

I know quite a few people who fancy themselves huge advocates for equality yet all they do is post opposing positions on their FaceBook page and then participate in a public verbal stoning of the author (who is unaware of the conversation) while congratulating themselves that they got 98 people to "like" it. That's advocacy?   We can do better. I think if we are to move forward at all, we must do better.

The Tutu sisters are champions of dignity for all.   I would like to think that I can be a champion too. There are people I do not understand, there are political things happening that make my head spin, there are people who seem to have malicious intent,  there are people who do not practice what they preach.   It is hard to understand these folks or why they think as they do. But I think it is imperative they we do.   We need to bridge the gap between knowing what to do and execution.  We need to get out of our comfort zones.  We need to stop blaming everyone else for the world’s problems and start rolling up our sleeves.  There so much to do.

“ It’s not all fun and kumbaya. It’s work.”


  1. Are you considering politics as your retirement career?

    You have my vote!

    1. Thanks, but no thanks. I think I've had enough politics to last a life time. But some sort of advocacy . . . maybe.

  2. That's a direct quote? "It's not all fun and kumbaya." ? How effing awesome is that?

    I really like this post, 8. I think you should submit it to the NY Times Op Ed section so that more people can read it. Because, you're right. There is so much to do.


    1. That is a direct quote. These women were awesome. I really admire people who work rather than complain. But lately the complainers seem to be taking over. Personally I think FaceBook has a lot to do with it. Give people a soapbox and 400 friends/admirers and everybody is a critic. No solutions. No offers to contribute. Just complain. It is driving me insane.

      (could you tell?)

  3. How interesting that people who have suffered the most under other's inhumanity are the ones who offer compassion and understanding in the healing process. And those suffering from a "superiority complex" (love that term) are the ones who like to point and blame.

    This post has so much good advice for community builders I am printing it to share.

    And I will join your crusade to treat all people with respect and dignity, no matter how I feel about their politics or behaviors. Civility, like charity, starts at home.

    Lastly, I agree with e - this post deserves a wider audience.

  4. I was just reading Tina Fey quotes and came upon this:

    "Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don't just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles." [Bossypants]

    It seems like a common theme from people who know how to get things done.

  5. This is an inspired a post.

    I think it is very difficult in the midst. This is the fight, internally, for everyone. How do we do this? How do we maintain humanity for ourselves and for others? We have forgotten to walk in respect.

    (I just put up a post where I called someone crazy. I then realized, right after I pushed publish, that it was neither accurate nor kind. So I changed it to mean. Which was accurate. )

    There is also a very key thing in here to me. The people getting amnesty? They are taking responsibility for their actions by admitting what they have done. It is a very small thing to do. But I agree it is important. And I feel that that has to be (has to be!) part of the equation. As the Tutu sisters have pointed out, we have never done that in this country. And we need to. On a national scale and on a personal scale. We're like a bunch of Fonzies, unable to say "I was wrong" with it coming out "I was wrrrrrr."

    It matters in so many ways.

    1. I couldn't agree with you more, Em. I am so tired of everyone just wanting to blame someone else. No one is perfect. Everyone is hurting. When will people understand that we are all in this friggin' boat together?

  6. I thought you would like to know - I read this post and presented the idea of raising money for Tutudesks to my 4th grade class. They loved it and voted this to be their main fundraiser for the year. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. That is so very cool! I love how one good deed always ripples out to others.

  7. Sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees. You see this huge problem and then look down and see the band aid in your hand and feel like sighing and just giving up. I see people all the time who are giving and yes, once the conversation moves into snide comments, etc. is difficult to trust or respect. My partner has changed the lives of countless students but she often sees the ones she has missed and feels the failure. It is difficult.

    1. My partner works in an elementary and often feels the same way as Bing. I understand the frustration. You can't change the whole world, but you can change one person's world. And that can make all the difference.

      Healing the world, one band aid at a time.