“Nah! Not today!”–Leading Courageous Conversations

 

Kathy- SpeakingFew people are willing to start courageous conversations. Now, I am not referring to
the standard “Well, I’m jus’ gonna’ give him a piece of my mind!” Yeah, yeah, those conversations do take courage.  But the conversations of which I am writing require a level of relational transparency that is becoming sadly too rare. Let’s be real for a minute, how often is the friend who asks:” “Now, I want your honest opinion, how do I……?” really interested in your honest opinion?  My experience is NOT often! That’s why it takes courage to step out from the comforting limb of evasion, of half-truths, or outright lies to share a hard truth. After all, not many of us are able to take critical feedback and not despise the messenger. Ask me how I know.

I can still remember the day, about twenty years ago, when a close friend and mentor told me a hard truth about myself. It was unflattering, hurtful even, and in that moment I did what any self-respecting person would do. I launched a three-pronged counter attack. Ha!! First, I told him something bad about himself too. Then I called him a liar. “Untrue!” I said. Then, I resolved right then and there that the friendship was officially over (smh).  Yes! I know, not one of my finest moment! Shucks, I was ashamed, and embarrassed and very, VERY angry with him.

Kathy-1Yet, today, as I stand at the 50th mile mark of my life journey, and I reflect on that moment, I think now about the courage it must have taken for him to begin that conversation and risk my displeasure–to share a truth that was necessary for me to know to continue to improve. (Side note here, in case you are wondering, we are still close friends). Moreover, I now recognize growing in me a fierce determination to also take on courageous conversations.

Just so you know, it is not because I have a secret yearning for martyrdom or a quest to achieve wonder woman status. (Though, her suit is kinda cute, especially the cape. Don’t ya think?) Rather, at this juncture of my life journey, I think of it as a responsibility—a calling if you will to be a truth sayer, to care less about what others think of me, and more about what I think of myself–to walk firmly in my convictions. And even though, I will confess, there are still too many times when confronted with the task of speaking up, that I have hesitated, rethought, analyzed, re-analyzed some more, and eventually simply walked away in silence, each day that I continue to live, I challenge myself to fight against that beguiling sense of comfort.

In an age of “fake news” and insincere “like” clicks or “beautiful” comment posts, I remain convinced of the necessity of courageous conversations.

Courageous Conversations Honor Self: It is easier to advocate for others when such advocacy comes in the form of compliments and glowing letters of recommendations. Everyone loves praise. How, much tougher it is to advocate for others through critical feedback that can be unflattering, or even unwelcome! How very difficult it can be to say “no” in a crowd of “yeses”! To understand that in taking a position, you will perhaps be viewed, as “hard” “inflexible” and even in my case, considered “unchristian”. It is in these moments that I remind myself that advocacy for affirmation is merely self-promotion.

For the many times, I have made the choice to travel the lonely road of “The Voice of the Opposition”, there have been moments of self-doubt and uncertainty. Yet, I remain convinced that the best contributions we can make in this life is to speak and act from the perspective of our deeply held convictions. That being said, we should not do so from a place of brutish recalcitrance. Rather, we should speak from an emerging position that requires us to critically interrogate our views as we continue to become intelligently informed and to listen to perspectives that differ from ours. Even as we stand firm in our truths, it should birth in us the ability to recognize and respect the rights of others to stand in their own truth. In sum, the experiences along our individual life journey is crafting in each of us a perspective that is distinctively our own. When I am true to my convictions, whether right or wrong, I am making a contribution that is branded as uniquely me! To deny that is to live inauthentically and to dishonor the gift of my presence in this world.

 Courageous Conversations Advance OthersA few years ago a colleague, who I came to know through my professional circle, came to seek my counsel. She was disappointed that once again she had ben overlooked for a senior level leadership position at her institution. Having observed her for some time though from a distance, I knew exactly what part of the problem was. Though she did possess practical leadership skills, she lacked the professional presence and finesse that could secure her a C-suite position. Yet, in spite of years at her place of employment, and a host of mentors, no one had been courageous enough to have that conversation with her, to provide her with necessary resources for her leadership development. I wondered why. But then again, perhaps they had, and she had not been ready to receive it, or perhaps the timing was bad or the approach was wrong? Though she had come to me looking for comfort, empathy even, I recognized the moment for what it was—an opportunity to start a brave conversation that perhaps she would find embarrassing, and yet it was necessary to advance her along her career path. And though I was fully aware that I was about to make her uncomfortable, to take on the inevitable risk of being disliked, misunderstood, or even unfriended, I chose my tone carefully and began the hard conversation…

Courageous Conversations are Necessary to the Cause:  Moving to the United States from the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, I have come to a new construction of what it means to be a Black person in this context.  Existing and working in predominantly White spaces has positioned me and others like me to speak up for issues that often get overlooked, because the context is informed by a predominant majority perspective that threatens to marginalize us. It is a threat that is strengthened when we choose to remain silent. For me then, the iconic presence of Rosa Parks is a commanding symbol of courage—courage that refuses to acquiesce in the face of injustice. “Nah! Not today! I will not give up my seat!”

Whatever the cause, the counterattack begins through opposition. It is the lone voice that shouts aloud about injustices that are whispered in hushed tones; it is the lone voice that is not afraid to ask the uncomfortable questions: “And why were no Diversity_Matters-coverpeople of color invited to the event? Recruited for the position? Received the award? Offered a seat at the table? Why are there no women in the top leadership positions? How were candidates recruited, selected? What are we doing to address these inequities? Why? What? How?

Though my cause may be different from yours, the advancement of work against systemic injustices requires a conversation starter. It requires someone who is brave enough to voice the concern that unapologetically challenges the normative–and lets the chips fall where they may.

Now that kind of courage does not come easily. In fact, every time I have started one of these conversations with students, colleagues, relatives, friends or even in my scholarship around the topic of diversity and inclusion, I have done so in spite of my fears. No, it is not easy, but it is indeed necessary. And whether we emerge from such conversations on the winning or losing side is not really the point. The point is: “Am I? Are you courageous enough to walk in your convictions—to make a mark that is distinctively you– to speak your truth even though your voice is quivering?” That is the kind of courage that Harper Lee defines as “real courage” ….It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

So, bring on the courageous conversations! Why? Well, because at 50 and counting I have earned both the right and the responsibility to lead such conversations  And come to think of it now, maybe I will get that cape after all…

 

Higher Education for What?

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I ended last semester with this question on my mind: “Higher education for what?” As I watched my students prepare to walk across the university stage to receive that long awaited diploma, the question provoked its way into my thoughts. Now, here again at the start of a new semester, it is demanding to be answered. Yet when I think about it a bit, it occurs to me that I have been pondering this question for more years than I can remember. You see, it all started with my dad.

kathy's dad bw 001 Peter Hernandez – Daddy

It was clear to me as a child that Daddy believed there were two worthy pursuits in life—pursuing education and cultivating a relationship with God. Though he had not finished high school, education beckoned him as a commodity of great value, if not for himself for his daughters. And even now I have a fixed image…

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Ahem, Yes! I Did Wear that Before!

Too long since I wrote a new blog post. However, this morning as I put on my denim jacket–circa 2002, I thought this post was worth a re-blog. In an age of consumerism, I remain committed to marching to the beat of my own drum. Out with the new and in with the old… I dare you to be countercultural! Give it a read…

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13177452_1038514682881992_4248996420617606284_n Jacket Circa 2002 – Gift from Mark

I am becoming a staunch counterculturalist! I don’t know precisely when or how it started happening, but it is clear to me that if everyone is going left, then I will be the one staring longingly in the right direction with my hand raised high to ask the annoying question with a preface: “Ahhh, not to cause problems or anything, but exactly why aren’t we going right?”

That is certainly how I have felt about fashion and the media’s constant barrage at us to buy more new clothes. Well, “Not to cause problems or anything, but what’s the deal with this constant buying of new clothes for the change of season, a special event, a new job, or for no reason whatsoever?” I just don’t get it! As someone who deliberates long and hard about most clothing purchases, the lure of intentionally…

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Teaching Our Children to Value What Matters at Christmas Time

Yes, the leaves aren’t even cold on the ground and I am already thinking of Christmas! What can I say? I love this time of year! At the same time, the Christmas season, also adds christmas-treea small lump to my throat, as I think about my dad. He loved Christmas! Ah, what fond memories! Ours was not a rich community. What we had to give each were not store bought gifts. Instead our gifts were open doors to neighbors, family and friends to visit at anytime –day or night during the season; and the very best that we could offer –a clean and well decorated house, good food and Christmas delicacies—sorrel, pastelles, black cake, and ponche crema which we had made, like they say here, from scratch. These were the best gifts! And as I reminded my daughters the first time my mother-in-law presented them with not one, not two, but numerous purchased Christmas gifts, I was lucky to get ONE, and only ONE such gift at Christmas time! But, oh how I treasured it!

Now, as a parent to these two girls who are growing up in this country with so much, I find myself thinking about Christmas in a more intentional way. How can I pass on to them an appreciation for the simple gifts of Christmas time, amidst the cacophony of “Gimme” Gimme”? How can I help them cultivate a giving heart that is sensitive to the needs of others, in season and out of season? Here are some ideas that Mark and I are considering in the true spirit of Christmas celebration this year:

Focus on the Advent: The word “advent” means the arrival of a notable person or event. Therefore, to focus on advent means to prepare to celebrateooo the arrival of the baby Jesus. Although I did not grow up with this as part of my faith tradition, I decided to try it last year. We did not start off on the traditional Sunday or do the Advent wreath, but each night from December 1 to Christmas when we had dinner, we would share a devotional segment from the Focus on the Family 2015 Advent Calendar or another reading that we had chosen that centered our thinking on the significance of  the nativity. What a blessing! What thought provoking conversations that these devotions sparked! What laughter and family fun! We are planning to do it again this year with a customized version of this 2012 Advent Calendar — Knowing Him by Name.

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Give with Intention: For us, that means helping the girls to independently and thoughtfully choose causes for which they want to give. Additionally, it is important that the giving should come from them and not from us, and that it should be relational. In other words, we are careful to guide their selection to causes for which they can connect gifting to helping real people and not merely dropping a dollar in a can. In this way, we hope that they can get a sense of how a small act on their part can be a real blessing to someone else. This year, after considering a number of options, the girls seem most interested in creating greeting cards to send to sick children through Send Kids the World. It is eye-opening for them to see children just like themselves who are battling such serious illnesses.

Celebrate through Worship: I really should not have to write this one down! But with all the merry making and gift giving, worship can be the last thing we choose to do, except, maybe, when we go to church. This year, we hope to have communal worship not just at church, but to open our doors to friends in a special vesper celebration event. In keeping with our faith tradition of a Sabbath rest, we are looking forward to gathering with family and friends on a Friday night during the season around a simple meal and to worship Christ in praise, in thanksgiving and song.

Celebrate through Sacrifice: This is a tough one especially for my 6 year old, who loves gifts! However, undaunted, we are reminding the girls of the great sacrifice it was for God to send his only Son to this earth. Sacrifice means that it should cost them something—might even make them a bit sad to give THAT thing away. Hence, we are encouraging them to think about one gift, special toy, or item that they are willing to give up to someone in need this Christmas season. (I’ll let you know how that one goes!)

Celebrate through Service: We have a close family friend who is in a nursing home not far away. Have you been to a nursing home recently? Well, if you have, you know that some of them can be very dreary places indeed. We have been talking about visiting him for most of the year but have not done so! Shame on us! However, it is our intention to visit him this holiday season and take a bit of Christmas cheer. The girls are putting together a special program, and they are practicing a couple of duets—Alyssa is playing and Amya is singing. You should hear them do “Amazing Grace!” Even though I don’t see any music awards in their future, it does make my eyes water every time! I might even bake a cake and take a fruit basket. I am excited just thinking about the joy this simple visit might bring him! For some more great service ideas, check out The Center for a New American Dream.

Whatever your plans are for this holiday season, keep them simple and keep Christ at the center of them all. Have a blessed Christmas!

 

 

 

Standing in the Motherhood Gap

I have a deep and growing admiration for mothers and mothering. Now this may surprise you, coming from me, someone who was not raised by my mother but by a single parent father. And if you have read any of my blog posts, I am sure it is abundantly clear that I do have some emotional residuals from that intriguing saga. But I am not going to beat that drum today! Been there; done that! Instead, as I celebrate nine years of the highs and lows of parenting (My older daughter turns 9 today, October 18), I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the opportunity I have had to experience motherhood and mothering.

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Auguste Rodin- Young Mother in the Grotto 

Now, it would  be inaccurate to say that my foray into motherhood began with the birth of my own child. I can recognize that inclination from my earliest days of playing with dolls in the back room of my father’s garage and later at each stage of my professional journey. Without a doubt, my finest moments in the profession have been those times when I shook of my professorial garb and connected with students from a deeply rooted spirit of caring–of nurturing.  Similarly, I have been blessed with several mothers along my own life journey –strong and compassionate women who stood in the motherhood gap for me.

This weekend, I spent precious time with one such mother. Oh, how I wished I had met her years ago when I could barely boil an egg, when my rice and peas usually came out sappy and my biscuits… Well, who am I kidding? What biscuits?. My apologies to all past boyfriends and friends who suffered through my valiant early attempt at cooking–who ate undercooked potatoes and season less concoctions. Know that your sacrifices were not in vain. I did persevere, and not to boast or any thing, but Mama Dee, Mom (my mother-in-law), and “Ma” have taught me a thing or two about cooking! If you could only eat at my table now!! Ha!

Making Mama Dee’s Biscuits

Then there are women who stepped in to instruct me about womanhood. There is the next door neighbor who had “the talk” with my dad about what a growing young girl would need and introduced him to the concept of a “Bra”! Like, “Hello!”. The family friend who made sure Dad understood that I needed to be “on fleek” for my graduation party. Can I just say that I did represent!! There was the dean of women of Linda Austin Hall at the boarding school I attended during my teenage years. She would stand at the front door of our dormitory before we left for church and inspect us from head to toe sending us back to our rooms to get a half slip to put under THAT dress, pulling a safety pin out of her pocket to fix too low necklines, or tucking and pinning a stray curl with a hair pin from her other coat pocket. How we despised these inspections. And yet, (sigh), this morning as I waited in the foyer to inspect my daughters on the way out the door, I felt a great indebtedness to this woman. Thank you, Dean Beresford!

And there again, is Mom. Mom who was there for me in those big life moments. It was mom who took me to bridal store after bridal store, in search of that just right dress. How I remember well the moment, when we found THE dress.  As I came out of the dressing room, our eyes locked in a watery embrace compelling our arms to soon follow; we hugged each other tightly and cried openly.

But wait, there is more! When my first daughter was born, I remember well the anxieties and uncertainties that welled up within me. Could I do this? What was this that I had to do? How could I be a good mother when I had not been mothered? So many fears! But “Mom” had it covered. As Mark and I drove home from the hospital on that afternoon in late October, I could see her bent frame through the kitchen window; she was busy at work. When we walked into the house, the aroma of warm food enveloped us, and her arms encircled me –she fussed over me, fussed over the baby, fussed over her homemade chocolate cake –fuss, fuss fuss, and I…, shucks, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Heck, I needed it! Mom stayed with us for several days helping me adjust to my new role. Ah, what a blessing!

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Mom holding Alyssa’s feet

I could go on and on reflecting on how each of these women and many, many more nurtured me, loved me, taught me, and shaped me into the woman I am always becoming. They filled an empty mothering hole till it was overflowing. I am because they are! And it occurs to me now, as I reflect on this that we all are who we are because of community– because of such connections. Each life is a patchwork quilt sewn together by a changing circle of hands, patch after patch, stitch after stitch, each hand building on the efforts of others until the work is perfected.

There is no lack of mothers where there is this kind of community! Hooray for mothers and motherhood ! Hooray for women with bottomless hearts and tireless hands who do not need the pretext of a navel string to bind themselves to others in need. And if you were privileged to be born female, well, then the mantle now falls on you and on me to continue this great work.

Please celebrate with me and share a reflection of the “mothers” who have blessed your life in the comment section below.

 

 

 

 

The Blessing and Burden of Writing

 

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It’s a strange business this writing thing.

I am always writing… writing in my mind as I roll out of bed, and change into my exercise clothes. I put my shorts on, and a sports bra and top and socks; then I spend more than a few minutes looking for my i-pod and finally put my shoes on as I make it out the door for my 7 mile morning bike ride.

I am always writing in my mind, writing stories about the people I encounter along my route.

Well, not really encounter, for seldom do we stop to chat, and yet we do acknowledge each other with a smile, a nod, or morning greeting. We are a community of sorts, connected by this morning ritual of walking, running or biking. And though, I will confess that I don’t even know their names, I have stories about them all—well-constructed mind scripts of who they are and what they do.

I expect to see the four ladies who have been walking together for many years. I would guess that they are in their mid seventies or early eighties—who, in familial conversation, can spread out across the entire path—a fitting metaphor, I think, for the breadth of their friendship. And though I am often a bit annoyed in trying to figure out how to get around them without yelling – “Bicycle on the left!”— their consistent presence is comforting.

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Then there is the man who I am convinced spends the day walking the trails. No matter the season, he is dressed all in black, with well-defined calves that label him No-nonsense- Serious Walker. First he takes his dog for an early morning walk and then walks the dog back home. Then he goes for his own walk, and repeats this ritual at noon and before the sun goes down. Mark and I have often said to each other teasingly: “If only we spoke dog, I am sure we would hear the dog saying to us beseechingly: ‘Woof! Woof! Help me!!’”

I often see one of my neighbors who I have stopped and talked to for quite a while. She lives on the street down from us. One morning, we got so busy talking about this and that, that I forgot to ask her name after she had asked mine. Hmmph! Now I cringe each morning when she greets me with a sunny and triumphant: “Good morning Kathy!” and I can only muster a paltry: “Good morning!” in return–too ashamed to ask: “What’s your name again?”

I am always writing in my mind, these vignettes of serendipitous encounters, and yet to me, they are the real substance of what makes a life meaty, delicious and sweet. But like a painter, my canvas is instead a blank screen and my brushes and paint palette are words and punctuations. I long to capture these moments in a piece that gives them a permanent place to rest– to share with you whomever you are and wherever you are a glimpse into the happenings in my world, my day, and ultimately the time I would have spent on this beautiful earth. But more than giving them permanency, I am attempting to share with you a glimpse into my mind.

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Fora as is often the case with artists, to come to know me is to know me through my work. And I hope you won’t think me too bold in saying this, and it does not come across as if I am too full of myself. But I have come to think that my experiences are not too different from yours—though the details may differ —that in an attempt to capture my lived experiences you can come to see yourself in these encounters, these remembrances, and dare I say, learn something from them. This is my contribution as a writer.

And though my contributions are expressed through the blessing and burden of writing, your contributions are expressed through your own gifts and abilities. Yet, in these expressions, we may somehow recognize the commonality of our struggle: the quest to know each other more fully, the quest to be known by others, the quest to walk intentionally into our life purpose and in doing so bless and inspire others with the gifts we have been given.

I am always writing in my mind…. However, on too many days, these writings stay only in my mind—victims to the tyranny of things to do that are urgent, and these words and thoughts can find no resting place. Yes, this is often the case.

Yet, it’s not the case today.  And on days like today, when I am able to capture just a bit of these mind pieces, I feel such a release and sense of accomplishment that ironically, I am at a loss to find the words to fully describe it.