“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…

 

Inhabiting the Thin Places

imageAs the bus made its way to this “where-in-the-world-are-we-going” corner spot of Washington State called Sumas, the organizers  of the Multi-Ethnic Leadership Institute 2015 sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities assured us that Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center was worth the effort. “The food is great!” “The grounds are beautiful”. Under my breath I muttered, “Well, I will just wait and see about that!” For one thing this was Father’s Day weekend, and I was going to be away from my family. For another thing, I was already thinking of the almostimage twelve hour wait at the airport that I would have to endure on my flight back to Philly the following week. However, the next words from the lead organizer mouth made me turn away from the window and  pay attention: “Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center is one of those thin places on earth”.

Hmmmh? I had not heard this expression before. Thin places? So to Google I went. I  learned that the Celtics say that heaven and earth are only three feet apart. However, in some places the distance is even smaller. A thin place is  a place where that distance is breached and we are able to get an unfiltered glimpse of God’s glory. Metaphoric or literal, what an intriguing concept!

So here I am the morning after the dreaded flight back to Philly without more than a few hours sleep, and I must admit that I have been in one of those “thin places”– Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center. And perhaps, my greatest takeaway is that while I would highly recommend a trip like mine, the  trip though helpful is not a prerequisite.  If you are interested in finding and inhabiting thin places yourself for respite and spiritual nurturing, read on. I suggest three such destinations  in our lives.

imageThin Places in Nature: Seek out and connect with the natural world as often and as frequently as you can. There is a voice that speaks to us so loudly in nature–in the songs of  birds, the wind in the trees, raindrops falling on the rooftop, crickets chirping in the bushes, and even bullfrogs croaking beside a pond well into the night (inside joke). Ah, I must admit, that though I am a crafter of words, I am  at a loss to adequately describe it. But I can tell you this from experience. If we train ourselves to listen well to the language of the natural world, we would  hear love letters to God from his creation and love letters from Him read to us in the rising of the sun, the rebirth of spring flowers, and the ebb and flow of waves along the seashore.

Thin Places in Relationships: Find the thin places in your relationships. When this diverse group of christian educators and administrators gathered together to talk about leadership development, many things happened. We prayed together, sangimage together, listened to stories and words of advice from senior leaders, climbed a mountain (Yes, a mountain!), and sat together family style and ate many delicious meals. And let me say here and now, the organizers were SO right. The food was Yum-OH!! But more than the food was the spirit of community these encounters engendered among us as we passed the biscuits, commented on the bounty of fresh produce, and scraped the last bit of french toast from the bowl. Between mouthfuls and expressions of: “This is SO good!” we shared stories about our own lives, our aspirations and desires for advancing towards our God given purpose. Many bonds were formed, and on the final day as we gathered for our last worship encounter together we sang: “I need you, you need me. We’re all a part of God’s body….You are important to me. I need you to survive.” There was hardly a dry eye in the room as we caught a fresh glimpse of God’s glory and infinite purpose expressed in each others face.

Thin Places in Spiritual Development:  Make time for spiritual development. Our spiritual selves are often the introverted sides of our personality–so quiet and unobtrusive that it is easy to ignore how critical it is to our survival.  However you conceive God to be, make time to connect with Him. I firmly believe that our spiritual selves are nourished when we “get connected”, and I am NOT talking about Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram etc. etc! Get connected/reconnected by nurturing three important relationships in your life: your relationship with yourself, others, and your God.

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At Cedar Springs, sans TV and heeding the wise counsel from the retreat organizers, we disconnected from the Internet during our sessions, instead we made time for early morning walks around the grounds or to the prayer garden, and mid afternoon hikes though the woods and to the top of Haystack mountain. I started each day in pray asking God: “What would you have me do today?” When we nurture our spiritual selves, we are opening up a soul-window to heaven that provides us with an unfiltered view of God and a thin space for Him to connect to us.

You don’t have to travel to Cedar Springs Christian Retreat Center in Sumas, Washington to inhabit a thin place. (Though, I’ve got to tell you, it is so worth the trip!). The good news is that we can find and inhabit thin places if we act intentionally in the following ways:

imageSeek out nature, early in the morning, in the middle of the day, when the sun sets, or whenever, and listen well.

Cultivate authentic relationships with those around us and God’s glory will be revealed in those relational spaces.

Make time to  nurture our spiritual lives by choosing to get unplugged for a day or more and spend time with self, loved ones, and our God.

If you can do this, you’ll find thin places are well within your reach. Moreover, you will be thanking me for this timely travel tip to this worthwhile destination where the views are spectacular! I guarantee it!