Thank you in advance for your precious time, I hope these words are helpful. Our circumstances are building enormous pressure right now: Global Pandemic. Growing poverty and unemployment. National Election. Race-driven murder. Unbearable tension between law enforcement officers and civilians. Riots.
We need to take care of ourselves without avoiding reality.
I’ve lived and worked in the Watts community 41 and 20 years respectively. Watts is a neighborhood that has always lived under tension with law enforcement for complex reasons. Twice, our community faced uprisings after police brutality incidents (once in 1965, the other in 1992). The non-profit I work for has been around since 1965 and responded to both uprisings with action to deepen work and ties in the community. In 1965 we invested in wealth generation for residents, and in 1992 we added healing and education to our work.
It is easy to feel helpless or hopeless.
In more than two decades of facing this work head-on, my primary job is to maintain my personal sense of love and value for our neighbors, and to personally sustain my hope. Without that, bitterness and anger would make the work ineffective: Creating harm, widening gaps, fostering disunity and destroying resources.
Most of my day-to-day job is to sit behind a desk or in meeting finding ways to change lives for the better for people living in poverty in Watts.
It’s easy to feel I’m not doing enough.
Our non-profit mission is geographically specific because we believe change starts with who you are and what you now first. To help change lives, we compete for federal tax dollars that basically fill in the same supports any healthy, able family would: A helping hand, a place to crash, a listening ear, connections to jobs, chores for the elderly, a ride. In Watts, poverty, declining health, and incarceration make those family essentials near-impossible to find.
Along with that, we try to unpack the complicated history of race in America and its impact on Watts. This happens through interactive, lecture-style tours that use immersive art to teach this incredibly complex history, while shedding light on solutions. Each tour is tailored to the audience, and responsive to them.
It’s hard to keep working when you don’t see the impact.
Sometimes I have to explain how violent a disruption the ending of slavery is to the way of life for people who enslaved people. Sometimes I have to acknowledge the genocidal roots of America’s founding. I consistently applaud the accomplishment of our nation’s founders, who wrote a new destiny for generations to live out and changed the course of world history. And I have to expose the parts of the Constitution that legalized and taxed slavery, and fail to assert any moral authority over that vile economic system, not even within the language that ends and continues to legalize slavery today.
This has to be shared with empathy, without personal offense, with total forgiveness and an approach that welcomes people to listen and for information to be received. To be effective, I can’t have any agenda other than our collective growth.
Bridge-building feels like a waste of time.
How the heck do I continue building bridges anyway?
Here are my tools, used throughout every day, and even more in times like this.
- Believe you make a difference. I love the saying, “Brighten the corner where you are.” Whether it’s your thoughts, your daily habits and interactions, your job, your faith, or your family, we each impact at least one person’s life. Even if we don’t plan to. That means our global impact is as effective as our individual intention. Some of the solutions to what ails us are cultural, some political, some legislative, others economic, but ultimately they come down to choices. When I began to own the responsibility attached to my choices, it became easier to see myself as part of change. It definitely takes more work, but it no longer feels helpless or hopeless when you recognize your choices change the world, bit by bit. Why not use our choices for collective improvement?
- Practice forgiveness. When I say this, I mean that for my own health and clarity, I continually say to myself, “I forgive the founders of our country. I forgive those who enslaved my ancestors. I forgive every murderer. I forgive those who destroyed indigenous people all over the world. I forgive the kids I went to school with. I forgive the policemen who held me at gunpoint. I forgive my best friend for not understanding me. I forgive every abuser. I forgive myself for my own brokenness. I forgive God for allowing pain, brokenness, and destruction.” Even as I type this, it’s painful. But we can’t see, hear, or respond clearly when we’re clouded by bitterness and that comes from not forgiving.
- Visualize healing. As I give these tours, the most effective visual for how these horrific conditions are actually steps toward healing, is a medical condition called an abscess. Abscesses are super-gross, infected wounds which can become fatal. What’s unique, is you often can’t see the wound itself, but only general swelling, redness, and heat from inflammation. This parallels our current circumstances which from certain angles look like business as usual, and from other angles, like genocide. An abscess is one of the few conditions where treatment requires things to get worse before they get better: They are lanced or cut open to drain. (So gross.) Our circumstances reflect this as we see greater and greater exposure of the underlying problems around race, health, our political and economic systems. Next, abscess treatment uniquely requires a delay of wound closure for healing to be complete: After it is drained, the wound is kept open and constantly flushed, to prevent infection from growing again. We see this parallel as it seems the volume and pain of what we’re facing will only grow when we begin to do the work, and unfortunately this is true. The final steps of abscess treatment are closing the wound and taking antibiotics. Compared to where we are, this is what it will look like when we have finally put the best solutions available to us in place, and are transforming our culture for the better. Having this reference point helps me process the onslaught of daily problems from the lens of healing, instead of hopelessness.
- Face it. We can’t heal anything we’re in denial about, or avoidance of. Be healthy and compassionate with yourself as you learn to deal head-on with what’s happening. This is a critical part of love and valuing one another: Seeking to understand what our troubles are. We can’t experience each other’s pain, but being willing to be uncomfortable with, and even grieve for what’s happening is a start toward empathizing with our neighbors.
- Be a student first. None of us has all the answers. But we get closer to the truth, and the best path forward when we try to listen to and learn from each other before we instruct or tell people what we think is best.
- Include joy in your health regimen. The more we know, the more we know we’re ignorant of. Digging deep into this painful reality does not mean you have to dwell on it every second. It’s the opposite. Find joy-filled moments with healthy people and hobbies you love. Add this to the tried-and-true daily health basics of getting sunshine and moving regularly, eating healthy foods, getting sleep, and following a hygiene routine.
- Find faith. There is no formula, precedent, or pattern to account for what is happening right now and how to resolve it. Where there are unknowns, the world becomes much more imposing, and believing we can change it grows harder. We can depend on our faith to strengthen us in the unknown realm. That ties directly into our belief that we can make a difference. I believe faith is as varied as human beings are unique. My faith is specific, and may or may not match your own. But we need faith to have hope and find strength to do our individual part to collectively change for the better.