By Fadumo Adan
When I was taking a Community Organizing and Development class this past spring, a friend of mine asked if I was doing anything over the summer. I didn’t have anything planned or a full time job, so I was open to any opportunities. Then, she suggested I apply for a position with a pilot program that was seeking more women of color as facilitators. She knew me quite well, so I had an inkling the position would have something to do with economic justice, race, immigration etc. I emailed our program director soon after.
She followed up with a plethora of forms and prompts for an essay submission. That was definitely a first. I’ve never had a job ask for essay responses. It was my favorite part of the entire process! For the first time, I was being asked about my own experiences. Finally, I had an opportunity to actually incorporate my readings into a framework that would (hopefully) augment my role as a facilitator. Two weeks later, I was interviewed. I found out the model for the Colorado program mirrored a Middle East/U.S. program that focused on American, Palestinian and Israeli participants. However, this year’s summer intensive would be specific to segregation in schools along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divides. I accepted an invitation to join the team the very next day.
I consider myself an expert in the above mentioned. After all, I am a first generation college student and a woman of color who grew up with working-class immigrant parents. This was my calling. I was being invited to have conversations that almost never happen beyond the secluded ivory towers of academia. It was in college where I developed the vocabulary to talk about my experiences in a way that commanded visibility. I had context, theories, statistics and everything else I needed to deconstruct parts of my story I felt were void of insight. While I mulled over how the training would be like and the kind of roles and responsibilities I would have, I looked forward to overcoming challenges and the personal fulfillment that comes with doing just that.
Facilitation training consisted of repeatedly being confronted with my own assumptions. We spent a little over a week working through internal conflicts that were impeding our ability to create a container of safety and trust amongst all of us. We would spend our entire day discussing and acknowledging the experiences, events and narratives that have taught us how to rehearse our responses. Sometimes, it hurts too much to revisit how parts of my story unfolded, but doing this work is how I will avenge for my silence. By working through conflict and surfacing our own unresolved issues, we created a milieu built on support, care, acceptance and sisterhood. We practiced intentional listening, experienced workshops firsthand, painted masks, modeled self-care, engaged in the practice of empathy and sang camp songs. Creating a community of safety requires an immense amount of trust and follow-through. I don’t think any of us knew our training was going to equip us with the communication skills and insight we would need to recreate this experience for the participants.
When the participants arrived, I witnessed how ill-equipped most Americans are in navigating tensions caused by legacies of oppression, segregation and inequality. We deter conversations about race by speaking in codes instead. Participants from a particular high school differentiated between international baccalaureate and traditional students. “Traditional” is this context alluded to someone who was potentially violent belonging to a Latino or Black racial/ethnic group that did not value education. The imagery associated with the word is so engrained that admitting who exactly is a traditional student would require days of intensive programming and building of trust. It was only when we established group norms and cultivated a community of inclusion and safety, could we honestly discuss free/reduced lunch, the DREAM act, the model minority myth, gender, sexual orientation, ‘pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,’ power and privilege in the context of each person’s lived experiences. My role as a facilitator was to create suitable conditions for participants to address conflict rather than avoiding it. I was to ensure they felt safe enough to speak their truth and they did.
In the United States, many of our problems are embedded in fear, prejudice and hate. We are the only industrialized country with an astonishing number of gun-related deaths without a foreseeable solution, we have more children living in poverty than any other industrialized country, our safety nets pose a danger, and we grapple with deportation, mass incarceration and income inequality we haven’t seen in a century. These policies undermine our sense of safety, our right to exercise citizenship and advocate for change. We remain in a continuous cycle of violence, poverty and destruction because we are too afraid to talk honestly about our experiences with each other. We choose to be color-blind instead of color-brave. One of my fellow facilitators said something that resonated with me: when we accept the responsibility we have to begin healing, we are able to break cycles of violence. We can affect change that will impact future generations to come. Healing begins once we feel safe enough to create space for our collective trauma and experiences to be shared and acknowledged openly.