Carol A. Hand
Walking in two worlds may mean feeling one really doesn’t belong anywhere. Yet, it’s liberating in another sense. It provides an opportunity to experience other cultures and settings from the margins. After sharing memories with a colleague about our past adventures working with elders, I suddenly understood the value of living on the margins. During my lifetime, I have lived in many places and worked in many fields and settings. I entered each setting as an outsider, a space that gave me a unique vantage point to see things differently than those who “belonged.” I could think critically about what I saw and envision not only “what was” but also “what could be” based on the expressed purpose that each group or organization publicly espoused. I could also assess my “fit” with group or organizational cultures.
Photo Credit: Another Pacific View – from Haleakalā on Horseback – Maui – 1998
(Photographer, Carol Hand)
It’s risky to point out dissonance between what people say they want to do and believe they’re doing with the objective reality of what is actually occurring from an outsider’s perspective. My thoughts this morning reminded me of the oft-used metaphor of the “frog and the pot of water.” Although the metaphor is based on a story that hasn’t been supported by scientific evidence (indeed, a grisly and abusive experiment to contemplate that has actually been repeated many times), it is a helpful cautionary tale when one considers how easy it is to accept the power of “group think” and the compulsion to feel one belongs. One of my friends described an organizational experience we shared from her vantage point.
“I still recall her captivating teaching demonstration in which she presented information on an Ojibwe perspective on the welfare of children. With sensitivity and self-confidence, she mapped out the cultural hegemony exerted on many levels that supports the continued outplacement of Native American children and the racial disparities that undergird these practices. The beauty of the event was that she was speaking truth to power. Regardless, some faculty members criticized her performance because the information on two of her overhead transparencies was handwritten, not typed. This was the first of numerous warning signs concerning how difference mapped out on an uneven playing field within the school. Unspoken assumptions and beliefs steered action and the school’s social justice mission revealed itself in relation to my colleague in words, not actual behaviors….
“I was anything but an ally during my Native American colleague’s first year in the school. I responded defensively when she commented candidly on the social justice mission of the department as more fluff than substance. I wished she would take more time before making judgments to understand the culture of the department and all the work that had gone into creating what White faculty members believed was an innovative program. In retrospect, I find it disturbing that what I expected from her was something I was not willing to give: I was not at all prepared to see “our” world through her eyes. It was okay for her to direct her critique at the child welfare system. But when she directed it at the organization I had invested inordinate amounts of time building, that was too close to home.” (Maxine Jacobson, 2012, pp. 275-276).
The observations my friend shared as she reflected on the dynamics of group think point to a crucial realization that I had not consciously understood until now. What helped me survive came both from within and from sources other than the judgments of external groups. It came from a legacy of protective cultural beliefs. My ancestors have always walked with me, enfolding me in their protections during times of danger, providing guidance when I was at risk of straying from the path of life, and visiting my dreams to share their wisdom. I am profoundly grateful for their presence even though I tried for many years to shed the heavy responsibility it signified. I realize that my view of this “force of love and responsibility” is framed through my cultural and experiential lens, but is something that all of us carry regardless of culture or spiritual beliefs. It is available to everyone if we take the time to listen deeply enough to find our heart and spirit.
Photo Credit: A Pacific View from the “Road to Hana” – Maui – 1998 (Photographer, Jnana Hand)
If enough of us take the time to find our center and live in peace with each other and in balance with the earth we all share, we may be able to find our way out of the pot of ever-warming water that surrounds us during these challenging times.
Maxine Jacobson (2012): Breaking Silence, Building Solutions: The Role of Social
Justice Group Work in the Retention of Faculty of Color, Social Work With Groups, 35(3), 267-286
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01609513.2011.642265
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