Reflections About the View from the Margins

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.

maui 1998 horseback

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.

maui the road to hana

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.

Work Cited:

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
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24 thoughts on “Reflections About the View from the Margins

  1. Hi Carol, I was thinking about what to write to you when your comment came through. The corresponding blog themes seem to show how helpful multiple perspectives can be!

    I’ve been wondering how I would have changed my post if I had read yours first…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How funny, Nicci. I did see the email that you had posted something new, but I was feverishly trying to finish downloading my ideas before they disappeared. (If I don’t follow through when I’m inspired to write something that comes to mind in the morning, I have an unproductive day that I can never seem to refocus…) So I waited to read your post, and it was well worth the wait 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You know, it’s so interesting how I see my fit as a way of seeing how ‘whiteness’ hides. Where do I fit into the story? It helps me to see how xenophobia is really discrimination against people with higher skin pigment rather than foreigners. Or if government is seen to be problematic, but structural racism goes unnoticed, how does whiteness hide? It seems we do best when we use reflexivity as a tool.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Your work is a crucial ingredient for change, Nicci. If I say something from the margins, it’s all too easy for people to dismiss it. Yet, if enough people from all walks of life each share a similar message, the likelihood if having it be heard and understood increases.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on nicciattfield and commented:
    Carol Hand gives a lovely example of the need for multiple perspectives and reflexivity when approaching social justice.


  3. To find our center is to find ourselves, not the person others have created. I was thinking this very thing whilst walking today. How what we are is not who we are, inside, or who we should have become. From the moment of birth we are instructed in someone else beliefs, values, and conventions. We grow and adopt things they place before us that are not of our own determining, fashions, tastes, ideas, prejudices, hates, and loves and for the most part we do so unquestioningly. But finally, for the few, the awakening begins, slowly at first in the early years.

    Funny, you just had me thinking and looking back, although I’m white and somewhere in the middle class I’ve always resided on the margins myself. It just goes to show, I guess.

    Thank you, Carol, for this reflection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your important, thought-provoking comments, Peter.

      Today seems to be a day of shared insights! How fascinating that you, Nicci, and I were each reflecting about “awakening,” each from a different geological space and perspective. I agree with the important observations you make about how we are “trained” and “dressaged” to fit into the roles we were born into from the moment of our birth.

      It’s interesting to hear you characterize yourself as “white and somewhere in the middle class.” It makes me curious about how you ended up as a critical thinker on the margins. (Your poetry and advocacy certainly strike me as powerful resistance to the status quo.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Long ago, I assumed the role of an observer and less of a participant, if such a thing is possible. An observer must resist the prejudice and bias of worldly forces, which sets him at odds with peers. And too, I’ve always been curious for truth and believed that it existed somewhere, and so I sought after it. And then, once found, I worked to disprove it. For what remains of that effort, is what you see today. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

  4. “From the margins”- having the patience to see where you “belong”.. My favorite part of this post Carol. Refecting the wise practice of first to understand others before expecting to be understood. Peace to you:)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “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.”…and as we find our way out of the boiling pot, may we also remember to lend a hand to others struggling to find their way out. By far, I would rather be on the margins with people like yourself than anywhere else, Carol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate your comments and friendship, Jeff, and honestly, there’s no where else I would rather be than on the margins in solidarity with astute and passionate advocates like you 🙂


  6. Thank you for your astute observations, again. Being an outsider does give you a dangerous perspective, that, together with courage/foolishness can get you in trouble and can make you not very well liked. Thanks for putting well into words some of what I have experienced in academia abroad (and in the States, of course). Micro-cultures are created that are mutually beneficial and reinforcing to those involved, and destructive to students and critical observers. The last school I taught at in Bangladesh is on a very self-destructive path and I only feel for the students, who have been promised a much needed education, but whom the institution is failing. Before that I saw the same thing at a major Australian university in Vietnam, where the department utterly failed, quite literally, losing 3/4 of it’s faculty in one month, and redesigning itself into a little machine. The poor students, again.
    I love reading your posts, they offer such enlightening perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

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