Be Present, Be Powerful, Be the Change You Wish to See
On Tuesday, September 15th, 2020 I did something that terrified me.
Not in the boogeyman under the bed ready to snatch your ankles and drag you underneath kind of terrifying, but the jump from an airplane in exhilaration kind of terrifying.
The kind of terrifying that comes with the internal knowing you’re about to do something that makes you super uncomfortable but you feel called to do, and so you do it anyway.
I hosted my first ever virtual storytelling gathering for women.
It was a blend of The Moth (storytelling) with The Vagina Monologues (women-focused) but minus the craft or art of performing. This event would be for real (read: your everyday, non-celebrity women) women with real stories LIVE in front of other real women.
The topic: racism.
The speakers: black women.
I envisioned a virtual event for women centered around storytelling back in April. Around that time, we were all under stay-at-home orders and the extra time in mom mode (and less in entrepreneur mode) somehow gave me just enough space to consider where I really wanted to take my business. And I wanted to take it in the direction of empowering women to share their stories.
I loved the idea. So did others I soft-pitched it to in casual conversations, but it had no shape, no format, no foundation. Not yet.
Then George Floyd was murdered. May 25, 2020.
George Floyd followed by the string of other black lives cut too short, too violently, and too unnecessarily stirred me awake with such vehemence that I promised myself I wouldn’t become unconscious of racism all around me again.
I began consuming news at much higher rates than I had been and in all its forms, reading post after post, and article after article on rising racial tension, political divisiveness, and BLM.
I found myself incredibly worried for black friends.
I felt disgusted and heartbroken over systemic racism and violence against black people.
And I felt ashamed in my actions.
Because while I was appalled and outraged and angry and while I was ready and willing to jump into ‘the fight’, I could not deny I had become silent, comfortable, and unconscious in my whiteness.
Yet, wallowing in that mistake wasn’t going to help anyone or change anything. What I could do was now lean in and charge forward.
I made a decision to choose back into the dialogue. I made a decision to become present again in the conversation.
Because that’s what it will take for this to truly change and eventually end.
It’s not enough for black people to continue to fight the fight.
I had to recognize that the fight had been going on the entire time, so where had I been?
The fight to end systemic racism hadn’t been won. It had never been over. So where was I between the years of 2010 and 2020?
As a young woman in grad school, teaching women’s studies, I had been steeped in social advocacy and formal education around sexism, racism, institutional oppression, intersectionality … and the list goes on. I leaned in to what I was learning. It was all important to me. I was passionate about equality for all people and painfully aware of reality, privilege, and power, including my own whiteness, in nearly all of the equations.
I had moved back to Vermont in 2010 – fresh out of grad school.
I got comfortable back in my old stomping grounds and comfortable back with people I knew from before my feminist awakening. I cared deeply about the people I was back home with, but they also didn’t all know how to speak on or about any of the things I had just spent the last three years steeped in. So I didn’t bring any of the -isms up, at least not often.
I faded into my white landscape becoming unintentionally unconscious of the world outside of myself and my state.
I forgot about the greater world. The more diverse one outside of Vermont. I failed to see the trouble right here in my own backyard.
I got sucked up in the vacuum of my own life – buying a house, changing jobs, getting married, having children, getting divorced, starting my own business.
In short, I stopped seeing and I forgot to even look.
But somewhere in this most recent awakening, I came to realize I needed to use my own voice, and leverage my existing platforms to try to be a part of the change I wished to see in the world.
That virtual storytelling event for women came back to mind. But this time it came to me LOUD and CLEAR.
Make a virtual stage for women to share their stories. Beginning with black women. Lebron James recently tweeted “The most disrespected person on earth is the black woman.” He’s unfortunately right. How difficult it must be in America to be both woman and black.
How many of them watch their sons, husbands, fathers leave that morning for school or work or a friend’s house, wondering if they’ll turn on the TV later only to find them as the next headline on the news. We may see more black men being harmed and profiled in the media and in our communities, but there are women who are the wives and mothers to those men. And, what of the black women who also are violated and victimized but that we don’t hear about? The other Breonna Taylors that exist but may not get the national, or even local, attention that she did.
Yes, start with black women my inner knowing told me. And begin with stories of racism.
This is the elephant in everyone’s houses, communities, and streets sitting on our chests, our hearts, our backs and stealing the breath of people for minutes at a time.
While I felt tapped on the shoulder to not only create this powerful event but to begin with such a difficult topic, I was terrified.
Terrified that I wasn’t the right person to be holding such an event. Just some white girl in a white state who had let herself go racially deaf and blind for the last decade was now going to pull a 180 and spearhead this event.
I felt unworthy.
Terrified that I was going to say the wrong thing – an offensive thing – in my marketing, in my conversations with my speakers, in my emails to participants, in my remarks during the actual event itself. I read everything a dozen times before I hit publish or send. I even reread things after I sent them. Always, always, I held my breath, waiting. Waiting for the reply to come in pointing out I had done something in error.
I felt unprepared or not educated enough.
Terrified that while I was trying to unify women across the country that it still would come across as Us (white women) v. Them (black women).
I felt not strong enough to actually do what I set out to do.
The question: Who am I to do this thing? Resounded everyday I worked on this event. Everyday the event drew closer.
And the other question: Will people come to hear what these women have to say? There was terror in thinking people would overlook this event because of the people speaking. Culturally we have ignored and marginalized the voices of black women. We have silenced them. Would people opt-in to attend this event?
The day came when we opened registration and name after name came through. I had 100 Zoom seats. When we reached twenty I felt relief. When we reached thirty, hopeful. When we reached fifty, I could hardly believe it. As the numbers added up and more people began to engage, I came to see others wanted exactly what I wanted, too.
To be a part of the change we wish to be in the world. To choose to change the system. To listen to women and come to learn and understand something by listening to their experiences.
We ended up with over 90 registrations. While only 60 came to the event that evening, we were all (speakers and myself) over the moon with the turnout. We had people from the East to the West coast. We had people tuning in with more than one person in their living rooms watching their computer screens. We had people leaning into their cameras with genuine focus and intent on listening to these women. Everyone abided by the rules and format of the event, making it a true sanctuary for these women to share their stories and be vulnerable.
We had a national presence of women, both black and white, there with open minds and hearts to receive the words of the women who spoke that evening.
My takeaways from our panel of speakers (only to name a few):
Being white, I (and you, too, maybe if you’re white and reading this) don’t have to choose into the fight to end racism. Black people don’t have that choice. White people have the privilege and option of choosing out. I never intended to choose out, but my inaction had the same result. I felt the weight of this when one of my speaker’s repeated the phrase “wake up, white people” in her remarks.
I don’t have to worry about racial profiling. I don’t get accused of shoplifting or pinned against walls outside of convenience stores and frisked, like one of my speaker’s sons has experienced.
I don’t have to worry about losing my job after asking my employer why there aren’t more black people in the company like one of my other speaker’s experiences.
Being white, I am not automatically looked at as not belonging or questioned about where I come from or why I’m there no matter where I reside as my last speaker addressed her own experience being black in rural Vermont.
I know those who showed up, were moved by what they heard. It wasn’t just me leaning in with my whole self and listening. People said of the event:
“This evening was brilliant and beautiful. I’m in tears… moved by all the stories. Thank you for putting it together.”
“Thank you for the amazingly powerful session this evening. It was educational, amazing and beautiful. Your speeches brought me to tears, shook my soul…”
“It exceeded my expectations because the women who spoke were so powerful, open, honest and brilliant.”
Most importantly, the speakers felt empowered through the experience of sharing their personal stories in this way.
“The opportunity to speak in this environment allowed me to use my story to contribute to a matter that I uphold personally and universally.”
“The format was perfectly designed and orchestrated. Bringing women together in this setting to be seen and heard was meaningful and progressive!”
This event is now behind me in time, but this journey I am on to stay awake, to remain present and supportive in ending systemic racism, is ongoing.
You Speak, We Listen: Together We Stand is only in the beginning of its own journey. We have so many more women to hear from, so many more experiences to know.
Whether I am the right person to lead this mission, or have the possibility to mess something up along the way, I will not stop looking for the opportunity to listen to and learn from my global Sisters – in all their fabulous skin colors, ethnicities, religious affiliations, gender identities, sexual orientations…
I’m ready to do the work. I’m ready to brave this path. Because the world isn’t going to get any better if we choose to close our eyes, our mouths, or our hearts thinking it’s easier or better existing in a time and place where white is seen as right. We have to make the choice to be a part of the conversation and a part of the change. You can make that choice now.
Regardless of what you did or didn’t do yesterday or the day before. Today could be the day you decide to do something terrifying and powerful that cascades into the kind of energy movements needed to create lasting change.
You Speak, We Listen: Together We Stand is an event hosted and facilitated through A.Y. Berthiaume’s business, The Write Place, Right Time. Because this event was an act of bravery for those women who showed up to speak and those who showed up to listen, The Brave Little Blog is being used as the platform for reflection pieces and spoken-word pieces that were shared during the event.