2020: The Year Nobody Saw Coming........
If you were anything like me, when the ball dropped at midnight to ring in 2020, you were so filled with hope, inspiration, and certainty of your life purpose that you just knew that this year was going to be the year that you would shine. This year would be the year that your talents, skills, and years of self-work would meld seamlessly together to propel you forward as you finally fulfilled your legacy. And then, as we all know,.....2020 happened. The year started with the concern about World War 3 starting and then the relentless coronavirus pandemic began. We then saw the racial and social unrest begin, resulting in waves of protests. Finally, the year wrapped up with a highly stressful presidential election that further polarized our nation. Within these past nine months, countless people have seen their whole lives transformed, their livelihoods destroyed, their sense of humanity denied and demonized. And for far too many, the year is ending with empty seats at the dinner table.
You may be asking yourself, why is she taking us down memory lane of a year many of us would rather forget? Because in times of crisis or inflection points, American heroes are born. At least that is what our history books have taught us. Throughout my life, as I learned about the Civil Rights Movement, the Suffrage Movement, and more, I often wondered what I would have done. Would I have been the person out in the streets marching against the injustices, demanding change? Would I have been the one speaking in front of others when things were not right? Or would I have been the one sitting by as others took the lead? With so many important movements happening at the same time this year, this would have been my time to finally find out! If only it worked out that way.
What actually happened is.......instead of rising to the occasion, I found myself disengaging physically and emotionally. I began battling negative self-narratives and recalling painful experiences from my past. I repeated the same mantras from years ago and dealt with suppressed emotions as they resurfaced and colored my work and relationships. I did what I do best when I feel like I am not "seen"......I disappear. I pulled back from the steering committee and fellowship I was a part of, barely participated in a crucial campaign, and emotionally withdrew.
To those in my life, it seemed like I abandoned things when they got tough. But underneath the surface, there was so much more going on.
Self Revelations: A Catalyst for Change
In my every day job, I always tell my people that I will never ask you to do something that I am not willing to do myself. And I always say that leaders must be transparent because transparency builds trust. In that spirit, I will never ask someone to be self-reflective if I am not willing to do it myself. And I believe it is important to share my story to help others in their work.
Leading is not just about creating a beautiful vision and developing a well crafted plan. Nor is it just getting as many people as possible to buy into what we are trying to build. Leading also involves the consistent practice of self reflection. Reflecting on whether or not our actions are moving us further along our path and uncovering our inner blockages. If our actions are deflecting us, we must do the hard work to uncover the reason why, no matter how painful, so we can overcome it in the future.
So.... as I was called out by those around me and, as a result, reflected on my thoughts and behavior, I stumbled upon a few revelations about myself. Now, before I go further, I must say that I have learned long ago that we must lean into these self revelations, no matter how uncomfortable or emotional they may be. They often come at critical junctures in our lives to clear out the obstacles that are preventing us from achieving our highest purpose. We should not be afraid....but rather curious. Be curious about yourself and believe in your ability to transcend all perceived setbacks to fulfill your dreams.
The Veil is Lifted
So,.....what were these revelations? That even though I have engaged in a decade of self work and continuous reflections about the trauma of my past, that trauma is imprinted into my subconscious impulses, reactions, and biological make-up. The toxic stress I endured as a child continues to impact me as an adult in unknown ways to this day. Extreme stress, collective injustice, not being seen or valued, and the inability to control the chaos act as trauma triggers for me.
I also realized that my whole life's work that has been focused on creating opportunities for other families to thrive, opportunities that my family did not have, has been as much about those families' success as it has been about my own self healing. Under the perfect storm of conditions of this year, my carefully crafted program had to shift dramatically. This reactivated my hidden behaviors and negative mantras re-activated and threatened everything in my life. However, without this perfect storm, I would not have been able to pinpoint my personal trauma responses and find new ways of engaging with the world.
So What Does This Mean for the Collective?
Sadly my story is not unique. There are so many individuals that have gone through, or are going through, trauma right now. And it has implications on our work. If we are to lead change and continue progressing towards the end goal, we must learn new ways of engaging with one another and focus on seeing below the surface. I mentioned above that leading involves vision, plans, and self-reflection. But it also involves making a commitment to investing in those around you. Investing in understanding each individual person, hearing their story, empathizing with them, and dismantling all situations that continue to oppress them.
Long Lasting Change Requires...
When we think about leading change, we often think about changing policies, procedures, systems, and power dynamics. However, we do not always think about things like empathy, being trauma informed, healing, and connection. In order to make long lasting changes in our communities, we need to focus on the big picture. Transformed people lead to transformed systems. We transform people by valuing them, seeing them, and providing opportunities for them to thrive. We need to see the system and we need to see the individuals. Those around me did not expect me to "drop off" after being so engaged, but I did. So, how do we do this?
Make sure you have at least a basic knowledge of trauma, toxic stress, and how they impact individuals from childhood to adulthood - There are so many different levels to trauma from community based trauma to racial trauma to personal trauma. More likely than not, you will come across someone who has experienced some form of trauma and they may have long lasting implications. Some may be aware of how it still impacts them......and some may not. It takes a lot of self work to understand this. For this reason, no matter what work you do, it is important to know the basics, how it could impact the individual, and the warning signs of someone who is being triggered. That way, you can effectively support them. Reflection: What do you currently know about trauma and toxic stress and its life long implications on the body? What does it look like when a person is experiencing a flashback or going through an episode? Why do you think it is important in your work to know this?
Make sure all voices are heard equally at all decision making tables and groups - Trauma can sometimes, or often times, occur because of power imbalances. The impacted person does not have a say in what is happening to them and their voice is silenced. To make sure this dynamic does not appear in your work, ensure everyone is heard equally at all decision making tables and in all groups. Let me explain why this is important. Just imagine, you are leading a group, or a decision making table, and there are people with more perceived power who consistently get their way. This could create just another situation for the impacted person in which feel invisible and the powerful person prevails. So it is important to disperse the power among the group members to create a new way of being. Reflection: Are you currently involved in a situation that is described here? If so, how can you begin to shift the power dynamics so they are more spread out among the members?
Don't make assumptions about someone's disengagement, reach out to understand - We seem to run our lives on assumptions, but our assumptions are almost always wrong. In my case, people assumed I was only in the projects when things were easy, but in reality, I disengaged because I was triggered. What eventually helped was individuals "seeing" me and what I was truly going through. People reached out to me and showed me that they cared about what I was going through. This helped immensely. If you have someone starting to disengage, try to meet with them to show them that you care and truly want to know how you can support them. The act of being "seen" and cared for was balm on a wounded soul. Reflection: Is there someone in your life right now who is uncharacteristically withdrawing from the "work"? What is one thing that you can do to reach out to them?
Provide space for processing and don't put pressure on people to perform in ways you deem valuable - Our work will always have a sense of urgency and we will sometimes be under tight deadlines. However, pressure and agitation can backfire when it is used on a person who is triggered. It could even possibly trigger the fight, flight or freeze response. Instead of forcing a person to carry out the prescribed roles you have laid out in your plans, work with the person to come up with a way that feels right for them. In what ways would they like to show up that feels comfortable for them, that still moves the work along, and that reinforces their sense of self worth? By giving the person control over their own actions and path, you are setting them up for success. They also can feel like they are adding value to the work and, in turn, enhance their own self-value. Reflection: Have you ever used agitation and seen it backfire? Why do you think that is? What would you have done differently?
Create space to just build community, without any planning or talk of the work - We are all humans and we all crave connection. Connection to one another and connection to ourselves. We want to be seen, we want to be understood, we want to be heard, and we want to share our stories. The work that we do can be long, hard, and taxing, but it is very important and worth the effort. For this reason, it is important to make sure we are taking time to create space to just be in community with each other. We have to meet just to build connections, to see each other for who we are, and to listen to each other. Without the distractions of the work or issues........so nobody falls through the cracks. Reflection: What can you do within the next month to create this space and who needs to be in it?
If you are the person who is currently disengaging, speak up - Speak up. Speak up loud, speak up often, speak up until you are seen and heard. We don't always know exactly why we are behaving the way we are behaving or feeling the way we are feeling, but we know that it is something important. If we sit in silence, it threatens to consume us and it guarantees that we will not see the changes we desire to see. So speak up until the ones who care notice and help you through.
Hopefully this helps shed light on new ways we can engage with each other. 2020 has been a very difficult year for many people, but it has shed light on how we can be there for each other personally and professionally. We can do this. We can build a better world. I leave you with this quote from E.E. Cummings. Be that person.
We do not believe in ourselves until someone until someone reveals that deep inside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.