Fish in the water

Opinion: Columns

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LINDA FRANCIS

My friend Reesheda Washington, of Live Café and Creative Space, talks about the necessity of having both "intention" and the ability to hold things "in tension" with regard to equity work. 

I've been thinking about this a lot as I work to create spaces for both intergroup and affinity group work. It has meant encouraging people to step across racial, ethnic, gender, socioeconomic and ability lines to work toward transforming and improving the diversity, equity and inclusiveness of the systems that make up our community. 

But it has also meant supporting the time and space that affinity groups need to do their respective work. That individual work is needed to make our community relationships work. 

I think of it as akin to couple's therapy. The marriage is dependent upon the couple's ability to work out their challenges together, while also working on their respective, individual issues. The former will not work without the latter. In his book, Palace for the People, Eric Klineberg refers to the community version as "bridging and bonding."

When it comes to equity, our community has struggled with the bonding piece. We would prefer to just jump to bridging. We have wanted to work on the marriage, but not our respective issues. 

But increasingly I am seeing us shift our understanding of the need to do work within affinity groups. The Collaboration for Early Childhood has formed a Community Ambassador program and a father's group. Race Conscious Dialogues allows white community members to deepen awareness of identity, power and privilege, and then develop tools for anti-racism. District 97 Diversity Committees have been a prime example of building community within and across groups. Students have been able to build a greater sense of agency through the support and bonding they get in affinity groups like Aspira, Blu, Safe, Royal, and the Rainbow Tribe, just to name some. The ability for us to bond and learn over shared experiences and challenges does not need to preclude the bridging work that also must be done. In fact, it enhances it. 

I am part of an effort that is opening the Echo Center as a place to support the bonding work of communities of color. It enriches community culture and provides the time and space to more safely and effectively participate in larger conversations. This is particularly necessary for folks who are in the minority and are often left to process and figure out situations alone and without the benefit of community. 

I would be in favor of activities and efforts to help young white males discuss and process the societal changes happening around them and what it means for them as they seek to mature into holistically healthy members of the community. Again, the focus is on "intention" and how we hold both the needs of the community and those of individuals/groups "in tension," regardless of the discomfort we may feel. 

There are some who will ask why this is any different from certain men's clubs or all-white activities of the past. Isn't this racist, sexist or exclusionary in some way? Shouldn't we just all work together? 

The answer is no and the reason lies in its intention. There is a difference between groups or activities intended to support specific needs and those that exclude or prevent other groups or individuals from achieving experiences or success. Others may also ask why it seems that only men, white, cis-gender or any other forms of "regular" people are the ones making all of the concessions. What you may not have noticed is that those in the minority have been constantly making concessions and struggling with how to be their authentic selves in an environment not totally healthy for them. 

There is a well-known story used to capture systems change, particularly with regard to equity, that exemplifies this: A fish is swimming along one day when another fish comes up and says "Hey, how's the water?" The first fish stares back blankly at the second fish and then says "What's water?"

As we work to make our systems (our water) more supportive of the lives of all of our fish, it begs the question: Won't the fish have to change, as well? 

I know that I have changed in the almost 30 years I have lived in Oak Park. I have come to learn and better understand a range of different topics and people I may not otherwise have known. I have changed some of my beliefs while also strengthening others. It has been a bit of a struggle, but I have maintained parts of my culture that I hold dear. There is value and beauty in tradition and there is wonder and new possibilities in change. 

As we do our work on both bonding and bridging, I hope that we can hold all of these ideas in tension. They are not exclusionary; but it is challenging. What has become clearer for me is the belief that living in this place — Oak Park — should change you. 

And that's good.

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Libbey Paul  

Posted: February 21st, 2020 9:52 AM

Your marriage counseling vs individual therapy analogy is so apt. Having participated in Race Conscious Dialogues, I can attest to the power of having affinity groups focused on personal growth, esp around the highly charged topic of racism. Before participating in RCD, I was scared to talk about race and racism, afraid I would say the wrong thing and be branded as racist. Doing the personal work to be more educated about both interpersonal and systemic racism, I now bridge to other groups with greater self-awareness and knowledge of history. I am braver, kinder and hopefully more effective at talking about and working toward racial equity. Thank you, Linda, for your leadership in our community. I know it's often a thankless task.

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