I’m having trouble figuring out what to title this entry, because I don’t know what to call this current moment. “Unrest” seems too small a word. “George Floyd Fallout” (as I’ve seen it referred to in the news) seems both too small, and potentially appropriative/disrespectful to Mr. Floyd. A part of me — and it’s not a small part — wants it to be a revolution, but it’s not that. So, for now, I’m going with “Current Moment.”
To be clear, the ‘moment’ I’m referring to was early June 2020, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. At the time I initially drafted this entry, there were a lot of reports of violence and looting. The National Guard was called to various locations, including Chicago, and lots of cities were under a curfew. Ours was from 9PM – 6AM. There was a lot of criticism over the decisions that Mayor Lightfoot made, criticisms that I simultaneously both perfectly understand, and reserve judgement about. As the days continued, the violence and looting subsided pretty quickly, and the police and policing bodies came under heavy criticism for their own violence against protestors. But the bulk of this entry was written before that had occurred, when our national attention was still focused on so-called ‘violent protests.’
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What a moment it is. A painful, awful, scary, sad moment. Some people who know me well have heard me say that I’ve always had a quiet conviction that I would live through the apocalypse. Well, I think I was right, and this is it. Actually, I would have counted it if we only had the global pandemic. If we are to forge anything good from what is happening, if the lives that have been lost and the trauma that has been endured are not to be in vain, we must take this moment as a catalyst for growth. But how?
Several principles of Empowerment Self-Defense come to mind. The first is that people get louder when they don’t feel heard. Black people have been telling us about the brutality they face for years, decades, centuries. We haven’t heard them. What choice do they have but to get louder?
The second principle is switching strategies. We all have the tendency to fall back on our favorite strategy when our boundaries aren’t being respected. I call that “Keep doing it, harder.” The problem is when a strategy doesn’t work, doing it more, doing it harder, isn’t going to be more effective. The way things are supposed to work in this country is that the people have a right to peacefully protest, and their leaders listen, and respond. Black people have been peacefully protesting for decades, but there has been no real change. So, yeah, switching strategies makes sense.
But the most bedrock principle we live by in Empowerment Self-Defense is that whatever someone does to protect themselves when someone else makes the choice to try to harm them is their right, and an entirely legitimate response. Asking “what should I have done?” (or “what should they have done?”) misses the point. You did what you had to do to survive, and nobody else gets to judge it, or pretend that there’s a right answer. If you survived, you did it right (writing that reminds me how many Black people* don’t survive, and I feel my outrage mounting again). I’m not talking about individuals, here — my point is to broaden the lens for a moment to Black people as a whole, who have been targeted by white people for 400 years. They have the same right to survival as we all do.
So, what is our response, as Culture of Safety, to the collective pain, and outrage, and grief, that we’re witnessing? As an organization currently led by two white people, a big part of our response has to be to listen. To listen, and to do our part to elevate Black voices, and the voices of people of color more generally.
One of our guiding values at Culture of Safety is inclusion. We want our space (whether it be physical or virtual) to be one where anyone can come and feel welcome and comfortable. Part of that, we know, is actively seeking out people who don’t look like us, and people who have very different experiences than we do – and not only welcoming them into our community, but welcoming them into leadership positions. One of the things I’m comforted by is that Jin Sei Ryu Karate-Do, the new karate style that we’ve affiliated with, is not led by a white person, nor is our direct teacher white. Of course, it’s a new style, and so far, there are only two dojos in the United States — ours and West Side Jin Sei Ryu in New York City. That it is a new style to me speaks of new thinking; that the leadership is racially diverse from the beginning gives me confidence that ‘diversity’ will never be just a buzzword. And that the name of the style means “profound reflections for growth” speaks to a commitment to discomfort as a path towards growth.
Culture of Safety is not yet large enough to hire any staff, but when we are, we’re committed to making our leadership team as diverse as possible: in race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, socioeconomic status, immigration status, and any other aspect of identity we can identify. Also well-qualified in whatever role we’re able to hire for, of course – but we’ll need people to help us live our values, so that will always be part of any role.
I’m also comforted that both my alderwoman and my mayor here in Chicago are Black women. They’re not perfect (nobody is), and their race doesn’t automatically confer expertise, nor does it mean they automatically share the values that are most important to me. I don’t agree with all of the actions they have taken. Expecting all Black people, or all people of color, to be infallible heroes is just another (albeit perhaps gentler) face of racism.
But at least I know that their lived experience gives them a perspective into the issues facing us right now that we badly need in leadership in this country. Because the way forward can not be white people telling Black people (via policy or any other means) that we know what’s best for them. The way forward must be realizing that none of us has a monopoly on wisdom or fairness; that we all have blind spots and biases, and that we need leadership that is truly representative of all of our people.
* I know it’s other people of color, too, but this moment is about Black people, and I don’t want to distract from that fact.