Do you know your “right role”?

I dropped the coffee beans container on the floor this morning. They went everywhere. As I sat down on the floor to clean them up, I noticed just how dirty the floor was too. I thought, “I have an option here. I can try to avoid the crumbs, and spend my time picking up beans one by one. Or, I can sweep them all up and let go of all that effort that would leave me, ultimately, with dirty beans for my morning coffee ritual.” Lurking behind these options was the thought: Aren’t I supposed to be a “good person” who wastes not and wants not?

This coffee bean is decision is one we have to make often. Who do I want to be? How do I want to use my precious time and energy? How do I want to show up?

So if any change you want to see in your organization…has to go through you first, then we must reckon with how we experience power and privilege in order to change how it is distributed within our institutions.

We must consider if we have the freedom to just sweep up and throw away the beans.

No matter who you are, we each need a lot of strategy, discernment, and accompaniment to figure out what is our “right role” when it comes to global development and solidarity, and how our privileges fit into that equation. That’s been a life long journey for me, and my understanding has changed as I have changed. For me, determining my right role includes considering: my relationship to power, a shared political analysis, my unique skills and strengths, and the undeniable aspects of my personality and how I navigate the world.

If I know my “right role” is alongside those fighting for their families and communities, their self-determination, their lives, for Mother Earth, there are still many options, and lots of complexity to unpack and understand. There’s so much past and future and present involved in this. I believe the first thing I have to do as a cis white woman is just to be really honest with myself about: Where I have been complicit? Where have I done harm? Hurt people? We’re a reflection of the systems that we’re in…AND individual actions within complex systems are what shift culture and power.

When I first started this work, I didn’t understand what I represented to people, historically or opportunity wise. Working in [post-apartheid] southern Africa eventually necessitated, and still does, understanding the place where my people are from. My family story is predicated on the genocide, removal, of and erasure of native Americans created by the Monroe doctrine and so-called “manifest destiny,” so that my great great great grandfathers could immigrate from Germany and live there for five years to be given rich, productive land in the middle of the U.S. Then I had to understand how that wealth transfers from generation to generation through land as property.

I don’t know that in our lifetimes we can right that wrong of a global system of white / male / human supremacy installed by racialized, settler/colonial capitalism.

I do know that we can acknowledge that wrong. And that there is power in even just that first step.

So that’s why when it comes to assessing and reassessing our “right role,” this heart thing really matters too. Our brains struggle hard to be resilient. Your brain thinks one thing and keeps thinking that thing. But your heart feels something and then processes it differently. It actually expands the more it gets broken, and wow…talk about capacity! Hello, shouldn’t we be building our capacity to do that?!

Our hearts hold unimaginable potential. They are what give us courage to make change. And the only way I know how to do this, how I express my “right role” is rooted in my skills, my strengths, my love for humanity, and the limitations of who I am and what I can know or offer. My “right role”, and increasingly I believe the “right role” of others in this time of uprising and crisis and pandemic, must include disrupting and truth-telling, storytelling, weaving people and ideas together, experimenting, and caregiving.

There is so much overwhelming pain and loss and oppression and suffering and grief, especially now. But when you dare to look at the state of our world, you can’t help but remember that there’s also an insane amount of care and awakening and reckoning and hope and acceptance being offered to people also at this point in history.

Holding both of those realities together at the same time is where I believe healing happens and where we can get crazy effective. We do it together.

Especially with so many coffee beans on the dirty floor to pick up.


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(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Poet, writer, coach, and communications strategist. #globaldev #grassroots #philanthropy