The Speaking Up Time

The room was packed. There were 450 guests at the OnBeing Gathering and everyone had come to see him — a well-known technology blogger and work and lifestyle guru.

He confidently took his place on the stage, astride with a long overcoat and his signature funky glasses. He had been introduced with much admiration and the room was giddy with anticipation for his talk on leadership.

After he returned the niceties, his speech began. The first three words out of his mouth were:

“Ethiopia’s problem is…”

Immediately, anger rose. There might have even been smoke coming out of my ears.

He went on to tell a white savior-centered story of his friend who is bringing a technical fix to Ethiopia to solve malnutrition.

The audacity, the framing, the generalizing brush strokes, the optics were what was offensive to me. (For anyone who needs more information about why a white man diagnosing the problems of a country of over 100 million people, one that came into the Western consciousness during the 1984 famine, could be conceived of as offensive, please click on these links to learn more about the harm caused by white saviors, the true cause of famines, and the perils of industrial agriculture.) To the speaker’s credit, he did go on to start his second opening vignette with, “The U.S.’s problem is…”

How do hotel pillows(!) like these also shape or reinforce ideas of “the other”?

At one point in the speech, which as a pubic figure he’d probably made multiple times that week, he asked the audience to raise their hands and then raise them even higher, which the crowd was eager to do. It demonstrated how each of us can always do more than we initially conceive. (Why, isn’t that what our extractive economy wants from us?)

I sat with my arms folded.

This guy had told a very dangerous story, reinforcing narratives that I (and many others before and with me!) have spent the last decade or more fighting against. Now he wanted me to raise my hand?!

At this point, recognizing my stubbornness and closed-down self, I had the following internal dialogue:

“Jennifer, you have to get yourself together, because you’re going to need to speak up. So sit up, and listen to the rest of this speech and see what is so appealing to so many.”

And so I listened to the rest with less emotion and judgment. Later on, I wrote down an important phrase from his speech,

“You can’t be curious and angry at the same time.”

He was right about that.

Then, uh oh, the speech was coming to an end. It was go time. Was I going to let it be known that this opening story about Ethiopia’s malnutrition — in today’s world, where U.S. exceptionalism is over and where on the Continent of Africa how food is grown is part of a massive, ongoing movement for self-determination — is unacceptable?

I knew what I needed to say. I even knew how I would start, as we were there is a spirit of civil conversations. I didn’t know exactly how I would finish.

After the first two questions were asked, I started to gain my confidence. Every time the microphone moved, I now shot my hand up and made sure it was in his eye line.

On the last question he was going to accept, the microphone came to me. My entire mouth went dry, my heart raced, and I stood up among what seemed all of the sudden like a multitude of eyes staring at me.

“Something that I’m learning about my own leadership is the importance of changing narratives,” I began. “We have to problematize the old narratives, all the while building new ones where we can imagine what else could be.”

It was flowing. I hadn’t blundered it yet.

“So what if, [name], we shared stories of Ethiopians who are addressing malnutrition? What if we told stories not of solutions brought to Ethiopia, but instead highlighted the ideas and ingenuity and energy and initiatives and resources from within?”

Now this was all I really had prepared, so the rest of my comment/question is really just a blur. I think I next asked a question about influence, which he (perhaps flustered) then asked me to clarify, to which I said something about, “you know, changing how people in positions of power [i.e. you] view a problem.”

I sat down. I didn’t listen well to his response, I have to confess, as I needed just to feel my legs beneath me again.

In my mind, I remember thinking that he wasn’t really responding to the question about influence, but was inadvertently justifying the actions of his friend bringing the new chicken breed to Ethiopia, and arguing that it doesn’t matter where ideas come from as long as they are good. (Someday, I’ll figure out the best question to disrupt that notion.)

With the clarity of hindsight, this is how I wish I could have changed my last question:

“What about Ethiopians…what about x, x, and x from within…These are the narratives I want to help bring forth in the world [name]. What are the narratives you care most about changing?”

Oh how sweet it could have been! First, do all the describing of the elephant in the room, which many other people in the room were also experiencing it turns out, when I solicited feedback from a new friend, a member of the African Diaspora who had joined the People of Color Caucus at the event. The revised final question might have also given him an opportunity to be less defensive in his response. Hindsight.

I may have flubbed the end, but hopefully the thoughtful people there who had never thought to question the white savior narrative heard about a new possibility — that in all the stories of “making a difference” we hear, heroes and solutions that come from the outside need to be interrogated.

“It needed to enter the room,” my friend said.

So here’s what was affirmed from this for me:

1) Other people need to hear your perspective — perhaps not necessarily those who would be defensive, but those who agree who need bolstering and those who might be open to thinking differently.

2) Even if speaking up doesn’t go perfectly, it’s a start to more truthful, inclusive way of being and working together.

3) People of color and others in my life have trusted me enough to make me uncomfortable and further my understanding of the harmful roots of typical do-gooder narratives. Their willingness has been an expression of love and acceptance of me that I will continue to honor by challenging other white folks, out loud and publicly.

4) The falsehood that we are singular, that we can just ideate on our way to a better world — is one we have to address more deeply.

5) My voice is stronger than I thought.

And most importantly:

So. is. yours.

It is the speaking up time.

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(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Creator of how-matters.org. Poet, writer, nonprofit leadership coach. #globaldev #philanthropy

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Jennifer Lentfer

Jennifer Lentfer

(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Creator of how-matters.org. Poet, writer, nonprofit leadership coach. #globaldev #philanthropy

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