On Monday, January 15, we will be celebrating and honoring the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
All around lots of schools and homes are likely some sort of tribute to Dr. King. And, given that he is, for most people, best known for his "I have a dream" speech, there are probably really powerful essays and drawings where young people say what their dreams are, too.
In my own home, when my children were younger, they proudly displayed art projects that said, "I have a dream ... that everyone will be friends with each other" or "I have a dream ... that there will be peace."
Those are amazing dreams. And, those are things that we should all dream to have.
But, as we get older, we have to move beyond Dr. King's four words. We have to recognize that Dr. King's dream was only going to be possible through hard work, difficult discussions, and a disruption of power.
When we are younger, we often show this photo of Dr. King - a man who brought millions together. Who inspired a nation of people to come together. Who preached about love and walking hand in hand with one another.
But, we fail to remember that Dr. King -- through his approach of non-violence -- also knew that he was pissing a lot of people off. He knew that there were folks who didn't want to see anything different. They didn't want to see anything change. They didn't want to be a part of a movement that meant they had to participate. And, Dr. King still marched on.
Dr. King was not liked by everyone. Dr. King, even within the Civil Rights movement, had people who disagreed with him about how to influence change. There were people who were upset that he was calling out racism, classism, and power. There were people who committed violent acts against Dr. King at its worst --- and at its best, there were people who snickered, gossiped, and looked down on his work.
And, we all know, Dr. King wasn't around long enough to see that dream. Today, when I look out into the audience as I present workshops, I see faces of all types, from all backgrounds and from all walks of life. That visual wasn't the case back during Dr. King's time (and, of course, I realize how far we still need to go!).
But, Dr. King knew what, in his heart, was right. He knew that the lives and dignity of all people needed to be realized. He knew that, though he was not perfect, that he needed to face sharp critics of his work. He knew that speaking out against injustice meant that people were going to be upset.
He knew that being unlikeable was a part of the job.
Now, as far as I know from accounts that I've read, Dr. King was also kind. As per his approach, his movement was based on love and compassion. His movement was driven by the philosophy of non-violence. One only needs to watch - again and again - that march across the bridge to be in awe of the great strength it took to commit oneself to non-violence. Have you watched that video? Watch it so many more times.
Be not confused, though. He was still unlikeable by some.
I worry that people who do diversity, equity and inclusion work are often the victims of the "unlikeable truth." As practitioners, we put ourselves on the front line every single day. And, often times we are the scapegoats for everything related to diversity (I can't tell you how many times I've been "blamed" for doing something even though I had nothing to do with it -- at all -- because the incident was "related to diversity."). And, if we are good at our jobs, we know that we take emotional and, sometimes, employment abuse simply for doing our jobs.
We know that.
We go into this work because of our deep commitment to equity and inclusion.
We go into this work knowing that, if we are doing our jobs right, that there will be people who simply do not like us.
And we still show up.
We still walk across the bridge.
And we know, because we've done this for a lifetime, that across the bridge are people who want to take us down. It doesn't always look like horses and clubs -- most often it looks like our employment, or being censored, or being told to be softer in our approaches. To smile more. To not bring up issues that might make people feel bad.
Sometimes it's on the periphery -- those who are angry tell others in power that we aren't the right people for the job or that we are too passionate.
For practitioners, these examples are all too common.
And, I can't help but marvel at the hypocrisy of honoring the work of Dr. King while simultaneously disenfranchising today's diversity practitioners.
For practitioners, these comments are also deeply intersectional with race, class, and gender. What does it mean to advise a diversity practitioner -- a woman of color -- to smile more. Or, to watch what her face looks like when she disapproves of a racist/microaggressive comment? What does it mean when a diversity practitioner -- who makes a teaching salary -- is told that people are withholding their donations to an organization because they are unhappy with diversity work?
As I write this, I am thinking about the dozens of diversity practitioners who, just in this past year, have come together to share these similar stories. At the People of Color Conference this year, the overwhelming connections people were making were around being silenced and being told to "make diversity work more palatable." Those were the lucky ones. A number of diversity practitioners were told they had to stop doing justice work all together.
Surrounding those experiences were also diversity practitioners who were energized and who, from talented leaders, were asked to do more. To push harder. And to lean in more deeply. There were leaders who stood side-by-side with diversity practitioners and who, in some cases, led the way so that the diversity practitioner could take a break from the front lines and engage in some emotional care.
There are leaders out there who know how to do this work.
These are the leaders who, I am convinced, would have bought a bus ticket to Selma and marched along side the 20,000 others on that day.
It comes down to this: What are we asking of folks when we tell them to be more likeable? What drives this request? What aspects of power, privilege and oppression are reinforced when we only choose pathways that make people like us?
Dr. Martin Luther King, indeed, had a dream. But, he never expected that dream to just happen. We would have to work to make it happen. We would have to look at policies and practices and attitudes that created segregated schools, neighborhoods, banks, businesses, and communities. We would have to address poverty and wealth. We would have to address unemployment. We would have to address military spending and militarism in our communities.
He never dreamed without risk. He never dreamed without action.
And though he was driven by love and compassion, he never believed that being likeable was the solution.
Over the years, I've been encouraged by brave friends who have been trying on their voices. Here are a few that I've received over the year:
- A cisgender ally spoke up at a school board meeting to advocate for gender inclusive bathrooms. She was booed. She was told that was weird. She stayed standing.
- A mom of a gender non-binary child reached out to parents because of bullying. Some parents turned away from her. Others joined her. In her small community, to have people turn away was terrifying, but she knew that this was the right thing to do.
- A few parents went to the school administration because they were angered that students were permitted to fly Confederate flags on their cars. The administration said it was their "right to free speech." Many other parents fought for their rights to keep flying flags.
Peace and work,