Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections: On Being the Person We Want to Be (Part 2 of 2)

So a few weeks ago I started reflecting on those rare and beautiful moments we are exactly who we want to be. You can read that ramble here (if that sounds appealing on any level).

For two months I have been thinking about this question as I have had a number of experiences that seem to be so literally "making me." (For the record, I am putting quotation marks around my own quote. Awkward.) It's not exactly that I'm changing, but rather that I'm becoming more comfortable and sure of who I am. By seeing myself more clearly it feels like those around me are seeing me for the first time. I guess these are the positive impacts of what they call "self-confidence." No need to wax poetics, basically I'm just having experiences that are showing me what I value and what is worth pushing beyond my comfort-zone for.

One of these moments started out as a blog entry in late July called: "Hello: The Little Voice Within," but that post turned into me staring at a blank screen for quite some time feeling sheepish about devoting so much space to what felt like patting myself on the back, and then abandoning the entry altogether.

I'm over that now.

The "incident" (as I say with a playful smirk) has sunk in more, shifted, pulled me in new directions and I possibly have even more to reflect on here, two months from that little voice speaking up.

Essentially here's what went down: something at work was bothering me. Something big. Something about our mission, our leadership, our direction as an organization. Interestingly enough it was about my organization not speaking out against what I (and many) see as an injustice, and wondering what the meant about "who we are." (From here forth note that all quotations used here are questions I was or continue to ask myself, so think of it as my little voice within blurting out a statement.)

So, despite my discomfort, I spoke up in an all-staff (meaning: 200+) meeting and asked a question about why we, as an organization, weren't being leaders in the community and speaking out against hate.

I learned something valuable about myself: though I was the spotlight operator in middle school theater, I am not so keen on being in front of the spotlight myself...unless (and here's the kicker) I deem the importance of the thing that will thrust me into the spotlight as greater than my own comfort.

This was an instance where the importance of the issue felt more important than me. It felt bigger than me. So I swallowed my fear and asked the question. The moment itself was incredible. As I was talking, I felt the auditorium around me grow more quiet. I now understand the saying "you could hear a pin drop." Though my heart was pounding and I felt anything but sure of myself, friends would later tell me that my statement was calm, thoughtful, succinct, and very articulate. (To be fair, I had practiced this in the bathroom mirror a dozen times that morning.) And when I was done speaking, an amazing thing happened: a number of people applauded.

The answer given to my question was less than satisfactory, and the room felt it. And it was also the last question before time ran out and we were "dismissed" back to our desks. So the energy in the room was not positive, and every person there felt it. When the meeting adjourned, I was mobbed by colleagues - some I knew, some I didn't. They thanked me, exclaimed their own feelings, expressed outrage or hurt at the answers from leaders, patted me on the back, and overall cheered what I had done.

All day people were calling me to talk about the moment, emailing me their gratitude, and stopping me in the hallway to chat. I felt the support of my colleagues for doing the right thing even if it wasn't the easy thing.

Later that week, someone I've always been a bit intimidated by in the organization, told me I was a "leader," and that he knew it the minute he saw me "speak truth to power."

Those words, and many others, have been rattling in my brain since that moment I spoke up. And the moment in that meeting led to other conversations, meetings among colleagues, requests of senior leaders, action, and community gatherings. It has been a moment that stirred up some shit, but perhaps it's better to say: lit a fire for many people. And I almost can't believe that I was the one to strike the first match.

Am I surprised it happened? I think part of what I have been reflecting on is the fact that I put myself out there in a way that initially felt really surprising, but ultimately made me feel more like myself that I ever have.

Truth be told, I am still processing all of this, especially since it's still going on in many ways. Thus, it's hard to draw hard conclusions.

What I do know is that I like being called a leader. I like leading and being one of the "little people." My aspiration is not to be sitting at the top of the mountain looking down at my kingdom, but rather to be amongst the people and a part of the action and movement below. I like being the voice for something important, and I like using my voice.

In the split second after I finished my question and caught my breath, before the applause from colleagues started and I felt the affirmation of a community, a thought went through my head: this is me. This is the me I want to be.

It was like sudden sight after a lifetime of blindness: oh, so this is the mysterious "me." Hello, self. 

It wasn't easy. It might have burned bridges while simultaneously creating others. And the after-shocks of the action have been challenging as I've had to defend myself and my original statement. Work has been a little more exhausting than usual.

Another colleague told me she has watched as other original supporters/allies have backed down or crumbled under the bullying pressure of leadership. But that I have stood my ground in a way she herself couldn't. I have remained consistent in my message and my stance, despite being bullied and criticized myself. She said she was proud of me.

And you know what? I am proud of me too.

In the midst of all this, my eighth grade English teacher recently re-shared this piece she wrote a few years back. It's about the very influential and ground-breaking novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Mrs. Baker writes: "What To Kill a Mockingbird teaches us is that when a single individual cares enough to protest injustice, to fight against oppression, that the world does, in fact, undergo a change.   For when Atticus battles to save Tom Robinson, even though he loses the case, even though people do not start marching in the streets in protest, readers recognize that there have been small, yet significant changes in that town."

I read that and realized why this reflection was finding me at this particular moment in time. While I would encourage all of you to laugh uproariously if I dared compare myself to Atticus, I will say I absolutely agree that this action has made me aware of what a single person can do when they protest an injustice. I've seen the impact of my speaking up, and it gives me hope for what "speaking truth to power" can do in a community.

But, apparently, there was another reason Mrs. Baker's article reached me right here, right now: I'm a part of it, literally. When Mrs. Baker wrote this a few years ago, she reached out to me to ask how I had been impacted by the book. So caught up in my new-found voice, I'd almost forgotten the insights of past-me. Mrs. Baker writes:

"I heard from Sara, who read the book with me an eighth grader and is now in her 20s.  She wrote,
When Scout speaks, she speaks directly to her reader and invites us into her world.  Like her own journey to understand the world through walking in another’s shoes, Harper Lee steps us into Scout’s, takes us on her own journey of self-discovery and reminds us what it is to be human.
The last I heard, Sara was working as an organic farmer, living out her own ideals."

In the last few months I have been asking myself, reminding myself, what it means to be the person we strive to be; our ideal self. As I read my own words and the blessing from my beloved teacher, identifying me as someone who lives their ideals, I realized even if our life changes in ways that at times makes it feel unrecognizable, even if we fear what or who we've left behind, we will always find a way back to the path that represents the world and life we value. We always have the chance to be the person we want to be.

Since I spoke up at work, I have dusted off the little journal that holds my dreams and ideals, the nonprofit-business plan I started a number of years ago. And I have taken out my pen and started to work on it once again, buoyed by how much of my dream has remained the same, while also marveling at how much my knowledge and experience has grown and deepended as I've spoken up and, in doing so, found the world I want. 

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