This post originally appeared on the Power and Privilege 2.0 blog on 6/11/2015. Because it reflects some of my thinking about the important issue of how to work with difference in strategic change work, I wanted to republish it here and add some of my current thoughts at the end of the post.
The picture is a post-it from a participant conversation after I taught a bit about grace during a 3-day Art of Hosting training in Chicago, Illinois.
We've all had those moments in groups when working on issues that we care about: something is said or done that makes everyone catch their breath and wonder what will happen next. A moment when we realize a hurt has been done or a mistake has been made. I think we have a key choice in those moments: to spiral up into indignation and hurt (and maybe get stuck there) or to sink more deeply into understanding and grace (and maybe move forward together).
Grace is the practice of allowing ourselves and others to be human and make mistakes. If we are to do this work - and stay together doing it - we must allow for mistakes and hurt to happen. It’s crucial if we are going to do systemic change work together. And we must meet this hurt, not always with rejection or abandonment of each other or the work, but with clarity, courageousness, and forgiveness interlacing our accountability.
Grace doesn’t mean that we lay down and allow ourselves to be trampled on or let others continue to hurt us over and over. It doesn’t mean that we don’t march in the streets and demand justice. It doesn’t mean that we say that oppression of ourselves and others is okay. Not for one minute.
No. I think of grace as one of our key practices of liberation.
Grace in this way means that we don’t expect perfection from others - or ourselves. That we agree to not “bail” out of the work or our relationships at the first, second, or even third failed attempt to figure out new ways of being together. That we remember that we, too, mess up and hurt others.
I believe in practicing grace in a way that allows us to feel freer and less burdened by the intensity of our work and move closer to each other as we do it.
When I talk about grace, people often talk about the need to trust each other before we extend grace. But I think this is in error. We don’t give grace because it’s been earned or is deserved. We give grace because we deeply understand that we are all just human beings who haven’t figured out how to be together well yet. We all are reeling from the impact of our histories, and we should expect each other to be imperfect.
How do we not abandon ourselves or each other when hurts and disappoints come?
Not to say that the practice of grace is easy. In fact, it’s often not. It’s often much harder to commit to witnessing another’s perspective, allowing their missteps, and remaining in relationship. But we do it everyday.
I was in a training recently when someone talked about wanting to start a group for People of Color, and there was a lot of support for that idea. But inevitably, someone issued a sort of challenge - they wanted to start a group for “people who were transparent or non-color”. You could feel the tension in the room. Everyone paused. Collectively, we were at the choice point. We could have started a conversation about the need for POC-only spaces and given a history lesson on why this is important. And that would have been good. Maybe. But almost certainly, it would have led to someone being right and someone being wrong. And someone feeling self-righteous and others feeling wronged.
As a facilitator, I took a deep breath and wondered how we’d go forward. But it was solved almost before it began as the person who was starting the group for POC lightly said, “That’s great! You do that. I’m going to start here with this!” Everyone in the room laughed. The laughter released tension and was also an acknowledgement that we didn’t have to take it all so seriously. Her grace, in that moment, liberated all of us. He didn’t have to understand her work or approve of it, and we didn’t have to spend time convincing or teaching him. She could do it. Those of us who agreed could join her and get on with the work.
Grace is a practice of mutuality: mutual forgiveness and mutual learning. Yes, we must forgive each other, and we also must learn from each other. If I am not allowed to make mistakes with you, we will never be able to do the hard work of systemic change.
And grace is also a deeply personal practice. Because we are imperfect human beings, often the person we need to forgive is ourselves. We cannot be smart enough, work hard enough, or “do it right” all the time. Many times, practicing grace starts with forgiving ourselves for mistakes.
Where are you seeing grace practiced in big and small ways? And, maybe more importantly, how are you practicing grace with yourself?
Added Jan 27, 2016: It's important not to read grace as a practice that marginalized people extend to those in the dominant group. That's not liberation, it's oppression. Grace as a liberatory practice means that each of us practices grace, across difference and across situations.
I want to share an example: I was in a situation just this week where I saw a leader (who positionally and historically is in the dominant group) get some really hard feedback about her organization’s efforts around equity. Some of that feedback belonged to her and her organization, and some was more generalized. At this point, I’ve seen many leaders - in their hurt and anger and sense of being misunderstood - give up on the people they are working with. This leader stayed in it: sitting fairly quietly as folks in the room said what they needed to express and demanded more from her and her organization. It was hard. After the conversation, the leader spoke into the closing circle and shared that she felt the “love” in the room. It was surprising and a beautiful example of practicing grace. You could see that she had internalized everything that had happened in the room, and her default was toward kindness, softness, and staying together - even with her clear feelings of hurt. The group, of course, was also practicing grace throughout the conversation. They were showing the love she mentioned in the closing circle even in the midst of a tough situation.
This blog is a place where I share what I'm doing out in the world, reflect on what I'm learning, and also capture some of my random thoughts. I'd love these blogs to start new conversations. Please join me in the comments or send me an email about what these posts bring up