The Question of Courage

by Shannon Williams

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
 — 
Audre Lorde

What keeps me from writing about racial justice? What stands in the way of articulating both the inequities in higher education and a vision for building structures of inclusion? While the fear of getting it wrong looms large, looking foolish worries me far less than doing harm. What I write could galvanize those who prefer white campuses and the insidious myths of individualism and meritocracy.

Back in November, an admissions officer at the university where I work shared his reactions to the election on his personal Facebook page. His harsh post went viral, prompting conservatives across the blogosphere to point to his words as evidence of “liberal intolerance” propped up by the higher education system. This one employee’s private views became fodder for efforts across the country to gut inclusion initiatives. This is not hyperbole. Remember when the Tennessee legislature voted in April to cut all funds for the university’s diversity office?

At the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Virginia where I am a member and a lay minister, we’ve been grappling with a similar constellation of concerns. A polarized national climate has illuminated the deep and widening fractures in our communities. The choices we make matter. Each time we come together, we have a new opportunity to understand and undo the structures of white supremacy in our traditions and in our congregation.

Indeed, every setting in which we find ourselves offers up avenues for taking steps on racial justice.

I have come out as an anti-racist. In my workplace, this influences how I engage with students, advocate on staff search committees and develop workshops and programs. The commitment most often shows up in making explicit the many implicit norms of graduate education. This helps ensure that students who are underrepresented in higher education have access to the tools for success. It is in this small way that I work to right the balance. My team knows my motivations, and we often think together about integrating these considerations into a range of student support programs.

This is a win, right?

In our office perhaps, but far less so in our field as a whole. We apply our practices in-house where we know the lay of the land. While this certainly keeps us safe, it also forfeits opportunities to engage a powerful network of professionals dedicated to the development and well-being of college students. As hungry as my team and I are for approaches that serve students right here, colleagues and students in other corners of the world are similarly hungry and similarly uncertain how to proceed.

It’s into this space of commitment, confusion and curiosity that I can step.

It does not come easily, that step. Taking it means coming out into the light where others can see and possibly attack. Where someone might misuse well-intentioned work for destructive ends. This is why we can’t blunder forward with righteous passion and take a premature stand. Thoughtful action means getting organized and gathering resources. It requires weighing potential consequences. Most importantly, it involves connecting with the people we aim to serve. These considerations comprise a very reasonable catalogue of answers to the question, “What stops me from writing about racial justice?”

Here lies the danger of “What stops me?” questions. They are seductive. Treacherous. They concentrate the gaze on threat and its wearisome twin, caution.

It’s critical to mind this hazard which lives at the opposite end of risk. Harmful action does not trump harmful inaction. The dangers are equally acute, so we must be equally wary of the fantasy that principles and practices can reach an ideal state of maturity. This illusion deceives us into believing that after we do enough research, complete enough revisions, and map out enough detail, a vision will reach its perfect realization. We can cover a lot of ground without getting anywhere.

Doesn’t it seem that the practices for living out our principles are never quite ready to launch, let alone cross a finish line? There is good reason for this. The power and promise of our work exist in a living, vital, unfolding conversation about what matters most. We are not putting together a puzzle according to a picture on a box. We are instead moving through unmapped wilderness to an uncertain destination. Even our fellow travelers are perpetual rookies, just like us.

My opening question was, “What keeps me from writing about racial justice?”

Courage finds its voice in the next question: “What do I need in order write about racial justice?”

What do I need to act? To begin again each time? This time?

Possibility lives here, in inquiries that begin with the assumption of action. In hope and expectation, a way forward can take shape. “What do we need? What would it take?” When I ask it this way, a new answer emerges.

What I need are companions to share this journey. The members of my congregation are the source of my courage and my sustenance. We learn together how to bring our values to life in the places of greatest need. As Unitarian Universalists, we get to act as emissaries of the seven principles and grow the good work wherever we are. When we stumble, when we flag and even when we make mistakes that wound, our faith community serves as a place where we can come to restore our spirits.

What do you need to act with courage? What would it take? This month, I hope to hear spoken out loud these questions and the stories living in them. And I will share my growing courage with my neighbors, friends and fellow UUs as we make bold choices in all the open fields and quiet corners of our lives.

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