Put Down the Master’s Tools: Hold Space for Transformation

Amanda Kemp Teaching at Friends Seminary

African American lesbian poet warrior mother, Audre Lorde, wrote “The master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house.” One of the master’s tools is hatred and polarization. It’s certainly a favorite of billionaire Donald Trump.

Saturday I was in Wilmington DE with a mixed race Presbyterian church. We spent 3 hours together building their capacity to hold space for transformation: being a presence of unconditional love and unconditional acceptance while taking part in challenging conversations and actions for justice and equity. It’s not easy and it’s not natural because we live amidst so much fear and hatred in our collective consciousness. Yet it is profoundly constructive and important if we are to resist POLARIZATION — a stage of genocide.

Holding space for transformation sounds “mamby pamby” or polyanna, but it is profound deep work. Just take a moment to try it right now. Generate feelings of unconditional love for yourself or for this country. If you are like most people in my racial justice workshops, you may find it really hard. The people who did it most easily were women who focused on their grand babies or special pets. We have an epidemic of people not knowing how to love themselves without reservation. Put another way, we have an epidemic of self-hate and self-distrust that gets projected as hate against the Other. The Other varies for folks — immigrants, muslims, Trump supporters, white women, Black people, Trans folks, etc. If you want to #resist, practice holding space for transformation.

This practice could speed up and transform the movement for racial justice. When I was at the White Privilege Conference in Philly in 2016, African American diversity trainer Verna Myers told a room of a couple of thousand of mostly white people, “Look at you. You’re beautiful.” I felt the resistance within the crowd to accept how she saw folks, and I felt it inside of me. But you know what? The quickest way to transformation is not through condemnation. Sure, the bucket of cold water can wash away illusions and awaken folks from the trance of complacence. However, the quickest way to transformation is through the heart and even more important, transformation is not a destination; it’s a process, it’s moment by moment. I’m not suggesting that we overlook oppression and differential access to institutional power. However, I’m suggesting that we practice compassionate justice making.

A good example of this approach is elder Ruby Sales, a Civil Rights icon who grew up under segregation in Georgia. She calls her parents “spiritual genuises” because they raised her with a sense that she was a “first class human being.” Despite the many ways in which jim crow degraded Blackness, Ruby says hate was foreign to the black folk church. Ruby says she grew up singing “I love everybody. I love everybody. I love everybody in my heart.” This love did not make her complacent; rather it emboldened a sixteen year old girl to join the Freedom Riders and enact her Constitutional rights in the most hate-filled white places in the South.

Mrs. Floyd in Macon, GA. Photo by Leon Sun, Chinese immigrant

Holding space for transformation does not replace taking actions for justice and equity. Rather it is the spirit with which we treat ourselves, our allies, partners and opponents as we take part in the movement to transform our society. For example, the Women’s March in January came under criticism for it’s initial branding as a Million Women’s March and there were white women who took offense at the signs that reminded folks that 53% of white women who voted, voted for Trump. Now what if the white women who got defensive and resistant to hearing from women of color, what if those women held space for transformation. What if they held themselves and their critics with unconditional love and unconditional acceptance? When you hold space, you can hear difficult stuff and respond rather than react. I use white women in this example, but this principle is true for folks who are cis-gendered, able-bodied or who experience other kinds of institutional privilege.

If we are to build a huge movement that transforms our communities, workplaces, schools, or this country, we will need to build alliances where we can absorb critiques and stay connected. We need to hold space for transformation.

If you’d like to learn more about how to “hold space for transformation,” check out Niyonu Spann’s BeyondDiversity101, read Say the Wrong Thing, or look for workshops. For more on genocide and “polarization,” please see Lisa Graustein’s slide deck on ceio.org.