Is This a Time for Bridgebuilding? 5 Leaders in Conversation
January 15, 2021
In our diverse democracy, an inauguration is an invitation to renew our commitment to our national health. The Capitol insurrection that took place on January 6, 2021, was a culmination of generational, deep-rooted divisions that have haunted the nation since its inception. It was also a sign that the nation is far from healed, even though the Bridgeduilding field grew extensively in the last 4 years. As a new administration prepares to take the stage, a momentous question lingers: Where do we go from here while our nation stands on a precipice? Five Bridgebuilding field leaders–Rev. Jen Bailey, Kalia Abiade, Mandisa Thomas, Simran Jeet Singh, and Branden Polk–came together to discuss the decisive need for action, not empty commitments to change, and how we can impart these principles onto the next generation.
“We are certainly at, I believe, a founding moment in American history. The founding is not just something that happened in 1776, but it’s my core belief that every generation has a new founding movement and aspiring towards what America can be.” -Jen Bailey (2:11)
“I think that the forgiveness that people of color and black people in particular, in this country have been asked to grant over and over again is akin to divine forgiveness. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive for that, we should strive to have that in our hearts, but I also think we should forgive ourselves if we feel angry or if we don’t feel like building a bridge…I think the grief [and] anger that people feel should be allowed to be processed before we’re forced into a reconciliation” -Kalia Abiade (10:10)
“Yes, there is a need for this work. Bridgebuilding is critical. Our lives are on the line. So it’s a matter of life and death, but it’s more. It has to be more and until it’s more, it won’t be satisfying for any of us.” -Simran Jeet Singh (16:24)
“When we talk about preparing our children and preparing future generations, we must be careful that our actions do correspond with our words always and that we are being genuine and consistent and that they aren’t just one-time efforts. That they continue beyond what’s in the press as well, or when it’s a trending topic because that’s when the real work is done. That’s when the real bridgebuilding is done.” -Mandisa Thomas (29:07)
“We’re just on a knife’s razor edge of losing all of the things that we fight so hard to maintain and to keep the embers burning. We have to put the fire and impart that fire in with quality and with principles into the next generation.” -Branden Polk (45:36)
Rev. Jen Bailey (moderator), Founder and Executive Director of the Faith Matters Network
Kalia Abiade, Managing Director for Strategy and Partnerships at the Pillars Fund
Mandisa Thomas, Founder, and President of Black Nonbelievers
Simran Jeet Singh, Senior Adviser for Diversity, and Inclusion at YSC Consulting
Branden Polk, Program Officer at Stand Together
I am now thrilled to introduce Reverend Jen Bailey the moderator of today’s conversation. You’ll see Jen and all the speaker’s incredible experiences and honors in the chatbox shortly. Reverend Bailey is an ordained minister, public theologian, and national leader in the multi-faith movement for justice. She is the founder and executive director of the Faith Matters Network, a womanist-led organization equipping community organizers, faith leaders, and activists with resources for connection, spiritual sustainability, and accompaniment. Jen is an alumna of IFYC, and I am honored and thrilled to hand this conversation over to her and our esteemed panelists.
(Rev. Jen Bailey)
Thank you so much for that kind introduction. Good afternoon everyone, or good morning depending on where you are. It is my great honor to be able to help facilitate this conversation today on bridgebuilding in a tumultuous time. And I think so many of us are carrying into this conversation the reality of the news of the past week, of the past year, and, for some of us, our lifetimes. We are certainly, I believe, at a founding moment in American history. The founding was not just something that happened in 1776, but it’s my core belief that every generation has a new founding moment and aspiring towards what America can be. And so, I’m so excited to be grounding this conversation with the panelists that we have today, who are phenomenal. I’m going to give them just a brief introduction, but you’ll be able to see their full bios in the chat. And so, I’m so grateful to welcome to this conversation today as co-conversation partners, Mandisa Thomas, who’s the founder and president of Black Nonbelievers, Inc. Kalia Abiade, who’s the managing director for strategy and partnerships at the Pillars Fund. Simran Jeet Singh, a writer, teacher, scholar, and activist who is the senior advisor for diversity and inclusion at YSC consulting. And finally, Branden S. Polk, who’s a program officer at Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute focused on racial justice and courageous collaborations. To ground our conversation today, y’all can see I got a big old picture in the back and back of me. This is about a five-foot-wide and large portrait of Frederick Douglass who I consider one of our great American founders and I thought to ground our conversation today, I might share a few quotes from him about America that I’ve been holding close to me in this season of transformation. The first is this, that, “A battle lost or won is easily described, understood, and appreciated, but the moral growth of a great nation requires reflection, as well as observation, to appreciate it.” “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” And finally, “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” And so, I offer those quotes from Frederick Douglass, speaking to us from across the generations, as a way of framing this conversation around bridge building. And to get us started, I’m going to turn to you, Branden, with this question, which is this, how has the concept of bridge-building shifted or not shifted over the past week for you?
Thank you to the IFYC team for inviting me to be a part of this and Jen for moderating, we lost you for one second Jen and then you were probably talking, but I just kept going, so hopefully, that was all right. There you go.
Just giving my thanks and my gratitude for being here today. And so, this question, I’m actually a little nervous to talk about, I actually haven’t had a lot of time to process the events of last week. Maybe just from the busyness of trying to react and respond to what’s been going on right. So, this is a moment just as weird it’s an authentic vulnerable space I feel like I’m holding with you all right now to talk about it. And I’ll just start with answering the question with a little bit of context of I live in Washington D.C. I’ve been here for 11 and a half years. I’ve spent a lot of time in the capitol building over the course of those 11 and a half years and know that building really well, in ways that I never thought, you know, that I would ever get the chance probably as a child, or whatever, to think that I would have such access, you know, to such a place, at several parts during my career development. So, there are two things, you know, that come to mind as reactions from that. As a citizen, I feel offended, of course, and nauseous at the images, you know, that we could come to the place in our country where even that many people, you know, all at once, you know, can have that kind of feeling about the country, or a lack of trust with within the government, or about the government, and even more so to our founding principles, you know, that it would cause and strike this kind of violence. On the other side, as a Washingtonian, who has spent a lot of time in and around the capitol building, I feel it very personally. And it has shaken me in a way of asking this very question Jen, you know, what does it mean to be a bridge builder? What does it mean to be a social healer? And, you know, I’ve—as I’ve done all of this reflection—I’m thinking that part of what we need to lean into, what we can lean into, outside of the things that we know, we have to acknowledge the problem, right? These are things that we know. We know we have to go through processes of grief, things that we know. We know that there needs to be some kind of forgiveness or repentance in response, you know, to that offense, you know, as it comes about for all of us, and then we go about the business of reconciliation. What is something that, that I’ve been thinking about in my own response, in my own initial reaction to this is that—I had a thought, I think like a lot of Black and Brown people did, which was—if that were me, you know, standing on those steps, right? That would have been an entirely different environment, different kind of or, at least in my expectation, that I would have been treated differently. And I don’t say that to virtue signal in a certain direction, right? In one way or the other, but it is to say that that’s the wound within me that got stuck, right? It is a wound at the very base that actually says, hey, wait a minute. I can’t trust that I would have been treated equally in this context, right? That is a fundamental problem. It is, it is a manifested generational wound that came in a thought. And what I feel like we need to inundate ourselves with, or maybe include as a part of our bridge-building language and practice is, I think, a concept of freedom. I love the Frederick Douglass, you know, the image really behind you, Jen, you know, is all, is bringing this up even more for me. About freedom but not only freedom from the external things that trigger us, right? Whether it’s the things that happened last week, that thing that triggered that thought in me, but I’m thinking also a freedom from me, from myself, a freedom from the wound that is inside. And has an origin and that that kind of personal transformation that needs to happen on the inside has to be a critical component, needs to continue to be a critical component, of what the ideal state of bridge building and social healing needs to look like. But this conversation, I feel like we have had at certain degrees but, you know, we have to consider really within ourselves, what is the conversation about ourselves? And about our own wounds? And then our collective wounds? That is manifesting in this time so, I’m in and around the question but, it’s been a hard week, you know, for all of us but, I think that while the language is not sufficient it is what we have and without parsing—I think that freedom is a really important thing that we can tie ourselves to as a core principle here.
Thank you, Branden. Anyone else want to hop in on this question?
Yeah, I really appreciate your reflections, Branden. And I think like, you know when I think about freedom, and he also said something about like repentance and forgiveness, and I think about myself, you know, I’m Muslim. I raise—I’m raising my family Muslim—but I grew up Catholic. And so, I think about my eight-year-old-self, doing my first confession, right? Before I could take communion. And that I had to, as a child, like think of something that I did wrong and admit that to a priest, right? So, I had to think about that and, before I could expect any kind of redemption or forgiveness, right? Even though like, you know, forgiveness and mercy come from God so, right, but I, as a human, had to go through the act of repenting and that’s something that I learned very young. and so, I think, you know, forgiveness has to be multi-directional. I think that the forgiveness that, you know, people of color and Black people in particular in this country have been asked to grant over and over again is like akin to a divine forgiveness, right? And it’s not that we shouldn’t strive for that, we should strive to have that in our hearts, but I also think we should forgive ourselves if we feel angry or we don’t feel like building a bridge, right? And I’m looking at my kids and they don’t like to build a bridge to what right. So, I have to allow that space for them and myself to, like, process all of these feelings before jumping to forgiveness. And I hear a lot of our elected leaders talking about, “it’s time to heal,” “it’s time to forgive,” and all of that, and I do think that there’s a time and place for that conversation, but I think the grief that you mention and the anger that people feel should be allowed to be processed before we’re forced into a reconciliation process. So, I really am like just tapping into my eight-year-old-self right now and that feeling, you know, can we do that as a country? Can we look ourselves in the face and be really honest about the sins of this country? And like what we have to actually grapple with?
This is Mandisa, if I may jump in for a moment, I’m going to take a bit more of a historical, put this more in a historical context for a moment. When we think of the words ‘insurrection’ and ‘sedition’ um, I think first, of the Wilmington insurrection, in which there were innocent Black folks who were murdered. And even taking it back to Frederick Douglass who, in his 1852 oration, denounced pro-Christian slavery. And when we look at these people who stormed the capital, and they were touting their religious beliefs, we are talking about Christian nationalism and people who are doing this in the name of what they thought was good and probably against other Christians. And so, this is something that we cannot ignore that has happened. This is a collective pain that—and I’m going to, I’m going to be a bit more direct and honest about the pain that our communities have had to endure for years—and it also calls into question again how quote-unquote good these Christians are. And so, this is something that as a community that we have been, it’s been the elephant in the room for so long. As to actually challenging these beliefs, and how good they’re supposed to be, especially if they can be used to commit harm and to commit atrocities, people who believe in the same god. So it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people, there aren’t people, good people who do believe in God; however, when we’re talking about these beliefs and the people who commit these actions, especially historically and institutionally towards people of color, and we see this time and time again, many of us were not surprised. Because we’ve seen this play out over and over again, over centuries, and so there comes a time where we say, enough is enough. And when is justice going to be served? When are these people who actually commit these atrocities to commit these crimes actually going to be held accountable for what they do? And hopefully, we are in a time now where this will actually happen, as opposed to there just being this sense of, well, they perhaps, there was a reason… there was no good reason for it. None whatsoever. And this is the honesty that we have to process and have to come to terms with. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, especially given the history.
(Simran Jeet Singh)
Yeah, I appreciate that, and I think, I mean, everything everyone said so far, I’ll echo. And Mandisa, especially what you just said, I think that’s emotionally right where I am and where a lot of us are right now. So, thank you for saying what you said. I guess for me, what I’m trying to wrap my head around in this moment is, it really picks up on what you’re saying Branden. It’s this idea of—cool, bridge building sounds fine, but then what? Right? Like we have this idea that, or at least the way that our popular discourse is shaping up, it’s let’s create bridges so we’re not so polarized, right? Like, let’s meet in the middle. Let’s see one another’s humanity. And I think that’s great but, it tells us how far underwater we are right now, right? Like if the bare minimum—this is something that I experience as a Sikh on the street, right? Like, part of, part of what I try and do and perform when I walk by strangers is to let them see my humanity right? So, I’m like wearing my basketball Spurs jersey or whatever and they’re like, “oh, that, that’s like a normal person,” right? And like, think about what that says about where we are, that we are so far behind that we’re not, we’re not talking about freedom, we’re not talking about liberation, we’re not talking about justice; we’re talking about seeing one another’s humanity, right? That’s where we are. And I don’t want to discount the importance of doing that work because this is what Mandisa is talking about, like our lives are on the line if we’re not doing this bridge building. But if we limit our imagination to the bridge and to seeing one another’s humanity, it’s just another way of saying what we’ve been saying for forever, right? Like we’ve talked about tolerance and then, you know, we come back and say tolerance is not enough. We have to do more. Well, this is, I mean this is the same thing to me, right? Like you want to see my humanity, cool—but then let’s go do something together, right? Like let’s get justice together, let’s get equality. Like, that hasn’t existed. We haven’t experienced that. And so, to me, yes there is a need for this work. Bridge building is critical. our lives are on the line, so it’s a matter of life and death, but it’s more, right? It has to be more. And until it’s more, it won’t be satisfying for any of us, even if we, even if we tell ourselves that’s the goal. And I’ll just say one last thing—it reminds me of our conversations around representation and diversity and inclusion. Where so often we say, all we want is to see ourselves on the screen, all we want is a book that has a character like us, all we want is to show up in an administration, so people can see that we exist. But then what, right? Like that, that’s not how power works. That’s not how justice works. So, we delude ourselves into thinking that’s what we want, and then when we get there, we have a bitter taste in our mouths, because it’s really not getting us the results we need. And so, yeah, just trying to echo what all of you are saying because I think it’s right on point guys.
Can I just add? Just to top that off and, you’re hinting at it, actually being really explicit about it, is that it’s really hard for us to articulate the ideal state of what bridge building produces. So, as a field I think we need to shed ourselves of the fear of actually coming to the table with those conversations. And I think that fear is that we’re not going to align on what the ideal state should be, right? Or we know that we’re not going to align on what the ideal state should be, so we avoid it entirely. And that also puts us into this fissure, right, you know, where we’re moving away from one another in the language of bridge building? So long as people align, right? And so, we have to do a better job, I think, of wading into the fields of vulnerability and honesty here. To Mandisa’s point about what does it mean for redemption to be manifested, you know? What does it mean for reconciliation to be manifested? What does it mean for bridge building to actually produce collaborations and cooperation that solves problems that are seemingly, like, impossible to surmount, right? But to actually do that cooperation and to solve those problems, we know that we need to do it together, that there’s an energy towards solving problems when we do it in symphony with people across difference. But then we still have to articulate what that means and what that looks like. And that is so hard and, especially when you cross over into areas of like, retaliation and coercion. And if you don’t see it the same way that I do. So, I think we have an interesting balance here, but I think we have to take a step in as—I’m excavating this just listening to all of you—that we need to go in that much deeper. And the signal is here, right? We’ve seen all of the signs, right, for years, right? That the culminating event, right, of last week? Rather, it was a culminating event, right? It wasn’t a singular thing and it came. We can’t point the finger at, to the left or to the right any longer, but rather, point the finger on the inside, which is what my mama used to tell me, right, you know? If you’re going to point the finger, recognize you have three fingers pointing back at you kind of thing, you know, so I think we have to do a lot of that work and not shirk ourselves from acknowledging what people are feeling. Our understandings of history, a generational understanding of what we’re—one, wanting to like, impart to the next generation is really important here as well. And because I’ll be dead, and the work will have to continue, because this is a, this is a long game kind of thing, so.
Hmmm—my grandmother used to make that noise. That was when something was getting good and she’s cooking and tasting it. And I feel like we’re cooking up something delicious right now in this conversation. Thank you. I want to just name, thank you, Mandisa, for naming Wilmington. I think people don’t know the history of the Wilmington coup, one of the only successful crews in American history, where a Black-led government in Wilmington, North Carolina was unseated because of an insurrection of white supremacists. So, again, part of this feels like an act of recovering parts of our history that we haven’t remembered or have been intentionally forgotten. So, thank you, thank you, Simran for beginning to interrogate this metaphor of the bridge. But I think that guides us really nicely to our next question, which is, does bridge building still feel like the right language to describe the work of coming together? What’s needed now? I think we’ve begun to hint at some of this in our responses to the last question, but I wonder, Kalia, if you might help us unpack that question a little bit?
Yeah, thank you, I’m interested in interrogating all of the language we’re using right now. Every one of it. You know, in a former career I was a copy editor and I just kind of want to take my old school red pen and just strike through it all and start over. So, for me, no, it’s really unsatisfying in this moment today. I might feel differently tomorrow but, like, feelings are raw right now. And no, like, and I think it’s partly because, you know, over this last week we keep hearing—and we hear this time and time again, you know—we are better than this, this is not who we are. And I want to know who “we” is, first of all, right? That’s a question, I know I’m not the only one asking that, when it comes up on Twitter or wherever else like, you know? But I hear it. No, this is not who we are and I’m like, yeah, you know? And I think and I also, you know, some, one of you, I think Branden, you just mentioned, like, what are we imparting to the next generation? I want it to be constructive. I want it to be like, feel fruitful. I want it to feel hopeful. So, I don’t want to send my children or, you know, this generation, my nieces, my nephews, my neighbors, young people into this space not prepared for what it is they’re going to be up against as they’re trying to heal and bridge build and all of that. And I feel like, you know, my generation, we were still taught this really fantastical story about this mythical land where everyone, you know, overcame so many things and, you know, you could be a kid sitting in an all-Black classroom but you’re hearing about, you know, how we desegregated the schools. Well, my high school wasn’t desegregated until 10 years before I was born right so that history was there. My classmates, you know, had parents who went to segregated schools and for all intents and purposes, in the 90s, my schools were still segregated, right? Even though legally that wasn’t what was happening. So, I want us, before we can even talk about bridge building, I just want to unpack all these other words that we keep using to describe the situation that we’re in. I’m thinking about, you know, James Baldwin saying, the horror is that America changes all the time without ever changing at all. And I find ourselves, like, kind of just back in this place, over and over again. And so, how do we get out of that cycle and, you know, do we have the right language? It is language. I feel like language is very foundational. And one more thing that I’ll add, you mentioned this act of humanizing that we do when we go out in the world. Like, we’re humanizing ourselves, we’re trying to make ourselves palatable to other people, and I’m also tired of that, right? So, I don’t want to. I don’t want to have to be perfect in this bridge building process. I want to show up with my flaws as well. If we’re confronting the flaws of this country, and the flaws of the language that we use, and all of that, I don’t want to have to show up—I don’t want any of us to have to show up—perfect. Being human means that we can be good and nice and friendly, but also, like, not be right all the time. And not be perfect. And not be held to an impossible standard. So, I don’t think that really answers the question of, what is the right language, but I don’t feel like what we have right now is sufficient.
Yeah, I’ll completely agree here again. I’ll just say it, I’m trying to parse before, we move off course and—no one’s saying that, here we have to continue to do the work of bridge building quote unquote or social healing quote unquote—but I completely agree that there’s insufficiency in in our language anyway. And therefore, there is insufficiency in the word ‘bridge’ and then ‘bridge’ and ‘build,’ right? And then I would add um, you know, if I ask myself, you know, what am I prone to do? Or how am I primed to behave in this culture right now? It’s too—it’s toward achievement and it’s toward some kind of acceptance through manipulation, right? And I’m talking about me personally, right? So, I am, I have to go to work, and I have to achieve and then I will be rewarded, right? I get on social media, I say something, I get likes, I’m rewarded, right, in my family, if I have a family, and this is not the case my family, I had a very loving family who did not force me to go into certain professions but, imagine that I had to achieve in a certain way, to become a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, right? So, we are primed for these things that actually take us away from a singular concept. I think that we all want as a, and need, it is in fact a fundamental need for belonging and connection that cannot be extricated, you know, from the work of bridge building, someone—you mentioned this, that the bare minimum of course is tolerance and maybe seeing one another as humans and treating each other with respect and dignity and then non-violence right, you know, these are the bare minimums—my mom would also say to me that you do not get a cookie for making your bed in the morning because that is your job, right? So, in the same sense I don’t need to be rewarded, should not be rewarded, for treating people with dignity, right? And with respect and I think that’s sometimes what we’re looking for is that extra, you know, cherry on top of the whipped cream or whatever it is that says, hey, look what I did. I built a bridge here and we did this program. And I’m thinking most people are going to work every day trying to put food on the table, right? They’re trying to figure out where they fit in the story and I think what that means is that we’re tired and fatigued of needing to fit in, right? With whatever this narrative is or whatever the picture of the ideal for someone else might be for us, right? For me or for us or for each other but that we need to then somehow build a pluralistic society that will allow me to belong here and to connect here and those are a lot of words that we can’t put into a whole movement like bridge building belonging social connecting I mean like that’s just a long word for a field so I’ll just end with this and just say that we have the need I think for some guiding principles and what it means to be in this movement, right? To be and I’ve sort of called it akin, you know, to the Hippocratic oath, right? You know, where you take an oath to do no harm, right? Or something like that, you know, that gives us some sense of what we’re striving for and something that we can hold each other accountable to.
I think I went before Simran last time, so I wanted to give him the opportunity to kind of go before me—is he still there?
I’m here, but yeah, you go through it. I think yeah, I’d rather hear what you have to say!
Okay, so, when I think of bridge building, I see that there’s a lot of words, you know? You know, we look at the word, we look at the words and language, but I tend to look at the actions, you know? There’s often a lot of people who talk about what it means to come together and this also makes me think of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in which the, you know, many of his white colleagues criticized him for being to, what they considered, radical. And he was explaining to them that, you know, there has been this soft approach for far too long and there’s been a lot of pretty language, but there are a lot of people who are angry and there’s a lot of, you know, there is the action or there… people are seeing that, you know, these leaders are saying stuff or people are saying it, but the actions don’t correspond well. And people are starting to see that. People can see through that and when we talk about preparing our children and preparing future generations, we must be careful that our actions do correspond with our words always. And that we are being genuine and consistent. That they aren’t just one-time efforts, that they actually continue beyond what’s in the press as well, or when it’s a trending topic, because that’s when the real work is done. That’s when the real bridge building is done. It’s done in the, you know, when it’s tedious and boring and most of us are—we’re primed to want to see action right away. And people don’t realize that these institutions took time to build, they will take time to dismantle. And bridges take time to build as well. And it’s hard work. It’s not just pretty, lofty language. And I think that’s what many people are used to. And getting more of us used to there being such hard—that its hard and that, it can be challenging at times—and there are times where you don’t want to do it. You won’t want to do it anymore. But when it gets hard is when it’s the most needed. And I think it’s very important that our actions make sure, that we make sure that our actions continue to align with what we say.
Yeah, that’s beautiful and that’s—it’s not along the lines of what I was going to say but—I want to, I want to just pick up on that because I think it’s so critical I, you know, the… what Kalia was saying earlier in terms of the exhaustion that comes with doing this work, especially for Black folks, people of color who have been doing this their whole lives, and it’s been generational, as Branden keeps reminding us. It is it is tough work and it’s easy to give up on it, or at least want to give up on it, and to get burnt out by it, right? And so, the question for me then becomes, why do it in the first place, right? Like why do we show up—and part of it is this survival instinct, right? Like we do it because we love our kids and we want them to have better lives, right? They don’t want to, we don’t want them to have to deal with what we went through, just in the same way that our parents did that for us, right? And so there’s that instinct of protection and preservation at work here, but also, if I think about my parents and I think about now that I’m a parent why I do this work for my kids, it’s driven not out of fear, right? Like survival doesn’t have to be fear-based. Survival can be love based, right? You can do these things out of love and when that happens, at least in my experience, the nature of your relationship with the work completely flips, right? So, like, just let me, I’m a runner and I’ll give you an example like if I’m running out of fear of someone chasing me, right? And that’s happened. I hate it, I hate it, and I’m exhausted when I’m done, and I wish it never happened. But if I’m running because it’s a marathon and I’ve been training and I’ve been practicing and I just do it for fun it’s different, right? The entire experience is different. I mean, I’m tired at the end of it. It’s still work. It’s not that it’s any easier, but your relationship with the experience is completely flipped. And so, to me it, I take it back to, I had this moment of insight reading James Baldwin, as it sounds like we all have insights when we read James Baldwin, but he said this thing that completely changed my life. He said, if I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see. And to me, that’s the work of bridge building, right? I don’t do it because I hate people and, if I was doing it for that reason I don’t think I’d last very long, but I do it out as an act of love for myself and for my kids and for the people I’m trying to connect with. And then the bridge is entirely different, right? And my relationship with it is entirely different. So, just trying to pick up on some of the threads that other folks are saying but, yeah, Mandisa, thank you for taking me down that path because it’s really productive for me.
Oh, that’s so good. So, I’m hearing a lot of words around value, right? So, things that we value, whether that be love or forgiveness, repentance, redemption, accountability might be another word that emerges for us. And so our next question is around values and commitment but I’m going to bundle this with a question from the audience and so, for folks who are joining us on Zoom or Facebook, feel free to chat over any questions that you might have for the panelists. But Mandisa, so, you are going to kick us off and this question is actually for you and, I think, folds nicely into this question around commitments. And this is from, I believe, Leah Carroll says, ‘how might you suggest, Mandisa, that we encourage those who have the words but are altogether misaligned in their actions? Does it go back to what Branden said about appeasement, acceptance, and belonging? I’m thinking so but would love your perspective.’ So, I’m bundling all that together, okay, awesome.
So, as a as an openly identified atheist and also a humanist, I’m going to read the one of the definitions for humanism, which is a progressive philosophy of life that without theism or other supernatural beliefs affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal and, I’m also going to add, collective fulfillment that aspire to the greater good. So, my humanism is informed one, by how I was raised, also what I see institutionally, and also what I have learned from my family, my peers, and my teachers and such. And I really want, and my thing is, I really want to do good for the sake of being good not because there might be some divine reward. Because we have to be honest that there are a lot about, many people who may think they’re doing the right thing because there may be some reward in it for them. And, unfortunately, that does speak to self-gratification that many people may not even realize that they’re perpetuating. And it’s okay to want something a bit for ourselves, to be personally fulfilled, but if we want to leave this world in in a better and better—in a, in a better shape than how we inherited it, or even if we want to continue it for those who, you know, who had it very well, if we want to continue to develop it must go beyond ourselves. And my thing is, I want the same rights I would want for myself and my family, I would want for everyone else, regardless of what they do, or regardless of the perspectives that they share, even if there are some things that we don’t agree on or and such, you know? I think that that is absolutely important and again it goes back to the question about how we recognize that commitment to action is… it takes a consistency and also a self-reflection. It’s hard for many of us to be honest with ourselves about the mistakes we make and it’s okay, you know, like Branden mentioned, vulnerability—that’s a part of it. And for many of us it can be difficult because we know, we don’t want to be told that we’re doing something wrong, right? But again, that is that space where correction and improvement is needed. And that learning is an everyday process. We don’t stop learning once we become adults, especially once we become adults, and as we become parents. I have three children. All of my children are now, they’re young adults and teenagers, and so my boys now who are preteens and teenagers this is a very—and they’re Black boys, right?—And so we are talking about what the world is going to be like for them in the future. And how they’re going to prepare for it. And especially, and I’m in the state of Georgia, I’m originally from New York but, you know, Georgia just flip blue, you know, we just elected Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, so we’re looking at this new administration as it becomes more progressive in that state. So, seeing—knowing that they’re seeing this—and knowing that our children are seeing this, showing that that there has been a commitment to change and that it does have to be consistent. And it’s something that has to become routine. It isn’t something that has, it isn’t, there isn’t a magic, you know? There isn’t, it isn’t something that we have to continue to wonder what it’s about. It’s that, it’s what we must continue to do. And I think all of us here on this webinar are humanists, whether we’re secular humanists or religious humanists, and I think we can all agree on that. And I think once we, once we can establish that it is the goal of a collective and a community of mind, then we can better start piecing these things together and improving on them.
To join in as the mom of three Black sons too, you know, that I also want them to see me doing it for myself too, right? But I do, I can’t deny that, you know, that’s the thought process that goes into this every day. And I think something we do with kids too, is wait and, oh we’ll have that conversation later, we’ll have that conversation when they’re older, we’re not ready for it. And, you know, in our experience it’s like, let’s just talk about it now at the um, you know, level, the appropriate levels but like, why wait? And I remember my oldest son being about three and his little, one of his friends described him as Black and his mom like, shushed him, like, ‘Shh, don’t call him Black.’ Like, and I was like, it’s fine, that’s he is, right? Like, and I want him to accept that about himself. And I want, you know, that. But I think we shush kids, right? We don’t have all the answers, so we’re like, oh we’ll talk about it later. It feels too complicated. It will hurt too much. and I think we can start to establish trust with our children if we are open and honest and vulnerable with them too. And say, I don’t know, like, I don’t actually, I don’t know why you’re seeing these inconsistencies but, you know what? Let’s try to, you know, work on them together. let’s find the good examples. And I remember having a group of activists over for dinner once and my son Adam being able to see that with his own eyes so when he came back to it and, you know, we’re here in Chicago and I don’t I won’t make this story too long but the long and short of it was there were, you know, it was dark there were police officers and everything descending on the city because the video of Laquan McDonald being shot was about to be released. So, there was just this tension in the air. And my kid had heard about it at school before I had a chance to talk to him and so he freaked out. And he was just like, who is going to, like, who’s protecting me? Like who’s trying to change this? And I was able to point to this group of people that he happened to be able, he had the fortune to see in his house, and I said, you know, these are some of the people working on it. You heard the conversations that they were having. And he’s like, they don’t even know my name. And I was like, one, they do know your name but, two, like there are people, you know, around the country, around the world who are doing this work, day in and day out. And having that sort of tangible example for him, at maybe nine or ten-years-old, was so helpful. To see, like, there are people who care. There are people who want to, like, just wrap you in their love and their like purpose. Even if they don’t know your name. So, I just, I, you know, I don’t want to only talk about the kids. Because I think we have a responsibility as adults, whether we’re parents or not, whether we interact with children or not, but they have to see us doing this for ourselves as well. And um, you know, if we are talking about faith—and I was reading one of the comments here, you know—I always think back to that, just this concept of, like, faith without works being dead, you know? We have an obligation to just put one foot in front of the other and to interrogate our intentions and um, you know, to plant whatever seeds we can, even if we won’t be able to see the fruits of them down the line. So, I just really appreciate y’all, like, just sort of holding this space with you guys and getting to think about what those seeds are.
I love all of that. I just have one thing that’s come to mind, that’s generating, coming up to the top also. A biblical reference, James 5:17, you know, that says that we should ‘confess our sins one to another and pray for one another so that we might be healed.’ And what I find is really interesting about it, you know, I think that there are like remnants, you know, of evangelicalism that have taken that verse and created accountability programs, right? You know, like, you know, if you get together you just tell me what you’re going through and the sin in your life, then you’ll experience healing, right? And the confessional part of that is really great, but we miss the ‘and pray for one another’ part of that, right? Which is about connection, and the quality of the connection. So, if I confess something in the confessional, right? That I’m dealing with x y or z, but there is not a quality of place, right? Where that connection can take place. Then, I miss the opportunity for healing even though I expect it. Then, I become disgruntled and angry and upset that the healing didn’t happen, right? And I think that this is one of the things that we need to pass to our kids. I have a 10-year-old nephew. I don’t have any children. I have several god children. I do that on purpose so I can give them away, right? Like, I have my good time and then I give them back. And what I always do with them, and I had an experience actually, right after, you know, the 2016 election, 2017, right? After the inauguration I was in a city in America, very well-known city in America, and then I went into our Marshalls and was called the n-word by a stranger. And I then go home, and I have to process, I go, so what do I do with this information, right? What do I do with this experience, you know? And at the time, you know, my nephew was probably eight or nine, you know, but I’ve continued to sort of get, not down on his level but just, at his level of conversation, right? And say, here’s the thing I want to confess to you, right? About my own life and things that I’ve experienced. And here’s a really safe and qualitative place for you to connect with me where you know I’m being humble, right? And coming to you. And I want you to hold this information, but I’m here for you, right? And we have to go through this healing together. It’s something that this generation, not the 10-year-olds as much as maybe the 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, you know, 20-somethings who are in college, right? And who are—you know, I remember when I was in college it was like, you know, like give me something I can raise my fists to, right? And you want that mission and you want that purpose. And what’s happened is that especially for faith groups or, you know, or for groups that would consider themselves, you know, coming from a faith route, those places don’t exist as much anymore. We don’t trust them as much anymore and so, for the younger generation, what do they have, you know? I mean there are very isolated places that are in the online spaces, or it’s when they go to work, when they go to school, right? It’s not groups, it’s not church as much anymore because less people are going to organized church, right? I’m in the online space, right now listening to my Georgia pastors from DC, like I’m doing that, you know, and so is everyone else. So, it’s important that, I think, that we dive even deeper on excavating what the opportunities are to create something, right? A safer space is a quality of space where connection can happen for this generation, for the next generation. Ronald Reagan, I think, said it this way, that freedom is only but one generation away from becoming extinct, right? And that’s the, that is the energy and the urgency that I think that we need to approach this with, you know? And I think that we can see it like we see the evidence, right? That we’re just on a nice razor edge, right? Of losing all of the things that we, even in this field, or on this call, in this webinar, that we fight so hard to maintain, right? And to keep the embers burning. But we have to put the fire and impart that fire, with quality and with principles, into the next generation.
That’s such a good transition, Branden. So, we have about 10 minutes left, and we got three questions from the audience. That’s how good this conversation is, folks are wanting to engage you all. And so, I thought I would bundle by just asking all of those questions at once, and whoever would like to jump in to answer them. But one thing that seems consistent across all three is that they are action oriented. So, as we’re thinking about, friend, you said creating something together, I think they all fit into that category. The first question is from Sarah Smith, who’s a Lutheran pastor and professor, and she says, in some Christian traditions, sacrament equals a promise plus a concrete element. So, for example, baptism equals water plus the promise of enough-ness. What is needed in our nation could be called sacramental. Words plus bridge building and concrete actions. And so, like bridge building and concrete action. So, I’m curious for you all, what are the—what is that balance of words plus something that is emerging in this season? The second question is from Nestor Hernandez, who’s a student at the University of La Verne in southern California, who’s wondering what strategies you in particular on the panel will be utilizing as you continue your work of personal and social healing. So, what’s coming up for you? What’s on your, on the docket for you, as it were, as you look forward? Then, a final question from Facebook about advice for moving forward and acting together in a world where we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. In a remote world in which, in particular, a remote world in which media and information infrastructure is so segregated. So, how do we go about doing the work? whatever ‘the work’ is, whatever language we want to use to articulate ‘the work’ in a world with where we’re getting lots of different information from a lot of different places. So, that’s it, open! I know we got 10 minutes y’all, so jump in wherever, ‘get in where you fit in,’ as my, as my auntie used to say.
Well, I think Simran should have the opportunity. I don’t think he had a chance to respond last time so, I think he should start.
Oh, sure. No, I didn’t have anything special to add after what you all said but, appreciate that. I’ll just give a quick response and leave the rest to you all. I think um… I’m going to I’m going to try and quickly give a perspective that might address all three questions at once because, they don’t look similar on the face, but I think there’s something really similar going on, at least in in my head in terms of how I’m thinking about them. So, as a scholar of religion, it’s part of my contract that I have to mention Foucault at least once every time I every time I’m on a panel. So, Foucault, here we go. He has this concept that’s been really helpful to me called the regimes of truth, and what he means by that is there are times in society, in human history, where people are operating on entirely different sets of facts, right? Entirely different realities when things become so polarized. And I think you’ll see why this is relevant for us, right? Now, when things are so polarized that the entire understanding of the world between you and me is different, right? There’s no firm footing, and this is where an, the analogy of bridge building might be helpful again, right? What does it take for me to come from where I am and meet you where you are? And the bridge is truth, but the challenge is—how do we get there when we’re so polarized that we’re just going like this [hand motion], right? Like, there’s nothing that brings us together. And so, for me, as I’m looking at this, and as I’ve experienced it in the world like, facts aren’t the answer, right? Like we have, we are the most educated society in human history. We have more college graduates than ever before and look where we are, right? Like, our educations aren’t going to solve this. There’s something else that we need. And, for me at least, what I’ve found is, if someone says something hateful to me on the street and I respond with a lecture on the history of Sikhism, it doesn’t do anything, right? Like, it doesn’t change their minds. But, if I can meet them where they are with their values, then we’re having an entirely different conversation. Because while our regimes of truth might be different, right? Like, our foundational understandings of the world might be different, and what’s going on, we can meet on our values, right? Like, every person wants generally the same things, right? They want to be happy. They want to feel safe. They want their kids to feel safe. They want to feel loved. And so, how can we meet people with their values in a way that might help them? I think this is where Mandisa’s point really helps, right? Like, that might demonstrate that they are out of, out of whack, in terms of their what they say and what they believe and what they actually do, right? Like, no one, no one, and you look at these white nationalists like, they’ll be the first ones to tell you, ‘we’re not racist.’ And so like, you point at them and you say, and if they’re the ones saying they’re not racist, then who’s going to confess to being [racist]? Nobody, nobody’s going to say it. But, if you can say, hey, the way you’re saying this, the way you’re doing this is misaligned with your values and our shared values, then you’re having a different conversation. So, to me, and this is, you know, finally getting to your question Nestor, what am I trying to do? How is this conversation driving me into the future? That’s it, right? Like how do I, how do I reveal to people, and going back to Baldwin, how do I help them see the things that they are unable to see and don’t want to see, right? And again, it’s not, it’s not through facts. It’s through that personal connection. And I think that’s what I’m hearing from a lot of the folks here.
Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right. When I saw mysteries, a question I thought about, you know, relationships before a task. Everything feels so urgent right now. I feel like we have to act, act, act. But I do think, you know, where we don’t have those strong relationships, we need to take the time to build them. So, we’re not going to fix it before the inauguration, we’re not going to fix it before the next election, so just sort of, you know, making sure that those relationships are strong. And then, I’m also thinking, this is strategy, but it’s not, right? It’s an ongoing practice like, what are we taking in? And I think, you know, I would love to have a whole conversation with you four about Baldwin, just in general, because I feel like we’ve all dropped him in here and there. But, you know, is what I’m taking in challenging me or do I feel comfortable in it? And I think when I start to just feel comfortable in what I’m reading, what I’m learning, then I know I need to like, you know, keep doing what feels good, but also push myself. So, I say the same is true for the conversations that we’re having with people. If you’re finding yourself continuously in conversations where you’re not being pushed in any way, maybe just, you know, take a little step outside of that circle and feel challenged. And I think, you know, we’ve all talked a little bit about how exhausting this work is and if you’re able to have one of these bridge building conversations and you feel, you know, I think we want to leave feeling energized, but if you don’t feel a little bit of the weight of it, you don’t feel a little bit tired, a little bit overwhelmed, right? Like, you don’t sense the gravity of this, then I would interrogate that a little bit. So, that’s not a tactic, that’s not something that can be, you know, that’s not a KPI for a strategy, but I do think that’s part of how, you know, it’s being successful, right? Is when you feel, when you feel different, when you feel pushed, when you feel challenged a little bit.
Yeah, I’ll be brief in terms of just acknowledging sacrament, baptism, activation, action, I think sort of hints at that thing that I was saying earlier about confession to connection to healing, you know? And it is important that we look at the dimensions or excavate the different layers of what healing looks like or what it can manifest itself in, but one of the ways in which um, you know, we are looking at this right now is actually through, Simran, what you were talking about in terms of principles and values, right? So, and even to be more crass and difficult, is American values and principles, right? And actually, doing a dive here on, can we invoke King here? Where he says ‘I have a dream and it is rooted deeply in the American dream,’ and how in the articulation of that, in the oration of that, he’s holding everyone in the country—leaders, laity, whoever it is—accountable to reaching the high standard, without denying that we haven’t met the standard, right? So, we’re in the business right now of acknowledging that we haven’t met the standard as a country. And we need to have a deeper conversation about whether or not, not just what those values are, but if we’re still wanting to attain to them, if we still believe in them. Frederick Douglass notwithstanding, right, said that these principles of the American experiment are saving principles, right? So, I thought it was, it’s really interesting because if we invoke Frederick now, right? Then this is going to cause some heartburn for many people when it comes to actually thinking, with all the hurt and all the pain, can I actually put faith in this experiment again? Where there has been a lot of lost faith? So, that’s one thing, but I think we have an opportunity in the context of the current cultural moment, right? Where everything that happens, there is a lens of race or racism, or like oppression, or whatever language we use around that, right? That that is the lens through which most people are looking in, one way or another, at these events that are happening, whether it’s Joe Biden’s election, whether it’s impeachment, whether it’s… we’re all looking through the lens of race in some way. And I think that there’s something that’s strategically significant there, where we can leverage this moment to have the conversations that we need to have around bridge building in different ways, right? Or working with one another really across differences, giving those skills, those tools, those resources, so really involved in that process, right? Now, hoping that there can be a field of bridge builders, right? Of social healers that’s expanded and growing and, just like yeast, you know, just growing all over the country, of people that are committed to this. But also, that we need those proof points, right? So, how are we navigating through issues of poverty and criminal justice reform? How are we navigating through the issues of the red redlining problems that are going on in K12 ed, right? And segregation and education, right? We need proof points to the movement, right? That actually says, that coming together across differences actually solves the problems, right? And I’m done, sorry I was long-winded.
Yeah, I will just say real quick—I’m sorry—that as an advocate for evidence-based solutions, I think it’s important for us to balance what we see. Some people think they have facts, but the evidence doesn’t care about what you feel, the evidence doesn’t care about what you believe, it cares about what’s right. And more and more people need to be caring about what’s right based on the evidence that we have. So, I will just say that in closing.
I was going to say Mandisa, so that is the last word and mic dropped it! To end this conversation, on behalf of IFYC, I just want to say thank you. I’ve been a part of a lot of bridge building conversations over the past four years and this is by far one of the richest and most meaningful. So, thank you for bringing your whole selves to this space.
American Civic Life