Creating conversational communities that drive change

Where Do I Even Begin? Understanding Myself and My SEED Work Using Phase Theory

Phase I:

I come from a religiously and politically conservative family. As children we were disciplined to follow rules and raised to be adults who would be self-disciplined enough to make our own rules. I want to emphasize that there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this. I cherish my family and my traditions. I still follow the faith in which I was raised. I take pleasure in setting up calendars and schedules through which I make charitable contributions, read through publications I subscribe to, and try to be physically as well as intellectually and spiritually healthy. I hold to the belief that people should work hard to fulfill their potential and that ideally, government should be limited to preserving our life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I strive to love others as I love myself.

I come from and am becoming a member of the social and economic upper class, and I am still seeking to climb higher within elite institutions. When I walk into a room, I proudly believe that no one there has worked harder than me, and I am privileged because my degrees and the institutions that I have attended reinforce this belief. I can lament the length of New Yorker articles and how stressful the publish-or-perish world of academia is. If you'd like to join me, though, we'll have to do this over mid-afternoon drinks at a recently reviewed hotspot. Do people appreciate how much effort goes into being credible?

Phase II:

As I progressed through school, I began to have a problem with my vision. I began realizing that the people who were on top often did not look like the people around me. The ratios were off. My sense of depth perception left me feeling dizzy. It’s here that I realized that there were differences between those on the top and those on the bottom. What did I do? I tried to make sense of it. I had to say either that there was something wrong with the people on the bottom for not being able to get to the top, or else that there was something wrong with the people on top who kept the people on the bottom down. Given my initial training, however, this latter option was too difficult to believe. I was just like David Christiansen from the film The Color of Fear. And so I tended to say, "Well, fact is fact. Men tend to be powerful and more successful than women and white people more successful than people of color. The wealthy are more powerful than the poor, and heterosexual people are dominant over the LGBTQ community." And I didn’t judge them. I just recognized there was a difference.

In fact, when someone broke through the success barrier, I’d be really happy. Obama! Ellen! Jeremy Lin! Selena! These exceptional individuals affirmed my assumption that the people on top weren’t pushing others down, or that the people on the bottom weren’t being held back. If they succeeded, why couldn't others? These individuals represented that old barriers, which did in fact exist in the past, such as slavery, laws forbidding women from working, don’t ask don’t tell, aren’t true any more. This is Phase Two, the land of the exceptional other. And then I got to college, and I was doing great climbing up the ladder. In fact, I was climbing so high on the ladder that I started getting self-conscious about those who weren't where I was. I was also starting to realize that no matter how hard I worked, there were some differences in the way I was being treated in my world and others around me who happened to be white or skinnier or wealthier. Certain doors were opening for them that weren’t opening for me.

Phase III:

Yet despite my background and my present world, there was and remains an even more prohibitive and limiting factor to my SEED participation: "social justice." Now I put social justice in quotes because there is nothing inherently wrong with social justice. Many people would describe SEED as an organization committed to social justice. Yet for those of us who are in "the movement," the pitfalls are all too familiar.

In college, I wasn’t content anymore just serving food at a soup kitchen. I started advocating for a living wage and for affordable housing. I wanted the president of Harvard to resign when he made a bullshit comment about women being inherently inferior to men in science and math. I was getting into the revolution. I was with Martin and Malcolm, Rosa, Caesar, and Dolores Huerta. I became an urban educator. I taught in "the trenches." This is Phase Three, the Resistance!

But then I began realizing that for many of us in "the struggle" we were still subscribing to the philosophy that there always has to be a top and there always has to be a bottom. That there are always winners and losers. I wanted a revolution, but what we were pushing for was a rebellion. We wanted to be on top. We wanted those on top to fall to the bottom. And this especially became clear for me as I began to see heterosexual males in the social justice movement sometimes treat women poorly, taking advantage of them emotionally, physically, and even sexually. It made me sick. I was exhausted. I was burnt out.

Tags: Leader Essays Stories and Systems Phase Theory

— Cheryl Robinson, Supervisor, Office of Minority Achievement, Arlington Public Schools, Virginia

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