Reclaiming Our Way promoting the well-being of African American children & families

13Jun/120

Ground Rules – Part 4: Accept and expect non-closure!

The fourth and final principle, or guideline, offered by the team that developed Knowing Who You Are is to “accept and expect non-closure”.  This is also one that I think can guide our discussions in this space.

For me, one part of this principle speaks to the idea that this work of understanding the fundamental role of race and culture in shaping who we are, how we think and how we live is continuous and developmental.  There’s also a part of this principle that speaks to the fact that we don’t always have to be and think the same way, or agree on every point, in order to move forward in a productive way.  This is true of us as individuals, groups we belong to and the institutions and systems many of us work within.

I remember my freshman year at Howard University.  There was a group of us that loved to discuss (and often times debate) issues relating to African American history and culture, and the continuing reality of racism in this country.  Sometimes these debates started in the dorm and continued in our classes, and sometimes they started in our classes and spilled over into the dorm.  Many of us – perhaps most at some time or another - used to stay up at all hours of the night trying to prove whatever point we were trying to make.  Some of the arguments got heated, some not as much.  But that’s what we did.  Those were some interesting discussions, too.

Contrary to many people’s impressions or assumptions, Howard was not the kind of place where everybody shared the same ideas and perspectives about history, race and culture.  For sure, Howard attracted (and continues to attract) some of the smartest and talented brothers and sisters in the world (literally – from throughout the African diaspora).  And it was that diversity of backgrounds that created the range of analyses and perspectives about the role and impact of race and racism in shaping the contemporary realities of Black folks in this country and throughout the world.  The discussion and debates were the opportunities for us to explore each of our assumptions and ideas about the world – based on each of our experiences and the information we were exposed to that helped us make sense of them.

By the end of freshman year, it became clear that those were not arguments you would always necessarily “win”.  Even with all of the “facts” and “evidence” you would try to stack on your side, you still couldn’t necessarily “win” a lot of the arguments.  What was really great, though, is that we got to learn how other people viewed the world, and the kinds of experiences and information that went into shaping each of us.  Everyone’s worldview is shaped in a fundamental way by the information and experiences we have been exposed to over time.  It doesn’t change completely as a result of one conversation.  Each conversation, if we’re open, however, can help us challenge our own prior assumptions and ideas.

Another one of the big ideas we appreciated by the end of those undergraduate years was that this work of understanding the world we live in, including our own individual and collective places in it, never ends.  Every single day we get exposed to new information, we have new experiences, we develop new relationships, and all of these contribute to our continuous learning, growth and development.  All of this helps us to rethink our assumptions, our prior conclusions, and our attitudes about people, about history, and about life.  That’s what human growth and development is about.  That’s what being human is about.

A big challenge for all of us is to appreciate that this same developmental process must also apply to our professional lives.  We have to remain open to new ideas about child development, about family dynamics, even about our roles, and recognize that people and groups think, speak and live in ways that are informed by our history and culture.  This is true for all of us.

So much of this world’s, including this country’s, history has been shaped by the pathology, violence and oppression resulting from the construction and imposition of race as a social construct, and racism as a primary organizing principle for understanding and thus controlling people and (access to) resources.  The lived experience of individuals and groups of people continue to be shaped by the legacy of this historical tragedy.  Each of us has a responsibility to think critically about how we have likewise been affected – shaped even – by these dynamics, both in the personal and professional aspects of our lives.

Institutions have likewise been affected by this history – especially human service institutions and other organizations that touch the lives of children, youth and families (education, juvenile justice, criminal justice, etc.).  Institutions are made up of people, and have been developed as a result of the conscious decisions people have made about their mission, their role and function, their policies and their operational practices.  We have to continuously investigate these, and challenge them so that they are relevant and responsive to (so they do justice to) present day needs and realities.

The point I’m trying to highlight here is that we share a collective challenge of acknowledging and genuinely appreciating that we each have our own experiences, which shape how and what we think about issues, about people, about circumstances, etc.  As a result, we naturally enter the work of child welfare, human services, education, mental health, etc. with our own perspectives, our own analyses, our own sense of what makes sense, our own sense of what is normal and healthy – i.e. our own biases.

We have a responsibility to remind ourselves of this, and to remain open to continued learning and growth.  We also have the responsibility of not imposing our own ideas and perspectives, shaped by our own experiences, on others in the name of “science” or “objectivity” or claims of “universalism”.

Most importantly, we have a responsibility to learn and grow through our shared experiences and relationships with one another.  We must continue to share ideas, perspectives, different and sometimes new ways of thinking about things, and experiences with one another.  In that sense, there is no end-point to this work.  We have to accept and expect non-closure!

Our continuous test and marker of whether we’re moving in the right direction, however, is whether our children, families and communities are getting healthier and stronger.  The unfortunate reality, however, is that in recent years the quality of life experiences and the life outcomes for too many of our children and families have been trending in the wrong direction.

We’ve got a lot of work to do!  And it’s all of ours to do!

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