With all these commencements going on I started to fantasize about what I would say to a graduating group of students. I was a little surprised by what came up, but here it is:
As the racial dynamics of our country grow increasingly complicated, this generation faces a new set of challenges in bringing communities together to make lasting changes. Three things will help you meet this challenge with joy and grace, as well as courage. You must learn to follow as well as to lead; to say no in ways that are grounded in yes; and to stay open to the possibilities that emerge from conflict by letting go of the need to protect yourself.
There’s a great deal of emphasis on leadership in this world, but an equally important role is that of the joiner. Leaders often come up with great big ideas, but joiners are the people who put those ideas into practice. When you lead all the time, it’s easy to forget what is required to actually do the work. Building the kinds of teams that can actually implement new ideas is an art, and you have to have some experience of good and bad team building to get a clear sense of how you might shape the ones that you’re on. When you follow, you learn what is inspiring, what is pragmatic, and how to take into account the skills and feelings of all the people around you. Without those people, no leader can see ideas come to fruition. So find some things to join, and some people to follow, and log all those experiences in your book of practice.
There’s also a lot of emphasis on saying yes in our society, but no is an equally important word. Yes is key to solving racial problems—we need to be clear what we’re for and not just what we’re against. People like to hear yes, and it’s all too tempting in addressing controversial issues like race to say yes to notions that don’t serve the cause. It’s easier, for instance, to say yes to colorblindness than to equity. Yet people are not well trained to say no—from the age of two, when we start to say no to assert our independence, everyone around us begins to discourage our use of that word.
The no’s we hear on the race front are often out of context; a decontextualized no stops the conversation. We want to keep the conversation going, so each time we say no, we have to say as well what we actually want, to explain why we can’t agree to a particular approach, and to put forward an alternative that meets our needs. An effective no is grounded in our values and interests, and it is always followed by an idea that we could support. William Ury, co-author of the negotiation bible “Getting to Yes,” says that if yes is the language of peace, then no is the language of justice. Learn to say no, always grounded in the clarity of what we’re fighting for.
Finally, don’t try too hard to protect yourself emotionally. Solving enormous problems takes an open heart. When we build up defenses we limit our ability to be with all kinds of people, to take risks, and to recover from our failures with a stronger connection to our mission. We spend all our time and mental energy trying to control the people around us so that they don’t criticize, betray or abandon us. In addition to being exhausting, the practice of self-protection is also futile. People will hurt us. In protection mode, we try to minimize the effect of that hurt, to push it away, but instead of releasing it, we actually allow it to form a block in our brains and hearts. Those blocks kill creativity and make us risk-averse.
It’s better to feel what you feel, and then to feel the next thing. Pain will always pass, but that block, once developed, gets harder and harder to dissolve. You can prevent it from building up in the first place by simply deciding not to protect yourself, and by trusting in your ability to recover from even the deepest hurts. That’s how you build the emotional strength to make all the contributions you’ve got inside you.
Go forth, then, as joiners with the clarity that lets you say no on the way to yes, and with an open heart. Enjoy your life, and help create the conditions that allow others to do the same.