I am a licensed mental health counselor and serves as the director of community relations at a community center in a distressed neighborhood in Orlando, FL on the west side (predominantly African American) of Division Avenue. The street was intentionally named that to segregate people. I am also a founding member of the African Community Network (ACN), a local nonprofit organization that provides resources and advocacy for African families and immigrants and serves as a voice for the African community and also founder of the Little Princesses Mentoring Program, which links girls living in underserved communities with positive female college students and provides opportunities aimed at strengthening the girls in areas of academics, servant leadership, cultural awareness and character-building.
I also work with a local foundation committed to the reconciliation. One of the projects we are working on is called the Repentance Project which has a goal to help people recognize the legacies of slavery, repent where we are directly or indirectly implicit in maintaining those legacies and finally respond by making amendments to our lives. As we begin the work of recognizing, repenting and responding, I realized a need for me to be better equipped to do the relationship building work of the repentance project.
What makes it distinctive is its emphasis on the importance of listening to the sacred stories of the ‘other.’ In the listening, empathy can grow within each individual to help build the bridge across whatever barrier that divides. The faculty laid the groundwork for community trustbuilding when Rob Corcoran stated, ‘Failure to root your social justice efforts on the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts.’ I believe lasting social change can occur when we all get beneath our anger, and talk with the ‘other’ from a place of hurt, disappointment, sadness and/or confusion rather than anger and/or assumption. The challenging part of being in this cohort is seeing the pain of some of my fellow cohorts unearthed and inappropriately handled within the group conversations thus hindering the building of trust.
What has been rewarding for me so far has been, in a sense, the most painful. It is ironic that I am a mental health counselor trained to listen with empathy not judgement. However, as it relates to divisive social issues I have neglected this principal and sought to listen to prove I am right, resulting in a loss of relationship with the “other.” I am grateful for the gift of being reminded to listen with empathy, not judgement. CTF is a catalyst to achieve the change we all desire for our divided country.
I serve as a community advocate, activist educator and communications professional. Born and raised in Richmond, VA, I am a first-generation Nigerian-American and am currently a PhD student at VCU where I focus on the intersection of media, race, health and social justice. My dissertation research is aimed at understanding the psychophysiological impacts of exposure to stereotypes in the media. I've worked as a journalist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and as public relations manager at both Virginia State University and Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
I joined the CTF program to connect with other truth and justice seekers as we aim to strengthen our ability and capacity to resist and persist in the face of injustice and effect positive transformation within our communities. I also hope to strengthen my leadership and community facilitation skills to help ensure engaging, constructive and transformative discourse around race, justice and healing.
The level of creative dialogue and engagement embedded in each CTF learning objective module takes Fellows on a new experience emotionally, academically and physically. We not only dig into critical race and justice issues from a historical perspective and lay bare the remnants of historical trauma, we also attempt to step into the experiences that those before us suffered-- such as during our walk along Richmond's Trail of Enslaved Africans -- to more fully understand the deep level of acknowledgment, ancestral homage and healing that still needs to take place.
This program is distinctive in that it helps situate Fellows of different backgrounds in uncomfortable yet necessary learning experiences while simultaneously equipping us with tools and knowledge to recognize both the pain of racism and societal injustice and the beauty of the possibility of hope and transformation. Through readings and intense, interactive workshops, we deepen our understanding of the role we play and the responsibility that we have within the process.
The social and political climate in which we find ourselves today on a local, national and global scale call for an increasing level of awareness, engagement and trustbuilding on all fronts. From issues such as race, poverty, education, immigration, housing, healthcare and criminal justice, we are in need of more profound, honest communication and a greater and more accurate expansion of narratives that incorporate the experiences, voices and contributions of everyone. CTF's mission to cultivate leaders to meet these needs, in an innovative, transformative and intersectional way, is quite timely and very much needed.
For me, challenges lead to opportunities. As a 2017 Community Trustbuilding Fellow, we are all challenged to dig deeper and think more critically as we work to construct a narrative of truth, inclusivity and healing. The possibility that this process involves considering not only the narratives of the oppressed, but also that of the oppressor is a perplexing one that can leave one reluctant to do so. This can be an uncomfortable act, because who really wants to evaluate and attempt to understand evil and oppression? However, there is an unveiling that occurs when we peel back both historical and contemporary layers that can lead us to more nuanced discussions about how to identify the root causes of racism and bigotry in all of its forms, dismantle systems of oppression and reconstruct structures and spaces of justice, where the stories, experiences, truths and lives of the historically marginalized and oppressed are not only included, but are centered and elevated. Discussions and workshops surrounding the practice of mindfulness as a transformative technique and strategy on both an individual and collective level within social justice work have also been insightful.
As director of the Office of Community Engagement at the College of William & Mary, I develop relationships with community members locally and around the world so that our students can contribute their skills and energy to their work for justice. In the process, I am always learning new skills to build relationships with people across areas of difference, and teaching students to do so as well, so that all sides can benefit. Inevitably, issues of class, race, privilege, neo-Colonialism, gender, and all kinds of identity differences and power dynamics are part of these conversations and relationships. I joined CTF because I want to do this work better.
I am most excited about the others in my cohort, and their commitment to racial justice and open conversation. It has been work for all of us, but I'm constantly inspired by their backgrounds and capacities for honesty. We've been working on racial justice for a long time in Richmond, but our city is still segregated and challenged in a lot of ways. The approach of doing heart-based, relationship-focused work is hopeful to me. I'm already seeing the power of it through conversations in our cohort, and am eager to foster such work in larger circles. I know that I'll change, be challenged, grow, and gain a stronger community in the process.
I also really appreciate the focus on talking about history and being clear with each other about it, and owning how it applies to all of us and continues to function in relationships and larger power dynamics today. It's a good way to open up conversation about reality, when otherwise it can be easy for white people to gloss over the past and be incredulous about its power.
Debriefing our walk of the Trail of Enslaved People one on one, in small groups, and in the large group, brought many of my stories, actions, and ancestral connections together. I was face to face with my privilege and responsibility, the stories I know about my family, and what it means for me as a white person to work for racial healing and justice today. These are not quick things to learn, and this is not my first time engaging in this work. It is a process that unfolds over time, through persistence and commitment to self-examination and relationship. It is the kind of work that forces me to look critically at my thoughts, actions, and words. It is the kind of work that calls me to speak my perspective clearly, and to accept and integrate feedback about how I affect others.
At one point in during the weekend, a side comment came up that made me think hard about one question in particular: Am I proud to be a white woman? My response at that time is still true a couple of weeks later: “Well, that’s a longer conversation.” It is. And as I prepare for our next weekend together, and my daily work of justice in these areas, it is a conversation I will continue to have in my own heart and with others whom I trust to hold it, with challenge and grace.
I am a professor of human communication studies, with interests in leadership, social justice, and dialogue. The Community Trustbuilders Fellowship provides a valuable opportunity to draw all of my interests together and apply them toward community healing.
What makes this fellowship distinctive to me is the opportunity and expectation for application. We all feel called to serve our communities toward healing. The 2017 cohort applied for this opportunity back in October of 2016. Each one of us was already motivated to effect change before the presidential election. I believe that through the fellowship and through each other, we have created a community of strength. One of our guest faculty members, Hugh O'Doherty, says "you are what you meditate." And this group is meditating pure strength. No one here is frozen in fear; we are all moving forward in light.
The quality of the instruction at CTF is challenging and enriching, with expert facilitation and instruction. My peers elevate the experience with their diversity and authenticity. I expected to find a community of new colleagues, but I am certain that I have found life-long friends. My biggest insight thus far has been the distinction between the roles of facilitator and leader.
Photos: Rob Corcoran