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June 19, 2020
A young man carried this sign at a local protest. It’s a mirror with the words, “It all starts here.”

A couple months ago, it was hard to imagine that anything would change my life more than the virus that suddenly confined my family to our home day after day. Adjusting to the new normal of social distancing, face masks, anxiety-ridden grocery trips, and distance learning seemed like such a dramatic shift, and I often mused on how we would all be forever changed from this experience. Little did I know that another major tilt was on the horizon. Only for me, this one would not be so much of a change in circumstances as it would be an inward growth.

I have always supported the idea of the Black Lives Matter movement, and assumed that my background in education had armed me plenty as an advocate. Yes, it was a good cause, and I hoped it would bring change, but I operated out of the safety of my personal comfort zone. I had chosen a teaching program which focused on education for social justice, and meant to do my part as a teacher intentionally trying to “level the playing field” for disadvantaged students. But in recent weeks, I have come to the realization that as much as I liked the idea, I had not really invested much of my thought, energy, or even my heart. As my close friend put it, I had not done the “pre-work of understanding the subject itself.”

I have the privilege of existing in a space where these issues don’t necessarily stare me in the face of my day-to-day life. The temptation not to care is always there, because the issues rarely affect me directly. So without even realizing it, I continued along the path of caring just enough to not feel bad about myself, but not enough to actually… feel too bad about things. I wasn’t letting myself hurt for the pain others were going through, and I grew distanced from the suffering of so many. And when I look at what Jesus was all about, I know that’s not what he would have chosen to do.

I am trying to change that. In the last few weeks, I’ve stretched myself out of my safety zone to try to engage in various forms. At first, even posting something related to #BLM on my personal Instagram felt like a stretch. Later, it took all my courage to decide to join a protest (especially after reading a post from a neighbor who said he had a gun and was ready to bring it to protect shops during the protest (which, as planned, were peaceful!)). I’ve invested time and energy I didn’t know I had engaging in conversations and prayer meetings and trying to read and watch and listen and learn as much as I could humanly cram into my waking hours. We’ve donated to new causes. I’ve tried to engage my children in conversations about racism, being more explicit about the suffering and realities of it than I have ever been.

But still, that isn’t enough. Because racism isn’t like a sickness you can identify and then cure. It’s everywhere, and it’s so ingrained in our society that we can’t always see it. Scott Woods describes racism like this:

It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe. It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it.

-Scott Woods

This post has been a long time coming, and I have started and restarted so many versions of it. As I continue to dig in and read more, watch more, and listen more, I am in awe of how much more I have to learn, and it’s a paralyzing feeling. But one message I have come across again and again is that it’s okay to find out you were ignorant or wrong: pick up and keep moving forward. As a matter of fact, it might just be one of the best things you can do.

There are many things that will get in the way of us choosing to care and be part of the change we need in our country. For one, learning can be hard: learning about yourself and uncovering your blind spots, hidden prejudices, privileges, and ignorance is not easy. Furthermore, this whole endeavor can be very uncomfortable. From reading challenging ideas to having challenging conversations with challenging individuals–it goes against every conflict-avoiding bone in my body.

And among many other things, it’s exhausting. After the first week of really trying to engage in everything that was going on, I already felt wiped out emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. At the same time, I couldn’t even begin to wrap my head around the deep exhaustion and tiredness I kept reading about from the Black community as they shared about not a week of engagement, but lifetimes of injustices and fear. Every time I considered this, I felt pretty pathetic.

But feeling pathetic was not going to get me very far, and I would need to figure out how to push past that feeling. If I am going to be useful in any way and for the long haul, it’s not going to happen with me wallowing in my weakness. I’m going to have to figure out how to be resilient. Daniel Hill, a pastor in Chicago, shares this apt exhortation from a member of his congregation:

I appreciate you apologizing, but we don’t need your apologies. What we need is your resilience. It’s okay that you’re feeling weak, disoriented, and unclear as what to do. What’s not okay is that you quit because of those feelings. I need you to be resilient and to stick in the game and to walk alongside us who have no choice but to move forward.

White Awake, Daniel Hill

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday which I had never even heard of until last week, and one I hope to celebrate in some way every year from now on. It is a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., and it is a celebration of freedom. When I asked the Internet to show me “how to celebrate Juneteenth as an ally,” I came across this list of “10 Things We Want White People to Do to Celebrate Juneteeth.” While I am also a person of color, I know my experiences with discrimination and racism are on a completely different level than the ones I have been reading about lately. I know I have benefited from my Asian American proximity to whiteness and all the privilege that comes with that.

So there’s a lot I can take from these suggestions, and at the heart of those ten things I am hearing the same thing: Keep trying, and keep caring. Think about racism and its effects, learn about it, and do something about it. Learn about your privilege, and then leverage it to fight this fight.

Learn. Let your learning change you, and then help change the world.
It all starts here.

12 responses to “It All Starts Here”

  1. Sandley says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jo! Very thoughtful. I cannot imagine what the black community has endured all these years. It’s no wonder they are exhausted from processing all these feelings and being afraid constantly.

    • joellen says:

      Yes. There are so many hidden layers of suffering that we can’t even begin to understand. I’m glad we can process these things together!

  2. Christi Ellis says:

    You put it so well JoEllen. I too have had my tiny sprout of change in my heart from the wake up call over the past many weeks. The realization that I’ve been wrong—and in reality part of the problem—was the hardest to swallow. And that despite my efforts to be like Our Savior by being kind to everyone alike was great in theory, but it’s different learning to trust, judge equally, give benefit of the doubt, reach out to, help at all costs, fight for, die for. Jesus would’ve done that for them, you and me. And He has. Thank you for your post and your steps toward social justice. I am far behind you, but 1 step closer because of your example.

    • joellen says:

      I totally know what you mean! It is extremely humbling. I have also been thinking about how being kind is good… but not good enough. You put it so well <3. Thank you for your encouragement, and glad to know we can be on this journey of growth together.

  3. Wendy says:

    This work is hard and often uncomfortable, it requires a vulnerable, honest look at ourselves, and requires courage to speak and act in truth. Thanks for inviting us into your process and the reminders to stay resilient. Grateful to be in it together!

  4. olwen says:

    Yes… Always look at what Jesus is all about

  5. Angela says:

    👏Thank you for this post and for humbly sharing your thoughts and encouragement. Looking forward to growing in this journey with you!

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