I’m Standing Here – It’s Not About You


photo by Erin O.

Earlier this week I learned of the Maori word Tūrangawaewae, translated literally to mean tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), meaning “a place to stand;” places where we feel empowered and connected. I learned of this concept at a lecture hosted by the University of Washington’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being and their mindfulness initiative. Rick Hanson, PhD, lectured on happiness, resilience, contentment, and how to turn these into lasting experiences for our brain.

One take-away from his lecture is our brains are hardwired to remember bad experiences over good ones. This basic concept kept humans alive in prehistoric days: Oh, crap – that big animal is going to eat me, must remember to stay away from big animal. Good experiences are less likely to stick and we have to work harder to infuse these into our brains. The good experiences allow us to stand firm and to be understood. While this lecture wasn’t focused on racial equity, my brain jumped to filtering his talk through a race and social justice filter.

“It was so nice to be seen and understood.”
I attended Catholic schools and the good nuns made sure I learned the Prayer of St. Francis, although I confess I can’t recite it. The line “to be understood as to understand” stands out for me, I’ve never fully understood its meaning. The line often pops into my head during conversations where I feel like I have to press a point about racial equity, or even worse when I say something about race and the conversation moves on without acknowledging my comment. In so many ways the need to be understood and to understand comes from also feeling like we have a place to stand.

Heidi (of the fakequity team) recently facilitated a conversation for a Immigrant and Refugee Affinity Group. When she went home her partner was suspicious and asked why she was so happy, her reply “it was so nice to be seen and understood.” Heidi felt like she had a place to stand, a conversation where she understood and others understood her, and participants didn’t need to make a fuss to be seen or heard. There was also a sense of hope.

CiKeithia (also of the fakequity team) shared her experience attending a conference session called “The ‘Problem Women of Color’ Chronicle and Institutional Change.” During the conversation she realized how we have to armor ourselves. The session was a ‘rich experience;’ being surrounded by women of color having a conversation focused on their experiences gave her a sense of good.

During Dr. Hanson’s lecture on happiness he talked about how we need to work harder to ensure we remember good experiences. As I listened to Dr. Hanson’s lecture I made note about trying to focus more on the good and reveling in the moments where we make gains for communities of color. Dr. Hanson talked about how we need to slow down and record these moments, we need sit with the moment for 10-20 seconds so they can imprint on our brain. We need to overload on the good racial equity moments to over compensate for the crappy moments that stay with us more easily. Drop by drop, one by one, these small good moments will surround and isolate the bad incidents.

A Place to Stand
In Dr. Hanson’s book Hardwiring Happiness, he writes about 21 Jewels – practices to help create responsive brains. If you want the full list of practices buy his book or borrow it from the library. One of the particularly relevant practices is the sense of refuge, “anything that gives you a sense of sanctuary, refueling, uplift … rest and recharge… even as pain or difficulty swirls around you.” In our work we need to create refuges and places where we can stand and be ok.

Allies can help create these spaces. A colleague shared a story about how she led a People of Color centered silent retreat at her Buddhist temple. For her religion is a refuge, a place where she seeks renewal and uplifting experiences. As she prepared for the retreat several of her White friends asked to attend. After conversations her White allies saw the importance of having the retreat stay a People of Color experiences, their participation in the retreat was to offer service – prepare and serve food, tidy the space, and to create a sense of caring around their fellow members. This created a sense of healing and renewal for everyone.

Even as people of color we need to claim places to stand and respect each other’s spots. A colleague convenes African American families to talk about their children’s educations. I often attend because I want to support and learn. I often check in before attending to ask if it is ok for me to attend since I don’t want to take away from their conversation, it is their place to be. I also try to respect the ‘space’ by only offering my thoughts if asked and not taking what I learn for personal gain.

Places to Stand — Being Allies
Having a place to stand means we respect each other’s places to stand. We need to create our own places and be allies to each other:

  • Practice talking about the good. Dr. Hanson talked about focusing on the good and reveling in them and staying with it for 10-20 seconds or longer. Create a practice of starting or ending meetings with “One Good Racial Equity Moment,” or another friend sends out “FFGM” Friday Feel Good Moments emails. We need to practice feeling, not jumping to doing.
  • Respect each other’s places to stand. We need to be ok with not having attention and allowing each other space to stand. We each need a place to stand and be seen.
  • Be quiet. Having a place to stand also means being seen, heard, and understood. When we quiet ourselves, we are more open to understanding and seeing others.
  • Create places for children and youth of color to stand. Youth of color especially need places to stand and be seen. Open up safe spaces for youth of color to create a space for themselves.

Center for Child and Family Well-Being made Dr. Hanson’s lecture available online, starts at the 8.50 minute mark.

Posted by Erin Okuno

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