Telling Our Truths: Creating the Space to Flourish
Telling Our Truths
Creating the Space to Flourish
by Tim Delong
There’s this quote from bell hooks I’ve been thinking about recently.
In her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, hooks writes “as teachers we can make the classroom a place where we help students come out of shame...We can allow them to experience their vulnerability among a community of learners who will dare to hold them up should they falter or fail when triggered by past scenarios of shame—a community that will constantly give recognition and respect.”
What a remarkable idea: that teachers have the power to create spaces where students come out of shame. But don’t let the statement’s beauty lull you into a sense of complacency. hooks makes clear this isn’t some Hallmark greeting card phrase stripped of the time and energy it takes to make a real difference. No—there is “work” involved. We can’t hope in vain that students will show up willing to create a nurturing environment for their peers. These things take effort and the expertise of skilled professionals. As a field placement intern at Still Harbor, I’ve spent the past year thinking about how ministers, activists, and spiritual leaders can actively work to create such environments.
A couple of weeks ago, Perry asked me to give a presentation at Still Harbor’s 10th-anniversary retreat. Most of the time I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of guy, but Perry is my boss, so I agreed to make some remarks at the end of the day. I would base my comments on a conversation Perry and I had been having in our weekly theological reflection sessions about how I felt I couldn’t show up authentically in certain spaces. Over the course of our conversations, we tried to reverse engineer that feeling of inauthenticity and get to the heart of it. I realized that it was impossible for me to feel connected to other people if I didn’t feel safe articulating my needs and boundaries.
This would be the crux of my talk.
What did I need, then, to articulate my needs and boundaries? A space that felt safe enough to hold those articulations. This, then, reveals an important point: there is a crucial interconnection between the individual and the group that can lead to mutual flourishing or mutual discontent. If an individual feels the space they inhabit can hold their concerns without repercussion, the results can be transformative. But if the individual does not trust that a group will validate their concerns, it can prevent the individual from showing up authentically. And that can impede the work of the group. Moreover, histories of structural oppression and internalized power dynamics, ever-present in group settings, often promote the concerns of some while silencing others; creating silences that fall along the dividing lines of race, gender, sexuality, and level of ability. And all this does not even mention that differences in socioeconomic status and levels of access can affect who is in the group to begin with.
I was trying to hold this complexity in balance as I prepared my presentation. But while I was writing, I came to an important, if unsettling realization: I didn’t know how to create the type of spaces I was arguing that we need. I was going to stand in front of a group of people and proclaim the necessity of shame-reducing spaces. But I couldn’t tell them how to build those spaces. As I thought this problem over, I realized that I had two clear options for how to proceed. I could go up in front of the retreatants and give them a few tips and tricks that I scraped from books and websites. Or I could tell the truth; I could pick up the microphone and tell everyone that I didn’t know the right answer and ask for their input.
The latter prospect terrified me. Did I mention that I’m a behind the scenes guy? I’m usually in charge of making sure whoever has the microphone also has the right answers. Admitting what I didn’t know in front of a crowd provoked every feeling of inadequacy and brokenness I had cultivated since childhood. You see, up until that retreat presentation, knowing the right answers had become a much-cherished defense mechanism. It allowed me to feel safe and adequate, if never good enough. But as I thought about the presentation, I began to notice a feeling in my gut. The feeling was more of a sneaking suspicion: maybe presenting the “right answers” would get in the way of the group’s collective wisdom and our chance to learn together.
So, in the end, I went up there and told the truth. In the process, I ended up learning one of the most important lessons of my time with Still Harbor. Ministers, activists, and spiritual leaders can model a kind of truth-telling and vulnerability that signals to others the sacrality and safety of a space. We have the power to create spaces where people can show up by first showing up ourselves. We can be brave first, so others can be brave next, fully sharing of themselves. This is the hard work that hooks points us to.
When you start to understand the power of this truth-telling, you begin to recognize it in your day-to-day life. My colleagues at Still Harbor are truly adept at creating these spaces. They show up authentically, and, as a result, help foster the authenticity of others. But I saw this principle most vividly on display at my school, Harvard Divinity School, a few months ago. I was in a class where we were having a particularly difficult discussion about a polarizing novel. The discussion caused a lot of hurt feelings—people felt like they were being singled out for sympathizing with some of the book’s more complicated characters. One student told the rest of us that she felt particularly wounded by comments her colleagues made. After a brief discussion, the professor held a moment of silence before moving on to other business. But before we moved on, a different student raised her hand and told the professor that she felt it was a mistake to do so. We needed to take more time with the concerns that were raised. The professor obliged, and the class took another hour to have an honest conversation. A healing conversation.
That conversation would never have happened if my classmate didn’t raise her hand and tell the truth about how she felt. She showed us that it was safe to disagree publicly and respectfully That our humanity and worth, dignified through attention to our wounds, could be validated in that space. It was one of the most profound acts of ministry I’ve seen in recent years. A ministry of truth-telling from the individual and a ministry of receptivity from the group.
bell hooks wrote, “[a]s teachers we can make the classroom a place where we help students come out of shame.” It is my dearest hope that by telling our truths together, by giving and receiving those truths in community, we can all be teachers and soon come to know the world as our classroom. §
Tim Delong (Associate Editor) is a master’s candidate at Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and a field placement intern at Still Harbor. At HDS, Tim focuses on religion in the Americas with special attention to the intersection of religion and science. Before moving to Boston, Tim worked as a community organizer in Detroit, a housing counselor in Northern Illinois, and a financial counselor in Chicago.