Finding Common Ground in Unexpected PlacesAug 22, 2023
Last week I attended the annual meeting for Alternate ROOTS, a coalition of artists and activists at the intersection of art and social justice. It was my first time attending in person because of Covid. It’s the first time I’ve been around that many people in at least three years. I’m guessing there were about 150-200 people there.
It’s the first time I’ve spoken in front of that many people in even longer. I’m way out of practice, but it was okay. And as excited as I am to share with y’all about all the people I met who I’ve only known on Zoom, and getting to see people perform their art, and the spiritual experiences I had, and being in nature, and LOVING having a hotel room to myself, and getting some healing for my arm – what I really want to share with you right now is about what happened after the annual meeting.
I was preparing to come home, washing my clothes and getting dinner. I had run into a white guy at the elevator who was telling me that he had been living at the hotel for 6 months for work and it was sometimes hard to get the washing machines. As I entered the laundry room, an Asian man was moving his clothes from the washing machines to the dryers. We joked with each other and then I ordered dinner from a local restaurant and walked to pick it up. As I sat in front of the hotel eating, the Asian man came outside and said, “You’re too fast! You left too quickly! Come to the back. We’re having a barbeque.”
I said thanks, but no thanks because I already had food. He said his was better and I should come. So I head to the back and end up hanging out with about 10 people who all work for a Canadian manufacturing company that builds and maintains the machines that build engines. I eat my restaurant food and watch them grill.
I can tell who is at the manager level and who is a machine worker and figure out who is middle management. They are mostly Canadian, mostly East Indian and white. The big boss is the Asian guy and one middle manager is a Black American and the youngest guy is a white American. The boss tells me they are all single, and I can tell by the way they watch me. Lol. I end up sitting next to Jonathan, the young guy, and he says something about guns and, “Don’t tread on me.” I think, why am I here?
When he asks me what I do, I tell him I teach anti-oppression. He’s immediately interested. He tells me that if I talk to him for a few hours, I’ll love him. I tell him it wouldn’t take a few hours for him to love me. He says he’s already in love with me.
Turns out he reads books by Black thought leaders and he can speak intelligently about them. He has definite opinions, and we start talking about how to solve racism and crime and what to do if we get rid of prisons and the history behind public housing and on and on. He tells me some of his history and why he thinks the way he does. He’s open to correction on some things I didn’t think he had right. We go deep on some things and notice some of his coworkers listening. But we keep talking.
When he gets ready to go back to work, he says, “This is new. I’m not used to having these kinds of conversations without getting angry and arguing. I can’t believe I just had a real and deep conversation about race, poverty, and history with a stranger without anger.”
I said, “This is what I teach – how to have these kinds of conversations and walk away feeling heard, seen, and still feeling safe. That’s how we find solutions and common ground.”
He smiled and I smiled back. After spending a week with artists, anti-capitalists, socialists, and other people who believe in loving, community-based, healing approaches to social problems, ending my week with someone who presented as the total opposite and being able to lean into my values and find our common humanity felt like a sign that I’m doing the work the way I’m supposed to. It made the work from the week feel doable in the real world.
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