Five things to consider before participating in a protest

Black Lives Matter protest

Seven years ago this month, I moved to the former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. I didn’t expect to like it. It didn’t take long, however, before I was enthralled with the region’s history. From the Native Americans who have lived here since before colonization, to the first settlers of Jamestown, right through to the Civil Right Movement and beyond, I became fascinated with the stories, events, and ethos that make Richmond what it is today. Richmond is literally swarming with history. But, it’s the Civil War history that dominates the culture here.

Black Lives Matter protest
Richmond Black Lives Matter Rally and March, Nov. 25, 2014

From massive monuments to Confederate military leaders, Sons of Confederate Veterans recruiting signs, and weekly protest by “the flaggers” who are upset that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts removed the battle flag from the Confederate chapel, it’s hard to avoid the reality that the Civil War is not over here. Indeed, it has devolved into a 150 year-old cold war that ebbs and flows depending on who’s feeling empowered at any given moment.

It’s no wonder, then, that those who claim allegiance to the Confederacy as an expression of Southern heritage would find Richmond an attractive gathering place to assert their beliefs. In fact, we expect that representatives from CSA II: The New Confederate States of America will converge on Richmond this coming Saturday, September 16, and, although, no one seems to know for sure, it’s probable that other pro-Confederacy, white supremacists, neo-Nazis groups will join them.

It’s up to those of us who are committed to fulfilling Martin Luther King, Jr. vision of Beloved Community to be accountable to this vision by showing up and making it clear that hate, racism, and discrimination will not be tolerated here any longer.

And yet, I know many people have never participated in a protest before. They saw the videos and heard the stories from the August 12th Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and are scared about what might happen. I was in Charlottesville that day and, although I’m a veteran activist, I can attest it was terrifying. Figuring out who was who, from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis, to the militia and Antifa, to the non-violence protesters and supporters, confounded even the most seasoned among us.

So how do those who are less experienced, who want to oppose hate, but who don’t know what to expect and are terrified of what might happen, find their place in answering the call of love?

As you evaluate your place in Richmond this weekend or wherever or whenever you decide you need to be part of a movement that aligns with your beliefs, the following five questions (and the related sub questions), organized and curated by Wendy DeGroat, will help guide what action is best suited to your personality and your goals:


  • What is the goal/message/purpose of this protest? Read up on the protest and make sure you understand what is being protested and the context(s) within which it is being protested.
  • Why do you want to participate? Reflect on your motivation. Do you feel strongly about the issue(s)? Do you believe protest is an effective way to raise awareness of the issue(s)? What other personal actions (e.g., donations, letter-writing) contribute to your commitment to influence change on the issue(s)?
  • If you are considering participation in a protest organized by an historically-marginalized group and you are not a member of that group, have the organizers asked for allies to join them, and if so, what role(s) are they asking allies to play? If allies are invited, are you comfortable serving in the role(s) expected? If those roles aren’t clear ahead of time, are you willing to take directions from the protest leaders if you attend?
2009 National Equality March
2009 National LGBT Equality March, Washington, DC


  • Who is organizing the protest? If a group is organizing it, what is the group’s larger message/purpose? As a protester, you’ll be supporting the message of the protest as well as the message/purpose of the organizing group(s). Are you comfortable with both? If so, and you have the means to do so, have you made a financial contribution to the organizing group(s) as well?
  • Who will be your protest buddy? Who is someone you trust who will go with you to the protest? It is safer to go to a protest with a buddy/group than alone.


  • Where is the protest being held? Consider what the location suggests about expected conflict.
  • Will the protest be on public or private property? This can impact your rights as a protester.
  • Does the organizing group have a permit, and if so, what are the permit’s parameters? Knowing these parameters can improve your planning and your ability to steer clear of trouble.


  • What kind of action(s) are planned? Are the protest organizers committed to non-violence? Are groups who advocate violence likely to show up as well? Is an act of civil disobedience planned? Know what’s anticipated and decide ahead of time what you’re comfortable with. If you choose to participate in civil disobedience, make sure you can attend any training the organizers offer in relation to that action.
  • What level of conflict is anticipated? Prepare accordingly (see Beginner’s Guide from Seattle Weekly), paying attention to any regulations about prohibited items and/or rules about signs, backpacks, etc.
  • What role(s) could you fill? Other than being on the front lines, there are often support roles that can enhance the protest’s effectiveness and the safety and wellbeing of participants and their loved ones.
2017 Women's March on Washington
2017 Women’s March on Washington


  • How prepared are you to be on the front lines of the protest and/or engage in civil disobedience?
    • Reflect deeply on what to expect and anticipate how you’re likely to react.
      • What is your level of physical, mental, and emotional readiness? Consider that protesters who are arrested and have medical or other needs may be put in isolation when in custody.
      • How do you handle loud, chaotic environments? Are you comfortable with uncertainty?
      • How do you respond to taunts, threats, hateful or degrading comments, or being spit on?
      • How will you likely respond if you witness violence or become a target of violence?
      • Consider how discrimination and/or implicit bias may influence how you are treated.
      • If you have a child with you, keep in mind that minors are processed separately by police.
    • Know your rights (as a protester; if rights violated) & PREPARE! (taking photos; tips from Colorlines)
    • If possible, attend a formal training session in your area about engaging in non-violent protest
    • Research possible ramifications of participation or arrest on your job, scholarship eligibility, and other statuses by checking policies about neutrality, conflict of interest, etc.
  • How can you BEST support the protest? In addition to being on the front lines, there are many ways to support a protest. Talk with the organizers and choose a role that leverages your strengths and the level of risk you’re willing to assume.
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ
SB 1070 Protest, Phoenix AZ, July 29, 2010

By carefully considering these questions before you find yourself participating in a protest, not only will you feel more confident in your decision, you will be a stronger, more reliable contributor to the overall effort.

The key is to believe in what you’re doing, engage in whatever level of risk you can reasonably handle, and push yourself to do just a little more each time. As you become a more experienced protester, you will find more ways to challenge the things you want to change, and one day, you might even find yourself organizing a protest of your own.

Only one commemorative march in Selma

Marching in the Arc of Justice Logo

In two weeks, I’ll be arriving in Birmingham, AL, for final preparations for the Marching in the Arc of Justice Conference, which will be held March 5-8, 2015, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and specifically, Bloody Sunday. I’ve been working with a team of people from the Living Legacy Project, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, and others for almost a year now to plan this event. It has been a labor of love for all of us, and we’re thrilled with how the plans have shaped up.

I’m especially glad to see that an unified committee that includes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Inc., The Faith and Politics Institute, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Wallace Community College Selma, 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, The City of Selma, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. John Lewis, National Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH have come to an agreement that there will be only one march and that march will be on Sunday, March 8. Originally, President Barack Obama and John Lewis’s announcement that they would be coming to Selma to march on March 7 upset many people. Rep Hank Sanders wrote an open letter to the Faith & Politics Institute protesting this decision, which details a long history of distrust between the Faith & Politics Institute and Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Inc.

I commend all the parties involved for coming to compromise that preserves Selma’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee’s tradition of commemorating Bloody Sunday on the closest Sunday to March 7, the date of the actual event in 1965. See The Sacredness of Bloody Sunday Triumphs for the latest announcement. Hopefully, this is the beginning of some healing that will create even stronger unity as the second 50 years begins.

We are still fighting for justice

Willie Nell Avery

Dr. Janice Marie Johnson and I had a chance to interview Willie Nell Avery, from Perry County, Alabama, who is a stellar and inspiring civil rights veteran who had to fight for her right to vote in the early 1960s and today works in the Board of Registrar Office on the road with the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.

Janice Marie Johnson: Would you please just share with us a snippet of your extraordinary story, Mrs. Avery?

Mrs. Avery: Basically I start with my move to Perry County, and my husband was not a registered voter, and there were lots of other people who weren’t. And we decided that we were not really citizens until we reached that status to become registered voters. Every time the registrar’s office would open, I would go and attempt to get registered. And we had to take a test in order to become registered. And I took the test. And each time the board was open, I would go back, and they would tell me they hadn’t graded my paper. That went on for a while.

Finally I told them: if you have misplaced my test, give me another. But they knew my walk, I guess! When I would walk in they would look up and say, “well we haven’t graded yours yet”. After everybody was being turned down, we wrote letters to the Justice Department telling them the treatment we were receiving. They had a hearing in Mobile, Alabama on the case and my husband happened to be one of the persons to testify. So in June ’63 they allowed my husband to become a registered voter, followed by mine in July 1963. I never filled out another application.

I guess they thought when they allowed the two of us {to vote}, because we were involved in the case, that we would stop, that we had achieved what we wanted to do.

But we didn’t have enough people, something like less than maybe 300 voters, and knew that would not make a difference, so we just kept pursuing.

And from that time until now I’ve been involved in a lot of things.

Today it is better, and not better. We hold more positions now than ever have held. In the Courthouse where I work, I work in one office in the Board of Registrar, we have more people in positions than ever. In the Commission of Revenue, there is a black woman. The elected official in the 2nd clerk is a black woman. The first African American probate judge, happened to be a woman. In the sheriff’s dept, there is a black person. So we have that leverage now.

Click here to listen to our interview with Mrs. Willie Nell Avery

But I see another arising of slavery, where they are dividing us now and almost about to conquer. The fight is not where they will strike you with a billy club, put water on you, or put dogs on you, or spray with tear gas…

But that mentality is still here. From ‘61 up until now, we are still fighting for justice. To make sure that everyone is treated fairly. But we are still struggling, still out here there trying to make a difference in our lives.

Annette Marquis: What drives you to do this? Why is this so important to you?

Mrs. Avery: I thought all of us are created equal. I really did. I thought, that’s what the Constitution says. I don’t understand why the color of your skin has anything to do with your character. I believe if you have it, and the Lord puts it here for everybody, I should have a piece of that pie too. And I’m not satisfied if I don’t. And I won’t be satisfied.

Janice Marie Johnson: Mrs. Avery, I know you have said you will continue this fight until you take your last breath.

Mrs. Avery: That’s right!

Janice Marie Johnson: Are you ramping up the fight during this election period?

Mrs. Avery:I am. I made a statement in church today. And I’m telling people:

Go to the polls and vote!! Click here to find your polling location.

Janice Marie Johnson: Mrs. Avery, we are so grateful and you continue to inspire us. Thank you.

Do you believe Frederick Douglass’s dream can be realized?

Ben Jealous, outgoing President of the NAACP, says that “I continue to believe that we are on the cusp of realizing Douglass’ vision. The question is how we will get there.”

In his 1869 speech “Our Composite Nationality,” Frederick Douglass laid out a bold vision for American democracy that has propelled the civil rights movement ever since:

“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government… our vast resources… and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make [America] the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.”

I also believe that Douglass’s vision can be realized. When I despair about the possibility that the human family might live in unity and with dignity, I have to remind myself of the moments, fleeting though they may be, when I have seen this manifest. It’s not been on a grand scale, at the national, or state, or even local level. It’s happened in living rooms, and churches, and small gatherings of people committed to peace and eqWriters Colony at Dairy Hollow signuality.

It happened last night at the dining room table at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Spring, Arkansas, where I’m currently in resident, when four strangers from different backgrounds, different lives, different experiences became friends, where we shared stories. laughed with each other, supported each other, and formed community.

I believe it is in those moments when the dream becomes possible. It’s moment, after moment, after moment like this linked together in wider and wider circles that the dream is no longer an abstraction but something real we can hold on to.

When have you’ve seen Douglass’s dream manifest for you? What have been your moments of the dream?

A quiet revolutionary: Laura Matilda Towne devoted her life to a school for former slaves

Laura Towne marker
Laura Towne marker, Penn Center, St. Helena’s Island, SC

The Rev. William Furness’s sermons on the abominations of slavery angered wealthy members of First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in the decade leading up to the American Civil War. Many withdrew from the church. Laura Matilda Towne (1825–1901) was among those who stayed to hear Furness preach, often with armed guards at his side, and his words left a lasting impression on her.

When shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, the 35-year-old Towne decided she must act. With medical training from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and a love of teaching, she responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for teachers to go to South Carolina to participate in the Port Royal Experiment. The Union Navy had captured Port Royal Sound, just off the coast of Beaufort and Hilton Head Islands, so quickly that the plantation owners there deserted not only their plantations but also thousands of people they had previously enslaved. The United States government declared these people (and other slaves who turned themselves over to Union troops) not freed but contraband of war. It set up the Port Royal Experiment to prove that if the former slaves could be educated, become landowners, serve in the military, and build a self-sufficient community, they could become productive citizens in other parts of the South.

This set the stage for Towne’s life work.

In 1862, Towne boarded a ship for St. Helena Island, South Carolina. There she found 6,000 people who had known no other life but one of bondage. In addition to putting her skills as a homeopathic physician to use, Towne began a school, first in her home and eventually in a building she had shipped in pieces from Philadelphia. She named it the Penn School, in honor of William Penn and Pennsylvania’s Freedmen’s Aid Society, which funded the school’s first years. Later, her family, other prominent Unitarians, and abolitionists of other faiths supported the school.

Within months of Towne’s arrival, Ellen Murray — described as Towne’s lifelong intimate friend — came to work at her side. Together they built the school into the center of community life on the Sea Islands. Towne became a bridge between the government and the people of the islands, often as an advocate for their needs and wages. She opposed speculators’ attempts to buy lands that had become delinquent through nonpayment of taxes, eventually making it possible for people to own the land they had worked on all their lives.

When Towne died of influenza in 1901, at the age of 75, several hundred of her island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing the spirituals she had so loved. She was buried in Philadelphia, and a memorial marker was placed in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church Cemetery on St. Helena Island. But Towne’s impact did not die when she did.

Towne was a quiet revolutionary; she broke social barriers and attacked the assigned social place of African Americans by fighting entrenched patterns of subservience. As the people of the Sea Islands developed skills and knowledge previously denied them, Towne supported their journey toward independence. Rosalyn Browne, former director of history and culture at Penn Center (the former Penn School), said, “In 1862, before freedom came, [Towne] taught my ancestors how to free their minds long before the United States Congress freed their persons.”

When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency promoting self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its residents.

Penn Center played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was, among many other things, a safe haven for civil rights conferences, training, and retreats led by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Penn Center is now a national historic landmark district.

Within the past few years, Penn Center has reconnected with its Unitarian roots through the efforts of the late Milton Rahn and the Rev. Dr. Audrey W. Vincent, members of the UU Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the work of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina. The Beaufort congregation has developed such a strong multicultural partnership with Penn Center that on May 18, 2013, the fellowship will be inducted into the center’s 1862 Circle, which honors supporters and luminaries such as Congressman John Lewis, Vernon Jordan, Phylicia Rashad, and Pat Conroy.

As Penn Center celebrates its 150th anniversary, it continues to inspire through education, leadership, and service—and Towne’s legacy lives on.

First published in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World magazine.

Transcending Boundaries

From Occupy members to Post Office employees, protestors converged on Frazier Park in Charlotte, North Carolina the day before the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It was the designated starting place for a cooperative march, the March on Wall Street South, through Uptown Charlotte. I arrived promptly at 11 a.m. to offer support to the No Papers No Fear riders from Undocubus. These forty people, mostly undocumented immigrants, had crisscrossed the South in a several thousand mile trek from Phoenix, Arizona, to be in Charlotte in time for the Convention. They had stopped in small towns and big cities to bring awareness to the struggles of undocumented immigrants. Unitarian Universalist congregations had provided meals and housing for the riders all along the route. In my role as District Executive of the Southeast District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I was helping with the final leg.

After a rally that included speakers and music, the Undocubus riders and other immigrant rights groups who had come to support them joined the marchers. Adorned with butterfly wings to represent the Monarch that migrates freely from Mexico to the United States without borders (see the new movie Flight of the Butterflies for more on this amazing journey), the immigrant rights marchers chanted, “The people united will never be defeated,” and sang, “No no no nos moveran” (We shall not be moved). And as we did, I carried a Standing on the Side of Love banner to demonstrate solidarity with the marchers. Standing on the Side of Love is a public witness campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association and its’ yellow shirts and banners have come to be recognized by immigrant groups as signs that allies are standing with them.

When we started the march, another Unitarian Universalist carried the banner with me. However, when she had to leave for another event, I carried it by myself for several long, hot blocks. That is, until Marichu approached me. “I love this,” she said, pointing to the banner. She then reached for one end of the banner pole, her smile and her motions conveying to me that although she did not know the English words to say more, she was offering to carry the banner with me.

I smiled back, struggling to find the Spanish words to say, “Yes, please. I’d love for you to carry it with me.” Only, “Si, por favor,” came out. Yes, please. But as I moved from the center of the banner to the opposite end from Marichu, she undeMarichu and Annette carrying Standing on the Side of Love bannerrstood my unspoken invitation.

Marichu was one of the undocumented riders. Up to this moment, I knew her only from her bio on the Undocubus website. But for the remainder of the march, we walked in alignment, in solidarity, one with another. Several times in our march, we switched sides so our arms could rest. We communicated with gestures and smiles and the few words we could find in the language of the other. But by the time we finished the march, we had developed a bond.

When I saw Marichu the next day, she hugged me and we practiced speaking to each other, even committing to help each other with improving our language skills. The following day, we had someone take photos of us and I promised to email them to her.  She invited me to come see her in Phoenix and I told her that I hoped that someday I could.  “Me gustaría hacer eso.” I would like to do that.

I don’t know if I will ever see Marichu again but I know that even if I don’t, we have made a connection that transcends boundaries—a connection that reminds us that we are not alone—that is it only through relationships that we can make the world a better place.

Thank you, Marichu, for reaching out and for reaching in.

Vaya con Dios!

Doing my work

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself — a Black woman warrior poet doing my work — come to ask you, are you doing yours? 

Audre Lorde

I first heard these words of Audre Lorde sometime in the late 1970s. At the time, I was a young white woman rebelling against her deeply entrenched Roman Catholic roots to accept herself for who she was, a woman who was sexually and emotionally attracted to other women. Lorde’s words echoed in my head like the incessant cawing of an angry crow trying to chase off a resting red-tailed hawk from her perch in the old oak tree. Perhaps it was the certainty in which she described herself. I didn’t call myself a lesbian then. If I used any label, it was gay. Homosexual was too clinical and before an adequate amount of therapy, which I was still undergoing, words such as lesbian carried for me an accusatory and scandalous tone.

Perhaps it was the challenge she presented in paring words such as woman and warrior. Women weren’t supposed to be warriors. Not only did that go against the pervasive patriarchal view of the passive women, it flew in the face of my growing feminist awareness that challenged the giant war machine fostered by men. And yet, here she was, calling herself a black, lesbian, woman warrior poet.

Lorde’s identities, chosen or not, were as much part of her as her arms and legs. She found meaning in her life by living into all of who she was and in doing so, established herself as a person worth listening to – a force to be reckoned with. I ached to possess the confidence to be unapologetically who I was without pretense or suppression. I wanted to know, in no uncertain terms, what my work was. Lorde’s words and her challenge to discover and do my work became a test that I have found myself taking over and over again throughout my life.

Now more than thirty years later, I am finally able to privately and publicly claim many of the identities that define me. I am an American woman with Northern roots who grew up in and again lives in the South, a white, anti-racist, lesbian-feminist writer and religious leader, a lover and wife, a friend, a women’s basketball devotee, a technology enthusiast, a nature lover, a gardener, a therapist, a trauma responder, and a social justice activist. And I am certain that this list only skims the surface. I am a complex person with a wide-range of skills, varied interests, and numerous passions.

As I’ve come to claim my multiple identities, I’ve learned that my work, the work that Audre Lorde calls me to do, is very little about content and all about process. What I do matters little compared to how I do it. I wish I could say I had a moment of enlightenment in which that all become clear. I wish I could say I followed an unambiguous path to defining my work. I wish I had the magic solution that I could package and give to anyone struggling with the same questions.

Sometimes I am envious of people whose life is defined around a singular passion and it seems everything they do is focused on that one thing. We all know about people like that – athletes, scientists, politicians, peace activists, and musicians. It doesn’t really matter what their profession is, when you think of that person, you think of that thing. It’s how they spend their time, how they spend their resources, what they talk about, what consumes them. I struggle with that idea for myself. Is it a sign of immaturity that I can’t settle on the one thing that defines who I am? Or are my diverse identities and passions a sign of strength?

It’s a romantic notion in a way – to be thought of by your one passion, to be seen as the person that does or knows one thing better than anyone else. Without people like this, from Martin Luther King to Yo Yo Ma, from Mother Teresa to Steve Jobs, the world would be a poorer place. We have a need to witness people exercising an undeterred commitment to achieving their goals.  We admire those people and, in many cases, try to emulate them.

But having only one known identity is also dangerously limiting. It creates one-dimensional, cardboard cutouts that fit neatly into pre-defined forms in our heads. We think we know someone because who know their cause, their interest, or their passion and we failed to notice that these same people have other aspects to their personalities, including flaws, misgivings, and trepidations. No story exemplifies this more clearly than that of Tiger Woods. He is the greatest golfer the world has ever seen. Millions of people from all over the world have witnessed his calm, his grace, and his mastery on the golf course. And yet when it became clear that, in addition to golf, he was obsessed with sex, his fans experienced it as a personal affront – they were shocked, disillusioned, and hurt. For many people, who were already cynical about our heroes, it was one more example of hero-worship gone bad. Because Tiger was seen for the one thing he does better than anyone, we never saw him as a whole person. His identity as a master golfer obscured all of his other identities.

In many cases, the superficial portrait of our heroes we have created in our imaginations serves us well. As long as we don’t have to think about the other aspects of someone’s life, about the entirety of the person, we can hold them in a cloud of innocence. They are stripped of the things we dislike about ourselves and become pure, almost holy.

Thomas Jefferson is a lot like that. This great American statesman is revered by many for his genius, his lofty writing, his grand visions, and his many accomplishments. Hardly one-dimensional, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, served as the country’s first Secretary of State, served as Vice-President and then two terms as President of the United States, and founded the University of Virginia. He is honored for his stanch commitment to religious freedom and esteemed for his grand vision that resulted in the Louisiana Purchase, an effort that doubled the size of the United States. His image is literally carved in stone on Mount Rushmore as a great American hero with the likes of George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. And yet, not unlike his three compatriots, Jefferson was a complicated man, some would say, even a conflicted man.

Jefferson’s identities as a statesman, politician, author, Virginian, American, inventor, educator, and historian also has to include that of slaveholder, adulterer, racist, debtor, and some would even call him a rapist for having sexual relations with a woman who was his slave. It is hard for us to hold all those identities at one time about an American hero and yet Jefferson himself struggled with his own conflicted identities. In discussing slavery and the Missouri question, he said to John Holmes, “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” Jefferson was acting out of a conflicted moral code that Audre Lorde described as “tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own.” Our tendency to ignore Jefferson’s weaknesses and extol his virtues forces us to swallow those tyrannies, while, at the same time, by condemning him for his transgressions, we diminish his great accomplishments.

I was recently part of an 18-year-long struggle to change the name of a religious denomination’s geographic region from the Thomas Jefferson District to the Southeast District. The arguments of those who opposed the name change typically followed one of three threads: Jefferson was a man of his times and we can’t apply today’s standards to his life, the fact that he owned slaves was only a small thing when you consider the many contributions he made, or none of us is perfect and if we apply a standard of perfection to our heroes, we’ll have no heroes left. This third argument rang true for one 65-year-old man named Bob who said to me, “If you take away all our heroes, we’ll have nothing left to stand on.” Our heroes and the various identities we ascribe to them help us from our own identities, to hold on to those parts of ourselves that we want desperately so to believe in. If we can’t believe in Thomas Jefferson, how can we believe in ourselves? Bob, like so many others, feared that by losing Jefferson, he might, in fact, lose himself.

Those who supported the name change argued that by honoring Jefferson through the use of his name, we are ignoring the stories of all the people who do not experience Jefferson as a hero, who see his treatment of blacks, Native Americans, and women as deplorable and not something worthy of our adoration.  For these people, by holding on to Jefferson as a hero, we exclude people who do not see him as someone who represents them.

The fact that this question took almost two decades to settle is an indication of how much importance we place on identity. Which of Jefferson’s identities do we claim and which do we ignore? If we claim them all, how do we continue to admire him? If we ignore even some of them, what does that say about the people we are?

I’d rather be known for the complicated, and sometimes conflicted, person I am, even if that means, I will never achieve greatness. I have been fortunate to live a life that is dotted with accomplishments. Nothing to compare to Jefferson’s, mind you, or Audre Lorde’s, for that matter, but accomplishments nonetheless. I am seen as a leader and I tend to rise to the top in most of the roles I have assumed. I have a knack for developing organizational structures that work. People tend to respect me and as a result, will listen to me when I try to help them do their jobs better. I have experienced a lot of different things and have developed expertise in at least a few of them.

That doesn’t means I have extraordinary talents in all the things I love to do. In fact, far from it. I have studied Spanish for much of my life and I can barely converse with a six-year old native speaker. I have longed to have musical talent but no matter how much time I dedicate to playing the guitar, I find myself learning and relearning the same material over and over again. I can’t dance or carry a tune, and as much as I love basketball, I never have had the athletic ability to compete successfully.

But whether I am successful or not, I have accepted the fact that who I am is not defined by my achievements. My identities inform me, position me, provide me with opportunities, sustain me, fulfill me, categorize me, include or exclude me, but they do not define me. Who I am is defined, not by what I achieve or don’t achieve, but by how I engage in the task. My work, the work that Audre Lorde asks if I am doing, the work I am here to do, is to embrace the values that speak to me, most importantly, love, justice, compassion, equity, and honesty, and to live my life consistent with those values. That is my work. How I do my work is to surround myself with people who challenge me to live my values, to constantly challenge myself to examine my life, and to not let myself get away with being less than who I am.

I dream of being a great writer, of writing something so significant that it will literally change the world. I don’t know if I will ever accomplish that dream. But I know that everything I write has the potential of touching someone’s life. Audre Lorde challenges us come out of our silence and let our words speak our truth. That is my commitment today — to not allow myself to question whether I have something to say, whether what I have to say is good enough, whether someone else could say it better. I will let my voice be heard and in doing so, be clear about who I am. That is what I’ve learned in these thirty- some years since I first accepted Audre Lorde’s challenge.

“Doing my work” is simply being the best, most authentic me I can be.

Thank you, Audre, for showing me the way.