They say timing is everything. Being born in Flint, Michigan–in 1979–this axiom resonates deeply with me. 1979 saw the US gripped in an energy crisis. Global oil production was bottle-necked due, in part, to the Iranian Revolution of 1978. In 12 short months, oil prices doubled. Snaking lines of traffic lurched impatiently toward gas station pumps that often ran out of fuel long before everyone was served.
Meanwhile, industrial centers like Flint were on the verge of economic collapse, as the auto industry and its auxiliaries which had once brought so much prosperity were seeing a sharp decline in profits. General Motors, which had once “shielded” Flint’s economy from “painful job losses” would no longer be the city’s savior. Roughly forty thousand jobs would be lost in the city between the 1970s and 80s. Not surprisingly, the city lost 20 percent of its population between 1974 and 1982.
If timing is everything, I was late. I was born into a GM family in a rapidly declining GM town. My parents were able to maintain their jobs (my mother on a GM assembly line and my father as a nurse in a GM auxiliary plant). As my neighborhood fell into rapid decline with the loss of employment and the rise of an illicit drug trade and gun violence, my parents sent me to one of the city’s private, Catholic schools for my K-12 education.
It was during my early education that I became increasingly aware that many of my white, middle-class, classmates were living very different lives from the one I was navigating every day. School uniforms led us to take notice of shoes and coats as markers of economic status. For students who didn’t ride the bus, our parents’ cars similarly underscored our class identity. Birthday parties hosted at various homes further illuminated an economic hierarchy.
Racial hierarchy was likewise inferred through similarly passive observations. While black boys made up a small percentage of my class, we were the majority in the remedial reading group. All of our authority figures, from the faculty and staff to the administration, were white. Even Jesus was white–the crucifix adorning the top of every doorway. The figures in our history books were no different.
Slowly, I began to form a story, as most of us are wont to do when no one explains what we’re seeing. The brain longs to make sense of the world it occupies, and if we don’t provide a story, the brain will make one up. So mine became:
- Black folks are inherently backward people and our widespread poverty is proof.
- I am Black, so I am inherently backward.
- My parents are largely to blame. If they worked harder, we’d live in a nicer place.
- White folks are inherently the opposite of Black folks.
- There is nothing to be done about it.
I never told anyone this story. It was too painful, and even at an early age, I understood that it would not be popularly received by the people I cared about the most. I carried this story with me in some form or fashion well into high school. When I entered undergrad, I had to be persuaded to take my first Afro-studies course, because I was thoroughly convinced there was nothing I could learn of value.
By the time I finished my first day of “Intro to African American Studies,” my story had taken a 180-degree turn. I was suddenly THAT guy on campus. Forever angry. Zealous and jaded. Mistrustful. Spending time as an exchange student in Western Europe a couple years later helped balance me out a bit. I wanted the experience of whiteness that Malcolm, Zora, and James had described in their travels and I had something akin to that.
I came home ready to do the work of racial justice. However, issues of gender, sexuality, Islamophobia and the like, would remain largely below my radar for several years yet. Funny how often a universal concept like justice can take on such a narrowed lens.
In 2009, through a chance encounter, I was introduced to the practice of story through a weekend retreat hosted by the Center for Whole Communities (CWC). It was during this weekend that I synthesized and articulated my narrative for the first time. It was during this weekend that I came to glimpse the power of story for the first time. Listening to the journeys of my fellow participants, seeing the ways they were impacted as both tellers and receivers, proved transformative.
When a longer retreat was offered, I jumped on it. I flew out to Vermont of all places, and spent a week with leaders and thinkers from all over the country. These were people who had committed their lives to various manifestations of justice–from environmental, to economic, to racial, and beyond. While I loved the content of our time together, I was even more smitten by the process. Within a year I was training to join the facilitation team, and have remained an active facilitator ever since. Over the next decade, I bonded with my colleagues and traveled widely, meeting some of the most brilliant and dedicated folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.
And now, in 2020, I have become a full-time staff member at CWC. For the first time in my life, I am being charged with developing mechanisms for cultivating, curating, and sharing…stories. Be it blogging, podcasting, live-streaming, or other platforms, I will be reaching out to those who have a story to tell. Which, if I’m being honest, is everyone.
My grandmother taught me that our story never ceases to evolve. She assured me that, even in her early 90’s, she was still in the midst of evolving her story. She gave me permission to learn for life. My story has reflected her admonitions, evolving to include the ideas that:
- Story is transformative and we each have one.
- Social identity and the phrase “inherently” don’t mix.
- Malcolm X was right. “It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.”
- White supremacist patriarchy is real and impacts us all.
- One should never be “proud” of one’s beliefs. Pride hinders evolution.
In each of our stories lies a piece of the larger trends we see in the world. In our individual struggles and triumphs, we glimpse another component of this mosaic we call life. Many of us struggle at the soft edges of justice, the places wherein the question “what would love do now?,” offer no easy answers. Many of us fixate on what we feel “clear” about, and set aside stickier self-inquiries for another, less complicated time. My first question is: how’s that been working for you?
Come here for a minute, I beg. Let me ask you to pick those sticky questions back up. Dust them off. Let’s shine the light of scrutiny upon them. We don’t have to answer them. But, for a short time, can we grapple with them? I stand poised to reach out and press record. I stand poised to ask heavy thinkers some heavy questions. I stand poised to hear your version of that elusive, “truth.” I stand ready to hear you surprise yourself by what comes out of your mouth–when the brain steps aside and lets the heart take the lead.
You have a story to tell. And we at the Center for Whole Communities happen to think that what you have to say is important. Come breathe life into your story and thus breathe life into all of us. Come on in. Tell me yours, I’m listening.
Delma is a Senior Fellow with CWC. His focus is on facilitating system change on campuses and in institutions through transformative practice and the power of story. He received his undergraduate degree in African-American Studies and Psychology, and his Masters in Liberal Arts with a concentration in American and African American Studies at the University of Michigan. He regularly lectures on a variety of socio-political topics with a special emphasis on intersectional approaches to social justice.