Narrating the Communities We Want to Create

June 13, 2017
 Narrating the Communities We Want to Create

We all have rituals. One of mine is to turn up narratives that make me uncomfortable in my white skin. The Establishment is my daily dose of discomfort. This morning, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed while drinking my coffee, I came upon this article by Ijeoma Oluo: "White People Will Always Let You Down." The title stung; I knew I needed to read it.

Like much of Oluo's writing, it was filled with uncomfortable truths, like this: "People talk about building bridges, about finding common ground, and so you find that, and you walk together. And then when it is most important you find yourself standing alone over the water where the bridge has been unfinished and you look over at your friend and they say to you, “Oh no, I won’t go there.” And then you look down, and like in the cartoons, you fall." As someone who has built an organization driven by the "bridge building" story, this truth was hard to hear's true.

I have to admit, I don't particularly enjoy this ritual. It's not a pleasant experience to seek out narratives that amplify personal or collective pain, and then link those things to my status as a white person or the structures that ensure my status. But the ritual is necessary, like exercise. It's essential to my health - as a storyteller, a "bridge builder," a white citizen, a mother. Because each time I turn up an uncomfortable truth, I flex the muscles that help me question my assumptions, listen anew, and chose what I want to model for my white child.

Germans have a name for this kind of uncomfortable process. It's called Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. In her essay, "Can German Atonement Teach Americans To Finally Face Slavery," Jane Yager describes Aufarbeitung as "notoriously difficult to translate — the English translators at my job bickered about whether to render it as 'unearthing and confronting the past,' 'coming to terms with the past' or 'reappraisal of the past.' The problem with all these translations is that they imply an endpoint, but Aufarbeitung has no closure. It’s supposed to be a ceaseless process of digging up the most uncomfortable parts of history — your country’s and your family’s — and grappling with what the actions of past generations mean for the present." Aufarbeitung suggests a kind of ongoing listening process - a collective pull to continually listen anew.

Whenever we're engaged in a process of listening for new or different information it not only disrupts the reality we stand on, but it shakes our very sense of self. It takes courage to question our core narratives because we have to accept that we might be wrong. Americans don't like to be wrong or to admit to our own fallibility. But I firmly believe that that is exactly what's required right now - to seek out uncomfortable truths and to listen for nuance in the stories circling around us.

We are at war with each other to define the America we want to live in. We're fighting over which narrative(s) will win. None of us is exempt from this process. We're all co-authors, and we must think carefully and critically about the stories we're consuming and letting loose within our communities, virtual or otherwise. Because those stories will create our future.

The dominant narratives are being cracked wide open. What are we going to do with this moment? What stories are we going turn up? How will turning up those narratives help or harm others? How do we want to narrate our path forward together?

We will be gathering to explore these questions on June 29 from 7:00-9:00 p.m. at Woodard Lane Co-Housing in Olympia. Won't you join us?

Until Soon,

Elaine Vradenburgh
Founder + Curator
Window Seat Media