I left my comfort zone for the unknowns of the city's Senior Center yesterday. Two local groups hosted The People's Potluck as a way to get underrepresented people together in a comfortable space.
But, I'm not underrepresented.
As a middle class, well-educated, home-owning white woman with job security, I am well represented just about everywhere I go. I have a privilege that comes with my skin tone and my luck at being born into a family able to give me a head start. I know that privilege, and I know not everybody has it.
What I also know is that circumstances often keep me from meeting people who do not share my life experiences. It felt important to take action here.
So, I sat through the introduction asking us all to look around and notice the lack of color among the attendees and felt that less-than-welcome feeling as the presenter continued with "but we welcome our allies." I know she too often has looked around the room and felt less-than-welcome and was trying to begin a conversation about why it is so hard to come together rather than to make me feel bad for coming at all.
At my table I talked with an older white woman who lives in HUD subsidized housing and relies on various government support to keep her healthy and fed. She pointed out the struggles of living in the apartment complex downtown and the lack of communication between the residents within her building and certainly between those residents and the artists and condo owners who also live downtown. Admitting that people just don't come to meetings we started to think about what holds people back.
It's uncomfortable, for one.
I almost didn't attend the potluck that day because I didn't know what to expect, didn't know anyone else going, wasn't sure it was "my place". But, and allow me to be sentimental here, after listening to President Obama's farewell speech where he admitted to fearing for the future of our democracy and suggested the importance of face to face conversations with people, I knew I had to force myself to attend. I had to agree to be uncomfortable.
But, that's a bit easier to do when you are comfortable most of the time.
When my husband and I sat at a table only to have the two people sitting there keep their backs turned away engaging only each other, we sort of felt like we should leave. I felt better when I was able to joke with an older man in the food line, and help him get a piece of frittata, and then finally more people joined our table brought us into the conversation, and I'm glad we stayed.
It became very comfortable when I was able to start talking to one of those people who initially kept her back to me and we found out a little about each other. I connected to a woman with a child in my school district who is worried at what is missing from his education because the school has been working so hard to reach "Level 1" status. As a teacher, I know very well what's missing, and it is not worth the prestige that comes from high standardized test scores. And I was moved by hearing from a gay man who said he felt unwelcome at his local Southeast Asian restaurant but left with a better understanding when an Asian-American woman suggested that the culture may be naturally reticent, not necessarily hostile, and also wary of difference in a way that many older generation immigrants tend to be.
In her TED Talk, Kio Stark mentions the phenomenon of "fleeting intimacy" that allows us to connect with strangers in ways we don't with those in our closer circles. She posits that, since these people do not know us and so can't respond as well to our nonverbal signals we feel we have to fill them in on details we would leave out with a more familiar audience. It's important to talk to strangers for many reasons, but one is that we say more, elaborate more, make more clear connections all in order to be understood but also resulting in more reflection on our part. And what I need right now is to understand what I really think, why I do what I do and what I want to change.
With my one little word "action" as my guide, I left my comfort zone yesterday and became a little more comfortable there.