Do Something! From the Sidelines to the Frontlines
Monday, January 17, 2022
First and foremost, we want to acknowledge that our words today are connected to threads of the past, and hold both the tensions of our history and the possibility of a Humanity that is whole and complete for our future generations.
We acknowledge the indigenous peoples of our first nations, we acknowledge the caretakers of this land, and those stolen from their homes and exploited for their labor.
We acknowledge that from toil came triumph, and that from resilience comes brilliance.
We thank all of those seen and unseen who make it possible for us to be here today.
We are grateful to the land, and the water, to the birds that sing us new songs, to the sun for its warmth, and to the moon that provides us rest.
We are thankful to our elders for their wisdom and patience, and to the new younger generations for their wit and fire!
We see you! We thank you! We acknowledge you!
Today, as we observe the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, we remind ourselves of the urgency in fighting for voting rights in this nation, and for human rights in this world.
We uplift the legacy of Dr. Bernice King, The King Center, and the King Family in Atlanta.
I would like to introduce myself. I am Shadia Alvarez, Executive Director of The Coretta Scott King Center and Vice President for Equity and Strategic Development at Antioch College.
I am the child of a movement for social justice and human rights in this nation and I come to you, as an Afro Latina mother, a daughter, and the child of immigrants from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. I humbly accept that I was placed on this earth to be a community organizer, to connect, to bring folks together, to learn, and to share, with the intention and purpose of being a contribution to humanity.
Saying those words seems easy but it is, in fact, complicated, messy. Our life experiences do not read as a neatly coordinated mission statement or colorful post-it notes. But sharing is necessary if we are to honor Dr. King’s legacy and if we are to stay focused on liberation for all.
I thank the Village of Yellow Springs for being a host as I have taken respite, and for providing warmth and cover as I have learned that whether we are on the front line, the sidelines, the back of the line, or moving all around, this life commitment requires rest, reflection, and collective healing.
So, today’s theme is completely appropriate for our times. We, collective we, those of us who believe in justice, who believe in self -determination, who are sickened by oppression of any kind, who are watching the corruption and the greed; we have growing concern over the type of life our children, and their children will lead if we keep going in the direction we are in.
For me, understanding the front lines, the sidelines, who is in the back of the line, is about understanding our position in this arrangement and being able to act in the best interest of collective liberation no matter what my positionality is.
In my experiences, I have learned to understand and differentiate between position and power, between moral obligation and responsibility, and to better assess where I am needed to be of support to create and/or further a humanistic agenda.
I don’t believe we need to explain the divisions, the disproportionate outcomes we see in every system in this country. Whether it’s education, healthcare, banking, or real estate, the lack of respect for the land and the preponderance of ways for us to ignore, judge, distance, and be pitted against each other is ever-present. The genocide of our people and a culture that normalizes murder allows for these injustices to happen with the cloak of formality and institutional policy.
Whether it’s water in Flint, alcohol shipments to the Rez, police occupation in Brooklyn, or Homeland Security on the border, the current arrangement is legal, sanctioned and policy-driven. It thrives on targeted and unethical conflict. It lives off fitting you into a box. It makes us believe that normal is acceptable and that time is on our side. The slumbering of our urgency is intentional. Our self-worth is defined by our closeness to white supremacy and, more recently, by social media posts and the number of likes we get or don’t get.
And yet those same tools give us unprecedented access to sharing our story and changing the narrative.
Is it possible to accept that we are moving too fast and at the same time moving too slow?
When we talk about moving from the sidelines to the frontlines, context is everything. Understanding our positionality in this arrangement, this social construct, is necessary for our survival. And yet we know survival is not enough.
My experiences, the lessons I have learned, have helped me define Humanity in the broadest of terms. They have taught me to take a stand for all living things, to be an advocate for those in need; not just in material ways, but in physical and spiritual ways. I see myself as a learner, always trying to know more about whatever it is I don’t know. Trusting that the universe will open my eyes to those things I cannot see, and make it possible for me to feel things out even when words are not spoken. To be vulnerable to the gray areas and allow for transformation to not be a “thing” but an active part of who I am and who we try to be.
So, the line for me is Humanity.
Being on the front lines requires an understanding of self, a love for all things, and stubborn courage that can both make us or break us. Being on the sidelines requires continuous observation, analysis, and comfort with moving forward, moving back, distinguishing strategy, and positional targets.
We often do not realize that being on the front lines requires us to understand that we will get it more wrong than right and that we must be in a space willing to share our stories, engage, and be vulnerable with each other.
Our positionality must match our effectiveness. We cannot remain static in the fight for justice. We must move, sway, be flexible, open, and clear on our vision and purpose. We must be consistent in crisis and keep the fire of urgency alive.
We are tasked with keeping ourselves awake, even as we tire.
We must accept that sometimes we are more accessible from the back of the line. Sometimes we can move faster from the sidelines. Sometimes our work is to coach not to lead, to experience not to process, to hold hands and lock arms, to ask for forgiveness, and to accept defeat.
Being in the front teaches us how to lead, what works, and what doesn’t. It requires intentionality. It requires us to be purposeful, thoughtful.
Those of us on the front lines have often been anointed, by the Church, the institution, the community. Whether we carry titles or headings, whether we are looked at as the chosen ones in our circles or pushed to the front by our elders.
The front line requires us to be in an action stance, aware of the consequences but deliberately committed to better outcomes for all.
Today, we see that social media has the power to determine who is in the front line by the number of likes and the number of followers. This is both exciting and dangerous. Those called to the front line, be it by the community or by an influencer status, must think deeply about our responsibility to the collective.
Am I here in service of our community? Does our presence cause uplift?
Are there enough of us to keep us accountable?
For us to work together, to be in relationship, to be a part of any movement, as we decide where we fit on the line, requires us to ask courageous questions, and to operate from a workable shared covenant:
The covenant I most often use comes from the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, an antiracist national group of organizers, founded by the late Dr. Jim Dunn and tenant organizer Ron Chisom and The King Center, Kingian Nonviolence Institute.
Taking a stand for Humanity requires:
Perseverance & Humility – A constant questioning of who I am: Are these the right reasons? What is impacting our decisions? What pressure impacts our resolve?
It requires us to struggle together, and be aware of our growing edge – the place that feels uncomfortable but also pushes us to new understandings.
It requires a recognition of Humanity and divinity in all. It is not just about disagreement but about discerning the way of life I need to understand to connect. How can I be a vessel of trust, so I can ask those essential questions that will get me to the heart of the matter as opposed to the details of our difference.
It requires curiosity, sincerity, genuineness, and courage that is rooted in Humanity and integrity, not power-over and/or power-for.
Together, we need to model working from a place of understanding, that is rooted in reparations. What do we need to understand, so we can repair the harm done? What do we need to dismantle and how do we need to approach creation? Healing cannot be attained if we are not willing to understand and bring to light the harm.
It requires us to understand that there is no quick fix, that what was done to create these systems cannot be undone overnight, and/or without multigenerational coalitions for justice, who are rooted in their own experience and are able to honor those around them.
The great Coretta once said:
“To me, the Beloved Community is a realistic vision of an achievable society, one in which problems and conflict exist, but are resolved peacefully and without bitterness. In the Beloved Community, caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. The Beloved Community is a state of heart and mind, a spirit of hope and goodwill that transcends all boundaries and barriers and embraces all creation.”
Now, someone in the audience is saying: “How can we have caring and compassion in the face of genocide, in the face of murder, in the face of bigotry and violence to our community?”
I recognize that. I feel that. And I would posit that the genocide, the murder, the bigotry, and the violence will not stop until we redefine the very nature of our existence.
As long as we believe power-over is what is needed, we will lose.
When Martin talked about love, it was from the place of creating new definitions for what it means to be human.
When Bill Chappelle and Jim Dunn talked about “Help Us Make a Nation (HUMAN) here in Yellow Springs”, it wasn’t to ignore those realities, it was to organize against those realities, and lift up Humanity so that those realities are no longer in existence.
They are no longer normal.
They are no longer part of the fabric from which the quilt of Humanity is made. The threads are compassion and understanding. The yarn that weaves it together is connected by human culture, not capitalism, not imperialism, not even socialism.
Our very definition of power must be what does not exist as it is today.
Now, I get it, that is hard to see. How can we even envision that type of world? We must. We might not be there in physical form when it comes to pass. But we must start with what is immediate.
We must start with voting rights. We must start with healthcare for all. We must start with schools that teach us to ask essential questions and to feel.
We must start at home, with our families, with our closest friends.
We must believe that the frontlines and the sidelines are not out there, somewhere else, but all around us. And that if tomorrow is the march, then today it’s the dinner table, the program we watch together and discuss, the songs we listen to, and the places we live.
Moving from the sidelines to the front lines requires purpose and practice, discipline and diligence, urgency and calm, rhythm and blues.
And for those of us called to share these visions, possibilities, these new ways of being, we recognize that it will at times be painful.
Our liberation does not live within an institution or a system. The current institutional arrangement is designed to create order, policy, and rules that disproportionately impact People of Color. And in the absence of People of Color, they will still disproportionately impact those most vulnerable.
We can discuss white institutional culture or we cannot. But the most honest analysis will tell you that in order for us to move the line of Humanity, we will need to undo structures, transform these systems, and place spirit, culture, and care at the center of any arrangement.
And that, my friends, will come at a price, a price all of us pay. Systems collude with each other, defend each other, and they will come for us.
And we must go forward anyway.
We must get used to the idea that our very being is uncomfortable to others. We must be grounded in our community and networks enough to know that when our brilliance is ignored on the inside, your peeps are there for you on the outside.
When we are attacked, marginalized, and ignored, we fall back, reconvene, and call on our ancestor Muhammad Ali’ and we “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!”
Folks, we must hold the courage to do what needs to be done, even if it comes at a price. We will be made to look bad, be perceived with ill intent, and sometimes even our own will contribute to the questioning; even when we have the best interests at heart, even when we experience a penalty in the present only to assure we are saved in our future. All of this is a manifestation of a culture that places value in power-over, instead of All-power.
And it’s tough. It’s tough when you know what you did had to be done to keep the fire going but those impacted only see the immediate results.
It is hard when you move from the front, to the back, to the side, and people equate those movements to loss, and cannot see how your movement just made more space for them.
Leadership development is not about position, it is about practice.
Sometimes we need to move in order to be more effective, more accessible, more connected to the true purpose. Sometimes we must hold the tensions of what an institution shows, versus what our community needs.
Sometimes we must say truths even if it comes at a cost. And sometimes we must be raw instead of strategic.
Our revered sister, Bell Hooks, who is now in the pantheon of the ancestors once said, “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power – not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”
Our community, our grounding, our awareness of your line, and the people who walk with you, are your elixir.
It is your protection. It is the necessary ingredient to keep you focused on where the line needs to go, what we are fighting for, and what we need to determine our next steps.
Being on the front line demands that we always ask questions. When making any decisions ask “Who does this benefit? who does this impact? Does this bring us closer together? Does it uplift those most vulnerable? If it does, show me the evidence. If it does not, how do we fix it?”
It requires us to step out of what is normal, comfortable, and what is politically correct.
And so, as I come to a close, I want to share that as we think of our own lines, our movements, our marches, we pay attention to those that might be considered to be in the “back” whose experience needs to be “in the front.”
I have found that inside institutions it is those with the least amount of security, those without tenure, those that are hourly and considered “help” that can speak the truths of the institution, the system, the movement.
In marches, I have found that those who stay in the back are often the elderly, mothers, physically differentiated, at times our most vulnerable.
I would say to you, that is where wisdom is. Speak to those folks in your community, institutions, groups.
Find ways to make sure their voices are heard.
The gift of the front line is its ability to withstand the winds of transformation. The gift of the sidelines, and our back of the line, is that they keep us honest. They are the artists that sing the songs and write the poems, the musicians that play the tune that keeps us going.
With time, with hope, with faith, our lines become circular arrangements, a wonderful circle of experience, testimony, joy, pain, and deep love.
Ultimately, that keeps us moving whether forward or back, whether side to side, whether in reflection or respite
It is that which makes up our Humanity and propels us to new ways of being and futures where we can all be whole and complete.
Ashe MLK Planning Committee, Antioch College, Village of Yellow Springs, and the 365 Project. May we walk forward in faith and organize for justice.
Shadia Alvarez ‘96
Executive Director of The Coretta Scott King Center
Vice President for Equity and Strategic Development