We Need To Talk. And Listen
I don’t know about you but I am ready for a new year and a new way to connect with others. A few weeks ago I watched the Fabulous Fungi film (don’t miss it if it’s showing anywhere near you). It’s crammed with fascinating information and ideas, so crammed that already I can’t remember everything that I found appealing, exciting, or even shocking. A few big themes have been replaying in my awareness, notably the mycological interconnectedness of all life on earth. Fungi are literally everywhere, in and on pretty much everything. What’s more, molecular phylogenetic analysis shows that fungi and animals are more closely related to each other than to plants. A healthy human body can harbor many fungal species as well as an abundance of bacteria, and after many years of considering all fungi as pathogens, it’s just now being recognized that these fungal relationships can be benign and even beneficial. The same is true in soils and in plants, and that’s why fungicides and anti-fungal medications can do harm as well as good.
Our dualistic, right-wrong, good-bad thinking leads us bumbling humans to try to solve problems of all kinds with simplistic solutions that, like fungicides, very often have unforeseen and unfortunate side effects. When we try to take a more wholistic look at a troubling situation, things immediately get more complicated, simultaneously more clear and more cloudy. That’s a big part of why we tend not to look at things wholistically (also because it exposes our ignorance, so uncomfortable!). I recently read an article looking at the ways that pressure to find solutions can adversely affect research. When instead researchers are free to play around, experiment, and just do various things to see what happens, less gets overlooked and serendipitous discoveries can be made.
Diversity is Wealth
I was thinking about that this afternoon as I spent a couple of wonderful hours at my local Senior Center, talking about race and racism. My community is wonderful in many ways, but it is definitely very white. We are thus rich in many things, but impoverished in terms of diversity. In nature, diversity is the key to ecological success and I think that’s true socially as well. A flourishing pollinator meadow will host plants that offer fodder, nectar and pollen to a wide range of critters, from bees, bugs and birds to butterflies and bats and beyond. A monoculture lawn supports nothing; even earthworms can be harmed or killed by lawn chemicals, and the same is true for much soil biota. Bringing such a dead zone to life isn’t hard, it just takes acceptance of plants that aren’t a specific kind of turf. Let a few daisies seed in, make room for creeping veronicas and dandelions and violets and before you know it, you have a tapestry lawn that supports a lot of life.
Overall, my island’s population is almost 90% white, though that’s starting to change; these days, our school students are only about 80% white. In another decade or so, that balance may shift further, but only if our community is truly welcoming. Not surprisingly, we islanders by and large consider ourselves to be welcoming. In daily ways, we often are, at least conceptually. However, most of the time, we aren’t required to be more than conceptually welcoming. When I approached the Board with the idea of exploring how we might better demonstrate welcome to a more diverse range of people, the response was surprise, a little shock, and even a little hurt; of COURSE we are welcoming! We’re nice people! Nobody would be hurtful here! All that is definitely true and yet our membership remains predominantly white. Oh, and straight.
There is ample and genuine goodwill in our center and that’s a terrific place to start. However, sometimes we need to develop a new perspective in order to see past our assumptions. What we were exploring today is how we might open our doors a little wider by enquiring about what welcome might look like and feel like to people from different cultural backgrounds, people who speak English as a second language, people who are gender-nonconforming. How can we find out? Only by asking, and listening to the answers. Not everyone is comfortable to talk openly about differences, and more than a few people perfectly reasonably don’t consider it their duty to explain their experiences to white people. Hmmm. Recalling that this is a census year, we’re considering making a senior center census form which our 1,500 or so members could fill out all or in part or not at all.
Instead of a simple generic question about race (as if it were a single box to check), we’re thinking about inviting people to tell us their first language, spoken in the home they grew up in, and other languages they may speak with relatives and friends. We may add questions like: What is/are your family’s cultural background(s)? What holidays do you celebrate? Which pronouns do you prefer? What is your living situation? And of course, the big one: Would you be willing to offer an educational program about any of these things? Offering people a chance to tell their story builds community, connections, friendships. When we talk truthfully together and listen thoughtfully to each other, we are all enriched. The cross-pollination of ideas, traditions, and experiences bring new life to routine ways of thinking and outdated behavioral habits. When we make room for differences and genuinely accept diversity with pleasure and interest, our communities can flourish and so can we all. So let’s talk to each other. And let’s listen. Onward!