Wishbones and Backbones

I’d been looking forward to the 2016 Student Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI) experience since applying for it in early May. I didn’t know what to expect — I knew what I was hoping for, at least. I was hoping for program ideas I could take back to my campus, tools and ammunition I could use in exhausting conversations about social justice, and a community and network of student activists who could provide each other with encouragement, validation, and accountability. Simply put, I did gain all of that…

But it didn’t come easy.

Sure, at first, I was absolutely thrilled. I’d never felt more at home among strangers. I could use fundamental terminology such as privilege or microaggression or identity without having to explain myself. I overheard individuals discussing social and political issues like it was second nature to them. It was beyond refreshing. It was invigorating. I was surrounded by the most diversity and the most leadership I’d ever experienced in one place, an exhilaratingly colorful palette of identities and passion and life experiences.

That colorful palette of identities, passion, and life experiences came with so much more than just the aesthetics of diversity.

The people who are most passionate about social justice are the ones most affected by the lack of it. With that comes so much raw emotion, so much anger, hurt, and frustration in reaction to our lived experiences with discrimination and oppression. This made itself very salient during the Institute: there were times during which you could cut through the tension in the room with a knife. Personalities clashed, and our levels of social awareness even more. People would speak and misspeak and suffer the social consequences of failing to check their privileges or their perspectives. It was incredibly educating at best, and wildly exhausting and uncomfortable to the point of anger and tears at worst. At one point during the week, I found myself thinking, No wonder people avoid having these conversations. No one wants to be faced with the discomfort of misspeaking. Conversations around social justice are heavily nuanced, and the only ones who seem to care about learning these nuances are those who are directly affected by them. The rest see it as an inconvenience only because these nuances aren’t personally applicable to them. This is present in all of society. I don’t believe this excuses anyone from educating themselves. Not when educating oneself on these nuances needs to be prioritized over one’s pride. Not when marginalized and subordinated communities need the allyship of the majority and dominant communities to dismantle the systems that oppress us.

While interpersonal conflict raged around me over the course of the four days, I also fought a war within my own self. I realized that, up until this point in time, it’s been incredibly easy to feel like “a big fish in a little pond” as a person of color and student leader at a small, predominantly white institution (PWI). The group of individuals in which I found myself was no pond, no — it was a whole massive ocean, and I was still the same size fish. Each individual at the Institute held their own many positions of leadership on their campuses and had their own narratives of discrimination far more detailed and injust than I’d ever personally experienced. No longer was I the only person in the room who started a diversity club at a PWI — no, I was surrounded with so much leadership, bravery, and intelligence. It was astounding. It was intimidating. Most of all, it was humbling. It forced me to think twice about how I perceive myself and how I take up space as a student leader on my campus and as an activist in my community. It was, to put it briefly, much-needed.

In addition to the fish analogy, I also would describe this experience using that of a tree: Being on my campus and in my community back home required me to plant myself in the ground and root myself firmly in my education in order to defend or explain it to others. Sometimes I’d sacrifice the pursuit of learning for my own self because I was too busy staying in one spot trying to defend to others what I’d already learned up until that point. The environment at the SJTI, on the other hand, pushed me way past my comfort level to grow and branch out even further in that education, bringing me literally face-to-face with identities and social issues I’m still not yet familiar with. It was uncomfortable, it was difficult, it dug deep, but I am all the better for it now. While I’ve always been aware that the learning never ends in theory, the SJTI was another much-needed wake up call in practice that there are still so many things I don’t know, so many bad habits I have yet to unlearn, and so many better habits with which I must replace them. I can’t just say “the learning never ends” — my peers at the SJTI pushed me to realize that I can (and should) be doing the learning a lot faster than I already have been.

There were so many things said by the facilitators and fellow students that I will carry in my heart for however long as forever can be. One of them, which contextualizes the title of this blog post, was said by one of the facilitators:

We can wish away racism. We can wish away sexism. We can wish away heterosexism. We can wish away [social injustice]. . . . But a wishbone will never suffice where a backbone is needed.

Too many times have I felt drained by the very passive “I just wish this stuff didn’t exist” that I often hear from my peers at home whose hearts break only for the sake of a profile picture filter or a hashtag, the “bandwagon activists” who say “I just wish this stuff didn’t exist” only when it’s relevant or convenient for them and then go back to their day-to-day lives until another headline pops up. I understand as well as anyone that sometimes, that might be the only action we have the energy or emotional resources for… but at what point do we remember that with great power comes great responsibility? (Yes, I’m going there, Spider-Man.) It reminds me of the Facebook status I’d written a while back reflecting on my privileges that afford me both an escape and a platform on which I can raise my voice and echo that of many others. My privileges afford me 1) the opportunity to simply wish but also 2) the ability to do more than just wish–to keep learning, to keep educating, to keep talking, to keep fighting. At what point do we stop relying on a wishbone and start using our backbones?

The Social Justice Training Institute provided me with the encouragement I needed to keep using my backbone. It introduced me to the community I needed to fall back on should I feel anything less than that. It gave me the learning experience of a lifetime. These were some of the longest days of my life, spent day in and day out with individuals all at different points in their social justice journeys, all on social justice journeys for different reasons. I am overwhelmed by the love, admiration, and respect I feel for each individual who was present at this year’s Institute, each of whom has provided me with so much inspiration and motivation. I’ve found my people. I don’t say that lightly. I crossed paths with people with whom I connected faster and deeper than I ever have with people I’ve known for years back home. Even more specifically, I discovered the community of Asian-Americans I’ve always longed for, a group of self-aware, culturally aware, justice-oriented individuals with whom I could connect on a unique cultural level unlike anything I’d ever experienced but had always craved.

We ended the Institute on a closing activity where each person shared one or two words they were feeling upon leaving. Mine were overwhelmed and awestruck. A few days later, I am still overwhelmed and awestruck in the best way possible.

In conclusion…

While I’m happy I could write about just a bit of my SJTI experience, I’m still at somewhat of a loss. This blog post ultimately fails to adequately capture the entirety of the emotional journey I experienced between July 19 and 22. I wish I had the words and the ability to document every conversation I had, because I’m not kidding or exaggerating when I say that every single interaction I shared with someone provided me with so much inspiration, encouragement, or validation. I’ll leave it at this: I am honored to have shared time with such passionate, intelligent individuals from across the country. I am thankful to have cried with them and to have laughed with them. I am smiling to have hunted Pokémon with them and to have danced with them. I am blessed to have met them and to share the hope that we can lean on each other as a support system as we continue forward in this difficult work.

One more thing: As much as I truly enjoyed myself at the Institute, I know that my experience does not speak for anyone else’s. I know that for some, the conflict and tension did not produce as much reward as it did cost, and it’s for that reason that I will take the lessons I learned with me at the SJTI and run as far and as fast as I can with them to facilitate spaces where such conflict persists. 

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