When I was in college, I was the president of my sorority.
(No one is surprised by this.)
So much of what I learned of servant leadership — lessons that carried me well in my professional career — came from being the president of my sorority. Of all the lessons I can recount, this one stands out clearly above the rest.
It was a regular meeting night. There was nothing difficult or contentious on the agenda. Near the end of every meeting, we had time for the touchy-feely moments, the time for the non-agenda business. During this time, to my utter surprise, one of the Black sisters in the room said she needed to speak. She started to talk about how, although we were a sisterhood, we didn’t feel like sisters to her. She shared that she felt more welcome when she visited the sisterhood just down the road at the closest school nearby (Howard University). As she spoke, she started to cry. The other Black sisters in the room (we had about 35 sisters total, probably 5-6 were BIPOC) spoke with her and echoed her concerns. They shed tears as well, and their pain was palpable. You could hear a pin drop in the room.
I was, in equal parts, both amazed at the power of their vulnerability, and ashamed of myself that I had not known of these concerns before now. I had hoped that I would be the kind of leader that anyone could come and talk to, at any time, about anything. I was disappointed with myself that I had not seen this pain in my sisters before this moment in time. Instinctually, I knew that I was one of those defining moments. I knew that whatever I did in this moment, as the leader of this sisterhood, would have lasting effects. I felt the weight of their pain, and I couldn’t stand that they were hurting, and that they felt alienated from this sisterhood that I loved so much.
And so, I got up, I walked across the room and I locked the door.
And I told my sisterhood that we would not leave this room until we had resolved this pain. We sat together for another 3 hours, and we listened to their stories. Those of us who were white took a posture of active listening, even when it felt painful. We heard them tell stories of exclusion, moments of rejection, feelings of invisibility. We held their tears, and we made a commitment to work on our divisions. Did we “solve” anything in that moment? Maybe not, but we stayed in the room until the tears had subsided, we made the bond of sisterhood stronger by making a commitment to honor their vulnerability. Three hours later, we opened the door to leave — all of us were emotionally exhausted, and at least one of us (me) was transformed. What I learned in that moment is that there are times when you have to commit to locking the door, sitting and listening, and holding each others’ tears. That holding space for the stories of others’ pain is actually more important than any kind of agenda-driven business. That in holding another’s vulnerability, we can find our own hearts.
I don’t know of what happened in the aftermath of that locked door meeting. Did the sisterhood make changes to be more inclusive? I graduated and left, and I know that at least some of my Black sisters ended up transferring to Howard, where they felt more included and welcomed (and that made me sad, but was right for them). The only thing I do know for sure is this — that I have carried the tears of my sisters in my heart ever since that day. And in carrying their pain, I have been transformed. When I think back to that moment, so long ago now, I can still feel the lump in my throat and I can still hear the ache in their voices. And on days like today — November 4, 2020, as we wait to hear election news — I am reminded that I continue to carry the tears of my Black sisters in my heart still. And I always will.
So I am back in the silence, waiting for the pin to drop. Just like that sorority meeting so many years ago, I have a sense that today in America is a defining moment. It is a moment where the pain is palpable, and the tears are flowing.
America – it is time to get up, and lock the door.
It is time for us to put aside the regular business, and to position ourselves for active listening. Our Black sisters (and brothers) are speaking out — and we need to honor their vulnerability. There is pain in their voices and tears in their eyes, and we should get up and lock the door and commit to listening until they have told us their stories. They are telling us stories of exclusion, rejection, and invisibility; stories where we (the white folks in the room) are not the heroes, stories where our thoughtlessness and implicit bias have caused harm. It will be painful, and we (the white folks) will have to sit with lots of uncomfortable moments. I cannot guarantee what the outcome will be. Maybe, just maybe, if we stay until all the stories have been told and all the tears have been shed, maybe then something will happen. I can only speculate that if we honor the vulnerability — if we hold the tears and the pain in equal measure — then we just might transform the heart of our nation.
Let’s get up, and lock the door, and commit to not leaving each other until we resolve this pain. Let’s make space for transformation.
Let us hold each others’ tears in our own hearts.