Thursday, May 13, 2010

Are We Listening?

First Reading:

Together, one with one, we can build the new Earth, a place of wholeness in diversity. We can transform our organizations into communities, places of compassion and care.

Our leaders will focus on affirming and renewing values, building community, and releasing human possibilities. Connection, not acquisition, will be seen as the primary human motivator. The core question will be, How can I help?

Together, we will build spaces of renewal, creating safe places in dysfunctional organizations, seedbeds for a new world. We will advocate a new leadership based on service above self. We will replace the leader on top of our pyramid with a leadership circle, moving beyond the rhetoric of participation to shared governance in fact.

In calling forth this new day, let us be guided by our hearts to be the vessels for the light that powers the Universe, to be a chord in the one song of our healed and holy Home

- John Jacob Gardiner, Professor of Leadership, Seattle University, Washington

Good morning. My name is Abigail Francis, and I am the Director of Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Services at MIT.

Sometimes I think I may have been called to this position. Have you ever had that feeling…like you were somehow in just the right place at just the right time with just enough experience, skills, and knowledge for the situation? Was it luck…effort…planning…fate…God…that helped you get there - maybe some combination of these things?

I like the idea of a calling because it implies that I have the awareness and the ability to listen. Listening is a skill that I think could use some sharpening at MIT. We have no problem sharing our ideas, our innovations, our solutions. But sometimes I think the real answers lie in our ability to just be…still…quiet…patient…and to hear from those whose voice has been left out. In essence, this is the true nature of my work, and I argue that it is in fact, all of our work.

As a community we share a collective responsibility to create an environment where everyone is valued, where all good ideas matter, and where all are invited to be their very best. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Sometimes it takes some digging for me to see the good in people who actively hate others or in a situation where a student faces a deep despair. Imagine that after saying just three little words - you loose all emotional, spiritual, and financial support from those who are supposed to love you the most. All your community, history, and sense of self-worth - gone - after saying “mom”, “dad”, “fraternity brother”, “sorority sister”, “athletics teammate”, “I am gay” or “I am transgender”. Or imagine living your life in hiding because coming out as LBGT in your home country or home state could have you arrested or even killed. Imagine having your spouse die in the hospital while you and your children aren’t permitted to see them because you are the same gender. Imagine being fired from your job simply because of your gender identity.

Every day I hear from those who are silenced, oppressed, discriminated against, assaulted, isolated, and neglected. Their stories are real, and their negative experiences are a constant. So I wonder, as a leading institution, how can we “build a new earth” as John Jacob Gardner describes? What would it take to reach a place of “wholeness in diversity”? And as an institution, do we all care to reach for that place? Is it worth the journey to a place or time where everyone feels included and valued as equals? Can we even imagine the possibilities if everyone at MIT were able to operate at their peak performance? What would happen if we could eliminate all forms of power, privilege, and oppression? Do you agree with Nelson Mandela that “the time for the healing of wounds has come”, that “the time to build is upon us”? And if so, then how might we get there?

I’m afraid that these questions are without a scientific formula. The problems of achieving equality for all people, of transforming an institution, are not a quick fix. Yet, progress is possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It may very well get messy. Mandela says, “there is no easy road to freedom”. But as with science, we can learn from our mistakes. We can think about our own forms of privilege, and we can improve on multiple forms of cultural competence.

The real challenge is that in order to succeed we must act together. We must ask about what we are called to do as a community, as a society, as a department, as a laboratory, as a board, and as an institute. If it does take a village to raise a young person, then what role will we play collectively, to help this generation of students grow and develop? And how can we ensure that they all have an equal chance at success?

I think we all have a calling to be part of the “birth of a new world”. The real question is: are we listening?

Second Reading:

The time for healing of the wounds has come.
The time to build is upon us...
We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people
from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation,
suffering, gender and other discrimination...
There is no easy road to freedom...
None of us acting alone can achieve success.
We must therefore act together as a united people,
for reconciliation, for nation building,
for the birth of a new world.

- Nelson Mandela