We just had an incredibly powerful exercise on privilege at our colloquium (small group session) at Opportunity Collaboration.
The simple exercise–one that many may have done before, or in different versions–involved lining up shoulder to shoulder. We were asked to step forward if we answered “yes” to a question and step backwards if we answered “no.” Each question asked about our lives as we grew up and indicated our level of privilege–or lack thereof.
When we started the exercise I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t be stepping forward as often as others.
What I didn’t realize was that I would become an obvious outlier in the group. Just as I have done all of my life, I underestimated the objective status into which I was born, and didn’t really recognize everything that I have overcome to achieve the success I have in life. Above all, to have the tremendous privilege of doing good in the world as my life’s work.
Ironically my final resting point was exactly one step forward and two steps back from where I began. The majority of the group had moved noticeably forward. And yet I feel as though I have propelled myself to a place of great privilege. I am also aware of the reality that my son would be at the front of the line and I am cautious about how to foster that privilege to be a force for good.
It was another “aha!” moment for me, to both recognize what I have overcome and how that has been a driving force for me to do good with my life. It is also very clear that while I was at the back of the group amongst a selective and privileged group, I would be at the far front if the exercise were done on a global level. This is part of what drives me to do the work that I do, to have worked in some of the roughest places on earth, and to dedicate myself towards social justice and change.
Coming out of this exercise it is easy to feel shame from the relative lack of where I have come from, and to even feel guilt in some way for having moved so far along the continuum of success.
Interestingly, on Monday my overwhelming thought was that I am finally in a group where I am not an outlier in the incredible work that I have done around the world and the sacrifices I have made to do that work. I am amongst people doing AMAZING work in this world and I am in awe of our collective capacity to create good in the world. I suppose the similarities I find with my peers at OC, and the differences in many of our starting places in life is part of what I am grappling with. I could make whatever negative meaning I want out of that reality.
But that is not how I live my life. My super rockstar friend Lou Radja reminded me just last night that our lives are constructed by how we interpret what is. We can’t change the what is, but we can change our story about what is, and we can change what we do about what is.
I am grateful to be reminded of my why. What drives me to do the work I do, even if it isn’t the easiest path to take. It is about the steps forward for humanity as a whole.