A Fractured Vision

Taking a 6 am bus is pretty committed. Or silly. I’m not totally sure which. Anyway, at 6 am our bus left Boston for NYC, so I could make it in time for the Revolutionary Love Conference at Middle Collegiate Church. I was looking forward to this gathering for several reasons, including getting to meet the Revolutionary Love Fellows for the first time in person, hearing from many of my activist and organizer heroes, and finally getting the chance to visit Middle Church. The conference focused on racial justice and specifically, how we might make love a public ethic in a time of great division.


As more speakers took the stage- Valarie Kaur, Van Jones, Brian Maclaren, Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman, Dr. Traci West- the crowd filling the sanctuary listened and learned, cheered and encouraged. I felt myself experiencing a sense of joy and belonging that I haven’t for a long time. This is not to say that the content of every speaker’s message was uplifting- in fact, they shared some downright despairing stories and facts. The urgency to do this work together- the work of intersectional racial justice- is not at all overhyped. Yet the authenticity of each person on the stage inspired me to believe I can do the work without knowing all the answers. Perhaps without knowing any answers at all.


During one of the first panels, Anurag Gupta challenged us to imagine a world without racial bias. Gupta is the CEO of Be More America, an organization that trains leaders to examine and let go of unconscious bias.

“Close your eyes,” he asked us. “Imagine what this world would look like.”

I have to admit something- this was an extremely difficult exercise for me. I imagined the big loud streets right outside the church I sat in, in the middle of New York City.┬áIf you’ve ever walked down 2nd Avenue on the Lower East Side, you know the cliches are true. There aren’t many places you can smoke hookah at bar owned by an Egyptian man that sits next to world-famous Japanese restaurant on one side and a Halal Indian market on the other. You can meet one million kinds of people in New York City- and yet, this romantic picture does not do justice to the injustice. It would be so easy to sing the praises of diversity without recognizing the bias, the racism, the bigotry. I couldn’t fully imagine a world without the bias, which both scared me and then, empowered me.

One thing I know for sure is that eliminating bias cannot eliminate our differences, any single one. The danger of creating a more similar society is far worse than one in which people must grapple with particularities. As the conference carried on, I realized each person’s vision for fighting racism and bias is not the same- in fact, some of the ideas shared vehemently disagreed with others spoken.

So perhaps the question “what does the world without bias look like” is better asked, “what does A world without bias look like,” recognizing that even the vision must fracture. As Becky Bond and Zack Exley write in Rules for Revolutionaries, “the revolution isn’t handed to us on a silver platter.” We are inventing the mechanism as we build it. The important thing is not to agree completely, but to utilize the variety of gifts we hold to work toward the vision. We learn along the way.

Starting Fresh

When I was 14, I moved across the country to go to boarding school. There were a few reasons for this, none of which involved discipline (what many assumed). Attending this school was a huge privilege for me, it meant studying with classmates who also wanted to immerse themselves in learning, meeting friends from around the world, and most especially spending a big chunk of my junior year studying on exchange in Japan. I even got to study two languages all four years.

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PC: Margot Pandone

There was another reason I was excited about going to school 3000 miles away. Since kindergarten, I had attended the same small Catholic school. That’s 9 years with the same 45 people. I wasn’t popular or cool in my class, I often felt invisible. This was mostly my own fault- I spent most of my time pursuing interests that my classmates didn’t find interesting. Like learning Japanese, or reading about religion. Middle school is hard, period. I don’t know anyone that didn’t have a hard time. For me, boarding school not only meant opportunity for rich study, it meant leaving my life behind. It meant a fresh start.

Moving at 14 was hard. I actually almost didn’t make it. I called my mom every hour the first week at school, most of the time choking through tears, “I don’t think I can do this, I want to come home.” My mom listened with endless patience. “What’s next on your schedule?” she would ask, and I would tell her the next class, or sports, or dinner. “Try that, and see how you feel after.” After a while, it became, try it for a day. Try it for a week. Look- you’ve almost made it half way through the semester. And suddenly, it was time for finals, and I was flying home for winter break.

I believe a large reason why those first few months- the first year, really- were so difficult was because I had a false perception about what this experience would be like. I could be anyone I wanted, I thought. In some ways, I had no idea what to expect. But I was so sure-and wrong- about one thing: starting fresh. Starting fresh is a farce. Sure, this experience was new and unique, and I certainly changed and grew at this school. But starting fresh in place and people doesn’t mean starting fresh by forgetting who I was proved impossible. I carried with me the same pain, fear, curiosity, and love to this new place. I still carry it today.

Instead of forgetting the unpleasantness, I have learned that new experiences- entering a new community, starting a new school, a new job, leaving a life behind- actually teaches me more about who I am at the core. Interestingly, one of my most firm convictions comes from the Buddhist tenet that change is constant and inevitable. Nothing is permanent. Yet, just because change occurs does not mean we let go of the impressions made upon us. Outwardly, we can withhold anything we want and no one may have any idea what we’ve been through. The most permanence in the world is our internal truth.

A student very dear to me gave me a book, called The Shack (it’s now a movie). I don’t normally choose novels, but this one intrigued me because it’s a story of struggles with pain and faith and the image of the divine. The beginning of each chapter is marked with a quote or two. The second chapter starts with one by Paul Tournier, a Swiss physician who is well known for pastoral counseling. “Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.” I paused after reading that. Of course, we feel most alone when our inward truth feels dissonance with our outward environment. This is why starting fresh only really teaches us what we are already carrying.

My first year at boarding school I tried hard to re-imagine who I was by convincing others that jem was not Mary Ellen. I don’t believe I lied explicitly- but I hid the pain of being away from my family and the struggle to do well enough and be enough for this highly talented and hardworking community. I felt so lonely, even when I was surrounded by classmates who perhaps were feeling exactly the same as I was. As I slowly started to realize that my inner truths were not only accepted but embraced, my presence at this school began to feel legitimate. To be sure, I always struggled with questions of self-worth and being enough, but I found people who could walk with me. To this day I can call my best friend that I met in our freshman dorm and talk to her as if we’ve lived next door our entire lives.

As I transition to a new experience (more on that later), I’m bringing some baggage that’s tough to carry. I’m also bringing a ton of love and memories of joy. The freshness of this beginning isn’t about erasing what I’ve been through, but opening to the possibility of learning more about who I am.