“What does it mean to be made visible to people who don’t understand the context from which we come? What of our history is important enough to tell and retell? Sometimes telling and retelling those stories only entrenches a way of being that is no longer useful.”
Transcript and notes:
Recorded 30 June 2023.
Hi everyone. Thanks for tuning in.
I've been thinking about our theme of exposure and visibility and what it means to be unearthed. I was reading an article and a book, both about archaeology, about the way that we expose things from the past in order to understand what the past was doing with them. And I've been thinking about the way that that speaks to who we are and how we are as people and as leaders. That we need- we need to be exposed to be known. And also, perhaps we wish to remain buried.
What is the difference between exposing ourselves and exposing others? How do we consent to that exposure? What does it mean to be made visible to people who don't understand the context from which we come? Archeology has become much more complicated than it was when I was a child in the 80s.
When I was growing up, archeology was this exploratory thing about understanding and discovering things that we didn't know, about people that we didn't know. It was always somehow othering, always about the other. The animals that no longer lived, the people that no longer lived, the places that had grown over with jungles and vines that had been covered over with dirt. The stories lost.
It's now a very different field, for which I am grateful. Now we are talking about people who are still alive, whose descendants are still alive, whose stories are still alive- for the most part. In fact, the people that were most commonly described as being lost or dead were not dead at all. Are not dead at all. And instead, the people whose stories are hardest to unearth are some of the stories of the historic white people.
Entire cultural groups, stories, history, everything wiped out as layer upon layer of people invaded what is now England and Ireland and Scotland and Wales. Those people- some of them we know nothing about yet. Or we think we know nothing about them- we have to go digging much harder to find them because it was such a small place, and it was so thoroughly run over.
I do not wish to be thoroughly run over. And yet, in some ways, it doesn't matter if I am thoroughly run over as long as the legacy I leave behind is useful, is effective, as long as it needs to be.
They say that when people forget your name or your stories, then you are truly gone. I don't want to be that far gone until I no longer matter. Until I truly no longer matter. Sometimes, that happens in our lifetimes. When I was in high school, I came into a congregation that had, at one time, had a youth group. But did not, when I got there, have much more than a loose collection of several people who hung out in the church library during services. And then went home. There are a lot of reasons for that. The details of which are not relevant here.
But I decided I wanted more. I had had contact with what more could look like could feel like could be like and I wanted that for myself. And I had been Unitarian Universalist for long enough to know that if that's what I wanted for myself, then I was going to have to build it for myself. That's the way things have always been. And so I set out to do that. I
set out to build it for myself. And I did. And I built it for myself but I also built it for several generations of youth that came after me. Not generations in the full generation sense but generations of youth. So about four to six years worth of youth. When I went back years and years later and I ran into a young person there, I asked what had become of the youth group.
Because when I started, there were four of us. And then there were 12 of us. And then I talked to the board into giving us the room next to the closet where we had been meeting. And so we took over the room next to the closet where we had been meeting and then eventually, apparently, they outgrew that space, too. But that was after I left. They took over the entire parsonage. They grew to 60 or 70 members. They had different sections for junior and senior high school. They ran conferences and lock ins and were active on the district and national levels as I had been.
But I didn't know if that was going to last. And they didn't know who I was. And that was fine. I wasn't upset or sad, I was just glad to see that my legacy had cascaded down at least that far.
If patterns of groups are any indicator, it's highly likely that that group has shrunk, and possibly grown and shrunk again, in the time since I last had a conversation with someone there. And it was not useful to retain the legacy, the story, the narrative of how that group had come to be. I would bet that nobody at that church remembers anymore. And that's okay.
One of the biggest leadership lessons I learned that young was that you don't need to keep all of the pieces of your legacy intact. What matters, is that the pieces that matter, carry on down the line. And we don't leave the kind of physical artifacts that we might have once left. There might be a notebook somewhere, a binder, in fact, I may actually have those notebooks and binders. And if I don't, I may have lost them in my several moves. And so the physical artifacts of that time in my life and that time in the congregation's life may be permanently lost.
But how that group came to be and how that group self sustained for so long- The systems that I deliberately put in place when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen- So that it would perpetuate past my existence, are only interesting in that they give us a model for how to make something perpetuate in the future.
And I'm sure that as the group grew, it developed new culture, new identities, new needs, new resources; they had a budget, they had a paid staff person. I was just glad to get a closet. Things have changed so much that what I know is probably not viable for a group of that size anyway.
So when we think about exposure, and we think about archeology and artifacts: what we leave behind, what it means to be exposed- and what context we put things in. As leaders, how do we know what is truly just to archive, just so that we have it somewhere if we need it, if the auditors come- and what it is that we need to enshrine in some way. Put up on the wall. Make sure everybody remembers.
Sometimes we have to remember conflict. Sometimes, we have to remember joy, or milestones, and sometimes we don't. In fact, sometimes trying to remember who we were and how we were back then can hamper our ability to grow forward. Not that we should forget where we came from. But we should not try to be who we were.
When I imagine brushing the dirt off some object, my question is: what does it matter to us and what would it have mattered to them? Are we their descendants? Or are we outsiders? How do we interrelate? How do we weave our lives, our memories, our futures together? I've been especially thinking about this with regard to raising the dead.
As you probably know, a number of museums and universities have large collections of the remains of indigenous people from things that were called archeological digs. But the difference between archeological digging and grave robbing is, well... I don't know that there is a difference. ostensible motive perhaps, perhaps. But the result is the same.
Somebody, once carefully interred, dug out of the ground. Exposed, analyzed, perhaps put on display. And I wonder if the reason that westernized culture is so willing to do that, with everybody's dead, including, including our own is because we don't feel related to anybody.
That side of myself doesn't, doesn't know how to trace back more than a little bit. I can get on Ancestry and follow the line and borrow other people's research to enhance what I know. But in the end, there's not a sense of being held by the culture from which those people came.
For one thing, it's an amalgamation. For another thing, we don't have the last piece. We don't have the connection all the way back. Because of those layers and layers of erasure in Europe.
My Indian side's a little different. Because in my family, cremation is our traditional way of handling our dead. So there is no grave site. There are no grave goods, there's no body, there are no bones. If you do it, right, it's reduced, basically just ash. And if you have the means to do so, you scatter that ash in mother Ganga, or another river, or the ocean. You give it back to the water. And it's gone.
The relics that we carry on that side of my family are photographs, mostly. Pictures, sculptures, objects that we then carry into our lives. So I don't really have a sense of what it would be like to have dearly departed relatives disinterred. Put on display. Analyzed. Possibly misinterpreted. Stripped from their stories.
But I do know that I have a sort of a utilitarian approach to my own legacy as a leader. So the question is, as an institution evolves, what do we keep? What do we hold on to? What of our history is important enough to tell and retell? Sometimes it's important to know where we came from, like a medical history almost. To know what caused us to be like this, so that later on when we discover the being like this is actually not helping, we can go back and fix it. Like knowing your family history.
And sometimes, sometimes telling and retelling those stories only entrenches a way of being that is no longer useful.
So what does it mean to be... What does it mean to be held in community in connection. To be known and understood in ways that are useful. And also in ways that carry the story as an unbroken line, but not in ways that hold us back?
As I'm recording this, the Supreme Court has just handed down several very disappointing rulings. And my response is to say, well, now the responsibility belongs to the smaller institutions. If we can't rely on the federal government to do this, then it's up to us. And of course, in a democratic country, theoretically, it's always up to us. But we are not represented well at the moment.
And so it's up to us, the individuals. It's up to us, the companies. It's up to us the founders, the leaders. It's up to us, the communities. It's up to us, the chosen families, it's up to us.
It's up to us to create a legacy that is useful to tell the story of. That carries forward something honorable and good. And that also explains why we had to change to become honorable and good. Where did we come from? What mistakes did we make? How do we not make those in the future? What did we have to change? What kind of exposure becomes not external, exploitative, archaeology; but part of our own stories that we can use to inform our own futures.
Thanks for tuning in. I'll talk with you soon.