Origin Story One: The Beginning of Humility

At sixteen, I knew I didn’t have it all figured out. (And nearing 19 I still definitely don’t have it all figured out). I wasn’t arrogant enough to believe that I had all the answers just because I started You Me We Empower. In fact, I have always been an eager learner, always ready to find out more, especially about the social justice world. But, I wasn’t humble either. I thought I had some of it down and that some of it was my theory behind empowerment. Although back then I never would have considered calling it a “theory”–in my mind it was fact not theory. I founded You Me We Empower–both the organization and the blog–under the assumption that I could empower others through both humanitarian work and my writing. If there are any fellow Thinking Beyond Borders alums out there, you’re probably shaking your head because, well, that is somewhat problematic thinking. My reasons for why this is problematic will hopefully become clear in this and future posts.

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Let me start with India Seminar Two “Does education oppress or liberate?” on my global gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders (TBB). Program Leader, social justice guru, friend, and mentor Stacey led this seminar. About thirty minutes into the discussion she dropped a metaphorical bomb on my somewhat literal “empowerment junkie” identity. Stacey explained a popular definition of the word “empower.” In short, a person cannot empower another person because this would be invoking an oppressive power dynamic. It would look like giving a hand out rather than a hand up and in reality would not last. So instead, a person can only empower oneself. The moment this clicked, the moment I realized I too agreed with this definition was a moment of deep rooted confusion. When the seminar ended, I was left with my arms flailing, screaming “This can’t be over! Someone, anyone, Stacey, please, answer my questions! I don’t know where to go from here!” Had the past two years of my life been spent perpetuating oppression? Was I hindering not helping the issue? And what about all the organizations I supported? Were their values aligned with my new ones?

I was exhilarated. I may have been at a low point personally, but I had never felt more academically challenged. The seminars that followed continued to confound me. I asked more and more questions and quickly started facilitating my own conversations beyond seminar to satisfy my overflowing love for liberation theory and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Months later, I am still asking questions and practicing the love and humility born from this original pursuit for liberation.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed is truly at the crux of my shift. Sitting here now, I am not sure how to define what I shifted away from, but I do know what I shifted towards: wholeness, humanness, humility, understanding, love. I cannot untangle every story or theory which led me to where I am today in a single blog post. Or even in a single series of blog posts. Maybe that is what the future is for–untangling the stories we have lived and are living. Consider this the first installment of The Lioness and the Wild Wolf origin stories. I cannot promise a regular schedule, but I can promise a full-hearted process. In the near future, you can expect explanations of The Three Pillars: Love & Community, Challenging Assumptions, and Looking Inward, and of the meaning behind my practice and this blog’s tagline, Social Justice Through a Lens of Love, and also of the meaning behind the new name, The Lioness and the Wild Wolf.

Until then, I will leave you with this:

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Grieving and Grasping

I am grieving. I am grasping. Grieving the loss of community and grasping at the memories because I fear they will fade away like those of a dream. There are certain moments that rattle me so much that I can feel the connection between my head and my heart shake. It is as if through a third eye I can see my heart grow hands and reach out with the kind of yearning born only from the loss of an imagined reality. And it is then, too, that I see my head contort itself so perplexed by the lack of a group photograph at the cabin in Virginia. A simple object which to some may not be worthy of my grievance. To me, though, it would mean a simple object for which to grasp. So while my heart throws itself outward, my head curls itself inward, unable to cope with the inability to touch the dream-like state of love our TBB community crafted. And in between these two corporal beings is my throat, the broken microphone that catches every other word forcing my language to come out in stutters. Suddenly I am inarticulate and my professions of love and loss are perpetually caged. It is in this absence of a photograph that I feel an overwhelming sense of quasi-failure because some place between my head and my heart needs the captured bliss of community to remember the lived reality of TBB.

Earlier today, I stumbled upon a post entitled, “There’s a Word for That: 25 Expressions You Should Have in Your Vocabulary.” Nearly every word seemed to hit the nail on the head. I had experienced these emotions, and I praised that they had a name. At last, there was a name for so many realities I had lived on my gap year with Thinking Beyond Borders. Because, yes, I once felt sophrosyne, a deep awareness of one’s true self, and perhaps it did result in true happiness. . . but then again, “What is happiness?” And, yes, my gap year gave me erlebnisse, the experiences that we feel most deeply, and through which we truly live–“not mere experiences, but Experiences.” But the word that is still caught in my throat, the word which my broken microphone still stammers on is hiraeth. “A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return. The nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of the past.” Mmm. Yes, I’d say that sounds about right. I had a thought last week. It was addressed to my TBB family: I have been homesick for the place I created in all of you.

For seven months, I lived out of a 65L backpack. I became a vagabond. I did not have a “current address,” and truth be told I did not mind it much. The constant state of travel, at least in hindsight, did not unravel me. I recall one seminar in South Africa when our check-in (a round of responses to a prompt for the purpose of welcoming, recognizing, and honoring the emotional spaces of our peers and leaders) was something along the lines of, “Describe your heart’s bedroom.” I imagined my heart’s bedroom to be fluid. It changed frequently, rotating between all twelve of my previous and current bedrooms. As I opened my mouth to answer, my voice shook and before I could complete my thought I collapsed into tears. It was not the first time I had cried during a check-in–far from it, actually–but this time felt different. I did not understand these tears. My heart space, though, was calling out to me, forcing me to pay attention to the inner cavities and crevasses of my soul. Maybe I felt gratitude. Imagining all of my bedrooms, half of which I met during TBB, I feel the embrace of thankfulness.

But here in this Georgetown, South Carolina bedroom the tears I cry are not those of gratitude. I am sure that latter emotion mixes into the equation, but mostly my saline is made from grief, confusion, and hiraeth. In my darkest, most acute moments I realize that the place we were can never again be the place we are. And I want to be okay with that, but I am not.

Two weeks ago I said goodbye to my TBB family in Washington, D.C. Some nights during my nightmares I relive the moment I pulled out of my last hug, waved my last goodbye, and walked away. It took everything I had to not turn around for one last look because I knew that last look might break me.

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Fourteen days at home and countless more to come. Days here are not tragically painful. I am not constantly in tears. But I am constantly dazed, it feels. Here, I do not know how to be the person I’ve become. One of the beauties of TBB was its rawness. I shed my outer layer and was inextricably myself. I was the closest to wholeness I have ever come and every day, every experience, every person made me more human. This is the magic of social justice through a lens of love. I lost myself in TBB, and I would give anything to grasp ahold of my community and lose myself in their love all over again.