From “Shut Up and Follow” to “Step Up and Lead”

There was a voice in my head that told me to shut up and follow. It was finally loud enough that I took notice when, during a cross-class Bible study on Jesus, Faith and Money, it bellowed inside me, “Why do you—a white, wealthy woman—think anyone could benefit from your ‘privileged’ perspective?” I shut up.

There are lots of variations on this theme within the social justice movement. Men need to shut up and follow. White men in particular. And wealthy folks.

There is a certain logic in this thinking. For 6,000 years, patriarchy has upheld men and the masculine as ideal, while deeming women and the feminine as subservient. The whole concept of whiteness was conjured up around 1790 to give power to people with light colored, “white” skin (as long as they weren’t southern Italian or Irish or Jewish). The current demand by some in the social justice movement toward those with cultural power and access to shut up and follow, many would assert, is merely a desperately needed rebalancing.

But, for me, this logic breaks down quickly. At this moment of deep divides, both ancestral and current, we need everyone to stand up and step into the fullness of their leadership. The only way out of this mess is through the full, creative thinking and perspective of all of us.

That does not, however, mean that people like me can lead, unconscious of our assumptions of the “right” (i.e. “white cultural”) way of taking charge.

Collaborative leadership that includes everyone demands that each of us takes a level of personal responsibility that is rare in our culture. This requires a process of unlearning and learning anew that requires conscious awareness of ourselves, and sharpening our skills for working collectively within diverse partnerships.

I wrote Big Topics at Midnight: A Texas Girl Wakes Up to Race, Gender, Power and Class because I understood two things. First, my family’s white skin let us settle into a white-centered view of the world without any conscious awareness of that privilege. In the writing, I sorted through assumptions and perspectives to see what things were true, what things held only part of the truth and what was completely false and out of alignment with my values. Second, I realized that I’d been almost exclusively raised with the white male perspective of history and current events.

The “silencing myself ah-ha” in the middle of my Bible Study class led me to the work of Be Present, Inc. There I learned a model that has been invaluable in waking up to both the injustice woven into the middle of our culture and into the edges of my mind.

This model, called the Be Present Empowerment Model, was birthed through the leadership of Black Women with a vision for a world not constrained to the injustices they had experienced but rather a vision of the playground of life where all are welcome to bring our full, creative selves.

Here are a few of my learnings along the path from “shut up” to “step up.”

I need to take the risk to step in to conversations with as much integrity and justice as I can muster, and the humility to admit it and change when I stumble.

I need to release my assumptions that the world has worked for everyone the same way it worked for me, and really listen with openness to other’s experiences.

I need to slow-down awkward moments in my interactions so I can take responsibility to know what is true about me—even when I don’t like what I see—and what is an inaccurate assumption.

In conversation, I need to listen to myself—those powerful inner voices—to see when I am listening more to myself than to the other person and when my mind begins to shape what I assume I am hearing.

And I need to show up with my sight as one sight among many. We need to hear the beautiful diversity of everyone’s perspective, including mine.

It takes partnership with others for me to “step up” as much ease as possible. Someone to help me remember the goodness of my heart when I stumble. Someone to stop me when my behavior smells like it might be tainted with the very injustice I am working to shift—even when I am in public and embarrassed that I “got caught.” Someone to help me keep my sense of humor.

While “shut-up and follow” might seem logical from one perspective, at this moment in history our world needs all of us to “step up and lead” as one part of the global collective.

This is the 25th year of Be Present, Inc. In honor of that anniversary, I’ve been pondering my learnings over the 15 years I’ve been part of the network. I’ll be flying to Atlanta the first week of November where I am part of the leadership for Be Present’s National Network Convening and 25th Anniversary Fundraiser. I invite you to join me in supporting this groundbreaking work by making a donation to Be Present, Inc.