Metaphorical masks and bearing each others’ burdens

Every fall semester I teach a class on macro practice where the focus is on community organizing and development, as well as organizational development. Early on, as I am trying to connect with the students, we talk about community and what it means to us. This year, I tried something different. I gave every student a large-ish sticky note and asked them to think about a community that is most special or important to them. Then, I asked them to write what their hopes or dreams were for that community if they were to come back to it after an absence of five to ten years. I told them not to put their names on them.

As students finished writing, I invited them to come put them on the dry erase board. In my mind’s eye, it was going to look like a patchwork quilt. In reality, it looked like a dry erase board with post it notes on it. BUT the content was interesting and I started reading them to myself as the students were discussing something in pairs.

The notes my students wrote with their community wishes and dreams.

I read things like “I wish that my community of Richmond will have removed every statue or memorabilia associated with the confederacy” and “I hope that my community is still small enough to show care to its members like I remember” and “I wish for every school in my community to have a social worker and enough good teachers”.

And then I got to one that said “I will wish that my community doesn’t still see me as a burden. I will wish that I will not feel so alone”. I looked around at my students and couldn’t easily identify a contender for who might have written this.

As we were moving from small group to large group discussion again, I read some of the notes out loud. I debated for a minute, and then read the one above, about feeling alone and like a burden. I said that I was sorry that someone felt like that about a community that was important to them. I said I hoped that whoever wrote this would know that I didn’t see anyone as a burden to our community and that I hoped they knew the feeling of being included. I invited them to talk to me privately after class.

People were quiet, a bit uncomfortable. These are students in a cohort who have had at least 5 classes together, but because of COVID and hybrid and online learning, some of them are just now in a room together for the first time. I thanked them all for their engagement in the work. We moved on and had a good class in terms of participation.

I noticed this week that students checked in with each other differently before class started. They moved around more, talked to people that they sometimes don’t. Maybe they were thinking about making sure someone didn’t feel like a burden.

During class, I let them do small groups outside so they could take their (literal) masks off and see each other while discussing. Watching them take their literal masks off made me think about the metaphorical masks we wear sometimes. I thought about how that morning I had cried on the way to work, not out of loneliness but out of anxiety. And even though I am fortunate to have good friends and colleagues, there was no one I felt I could tell because—wait for it—I didn’t want to be a burden. I got to work and anyone who asked me about my day heard that I was fine or even great or maybe just “hanging in there” depending on the time.

Just as I feel it is my work (purpose, calling) to work to create and nurture community for others, and to bear the burdens of others, I have to be willing to lay my burden down for someone else to bear.

And that’s a crux of community: the inherent need for reciprocity and the requirement for vulnerability. How am I bringing this combination of reciprocity and vulnerability to my teaching? How am I modeling it for my students? How am I bringing it to my work in the community?

We create the beloved community by being the beloved community, living into its vision though imperfectly.

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