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In 2014, I attended and spoke at a conference in South Africa and in many ways, that conference was the final spark for me to continue writing and complete the Identities short story collection, an idea I had been toying with for some time. There were so many contradictions and polarities at the conference that speak to the complexities of the African continent. I found myself troubled by the fact that the conference was in Africa with a major focus on sustainable development and social change, yet 90% of the conference delegates were non-Africans. Those of us who were black or African were mostly from the diaspora. Yet, the entertainment from drumming to dance was all local South Africans and was much enjoyed, which felt to me a replication of the stereotypes of Africa and Africans. I was co-presenting with an Afrikaner woman, one of the few from South African who attended. When I shared my observations and thoughts with her, she agreed and further noted that the conference fee itself had been prohibitory for most South Africans.
As we say in the world of transformative learning, disturbances have the purpose of sparking deep learning and realizations, if you are willing to move beyond the emotional reaction you experience to process what the disturbance is about. I walked away from that conference with three realizations. First, it was then that I decided I had to be part of instigating broader dialogues about these kind of contradictions and complexities of Africa and Africans. I had been speaking and publishing academically in ways that defy stereotypes of African immigrants and refugees living abroad, however, I am acutely aware of the limitations of academic writing in reaching everyday audiences. I wanted to create ways to share my thoughts and observations beyond academia. Coincidentally (or not!) it was at that same conference that a presenter reminded me why I love to write fictionalized short stories that had remained unpublished on my computer. The presenter referred to Fred Allen’s [American Radio Comedian] quote that ‘A human being is nothing but a story with skin around it.’” Furthermore, I know from my studies and research in the social sciences that in social terms, we become the sum of the stories we tell and share about ourselves. So, even though the conference started by disturbing me greatly as I watched issues of power, privilege and global wealth distribution replicated in a place where we were committed to social change, the gift of the disturbance was that it renewed my determination to tell fuller stories of Africa and Africans. I was reminded at that conference of the words of these scholars who have gone before me that:
- “what is most personal is most general” (Carl Rogers).
- “it is the job of good sociology to reveal the public issues inherent in troubles personally felt” (C. Wright Mills).
- “identifying possible inconsistencies and inner contradictions is a powerful way to examine our own inconsistencies and inner contradictions” (Chris Argyris).
Second, once I could get past my disturbance and pay attention to what was happening around me, I was able to see well-intentioned people doing the best they knew how – I was reminded that for all of us, our blind spots can only become illuminated when others share differing perspectives to ours. Thus, I realized that if I had a difference of opinion to what was happening, I was obligated to share that to inform such future gatherings. As they say, be careful what you wish for. I have now been asked to be part of the planning process for a similar conference, the Transformative Learning Network conference in 2018, and to specifically bring a global lens to designing it. It will be my privilege to do so.
Finally, by the end of the conference, I met many great people and felt deep resonance to a number of delegates and to some of the presentations that were thoroughly thought-provoking. That sparked the realization that what was common to those interactions was that I was most challenged by people who had diverse and global backgrounds, which informed the broad perspectives they brought. That realization is represented in the short story of The Conference, in the quote included above. It represents my firm belief that in the evolution of humanity, our current diversity is no mistake. I believe that our growing global diversity of peoples with multiracial, multiethnic, multinational and multi-cultural identities is the secret to the next development of humanity. These are the people who identify first as planetary citizens. They are the bridge-builders that have social permission to speak in and to all the worlds they belong to, and so help us evolve from polarization to a united humanity, now and into the future.
At the end of that conference, I got on my flight to London. By the time I landed in London 10 hours later, I had drafted and done the first edit of what is now the story The Conference in Identities: A short story collection.
An Amazon review of Identities and The Conference:
Blind spots are blind spots. We all have them when we don’t know what we don’t know. We all need to listen and learn from each other more!” – The Conference (story 7)
This quote sums up the theme of this book perfectly. Reading this book, I was transported into worlds and stories and identities that I honestly know nothing about. It challenged me deeply to truly put myself in another person’s shoes. Even such simple tasks as how a woman prepares her hair were so new to me – I’ve talked about hair with friends from other races but it’s different when read in a beautifully scripted first person context. I’ve also never been asked by a total stranger where I’m “from” – that really exposes something about how we relate to strangers who don’t look like us – they must not be from around here.
This book has stories from male & female perspectives, young and old. I read about experiences that I know I will never in my life come close to having – a war on a college campus, being racially profiled, an African wedding, so many cultures and deep traditions that I did not grow up around.
These stories helped me to see this world from such a different perspective. When you read this book, commit to forgetting everything you think you know about people that aren’t like you. Listen to the stories and learn something new. Don’t be blind to your blind spots.