We Are (Not) Free
Over the weekend, a 70-year-old Black elder and member of the Community of Practice that I co-chair for my local Baha’i[i] community declared that he was free. He explained that among those in the room, he was the lone retiree at liberty to speak truth publicly about the cultural differences that people allow to divide themselves. The rest of us, he said, were bound by our need to earn livelihoods that may likely be compromised if we offended others with the truth of how difference is treated with discrimination. Indeed, like my mother before me, I have been marked a "cultural 'mis-fit'"[ii] in the workplace and lost employment because I represented difference among my colleagues.
It’s true that heads tend to turn and lips seal when there is culture-based conflict in our workspaces. While many are competent at the work they do, they may not recognize, know how to effectively manage, or think it their place to reconcile “creative differences” that are at their root natural chances to skill-build toward collaborative working. Yet, let us remember: Culture is meant to make the world around us—and one another—more accessible. It's an adaptation that humans make to their environments in order to make meaning and feel connected in their shared beliefs, values, assumptions and behaviors.
We are most free in our being bound together because engaging between our differences with others allows us to move more easily in our worlds.
Accepting that which binds me has liberated me. From the age of six, I refused to buy the U.S. brand of liberty that we were sold. I kept silent every morning in class as my peers recited the concluding words of our national pledge of allegiance: “…with liberty and justice for all.” I knew that the flag under which I stood did not represent one nation indivisible, yet I was not aware of the freedom that binding in struggle with one another brings. I had not yet experienced what one Australian aboriginal woman affirmed when she said, “…[I]f you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s[iii]). When we participate in the collective and continuous labor of acculturating ourselves with the patterns of how we and others work, we learn the skills of working across culture with anyone, anywhere.
We are most free in our being bound together because engaging between our differences with others allows us to move more easily in our worlds. And, while it may not feel intuitive, the culture that we create for the places that we occupy—work teams, organizations, networks, communities--can effectively facilitate an experience in which we are free to be/come the full potential of ourselves, collaborate with others in ways that enhance our shared value and carry out the work of the day with meaningful and sustained impact. What other freedom supplies more people power?
people. place. purpose.