New 606 contributor Ben Wideman is the campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State.
Hindsight is 20/20, or so the saying goes, and I believe this to be especially true in justice work. How many times has history shown us that the good intentions of justice-minded people have been misconstrued, misguided, or even made things worse than before. Awakening to this historical awareness can lead to paralysis. If allies keep messing up the cause (whatever that cause may be) with their good intentions, perhaps it would be best if we all just did nothing.
Yet we also know that without privileged people joining the fight against injustice, systemic problems have a tendency to remain.
There are a number of moments in the first five years of 3rd Way Collective where we’ve tried something and it didn’t work. There have been times when we should have slowed down and done a better job of letting the marginalized individuals take the lead – especially when we assumed we had the best ideas or solutions.
There are also moments where we’ve missed our opportunity to meaningfully engage. There is one moment where I felt that personally, and while it was a small moment, it is one that I continue to feel shame for not speaking up.
The story goes like this…
I was at a local coffee shop, working from my laptop and hanging fliers for a future event. I began to overhear a conversation between two individuals – one of whom was clearly more aggressive in their tone of voice. It didn’t take long, given the volume of their conversation, to learn that they had some kind of date experience, and that their memories of that moment were quite different. The more-aggressive individual felt entitled to another date, perhaps even a relationship, and the other individual was clearly saying no. Rather than hearing that no and moving on, the aggressor continued to push and ask for more time together, clarification on why they didn’t want to enter into a relationship, and pressure them for continue to connect. It was uncomfortable to overhear, and I had a meeting to get to, so I quietly removed myself from that space.
But ever since that moment I’ve felt worse about my passive reaction to that time. It didn’t seem like a healthy interaction. In fact, the one person was giving off body language that made it clear that they were uncomfortable and wanting to get away. I could have said something, or figured out a way to insert myself between those two individuals, perhaps offering my presence as a way to create a disconnect. I could have called over a staff person from the coffee shop, or asked the aggressor a question about a totally unrelated thing to try and steer their attention elsewhere.
I could have done something, but I chose not to do so. In that space I was a person of privilege, and perhaps because of my lack of willingness, injustice continued on. I don’t know what happened to those two individuals. My hope is that the aggressive individual moved on, realizing that they were not entitled to a relationship with this other person. My hope is that the person suffering from that aggression was able to let go of that experience, and find safety in other spaces. But I don’t know if that was the case.
I do know that memories like these will challenge me from accepting the status quo and remaining silent. My prayer is that I have been granted grace from that mistake, and that I will be empowered to speak out the next time I experience something like this in my life.