To say I’m elated over my friend Rev. Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil’s new book, Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now, would be an understatement.
This is truly a kairos moment for Dr. Brenda, as so many people affectionately call her, as well as for each of us. She describes this moment in her book:
“the appointed time can perhaps best be understood as a time when the circumstances of life are so mammoth as to be beyond the control of the individual yet are sufficiently intimate to require or even demand a response from the individual, one that only he or she can provide. Because of both the circumstances (regardless of whether the person wanted them) and the individual’s unique suitedness to respond (regardless of whether the person deems herself ready), the individual is thrust into leadership.”
Ever since I have known her, Brenda has been dedicated to racial reconciliation as a theological, ministerial and personal principle. When we first met I was teaching at a local university in the subject areas of communication and culture and I worked as a diversity consultant. With similar vocations, she in the evangelical church world, me in the corporate world, we became colleagues both committed to helping people from different cultures work and worship more effectively together. Over time, we became sistah-friends.
What is most fascinating to me in this moment is to see how Brenda’s sensitivity to the Spirit and wise counsel has come to bear fruit in this moment. She courageously focused her ministry on racial reconciliation some twenty years ago. Over the years, she worked tirelessly for racial reconciliation in White evangelical churches and universities. But when the Spirit began to shift her focus, she responded. Of course, there were risks. Yet, she labored in prayer and in discernment in expanding her ministry and the writing of this book was a crucial part of that redirection.
By faith she aimed for an audience beyond the White evangelical space in which she was groomed. She persevered through the backlash. And her message of racial justice for today is resonating with so many. I highly recommend that you read her story for yourself and then take its lessons to heart in your own leadership.
But be ready to be challenged and be ready to be changed.
You see, working in this space for over two decades changes you. To understand and identify with the lived experiences of Black people in the community, at work, and in churches, opens one’s eyes to the thick threads of racism woven into the very fabric of this country and every institution erected therein. Brenda shares her story of transformation from teaching, consulting and doing racial reconciliation work in ways that were palatable to White people, specifically White evangelical people, to prophetically and boldly proclaiming the truth about race in America, even the world. She has boldly risen to name the injustices that were carried out against Black people that have become inscribed in the systems and structures of this world. Brenda shares her story of coming to see that there can be no true racial reconciliation without first a reckoning of racial justice.
Early proponents of racial reconciliation thought that if people could communicate more effectively across racial barriers, and build stronger interpersonal relationships, we’d get to reconciliation. But what separates us from truly reconciling are the systemic barriers that keep Black people in poverty at higher rates, that reveal themselves in racial disparities in every indicator of well-being, including health, employment, economics, death rates, you name it. What makes it worse, when racial reconciliation is limited to interpersonal friendships, it hurts Black folks to have White “friends” continually deny our reality and the reality of people who look like us.
Brenda weaves the story of her journey to becoming an activist with the story of Queen Esther in the Hebrew Bible, who had the distinct call and strategic placement to advocate on behalf of, and fight for the survival, of her people against the actions of a xenophobic demagogue.
Brenda traces the steps of Esther who was unexpectedly thrust into the palace life and then challenged to risk the comfort of that same life to stand up for justice for her people. Those of us who do this work understand the risk of speaking prophetically and boldly against injustice and the systems that inscribe it. Sometimes it would be easier to just give a series of platitudes and take the speaker’s or consultant’s check and run.
But the time demands truth to be proclaimed on truth’s own terms. As Brenda recounts in her book in this “post-truth” era, we have the president of the United States stoking the flames of racism and hate and defending Nazi and White supremacists as “very fine people.” That very stoking has ignited into racial polarization at every level, the likes of which many of us have not seen in our lifetime.
Just so we’re clear, to do this work we must define the terms of the work. Brenda defines racism as
“a systemic evil that robs people of their ability to thrive. It is the combination of prejudice plus power that is not just personal problems for individual people. It’s a social system that affects every part of our culture and society. It’s when people in power use their influence to create systemic realities that privilege their own racial group or tribe.”
In so doing, Brenda does not deny individual level bias, but helps readers recognize that it’s the systemic power that holds sway over people’s lives and livelihoods and reproduces the inequities that now exist. Until those systems of power are dismantled, in favor of equitable structures, we will not have a just society in which true reconciliation can exist and even flourish.
“[The] combination of prejudice plus power makes a person or group truly dangerous on a large, community-sized scale. It is this kind of evil that we must resist.”
In grounding her story in Esther’s story, Brenda reminds us of something else that is particularly relevant to women who follow this blog. Brenda writes:
“women, especially women of color, have a more acute understanding of the interlocking structures of oppression. Our lived experiences inform our imagination and our methodology for leading in a more communal and equitable way.”
Brenda lifts up numerous women leaders across the globe who fought for equality and justice, from Madame Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first elected female head of state in Africa to two Liberian Christian women determined to “pray the devil back to hell” and organized thousands of local women for peaceful protests and nonviolent sit-ins on behalf of peace in their country. There were more.
But here’s where I want to stop and invite you to read Brenda’s book for yourself. Then I want you to consider what is your palace of comfortability that you need to risk breaking out of in order to speak up and speak out against injustice in your context.
Where in your context–your school, community, neighborhood, workplace or even your faith community–has injustice, racial injustice in particular, manifest?
In this kairos moment, there is a clarion call from the Spirit for each of us to muster the courage to change the way we lead. In Brenda’s case it was the call to change how she approached racial reconciliation and become more of a racial justice activist. That is bravery, or as Brenda puts it, “courage that is developed over time.”
For me it was a call to move from leading Diversity and Inclusion consulting and training to committing to consult toward diversity, equity and inclusion. A few years ago, for instance, I mustered the courage to include issues of inequity into my most popular women’s leadership program in ways I had not before— not just the inequity between men and women in leadership. I already did that. In my sessions, I started more crisply addressing the intersectional barriers and biases that limit Black women and other Women of Color. I’ve learned that unless that truth is told and addressed, Black women and other Women of Color will continue to lag behind the leadership advancement of White women in public and corporate spaces and other work places.
So, although my business had morphed into a successful learning solutions/training company, with the death of George Floyd and the calls for addressing systemic racism, becoming brave for me has also meant returning to classic organizational development principles and practices and committing to challenging & helping senior leaders and executives to address the inequities in systems that training alone cannot address.
So, what about you? What is this kairos moment calling forth in you?
- Are you an ally who will commit to reading more about the experiences of people of backgrounds different from your own?
- Will you commit to listening and learning from women and men who do racial justice work and share the realities of injustice in our country and world?
- Are you ready to speak up when family members negatively stereotype people of certain races?
- Are you a manager who not only has learned about your own implicit biases, but are now ready to put correctives in place to eliminate barriers in your department or line of business?
- Are you a faith leader who will dare to define racial (and gender) justice as kingdom work?
Becoming Brave is a story of a dear friend who has been called to this moment and is calling each of us to join her in the work of racial justice now. Becoming Brave is an invitation to be transformed in your thinking, your practices and most of all, in your very being.