What did I learn while at the City?
Last month, I left my City job with the Equitable Development Initiative after a long leave of absence. Here is the other bookend to my original cover letter aspirations: the final farewell email I sent, with the most important thing I learned about power while in my role.
To my beloved community within and outside of EDI and City Hall,
Goodbye from this email address for now. I’m humbled and grateful to have gotten to walk alongside you these last few years.
I’m writing to celebrate our power. I’ll also touch on trauma, death, and violence. If you don’t feel resourced to read this right now, please take care of yourself and set this aside.
Last summer while on leave, I spent a few days among some incredible older women of color. This is how I described my learning:
There’s a kind of big that comes from believing that we’re actually small.
And there’s a kind of big that comes from knowing that big is who we already are.
The first kind of big is really dangerous.
The second kind of big is everything.
I grew up afraid of my inner power. You could point to my family of origin, or internalized oppression, or an overculture that doesn’t even understand inner power. What matters is that by adulthood, I believed myself to be small.
I took this job because it was exactly the kind of work I believed in, but I was also afraid of what I might do with power. I didn’t want to be another bureaucrat with unprocessed numbness, radiating my hurts unacknowledged into my work.
The past few years have represented a personal journey in shaking off self-protection and regaining my capacity to feel love in all its forms—grief, rage, joy, curiosity….
You held space for this journey, pushing me to growth edges while holding compassion for my disappointments. Between my inner somatic work and our outer work together, I remembered repeatedly that pain monsters go away only when I walk close, so close that I become them. In surrender, my bigness—our shared bigness—reveals itself in the love that the monsters dissolve back into.
While honoring a friend who’d recently died, Amber Arnold said of dominant culture: “because of our death-phobia … we see healing as a lack of suffering…. But true healing really is the ability to increase our capacity to hold suffering, to hold complexity, to be with discomfort, to dance with death.”
This is how I see us healing together. My body alone carries millennia of memories of war and corporal punishment and imperialism and foot binding and spiritual shaming and sexual violence and undesired girl children and famine and displacement and more. Putting our bodies together, the pain is staggering, and yet we still show up each day doing the best we can under the circumstances. I love us for that.
It’s through our work together that I came to see the permanence of love. Like the night sky that reveals itself to have always been there when the bustle and haze of the day fades, there the love is! Bearing witness while we approach our collective suffering from different angles, seeking to dissolve the pain in our closeness to it.
That is inner power. I think of it as yin power because outer, yang power—money, status, dominance—takes energy, while inner power—love—is our true source.
We’ve built so much power together. We’ve connected, grieved, struggled, visioned, weaved. We’ve expanded the collective imagination of the world that’s possible right now. Even when we’re pissing each other the hell off, we’ve done so much together and have everything to be proud of.
But! (You saw that coming, right?) With greater yang power comes the risk of forgetting the yin of who we really are. If we do that, we replicate dominant culture’s trap, losing ourselves even when we outwardly win.
I don’t want that fight.
While on leave, I began to notice how hard it is for me to truly rest. Even with nothing threatening me, my jaw still juts out pugnaciously in my sleep. My psoas still stands at attention. It takes active practice to simply let my body melt into the Earth’s persistent embrace for eight hours a day—an anti-practice to the ready vigilance that my body learned well, in a world of people bigger and stronger than me.
From this embodied smallness, it was easy to blame others for our collective suffering. To anyone who’s been on the receiving end of that: I’m sorry. Deepening into our shared bigness, I remember more easily that we’re each doing the best we can. Our collective suffering is within me, and I’m held within it. I can’t blame, judge, or fight anyone else without hurting myself too, and I don’t want to do that anymore.
I commit to carrying forward this learning: that oppression is just the fingerprints left by numb, protected bodies. Numb bodies can’t be assailed into awareness and accountability. Instead, they long to heal—back into the sensitive instruments of connection that we each truly are.
The bigger our yang power, the more dangerous we become if we leave any secret smallness unhealed. As humans in a human supremacist system—especially those of us making a living in so-called land use and development—we each wield some yang power, and with it the responsibility to heal.
I’ve come to believe that only through valuing our healing, walking each other back to our true bigness, will we ever lighten the colonizing footprint on this land and each other’s bodies. Only then can our systemic fingerprints reverberate with the aliveness of our spirits, and not the numbness of our traumas.
We must love ourselves back to life. There is no other path forward for our species. The two loop model of systems change holds important insights, but it depicts two systems when there’s just one: us, in different degrees of relationship with our true bigness, breathing through a dream prophesied seven generations ago.
I believe that our bodies are capable of greater wisdom and creativity than our brains alone, and when we re-attune our bodily instruments, we can better honor the land’s dreams. I’m moving on from this position in order to offer some experiments toward this possibility, in the yin spirit of a gift economy practice. Email me if this speaks to you. Sign up here if you’re interested in early drafts of a book on what I’m learning and thinking.
Thanks to all of you, and especially the fiercely loving EDI team, for being a family and home to me. I’m grateful beyond words. I love, honor, and celebrate each of your paths.
May we be who we entered our bodies to be.
May we learn what we’re in our bodies to learn.
May we do the sacred work that we truly came to this world to do.
May we behold our true bigness, and see one another through.
With love and gratitude,