3/26/2009

Lunch with the Speakers

Before the Women of Color symposium officially launched, we gathered together at the Fireside Restaurant in the "new" part of town, wheatfields converted to strip malls and health care facilities in the last decade. I'd visited the Fireside in 2006 when it was only a few months old - my in-laws took me to dinner there to celebrate my first gig at WSU. It was a bit surreal for me since I had only related to them as their daughter-in-law for so many years. They were treating me like an out-of-town guest and I remember stumbling over small talk because of the shift.

I'm not a naturally gregarious person and I have to work hard to make small talk. I got lots of practice when I arrived at the Fireside this year when I arrived a bit early for the lunch and most everyone else arrived quite late. The restaurant had lost our reservation and so I sat in the lobby waiting for one of the organizers to arrive. I was feeling a displaced sort of otherness, untethered by my own nervousness heightened by the realization that I had left all my contact information back at my in-law's house.... along with my cel phone.

After about 10 minutes, a well-dressed woman came in who possessed an assurance that I recognized as someone who knew where she belonged. After confirming that the group she was with didn't have a reservation, she wandered toward me. I mustered the courage to introduce myself and ask if she was with the Women of Color Conference. She was kind and gracious, another Rebecca, and we tried to make small talk together. Our conversation was halting, but we learned about our children and our connections to WSU. She told me she was the senator from the Native American Women's Association and a returning student, and I think that's when I found myself recursively and self-consciously relating my connections with Swil Kanim and Gene Tagaban, performers she wasn't familiar with. I couldn't find much else to say and I sensed that I was making more of them and her heritage than she felt comfortable with. I'd fallen into that reductionist trap of race and I didn't know how to get myself out of it.

My closest ties to the realm of the indigenous is through the Native American culture - I still know so little about the Mangyan and T'boli cultures and they are not tied to the land on which I walk. It was awkward, and I became increasingly aware of my pushing for connection with her. She was kind and patient, thankfully, and after a few long pauses, the rest of the group arrived.

I found myself at the end of the table with Turea Erwin, the director of the Women's Center and Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith of UNCW. I studied my menu, searching for something vegetarian, nothing expensive, but perhaps different from what I'd usually order. The room was charged by hunger, a feeling of lateness, and a sense of not belonging. The restaurant never did find our reservation but by the time we were seated, there was enough space to accommodate the eight of us. The sweet potato fries were wonderful as was the portabello mushroom burger I had. Conversation varied from complaining about the weather, talking about the isolation inherent in the Palouse, and activism. We were slowly getting to know each other, but in a tired sort of way. We hadn't picked up on the energy of the conference and I think each of us was feeling a responsibility to create that energy, travel-lagged and hungry as we were.

I learned about Kimberly's work as a diversity trainer as she told us about how the African American's in her constituency were forced out by whites in the early part of the 20th century, relegated to the periphery, yet still a part of the economy. Making the majority aware of the black population was the first task - history had erased the memory of those early people, the first non-slaves in the area. The awareness had to come for both sides of the fence, black and white, for the African American's had forgotten their history too, and accepted complacently their second-citizen status in the area. Her frustration was evident and we were all amazed at the revisionist memory of her area.

I jotted down these notes:

Activism and Advocacy ==>> awareness, "being aware," "bringing awareness," "acting on awareness," stating the problem and telling the story.

We might not always know how to relate to each other in those first awkward moments of relationships, but when we tell the story of what we're passionate about, then we begin to create community, deeper community.

The speaker's lunch was a start, and over the next 24 hours I would find myself transformed by the community.

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