Have you ever found yourself in the kind of dilemma where ‘staying’ would feel like a betrayal of integrity, settling, or being complicit — and ‘leaving’ would mean avoiding conflict, giving up, or running away?
Ugh. I’m raising my own hand here.
My story begins last October, when I began an advanced 10-month leadership program that I had coveted for years – a definite bucket lister. The stars had finally aligned for me to participate and as I boarded the plane for the first of four in-person retreats, I knew I was embarking on a significant experience. I couldn’t have been more excited about what I would learn.
I arrived in the Blue Mountains of North Carolina with 24 other participants from across North America. We were all strangers to each other, all arriving with different agendas, life experiences, expectations and needs. We were aligned by our commitment to learning, stretching, being vulnerable, and creating meaningful connection. We all came prepared to step boldly into our own leadership so that we can be of greater service within our families, communities, work, and the world. What an incredible gift it has been to become a part of this powerful community of humans.
As we settled into our first week of experiential learning, I discovered that the program curriculum weaved in Native American rituals and customs. I hadn’t been aware that this was going to be part of the program as the details of the curriculum are kept confidential until you arrive so as not to influence your learning ahead of time.
Though it wasn’t on everyone else’s radar, I felt at odds about participating in the rituals. For me, the use of certain terms and rituals lived in the land of cultural appropriation and at the very least revealed a lack of sensitivity and awareness to how and why the use of such rituals is racially problematic.
For clarity: the bulk of the program is about leadership development and only a small portion of the experience weaves in Native American rituals and terms. Regardless, embracing these customs without history, context or attribution felt wrong.
So I spoke up. I invited dialogue and conversation amongst the leaders and the group. Several participants weighed in with a mix of support, curiosity, and opposition. White fragility showed up. As did white silence. There was also hope and openness for further analysis and discussion. For a start, we voted to eliminate the use of the word ‘tribe’ as a reference to our group – the first time this has been requested by a group in almost 25 years. A beginning.
I left that first retreat still feeling unsettled and conflicted. As I dug in further, I learned that the organization as a whole has not yet implemented structures or systems that ensure a culture of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Over the past few years, much of my learning and development has been about anti-racism. It’s become a leadership stake for me and I look for every opportunity to ensure that I am living and working through that lens. I have a lifetime of learning ahead of me because this work is never done.
For weeks following the first retreat I sat with this question: How do I knowingly pay money to an organization that has significant gaps in diversity, equity and inclusion, an area I care deeply about and one that has become a leadership stake for me?
I went back and forth on what I experienced, what felt good about the program, and what didn’t. I couldn’t seem to get beyond binary thinking. Which meant I was grappling with only two options: to stay and be complicit, or to quit and avoid dealing with it. But neither felt right.
My friend Ali said to me, “Jac, this is an example of The Tragic Gap. You can choose cynicism (which is not going to serve anything) or you can choose idealism (which doesn’t yet exist)… or you can intentionally take action and be a catalyst for change from within The Tragic Gap.”
This is the place where we can contribute most effectively to change. It’s a messy place full of hard realities but we can be of greater service when we act from inside this place.
“By the tragic gap I mean the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.” —Parker J. Palmer
It turns out I have more than two choices. I won’t pull out of the program in protest. I won’t continue while feeling complicit. I’ll stay and experience leading from within the Tragic Gap.
For me, leading from within the Tragic Gap looks like:
- Defining my non-negotiables. Full permission to ‘opt-out’ if anything feels out of integrity.
- Speaking up even if it means being the voice of the disruptor.
- Continue adding my voice to an internal task force who’ve submitted a proposal to address the organizational gaps in diversity, equity and inclusion, and following up to see what decisions are being made.
- Continuing my own anti-racist learning by working with Desiree Adaway whose life’s work is creating resilient, equitable and inclusive organizations.
- Nurturing loving and honest relationships with my fellow podmates and leaders. We’re all learning from each other and willing to stay in difficult conversations.
- Being a resource for others by recommending books (like White Fragility), courses and experts in anti-racism and social justice.
In a way, this post is about what I signed up to learn and what I’m learning instead. It’s about working through all the choices available to us when our integrity is tested. But mostly it’s about the kind of leadership that emerges from our willingness to stay in the Tragic Gap. To be a catalyst for change when it would be easier to quit and be cynical, or be too attached to irrelevant idealism.
Resources that have helped broaden my perspective:
- White Fragility Robin diAngelo
- White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not. Robin diAngelo
- 100 Ways to Support—Not Appropriate From—Native People Simon Moya-Smith
- Calling In: A Quick Guide on When and How Sian Ferguson
- What Does Call-In Mean? When Call-Out Culture Feels Toxic, This Method Can Be Used Instead Kyli RodriguezCayro
**This is by no means an exhaustive list so please add any additional relevant resources in the comments.