The kitchen sink in our office is a small sink that does not invite random dishes to settle in and hang around, a welcome change from some previous office sinks. It practically screams, “Wash that dish right now!” Last week as a I took a few plates and utensils to the sink and proceeded with washing, I turned on the water and put some dish soap on a cloth and began washing and rinsing each piece one by one.
Angela joined me at the sink, watched me for a moment, shook her head, and observed out loud that she didn’t understand this approach to washing dishes—one dish at a time with the water running continuously. She shared how she had grown up in her grandmother’s house with a double sink where one sink was always full of a little warm soapy water and dishes soaked before being scrubbed and then rinsed as a group. Angela bemoaned the waste of water that comes along with washing dishes individually.
There it was, this theme that has shown up in my work throughout the month of February: the impact of centering the individual in contrast to the impact of centering the collective.
Conversations that contrast the individual with the collective are taking place in many spaces these days. The individual and the collective are themes in any conversation about the pandemic—whether we are discussing wearing masks, getting vaccinated, closing schools, or remote working. As we talk about climate change, we struggle with giving up individual rights and conveniences for the good of the whole or the benefit of the next generation. The struggle also exists in our work to end sexual and intimate partner violence. How do we advocate for individuals who are being violated and traumatized right here and now, while also advocating for the changes necessary to build healthy and thriving communities in which violence is substantially less likely to happen?
I work with a wise coach who has taught me to identify and value polarities—ideas and values that appear to be in opposition but are each valuable in their own way. Polarities invite us to develop our balancing skills. We don’t have to choose one—we can learn to do both well, and to notice the signs that one or the other is becoming predominant to the point of doing harm to the other. We can then choose to bring them back into balance.
When we embrace both the individual and the collective—valuing both deeply and paying close attention to when our attention to one is harming the other–we can make informed choices. There are times that call for a full focus on the individual, the here and now, the danger, the injustice. There are times that call for intense focus on the future—there are deep roots of oppression that must be pulled out with all our might if collective safety and justice are ever to have an opportunity to grow. Most times call for us to do a good amount of both at the same time—a skill that requires intention, strength, and lots of practice.
Increasingly in our work we are cultivating the capacity to recognize that within each individual is a collective. Each individual carries their ancestors—whether consciously or unconsciously—in body and in spirit. Each individual is tethered to others in our present lives, people to whom we are inextricably linked as families by birth or by choice. Each of us contains the seeds of future generations—our words and our actions and our biological matter are shaping the world our great grandchildren will live in. At our best, when we work for individual rights to safety and dignity, we recognize and lift the collective within everyone.
We are also getting better at recognizing that the collective is made up of individuals. Working for the good of the whole must include time and space to see and be with individuals. The picture we are painting of thriving communities is a picture in which each person is valued and respected. So, we must grapple with how “the whole” includes those who have used the tools of violence and oppression. While we put our collective energies to the task of digging out the roots of that violence and oppression and building capacity for safe and healthy relationships, can we do a better job of applying the values of healthy and respectful communities to our approaches around accountability in the here and now?
I believe we can. This balancing act requires a strong core—a strong individual core, and a strong collective core; a strong physical core, and a strong spiritual core. It also requires a wide view. We can’t be staring at our toes. We must look up and look all the way around us—seeing the connections, seeing what is precious, seeing the future.
There was a whole lot of wisdom in Angela’s grandmother’s kitchen. I deeply value that she shared a small piece of that wisdom with me—and I will carry it with me and make it a part of my “both/and” practice. I will think about the precious water, about collective and individual responsibility, and I will act.
“Water has been my greatest teacher—partially because I am a woman and it is strong medicine that I carry, but also because of its sheer power. It has taught me to reflect on my own participation in work, taught me to remember the fundamentals that life is built on. That things cycle, that nothing is ever truly finished, so we must stay vigilant and aware of how things move, even when we think we win. Lastly, water has taught me that with enough force and will, I am unstoppable.”-Sharon Lungo, climate justice activist
Quoted in Emergent Strategy at the end of the chapter on interdependence and decentralization, by adrienne maree brown
Kristi VanAudenhove is the Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance. She has been a leader in coalition work, advocacy and policy for 40 years.
Note: The blog title references Pete Seeger’s “Step by Step.”Read more news