God Willing and The Creek Don’t Rise
Photo Credit: Shelah Marie
Late last Friday afternoon, I joined a Zoom call. Several DJA team members were there as was a client in Detroit. In all, three Black women, similar in age, were present. The obligatory, “How are you doing?” started the conversation. Our client paused—we’ve developed wonderful rapport—averted her eyes, and said “You know, God willing and the creek don’t rise.” All three Black women in the meeting burst into familiar laughter. We were in a space in which we fully belonged, able to experience and share a mutual sense of exhaustion in a way that reinforced sisterhood and support. I haven’t stopped smiling since.
The saying “God willing and the creek don’t rise” has been around for a long time, but it was likely popularized in Johnny Nash’s song “If the Lord’s Willing.” Most folks I know attribute it to our Big Mamas. Wikipedia describes it as an “American slang expression implying strong intentions subject to complete frustration by uncommon but not unforeseeable events.” Note: If you like following rabbit holes, I strongly recommend a bit of exploration on the origin of the phrase. It's hotly contested, to say the least.
Back to belonging: This is the sweet spot that so many of us are trying to find in our work, in our relationships, and in the health of our organizations. Belonging is never feeling “othered.” It’s always knowing, without too much effort exerted by anyone in particular—and certainly not by you—that you are in the right place. You are seen. You are valued as “part of us”; not in an assimilationist way, but in a way that allows your full essence to be present, expressed, and, simultaneously, a part of who we are. It’s a feeling, not an action, which means it goes beyond “inclusion training.” There’s no number of bullet-point check-lists on how to be inclusive that can teach one person how to convey a sense of belonging to another. Conveying a sense of belonging requires being fully comfortable and competent with us—all of us—in a shared space.
So how can leaders and organizations create and nurture a sense of belonging? Try these tips:
- Be warm and welcoming. I can’t overstate this. Humans can feel the emotions of other humans. Warmth is a universally desirable emotion, and it translates beautifully across cultures (even in virtual spaces).
- Be humble and culturally competent. When someone says something that is unfamiliar to you, listen and allow the focus to stay on them. An alternative would be to say, “Yes, I understand exactly what you mean. I had that same experience before. Don’t worry…” That’s not only hijacking a conversation, it’s re-centering yourself. Mostly, it is the opposite of cultural competence.
- Commit to hiring and retaining people from backgrounds underrepresented in your organization. Belonging is most possible when a person is not “the only one” in the space. It’s hard to have an experience like the one I mentioned, a shared moment of cultural familiarity, when there aren’t any other folks “like me” around.
- Avoid asking people to “bring their full selves” to a space and then expect them to do heavy lifting by teaching you about their experiences or by being made to feel like they have to over-explain themselves in order to be validated.
- Avoid making decisions based on “What I would like?'' or “What I would do?” Instead, pause and ask:
- What criteria have I/we used to make decisions like this in the past?
- Can we share our criteria in order to get alternative points of view about them?
- Who will be impacted by this decision?
- How can I/we invite and incorporate their input in the process?
- Use inclusive and intentional language. Words are important. They convey meaning. Consider your word choices carefully, and use them wisely.
- Be transparent. Share your thinking early and in draft form. Invite others to ask questions and provide input that might inform your direction.
- Be vulnerable and share a bit of yourself first. Think about it: It’s a lot to ask a person who is often “the only one” or regularly feels “othered” to have to, yet again, expose themselves. Demonstrate your values through your genuine behaviors, and let people step forward as they feel comfortable.
- Be constantly in the spirit of learning and modeling. Who you are shows in your actions as much as in your words. Make them match.
- Don’t run away. The work of being an ally, creating space for others who have been subjected to barriers, isn’t optional. It’s also not easy. Stay the course.
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