S2 – Episode 4 – Friends for Life
Melvin Bray is an Emmy® award-winning storyteller, author, and social entrepreneur, who lives with his wife, three kids, and the dog in southwest Atlanta, GA. In his primary work, Melvin helps communities, cohorts, and organizations correct inequalities, repair the damage done while inequalities were allowed to persist, and reimagine systems for how we relate to one another (collabyrinthconsulting.com). Melvin also makes time to write. He is author of BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be (Chalice Press, 2017) and editor and contributor to several other projects. In his spare time, Melvin joins forces with other storytellers and storylovers to disrupt narratives of anti-blackness and elevate perceptions of Black humanity, through the project BeautifulVentures(.com).
Dr. Sharon Groves is Vice President for Partner Engagement at Auburn Seminary. In that role she engages with movements, leaders, and organizations doing spirit-rooted justice work. Sharon leads or co-leads a number of projects at Auburn, including Being in Relationship which supports people of faith and spirit as they move away from toxic forms of religious identity and are looking for faith expressions that promote human flourishing; spirit-rooted engagement with reproductive health, rights and justice; and faith community engagement with economic justice. She serves as a lead liaison with major policy and movement partners, including the Women’s March, the Center for American Progress, national faith denominations as well as regional and local faith communities. Prior to coming to Auburn, Sharon directed the Religion and Faith Program at the Human Rights Campaign. She received her PhD in English Literature in 2000 from the University of Maryland.
LISA ANDERSON: (Music playing) Welcome to the Friends for Life podcast. My name is Lisa Anderson.
MACKY ALSTON: And I’m Macky Alston.
LA: And we are beloved friends and co-conspirators interviewing other friends and co-conspirators.
MA: Thanks for being with us as we explore the ways in which friendship helps us create a world of love and justice.
LA: All right. So welcome friends. This is the fourth episode of our second season of Friends for Life. And, today, we are delighted to welcome Melvin Bray and Sharon Groves. So Melvin is an Emmy Award winning storyteller — I love that, Emmy Award winner — and social entrepreneur. He lives and he gardens with his wife and his three kids and two dogs in Southwest Atlanta, Georgia, so we are neighbors. Melvin is a student of how [00:01:00] societal myths aid or block desired political outcomes. Wow, that’s pretty intense. And, as such, he is the author of Better: Waking Up to Who We Could Be, which demonstrates how our social and sacred narratives can either promote or subvert beloved community. As a social entrepreneur, Melvin works to help communities of goodwill find better stories and scripts, better ways of thinking and doing that move them toward equity, diversity, and inclusion.
MA: Dr. Sharon Groves has been working with Auburn for seven years as our Vice President for Partner Engagement. Sharon’s work is to engage with movements, leaders, and organizations doing justice work grounded in faith and moral courage. Before coming to Auburn, Sharon served as the Director of the Religion and Faith Program at Human Rights Campaign, HRC, for the better part of 10 years. At HRC, [00:02:00] Sharon oversaw statewide faith organizing efforts in Oregon, Illinois, Rhode Island, Maine, Maryland, and Washington State. It’s a network that we came to know each other, Sharon, and that work changed my life, changed this country, changed our movements, and that’s where we fell in love. Sharon’s home is in Washington D.C, where she lives with her spouse and her very mischievous puppy, Yo-Yo.
LA: Yeah, so I love the official introductions because people get very impressed by the folks that we know. But what I can tell you about Melvin and Sharon is they’re just longtime beloveds, longtime beloveds. And so, we are so delighted to have you with us. Let’s just talk my friends. Let’s just talk. We start off always with something embodied. So, in that spirit, [00:03:00] what is delighting your senses these days? Pick any sense that you like, taste, sight, sound, whatever sense. And just where are you finding delight? Melvin, let’s start with you.
MELVIN BRAY: I have really enjoyed stepping out on my front porch, and standing in the sun, and just feeling the warmth of it all over my body. I have been longing for spring. I’m a summer baby. So, you know, hot can’t get here fast enough for me. And, plus, I love to grow things, so I want to put some things in the ground. And spring has been a little tease this year, right? Like, she’ll come out for two or three days, and then she goes back, and so on and so forth. But the gift has been just whether it’s warm or not, [00:04:00] when the sun comes out, and I’m able to stand on the porch and can just feel it on my face, oh my God, it is life.
LA: Oh, beautiful. Beautiful. What about you, Sharon? What is delighting your senses these days?
SHARON GROVES: Well, all of you are, that’s for sure. I love people. And so I’m a little bit of a chameleon. So it’s who I’m with, I love the things that they love. So, like, if I’m with Macky, it’s, like, let’s try those wines, whatever you’re trying, I want to try, and I want to understand how you taste that. When I’m with Lisa, and I’m with you, it’s like let’s get at the prosecco and the right amount of grapefruit juice. (laughter) And Melvin and I talk forever about gardens and what’s growing. So I kind of want to say something about one of my — a really dear friend of mine I’ve been thinking about in terms of senses, and almost kind of [00:05:00] want to dedicate this to her because — her name’s [Donna Payne?]. And I probably learn more about organizing from her than anybody. And she had this thing where she would have — like, Lisa, you know the story, but for her birthday, she would get what we called “The Oprah cake.” Because Oprah had this favorite caramel cake that came from — I think it’s called Carolina Bakery or something like that. And it’s a huge cake, comes in this big fancy box, like a tin. It’s seven layers, very, very thin, with caramel between each layer. And you knew that you were loved by Donna if you were one of the few that she would actually offer a piece of her cake on her birthday that she would get for herself. And, recently, just a couple weeks ago, [00:06:00] her mother died in her sleep. And so it’s just been a very, very hard, hard month, hard couple of weeks. I got her the Oprah cake. And it was just — we’ve had the most transformative conversations because there is something about that power of just recognizing that thing that somebody loves so much, and even in that time of deep grief to recognize that piece. Anyhow, so I’ve been thinking about that incredible caramel cake in that tin.
LA: Mm. Oh, God, I love both of those responses. First of all, because I can taste the cake because, Sharon, you’ve sent me that cake. (laughter) And it’s an amazing cake. And then I can feel the heat and the love in just that exchange right there. [00:07:00] And so y’all have been friends for a good long time, a good long time. How did you get here? How did you become friends? What is this relationship? And because folks can’t see us, y’all mirror Macky and me in a way, right, because we’re doing friendship across race, right? And y’all are doing friendship across race. And I know there’s more, and there’s a lot of depth in that. So just —
SG: And across genders.
LA: And across genders.
SG: This comes up all the time.
MB: (inaudible), yeah.
LA: Yep. Mm-hmm. So just reflect for us a little bit about how’d you get here. What has becoming friends been like for y’all?
SG: Well, I think we met at Mountain Top, the first one. And I remember just kind of walking into that, and we didn’t know each other. And we started talking. And, at that point, you were doing, I think some [00:08:00] sustainable gardening work with young folks. I remember that, but I don’t remember like —
MA: Sharon, will you just share what’s Mountaintop?
SG: Oh, yeah, sorry. So Mountaintop is this amazing gathering that now, at this point, is run by Lisa, which is based on bringing movement leaders together that are spirit rooted in their work to be able to learn from one another. And we’ve done three of these. We’re moving to our fourth. And all of us have been deeply involved in that and what that means. And it’s kind of the best of what I think Auburn has to offer because it really brings people together that have been working really deeply in their spaces to be able to connect with one another and learn strategies from one another. And it’s evolved over the years, [00:09:00] but this first one, which I think, Macky, you helped to kind of get that one off the ground, we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were all kind of — where were we? We were in Nashville.
SG: What is this thing? I wasn’t at Auburn then. I was just one of the people invited in like Melvin. And that was the beginning. And then I don’t remember how — what was our first — and we did all this work together. But what happened after that, Melvin?
MB: I think my offering to this is that our friendship snuck up on me. We met at a time when — so much of my work in the world has been across racial lines, and I was involved with a project that was like the fastest growing progressive festival in the country at the time, and working across racial lines, and doing other work, [00:10:00] part of a project that was about what the church will be in the future, and so on and so forth, across racial lines. And I was kind of burned out on it. I was spent. Working across racial lines, being committed to friendships across racial lines does not come without a cost, right? It is labor in some ways that are both beautiful and exhausting. And so, Sharon, you and I met at the time when I had decided, you know what, woo, I need a break. I need to step away. I was really digging — I went to a historically Black high school, a historically Black college. I was digging this notion of going home and just being loved [00:11:00] on by your people with that in mind, right? Like, our interaction and our relating, we both are afflicted with the same need to be friendly, need to be relational, need to make the most of a situation. And so the fact that we kept being thrown together or kept working together, and because of this, we would end up talking for hours. And we would end up just loving on each other. We would end up disclosing with one another. All of the sudden, this thing that I was not trying to have was there. And I had to acknowledge it. And I was mad at friends who were acknowledging it before me, right? Like, before I was. Like, what in the world? And so, now, it is such a gift to know or to have learned from that. When we keep ourselves open, [00:12:00] we get what we need. Even when we think we need something else, and even when we do need something else, we make possible — by keeping ourselves open, we make possible for the thing we didn’t know we needed as well.
LA: I love it. Y’all speak in like quotables. (laughter)
SG: I was just going to say we have this kind of agenda-free, agenda adjacent kind of conversations that have emerged. And maybe that even happened, Melvin, before we started working together. We’ve done a lot of work projects together, but we have this — it’s very countercultural, actually. We will check in and sometimes those conversations will literally go on for three hours. I think we’ve like clocked at it four at one point. (laughs)
MB: Yeah, like we apologize to our spouses [00:13:00] about then and go on and call it quits.
SG: It’s like (inaudible) rolls her eyes. It’s like, oh, Sharon’s in a Melvin conversation. All right. I’ll just have my own dinner. (laughs) But there’s usually some sort of an agenda, but the agenda kind of gets — it gets sort of embedded in, but we just kind of come at — we get at all the stuff. We do a whole lot of unpacking. And that’s like the joy in this friendship. It’s really deep around that, and it can start in something completely shallow, and then it can go really deep. And then it can kind of like take a twist and a turn. And it’s just been a really surprising journey. So that sense of like being sort of — it just kind of comes up at you, like what was the starting point, is interesting.
LA: Mm-hmm. This is interesting hearing you talk about this because I think about [00:14:00] the way that the relationships have been so important with the co-leaders that I work with in the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle, and there’s a similarity to a depth of engagement around — I love the thing about agenda free and agenda adjacent. It’s like there’s this way in which we have to be in each other’s lives at a certain level in order to really be able to get to the place where we’re unpacking the depth of the of the work that we care about, of the world that we want to see. Those two things come together. I don’t think a lot of people get a sense of talking about really getting a chance to look into what that is. We say a lot about relationships, relationships matter, but to see that texture, to know that the texture of it is I’m getting in it with you.
MB: [00:15:00] Mm-hmm.
MA: I love that idea. And we’ve said it before that in healthy relationship, in loving relationship, mutually loving, we’re practicing the world as it should be. But the truth, of course, we know is, yes, we can get what we want or need, but we also get hurt.
MA: In other words, friendship makes life bearable, but it’s also full of challenge. And I know that you all have spent a good amount of time on this issue of accountability, which is sort of a buzzword now. But let’s go in on that. What does accountability mean in the context of your friendship? And then how does that help you in regard to your work?
MB: So, [00:16:00] for me, our friendship actually helped to flush out what was essential in this work around accountability that we do because, of course, when I think of accountability, I think of someone requiring something of me. And my mind immediately goes back to my beloved Aunt Barbara, who we lost in 2018 to kidney failure. And when I was growing up, my Aunt Barbara, man, I thought — I mean, she just rode me, like I was a rocking horse or something, right? I mean, just like on my back. And I remember asking of a buddy of mine, I grew up with, like, does she not like me? I mean, like, what is it, right? [00:17:00] But I came to understand as I matured, right, like, seven-year-old, eight-year-old boy, not understanding, came to understand that she loved me as much as life itself. She rode me because she saw something in me that was worth polishing up, and refining, and make it — and so, with her, I learned that I needed — that it wasn’t enough just to show up. You need to show up as your best self if you can. She was the one that brought that out of me, that said that life require some things of us. And so this is what she gave me. Oh, my goodness. So that is my frame of reference for accountability. What I learned with [00:18:00] Sharon, which is equally as important, and goes back to that same relationship, but what I learned from her is that accountability also includes belonging. That if you’re going to be accountable — one of the reasons we stay committed to relationships that are either not healthy for us or not healthy for others, that actually make the world worse, make other people’s situations worse, one of the reasons we’ll stay in relationships to people who are running roughshod over other people is because we feel this sense of belonging. And the idea of breaking up with them then puts us alone, adrift, swinging in the wind. And so some of this work, this organizing work, this work of equity and making the world new [00:19:00] is wrapped up into creating spaces where people can belong with — [Resmaa?] talks about it as better things to belong to and better ways to belong. And I learned that in relationship with Sharon.
SG: I love that. I think I’ve had a real journey around accountability with Melvin. Just to be really honest, I sort of said, Melvin, I need you to be my accountability partner, period, because I was recognizing that this shift that was happening at Auburn around moving as a historically white institution to an institution that was moving in a direction of being more multiracial and particularly more multiracial in terms of leadership. And so early on, I’m, like, I need people [00:20:00] in my life because I can’t do this work myself, that can let me know, am I an asset in the space? Am I doing the work that needs to be done? Am I getting in my own way? Can we talk that through? So I started out with — I kind of like had three people in mind. And Melvin was probably primary in that around who am I going to check in with about how am I doing, that in this space as a white leader at an institution that’s trying to change, and to ensure that I wasn’t getting in the way, but actually helping to make space for the transformation that needs to happen. What has been interesting in this work — and, now, we’re doing — I think we’ve kind of landed on something pretty special around these kinds of accountability circles, which we’ve been doing together. But some of the things that we’ve been talking about, [00:21:00] and what’s kind of shifted or deepened for me, in particular, is to begin to think about accountability around this tenor of belonging, but also there is this tension between — we need to do something to be better for the people in our lives and for the people that have been left out of the conversations. We need to do some transformation for others. So there is this, what are you going to do? Who are you going to be accountable to? And it’s in relationship with this other question about what is in my gorgeous self that I want people to hold me accountable to? What is that deep piece of who I am at my very best, who I want to be in the world? And recognizing that all of us have that. And so there’s this dance between those two ways [00:22:00] of thinking. And that is often our conversation, right? We really kind of try to play that out. And, sometimes, I will fall into more of a kind of — what do I want to say? I’ll give a pass to people that are acting badly. And Melvin’s like, “No, no, no, no, no, we’re not going to play that. Because when you do that, who’s not seen in this scenario, right?” And so we talk that stuff through, so that we’re actually getting at this piece of deep belonging in that sense of we belong — we are responsible for what we put out in the world, and we are beloved in our own selves. So that’s kind of a lot of where we go with this belonging question or this accountability question.
LA: I love the idea of getting to be our best selves inside of accountability and belonging, which is a different take then the accountability responsibility [00:23:00] frame can often emerge for people out of guilt and shame. And this is a different ask that you seem to be putting out there of yourselves and communities.
MB: So this is one of the things I love most about Sharon, and that is her willingness to risk in these ways. One of the things I needed in cross-racial relationships because I hadn’t been able to participate in it before, and I didn’t know until Sharon and I became friends, was this need to risk something, and for the trust to be built on that risking that a person made for someone other than themselves, [with?] something other than their own self-interest, but something other than the power dynamics, [00:24:00] the power arrangements as they exist. It is that that we then turn into this ask, where we’re saying, hey, we all say we want better. I say it, particularly, as it relates to gender, and the ways I treat my beloved, and the ways I treat my daughters, and the ways I want to raise my son, right, to show up in the world as a man. And we all say we want better. But then who holds us to actual better? It’s easy for me to say to my beloveds, hey, if there’s something you need to tell me, you need to tell me, but there’s all kinds of power dynamics in that thing. There’s all kinds of the reasons why [00:25:00] that becomes an impossible task and a burden on them. So who holds us to that? So then, okay, what does it mean to be in community with a circle of folk who are saying, hey, we want to be better towards the same direction, but in order to do that, you’re going to have to risk some things. You’re going to have to show up differently. You’re going to have to hold yourself accountable. Sometimes, this is just kind of the supportiveness, but, sometimes, this is the confrontation. Are you good with that? Are you good with having someone hold up a mirror to you and not taking it down just because you did that thing that you do where you buck back, and then most people leave you alone about a thing that you need to actually face? And so that’s been the return gift from Sharon because she’s teaching me how to risk in those ways, [00:26:00] and how to be receptive in those ways in our friendship.
SG: I mean, it’s really interesting how this is working out because Melvin makes me risk all the time. And we’re all deep friends on this call. Macky makes me risk all the time, and Lisa does, too. But one of the interesting things that Melvin will do is that I will fall into being background and support really fast, and like to be that person that’s kind of like the smart kid in the room, (laughs) but not responsible for holding the space. And Melvin forces me to be like, okay, now you’re going to actually do this thing. You’re going to actually speak on this. You’re going to have to show up vulnerable. And because we know each other really well, sometimes, that means — showing up vulnerable doesn’t just mean talking about all the ways in which you screwed up, [00:27:00] it might actually be talking about some of the successes. It might actually be like a little bit more powerful in the way in which you’re presenting a thing. So it’s a very interesting kind of very nuanced way in which we’re really kind of holding each other accountable to our own growth. And one of the things that we’ve had to — because we’ve been doing a lot of work together for a while now that we’ve navigated is some real juicy conversations with people where Melvin as a lead, as a Black straight man is not working with people.
SG: Do you remember (inaudible)? And Melvin used a sports analogy, and the whole room just turned against him instantly.
SG: And so we have to like, what’s [going on underneath?] all of this? What is in this thing? And so we’re watching so often the way in which race and gender [00:28:00] show up in how we naturally show up. Melvin naturally shows up to be in the front of the room. You’re conditioned for that. And then what are the ways of resisting that, of moving adjacent to that, like seeing that as a gift, but also trying to move away from it, making space? And I’m conditioned to be support. And what are the ways in which I need to kind of move more in the center, or what does that look like, right? And so we are always in conversation about the way these dynamics show up inside of this question of accountability and growth. And I think about accountability, friendship, all of these ideas that we have that are so powerful as verbs as opposed to nouns. So it’s always kind of how’s growth happening inside of the categories? [00:29:00] How are we shifting in relationship to them?
MA: Y’all I want to ask you a question because this is happening in my body right now, and I know you know as I say this was coming. I was really taken by that notion of the relationships that make the world worse and how that’s a real thing. And I think in relationships in which power is distributed differently through our systems and as we’re formed, there’s suspicion. There’s suspicion in us, rightly so. And there’s suspicion of us. So can y’all tell a story that helps you know that in the end yours is not a relationship that makes the world worse, that it’s not some kind of betrayal of your people to be in love with each other [00:30:00] like you are?
SG: I can tell one. I have two stories. I’ll start with one that just happened. We’re doing this work with four different leaders of state groups — LGBT state leaders in red states, so it’s Arizona, Wyoming, North Carolina, and Florida. And the person in this group from Wyoming recently had a death threat against her. And it was really serious. And her child came in her room crying. It’s a very, very scary, hard moment. And she wrote to the small group that we’re in. This was not part of our regular accountability circle. [00:31:00] It was just she wrote this separately and told the story. And then the flood of love that came back to her was really powerful. And I think, in particular — I mean, this is one of the things, like, you have Melvin as a friend, and you’ve got a gift for life. It’s just a really deep thing to be in Melvin’s circle. Because what Melvin did in that space was he didn’t just say, “Oh, we’re thinking about you. We love you. What can we do?” He said, “Tell me the names of your two children. Tell me how old they are. My babies and I are going to pray for them.” It was so powerful, like just the way of kind of really getting very specific about who are you in the world? Who are your people? What’s your husband’s reaction? How is he doing? And we are going to, in my family, pray for you. And, to me, that just kind of summed up like this sense of [00:32:00] this deep need for belonging and the way that friendship is building, and this core idea of friendship because Melvin and Sarah don’t know each other well. This is a relatively new relationship. But there is something that is being built because of the values that are so core to what it means to be belonging and community to one another, that I think is an example of good in the world.
LA: Everything about that example — first of all, I recognize Melvin in that example. Nothing about that feels like really? Did he really do that? It feels like consistent. But the question about values is what I heard, or the issue about like standing inside of these values as a way of knowing. [00:33:00] I think of a story. I’m going to gush on Melvin for a hot second. So I think of this story about when we were doing our second cohort at the Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle. And we were going to the south, and we were going to a small bed and breakfast. And we’re going with 10 Black trans women. And we got the impression from the place that they were going to be nice and accepting, but Melvin’s like, “Oh, no, we’re going to have to get in the car.” And, at that time, we’re all living in New York or coming from all over the country. I’m getting in the car. And I’m driving to the to the place. And I’m going to let them know that they’ve got people. We trust that they’re good, but they’re going to know that if they don’t come correct my people got people, and that was [00:34:00] huge for our group. Getting to this question of identities and bodies, straight, Black male, who says, “My sisters, these are my sisters.” And it was confirmed that the folks were great at the — I’m going to plug the James Madison in. (laughs) But it was the fact of they’re going to know that folk got their back. Yeah, I just had to tell that story.
MB: I appreciate you all so much. I appreciate you because, in many respects, I am learning to be that person from you. I had some great folk pour into me [00:35:00] growing up. I had a wonderful mother, single mother, and great grandparents. And my father was in my life, even though my parents weren’t together, and a great guy. I was raised in a great church community that loved on me, sometimes even despite themselves. So I have not been for loss of a sense of belonging. By the same token, that belonging had its kind of limits, right, like you had to show up in a particular kind of way in the world in order to be a part of some of those groups where I found belonging. And so, it’s only in [00:36:00] adulthood that my sense of siblingness has grown. I was blessed to have a transgender cousin growing up, who, unfortunately, because of our family dynamics could never show up as her true self. I did not know her as Cassandra, so I didn’t have the benefit of working that stuff out early. I’ve always been blessed to have queer friends, but, again, who couldn’t own that, quite often. And it was only in adulthood where they were able to find themselves. And so learning what it means to love deeply across [00:37:00] lines of difference that I was raised to believe kind of should be eternal lines is a thing that makes me better. And I learned that from you, so I learned how to show up. I remember meeting Macky and Lisa, and just the effusiveness with which they show up in the world. And when I was young, if anybody showed up that way, you know you were gay, right?
MA: That’s right.
MB: So I made it a point not to be that guy, right? (laughs) And so with my straight heterosis normative self, say, no, no, no, I need — there’s something beautiful in that. I need to somehow find that in me. I need to learn how to show up with that kind of love because I feel that. I need to learn how to give it. [00:38:00] And so the opportunities like that text message are created by the example that you all have set. And the opportunities like that time in Madison are created by the examples that you’ve set, and so I thank you.
SG: And maybe this gets at something of what you’re trying to get at, Macky, but I’m going to tell a story on myself around our relationship. But I also belong to the effusive club. And I get really —
MB: (inaudible) (laughs)
SG: — excited about introducing people to people, right? We were doing some work with somebody in the Women’s March, who’s the person of color. And it was just starting. And so I do this introduction, and I am sure I have done this about five or six times, maybe more than that. And I do this introduction of Melvin to this person, Norm. And it’s like, Melvin is so great, [00:39:00] and here’s all the ways. [Nora’s?] so great, and here’s all the ways. And there was no consciousness that I had that I’m the white lady with, like, actually sort of the money for the project that we’re doing that’s doing this effusive, here, let me introduce you lovely people of color to one another. (laughter) And I’m just in my kind of naivete doing this thing. And then Melvin tells me later, well, you know, Sharon, what I had to do was go and make the phone call after the phone call to kind of connect the relationship to one another. So it was really a wonderful kind of consciousness opening for me of how power works in relationships, even when you’re like — it works when you’re not aware of it, and it works when you’re aware of it. And there’s probably like there — underneath all of that, if I’m really honest, there is power [00:40:00] in being able to be the one that gets to introduce people to each other. And then I was using that power, even as I loved these people and wanted them to be together, and it was like — and that was sort of a — because I always just want to have the happy party, right? So that’s also been this piece around like the real preciousness and value of this relationship is being able to have somebody that we can actually dive in and talk about, you know, when you did that, I had to go and do this. I had to kind of go back and do some extra work because you got to understand how you’re showing up as the white funder, just got to understand that. And so it’s been this very, very fascinating relationship piece, but that’s just an example, I think, of the ways in which if there’s not consciousness about [00:41:00] how power is operating inside of a relationship that is of difference across race and across gender, that we make all kinds of mistakes all the time that can really be very, very detrimental to our communities.
MB: And to your question, Macky, just to put a fine point on it, my sharing that with Sharon was me honoring her risk by risking back. And what makes me feel like I’m not betraying my own was her reaction when I shared that. She didn’t get defensive about it. She didn’t say, “How dare you?” Her reaction to it was to say, “Oh, is that an adjustment I need to make? How do I need to adjust in this place? And how do we then recognize [00:42:00] when this interaction that I’m brokering or helping to sponsor doesn’t necessarily need to involve me? How do I learn to trust you — the friendship is strong enough where there’s enough trust for her to say, “Okay, Melvin, I’m going to trust you to be in this interaction with this person that we’re sponsoring for this thing that we’re sponsoring, even if I’m not in the center of it, even if I’m not the one making the decisions, even if I’m not the — I’m going to trust that it’s going to turn out because we’re both working towards the same hopes and dreams.
LA: Yeah, I love this. And the thing that we didn’t speak into, but it’s implicit in here, we said, differences across race and class, orientation and — oh, class. Class is what I don’t think we really talked about a lot in here, but it’s kind of implicit in there, because these issues around money. And I would say the generational [00:43:00] wealth question inside of race comes up inside of what you all were saying.
SG: Melvin has made such a difference in my thinking around what does it mean in our movement work when we want the people that are closest to the ground to inform our work, which almost always means people that don’t have institutional privileges, like health insurance, retirement, a consistent paycheck, any of those things, but we want them to inform our work because they often have the flexibility and because they’re not institutionally beholden, they’re in the spaces in a different kind of ways. So we want them to inform everything we do, but we’re not willing to figure out what it means [00:44:00] to compensate them for that work, and to be able to think around what is the table of belonging in justice space? How do we make that table different? And Melvin has been really amazing in sort of Vanguarding some of the thinking that we’re starting to do. And, Lisa, you and I have been talking about this a lot in terms of how we understand Auburn, how we shift some of our ways of operating, but that gets at, I think, in part, the way that class plays out in terms of doing work — class and power play out in terms of doing work in justice spaces.
MA: Yeah. I have had the benefit of the exposure of someone who is upper middle class. And I’ve been able to show up in spaces where upper middle-class folk make decisions [00:45:00] that actually impact the lives of folk who are not in those spaces and are invited into opportunities that other folk don’t get to see. I am a product of a parochial education, been in private schools all my life, but the truth is that I grew up poor. My mom had a really good government job that when she came into the church, she gave up because the idea was you give up everything for the Lord. And so she became a literature evangelist where she sold books door to door to try to introduce people to Christ. Now, I need you to understand the context in which this is happening. I came from a church where almost everyone [00:46:00] who held power was white, and those who were not owned businesses, some of them owned banks, some of them owned nursing homes. So this convincing of the poorest among you to put yourself in this kind of compromised position, it’s one of the — we are no worse for wear, my mother and I, but, nonetheless, it made life harder. Still got to go to private school, still got to go visit the White House, and do all the things, and be here, and travel abroad, and all these kinds of things. I’m very conscious when I’m in spaces of opportunity and privilege that I’m somewhat of an imposter. I don’t feel imposter. [00:47:00] I don’t think less of myself. I don’t feel like I don’t get to show up. But I am somewhat of an imposter because the assumption is that I’m functioning with all the same resourcing.
LA: Say it.
MB: And there have been times I’ve showed up in spaces with $50 bucks in the bank waiting on that honorarium, so I could get back.
LA: Say it.
MB: I mean, this stuff is real. And if we are going to do justice work in the world, and we think we’re going to solve that in the world, how the heck are we going to solve that in the world until we can solve it amongst ourselves within our own institutions that use justice as a label for this work?
LA: Amen. Gosh, (inaudible). Yes.
SG: I had a very different upbringing where I went to only state schools, [00:48:00] was brought up in an upper middle class, academic family that chose places to live that were affluent enough, but were on the edges of poor districts so that I ended up — all of my schooling, and it was in the Midwest, was in fairly rough schools, like fairly poor school, so it’s interesting. And I only have gone to state schools. So it’s like it’s just been — but have gone in those spaces as somebody that held more privilege than the friends that I had that were in that, by far, you know, like, by a lot. And so it’s just interesting how these dynamics play out in terms of how we understand space, how we understand each other. Yeah, it’s fascinating. And I remember, Melvin, you and I had a really rich conversation where — when I was a kid, I had a lot of undiagnosed [00:49:00] learning disabilities. And because I was in this academic family that prided — like a particular way of being smart, that I never felt like I had, but always had aspirations to be, there was a way that I felt like I just kind of fell through cracks. And there was never like — I was not going to be that person that was going to go to the good schools, and the good schools were sort of held out as really the only schools. And the idea of not going to college was not even an option, that was part of that class dynamic that I grew up in. So I just went down the street to Illinois State University and had so much shame around that for the longest time. But I remember, Melvin, you and I talked about I think it was your cousin that had some of that same stuff, like some of that just not being able to make it all come together, and has had [00:50:00] such a rough, rough life. And what it looks like when you have safety nets that kind of help you to kind of get through. It’s just really, really, really interesting to kind of reflect on who gets to have a troubled youth and who doesn’t, right?
MA: Y’all, I feel like we are at the end of hour one of our four-hour daily phone calls, (laughter), which —
SG: There you go.
MA: — I want to keep faithful too, but, for today, I just got to say thank you, thank you, thank you for letting us dwell within the love you share, and the trust, and the truths. Y’all are beautiful and what you have together is beautiful. And it’s not the first time I’ve beheld that fact. But, today, [00:51:00] you really opened it up, not only for us, but for those who are tuning in. And I want to thank you.
MB: Thank you.
LA: Absolutely. I completely agree. I could actually sit here and listen to you all for the next three hours.
MA: And there’s a little bit of suspense, like what’s going to happen? And that’s the power, right, of real friendship, that the growth is happening, the revelation, the loving. It’s active. It’s not a thing you possess. It’s something that’s happening in you all, in between, and beyond, and making the world a better place. So thank you. So one last question, y’all know this one, what song is getting you through right now?
MA: This is a gift to those who are tuning in, but, also, just one more opportunity to remember that we have resources at our fingertips [00:52:00] to make ourselves feel better in rough times, on long days.
MB: I have been deep in two playlists, so one is the new album, Black Radio III by Robert Glasper. And that first movement, which is actually three songs, that ends with this song called Shine, where D Smoke is just storying himself to the world and saying picture me, and just this this this litany of Afrofuturism, like picture me as this, picture me as that, picture me as, you know, oh my god, right? It is such a crescendo for me. Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness. So those first three songs, [00:53:00] I recommend those to anyone. And then my other playlists that’s just kind of deeply personal is one I’ve entitled, “Heal, Not Fix,” because of some breakthroughs that I’ve recently had in being able to hear people’s wounds and to respond to them, not as accusations against me, but, rather, here’s an opportunity to heal. Here’s an opportunity to salve. And so I’ve gone back to all of the [India.Arie?] albums and say, I knew this song was trying to teach me something. I knew this song was trying to teach me something. And I’ve snatched all these songs and put them together, so between those two, those fill my days.
LA: Okay. That’s working for me.
SG: Yeah, that’s so gorgeous. So one of the things that I have been trying to do is to [00:54:00] think about what are white authors, artists, activists that we can look to for guidance if you’re a white person that is — not to put them on some kind of pedestal, but just to see that like change is possible. And so David Bowie is one of those for me. And I kind of went back to — this has been on my — I’ve been running a lot and this is on my running list, but I went back to Changes. And when I was young, I remember that song and I got so pumped up around like, “And these children that you’ve spit on as they’re trying to change the world.” I actually spit when I said that. And when I’ve been listening to it lately, I’ve been caught in the ways in which it’s actually ruminating on change and actual self-revelation. And he’s got this line, I wrote it down, [00:55:00] “So I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker. I’m much too fast to take that test.” And I think our work is to take that test, to slow it all down, and look at ourselves, the faker and the not faker and the glorious.
LA: My God.
MB: You’re going to turn me into a David Bowie fan. What?
LA: Well, you need to go there. You need to go there.
LA: I love David Bowie. When I was a child, I loved David Bowie because I saw that David Bowie was freak in the best way. And I knew that I was a freak, but I had no words for it, and seeing David Bowie made me see a part of myself. So I am totally with Sharon and David Bowie. So I’m going to give you mine. I have been listening to [00:56:00] 1998 old-school hip-hop album by Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Black Star.
LA: That whole entire album is getting me through, but there is a line that Talib Kweli says, “There is so much to life,” he says, “When you stay Black and die. So much to life when you stay Black and die.” So that’s what’s getting me through. And I guess I have to give some credit to my hip-hop head brother because since I’ve been living here, there’s been nothing playing in this house continuously except hip-hop. But as long as I get into the consciousness hip-hop, I’m there, I’m there for it, so Mos Def and Talib Kweli, Black Star.
MA: So a little bit of effusiveness for me from this corner, I don’t know what’s in the algorithms of Spotify to know just how gay I am, [00:57:00] but this song came up —
MA: — last night. And I couldn’t believe it because it had found its home in my heart. Hold on. It’s called, Here Pretty Kitty, but something about that sound just made me want to call 10 people and say have you heard this song? How can I be 56-year-old and not have heard this song in my camp spirit? All right, you guys. Love y’all. Let’s say bye-bye.
LA: (Music playing) Thanks for being with us today. We’ll see you next month as we continue to explore the ways in which friendship helps us to create a world of love and justice.
MA: We want to send you out with the words of Winnie the Pooh.
LA: If ever there is tomorrow when we’re not together.
MA: There’s something you must always remember.
LA: You are braver than you believe.
MA: Stronger than you seem.
LA: And smarter than you think.
MA: But the most important thing is even if we’re apart —
LA: I’ll always be with you.
MA: I’ll always be with you.
LA: We’ll always be with you. (laughs)
MA: We’ll always be together.
LA: Something like that.