Opinion: The (Other) Big Story You Don’t Read About

Photograph by Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times in David Brooks’  column  on #WeaveThePeople

Photograph by Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times in David Brooks’ column on #WeaveThePeople

Writer’s note: I am only speaking from my personal experience about this event. I also believe there is great value to the work Weave is doing, but wanted to share thoughts that arose from my time there. This does not represent the viewpoints of others or broader groups who attended. In fact, there are likely views that disagree with mine. I just wrote this because if we looked at the ecosystem of narratives about Weave, I felt this one was missing.

This week in Washington, D.C., columnist David Brooks organized a gathering of 275 “community weavers” from across the country with his team at the Aspen Institute. The event was called #WeaveThePeople and he wrote about it in his column called “The Big Story You Don’t Read About” on The New York Times.

I was one of those weavers.

At the top of a column there’s a photo (also included here for reference). If you look closely, the photo tells a different story than the words in his column. That’s what I want to write about. I want to focus on one particular part of the photo: the empty chairs.

The chairs weren’t always empty though. On Day 1, we were all energized. The room was packed—standing room only—and I felt overcome with possibility. It makes sense that it began this way because the Aspen Institute’s superpower is to convene people. They managed to bring together an inspiring group from across the country who embody authenticity, compassion and a deep commitment to the work of repairing our country’s fraying social fabric.

However, by Day 3, some did not return to the event. Others were disengaged in the back room or outside having their own conversations. A few left early to restore energy expended from the days before. (Writer’s note: This drop-off is typical of gatherings, and what some find energy depletive others find it restorative. So it depends on the person.)

From my perspective, there’s a few reasons why I think there was a dramatic shift in the way people felt from the first to the last day. I’m publicly writing this piece because I believe it’s important to challenge unhealthy structures of power and ensure the lessons learned at #WeaveThePeople aren’t perpetuated into the future.

Never underestimate the importance of ongoing transparency. Though we signed media release forms before attending the event, no one explicitly told us that our stories and quotes (whether attributed or not) would potentially be shared in a New York Times article after the gathering. However, the #WeaveThePeople team did encourage us to share our perspectives on social media, where we could at least share a control in the narrative. The event began with an ask for participants to co-create a safe space where everyone could be vulnerable, share struggles and speak freely. Then, throughout the event, large cameras and boom mics roamed around us. It was jarring and contradictory, and many of us wondered: How will our stories and recordings be used, and for what purpose? These decisions eroded trust and silenced some participants.

  • As we move forward, there should be clear communication about how personal stories will be captured and shared. We should share power—shaping the narrative of this “movement” together, not through the filtered perspective of one individual (David Brooks) who is well meaning but limited in his perspectives. We should also design spaces that don’t make people feel like actors in a performance put on by an organization associated with wealth and power. It doesn’t make us feel good.

Inequity is alive, real and flourishing. Many folks—especially people of color—were first triggered by the conversations that emerged during a short, pre-planned 30-minute session about race. David wrote about this in his column, mentioning that there were “uncomfortable and searing” moments where “it was permissible to be an angry black person.” Beyond my curiosity about his choice of words (which I genuinely want to learn more about), it’s important to know that the discomfort was catalyzed by the implied suggestion that there shouldn’t be such a deep focus on race. Phrases like “I don’t see color” were shared in the full-group discussions. I believe it’s important to learn from different perspectives—even those we don’t agree with—but we shouldn’t be providing a platform to those who perpetuate racist systems, violence or other forms of social inequity (Writer’s note: I’m not saying this specifically came up at Weave, but it is a perspective that exists in our country). It unnecessarily zaps energy from those who are most impacted by inequity because they’re usually the ones trying to prove it’s real.

  • As we move forward, we should accept that racial, economic and social inequity are real. We shouldn’t spend energy—especially those who have to face the consequences of it everyday—debating this proven truth. Instead, we should dedicate that conserved energy toward discussing and workshopping solutions that disempower oppressive systems, narratives and groups. We shouldn’t allow people to “weave” if they do not believe in this basic, fundamental truth. Or else their efforts—however well-intentioned—could lead to consequential results in communities.

If organizers encourage trauma to be shared, there’s also a responsibility to provide ways for that trauma to be transformed. #WeaveThePeople was intentionally designed for participants to bravely speak about their painful memories, struggles and injustice. While some had time to prepare their remarks on video or phone calls before the gathering, most shared their stories in an improvisational, on-the-spot way. These traumas—which some people were still actively processing or working through—were spoken one after the other, triggering anxiety and panic attacks among both sharers and listeners. Some had to leave the room and others had difficulty sleeping (myself included). If organizers are designing spaces for trauma to be shared, there’s a responsibility to have resources readily available to support those affected by what they’re hearing or saying. Such as inviting professionally trained counselors, therapists and healers who specialize in trauma, and letting participants know they’re here as a resource. Unfortunately, these kinds of resources weren’t adequately provided. Instead, we relied on each other, exhausting caregivers and participants, which prevented us from more fully connecting and collaborating.

  • As we move forward, we should recognize that if sharing our pain as a means to connect is a primary goal of an event, there should also be adequate resources provided to participants. There should be an adoption of the mantra: Trauma that isn’t transformed is transmitted (so let’s make sure we’re transforming it).

My hope for this piece is to start a broader conversation about two things. First, who gets to shape and tell the story of this work?  Second, if we define power as the “ability to define what is real” then we need to ask ourselves: who gets to define the reality of this work?

There’s a difference between intent and impact. I’d like to believe that the intent of this event wasn’t to harvest stories or deplete the energy of weavers working tirelessly in their communities. I’ll also admit that I don’t regret attending. I got to play, think, dream and grow alongside a group of remarkable people. In the spirit of Dr. King though, I know that true peace isn’t the absence of tension, but it’s the persistence of justice. If we truly are awakening a community to support the work of bridging differences, then we must hold each other accountable to just work.

I wrote this piece, inspired by many conversations I had at #WeaveThePeople, because I believe it’s important to voice the (other) big story you don’t read about—the one that usually doesn’t end up on the New York Times. The big story about power, and how even those well-intentioned can wield it in consequential ways. The big story about the systems, narratives and groups who are actively fueling our country’s growing divisions (and how everyone from the Aspen Institute to everyday weavers can disempower these forces). The big story about how community weavers, despite the good they do in this world, are still struggling economically or depleted energetically because of injustice (historic or otherwise) and a lack of access (to funding or power as examples).

I know the organizers of the event mean well. David and the Aspen Institute team are good people, I really do believe that. They want people to bridge differences and foster a culture that prioritizes relationships. This is admirable and important. However, how we get there is just as important. We need to do this work thoughtfully. It’s this same thoughtfulness that is required from us when we build and deepen our relationships to each other.

“The old patterns, no matter how cleverly rearranged to imitate progress, still condemn us to cosmetically altered repetitions of the same old exchanges, the same old guilt, hatred, recrimination, lamentation, and suspicion.”

— Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex”

Note: My personal views in this story do not represent the organizations I work with.

Scott Shigeoka