December 3, 2019
Telling Your Story
For leaders of color, as you grow in leadership you will be asked to speak at and into white initiates in the form of conferences, article contributions, or “conversations”. As you do, there are plenty of problematic dynamics to identify. These are unique moments of pressure to join in and tell the stories of your ministry.
White folks like hearing stories from the hood. Often, they have no problem sharing their own stories because of the disconnected nature of their work. They often enter spaces as missionaries while we often enter them as those who have lived the experiences they see as “mission”. Meaning, they can tell stories disembodied from their neighborhoods because they often live separated from the ministry they do. Telling the stories of our ministry is tougher to communicate in public spaces because our stories come with years and years of relationship. Our folks are our aunties, cousins, or best friends. While white folks often begin relationships in ministry through a helping lens, our relationships are more likely to be as equals with those we “minister to.”
White folks often receive a return on investment (ROI) of telling stories of vulnerable people. They raise money more easily, they have made relationships a professional venture and call it “networking”, and there is often an emotional payoff as they tell stories of their sacrifice to meet the needs of others. For white folks, the better you can tell the stories of how you help, the more attractive you are as a leader.
Often, for us as leaders of color, this is not the case. Our leadership is built upon the trust of those with whom we do our work. Our value system is inherently different. We will not get the same “ROI” in those spaces, so sharing about our vulnerable friends and neighbors is not worth it. Our greatest assets are not the size of our nonprofit, church budget, or network of partners. Our greatest assets are the real lives of those with whom we are building community.
Be careful of the white instinct to colonize your stories and ideas. You must see white work and spaces with a critical eye. Be mindful by whom and how you allow your ideas to be utilized. Veteran leaders of color have shared stories of giving their perspective in a conversation or small space only to see it said in a bigger venue by a white person who did not dissuade the audience from believing it was their own personal thinking. Whether you realize it or not, you may be in a room so white people can hear your ideas, replicate them, and get paid for them. This will not be explicit but will come in the form of “free exchange of ideas”, “think tank”, “mutual learning”, or “needing an alternative point of view.”
Often sharing philosophy, sharing critique, or sharing your own growth in white spaces can be safe. However, sharing the stories of the vulnerable within your neighborhood or ministry needs a lot of discretion. You can tell of the ‘why’ of your work without pictures and telling the victories explicitly. You have to ask yourself the question, “Do I know white folks in the room personally enough to trust them with the stories of those I love?” Some will ask you to sign a waiver for permission to share your insights and work. Do not sign the waiver without partnership or agreement of how your work will grow out of the experience. How will you sharing these stories help your mission or your people? White folks have enough unearned advantage in Christian leadership spaces, they do not need to leverage your work for their gain.
Perhaps the most impactful way to impact these white spaces is to bring a prophetic voice. You are not obligated to do so because being prophetic in those spaces can bring a cost. Sharing from prophet space when you have the mic can accomplish ‘getting your perspective’ without compromising your community.
White funders and influencers like stories of white folks sacrificing, reaching out, or traversing exotic danger for Jesus. They give to those hero stories. Most likely your story of embodied ministry built over time with trust is not going to garner the type of respect it deserves. It may be tough to accept, but you were not going to get understood, valued, or funded by these people anyway. We just cannot rely on white influencers to further our work.