Working for Just Community: Now, Then, Always

Certificate of appointment and membership for Leathe Hemachandra, the author's grandmother, from the New York State Commission Against Discrimination for the Regional Council for Queens County, dated July 1, 1950Going through an old box yesterday, I came upon a yellowed, frayed 9.5-by-12-inch certificate issued in 1950 to my grandmother, Leathe Hemachandra, from New York’s State Commission Against Discrimination recognizing her appointment by the Commission to the Regional Council for Queens County.

Cool find, and it reminded me of parts, anyway, of a little piece of writing I did a month ago in a job application process. Maybe it did so because of the lines about successes in social justice work really being beginnings and having the humility to recognize that, as we think about some things very differently from a half-century ago, so too will our successors view things differently years from now—hopefully building on our successes, correcting and forgiving our mistakes, and honoring what is lasting.

Plus, it now feels like a nice shout-out to my grandmother, as I am posting it on the first day of Black History Month. The piece relates centrally to work and communication around race and ethnicity. And it applies equally to our efforts in so many social justice areas—discrimination and bias due to disability, gender and sexuality, appearance, weight, religion, economic status, homelessness, so many things. Leathe would absolutely be here for all of these. The work is always just beginning.

I didn’t get the job. But look how things all come together as the universe keeps unfolding! Well, a month later—and 62 years later.

Slightly edited today to shift it a little from its former context…

In articles, talks, and trainings about social justice, race, disability, and autism, I’ve often written and spoken about communicating to be right versus to have an impact. That distinction can be a made-up binary and a false choice. It is sometimes also a real one.

When I write or talk about this, people usually assume I am advocating for impact over justice or even over truth. That’s not actually correct. What I am advocating for is awareness and purposefulness when these choices are made—actually empowering us in strategy—and then honesty with ourselves and others when conversations happen about what our choices have been and why we made them.

I wrestle with these choices as much as anyone. I’m a big fan of truth and justice, and I respect voices who champion these values. I sometimes aspire to be such a voice.

As thinkers, as communicators, and as agents of change, we need truth tellers—people who forthrightly share their truths. We need declarations about what’s right and what’s wrong that help us better locate ourselves and our work in time and space and recognize where we stand in the now. We benefit from listening to truths that challenge us, reshape or even shatter our notions of what is and has been, and reinvent our ideals, intentions, and commitments—our covenant with others and with ourselves.

Such visions illuminate possibilities and call for a better tomorrow—and also a better now, right now.

My grandmother, Leathe Hemachandra, third from right, with her husband Balatunga, son Neal, and mother Martha.

Still, as thinkers, communicators, and even effective agents of change, we need to be humble enough to say we don’t know everything. What social justice champions called for 20 years ago and 50 years ago is different from what they call for now, and it will be different again 20 years from now and then 50 years from now.

Recognizing and choosing opportunities for impact, sometimes achieved in a quieter or at least different voice than unvarnished truth carries, can be hard things, hard choices. Justice calls out to us. We get it wrong sometimes, in language, in strategy, and perhaps even in what we think we know to be true. We can forgive ourselves for that, and be grateful for the learning—and perhaps sometimes forgive others, too, and soften ourselves.

There are seasons and cycles for different aspects of social justice work. Successes usually prove to be beginnings, rather than endings. The work does not end. So we sometimes might celebrate progress—looking back 20 years and 50 years tells us many ways we’ve succeeded, as well as many ways in which we haven’t.

In specific decisions and choices about communication and action, I personally bias toward impact—helping real people in real lives, now, and effecting change. Even in doing so, I try to recognize how I am strategically balancing short-term needs with justice, truth, and long-term transformation and realization. I try to be aware of how these values complement or compete, which helps me prioritize communication choices.

Doing so both authentically and effectively requires clarity about role and intention, mission and vision, as individuals working within organizations, movements, or broader community and society.

Realizing these values of conscious communication requires listening and knowing your audience, whether it is an individual or a community. It requires being mindful at least as much about what you want your audience to hear and experience—what their context is, how it’s landing—as of what you want to say, because then your communication choices are deeper, more thoughtful and more generous.

We can work and communicate as a lighthouse, championing social justice ideals, offering a beacon of light to provide inspiration, direction, and sometimes solace when times are dark.

We can work and communicate in the trenches, alongside others doing the hard, detailed, endless labor of social justice realization, offering tools and sustenance, digging and building alongside people in community and maybe sometimes just helping lift them up—celebrating and honoring them.

Leathe Hemachandra, my grandmother, was a New York City schoolteacher, and here she receives a little coverage in The New York Age, a Black-focused newspaper, after being named one of the city’s 25 best teachers (see top left photo; click on the full pic to enlarge it).

So, we make choices about how to work and communicate: how to teach, persuade, listen, learn, and evolve ourselves; how to dream and vision individually and collectively; and how to transform and rebuild as necessary to foster genuinely lovingkind and just community and society.

Community and communication rise up from the same root meaning: to share and to make common.

Communication, then, is our lynchpin for connection in social justice work and movements and outside of them—for expressing meaning and intent, for guiding action, for enrolling and inspiring allies, and for successfully effecting change.

If you enjoyed this article, please help share it on social media to expand its reach—thank you—and consider leaving a comment or response on this page!

I invite you to explore this site, which includes other pieces I’ve written related to this one in all sorts of varied tangential ways. You might start with:

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