La-Verna Fountain is the founder of Meaningful Communications Matter, LLC. She graduated from Columbia’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program in 2010 and is a former instructor in the program. She will serve as a panelist in SPS’s Leading Towards Diversity, Equity and Inclusion event series on Dec. 9th; presented by the NECR program, Contextualizing Systemic Injustice: Mapping the Complexity of Racism in the U.S. will cover progress made by its working group on antiracism. Fountain retired from Columbia University in 2018 as the Vice President of Strategic Communications and Construction Business Services. More can be learned about La-Verna’s services by visiting her website at https://IAmLJFountain.com.
Note: This passage mentions suicide.
January 1, 2021 can’t come soon enough for me. And I hear a chorus of “Amens” and “That’s Right” and “Please” echoing that sentiment. The combination of coronavirus isolation, sickness and death, continued killings of Black and Brown people, harassment of Asian folks, a contentious election that brought out the worst in family, friends, neighbors and strangers, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter movements, a rise in White supremacy groups and soaring unemployment has taken its toll. And yet even as I reflect on all of it and the stress that has taken up residency in my home, I am aware of the safety nets that I am privileged to have. As a person of color, I “count my blessings” as my mother used to say. It was one of her survival techniques and I made it mine, too.
To survive, every day you must be prepared to face disappointment. When you have no choice but to confront your fears every time you or your Black son, husband or brother leaves the house, when you must hide your feelings in order to operate in a society that doesn’t understand, when you wear a mask that includes a smile in order to cope with the business of life in America, you look for lifelines. My lifeline came in the form of a weekly Zoom gathering hosted by Columbia University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program (NECR). There, my walls could come down. I was able to share freely, question openly, explore sometimes blindly, and learn from others who were sharing, questioning, and exploring the world that had brought disbelief and sometimes emotional chaos into our lives. And as a graduate of the NECR program I consider myself privileged to be part of a community of faculty, professionals, alumni, and students who not only have empathy for others, but convert that empathy into action by investigating our shared challenges and exploring and implementing solutions. Next week on December 9th, I’ll join fellow NECR community members to discuss our dialogues, our collective and individual work in progress, and learnings so far.
Together, we were able to draw on the theoretical, the experiential and the fantastical if necessary. I could express the fears that had taken root as a neighborhood that had at one time felt accepting of me became a place of fear as divisive statements were made and demonstrated by political flags and signs heralding where each neighbor stood. My yard signs: “We’re All in This Together” and “Don’t Give Up” went up in February and have survived because no one is really sure what they are referencing. Is it a political statement? A social statement? Something else?
My signs, along with an American flag that flies pretty high, has caused a measure of consternation as my neighbors try to figure out the leanings of the Black couple that lives in the corner house with a loud German Shepherd. Had they asked me, I would have explained the signs were the product of a grieving mother who lost her daughter by suicide. It was her way of honoring her daughter. I witnessed her story and asked her if I could place the signs in my yard as a show of support. But shortly after, our world turned upside down and since then, they have represented something different to me depending on the day.
After the killing and seemingly endless reminders of George Floyd’s devastating words, “I can’t breathe” and crying out for his mama, I needed more than my signs. I needed a safe place to delve into the myriad of emotions I was experiencing. And frankly, I needed to be around people who possessed a desire for conflict resolution and compassion.
In the safety of the weekly Zoom meetings, we discussed the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM), Dynamical Systems, Identity, Power Systems, and it helped me make sense of what I was witnessing and feeling. My fellow participants had a worldview which brought me a measure of comfort. Those who leaned more on the intellectual exploration helped me escape my emotional meltdown. Those who faced similar issues provided me with the sense that while Blacks face something unique, there are indeed threads that connect us throughout the history of America and the world. And they – the faculty, administrators, students, and alumni – created a community that felt safe. Pure and simple. Their concerns matched mine. Their fears were relatable. Their hopes inspired me. Their desire to understand strengthened me. Their determination to utilize the best of what we learned in our NECR program to make a difference in their communities resonated with me.
I took inspiration from those weekly sessions and began to build. I’ve started listening sessions. Some for individuals, some for corporations. A friend encouraged me to call them Sacred Listening Sessions and I’ve taken her advice. In the sacred space of listening, relying on what I know of CMM, storytelling, power dynamics, and identity, I began.
It is hard to hear the pain in the voices of Black, Brown, White, and everyone in between (and even identifying people by color unnerves me). It is challenging to move my emotions out of the way so I can make room for the feelings of others. But I can do it because I am privileged. I have NECR and those weekly Zoom meetings. That is a privilege and I recognize it as such. It’s not the same as White privilege that many are exploring, but I am unwilling to ignore what I know to be true. I have privilege.
I graduated from the NECR program. I look at the faces (via Zoom) of those who instruct, learn, share, give freely of themselves to make our world better and I count my blessings. Thanks to them, I have been able to bring all of me to every one of those sacred listening sessions because I know I have a safe place to go to when it gets to be too much. I get to keep learning, believing, and working towards the society I want to leave to future generations. I am privileged.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other person or entity.