There’s hardly a yard without signage around here. Some still post “Congratulations X, class of 2020” from the spring, and there’s more than a few sprouting names of candidates. Along with those, some signs have a variation on the credo theme - “We Believe”, followed by short phrases: water is life, love is love, feminism is for everyone.
I understand the urgency behind this public messaging, but as I was out walking one morning, I wondered what it would be like if those signs were obligatory, and through some bizarre magic showed what most dictated behavior of the people in that house. Would one house’s sign read “We believe in one baptism in repentance for the remission and forgiveness of sins and in the resurrection of the dead”? Would I see one saying “We believe that you should avoid conflict whenever possible and never be beholden to anyone”? A friend suggested we might see several reading “We believe your dog’s poop belongs in a bag in your hand”.
A few months ago, my inbox was filled with statements of belief from organizations ranging from my internet provider to the Sierra Club addressing the murder of George Floyd. The same urgency was, at least in some cases, the motivation – there’s something so purely wrong we need to make sure everyone knows our values are in opposition. When it comes to behavior, however, I’m guessing the magic “we believe” sign in their yard might reveal something more complicated – “We believe our hands are ultimately tied by the priorities of our funders and how far our board of directors is willing to go”. “We believe we are good people doing good things, and so don’t require fundamental system overhauls”.
As individuals, we hold competing commitments – in organizations, with a range of different perspectives at the decision-making table, even more so. We thirst for integrity, but our yard-sign statements don’t always show up clearly in our behaviors because we haven’t taken the time and effort to understand and resolve what’s in the way. We become cynical around the possibility for change, or in despair, turn to solutions that replicate toxic patterns of power and exclusion (“Kindness is everything, and if you’re not on board with that get the heck out”).
How can we not only use our values like roadside flares, but engage in day-to-day simmering until their taste is in everything? Here are some clues: it’s not going to be quick. It’s not going to be simple or cheap. It’s not going to lead in the same direction all the time. It will, undoubtedly, require a lot of disciplined listening.