A Seat at the Table

My husband and I raced through a television show on Netflix in the dark hours of ripe nightfall and early morning. We should have been sleeping but found it to be a way to pass at least some of our respective shifts awake with a baby who doesn’t believe an uninterrupted hour of sleep is a good use of his time or ours.

Within the storyline is a strong female character who exhibits clever intelligence, wit, loyalty, discernment, and resourcefulness that renders her indispensable. Eventually, she succeeds in winning a prominent job title. It crossed my mind that since the change in position, she didn’t seem to have the same opportunity within the plot to influence circumstances as she did before. She has a prominent office but with seemingly limited wingspan to do what it is she had exceled at to the degree it was entertaining to watch her fly. Recently, I read an interview with the actor who mentioned the storyline was a powerful statement made to champion equal rights and grant her character a seat at the table.

Today’s activists for equality make an understandable claim that there can and must be room for other qualified voices in those powerful roles and positions at the very top. But those who long to see equality truly and dynamically applied also want to see equal value given to people and roles that aren’t at the top. When championing a cause, we can absorb and reflect ideology we once challenged. Thus, we end up not necessarily changing the rules of the game as much as fighting for a seat at the table within it.

A few weeks ago, I sat in front of a stage of 13 young men and women in caps and gowns. They are the first class to graduate from a school for first-generation learners in Asia. All 13 students passed their exams, and all are continuing onto higher learning. This is remarkable. I was emotional, looking at faces I remembered so clearly from a decade ago. They were so small then, standing up straight with their heads held high and arms tightly by their sides as they recited poetry and Scripture. Now they are on the brink of adulthood with a diploma and opportunity their families never believed possible. The headmistress overflowed with pride for each student—for what they have already achieved, the stigmas they have faced and countered, and for who they will become.

Days later, I was in a country of Eastern Europe. I felt an immediate connection for this land in the complicated process of healing from a complicated history. With the rising number of girls ages 13-15 being trafficked, prevention work is critical. In a small village, we observed a culinary training program for young teenage girls, pioneered by an impressive international NGO. In crisp chef uniforms, the girls excitedly prepared homemade pizzas, the aroma soon filling the industrial kitchen space recently developed for them. I was drawn into the sense of an innocence I felt surrounded us—one I pray life does not crush.

Amidst our campaigns, what messages are we sending to these young people, each of whom is particularly vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination?

RZIM’s current exhibition at our art gallery, Still Point, is called “Selfie Identity at Arm’s Length.” Sixteen Atlanta artists were invited to consider this question: How has my work helped me wrestle with or understand who I am, or who I am becoming? One of the contributors, JOEKINGATL, took the opportunity to create an installation he calls “Selfie of a Former Self.” Joe was once a successful architect climbing the corporate ladder when he was met with an overwhelming urge to climb down. He decided to go against the self-consuming stories of power and success and, in his words, become an artist whose job is to make art for the community and whose medium is people. He says he no longer knows where his next paycheck is going to come from and, he adds with a smile, he has never been happier. Joe’s installation at Still Point connects together a paycheck’s worth of pressed shirts that he once wore in “another life.” Together arm to arm they make a giant ladder, a ladder that for him is a reminder that sometimes the most important jobs require a descent. Whether we reach the top rung or what precedes it, discovering what we were uniquely created to do to the best of our ability is empowering.

My son is an anxious soul. Each morning I bend down to his eye level to ask, “Who do you belong to?” His face visibly relaxes every time as he answers, “To God.” As a Christian, if we were to remember that about ourselves, if were to remember that about the person who sits across from us, how would it influence our vision for equality? For if each one of us belongs to Him, we all have a seat at the table.

This article appears in our Fall 2018 Newsmagazine. To receive the magazine in the mail, sign up here.

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