Written by: Emily Laney
It’s hard to know how to start a blog post about my journey to bridge building. There are so many things to say, but I guess I’ll just start at the beginning. I grew up sheltered in the suburbs of metro Atlanta. I didn’t know anyone of a different race until I was in sixth grade, and I remember not knowing what to think. Race was not a discussion in my family, because we were surrounded by people who were just like us. But the underlying messages that society spread were there. They permeated my understanding throughout childhood and adolescence. And the offhand jokes and comments about minorities made in my presence were ingrained in my consciousness throughout my life. I think deep down I knew it was wrong, but I didn’t really know what to think.
There were several turning points, but one stands out as a painful and shameful wake up call. It was about 7 years ago (or 6, or 8- I really can’t remember the date). I was headed into Old Navy. As I walked across the parking lot, a young African American man was walking to his car, headed towards me. He did not act intimidating, he wasn’t dangerously close to me. But for some reason, my grip on my purse tightened. Or, maybe I shifted it to my other side. I don’t remember what went through my mind, it was almost instinctual. And perhaps my thought process wasn’t centered around race at all. But I’ll never forget what happened next.
The young man smiled at me as he passed and said “Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything to you.”
The memory of that encounter still brings tears to my eyes. I haven’t shared it with many people, because I felt so much shame after the fact. And like I said, maybe race wasn’t an unconscious factor in my mind. But the young man noticed what I was doing, and he assured me that I didn’t need to be afraid. He likely noticed because more than likely, it had happened before. It’s quite possible that he was even used to the fear and suspicion that his presence evoked in people. I wish I could find him, give him a hug, and apologize.
I think the journey really took off at that point. I stopped ignoring the uncomfortable moments and the issues around me and faced them head on. I’ve struggled with grasping the concept of white privilege- the reality that by simply having white skin, I have privilege that I truly can’t fully understand. I found myself bristling during difficult conversations about poverty, race and privilege in grad school. “It couldn’t possibly be true” I’ve thought. But it is true. I’ve watched fellow students in a Christian Community Development class say to African American students in response to their claims of profiling: “I hear you, but that can’t possibly be happening.” I watched firsthand as two African American men and one Middle Eastern man were the ONLY ones in a van full of social workers who were questioned when our group was stopped at the US Mexico border. When I expressed my frustration at the blatant discrimination of the action, one of the men (who happened to be a DC Police Detective) shrugged and said “I’m so used to being profiled it just doesn’t bother me anymore.”
After a few years of grappling with the issues and studying, conversing, and praying through this concept of privilege and discrimination, I decided that I was doing pretty good. I devoted my career to working with refugees, and for the past two and a half years, I’ve led a refugee resettlement program. I thought that I was pretty great at diversity. I built bridges by helping the newest residents of America start over. I felt assured that I was doing my part to encourage diversity and equality. I was wrong.
It took the events in Ferguson, Missouri and the subsequent chatter and anger on social media to urge me to take another step. I looked through my list of friends on Facebook and the people I considered my friends, and I realized that they almost all looked just like me. I knew that something had to change because I truly did want to be an agent of reconciliation, and I wanted to understand. I was good at the head knowledge but my actions were not reflecting the knowledge I had gained. So, I messaged a friend of mine who is African American. I humbly explained what God had been stirring in my heart and asked her if she would be willing to have coffee with me. She graciously agreed, and our friendship grew from that moment. We decided that we would figure out a way to form a group around racial reconciliation. And then, through last year’s IF: Gathering and my friend Latasha’s ‘Be the Bridge’ Curriculum, we formed a group and dove into the 8 week session. We laughed, we cried, we shared in each others frustrations and joys, and we bonded. We grappled with hard questions and had to figure out ‘ground rules’ so everyone would get a chance to share. We went on rabbit trails about other topics and even had to disagree sometimes. It was one of the most incredible and enriching seasons of my life.
Through our Be the Bridge Group, I have learned that bridge building can’t just be between the social worker and the client. It can’t just be between two races or two countries or origin. Bridge Building is a lifestyle. It’s a celebration of our differences and the camaraderie of our similarities. For many of us, it’s our shared faith. For me and my co-workers, it’s a mutual love of interesting foods and helping refugees. It takes work and effort, and it’s certainly not always easy. There are faux pas, awkward moments, and feet in mouths, but it’s worth it. The ladies (an occasional guy) in our “Be the Bridge Atlanta” group have become my friends. We have a sisterhood that I feel is rooted in the time we spent together, even if our schedules prevent us from connecting in person as frequently now.
The path towards bridge building is never finished. It’s a journey that is full of twists and bumps along the way. There will always be people who do not understand and do not want to even try. It’s awkward sometimes, but it is most certainly worth it. There’s no perfect formula, but the simple act of coming together and learning from each other is a beautiful and life changing thing, and it is most certainly the perfect way to start this very essential journey.
Emily Laney has devoted both her personal life and career to seeking justice. She is a licensed master social worker for the state of Georgia and works full time at an Atlanta Nonprofit as a Program Director for Refugee and Immigration Services, and also teaches human services courses part time at a local university. Emily believes strongly in building bridges and helped start a “Be the Bridge Group” in Atlanta in 2015. She is also involved in the anti-trafficking movement in Georgia, and serves as a Door Holder at Passion City Church. Emily resides just outside of Atlanta with her husband Brent and their dog Biscuit. She blogs at www.emilylaney.com.