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The Emotional Toll
By Sxwpilemaát Siyám and Lily Raphael
We are poised to share our stories simultaneously with you as we have travelled together on this earth as co-workers, peers and friends for over a year. And what a year it’s been…Wet'suwet'en, Black Lives Matter, an ongoing pandemic, Mi'gmaq, and so much more in our personal lives. All whilst engaging with Indigenous stakeholders in intensely, meaningful and truthful dialogue concerning Economic Reconciliation in BC.
All of these spaces were felt in the depths of our hearts, soul and spirit. They hit us at the core of our intent for all of our work. It drove us to tears, pain, sadness and almost despair. I’m not sure there was a silver lining in any of it. Except that it made us dig deeper for what needs to not only be said, but shared and acknowledged, and most importantly, transformed.
Some days are harder than others to find energy to do this work, as it truly takes its toll on me emotionally, spiritually and mentally. You are constantly looking at where you are at and how much you have to give. Will it be enough today? Will I fall short? Do I have enough or nothing?
Life is hard enough when you are person of colour and do not have white privilege. You are constantly dealing with something; the oppression, racism, discrimination, trauma, healing, forgiveness, educating, constantly educating, defending, justifying, tolerating, and it goes on.
It’s even harder when you are doing things for the right reasons and not for power, glory, greed, ego, pride, etc. You are truly doing it for the well-being of everything because this is what you were taught and given the responsibility to do. You see, hear and feel the energy of all living things because your spirit is connected to their energy and you know you can do something. You know your ancestors are watching, listening and guiding at every step.
And the stakes are higher, when you’re a woman, a Chief, a Chief’s daughter, an older sister, an aunt and most importantly a mother, who will someday be a grandmother. Because your child is watching, witnessing, learning, observing, and teaching. You now that you are here to live on purpose, to lead, guide, learn, teach and share a vision of change, because you demanded the same of the leaders before you.
Just because I am a strong, intelligent, powerful, stubborn, resilient, woman, Chief, wife and mother, doesn’t mean that I always have what is needed to make it through. I rely heavily on my mother, sister, husband, son, friends, coworkers, and community to get me through both the good and challenging times. The struggle is real all the time. Just like taking the energy to be truthful and vulnerable to write this story about the struggles I face in being ‘Indian’ (legally defined in the Indian Act), a woman, a mom, etc.
I am not the only one facing this, human kind is currently suffering like it never has before through these challenging times. But when are you doing work to tell the truth, provide space for others to become awake to that truth, then to learn, and set in motion a motivation to change, be and do better, takes a lot amidst fear, chaos and uncertainty. It’s like being a teenage amidst a pandemic, which is what my son is facing daily. So, we are traveling a road less travelled together, because you feel like you’re crazy throughout it all.
I’m just writing to share that all of it takes it toll. I find what it takes to forgive, heal, learn, educate, etc. while on this journey because this is what it’s going to take for the change to happen. I lead by example. Reconciliation is a journey of commitment, humanity, healing, educating, listening, being heard, sharing the truth, action, decolonizing, connecting with your spirit, finding purpose, creating equity, equality, compassion, connection, forgiveness, empathy, values, doing what is right, doing better, creating change, and everything that is great about being human. In the face of everything that is negative about being human we work to find a balance of our spirit, soul and humanity.
Most days, I am all of these things. I can dig deep when needed and get it done. But some days it’s overwhelming hard to find that space where you believe you think you can do it. To face all of the privilege, racism, discrimination, oppression, negativity, colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, politics, dominance, etc. While caring for an aging mother, a husband who is recouping from surgery, a teenage son who doesn’t know who, what, where, etc. in his life, in a midst of a pandemic, with nowhere to go, and no one to see, except on zoom.
Yet despite it all, my journey to write a framework that could be something to help create curiosity and space for everything that I want to see change, is where I want to be. I am grateful for the opportunity, forever and always. No matter how hard it is to move through some of these spaces, I still get up and give it my best on that day. I continue finding my purpose, faith, courage, and passion to ensure I leave this legacy for son, unborn grandchildren and all of the generations to come. Because when they miss me when I’m gone, they will have this and all of the other things we gave them to be so much more than we were.
I hope that one day, my son reads the framework and knows that I did this for him.
I’ve been feeling the emotional labour it takes to be in the space of working on social change from within a system, with the commitment to transforming it. As a woman of colour, the weight is heavy on my shoulders – quite literally, that’s where I hold so much of this stress. I have been programmed to be constantly discerning of whether or not an initiative is worthy of my time, is it tokenistic, why was I asked to be a part of it, is it set with the right intentions, is it safe to share my perspective, will my voice actually be heard, will they actually get it, what assumptions are being made about me and my identity, am I expected to speak on behalf of “the Black experience” (as if there is only one, and as if I don’t have my own pain around navigating my privilege and finding belonging in relation to Blackness as a mixed person), how draining/frustrating/exhausting/disheartening/lonely is this going to be, oh and if I don’t give my energy to this, will they bother asking someone else or was I their only option? That’s all in the shoulders.
Then there’s the furrowed brow that asks, am I doing enough? Am I the right person for this? I don’t take lightly that I am in this role as a mixed Black woman when the job posting for this position was especially intended for Indigenous applicants. I don’t take lightly that I have privileges that have made it much easier for me to walk through this world than my family members, my ancestors, my friends and all those who are still facing barriers to institutions. Moreover, what can I offer, with so much mystery throughout my lineage? The feeling of lacking “enoughness” is something I know too well.
A system’s resistance to change can also be so pervasive that sometimes it’s hard to notice when you yourself are perpetuating it. I have to catch myself in moments where I am not pushing enough, not working for more change. It’s like being unconsciously worried about rocking the boat out of fear that I’ll be thrown overboard for asking too much. Even though the boat’s already sinking. There is a need to be constantly vigilant to resist getting taken down with it. The adage “don’t let them take your power,” rings in my ears as I stand on guard. But deep down I know my power is in absolutely no way anyone’s to take. That’s the dizzying sickness of a system built on white supremacy and colonialism – it tries to make you think that your efforts serve to comfort and soothe it, offering just enough tint to be indiscernible.
But really, the work is to dissolve it. To hospice it so we can cross over into something else. In working on this economic reconciliation framework and envisioning transformation, I’m really feeling in to the need that everything has for healing. MoUs. Workplaces. Budgets. Recommendations. Toolkits. Disclaimers. They’re all places where the system can so easily hide. We can’t just checklist our way to reconciliation or justice. We have to be deeply moved.
We have to be vulnerable. In this work, vulnerability is often used to describe the conditions of people who are without. But the word has other meanings that would probably help us more when it comes to transformation. I like how adrienne maree brown writes of it (amb is the author of Emergent Strategy honestly medicine when my shoulders are especially tense). Vulnerability is about showing your needs. About being seen. About being humbled by change. Being vulnerable, as amb puts it, is an act of strength. There’s resilience in that.
Things to ask while hospicing an ugly system: Am I making my ancestors proud? Am I doing right by future generations of all beings? What am I doing to care for myself? Am I showing my needs? Am I welcoming change?
“vulnerability feels like an understanding of change: I am vulnerable to the changes of life, I know I am not all powerful, I know I can be and am impacted, I can be and am fragile.”
F T I