A couple years ago, I was in a buffet line prior to a community listening session. A local funder had asked Healthy Places by Design to work directly with community members to develop an advocacy and capacity building plan that aligned with residents’ needs and priorities. I’d been invited to present that night about changes in policies, systems, and environments to about 100 people who lived nearby. As I was making small talk (“Is this blue cheese or ranch dressing?”), a woman suddenly paused in line, looked at me skeptically, and asked, “Who are you, and why are you here?”
Some context: The local community—and the meeting attendees—were mostly Black. I am White. Most people at the meeting already knew each other. Although I had worked within this community for a few years, I only knew a few of them.
With appreciation for the woman’s directness, I let her know who I was and what I was doing there, and I sat down to eat my dinner. Twenty minutes later, I presented what was asked of me. The whole time, her questions echoed in my head. “Why am I here? Why am I the one speaking? Why not someone who’s closer to this community?” The easy answer is that presenting about healthy community change is part of how Healthy Places by Design serves communities and those who invest in them. The more nuanced answer is… great question.
When should we leverage our privilege and speak up, and when should we sit down and listen?
At Healthy Places by Design, our team is constantly re-examining our roles, privilege, power, intent, and impact. Most recently, we’ve been exploring differences between being an ally and being a credible messenger for advancing equity, among other roles. In other words, when should we leverage our privilege and speak up, and when should we sit down and listen? As a White person, I’ve often heard conflicting advice about this, but what happened at this community meeting helped clarify things for me.
At the end of the night, I was catching up with a few folks I’d worked with. The same woman approached us. She told the people she knew that she had wanted to know who I was. Then she added, “I guess he’s okay if he’s with you.” In that moment, I realized that although I was a qualified content expert that night, that alone wasn’t enough to make me credible to the audience. I was missing context expertise.
It’s natural for me to want to speak up for things I believe in and speak out against injustice. In those moments, silence is complicity. Yet there are other times when silence can be just as powerful. What if more White people declined speaking invitations or other opportunities to advance our careers and actively advocated for a person of color to fill that role instead?
At the very least, “Should I be the one speaking?” is a question that people in positions of power—funders, nonprofit boards, and institutions, among others—should ask. And we could all benefit from pairing our content expertise with context expertise, regardless of the message we’re delivering. It may take more time to shape a presentation and more resources to support both messengers, but we’ll have far more impact if the people listening aren’t also trying to figure out if they can trust us.
I still think about that encounter in the buffet line. I’d like to think I don’t have a professional ego, and that I do, in fact, have some relevant expertise to share. There are certainly places and spaces where I will and should continue to make my voice heard. But that’s not the point. It’s not about me. It’s about the change we want to see and the people whose lives are impacted by our work. This is a humbling lesson and an invitation for us all to think more critically about how we communicate about the things that matter most.