“I believe we’re still at the beginning of this thing called the human experience.”
–Dustin Lance Black
Opening sessions of professional conferences tend toward the self-congratulatory, even for earnest and well-meaning professions like mine. We cheer for ourselves, we talk about our highest mission and values, we acknowledge our shared successes. And occasionally, we invite a keynote speaker whose values we expect to mirror our own but whose words challenge us in ways we didn’t anticipate. This was my experience on Sunday evening at the opening session of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) conference, when filmmaker and activist Dustin Lance Black walked on stage to talk about our conference theme, “Bold Without Boundaries”.
If you don’t know who Black is, please take a moment and watch this video clip of his Academy Awards acceptance speech for Best Original Screenplay for the film, “Milk” (and read more about him here.)
NASPA, as is true of all professional student affairs organizations of which I am a member, is supportive of all kinds of diversity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students find our professionals to be, by and large, their campus allies. And yet, the work of understanding, listening to and valuing others is unending. Our students grow and move on, a fresh crop with their fresh experiences and fresh ignorances arrive every year. In addition, some of us work for institutions where there are barriers to being effective allies – whether they are real or perceived barriers, they affect our work in concrete ways. It is sometimes difficult to maintain passion for the day-in-day-out nature of advocacy and support.
But that’s my profession. This blog is about me, and this piece is about how I reacted and am responding to Dustin Lance Black’s keynote address. My incomparable parents, Jack and Shirley, raised me and my siblings to be accepting and affirming toward all people – and I have striven to act accordingly throughout my life, though certainly I haven’t perfectly achieved this. Since the day (in the late 1980s) that my beloved sister came out to me, I have been aware that belief, in the abstract, is very different from living what one believes. In the end, as so many wise people have observed, it isn’t what you say that people remember, its what you do.
This is all context for the truth of where I was on Sunday as I prepared to head to the opening session – which was burnt-out, blase, and jaded. I figured it would be another speech about truths with which I am already too conversant (suicide rates among teens who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual; the bullying of transgendered persons). And while he did talk about these things, what Black actually shared, through the unique lens of his experience, were his thoughts on leadership. And what he said spoke to me in a direct and impactful manner.
Black shared that his first experiences of leaders taught him that leadership has something to do with fear. Luckily, his life was later informed by leaders, like Harvey Milk, who understood that leadership derives from passion rather than fear. “Without passion, you can be in charge,” Black said, “but you can’t lead.” His passion, he told us, flows from everything that he is. He strongly encouraged us to give of our own unique selves, and told us, “You don’t even have to be very good at whatever it is you do if you do it with passion.” Examples abound of people who are not especially gifted but who make a difference and have an impact by building on that foundation.
If you paused to watch his Oscar speech, you may have noted the promise he made to young gays and lesbians: that – soon – their rights would be federally protected. Black received a lot of flack from established gay and lesbian advocacy organizations about that – he was told not to rush things, that “they had a 25-year plan”. In the midst of working for a faster timeline, Black had the opportunity to meet the great Julian Bond, who told him, “Good things do not come to those who wait, they come to those who agitate.” Black went on to say that, in his mind, the great tragedy of the gay rights movement has been not being bold soon enough; asking for crumbs and trying to be satisfied with that.
So, what were the takeaways that made me want, all week, to write about this address? First, the power of telling our personal stories. If passion flows from everything that we are, as Black attests, then that “everything” is contained in my story. The key is that I have to be willing to craft my own story AND to share it, honestly and simply, with others. This is how we connect, how we learn to be open to individual and group difference. It is how we, if we wish to lead, generate passion in others for whatever our vision may be.
Second, that in spite of all the ways I’ve worked to change and grow in my life, I am still too willing to let my own life’s path be dictated by others. I remain too willing to accept crumbs, when I should demand the whole delicious slice of cake. Whether professionally or personally, I still fail too many times to be the driver of my own life. This is a learned behavior (albeit a tenacious one) that I need to unlearn. Black said, “Hope is just delayed disappointment.” In that context, I need to stop hoping and start agitating!
Third, that I need to be less afraid of breaking fragile eggshells and more conversant with making omelets. Or, stated more directly: I need to start speaking my damn mind. Instead of worrying about whom I will offend by saying what I think, I need to be worrying about whom I harm by keeping silent – even if the only person harmed is me. So fair warning, friends and foes alike – I plan to uncork this bottle! My purpose won’t be to break things; rather, it will be to stir things up and create something delicious in the process.
Hopefully, it is apparent that I was moved by Dustin Lance Black’s address. His story was beautifully told, with compassion and humor. I felt myself responding to his admonitions in a very personal and profound way which I hope will have an enduring affect on me. And I am grateful to know that even a burnt and cynical old bird can be exhorted to stretch her wings again.
Note: The Supreme Court will hear the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 next week. It has been a major effort of many, including Dustin Black, to fight Prop 8 and to work toward federal civil rights protections for ALL citizens – namely for our LGBT brothers and sisters. I support gay marriage rights, as part of an overall civil rights agenda, and have been a proud defender of them in my home state of Iowa, where gay marriage has been legal since April 3, 2009.