I Have Power Because I Have People

Originally posted: Oct 11, 2016

I recently spoke with my new friend Elizabeth (Liz) González about her experience as a social worker and yoga instructor. We sat outside of our favorite coffee shop, excited at the opportunity to soak up the sun after being in confined air conditioned offices all day. Liz is the type of person I feel like I’ve known forever, but we’ve really only hung out three or so times. I was grateful to learn about her life and background in college access during our conversation.

Liz was the first in her family to go to college. She moved from a predominately Mexican community along the border to attend University of Texas at Austin.

“It took me a while to find my place. There was also a culture shock. But one day there was this Latino guy running for student government outside of the dining hall and we became friends. He told me he was a social work major, and when he told me what that was I was like ‘oh, that’s me!’”

Liz took Introduction to Social Work the first semester of her sophomore year and describes the experience as generally awful. “I got stuck in a group with three white women who were all in a sorority, and it was all about what was convenient for them. I was working two jobs at the time on top of 12 hours of class and there was no attempt to figure out what worked for all of us.”

Liz continued with the Social Work program despite similar persistent challenges.

“People hid true identities for fear that it didn’t align with what social work was. There was this diversity class facilitated by three white women - and not to say three white women can’t be diverse, but this is the problem.” So, Liz minored in Sociology to get the dialogue she was looking for and when she graduated worked for a long time in college access, mostly with first generation college students.

To Liz, the concept that the personal is political is foundational.

“All the work that I do is functioning from my identities. I know that these are my lived experiences, but they are not the only experiences.”

While working at Huston Tillotson, an HBCU, she found herself overidentifying with the students. She wondered to herself, “Why is this student struggling? They need to pick up the pace,” until one day she realized she was projecting.

“And here’s social work,” Liz stated, drawing attention to an ironic trend in the field. “Often we are only having a conversation in our multicultural competency classes when the person across from us does not have a shared identity. So the curriculum is set up for white students only. Because then where’s the room for me to have a conversation about when I have a person who’s sitting across from me who is a first generation college student or Latina? All of my stuff was on alert and I had to be extra aware.”

After that, Liz worked part time for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and part time at a college access nonprofit. “Again, all personally connected to me. So I wonder how is that helpful? Where do I get stuck? Who do I talk to about this? There’s a lack of mentorship and guidance.”

Liz took up yoga at the suggestion of a friend and noticed there was no one in the room who looked like her, until one day “I found this one instructor and his was the first class in which I saw people of color, people in their 60s, women in hijabs, men who looked like football players, and for the first time I was like this is what this should look like. How do I get more of this?”

Around the same time, Liz started therapy to work through some of her trauma. Then last September she participated in a yoga teacher training at her studio mostly to enhance her own practice and complement her therapy.

“Words can’t even begin,” a teary-eyed Liz explained. “If I could support others in feeling this good because there’s an awareness there and an experience there without saying that this is the only way it should be, then how awesome would that be? When the universe shows you a gift it’s for a reason.”

Liz has since taught around campus in addition to her responsibilities at the University counseling center.

“Part of my approach to teaching is that words matter. Oh my gosh, words matter so much. You will never hear me say ‘if you need something more intense do this,’ because then you’re also saying something to folks who can’t, who aren’t ready, there’s this inherent judgement. I come from this approach of challenge by choice and if it's not right now it doesn't mean never and let's play. As adults we don't really play anymore. We’ve lost the vulnerability, the courage.”

The concepts of vulnerability and courage transcend her experience on the mat.

“Once a month as a staff we get together to do internal diversity work. Sometimes people say things that are racist or hurtful. There’s a moment of fear when I call them in, and that fear is always there, but I’d rather have that then this person walk out of the room thinking that what they just said or did was ok. This idea of power. To me, there’s a way in which power is an illusion. Some people get fancy titles, but we all answer to someone. I really do think that I have power because I have people. When I’m in those internal diversity meetings and someone says something off and you look around to see who else knows that was really messed up, it’s about making eye contact that gives me strength and power to call that person in. I am definitely shaking in my boots all the time, but I refuse to let someone walk out and think that’s ok.”

Listening to Liz, I noticed themes of balance and exploration. She believes strongly in going into your vulnerability, fear and trauma to the extent that you feel that you are empowered to do so. I admire that she recognizes that trauma is part of who she is and also part of why she’s able to serve others. I asked her how she comes to terms with that balance of authenticity and not being completely overwhelmed.

“Sometimes I’m scared that when I speak up it will hold me up from moving up the ladder or getting a good reference to go to another place, but that’s how oppression works. That’s how trauma works. Let me scare you. Let me have you think that I have something over you so that you be quiet. At the end of the day I’ve decided that if I don’t say anything then I’m not authentically me and I can’t continue to hold this hurt and frustration when there isn’t any change. I’m going to continue to bring attention to what is and not necessarily be married to whether other people choose to do something about it. When it comes to developing knowledge and cultural humility: when you know better, do better. I can’t control is someone wants to do better, but I’ll do my part by speaking up.”

Being engaged in such relentless and personal work, I wondered if and how Liz let’s it all go at the end of the day.

“This summer I got to a place of burnout. In May, I told my boss I would do a presentation at our August staff retreat on using work as self-care. By the time it rolled around I thought I could tell my boss I can’t do this, or I could be a bit more radical about my self-care and see where I show up. I did this loving-kindness meditation: send love and kindness to yourself, a neutral person and someone who you love. Then it said to give love to a difficult person. Well, I wasn’t expecting that. In a 20-minute guided meditation I went from all zen to I could be on Jerry Springer, you don’t know my life, I have every right to be angry at this person. The next line was if you are having a hard time sending love and kindness to the person, then send it back to yourself because you are the person in the moment suffering.” Liz realized that she was holding onto anger. “So when I got to the presentation I was honest about wanting to get out of the presentation and what I did instead.”

When I asked Liz what gives her hope, or if there is no hope what keeps her going, she responded without a beat, “Power because I have people. People who are in it with me. People’s stories.”

And her advice to others who can relate to her?

“Know what’s non-negotiable, when you’re getting to a place that’s compassion fatigue. Self-compassion, self-compassion, self-compassion. Be authentically you, but it can be scary because who knows what the repercussions on. I have a lot of faith in the universe conspiring to put me in a place I need to be, but I co-create that. Sometimes when the universe is showing me where I need to go I’m scared, but then I remember that I have people.”




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