The Soapbox: Discomfort can be the catalyst for change

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Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.

Each year as we reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, the nation and local communities find moments of harmony and peace as we remember what it means to be unified as citizens of this world. Like many other world leaders who came before and after him, Dr. King reminded us that our difference will only take us so far; we have to be willing to find community and connection with those with whom we disagree.

When we take time to honor Dr. King’s legacy, we tend to highlight the “feel good” moments. We focus on his calls for peace, building the beloved community and nonviolent resistance.

And while all of those moments and their lessons are important for those of us seeking justice and liberation for all, they cannot be the only tools we use in the face of hate and inequity.

One of the most important, but less remembered, lessons from Dr. King’s legacy is: Discomfort can be the catalyst for change.

As we remember Dr. King, how he navigated the tumultuous times he lived in and how he dreamed of a better future for all of us, I hope we remember the moments he called on us to move from our zone of comfort and lean into the discomfort of challenging ourselves, our family and friends, and our neighbors to grow beyond our sphere of experiences and to acknowledge the lived experiences of those whose ideologies are different than our own.

Commonly, when we are discussing how to achieve justice, we’d like to have a clear roadmap laying out how we should move forward. Our zone of comfort is in wishing to know exactly what our next step or course of action is.

Dr. King counseled, however, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

And he is right. We can’t be paralyzed in the quest for justice and equity because the outcome is unknown to us.

I often wonder about the world we could be living in if we dared to dream bigger about what is possible, and stepped outside our comfort zones to reach toward those possibilities.

When we think of racial and social discrimination, much of our focus or anger tends to be directed at those who are enforcing archaic and oppressive ideologies on marginalized communities.

In his wisdom, Dr. King advised us to look at this picture through a different lens. “We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” he said.

And again, he’s right. What we actually have to fear is the silence of those who claim to have our best interest at heart — those we call friends, those who might be closest to us.

The tension of this fear and disappointment lies in the fact that those who claim to have our best interest in mind frequently don’t speak up when they see that we are being harmed. Their silence amounts to complacency in the face of abject prejudice, discrimination, or harm.

If we ask ourselves why those closest to us keep their lips sealed when they can clearly see historical and generational harm, the answer is discomfort.

In order for us to achieve justice, those who remain silent when witnessing oppression must move past their comfort and challenge inequity at every turn.

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail Dr. King said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

When we consider what it means to make a demand of someone, usually we discover conflict at the center.

As Dr. King observed, it is imperative for all of us, in our quest for a more just society, one that is focused on the liberation of all people, to move through the discomfort of conflict and recognize that we have to demand the justice that we all deserve. And making a demand frequently requires a bold step beyond your comfort level.

What does all of this mean for you?

It means that in order for us to move toward the Dream that everyone quotes Dr. King about today, we all must lean into the discomfort that comes in not knowing exactly what the road ahead holds.

It means speaking up on behalf of those around you that are experiencing racism and inequity, even if you don’t fully understand the depth of that experience.

And it means to be ready and willing to confront others and demand justice, knowing that justice and freedom will never be given freely.

Discomfort can be the catalyst for change. Let freedom ring.


About this Author

Emerald Anderson-Ford

Emerald Anderson-Ford is YWCA New Hampshire’s Chief Diversity Officer. She lives in Manchester. The YW’s mission is to empower women and to eliminate racism.