Written by Salina Gray, PhD

I recently attended the “Resilience Toolkit” with Nkem Ndefo, founder of Lumos Transforms, a social enterprise that supports individuals, communities and organizations in moving toward positive change. During our first session, she introduced the notion of “being the change” and “making the change”. I was immediately struck. I realized that for much of my adult life, I’ve used both phrases interchangeably. Never had I considered them both in the same moment, or even as separate concepts. “Are you being the change or making the change?” I sat for a minute, knowing that I had, over the course of decades, used the terms synonymously, to mean the same thing, when in fact, they have distinct meanings.

As a younger person, new in my social justice mindedness and consciousness, I was committed to “making the change”. I remember being 16, reading the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Assata Shakur as well as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. During that year of high school I went from being a somewhat passive, people pleaser to a more revolutionary and justice minded young adult. I was activated, and I represented my activism by wearing my hair “natural”, wearing t-shirts emblazoned with images of Pan-African and social justice icons. I became involved in anti-apartheid protests, wrote to political prisoners and joined up with some activist elders for study sessions in a local park. I was a radical 17-year-old wholly committed to disrupting and deconstructing all evidence of white supremacist ideology.

Making the change meant standing up and speaking out. It meant challenging and standing watch when folx of color were pulled over or stopped by police. And even more, I refused to be silent. I looked for opportunities to push back on any and all forms of injustice against Black folx. Making the change required showing up and showing out. I took that energy to Prairie View A&M, an HBCU in Texas. To my surprise, I was one of a few radicalized first years, so it was easy to find community quickly. We were the “weirdos”, wearing our natural hair, combat boots, beads and bangles; committed to furthering our work to “educate” our brothers and sisters.

It wasn’t until a professor challenged my consciousness that I began to unknowingly question myself and my change making. She was shocked that I would hold such progressive beliefs about race and racial inequality, but still subscribed to patriarchal and misogynistic ideology. My 19-year-old self didn’t realize that while I was fighting against white supremacy, I was also fighting against liberation and justice for girls and women. For example, I would tell people that men were supposed to be strong, aggressive alpha males, while women were supposed to dress and act modestly, and take care of the babies. Making the change without being the change was non-transformative. Furthermore, I would argue that one is impossible without the other. However, at that time, making the change meant disrupting anti-Blackness while inadvertently embracing and promoting gender roles and stereotypes. I was belligerent initially, refusing to acknowledge my internalized misogyny. In hindsight, I see that challenging the oppressor within is the foundation of BEING the change. I had to have my worldview challenged and disrupted, and be willing and open to hear the harm that my actions, (regardless of their intentions) were causing. In this instance, BEING the change meant listening, acknowledging and transforming mySELF rather than steadily pointing the finger and criticizing external systems and structures.

As I sit here some 33 years later, I see how I have oscillated between being the change and making the change depending on the circumstance. The tension between the two is palpable. Moving forward I hope to find a balance between them, a “both/and” where I can Be the change while Making the change. Being the change means having compassion, grace, forgiveness, and a willingness to listen to and understand others’ stories, no matter their politics, religion, race or beliefs. Making the change means having the willingness to do the work, to be courageous, bold, and unapologetic in my work for justice and equality. I know now that, for me, transformation and healing are futile without both.

I will be the change so I can make the change to be the change to make the change.

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