When we Walk the Talk, Sometimes we Trip

On Allying for Gender Justice[1]


I only have 15 minutes with yall this morning, and I have struggled for several months with finding what it is I want to share with yall.  With the organizers permission, I am going a bit off script.

I’ve recently been playing a bit with the notion of “where courage and compassion resides” as the base from which our justice work is grounded. I want to briefly explore this with you because  I believe that this notion of “where courage and compassion reside” also has some significant implications for men’s leadership and accountability in terms of our work end gender-based violence and promote gender equality.

There are some fascinating developments in the area of compassion. We typically think of sympathy, empathy and compassion as relatively close cousins. Most folks recognize that there is a distinction between these three qualities but are often hard-pressed to actually articulate what these distinctions are.  Recent brain science is uncovering that compassion is, in fact, much more distinct from empathy and sympathy than we have traditionally thought.  Due to time, I’m only going to highlight one of these differences.  As it turns out, our compassion centers in the brain are located in a very different place than are sympathy and empathy. Compassion is in an action center of the brain, whereas as empathy and sympathy are not.  This means compassion calls us us to act in ways that empathy and sympathy do not.  It’s possible to be passively empathetic or sympathetic.  According to brain science, it appears that it’s virtually not possible to be passively compassionate.

Men, as we all have seen historically and particularly in response to #MeToo, are quite able to be empathetic to women and women’s experience. But this empathy is largely passive. Being empathetic does not move men in any significant ways.  Empathy doesn’t engage men. It doesn’t call men to act. 90% of men who are aware of the #MeToo movement have not changed their behavior.  And we all know, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

As Jackson Katz said last night, our brains are capable of multi-tasking.  It is possible for us to feel compassion in multiple directions at the same time. Speaking for myself for a moment, I can feel for you and feel compassion for myself at the same time.  To be honest, that’s where I am right now.  I’m kinda out of my league right here.  I’m a community organizer and a facilitator; not so much a “speaker”.  Being in this venue — a large amplitheatre style classroom, in front of 200+ of you with a spot-light and a camera crew is way outside of my comfort zone.  That place where courage and compassion reside in me is what’s keeping me from curling up in a ball right now.

This kind of political self-compassion is critical for men as we talk about men’s leadership and accountability because sometimes…

When we walk the talk, we trip.

At the risk of too much disclosure, I tend towards clumsy – meaning that I trip a lot. I find that when I stumble, I often do so in ways in times either when no one notices, or I can play it off relatively easily. Sometimes (maybe often) when I trip, on the other hand, I tend to fall and rfall hard.  And not too infrequently, I fall right on the very people I aim to ally with…and often in front of the people who want to see me fail.

My knee jerk reaction, when I fall, is to withdraw and go hide, falling down, in public is humiliating. As a older male who is also white and in a heterosexual relationship, withdrawing and hiding is made much easier due to my privilege.  That place were courage and compassion reside pulls me to get back up and remain in the game.  Compassion calls me to be accountable when I have fallen and take responsibility for the folks that I landed on when I fell.

Let me give you a concrete example:

Several years ago, I was invited to facilitated a program to develop adolescent men’s leadership to prevent dating or domestic violence. In this particular group, I worked with a group of black and brown male youth who were part of a program organized by the YMCA.  These young men were referred to this program due to school disciplinary issues.  Most also had police records. (These kind of young men are generally identified as “at risk” but which I prefer to think of as “at potential”).

Now to provide a bit more context, this is a region (Louisville, Kentucky and southern Indiana), that is roughly 85% white. This is a group of about a dozen adolescent black and brown men, the main facilitator of the program who was an adult black man, and me.

After some initial conversations, they decided that their effort would be to organize a donation drive for the local domestic violence shelter and that they would deliver their donations on Mother’s Day.  After some conversations with the staff at the shelter, these young men further decided to focus on gathering donations for the adolescent sons and daughters of the mothers who were at the shelter and would gather donations by teens in their high schools.

Which meant that they had to seek permission from the principles of the three higschools I the area that they attended.  These young men took their idea about this project that they had come up with to their principles (all white men), and each and every one of whom said no.

The main facilitator of the Y program and I then circled back to the principles and eventually got them to agree.

Now, before I go on with this example, I want you to sit for a moment and compassionately reflect on what this experience might have been like for these young black and brown men.  Imagine what it must have been like for them to approach these principles who they already had a history with, and propose an idea that was about doing something positive and meaningful in the community, and being told no.

I have to own this– to you just like I did to them.  I set them up – to fail (rather than setting them up to succeed).  I tripped, and fell smack down, and hard, on these young men.  I allowed my white and male and old-person privileged to blind me to the possibility that these principles might do exactly what they did. I absolutely should have seen this coming, and absolutely should have gone to these principles to identify and address any concerns that they may have had before sending these young men into those meetings.

After we got permission to proceed, what I wanted to do was to hide in my privilege and shame and either avoid the conversation I knew I had to have, or avoid the group as a whole.  But that place where courage and compassion resides called me to be accountable.  And so the next week, I sat down in front of them and told these young men that they had a lot of reasons to be angry, first and foremost with me.  “There’s little point in us moving forward with planning and with this effort until we’ve dealt with how I failed yall.” So, as I said at the time, you have a lot of reasons to be angry at be so bring it!

They were, of course, initially hesitant to really let me know just how angry they were at me.  Afterall, how often do young black can brown men ever have the opportunity to tell an old white man just how angry they are – and not have the white man respond with defensiveness, denial, minimizing or violence?!?

And once they started letting me have it, they also, of course, let me have some of the anger that was rightfully directed at these principles.  They also likely included some anger they had at white police officers and white prosecutors and white judges… It may or may not have been fair for them to express all this anger at everyone else towards me.  But these were not the moments for me to parse this out.  These were the moments for me to sit still, keep my mouth shut, and let them be angry at me.

I don’t share this not to aggrandize myself.  Rather, to point out some key lessons that I think this experience suggests about the role of courage and compassion in men’s being in leadership and accountable.

Lessons learned:

  • While humiliation is a part of the experience of falling, particularly when we fall on the people we’re aiming to ally with, political self- compassion allows me to use my experiences of humiliation as a foundation for moving forward in leadership from a place of humility rather than withdrawing into a closet of shame and privilege.
  • Practice does not make perfect. That’s a set-up to minimize, deny and lie…and ultimately for failure.  Practice makes progress. Be careful of the set up that there is a way to be “perfectly” accountable, or “perfectly” allying.
  • Progress is rarely steady, smooth and clean. Progress looks less like a slow steady climb, and more like a roller coaster ride.
  • Often times when I trip as I attempt to walk the talk, I have to go back and clean up the mess I made – being accountable in a different kind of way. I have found, consistently and repeatedly, that it is far easier to for me to be accountable pro-actively, than it is to be accountable by cleaning up a mess and making amends.

In closing, let me leave you with three thoughts:

  • When we walk the talk, we’re gonna trip. We’ve seriously lacking in models of what it looks like for men acting in leadership and being accountable get back up after they trip. How can you be that model?
  • Being compassionate with ourselves and each other does not mean making excuses or minimizing when this happens. But it also means we don’t condemn.
  • Practice makes progress. Look for and learn from the times we do trip so that we can make progress from those experiences.



[1] Comments for the opening of the MidWest Symposium on Men’s Leadership and Accountability Around #MeToo (Jan 2019), hosted by the University of Northern Iowa

© 2019 by Rus Ervin Funk