Here’s a bit of gallows humour for you. I was announced as the 2020 ACT Woman of the Year a whole week before the average person here in Australia had any concept of the word pandemic. How’s that for luck? I’m the honouree equivalent of Black History month in the United States. As the inimitable Chris Rock aptly puts in, “Black History Month is in the shortest month of the year, and the coldest-just in case we want to have a parade.”
In all seriousness, I’ve had lots of people tell me how much having me, as a woman of colour, being honoured means to them. I’m touched and humbled by this.
I’ve been moved to tears by other women, in particular, who have said to me that:
“You have to see it, to be it!”
That expression sits uncomfortably with me, and I’d like to share why. I think you, my fellow travellers, will get it.
So, what exactly have I seen? I’ll give you two examples.
Being African-American, I grew up with the stories of the Black women who had essential roles in the Civil Rights Movement. You will know of Rosa Parks? When she first arrives on the scene publicly, she is a university-educated executive assistant for a prominent Civil Rights leader. She also did work with female victims of sexual violence.
Rosa knew full well what she was doing when she got on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama and sat down in a seat that was not designated for her kind. Because of her race, she was legally prohibited from sitting in the front of a bus.
When she was told to move by an angry bus driver —she knew full well that she was probably going to jail. She would also have known there was an excellent chance that she would be assaulted before the police even got there; let alone after they arrived.
And yet we all know what she said:
My mother was ten years old on the day that Rosa Parks went to jail. She went on to serve in the United States Army. Ironically, she would also go on to join the same police department that was called to arrest Rosa Parks that day in 1955. My mother was one of the first Black women in any police force in the South.
Eventually, she left the police force to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams. Like many women, at first, she toyed with the paths to small business ownership that she could see and that appeared possible to her. At some point, my mother was part of every multi-level marketing program there was. Amway, Avon, Tupperware, Mary Kay– you name it, it was sold in our living room with me responsible for serving the chips and dip on our best china.
But, my mother dreamed about plants and gardens. She wanted to set up a garden centre and landscape architectural practice.
She didn’t know what that looked like any more than Rosa Parks did. They both just imagined different worlds to the ones they inhabited.
I suspect that those of you who are blazing trails, working at new social innovations also didn’t see the path you’ve blazed.
Here’s the thing:
Rosa Parks found it challenging to get and maintain work after her stand in 1955. She had to move away from her extended family in Alabama and moved to Detroit, Michigan. She was frequently sick from the stress. She did unskilled labouring work—janitor and seamstress. At 91 years of age, she was served an eviction notice for her tiny apartment that costs 1,800 a month. She died just a year later.
My mother was on an interstate plant buying trip, her flatbed truck full of precious plants for her first big landscaping job when her fever spiked. If only the nurse could stop the chills and fever, she would be fine, or so she thought. She did get the plants home, but she never got to sell them. The cancer was stage 4 and terminal.
So, that’s my truth and is why this idea of seeing as the only or even most important way to catalyse and mobilise change in our world it isn’t sitting well with me. I’m convinced that it’s not enough to see.
We must imagine the change we want to see in the world and doggedly persist in our commitment to manifesting it.
Imagine a world where an outspoken advocate for Civil and Women’s rights is not refused employment because she was considered a troublemaker.
Imagine a world where a woman would not be forced to decide whether to use her meagre savings to start a business or go to the doctor.
My team at Mill House and I work with changemakers just like you who do not and have never seen anyone like them or doing what they are trying to do. We think that’s just fine.
You not only distribute food to the poor. You work tirelessly to manifest a more just and equitable food production and distribution system. You imagine inclusive workplaces and resilient communities and empowered families in places and in circumstances where there are none to be seen. You imagine a structurally different world and build coalitions of allies to manifest it.
Manifesting a dream is what we did in my very first social enterprise nearly a decade ago. By some crazy accident of luck, it is what I get to do every day when I sit across from a visitor to Mill House and ask, “what does the change you imagine in the world look like? Will you dream it out loud with me?”
In the times we are living through now, we need your imagination now more than ever. So, in the Black-History-Month-brevity of my 11 minutes of fame this year, my goal is to inspire others to join our movement and to inspire you to keep dreaming.
Imagine being Pink Floyd when there was no Pink Floyd to imitate?
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
This letter originally appeared in Cindy’s LinkedIn articles
Published on March 20, 2020
as “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”