A Seat at The Table

a discussion of the benefits and costs of participating in the system

Sing Out Louise

How do we use our voices?

Copyright 1999 Callan Williams, callanw@crosswinds.net


Sing Out Louise
03/23/98

"Sing, Sing A Song.
Make it simple, to last your whole life long.
Don't worry that it's not good enough
for anyone else to hear
just Sing, Sing a Song."

-- Joe Rapposo, "Sing" from Sesame Street

Humans are born with a voice, to sing out the contents of their head and heart to others. This is a precious gift. Helen Keller said that her greatest darkness came from her inability to speak, rather than her inability to see or hear. Many humans, in many ways feel powerless because they are silenced, because nobody hears or understands what they are saying. This is what leads to the demand that every voice be heard, that everyone have a seat at the table.

Is the best way for the smallest, most challenging voice to be heard for everyone at the table to be as quiet as the least powerful voice? Should we all choose to bring our voices down to the lowest common denominator, so that everyone can have an equal voice? If we do that, don't we demand our allies sacrifice the strength and the power of their own voices in the world, making the table as a whole less powerful?

In this society, free speech is the power. When people like Fred Phelps comes with his protests that "God Hates Fags!" we need to face those, and the framers of the Constitution were clear on how that was to be done. It was not to be done by society silencing the radical and deviant voice of Phelps, but rather by other voices speaking boldly and effectively about their points of view, so that Phelps voice became not a beacon, but one lone dissonant note in the chorus.

The challenge is not to make Phelps, or people like him, lose their voice, but rather to have the rest of us use our voices to win the point. This, however, can be a real challenge for people's whose identity is cast as losers, and who don't want to have to win, but would rather just have other people lose even more. It's so much easier to point out where they are wrong and where they should change, to try to silence them, than to stand up and take responsibility for effectively advocating our point of view that many of us choose not to fight to win and gain positive ends, but only to fight negatively, trying to get the other guy to lose. This, however, does not build strong cultures or strong movements.

To be effective, we must, as Ghandi said, be the change we wish to see in the world. That means that we have to stand up for what we believe, sing out our own note. Brian McNaught, who speaks about gay issues, notes that the harmony of the world depends on each of us singing out our notes bold and strong. "When God meets us in the after life, he will ask "Did you sing the song I taught you?" says McNaught, and that is the challenge that each of us face, bringing our own song into the world and not just trying to silence the songs of others.

It is very hard to find our own voices, especially when we live in places where the tribe asks that we silence ourselves to make life easier for others, so they don't have to work as hard. Everyone has a different voice, a different song to sing, a different role to play, and the success of any team is encouraging each member to do their part to the best of their abilities, to expect the best from each individual and together form a group of compassion and excellence.

True empowerment is to help people find their own voices, strong and powerful that they can use to sing out the truth of their heart, the questions of their mind, and the visions of the spirit into the world. By letting each individual use a strong voice in the areas where they have gifts, we bring together the power of our gifts to lift us all up, rather than losing power in the demand that voices that challenge us be silenced -- a demand all too often imposed on queer people.

The true power is not in silencing others, asking them to swallow their own voices, silence themselves, but in creating a space where all voices can be heard in their own way and with their own power, even if that seems a bit cacophonous at times. Speaking up does bring us into conflict, but it is that conflict that lets us grow, lets us learn to see the world in new ways and create new ways of being.

The challenge is for everyone of us to "Sing Out, Louise," to tell our own story with power, grace and passion. Then we can each help make the world a better place to live.


A Seat At The Table
11/28/97

Do we demand a seat at the table
or
earn a seat at the table?

While it is right to demand the right to earn a seat, demanding that we have a seat without the responsibility for it, without earning it, cheats society and cheats us.

We need to open the doors, allow the marginalized to have a seat, but not by dropping standards.

Of course, anyone who has been denied entry has not had the opportunity to be supported in excellence, to have social structures that help them come up to their highest level of functioning. Hobbling people with low expectations is a way to keep them people out of the real source of power, being involved in decision making.

When the system does not honor the multiplicity of gifts and viewpoints that we have in a pluralistic society, it becomes impossible for anyone to claim a seat without looking and sounding like the people who are already at the table. If no one sees the benefit of our diverse views and unique contributions, we will not be able to give them.

Just because the people already at the table have focused priorities does not mean those priorities are wrong. It is important for us to be able to understand and respect the work that is being done by business and government, to grasp the challenges faced and how the solutions created were not thoughtless, but reasonable responses to the situation, even if those responses missed pieces of the situation. Every solution will be imperfect, will involve tradeoffs.

We must understand how an entity functions before we change it. It is only by knowing the rules that we can know which rules we can break, what the costs of our new choices are. Every organization faces the challenge of conserving the benefits that they already have and finding ways to progress to make things better, and this struggle of conservative versus progressive to find good tradeoffs & compromises is the way that humans organizations have always worked.

To get a seat at the table is not only to get a voice, but also to get a responsibility. Only those who are not at the table have the luxury of posturing and speaking only for their position. People at the table have the challenge of hammering out a solution that meets the wide variety of needs that come together over the issues facing all of them. We must represent our group, but we must also lead our group in helping them see why good compromises help all sides.

The table is where the work is done, and that means that seats at the table must always come with responsibility to effectively carry out the work that is being done there. For example, at a funding partnership, every seat carries the obligation to help raise funds in significant numbers, to ensure the success and the survival of the full partnership rather than simply advocate for one group. To sit at the table is to commit to the survival and growth of not just your group, but to the shared goals and requirements of everyone at the table.

To have a seat at the table is to carry our share, be part of the team, ready to carry our load and come up to the standards of others around the table. Once we get a seat, our voice will only be listened to in proportion to our standing at the table, and our standing will be determined by how people value the gifts we bring -- gifts of resources, wisdom, success, support and so on. A seat at the table is no guarantee of standing, of the personal power to influence people to work with us -- it is our own choices that give us power. Power comes from how we share, how we lead, how we take responsibility for achieving the shared goals of the group, and not just our own goals.

Power can come from coercion, threatening to hurt the group if our own goals are not met. This coercive power, even if sometimes required, is a negative power, working against constructing a coalition, against the goals of the group. Over the long term it is not people who threaten but people who contribute who hold strong and powerful positions.

We can and should demand at seat at the table. When we get that seat, however, we must be willing and able to pay for that seat with our gifts, to put away our demands and work together to achieve shared goals, for our work in achieving those goals gives us a voice in what those goals are and how they can be met. To be in an organization where the goals are not being achieved, because of bickering, because people are not doing their part & taking responsibility, is to only have failure. Failure wastes the time, energy and resources of all the people at the table, achieving no goals. It is only success that begets success, and successful organizations that can meet the goals of the people at the table.

We can and must demand a seat at the table. When we get that seat, though, we must commit to earning, and earning the standing and success that allow us to use that seat to make our world a little better place.


Everyone has a seat at the table. The question is how to take it

Marginalized people are marginalized people. They have a right, a duty, an obligation to participate in society. That right, that duty, that obligation comes with responsibility to the culture as a whole. Sitting at the table is a place for parents, where we have to give our gifts to the culture at large, see some sort of bigger picture, act for some sort of greater good, work on some sort of shared agenda.

Some degree of assimilation is required to take the seat. How much assimilation is taking our place at the table and how much is selling out? How much compromise is valuable, and how much is giving up the farm? If we assimilate enough to have standing, do we assimilate too much to speak for outsiders?

The issue is clearly that OUR STANDARDS have to speak to a wide population. But they are OUR STANDARDS, not his or hers or mine or yours or theirs or whatever. This is an assimilation question: How do we have standards that support order by assimilation while supporting diversity by freedom?

I watched Liberty on PBS last week, and my favorite was the last hour, the fight for the constitution, how to keep liberty by enforcing order. Hard, hard balance, but required to "keep away the tyranny of the majority from crushing the minority." The solution was diversity, more voices, more points of view, more protection of freedom so that those free people could take responsibility, become the parent, come to the table and work together.

That is what the table is. It is not a place where everyone gets to say their piece -- we get that in many other ways. The table is where we do the hard work and create a common agenda. The constitutional congress was closed. There was no public view of those white men at their table, because they had to do the work. The debate over the constitution was very open and hard.

Assimilation is required. Independence is required. Knowing ourselves is required. Seeing the big picture is required. Those at the table must reach out to include marginalized voices. The marginalized must reach in to take a seat and the responsibility that comes with it.

Anyone can speak. Getting standing is harder, because it demands credibility, follow though, and so on. In the 1960s, the white men were the only people at the table. That's not true anymore, but they still occupy the senior positions. They do that because they are often still the best at wielding power, which means making coalitions, forming a majority, creating solutions.

I agree we all have a right to sit at the table. I agree that those at the table must work to reach out and make sure everyone has the opportunity. I just also believe that sitting at the table demands working on creating OUR STANDARDS, means giving our bit, assimilating and creating shared views.

This is one of the hardest things for people who have never had the privilege and concomitant responsibility for having a group of people get results that help all of them to "get." If you don't start out by taking personal responsibility to lead and to work for the best tradeoffs, you don't get credibility and power and success disappears and then everyone loses.

This is not a black and white issue. It is a balance, just like everything else. I get that the marginalized feel unable to take their place for many reasons -- hopelessness, lack of education, different standards, different language, prejudice and so on. They have barriers to overcome that many don't. Those barriers must be addressed, no doubt.

At some point everyone has to give, hold up their end, meet shared standards & expectations, or success will not ensue. They have personal responsibility to the others they sit with to do the work, and the quality of that work will determine their standing with the group. Is this unfair?


1) We will never have everybody represented at the beginning. Lots of things have already been decided -- the language, the form of government, the monetary units, the accounting practices and on and on. These are the shared values that we have to use to work together, and they have been set over at least the past 200 years. They can be changed, but only slowly and with agreement. We all start with some obligation to understand and accept those shared baselines -- to be assimilated.

There are requirements for entry, conventions and rules in place that must be respected until we thoughtfully change them though consensus.

2) I'm trans. My seat, according to many, is in the looney bin. I can't tell you the number of groups that would disavow me for lots for reasons, from the HRC to Jerry Falwell. I know the issue of being outside, how there are real barriers to entry based on shared standards that are exclusive. I know the world is not simply a meritocracy.

I also know that if I want to play my part, I can't just be wild and speak for my own issues, I have to be tame and respect the community and their issues too. I have to work hard. It's not fair, having to always prove myself more because of people's ignorance, fear & suspicion, but asking me to care and pitch in, to take responsibility is fair.

Overcoming the prejudice, fear and ignorance that allows us to dehumanize and belittle people, making it harder for them to give their gifts must be a priority. People at the table must work hard to be open, honorable, respectful, working through their own stuff, taking responsibility for their own issues, and working to create a better place for all.

I just think that also means that if I take a place at the table, I must work hard to be open, honorable, respectful, working through my own stuff, taking responsibility for my own issues and working to create a better place for all.


Our discussion is about marginalization, from economic support to political power to social clout. You note that

--the marginalized don't know they have a voice

--the marginalized don't share values with the mainstream so cannot blend easily with the mainstream unless the mainstream changes to meet the marginalized people's modes

--the mainstream will not change to accept diverse values that because they have no incentive to give up their hold on power unless forced to do that.

Are there two groups of people in this country, us & them? Are the marginalized inherently different than the mainstream? Are all the marginalized people the same, and all the mainstream people the same?

I think we can agree that this is not an "us" vs. "them" issue. There are wide variations in the mainstream, because people who are assimilated are never completely assimilated. They are both mainstream and marginalized at the same time, in some mix, as we all are. They have made choices to buy into the social system, if they are aware of those choices or not.

There is not one unified group of marginalized people. There are multiple streams, streams within streams, each with their own values and modes. The only shared mode & value in this country is the mainstream, and even the mainstream is far, far from totally homogeneous.

I agree that lots of people don't find a voice, don't take their voice, for many reasons. To be empowered is the key, and the key to being empowered is taking responsibility for your own life, your own happiness, your own choices. Empowerment is responsibility, moving past blaming them and moving into responding as well as you can to what is thrown at you. "Freedom lies in the moment between stimulus & response," says Covey, and that is the only way we change our world, by changing our responses to it. We heal & grow and then we help other people grow, and things change.

There must be incentive for others to listen to us, true. The best incentive is positive, showing that we have some gifts to bring to the table that can benefit all. That doesn't always work, so sometimes we have to go negative, show that we will screw up everything until we are listened to, which can coerce people into listening. Yet, when we get to the table, we must find positive solutions that help all.

I was listening to "Eyes On The Prize," a radio documentary on the civil rights movement, and was amused by one man who said "I just kept yelling "desegregate everything now!" and Charlie said "No, we can't take that much change. Let's desegregate the pools today, the lunch counters tomorrow, the restrooms the next day." Well, after me, he sounded so moderate that everybody agreed with him. We got what we wanted." To be credible, radical threats must be paired with pragmatic solutions.

The last problem, that of how marginalized cultures that are completely at odds with prevailing social values, that have no common ground with mainstream culture, can succeed is very problematic. If you can't get standing in the system, you have to overthrow the system by creating a second mainstream that can take control, create a revolution to overthrow the mainstream. I just don't think that is required here, because the mainstream is far from a tiny and isolated thread, though the widening gap between haves and have-nots does threaten this.

Revolution is sexy. I just read one woman who is turned on by Marxism. It's such a seductive thought to create a new system where we don't have to do the work of assimilation, the hard work of changing big social structures bit-by-bit. It's a real pain in the ass to work the system, to try to create change against the force of the prevailing culture, but as we know, revolutions are hard work too, especially the part where you try to build a new, stable, orderly, open and diverse culture after the fall of the old one. Revolutions have often shown marginalized groups to be less open to diversity than the systems that they overthrew.

Shared values are the issue. The mainstream must open to other values, sure. But the marginalized must also open to mainstream values, something that they resist doing for their own reasons , which include maintaining power in their own marginalized areas. Personally, though I see no other choice, I hate being a moderate -- it means you get shot from both directions, . That's one reason Riki is always at the edges, because that means she has her back to the wall, living in her radical enclave. Its so much fun to have an abstracted, absolute position, rather than to do the hard work of compromise to find shared values at the table.

The shared values may be oppressive and ignorant, but they are the starting point of a stable and quite free society where change is accepted and encouraged on some level. To me, this is not about us and them, but about us and us, how we find common ground without assuming that anyone who has a different idea just doesn't understand what we said. It's so easy to write people off as one of them, but it serves little purpose.

Last night on Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keilor told the story of a woman who suggested an Industrial Development Board in Lake Woebegon, and people didn't want to listen, because she was from Millet, that tacky little town. Sure, she had lived and worked in Lake Woebegon for 15 years as town clerk, but she was one of them. Eventually, she decided to give in, to not be on the losing side, to be one of them. It was the same story of diversity, marginalization and assimilation that we wrestle with, and this was just about a Lutheran woman who used to live two towns over.

I honor the pain and energy of your radical queerness, your transgressive nature and your fight against the erasure that assimilation brings. Losing valued cultural assets to assimilation is not useful, as we all lose something when diversity is erased. Yet, keeping people marginalized to preserve their unique identity also has costs, to us and to our children who grow up marginalized.

There is no easy answer, that's for sure. I just know that if I want people to respect my choices of being both wild and tame, individual and assimilated, I have to respect their choices -- even if they are (ugggh!) fundamentalist republicans.


on a spiritual level of course we all need to be empowered and it is our own work inside,
but on a political level we need to work to help empower people.

I'm not sure they are that different. I agree that both must happen -- we must work to give people the space and support they need to blossom, and they must then blossom. This is, in my words, the challenge of the parent, who can help empower their children but who cannot give children power, as they children must take it themselves.

It's so much easier to do everything ourselves rather than build families, organizations, corporations where we have to endure and even sanction failure. We need to give people the space to fail, assuming that they will learn from that failure and get better, and that is the hardest thing a parent/organizer/manager can do, but it is crucial to building a broader and more effective tribe. In the long run, success is the most destructive thing to any organization, because it does not allow growth and understanding. Failure is required for learning.

The mother who lets her blind child walk into furniture, wincing in pain every time he bumps something but keeping her mouth shut, and the boss who after a staffer makes a million dollar mistake says "Why should I fire him? I just spent a million dollars training him!" are the same person to me, people making the same hard decision to support failure to support growth. Both have helped others grow, at the cost of their own pain, loss and embarrassment.

It's easy to be compassionate to one who is working to take responsibility for their life, easy to require responsibility for one who is demanding our compassion. We know that with our kids -- if they try hard, we give them all they need. If they slack off, we demand more. Finding the line is very hard, though, and we all struggle with it

Passing empowerment to those weaker and smaller than us is the highest calling. We must give them space to grow, which includes space to fail, space to disagree, space to experiment and even space to move beyond us. The challenges of a parent in the culture, and damn hard!

We know how to speak their language. We sometimes know how to speak our language, though often we don't have a shared language to start. We need to know how to merge these languages.

Privileged people don't see their own privilege easily, they just take it for granted, but people denied privilege see the demands to be normative clearly.

I very, very much understand that the normative language, the shared values, have no room for me, or for other diverse thought. This is the challenge of returning the jewel as Campbell notes it, to come back to a culture that doesn't want to hear your story.

I am frustrated all the time when I try to speak my truths and people cannot hear it. They demand I speak it in language they understand, but there are no words for me in their language, so I am erased. I have the choice of lying by using their words and expectations, or being called a liar when I try to speak for my own vision.

I just don't think, though, that there is any other way to move past that than to tell your stories in a way that people can hear so as to extend their view. We have to pull their nose away from what they are looking at and help them see it from a new direction, with new eyes, a new vision. Everything looks settled up close -- it is from a distance we see the cracks.

I agree with Kate Bornstein when she says that we have to write our genders, write them into to the cultural story. We have to make up the words for us by going inside, stripping away the social voices, finding our own true voice and put that voice, those words on the pages of the shared book. I very much see how writing and speaking since around 1960 has added pages to describe the black experience, and women have added pages on the women's experience, and though that our shared vision has been enlarged.

The challenge is not speaking in "their" language -- which all oppressed people do know how to do -- but learning to speak in our language and then, and this is the hard part, including our language into the shared culture. We need to write ourselves, and then write ourselves into the shared story. These are the stages of development, from the dependence of childhood, to the independence, the finding ones self of adolescence to the interdependence of adulthood, the mature shared building & caring of the parent, the elder.

That's one thing I think we are doing in this conversation, building a shared vocabulary and story that lets us understand each other and have more basis for communication.

Mystical visions turn into art when they are shared with an audience in a way that the audience is changed by the experience, and that puts our visions, our voices into the shared pool of metaphors & symbols. This is hard magic, as there are so many different views to take into account, so much conflict to negotiate, but to my mind it is key.

In Garrison Keilor's story "Children Will Break Your Heart," one family is heartbroken when their son marries a Catholic, and that couple is heartbroken when their son marries a Lutheran, and that couple is heartbroken when their son becomes a Republican in a polyester business suit. Opening our hearts to everyone, letting them break and be touched seems to be key to me. I have love for the wildest and the most assimilated, though the people stuck on the edges tend to infuriate me as they use ignorance to avoid having to do the hard work of finding a balance. I love them all, and admire people who work hard to find their own balance of wild and tame, compassion & responsibility, tough mind & tender heart, community & individual, freedom & order.

All just humans, trying to do the best they can, though. As long as it is us versus them, common ground is hard to find. My own mission statement was said by anthropologist Anne Bolin: "In cultures where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender transgression remind us of our continuous common humanity."

Continuous common humanity. It's not just an idea, it's a calling.


I am outside looking in and inside looking out at the same time -- or at least switching positions fast enough to appear that way. I sit on that liminal line.

Will people evaluate us, judge us, decide how they want to allocate their limited and/or valuable resources -- time, money, respect, trust, energy, credibility and so on -- on us? Yup.

No mythical gatekeeper decides if we get to the table. Real people decide how we are treated when we get there, how our voice, out of all the competing voices, gets heard and acted on. Being at the table is only a chance to influence the proceedings though our own use of our resources.

It's not right to judge people on the color of their skin or any other biological or historical trait. Yet even Dr. King said that judging people on the content of their character, on how they act towards others is something we as humans can do. I would argue that we have to do that to keep focus, to live in a finite world, to decide where we invest, even if that means we can't do everything, support everyone. Decisions must be made.

If someone tells you who they are, believe them.
Maya Angelou

I find that I have compassion for myself in direct proportion to my compassion for others. As Maya Angelou says, "Nothing human is foreign to me." By embracing others and their shadows, I embrace myself and the truth that they are me and I am them.


You can talk about SUNY as a taxpayer. You can go to advisory meetings, speak at public forums, start letter writing campaigns. You can have a voice.

The question is how much credibility and reward is given to that voice. To get more standing, you have to convince people to give it to you, get it from them in trade. If you want money from SUNY, you have to convince some department chair to give it to you in return for work, and in turn that chair has to convince some university president to get that money, and in turn that president has to convince the regents to get the money, and the regents have to convince the legislature, who have to convince the voters that you deserve it. All along the way there are competing and conflicting voices trying to set other priorities, and it's a big messy market for cash just to pay you off.

So you eventually strike a bargain with the chair, trading your time and effort to give her what she wants so that you can get what you want -- money, a title, a chance to teach, whatever. She wants to make sure that she is getting good value without problems, or she will go out and find someone else, and you want to make sure that you have as much freedom as possible.

It's the market. Limited resources allocated by tests, not gatekeepers, but by people who have to make hard decisions about allocations.

When you are at the table, you have an investment in the success of the organization as a whole, and you have to work more quietly and on the inside for change so as not to cause the whole system/organization/community/tribe problems. It is only when we are an outsider that we can rail away -- when we are an insider, we have a responsibility to others to be gracious and discreet and work for the good of all.

When I was a manager I loved not knowing what was going on because I could just say anything I want. The minute I was in the loop, however, I had to hold my tongue and be discreet about what was going on. When we bring people into the game we give them a vested interest in the success of the system, and that changes their priorities.

You can call this co-opting them, or you can call this giving them a seat -- it comes down to the same thing.

You have a vested interest in SUNYs success, and in protecting your standing and position there. This changes how you have to deal with SUNY, makes you be more conscious of the bigger picture. You are, in a very real way, interdependent with the rest of SUNY, holding shared goals, including the primary goal of organizations, Michels Iron Law Of Ogliarchy: "An organization's first goal quickly becomes self preservation." You all want to keep your jobs. This is one reason that organizations that reward their members in a tangible way (cash) have more staying power than ones that don't -- like community councils and political caucuses.

This is the cost of being inside, and it's a cost many radicals don't really want to pay. People on the inside have an obligation -- and a motivation-- to defend the system, to work hard and sacrifice for shared goals, not just individual ones, and that includes goals they don't support 100%, or goals they had no direct part in setting. It's one reason so many people want to leave big companies and start small businesses where they have more of a voice.

In the long run, as you have noted before, it is people on the inside who make more changes and determine the course and shape of a system, even if they have to pay their dues for a while.

You have to do the same thing. If you were hired at RPI, for instance, you probably wouldn't care so much about SUNY politics. You only have so much resource to commit, decisions you have to make about where to focus your voice for best effect. How do you not spread yourself too thin, cast pearls before swine, piss into the wind? How do you get the most bang for your buck by doing your own work?

This is one of the messages you get when people tell you that the challenge is not just to critique others but to do the work for yourself. Your work gets you your standing, gives reason for people to honor your voice.

I stand by my assessment:

No mythical gatekeeper decides if we get to the table. Real people decide how we are treated when we get there, how our voice, out of all the competing voices, gets heard and acted on. Being at the table is only a chance to influence the proceedings though our own use of our resources.

Our voices are one in a million in the Capital District, 275 million in the US, billions and billions in the world. We have them, but we can't put them everywhere and expect them to have punch.

We can't sit at every table and do all the work, but we can't sit at any table without doing the work. Focus, allocation, hard decisions are required on how to use our limited resources to get what we need.