Orlando, and why our work matters


blowing-dandelion-tumblr-wallpaper-1Hi everyone, I’ve been thinking about the shooting in Orlando and wanted to share some thoughts. I don’t know if I can say anything that others haven’t already contributed more eloquently and effectively, but writing is a way for me to process and cope when awful things happen, so thank you for reading and for your patience in this possibly rambling and disjointed reflection.

The past few days, I have been exploring gardening with my three-year-old, Viet. He loves to dig up the dirt, even after we placed the seeds in. I reminded him that the seeds are sleeping and that we have to not disturb them. “I want them to wake up, Daddy,” he said, “it’s morning time!” As I watch him scatter kale seeds, I think of all the parents who lost their children in in Orlando. Parents who loved their kids, told them bedtime stories, pulled out their hair trying to get them to eat stuff, traced their tiny hands for a Mother’s Day card, worried over their every sniffle and scratch, felt the bittersweet passage of time as their little ones learned and grew, parents whose worlds are now shattered, who will never get to hug or talk to or laugh with their kids again.

I also think of all those who never knew their loved ones identified LGBTQIA, or maybe they did but they never accepted them for who they are. Who they were. And now they’re gone, the chances of reconciliation or acceptance also gone forever. With grief, there is also often the terrible guilt that comes with wishing we had done things differently, said things differently, spent more time with someone, treated them better. It is a trait of us human beings to take the people we love for granted, and then sometimes it is too late.

I’ve been thinking of all my colleagues who identify as LGBTQIA. And all my colleagues who are Latinx. And all my colleagues who are Muslim, who face increased xenophobia and threat of violence because people cannot separate the actions of a single hateful individual from an entire religion. And all who stand at the intersection of these identities. I don’t have any words of comfort, except to say I stand with you and hope you have been feeling supported as we process and heal from this act of hatred and violence.

Last week, during the team meeting at my organization, we began by checking in with each other. It was an emotional discussion, as many of us are or have friends and family who are deeply affected by this horrific act. Some of us shared personal stories; others provided comfort or just listened. I am thankful to my team for being so open, for creating the sort of culture that allows us to be vulnerable with and support one another. It helped me realize a few things.

The divide between our personal lives and our work lives is artificial. Society tells us to compartmentalize, to separate out these two areas, to leave work behind at the end of each day, to not bring our personal feelings and challenges into our work. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But when something awful of this magnitude happens, we have to recognize that this compartmentalization is not realistic, and it’s not healthy. “CNN told everyone not to talk about this at work,” said a colleague. I don’t how healthy that is. We must find time and create space in our work to feel and process the anger, sadness, confusion, cynicism, hope, fear, and love as all of us try to understand, and support one another. Especially as so many of the people we serve, particularly our youth, may be wondering why this happened. They may need to be reassured. We will be more present for our community members if we can process our own thoughts and feelings first.

I realized we all process and mourn in different ways. Some people find healing by talking and reflecting in groups, others need to be alone and would rather not share our thoughts and feelings in public. Others prefer not to think about it at all and just focus on our work. It is important to recognize that there is no one proper way to process horrendous events like this. Let’s allow each other to reflect and feel, but also respect that we all do it differently. If you are facilitating a discussion, make sure to let everyone know that’s it’s OK if people don’t want to share.

I realized it’s OK to not know what to say. A friend of mine who is gay texted, “Are you going to write about hate? Please say something.” And to be transparent, I don’t really know what I should say that would in any way alleviate the pain and grief and helplessness that countless people are going through. I wanted to write about it last week and could not summon the energy or the words. But I think it’s OK for us not to have the perfect words. Maybe we can just start by checking in with each other with “Are you OK?” and “I’m here for you.”

Most of all, I realized just how important and urgent our work is. For many of our LGBTQ-identified community members, finding acceptance among family members can be challenging or impossible. One colleague told me he’s never been accepted by his family for being gay, and the shooting in Orlando has actually made things worse with his family. Another colleague writes in despair of a former coworker, found dead in his home, likely of suicide; he was gay, and the shooting may have been the last heartbreaking straw.

We colleagues, mentors, friends, and service providers often play critical roles, especially for our young people who are finding their identities and may face being ostracized by their families. The building of community is one of the most important functions of our sector, even if society and we ourselves take it for granted. People come to our programs for a sense of belonging as much as they come for services. Donors and volunteers give not just because of their generosity, but because of this sense of creating a community together. All of us work in different ways and across different areas, but our goal is the same, to build a safe and loving and just world. And when a horrific act of violence happens, it shatters this vision we are all working toward, and it makes us question whether our work makes any difference in the world when the forces of hatred seem so strong.

The forces of hatred and injustice are strong, but we are stronger. For those innocent lives lost in Orlando, and the many injured, and the countless friends and families in mourning, we must continue to do our work. Our work of lifting up families and building community and supporting one another is our strongest protection against fear and hatred. Against bigotry, homophobia, Islamophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia. Against violence. Against despair and hopelessness. The work we do matters. The world needs us to continue. 

Let’s support one another as we process, even if we don’t know what to say or feel. Let’s continue to build the kind of world where everyone belongs. Every morning, I hug my kids goodbye and head off to my organization, and I hope and pray that I get to see them again in the evening. My heart breaks for the families of the people murdered in Orlando. As I watched my carefree three-year-old get bored of planting seeds and run off to pick dandelions—“One for you, one for Mamma, one for baby brother”—I am grateful that he does not know of Orlando, that we do not need to talk about it with him yet. I want him to hold on to that as long as he can.

And I am deeply grateful for all of you, who work every day to create the kind of community that I want to send my kids out into. Thank you for all you do.

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24 thoughts on “Orlando, and why our work matters

  1. Dina Elenbaas

    I’ve had a lot of feelings over the past week. Anger. Sadness. Numbness. As a person who works for an organisation that operates in LGBTQIA+ communities, it was double heartbreak: my own, and that of the people around me.

    On the day, our ED tasked me with putting together a statement regarding Orlando for social media. This led to everyone who was in the office that day sitting around the lunch table, talking through what was important to say. I’m so grateful that we did that – we came up with a response that everyone was comfortable with, and started (or continued) the healing process.

    And you’re 100% right that it’s okay not to know what to say. Heck, I don’t even know what to say. This is painful and hard for all of us – it just hits especially close to home for some.

    So, as I said on Facebook: thank you. This was beautiful.

  2. Michael Rosen

    Vu, thank you for your thoughtful post about Orlando and the shockwaves it has sent throughout our country, even the world. While much has already been written about the Orlando nightmare, you’ve offered a fresh take on the subject. I applaud you for your touching post.

  3. Kat

    You summoned up beautiful words for this one, Vu. Love this line: The forces of hatred and injustice are strong, but we are stronger.

    1. Dawn Butterfield

      Yes Kat; I agree. In fact, I’m going to take the corny step of putting it up on my wall to encourage and remind me, staff, and customers alike.

  4. Mehitabel

    You are to be applauded for taking the time to check in with your staff. I can remember in 2001, watching the World Trade Center attack on TV that morning and then somehow getting myself to work quite simply because I didn’t know what else to do. My boss called an emergency staff meeting at a nearby park. We sat on the grass and passed around cookies and lemonade. We ended up staying there for several hours. I couldn’t begin to tell you what anyone did or said, but I can tell you what it meant to me to just have that time with my co-workers, with no demands made on us but to feel what we were feeling. I contrast that with my current workplace where nothing was said by anyone in leadership after the shooting. It was just a business-as-usual day. It’s sad, because I suspect that there were people there who were really suffering, and they suffered in silence. It’s a forcible reminder to me of how important it is not to forget that our workplaces are communities.

  5. Rhiannon Orizaga

    Thank you for your beautiful words of encouragement, Vu. I’m queer and Latina and when I first heard of this, my immediate thought was what if some of these people, like me, have not quite reconciled with a parent’s homophobic attitude? What if a parent never had the chance to say the most important words: I love you? It breaks my heart that this terrible thing happened, and that we as Americans can’t seem to figure out how to stop Americans from killing other Americans ALL THE TIME. We’re so busy pointing fingers at the “Other” whether that other is Muslim or an angry, young, white man – we can’t seem to come together and say this is US and WE have to figure OUR sh** out. It has been an unbelievably rough week + day and we will never stop needing reminders to check in with each other, to love each other, and to believe that what we are doing matters, because it does!

  6. willworktomorrow

    Thank you, Vu. This is so lovely and so on point. Last week was really rough, and I think many of us are still reeling.

  7. Carol Clarke

    Thank you, Vu. This is beautiful. I am deeply grateful to you for bringing these matters of heart to work. Because yes, I am doing my best to make this world better for everyone, and love has everything to do with what I do.

  8. Becca

    Thanks for writing this, Vu. I’m LGBTQ-identified and the organization I work for serves the LGBTQ community. I feel like the events in Orlando should be a rallying cry, but instead my burnout is just getting compounded. Trying to take things a day at a time.

    1. dadolwch

      I was feeling this somewhat too. But yesterday my workplace just marched for the first time (long overdue, IMO) in our local Pride Parade. The outpouring of love and support from tens of thousands of people filled my almost-empty emotional cup. It was a wonderful reminder that there really is much more love out there than hate, even when the hate is so loud and painful.

    2. Stacy Ashton

      Hugs, Becca. The work is not easy. My sister in law and her girlfriend have a trip planned to Orlando in the Fall. Of course they would go to the Pulse. It feels so terrifyingly personal. We are in New Westminster, Canada, and the first thing that happened was our local Pride organizer had 80 people out at our new rainbow crosswalk within a few hours. We lit candles. We shared our sadness and anger and commitment to stay loving and fierce. The city pledged more police protection to our upcoming pride parade.

      I am so impressed by the work US-based LGBTQ organizations have been doing to address what seems to be such a schism between love and acceptance and hate and fear. It seems slow going on the day to day, with so many horrific pieces of legislation popping up everywhere. But the huge swing of history is sweeping things forward anyway.

      The more things change, the more they change.

  9. Barb Koumjian

    Thank you Vu. Yes, we humans commit violence and murder against one another far too often, but unseen and unannounced by the national media are those who everyday bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice by loving and working on the side of love.

  10. Chris Ganzlin

    Vu — I have shared this with so many others as I thought it was perfect – what you wrote. I cried through the whole thing. Thank you.

  11. Justus Eisfeld

    Thank you for your thoughtful post!
    Now, a couple of weeks after the horrible shooting and attack on my community, I want to share something that I noticed not only in your post, but in many others.
    A lot of people are concerned about victims who were not out to their families or who may have had difficult relationships with their families because they were queer. But I wonder if we had that same assumption had this act of hatred been perpetuated in a predominantly white gay club? Are we assuming that some of the victims were not out to their families because they were latinx?
    Assumptions about ‘outness’ seem to be closely linked to race – both in the assumption that people of color may not want to be out to their families on the one hand, and in the white-centered ideal of outness as the highest form of gay evolution on the other. Somewhere in the middle also lie racist assumptions about family acceptance.
    Right now I am just noticing this pattern – and wanted to share it as food for thought and discussion.

  12. Marshall Ginn

    Thanks, as always, for your wonderful post! It is so important that we not shy away from talking about these and other hard matters with colleagues. More and more we are seeing that nonprofit organizations who support and actually encourage this type of sharing become more resilient and stronger. Whether we are witnessing and experiencing the joys, excitements, fear or vulnerabilities of fellow staffers, it all leads to our being in better relationship with each other. And when such relationships improve, our ability to build stronger, more meaningful relationships with those outside of our organizations becomes that much stronger. So from tragedies like this come opportunities for deep connections, bridge building and increased understanding. Some good from the bad.

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