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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