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True Justice and the Bones of Belonging

“There lies the longing to know and be known by another fully and humanly, and that beneath that there lies a longing, closer to the heart of the matter still, which is the longing to be at long last where you fully belong.” – Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home

I had the pleasure of coming to know Annahid Dashtgard through our mutual friend and teacher, Parker Palmer. This past fall, shortly after appearing on the show, The Growing Edge, a podcast hosted by Parker and his collaborator, Carrie Newcomer, my friend wrote to me as if I knew Annahid. “Because if not,” he added, “you should.”

He was right. I did need to know Annahid and her work. And so should you.

Dashtgard is, firstly, an activist and a champion for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusivity. She is a teacher whose fierce regard for the felt experience of oppression infuses her wisdom and defines her work in the world. But importantly, as I came to understand after reading her first book, Breaking the Ocean: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Reconciliation, she is also a poet. She wields her words in ways that are both fierce with the reality of systemic Othering and heartbreakingly beautiful. Her language, her observations, and her storytelling penetrates the armor around our hardened hearts allowing us to feel, as well as know, the lived experiences of those who share our spaces.

Like the fiercest poets whose commitment to true justice, Annahid understands that fostering a world where everyone matters, where their longing to belong is met, requires an awakening of the heart space. The resulting empathy creates the ability to understand reality beyond the limits of our own experience, a necessary condition for the justice inherent in true belonging.

Reading her work, I was reminded of something my friend, the executive coach Justin Scott Campbell said to me after reading my first book, Reboot. A talented leader in the important work of fostering systemic equity and belonging in business, Campbell shared that, for him, “Inclusion is the felt sense of love, safety, and belonging.”

Empathy, justice, and inclusion…all have their places in the skeleton of human belonging. And Annahid’s newest book, The Bones of Belonging, weaves together powerful, lyrical words, empathy-inducing stories, and fierce observations into a quilt-like collection that will take those longing to belong where they need to be.

“Start at the beginning, start in the middle, start at the end,” she writes in the introduction, “wherever you come in, the stories will take you where you need to go. The pieces overlap, one connected to another, each nudging you forward and inviting you to see, feel, and put together the skeleton of belonging holding our fragile humanity together.”

After reading both of her books, I had the great fortune, perhaps good karma manifested, of spending time with her in deep, reflective conversation. I was nearing the end of the third or fourth (or perhaps, fifth) re-write of my own contribution to the dialogue about belonging (the forthcoming book, Reunion: Leadership and the Longing to Belong) when we had the chance to sit together, leaning into our own experiences of using inner exploration to make observations about a world filled with Othering and inequity.

Recalling stories from her work with organizations and communities, she shared the story of a South Asian woman, an immigrant to Canada from India, who spoke about her experience of going to her workplace after she’d first immigrated and wearing traditional clothing, clothing that spoke of home. “And after a couple of years,” shared Annahid, “the woman just stopped. Not because of overt racist things that might have been said to her about her clothing,” noted Annahid, “but because the woman was simply exhausted by people questioning why she‘d wear such outfits.”

We spoke of such little, insidious, persistent ways in which so many are pressured to abandon parts of their identity. In response, I shared a passage from an essay that had broken me open (as I thought of my immigrant ancestors) and had so informed my new book, Reunion. In the introduction, I wrote:

In his essay The Price of the Ticket, James Baldwin admonishes that we must go back to where it all started, to go back as far as one can, to travel our road again. “Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence we came.” Unfortunately, though, knowing whence we came, traveling the roads of our past lives and those of our hungry ghost ancestors, “is precisely what the generality of white Americans cannot afford to do,” he says. “They do not know how to do it.”

I hit the nail on the head, she told me in response. “I think the solution to undoing oppression is not the pity move, it’s not just about sacrificing to help people of color. “The deeper change mechanism,” she says, is to consider what each of us have lost to systems of oppression. Each of us needs to excavate our own experience and know from whence we came. That way, she says, we can know “what my bones hold.”

I’ll close with a moving passage from Annahid’s Breaking the Ocean:

I look back now and want to praise the young girl I used to be for her temerity and resilience. I want to share with her what I’ve learned since, to help her understand that [her] symptoms were an appropriate outlet for expressing the frozen terror she felt each and every day…I would let her know that belonging is never a destination but a journey, something we commit to anew every day, to embrace that which most scares us, both inside and out. To love what has been rejected, otherwise it will keep interrupting, eventually tearing us apart…

…This is true for all of us. We cannot break the ocean. We are not meant to live separated from parts of ourselves that we learn to hide, punish, or rebel against…This is our most human job: to step out of the seductive fray to listen to the inner tugs (sensations, feelings, thoughts) bringing us back, over and over again, to our deepest soul self — the site of greatest possibility for reaching out across difference, tucking the other into our heart, and offering love. True justice is born out of love. And any belief system that marginalizes parts of the self, parts of the world, is an enemy of life itself.

True justice, then, is answering that longing to belong with love. For when such longing is met by love, life overcomes the separateness that is death.


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