I don’t know if you are like me, but when COViD hit, I started daily tuning into the gift of my lungs. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I would check in to make sure I could still breathe. I never got COVID but I still feel incredibly blessed that my lungs are still with me.
For anyone who needs to be reminded to stop and breathe, to stop doing, to sow into a silence that wants to remind you of how powerful and special you are, here is my personal and Community Allies COVID story.
Years ago, a dear friend of mine, who was both a chiropractor and a physical therapist, taught me about the power available to my body, mind, and spirit when I took time to do deep breathing. I was on a 2-year hiatus from my life as a high school English, Humanities, and French teacher, living in St. Louis with my family, working as a personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness, plugging into exciting St. Louis non-profits, and researching graduate programs. I was relieved to not be working with 125 + people a day and just to be able to focus on one person at a time, on my family, and on my own life, one breath at a time.
15 years later, COVID came at the perfect time for another needed hiatus. I had hit a wall I could not penetrate on my own and was needing to remember how to breath even more intentionally one breath at a time.
The mission of Community Allies is to help businesses, schools, and governments do their part together to restore a village of sectors who work well together for all of our youth and families, especially those overcoming generations of exclusion from our many sectors, a systematic racial exclusion rooted in federal government housing policies. The work of Community Allies is to support businesses, schools and governments in advancing community-centered development by learning with their constituents the solutions their constituents are advancing to ongoing barriers and obstacles they are facing amidst ongoing inequalities and how we can each do our part to be of service in replenishing the specific, requested, needed, and most valuable resources and supports.
This kind of learning posture is key because depending on our race, ethnicity, and class, we have a history of different kinds of access to physical resources (funded schools, transportation, housing, health care, technology, etc.). We also have different kinds of access to voice. For example, in a world that has steadily privileged white people with access to homes, employment, and wealth-building processes, it is not uncommon for their languages and cultures, books, and versions of history and leadership to take up more space and to be the basis for decision-making.
Thus, when we enter into change-making spaces together, we first and foremost need communication practices that help us find one another, that help us de-center people and cultures who are used to having the most voice. The method of change-making we bring, Honoring Stories and Integrating Curriculum™ draws on ethnodrama, community development, and literacy to support us in navigating the reality of these challenges together, one intentional and reflective step at a time.
It comes from years of designing, running, and studying youth ethnodrama programs through which youth take up real-world issues, interview people in their communities and in non-profits, government and business, turn their interviews into films, dramas, power points, poems, and whatever we can do in the time we have, and use their art to facilitate dialogue with businesses, schools, and governments about current and needed change-making within and across sectors.
I am so grateful to the many in St. Louis who are advancing change, and when I founded Community Allies in 2015 and returned to St. Louis in 2016, I began plugging into coalitions who are advancing community development in the form of affordable housing and education. The more I learned about community and business organizations, coalitions, and conferences, the better informed I felt about how to bring youth from schools and non-profits who hosted our Community Allies ethnodrama programs to those meetings in ways where youth would be able to follow the conversations and contribute.
These meetings became tremendous learning ground for youth and for me. Sometimes, enough ground had been laid ahead of time by me and others supporting our programming for youth to present their ethnodramas, power points, poems, or whatever time permitted them to present and for them to facilitate power-packed conversations – everyone learning together what different organizations and sectors were doing and where we could lock arms in more ways. When all the right pieces were in place, during youth presentations and facilitation of conversations, much immediate healing took place for everyone, adults especially.
Other times, I am still learning the needed context for the organization, the conference, or industry and the expectations of both the adults and the youth to build the kind of bridge ahead of time both parties need. These presentations and conversations are more challenging and often don't flow as easily, but youth still have enough preparation to navigate tensions in the room about the sensitive issues we are raising and to process with me afterwards their experiences, unpacking each layer of the preparation we have done, and where else we have needed to build bridges, either among us or with our business and community partners and audiences. In the process, we all grow in our relationship-building skills and in our understandings of how to build cross-race bridges to one another and to our audiences.
There is much blessing in inviting the public into our classroom even as we go to them to present youth research. We all experience much-needed healing. The greater the challenge in building a bridge, the greater the learning for all of us in our bridge building to one another and to the public.
The challenge in constantly bringing the world into our classroom is all of the preconceived notions about people of any given race that might at any time percolate our conversations. Our programs contribute to feeding a spirit of humility, honesty, transparency, and discussion about hard realities we all are living and the many places in us and in others where change is needed.
Through ethnodrama and the Honoring Stories and Integrating Curriculum™ change-making process, youth and I learn together over time how to keep cultivating that culture of being as real as we can with one another about where we are connecting well and where we are missing one another, while taking a believing stance in one another.
When we go public, the first need is for us to quickly cultivate that kind of learning and transformative culture with adults who are steeped in a divisive shame and blame culture that leads them to quickly judge me, the youth or one another. Our message has always been about coming together to make change. For that message to be engaged, we first need to disarm the impact on our audiences of the realities of St. Louis histories that have perpetuated trauma and prejudice. This trauma and prejudice can get re-inscribed through communication patterns.
The ethnodramatic Honoring Stories and Integrating Curriculum™ approach provides community-building honest and transparent grace-based tools, resources, and processes to help us come together on behalf of youth. By the end of a program, youth have looked at an issue from so many angles that they exercise tremendous creativity as they handle the toughest conversations. They also are so steeped in the work of ethnodrama that they are able to head off some of our deepest divisions quickly.
Still, I have learned that to keep going, I need to take breaks. The traumas youth carry are ongoing and heavy. Youth need us to come together now and quickly to give them room to come up for air. Audiences are in all different places of understanding their own hurt, trauma, and preconceived notions, and they can quickly ascribe stereotypes to anything we say or do and detach from investing in learning what we are bringing in the form of communication tools and resources that help us work towards unity.
When COVID hit, I took 2 months to breathe. I went back to what my friend had taught me – breathing in through my nose from my belly and filling it with air. Breathing out through my mouth, pushing that air out until every drop of air was gone. And as I breathed, I tuned into my creator and a spiritual realm that is closer than close. I left the world alone and began to lean into my own heart and an expansive spirit that has never put me or anyone I know into any kind of box.
I listened carefully to myself, my voice, my needs, my life journey, and I tuned into places in my life that needed refilling, refueling, and healing. I played worship music or sat in silence and let myself feel deep wells of grief in me that align with the grief around me. I started a running conversation with God, locking eyes with Him and talking everything that came to me out with him, capturing it in my journal so I wouldn’t forget.
Over that 2 months of sowing to silence, to listening, to leaning into an expansive and generous spirit, I experienced a palpable spiritual anointing. I began to understand what it means not only to sow to silence, but to sow to a spiritual relationship that is always waiting for me to stop and look up. I could hear my creator saying to me every morning – Sarah, don’t do another thing. Let me do for you. Let me love you. Just be with me. Just spend time with me.
2 months later, I began an 8-week youth program that did not require public presenting, and I found myself living from a much deeper place, in step with what I experience as a resurrection force that could now flow through me, that wasn’t getting stuck in places of any hesitation in me. I had gained a rootedness and an ability to trust myself and my ever present spiritual partner, no matter what the challenge before me.
Yes, that rootedness and self-trust have always been there. I just sometimes forget to invest in sowing to silence so that I make adequate time to do life in step with myself and my creator, to really be with myself and to listen for what my path is and what my creator is waiting to teach me and show me.
What was different about my faith life during these COVID months was I put my creator first in every moment of my life, leaning into a renewed sense of my creator's love for me, before anyone or anything else. I set aside ample time for Him to speak into my life and to lead me and to be my healer.
That time with Him changed everything. It set me on a path of drinking deeply from His presence, of being able to receive His carefully chosen blessings for me, and of growing my capacity to follow His lead and to really hear where and what my daily assignment is – how through the gifts my creator entrusts to me that we together cultivate, I get to be a part of His specifically fashioned and hand-delivered blessing for someone.
Since then, I have entered into a 2-year busy season that has required a new set of learning curves, and the lessons of that 2-month COVID window have helped me believe in the goodness unfolding and to press into it with everything I have.
For any who resonate with my need to stop and sow to silence, I wonder – for you, in your story and your journey,
Here is what I know. The silence isn’t as scary as you might think. You may not have 2 months to soak it in, but I know if you take time to breathe deeply each day and to listen to and to honor the powerful person and voice in you, it will begin to change everything for you one step at a time.
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D. specializes in supporting teams, departments and schools, businesses, and government agencies in building inclusive innovative change-making communities who understand how to connect well with and join diverse populations in providing needed sustainable resources for all youth and families.