Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice

Each year, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day in the United States brings new opportunities for mis-appropriating, mis-remembering, and mythologizing Dr. King’s legacy and the broader Civil Rights Movement. White people get the history wrong in many ways.

Each year, celebrating MLK Day also brings new opportunities for re-reading Dr. King’s words and re-seeing the work that he—and so many people working for racial justice—have envisioned.

MLK offers visions of the ought to be, of engaged activism, and of multi-racial movement-building. Such visions are essential to avoid getting stuck where we are and to spark imaginings of new and more equitable futures.

As a white woman witnessing, learning from, and participating in MLK Day, I’m reminded at this time of year how Dr. King’s legacy and wisdom can guide me in the work of visioning. His words keep me focused on what’s possible rather than thinking only about what’s problematic.

Specifically, three of Dr. King’s often-cited quotes keep me focused on my role in taking steps and speaking up, even when inevitably and always falling short of what I can, should, and want to do. With gratitude and humility, I hope to amplify these words and share how they provide guidance in my life today.

1. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Though I have trouble placing this quote’s origin, the King Center in Atlanta describes how Dr. King combined two scriptural verses into one to create this line. I’ve been repeating it for years, since noticing how white colleagues ask for professional development as a prerequisite to taking action. Ongoing learning is always important, yet I’ve seen how it can be used to delay, dismiss, and excuse away the responsibility to act.

Instead, taking some action, any action, matters. It helps us learn, gets us started, gives us practice, makes feedback available, and opens opportunities for additional actions. It helps us join and build relational networks, and it helps us develop habits or routines for taking action.

Taking a first step and a second and a third and so on adds up to sustained action, and the importance of “Doing Something Small and Sustained” is part of why I’m vegan for social, environmental, gender, and racial justice. Certainly, there are many more steps to take, but a daily commitment to taking steps helps grow momentum, while allowing for rest and self-care along the way.

2. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As part of the Steeler Lecture in 1967, these words remind me of the importance of breaking white silence, as silence does real harm. I remember the gut-punch I felt when watching many white friends and family remain silent after Charlottesville. After writing “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” some sincere conversations emerged with white folks who expressed “a loss of words” and the fear that they could do more harm by saying the wrong thing than by saying nothing at all.

Just as a fear of doing it wrong and the desire to “learn more” blocks taking action, a fear of saying it wrong and a desire to “listen more” blocks speaking up.

To these fears, I’d say that there are many ways to speak by amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who are already speaking up and leading the way. If you’re not reading and reposting feminists and womanists of color, consider doing so. Sharing the work and words of activists, scholars, and leaders of color help promote and make widely visible their leadership. Amplification is an important form of speaking and one that invites listening and learning too.

As a white woman, I also need to remind myself again and again and again to let go of perfectionism. The possibility of a “perfect” or even “right” way of speaking is another lie of internalized inferiority and superiority. I’m sure to trip over the words. I’m sure to do it wrong. I’m sure to confront my own limitations. But I’m also sure that I must speak up in order to practice, to get feedback, and to learn by doing (with the attitude of “try-try again”). And more than the importance of learning, the costs of complicity are too high.

3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I end with this line from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because it reminds me of the costs of failing to act or speak up. It reminds me why I must keep the reality of white supremacy and the commitment to racial justice at the fore throughout everyday living. It reminds me why an intersectional approach to justice is needed and why I have a role to play in this work. And it reminds me why imaginative, creative, critical visioning is so deeply needed.

As I spend MLK Day this year tuning into myself, I’m reminded that, like Dr. King’s words of wisdom, our embodied, lived experiences have much to teach us about how to act and speak up in the world. I’m resolving in 2018 to “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” even or especially when my body hurts and my voice shakes. I’m resolving, too, to use inner listening to learn more about when and where I can direct my energies, knowing that I have a role to play in the work for racial justice.

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Photo taken during one of several pilgrimages to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice” and “Refueling with Feminists of Color.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Caterpillars and the Butterfly Effect: Noticing Small Signs and Taking Small Actions

2018. New Year’s Day. I am with family in Florida and noticing many interesting insects, including these caterpillars and moths:

Curiosity leads us to watch, take photographs, and later look up the species, learning that these are oleander caterpillars transformed into oleander moths.

I keep seeing caterpillars and moths, so I begin researching their symbolic significance. Suddenly I realize this is another example of everyday divination and miraculous timing, as caterpillars are helping me see the potential of birthing new projects and ways of being in the near year. They ask me to look more carefully at changes in my life and to ask what transformations I’d like to experience this year.

The symbolic significance of seeing caterpillars may be small (like the caterpillars themselves), but what’s small can have BIG impact.

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Just as caterpillars transformed into butterflies can influence weather patterns miles away, the butterfly effect reminds us that actions can create far-reaching ripples. A flap of the wing matters.

With the caterpillar’s reminder, I’m entering 2018 attentive to small moments. I’m asking myself in what moments am I closer to my best self. When am I truer to my commitments? When am I standing TALL? When am I acting in ways that might ripple outward toward social action and social justice?

I’ve noticed in the past days a few moments that might be small flaps of my butterfly wing:

  • Talking with a white family member about how the frame of whiteness limits our understandings, experiences, and relational networks.
  • Witnessing sexism impacting me and repeating to myself: “That’s not mine. I’m not taking it in. I’m investing my energies toward building gender justice.”
  • Instead of blowing up in a hard conversation, noticing myself get angry, allowing the anger, stepping away, and then re-engaging when ready.
  • Preparing and sharing yummy vegan foods for kids who ask for more: more strawberry smoothies, roasted potatoes, pancakes, tempeh sticks, and other foods creating memories.

The small signs of seeing caterpillars and moths are reminding me to appreciate small actions like these. In 2018, I hope to amplify, multiply, and learn to sustain these small actions. And I hope that like asking for more yummy foods, we ask for more of ourselves and our collectives. A sort of “more” that manifests in everyday, seemingly small, and consequential ways.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Why I’m Vegan: Doing Something Small and Sustained” or “Today Resistance Looks Like …” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

7 Lessons from My First Year Blogging

As we approach the new year, I find myself engaging in a personal “year in review”: looking back on 2017, questioning what I’ve learned, and setting intentions for the year to come. This review prompts reflection on my first year of blogging, which has been both improvisational and planned, both reaching beyond and helping me set better boundaries. Blogging, for me, has meant speaking up and starting something new and scary that represents larger changes rippling throughout my life. It’s also opened possibilities that I’m excited to explore as we head into 2018.

From this “year in review,” I share here 7 lessons that seem applicable for others, even beyond the realm of blogging:

1. Everyday life is a constant source of curiosity, inspiration, and learning. I wondered early on if I’d have difficulty creating content, but as my list of writing ideas continues to grow, I’m reminded of the richness and complexity of everyday life. I’m also reassured that my academic training in ethnography, conversation analysis, and other research methods translates well to the work of observing and writing about everyday living for justice. What I’m learning is that when stepping into unfamiliar ground, my background (or previous groundwork) makes new steps possible. I’m bringing my research, teaching, and healing experiences along with me, as I’m shifting into new roles and responsibilities associated with public writing.

2. Doing makes it so. Though I’d wanted to write publicly for many years and created this blog in 2016, I truly committed to regular, weekly posts in 2017. (I’m excited to say that this is my 52nd post this year!) The more that I’ve created and shared posts, the more that I’ve come to see myself as a public writer, creator, educator, and blogger. In other words, the activity of writing (verb) has helped me step into the identity of writer (noun). I’m learning from this experience that whenever I want to be _______ (fill in the blank), I need to do the associated activity. One current example: Because I want to be a hike guide and backpacker, I’m now prioritizing weight training. May carrying weight make me someone who can carry weight.

3. Community provides motivation and support. I’m especially grateful to Vanessa Mártir and the #52essays2017 writing group for helping me stay focused on steady, weekly writing. In the past, I’ve appreciated writing challenges like AcWriMo (Academic Writing Month), and now this year-long challenge has bolstered me, giving me courage to share my work before it feels ready. Being in community with other writers has kept me accountable, and it’s helped me set a sustainable pace. Now this rehearsed rhythm sustains me and my writing.

4. So much depends on others. Just as community has provided writing support, I’ve relied on and am deeply grateful for the many people who have read, made suggestions, shared, subscribed to, and supported the blog this year. Unexpected miracles and miraculous timing have propelled particular posts into being, and they’ve helped me form new relations and discover new spaces of creative conversation and community organizing. I’m realizing (again) the importance of learning from, with, and alongside others, while staying true to my own “strong YES.”

5. Writing supports self-awareness. While this blog relies on many people, it’s also become a space for me to do critical self-work, slowing down to reflect as I make sense of the world and my actions within it. As a writing teacher, I believe in the power of writing to engage in contemplation, identify patterns and outliers, see one’s own assumptions, set intentions, clarify commitments, and hold conversations with the self. Blog writing has engaged me in such processes this year, as I’ve used writing like yoga and meditation to look within and ask who I am and what I’m about. Writing feels like powerful spell-casting: the stuff of everyday divination wound up with resistance and artistic creation.

6. It’s important to act, even/especially before feeling ready or right. If I’ve learned nothing else in this year, it’s that perfectionism has been slowing me down and tripping me up (getting in my way for many years). Blogging has helped me interrupt this pattern by sharing work in-progress before I feel ready. In the process, I’m shaking off the sense that writing must be carefully reviewed before being seen. I’m recognizing that imperfectly acting is important not only with writing but also with speaking up, taking risks, and taking a stand. Standing TALL is about showing up and being seen, even when shaking, uncertain, and sure to still need revision.

7. The time to build is now. Through this first year of blogging, I’ve realized that it’s time to build: to build myself, my vision, my commitments, and my contributions. Building doesn’t mean starting from scratch, but securing the roots while expanding and growing. For this blog, my building will prioritize web development: creating a fuller website with a range of offerings. Early on, a primary concern with blogging was creating content. Now that I’m generating content, I need to make it accessible and navigable. I hope that investing in the blog aligns with collective investment in building, creating, and restructuring toward the world we’d like to see. Truly, the time to build is now. I look forward to building and hope you’ll want to build with me, too.

Thanks for accompanying me on the roller-coaster through 2017, on this journey through sweet and sour. I send many good wishes for the year ahead and recommit to blogging in 2018 as part of the long haul toward justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Listening for/to the “Strong YES”

In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about when and how I tune into my “strong YES” for decision-making. I find that I’m truer to myself when I’m following Marty Tribble’s guidance: “The absence of a strong YES is actually a no.” Reflecting on this advice is what led me to write “Using Your ‘Strong Yes’ to Guide Career Decisions” for Inside Higher Ed:

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I hope that this article helps others tap into the strong YES not only for navigating job searches and career decisions, but also for everyday decision-making and living for justice. I share in this article five strategies for finding the strong YES:

1. Follow the deeper breath.
2. Check in with the heart, head, and hands.
3. Keep an emotion journal.
4. Look for signs in everyday life.
5. Look inward through guided meditation.

Each of these strategies asks us to prioritize embodied knowledge, inner knowing, and emotional literacies that we too-often downplay or discount, especially in higher education.

Each of these strategies asks us to unlearn ways of being-doing-living that keep us limited to less than our whole selves, less than fully human and messy.

Each of these strategies asks us to slow down through imperfect meditation and other contemplative practices so that we stop shutting out what hurts and instead get to know ourselves and our commitments with greater clarity.

Despite practicing these strategies, I still often act without checking in with my body, without intentionality, and instead with procedural efficiency. I’ve had several recent reminders—from dropping my phone to becoming sick—that I need to slow down and listen more carefully.

When I listen for/to my strong YES, I sometimes have to change plans. For example, recently I’ve sat on several blog posts, not sure if or when they’ll feel ready to share, and I’ve canceled several meetings, not sure if or when I’ll feel ready to have them.

Truly, listening for/to the strong YES is essential for de-routinizing dehumanization, yet it’s so hard to do because I love routines, even when they undermine well-being. Similarly, the strong YES is essential for countering the lies of internalized inferiority and superiority, yet I’m so attached to these lies that I resist letting go. Noticing routines and resistance helps me shift toward more careful, mindful listening.

Toward better listening, I am starting today a daily practice of yoga nidra that I hope will help me stay truer to myself and my commitments. As I work to align with my strong YES, I hope you’ll join me in asking:

  • How can I release the “shoulds” that inadvertently direct my days?
  • How can I notice (and be kinder to myself when I notice) that I’m acting without intention?
  • How can I better align my everyday living with my hopes and commitments?


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Imperfect Meditation and the Desire to ‘Slow Way Down’” and “Reframing ‘Independence Day’ as a Day for Truth-Telling and Committing to Justice.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!