How do we show up when it matters?

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Over the last weeks as urgency has grown around COVID-19, I keep finding myself thinking of a particular day in high school. I was 15 years old and a sophomore. I wasn’t terribly confident, but I was social and liked well-enough. I had friends across a variety of differences, myself being a first generation, light-skinned brown girl from a middle class family. Somehow I got the idea to run for Student Council as the Junior Class Vice President. I was to give my speech to my peers in an afternoon assembly in our high school gym.

That day was April 29th, 1992. A short while before the school assembly a California jury acquitted white police officers who had repeatedly assaulted a black civilian Mr. Rodney King. A bystander had filmed the officers’ actions. Today, we make videos of everything with our cell phones and have ready access to publish content on social media, so it may be hard to imagine how in 1992 the video evidence was unique, a significant documentation. At the time, the fact of this recording raised hope that since the brutality was caught on film a jury would reaffirm guilt. It did not. This acquittal marked another moment in United States history wherein accountability for harm and a pattern of structural racism toward black men was not enforced, even with direct and tangible video evidence of the incident. This acquittal demonstrated systemic denial of reality. This moment was bleak, devastating, and also inspired the emotional outrage of the three-day Los Angeles riots.

This was the context of the day of my speech for Junior VP. I heard the news of the acquittal and proceeded to navigate a million emotions – anger, confusion, disbelief, sadness, worry – swirling thoughts, and nerves. I consulted with friends about what to change in my speech given the day’s tragic turn of events.

Nevertheless, my nerves got the best of me. I spoke first at the assembly and ended up giving my speech as planned without changing a thing to attend to everything going on. I doled out disconnected and practiced words. I struggled to connect with my own jumbled feelings and needs let alone share them and connect to students hurting in the room. I didn’t find a way.

The other candidate did. I remember his first words were something like, “I could give you the speech I planned for today. But, there is something more important that just happened and I want to address it…” He proceeded to give voice to what many were experiencing – shock, sadness, disappointment, anger, with needs for dignity, equity, and justice. He conveyed his raw confusion and genuine care. I don’t remember the rest of his speech, because just naming the tragic outcome was enough for him to build connection and give space for people’s hurt.

That day, and the days that followed were heartbreaking on so many levels. Beyond the individual and community pain, structural racism was again laid bare.

This is the memory that’s been on repeat for me these weeks as we struggle to navigate the pandemic impact of COVID-19 and experience or witness systemic inequities broadly revealed. My brief run for Junior VP wasn’t about winning or losing (he won and I voted for him too), it became about learning a way to show up with humanity and attend to those in the most pain when it mattered.

I write to address the question, how do we show up when it matters?

I have compassion for the 15 year old me who froze with so many needs unmet for courage, clarity, and confidence but who wanted to show up and contribute to my peers. Today, I see how I am still up against my nerves and the fears that inspire a freeze reaction. The difference is I know I don’t want to go on automatic right now. I want to be intentional and stay human, connected to my feelings and needs, and empathically attuned to others. I want to do what it takes to remain available to give what I can to support my family, friends and community, especially those who will be impacted most.

I have wondered if this memory is playing reruns in my mind to invite me, this time, to fully turn toward the collective interests and needs that are deeply important to me and necessary for our community to thrive: well-being, equity, justice, tending to the most vulnerable, and creating systems that work for all. Because, during the time of COVID-19:

  1. This is still a United States where systems of oppression and structural racism operate in full swing. Our broken health system is being called to task. The new coronavirus is further revealing ongoing inequities.

  2. Those who were the most physically vulnerable and the most structurally marginalized before the new coronavirus hit (those without enough resources and support or access to it) are going to also be the most impacted.

We need every single one of us who is willing and able to come together to get through this crisis … and start building something different.

Now is the time to show up when it matters.

How do we do this? How can we bring an awareness and intentionality to the quality of how we show up in response to our community’s needs?

For the purposes of this writing piece, I am exploring what tools and principles of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) can get us started on this path. How can we give ourselves enough self-care so we can challenge ourselves to stretch and show up for those most vulnerable in our community, and to change the systems of inequity that perpetuate this vulnerability. I suggest five different areas to focus on.

    We need each other. We meet our needs through interdependent relationships. As those of us who are able to do so shelter in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the reliance on one another has become abundantly clear. What would we do without the health workers, grocery stockers, folks who collect garbage, restaurant workers, FedEx and post office employees, warehouse workers, farmers, janitors, and all the people whose jobs have been deemed essential? Collective responsibility is the opposite of what most of our United States culture touts as important. We tend to value doing things on our own, rabid self-sufficiency, and independence. Yet, it is more obvious every day that an individualistic mindset and the subsequent behaviors come at a cost to others well being. Take for example the hoarding of resources by the few and the absence of those items for health workers and people with babies who need diapers. What care and resources can we give of our own to those who are living houseless or incarcerated? What can we ask for from out here to be given to those who need it? The movement of mutual aid – the voluntary exchange of resources and services – is one option that operationalizes the principle of interdependence in the time of COVID-19. What’s possible in terms of equity and justice if we shift toward an interdependent paradigm?

    Given the mindset of independence many of us don’t find it easy to recognize our need for help, let alone ask for it. Have you found yourself thinking, “I’m supposed to do things on my own, why would I need to ask anyone for support, that wouldn’t make sense would it?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.” Various degrees of shame can come up for us when we find ourselves in need of a helping hand. Now’s the time to be real about what you may actually need, and to explore anything comes up as a barrier to asking, or receiving that support. It’s time to evaluate what skills and resources you may have to give as well. This may be as simple as checking in with someone, listening to what’s on a friend or family member’s heart or mind, or getting groceries or medicine for an elderly community member, or helping someone navigate precarious finances. There are so many big and small ways to contribute. Evaluate your resources, what do you have to give, what might you need? What gets in the way of receiving support?

    Fear interrupts our ability to make decisions. More than ever it’s crucial to employ patience, rigorous fact checking, and to find a way to ground yourself amidst quickly shifting information as new facts about COVID-19 and how to respond to it come to light. With a ton of information flooding us through the same digital channels that we use to connect with one another while staying at home, it can be a slippery slope toward letting our interpretations, fears, and worries run wild. When in a state of fear and anxiety, it’s more difficult to connect with the parts of our brain that help us solve problems (like figuring out how to work from home, to navigate the health system, or the myriad of other current needs asking for attention). To shift away from fear and into empowered action, remember that there is also a plethora of information available online about movements and communities that have navigated crises and inequity and figured out creative solves. Some necessary solutions have even changed public policy. From this intentional and paced research how can you transform your fear into empowered action?

    Beyond digesting information to stay safe and knowledgeable about the current state of affairs, simple observation of your environment can serve to immediately calm your nervous system, resourcing you for whatever is next. The practice of being present to what is, noticing what you see and hear, can settle your nerves. When you find yourself worrying and trying to find a way to control the future, breathe and try instead to ground yourself in whatever you can observe (see, hear, touch) here and now, in the present moment. Maybe the sunlight is refracting in a beautiful way through your window, or maybe you can slow down and notice your natural rate of breathing, or maybe you notice the pulsing of your blood through your precious body. Perhaps a neighbor is playing a musical instrument to pass their time and you can focus your attention on those distant cadenced notes. If you are reading this, you do have this moment right now. Take a sound, sight, or physical experience in mindfully, slowly, and breathe.

    Our human lives were already unpredictable and complex before the new coronavirus. The current circumstances are globally unique and unfamiliar to many. In all this, we remain sentient beings with a myriad of emotions to untangle. Know that every emotion you are feeling is valid. Embrace all parts of yourself. There is some power to be found in naming the emotions stirring and the needs alive in you right now. Recognizing and acknowledging all your feelings, then honoring them by sitting with them for a short while, is one way to help them pass through you rather than build up and overwhelm. There can be healing and a sense of centering or balance in being with our emotional truth, rather than avoiding the sometimes erratic and uncomfortable nature of our feelings. Explore what happens when you choose to allow them to be. Our feelings give us information. Can you connect to the deeper values you hold that lie beneath them? What are your emotions revealing that is utmost important to you right now? What are your feelings telling you about what matters to you?

    After you pause in this way and check in with yourself. See if there is anything in you that settles. Does anything shift in your body? A release of tension? A sense of more spaciousness? It may seem counterintuitive to sit with what may feel quite confusing, fearful or painful as our friends and families and our global community are experiencing great impact. However, folding your emotions into an awareness and “be with” practice can help mitigate emotional reactivity and support you to respond effectively to whatever requires your attention. We do not know fully what’s in store, but we can know our inner world and become familiar with a truth, our truth, in this way so we become familiar with the home within ourselves. This is a time to begin learning how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and unpredictability, to build that resilience in order to ground yourself in what you do have control over.

    Some of us who are social or physically distancing live alone. Whereas others are now experiencing some pretty ongoing and close quarters with loved ones and roommates. Either way, remember that social distancing doesn’t mean heart distancing. While we discover new modes of digital connection, and expand our use of the classics (phone calls and video chat) or as we reconfigure our shared spaces, we are still dealing with humans. Interpersonal conflict is not on pause. Now is the time to up your empathy skills and come from a curiosity and care that may provide someone nourishment and understanding. Even if you disagree with someone’s opinions or point of view, you can still work to understand what matters to them. Empathy is not agreement. Consider what life experiences may contribute to their perspective? What’s on their heart about the matter? How can you shift from any desire to be “right” or prove someone “wrong” and instead seek and discover some common ground? Is there any place in what appears to be conflict to find opportunity for dialogue and conversation? How can you share with one another from your heart to build a connection? What can you learn about another person’s truth, even if different than yours? So many of us right now need someone to hold space for our tumultuous inner world without any judgment, and with a great deal of ease and care. With practice, you may be able to stretch toward curiosity and be that person with space to listen and show tenderness when it matters.

It is unclear when this pandemic will be over. The repercussions are also to be determined. With that in mind, I hope all of the above helps you show up … because if and how we show up, matters.

When I was 15, I knew what mattered on a day when structural racism blatantly upstaged dignity, equity, and justice. But I didn’t know how to show up for it. Today, during this public health crisis of COVID-19 revealing so much that is broken in our systems, I also know what matters: dignity, equity, and justice. I’m finding my way to show up for today and for whatever is to come. I hope that anything I offer to you here helps you not only tend to yourself, but also find a way to be “more” human and attend to whomever you can, whatever you can, all the while attending first to those with the greatest vulnerability and need. Together, I hope we find a way to balance systemic inequities and ensure dignity and well being for every single one of us, no exceptions.

“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” – Michelle Obama


Sheila Menezes, MS, CPCC is a coach, facilitator, mediator, and consultant offering her expertise to individuals, couples, executives and organizations. She helps build cultures of empathy through training people in leadership and effective communication that supports connection, clarity, and collaboration. She is certified through the Coaches Training Institute (CTI), a Collaborative Trainer with BayNVC, and has brought NVC to people living incarcerated with the Safer Communities Project since 2015. Sheila is a strong advocate for empathy and is concurrently results-oriented toward her clients’ plans and goals. Her approach fosters a hopefulness grounded in a vision of holistic wellbeing, equity, and justice.