By John Harrison (2015 Byron Fellow)
One of the main assertions that shaped our Byron Fellowship is the idea that power, rather than being measured in leverage or coercion, can be measured in effective conversations. A second and related premise is that how we enter a conversation has everything to do with how powerful it can be. For one of the first exercises of our gathering, each Byron Fellow picked a conversation that has been stuck, stalled, stymied, or ground to a halt, and we strategized together to identify new ways of approaching each conversation so that it could be set free to flow.
To step into an old conversation in a new way necessitates a new mindset, which in turn requires that we let go of an old mindset. This act of letting go is hard! For twenty bright, idealistic visionaries, the convictions and mindsets we unshakably hold on to are also the foundation of all the successes that have led us to Byron in the first place, and they have come to define the purpose we all arrived hoping to advance upon leaving. With little exaggeration, what we are asked to let go of often feels like one of the most stable pieces of our identities. In a sense, Byron’s first step of progress in our journeys as leaders also cuts off our paths of return.
Cutting off the path of return is not something one just “does,” and the further we dig into this process, the more we discover how often our pathways are shaped and molded by our deepest fears, perhaps that our leadership might be rendered ineffective, or that we might compromise too much, or that our soaring ideals might succumb beyond rescue to the unyielding forces of gravity or inertia, or that we might even end up appeasing the very forces we live to oppose. The first and crucial step toward real and powerful conversation is to face these fears and to risk their fruition. By sharing in this step, we share in a common catharsis, and a new sun rises to find us on a mountaintop. Yet this mountaintop is not the mission of Byron. The mission is the journey itself, more specifically the journey that awaits us upon our return to the valleys below.
The valley I returned to is the city of St. Louis in the wake of Ferguson, with its coldly warring factions of shouts and silence seemingly as opposed to each other as fire and water. The wounds are fresh as new blood mingles with old in the well-worn soil, seeping its way down to the flowing Mississippi. Here I have been tasked to lead conversations about race. I did not know that this is what I would be doing just seven weeks after Byron, yet this is the very conversation I offered to my fellows as my own impassioned impasse. This is the conversation that paces back and forth from rage to depression, wading through some of my own deepest fears and most entrenched mindsets, and pausing occasionally to dream of a way forward or a world worth hoping for.
Having come down from the mountain, the conversation in the valley is in the same place I left it, and even my own sense of change is fleeting at the best of times. But those dreams that took flight at Byron flutter back to visit me when I need them the most.
I went to Byron with the fear that the world I have been born into is mine to save, and all the striving that carried me to Byron was charred by a fear of failure. But the world is not mine to save and it never was. My hopes were self-absorbed until I could re-enter the conversation not out of fear, but out of freedom. The dream of a way forward is tied up in the dignity of a people in conflict bounded on all sides by indignity and condemnation. The sides have been clearly marked, and I am far from neutral, yet Byron has implored me to risk the ire of my friends and enemies alike, and to enter this valley bringing seeds of patience, creativity and, most blasphemous of all, joy. May the Lord help me, and may the sun continue to rise over the evil and the good alike.