A friend of mine recently mentioned this quote from Denice Frohman, and the words reminded me of the thorny tension between healing and justice that undergirds all work on inclusion and equity. When we experience the sting of not belonging or the stab of inequity, we experience a wound. The wounds may be cognitive, emotional, or even physical. They may be minor, significant, or even catastrophic. They may be fleeting or long-lasting. The same lack of belonging or inequity may wound different people in different ways, and similar wounds may be painful in different ways for different people. All the variances in the shapes and experiences of wounds aside, inclusion and equity work is the work of dealing with wounds, and dealing with wounds requires dealing with this thorny tension between healing and justice.
When we are wounded, our desire for justice can often be stronger than our desire to heal. It is, after all, not our fault that we are hurting. The desire for justice is a loud instinct fueled by anger, and anger is energizing and empowering. The desire to heal is a quiet instinct that requires releasing negative energy for self-preservation and connecting with others to remember who you really are. When we focus on justice, we focus on the people who caused the wounds, and it feels good to fight them because fighting is action, and it can have a winner and loser. When we focus on healing, we have to actively turn away from the people who caused the wounds. We have to focus on ourselves and take responsibility for healing ourselves while ignoring the “why do they just get to get away with it” muttering from our rightfully angry inner fighter. Because anger is so empowering, we instinctively believe that the fight for justice will lead to healing, but the reality is that while fighting for justice may make us feel better temporarily, it does not heal us.
The same is true if we feel the wounds vicariously because it is our loved ones or community members who suffer the wounds. Our empathy for others leads us into this same tension between healing and justice.
If we were not limited by time and energy resources, perhaps this tension would not warrant meaningful attention, but time and energy are scarce, and we often need to choose between things that are equally urgent. The argument for pursuing justice is a compelling one; if we don’t bring wrongdoers to justice, they will keep inflicting wounds. In order for us to stop the wounds, we have to seek justice. This is absolutely true, but we need to make sure that the pursuit of justice is balanced with the facilitation of healing. It feels better to pursue justice. It just does, especially when we are pissed off about our wounds. It is not weak to focus on healing first. It is smart.
Whether we are thinking through personal or organizational courses of action to advance inclusion and equity, we must begin by acknowledging the wound. Not belonging hurts. Inequity hurts. We then need to ask ourselves what we are doing to facilitate healing and what we are doing to pursue justice. Then, prioritize the work of healing over the fight for justice. We need both, but we also need to allocate our resources wisely. If we prioritize justice, we may or may not get it, but we will for sure end up exhausted. If we prioritize healing, we pour our energy into the people who deserve our energy, and we do not end up exhausted. More importantly, we have the energy to fight once we are healed. If we prioritize healing today, we make justice more probable tomorrow.
Inclusion and equity work that focuses on healing looks different than the work that focuses on justice. Healing work focuses on ensuring that people from underrepresented groups are given the resources they need not just to succeed but to heal from the crap they endure while succeeding. Healing work focuses on empowering people who want to work on inclusion instead of fussing with the people who are arguing against inclusion. Justice work focuses on calling out those who are doing wrong things and punishing them for the wounds they inflict. I get it. It feels like we are taking our eyes off the real battle when we turn away from the people who need to get called out, but we aren’t. The real work is making sure people are okay.
Often, the disagreements about how to allocate resources in this work are rooted in this thorny tension between focusing on healing and pursuing justice. We have the responsibility to do both, but without the tough conversation about this thorny tension, we will not accomplish either.