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Learning disruptive engagement

David Beard

"Isn't it childish to own stuffed animals?" a friend asked me, in my spare bedroom, where more than 50 furry bears and frogs and elephants reside in bins.

"No," I thought. I own them for the same reason that I have toys in my office at the University of Minnesota Duluth — students connect with them. They feel safe. But thinking about stuffed animals, and about communicating safely about difficult things, teaches me something about relationships and politics.

When I was younger, I had more than 100 stuffed animals, and they were an essential part of my long-term relationship. When I wanted pizza for dinner and my partner did not, a small stuffed bear would tell me that "Mom" was in the mood for Chinese. When "Mom" wanted to watch the new Bond flick, a small plush frog would tell her that the only good Bond was Roger Moore; "Dad" wasn't interested.

When something sad or disappointing needed to be said, the voice that would say it was small and tiny and furry. This was our safe way to communicate difficult things. But it didn't work forever.

In her book "Rising Strong," Brene Brown, a professor of social work at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, tells us that "as children, we found ways to protect ourselves from being hurt, diminished and disappointed. We put on armor ... and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear." For years, my partner and I made ourselves disappear behind the tiny voice of the stuffed animal.

But there came a time when the stuffed animal's voice was too small to express the pain that was being felt, the fears that were crawling into bed with us at night, slowly dividing us. We didn't know how to talk about the difficult things without the plush creatures. And so we didn't talk about difficult things at all. "Should we have children?" "Are we putting careers ahead of each other?" "Do we still make each other happy?"

"Isn't it childish to own stuffed animals?" a friend asked me. No, but it was childish to hide behind them, to refuse to talk about difficult things without their velveteen voices.

I keep my stuffed animals to remind me to be ready to talk about difficult things.

Brene Brown calls talking about difficult things "disruptive engagement." Disruptive engagement isn't just a part of a healthy relationship. It's part of a healthy community.

Duluth has needed some disruptive engagement. For example, I bring tourists to the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial. Some are puzzled by it. The text next to the sculptures of the victims talks about the "murder" of the three men. The memorial does not call it a "lynching." The memorial does not recognize that the murder was racially motivated. It refuses to talk about some of the most difficult things about the story of the lynching.

One visitor, who knew nothing of the lynching, read the quotations on the wall intently, piecing them together. He saw the quotation from MLK, which reads: "He who is devoid of the power to forgive ... is devoid of the power to love." He asked me: "So the crowd should have forgiven these men?" "No, no," I replied. "They are not the ones who need to be forgiven."

In a way, the memorial avoids talking about the difficult things.

As I write this, more than 200 people protest outside the Governor's Mansion in St. Paul, protesting the death of Philando Castile in a traffic stop on Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, a neighborhood I lived in for 10 years. Protest is one way of starting the dialogue we need, of drawing attention to the issues, but the talk about difficult things will need to go on long after the crowds have dispersed. The community-oriented policing movement is one way that police departments, including the Duluth Police Department, have slowly, slowly begun moving us toward difficult conversations about the ways police are part of our communities, not outsiders brought in to police our communities.

Beyond the grief of the events, all of us are being brought out of our comfort zones. Our relationships are being disrupted, to be sure. But the next step is engagement. Brene Brown describes this as refusing to put our differences between us and putting them ahead of us, so that we can work on them together. There are no safe ways to work on issues of violence and social justice together. It will be risky. We need to be ready for the long, complicated, painful conversations ahead.

David Beard

David Beard is associate professor of rhetoric and director of the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.