Many years ago, when I worked as a Youth Minister, I would take youth on mission trips to Spanish speaking countries to partner with local communities on a project they wanted done. I spoke no Spanish but quickly learned food words because I was a vegetarian at the time. I used to believe that if I led with an open heart and good intentions, it was enough to cross any language or cultural boundaries.
But at a training on being culturally competent at a ministerial professional gathering, I learned that “intent does not equal impact.” In other words one’s good intentions does not protect one from doing harm to someone else.
The best example I have run across to illustrate this is the following: a colleague and I are working together on a project that involves us moving around a lot. I accidentally step on their ankle, causing them fall on the ground in pain. My response, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that,” focuses the incident on me. Meanwhile, my colleague is lying in the ground in pain. Who cares what the intent was. What I should have been asking was, “I am so sorry, are you alright, what can I do to help you?” The difference may be subtle but it shifts the dynamic from intent to the impact my action had — intentional or not.
This lesson was huge for me. And it has taught me to listen to persons of color/indigenous when they tell me that something I said or did impacted them negatively. Rather than defend my “wokeness” and good intentions, I need to listen and try to understand how my intent went wrong and caused an impact I never dreamed of. In other words, if a POC/I tells me that something impacted them, I need to stop trying to defend myself. I need to show up, shut up, and listen. Apologize. Allow the experience not to embarrass or shame me but to transform me and my behavior. And do all that I can – with humility – to restore right relationship.
I still need to lead with an open heart when navigating cultures. But I can no longer depend on my intentions to act in ways that honor “differences that make a difference” or connection. It is a practice, a commitment to a way of living. It is humbling. But if we lead with humility, we create fertile ground – the root word of humility – that allows new ways of connecting and building community to emerge.
Willing to stay at the table and do the work,