Creating Grace, the space for error from which we can lead, is both an individual and collective process. In many ways, the life that I have grown up in has not felt so filled with Grace. I have often, and continue to feel the pulls of what I think society expects of me. We learn very early to seek the right answers, to show only our competence and to be ashamed of our mistakes, missteps and failures. As someone whose identities constantly stood in contrast to what society valued and upheld, I think that I tried more than many to somehow not allow my incompetences to be seen. It felt more dangerous to be fully seen. It felt that I was expected to compensate for my deviation from society’s norms. Grace did not feel possible. In many ways it still does not feel possible. There are still so many pressures to keep pushing, that it can feel like there is no time for compassionately holding and caring for the parts of ourselves that are fragile, the parts that do not know.
I wonder how much more freedom we could create for you and for your generation’s daughters, your generation’s children. I feel myself to be on the precipice with one foot in the world I know and one foot in the world that I dream of. This kind of walking is, at best, awkward. The path is not a straight one, because one leg sometimes dominates the other. Sometimes, the context of the world of today clouds the vision for tomorrow. Sometimes, I find myself forgetting the patterns of this walk as I drift into the demands of now. The need to survive within the demands of this world. Key to maintaining the space for Grace, and central to my ability to keep one foot in the visionary dreamer world of my hoped-for tomorrow, is the need for reminders. Everything in this world, both the human and more-than-human elements that bring my attention back to the energy of the dreamer, I think of as part of the Community of Remembrance.
Being human requires forgetting. We forget some things to make space in our minds for other things. We forget our intentions, we forget our dreams, we forget who we once were. Rather than try to overcome the tendency to forget, it feels important to me that we own our forgetfulness. That we humbly admit our failings of memory. As leaders who are unlearning leadership, as people going against some of the status quo. As visionaries working to bring about social change it is even easier to forget, to lose our way and get bogged down with the demands of our current times. Communities of Remembrance are the road signs that remind me where I was heading. My communities include trees, birds, books, authors, friends, my life partner, and you, my daughter. My communities bring me back to myself. My communities make spaces and give me the support I need to lead from a place of Grace.
There were hundreds of moments over our trip that I observed as elements that connected me to Remembrance. Moments that grounded me and reminded me what was important to me. The night we spent in the township Alexander (Alex) was one of them. Alex is in the North Eastern Suburb of Johannesburg and has a dense population of 300,000 – 700,000 people in just one square mile (Waiting to Exhale: The Story of Alexander Township). It is just a few kilometres from one of the ‘richest’ areas in Johannesburg; Sandton. The contrast between the opulent wealth of Sandton and the informal housing, overcrowding and unmaintained scenes of Alex are stark. When we first spoke of our plans to travel to Alex we were warned and cautioned. Many South Africans fear Alex and avoid it at all costs due to the narratives of it as a place of crime and poverty. We were fortunate to have guides that showed us another perspective of Alex.
We meet Mohlantlego Harry Nakeng (Harry) and Truly Mbatha Gatha on the Streets of Alex, not far from a small family of Sheep eating leftovers in the centre of a busy road. The sight of sheep in the road amused you. We were all taken aback by the scenes in Alex, so different to anywhere in South Africa (we had only been in Jozi for 2 weeks at the time). The buzz of the area, people of all ages filling the streets, music and the smell of food. Truly and Harry were bursting with passion for Alex, and were keen to show us the Alex that they lived in and know dearly. Through their eyes, we saw the community vibes of Alex, and the fears of crime melted away as we witnessed the richness of the people and their relationships with each other.
In contrast to the often empty streets of the other suburbs of Jozi, with houses hidden behind tall walls and electric fences, and where it’s easy to never see your neighbours, Alex had the feeling of a tight knit community where people smiled at each other and greeted each other as they walked freely and at ease down the streets. Although, no one would argue that there aren’t very real problems with violent crimes in Alex, as in any highly populated inner city area with low financial resources, the narratives of fear and danger felt more extreme than our time there revealed. The narratives were narrow and failed to include the many riches of the area; the amazing people and projects that were working towards community support and development. The narratives failed to contextualise Alex in the years of neglect and ongoing impact of the former Apartheid regime. They failed to appreciate the many people who live, work in and love the dynamic vibe that is Alex.
We were deeply touched by Harry’s generous offering to host us at his place. We wanted that welcoming family environment, and sitting on his sofa in the cold of winter, huddled around his electric heater, was the first time we felt seen and cared for by any South Africans in the first few weeks of our trip. We met many Alex residents who passed through his house like it was a local coffee shop. After all the guests were gone, we stayed up till late talking about our passions, our life works towards community building. That for me was a moment in Remembrance. Through our conversations, I remembered how important it was for me to do work that deeply connects with my values and is embedded with purpose. I was deeply touched by the resonance in our conversations and felt that we had all reminded each other of the power of connection and of the things that we held dear.
Harry has years of experience working in community, supporting the people of Alex in whatever way he can. One of the key projects he works with is supporting young people through sports. His basketball club works to tackle poverty and the impacts of drug abuse by creating community and education for young people in Alex. His dedication and humbleness inspired me and reminded me that a key characteristic that I admire in good leaders is the ways that they build relationships, and how transformative building relationships and real connection with community can be.
I hope that you throughout your life find and recognise your Community of Remembrance. I hope that we all continue to push against the tendency for isolation, for separation and competition in this world that promotes scarcity and fear. I hope that our futures are deeply informed by our commitments to relationships of depth and communities of joy, grace and transformation. There are so many challenges ahead of you, many that I can not even envision yet. I trust that there are so many wonderful people in this world and so many dreamers. Let the dreamers be your guides, let your hearts be open to the connections from which we can build hope. Let your leadership be the type that recognises and amplifies the leadership in all of us that are willing to keep envisioning a more beautiful world.