How do we go about creating a community full of compassion?

Editor’s Note: MAPP, Mobilizing for Action through Planning &Partnerships, is a local coalition that aims to use and build upon our strengths to improve our individual, family and community health. Health is defined broadly to include cultural, economic, educational, environmental, physical and spiritual health.

When I get focused on a story, I can get a little obsessed. Then, I talk about it all the time in an attempt to share my excitement with the world. Learning about the effects on our health from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has been like that for me.

But then someone will say something that will knock me out of my rut and my thinking changes direction. This happened the other day when I was talking with some friends over lunch about ACEs (yeah, I’m the life of the party) and someone said, “It sounds like just another label people can use to call themselves a victim.”

Yikes. Please remember, I am not a medical professional, a psychiatrist or of any background that would help me to address this comment. But even as a moderately successful backyard gardener and a general member of the public, I know that victimhood is not a good state of being.

MAPP of the Southern Kenai Peninsula, a coalition of dozens of agencies, has identified ACEs as a key aspect of community health. But if we continue to talk this up, are we just creating a community of victims?

Then, I remembered an experience I had in the Peace Corps. I was in training for three months with a group of about 40 other people from around the United States. We all got very close during this time. Most everyone was from middle class suburban families. I was the only one who had grown up on a ranch out in the sticks.

About halfway through the three months, we had a required “diversity training.” I remember being really annoyed when it was pointed out that one of our group was Filipino. I had not seen her as any different than anyone else and yet now she had a label. Now that she had a label that was different, didn’t that make her more isolated rather than more included? Doesn’t that make it easier for her to be a victim of racism?

It was pointed out to me that my lack of understanding about her background didn’t make her more included. On the contrary, it isolated her. She was left to try and fit in, try and hide the fact that most of her youth was spent in a very different, vibrant culture. Rather than sharing the story of her abundant, exotic and exciting background, she would carry it like a heavy secret.

My race is white and dominant, so I never had to think about it. But if the paradigm was reversed and people like her were encouraged to talk about their different story, I would have learned so much more about the world. I would have had a greater understanding of all the different ways of seeing things. I would have been more understanding of different people’s different situations.

Rather than seeing her as just one of us, just like everyone else, I would have been able to see that dynamic individual she was. I would be able to meet her right where she is at. Respect her diversity rather than white-wash her.

We could throw labels of victim and racist all over this scenario. But what it comes down to is that people thrive when there is connection. Grouping people into your group is one form of connection, but truly understanding their story is an even deeper connection.

Whether we are talking about a different cultural background or a childhood of trauma, what matters is connection. Victimhood is a state of isolation. When it comes to understanding ACEs, it isn’t about giving people a label to retreat with, it is about creating an understanding of an individual’s situation so we can connect with compassion.

And when we look at our community as a whole, how would we rather live? Creating that space for compassion is one of those issues that has to be addressed by the individual, but it is as a community that we will benefit.

Who in your life could you connect with more deeply? Whose story have you missed?

Kyra Wagner is the coordinatore of sustainable Homer and a member of the MAPP steering committee.