It's September 2017. I'm sitting in a training session for diversity practitioners, a group of people committed to creating more inclusive and equitable schools. I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgender man. I'm sporting a pink polo shirt—tucked into my khaki shorts—and my Chaco-tan is prominent.

The leader of the training tells us that we are going to partner up and do a little role playing exercise.

“DEIJ work,” he says, “Starts with empathy.”

He’ll get no argument from me. As a DEIJ practitioner, my first job is to listen to the stories of others, to hear their experiences.

The leader continues, “But sometimes, what we don't recognize is how damaged the people in power really are. We don't realize how their prejudice and their discriminatory actions have scarred them.”

I enter into territory unfamiliar to most white people: I'm suddenly very self-conscious about the color of my skin. My pink polo shirt doesn't help.

Okay. This has taken a turn. Typically, in these sorts of sessions we think about those that have been marginalized, those that the system has forgotten or pushed aside.

“You're just gonna have to develop,” the leader says, “some empathy and maybe even some compassion for those people too. Because they are hurting, but they don't even know it.”

He pauses here. The room is quiet and still, but there's a palpable energy. Nervousness, perhaps?

“Partner up,” he says.

I turn to the woman next to me. She’s a Black woman that I know well because we've worked together.

“Now, one of you,” the leader says, “is going to play the role of a Charlottesville protester.”

My mind flashed to the tiki-torch-bearing, polo shirted men who have become so (in)famous for their participation in the Unite the Right protest in August 2017, a protest that left 22-year-old Heather Heyer dead. In this exercise, one of us was going to have to conjure up the worldview of someone who felt discriminated against for his whiteness, discriminated against for his masculinity.

I enter into territory unfamiliar to most white people: I'm suddenly very self-conscious about the color of my skin. My pink polo shirt doesn't help.

I look into the eyes of my partner, and she says: “I’ll go first.”

What’s happening on the inside?

In my work as an educator, nothing is more gratifying than making strides toward equity and inclusion. One of my proudest accomplishments, for example, was bringing a dormitory full of freshman boys around, over the course of many weeks and many conversations, to the idea that their words have power. They had been making disparaging comments about the women on campus, especially their peers, and hadn’t fully understood the impact of what they were doing. During one conversation with a group of these young men, I recall having to unpack why their sexist words were hurtful, not just to the girls in the other dorm, but to the boys themselves. They eventually got it, but it took a long time.

I’m not entirely sure how, but those boys understood that I wasn’t calling them out for no reason. I wasn’t trying to impinge upon their freedom. Instead, I was trying to show them how they might be critical of the cultural norms that they’d been handed, how those norms might be leading toward stunted relationships with the young women at their school.

While you have to be willing to dole out some criticism from time to time, working toward justice also means being willing to take criticism from others. In my time as a high school teacher, I have been called out for speaking in ways that were harmful or for creating environments that were not as equitable as they could have been.

Too often we forget that part of compassion is self-compassion.

My reactions to these criticisms have gotten better. At first, I was very defensive: “But I didn’t mean to…” or “That wasn’t my intention.” Classically fragile. Over time, these protests have morphed into “I’m so sorry. Please help me understand how this impacted you.”

But it never feels great.

In those moments when you’re confronted with the truth of the negative impact of your words and deeds, your stomach tenses and your amygdala goes wild, firing signals up and down your central nervous system: It’s not my fault! It takes practice to manage these feelings. But if you're going to move forward, you have to manage your emotions so you can hear the gift you're being given.

It takes practice. It takes compassion.

Too often we forget that part of compassion is self-compassion.

How do we start down the road toward self-compassion?

I’m in a Zoom call with leaders of my school’s student diversity committee. It’s the beginning of the year, so we’re engaging in some leadership training. Students are going to be facilitating challenging conversations throughout the year, navigating a variety of social dynamics, so I want to get them in the right place to do that work.

“DEIJ work,” I tell them, “Starts with inner work.”

Yeah, I’m definitely mirroring that training I was part of three years ago. Why? Because it’s true. The more in tune we are with our inner lives, the more stable we’ll remain in the face of the storm of emotions presented to us as we do the work.

“Find a comfortable position, but one where you’re not tempted to fall asleep,” I tell these student leaders. “I’m gonna lead you in a meditation.”

(If this sounds familiar, that’s because I wrote about this last week in the ROOTED Weekly.)

I lead them through a variation of metta meditation in which we express a wish for everyone to be happy, healthy, safe, and whole. I give them phrases they can use:

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I live with ease.

We then move the circle of compassion out to a friend, saying the phrases for that person, wishing them safety and happiness. Then we go to a person we don’t know well, then a person we are in conflict with, etc.

But I always end by returning back to the self.

May I be safe, be happy, be healthy, live with ease.

Self-compassion is hard for our students. Numerous books have been written about the way that high school students beat themselves up as they try to manage impossible expectations foisted upon them by the system. My favorites include:

Self-compassion is also hard for us. Many teachers are achievers just like the students that Levine and Deresiewicz write about. We, too, suffer from perfectionism and the drive to achieve; we hear the inner critic telling us constantly that we aren’t doing enough.

One of the antidotes to this may lie on the road to self-compassion. Kristen Neff, a researcher at the University of Texas, has shown that self-compassion frees us up to live more fulfilling lives. In Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (affiliate link), Neff offers action plans for self-compassion. She also offers free guided meditations and exercises geared toward helping you quiet your critic and see yourself as a friend.

To some, these sorts of exercises will sound hokey or a little too mushy. But researchers like Neff continue to compile evidence about their effectiveness.

The bottom-line is this: if we are going to make strides, coming alongside our BIPOC students and colleagues, we’re going to have to do the inner work to remain steady. If we're going to listen to and amplify the stories of others, giving them space, room to be heard, we'll need ears to hear their stories. But we'll also need ears to hear our own.

Self-compassion is a great place to start.