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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Schilaty

The Power of Proximity

I totally have a crush on Sharon Eubank. My admiration for her deepened during her most recent General Conference talk when she said, “This world isn’t what I want it to be. There are many things I want to influence and make better. And frankly, there is a lot of opposition to what I hope for, and sometimes I feel powerless.” When I heard her say this I thought, I feel you, Sister Eubank. “We may not yet be where we want to be, and we are not now where we will be,” Sister Eubank continued. “I believe the change we seek in ourselves and in the groups we belong to will come less by activism and more by actively trying every day to understand one another. Why? Because we are building Zion—a people ‘of one heart and one mind.’”

Nothing inspires me more than saguaros Earlier this year the world was not what I wanted it to be. I saw and witnessed things that broke my heart. When the shutdown started in March I spent a few weeks in Arizona hunkered down with my friends Kevin and Allison. As I decompressed and thought about what I could do to make the world better, it occurred to me that I could teach a class. So I wrote a proposal for a course that was later named Understanding Self and Others: Diversity and Intersectionality. I sent the proposal to everyone in my upline at BYU and was pleasantly surprised (and so incredibly stoked) when it got approved. As I considered possible assignments, I wanted my students to really get to know themselves and other people. So the Proximate Paper was born. The assignment is based on an invitation Bryan Stevenson made at BYU in 2018: “Our power is waiting for us, if we get proximate. We have to get closer to those places if we’re going to change the world.” Twice during the semester, my students interview someone from a different background and then write a personal reflection about the experience. I trained the class on how to do these interviews because I wanted my students to approach others with humility and respect, and with their consent. We practiced asking to hear someone’s story and how to ask good questions (e.g. What do you wish people understood about X? Could you describe some of your most interesting experiences as X? What have you not been able to share that you would like to share?). On the day we practiced doing proximate interviews in class I jumped from one group to another to observe how they were doing. I felt like an intruder as I popped into deeply personal conversations. I was amazed that my students had been so vulnerable with each other so quickly. Simply asking sincere, open ended questions created the space for students to share their hearts. Class that day felt like a sacred space. Grading papers is literally the worst part of teaching, so I didn’t anticipate the level of emotion I felt as I read through my students’ papers. Almost all of them interviewed people they already knew, and again and again students wrote things like, “I assumed X about my best friend, but it was really Y,” or “I thought I knew them well, but now I know them so much better,” or “we planned to talk for 20 minutes, but chatted for three hours.” My students realized that there was so much below the surface in these established relationships. Asking good questions and pausing to listen helped my students understand the people in their lives in new and deeper ways. I have permission to share a few brief stories. One student wrote: “I was lucky enough to be able to interview my own mother for this. My mom is my hero. I truly look up to her more than anyone. Her experience is unique and messy, interesting and complicated. I know about her situation, but because it is messy, it can be hard to recall details. What I didn’t know though, were my mom’s thoughts and feelings on her identity.” Her mom is gay. She had known this about her mom for years as a fact--as a descriptor. Through this assignment, my student came to see some of the many ways that this reality has impacted her mom’s life. Just knowing a fact about a loved one doesn’t mean that they are truly known to us. That takes real work. “I learned things about my mom I didn’t know. I feel a little sad that I didn’t know these things before.” Another student interviewed his mom who immigrated to the US before he was born. He wrote, “I learned that I am a product of many blessings and sacrifices and that it’s hard to give up your homeland and the family that are still there. It’s no laughing matter the sacrifice immigrants make to provide opportunities for their family and children.” Although he grew up knowing that his mom had immigrated, he had never really taken the time to understand the impact of her choice to leave her home country. Knowing a fact about someone is not the same as knowing their story. As part of the curriculum, we invite guest speakers in to address different aspects of diversity and inclusion. Many of my students have told me this is their favorite part of the class. On the day of our first guest panel, one of the participants said he wanted to be a little more vulnerable and then started to hesitate. Three of my students immediately jumped in and said, “Please, we want to hear your story,” and he then shared what was in his heart. When class was over I sat in my office and cried. It was a privilege to not only hear this man’s story, but to witness my class so sincerely encourage him to share and to honor his story. My tears were tears of gratitude.

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