Bearing witness

8 minute read Updated: 2 Comments

As a white, middle-class, heterosexual man raised in a place with good public schools and happily married parents, I was born into a significant place of privilege. The American Dream was meant for me as long as I worked hard. As a professor, my role in society is privileged. As the job title implies, my job is to declare my wisdom publically onto others and, miraculously, people listen to me (regardless of if I have any wisdom to impart or not).

I’m starting this post here as, increasingly, I feel like I don’t know if the way I’m “supposed” to contribute to society is actually helping and I’m trying to figure out what to do. Just like George in Pleasantville, I’m feeling like the rules are changing around me, but, unlike George, I’m trying to figure out how to calibrate myself to the new norms that are being created as, overall, I agree that there needs to be a change. As part of this, I’m trying to understand what types of contributions I can make and also when my prior contributions and, even my mere presence, might create problems.

Our convening helped me to more fully understand one type of contribution: bearing witness.

I have grown up seeing myself as one who contributes by being a “go-getter,” problem-solver, intellectual, and a doer. I was attracted to the job of a professor because I found it fun, intellectually stimulating, and as an important role that I wanted to fulfill in society, which also came with a sense of accomplishment, privilege, and respect from others. In case you don’t know, the life of a professor can be roughly divided up in terms of contributions to research, teaching, and service. When wearing my researcher “hat,” I have classically thought that it was my job to figure out problems and puzzles that exist in the world and to help advance solutions to them. When wearing my teaching “hat,” I think of my role as sharing what I’ve learned with others, to help them achieve their goals. When wearing my service hat, I see my role as advancing the many fields of research and communities I am part of to help make applied science more useful for all in an equitable fashion. As these various activities highlight, I’m used to playing many roles such as an innovator, a solver, a designer, a mentor, a leader, and a colleague; all roles include ways of contributing with considerable privilege.

I hope this context helps explain my reaction in being assigned the role of notetaker at the Convening.

During the planning of the Convening, my ego kept creeping up with little narratives in my head that betrayed my internalized sense of privilege. Things like,

“A notetaker?! You want ME to be a notetaker?!…but I can offer so much more than notetaker! Why are you doing this to me?! Don’t you value me? Don’t you see how much I can offer to listen and synthesize the conversation into an exciting vision?”

As described in Dana’s post about the design of the Convening, one key goal was to have equitable participation, which means not allowing those with strong voices and perspectives to dominate the conversation. Dana and John were extremely sensitive to the need to set the appropriate tone of the convening as they knew that, if it weren’t set up properly, this equitable participation would not occur. To do this, they designed a great “check your baggage” exercise to honor that people want to share their insights while also allowing them to get beyond them so that generative, equitable dialogue could take place. They also explicitly designed an exercise whereby traditional experts (eg, folks like me, in societally accepted places of contribution), were put in the “economy class” area and treated as such, whereas non-traditional innovators were given first class treatment throughout. For example, whenever a traditional expert arrived, they were provided minimal support, were told the basics on checking their bags, and then sat at a an overly crowded table. When non-traditional innovators (those who the system does not provide with power) arrived, myself and the other Opening Pathways team members, greeted them at the door, showed them to the table, brought them food and drinks, helped them with “checking their bags” by standing by and putting up post-its for them, and the like.

While I was involved in all of the conversations and discussions on planning, I always engaged in these ideas abstractly, just like how I’ve classically engaged cognitively only with my privilege. Cognitively this all made good sense to me to help “the other experts” become more empathic, check their bags, and create a space of equitable participation. The rational side of me was in and could, maybe, see that this was for me, too, but the emotional side of me kept coming back to the feelings of my contributions being undervalued, which I then rationalized away by making up stories on how I was somehow different from others in power.

I first started to have an emotional understanding of how my mere presence, status, and the habitual ways to contribute might undermine the goal of equitable participation during the “check your bags” exercise.

When I was helping some of the non-traditional innovators, I kept hearing these amazing, hard-fought gems of wisdom and insights. I could also feel the pain the current system is placing on them and the struggles they must go through to do what they think is best, often with very good grounding in their own experience, yes, and also science and clinical expertise. They were balancing so much and had such rich insights, even just on the the things that they “checked at the door” that I started to have the inclination that I was in for a powerful day of learning. If I were in my role as professor, I would have likely tried to take the ideas, integrate them with things I’ve been thinking about, and synthesize them into so new reflection to share back. That wasn’t my role though. My role was to serve and to be a notetaker. Basically, every minute I fought the urge to “contribute” and, instead, I listened, acknowledged, and documented.

This continued during the group breakout discussions. Dana and John had both warned me to not speak up during the convening when John was leading the group conversation. I was told that I had to have permission from John to speak. Returning, for a moment, to power dynamics, John is one of the PhD students who I mentored and then continued to co-mentor him as a postdoctoral fellow (as an aside, I’m trying to get away from the use of the phrase “my PhD student” or “my postdoc” as it seems wrong to be possessive of my students). Our classic dynamic was that I was the professor and he was the student. So, this meant that I needed to check my routines of “teaching” John in some way. He was the one in power that day and I needed to respect that.

And so I did. I failed a lot (more so than I wish to acknowledge), in that I did sometimes jump in and interject. We were talking about a topic that I’m passionate about and have been thinking about. I really wanted to build on everyone else’s ideas, as that is classically how I contribute. I solve problems! I synthesize! I analyze! “Let me build on this and guide the conversation, please!” My urge did get the best of me sometimes as I got distracted from my notetaking but, for the most part (I hope; you should ask John), I THINK I largely restrained myself. It was further complicated by the fact that I knew several of the people at the table. They would often ask for my perspective and thoughts on things as they knew I would have an opinion. I SOO wanted to contribute (and sometimes the urge got the better of me), but, ultimately, I learned to listen to and trust John and the process as, again, our goal was equitable participation.

For me, it definitely got harder and harder emotionally until we got about ⅔ of the way through the day. Some time a bit after lunch, I started to really get into the groove on taking notes. I started to feel the incredible gift of time, insights, and contributions that others were offering. I also felt the dynamics of generative creation together that was occurring likely because of the equitable participation environment. I could see that the ideas and discussion were not going in the ways that I had anticipated and that the directions were interesting, important, and exciting and could likely only have been produced within a context of equitable participation.

I think it also got easier for me as I viewed Dana. Dana explicitly never joined one of the two group conversations. She never contributed to the discussions. This work is a central passion for her (as is, of course, her work on creating OpenAPS itself). I’m sure, like me, she was screaming inside wanting to build on and contribute but, this was not the place. Everyone who was there knew and admired Dana. Everyone there would have deferred to the way she may have subtly or explicitly steered the conversation. She knew that. She knew, in that room, she had supreme power and privilege. What was her choice? To step back and intentionally create the space for equitable contribution (at least that’s how I interpret what she did ;)).

I’ve thought about the convening for quite some time since. I think about what was discussed, what we learned, and how it has changed our work and thinking. I also have thought about the type of contribution I provided.

My contribution was to bear witness.

I contributed by being fully present, fully listening, fully engaged, fully empathic… and silent (as best as I could; will work on being better at being silent in the future now that I understand this type of contribution). If I had contributed in my old ways, I see now that I would have compromised the ability for others to contribute and, thus, our goal of equitable participation.

Overall, I learned the power of bearing witness as one way I can empower others.



Thank you for sharing. I stumbled upon this post from a happenstance Twitter feed. As one of “your” former students and as a professional, I was intrigued. I started reading and could follow your train of thought as a professional and could parallel some of my own experiences. Ironically and unexpectedly, for me, as I continued reading my parent identity creeped in… specifically at this line, “I contributed by being fully present, fully listening, fully engaged, fully empathic… and silent (as best as I could; will work on being better at being silent in the future now that I understand this type of contribution).” As the mother of 2 amazing middle school children (note-middle school; adolescence; period of transition often referred to as “turbulent”), this line hit me like lightening bolt and pulled me from work mode to mom mode. Perhaps the lightning bolt was a gut check to bear witness, period. I know there is a lot of talk about work-life balance. Maybe they’re not so distinctly different worlds, rather similar skill sets practiced in different contexts? Pretty sure that today, after school, I will practice being fully present with my family. Didn’t see that one coming when I opened a blog for work. Thanks for the read and self-reflection.


Thank you for this thoughtful response, Lisa! +1 on your post, particularly this (for me). “Perhaps the lightning bolt was a gut check to bear witness, period. I know there is a lot of talk about work-life balance. Maybe they’re not so distinctly different worlds, rather similar skill sets practiced in different contexts? Pretty sure that today, after school, I will practice being fully present with my family.” =)

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