From the Edge to the Overlap

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

I've been thinking a lot lately about both the positive and the negative aspect of edges, boundaries, and overlaps—of our experiences, of our commitments, of our beliefs and values, of our identities, and of the transitions in our lives.

Cutting edge design.
Leading edge of innovation.
He pushed me right to the edge.
That’s a double-edged sword.
That car ran off the road and was teetering on the edge of a cliff.

We are a nation on edge.

Edges assume something adjacent. It's land here and water there. The U.S. here and Mexico there. It's a boundary. And crossing it can mean encountering people who look, speak, think, and act differently than you do. I'm not just talking about "sides" in the back seat of the car, when you and your brother or sister marked off your territory and said "don't cross this line." I'm talking about the high stakes involved when whatever boundaries we name for ourselves involve the edges of acceptance or hate or understanding or rejection of someone else's lived experience or identity. It's one of the hardest things in the world to be grounded in your own values or experience and still stand adjacent to someone, respectfully, whose worldview is very different. The challenge of how to engage with each other across our differences is so difficult and so necessary that I would consider it one of the most pressing global issues of our era.

Defining our relationships and communities as being "bounded" by edges gets us into trouble, in my view. It sustains a notion that our systems are fixed and static. Even the idea of centering voices and experiences that have been marginalized keeps us in a system that asserts that there will always be margins and there will always be centers, with continual wrestling over who gets to occupy which place.

It's one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the spatial concept of overlaps and Venn diagrams, which have their political counterpart in the coalition.

How you think of your own community circle may be situational: in the context of sports or music, maybe you are 100% soccer player for the Norse or alto for Nordic and are fully identified with your team or ensemble. Take all of your teammates and line them up 1 by 1, though, and you would likely find a variety of expressions of religious faith, a variety of political positions, people who look like you and those who don't. For the purpose of the contest or the concert, you set those differences aside and work together. It's not that you throw out your values or your beliefs or your identities—it's that you find the overlap that allows you to pull together for THIS common aim, now.

In 1981, the singer and civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon gave a speech at the West Coast Women’s Music Festival (published later in the anthology "Home Girls: a Black Feminist Anthology"  as "Coalition Politics: Turning the Century"). In it, she argues that progress can only come from coalition-building and that it is hard, painful work—and that, as important as it is to come to the coalition to do the work, it is equally important to find the place that is "home" to you—where you find comfort and can re-group and restore yourselves. But—crucially—the coalition is not home. Home is where you tank up and find your energy. Once you leave that safe space and head out into the overlap or the coalition, you experience the stretching and the expanding that comes with new growth.

When I write to the Luther College community, I recognize that I am speaking to a vast audience of multiple generations, whose identities and values and experiences are varied. I choose to respond through the lens of my own identity and subject position and with my own words: as President, as a white, Southern woman who came of political age in the 1960s and 70s in the Civil Rights era, as a language and literature scholar, etc. I bring all of this when I 'come to the coalition' that is Luther College. Even so, I find it useful for our common work to speak to all, whether or not they share my beliefs or identity.

To invite you to the coalition doesn't mean I'm asking you to love people who disrespect you or your friends. It doesn’t mean that I'm asking you to choose unity over justice—a false dichotomy. It means that for the particular work at hand, whatever it may be on a given day, I'm asking you to shift your focus from the edge to the overlap, and to come to that deeply uncomfortable place where we are not all alike in order to work together at the "long game" of progress, for ourselves, for our college, and for our world.

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