An Interview with Dr. Ruby Cain
I recently wrote a blog about how I see the Sacred Feminine walking in the world today – in real people, in me. She walks with an open heart, willing to witness and connect; allowing and healing in all sorts of ways. I know so many folks who embody and express all of those attributes. And so I was inspired to connect with some of them to chat, both to strengthen and to expand my perspective.
I met Dr. Ruby Cain earlier this year when I accepted an open invitation to attend her monthly community dialogue, It Is Well With My Soul. I was taken in by her ability to lead by listening and her gentle strength when guiding discussion. Dr. Cain has had a full history of this leading and guiding, learning and teaching. I so appreciated her openness and honesty in talking to me, particularly in relaying her experiences as a woman of color. Here is some of her wisdom.
Me: I think a lot about living with an open heart. When I’m willing to move in the world that way I’m able to take in all the good stuff, but I also feel the pain and struggle more deeply. I can totally understand why a lot of people need to close their hearts because it’s just too much at times. I feel though that it’s a big part of sacred living. How do you describe living with an open heart because I feel and see that you do.
Dr. Cain: You know, people describe this a lot of different ways, and one of the ways I like is that everyone has something to share and something to learn and it’s their responsibility to do both. And I believe each and every one of us has a purpose to being here and that there are no accidents in life. Whoever you come into contact with, you were pre-destined to meet them and to have a mutual interaction of sharing and receiving. For instance, I meet you and there are things that I can learn from you and, hopefully, there are things I can share with you that are meaningful to you, not just meaningful to me. And a lot of times we don’t want to interact with people who disagree with us and I absolutely feel like those are the people you need to interact with because those are the people you’re going to learn and grow from. Either you’re going to learn a different way of doing something or you may teach them a different way of doing something. But there’s a purpose in it. I’ve been in situations – some work places – where it just seems too intolerable to stay. So I ask myself, ‘Do I have something to share or something to provide and is there something to learn?’ And if I can answer yes to either one of those, then I’m supposed to stay. If I would answer no, then it’s time to move on.
Me: I sometimes think of it as ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.’
Dr. Cain: Exactly. Just because you’re in a state of dissonance, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing positive about a situation. A lot of times, people will withdraw from a situation before they get to the meat of what they are there for and what they are to learn because they feel like everything should be smooth sailing. And if it’s not smooth sailing, then it’s wrong. It’s called transformative learning. You experience that dissonance and see what is it that you can learn and then grow from that.
Me: So with the dissonance, you either open your heart to learning, or close it and say ‘I can’t do this right now.’ It brings some form of the peace back either way.
Dr. Cain: You know, there are different seasons in your life. Sometimes it’s OK to withdraw because you’re not ready for something right at that minute. But just because there is the dissonance doesn’t mean you’re not supposed to be there. So you have to approach it with a discerning spirit. It’s hard to explain it.
Me: You seem to be well versed in discerning when to listen and when to speak. Similarly, discerning what cause to pick up and what to let go of, when to march and when to just hold space for others. Is that just an innate knowing or have you worked at it?
Dr. Cain: You know one of the things I’ve found is that the individual who complains the most, is often the person who cares the most. If you listen to what it is they’re saying and ask them, ‘How could it be different? What do you want to see?’ they can give you an insight into the change that needs to happen. And a lot of people dismiss the person who is the complainer. I will listen to that person and see what it is that they want because they’re not just complaining to be an irritation to you. To me, it’s like they’re pouring out their heart and people are just ignoring it when maybe they should listen. I’ve been able to implement change based on the person who complained the most versus the person who is just going along and agreeing all the time. I don’t want to surround myself with people who are just like me, who think like me and act like me. Because I say, ‘If that’s the case, then somebody’s unnecessary.’
Me: And it might be me!
Dr. Cain: It’s not me!
Me: So your ability to discern is gained by listening to others and connecting to them based on what they say. It’s about connecting and collaborating, yes?
Dr. Cain: Yes, and that’s one of the things I teach – group work. Our educational system is very individualistic and competitive. And employers complain that high school and college grads don’t know how to work effectively in teams because that’s not the way they work in the classroom. And so I require that my students work collaboratively. That is transformative learning for them. The majority see the value by the end of the class. None of us are an island. We’re all here because we need each other. It’s just like in the Bible, the arm can’t do what the leg does, but together they can do quite a bit. I can’t do what you do or what someone else does, but if we collaborate, we can do so much more than we could have done individually. We have a lot of cultures around the world that are more collectivist cultures than our individualist, competitive type culture. And they see themselves connected. They see themselves connected to their ancestors and their children and the earth. They’re not looking to be the best or capitalize on someone else to make more money or get there first or move up higher. They work to get there together. And that’s the way I think it should be yet.
Me: This makes me think about the youth, particularly at-risk youth, trying to find their way to success or even knowing how they could define success. Their paths are so individualistic that they get lost and give up. They’re not realizing that it’s a collaborative effort and success can be achieved in so many ways. This may be a whole different thing.
Dr. Cain: Actually it’s not. Our prisons are full of geniuses. They’re smarter than the prison guards. The individuals who are having academic problems – some want to be punitive toward them rather than giving them something to do like a leadership role or a challenge. In many cases, students who are not doing well in school, it’s not because they can’t do well, but they’ve been turned off to learning or affected by the implicit bias. The quote from Marianne Williamson comes to mind: “Our fear is not that we are afraid of being inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.” That is so true. We’re afraid to venture out and see how much we really can do.
Me: And if we’re afraid of it, we’re certainly not inspiring the next generation to do it.
Me: In regard to feminism and its current practices…are they inclusive enough?
Dr. Cain: No, absolutely not.
Me: Is it better than it was?
Dr. Cain: You know, ‘better’ is relative. You know, when you look at different things, like disparities in education. Those disparities are greater now than in the ‘60’s. The employment gap is greater now than in the 60’s. So you do have people who are doing very well, that is you have a lot of people who have the education and the experience yet there is a VERY large gap.
Me: When did that gap grow?
Dr. Cain: Well, for education, what happened was when they first desegregated schools in the 50’s and 60’s the gap started decreasing but by the 70’s it started increasing with re-segregation – white flight to the suburbs – and even now with the trigger laws like vouchers – giving money to affluent households to finance going to private schools so you take the individuals out of the public schools and what you’re getting then is high poverty and high minority schools and not the resources to provide the services they need. As they keep increasing the income level for receiving vouchers is taking more money away from all of this and causing re-segregation and a larger and larger gap.
Me: Is part of it that the system didn’t change with desegregation? There’s still the system of racism with the implicit bias…
Dr. Cain: Implicit AND explicit bias.
Me: True. So there’s still this engineered system of racism despite the fact that the law on the books changed. The divisiveness continues and it’s not only implicit, but blatantly permissive and explicit.
Dr. Cain: You can’t change hearts with legislation.
Me: And this is where our Racial Dialogue goals* come into play. I heard Angela Davis speak recently. She’s been through a longer range of change and efforts than I have obviously – as have you. She stated that it’s a movement – not an individual action and not anything related to this moment – rather all about keeping the movement moving. That has helped me considerably when feeling completely overwhelmed with what feels like so much need and too-slow progress. What do you feel about this concept of moment v. movement? How have you through your life of social justice studies and teachings and practices seen the movement shift and change?
(*Note: Racial Dialogue is a project with Dr. Cain’s group that I attend – It Is Well With My Soul.)
Dr. Cain: Well, racism is more prevalent in Indiana. I’m from California and I’ve lived in Detroit and Little Rock, Arkansas where you’ve got the blatant racism of people right up in your face if they don’t like you. In Indiana though, you get individuals who are disingenuous. The racism was so blatant when I came here that it reminded me a lot of the ‘70’s. It’s still that way here. I’ve been in Indiana 23 years – 20 of them in Fort Wayne and 3 in Muncie – and I said to myself, ‘If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.’ It’s easy for me or anybody to say there’s a problem here. It’s a lot harder to roll up my sleeves and be part of the change. And so I first got involved with Socratic Dialogues on Race and Study Circles and I became a trained facilitator. (All initiatives of Everyday Democracy.) And It Is Well With My Soul (IIWWMS) is an action group that came out of those Study Circles. It’s been going now for 15 years. Recently it moved from being an informal group to being more formal with actions to achieve goals.
Me: You’re keeping the movement going!
Me: You went to Ethiopia two years ago. And in an interview with FortWayne.com about one year ago, you mentioned that one thing about that trip was that you felt more at home there than here. There – a place you had never been, compared to here – your home for all intents and purposes. The article wrote:
“I (went) to Ethiopia, and that was a life-changing experience. I never thought I’d go to Africa. I did feel more at home there than I do here. Here I have to deal with micro-aggressions – I’m always on full alert. There, I didn’t have to put on a game face and be on guard. I was so at peace.”
So first…are you willing to give me an example of a micro-aggression you deal with?
Dr. Cain: One of the things that happens far too frequently is that individuals will either dismiss what you have to say or cut you off or speak for you. I have individuals who say “This is what Ruby thinks” or “Ruby won’t mind this”. That person hasn’t even talked to me to know what I like or think but yet they’re speaking on behalf of me. And then the person who is listening is allowing it. So you get this collusion of two people who just assume that it’s OK to do that and neither of them know me well enough to even know what I would think or do or like. Always having to address that gets tiring. I’ve got some colleagues I’ve worked with for 10 years and they’re still doing it. Will it ever stop? It probably won’t.
But when I went to Africa I was immediately embraced and respected. And I was with a friend – a white woman I had just met at the time that we went, but we established such a good relationship and friendship. She noticed that the way they interacted with me was different than with her. They were very friendly with her, but the conversations were longer and more personal with me. For example, we left the hotel to go to a little shopping center at the end of the street. When we came back, the bellman actually walked down and met us and asked me what I got and we were laughing and talking about it all. He didn’t do that with others – most of the other people there were white and I was with my white friend. Most of the interaction was aimed me.
Me: We should pick up every white person and place them in the middle of that situation so they can feel it.
Dr. Cain: Yes, because it usually is the other way around.
Me: It reminds me of an African woman who stood up at a lecture I was at and said she had never thought of herself as black until she came to the U.S. That comment hit me and awakened me.
So back to the quote from the article…you said that in Africa, you didn’t have to put on your game face. Can you explain?
Dr. Cain: Every day I walk out of my door and racism slaps me in the face. I can’t get away from it. As a white person you may never experience it. Peggy McIntosh outlined it well in her Invisible Knapsack writing. It’s not something you even realize you have as a white person. It’s like the air you breathe. You couldn’t survive without it but you don’t even realize you have it. That existence, that cultural reality, is so different for people of color. We have to be bi-cultural or multi-cultural in order to survive. We can’t just know our own culture. Many European-American whites can be mono-cultural and be just fine because most of the people they interact with on a daily basis in neighborhoods, in places of employment, in positions of authority are of the same culture.
Me: I’ve also heard it said that people of color know more about my culture than I do because you have to study it to survive within it.
Dr. Cain: True. And when you talk about culture or even ancestry, people of color may identify with several different ancestries and cultures while white people don’t even realize they have a culture. They don’t even understand their white identity.
Me: Our Conversations on Race group* deals with this via the book Witnessing Whiteness by Shelly Tolchuk. This lack of white identity leads to the situation that when we talk about ‘race’ as an issue and its problems to address, we don’t even realize that we’re talking about ourselves too, i.e. that white is also a racial group, so we remove ourselves from all discourse on race and think it’s only about ‘others’. That’s why our group is for white people to start so that they can learn white identity.
(Note: Conversations on Race is a group my husband and I lead in our home monthly.)
Dr. Cain: Yes, that makes sense. One of the things I did when I created IIWWMS was to have it solely for black people. At the time I worked for United Way and I led a group for the facilitators of Study Circles who were doing racism and diversity work in the community – a support group so they could talk about the challenges they had and get help with more resources. You see, when you’re a facilitator, you are neutral and you don’t comment on anything or share personal thoughts. So after hearing everything these facilitators were dealing with in the community, I would have all this stuff pent up in me. And since I facilitated this group with a white male, I would make him stay and de-process with me because it was like I had all this built up inside of me. I could ask him ‘Why is it like this here?’ He was a Fort Wayne native so he could really explain a lot of different things to me about why things were the way they were. I probably burdened him more than I should have, but he was so gracious. And so by processing for the facilitators and then processing with him for myself, I understood that this processing could be helpful to other facilitators.
So IIWWMS started with the black facilitators who weren’t getting an experience of racial healing. Instead they were spending most of their time sharing their own experiences with racism – reliving it and explaining it – with the white people who had come to the Study Circle. Most of the white people who came thought they were going to find out why black people were so angry and how they were going to fix themselves. Instead they got the stories of all of the racism that was happening that they were oblivious to. And that took awhile for them to process. At first it’s like ‘this isn’t true…that’s just one person’s experience’. Then when they would hear story after story, it becomes more of a ‘well maybe this is really true’ and then ‘why didn’t I see this before’ and ultimately feeling ashamed because they just didn’t know. Ultimately you get to the point of wanting to do something about it, but you don’t start when you’re enlightened. There are stages to racial development.
Me: So with IIWWMS you aimed to offer the facilitators a space for healing after having the continued burden of reliving and explaining their day-to-day woundings without the ability to process.
Dr. Cain: Yes, so what we wanted to do was have an initiative for racial healing for internalized oppression and racism. So creating more of an ethnocentric program. We did it with the Kellogg Foundation who had just started their racial equity grant program. We looked at family and cultural research – presentation and publication – as a way to heal from internalized racism. That is, understanding our own ancestry and culture and what’s good about our culture. For instance, looking at slavery not as something to be ashamed of, but rather as survival and strength. This is what your ancestors survived just to be here today. An effort to let go of the shame.
Me: So when did you shift to being multicultural with this program. This is something we are trying to discern in our own group.
Dr. Cain: We eventually presented this program’s concept at a public event. An Indiana Tech professor asked to teach it as a class, so in that setting it had to expand beyond just people of color. We structure it a little differently to suit that change. We start out with teaching the true history of racism using the three-part documentary, Race – The Power of an Illusion. Then we’d do break out sessions – the white students would go with white professors learning about white cultural identity and power and privilege. And then the students of color with learning about internalized racism and how to heal from it. Then the two groups would come back together and share. They developed a real close bond because once they come back together after the group breakout, it’s like totally different groups of individuals. They’re so much closer. They also had to research their family histories and present them, and do a project for a community organization around the issues of race and racism. It was all extremely powerful.
Me: One last thought and questioning and it again relates back to your experience in Ethiopia as I feel that your words and that time are such learning tools for me. It’s about peace. You said that you were totally at peace there. What did that peace afford you?
Dr. Cain: I didn’t have any stress while there. I rested well. I enjoyed their food. It was the closest thing to Nirvana I could possibly get.
Me: Do you ever get it here, i.e. that same peace?
Dr. Cain: Yes, I do with my family and close friends which are mostly African-American. And a few white friends that I can be at peace with. But outside of that, no. Here it’s a struggle. Every day is a struggle. And it’s something different every day with discrimination. And I’ve never experienced that feeling before at any university I’ve visited here in the states.
Me: Your experience there is a wonderful thing, but it also makes me incredibly sad that your day to day life isn’t like that or can’t be like that.
Dr. Cain: At least I’ve experienced it. Now I know what white privilege feels like. And I liked it. I don’t look at it the same way anymore.
Thank you, Dr. Cain, for your time, your patience with me in this state of learning, and your welcoming of me to IIWWMS.
Note: The featured artwork image on this post is Swimming in a Sea of Wisdom. Also, the first in the series of Sacred Feminine interviews was with Texas artist, Summer Lydick. You can read that post here