By Debbie Gin
My husband and I have a system worked out when we travel: he drives while I navigate. It’s worked well for us, as I love looking at maps and we both love exploring. Mind you, I navigate the real way, not by turning on my phone’s voice-with-the-bad-British-accent, but by figuring out where we are and where we want to end up on the phone’s map and instructing my husband to turn left, right, or around.
On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, we switched roles. I drove while my husband navigated, and for various reasons, we encountered many obstacles and endured much internal (and external!) angst. Many times, we ended up on the wrong road, only to be forced onto a several-mile stretch with no way to turn around from our mistake.
When we got to our destination (and we were once again in a space to reflect without getting irritated), I realized a few things about the art of navigation. First, skillful navigation relies on the constant back-and-forth rhythm of expanding out and focusing in. Big picture and local context. Second, one of the most important things navigation can provide is anticipation, alerting the driver in advance when a turn is needed or how far ahead to expect an exit. The last observation I made was that when navigating unexplored terrain, you seldom get to see the actual terrain. Because so much is depending on careful navigation — particularly when you are low on fuel and can’t afford too many wrong turns — the one who determines the route rarely gets to look up and see the beautiful landscape to which she has led the company of travelers. However, because she has navigated the group by careful map study rather than by relying on predetermined voice-navigation, new and interesting — and even more efficient — paths can be experienced.
Navigating professional contexts is similar. Developing professionally and living into one’s vocation requires spending time in big-picture spaces, as well as spaces that are particular to local context. Having occupied most of my life in details, I am learning to observe and think more broadly by watching others in top leadership positions do this. I am also practicing the art of anticipation, learning to predict the consequences of my decisions, on many levels.
Finally, I am now realizing that many beautiful moments have come and gone unnoticed and unexperienced by me, a woman of color. In the kinds of navigation that have been required of me, by necessity, I have had to keep my nose to the grindstone and forge ahead. Women in male-dominated contexts and persons of color in White-dominated contexts engage in an inordinate amount of navigating such contexts: an Asian woman figuring out the best non-Asian church in which to intern for ordination, learning leadership styles that don’t quite fit Asian women’s ways of being, translating “standard” curricula for Asian American settings, etc.
While I absolutely believe that changing systems to normalize Asian ways of being or women’s ways of being is the responsibility of those in dominant communities, I also believe that those in non-dominant communities can claim our own agency as well. I implored faculty of color at a recent ATS midcareer faculty event to do just that, especially by intentionally mentoring junior faculty of color, thereby strengthening the diversity of the pipelines that will feed future seminary deanships and presidencies. We can — and must — lift our heads to take in the scenery, the beauty…even as we skillfully navigate difficult terrain.