Mary Eliza Church Terrell famously wrote, “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ‘ere long.”
Lift as we climb.
Terrell lived her life by this motto, as an organizer in the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements, and as a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She fought especially for educational and civil rights. But she is most remembered by this quote.
Why? Because it defies human nature, a bit. It demands that we find a better side of ourselves, and offer loving personhood to others. And it is absolutely essential for change-worthy leadership.
I cannot count how many times I have had doors slammed in my face by other women for trying to establish a role for myself within a larger project – or even join it. Once was by a leader of narrative medicine, renowned for pioneering empathic listening (ironically). For some reason, it hurts more when it comes from someone who should understand our personal barriers to success.
No one who is part of a minority is unfamiliar with this experience.
I realize I have been responsible for limiting others, too, and I am not proud of it. For example: In college, I edited a quarterly “gender issues” publication. When I was handed the reins, I had no idea what I was doing. I spent the summer applying for grants, organizing materials, and trying to figure it out. I wooed diverse contributors that next fall, begged favors, pulled all-nighters, and barely passed organic chemistry as I poured my heart into hitting just the right light-hearted tone with Spare Rib.
When I handed the paper over, I all but smothered the incoming editor – a year my junior – with advice and guardrails. I wrote a “guidebook.” I cringed at the way the paper came out differently than I would have done, and I probably told her what she did “wrong.”
That editor is now an accomplished poet and professor with more publications than I could dream of – far more creatively accomplished than I – and I wish I had learned from her.
Why did I try so hard to control her? Did I think that her success would take away from my own?
In a word: yes. I had worked so hard to get this thing off the ground that I felt it defined me. And in my still-adolescent mind, that meant it could not belong to anyone else.
That was decades ago, and if I have learned anything in these intervening years, collaboration builds more than anyone can do alone. What could we have made if I valued her ideas and desires as much as my own?
As we enter Black History Month, I invite you to consider Mary Eliza Church Terrell’s words and legacy. How can you offer generosity to someone who would like to learn from you? How can you lift someone above you?
In my work as a literature in medicine champion for my health care group, my favorite thing is to enable clinicians to express themselves. And though I aspired to bring narrative medicine to Sutter on my own, I found that someone else had the same dream. Now I find that the best part of offering the classes is partnering because participants get two passionate facilitators instead of one, we all learn from one another, and there are more opportunities for people to join.
Thank you, Mary Eliza Church Terrell, for putting into words what can take a lifetime to figure out.
Claire Unis is a pediatrician and author of Balance, Pedal, Breathe: A Journey Through Medical School.