Last week I was invited to lunch in the Paris “No Go Zone” and here is what I learned about being an outsider.
My Outsider Experience
There I was waiting in front of a low-income housing complex in the middle of St Denis, the Paris suburb where Jawad Bendaoud housed the terrorist attackers who stormed the Bataclan on November 13, 2015 and killed 130 music fans and wounded another 413 people.
Equiping Juvenile Delinquents to Contribute Positively
I was invited to lunch at the restaurant Taf & Maffé to join the seven youth in juvenile detention that I was training in social skills. The town justice service hires me to give wayward youth tools to contribute positively to society. I love these sessions of authentic exchange and where I grow as much or more as they do. This lunch opened my eyes wide with discovery.
White Anglo-Saxon, Female, Red-Head Outsider
As a tall, white woman with spikey, bright red hair, I often stand out in a crowd. Here, surrounded by men of African and Middle Eastern origin, some wearing tunics and prayer caps, I definitely looked out of place.
I felt displaced as well. My bearings were off. I consider myself open-minded and had thought I had no specific expectations. Yet, standing alone in unknown territory, I realized I looked for familiar signs. Specifically, I searched for the welcoming signboard of a restaurant and a clearly displayed menu to lure me in. There was nothing of the sort. Just a high rise and men. (I saw two women in veils, both begging.)
A man in a tunic pointed me towards the inside of the housing complex and I went in.
Beyond the entrance, in the building’s courtyard, lay a patchwork of colorful rugs. I had not integrated that we were Friday and that, for the Muslims in St Denis, prayer time began at 1:48 pm. There wasn’t enough space at the mosque, so the “inn” made room for the faithful.
The man pointed me further down a corridor and I walked into a large hall with tables and chairs and people serving out of industrial size cooking pots. Questioning eyes observed me as I scrutinized the room, noticing the buzz of activity and the full chairs. I was not expected here either, so I waited outside for my crowd.
The youth finally arrived AND our group kept waiting (!), huddled in the small segment of the sidewalk that basked in the sun. My confusion grew, yet since the youth were calm-despite-hunger, I remained relaxed-enough too.
Our dining room was being prepared.
Lunch is Served
We were ushered into a 20m² room which served as the office of an association which integrates refugees into France. They had moved the printers and photocopy machine to the side, stacked papers in piles, and moved the desks to form one large table. Again, I had not come with set expectations yet discovered that this is not what I had anticipated! In retrospect I realized I had expected a “Chez Samir,” something like an exotic version of “Chez Sylvie.”
We enjoyed a flavorful, filling, and exotic meal of bissap (hibiscus) juice, chicken maffé (like an African paella), HOT chili sauce, and dégué (millet grain pudding flavored with orange blossom).
Even when everyone had finished eating, we stayed put. Since I was leading the afternoon training session for the youth, my eye was on the watch. Yet, as a guest, I let the organizers set the rhythm and opted to let go of control and to enjoy the company and the moment.
Waiting. Not my Schedule. Theirs.
By now a group of ten or more of us were huddled in the doorway, with still no indication of movement and easy chit chat around. Then one of the youths announced, “It’s time.”
While we were eating, the courtyard had filled with men for the mid-day prayer. Prayer time was now completed; we could open the door.
We joined the crowd of worshipers as they flooded into the street and flowed on their way.
I grew from the experience of being an outsider.
My Take-Aways from being an Outsider
I (re)learned that open-mind is not a state of being that one reaches. It’s a journey…that goes deeper and deeper.
As a Protestant white American married to an atheist French man from West Indies descent, I think of myself as open-minded. Our marriage would not have lasted twenty-seven years had we not each made considerable concessions to and for each other.
Yet an open-mind cannot be earned and worn as a Scout badge for public recognition. As I acknowledged my surprised reactions to these unknown surroundings, I discovered untrod paths of open-mindedness and traveled further along the journey.
A decade ago, few people were aware of unconscious biases. Now, “unconscious bias” is an often-heard, sometimes-understood term.
Here is how the University of California, San Francisco defines it.
“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.”
I confess, I had thought I was addressing and uncovering (a.k.a. eliminating) my unconscious biases fairly well. Yet during my visit to Saint Denis, a neighborhood physically close to my home and yet culturally far removed from my norm, I kept bumping into my assumptions.
I expected restaurants to have outdoor signs and buildings to welcome residents, not worshipers.
Mostly, I realized that we (you and I included) have an uncanny bias towards thinking that we might be unbiased! LOL
The best way to grow in empathy is to get out of our comfort zone.
Authentic empathy comes from the heart. It is experienced. It is not an intellectual thought.
Alone on that sidewalk I felt insecure, with a loss of bearings. Taking initiatives required effort and felt risky. Instead of my usual proactive self, I waited for others to make the first move.
I caught a glimpse of what it feels like to be excluded.
In the past, I responded to other people’s slowness, reactivity, and lack of self-confidence with critique. “C’mon. Get over it.” Thanks to my work in constructive collaboration, I have learned to replace judgement with encouragement.
I did not need advice on that street corner. I needed courage poured into me and the strength that comes from a benevolent presence.
In St Denis, I was hired to open these youths’ eyes, minds, and even hearts. Through soft skills training and building their self-awareness and other-awareness, we connected constructively. Here were their parting thoughts:
- Motivation to look for a job
- Confidence in myself
These youth also opened my eyes, mind, and heart. That’s what I love about our workshops on constructive collaboration tools. Through role plays and team activities we create a safe space for learners to step outside of their comfort zone. They are free to laugh at themselves, to discover new insights, and to choose how and how much to grow.
For YOUR Team Too
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Are you seeking to build a more inclusive culture? We help build self-awareness, empathy, and trust which are pillars to developing a sense of belonging and contribution.
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