apache | doctor | nurse | mom | teacher
I hate it that those moments in my life that were the most pivotal to my personal development have taken place in the most benign and forgettable places. I never had that special orchestra swelling, clouds breaking event where everything changed, and I realized that I really am the product of all my ancestors’ dreams. I haven’t reached the top of the highest mountain, taken the deep breath of the fresh mountain air and had that epiphany that I had been waiting all that time to have.
Not that I haven’t tried. Seriously. I once rode my bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles with my best friend, Lara. We did it to raise money for AIDS-related organizations, and it was a really big deal. It was a pivotal moment in my life in a lot of ways, but in the movie version of someone’s life (not mine), there would be the closing ceremony and the speeches and the music, and I’d lift my bicycle up over my head and realize that I was so much stronger than I ever believed. Instead? I did lift up my bike, but I was so tired, and my knee hurt so much, I was just worried I would hit someone because my bike was wobbling so much. And then I couldn’t find my boyfriend in the crowd, and I really wanted him to see me in my big moment, but he wasn’t there, smiling at me and being so in awe of my amazingness (he wasn’t).
That wasn’t an epiphany moment. That was a foreshadowing moment of the breakup 8 months in the future.
Instead, I experience my pivotal, life-changing events in the past. They are the conversations I had that never leave me. The words told to me in such a way, I have to return to them because they meant so much more than I realized in the moment. Sitting outside a Starbucks on a breezy spring day. Talking on the phone in my bedroom after being woken from a midday nap. Chatting in a kitchen while my friend kneads bread for dinner rolls. Those little moments when a few words resonated so deeply, my brain captured them in a special chamber so their sound would repeat on a regular schedule to remind me of their lesson, no matter how hard I wanted to forget.
Today I was thinking of one of those moments- it was the Starbucks day. I was sitting with my friend, enjoying a coffee and a little break away from campus and I was talking about a possible research project we could do. My friend M worked in a different department on campus, and she and I had been collaborating on grants. I respected her deeply- she had a strong commitment to serving her community and was always reminding me of the importance of our accountability to community and maintaining our Indigenous values in our work. Her clarity was inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. No matter what ideas I pitched, she would always return with, “has the community asked you to do this? If the idea doesn’t come from the community, it’s not a good idea.”
There we were, the sun was warm on my face, the wind was blowing my hair into my mouth, eyes, lips. Talking about research with M could be frustrating because she would remind me every time about the responsibility we had to our communities. I was trying to get tenure, and the tenure clock doesn’t care about community. The conversation was a little tense already, and then I said something that included the phrase, “target population.”
“I don’t care what you say. I am not anyone’s target, and we aren’t a target population.”
This is when I started to backpedal. This is when she got even more angry. This is when I got angry that she wouldn’t even try to see it my way. We were fighting outside that Starbucks on that breezy spring day.
Then I was embarrassed, and that led to me being defensive. I was the kind of angry where tears fill your eyes. But I was also stubborn, and I didn’t want to appear weak before M, this person I respected so much. We somehow wrapped up our conversation- I don’t know how, I just remember leaving feeling like I was going to vomit. And then that pivotal moment was captured in the sound chamber of my brain, echoing whenever I hear the term “target population.” It’s been a decade, and that sound is still there.
To be present when someone experiences being called one of these terms is so painful, especially when they are unafraid of demonstrating their pain and anger- it is awful. I am ashamed I was so thoughtless, so persistent when my friend responded so honestly, and I was such an ass with my backpedaling and pedantic explaining. The damage that research causes, even with these little phrases, it hurts. It hurts people on a personal and visceral level. There is nothing abstract about being called a target. This language dehumanizes people to such a degree that it makes them actual points to be focused and shot upon. To dare talk about people who are survivors of centuries of genocide using this language is beyond insulting. The language of research is damaging.
Looking back, I am grateful that M didn't hold back. She told me, in no uncertain terms, that the language I was using, the attitude I was taking, all of it- I was wrong. She showed me what so many people swallow up, and I am so very, very sorry that I made her feel that way. Ultimately, M and I were able to find a resolution. I don’t know how, I don’t remember. I do know that I never used that language again, and we emerged from that time better friends, even with that pain behind us. M has taught me so much over the years, but this lesson was the hardest. Those words that I used, that she responded to, became a life lesson that far surpassed riding my bike 500+ miles, or moving across the country to go to grad school, or making the leap of faith to get a PhD. Learning to really listen- that is my epiphany moment. As hard as I have tried to forget.
I'm a Chiricahua Fort Sill Apache Nurse Researcher. I write, speak, and think about health equity and parenting in our complicated world.
Views expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.
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