Who are the Invisible People in and around your life? 

This has been something that has been on my mind a lot since last week Friday and i want to share the thought through the medium of two simple stories that took place on the same day.

In the morning i had a story-telling session with Heartlines at a primary school in Mitchell’s Plain. As far as i knew, i was walking in to facilitate a 90-minute story-telling session with twenty staff from the school. What i noticed right away as we gathered in the hall – wearing masks and social distancing – was that there were a number of the cleaning and ground staff in the group. This blew me away and especially as i watched the only other man in the room sitting in a small group near to me, telling part of his story, the huge smile on his face just shouted of excitement and joy and awareness of being seen.

Now i am definitely assuming some things. And it may be that this particular school includes their grounds and cleaning staff in every aspect of school life. But that is definitely not the norm in most schools, companies and faith organisations around the country. The cleaning staff tend to be on a very obvious different level from the rest of the staff. But for whatever reasons, in this moment, there were small groups of four adults scattered around the hall telling their stories and everyone was on equal footing and had equal worth and importance in the space.

As i chatted to the staff of Heartlines in a call earlier this week and shared that story i said i would love for that to be the norm when we conduct those sessions. There is so much power in removing hierarchy and power in a space and creating an opportunity for people to really just see each other.

Later that day i was visiting a friend of mine in hospital. He told me of a local high school he is connected to where they discovered that the groundskeeper had been working at the school for 50 years. Now imagine a school where a teacher who has been working there for 20 years leaves or a company where a staff member who has been around for 10 years leaves. Think about the recognition and party and celebrations that will likely occur. The words spoken. At the school they might have a library or classroom named after them. Do i need to walk you through the likelihood or any of that happening for a black person who kept the school clean.

This particular man – who has an easy-for-white-people-to-say nickname that we agreed was very likely not his real name [my friend didn’t know his real name] died sometime last year i think. Then they discovered that his children were now on cleaning staff at the school and they never knew. No scholarships had been organised for them – no special privileges granted to the family of a man who had served the school for 50 years. Now my friend is busy working with the school to bring justice to that story. But how many others are there like that?

It reminded me of a similar man who performed the same role at my high school, Westerford. And how while we all knew him as ‘Buddy’ that very likely was not his real name [which i never knew!] Somethings are safe to assume. And while i seem to remember him being honoured towards the end of his life, i can’t remember a class or library being named after him [it may have been, but i just can’t remember that happening].

How invisible do you have to be to work in a place for more than 30 years and have not a single person know your real name? 

EDIT: Received a message from my friend who after reading this had this to add to the story:

FYI a memorial drinking fountain has been purchased, and will be placed along side the Rugby A field. It will bear his name. It’s a start.

He was the head groundskeeper, so it’s fitting that it looks out over a field he groomed with his own hands. We thought a drinking fountain would remind us of the history of segregation, and in the same vein recognise his contribution to the school.

Invisible until needed

When i think back to last week’s school story-telling, i think that it didn’t cost them a lot to open that circle a little wider. And the benefits that were reaped were immeasurable.

This conversation extends to people we pass on the streets or try and avoid eye contact with at traffic lights. Those who knock on our door and ask for food or electricity or taxi money. And i hope we take it there. But in the places we work or learn or worship, this should be an even easier conversation. Who might feel invisible? Because just like we can’t ever give someone a voice [we can amplify or recognise or make space for or invite a voice] no-one is ever actually invisible. They are just not seen.

What can we do to start seeing the people in our spaces and to help others in our space see those people too? What room can we make to invite and share stories? For some of you, this might start by just asking someone what their name is? The car guard or security you pass every morning as you enter the office, the cashier ringing up your groceries. Start with a smile and a greeting and see how far it might go from there.

Imagine a world where no-one feels invisible and everyone feels seen and appreciated. What might that change?