Interview with Elizabeth Davidson
Leah Hunter: You were the first person I ever saw wearing that “I Stand with Black Women” quote on anything, I think you had it on a little pin, and I was like, “I need to find out more about this person.” What caused you to reevaluate your relationship with Black women?
Elizabeth Davidson: Education and just learning is the short answer of that.
The longer answer—I think I have a pin and a tote bag—both of those are, actually, from Planned Parenthood. Which is such a great example of what I mean when I say education and learning more led me to realize like—my understanding of my own experience and how our society functions, and how the world works, is so whitewashed. And I don’t do a good job of paying attention in my own life, and in behaving and acting in ways that recognize the Black woman—Black people in general—but, especially, the Black women in my own world [who] have made so much of what I enjoyed [in] my life possible. But also like, turning around and noticing, like what are their lives like?
For example, you think about Planned Parenthood or the services Planned Parenthood provides, and the kind of reproductive freedoms you and I are able to enjoy, such as they are, in this country, and in this state. I feel like growing up, a lot of reproductive freedom I just kind of took for granted. Also, references to any kind of fight for reproductive freedom or justice was often associated with white feminazi types. But then as I got older, and as I started learning more, and realizing … no, reproductive justice is a movement of Black women. And the ways that movement is by and for Black women, and how the reason I have access to the kind of reproductive health care I have is because of Black women. And that even so, because of that, I have access to all these things, because of the strides Black women and other women of color have made. Yet they’re still so often the ones most likely to be shut out of that kind of access. So, recognizing that and learning about the ways I can turn around and be like, “OK. Wait a minute. I—number one—I’ve missed this number, you know? Number two, what do I need to be doing to make sure I’m learning and telling the truth as it actually is? Then also living and behaving in a way that ensures people actually doing the work are reaping the benefits of that work? Yeah, education, learning and having my eyes open to the ways my own privilege has very much allowed me to be comfortable and aligned to what other people are and have been dealing with for a whole lot longer.
LH: One of the things that has always impressed me about you is how hard you work to create spaces that honor people holistically, without judgment. How has your relationship with God in the church deepened your work in providing inclusive spaces?
ED: My relationship with God is where that comes from because that’s what I believe. That is what I believe God is. That is my understanding of what God is. God is love. That’s who God is in my understanding, my theology. So, when I was going through and discerning a call to ministry, one of my mentors early on in the process said, “You know, as we think about what it means to be in ministry, and to be called into ministry most pastors really have one sermon they preach repeatedly, in a variety of forms throughout their career. Like we preach a lot of sermons, but really, you are preaching the same sermon over and over again. What is your sermon?”
And that really struck me like, “What is it? What is my sermon if I had to distill my ministry down to one? What would it be? And for me, my sermon is “You are safe, and you are loved.” I feel like if people know they are safe, and they are loved, they know that deep within themselves both emotionally and spiritually, but also at a physical and material level. If people know they are safe, and they are loved, we can do just about anything. We can get through just about anything. We can navigate just about anything if we know we are safe and loved.
So that’s been kind of my one sermon. God has been the anchor point and the center of that desire. The church is, at various points, a gift, and a challenge. Because people are awesome, and people are the worst. Because we’re human. I’m in the United Methodist tradition, which is nationwide, like one of the whitest denominations. We’re like 98% [white], I think when I was in seminary, the statistic was 98%, white, which is not good. Not reflective of the Body of Christ, not reflective of the United States population. It is reflective of white supremacy. That’s just all that it is. However, and interestingly, you might not think this of Mississippi, but we have one of the most diverse conferences at nearly 50/50, Black to white. And then there’s other racial groups represented. There are some indigenous and Native American populations, there’s some Asian populations, some Latino populations in there as well. So, I guess maybe it’s more like 45/45 of Black and white. And then 5% or 10%, I can’t do math, of other ethnicities and races represented. There’s a lot of Black and white, but even so, there’s Black churches and there’s white churches. The conference is diverse, but there’s not a lot of overlap. There is a lot of wonderful potential, and there’s a lot of commitment and movement towards unity. But I think there’s pros and cons to pushing towards that unity. Because you don’t want to take away any safe space for Black Methodists by forcing white men [and women] into those spaces. I come out of a white Methodist church, which at times has been a real gift and blessing and shaped me in a lot of ways. And my tradition has something called the social principles, which have been formative for me and really link our faith to how we live in community and how we act out our, political lives and our social lives and our financial lives. Like all of that is part of what it means to be a person of faith. That’s been really formative for me, but at the same time, there’s also those challenges of the reality of like, we are still a white church in a very divided state.
LH: What is one of your favorite scriptures that you pull from when you need a little boost, a little encouragement, your social justice work?
ED: One of my favorite stories of all time is the story of Esther. I just love that one. Which, for those that are unfamiliar, is the story of a young girl who is a Jewish woman that is placed in a really difficult position, but is able to save four people, [and she’s] the king doesn’t know that she’s Jewish. She’s given the choice of not revealing that and sort of passing as one of the common folks and not standing up for her people or revealing herself to be Jewish and advocating for the people. And her uncle comes to her and asks her to stand up and advocate for the people risking her life and advocate for the people and says, who knows, maybe you were put here for such a time as this. That particular idea that maybe you were put in this position. Maybe God gave you these particular gifts and this particular position or privilege, or leverage, or relationship or whatever it might be for such a time as this that like, maybe you can speak into this moment, in a way no one else can for such a time as this, I just always find that really encouraging.
LH: I find that people who are attracted to social justice work have often experienced injustice themselves, have you and if so, how?
ED:. I feel like yes, but I’m also like, I want to be so careful in this one. Because I do feel so often as white women, we are quick to lean into this because we don’t want to be associated with the oppressor or the injustice that when anyone tries to say like, ‘Hey, what you said was not okay,’ or ‘that behavior is not helpful,’ or whatever, even in a very, like, gentle way. We’re like, Oh, I’m a woman. Like, you can’t say that to me. Like, I’m laughing, but it’s not okay. Right. But at the same time, yes.
I’m a woman in a largely a male dominated field. However, I will say for sure that I experienced far less sexism than I was braced to, because of the women that came before me. And the number of women that are in ministry around me, even in Mississippi, there’s so many more women in ministry, in my generation, and the generation before me. I don’t have nearly as much pushback as you would think that I would have as a clergy woman in Mississippi. I would say I have experienced some injustice, but not on the level that some others have for sure. My hope would be that, if and when I have experienced that on any level that it has given me a little empathy. But I think the important thing is just to listen and trust and believe people, regardless of whatever our own experiences have been.
I think that’s very much true of social workers and caregivers, pretty much anybody in caring or helping professions are more likely to go into that if they have received some kind of a trauma that someone has been there for or had a loved one that have been really supported. I had a professor point out one time, though, that, especially when it came to working towards racial healing and racial reconciliation, she was actually kind of wary of people that would say things like, “Oh, well, my child came out and so now I understand what it’s like.” You will never know what it’s like to be a Black woman and a white man will never know what it’s like to be me. If you have to have a personal experience in order for you to care, I’m screwed. I think it’s important like yes, of course to having those personal experiences but just as much as having a personal experience, being able to build relationships and cultivate our ability to empathetically listened to one another’s stories.
LH: I love what you’re saying about being heard and believed and trusted. I think that is central to what happens, so often Black women are not heard, not validated, not trusted, not believed. And I think we on smaller scales have experienced that. And so yes, that absolutely makes sense to me.
ED: Right. Related to that, I am a survivor of sexual assault, and that very well may play into some of that knowing how important it is to be believed about a trauma. So again, it’s not comparing the two in any way, but just being able to say, like, having someone believe you about something really bad and hard happening. And I don’t necessarily have proof, but I am going to tell you this, I’m going to trust you with my story. And I just need you to know that it’s real. It’s an act of vulnerability, and trust for me to give this to you, basically, to let you into my world. And then how people react to that tells you something right? Even if you don’t need them to do anything with this particular story, it tells you whether or not they can handle the next thing and whether or not they might be a partner when it is time to do something. And I think that holds true, I think in injustice work as well, if people believe us about the smaller things, we can kind of know better if there are people that can be trusted when it is time to act on something. So perhaps that might be a more relevant experience for this particular thing.
LH: I think it’s all relevant. Because I, again, I think that being believed and trusted is so pivotal to social justice work. If you don’t believe what people are saying, then what are you fighting for? Right? And I think there has to be some element of us that has given us a window. I cannot imagine if my whole life was wrapped around not being seen, heard, believed, or validated. It pushes us forward in that work. I think it’s all relevant.
ED: Right? Yeah.
LH: Let’s go to another very deep and difficult one to answer. There’s a lot of tension in our country and a lot of that is centered around white conservative Christians. How do you navigate this tension as a southern white woman reverend?
ED: Jeff, my husband, and I actually talked about this a good bit. So, I’m a white, Southern United Methodist clergy woman. He’s not really affiliated with the Southern Baptist so much. He was at one point licensed in the Southern Baptist Church and is like still technically licensed through them, but he works in United Methodist Church, right? But he’s formed by the Southern Baptist Church. Sal grew up in Alabama. Diehard Alabama football fan like you meet him and he is a southern man who loves fishing and football and barbecue.
LH: I totally get it.
ED: People will make a lot of assumptions, particularly when they hear him talk for example, they make assumptions that they wouldn’t necessarily make about other people. And we talk a lot about that. We talked a lot about what does it mean that you have access, or I have access and privilege and an audience in certain places and with certain people that I grew around. You know, I was a debutante, for God’s sake, right? Like, you’re up in this place in this very particular community and have a certain amount of clout, just by virtue of who everybody knows, I’m Corinne’s daughter. I have the access that somebody else may not have to speak into, to challenge certain things or to bring certain knowledge. To talk about some of the Black women that started the reproductive justice movement, that other people may not know about, in a way that might feel less threatening, or that just honest to God might not be noticed because it happens to come out. Like there’s things that Jeff will say in a sermon that I will think, oh, my gosh, they are going to riot. Like I’m sure that I went with him one time to a church where he was preaching and I was positive, that they were going to freak out. And everybody came up to him, told him what a great sermon it was, because he said it in such a thick southern accent.
So, we talk a lot about what does it mean to use that particular positioning? How can we use our voice? I think it was last year at the womanist rally, when we talked about how you have access no matter who you are, you have access to places that some of your other sisters that are here at this event right now don’t if you’re straight, you have access to some places that your queer siblings cannot go; if your cis, you might have access to some places your trans sisters cannot go; if they’re white, you have access to some places that your sisters of color cannot get. Pay attention to that, notice that, talk to each other, listen to each other’s stories, and then take those stories into the places that those people cannot go and share their stories. And when you do that, you are amplifying their voice. When you are in a place where they cannot go take their story open the door for them where you can. And that really stuck with me when Tameka lifted that up. I was like, “Yeah,” that’s absolutely true that we’ve got to do a better job of doing things. When you’re doing a Bible study, make sure you’re doing this at your church; make sure you’re using authors of color; make sure you’re using queer authors. It doesn’t have to be done in ways that are easing people into it. But I think it’s important for people that are kind of in these groups to slowly start troubling the waters a little bit so that it gets a little bit easier to open those doors for others.
My stepdad was in charge of the Holy Week. at our predominantly white, Methodist Church. He had James Cohn, a phenomenal Black theologian for all of the liturgy. It was just an opportunity for a lot of white Methodists that might not have ever encountered him. otherwise, to get to engage with this Black liberation theologian. There’s just plenty of opportunities to kind of fold that in in ways that help people normalize voices that are not just the same old white guys.
LH: Yeah, in speaking of Black theologians and reading and all these kinds of stuff, what are you currently reading right now?
ED: Not enough. Right now, the next book on my shelf is the new K Bowler book, No Cure for Being Human. But I’m behind on all of my reading right now
LH: It’s totally fine because you are an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. You’re a certified yoga instructor. You graduated with your degree in social work? You do 8000 other things? Did I miss anything?
What, advice do you have for readers that might be worried about choosing like one career path? I get that a lot working with college students.
ED: Don’t do it. Just do everything. But I would say that don’t stress yourself out thinking that whatever you choose to do first is what you have to do always. Recognize that you’re calling maybe for a season. And that is completely fine. I’m a firm believer that everything in life is equipping you for something, and that whatever you’re pursuing in this particular time is what life is giving you in this season. Follow what makes the most sense and is life giving for you. That may include what is sustainable and is good for your mental and emotional health, as well as your financial health, all of that. But follow what makes sense for you in this season and is good and life giving for you in this season. But know that that doesn’t mean that you have to do that for 40 years, right? Like, gone is the generation that started a job at 20 and retired from that same job.
Largely, I mean, there may still be some of those people. I don’t know anyone that’s still doing that. But most people that I know, are doing something for a season. And then there’ll be another thing, right? Like we all have different seasons in life. And when I say seasons, I don’t necessarily mean like, the seasons of the year, right? That might be one year, that might be five years, might be 10 years, might be six months. Like it just is a matter of a mutual discernment period that’s just running within you.
My current boss was a lawyer before he was a pastor, like, it’s okay, you can do totally different things. I know other people that have just done lots of different kinds of nonprofit work, like people that have done lots of different kinds of ministry. My husband was a librarian before he was a pastor. You can do all kinds of different things. And that’s wonderful. I think we sometimes forget and put a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially when we’re young to have it all figured out. And there’s no need for that. It is really okay to just do the next right thing and let that be enough.
LH: So, as you’re shifting in between all these different spaces how are you caring for yourself, what does self-care look like to you?
ED: I know this is so cheesy, but I love me a hot bath. It’s my favorite. Also, time away. Always, always, always use all of your time off. I am a huge advocate of time off/time away, all of that good stuff. Vacation time and time spent with loved ones. I love spending time with my doggos. And my cat. Both of my dogs came from Leah’s recommendation,
LH: I am so glad. And you know, I’m a huge advocate of the way animals pair with mental health and how they can help us be successful. And getting out of bed when we don’t want to. I’m a huge advocate for that. And some of that has come out of the work that I’ve done with our younger generation, with Gen Z. And you work a lot with college students and Gen Z. How do you see them impacting our world?
ED: Oh, my gosh, they’re the best. I just love them so much. I honestly appreciate their priorities so much and their perspective so much that one of the things I really appreciate about them is their emphasis on work/life balance. Work is to support life and not life to support work. I really appreciate that so much. They’re just not going to be treated like crap by jobs. They’re just not here for it. Love that so much.
LH: Seems like they don’t have, like our generation, a focus on pleasing people in positions of power. And it seems like their generation is like, “we’re done with that. We want to rally together we care about our peers. And that’s where we are. I have a lot of respect for them.
ED: Yes, for sure. Yeah. They’re like, pay people a living wage, treat people with respect or get out of the way. Yeah, they’re not here to be treated like dirt, because somebody is on a power trip at all.
LH: I’m here for it. And I think they often get framed, even I’ve heard it come out of my own mouth, as entitled, or have a lack of responsibility. But I think it’s coming out of those parts of them that are demanding better and saying we are not to go through this anymore. I have a lot of respect for that.
ED: Yeah. I love just the transparency about mental health in general, and health as mental health. Also, Jeff works with the youth at his church. I work with college students, and he works with youth. And one of the things too, that’s been really fun is like, I will sometimes come to their events and listening to them talk about dating, and the ways that they talk about dating and the ways that I talked about dating in high school or in college are very different, but like, so much healthier. Their perspectives are a lot healthier than mine were. So, I appreciate that. I feel like the relationships of today and tomorrow are and will be much healthier than ours were as well. But yeah, there’s a lot more focus on individual well-being but there’s also a lot more community conscience. It seems just as a generational value. Which is really powerful.
LH: Yeah, and a lot of this is separate from Gen Z, but kind of as we view how we communicate socially and there’s a lot of buzzwords around now about this point, like diversity and inclusion are always said together, they’re always a couple, they always come together. But those are real buzzwords, right, that a lot of times white people use to say that their spaces are validating. But how do you actually make practical steps to be or have a diverse and inclusive space?
ED: I think that’s such a good question. There’s been a meme that I’ve seen going around a lot on social media lately about this exact thing, about diversity and inclusion. They’re like the little pyramid of the team that’s like out front and it’s got like all the different colored emojis, right and then the leadership team or administration and it’s all white man emojis. So, we talk about diversity and inclusion for the PR side of things, a lot of times, they have all of the gender neutral and colorful emojis. But then for the people who are paid the most, people that have the titles and the power and the authority it’s still largely, white men, maybe one-woman kind of thing.
So, yeah, I’m not sure actually, I feel like if we are listening to women and Black women in particular, what we’re hearing is not necessarily actually a call for diversity and inclusion, so much of it is for like revamping the whole thing. Because largely diversity and inclusion are asking us to keep the white patriarchy intact, and just add some color to it. Right? Really, what people of color are saying is what if we just kind of did a start over? Yeah. Just something else entirely different. And I think that’s one thing again, that we as white women tend to be bad about in elections, we show this over and over again, that we tend to cling to whiteness, and the structures of whiteness because we get some benefit from that by virtue of the whiteness and being closer to white men. But we also are in this weird limbo, and we don’t ever want to fully let go of those structures. So that’s not a good answer, really. But I guess what I’m saying is I’m not sure that diversity and inclusion is actually the best metric or goal. It’s certainly better than not being diverse and inclusive. We should. But that’s not the end goal.
LH: Like I guess I hear you saying it’s like Juneteenth. They weren’t asking for a holiday. Right? They were asking for real change. And it’s the same thing with diversity and inclusion. They’re not asking for a multicultural person to be put on staff. They’re asking for these systems to be redone in a way that is inclusive.
ED: That’s a much better way of saying what I’m trying to say. That’s exactly right. Yes, exactly
LH: We’ve talked a lot about white women’s participation in these systems and how problematic we are, we could go on all day. But if you could pick one way that you could change about the way white women move through the world, what would it be?
ED: Oh, just one?
LH: Yeah, just one. I know, it’s so hard, right?
ED: If I could only do the just one. I wish we would stop behaving against our own interests. Maybe that’s too much to ask. But at a minimum, if we could stop shooting ourselves in the foot, if we could at least stop voting and working and spending our money and our energy and our time and our resources in ways that are harmful to ourselves. Because I think in doing that, we actually would help all the other people that we hurt when we act counter to our own interests. So often we cling to the structures of whiteness. We have learned time and time again that our whiteness will not save us. It just won’t. Whiteness does not care about us. It’s for the white men and it’s only for the white men who can perform it in very particular ways. They have the money, are cis and also straight, but are also able bodied in certain ways. And you know, all these things it’s only for this elite circle. And even then, it’ll eat them up, if they step out of line. We all know this, but like, somehow, we all just keep buying in that if we just stick by it, it’ll protect us. So, we keep behaving in these ways that act as if whiteness will protect us. We’ll subscribe to all these different values, and we’ll say, and I think we believe all these things about loving our neighbors and all these things, but we keep acting in ways that align with whiteness over everything else when push comes to shove. And I just, if we could figure out a way to get at least white women to stop aligning with a white man. If we could just do that, I mean, that would change things. That would have kept Trump from getting elected. I think it would have saved a lot of other people from being harmed, if white women could just stop voting against our own interests and start seeing ourselves as being aligned with other women with other moms, with other immigrants, with other workers, with other groups besides whiteness and white men. If we could start aligning ourselves with other populations, I think that would be a game changer. But consistently we just can’t, it’s set. I don’t know, who coined it, but it was like whiteness is a hell of a drug. Right? Like, we just don’t know how to let it go.
LH: That’s the best way to phrase it. And, you know, whiteness is a hell of a drug. And of course, I have all these, theories about white trauma, and how it bonds us to white men and all of those types of things. But at some point, that runs out. Enough is enough. But I love the way that you have talked about access, and that you have challenged that. And I also love the way that when you essentially asked white women to take a look at themselves, right? You are simply saying, I want you to value yourself enough to where you are fighting for your own interest. And it just so happens that our interests are aligned with that of Black women, and Asian women and the LGBTQ plus community. We are just so bonded to our whiteness that we have a hard time pulling away from it. And I actually listened in on a webinar yesterday by a Black woman named Jamila, who was a marketing professional that said the same exact thing. Our world is never going to change until whiteness disappears. And she doesn’t mean white people she means until we stop binding ourselves to whiteness.
ED: Yeah, Black people have been saying this. I’ve only learned this because Black people have clearly been saying this for years and years and years and years and years. Like so. Yeah, to be clear. Black people have been saying this. It’s just we as white people are not listening.
LH: Or we just take it and use it as our own and make it something different.
ED: Yeah, carry on. This isn’t remotely original thought to me.
LH: Well, I appreciate the ways that you’re communicating them to me. It’s always good to hear from someone that I consider a little bit further along in their work around Black liberation. It’s hard to say, “Black liberation,” because our work is not Black liberation. Our work is our own liberation, right, that we cannot be fully liberated until Black women are fully liberated. And so, it’s good to have conversations with people that are further along in that process and challenge my own ways of thinking and the ways that I move through things. This conversation has definitely done that for me. I am so appreciative of you for taking the time to talk with me and chat through these things.