Impact Versus Intentions By Kevin Hofmann Director of the Office of Racial Equity and Cultural Inclusion “I’m pregnant,” she said. I could sense the shame in her voice. “Yes, I know,” was my response. I was 11 years old, and my sister was 16. She had a relationship with a high school classmate and was now pregnant. Because she was pregnant, she could no longer stay at our Catholic high school. My parents shipped her off to a “home for unwed mothers” (that’s a whole separate blog). My sister called me from her new home to break the news. I had heard my parents talking about it a few days prior, so I knew before she told me. I was eavesdropping on my parent’s conversation because suddenly my sister was gone from the house, and no one was telling me why. My sister had a little girl who was immediately placed for adoption. She returned to high school as if nothing happened and graduated on time. It would be 30 years before anyone would talk about this again. In 2009 when I was searching for my biological family (I am adopted), I shared the search details with my sister. She was excited to hear I had found my biological mother. During our conversation my sister got quiet. I was so excited about my search, and it didn’t occur to me this may be a very painful conversation for a birth mother to hear. Softly my sister asked me, “Do you think my daughter thinks about me?” This shot to the gut dropped me to my knees. “Of course, she does,” I stated plainly. It was the first time after her daughter was born that we spoke about it. This was our family dynamic. We did not talk about the tough stuff. I think part of that was a result of the era we grew up in. This was pre-Dr. Phil and pre-Oprah. In the 1970s and 1980s we were taught to avoid the tough conversations and they will go away. Unfortunately, that was not true. The subject of those tough conversations, in many ways, grew bigger in each of our minds and we were left to reconcile that on our own. It is easy to see this was not the best way to handle it. In Robin Diangelo’s book, White Fragility , she talks about intent versus impact. So often we concentrate on intent. My parent’s intentions were to give my sister and the new baby the best shot at being successful in life. My sister will admit that at 16 she was not ready to be a mother. So logically, our parent’s decision made sense. More importantly though was the impact this experience would have on a 16-year-old. The impact of not feeling safe enough to talk about this for more than 30 years would seem to far outweigh my parent’s intentions. We should have focused more on impact. In the conversation – and delicate dance that comes with carving out space for everyone – intentions versus impact comes up a lot. It usually shows up when someone says the wrong thing out of ignorance or carelessness and another person gets offended by what was said. The one offended points it out and the casual offender explains their intentions. The impact is ignored. When I first got married 29 years ago, in the first 5-10 years (I’m a slow learner), I would often say something to my wife that offended her. She would tell me how what I said hurt her, and she gave detailed points as to what I did and how I made her feel. Before she could finish her thoughts, I would jump in and plead my case. “No, no, no, that’s not what I intended,” I would enthusiastically say to her. She would then go quiet. I thought it was because I was great at proving my point. I was not. She fell quiet because she didn’t feel heard, and she didn’t think I was ever going to understand. I ignored the impact it had on her. Me latching on to my intentions compared to the impact it had on her, only made her feel worse. As we begin this equity and inclusion work, be mindful that we all have the power to impact people in ways we don’t realize. We need to speak to the impact and take responsibility when we hurt someone by something we have done. We simply need to back up, and not try to explain our way out. Instead, we need to own up to our role in it, apologize, and learn from it. My sister and I talk about her being pregnant and having her daughter occasionally. She has shared with me how painful it was to give her daughter away. The disruption between a mother and her child takes a lifetime to heal. As an adoptee, I know that firsthand. I have found that sitting still, listening to my sister, helping her process, and supporting her have brought us to a healthier place. Let us make it a practice to look outside ourselves, see the world from a different perspective, and consider the impact of our well-intended actions.