Silence Must Become Uncomfortable

Silence Must Become Uncomfortable


By Noreen Kilbane, PEP Board Chair, Chief Administrative Officer, Hyland; and Holley Martens, PEP Board Vice Chair, Director, Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation

“If you fail to act now, history will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


We acknowledge that we lead lives of privilege. This does not need to be a source of shame nor is it a reason to be proud. It simply is.

To do our work as Positive Education Program (PEP) board members, the question in front of us, then, must always be: “How do we use our privilege, our expertise, our relational wealth in ways that meaningfully impact our ability to achieve PEP’s vision of an equitable community where every young person is valued and experiences joy and deep fulfillment?”

How Our Life Experiences Inform How We Engage the World

Through Noreen’s Eyes…

As the daughter of immigrants from Ireland, my universe was clearly defined. My parents, who were already navigating so much that was new, created a more sheltered world where our social engagement was solely with those who shared similar backgrounds. To this day, the Irish community is where I feel safe and loved.

As an adult, I have had many opportunities to expand my social circle as I attended college and began my career. These experiences have helped me see where I can change the conditions so that the environments I create are more diverse and inclusive. I was nominated to serve on the DEI Executive Council at my place of employment and have learned so much through that work. I have had the opportunity to work with DEI consultants who have been able to enlighten me using data, lived experiences and self-reflection. I am most proud of my PEP board service. It is through this service I have seen up close the negative impact of inequity.

Through Holley’s Eyes…

I, like many, have been keenly aware of the inequities white supremacy rules and norms have on our communities. However, not until my fifth decade did I understand the causality and connection of these rules (unwritten as well as written) to the blatant and purposeful oppression caused to people and communities of color. Now, as people do when their knowledge increases, I am obligated to change my decision making processes and amplify my voice to provide pathways to marginalized people and communities in the capacity I possess. Wading into these conversations about systemic racism and advocating for change is hard, intentional, and uncomfortable work, yet essential if we want to use our positions in this world for good.

To Challenge is an Act of Love

It is an act of love to challenge children, to help them become the best versions of themselves. Similarly, challenging the norms set forth by parents or challenging the country you call home to live up to its defined principles are indeed acts of love too.

And while loving, it is also most definitely uncomfortable. It takes stamina and conviction to resist the go-along-to-get-along energy pervasive in many places where power and influence are desired. Yet, it is through this discomfort where we grow and change.

The work to dismantle systemic racism is guaranteed to be challenging, uncomfortable and replete with risk. There will be moments when we are sure to say the wrong thing and make mistakes. We will stumble. Our central challenge in this work is to learn and to grow from these experiences, just as we ask of our kids. It is our duty to educate, not to shame.

Silence is Not an Option

At PEP, we have come to appreciate that to be truly trauma-informed means that we need to investigate and appreciate the role systemic racism has played in the lives of our kids and families and the role we can play in dismantling it. Education is our greatest tool, which is why our PEP board has chosen to step into the fray in fighting the legislative efforts aimed at censoring teachers and banning books.

We walk into this space appreciating that it carries risk. Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, speaks about what it means to be more than an ally, to be a co-conspirator. As she teaches, feeling guilty for our privilege is not the answer. Being an ally is nice, but too often it allows us to sit in the seat of the caring observer. The challenge is to become a co-conspirator, truly cashing in our privilege in ways that “Take risks for somebody. Put something on the line.”

In South Carolina in 2015 following the awful killings at the church in Charleston, advocates for justice knew that it was far beyond time for the confederate flag to be removed from the Statehouse. Bree Newsome, a Black woman, climbed the Statehouse flagpole to remove the confederate flag as her co-conspirator, James Tyson, a White man, stood below. He did not stand outside the fence. He stood inside with his hands firmly gripping the pole, knowing that his whiteness would keep the police from using their tasers. He took a risk and put something on the line, using his privilege for good.

To be silent, to be neutral, is fuel for the oppressor. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

In our work to support young people to overcome and thrive, we must use our voices, our positions, our privilege to bring their voices and lived experiences into the rooms where power and influence sit.

For too long and in far too many places, silence has become much too comfortable. The question before each of us is how do we make silence uncomfortable? How do we each in our own small way shift that balance?

Noreen Kilbane
Holley Martens
Holley Martens