Recently, my husband Lionell, daughter Essence, and I went for a walk in our Shaw neighborhood to get some fresh air and stretch after several days of primarily being indoors. As we navigated our chosen route, we all noticed how many more people were out with babies in strollers, clumsy toddlers, preoccupied teens, friendly and aggressive pets, or just partnered up with significant others. This in itself was not a new occurrence for us to witness, but what did seem exceptional to our experience was the abundance of friendly head nods towards us, acknowledging hand waves from our prescribed 6 feet (even from people riding past in cars), and verbal greetings of pleasantries when distance allowed us to hear. It was a surreal moment that caused me to literally stop walking and mentally absorb the intentionality of what was happening. After several moments of pause, I commented to Lionell that I had only witnessed the scene before us captured as a projection in an artist’s rendering for a planned community development. Those few moments of subtle but sincere and intentional bonding were a direct result of the distress exposed by our collective vulnerabilities to death from the COVID-19 pandemic period. In this brief snapshot of communal social distancing, what we were actually discovering and practicing was intentional integration.
The Touchy Topics Tuesday model has used the phrase “intentional integration” to describe its mission since its inception in 2015, though often at the immediate interrogation of its meaning. In fact, I was often bewildered how those words weren’t self-explanatory. For scholars, it seemed the phrase hadn’t been studied enough to have any academic merit. For business and organization leaders, it didn’t have the same common appeal of using “diversity and inclusion” to highlight its mission statements, but for the participants in Touchy Topics Tuesday, it was deeper than a concept and valued more than an abstract P.R. principle. It was, in fact, what we committed to “becoming” every Tuesday of every week for 5 years. For us, it was a purposeful evolution of how we connected, interacted, and fostered community with people we would normally withdraw from. Intentional integration became our way of rejecting social distancing long before the threat of coronavirus forced us to learn and adapt to the meaning of the phrase.
Though many of us instinctively understood what this new “social distancing” phrase communicated in context, we never applied it to the filter of our experiences before the pandemic. Some of us had thrived under our “illusions of isolation” from one another. Rejecting attempts to expand the MetroLink in certain parts of the region, developing areas that didn’t give certain populations access to corresponding employment opportunities, and consistently overlooking areas of extreme blight that could benefit the most from stabilizing economic progress were all ways that social distancing had previously been perfected. The domino effect of these systemic resolutions was often manifested in our interpersonal relationships and attitudes towards one another. We not only believed the illusion; we supported its adverse isolating impact and framed communities around it. Much like “intentional integration” was not an explicit consideration until Touchy Topics Tuesday, neither was its antithetical play cousin, “social distancing,” until the coronavirus arrived and dared us not to adapt.
Although the picturesque scene from our walk that day is still framed in my mind like a fond family photo, it shares space with personal anxieties related to the pandemic and peripheral reflections on how we reframe our consideration of community beyond this circumstance. While COVID-19 may have popularized the term “social distancing,” it also fortified Touchy Topics Tuesday’s mission to continuously challenge it since our current behaviors clearly reveal our sincere desire to intentionally integrate.
Tiffany Robertson, founder of Touchy Topics Tuesday (TTT), is a faith-filled African American woman with a strong sense of purpose in life. She is a leader, a woman led by her own values and concern for the well-being of others throughout the St. Louis region. She functions from her own integrity and reaches beyond herself as she encourages others to do the same. She makes others better people simply because she relates to them in a positive, constructive, and encouraging way.
Tiffany is a deeply reflective person who is committed, in short, to the betterment of the world. She is open-minded, respectful of the opinions of others, yet firmly grounded in the guidance of her faith, which informs all of her decisions and values. Tiffany has been specifically dedicated to the idea of ongoing conversations as a means of cultivating empathy across diverse experiences. Her track record in this endeavor, according to former and current participants and academic supporters, promotes the TTT model as a blueprint for building relationships that prevents further deterioration of our communities, while inspiring synergy across them.