“Who legitimizes this work for you?” I asked this after the presenter shared their innovative project with the group. An informative and helpful response followed and we moved on to other questions for the presenter. Two days laters I received an email from the person sharing with me that they were deeply offended by my question. Although my intent was to learn how this person navigated their system, in fact, my question offended this individual’s personal sense of legitimacy.
Legitimacy is often experienced as acceptance, acknowledgment, accredited or authorized. And, it can be deeply connected to an individual’s sense of identity and worth. To be honest, it is a question I pose intentionally to both individuals and organizations in my work. The most consistent answers are: constituents, clients, stakeholders and or boards, owners, supervisors. Yet there are also many instances when the legitimacy being sought is both personal and cultural.
The disconnect the person described earlier experienced was that the intention of my question was organizational. The impact from my question was both personal and cultural. In a great offline follow up conversation with the person it was clear that they saw my question as an affront to them and their culture. It was a good learning moment for me. Many communities have been delegitimized for centuries. The voices of those communities are louder now than ever. Black Lives Matter, Indigenous and other Persons of Color, Women, LGBTQ, people in the Middle East, Miramar and many others – communities across the globe are demanding they be treated with fairness, respect and dignity. As Mahatma Gandhi stated, “Change occurs when deeply felt private experiences are given public legitimacy.”
Each of us must work to make sure the power structures, systems and individuals we encounter create space for the legitimacy of others. And I also believe we need to independently embrace that the genesis of legitimacy begins with ourselves. That who we are, and what we bring to the world is legitimate, period. I appreciate how actress Felicia Day puts it, “At no point am I ever threatened by people who question who I am, or why I like the things I do, or my legitimacy. Because I know who I am very strongly, and I think that’s what geek culture can reinforce.”