3 questions with Dr. Omékongo Dibinga: On challenging stereotypes and finding common ground

Omékongo Dibinga is a poet, rapper, public speaker, and teacher. Here's what he had to say about breaking stereotypes and finding common ground.

Megan Boley

Megan Boley was a content marketing writer at WSB. ...

Omékongo Dibinga has been around the block a time or two.

He's also been around the world.

Having traveled to over 20 countries, Dibinga has witnessed poverty and injustices of all kinds.

Through writing poetry, rapping, public speaking, and teaching, he's made it his life's mission to encourage others to take a stand when they see injustices in their own lives — no matter how big or small.

We spoke with Dibinga about what inspired him to begin his journey of helping others find common ground. Here's what he shared with us.

1. You've said your life's mission is to inspire others to take a stand when they witness an injustice. How did you arrive at that?

When I was a child, I was picked on and beaten up, primarily in school. What I remember worse than those experiences were the people in my classrooms who never stood up for me. I then heard the quotation from Dr. King who said that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good-natured people to do nothing. Knowing how I felt to be marginalized, I decided that I would use my life to be a voice for the voiceless, and inspire others to do the same.

I don’t want anyone to feel as lonely and hopeless as I did as a child. Whether talking about a child being bullied in school, a child soldier in a foreign country, a teacher being disrespected by a co-worker, or an adult being trafficked, I have to do my part to help them believe they belong. I work to inspire others because if we can build this army of support for those in need, we can make this world better.

What we ignore, we empower. Wherever I speak, I remind people that silence is compliance. I remind them that Hitler did not exist in a vacuum. He surrounded himself with people who wouldn’t challenge him and that’s why everything he did in Germany was legal because many people remained silent while the laws were changed.

Lastly, I remind people that they are a reflection of their five closest friends. If your five friends are racist, you’re a racist. If they’re sexist, so are you, and so on. If you were not, why would you be with that group? Similarly, if your five closest friends are inspired to make a difference in the world, chances are you are too.

2. We all know the word "outstanding," but you talk about "Upstanding."  What's the difference and what inspired you to coin the term?

I started hearing the term “upstander” in spaces where people spoke about anti-Semitism and never forgetting the Holocaust. I then started to hear the term in anti-bullying spaces. The more and more I spoke at schools, the more I noticed how students are celebrated for outstanding academic or athletic participation, but not for taking a stand on issues of injustice.

I coined the phrase, “Why settle for outstanding when you can be Upstanding?” because I want people to also be leaders in the realm of speaking up and making a social impact in this world. What’s the purpose of getting straight A's or bringing in billions in profits for your company if you can’t use your skills to make a better place?

The other aspect of being “Upstanding” is that it is contagious and anyone can do it. We can’t all dunk like LeBron James or sing like Aretha Franklin. Their work is outstanding. Everyone can be Upstanding if they focus on helping others in their own special way — because everyone can do something to help someone in some way.

3. What is the biggest obstacle people encounter in finding common ground?

The biggest obstacle is pride. To find common ground, one has to be willing to give up something, such as a false idea about a group of people. Too many of us believe that life must be a zero sum game. Because we can curate our own news, entertainment, and social networks, it is very easy to pick a tribe. We forget that in order to walk in someone else’s shoes, you have to first take yours off. We are too grounded in our beliefs to want to change our thinking. We have to understand that by working to find common ground, we may lose a friend who shares our groupthink. But we may gain a new community.

An additional obstacle related to pride is fear — and specifically fear of change. Many people would rather die than change, whether it be a diet or a stereotype. Donna Ford said the less we know about each other, the more we make up. Since we do not have real interaction with people of diverse backgrounds, we have made up so much in our minds about each other that we fear being wrong by having our stereotypes challenged. We also risk losing friends or even jobs by changing our positions but if we believe peace is possible for everyone, we have to be committed to changing our thoughts.


Want to bring a diverse perspective to your next event? Visit Omékongo Dibinga's page here to connect with him directly.

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