Category Archives: engaged

A Powerful Moment that Changed My Life–Guest Post by Louise Penberthy

Louise Penberthy attended our Train the Trainer workshop in August 2015 and shared this reflection with us. Throughout the article she references the Norms for Courageous Conversations that helped her stay in a place of learning, despite the tension.

by Louise Penberthy, Productivity Coaching and Mediation

Picture of road sign that says, "Caution No Warning Signs Next 21 MI"

I took the training on “Strategies for Facilitating Conversations about Race” with Cultures Connecting and had a powerful, life-changing experience during the training. I want to tell you about it, and tell you what the trainers did that made it possible.

I was in the training because I want to help people talk about race, especially white people. I was also there because of a journey I started 15 years ago, when I fell in love with a friend of mine, married him, and started deliberately and continually learning about the community of color I married into.


Pointing out the tension in the room

At the end of the first day of the training, Dr. Hollins – who was leading this part of the training – asked if anyone wanted to share reflections on what we’d done that day. As a couple of people were sharing, I debated whether I should share a thought I had. Unconsciously remembering the norm Take Risks, I shared.

I said that I’d always been (mentally) hard on white boards of nonprofit organizations, because they weren’t diverse. I was thinking about my experience with white theaters, for example, how they do their one nonwhite play a year and wonder why that audience doesn’t come to the rest of their season, when the reason is obvious! But, I went on, maybe I didn’t have to be as hard on white boards, because white people and black people tend to support different organizations.

Then Dr. Hollins was walking closer to me.

She asked me, “Did you notice the reaction in the room?” Tired from two nights of not enough sleep and from an intense day of training, I was too frazzled to notice. Looking back on it, I remember frowns, looks of astonishment, sudden intakes of breath.


Asking me if I’d listen, be curious

Dr. Hollins asked me if I was willing to listen to some people in the room tell me their reaction to what I’d said, to be curious.

I’ve been cultivating my natural curiosity about people for many years, so of course I said yes.


Asking others if they’d share

So Dr. Hollins asked if anybody was willing to tell me their reaction to what I’d said. She called first on a white woman sitting nearby – I’ll call her Lucy.

As Lucy spoke to me, I practiced the norm Listen for Understanding. After 13 years as a mediator, I’m good at this, but anybody can do it. Just tell yourself, silently, that while the other person is speaking you’re going to accept everything they say as true.

When Lucy had finished, Dr. Hollins asked me if I would express in my own words what I understood Lucy to say. This is harder, but what I tell my mediation clients to do is to imagine that they have to faithfully pass on to a third person what someone has said. Unfortunately, at this point I don’t remember what Lucy said, but I know she pointed out ways I was mistaken.

Then Dr. Hollins called on a Latina woman I’ll call Josefina. Just as Lucy had done, Josefina embodied the norm Speak Your Truth.

What I heard in what Josefina said was her pain at being a token person of color, of people (white people) constantly interrupting her, of white people presenting her ideas and recommendations as though they were their own. She said that I shouldn’t go easier on white boards of nonprofits, but be even harder on them. That the reason they’re not diverse is the same reason that they don’t effectively serve communities of color.

It wasn’t easy for me to hear two people speak their truth about something I said that offended them. Especially in front of 60 people. I certainly did Experience Discomfort! One thing that helped me was how compassionate and supportive Dr. Hollins was in leading us through this conversation. Not only of me, but of Lucy and Josefina, too. I felt that she cared about all of us, and wanted us to get the most out of the exchange that we possibly could.


Sitting in nonclosure

After absorbing what I’d heard for a few minutes, took a breath. I got as far as “I apologize for offending you,” before Dr. Hollins gently cut off the rest of my apology. She told me that listening was the only thing I needed to do, the best gift I could give. I felt incomplete, but after all, another of the norms is Expect and Accept Non-Closure. And maybe she was urging me towards the norm No Fixing, to keep me from trying to “fix” Josefina’s pain, and the pain of everyone in the room.

At some point, Dr. Hollins asked Josefina how she – Josefina – would have been around me without Dr. Hollins’ intervention. Josefina said she would’ve avoided me for the rest of the training. When she said that, a lot of other people in the room nodded. I was horrified, realizing that I never would’ve known why people were avoiding me. But now? Dr. Hollins asked. Josefina said she was fine with me. (And in fact she sat next to me the next day, which was a great gift she gave me.)

Dr. Hollins asked the room how they would have felt if she hadn’t addressed the emotion in the room, hadn’t addressed how offended people were by what I said. Some people replied that they would’ve disengaged from the rest of the training. So it was important for Dr. Hollins to address the problem, otherwise she would’ve lost the trust of many people in the room.


Recognizing I’m not a bad person

Ilsa Govan was there, too, of course. I haven’t mentioned her because Dr. Hollins leading that part of the training, and Ilsa was mostly observing. But she did step in once, when I said something about “people like me” being offensive. She urged me, and everyone, to think of ourselves as “someone who’s done what I’ve done.” Rather than seeing myself as a horrible person, to realize that I’d said something offensive.


Thanking everyone

At the end, Dr. Hollins thanked everyone for their participation in the discussion, acknowledging that it’s not easy to do what we did.


Staying engaged

I felt really self-conscious when I arrived for the second day of the training, but I remembered to Stay Engaged. It wasn’t easy, but then this work isn’t easy, and pretty soon I felt better.


What I learned

So I took another step on what my husband calls my Odyssey of understanding the experiences and the feelings of people of color in this country. Even more deeply than I ever had before, I heard the pain, frustration, anger, and exhaustion that people of color feel every single day of their lives.

I also experienced how acutely uncomfortable it is to accept truths about how you’ve affected people, especially when it comes to race and racism.

I can use all of this in my own work. Not just learning the facilitation techniques that the trainers were teaching, but also my experience of how difficult the work can be – I can be more compassionate of the people I work with.

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Equity and Social Justice Work is Hard. Seriously Hard Work. No, Really it is.

People push large ball in opposite directionsSignificant change, whether individual or within an organization can be challenging. Even when we want to change, it doesn’t happen easily. I recently heard implicit bias compared to a habit, albeit a bad one. Think about how hard it is to change a habit…

A couple of months ago, my brother in law was coming over to my house to pick up his dog after work. We’d talked earlier and he reminded me to leave the front door open for him. Then he sent me a text about 15 minutes before I was leaving as a second reminder. “Leave the door unlocked, leave the door unlocked,” I chanted in my head as I gathered my things to go. Then I went through my mental list of what I needed to bring with me, made sure I had it all, walked out, locked the door and left. His poor dog was locked inside.

Even though I wanted to change that habit and was focusing a lot of mental energy on doing something different, the moment I got distracted, I forgot and went back to what I do every day.

Now imagine there are a bunch of individuals trying to change an organization. But they’ve all learned and practiced habits of stereotypes, biases, and institutional oppression for years. Some have even gotten rewarded for this behavior by being told they’re a “good fit” at the company and getting promoted. Some are the founders of the organization or have worked there so long they see any mention of needed change as a personal affront. Others have been going along to get along, trying not to make waves by bringing up experiences of marginalization. They may even be telling themselves they imagined it or making excuses for oppressive behavior such as, “I know he didn’t mean it that way.”

When we come in to work with an organization we inform people it will be difficult and will likely bring to the surface issues that have existed for a while but never been said out loud. When we start a workshop, we tell people it is normal to experience discomfort and encourage them to lean into those feelings and wonder about what is going on at the root of the tension.

Yet when those moments happen, it is difficult to stay engaged and see this as a positive sign of change, rather than retreat to old habits. We’ve worked with organizations where after the workshop people of color are deeply concerned about stereotypes their white colleagues are talking openly about for the first time. Sometimes staff will say they feel more divided now that they’ve seen the ways white privilege and stereotypes can come between them and coworkers. The door opens for the conversation and if we’re lucky, people bring their hurt into the room. Unfortunately, we’re not automatically competent in the way we share our pain and can easily end up hurting others in the process.

People will ask for quick fixes and the “right tools”. They think somehow they can learn a strategy that is separate from having an authentic conversation with another person. When change doesn’t happen quickly, sometimes people get frustrated and disengage from conversations about the ways they’ve colluded with racism, insisting the conversation isn’t going to help. We want to protect our identities and don’t want to acknowledge our habits of bias.

This work is hard. It can feel easier to retreat, to blame the facilitator or the activity, to say, “I get it,” and shake our fists at others. In these moments, remember why we’re doing this in the first place.

Maybe it is for children, who we want to face fewer barriers in life. Maybe it is so we can bring our full selves into work and genuinely connect with other people. Maybe it is for the increased health benefits of not having to deal with the stress of racism. Maybe it is for our collective humanity. Because living with daily oppression is hard work. No, really it is. Seriously hard work.

And keep in mind, when we work collectively, it can also provide momentum for change. We can remind each other to leave the door unlocked and we’ll likely have multiple sets of keys.

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Norm for Anti-Racist Activism: Stay Engaged and Expect Non-Closure

How many of us start trying to find ways to mediate or show the commonalities in our beliefs when witnessing racial conflict between people or disagreeing with someone ourselves? How many are willing to stay engaged and understand the root of the disagreement?

How many of us have ended a conversation, only to go to someone else we knew would agree with us and talk about why the other person was wrong? How many are willing to challenge ourselves and our friends to consider we might be the one’s who need to change?

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