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  • Writer's pictureIlsa Govan

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

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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