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Resources for Conversations about Racism

By Chris Fitz

Racism is a loaded word. In Advoz’s dialogue work, mediators often first ask, “how do you feel?” Then we ask, “what do you think?” So I’ll ask you, reader, “what comes up for you when you hear the word ‘racism?'”

The volatility and lopsided experience of racism in America is a big reason why “neutrality” and a purely rational discourse is impossible. Unpacking this volatility, it’s history, the emotional experiences we’ve growing up, our different media perspectives, conversations, social media feeds, diversity trainings, poignant encounters, traumatic memories, careless jokes…the list goes on. These are all fuel for a very charged conversation. Everyone–those in our mainstream race culture or marginalized race cultures–has a story to tell. In most conversations we have about racism, we are not going to “mediate an agreement,” but we can facilitate understanding. So we move out of a position of “neutrality” into a concept often called “multipartiality.” And while telling our diverse stories can bring us to common understanding, the stories are not the same.

To start a conversation about race, it’s helpful to understand, especially from a majority-culture (White) perspective, that we don’t have the same stories. We need to listen for difference to understand it. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others in 2020 show us that African Americans and other people of color are still experiencing a kind of violence–backed by the authority of the police–largely unknown among most white people. This video about the difference between “equality” and “equity” helps to explain how our stories are not equivocal.

Equitable dialogue means making space for very different stories, different tellers, different experiences, a different “shoe” so to speak.

The volatility and lopsidedness of racism in America is also what makes it so powerful and important to have good dialogue with others. The emotional weight of racism is a huge burden, and sharing our stories in constructive ways helps us share that burden. (Though we–especially White people–want to be careful of unloading our burden and guilt on others too.)

The following is brief “field guide” to support you having a one-on-one conversation with a friend, neighbor, family member or colleague. A big shout out to Dr. Amanda Kemp, Advoz’s 2018 Dignity in Dialogue awardee, for some of the inspiration for this mindful “leaning in” approach to deep dialogue:

Start as the Listener

Who is this person before me? What are my assumptions, even subtle biases about them? Can I put them aside to hear this person?

What am I curious about? What is the story behind this situation? What was this person’s experience of racism as a child?

What can I learn here? Not to use as a weapon against them, but to enlighten myself?

Can I continue to put my own opinions, biases and stories aside for now?

When I notice that I am repeatedly not able to listen, I need to make that clear politely before I am totally impatient and irritable.

Become a Facilitator

Side By Side Sunset

It helps me to think about this phase as “walking beside” someone processing their stuff. Here are some of the questions I’m asking:

Are there open-ended questions that that I could offer to help us both understand the issues and stories we’re processing?

What is this person feeling? Can I reflect that and honor that in my own words? Can I recognize their own feelings with a word they’ve used, especially one they’ve used repeatedly?

Is there a story that this person needs to process?

Can I summarize what I hear them saying?

Can I name what I hear is important for this person?

Can I affirm the value that this person has? And the values that this person holds dear?

Can I ask for the opportunity, the permission to tell my own story?

Inhabit the Storyteller

To be deeply present to a conversation, and to be heard, it’s helpful to find and tell my own story. This is different from my opinion on “issues.” My story is always true–for me. Your listener cannot deny its validity for you.

Is there a story, a moment in my own life that’s coming up for me?

Can I ask for the space to tell it?

How did it begin? What was the setting? Who was involved?

What was the key crisis moment?

How were affected, changed by that moment? What did you learn that you could or couldn’t do, say or couldn’t say?

How does this story impact your view of racism beyond your own experience?

End Well

What are the themes you hear that we share in this conversation?

What do you appreciate that you heard?

Can you appreciate the continued tension as well as the connection you experienced?

How would you like to follow up this conversation?

What are you motivated to do now?

Check out Amanda Kemp’s TedX Talk as she walks through some examples of conversations like this, mindfully and purposefully.

For more practical resources on racism and police violence, click here.

And let us know how these conversations are going!

Chris Fitz is director of strategic initiatives at Lancaster-based Advoz: Mediation & Restorative Practices, created from the merger of Conflict Resolution Services and the Center for Community Peacemaking.


Relationships and their Critical Conflict Moments

By Mila Pilz, Executive Director, Program Operations

A woman in her early 30’s called our office recently. She and her husband have two children living with them plus both of her parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s. It was becoming too much to handle,  and she was unwilling to sacrifice one set of relationships for another. Could she and her adult brothers find a new way forward amid the tension and growing resentment?

At the core of Advoz’s values is a belief that conflict and harm are a natural part of our lives. Sometimes, they are even beneficial for our personal and relational growth. It is how we handle that conflict and harm—the process—that makes the difference. Will our hero’s family grow from the challenge or become increasingly divided and retreat to their own comfort corners? This next critical process defines the relationships and future of this family.

Her story is not unique. According to a May 2018 AARP article, “Millennials: The Emerging Generation of Family Caregivers,” there are 40 million family caregivers in the United States, a quarter of which are millennials. Millennials are loosely defined, but typically considered to be those born between the years 1980-1996. This means that 1 in 4 of the family caregivers are between the ages of 22-38; the same population that according to the Pew Research Center, made up 82% of US births in 2016. The “sandwich generations,” younger than previously thought, are maintaining a fine balance of taking care of their parents, their children and themselves. And it’s increasingly clear that many caught in these generational transitions need support to navigate the news kinds of conflicts that emerge.

Working with Advoz staff, our hero and key family members agreed to be part of an intentional conversation, convened by Advoz mediators, to address their many challenges directly. Taking place at their home to accommodate the elders’ needs, the intense session revealed new insights and options, even among family members familiar with the situation. Over three hours the family learned how afraid their father was about going to a retirement community, how the mother needed additional care, and how each of the siblings felt differently about working together. An agreement was forged that included research on retirement homes, medical and financial assistance. Even though the outcome had specific points of agreement, it was the shift in their relationships that was most salient.

For this family, and many others, “conflict” turned into “opportunity” because a mediated conversation enabled them to talk openly about difficult issues in a safe space. Their relationships could weather the storm of this life milestone and create the next big step…together.


Fall Mediation Training – New Three-Day Format

Our intrepid training team has been at the drawing board, crafting a compact and potent Basic Mediation Training in one three-day stretch. The training, which replaces the prior two-part format, still provides professionals and volunteers alike with a high quality foundational experience complete with CLEs for attorneys and CEUs for social workers, professional counselors and marriage/family therapists.

The training takes place Thursday September 28 through Saturday, September 30, 9 am – 5 pm at a the Mennonite Central Committee’s Welcoming Place in Akron, PA.

Early Bird ends Sept. 8. Registration deadline is September 22.

Pre-registration is required and can be made directly from our website at: advoz.org/services/training/

This introductory training can be augmented by later advanced training opportunities and mentorship, providing a high quality preparation to resolve conflict in a number of critical situations.

Training to volunteer in Restorative Justice Victim-Offender Conferencing is also scheduled for October with an multiple guest speakers and an updated design.

Share or download here the Advoz Fall 2017 Training Flyer.

Learn More and Register Today