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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.


Mission Empathy: Intern Reflections

By Melisa Betancur

A phone call is easy to underestimate. Through my work at Advoz, I learned that a phone call is enough to help build transparency and trust with victims of crimes. The power of empathy flows during these conversations, and I feel the vulnerability in the victim’s voices.

I was a Youth Ministries graduate, but I did not interact with “juvenile offenders” until I came to Advoz. Doing restorative justice and mediation brought me in contact with a lot of different people — youth and adults — and gave me the opportunity to help facilitate the healing of youth, parents, and families who’ve experienced brokenness.

I feel blessed to be a part of the Victim Offender Conferencing Program at Advoz this year—both as an office team member and as one of the conferencing facilitators. One of the most impactful aspects of my job is reading the Victim Impact Statements. Reading a piece of their stories, when they are provided, reminds me how important it is to build empathy.

I discovered that empathy comes easier for some youth than it does for others, and our job as facilitators is to give a gentle nudge in the right direction. In other words, when challenged with objections from young people regarding the severity of their crimes, knowing how to ask the right questions or how to push back on these objections is crucial to help build their understanding of victim empathy.

Reflecting on my time at Advoz, I am reminded of the power of empathy in our office as I give phone calls to victims. The purpose of our initial calls is to gauge the victim’s willingness on hearing updates regarding the juvenile who harmed them. Many times, neither myself at Advoz nor Victim Witness Services is able to get in contact with some of these victims. Interacting with victims of crimes, even if it’s just over the phone, is not to be taken for granted.

I am thankful for the cross-cultural interactions I take part in during my phone calls and meetings with Spanish speaking victims and parents. The ability to communicate with people from other cultures allows Advoz to expand the demographic that we serve.

As I move forward with Advoz, it’s easy for me to remember our mission, the mission that brought me in the door: transforming conflict through face to face dialogue.

Photo of Melisa

Melisa Betancur is a program assistant at Advoz and in a year-long service-learning partnership with the Shalom Project in Lancaster. She was born in Colombia, South America and grew up in Northern New Jersey, earning her BA from Eastern University in 2019.


Restorative Justice & a Tale of Two Schools

The graphic above illustrates the positive differences we can make when we consistently put in the time and energy to shift the culture of our institutions with a restorative justice lens. Changing our community’s culture of conflict is no small goal, but it’s a worthy one because the people at the center of it, our kids, are worth it.

What is a restorative culture? In essence, it’s the ongoing balance of participation for those involved with three goals: 1) accountability to repair harm, 2) enhancing the competence for those committing harm and 3) community safety.

Public schools have for years walked a fine line between the accountability and support of their students as they seek to create a positive learning environment free of violence, bullying and threats. Because students are mandated to attend school, they are also create a de-facto community space in which numerous norms, strengths and challenges converge that reflect our dynamic society.

Zero tolerance education systems were popular among schools searching for simple catch-all solutions to improving students’ behaviors inside and outside the school–with an emphasis on safety. Such schools have used suspension and expulsions that address wrong-doing and removal of those who violate norms or threaten safety. High suspension rates do not correlate to better student development; studies show that the opposite occurs.

Fania Davis, Phd, is the founder of RJOY: Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth and the principle pioneering advocate behind the implementation of restorative justice across the public Oakland Unified School District, serving more than 37,000 students in 118 schools.

Dr. Davis’s experience, not just implementing restorative justice on a large scale but also researching its effectiveness, has much to offer Lancaster County on its own journey to being a more equitable and restorative community. For that reason, Advoz is inviting her to contribute to a Cross-Community Conversation on January 20th with a number of youth stakeholders from education, law enforcement, courts and community leaders. It’s an effort made possible thanks to the partnership with Lancaster County Juvenile Probation and Community Action Partnership and with sponsorship of the Lancaster County Community Foundation and the High Foundation.

Peacemaking is work. It requires attentiveness, perseverance, even blind faith to go the extra mile with each person or organization involved.

It’s a mile worth walking, as we have watched the payoff for places who invest in restorative approaches. In one school district, we worked with teachers for a year only to see the school discontinue its effort. They later established a full-time “restorative facilitator” who is now a resource person for Advoz. It’s one of many steps shifting toward a restorative culture. Read more about effectiveness of implementing Restorative Justice in other schools in Pennsylvania in a study conducted by the Rand Corporation.

Your support of Advoz helps us take one restorative step at a time alongside the many critical institutions here in our community. This year, we raised more than $30,000 in matching “Back to School” support for dozens of troubled youth to get a fresh start through Advoz’s existing restorative justice “victim-offender” dialogue. In November, we raised an additional $33,730 in Lancaster’s Extraordinary Give.

The Cross-Community Conversation with Dr. Fania Davis is another step made possible with the support of our partners and people like you.

Infographic credit: Schott Foundation, Advancement Project, American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association. More at: http://schottfoundation.org/restorative-practices.


Last Call to Circle Up Film Screening – March 22

A few seats remain for tomorrow’s Circle Up movie screening at Penn Cinema, 7 pm, Thursday, March 22, 2018.

The film follows Janet Connors and another mother, Clarissa Turner (pictured in the screenshot below, right to left)  as they reach out to those who killed their sons with hope for forgiveness…and the community change they create together to break the cycles of violence and revenge. Join us for an evening to learn and gain inspiration for what’s possible beyond the everyday story of “violence and youth.”

If you still want to see the film on Thursday, March 22, just show up at 6:50 pm to the event at Penn Cinema and pay at the door. $12 per seat. We look forward to continuing conversations around this powerful film…and look forward to welcoming Janet Connors to our annual dinner, Around the Table, April 19th at the Eden Resort. See: www.AroundtheTable.org.

With gratitude for sponsorship by:


Restorative Justice with Mark McKenzie on WSBA/WARM103

Listen as Mark McKenzie, from WSBA and WARM103, brings Molly Sollenberger and Chris Fitz on the air, this past fall, to discuss Advoz’s restorative justice through face-to-face dialogue involving crime victims and offenders. Also chronicled on the video Make Things Right, Molly talks here about how she was involved as a crime victim to make things right with the young offenders involved — and what her dialogue accomplished. Listen now…