Three Dimensions

March 12, 2010 Leave a comment

This week, Melinda and I will be facilitating two workshops at the Transforming Race conference, hosted by the Kirwan Institute at The Ohio State University. Here’s a sneak preview of some of what we’ll be covering.

Facilitating discussions and dialogues about race can be tough. Lack of information and knowledge, different lived experiences, unspoken assumptions, varying definitions of key concepts and differing interpretations of problems and solutions are just a few of the things that can get in the way of groups communicating authentically and building solid agreements. I’ve found that attention to three dimensions of preparing for such conversations can make all the difference between productive engagement and destructive experiences that take years to repair.

One dimension relates to process: planning the who, what, where, when, and how of discussions. We find that some people who approach these conversations with a solid foundation on the content of the conversation—race, race equity, dynamics of oppression, and the like—can face challenges when they don’t focus sufficiently on the process. Asking the following kinds of questions are essential to setting up for success: What are the intended outcomes of the conversation—from the point of view of the conveners and the participants? What role am I playing: Presenter? Trainer? Facilitator? Coach? All of the above? How can I strike a balance between communicating information, persuading people about my analysis, and engaging participants in discussion that leads them to their own conclusions and agreements? How do I design a process that moves a group systematically to a common understanding and a shared vision of what’s possible? And, how can discussions about such potentially volatile issues be authentic, safe (note, I said safe, not necessarily comfortable), and productive? In my experience, the disciplines of facilitation and group dynamics offer useful strategies for intervening to help a group get “unstuck” and get a derailed conversation back on track.

A second dimension is preparing for the content of the conversation: What’s the history, analysis, key concepts, and information that people need to engage in order to achieve their intended results? We find that some people who approach race-related conversations with a solid foundation in more general facilitation and collaboration skills—process expertise, if you will—can face a very different set of challenges. Asking the following kinds of questions can help to prepare for the content of race equity conversations: How can I help participants understand the context of any given conversation and what that implies about what’s “on the table”? How much do I need to know about the context and the content, even if I’m not being asked to provide expertise on the content? How can I anticipate and prepare to deal with hot button issues or places where a group will get stuck? How might my own knowledge and beliefs about race and racial equity, and my own identity, either help or hinder the work?

The third element of preparation is about we can use ourselves as instruments. Regardless of our role in a given discussion and regardless of whether we are more experienced around process or content, the way we show up as people matters. If we are peaceful or angry, anxious or focused, open or judgmental, that will have an impact on the groups with which we work. We’ve found that a variety of strategies for staying centered, dealing with strong emotions, exploring our own identities and worldviews are essential to enabling facilitators of discussions about race and racial equity to meet people where they are and guide them to where they want to go together.

How are you preparing yourself for conversations about race?

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  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for these very practical and useful tips Cynthia. I appreciate how much ground you cover. In preparing for such conversations I also include a high level of intention setting, I place myself in an evolutionary context and I enter with the commitment to move the conversation forward, the desire to stretch beyond the increasingly familiar spaces where we get stuck – to acknowledge where we have been, to integrate and include and to move boldly forward into the world we want to build.

  • Alicia says:

    Actually, I hope you can help with that question, “How are you preparing yourself for conversations about race?”

    I am currently an Independent Consultant to non-profit agencies in the Boston area. Additionally, I am investigating a graduate degree and career in Sociology, specifically related to race and equality.

    I’ve always had a strong desire to affect and improve race relations. I feel that desire now more than ever. To that end, I want to shift my career focus and create the opportunity to work specifically in areas related to race and equality.

    Yet, to make the kind of change I want to make I think there is more I need to learn. I want to gain experience working alongside experts in this area. I have investigated a multitude of oranizations but havent found the right fit.

    Do you know of any opportunities in the Boston area where I can gain this experience, peferably in a hands on enviornment? Specifically, I would like to be involved in experiences that offer the opportunity to write, present, and train.

    Thanks very much,

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Gibran for your offerings about preparing yourself.

    As for local learning opportunities, next month, there will be a workshop on communicating racial justice. For more info, contact. I believe the last day to apply/register is March 15.

    Tom Louie, Progressive Communicators Network, Boston Chapter: or 857-540-1316

  • Alicia says:

    Thank you for the information on the workshop Cynthia.


  • Christian says:

    These are great guidelines to follow! So many times I’ve become frustrated at the poor coordination of conferences. Most of the time I come out thinking “what was the point of that?” If only the coordinators would ask themselves the questions you present here.

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Feel free to share these ideas if you find them helpful!

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