Robert Stains

Program Director, Public Conversations Project, Watertown, Massachusetts

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: I was working as a training director for a national homelessness foundation. I was traveling around the country doing a lot of teaching and consulting. I was mostly the only white male wherever I went. So I was doing big urban shelters and city governments in Detroit and places like that. I was always coming up against race, class, and gender issues between myself and the participants.

Q: Because they weren't white males?

A: Right, they were mostly females of color, and I could always deal with it, but it was by the seat of my pants. So I came to PCP for consultation initially and then I was accepted into their first workshop back in 1994. I found it to be such a revolutionary approach to difference, one that I had never experienced before in all my training in diversity and all that other stuff. I found out after my first class that I had to do my training in Louisville, Kentucky for the homelessness network there. The issue there was that the staff of the homeless shelters were mostly women of color, and the volunteers were mostly affluent white women from the suburbs and they differed in many ways and had different ideas about each other as well. So I started doing this training. One of the goals of this group was that they wanted the people to work more effectively together. 

About half way through the first day, an African American woman stood up and she was very angry. She said, "You don't know shit about my life, you're a white man with privilege." I had some choices to make there. But because I had been to this one PCP class, I decided that I was going to deal with this differently than I would have dealt with this prior. I said, "You're absolutely right. I am white. I'm a guy. I have certain level of power. I wear a tie. I live in suburbs. I drive a nice car. And I imagine that your story has a lot to do with why you're here. I imagine that a lot of other people's stories have a lot to do with why they're here. I'm wondering if we can make a choice together as a group to hear your story, and what it is that you want people to understand about you. Would you be willing to hear the stories of others?" She said, "Yeah." So I had everyone go around and tell the group how their personal story connected to why they were there. Everybody went around the room. Women told these incredible stories.

I remember there was one white woman who told how she had been homeless for the last two years. That she had been beaten by her husband, but because they were wealthy and lived in the suburbs, he was basically able to buy off the police, and she was basically in prison because of her wealth. Finally, when he started beating the children, she took them. She was cut off completely from his wealth and lived on the streets for two years. She had just gotten out of shelter. This tremendous bonding happened among these women. We were all brought to tears by it. That affected me deeply. I came home and a couple days later my kids were fighting. I was always the type, and I still give into this temptation, of getting involved in the middle and trying to referee, thinking I know what's going on. In this instance, I tried taking what is called a not-knowing attitude. I suggested that each kid take five minutes to explain what's going on. I was using the "what's-at-the-heart-of-the-matter-for-you approach," but in a way that was easier for them to understand because they were younger. So each kid had five minutes. 

Once they spoke, I realized that I certainly didn't have a clue about what their concerns were. I had a completely different idea about what they were concerned about, and they had completely different ideas about each other. They were then able to say, "Oh, so that's all you want," and then move along. Now it doesn't always happen like that, but it made a really deep impression on me. The biggest thing for me is being a father, it's the most important thing in my life, and the fact that I can do it well is my biggest accomplishment. To think that I was doing it so well, yet I was doing it so ineffectively that I could not know my own kids. I could be with them ten hours a day but still not know them because I wasn't listening to them deeply. It blew my mind. I just thought that this is the best thing since sliced bread. So those two things really catapulted me into the whole PCP mindset. 

Q: So you were really struck by the real power of letting the parties speak for themselves, without being the convoy, without being the person who summarizes and says, "This is what's going on." 

A: Right. Exactly. Yeah, because I could have said, "This is what I hear." I try to relate it to my own experience in some way, but basically I don't know. Being asked, "Can we use your wisdom and tap the rest of the wisdom in the room and make it work for us here?" Then leaving it in their hands afterward was big. It just was not my style to do that before.