Director, Race Relations 2020, Columbia, South Carolina
Topics: dialogue, envisioning
Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003
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Q: Can you give me a brief overview of your work?
A: Well, what I'm currently working on is a project called Race Relations 2020, I live in Columbia, SC. Columbia is an interesting city, and from the time I first went there 7 years ago, I've had this intuition that the next major step for race relations in this country is going to come from the Deep South, for a variety of reasons. Columbia may in fact be the site.
The project was actually born a few years ago when I was teaching at Columbia College at the same time the flag over the dome controversy was going on. Not that it stopped there, but it was a particular stage where there was a lot of emphasis, a lot of energy on the need to remove the confederate flag from the top of the South Carolina state house. As I looked at what was going on, the sorts of things people were saying, and the sorts of things that were emerging in response to that, I realized that the conflict provided an opportunity to get at some underlying issues that had been smoothed over in a lot of different ways for long periods of time. I suggested that on campus, it's a women's college's undergraduate program, that I organize some dialogue groups. I was familiar with the dialogue method developed at the study circles Resource Center and I thought that the benefit of those dialogues could be significantly enhanced if there were a more fleshed out, envisioning component added to it.
Most dialogue groups ask people towards the end of the session, well what would you like to see happen in your community, as a prelude to developing projects to help bring those preferred futures about, but they don't support the participants in any way in imagining those futures. I have a lot of background in envisioning, and my own perception and experience is that our right brain imagining capacities aren't anywhere near as developed as our left-brain analyzing capacities. I think
when you throw out that question, what would you like to see happen, you tend to get more limited answers than if the participants were supported in some way in unleashing the power of their imaginations. They really identified ideals versus just identifying things that they thought would be better and were possible and they put that constraint on them at the outset.
Q: How do you get them to do that, to get them to unleash that imagination?
A: What we did was to redesign the dialogue design to include an envisioning workshop, which takes people through a set of questions. It begins by asking them to set aside concerns about possibility, plausibility, likelihood, and to focus entirely on desirability; things that would be wonderful, things that they could permit themselves, that they would intend to bring about, and then it takes them through a set of exercises that helps them concretize that.
Typically people come up with very generalized things such as, "Well, I'd like people to feel good about each other, I'd like everyone to treat each other as a person". You put that goal statement up and everyone walks along and looks at it and says, yes to it, but what they're saying yes to isn't necessarily exactly the same thing as the speaker means. The statement is general enough that everybody can find a connection with it, but I'm saying yes to my own interpretation to it rather than your actual vision. So a lot of the steps have to do with concretizing that so you have a blueprint rather than simply a general statement.
Q: What are some of those steps?
A: Well, the process that I use, I've written an article about in the book called Peacebuilding, which is edited, by ??? You start out with a goal statement and then you ask people to identify indicators of it, not benchmark so much. The way I get them into it is to say, You've fallen asleep, you wrote down your goal statement, you've fallen asleep, woke up, somebody tells you 20 years have passed, somebody tells you, but you'd be delighted, it's exactly the way you want it to be. You might be a little incredulous, what do you look for? Who would say to you that they're right, that your goal actually does exist?
Those indicators do two things, one is they help the author flush out their goal; it helps them think it through more fully and make it more concrete. If I have a lot of time, by the way, what I do is assign them to read an ???Ursula Laguine??? novel, with the idea that your goal should be concrete enough that when you write it out, the reader should have a sense of what it would be like to live in that space, just as you would in a well written novel.
The second thing it does is it gives the reader a little more information. Sometimes when I see the goal statement, even if it's flushed out enough, I may say yeah! That's something I can say yes to. After, I get down to an indicator I might say, "Wait a minute, they might be saying something a little different from what I'm thinking of." That provokes what ideally you have time for in each stage and after each step. Coming back several times to it is a clarify discussion where the participants partner off, and ask each other clarifying questions, being careful not to be judgmental, just to elicit more clarity about what the goal is and the indicators help to do that as well.
The third exercise is what is called "consequences", and it gets people to think about something a little bit differently. People are asked to identify positive consequences, which they are very at ease doing although that may expand their understanding. For instance, you may have written about race relations in Columbia in your neighborhood, and I ask what would be the consequences for the suburbs. You might be able to identify some positive consequences for the suburbs, and in doing so you get a little more flesh on the bones for that idea. The bigger thing is that you're also asked to identify negative consequences. The starting point being that every change has positive and negative consequences, no matter how good intentioned the goal is; for some people, for some time it's going to involve a loss of something.
If you think of any kind of growth, you may think of a baby growing up. Pretend you're talking to the baby's mother. She's very proud of her now 18 year old son who's just graduated from high school and has now gotten a scholarship, but if you press she may have some nostalgia about this baby that's not there anymore, this bright eyed, inquisitive toddler crawling around and getting into everything. There's always something that's given up in the process of growth. Even if those things are necessary to be given up, there's still a negative side to the positive growth.
As I identify negative consequences of my own goal, I may identify negative consequences to vote Winston Churchill up, with which I will not put that I realize that the way I've been thinking about this that it's going to have some negative consequence. For example in race relations, a lot of people have thought at times that the ideal state was a situation where everybody was exactly the same.
Q: Color wise or status wise?
A: Status wise or culture wise, as in the melting pot; not so much color wise. One of the negative consequences of the melting pot, if you really achieved it, is that all of the richness of the individual cultural entities could be effectively lost in the process of reframing them to fit in this larger composite whole. If I've identified that as a negative consequence of my vision, and I say to myself, wait, there's too much richness here, some how we've got to find a way to achieve some degree of harmony without losing the richness of the variety of differential human experience.
Q: Harmony, while maintaining difference?
A: I'm just hypothesizing that my first take at a goal may have led to the consequence of losing the continued existence of cultural specific ways of dealing with reality, ways of seeing reality. That may cause me to go back and reframe my goal a little bit, because I still want the positive interaction going on in my future. I want to revise what it would look like so it would be inclusive of cultural diversity rather than moving towards a melting pot.
Q: In Columbia, when you say a race relations project, there's obviously a wealth of racial variety in this country, but I assume that it's primarily black and white.
A: Yes, in Columbia, its still primarily black and white, and there's a recent introduction of a Hispanic American population. In community of Columbia where I work in, which is called Eau Claire, there's a community that's about 70% African American and about 30% white. A few people don't fit in either category, but they are not a large enough group; they are only a percentage at this point.
I think there's a benefit at starting there, go back to ???Gooner Merridel??? with the American dilemma. I look at diversity issues in the US as having their roots in first the relationship between white settlers and Native Americans, and second the introduction of Africans who came here not as immigrants who chose to be here, but as slaves.
I think that unless we get black-white relations in this country, any other cross-cultural interaction is going to be impacted by that. If I were in a different community, this would be framed. If I were in Boulder, for example, it wouldn't be framed as black-white discussions. I think there's a benefit in starting where it is legitimately black-white discussions, and in Columbia that's still true, or at least the part of Columbia where I'm working.
Q: I was wondering if you could give an example of the steps, or visions that people have had about what a good racially harmonious future would look like in those three stages?
A: I can't go through it in exactly that way because I didn't record it that way, but I'll try to answer that in a different frame. It's interesting to me that each group that we've had so far seems to have had a common dream in their futures that is visible from the individual ones, that there's some theme that runs through them all. What's interesting about this is that the theme varies from one group to another. By the time they do their visions the group has bonded so much that they're sort of in the same starting place as they were writing they're vision, and a different group has bonded differently around a different set of experiences.
In the first group that I co-facilitated, as I read their visions, even before they started discussing them from a standpoint of similarities and differences, it was clear to me that there was a very high emphasis on friendship. There were two dimensions of that in their visions, one was that people acted in welcoming and caring ways towards each other, you know people that you ran into, going beyond cordiality or amicability. The second part was actually being friends, and in their preferred future, one had many friends in one's own residential community that were both within and cross-racial boundaries; that the racial boundaries no longer meant anything in terms of friendship.
Their initial project, they called Food for Thought, I was setting up mixed race groups of about 7 people who over a period of several weeks would each host the other 6 in their home for a meal. This wasn't the group I was in, but the first host was an adult woman, probably in her mid-50s. Her husband and her adult daughter happened to be home at the same time, so their status in the dinner was a little different from the other participants for that evening. The feedback that I got back from the group members for that evening was that the three family members started talking about the fact that this was the first time that they had ever had a white person in their home socially, and maybe even more strangely that it was the first time they had had any non-Christians in their home socially. The non-Christian was an African American Muslim. They talked about that fact for the reason, " that they had white friends," but that they had never considered inviting them into their homes because they just figured that they would be judgmental. They thought that because the house wouldn't be set up, that the things on the wall, the furniture wouldn't be like they did it, and they didn't want to invite somebody into their home who would judge it negatively.
What really hit them was that as people came in, they sort of went around the living room sort of admiring the things on the wall, asking questions about them, and getting into sharing stories about these different artworks; and basically being complementary about them. I just never knew that she would feel that I would judge something about the base of her life negatively, and she realized that that could happen having people come into her home, but it wasn't like all whites wouldn't find something lovely about her home.
Q: ...and that was part of the dialogue projects?
A: That was a project that came out of one of the dialogue groups.
Q: So that was sort of a complete set would look like, you sort of exchange a dialogue and then you say well what would happen is...?
A: Right, so they start out having their visions, they looked at them, and in another exercise that they go through in developing their vision is called "the future's history." You jump out into your future, you remember the things that happened along the way, and those would be the benchmarks--and you write those up too. What tends to happen is some of what is remembered from the future events become mini-goals. If this is what I remembered having happened and being important, I'm going to turn that into a project that we can work on. That is what happened in this group. One of the many things around the room was that mixed race groups were gathering and having each other at their homes for a meal, and so they turned that one into a project
Q: In that work, specifically, what has touched and inspired you the most?
A: There have been several things and one has been new insights. There's an exercise and this one is drawn directly from the study circle stuff. The group has to discuss how to choose some model applicants for a job where there's no clear answer, no clear right or wrong, but the applicants have different cultural backgrounds. In the process of discussing that, my co-facilitator (and there's always a mixed race team of facilitators), pressed one of the African American participants who had not said anything in favor for the African American candidate for this job. She asked, "Tell me a little bit about your decision to not support the black candidate. The participant gave a not very informative answer. Joyce kept asking her in ways that allowed her consideration of why that was so.
What finally came out was that the woman, the participant had been in a situation quite a few years ago similar to this. The owner of the establishment was quite racist, but accepted her for reasons that the participant got into that were specific to her, not generalized beyond herself. When she was called upon to hire a person for another position in the organization she hired a young African American man. He was just put in an impossible position where he couldn't succeed because of the owner's racism. She realized that she had set him up and she didn't want to ever do that again. She realized in the process of hiring that she was excluding African Americans from opportunities to protect them from being hurt, and for 20 years she hadn't recognized that. It was not only that this insight came out in the group, and prompted a much deeper discussion of the subject matter then would have been the case had that not come out, but this woman got to rid herself of a 20 year old assumption that she didn't even know she was carrying.
Q: Wow. To exclude someone from participating in a system that they know they were going to fail in was some how a higher moral value then allowing them the chance to participate in that system?
A: Not once she put it that way. She didn't know that she had made that choice, that's what I'm talking about in the insight. She didn't realize she was operating on that until Joyce got her to peel off the explanatory rationalizations that she had surrounded that core decision work, and the core was sub-conscious. She wasn't aware that is was there for her. It had pained her so much to see this guy that she had given the job to suffer through what he had to suffer through that she unbeknownst to herself vowed never to do again. It wasn't until that set of questions in this very safe environment with everyone around her supporting her that she came to her insight. With the dialog stuff you start out very gently.
Q: That's one of the questions I've asked other dialogue practitioners. How do you create a space that's safe enough for people to come up with deep and very new insights? That can be very frightening at times or can be. Starting out easy like you said, you couldn't just jump into that, so how do you get there?
A: That's right. When we developed our own model we drew on the study circle material, but we drew even more on something called the Palmetto Projects that had a set of things that they called the Omega Circles. The Omega Circles had also been based on the study circles, but they had found that study circles jumped in too quickly, for at least for people in South Carolina.
Q: How do you create a space that's safe enough for people to reveal themselves in such deep ways as this person who you just referred to?
A: We start out very slowly, and we put a lot of emphasis on trying to allow people come together as a group. In the first session, we don't talk much about race at all. We ask people to do things like develop their own ground rules. We give them some exercises where they're making joint decisions, which helps coalesce a group out of a number of disparate people. That first session is the only session where we introduce things from the outside, if you will. We give them a little presentation. We give them an exercise on listening and communication skills. We also present them some ideas about how to talk with each other in non-judgmental and supportive ways.
In the second session we start to talk about race, and even there we ask people to share some personal experiences. We preface that with "choose an experience that you feel comfortable sharing." Recognizing something that they might be comfortable saying in the sixth meeting, they're not necessarily comfortable with in the second. The key is to tell a story that you're comfortable sharing about an early recognition on your part about your race or culture. Later on, we find that they are including some additional stories on that that they wouldn't have felt comfortable telling the first day, but we really don't press them. The only questions one might have there would be clarifying questions. Don't push them to tell more than that.
I've found that pretty much by the third session, they're already pretty much a group. They care about each other and they value each other's stories. They're ready to be pressed a little bit more. So that is the meeting that Joyce was pressing this participant at was a little bit later, it was probably the fourth; we probably wouldn't have done that earlier on.
Q: How many meetings do you normally do?
A: To fit even a collapsed future workshop in with this, we have 9 meetings that each last two-two and a half hours with the exception of the seventh when we go for almost three hours. That's as much as I could collapse the centerpiece of the envisioning workshop. The eighth meeting is a continuation of that, and then the ninth meeting is action planning.
Q: Is that once a week or once a month?
A: Most of the groups meet once a week, but one of the tings that we have begun to do is in the beginning take a few minutes to see what time works for everybody.
A couple of the groups that are meeting right now have changed their meeting time to 7; that's one change. A second change is that if one or two or three people can't be there that night and they do one of three things: they either cancel that week and go forward, meet a different night for that particular week, or collapse two meetings into one longer meeting.
Q: You talked about one specific project that came out of the dialogs, the Dinner Project..
Generally there is a re-entry problem for people who come to these dialogues, go through a certain amount of transformation, and then go back into the community. Are probably some of those meant to deal with that particular problem or how do you talk about that?
A: Actually, this is the only one that I know of that attempts to do that. This aspect of it will not be as operational as I would have liked it to of been until our next set of meetings. That is not only trying to deal with the re-entry problem, but also trying to incorporate a community-organizing capacity into this because the other side of that re-entry question is: How do you move from individual transformation to social change?
What we attempt to do is to draw the participants in as almost delegates, one of the things I like most about Eau Claire is that there is a social infrastructure that is not available in most cities. Eau Claire about 40,000 people that live in that section of the city, about a quadrant of a middle sized city. There are thirty-nine neighborhood associations, so the idea is to draw people as delegates from neighborhood associations, churches, work places, or some organization from within the community.
The idea is that that neighborhood association is giving the person permission (by inviting that person) to participate in this on their behalf and to bring their learning back to that neighborhood association. Because the funding has been very limited our capacity to use that rubric has been less than I would have liked it to be. However, I just know that I will be told that I've gotten a small grant which will ask each of those neighborhood associations to designate an officer to take part in a set of probably three or four groups, which will start some time before June or early September. There will be a mechanism for getting this back not only to the neighborhood associations but to the council of those neighborhood associations on which I currently sit as president elect which helps this.
Q: That's really interesting. You've tapped into the social structure, this is something you must've considered before you started the dialogue. You said, how am I going to do this transference from an individual level to a larger scale?
A: Right, and it's a strategy for dealing both with what I think Heidi and Guy call the scale-up problem and the re-entry problem. This person isn't just there because I've picked them out or because they're self-chosen; hopefully, this person will be there because they are sponsored by their association. Having a little bit more support for this is also to be able to say to them "if you want somebody to go with you for your report back to the group, someone to help facilitate that, then we will arrange that as well depending on their comfort level."
Another reason Eau Claire is an ideal place to start this project is that not only is it a racially diverse neighborhood, it's a racially diverse neighborhood that is chosen in a town meeting to include in its mission for itself to maintain diversity. It is not just racial diversity either, but also I think this is more economic diversity. I mean there are some pretty large ritzy houses in the area, and then there are people who are paying less than $300 a month for rent. The person who engages in this project with the hope of improving race relations in the neighborhood engages with it not only hopefully with some sort of connection to a neighborhood association, but also with a mandate they can call upon in terms of a mission for the community as a whole.
Q: Well, that's a great strategy, from the outside; I don't know that there are that many communities that could have that great structure that you could tap into.
A: No, but getting something off the ground is often more challenging than duplicating it. Columbia, Eau Claire, and then maybe Richland County, I think are more ideal places to start from. What you've highlighted from what I've said in different parts in the conversation is that to draw another community into it that doesn't have all that infrastructure is more possible.