Building Trust Across Racial Divides

 

Silke Hansen

CRS Mediator, Denver Office


[Full Interview]

Question:
Let's talk a little bit about how you build trust with the people you are working with. One of the things that I am especially interested in is that you are a white woman.

Answer:
You noticed.

Question:
I did. But the people reading your interview won't know.

Answer:
Quick story: I belong to a church out in Montebello which is predominately African American; I am not the only white, but I am the exception rather than the rule. Anyway, our minister out there is African American as well, and he was preaching about race relations one Sunday the idea that color really doesn't matter, and how we ought to get along with everyone, and how inclusiveness is part of what we pride ourselves on in that church. And that's true. And he said, "You know, sometimes I forget that Silke is white," and I said, "Well, don't worry about it. Sometimes I forget, too."

So it depends on the setting, it depends on who I'm talking to. Early on in some cases, I'll say, "Look, I understand that I am a white woman who used to live in New York. What do I know? So help me understand. What do I need to know to be able to work here? I don't try to pretend that I know what you are going through because I don't. Even if I do, I am not going to say that I know, because I recognize that I need to learn from you." And, most people appreciate talking to someone who doesn't think they have all of the answers. And again, I do a lot of listening. Time is no object. Those first few trips I schedule very few meetings, because I want people to have as much time as they need to tell me everything that they think I need to know. If they get angry, that is fine. If it takes a long time, that's fine. And if you want to beat up on the government, that is fine too. You know, I have broad shoulders I can take it.

I also try to be very clear about what I can and can't do so that people don't have false expectations, and I think for the most part they appreciate that. "Now, here is what I can do and here is what I can't do." The other thing that I have found is that in many cases and particularly in some of these grassroots communities people just appreciate you returning their calls, not dismissing them, just acknowledging and validating their concerns. Even if I can't change the racism that prevails in a particular area, it doesn't take terribly long to have that common human denominator and get past the "Well you are white and I am not" or "You're Indian or you're black or your Hispanic or whatever, and I am not" phase.