The truth is that for the last few years I have largely avoided conversations about race. After being nurtured and lovingly challenged during my university days, I stepped out into a world where most people are ill-equipped to engage in productive conversations about race.
As a woman of color, a graduate of St. Catherine University with a degree in sociology, a scholar in critical race theory, and a French speaker who studied abroad in Dakar, Senegal, the role of racial justice facilitator might seem like a natural fit for outsiders looking in on my life experience. For years, social and racial justice work were two of my most deeply held passions, but after engaging in many conversations about race that left me feeling overexposed, hurt and confused, I decided to guard my heart and disengage from all racial justice work. It was just too painful.
My mom calls the pain that people of color experience because of who we are “sacred pain,” and she taught me the lesson that we all must eventually learn. Simply put, “Not everybody gets to hold that pain.”
I think most people of color could tell about a time when they silently weighed the costs and benefits of exercising the vulnerability required to engage in a conversation about race, especially in mixed company. For people of color, race tends to be a defining aspect of our lives, whereas white people tend not to recognize the ways in which race shapes their lives. This incongruence in life experience and racial awareness is at the heart of why so many discussions about race fail.
In contrast, the YWCA racial justice facilitator training borrows from the Dakota Native American listening guidelines by emphasizing “heart talk” over “head talk,” signified by a “talking piece” – an object that is passed from person to person in a circle discussion. This focus on heart talk requires participants of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to speak from their experiences. The talking piece ensures that each participant is listening to connect, rather than listening to respond.
Free from judgment, circle time participants can speak openly and honestly. In my case, I remember feeling my anxiety lessen as I heard the guidelines, and then dissipate completely when others in the group spoke so honestly. The walls that I had constructed to safeguard my heart lowered, and I remember feeling true connection for the first time in a long time.
The first night of training I wanted to drive away without going in, but decided instead to be vulnerable and walk in the door. I am so glad that I did. I learned that by closing myself off to these types of discussions, not only did other people lose out by not hearing my perspective, I also lost out on opportunities for community engagement and relationship.
It takes courage to be vulnerable, but when we find places where we are accepted without judgment, the rewards far outweigh the risks.
Ashley Steele works as business systems analyst in the IT space and became a Racial Justice Facilitator with the YWCA in 2016.