By: Darrie Burrage and Alyssa Rosch

The week of April 19th reminded us here in Integrated Work that our nation still has much to learn and rectify, and our organization in some ways is a microcosm of that needed growth.

  • The afternoon of Tuesday, April 20th: During a touch-base meeting with some of our professional associates, one of our attendees made disparaging comments in reference to our staff of color who were facilitating the call, using racist language and questioning their ability to properly perform their tasks.
  • Later that same afternoon of Tuesday, April 20th: Former officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges for killing George Floyd in Minneapolis last May.
  • The next day on Wednesday, April 21st: Session 4 of the 6-part DEI series we host (“Amplify Your Impact”) focused on the topic of courageous conversations where participants unearthed several dilemmas related to conflict, advocacy, and self-efficacy.

We reflect on the combination of these events as a way to offer some considerations of how we can productively engage with one another on race using courage as our grounding principle — with courage defined here as the mustering of our confidence to skillfully act in the favor of another. 

Courage can manifest in an array of actions and behaviors. And while there is no secret formula or magic tactic for conversations on race, we hope you find the following reflections helpful in defining (and refining) your personal approach to courageous conversations:

  • How might our approach in discussing race differ between moments we plan for versus the moments that catch us off-guard?

It can be difficult to respond at the moment because emotions can flood our thinking. Situational intimidation or our too-tight grasp on perfectionism can cause us to freeze. We encourage you to ponder, discuss, and practice how you would respond to racist remarks or actions. Role-plays can be an especially impactful learning tool.

  • What might be the dangers of over-planning our discussions on race, or over-planning how we might respond to race-based incidents?

One of the biggest dangers of over-planning is losing our authenticity. If we over-plan, we tend to give more scripted responses that may appear to our audience as cold, disingenuous, and not as connected to the current moment. Instead, try listening deeply, making connections in the forefront, being intentional with your response, and possibly asking others what they need (maybe from you) at the moment. Let’s be responsive, reflective, and restorative!

  • What principles or skills should we demonstrate regardless of our audience, or should our approach always be customized to our audience?

There are some skills and concepts that will always be useful in courageous conversations no matter the audience — active listening, showing empathy, deepening inquiry through probing questions, and the humility to adjust your own thinking at the moment. However, the degree to which those skills are demonstrated will depend on the composition of identities present in the space and the interplay between another’s identities and our own. This is where situational discernment is required as to how to honor the dignity of that specific individual given who they are and the experiences they’ve had.

  • In race-based conversations and moments, what risks may we encounter if we give space for another to exercise their courage instead of us exercising our own?

From a leadership standpoint, while delegation and professional development opportunities are viewed as applaudable practices, moments when others are looking to you to be a model for what is morally and practically excellent are no time to disappear in silence. What you risk in doing this is losing credibility as a competent, reliable figure. Further, this diffusion of responsibility carelessly places pressure on someone else to act without them having the same level of protective privilege, prerogative, and support you have as the resident leader.

  • How can we lessen the gap between our intent and impact when discussing race?

In short, continuous reflection and conversation can help to narrow the gap between our intentions and our impact. It can be quite easy (and common) for intent and impact to be misaligned. In order to achieve that alignment, you must be able to reflect on your own, be humble in hearing feedback, and be willing to adjust your own behavior based on those conversations — making small pivots and strides every day to be better than the day before.

Though there is a substantial degree of nuance that simmers in our approaches — given our personalities and the politics connected to the bodies we’re in — we must ultimately agree on the urgency for us to try, period. That courageous engagement holds defining power in our lives, affecting how we view ourselves and what (and who) we truly value.

We mustn’t overlook, though, the emotive experience of courage: being afraid — afraid that we’ll be embarrassed, afraid that we’ll salt existing wounds, that we’ll uphold additional injustices, or cause the rupture of a relationship. Ideally, these fears wouldn’t exist, and yet, we offer this: feel the fear. Have that fear compel your courage and propel your conversations — accepting your role to address the injustices you witness, create, inherit, perpetuate, and endure. Our acts of courage can be a blessing to many, and perhaps a model for some. We urge you to be what the moment requires.

So, when you’re afraid, may your sweat-dampened palms continue crafting those texts that ask, “Can we talk?”; may the incessant fidgets of your legs and fingers be the gentle rocking you need to remain calm and connected to the moment; and may your trembling voice advocate for the preservation of another’s dignity and the possibility of their liberated future.