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Posts Tagged ‘listening’

In spring 2008, during a sometimes distressing primary season, an African American coworker and I decided to try something under the radar at work.

We decided to invite other colleagues of good will to help create a monthly lunch-hour discussion group on Race in America.

At first it was slow going. Some people we invited were suspicious. Would we be seen as troublemakers? Was it “legal”? Would it be just a gripe fest about our workplace?

My friend was supervising our high school interns at the time, and several of those showed up. One or two white employees came. Black colleagues were more wary. On days that no one came, one of us was bound to say to the other, Maybe this isn’t going to work. At which point, the other would say, Let’s give it another month.

Little by little, attendance grew. We kept the focus on topics in the news and participants’ life experiences. There was no agenda. We’d say, Does anyone have a topic they want to discuss today? There were always topics. We agreed to keep what was said inside our basement meeting room. There was zero hierarchy. What everyone brought to the table was openness and a willingness to listen.

We listened. We asked questions. We argued, with respect. We laughed. We worried. We learned. There were so many gradations of opinions, based on individuals’ experiences. There was never unanimity of one race versus another.

One participant said last year the monthly discussions had really opened his eyes and changed some of his views profoundly.

My friend retired a couple years ago and I left in January, but the group is still going strong under new leaders. I really miss it. I cannot tell you how many times I have wanted to hear what members have to say about something in the news or something I see in my town. I feel like I hardly know my own views without adding the nuances of what my former colleagues are thinking and feeling.

This past week, I’ve read lots of advice about what people of good will can do about race relations and injustice: join demonstrations and meetings, write government representatives, open their hearts to losses on both sides, listen to young activists, stand on their right not to show an I.D. (Fifth Amendment). Maybe some of those ideas are good.

But I still love the idea of creating a group where people of different races and backgrounds listen to one another’s way of seeing things. Over the eight years, Race in America members have come and gone, but participants routinely say that the group works because of the trust that is built.

For getting started, it worked well that we were two friends — one identifying as African American, one as Caucasian. She needed me, and I needed her. I never felt I should go up to a black colleague I didn’t know and pitch a discussion on race. She was a star at that.

Maybe it’s a hopelessly small thing for combating what we see in the news. But I do think people of different races have too few opportunities to listen to one another about matters that touch the heart.

120715-Fed

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