Starting the Tough Conversations about Identity and Social Justice
While it is important to discuss how power and privilege impact social identities, starting these conversations are not always easy. People may be worried about speaking up, sharing their honest thoughts or opinions, or asking questions in case they say something offensive and will face consequences. Some may be worried that their experiences will be invalidated and that the group will not be supportive, causing additional harm and disturbance to social harmony. And yet others may have been conditioned to disregard the importance of these topics and might push back on positive and productive conversations.
So how do we start these conversations with people that are new to it? Here are our tips:
First, clearly state the intention of this conversation: why do you want to discuss these topics with your group? What do you want people to get out of this conversation? Use "I" (or "we," if your leadership team is starting the conversation) statements to describe why this conversation is important to avoid any ambiguity or leave room for assumptions and subsequent misunderstandings. It is also important to talk about the balance of creating a trusting space for people to be heard while also allowing for growth through intentional listening and making mistakes. One conversation doesn't always need to do both, so ask the group what is important for them in that moment.
Second, set some ground rules. Sometimes conversations get derailed or harm occurs without anyone intending to so. It's easier to avoid these miscommunications if you take a couple of minutes at the start of the discussion to outline expectations of conduct, and the more specific, the better. Guidelines around how people respond to each other can be helpful in encouraging the group to talk to each other and not just the facilitator(s). For instance, instead of "let's respect each other," you might ask your group to specify what that would look like and end up with guidelines like "no interrupting when someone else is speaking" or "no mocking language."
Third, meet people where they are. Identity, power, and privilege are complex topics, and even if you are in the position of leading the conversation, this doesn't mean you have all the answers or that there isn't something you could learn from the group. If something you don't know or are ambivalent about comes up, be transparent about those feelings and encourage others to do the same. When people don't agree with you or take a "problematic" stance, before you call them out, remember that everyone starts somewhere and address it honestly but kindly, assuming best intention. It is important for you, as a facilitator, to model this in a discussion the first time it comes up to give an example of how it can be done in a way that preserves the integrity of the group and its guidelines.
Finally, do a bit of prep work before starting this conversation! You don't have to be an expert, but there are many brief articles or videos online that can help you familiarize yourself with common discussion questions, common answers, and more tips on how to maintain a respectful conversation. You can also check out our "Additional Resources" section! It might even be helpful to distribute certain resources that you found particularly helpful or resonant and ask participants to engage with them beforehand to add structure and common ground to your conversation. This helps you outline what topics you'll touch on and prepare conversation starting questions.