Engaging in “Difficult Conversations” on race: lessons learned from an RLP team practice group

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd I felt overcome with sadness, anger, and a sense of powerlessness. Within my personal network I saw people reacting in a range of ways. They participated in demonstrations and marches, not only in the US but across the world. Others engaged in a practice of reading and reflection or joined book clubs (sending books like The New Jim Crow and How to Be an Antiracist to the top of the sales charts). Still others engaged in vigorous discussion with loved ones, living in close quarters with family members due to COVID (I know many people who had these discussions with their children who were home from college). Many did all these things, and more.

Well before 2020, conversations about bias and racism in libraries were very much part of the professional discourse, a regular part of meetings and conferences attended by the OCLC Research Library Partnership team and well documented in the professional literature. However, last year what had been a steady and consistent stream grew to a tidal wave, and we recognized that it was urgent that we accelerate our learning to become fluent participants in this conversation.

The OCLC RLP team are regularly called on to facilitate conversations about important issues facing research libraries – and at this moment of national racial reckoning, confronting and disrupting embedded racism is among the most important issues facing our profession. How well were we equipped to participate in – let alone lead — conversations about the legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice?  Out of these discussions, our “Difficult Conversations” practice group was born. In this blog post, I am sharing what we did to help expose our practice, to share resources, and to invite feedback.

What was the practice?

We had three concrete goals for our practice group:

  • Develop skills in facilitating difficult conversations in general.
  • Develop specific skills and knowledge to talk about race and race-related issues.
  • Understand what productive and unproductive conversations look and feel like, and ways to steer unproductive conversations back on track.

We utilized a few key resources. The Readers Guide for White Fragility and the Aorta Anti-Oppressive Facilitation for Democratic Process documents both have useful guidance to help identity common patterns for unproductive conversations, and ways to get discussions back on track (way easier said than done!). We used the Aorta Community Agreements as a basis for establishing community norms for behavior within the group.

We started by going through the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Museum’s (NMAAHCM ) Talking About Race portal. This was a perfect resource for our purpose – there are a number of learning modules, including (listed in the order we went through them):

  • historical foundations of race
  • social identities and systems of oppression
  • race and racial identity
  • bias
  • whiteness
  • community building

Each topic in the Talking About Race portal has several learning resources, such as videos and short articles, paired with questions, activities and exercises.

Once we completed the Talking About Race portal we read a pair of articles: Low morale in ethnic and racial minority academic librarians: An experiential study (Kaetrena Davis Kendrick and Ione T. Damasco, 2019) and The low-morale experience of academic librarians: A phenomenological study (Kaetrena Davis Kendrick, 2017),

We scheduled monthly 90-minute conversations, and took turns facilitating the discussion in pairs. Facilitators would review the learning materials ahead of time to prioritize materials that we would focus on, as well as come up with several questions to help guide the conversation. Each meeting started with a reminder of our goals, and the question: “What in this unit was new to you or challenged the way you previously thought about or approached [topic]”. As this was a skill building exercise, we reserved the last 30 minutes of our meetings to reflect on the conversation itself, how it felt to participate, how it felt to facilitate the discussions, what we did well and what we did poorly or would want to approach differently in the future.

What was my experience?

Here, I am sharing my own experience and not speaking for anyone else in the group. I entered these conversations with a fair bit of skepticism – I did not think it was realistic for me to emerge from these discussions as someone qualified to “facilitate” a discussion centered on issues related to race. I am a white woman who has grown up in a culture that has persistently upheld white supremacy. I can easily do damage, eroding trust and credibility by engaging in non-helpful ways.

I am fortunate to work with a group of people I trusted fully, well before we went down this path. I want to linger on this point of existing trust for a moment because it seems to be an essential ingredient in my own ability to move forward – if I did not feel cared for by my colleagues, this would have been a more difficult endeavor. The Kendrick / Damasco readings were useful in helping me to realize that trust in the workplace is a privilege and one I benefit from every day. In this practice, knowing that my colleagues are invested in my success made it possible for me to be open and honest and fully engage in what were almost always emotional conversations. In being open, I made mistakes. Remember what I said above about unproductive conversations? I am grateful to colleagues for correcting my mistakes, being patient with me, and investing in my growth!

After our meetings, I felt both energized and drained. Energized because I was learning new things and gaining new perspectives. Drained because the issues we discussed seem enormous, pervasive, and resistant to change. I also frequently felt a sense of embarrassment about being oblivious to history and patterns of behavior.

After months of talking and thinking about the issues outlined in the Talking About Race portal, I still do not feel prepared or qualified to lead in a discussion about race. However, I do believe I can be a more productive contributor in discussions that others are leading.  Engaging directly with difficult topics requires practice; an invaluable aspect of this conversation group has been setting aside the time to practice on a regular basis.

Lessons learned and suggestions for others

If you are interested in mirroring or adapting our approach, here are a few ideas.

  • Establishing community norms for our group was an important first step and I’m glad we budgeted appropriate time for this purpose. It helped to create space and community for this specific purpose, even within a group that meets regularly. I have now attended a few meetings that make use of community agreements and I love them, as long as appropriate time is set aside for understanding, discussion, adaptation, adoption, and buy in. They should not, in my opinion, be treated as a click-through license agreement with the assumption that everyone has a common reference point.
  • Working in pairs and cycling through facilitators has worked well for our group. Everyone got a chance to lead and “host” these discussions.
  • It was beneficial to devote time to the content and also to discuss how our learnings will be applied in the work we do. We noted specific tools and examples that we might use in our work. This has resulted in more concrete, actionable outcomes than simply following a set of suggested discussion questions.
  • The Talking About Race portal is excellent, and I’d suggest it to others who are looking for study materials. Once we finished working our way through the NMAAHCM materials, we sought to identify other materials that learning resources along with tools and exercises. We’d very much welcome suggestions for such material!

I’m certain that many of you have engaged in similar practices of self-study, and we would love to hear about your approach, what resources you would recommend, and any other ideas you have to share with the team. Let us know in the comments, or send us an email.

[Other participants in the “Difficult Conversations” practice group are members of the RLP team: Chela Scott Weber, Dennis Massie, Karen Smith-Yoshimura (now retired), Mercy Procaccini, Rachel Frick, and Rebecca Bryant.]

2 Comments on “Engaging in “Difficult Conversations” on race: lessons learned from an RLP team practice group”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience and for the resources you pointed to. It spoke directly to a conversation I had just yesterday with a colleague about feeling uprepared to facilitate such discussions. I will be sharing the post with her. Our discussion took place because of the release last week of the “Report and Recommendations of the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging”. (Announcement of the release and links at https://news.byu.edu/announcements/report-race-equity-belonging)

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