Inclusive Conversations the Prerequisites

More from Mary-Frances Winters’ work.

We at ConSpirita Consulting Network are committed to improving leadership, especially ecclesial leadership. These times of a global pandemic and a global awakening about racism cry out for courageous and humble leaders.  This series of blogs invite you to come along with us as we humbly, courageously and consistently undertake the work of self-education about racism in the United States, in the Catholic Church and in our own white, privileged lives. 

Ecclesial leaders, listen up!  So many of you are feeling the urgent need to help your people address systemic racism.  Many of you have already begun conversations, programs, “dialogues”, book groups, shared media experiences and the like.  On the one hand, it all feels right:  faith informing life experiences;  life experiences challenging faith and its practice.  On the other hand, are those leading these efforts formed, trained and skilled in facilitating these kinds of conversations? 

“Whether in the workplace, faith communities, or educational settings, our differences can tear us apart rather than bring us together if we do not know how to communicate.”[i] 

It’s not enough to have good will.  It’s not enough to have a shared value system like Christianity.  It’s not enough to have the courage to wade into the conversation about race in this uber-polarized time.  In order to facilitate what Ms. Winters calls inclusive conversations, there’s a need for skilled facilitators. It’s prerequisite #1.  It’s the work of leaders to prepare themselves and their co-leaders with these skills BEFORE launching off into these conversations.  Inclusive Conversations:  Fostering Equity, Empathy and Belonging Across Differences is one resource that can help create these skilled facilitators.

In addition to this fundamental prerequisite, according to Ms. Winters, there are other conditions that must be met for these conversations to reach even a portion of their transformative potential: equity, managing of power dynamics, metacognitive thinking (the ability to think about what you are thinking), and acknowledging whiteness.  It’s acknowledging whiteness as a prerequisite that I’d like to delve a little more deeply into, for just a minute.

“It’s impossible to talk about race when many white people do not see race as a core part of their identity.”[ii]

Ms. Winters shares some research from the Pew organization to support the above statement.  In her book, she reports that according to the Pew research, 15% of white people say race is core to their identity; 75% of blacks report race is core; 59% of Latinx report race is core; 56% of Asians report race is core.  Sit with these numbers for a minute, especially if you are white.  As I sat with them, here are some of the thoughts that flitted through my mind:

  • I never really think about being white when I think about who I am.
  • Wonder why it’s not a big factor for me?
  • Wait…is the very fact that I don’t really put “white” into the description of who I am the very definition of white privilege? I don’t have to because the culture gives me freedom, belonging, benefits and presumptions based on my whiteness so I don’t have to claim anything more?
  • Whiteness is the water I swim in. How am I blind and deaf as a result of that?

 “Whiteness is the crux of the race issue.”[iii]

A simple statement.  It feels harsh.  I feel shame.  I feel defensive.  I am most uncomfortable.  I have cognitive dissonance.  I am a good person.  I believe in Jesus.  I don’t see color.

And those statements lead directly to the third set of prerequisites leaders need to be able to acknowledge in order to have truly inclusive conversations, the kind that hold the power to transform:  dialogue strategies.  One of the dialogue strategies facilitators need is that of dealing with the “fragility” of dominant groups.  That’s what I expressed above…white fragility.  Skilled facilitators must know how to deal with that discomfort I feel as I face those feelings while in conversation with historically subordinated groups…in this case with black people.  Here are some of the others:

  • Recognizing the importance of creating equity and sharing power.
  • Addressing the exhaustion historically marginalized groups feel from constantly explaining their different lived experience
  • Exploring how to build trust and create psychologically safe spaces for dialogue.

Unskilled facilitators wading into conversations around race within the ecclesial setting has the potential to be destructive at the very time our heart’s desire is to be in conversations that are helpful, healing and hopeful.  Do you need to hit the pause button and make sure your facilitators are trained and equipped for this important work?  Do you need to build a cadre of skilled facilitators for the long haul, knowing these conversations will need to happen frequently, and will get more difficult?

If the answer to either of those questions is yes, consider this resource.  Look for others.  Develop your leaders’ skills.  Develop your own.  The stakes are high and the time is right.  Remember these prerequisites for healthy and hope-filled conversation:  skilled communicators, facing whiteness, and embracing dialogue strategies.  Pray, prepare and then proceed!


[i] From the description of Inclusive Conversations on Amazon.com.  https://www.amazon.com/Inclusive-Conversations-Fostering-Belonging-Differences/dp/152308880X  Accessed 8/3/2020
[ii] Inclusive Conversations. 
[iii] Ibid.


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