The following vignette describes an actual situation that occurred in one of my diversity workshops. In this case, I was called in to show a film at a university in the Midwest to about 300 students, faculty members and folks in the community. A young Jamaican man volunteered to share his experience as a student in the community, which was predominantly white.
In addition to the vignette, I am also including my thoughts/rationale and the interventions I used, as well as questions for the facilitator, group/dyad exercises and a summary that helps to place the event in a larger societal context. All the vignettes featured in this series are adapted from my diversity training manual, The Art of Mindful Facilitation, although the manual is not necessarily meant to be a faithful adaptation of the film clip. In each article, I also include a reference to the presenting workshop issue related to the vignette — in this month’s case, the issue of denial.
This is an interactive process, so I ask that readers follow the steps below in their suggested order.
1) Watch this short video clip :
2) Return to this article and read the vignette.
3) Answer the practice process questions following the vignette description.
4) Before reading further, write your own intervention.
5) After writing your intervention, read the remainder of the article, which includes my thoughts, the intervention I used and a summary.
After watching a film on racism at one of my diversity workshops, a young Jamaican student, Thomas, shared that he had been stopped by a deputy for no apparent reason other than driving in a white neighborhood. During questioning, the deputy had shoved a gun in Thomas’ mouth. Eventually, Thomas was released without being charged.
After sharing his experience with the workshop audience, Thomas quickly sat down, visibly shaken.
Immediately, the town sheriff who was in attendance jumped up and told the mostly white audience how dangerous it was to be a law enforcement officer. “We’re always on duty and we’re always on guard,” he said. He then asserted how proud he was of his department in carrying out its responsibilities to protect the town’s citizens.
The audience gave him a standing ovation. The sheriff sat down after smiling and waving to the audience.
Thomas looked down and away from the group.
Practice process questions for the facilitator
1) What came up for you when watching this video and reading the vignette?
2) Who would you choose to work with first as the group facilitator? Why?
3) What are some of the key words still ringing in your ears?
4) How did you feel about the sheriff?
5) How do you want this to all end up? Why?
6) What do you think Thomas needs? Why?
7) What do you think the sheriff needs? Why?
8) What are you afraid might not happen? Why?
At this point, I suggest you write your own intervention before reading the remainder of the article.
I would have preferred to work with Thomas first, but the sheriff’s behavior prompted an immediate response. It was not easy listening to the sheriff because the way he spoke sounded all too familiar to me. It reminded me of those who trivialized my experience as a person of color by only talking about themselves. What was important here was to notice how I was feeling and why, because it would show up in what I didn’t say and create dissonance between my words and actions.
The work of a facilitator is to stay focused and neutral while being a container for as much information as possible. When I become too biased, the focus shifts away from the client’s needs and onto mine. As the sheriff was talking, I kept checking in with myself: “What do you see and hear? What did you not hear and not see? Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to use your own experiences as a guide. Be still, listen, feel and stay awake to the past and the present.” The clues are everywhere.
Two things struck me immediately as the sheriff was talking. He was obviously feeling defensive about the department and his role as the sheriff. He said something quite significant — that the police were here to protect and serve the citizens in this town. That statement gave me a glimpse of a possible opening between the sheriff and Thomas. If that were true, then what of Thomas’ “protection”?
My sense was that the sheriff did not see Thomas as a citizen, as part of the community. As a person of color, he was an outsider who was inside a white community. The challenge would be to use the sheriff’s energy without escalating his denial and defensiveness, while simultaneously bringing about some validation to Thomas’ traumatic experience. Not an easy balance.
One of the key phrases in this story was that Thomas had a gun in his mouth. Physically and symbolically, he could not speak, and if he tried, his life would be in danger. The goal, therefore, was to help Thomas reclaim his voice so that he could express his anger and hurt at the injustice done to him.
The connection between the sheriff and Thomas was the deputy. So, I said to the sheriff, “You’re not finished yet. You left something out. Come on back up here.”
I then asked Thomas to come up next to the sheriff. I did this because it was important to have the two face each other to diffuse the tension and to help create a more intimate dialogue between the two. My experience has been that when you bring two folks in conflict together in closer physical proximity, the energy changes. There is now a face to go with the hurt and anguish, not just a group or an issue to hurl insults at unabated.
Sometimes folks can be retraumatized if they are brought together. So it is important to be cautious and aware and to follow the emotional cues of each person.
The question I had for the sheriff was, “After hearing Thomas’ story, don’t you want to know who the deputy was?” I chose this question because it is what I would have thought of if I were the sheriff or Thomas.
The sheriff was shocked at my question. He hadn’t even thought of asking this question, and neither, I suspect, had most of the audience. He hesitated and then said, “Of course.” However, I told him because of confidentiality and for legal reasons, he needed to ask Thomas after the workshop.
My second question was whether the sheriff wanted to know how the gun incident had affected Thomas. He thought about it and then nodded reluctantly. “Ask him,” I said. I did this so the sheriff could model for the community what is needed when one truly listens to someone who has been traumatized or oppressed.
I also did this for Thomas, because this was the part of the incident that he had internalized — that part of himself that was still stuck in that dark, lonely night. I was taking Thomas back to the scene of the crime. By having him tell the sheriff and the community his story, it would help break the isolation and the horror of feeling so alone with his experience. It would give a face to what happened — only this time, there would be witnesses and he would have his chance to speak and be seen. It would help “break the silence” and the doubts he carried about what had happened.
To help ease Thomas into sharing, I said to him, “I know this isn’t easy for you, but you need to go back there, to that night with the deputy, to take back what was taken from you.” Thomas told the audience how frightening it was and how he thought he was going to die on that night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He also shared how nervous he still got whenever he saw the police now and acknowledged having nightmares since that night.
I asked the sheriff to repeat what he had heard and how he felt. He said, “It must have been really frightening.” At that point, Thomas had tears in his eyes and so did the sheriff. I said to the audience, “This is what racism does — it changes your life. As you can hear in Thomas’ story, that experience is with him today as if it happened yesterday, and until he is believed and something is done about it, he will never be finished with that night and neither will this community.” Thomas nodded, looking down at the floor.
I then asked Thomas and the sheriff if they would be willing to get to know each other. They both agreed. I then asked Thomas if he would be willing to have the sheriff over for dinner. He laughed because he didn’t think the sheriff would come. So, I asked the sheriff, and he accepted the invitation.
I then asked the sheriff to imagine he was driving to Thomas’ home and all the neighbors were looking out their windows wondering why he was there. I asked the sheriff if he was nervous yet and he said, “You bet I am.” The audience laughed.
I then told Thomas to imagine that the sheriff was ringing the doorbell and that he was slowly walking toward the door. I asked him if he was nervous and he said, “Yeah, I am. Wouldn’t you be? No sheriff has ever come into our house. In fact, no white person has ever come to our house.” At that point, they both looked at each other and laughed because it was true for the sheriff too — no person of color had ever come into his home.
I shared with the audience that perhaps being courageous is also being scared. I told the sheriff that if he never went to Thomas’ home, then he and Thomas would never be able to heal over what had happened with the deputy, and if the sheriff didn’t see that justice was done with the deputy, then Thomas would tell his community. As a consequence, the community would probably not be there for the police department when it needed the community’s support.
The sheriff nodded, and so did Thomas. They shook hands and hugged, and the audience applauded them both.
1) What came up for you during this discussion?
2) What is familiar about what transpired?
3) Who did you identify with — the sheriff or Thomas? Why?
4) Where was the turning point in this discussion between Thomas and the sheriff?
5) At what point were you scared during this exchange?
6) If you could say something to the sheriff, what would that be?
7) If you could say something to Thomas, what would that be?
8) What do you think it will take for this community to come together?
The presenting workshop issue in this vignette is denial (page 28 in The Art of Mindful Facilitation manual). Supplementing your intervention with this issue will provide some useful inquiries to choose from.
The summary provides a way to create closure by identifying a larger societal context to what happened and also by sharing what is needed. It is also a time to acknowledge those who have shared. The facilitator presents this summary to the whole group.
Acknowledge the sheriff and Thomas for their courage and risk-taking and for staying in the room.
Acknowledge the group for being present and supporting the two participants instead of taking sides, which would have added to the escalation of a situation.
Point out that merely hearing a victim’s story is not enough. It requires empathy, compassion, understanding and the willingness to act so that this situation and experience isn’t repeated.
A “community” means that everyone is important and needs to be a valued participant.
Share with the audience that the sheriff and Thomas need their support in following through with their commitments to each other. Without that support, it will be so easy to just get back into daily life and forget the importance of what happened.
Tell the audience: “What transpired today wasn’t easy. There was no model for them to follow — just their willingness to try to hear each other. The real work is staying in the room with each other instead of running away.”
Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more information, including a link to his services and trainings, visit the StirFry Seminars & Consulting website at stirfryseminars.com.
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