by Ron Kipling Williams
Q: How can leaders do a better job of creating healthy conversation spaces for dialogues around race?
A: I will start by giving my own introduction.
I am a complex, flawed human being with the capacity to do good things. This is how I define myself at this moment, the time of which I cannot control, but of my existence I can. I am endeavoring to release myself of all certainty about myself and the world, even though I have accumulated a wealth of opinions regarding both. I am well steeped in contradiction. I am grounded in moral and ethical principles and fall short many times upon their execution. I am an emotional, irrational human being, striving to observe myself and the world through the lens of logic and reason. I believe I am right, yet I know I am deeply fallible. There is nothing that gives me credibility as an objective participant in this reality beyond those around me who say that I have. I have value, but I am un-absolute. I have grown to become more malleable, yet my conflict resides within my penchant for rigidity. I state my art with conviction, knowing it is subject to criticism that may change it at any time. I am dedicated to act in the mending of this world while aware of my un-stitched wounds. I comprehend my agency while acknowledging at times a lack of confidence in it – which is tied to the outcomes of my life and those around me. I possess a lion’s strength and a butterfly’s fragility. I am everything that was and nothing that will be. I am firm in this finite body, yet nothing more than materials subject to infinity. I am who I am – nothing, and everything.
Now that I have introduced myself, I am going to approach this topic with the lens pointing to myself. You will decide whether you will follow my methodology in whole, in part, or not at all.
In order for me to create healthy conversation spaces for dialogues around race, there was some deep internal work I had to do.
First, I had to get my ego out of the way. We all have them. We believe that, because we are leaders, we are the ultimate authorities. This is our first mistake.
Yes, I have a tremendous ego. If you meet me, you may not think so. This is because I have done a lot of work to manage it so that it does not get in the way of being the person I need to be and the work I need to do.
I had to stand in front of the mirror and look at myself. Really look at myself. I had to appear naked and comprehend that I am not my degrees, awards, and achievements or my years as artist, activist, teacher, professor, and philosopher. I needed to strip myself down and assess me in my Ron-ness, if you will.
I needed to fundamentally recognize that I am as flawed as everyone else, that I must investigate my own biases, prejudices, and rationalities, and then expose them. I needed to break down my walls and become vulnerable. I would need to do everything that I would ask others to do. Otherwise, they will not listen to me, let alone trust me.
I come from both African and Native American heritage – Cherokee, Seneca, and Blackfoot. In native tradition, the feather is passed to anyone that wants to speak. This is an opportunity to speak truth. It is imperative that I speak my own first, before I pass it to someone else, to be a demonstration of what ownership means.
I give my introduction, I share my narrative, and I speak in “we” terms, never “you” terms, demonstrating that this is a collective conversation, that I as a facilitator will ask questions, introduce topics, and will share personal anecdotes, so that everyone in the space will receive a deeper understanding of why I am doing this work. This is critically important. If people do not understand the reasons why I am holding this space, they will not trust it.
I know that trauma will come up in these spaces. I know that people will come into these spaces with their stuff. I know that I must set the rules for respectful dialogue, ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, and make sure we do not become defensive when someone is sharing their feelings and opinions. Since the groundwork has been laid in the beginning, we can handle whatever surfaces.
Again, I keep my ego out of the way. I know that I am not the generator for healing. That will happen within the group. The people will listen to each other, talk to each other, and heal each other. That is the ultimate goal for talking about race – dealing with the layers of unresolved issues, the deep emotional pain living in the very tissues of our bodies.
It is the difficult conversations that must take place, so I never steer anyone in another direction to avoid them. To me, this has been the historic blunder and it keeps the vicious cycle of ignorance, fear, hatred, and violence going. We need to dig in, to get under the soil and at the roots, to feel the sludge, experience the agony, and then put in the nutrients to restore the earth. Our minds, our spirits, our bones require the same thing. It means moving through the fear of experiencing this stuff so that we can get to the other side of it.
James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In this vein, I would say that I facilitate the conversations that may be unpopular, in a space that is nurturing and supportive, to encourage others in expressing truths that may be uncomfortable to hear, so that they create solutions that will challenge the norm, and in turn effect outcomes that may transform who we are.
Ron Kipling Williams uses art, media, performance, and education to break down walls, facilitate open and honest conversations, and build community. Ron’s awards include Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist, National Society of Leadership and Success Excellence in Teaching, and Fulbright Scholarship Alternate. Ron has performed in numerous venues including the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York, Painted Bride Theater in Philadelphia, Lalapalooza in Miami, Florida and 100,000 Poets for Change International. Ron holds an MFA from the University of Baltimore and serves as adjunct professor and faculty fellow at the Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics. His upcoming book, Ron-ology¸ will be released in 2022. To learn more, and to read his weekly blog, visit his website at www.ronkiplingwiliams.com.