Safe Spaces

Maire Dugan

Director, Race Relations 2020, Columbia, South Carolina

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: In that work, what has touched and inspired you the most?

A: There have been several things and one has been new insights. There's an exercise and this one is drawn directly from the study circle stuff. The group has to discuss how to choose some model applicants for a job where there's no clear answer, no clear right or wrong, but the applicants have different cultural backgrounds. In the process of discussing that, my co-facilitator (and there's always a mixed race team of facilitators), pressed one of the African American participants who had not said anything in favor for the African American candidate for this job. She asked, "Tell me a little bit about your decision to not support the black candidate." The participant gave a not very informative answer. Joyce kept asking her in ways that allowed her consideration of why that was true.

What finally came out was that the woman, the participant, had been in a situation quite a few years before highering a new person. The owner of the establishment was quite racist, but accepted her for reasons that the participant got into that were specific to her, not generalized beyond herself. When she was called upon to hire a person for another position in the organization she hired a young African American man. He was just put in an impossible position where he couldn't succeed because of the owner's racism. She realized that she had set him up and she didn't want to ever do that again. She realized in the process of hiring that she was excluding African Americans from opportunities to protect them from being hurt, and for 20 years she hadn't recognized that. It was not only that this insight came out in the group, and prompted a much deeper discussion of the subject matter than would have been the case had that not come out, but this woman got to rid herself of a 20 year old assumption that she didn't even know she was carrying.

Q: Wow. To exclude someone from participating in a system that they know they were going to fail in was somehow a higher moral value then allowing them the chance to participate in that system?

A: Not once she put it that way. She didn't know that she had made that choice, that's what I'm talking about in the insight. She didn't realize she was operating on that until Joyce got her to peel off the explanatory rationalizations that she had surrounded that core decision work, and the core was sub-conscious. She wasn't aware that it was there for her. It had pained her so much to see this guy that she had given the job to suffer through what he had to suffer through that she unbeknownst to herself vowed never to do it again. It wasn't until that set of questions in this very safe environment with everyone around her supporting her that she came to her insight. With the dialogue stuff you start out very gently.

Q: That's one of the questions I've asked other dialogue practitioners. How do you create a space that's safe enough for people to come up with deep and very new insights? That can be very frightening at times or can be. Starting out easy like you said, you couldn't just jump into that, so how do you get there?

A: That's right. When we developed our own model we drew on the study circle material, but we drew even more on something called the Palmetto Projects that had a set of things that they called the Omega Circles. The Omega Circles had also been based on the study circles, but they had found that study circles jumped in too quickly, for at least for people in South Carolina.

Q: How do you create a space that's safe enough for people to reveal themselves in such deep ways as this person who you just referred to?

A: We start out very slowly, and we put a lot of emphasis on trying to allow people come together as a group. In the first session, we don't talk much about race at all. We ask people to do things like develop their own ground rules. We give them some exercises where they're making joint decisions, which helps coalesce a group out of a number of disparate people. That first session is the only session where we introduce things from the outside, if you will. We give them a little presentation. We give them an exercise on listening and communication skills. We also present them some ideas about how to talk with each other in non-judgmental and supportive ways.

In the second session we start to talk about race, and even there we ask people to share some personal experiences. We preface that with "choose an experience that you feel comfortable sharing." Recognizing something that they might be comfortable saying in the sixth meeting, they're not necessarily comfortable with in the second. The key is to tell a story that you're comfortable sharing about an early recognition on your part about your race or culture. Later on, we find that they are including some additional stories on that that they wouldn't have felt comfortable telling the first day, but we really don't press them. The only questions one might have there would be clarifying questions. Don't push them to tell more than that.

I've found that pretty much by the third session, they're already pretty much a group. They care about each other and they value each other's stories. They're ready to be pressed a little bit more. So that is the meeting that Joyce was pressing this participant at was a little bit later, it was probably the fourth; we probably wouldn't have done that earlier on.

Q: How many meetings do you normally do?

A: To fit even a collapsed future workshop in with this, we have 9 meetings that each last two-two and a half hours with the exception of the seventh when we go for almost three hours. That's as much as I could collapse the centerpiece of the envisioning workshop. The eighth meeting is a continuation of that, and then the ninth meeting is action planning.

Q: Is that once a week or once a month?

A: Most of the groups meet once a week, but one of the tings that we have begun to do is in the beginning take a few minutes to see what time works for everybody.