Discussing Diversity and Inclusion in the Richmond Region

Take 67 community leaders and a large map of Richmond. Post 200 colored sticky notes on the map. Discuss. One of the more interesting projects I’ve had this fall was the co-facilitation of the December mid-year session for the Leadership Metro Richmond (LMR) Class of 2010—a collection of 67 professionals representing a broad swath of the region. The focus of the session? A two-day conversation on racial identity, diversity and inclusion in Richmond. It was the sort of project that got interesting before it even started. LMR had put out an RFP for the session, and met with me to discuss Floricane’s proposal. Several days later, I was asked by LMR if I would be interested in partnering with one of the other organizations who had submitted a proposal. Instinct #1: This isn’t how these things work. Instinct #2: Or is it? Naturally, I went with the second instinct, which is how I found myself negotiating the framework for a two-day workshop on diversity and inclusion with Jonathan Zur and Ali Thompson of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities; I was joined by my sometime facilitation partner, Matthew Freeman, who also does facilitation work focused on racial identity, diversity and inclusion. All three of them are experts on the history, psychology and institutional challenges that sit deep within diversity and inclusion work. That meant my best work would be focused around my own strengths in program design and the facilitation of group conversations. In the end, I think we created the framework for a strong experience for a group of community leaders who—collectively, at least—had no clear sense of what it might mean to have “courageous conversations” or to “go beneath the waterline” or truly understand how all the components of their individual identity might serve to build them up in the community, or to hold them back. We began with one of my favorite community conversation starters — a gigantic map of the Richmond region, a simple 10 foot by 15 foot geographical overview of where we live. Participants were asked to answer three questions on different colored Post-In notes. The first question was, “Where do you live?” The second asked participants to identify one location or place in Richmond to which they felt an emotional connection. The third question asked them to name a location or place that everyone visiting the region should see or experience. We had them place their orange, green and yellow Post-It notes on the map, and then we raised it up to the ceiling and started to talk. Geography is a common denominator in Richmond. It is what we all have in common. It also serves to keep us apart, to reinforce stereotypes and to paralyze many regional conversations. It wasn't long before the conversation about geography turned into a discussion about racial identity, and that was where the discussion stayed for most of the first day. The conversation and learning focused on the cycle of prejudice, which plays out across issues of race, gender, sexual orientation. Using an interactive polling technology that allows audience members to use electronic keypads to instantly and anonymously respond to questions, Matthew created a real-time discussion about how identity and diversity played out within the LMR class. (Learn more about how audience response keypads can augment small group dialogue here.) Over the span of two days, participants also explored their own personal timelines related to their identity; participated in a range of small and large group conversations; and began to identify new ways to frame their community work. Helping groups of people move through hard conversations isn't new work for me, but having the expertise, emotional energy and skills that Matthew, Jonathan and Ali brought into the room made a huge difference. The end result was a rich, significant and deeply exhausting experience for everyone in the room. I learned as much as the participants from my fellow facilitators, and heard powerful and personal stories from residents of the Richmond region about ways in which their identity -- racial, cultural, socio-economic, gender -- surfaced every single day in ways positive and negative. Moving community conversations into uncomfortable terrain is important work, and Richmond should be proud that organizations like LMR and individuals like Matthew, Ali and Jonathan are helping to lead the charge.