Community Learning - Lessons From the Field (1)

All Learning is Personal

Davelyn Hill, Executive Director of Speaking Down Barriers

I felt excited and nervous as I drove the forty-five minutes to the neighboring town of Spartanburg, South Carolina. My Saturday was to be spent in a day-long intensive session on race with Speaking Down Barriers. I’d recently committed to building a more inclusive community through the small company I’d formed, State of Inclusion. Still, I had so much to learn about myself, prepare for this work, find my voice, and even feel I had a right to speak on this subject.

In our first exercise, we were paired with another person that we did not know from our diverse group of twelve. We were each asked to stand in front of the group across from the other person and say how we honestly saw the other person and what we imagined their background to be. It caused us to confront stereotypes we might harbor, but in some cases, the assessments were fair. A young man in his twenties told me, an older white woman, that he expected I had grown up in a traditional southern family and had lived a “separate,” segregated life. I guess it could have been written on my face. Maybe it was a stereotype for him, but a truth for me. It felt strange to have that part of me so easily read by another, examined in front of others, to perhaps be less well thought of in this context because of it. It was not painful but carried some discomfort I was not used to.

Later, as a group, we engaged in a privilege walk. We lined up side by side and were asked a series of questions. We each took a step forward or a step back based on our answers. We were asked questions like:

  • If you were the first person in your family to attend college, take one step back.
  • If you never worry about crime, drugs, rape, or other violent threats in your neighborhood, take one step forward. 
  • If you have ever skipped a meal or went away from a meal hungry because there was not enough money to buy food, take one step back.

Each question gently teased out privilege. At the end of the exercise, we instantly saw in our small group how far apart people could be due to things over which they have no control. It remains one of my most significant ah-ha moments regarding privilege.

Later in the day, we sat in a circle as we shared stories with one another. One of the facilitators shared a very personal story, which gave us all room to open ourselves more to share our own stories. As the day progressed, we moved deeper together. Deeper than I would have thought possible for a room full of strangers.

One of the things we did at the end of that session was to write a note to ourselves. We were given a piece of paper with a big title across the top: “I speak down barriers.” We were asked to write five ways we intended to speak down barriers. What we wrote was private. We folded it, sealed it into an envelope, and addressed it to ourselves. The facilitators waited a few weeks and then mailed the envelopes to us. 

My five actions from August, 2015.

All Learning is Personal

Not everyone can, or is interested in, spending a whole day on DEI concepts to challenge their thinking and expand their understanding. Some will be. Some will want to go even further. In other cases, it might be more effective to meet and discuss over coffee or shared food with potluck suppers. Still, others may be interested in a more intellectual approach through book clubs or film screenings and discussion. In Community Learning, our offerings will need to meet community members where they are and evolve over time as the community grows. Still, skilled facilitation, conversation, and self-reflection are at the heart of this work. Our challenge is to create the opportunity and a safe place, a container, for awakening and learning to occur and to make that available as individuals are ready along their personal journey. 

Commitment Tools

At the end of the session, we challenged ourselves by writing down our five actions and committing to them. It was a powerful way to remind us of the intentions we formed during the session, to refresh and bring back the feelings of the day, and to check ourselves. The letter we wrote to ourselves at the end of the session was a type of commitment tool.  It was a simple technique but extended the day’s learning into the future. By reflecting on how we would Speak Down Barriers, we set a personal intention and were gently reminded of that intention.

Facilitators and Peer Mentors

I later learned not every participant in my intensive training class was a student. Some were paid or volunteer participants who joined with the specific purpose of providing a deeper and more diverse experience for learning and conversation to happen. While they were not visible and formal facilitators, they acted as mentors, guides, and stimulators throughout the learning process. It is essential to recognize that when those of us who lack specific lived experiences wish to enter into deeper understanding through interaction with those who have different lived experiences, this should be done respectfully. It should be non-extractive and non-transactional. Individuals who are there to help advance the learning of other community members should be compensated for their time or freely volunteer. They should also be allowed to practice safe techniques for engaging with permission to step away from the process if it harms or triggers them. Skilled facilitators are critical.

We can make it as safe as possible, but then people have to choose to be brave. So, we try to make a space for people to feel comfortable when they can make those steps of bravery. – Davelyn Hill, Executive Director of Speaking Down Barriers

Learn more about Speaking Down Barriers.

Durable and Lasting Containers for Growth

Image of Gery Paredes Vásquez acting Executive Director of Madison, Wisconsin YWCA

Each year, for the last twenty-one years, the YWCA in Madison, Wisconsin, has held a racial justice summit for their community. Conference organizer and acting Executive Director, Gery Paredes Vásquez, described their 2022 conference in the following way:

The 2022 theme was “Weaving our past, present, and emerging futures for racial justice and collective liberation.” The invitation behind that is to be in community with each other, to explore the ways in which we can be in right relationship with change; in right relationship with healing; in right relationship with transformation; in right relationship with mutual dignity and the freedom that comes when we understand ourselves as intrinsically connected.

Not only had the YWCA team woven past, present, and emerging futures, but they had also woven an experience that brought together over seven hundred people from Madison and beyond to listen, learn, share, laugh, and cry. 

The summit itself is a journey of sorts. For that year, because of the pandemic, it consisted of two virtual days and one in-person day for the community to travel together as they moved forward in a common direction and as they shared experiences, shared learning, and shared growth. After each year’s conference, Gery and the team at the YWCA will take a short break, and then they will begin to plan for the next racial justice summit, the next, and then the next. They clearly understand there is not much time to celebrate a single successful event. This is a journey, a practice, each step circling and deepening. The work has to be done deliberately, with focus, with intention, but also with urgency.  

Still, the YWCA team seems to enjoy their service to the community. This was part of the note they sent following the conference. Perhaps you can sense their spirit. I left the emojis as they sent them. 

🌈 Happy Post Summit Week Beloved Community,

💞 What a powerful, loving and liberating blast we co-created this past week at the Summit!!!🔥

🌱 In these post Summit days, and as we are collectively allowing the energy of all that we brought to life together to further root in our hearts, minds, bodies and spirits, we wanted to share our deepest gratitude to each of you for joining in practice, both during our virtual offerings as well as during our In-Person Summit Day here in Ho-Chunk land in Teejop, most recently known as Madison, Wisconsin 

What are some takeaways...

Growth over Time.

Gery was clear that the YWCA had learned and grown through the summits they had delivered over the years. I would also suggest that as community members attend multiple summits, they also grow and deepen their learning and practice. The YWCA, through its Summit, provides a community container to house learning, experience, and growth over time.

Local by Design

Another fundamental aspect of the YWCA’s Summit is that it is not a national conference. It is local by design. 

Gery talked about how important it was to:

stay responsive to what is present in our community, in our movements. What I mean by "what is present" is what are the conversations we need to have? What are the understandings we need to clarify?”

By staying responsive to what is present in their community, they can adapt the messages and experience to fit what is needed for the collective community journey in their community.  

An Opportunity to Model Behavior

Gery also reminds us that while creating the summit, they also model the behavior they wish to see in their community. She reminds us that how they engage with each other as they prepare for the summit is fundamental. Gery shared:

There is no doubt that an event like a racial justice summit has countless tasks. However, the event itself is not the sum of the tasks. It's how we engage with these tasks and what we are centering as we engage with these tasks.

Consistent with that thought, the team also models the behavior of co-creation and recognizes the community’s diverse needs. In creating the summit, many aspects of the conference were community designed or co-designed. This included using local artists and performers, using a community curation team to help with design choices, choosing speakers with a good connection to their work and their community, providing vehicles for and using input from the participants, and holding space where different community groups could process together. 

Relationships Are Everything

In our discussion with Gery, she also emphasized the importance of relationships and individual respect. She told us that relationships are key when you want to accomplish anything or when the journey becomes difficult. The ability to cultivate and nurture deep relationships across the community is at the heart of this work of equity and inclusion. It is an important behavior to learn and model. 

We can remind ourselves that we have the opportunity to model behavior daily as we work to make our community more inclusive and equitable. Are we modeling the behavior of valuing relationships and putting people first in all that we do? Are we practicing co-creation? Are we sharing power? Are we modeling these behaviors in all of our interactions and in the hundreds and thousands of tasks we will undertake to move our work forward? Are we living daily into the inclusive community we wish to see?

..first acknowledge each other as human beings in our full complexity, and then start building these relationships that can actually be a space for practice where actually growth can happen. Where healing can happen, where transformation can happen, where liberation can happen. - Gery Paredes Vásquez, acting Executive Director, YWCA of Madison, Wisconsin

Learn more about YWCA Madison.

Sherri Chisolm, Executive Director of Leading on Opportunity, Charlotte, NC

Collective Awareness as Fuel for Action

Data as Trigger and Motivator

For some communities, there can be a moment when a piece of data, research, or analysis causes them to see themselves in a different way. In Charlotte, NC, it was the research of Raj Chetty and his team at Harvard University. Through Chetty’s ground-breaking work on the subject of economic mobility, Charlotte was surprised to find itself near the bottom of the ranking of cities in terms of economic mobility. It didn’t match the perception many held of the city, and it didn’t match the story they told of a growing and successful city. Chetty’s research and the supporting data shone a light on a deep truth that many had failed to see. This research and data created a moment of reckoning that became a trigger and motivator for their work.

This is how Sherri Chisolm, from Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity, described the trigger for their work:

Our North Star is a big one, and it is really founded in the question, “Is the American Dream still alive?” Raj Chetty and his group of researchers out of Harvard issued a report in 2014 that ranked all large urban centers or cities according to a child’s ability to progress out of poverty economically within their community. Charlotte was ranked very last on that list. We were the 50th city, which is to say if a child is born into poverty in the Charlotte metropolitan area, they have about a 12% chance of their next generation not also being in poverty themselves.  That was pretty curious for Charlotte and quite honestly disappointing given the level of growth that’s happened in the city, given the level of economic opportunity, given the universities, jobs, and industries that are available for children to grow into adults and to thrive in. 
So, that launched a community campaign that we called the Opportunity Task Force, that was made up of a diversity of stakeholders–those from the business community, government, medical, healthcare (which was one of our largest industries), and the nonprofit and foundation space–to really investigate what in particular was happening in Charlotte and to put forward some recommendations that we as a community could rally around and also hold ourselves accountable to making better for the generations after us. After issuing that report, it was vital to the community that that work was continued and carried out. As a result, Leading on Opportunity was formed as an organization that I now have the privilege of leading to set some levels of accountability to chart a path forward and to make sure that the momentum continues.”

Data for Shared Understanding and Accountability

Charlotte isn’t alone in this. Most communities have a narrative that they use to promote and talk about their community to newcomers and prospective investors. If we’re not careful, we can begin to believe that is the whole truth for the community. While not always acting as a trigger, data can still serve to ground us in reality. In Charlotte they used their initial research and data to help establish a shared understanding of the challenges faced by many in their community. But, they went further. They also used data and analysis to help establish goals and shared accountability for their commitment to change.

People, Not Just Data

In my interview with Sherri Chisolm, she reminded us that

You have to be just as thoughtful in uncovering the problem as you are in solving the problem. 

As we work to build more inclusive communities, always keeping in mind that data is an imperfect representation of real people’s lives is critical. It is important to find the right level of abstraction to understand issues in a way that is more than anecdotal, but deep enough to see the real people behind the data.

Sherri also reminded us that both understanding and finding workable solutions are about getting proximate to the problem and centering individuals who are affected by the challenges you’re working to solve. It is about, as she said,

I always come back to community voice. It is what makes a difference. I would center community voices from the very beginning. What that looks like is making sure that they are not only at the table to provide perspective but at the table to make decisions.

Learn more about Leading On Opportunity.

The Power of a Simple Ah-Ha Moment

Image of a woman holding a mirror shaped as an eye

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to participate in my first diversity workshop. In that workshop, we covered many of what many might consider DEI basics. It was the place I was first introduced formally to the concepts and language of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was a short session, about two hours. It included a lecture, some discussion, and a few exercises. Even decades later, I can still remember one of the exercises. Please think about this and try to answer it for yourself before reading on.

A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he's about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, "I can't operate--that boy is my son!" How can this be?

Ah-Ha Moments are Sticky

This was years ago, but I still remember my struggles and how long our class sat with this exercise before finally stopping the deliberation. Only one person in our group was able to provide an answer. It wasn’t me. As a woman whose early career was in science and technology, how was I unable to open my thinking enough to imagine the doctor was a woman and a mother or perhaps the child’s other father? This was a very simple exercise in a basic introductory class. Yet, the learning has stuck with me. There is nothing like a simple and well-constructed ah-ha moment to make learning sticky.

Learning Does Not Mean Change

Since that class, I’ve learned much more about how our brains work, about blind spots, and bias. Still today, I occasionally catch myself falling into the same old trap. Someone mentions a doctor, and I assume they must be a man. Yet, now I’m more self-aware and able to catch these thoughts and correct myself. I'm also able to act in ways that align with my values and intentions, not merely based on old thought patterns and bias. At this moment, more than half of my personal physicians and specialists are women. Classroom learning does not mean change, at least not right away.

Source for exercise text above: Hobson, N. (2022). This 50-Year-Old Riddle That Continues to Stump Us Explains Why We Still Have a Strong Gender Bias. Inc. Retrieved from

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