I just returned from facilitating another Leading for Equity Institute; the National Equity Project has been hosting these Institutes annually for over 14 years. I have been at most of the these institutes and it is very common for people to not fully understand the kind of “equity training” they are coming to, which then provokes a fair amount of anxiety. One participant expressed it this way at the end of her time with us:
“I came into this weekend nervous and afraid. What was going to be said? Would I understand it? I have no connection to my own culture and haven’t experienced any racial issues personally. What I experienced was nothing short of amazing. For someone as naïve and as uneducated as me the process was eye opening and so supportive. I look to the future hopefully and know that it can and will start with me.”
We hold a deep belief that people can solve their own problems. And we believe that Leading for Equity is fundamentally about taking responsibility for what matters to you. Taking responsibility as a leader for equity always begins with the ability to listen deeply and well to yourself and others.
An essential element in our Leading for Equity Institute is a structure called a personal experience panel. It is a constructivist listening practice we use to listen to each other and share our stories.
Because you “only know what you know when you need to know it” – it is difficult to get at aspects of knowledge, feelings, values and beliefs that are held inside but rarely talked about. When people tell each other stories about their experiences, the social negotiations that take place create to some extent the feeling of being “in the field of fire” or in the state of “needing to know”. Thus hidden knowledge (thoughts and feelings) surface and become available in ways it could not otherwise do so. Telling stories allows people to disclose sensitive information on issues and experience about oppression, privilege, leadership and power without attribution or blame, because the inherent distance between perceived reality and narration provides safety for truth telling.
What we are after in inviting people to participate on a personal experience panel are not purposeful stories, which are indicative of what people believe is expected of them, but anecdotal stories, which are more unguarded and truthful. For personal sensemaking sharing some of your story before a group of attentive and supportive listeners is often powerful and healing.