On Fostering Inclusive, Change-Inducing Conversations

After plunging into the (deep) rabbit-hole abyss of article-clicking this week, I found myself continuously returning to two specific quotes.  

First, there’s the statement from Mahzarin Banaji’s talk in which, in one of her opening lines, she says:

“I don’t want people to not learn from guilt and not learn from shame. I think those are powerful motives. They have made us, in large part, the more civilized people we are. But I do believe that, in our culture and in many cultures, we are at a point where our conscious minds are so ahead of our less conscious minds. We must recognize that, and yet, ask people the same question, “Are you the good person you yourself want to be?” And the answer to that is no, you’re not. That’s just a fact. We need to deal with that if we want to be on the path of self-improvement.”

Banaji’s sentiment braids well with a resonating message Statesman Edmund Burke once delivered—a line Emma Watson quoted in her UN speech about gender equality, which states: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.”

I consider this sentiment often when teaching, especially when working with students who approach writing with the desire to effect change.

“Why write solely to please an audience who already agrees with you?” I asked my composition students this past Friday. “Whose perspectives are you, then, changing? Who else are you seeking to understand, save for the homogenized group with whom you already stand?”

In other words: What’s the point of speaking if we’re not listening? What’s the point of listening if we’re only listening to have our views reinforced?

All this said, I work to foster discussions with my students on how other writers do/don’t pull off the skill of sympathy/empathy in their writing. And while rhetorical analysis discussions often go over quite well, there are some sensitive topics that every semester, without fail, have proven debilitating for my opinionated, otherwise thoroughly chatty students to discuss—particularly race, religion and gender.

Within these past two weeks, for example, we’ve broken down the rhetoric of the new Nike commercial with Colin Kaepernick, as well as an article that discusses changing views of feminism and the notion of “post-feminism.” And although, with these two topics, I was simply asking students to break down the rhetoric of other writers’ writing, they quieted with what I assume to be the fear of them not wanting to stir the pot, of them not feeling confident in discussing their opinions about the issues these works were seeking to address.

“All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” 

How do I guide my students to do something?

Bearing this in mind, I found the Arao and Clemens “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces” piece genuinely helpful, as the article offers advice on how to approach diversity and social justice learning activities—primarily through establishing ground rules, through, as Banaji argues, recognizing and dealing with the fact that we are not yet the perfectly “good” people we want to be as means for self-improvement; through, as Burke says, doing something.

As inferred from their title, Arao and Clemens propose revising language from the notion of the “safe space” to that of the “brave space” in order “to help students better understand—and rise to—the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues.” Why the change in title? Because, with respect to safe spaces, Arao and Clemens report that they have found “with increasing regularity that participants invoke in protest the common ground rules associated with the idea of safe space when the dialogue moves from polite to proactive”; when the authors asked students about their rationales for their actions, the common theme of their responses was this: “a conflation of safety with comfort.” In proposing a stronger methodology for creating a space in which students can most productively discuss, the authors ask “What is meant by the concept of safety, and how does that change based on the identities in the room?”

In order to support learning that supports participants in authentic engagement, Arao and Clemens argue, “educators must take care to balance contradiction to a student’s current way of thinking with positive encouragement to explore new ways of thinking,” and, most interestingly,  that “authentic learning about social justice often requires the very qualities of risk, difficulty, and controversy that are defined as incompatible with safety,” and that “the language of safety may actually encourage entrenchment in privilege.”

So, how exactly do we, as educators, go about encouraging students arriving with diverse ranges of privilege and from diverse backgrounds, in general, to engage in a high-risk activity such as discussion of sensitive topics?

Arao and Clemens propose this:

  • Build conditions in which agent group members understand and expect from the outset that challenge is forthcoming
  • Use “brave space” as the alternative term
  • Have discussions about the meaning of “safe” vs. “brave” spaces with students prior to engaging in difficult conversations (“Creating this space for the participants to make their own meaning of brave space,” Arao and Clemens found, “in addition to sharing our own beliefs as facilitators, can lead to rich learning in alignment with our justice-related objectives.”)
  • Collectively establish ground rules, guiding students toward rules that advance productive discussions (examples include “Controversy with civility,” “Own your intentions and your impact,” and detailed illustrations of the meaning of “Respect” and “No attacks”)

When I taught creative writing through Duke University’s Talent Identification Program this summer, I established ground rules on day one…and this, I now believe, was because I had apparently expected my middle schoolers to be different from my undergraduate students; I presumed their maturity levels warranted a greater need to establish classroom expectations. From the first day, we discussed what a healthy environment looked like, penned rules on a giant piece of paper, taped the piece to the wall as a reminder to be revisited for the entire term, and signed the sheet—a contract, of sorts.

I still stand by the notion that my twelve-year-olds are different from my nineteen-year-olds with respect to maturity, but why would I believe that nineteen-year-olds—that adults of all ages, in general—don’t need to have discussions regarding how to best conduct ourselves in sensitive discussions? Clearly, there’s not an age when humans reach a proficiency in communication skills, in sensitivity training, in productive, change-inducing conversation. If there were, the world, I’d imagine, would look quite different. This is something we should consider for all students—for all communicating bodies, in general: productive conversations about how to best have productive conversations.