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Are You Creating Space for Honest Conversations About Race?

There are conversations that I’ve refrained from having and some emotions that I’ve never fully expressed at work — for the sake of wanting to maintain professionalism.

Throughout my career, I can recall times when I didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, even while I felt isolated and uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be perceived as the black employee making issues about race. I didn’t want to be labeled, misunderstood or perceived as having a bias, especially while working in newsrooms.

And now as protests erupt in every state and across the world, millions of people are publicly rejecting racism and the killing of black people at the hands of law enforcement. Against this backdrop, you have some black employees who feel conflicted about speaking out and about how their words might be misconstrued. They fear that they will be perceived as being biased. They’ve been told that speaking up and speaking out will diminish their chances of future employment.

As a government employee, what you can and cannot say while at work is a separate conversation for another day (a topic we will actually be diving into in a later post). Race should not be a political issue, but it is. This can make matters all the more painful and stressful, especially now.

What black employees working in government feel at this moment cannot fit neatly into one sentence or a hashtag. I cannot and will not generalize the range of thoughts and emotions that each individual feels, but here are some things that I have read and heard: tired, numb, angry and emotions so complex that they can’t fully describe them.

I have seen social media posts and a level of vulnerability and sadness that I am not used to seeing publicly, and it cut deep. The bravery and multiple re-writes it must have taken for them to share their emotions, I know all too well because I have struggled to write this piece.

They are having those uncomfortable conversations — publicly. My question: Are fellow employees, managers, directors and agency heads creating space for those conversations and following up with actions?

Here’s an excerpt from a very open and deeply personal statement that local government employee Christian Williams wrote to the Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) community on behalf of the organization’s board:

“I never imagined I would have to provide so much education to people who have little to no idea what is going on or why hearts are so heavy. I never thought I would have to justify my blackness or discuss with people, publicly and openly all of the vulnerable times I felt unsafe or sad.”

He goes on to say, “We are all different, despite our shared commonality, we all have different stories, different fears, different hopes and different experiences. We all have different needs. We are not a one-size fits all people and the solution and our needs will not be one-size fits all.”

I was heartened to see that a black woman in my network who works for the government said that she scheduled a meeting with her chief information officer to discuss the unprecedented challenges, given the pandemic, global recessions and nationwide unrest.

Kaleth O. Wright is another individual whose words I could not stop replaying in my mind. Please read his entire Twitter thread here.

Air Force Times reported that Wright “announced an independent review of the service’s justice system after a series of scathing reports that showed it disproportionately punishes young black airmen.”

Marc Ott, Executive Director of ICMA, an association of local government professionals, wrote this in an email to members:

“We as local government leaders focus on building trust and creating an environment where all our residents feel safe. Yet as these incidents continue to erupt, it often feels like African Americans have targets on our backs. As city, county, and town managers who set the tone in the organizations that you manage by the standards you establish, the selection of professionals to lead your departments and your community-wide efforts, you have both the opportunity and responsibility to advance equity and inclusion.”

As a black man, Ott said he feels angry that there is continued inequity and disparity in the treatment of people of color by those who hold power. He ended his email with these words: “Great social changes often come from turmoil and we as local government leaders can lead that transformation. We can create the kinds of communities we envision, where everyone can flourish.”

So why am I sharing these examples with you? What do I want you to take away from this piece? What can you do now? 

Speak up. For the managers and senior leaders reading this, your silence is deafening. Even if you don’t have all the words to say, a heartfelt acknowledgment goes a long way. Do not shy away from openly addressing your team and your department about the civil unrest. Don’t shy away from the fact that this is an extremely emotional and traumatic time for black people, especially for employees who regularly experience racism.

Now is not the time for canned statements. Use your words wisely, and if you cannot find words of empathy, stop and ask yourself why that’s the case. Is there such a disconnect between you and those you work alongside that you cannot — even on the most basic human level — try to understand the pain of another?

Listen with empathy. No, every black employee is not ready to suddenly pour their hearts out, particularly those who have felt oppressed and mistreated at work. But there must be a safe space for all employees to have these honest conversations and to be heard. This movement is about more than a hashtag. If black lives truly matter, is that reflected in leadership, your team and the voices who help make decisions about how you serve a diverse nation? Also, seek to understand what allyship looks like in your office? How are you using your influence, your words and your actions for good and to include colleagues who are marginalized?

I’ll leave you with these words from Doris Truong, who serves as Director of Training and Diversity for the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization. Although these words are directed to newsroom managers, I think they are applicable to government leaders as well.

“My fellow managers, really listen. Give us the space to tell our stories in our way. We can be fair and accurate — but we should not abandon part of ourselves along the way. Reexamine what you mean when you ask us to be objective. Build a bigger table so more of us can be involved in decisions. And learn to sit with discomfort.

Together, we can create the newsrooms that our audiences deserve.”

I’ve shared my experience, and I want to give our community the opportunity to do the same. What are you doing to create space for dialogue in your office? What follow-up actions are you taking? What change do you want to see in your office, and how can GovLoop support you?

Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash

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Profile Photo Jennifer Shillcox

Thank you for your courage in writing this. I am a white supervisor and have been wanting to engage my staff in conversations about racism and equality. I’ve been struggling with how to structure the conversations, and I’m scared I won’t have the right words or know how to facilitate honest conversations where everyone feels safe expressing their thoughts and feelings. I’m afraid I will say something ignorant or inadvertently insensitive and make it worse. I am also an introvert and many in my team are introverts – it’s really hard to get them to open up, especially about something so personal. But you’re right, now is the time for action and we have to commit the time and emotional energy to make it happen. Do you have any advice on how to start those conversations and create that space? What questions to ask? Are these conversations best in large groups, smaller groups, one-on-one, or a mix? I am most interested in creating a culture of acceptance, support, and respect where it’s not only acceptable, but encouraged to openly discuss racism, equality, and inclusion. Luckily, I work in a state agency that supports those ideals, but it’s up to me as a manager to make sure it is happening on the ground with my team. Thank you again. I really appreciate your help.

Profile Photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Hi Jennifer, thank you for reading and for really taking the post to heart. Above all, I really wanted my story to help others. The fact that you are truly wanting to connect with your team and create a safe space for dialogue and change tells me a lot about the care and empathy you have for your team. At GovLoop, we are using a combination of larger group discussions for leadership to share with the team, but then we continue that discussion in smaller team meetings and one-on-one check-ins with team members. We recently created a Slack channel for people to share articles, ideas, happenings in their community and things we are doing individually and as a team to not only talk about change but to make changes. I think the key for supervisors is to really connect with their teams on a human level with empathy, and that opens the door for honest conversations. For supervisors who have never connected with their teams, it is going to take work to build trust. Being honest with the team about wanting to connect but not knowing the best way shows a level of vulnerability that breeds trust. Even if people don’t immediately respond, they are listening. You’ve given me some good points to address in a follow-up piece. I’d love to continue the conversation, and I’m happy to chat/help where I can [email protected]

Profile Photo Lisa Salinas

Thank you for this piece. It’s taken lots of open conversations with several Black people in my life for me, as a white person, to finally begin to see and understand on some level how much racism affects your every single day. Without these safe conversations, I could never have begun to see the truth of what you experience. It was easy for me to dismiss the racism complaints as people “getting worked up over silly things,” or “seeing racism where it didn’t exist.” Now I understand that more often than not, it is I who does not see racism where it does exist. Only the openness of some beautiful souls who shared their experiences with me has allowed me to see reality more clearly. It all begins with a conversation.

Many blessings to you and all whom you love.

Profile Photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Hi Lisa, thank you for reading and for sharing your experiences. We need more of this, listening and a willingness to try to understand. It can be easy to dismiss what we do not experience, but that’s how things remain the same. Keep having those conversations and being an agent for change. Thank you for those blessings, and I speak the same thing over you and your family.

Profile Photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thank you for reading, Tessie. We have such a vibrant community, and I’m looking forward to the meaningful conversations and positive changes that are coming. I’m also looking forward to all the wisdom you’ll be sharing about your government experience with our community.