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Self-Care for Facilitating Conversations about RacismJuly 13, 2018

I began my self-care coaching business as way to teach others about the self-care habits that sustained me through the toughest moments of my life. My first few sessions went peacefully, but as I gained more facilitation skills through Ten Directions’ Integral Facilitation certification, I noticed a few small interpersonal conflicts arising within the members of my community. Perhaps they hadn’t been there before, or maybe I could only bring myself to pay attention when I was actually capable of dealing with them. As I worked with the discomfort that arose from each one, I saw we were all growing – the clients I worked with, me as a leader, and our community as a whole.

Then, last summer, a member of my community posted an article in our online forum about the racism that exists within mostly-white spiritual communities (which ours mostly is). Suddenly, the back-and-forth messages started pouring in. Our normally respectful and supportive group began attacking each other over the language we used to talk about racism and tactics we suggested for unpacking white privilege. At the time, I was nine months pregnant and feared the worst: after my maternity leave, I would come back to find our normally-safe self-care space had crumbled to pieces within this conversation.

That didn’t happen. I had my baby and when I plugged back into my work a few months later, saw that our community was still together and a real conversation about racism was as needed as before. Part of me wanted to avoid having it – talking about racism is extremely uncomfortable for most of us and I didn’t feel exactly qualified to take people to those places – but I knew that I had been presented with an opportunity too important to pass by.

As a facilitator, I knew I needed help. I asked two other members of my self-care community – both women of color – to lead with me. We organized a three-part in-person conversation series about racism and self-care. Over the next six months, our team planned, facilitated, and processed a very challenging series of conversations that took us deeper into our own internal biases and external realities regarding racism. We faced layer upon layer of discomfort as we peeled back our defenses. We laughed in unexpected moments, and cried in others. The results were imperfect and powerful and undoubtedly helped us to grow as both human beings and a community.

If you are considering facilitating conversations about racism in your own work – and I hope you are considering this kind of facilitation right now – you will have to chart a course that feels authentic to you and your community. However, I want to offer the self-care techniques that we employed while diving into such an emotionally-charged subject. They helped hold us through the rocky terrain of digging very deeply into ourselves and changing perceptions from our very core. I hope they can guide you to greater depths in yourself and in your communities.

Learn the alphabet
Before a child can learn to read words, she must have a working knowledge of the letters. This is the same principle that guides having challenging conversations. Before we dive into triggering subject matter – like racism – we have to make sure our audience is capable of having a satisfying exchange in a regular conversation. Often this means practicing the basic skills: listening, sharing, asking questions, understanding emotions, self-regulation of these emotions, and being vulnerable. Without these building blocks of communication, it’s hard to even decide where to go for dinner, let alone tackle systematic oppression. My self-care coaching work centers around these practices, so as a group we were already fairly prepared for more challenging subject matter. If your group needs more support in this area, take 10-20 minutes to practice a few listening skills before beginning a difficult conversation. A little focused modeling and practice can make a huge difference in group cohesion and capacity for challenge.

Establish your norms
Before our group came together for the first conversation, one of my co-facilitators, Elsa, stressed the importance of setting strong norms. The members of our community were already comfortable practicing the principles of mutual support and embodied listening as forms of self-care, but Elsa sensed we needed further norms to go deeper into a conversation about racism. She began listing guidelines that would might help our participants – almost all of them white – feel safe enough to open up in places where they normally shut down, such as talking about race and white privilege. A few that worked effectively for us were: “allowing messy first drafts,” “being ok with being uncomfortable,” “assuming good will”, and “speaking our whole truth”. Our shared norms, and the ability to use them as shorthand vocabulary in charged moments, acted as powerful self-care tools. These tools helped us to explore the riskier terrain of confronting internal racism with a greater depth and authenticity.

Find the right balance
Our facilitation team spent two months carefully mapping out our first conversation. We developed a plan to spend our time together unpacking the concept of “whiteness” and how it shapes our identities and our world. But when the day came, the conversation never seemed to take off. Even though we all participated in the discussion, I noticed the women were staying in the intellectual space, probably because it felt safer than surfacing difficult emotions. As a facilitator, I noticed myself feeling distracted, edgy and exhausted, which is always my sign that a lot of shadow energy is present. We were feeling a lot, but we just weren’t talking about it.

Over the next two conversations, we planned less and created more space for emergence. We asked our participants to go more deeply into their emotions, using our leadership as facilitators to redirect the conversation when it felt too cerebral. The result was that we opened up much more and built connection from this intimacy. We were then able to brainstorm consciousness responses issues surrounding racism while hiring new employees, ideas for confronting racist family members, and ways to value the work of caretaking (often associated with non-white races). After, our team agreed that we had broken through a big barrier and gone to new level of emotional honesty. This meant trusting ourselves and trusting the group energy in unprecedented ways.

Finally, expand your definition of self-care
After more than six months of work, three conversations and a lot of new awareness, it was time to finish our discussion series. We made plans to continue the racism and self-care conversation in the near future, but before then, we needed to find closure for this experience. This felt particularly challenging because it seemed like we were just beginning. The more we pulled at the threads of racism, culture and identity, the more that unraveled in our own psyches.

Having an open discussion around white supremacy and racism showed us, particularly as white women, how much our culture has been built around systems of oppression. Opening to the full truth of racism, and particularly how we have benefited from it, is an extremely complex and often painful reality. Personally, I’ve felt a lot more uncomfortable since understanding the way racism works in my life. And while our conversations on racism brought the group some relief, they did not make us feel like better people. Rather, our sessions and our shared self-care norms developed our capacity to hold our discomfort as we moved toward greater empathy for another.

These conversations highlight something I’ve been discovering about self-care for a while:  Rather than take away my pain, self-care helps me access not just my own pain, but the pain of all people in the form of compassion. I’ve come to see the greatest form of self-care is caring for other people from a grounded and connected place in myself. Striking this balance of caring for myself and for others isn’t easy. It’s messy and imperfect. And yet, it’s needed now more than ever to meet the challenges of our time, like racism. Armed with self-care, I believe we can meet these challenges with awareness and work together to bring about authentic healing. Without a strong foundation of self-care to guide us, I fear we will get lost along the way.

Gracy Obuchowicz is a Washington, DC-based group facilitator, retreat leader and self-care coach. She helps overwhelmed professional women find a deeper work/life balance and live their way into real purpose with strength and ease.  Learn more about her work and sign up for her weekly self-care newsletter at www.selfcarewithgracy.com

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