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The Courage to Converse

By Mary Marczak, Director of Urban Family Development and Evaluation

Over the three days of the 2016 Qualey-Skjervold Professional Development Conference last week, we heard from some amazing speakers. But I found the greatest moments of inspiration — the ones I call “goose bumpy” moments — came from our own staff. Joyce’s challenge to us not to minimize people’s experiences by using sanitized language, like the word “incident” instead of “murder.” Jose’s humbling story of poverty and homelessness, and his show of grace in telling the story and expressing gratitude to work in Extension. Noelle’s impassioned plea for us not to ignore systemic racism and injustices in our own organization.

Program Leader Mary Jo Katras and I reflecting between speakers.

As a person of color with personal trauma experiences of living on the streets and then in a series of orphanages in Seoul, South Korea; moving to a new country; and being the first non-white person to live in a small Minnesota community, these conversations and insights are rarely new to me. I have held others’ stories of resilience and courage in my heart to strengthen my own resilience. So the moment that surprised me most came when Gloria raised her hand and asked a question. In the midst of all our feel-good talk about treating participants as consultants, recognizing communities’ assets, and getting to know people’s stories and incorporating them into our teaching, Gloria asked about the discomfort she feels when teaching in an ELL setting and learners converse in their own language. She wondered out loud whether to perceive this as rude behavior, and asked for guidance and conversation.

And just like that: goose bumps. Here was a real life example of discomfort, something that must have bothered Gloria for quite some time as she has done tremendous amount of work with diverse populations and some of the poorest communities in her region. At that moment, I thought to myself, “FINALLY!!”

I felt a flicker of hope that if Gloria felt she could speak of her discomfort to a large group, then maybe others in Family Development can share their stories or the myths they may have been taught. Maybe we in FD can have uncensored conversations that may make us uncomfortable. Maybe we can learn from each other and teach each other beyond the conference. Maybe we can have the courage to converse in the place that matters most — where we meet our community “consultants.”

Family Development staff members sharing their experiences,

I hope there will be more Glorias who feel courageous enough and safe enough to ask questions that make them a little uncomfortable. I hope we can have these conversations without judging people for sharing their knowledge and experiences.

My colleague Trish Olson sent me an opinion piece by Keith Ellison, a Democratic representative of Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District in the U.S. House, published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on July 13. Representative Ellison’s words may give us courage to continue to hold conversations about what we learned during the conference. He said:

A little candor won’t hurt us. It might just free us. If we can name it and face it, we can change it. But first we have to defend the truth-teller. When myths prevail, stating the obvious is a radical act. And it takes guts. 
(Read the full piece here: Rep. Keith Ellison on race relations: Thank goodness for the governor’s candor.)

Thanks to Gloria, Jose, Noelle, Joyce, and others who spoke up to state the obvious or shared their personal stories. Now, let’s keep talking! Some steps you can take? Leave a comment below with your goose-bumpy moment. Ask a colleague you don’t know as well for their thoughts on the conference. Send an email to your cohort or set up a time for a Google Hangout for a group debrief. However you decide to start, let’s have the courage to converse!

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