Perhaps you’ve heard this term before. Like any term, it can hold different meanings, depending on the speaker and context. Many conversations take courage, to be sure. When I was 17, I had to summon the courage to tell my mom that I’d been in an accident — with her car. When I was in university, I had to summon the courage to go and talk to a professor whose class I was failing. Heart pounding. Face flushing. Jump over my shadow courage.
Yet these conversations aren’t examples of the kind of “Courageous Conversation” I’m talking about. The car, the mark – these were things I could repair and change. So what do we mean, in our school division, as we respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and undertake the Concentus Citizenship Education initiative, when we use the term, “Courageous Conversation”?
Courageous Conversations are about identity – the facets of identity that appear in Section 15, Article 1 of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which reads: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
I’ve been trying to sort out why statements on these subjects are the ones that tend to trigger conversations where people become passionate and often inflict and suffer pain. What makes these topics unique? It’s not just that these things are facets of identity – it’s that they are facets of our identity that we did not ask for and often cannot change – yet which society nonetheless values differently – some higher, some lower; some positively, some negatively. And while we may recognize that inequities exist and admit that they are unjust, we have personally lived with “the unearned advantages and disadvantages” (1) of these facets of our own identities for so long that we instinctively protect them. Opening up a conversation about race, or gender, or religion exposes me, the “me” I’ve so carefully constructed, to profound risk. I may have to scrutinize, perhaps even abandon, beliefs I’ve long-held as true.
That’s why we can feel the current of energy pass through every body in the room when someone in it makes a claim that endorses or challenges an inequity. “Fight or flight” provides us with two options, yet neither is optimal when we have a group of young people in our care, or colleagues in our company, or a curriculum which challenges us to foster critical thinking, compassion, and a justice-orientation in ourselves and our students.
So what other options are available to us? Let’s try a thought-experiment here. Let’s take the attributes of a destructive conversation about difference and then reverse them, and see what happens:
1. Only a few people speak.
2. Speakers and their ideas polarize quickly, sharply.
3. Listeners feel anxious.
4. Relationships are at risk.
5. When it’s done, it’s unlikely that anyone’s thinking has shifted significantly.
Okay, now in reverse:
1. Everyone has a voice.
2. The range of ideas and perspectives is broad and deep.
3. Participants feel safe.
4. Relationships strengthen.
5. When it’s done, it’s likely that many people’s thinking has shifted significantly.
Here’s what we’re discovering as we venture deeper into citizenship education: when it comes to these “hot topics,” never simply say, “discuss.” Why? See the first list above. Giving free reign to unexamined habits of thought and interaction tends to reinforce existing power dynamics in a room, not alter them. Instead, interrupt these habits with discursive strategies that meet the criteria in the second list above.
For the next 4 weeks, look for blog posts on discursive strategies fit to bear the weight of courageous conversations. In the meantime, here’s something to try: when one student jumps to dismiss or clash with a peer’s claim, stop them in their tracks, and ask them to do this first: 1. Paraphrase your peer’s idea to their satisfaction; 2. Pose two questions to learn more about their thinking. Simple strategies like this, rendered habitual through routine use, can turn danger zones into ethical spaces.
(1) See Peggy Macintosh’s 1988 essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”