Our organization serves people from different ages and backgrounds in the same facility. Cutbacks in services have resulted in increased tension in the community we serve. Recently we have had some conflict over the use of space for program activities. In one incident, an older white male community member told a group of male youth of color to leave a recreational space so he could use it. When they did not leave immediately, he called one of the youth a _______ (overtly racist term). We have already taken measures to make sure that this individual does not repeat the offense. We had conversations with all of the youth involved and their parents. What else can we do to respond to this incident as an opportunity for shared learning and strengthen our commitment to multiculturalism? We want to address the issue in our community while protecting the confidentiality of the individuals who were involved.
Thank you for sharing this challenge. My colleague, Robin Tucker, has assisted me in writing this response. Tensions related to culture, power and difference often bubble under the surface in organizations, even if they aren’t acknowledged. When they come out into the open, there is an opportunity to respond, rather than react. For example, you may choose to renew your commitment to creating an environment where everyone is welcome, respected and safe. You may also make a commitment to strengthening connections and understanding between different groups within the community you serve. Here are some ideas we would like to offer:
Send a clear message. It is important for the agency to send a clear message to the community that it is taking this incident seriously and is committed to providing a safe environment for all people who are part of the community served. A foremost concern is the safety of the young people who were targeted in this incident. The safety of all people, particularly those who are most likely to be harassed or mistreated, should also be considered.
Engage the people who were directly involved. Talk to the youth and their families as well as the staff involved and explore how to work together to create a safe environment for young people of color. It is important not to treat the youth as victims, but to engage them as valued partners. Make clear commitments regarding what you will do as an agency.
Create an opportunity for forgiveness and dialogue. It is important to remember that we have all been influenced by the “isms” in society. None of us are completely “above” being racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, ageist, etc. While racist behavior should not be tolerated, it is important to create an environment where people are not vilified for showing their “isms.” South Africa has given us an example of reconciliation in an intensely racist environment. Consider that reconciliation is possible and can be very powerful. Listen to all perspectives without labeling the person who made the racist statement the “bad guy.” Is there willingness on his part to grow and learn? If he is willing to take responsibility for his actions and understand the impact on the youth, the hurtful experience could potentially be turned into a positive one.
Build staff capacity to respond proactively. Find out from the staff members who were involved what support they need. Were they personally impacted or triggered? Did they have knowledge and skills to deal with the incident? Are there clear policies to guide the agency response? Is there training that might build staff capacity and confidence in responding to such incidents? What is staff role in fostering multicultural understanding so that people in the community treat each other with respect?
Clarify organizational policies and values. Does the agency have explicit values and policies around multiculturalism and respectful conduct towards all people? If not, here’s an opportunity to create them. If you have values and policies, revisit them and renew your commitment at all levels of the agency. If the Board of Directors, managers and staff engage in theses discussions, you will learn from multiple perspectives and encourage shared responsibility for implementation. Make sure that everyone is aware of the agency commitments and able to implement them. Discuss how you can be more proactive in bringing your values to the work and the community you serve.
Engage the community in dialogue. Consider conducting a dialogue to engage staff and community in learning and sharing responsibility for building a safe, respectful environment for all people. You may wish to mention that a few things have happened that are of concern (incidents where race, gender, age have been a factor) without focusing on a specific incident. Talk about how to be a successful multicultural community. Do some deep thinking together about systemic issues that impact the community. Discuss how people in the community want to relate to each other. Here are some examples of questions to discuss:
- How do we create an environment where we value what everyone brings?
- How do we create an environment were we acknowledge and overcome fear of the others because they are different?
Get the support you need. Finally, the leaders in your organization have been given a tremendous opportunity for learning and growth. Practice self-awareness. Be aware of your own reactions, thoughts, feelings and needs. Recognize and seek the support you need in navigating this journey.
All our best to you!
I invite you to e-mail me at email@example.com with topics that come up in your work. As a special incentive, I will provide 3 hours of free consultation to organizations that send me topics or “Dear Laurin” letters that I use for future commentaries.