This is the second blog post in our 2021 Unmuted series dedicated to addressing race, equity, and health justice. The violent and shameful events at our nation’s Capitol last week underscore the urgency of these discussions, and we intend for these posts to be practical and solution-focused. Today’s blog post describes an internal discussion series we launched last year to give staff a space to reflect on the events of 2020. Future posts in the series will feature some of our organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices that aim to translate DEI values into workplace policy, as well as pieces that describe potential practice and policy solutions from our local and national work.
Discussions about DEI seem to be happening all of the time. Large corporations are creating new Chief DEI positions; trainers are being hired to teach organizations about anti-racist practices and unconscious bias. The urgency surrounding these efforts represents significant progress. But, not all organizations are similarly situated as far as their DEI resources or capacity; some organizations may be too small for a DEI Officer; others have done training and are looking for ways to continue DEI discussions on an ongoing basis.
While conversations around racism and implicit bias are not new for our organization, the killing of George Floyd and the many other traumatic incidents that have happened and continue to happen (e.g., the recent storming of our nation’s Capitol), made us think about how we could come together in more routine forums to share and support each other, especially our colleagues most negatively impacted by racism. Without any new resources to support this work and in the midst of COVID, we put our heads together about how to deepen our conversations around ongoing issues of inequity, particularly racial injustice, while simultaneously giving staff the choice they requested as far which discussion to join. We called the discussion series we developed TableTalks.
We are sharing our work on TableTalks because we know we are not alone. Many organizations are looking to deepen their DEI conversations in ways that are both organized and open. We piloted TableTalks this past fall and they were very successful based on staff feedback. We are planning to repeat TableTalks this winter/spring.
How TableTalks Got Started
Pre-COVID, a 2020 Camden Coalition goal was to bring experts to our organization to facilitate conversations on anti-racism and unconscious bias. We had done an organization-wide training some years ago, but were ready (and needed) some new knowledge and perspective. COVID changed everyone’s plans — so we pivoted. This spring/summer, the DEI Committee huddled on how to convene groups of staff more regularly. We wanted to give staff an opportunity to come together virtually in smaller forums to discuss the impact of police brutality, the COVID-19 pandemic, the elections, and more. From October through December, we offered staff the opportunity to discuss these topics in three different structured groups called TableTalks. The goal was to meet the different needs and interests we heard across our entire workforce — some staff did not want to speak about their own experience for a variety of reasons, including it was too painful; other staff wanted to learn more about the history of racism; other staff wanted to talk about their own personal advocacy work.
The sessions were facilitated by Camden Coalition DEI committee members. The three TableTalks were implemented in a series format, occurring once a month via Zoom for one hour during the work day. The overall series goal was for participants to further their knowledge on racism and anti-racism, especially as it relates to our work. This space was also created for staff to connect to, and better understand, each other’s individual lived-experiences. Each session began by highlighting norms for the group to honor during their time together, such as: respecting others’ voice and time, maintaining a safe space, being mindful of our response to other’s vulnerability, assuming best intentions until proven otherwise, and bringing an open-mind to the discussion.
Description of the TableTalk Series
Our three TableTalk offerings are described below; staff were free to join all or none of them. While the process has been voluntary, we have had nearly all staff join for at least one session. Importantly, none of these groups was set up as a place for organizational strategic planning, since that work is done through our DEI committee, and is connected to our organization-wide annual goals planning.
This group was designed for staff that wanted an open and safe space to reflect on current events, share personal experiences, and encourage one another in these difficult times. Specifically, group attendees shared strategies for practicing self-care and personal development goals they would like to identify and make progress on by the end of 2020.
Key discussion topics and takeaways:
- Examples of how people can still experience joy in the midst of adversity and uncertainty
- It’s important to be mindful of what’s on your plate and avoid overwhelming yourself
- Discussion around how to cultivate and harness safe spaces in the workplace (e.g., through active listening, showing empathy, and genuinely caring about someone else’s well-being, being present and showing up for each other)
- Educating ourselves to share our story and be a voice in the room
- Feeling comfortable about being uncomfortable in conversations centered around racial justice and inequalities
- How to support colleagues of color and identify opportunities to support and uplift Black-owned businesses and communities
Expanding Our Knowledge
This group provided the opportunity for staff to learn about or strengthen their understanding of the impact of racism in our country. Participants shared helpful resources in the form of books, podcasts, movies, etc. and collectively selected material to watch and subsequently discuss takeaways and lessons learned.
Key discussion topics and takeaways:
- Examples of things to unlearn or re-teach ourselves due to experiencing life through the lens of the dominant culture
- Importance of highlighting people of color in narrative beyond talking about racism/anti-racism specifically; showcase people of color just living their lives
- Being able to talk through resources is really helpful, as well having space to read recommendations from others and learn from others
- Created a resource summary document that the entire organization may access
Actions Speak Volumes
This group was designed for staff to inform each other about what they were doing or others could do to be an advocate for racial justice and to share examples of their own activism. Another goal of this TableTalk was to cultivate group wisdom to develop and implement a personal plan of action.
Key discussion topics and takeaways:
- Opportunities to take action within one’s sphere of influence
- The challenges of having these conversations with family, friends, and colleagues
- The importance of the breadth and depth of community for healing from racism and other forms of trauma
One key lesson from the TableTalk pilot is that many of us feel alone in our journey to promote social and racial justice, and in unlearning narratives rooted in racism. And yet, even in a virtual environment, it was encouraging for people to hear from others in similar situations and utilize this space as a form of personal accountability. Many also shared how these discussions made them realize their potential to contribute to positive change by building on their personal connections.
One topic that consistently came up across all three TableTalks was the question of how we live out anti-racism in the work that we do. This is a question that we should never stop asking ourselves, even when we think we have the answer.
It is also important to underscore the importance of letting staff choose which conversation they wanted to participate in. A staff person who was interested in activism could talk about that in one forum, but others could choose a different discussion. Choice is really important to staff.
We hope that our experience implementing uniquely structured conversations around racism and social justice will encourage other organizations who may be interested in implementing a similar initiative to further their own DEI work. We believe these conversations are critical to supporting staff morale and creating a positive workplace culture (though we still plan to bring in outside trainers).
We plan to continue TableTalk sessions in 2021 to provide a space for staff to listen, learn, and act before an event happens that necessitates a space for discussion. We asked staff to provide feedback to continue the momentum and improve future iterations of these talks. The Camden Coalition will continue to find new ways to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organization, in local partnerships, and in our national efforts to build robust health ecosystems. This year has shown how dedicated our resilient staff is to furthering this work no matter the circumstance.