“No ma;er how they walk through the world, we want
to create spaces where everyone feels they are valued,
seen and heard as part of our community.”
KIM BAKER-FLOWERS, chief diversity o;cer, Portland Community College
THE WAY OF OPENNESS
Leading di;cult conversations about race and identity
requires institutions to set ground rules so that everyone
feels safe—and heard. Here are the rules the Foundation
for Religious Diplomacy uses for candid conversations about
• Be honest. Honesty prompts others to respond in kind, and
it’s only through honesty that real communication can occur.
• Be kind. Kindness goes a long way toward building
• Listen well. This means focusing on what others are
saying, with a desire for true understanding, and not just
thinking about what you want to say in response.
• Share the floor. Give others equal time to speak, even when
you think you are right and they are wrong.
• Presume good will. Honest communication can’t happen
when you presume someone to be stupid or ill-meaning.
• Acknowledge di;erences. Each human is uniquely di;erent, with his or her own history and perspective.
• Answer the tough questions. Again, this builds trust.
• Give credit where it’s due. A sincere compliment from someone with an opposing view can be very powerful.
• Speak only for yourself. Everyone is unique, and we can’t
stereotype or assume that we know what others believe.
• Keep private things private. Being open and honest doesn’t
require you to disclose everything to all people.
person, there is something that we can have
a one-on-one conversation about that would
connect with another ‘ism’ or identity that we
share,” she says. “We’re all interconnected.”
Mitsui describes a training exercise that he and
PCC board members went through in which participants used identity cards to identify themselves
according to di;erent categories, such as race or
ethnicity, gender, geography and income level.
As participants gathered in groups of similar
identities for each category, they began to realize
how many di;erent aspects of our identity there
are—and how many commonalities they shared.
“Every group that I’ve seen participate in this
training is profoundly impacted by it,” he says.
LEAD FROM THE TOP
Summoning the courage to have di;cult conversations about race must start with the leadership
of an institution. “It’s important to have buy-in
from the top and commitment from the board, the
president, the cabinet and the deans,” Mitsui says.
This means committing to exploring the
deep divisions within communities, and not just
sweeping them under the rug.
“The way you create human connection, the way
you accelerate a sense of intimacy, is through a pro-
cess of self-disclosure and listening,” Grenny says.
“That’s what creates mutual trust and respect. And
leaders must be the first to model that. So if there
are divisions, conflicts or problems on campus,
they need to be the ones modeling self-disclosure. If
they’re politicking around it, wallpapering over it or
pretending problems aren’t there, then they become
He concludes: “Almost inevitably, when you
come from a place of curiosity, humility and cour-
age, you end up with some respect for others. Even
though respect is not a precondition of dialogue,
it’s often the fruit of it.”
Through listening and self-disclosure, even
people with strong disagreements can begin to
understand each others’ perspectives—and that
creates a sense of community and connection
“that will change the texture of our campuses.”
Dennis Pierce is an education writer based in Boston.