Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reflections on the GTRC's Community Dialogue

The following are personal reflections by Jill Williams (GTRC Exec. Dir.) on Saturday’s community dialogue and do not represent the views of anyone else associated with the GTRC:

Our community dialogue this weekend did basically what the Commission had hoped. It offered the nearly 150 community members who participated and/or volunteered an opportunity to get to know some people they hadn’t known before, share their perspectives about the events of November 3, 1979, and hear others, and begin generating and sharing ideas for how to make Greensboro a stronger community based, hopefully, on a better understanding of this tragic history. In doing these things, the event certainly moved us in the direction of seeking truth and working for reconciliation. The mayor and others previously unengaged in or opposed to this process even showed up, a fact several have pointed to as proof of the progress of the truth and reconciliation process.

With these goals realized, I’ve had a hard time understanding my own unsettled feelings about the success of the event, two aspects of which I’ll try to describe below.

First, my expectations for the day were unrealistic. Although eight hours was a long time to ask participants to attend an event on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, it was not enough time for the group to adequately engage with each other about what happened on November 3, 1979, and to generate lists of issues and recommendations directly or indirectly linked to those events and still relevant in the city of Greensboro. In addition, the structure was not as inclusive as it should have been. In an evaluation, one participant noted, “The rules and structure of this event seemed more conducive for participation of people of privilege than for that of many of the ‘grassroots’ at the bottom.” Perhaps more of the day should have been dedicated to the “open mic” session we had at the end of the day where anyone could address their thoughts to the large group (although I see inclusivity problems with that model as well). Although one of the two simply stated goals of the GTRC is “seeking truth,” I’m starting to think that an equally important goal is creating a space where people can speak the truth and be heard.

This brings me to the second aspect of the day that left me feeling unsettled. Having issued several different invitations to the mayor and city council members to attend our public hearings and this community dialogue, we were all delighted that Mayor Holliday and Councilwoman Burroughs-White attended Saturday’s event and that the mayor shared a few reflections with the participants when he arrived(see Chewie’s
post for a transcript). My unsettled feeling came after the mayor made his remarks and then sat down to listen to other participants’ reflections.

Having been raised in the South as a middle class white woman, I’m fluent in the language of civility that seeks to minimize divisions and conflicts. As the executive director of the GTRC and one of the many who personally invited many of Saturday’s participants (including the mayor), I felt a bit like a hostess for the day, responsible for the comfort of the guests. When people began responding to the mayor’s remarks and presence with their own perspectives that were often critical of Mr. Holliday personally, I felt paralyzed. On the one hand, I wanted to affirm those guests who had the courage to stand up and speak the truth as they understood it even if speaking it did challenge a powerful person in our community. On the other hand, I felt this strange (though not surprising) desire to protect the mayor from at least one participant’s comment: “Lead us, follow us, or get out of our way.” I felt protective first, because I believe that the mayor has said in the past that he would like nothing more than to “get out of our way” and second (and probably more to the point), because I am sure the comment made him feel uncomfortable.

In retrospect, I realize that my intuitively protective attitude toward the mayor at this event was unproductive for at least two reasons. First, if I had acted on it, it could have kept the speaker from being heard in that moment; like I said, I believe that allowing people to speak the truth and be heard is the most important first step in this TRC process. Second, my intuitive response dehumanized the mayor because it ignored the fact that he is an adult who chose to come to this event and to listen to people’s unfiltered comments. Any attempt to try to filter those statements (however well intentioned the attempt would be) would ultimately subvert this work towards truth and reconciliation.

In the end, my unsettled feelings about the event are probably symptoms of the fact that the greatest obstacle to seeking truth and working for reconciliation in this event was me, or at least my intuition (a) to create a structure for the discussions to keep them on track and “safe” and (b) to make sure everyone felt comfortable. Everyone else was doing his or her job. Participants, including the mayor, came ready to speak and to listen.

I share these reflections in a public way not only to try to enhance the
transparency of this process, but also because I think that my unsettled feelings about the community dialogue are probably not so different from many people’s unsettled feelings about the entire truth and reconciliation process. In the search for truth and reconciliation, we all have to examine our own behaviors to figure out how we are maintaining systems that keep people from being able to speak and hear each others’ truths. Such examination is unsettling and, for some of us, it is much easier to keep looking ahead and outward to plan for the future rather than looking back to history or inward at our own actions and intuitions so that we can make more fundamental changes.


Blogger Tony Ledford said...

Don't know how I missed this seven months ago, Jill, but it is in many ways an analog to the whole damn thing (GTRC) and how it has made so many of us damned with "good breeding" who nonetheless know what needs to be done (in terms of reconciliation and healing) so uncomfortable and awkward when dealing with those determined to wish 11/3/79 away altogether.

Anyway, good meeting you last Tuesday at the N&R. Hope Lex keeps the ball rolling.

9:49 PM  

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