Maintaining Grace in Challenging Contexts & Navigating Difficult Conversations | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
MSW Student Jonathan Rieck
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Maintaining Grace in Challenging Contexts & Navigating Difficult Conversations

I would like to start by addressing the fact that I am a cisgender white male talking about the importance of providing grace to each other in difficult spaces. This may seem a bit problematic; my identities are traditionally privileged, and I can only empathize with those who hold oppressed identities and learn from their lived experiences. However, with the knowledge I gain from my relationships, I have learned from the voices that are often dismissed, and I can partner in allyship while providing my own reflection of my experiences in this process. 

As well, I would like to clarify that this message is intended for people who hold traditionally privileged identities. Through calling in people with identities similar to my own, I hope to share some thoughts important for each of us to consider. To readers who hold traditionally oppressed identities, this message is not a request for you to show those of us with privileged identities more grace when we make mistakes or facilitate negatively impacting situations.

Social work, public health and social policy are intrinsically values-based. As students and emerging practitioners, we often feel intrinsically tied to those values and the change-making work it motivates them to do. In fact, this value-driven motivation uniquely equips us to enter our fields, engage in difficult conversations with our peers and colleagues, and collaborate to create meaningful impact.

Still, without a shadow of doubt, there are times in which those difficult, values-based conversations can turn from constructive dialogue into dismissive debates -- often through microaggressions, a difference in knowledge and experience, identity salience, and discomfort in confronting issues of systemic inequity, power and privilege.

Due to the highly personal nature of these conversations, it is critical we maintain a mindset of grace as we “lean into discomfort.” Instead of running away from what we feel, or shutting down others when we find ourselves on different pages, we should own these vulnerable moments and work together to find community, commonality and conscientiousness. This requires that people with traditionally privileged identities take a step back, listen, and genuinely empathize with people who have different and equally valid experiences.

Everyone has a role to play in this work and it is vital that each of us engages in these uncomfortable spaces. As difficult or scary as it may seem, we owe it to ourselves and our fields to take that next step into a more nuanced, enriched understanding. Learning and growth are just beyond the periphery of discomfort.

This is something we call a “brave space,” or an area where people are encouraged to engage in critical and difficult conversations. When our peers or clients enter into that brave space to share their experiences, it’s important to honor their sharing and use this knowledge in constructive ways.

It’s equally important to call each other in and hold each other accountable for missteps during these conversations. But, we must find a way to do so that steers away from shaming or guilting. I like to believe that people in the context of the Brown School enter conversations from a place of good intentions, and we need to learn and understand how to recover from the impact made by course correcting and fostering connection. The importance of human relationships is vital to beginning any process of change; by providing grace to each other, we can leverage our connections to create impact within our own communities. (We are often so incredibly kind to our clients, communities and friends—but do not offer the same grace to ourselves or our peers in challenging conversations). By showing grace to each other, we take an important step in creating a strong and productive learning environment.

While there is no such thing as “the perfect social justice advocate” for people with traditionally privileged identities, we can strive for excellence, we can be empathetic, and, most important, we can be learners. We can be mindful of things such as: the space we take, when to make space for others, the language we use, how the identities we hold are privileged, and the voices that are missing at the table. These considerations will help empower us to be partners in advocacy.

It is in our best interest to listen to those with lived experiences, as the knowledge from these challenging contexts are not something that can be taught in a book or a PowerPoint presentation. We must give grace to those with oppressed identities for sharing their experiences, we must give grace to ourselves when we make mistakes, and we must give grace to the learning process. These moments will further us into our cultural sensitivity, provide opportunities for greater empathy and connection, and help create understanding of experiences that differ from our own. It is important for us to listen to our colleagues, validate our classmates when they share their lived experiences with us and continue to do our own research and learning throughout this process.

There’s really no way to end this conversation, as this process is always ongoing. There is no way to be culturally “competent,” and allyship is something that is constantly earned and strived toward. We must remain diligent, open and engaged in these conversation. And, most importantly, we must remember to show grace to ourselves and others.

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