• P. J. Strand & M. Kopell

Civity Helps People in Arlington, VA in Challenging Racism

Civity is helping people in Arlington, VA, learn how to facilitate complex and challenging discussions on race.

Marty Swaim, co founder of Challenging Racism, says it works through facilitated conversation groups that “build a community of people who, whenever the subject of race comes up, they don’t run away. They stay there and they listen and they engage.” With patience and persistence, Challenging Racism helps “people not be afraid.”

This summer, Challenging Racism’s Marty Swaim invited Civity co-founder Palma Strand to train new facilitators in how to practice Civity in their work.

Swaim says Civity is fundamental to the work of Challenging Racism.

“One of the powers of the Civity idea of intentional conversations with other people you seek out in the community is that you can build relationships that can potentially be very influential outside traditional organizations, which are often very hierarchical,” Swaim said.

Challenging Racism involves people “who have an interest in participating in conversations on race and carrying those conversations to workplaces, their families, school environments, into other places,” said Swaim. “These are people who have thought about this subject and are very focused on their relationship to the community.”

Civity helps people be intentional, empathetic, and open. Swaim said once she learned about Civity, a light bulb went off in her head.

“I think it’s a game changer within the community,” she said. “It’s probably one of the oldest ideas in the world, but somehow, like other things, we haven’t been taking it seriously in our current political and community organizations. We’re more into structures and less into relationships. This is a way of rethinking that.”

The hour-long Civity training took people through the fundamentals of interacting intentionally with each other, as well as how to reach out to someone who may be an “other.” Swaim notes that Civity gives people permission to “invite that person to talk a little bit about themselves by sharing something that they may not know when they look at you about you that’s important and inviting them to do the same.”

Swaim said people really connected with the potential of this idea. “People don’t have much practice at listening. They don’t have much practice at asking questions that open up another person.” Civity offers a way to change conversations simply through the questions we ask. “How do you ask questions that aren’t judgmental, that are essentially conversational…questions of genuine interest?” In the training debrief this summer, one question was, “when can we do more of this?”

Challenging Racism’s core group, currently consisting of Swaim and some part-time volunteers, has seen an increase in the demand for training at schools, churches, and other places. So they decided to train more facilitators.

“One fantasy is that in this metropolitan area, the usefulness of the materials and the co-facilitation model and the training that we do can be extended to other people who can do the same thing,” she said. “It’s not like we’re all rocket scientists…. You can learn to do these conversations on race with people, and you can do them so that it actually changes people’s behavior. That’s a powerful idea.”

“There are people who are willing to invest… and they can work in the communities where they are,” said Swaim. “It just made sense to me that if we’re moving this to a different level in terms of our organization’s ability to engage people then the next step of Civity Conversations is a totally natural fit.”

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