Talking about race means getting comfortably uncomfortable

Carlos Barcenas on the first steps to deeper conversations on race: showing up, being intentional, allowing discomfort, and relaxing.

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And here we are – March 2021! I am sure many of you are looking forward to gatherings and get-togethers where we will once again hang out with friends, family, and strangers like we used to do in February 2020.

I’m an extrovert and someone that recharges by being with people. In the past year, I had the opportunity to learn and adapt by jumping into the virtual world of public speaking and facilitating through my computer.

Among all the events that happened in 2020, the racial unrest in our country gave me the opportunity to hold space and bring people together into something that I call uncomfortable comfortable conversations about race. I also facilitated workshops about diversity, equity, and inclusion.

There’s an old African proverb: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I like to add one more line: “If you want to go deeper and create sustainable change, sometimes you must go slower, sometimes alone, and sometimes with others.” It can be intimidating engaging in this work in the midst of an election, amid racial and social unrest, all with the backdrop of a global pandemic. In creating space for uncomfortable-comfortable conversations with community members and leaders from rural Nebraska, I learned there is a need for connection and being heard.

So where do we begin when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work?  We begin right where you are.

By taking a deep breath, and now releasing your shoulders from your ears, unclenching your jaw, and removing your tongue from the roof of your mouth, just relax. Keep in mind that this is non-closure work – which means our goal is to continue the journey of making “it” better than it was before.

It takes time. It is intentional. And it takes all of us.

After George Floyd’s death, Connecting Young Nebraskans – a network of 900-plus people from around the state – created a series of conversations called “All Voices at the Table.” It, too, created space for uncomfortable-comfortable conversations about race.

During the series, Black community members shared their experiences and journeys in Nebraska amid racial unrest. Before we dived deeper into the series, we spent time creating the space, sharing group agreements, and challenging one another to lean into these conversations. The following lists are the responses from participants who showed up, were intentional, and allowed themselves to be a bit uncomfortable.

The question: What do I need from me – and from others – to lean into conversations about race?

(red: from me; purple: from others)

Now: What about you?

Take a deep breath. And ask yourself: What do I need from me, and from others, to lean into conversations about race?

Carlos Barcenas of Grand Island is a speaker, coach, and facilitator focusing on intercultural leadership development and helping community leaders create a deeper connection across differences and commonalities. He has been a Nebraskan since 1994 and works with people from all over the world who now call Nebraska home.

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