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The Beginning of a Conversation

April 25, 2018 in Inside SWS

“How is it for people of color to be in our school? I don’t want to offend anyone.”
“English is not my first language. I don’t know if I am always understood.”
“Wholeness happens when we feel connected to the self and the world.”
“I’m not feeling easy about this. I’m nervous to speak up and ask questions — the school does not always feel inclusive.”
“What is your story?”

These were some of the sentiments expressed on the butcher paper covering our dinner tables at last Friday’s Community Potluck Dinner, hosted by the Community Equity Committee. Over the course of the evening more than 50 parents, faculty, staff, and students engaged in conversation. Topics included what meaning a particular food dish held for them, or to recount an experience where they felt whole. This initial sharing led us toward a culminating discussion of what an inclusive school community might look like — and conversely, what failure might resemble.

I listened to one parent describe the torrential rains experienced during childhood in Bangladesh, noting that the family’s potluck dish was a staple meal, as families could not travel to buy food during the rainy season. Another table partner shared that her family had settled in Nebraska, after previous generations moved north to freedom from slavery and sharecropping. Yet another attendee related her experience of living in Indonesia for a year, feeling drawn to understand its colonial relationship to her homeland. Our conversations felt intimate and authentic — yet these were people I barely knew beyond saying hello on the playground or a wave in the parking lot. And here we were, telling and writing our stories — exposing our hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities — over dinner in a school assembly hall.

We have long known that story is a powerful tool and teacher — it is at the heart of Waldorf Education. In her essay, The Power of Story, Elizabeth Svoboda writes, “Our storytelling ability, a uniquely human trait, has been with us nearly as long as we’ve been able to speak. Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA. Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation…. For thousands of years, we’ve known intuitively that stories alter our thinking and, in turn, the way we engage with the world…. We argue with stories, internally or out loud. We talk back. We praise. We denounce. Every story is the beginning of a conversation, with ourselves as well as with others.”

I don’t think the stories we shared over dinner were intended to persuade, enlighten, or transform. Rather, they provided an opening for conversations, which often we do not have the opportunity to hold. In thinking more about that evening, I reflected on why the words seemed to come with ease for most of us, whether verbally, on paper, or through images on our tables. I will offer a few thoughts:

  • We made time to be together. While it seems simple and obvious, we all know how, in reality, making time is a huge obstacle. Committing to a couple of hours on a Friday evening is no easy task.
  • We created a place of beauty and safety. Flowers, candlelight, sharing in song, and a meal provided a sense of security and community.
  • We were willing to be brave and take risks, opening ourselves up to new people and new ideas.
  • We listened with care and compassion, which was possible because we made commitments of our time, our heart and mind spaces, and our courage.

Every interaction we have with one another is an opportunity for the beginning of a conversation and deeper understanding. Each exchange affords the chance to share our authentic selves and personal stories, breaking through the surface where we tend to hover and feel comfortable. We may not spend two hours together or share a meal, but the possibility of speaking courageously and listening compassionately with real interest is ever present. Last night I joined the rising first grade parents at Meadowbrook and witnessed them share their children’s naming stories. In those thirty minutes we heard about family origin, birth experiences, marital decision making (or not!), and more. We walked out the door having gained new connections, with the seeds of community beginning to root. I am convinced that these moments of real conversation — whether in structured parent evenings or in casual exchanges on the playground – are where building an inclusive community must begin. Let us make time, be brave, listen, and joyfully share our stories.

Tracy

Published in the Chalkboard of 4.25.18