Agreements for Talking about Race: Assume Positive Intent and Take Responsibility for Impact

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As you engage with your team in talking about race during professional development, staff meetings, or other formal conversations, a set of shared agreements can support your team to deepen discussions, to engage deeply in self reflection, and to learn from one another. (To learn more about why and how to use agreements, see the Using Agreements blog post.) To ensure that your agreements work for your team, it is key that you spend time together digging into what each agreement means to you as a team and how you will use it. In this blog we will discuss the agreement “Assume Positive Intent and Take Responsibility for Impact” to unpack ways to understand it, ways it can feel challenging, and ways to engage with it during conversations about race.

This is a complicated agreement that consists of two interrelated parts. It asks team members to assume that their colleagues enter conversations with positive intent. It offers that the team as a whole comes together with the intention of learning and growing as educators and as a team. And it posits that mistakes may happen and that people’s words may offend others when offense was not intended. This part of the agreement may take some time to come to terms with, especially if a team has struggled with difficult conversations in the past, is a large team, brings a diversity of viewpoints, or does not have a history of talking about things that can feel challenging.

This agreement also asks team members to be prepared to take responsibility for the impacts of what they say. It asks participants to embrace the idea that what they say or express may cause offense to others or may even hurt others. When this happens this agreement gives participants the opportunity to take responsibility for the impact, whether intended or not, of what they have expressed. The participants must commit to listening to what their colleagues share with them and to working to understand what caused offense or harm and how they can repair that harm. This can feel challenging for many people, especially if they have some anxiety about engaging in discussions about race. This aspect of the agreement requires participants to overcome some dissonance in how they feel and what they are being asked to do — at the same time they are being asked to be vulnerable and to share what they think and believe and also to be ready to accept feedback that they have hurt or offended others. It can feel scary to share and be ready to hear that you caused harm.

This agreement is powerful when your team has time to come to terms with how it can support you to engage deeply on a personal level and as a group. At the same time, this agreement brings a range of concerns and challenges for different participants. For example, white participants may feel some concern about saying the wrong thing or reacting the wrong way. Participants of color and white participants who experience or witness systemic and institutional racism, microaggressions, or even explicit racism regularly may find it challenging to trust that others enter the space with positive intent. Consider working with your team to lay out and unpack the challenges or concerns team members feel about this agreement. Spend time carefully considering the language of the agreement and looking for what opportunities this agreement provides you and your colleagues. This agreement can support you to think deeply about how you engage with each other, how you enter a conversation, and what your responsibility as an individual and a group looks like in conversations about race.

Coming to a shared understanding of this agreement requires a foundation of trust amongst the team — a belief that all team members respect each other and enter conversations during professional development and staff time with the goal of growing as individuals and supporting one another as a team. Participants must feel safe enough to be vulnerable and be willing to challenge themselves. Participants may want to talk together about how this could work. Consider asking team members to work in small groups and/or whole group to answer some questions about how the process will work.

  • What does this agreement mean to me and to us as a team?
  • What do I find personally challenging about this agreement?
  • What challenges might our team need to discuss based on previous conversations or other things?
  • Could we agree to apologize if words we use are offensive and to commit to working to better understand the issue under discussion? What do we need to be able to do this?
  • How might a team member signal that they are not ready for this conversation yet and they need time before they can have the next part of the conversation?

It is important that participants engage in conversations before simply adopting this agreement; if participants don’t spend time outlining what they mean and talking through how it makes them uncomfortable, this agreement won’t create a space for conversations about race. With some team pre-work, this agreement can strengthen relationships and build trust — and ultimately lead to more personal and team growth around equity.

*This blog was originally posted on the Educational Equity Resources Portal.

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