Real Talk developed after the Center for Understanding in Conflict (CUC) spent years in conversation together about how to create safe, effective spaces to have dialogue about race and build relationships in the process. Lacey Wilson, who helped launch Real Talk, sat down to talk about the initiative, her experiences, and why these conversations are vital for conflict resolution professionals.

What is Real Talk?

Real Talk is a workshop series that we started to give people in communities a space to talk about racial and cultural conflict. [About three years ago] we realized there was a gap in conversations happening around race and at the time, there weren’t many spaces where these conversations were happening on a community level. After a year-and-half, we decided to create a space for people to have those conversations.

Why is it so important that conflict resolution professionals engage in these conversations?

It would be silly to think that race is not something that comes up for people in conflict, no matter what kind of work you’re engaged in. 

It is important for people to understand that race impacts every aspect of every system that we are a part of in this country—and internationally. If people aren’t able to understand and see their own biases and the way that they interact with individuals, they can’t see [how] their bias impacts and influences their own decisions in forming relationships and dealing with conflict. There’s a huge gap in their understanding.

I think it is important for people to have difficult conversations around race and their own power of privilege to move past the superficial of being in a relationship with people, and be able to understand who people are on a different level. If you are an attorney representing clients from a different demographic, race, culture—just different from you and part of an oppressed group, the way that you represent them and speak with them is going to be very challenging if you don’t have an understanding of where they are coming from and how they are showing up in that space with you.

The power differential is going to be obvious and for some, it’s going to be a barrier. It can take people out of their own stories if there is not an understanding around race. It is incredibly important for people to know where they stand and how they deal with their own conflict.

Why the CUC?

How this came about for the CUC was when Natalia [Lopez-Whitaker] attended 40 hour mediation training and then I attended a month after. We both had similar experiences where we were the only people of color in the room—and for me, the youngest and the only gay person. We saw Gary [Friedman] at a conference two months later and told him about Natalia’s experience and about why it was difficult to be vulnerable and feel like [she] could do that safely and this is something [the CUC] needs to address.

He wasn’t even aware that was an issue and asked about my experience. I had a very similar experience and it was hard for me to show up fully in that space. Gary asked, “What do I do about it and would you be willing to be part of that conversation?”

The group came together in May of that year and worked together and unpacked a lot of the things that we get to hold space for other people around our own bias, blind spots when it comes to power and privilege, impression, how to talk about race and how to navigate that in a way that keeps our relationships intact and a whole workshop developed in that time.

We want to build it out, expand on it and make it accessible beyond an in-person training. But also to take it deeper for people to get more advanced training in that setting.

What has been one of your best memories of Real Talk?

Even before we had the first workshop, we did a panel discussion at the Mediation Society in San Francisco. It was an opportunity for the six to share the work we were doing with a group of very prestigious attorneys and judges in the area and the room was very white.

We had been in space with each other for over a year at this point and so we were very comfortable with each other and not shy. We had set up this whole talk and discussion with a role play.

[The role play] started with Gary saying something very privileged to me and engaged us all on other levels. I had on a sleeveless shirt [that showed] the tattoo on my right arm. Gary asked,  “Don’t you feel like you need to cover up your tattoo?” And he was like, “We’re in this room [of professionals].” I walked out and then Gary and Eric [Butler] had a conversation about his position of power and privilege and then Eric brought up race and race being a factor.

There was an incredible amount of discomfort as the scenario played out. The emcee was trying to calm people down because some people were getting really upset. A couple of people thought it was a joke and couldn’t figure out if it was real or not. People were visibly uncomfortable by what Gary had said.

I came back to the room and asked how it felt. A lot of people knew Gary, which was another reason it was so powerful. When we got feedback people were shocked and were confused if he really felt that way and the way that it played out. To take something—it was not directly me as a Black person, just a tattoo that I happen to have—but it is so connected in the ways in which we think about bias, it’s in the day-to-day lives of people, it’s all connected. It was very tense. 

The reactions we got across the room and the conversation that opened from that helped people understand why the work was important in that room, where people had been doing work as attorneys and judges for decades. Being able to talk about racial bias and addressing in front of this group was really powerful. 

Gary loves to role play [and] what helped was that we had been in conversation for so long—it was easy to find something and just really work with each other. I don’t think we over-dramatized it, it was just us having a conversation. It was kind of cool how seamless it was. And then to come back and have the same group witness us talk about these discussions and address some of the issues and dynamics between the six of us was really powerful. That is one of the most important pieces to building out Real Talk, is actually doing the work to address our own issues and the conflicts that come up.

What has been one of the biggest challenges?

How do we trust each other and how do we get past the logistics of planning a training and actually get to what matters and bring that forefront? How do we center the work that we are wanting to do within ourselves and the six of us so that it feels natural and authentic? And figuring out what trust looks like and how we build it between six people with different backgrounds. 

[We] took a step back from talking about logistics and just got to know each other. We would get together once a month and talk about what was going on for us and address the misunderstandings and understandings that came up. A lot was going on for me or Natalia or Eric, that Gary and the others had no idea. The group was divided initially between the White people and the Black and Biracial. 

I would say personally, I respected Gary and Catherine. I was so intimidated to be in the room with them. I felt very much out of place, not having any power and I thought “Why would they care about what I have to say?” Over time that completely shifted and that was only through getting to know each other and me understanding my own actual power and influence that I have as a person. [We discussed] why Gary asking [a particular] question is harmful when [it is] addressed from a privileged space, and that’s why it is harmful. 

A lot of the inner V type of work helped me get to that point, but also being able to speak up and talk about the things that were harmful and helpful that got us to a point of collective understanding. It was a lot of individual and collective work.

We talk about empathy and understanding in vague ways, but in this space they are at the forefront of how we’re going to get through these conversations. Taking the tools that CUC teaches and applying them in that room once a month between the six of us in a very deep way, It was not just about moving through the conflict, we were working together.

What were some ways you built trust?

It was a risk, initially what helped me unpack some of that was knowing that I wasn’t alone in the room. I knew that Eric had my back, it was unspoken. I did not know him at all, but there was a shared understanding that we came into the room with. I remember him saying in the first or second session, “I know that she has my back in this space without even knowing her.” And I knew that too. If anybody says anything that ends up offending him, I will defend him. 

And he said that out loud, so there was this space to take a risk because I knew that if I said something that he would back me up. And Natalia was the same way. Gary, Catherine [Conner], and Becca [Vershbow], they hadn’t really considered why that wasn’t necessary. We had to unpack that piece, there was an innate sense of distrust and not feeling safe when you’re in positions where you are a part of a group that is oppressed, coming into a space with people that have a ton of power and privilege.

Having people who are supportive of you and are going to go to bat for you—and who will do it in a way that you feel respected and can continue to build that trust—is important. There was some shared understanding in that room to help cultivate that space and it became easier to speak up. 

There is one scenario about Gary’s shoes. Gary had a hole in his shoe. He sat down and didn’t think about it, and Eric said something during the meeting. “You walked in here with holes in your shoes and didn’t think anything of it. You can walk around with a hole in your shirt.” And Gary laughed about it. 

Do you have any idea what that means? Something that felt so small—the amount of privilege that you have, you can walk around and look like that. If we walked around with a hole in our shoes, what are people going to think? They’ll have judgements about who he is or who I am, and the whole reason is because we’re Black. 

People are going to have very different ideas about who we are. We had to have that conversation—it’s a reference point for all of us. It’s shifted the way he’s shown up in trainings, just his perspective of what it means to be a White man with so much power and so much privilege in so many ways and to be able to recognize and how not being able to recognize that impacted his work for over 40 years. I remember that moment where he questioned his work—“What have been I doing? How have I been complicit? How have I done this to people and missed this huge piece? There’s a gap in this work I’ve been doing and I want to do what I can to bridge that gap.”

  Living in quarantine, what are some things that conflict resolution professionals should be doing to help ensure their understanding and scope is not limited to what is familiar and what they know?

Taking an honest look at how this pandemic is impacting the issues in the country systemically because it is literally infecting, impacting every system in this country—legal, education, medicine. Take a deeper look at that and how it’s disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities.  When you are talking about mental health or financial things, really taking into account how they can either build out or expand the way that they do business.

If you’re going to incorporate conflict resolution into your work specifically around mediation, how can you get out of this little bubble of building business and recognize its impact on people in your industry in ways that it hasn’t before. There have always been issues with our systems but it is an opportunity for people to do business differently and consider how they can integrate a lot more into their work.

What issues can you bring up around policy that could help affected communities? Not just on a community level, but at a federal level. How can we change these systems? Conflict work goes into that. It’s a big task, but this pandemic has exposed every system in this country, even now as we move through it, we can think about how to make it better. How do we shift and show up differently on the other side of our work.

Could you share a little bit about the in-person session—how is the event facilitated? What are some key outcomes?

The workshop is broken up into two-days and the six of us facilitate different pieces. It feels really powerful and important to have our dynamic. At the beginning, it’s typically getting-to-know each other and getting people settled with different activities and jogging people’s understanding of race and racial bias. Then we go through different activities and conversations of helping people navigate their work and internally using inner V [self reflection work that the CUC teaches]. Then we role play different scenarios [so] people feel comfortable getting to know people in the room and to a place of feeling trust so they are more open and willing to bring their own experiences to the room. 

Typically, there are 15-20 people in that space but it’s really powerful and I look forward to training. I’m hoping people walk away with a better understanding of their own impact and influence on other people and move forward on a deeper knowledge and hope, and be more willing to have difficult conversations around race and conflict.

Lacey Wilson is a Development Manager at Oakland Promise. She worked for seven years as an educator then transitioned to the legal profession in legal support positions at Camille King Collaborative Law & Mediation and Disability Rights California, respectively. She believes at the core of change is solid relationship building and has a serious passion for restorative practices, particularly within marginalized communities, education, and law. Born and raised in the Austin, Texas area, Lacey made her way to the Bay in August 2015. She’s a published author and spends her free time working on creative writing and DIY projects or in the company of friends over coffee, boba tea, good food, or a hike in the redwoods! Lacey studied Special Education at Texas State University and received her mediation certifications at SEEDS and the Center for Understanding in Conflict in 2016. As a lifelong learner, she is continuously seeking out communities willing to have courageous conversations around cultural awareness and social change.