A story on NPR this winter stopped me in my tracks. It was a feature about Somali high school students in Lewiston Maine. Before you turn away . . . this is not a political story.
Lewiston is a former mill town in Southern Maine, with a predominantly white population. For the past 16 years, more than 7,000 Africans—mostly Somalis—have made their way to Lewiston. The transition into their new community has not always been smooth, but the creative way these refugees responded to this challenge hold lessons on how we all can find our voice.
The Somali students felt that some of their fellow students considered them outsiders, and that their teachers were treating them unfairly. The students’ transformation began when they found a way to do more than just complain about their circumstances.
In an afterschool program held in a basement classroom, their advisor Jenn Carter, challenged them to imagine “What can you, as a young person add to make things better?” They looked to what they knew best: storytelling. The Somalis come from an oral tradition, and storytelling is how they make sense of their lives. Their goal was to “lead a training where they didn't attack the teachers, but instead simply shared their experiences . . . both good and bad.” They wanted their teachers to have a sense of their culture and what it feels like to be refugees in America.
With the principal’s permission, the students designed a monthly training program for their teachers, where the students and teachers began to tell their stories. In one meeting, the students highlighted the impact of their teachers’ actions. One Somali student reflected that the reason he often arrived late to class was that his teachers “don’t care for him or the other refugees”. A teacher responded that it was an “unfair assumption”, and another teacher realized that she needed to reach out more to the students to explain her actions. Some teachers also admitted how difficult it was to talk about race—which then opened the door to a deeper dialogue. These were hard conversations, yet the students and teachers continued to wrestle with these issues, month after month in that basement classroom.
The students found their voice by embracing their own culture not by running away from it. They shared stories of their lives and invited others to join them. They entered a dialogue with their teachers, and reached a deeper understanding that included all their stories. In the wonderful Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together, William Isaacs defines dialogue as: “a conversation in which people think together in relationship . . .You relax your grip on certainty and listen to . . . possibilities that might not otherwise have occurred” (p. 19). Isaacs notes: “Most of us believe at some level that we must fix things or change people in order to make them reachable. Dialogue does not call for such behavior. Rather, it asks us to listen . . . deeply to all the views that people may express” (p. 20).
The Somali students began this journey feeling like outsiders and holding tight to their assumptions. Their brave decision to lead the trainings was only their first step. Their openness to listening to their teacher’s stories and entering a dialogue was just as important. But they couldn’t do it alone. Their teachers’ willingness to listen to the students’ stories was just as critical. As a community, they found a way to tackle the extraordinarily complex and emotionally charged topic of race. Following their dialogue, the students began collaborating with members of the staff to create the school’s policy around race.
So the next time you are locked in battle with your colleagues and feeling frustrated that you can’t make them see things your way, consider not trying to change their minds. Can you imagine loosening “your grip on certainty”. What would you risk in really hearing them out? How might you be wrong? Can you hold onto the possibility that you might agree with some part of their position? Can you find a more expansive solution that encompasses more than just one perspective? How do you think your colleagues would feel if you stopped trying to change their minds, and started to listen instead?
Yes, this is hard! It takes practice, and bravery. And it is worth the risk. If you doubt this, what might you lose if you don’t take the chance? Or as my business partner says: “You can be right, or you can be in relationship”.