I recently attended a community conversation about policing and the African-American community. I offer these suggestions not so much in specific response to that event as a general reminder for anyone organizing, speaking on a panel or attending a similar event.
1. When speaking from the audience or from the dais, please do not stand and say, “I don’t need a mic!”
You need a microphone. There are people there with hearing problems and your assurance that you “have a loud voice” is not appropriate or accurate. Using a microphone is about inclusivity and even justice: everyone should get the mic, and everyone should be expected to use the mic. At the event I attended, I was dismayed to see an African-American woman speaking passionately about the death of her child and not get a microphone even when it was obvious that she would be speaking for more than a few seconds. Her testimony will be lost to posterity, even as other speakers’ voices will be heard on the recording of the event.
Everyone gets the mic. Everyone uses the mic.
2. Organizers, don’t obsess about your agenda for the evening.
It is commendable to have an agenda and to honor it. However, if the community has an obvious need to ask more questions, process information or hear more testimonial, be flexible. Respect the community spirit. If necessary, ask the community if it wants to spend more time on one agenda item before moving on. It causes anxiety among those assembled to have a leader on the dais constantly interjecting how “we’re not on schedule” or “this is a big mess” when it is not a mess, and the community attending is appropriately and respectfully steering the conversation back to where they need it to be.
Religious leaders who respect the movement of the Holy Spirit but protect their agenda in a controlling way are respecting their ego more than the Holy Spirit. Be flexible in your leadership, and don’t insult the proceedings because they happen differently than you want or need them to.
Don’t be a control freak.
3. Be mindful of when the conversation is personal and when it is political.
When the community asks about systemic change or institutional accountability, leaders should not respond in a personal way about their feelings until after they have fully answered the questions at hand.
Everyone involved in any issue that brings a community together has strong feelings, or they wouldn’t have made the time to be there. Good leaders answer questions to the best of their ability and do not divert the conversation into sympathy-garnering revelations of their or their employees’ feelings. When leaders of a community are asked to address the community, they come in a role of power and authority. When leaders get defensive about questions regarding accountable professional practices and specific plans for institutional improvement, they often move into personal feeling territory. This isn’t productive.
Leaders, don’t take it personally. Process your feelings of hurt and anger and fear somewhere else. Talk about how hard the job is in an appropriate and supportive place, not during the community gathering.
4. Leaders should never use “we” and “you” language.
At the meeting I attended, one police leader said, at one point, “Don’t judge us by our uniform and we won’t judge you by the color of your skin.” This remark is an example of divisive rhetoric, revealing that the person who said it is thinking in literally black and white terms. I hope that was just the case in a stressful moment. There were many white people in the community who care about accountability in policing. There were many men in uniform who are men of color. Leaders must always remain aware of the complex nature of the communities they serve.
Leaders must remember that, in the ultimate sense, we are all “we.”
5. Please do not stand and take the mic and start your sharing by saying, “Everyone knows who I am.”
Always introduce yourself. Not everyone knows who you are. Communities are always changing and evolving. We want to know who you are. We want to get in touch with you later in order to network. Tell us your name and the organization you represent. Spell your name if that can help someone like me connect with you. You never know who is in attendance.
Never assume that anyone knows or remembers who you are. Leaders and participants should always be asked to identify themselves for the record and for networking purposes.
The practice of community is incredibly challenging and demanding. It can be scary, and especially for leaders. Blessings and gratitude to all those who do the work of creating community. Blessed be those who stand on the dais taking the heat, and blessed be those who show up to support or hold them accountable. If God wants anything of us, it is to come together and care about one another. Good community practice gets easier the more we do it, and makes us better at being human.
What tips do you have? Please leave a comment.