The Community Mediation Centers of Calvert and St. Mary’s counties, along with transformative mediators from around the state have been facilitating difficult conversations about race and privilege in Southern Maryland communities for the past twelve years.
Community conversations help us have productive, honest dialogue so we might better understand both our neighbors and ourselves. Honest and meaningful dialogue dispels myths, misconceptions and long-held stereotypes about each other. Constructive dialogue is essential in our world today, and indeed, transformative. It has the ability to open our eyes to the pain of others as well as our own. It has the power to begin healing old and existing wounds. As transformative mediators, it is our premise that when people are given the opportunity to sit down together, person to person, and talk with one another, there is a desire to connect and discover new ways of being together. There is no topic where there is more opportunity and challenge than in conversations on race and privilege.
In 2018, we joined with a group originally formed and still chaired by a local Episcopal Parish to host Big Conversations on Race and Privilege. The first in this series, Dismantling Racism and Privilege – What I didn’t know” took place in 2018 and drew a diverse crowd of over 200 local residents. The second in the series, Progress and Challenges in our Schools, took place in 2019 in front of a slightly larger crowd. Each of these programs included a large group presentation, small group break-outs facilitated by our trained mediators, and a return to the large group to report out. Feedback from participants was positive in every case and supportive of continuing the program.
The third in this series, Many Wounds to Heal: Health Care (In)Equity – How Does it Affect Me? was held virtually in September, 2020. Once again, more than 200 people joined in the event, which started with a panel of five experts who covered history and challenges leading to healthcare inequity for our African American friends and neighbors. Participants were then dispersed to 13 breakout rooms for small group conversations facilitated by 28 experienced facilitators from the Calvert, St. Mary’s and Charles County CMCs and other colleagues from across the state. We provided one white and one African American co-facilitator in each breakout room.
Each of our large events have generated numerous smaller programs. Participants asked for more. Most recently, a series of virtual community conversations took an in-depth look at Building Trust in our Health Care Systems. This three-part series was a direct response to our September, 2020 Big Conversation on inequity in health care. A A diverse audience of more than 200 attended. Our presenter, Steven K. Ragsdale, has more than 25 years of experience in developing health care innovations and advancing pathways to better, safer, and more equitable care. He is an associate faculty member at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The first topic in the three-part series focused on the history of health care, and how the present systems were built. The second one was on exploring systemic unconscious bias and the importance of understanding its effects on society. In the third session, racially and gender diverse teams of mediators facilitated small-group conversations about what health care would look like “in a perfect world” and what providers and consumers could do to achieve those goals. A summary report was written to document the small group discussions. This document was distributed to participants and stakeholders.
The Big Conversation team has now garnered twenty-one partnering community organizations that have also hosted more than 20 programs that were offshoots of our annual Big Conversations on Race and Privilege in our Southern Maryland communities. Overall, more than 30 transformative mediators have joined to support these efforts.
Our transformative practice lends itself perfectly to fostering quality conversations. We don’t set any ground rules – participants take the conversation wherever they think necessary. We encourage them to share from their own life experiences. We set a conversational tone and then support their conversations with the same reflections, summaries, check-ins and silence that we use in mediation. In post event feedback, participants share that these small group conversations are the best part of the event for them. Some say that they have never before had such conversations with their neighbors of other races and backgrounds. They were grateful for the opportunity to be heard and be part of the solution. It’s been an honor and a privilege to participate in this ongoing effort to build better community – an investment in the future of Southern Maryland.