What are Courageous Conversations?

In this “Voices & Perspectives” Q&A, Becky Hatter – Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri’s CEO & President – talks about Courageous Conversations, one of BBBSEMO’s intentional DEI efforts. Courageous Conversations is a dedicated space for white staff members’ development and growth around race and racism; that work began in Aug/Sep 2021 and continues today.

Q: Can you talk about how Courageous Conversations got started as part of BBBSEMO’s DEI/ABAR (anti-bias anti-racism) work?

Becky: “The idea of practicing white caucusing at BBBSEMO arose after we conducted Staff Listening Sessions focused on the role of race in our work. Those cross-racial, cross-departmental sessions showed that space for white staff to talk with one another was necessary – and not only for the sake of white staff but also for Staff of Color. The original suggestion to do so in the form of Courageous Conversations came from our Staff of Color Representatives, who were guided by Three Best Hopes and wisely understood that institutional progress could not be possible without individual development.

Courageous Conversations are about self-work: understanding who you are, what you believe and why. About how to be more inclusive, understanding; and create a culture of belonging. They happen in small groups. They are both facilitated and self-directed. All are important. Whatever the arrangement, Courageous Conversations is where we practice learning and accountability by understanding where we are slowly, but consistently, retraining ourselves. And as CEO, I promised my staff in writing, ‘I will meet you where you are’ – and added that they must also take their next steps. If you journey starts at Step 1, it’s your responsibility to focus and move to Step 2. If you’re at Step 2, you need to focus on moving to Step 3. Whichever step you’re on, you are responsible for progressing further.”

Q: Can you talk through the way you see Courageous Conversations as “self-work,” and how it promotes change at BBBSEMO?

Becky: “Because we white staff have grown up privileged by systems, Courageous Conversations have shown us that we’ve learned – without total awareness – that our way is ‘the right way’ even when it is not. As white people, we must accept the inevitable reality that biased thoughts will present themselves. While it’s hard to stop the intrusion of these implicit biases, it is absolutely possible to modify how we respond to those biases.

We’re also learning our orientation to the individual has meant missing opportunity to understand the value and power of being collective. At the organizational level, we recognize everyone has experienced and created harm because of inequitable structures and systems. The self-work of Courageous Conversations helps us see that. It’s uncomfortable when you recognize your shortfalls and face the harm you’ve created. Yet it also allows us to understand others and how they’ve been affected. We all live with harm, so healing work must be incorporated into this work. Courageous Conversations can be healing. They’re rooted in love and acceptance of self and of others; our goal must be love and joy for everyone. We work to avoid blame and shame in Courageous Conversations, and at the same time we accept accountability. And we do so in order to grow stronger, together.”

Q: How have you – as CEO & President of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri – been experiencing Courageous Conversations?

BH: “Harm wasn’t a word I ever used outside physical harm before Courageous Conversations. I now see harm everywhere: when we’re not kind, or gossiping; when we’re quietly pleased by others’ failures/  stumbles and when we don’t recognize the sincere efforts and contributions of others.

I did not understand a sense of urgency and perfectionism as characteristics of white supremacy culture. I’ve learned that was predictable, because I’m white and have been accustomed to privilege, rewarded for those qualities all my life. I’ve been very proud of my work ethic and still am; but I now understand I must avoid misusing or overapplying those qualities as expectations. I missed the big picture. I accepted all the privileged narratives. So I find myself ‘noticing’ things and applying a different lens to old questions and situations. New ways of working and thinking are emerging because of Courageous Conversations. And I’ve learned I must actively and consistently reach out to our diverse staff members, constituents, and professional colleagues to identify my blind spots.

Before my Big Brothers Big Sisters work in Louisiana, Atlanta, and here in St. Louis, I spent a year as a World History teacher. I taught a varnished version on history then – not intentionally, but unknowingly. I wish I’d fully understood the whitewashing of our history, and fully elevated opportunities to celebrate those who love, built, and fought for this country. I am frustrated that I am just now learning our American history. I wish I had read James Baldwin.

I can’t recapture time or correct mistakes I made in the past, but I can hold myself accountable and make changes today. I want my frustration to be my fuel for action. I want to celebrate what we rarely even recognized – that our food, music, instruments, land, whiskey, and so much more was imagined, created, and shared by people of color.

This is forever work. I believe the time it takes to learn, understand, and reimagine through a DEI lens is good for all, and a beautiful gift to give ourselves and our fellow humans.”