Building NVC Communities Where Everyone’s Needs Matter: Reflections of a White NVC Trainer on Creating Accessibility for People of Color


~ by Marina Smerling

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.  But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson

Wednesday evenings are my favorite – they’re the night of my regular weekly NVC women’s group.  I’ve been offering this group for several years, and we do powerful work together – bonding, healing, NVC skill-building – bringing empathy to the joys, heartaches, and challenges of being a human being in this world.

For the most part, this group of women tends to stick around, renewing after each 3-month series is over, and some of the women have been attending my group since the beginning.  Yet while women of color have come and gone over the years, we’ve consistently been a predominantly white group.  Recently, one of our beloved members of the group, a woman of color, decided to leave at the end of her third series, and not to renew.

She shared with us that comments had been made – “innocent,” seemingly “innocuous” comments by a couple other members of the group over the past few months together which had her feeling less-than-safe in our circle.  For instance, one of our members had talked about being “color-blind” as a positive attribute, unaware at the time that this term negates a core experience of people of color who regularly experience discrimination precisely because of their color.  Altogether, the comments had left this particular woman feeling less-than-welcomed to share her whole self with us, including the experiences of racism that form a core part of her everyday life.

I was heartbroken, and still am, by her decision to leave, but even more so, by my own failure to create a space that felt  welcoming for her.   Creating safe and welcoming space for healing shame is what I’m committed to in this life, and to have unintentionally contributed to creating unsafe space for a woman of color in the group pierced me deeply.

These past few weeks have been painful and challenging, to say the least, with each of us forced to reflect on the choices we had made at various moments in our group, particularly our choices to remain silent at times several of us had noticed something off in the room.  Scared to make waves and cause rupture, we chose instead to swallow the poisonous pill of silence, at the expense of the woman of color, our sister we loved, diminishing our collective needs for safety, truth, and authenticity in the room, as well as our needs for self-awareness and responsiveness to all human beings, including those with life experiences vastly different from our own.

We are realizing that sitting idly by, hoping that “innocent” comments don’t bother the person or people of color in the room, choosing to sidestep and ignore the elephant in the room, all while keeping our oh-my-god-i-hope-that-didn’t-offend fingers tightly crossed  — this strategy for comfort and calm doesn’t work.  It certainly didn’t meet needs for safety and belonging for the woman of color among us, and neither did it meet our needs for safety and belonging, truth and authenticity, inclusion and welcoming, and self-awareness and integrity.

What impacts one, impacts us all.  The loss of our sister of color is a loss for all of us.

We cannot undo the past.  We have indeed mourned, engaged in meaningful acknowledgment and repair conversations with the woman of color, and now the question remains: what will we do moving forward to look at our own unconscious racism?

I am committed to revamping our group, and grateful for the dedication, support, and willingness of my group members to step up.  Together, we’re committed to continually bringing awareness to our seemingly invisible privileges and comforts as white women, acknowledging and mourning the impact of unintentional-but-nonetheless-very-real racism, and committing to a new set of guidelines to support safety and accessibility for women of color who may wish to join our circle.

Among these guidelines are:

“Raise awareness about differences as a way to support deeper, more authentic connection in the group, and helping create the inclusive, welcoming world we want to live in.”

“Recognize the difference between intention and impact, and when an oppression-related rupture happens in the group, prioritize empathy for impact before empathy for intention.”

“Notice urgency to fix, and slow down so that we can dialogue from a place of presence and compassion.”

“Let’s be in it for the long haul, accept that disconnect will happen, and have the courage and commitment to engage in self-reflection and acknowledgment of our unintended impacts, thereby increasing the possibility of reconnection.”

Huge changes are underway.  Yet unfortunately, the learning curve came at the expense of a woman of color in the group.  And further, this experience isn’t unique to my own Wednesday night practice group, but rather, one that befalls many women of color in NVC settings across the country.

BayNVC trainer Roxy Manning recently wrote a powerful article on the topic of diversity in NVC communities.  It was none other than life-changing for several of the women in my group, and has deeply influenced my own commitment to increasing accessibility of

NVC to folks of color in my groups and classes.  I highly recommend you check it out, whether you think this issue is relevant to you or not: http://lp.learnnvc.org/aspectsleadership3.html

Moving forward, I may not have the answers, but I do know some of the questions that need to be asked:

  • How can we white folks raise awareness of the air we breathe, the water we swim in, that everyday conditioning of white privilege that pervades so many of our worlds, our actions, our words, and our omissions?
  • How can we create NVC learning spaces that are truly welcoming, accessible, and inclusive to people of color?
  • How can we take responsibility for addressing comments and acts that are painful to people of color, so that the responsibility doesn’t fall to the people of color in the room?
  • How can we respond with NVC consciousness to everyday “microaggressions,” what Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue defines as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”? (These might include, for instance, complimenting an Asian American or Latino American NVC practitioner on their English, or asserting that “there is only one race, the human race,” which, though well-intentioned, implicitly denies everyday challenges faced by people of color because of their color.
  • How do we vulnerably speak up, name what feels scary in the room, both raising awareness of unintended impacts and fostering authentic connection?
  • How can we stay connected to our own hearts when disconnect across racial lines happens, rather than either blame and point fingers, or withdraw and shut down?
  • How can we commit to being in the journey for the long haul, even when it’s humbling and hard, we want to blame, explain, or defend ourselves, and don’t know how to get back to connection?

We (white trainers and students alike) can’t afford to be silent.  Our silence around the topic of race and racial microaggressions doesn’t make the elephant in the room go away.  It just takes away the breathing room for people of color, and diminishes the likelihood we as white folks will meet our own precious needs for inclusion, authenticity, and in the end, a full and authentic experience of love.

We have a choice: do we remain silent and thus complicit in the loss of accessibility for people of color to NVC learning spaces and communities? Or do we educate ourselves, take risks, speak up, and rock the collective boat, not from shame-and-blame consciousness, but from a deep love for our collective liberation?

~

With deep gratitude to Alicia Garcia and Edmundo Norte, two of the trainers at our annual Nonviolent Leadership for Social Justice Retreat, for their ongoing mentorship and feedback offered for this article.

~

Marina Smerling is a BayNVC collaborative trainer who offers private counseling and practice groups for women.  Her Wednesday evening women’s group has a couple openings in February, with priority given to women of color who are interested in an  experiment in creating a safe, welcoming, consciously multi-racial NVC practice group for women of all backgrounds and identities.