by Ken Grahlman
When was the last time you took the opportunity to have a break? I feel like a break is something we could all use right now because it feels like we are barely holding things together sometimes. In between wildfires, freedom rallies, elections for leaders, war, and division between and within our homes, things are challenging right now. And I didn’t even include the pandemic in that lot. So how do we come back together well?
For me, it starts with conversation. This is an invitation to be curious about what we have all experienced over the last few years, and what we need in order to thrive. But the question remains, how do we approach these conversations?
I don’t know who you are reading this or what your lived experience is, but I unapologetically love you. This is where dialogue begins. Through my work with restorative justice, I’ve found that conversation can start with two things, vulnerability, and curiosity.
Through MCC, I work with a specific program called Circles of Support and Accountability (CoSA). We pair volunteers with people who have been charged and sent to prison for sexual offences. As they leave prison and reintegrate within the community, volunteers form a circle around the core member to support them through their experiences of rejoining the community safely. That experience looks different based on each person’s unique challenges and strengths. There are some common challenges that each of them face, depending on how long they’ve spent inside the correctional system: setting up a bank account, finding secure housing, finding a job, navigating transit, creating a weekly meal plan, and budgeting for groceries. These are all things that those of us who have not spent time in an institution can easily do and often take for granted with the freedom we have.
Now, the crimes these men have committed are dangerous, horrible, and hard to talk about, and can even be traumatizing for many who have experienced them and for their family or friends. Part of my role is to consider how to balance the voices of victims/survivors as well as to promote the idea that people who we work with in CoSA have sincerely changed and want a second chance to be productive members of society.
Within these circles, we don’t involve victims/survivors. Rather, this is purely an opportunity for core members to work on themselves, learn empathy, deal with their own trauma, and pursue new life goals. We approach these spaces from a holistic and non-clinical perspective and with curiosity. We have to ask some hard questions sometimes because of accountability, but it all starts with an invitation to conversation, some love, and a little bit of vulnerability.
During these circles, we don’t want to say ‘there, there, it’s all fine now’ because that doesn’t necessarily help anyone. We want to address the issues that the participants are going through by asking about how they feel, but we also ask what they need in order to move forward. Complaining about something can only get someone so far. All this takes place while considering their safety, our own, and that of the community.
This type of work isn’t for everyone. My logic is that if I’m willing to have a conversation with someone whose crimes are highly stigmatized in society (for good reason), then maybe I can start to consider what it is that the protestors at the freedom trucker rally truly needed. It’s about trying to understand their perspective. I can also consider how to have a conversation with someone I love who refuses to come back to church unless everyone is still wearing a mask. These are just a couple examples.
Start small. Consider someone in your family who you’ve had a disagreement with. How can you approach them with vulnerability and curiosity to converse about a topic that has previously been problematic?
One of the important things to remember when having a conversation is that just because you can disagree with someone, it doesn’t mean you can’t work with them and see them as a human, created in the image of God.
What have your experiences with conversations looked like? Post a comment on the blog or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear more about your experiences.
Check out MCC’s Guide for Having Better Conversation on Divisive Issues for more tips on having healthy conversations.
Ken Grahlman is the Circles of Support and Accountability Coordinator for MCC Alberta.