If By “Debrief” You Mean “Critical Connection and Shared Sense Making”

Groups of people have been through a half-day workshop. The focus is race and equity. This time there are 75 people in the room. Sometimes there are up to 250. The workshop content includes a lot of data and statistics. It’s a lot on historical injustice and abuse of systemic power and privilege. It’s a lot to take in — for all races in the room. It’s a lot to hear the calls to action, awareness, and courage. The workshop format is all presentation. Good presentation. But it’s the one way movement of information — speakers to people sitting in chairs in rows.

The organizers of the workshop are observing that participants don’t fully know what to do with all of the information. They observe that some are traumatized (or re-traumatized) by the intensity of the shared information. It is after all, animating some fundamental tensions of core identity and fairness, grief and collective wound.

The organizers have asked my colleague, Quanita Roberson and I to help gather people post workshop. Informally, they are trying to figure out what to call it. Another workshop? A debrief? A community connection forum? My colleague and I can hear that they are hoping for one thing — overarching wellness and a community of people capable of being in the needed work of taking on systemic racism. We can also hear that they are trying to find the right words to land in a sweet spot of calling it something that their funders will understand.

This is a dynamic that many of us who facilitate community organizations know. Calling it something that has one foot in an older paradigm so that it is recognizable enough. Yet also, the other foot in a new paradigm that holds us accountable to not just the head space but the heart space of community empowered together.

“Debrief” is one of those namings that has collapsed too far into the old paradigm. “Workshop,” well, that’s rather generic. “Community Connection Forum”, well, that’s getting closer.

I suppose the wisdom is calling it whatever is needed to get people in the room in an honest invitation of purpose. But seeing that many of us face this evolution of narrative, I want to name what is most clear to me — this is about connection and shared sense making. It’s not more information. It is about deliberately animating the connective tissue that exists between diverse human beings that care about a proactive stance on evolving racist injustice. It is about beginning to seed together a community of practice that is committed to inclusion and diversity.

“Debrief” speaks to the head. But I would suggest that the times call for us to get to the heart, individually and collectively. “Debrief” can so easily regress to another defaulted environment of passive listening, speaker to participants, one too many, with fingers crossed that it all inspires. The times call for better. The times call for us to collectively find our way through the power of connection and the process of sense-making that lives well beyond the time limits of the gathering.

I know I’m a bit snooty at times about format for gathering. Another way of saying that is I feel a rather strong commitment to moving us humans from the mechanical of merely meeting to the critical connection of community. It is my experience that this connection is what makes the information land, and in ways that we can carry it, and ourselves into the future.

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