Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How to become an authentic trustbuilder and leader? This is the theme of the first module of the 2018 Community Trustbuilding Fellowship (CTF) which this year has a cohort from across the greater Richmond region as well as from Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Mexico. CTF is held over five weekends from January to May and develops the capacity of community leaders to become trustbuilders capable of overcoming divisions of race, culture, economics and politics.

The 26-member class includes a nonprofit leader, a teacher, a neighborhood organizer, a police officer, an immigration advocate, a museum director, a pastor, a foundation officer and several people involved in public health. Through time spent together in residence at the Richmond Hill retreat center, CTF nurtures networks of facilitators and change agents committed to healing historical wounds, creating new shared narratives and building healthy, equitable communities.

Paula Shelton, a teacher and author from Washington, D.C., says. “I hope that the program will help me to identify how I can make a valuable contribution to my community and help me develop the skills and strategies necessary to do so. I also hope to connect with a network of others focused on serving the community.”

The class begins by considering this proposition: “Personal change can provide energy and sustainability for constructive social change. Conversely, failure to root social justice movements on the bedrock of a strong inner life and lived-out values can endanger the most idealistic efforts.”  The challenge, says Ebony Walden, a 2015 CTF graduate who joined the faculty as a trainer this year, is “Who do I need to be in order to do this work?”

Burnout is the occupational hazard for community activists, so the program stresses the importance of practices such as regular quiet times and mindfulness as tools for inner connection, correction and direction. And the class examines standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love as benchmarks for personal and public action – “the building blocks of trust.” As one participant remarked, “This is about radical change!” 

Stephen Batsche, the executive director of the Salvation Army in Central Virginia, is also part of a new organization in Richmond, Circles RVA, which is launching a relationship strategy for connecting Richmonders across socioeconomic lines to support individuals and families out of poverty. He says, “CTF will deepen my understanding of Richmond’s racial history and develop my capacity to facilitate relationship building among persons of different income, racial and cultural backgrounds.”

One participant says she hopes to develop greater empathy with those who are different.  Another highlights the importance of starting with those we are closest to: “If I can’t have difficult conversations with those I love, how can I do it with people I am opposed to?”

Each module includes discussion of Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation and Responsibility, which traces the history of racial healing and dialogue in Richmond led by Hope in the Cities, a program of Initiatives of Change USA. Sherri Brown, who directs Circles of Troup County, Ga, says, “In my reading I noticed so many relationships began - sometimes tentatively- at the table. Often a meal, sometimes tea or coffee. I’ve always believed that ‘breaking bread’ together is a spiritual act—providing nourishment for both body and soul. I’m also seeing that it can be an intentional place of healing.”

Also joining the faculty this year is Dr. David Campt who first connected with IofC when he was the lead facilitator for President Clinton’s Initiative of Race for which Hope in the Cities helped to write a dialogue guide. He led the class in an exploration of implicit or unconscious bias which he calls the “most important aspect of race relations in American today. The chasm exists because it is unconscious.”  Campt calls the brain a “fantastic pattern recognition machine” over which we have little control. But what is important is how we look at ourselves, how we notice how unconscious bias may be affecting us, and how we talk about it.”

The class also takes time to examine their own experience of privilege, a process that can sometimes produce unexpected insights. In open sharing, a white male participant tells people of color, “My greatest fear is that I will be rejected, that I will not be allowed into your world.”

International participants bring wider perspectives to the conversation, such as Krish Raval, a special guest at the January module. Krish, who was born in Ethiopia of Indian parents, is the founder of nationally regarded programs in the UK, “Faith in Leadership,” and “Learn to Lead” that develop capacity of faith leaders and young people respectively.

Rodrigo Martinez, a social entrepreneur from Mexico, has made the commitment to travel to Richmond for each of the five modules. He wants to “learn best practices from 25 years of racial reconciliation and social justice work which is at the core of what I also want to offer in Mexico as part of a social enterprise I am currently developing to promote the practice and notion of ‘higher consciousness politics.’” He says this is all about learning how to “design and facilitate social healing experiences which seek to restore trust across personal, national and international divides.”