There’s a lot of dissensus and hard feelings in the interracial task force I’m on right now. Some of it erupted publically the other day at a public hearing (with TV cameras running, no less). Everybody is committed to addressing the issues and cares about them, but this does not take away the divisions among us: divisions by race, class, and institutional position. We are suspicious of other people’s motives or commitment; irritated what we consider to be their abrasive or insensitive or over-sensitive or authoritarian or disorganized personal style; and tired and frustrated from trying to work on a huge task with too little time while having to put up with our interpersonal differences. We blow things out of proportion and we sit back in sullen silence. We get mad at the chairs, who themselves are exhausted and wounded from working hard to keep everything moving after having an organizational mess dropped on them and then putting up with all the criticism. Although other groups I’ve worked with are racially diverse, this one is more diverse than most of the others by class and background as well as race. Some of us have worked together on boards and committees many times over the years; others have no prior working relations. Anger and distrust abound, despite genuinely shared goals. We talk through a difference, end on a conciliatory and friendly note, and then blow apart again the next time.
Our small work groups were intentionally formed to mix people with different demographic and institutional statuses and tasked with coming up with recommendations on a tight deadline. Many are struggling. My work group exploded again today in anger and recrimination. The last time, I was the angry one; I reached out later to privately talk to and make peace with the person I got mad at. Today I was the calm one while two high level professionals got very angry with each other. At root is a genuine and important conflict about policy priorities and interests and ways of doing things that becomes personal as people get tired and frustrated about the impasse and try to talk each other into submission. I think I managed to play a constructive role this time and we ended with some forward movement, although there is still a lot of tension. I also talked afterward with one of the disputants, who is taking double heat in our group and as a co-chair. I made a point of telling her how much I appreciate all her work, even though I don’t always agree with her. I also told her that when I get really frustrated and irritated in community meetings – which is often – I remind myself that the deep differences of interest and experience and the inequalities and injustices that fuel the conflicts are real. Not to mention the cultural style differences that can drive each other crazy. We bring these differences with us when we come to the table. We are experiencing the very pain of the world we are trying to help heal. It’s our share of the pain. She said it helped to think about it that way.