Building Bridges With Dialogue

A few days ago, I saw the movie Hidden Figures with my friend Gwen. The movie, based on a true story, chronicles the contributions of three black women to the space program in the 1960s. This film is a must-see for corporate leaders.

Set in segregated Virginia, Hidden Figures powerfully depicts the hardships faced by people of color during that era, particularly women. One of the gals runs a half mile in high heels to the closest “colored” bathroom. Another goes to court to petition for permission to take engineering courses at an all-white school. And the third is kicked out of a public library, because she wants to check out a FORTRAN programming book from the “white” section. These are the types of inequality that Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to rectify.

As a white person, it’s easy to look around and say, “Today, things are so much better.” The blatant symbols of segregation are gone—the separate bathrooms and water fountains. But news headlines continue to reflect the injustice faced by people of color in the U.S.

Today, as we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to issue a challenge. Find someone who is different from you and start a dialogue. A person with a different skin color or from a different country or who practices a different religion. Go see Hidden Figures together. Discuss the film. Ask questions to understand their worldview. Their joys. Challenges. Needs. Concerns. Dreams.

My friend Gwen is black, and I am so grateful that she has been willing to discuss race with me. When I was in graduate school, I needed input on the graphic design preferences of African-American women. I asked Gwen for advice, and she offered to host a party. Sixteen guests, ages 25 to 73, clipped images from magazines to illustrate what resonated and what they found offensive.

The following excerpts (italicized content) from PRINT Magazine’s 1999 European Design Annual provide a glimpse of what I learned from these 16 magnificent women:

Dialogue will expose your filters.

During a discussion that was emotionally intense and more focused on history, current events, and culture than I would have expected, I kept examining my own internal criteria and discovered I had been weighing copywriting and design decisions against an unconscious check list of factors…and realized I had been using the same checklist for every target audience.

Dialogue may be uncomfortable. You may hear things that sting.

“I grew up during the Depression,” one guest said.  “We’d come into town and we were these black things…we weren’t people. We weren’t even good enough to come through the front door. As a group, we blacks would always stay together. We got help from no place else.”

“We’ve had to be strong,” several women remarked. “It takes a very special people to carry a lot of negative experiences and still be here.” Another chimed in, “When black people talk about strength, it’s because black people have had to have the personal and collective fortitude to live in a society that is not welcoming…”

When the group asked what I had learned from the discussion, I felt tongue-tied, vulnerable, and very white. “If someone asked me what attributes to consider when putting together a poster celebrating African-American women, I would now say strength. I don’t know what attributes I would have chosen before. Strength is not a word I think about, and I don’t know why.”

“That’s because you don’t have to,” the guests said nearly in unison. One woman added, “To survive, we have had to learn white culture. If we don’t know it, we don’t survive. White America does not feel it is necessary to know anything else except itself."

Dialogue requires trust.

A debate ensued about who bears responsibility for teaching white people about black issues. “You want to know something about me?” one guest exclaimed. “I’m right here. Come to me. It’s not my job to take it to you.”

Another responded, “Who teaches those people who want to know? Leigh is a person who wants to know, and she is doing her best to do that. Would we have come together today if Gwen had not brought us all together?” Several people replied that they indeed had come for Gwen. “Most of the time,” one woman said, “when white people want to know this type of information, it’s because they are trying to sell us something.”

My heart was racing. If a group doesn’t trust my motives, or fears I will create stereotypes, why would they want to share their thoughts, concerns, and preferences with me?

We must teach each other patiently.

Gwen gracefully redirected the conversation, “I think the way we learn is to realize and accept that we all have our biases and prejudices. All of us. We have to acknowledge these biases and be willing to put them aside, change them, or simply loosen up a bit. If I try to look at something from your perspective and you feel I am not understanding your views, you don’t say, ‘That’s too damn bad.’ We are all here as teachers.”

Dialogue isn’t a one-time event. Getting to know someone requires time and may involve missteps.

I had hoped to become an expert at bridging cultures—at least black and white cultures—in the context of my communication work. However, I learned that a bridge is not made by one person or group. It requires mutual permission and trust among parties who want to understand one another, along with ongoing communication and feedback. Bridging cultures also requires a willingness to make mistakes and humbly correct them.

Building bridges needs to be on the agenda of all leaders. A famous Biblical quote warns, “A house divided cannot stand.” Through dialogue, you find out if and how you are divided from your fellow citizens and brainstorm ways to patch divisions. Dialogue helps you suss out unconscious assumptions that limit you and interfere with bridge building.

Make dialogue a habit. You can never truly walk in another person’s shoes, but you can strive to learn about their experience.