Living Room Conversations

Chelsea Rowles talks about the guides and tips this non-profit offers to help people discuss race, politics, and more

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How can people have hard conversations that will bring them together versus driving them apart?
In a city that is engaged in tough conversations about policing, race and more, Chelsea Rowles suggests people consider Living Room Conversations.
The South High School graduate and lifelong south Minneapolis resident got involved in the nonprofit through an internship four years ago after earning her master of arts in psychology at the University of Minnesota. She is now a managing partner.

Introduce us to Living Room Conversations.
Rowles: Living Room Conversations works to heal society by connecting people across divides – politics, age, gender, race, nationality, and more – through guided conversations proven to build understanding and transform communities. We are an essential first step in bridging divides in society. Our focus for this year is Belonging and Mental Health.
Something that often gets missed in favor of direct action is just listening to others and suspending judgment, even if just for the conversation at hand. Everyone has different experiences, viewpoints, and opinions. Living Room Conversations offers over 150 conversation guides, complete with our six conversation agreements, that walk you, step by step, through topics like politics, race and ethnicity, hope, faith, and even food and fiber arts!

Why was Living Room Conversations started?
Rowles: In late 2010, Living Room Conversations was created to create a structured, intimate conversation format that would allow people to discuss important issues with friends of differing political affiliations and backgrounds. The hope was to empower participants to begin to reweave the fabric of our society by demonstrating that respectful conversation can enrich our lives and enable us to create better solutions to the challenges we face together.
I became involved with Living Room Conversations through a recommendation from a friend. Living Room Conversations was hiring interns about four years ago, I got involved and have been here ever since!

What is the benefit of a conversation?
Rowles: I think that is best told by our participants. Common descriptions of experiences are “empowering,” “timely,” “a place I know I won’t be judged,” “validating,” and allowing them to feel “less alone.” It’s funny, in a way, one of our offerings is conversations that people can watch. We have had these conversations with people that we know have very different views. At the end of the conversation viewers will say that they wished the participants had shown greater differences. Our guides really draw out connection and foster respect and understanding even amongst the most differing viewpoints. Not every conversation can go quite so smooth but, with the conversation agreements in place you can be assured that, as long as people follow them, the conversation will be respectful.
Here are a few quotes I pulled:
“I was bullied for being conservative-minded in liberal circles. I see projects like this [Living Room Conversations] as very hopeful. It’s a place where I know I won’t be judged.”
“This conversation made me realize that I need to manage my own emotions before I can start any bridge building work. If I’m not coming in hot, I can actually engage in a conversation and not get defensive. I have to work on myself first.”
“We have seen folks who might not normally engage with one another come together to learn with and from each other. There’s validation in being able to share your experience and hear about the experiences of others.”
“I learned something about myself. I need to work on my own anger and disappointment so I can engage in a more meaningful conversations on race, politics and equality.”

How can a conversation help “lower the temperature” of an issue and help build connection and emotional health?
Rowles: When we are able to see past the issue at hand and focus on understanding others, it helps us to build empathy and come to a place that we can listen to others openly. Living Room Conversations gets us started on finding the places we do connect.
An example I often use is that people from all different backgrounds can agree that we want safe communities to live in, the problem is how we keep those communities safe. Some people want more police, some want no police, etc. What we don’t often consider in our viewpoints is what we DO agree on, in this example, community safety. When we can find what we agree on it is easier to see where others’ experiences and viewpoints connect with our own and that builds feelings of belonging and community.

How can people get involved?
Rowles: Our 150+ guides and Host Toolkit are available freely, and open-source, on our website. Each guide has all the tools you need to walk you through having a conversation. We also have three training sessions offered each month: An Introduction to Living Room Conversations session, a How to Host and Organize Your own Living Room Conversations session, and a How to Host a Conversation About Race session. We have paid services for people, businesses, and organizations that need custom guides created, custom trainings, and more. People can also email me at chelsea@livingroomconversations.org about any support they need for getting Living Room Conversations started in their community.
We are committed to helping communities build connections through conversation and we will do our best to help however we are able.

What are some tips you can offer folks on how to host a conversation about race?
Rowles: We actually have an entire resource page all about having conversations on race in addition to our monthly How to Host a Conversation About Race. Be mindful of who you are inviting into your conversation and what your goals are. Many people want really diverse groups and fail to recognize that many people, particularly people of color, are burnt out about talking about race. We even offer guides that are for groups of people that are all one race (Being White in the Anti-Racism Movement, Being a Person of Color in the Racial Justice Movement, and Being Asian American are specific examples).
People have different experiences and we cannot take the word of one participant, no matter their race, as a truth for all people of that race. Goals can also be tricky. People really want to take action, but sometimes we need a conversation that is just that. A conversation. Lower the barriers of entry for people who are less willing to, or more stubborn about, talking race and what race means in the U.S. so that we can get the conversations going. Building trust and creating spaces without judgment give people confidence to open up and examine themselves and the world around them more clearly.

We’ve got a lot of big issues in Minneapolis, related to race, wages, police, crime, climate, and more. What do you think our path forward includes?
Rowles: Clearly, one of my hopes is that we have more conversations. Let’s talk about these issues without trying to convince others about what needs to be done about them. I would love to see non-debate conversations, like Living Room Conversations, being used before communities make large decisions. Everyone has a voice that should be heard and that should help inform decisions.

Any other comments?
Rowles: Give it a try! The stakes are low and the reward is high. Living Room Conversations are for everyone! More at livingroomconversations.org.

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