Friday, March 13, 2009

Racism's grandchildren

I am hired by Robyn, the director of the Community Law Centre, to facilitate a pair of communication workshops for a group of Maori men who meet in a quasi support group. The group is coordinated through Turanga Health - one of the many agencies in town - and throughout the country - that provides services to Maori.

Robyn shares the fact that many Maori men do not speak up about their health issues - the result being they do not get treated until things really deteriorate. By the time they take action, things are, well, sometimes too late. They suffer from diabetes, obesity, heart issues and the many challenges of getting older. Hearing loss. Diminished eyesight. Frailty.

We determine that a communication workshop focused on "Personal Advocacy" would be appropriate. The advocacy angle fits in well with the mission of the law centre. And if the men can learn better communication skills, they can be more proactive about their well being. This outcome would reinforce what they're dealing with in their support group.

I comb through my many resources and articles and workshop outlines to design a 75-minute session. I'm going to present a "model" that distinguishes fact, feeling, thinking and needs in terms of communication. I also plan to have them do some "paired sharing" as an ice-breaker. This is a common practice I use with groups to have them surface the key issue of the given seminar topic. In this case, I'm going to ask them to identify where they are "stopped" in communication and the specific obstacles and landmines they face.

I prepare an agenda and handouts. Put on one of three "business" skirts I've brought with me. The day prior I've led a "Managing Resilience" workshop for a business training company so my professional confidence is strong.

When I arrive at Tauranga Health and inquire for Robyn, I'm told she's around the back. I wander into the meeting room. Several of the men already are gathered. They sit on long, worn, wooden benches. They are attired in the outfits of farmers and mechanics, people that work with their hands. They have kind eyes, but don't look at me. Most sit quietly, cloaked in a forlornness that feels both sad and isolated.

One of the men gets up to greet and welcome us. Robyn is obviously well known and loved by these men. He speaks first in Maori. It is a melodic language. I don't know what he is saying, but I am feeling welcomed. They sing a couple of songs. It feels like we are praying together so I close my eyes and sway a bit.

I am aware of my foreignness. Not because I am American. This is not a handout, slide presentation crowd. We are not in a conference room and they don't use written agendas. Nervously, I thank the leader for the introduction and touch my nose to his. It is a Maori greeting I've learned. Sort of like the Eskimo eyelash kiss.

I begin the Communication Workshop. Personal Advocacy: Speaking Up for Yourself.

We try the paired share. The men mumble to each other. I can sense a collective self consciousness. They aren't resistant - they are confused. I stop and ask them very simply: What don't you talk about?

With some prodding, they concur that they are not talking about or taking care of their health. Health is a big issue. It is the 600 pound gorilla. The reasons vary. They begin to share their stories about aborted doctor's visits; bureaucratic hassles; paperwork they can't understand; a litany of roadblocks.

Then a man says, almost in a whisper, "When I was five, I was beaten for speaking my language."

I can't quite hear him. I fumble trying to repeat what he said. This is one of the facilitator's rules. Repeat every question or statement.

He repeats himself. Talking, not to me. Not to anyone in particular. He is talking about being beaten up. He is talking about not trusting "the white man." I know he is also talking about not trusting me. He doesn't ever make a direct connection between his beatings and his reticence now - 60 years later - to take care of his health [which is definitely in the white man's hands]...but the monster is there. Under the bench.

I am moist. Both with tears and sweat. I consult my agenda. While this is not something I can "whiteboard," it IS the essence of the workshop. We are indeed talking about his issue. And his obstacle. We are talking about his feelings. And his thoughts. And his needs.

I listen to his word and their silence. I consult my gut. I talk about being a woman. I share the fact that I'm Jewish [the first time I've said this since arriving here]. I can RELATE...a morsel..a skin him. To his people. To prejudice and racism. I do not apologize for anything. I simply stand facing him and the men and feel the legacy of racism. I acknowledge his story and thank him. Then I ask the following question:

If you have a heart problem TODAY and don't call the doctor, who is hurting you? The white doctor, or you? Who is perpetuating the injustice - you or the system?

Finally, some eye contact. And rustling of paper. Actually, there are some valid points on my handout. I point to the difference of what's happened in the PAST, what they decide in the PRESENT and what they need in the FUTURE. I draw a graph on the chalkboard. A few heads nod.

We talk about the power of speaking up. I again reinforce and challenge them to think about the impact of staying angry and resigned - that they CAN do something now.

However, these are such obedient men. They learned their lessons well. The crackle of racism's whip was more than a metaphor. And I have just an hour to apply my salve.

The workshop ends. They play another song. It is sweet and somber. I feel exhausted, blessed, tender and most of all humbled. I'm slightly disoriented. Was this ok? Did they get anything out of it?

A man gets up. He has been alert and attentive the entire time. He looks wise and a bit feisty.

"You know," he begins. "We don't really talk to EACH other. We aren't always that supportive of each other. We need to learn to communicate in this group first."

I look at Robyn. She smiles. Neither one of us is naive enough to think the work is done...but we leave feeling some of the pain has evaporated over the past few minutes. That these men will indeed start talking - at least to each other.

This country has done much to eradicate and compensate for the way the Maori's were treated by the "white man" in the time of Captain Cook. It has employed legislation, regulation, economic incentives - a whole range of measures to equalize the society. The one thing the government can't do is erase the memories of these people. They can't decode their genes. The government can't mandate individuals to stand up for their now very well protected rights. My hope is that these men are now able to do that - for themselves.

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