Working to Overcome Conversation Roadblocks on Our Journey to Justice

Contributed by Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CIE) members Jane Garrity, Etta Ward and Gretchen Kiser

It seems like every week in 2020 brings a new avalanche of news stories on institutional racism, social injustice, and voices raised in protest. NORDP members, like so many others, are looking for ways to be leaders, allies, and agents of change for our communities and campuses. We acknowledge the tremendous exhaustion and pain of our BIPOC members from the many years of trauma and oppression and join in solidarity to share the burden of change agency. There is so much we could and should be doing toward racial and social justice. Despite the daunting task ahead of us all, we need to initiate the first and fundamental step toward effecting enduring meaningful change – personal, sometimes difficult conversations with our friends, colleagues, and families. Starting and maintaining conversations leads to other critical actions that will be needed to dismantle the systems, processes and procedures that make it possible for inequities and discriminatory practices to persist. Unfortunately, many ‘would-be’ allies face conversation roadblocks preventing them from this critical action step.

The Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CIE) is leading the charge to bring opportunities for dialogue to NORDP members that will move us beyond simply checking off boxes on a diversity plan or proclaiming that we are realizing our diversity mission goals. Until we all feel that we belong and are valued, we still have work to do toward becoming a more inclusive, welcoming, and actively anti-racist organization. The CIE hosted a series of discussion sessions over June and July, and again on September 30, that were guided by a framework tool – Conversation Roadblocks – developed by Catalyst (, a global nonprofit founded in 1962 that helps organizations accelerate inclusion and professional progress for women and other under-represented groups at work.

These sessions were open to all NORDP members who chose to participate and were centered on anti-Black racism and the associated structures of social injustice. These sessions invited participants into uncomfortable conversations on racism and focused on identifying and surmounting the specific fears and assumptions that keep us silent on this issue. Specifically, we discussed conversation roadblocks such as a sense that there is not really a problem to address, the fear of negative consequences if one speaks up, or an assumption that talking will not solve anything. Honestly addressing these roadblocks is the first step towards building a framework for future action to build a culture of anti-racism at both NORDP and our home institutions.

Each Conversation Roadblock event included an opportunity for participants to collectively set ground rules for engagement toward creating a safe space to openly share our thoughts and feelings and to respectfully listen to the perspectives and lived experiences of others. In breakout groups, we reviewed the short but powerful Conversation Roadblocks document and shared stories of how we have encountered conversation roadblocks in our own lives and where we still struggle. The groups then presented key points of their discussions, and participants brainstormed some next steps for our collective journey to justice.

Attendees testified to the power that even these initial conversations can have, e.g.:

“I had a colleague who is a person of color reveal that she had changed her birth name and spent her childhood trying hard to NOT be associated with a non-White race/ethnicity. I thought how exhausting that must be to everyday have to put so much energy in denying a part of who you are. No one should have to do that.”

“I was skeptical about the level of impact an exercise like this could truly make in just one and a half hours. But I walked away with a commitment to the work of racial and social justice, especially learning my own roadblocks and hearing ideas for additional action steps moving forward.”

On-going, honest and open conversation on these issues is critical to true enduring transformational change. Thus, NORDP will be hosting these Conversation Roadblock sessions each quarter for the next year. And, because such discussion is just the beginning of our journey to justice, NORDP’s CIE will also be hosting a developmental series for NORDP members on topics like privilege, allyship, intrinsic bias, cross-cultural collaboration, intersectionality, power dynamics, and institutional racism. In addition, keep an eye out for a climate survey on diversity, equity, and inclusion in early 2021. We hope that you’ll participate in these opportunities to make your voice heard, listen to others’ stories, and continue the hard work of dismantling systemic and structural racism and discrimination in our personal and professional spheres of influence.

Reference: Catalyst, Conversation Roadblocks (October 10, 2019) (

NORDP fosters a culture of inclusive excellence by actively promoting and supporting diversity, inclusion and equity in all its forms to expand our worldview, enrich our work, and elevate our profession.

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