A Pivot to the Same Program Goal… Uncomfortable Conversation

By Billy Planer

In 2003 I created a Jewish educational nonprofit venture called Etgar 36. For the next 17 years, we ran a 36-day summer journey for teens in which they meet with all sides of political issues to engage in civil discourse and develop their opinions and views. The goal is they become empowered and inspired to get involved in the work of political and social justice to repair the world. We also lead 3-day Civil Rights journeys in the American South for adults, teens, schools, and organizations.

Since March 12, 2020, the remaining groups signed up for our Civil Rights trip have all postponed to next year, and our summer program was canceled. Like every Jewish program and organization, I knew I had to pivot to remain relevant and functioning. Unlike most, I decided not to go in the online, virtual realm. The Etgar 36 experience is all about being in a place where history happened and meeting with people who are engaged with the issues.

I worked on our pivot in May and announced it the day before the death of George Floyd and the resulting protests and discussions. Our pivot encompasses the two issues impacting America, the virus and race. It turns out our pivot was back to our core program and goals. The program is a socially distanced Civil Rights journey to the historic Civil Rights sites of Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham for individuals/small groups who are ready to travel and the goal is of engaging in uncomfortable conversations. You can see how we will accomplish a socially distanced trip on our website at www.etgar.org, as I want to address the programmatic objective.

All Etgar 36 journeys (summer and Civil Rights) are based on the idea that one on one conversations with people who don’t look, pray, love, think, speak, or vote like us is how we will create change. The problem is these dialogues are uncomfortable and have the potential to spiral out of control, but they are so necessary in the times we currently find ourselves.

KEY STRATEGIC POINTS WHEN HAVING AN UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATION:

1 – Stay calm.

2 – Present your views (and have a point of view) and allow the person you are addressing to present theirs.

3 – Question and push back on the other person’s ideas and points, not on them personally.

4 – Reflect on and use their statements and reference frame in your push back so that they can relate.

5 – Everything doesn’t have to end in agreement. You can keep it civil yet uncomfortable.

6 – Calibrate success by being that the person you are speaking with has heard pushback and/or a different point of view.

A lack of resolution is an important goal for an uncomfortable conversation. With one on one conversations, I have found if you shame someone, they are more likely to tune you out and double down and retrench themselves in their ideology. If they leave the conversation feeling that they were heard and not personally attacked, they are more likely to absorb and revisit what you have said. I call this percolating education/discussion. I can’t tell you how many people come back to me within a few days of our uncomfortable conversation to say to me they have been thinking of our talk and have begun to rethink their beliefs.

You can see these strategic points in use during an interview from 1983 between David Bowie and MTV. You can easily find it on YouTube.

To give you context, in 1983, MTV is two years old but has become the arbiter of what music will be at the top of the charts. It is hard to imagine that in 1983 MTV is not playing Black musicians like Prince, Tina Turner, and (shockingly) Michael Jackson in their regular rotation. One of the stars of the video age is David Bowie. He was having his biggest year ever with his album and videos from “Let’s Dance” when he sits down with MTV VJ Mark Goodman. The conversation in the video is not part of the planned interview. David Bowie tells Mark that he has a question to ask him. He had a point of view and wanted to address this issue of racism on MTV.

After this interview, Columbia Records feels empowered to follow up to push MTV. They tell the music video channel that if they don’t play Columbia’s Black artist’s videos, including Michael Jackson, Columbia will not provide videos from their major White artists, including the very popular Bruce Springsteen. Not surprisingly, within a short time, Michael Jackson gets air time, and his recently released album “Thriller,” which did not do well initially, gains traction once MTV plays the videos “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” In the next year, Prince’s “Purple Rain” tops the charts, and his single “When Doves Cry” keeps Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in The Dark” from the top of the singles chart. Then Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer” can go toe to toe with Madonna.

It is uncomfortable conversations that will create change. If we work to ease the tension of a conversation, we can influence our community and push for change because we speak the language and style that members of our community, who may not be as far along as we would like them to be, will and can listen to. It all begins with a conversation.

Billy Planer has been working in Jewish experiential education for 35 years. He is the Founder and Director of Etgar 36, a program that during the summer takes Jewish teens across America teaching them about history, politics and activism. During the academic year Etgar 36 takes adult and teen groups, schools and organizations on Civil Rights journeys. To date over 25,000 people have been on an Etgar 36 journey.