Embracing controversy fosters better communication for this group.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, staff of the Providence VA Medical Center wanted to offer colleagues a chance to talk about what they were thinking and experiencing. Inspired by initiatives at other organizations, they began gathering for “Courageous Conversations” in June that year.
The founding members wished to “create a safe space … where people can just share what they’re experiencing, their thoughts [and]their biases, comfortably, openly, with no judgment,” says Karri-Lynne Kellam, MPH, a former group practice manager in Providence who’s now at the Boston VA.
The idea was well received. More than two years later, staff continue to gather every Wednesday at noon for a thought-provoking and reflective break from the day. The sessions attract between 30 to more than 40 people each week, including Brown medical students, residents, and faculty.
“I think we’re modeling what it’s like to have a conversation even when we don’t agree,” says Mary Barros, LICSW, a primary care social worker.
Meeting topics have included racism, health care disparities, the experiences of identity groups, parenting, and gun violence—subjects meant to foster some discordance and thereby expose attendees to a diversity of viewpoints. “The biggest moment was when one individual said, ‘I never thought of it that way,’” social worker Marie Sullivan says.
Alternating team members lead the conversations, incorporating relevant media, discussion questions, and polls. Sometimes an important part of the conversation is simply silence. These wordless moments can be uncomfortable but also can dispel tension, says Heather Oberg, chief of graduate medical education at the Providence VA.
When controversial points arise, including some founded in misinformation, the team aims to acknowledge these perspectives and address areas of misunderstanding while maintaining an atmosphere free of judgment, Sullivan says.
Thus the weekly sessions not only have created a “safe environment where everyone is validated, even when the opinions were not all the same,” says Rev. Rotunda East, chief of chaplains at the Providence VA; they also are better preparing participants for their interactions with patients and colleagues.
The team is trying to expand their reach in the Providence VA community and spreading the word at national conferences. “Part of the success of the group is that we are all so passionate about what it is that we’re doing,” Sullivan says. “We safeguard it because it’s so very important. … It’s really a lifesaving environment where you can just have some respite and talk and process and feel supported.”