My Experience with Virtual and In-person Cross Class Dialogue Circles
By Shomriel Sherman
I am a 36-year-old Ashkenazi Jewish, visibly able-bodied, cis female. Despite growing up cash-poor, I am aware of the educational privilege I possess. I have long found myself at the interesting intersection of deep-rooted, embodied anxiety coming from an uncertainty that my basic needs are going to be met, while also having an ease with language, with written and spoken communication, that has opened many doors.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in two cross-class dialogue circles, a virtual circle that convened for six consecutive weeks from September through October of 2018 and an in-person circle that met in White River Junction, Vermont , three times over the course of six weeks from October through November of 2018.
Having participated in a number of in-person circles in various other contexts, I know the effectiveness of a physical circle when it comes to facilitating trust, respect, and sharing in a non-hierarchical way. I was unsure of whether we would be able to achieve these same aims with such geographical distance, not to mention computer screens, between us. In fact, we were able to do just this. Those of us who were able to commit to setting aside two and a half evening hours once a week for the duration of the six weeks, in spite of the many other demands on our time, formed a group where the quality of sharing and closeness didn’t seem to be diminished in any way by the virtual aspect.
Angela and Kendra, as co-facilitators, were well prepared each session. They brought forward ground rules for everyone to agree to, such as setting aside our phones during our time together unless absolutely necessary, maintaining confidentiality, communicating respectfully and speaking from our own experiences, as well as letting the group know if we’d been hurt by anything that was said. These agreements helped form a container in which we could go a little deeper, make ourselves a little more vulnerable, as we discussed sensitive topics relating to class and income that are not normally discussed openly and are very much tied in with a sense of identity and self-worth for many, if not all of us.
Angela, Kendra, and Deb co-facilitated the in-person circle, so I was particularly blessed to experience their guidance in-person as well as virtually. It’s never an easy thing to co-facilitate, particularly three ways, but they held it down. The care and respect they have for one another and the willingness to learn from each other’s varied experiences and backgrounds modeled for the participants how to listen deeply and with curiosity to one another, to allow our own ideas of ‘how things are’ to be challenged by those for whom things have been different. I found myself coming to recognize some of the ideas and judgments I’ve internalized, both toward myself and others, and (at least moving toward) being able to let go of some of the shame I’ve accumulated over a lifetime of 36 years and however many generations before that.
While the in-person aspect lent itself to closeness in certain ways (including being able to share food with each other and the conversation that comes along with that), the fact that I was traveling from out of state while the other participants were all much closer geographically, as well as having two weeks between sessions, did create some sense of distance that I hadn't experienced in the virtual circle. Additionally, I wonder if the fact that there was some computer-screen-generated distance between folks in the virtual circle paradoxically brought us closer. Perhaps we felt like we could be more vulnerable with each other from the other side of a screen.
Either way, both circles were valuable experiences for me, and being able to experience them side by side as I did was quite eye-opening. I know that one of the sources of frustration that many folks have is the ignorance and oblivion that class and other forms of privilege enable some of us to go through our lives with, where we simply don’t see (and often don’t want to see) other people’s lived realities. In no way am I claiming that as a result of these two cross-class dialogue circles I can now see everyone’s reality with crystal clarity. However, I am finding that I’m moving through the world with less frequent feelings of guilt, shame, and pity (and self-pity) and more of an understanding of the importance of leaving as many assumptions as possible aside, simply recognizing and acknowledging each other and how our class positionality comes to bear on our own lives and the lives of others -- while I do what I can in small and large ways to create something that works for everyone from the ground up.
I’m also seeing much more clearly how having enough money and/or other resources provides, as another participant wrote, breathing room. Minimum wage jobs, which is all that many people have available, are so far removed from a true living wage. When you’re constantly in survival mode about the basics of shelter, food, health, transportation, and bill-paying -- when there’s no guarantee of these things continuing month to month, week to week, day to day -- things that may seem small or inconsequential to someone with more class privilege, such as needing to take a day off from work to care for a sick child or having to make a car repair, can have disproportionate impacts on the direction of entire families’ lives. And the accumulated mental and physical effects of living with constant stress and anxiety are astounding.
One of the takeaways that I’m still unpacking is just how much all of us are impacted when any of us are taken out of the equation in this way. There are that many fewer people able to engage creatively or socially with a society that’s always in a state of creation by someone or other, always in motion, and affecting all of us who live in it. Research shows that societies with the greatest income disparities, not the overall poorest societies, have the highest percentage of individuals with issues relating to mental health. Whether those individuals are ourselves, someone we love, or a violent stranger, it’s never an ‘out there’ problem. I’m continuing to explore the ways in which I can best engage from a place that’s both informed and humble, guided by justice and humanity rather than guilt or rage, and always keep in my mind and heart the understanding that we’re all in this together, for better or for worse.