JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A more measured theme — one calling for ongoing community dialogue — emerged amid the passionate responses after the East Tennessee State University’s men’s basketball team kneeled for the National Anthem at a Feb. 15 away game.
Emails to and from ETSU President Brian Noland obtained through a records request show numerous people expressed hope community members with differing viewpoints on the team’s action could come together, somehow, and listen to one another.
Now, as ETSU’s Equity and Inclusion subcommittee of the Committee for 125 begins its work, an effort to bring people together in a process called “restorative communication” is also building. It involves the “black-white dialogue” group, non-profit Neighborhood Reconciliation Services (NRS) and a process called “listening circles.”
“One of the criticisms of a listening circle process or a restorative process is that it takes time, but relationships take time,” NRS’s Colin Hoover told News Channel 11. “Building community takes time, real sustainable systemic change takes time and if we’re not willing to put in the time and really listen then we’re not going to see that kind of long term change that we need.”
NRS is bringing David Brubaker, a pillar in the restorative communication movement and professor at Eastern Mennonite University, to Summit Leadership June 24 and 25. Brubaker will train people to facilitate listening circles.
At least one ETSU graduate and veteran who didn’t support the players’ “timing” but said he completely supports their First Amendment right to have kneeled said he’s open to facilitated conversations.
“I think it’s important that we try and see all different points of view – not just one side,” David Alan Hays told News Channel 11.
“Everybody has different experiences and the only way we’re ever going to get someplace is to talk about those experiences and find a common ground,” Hays said, adding that he thinks ETSU should reach out to people and help begin those discussions.
Some light in all the heat
“I do believe theirs (the players’) is a prayer for change,” Alice Ensminger wrote to Noland Feb. 20, a day after a tense ETSU Board of Trustees meeting. “Listening to one another is the only way to change this trajectory,” the self-described “old white woman” added.
Hays, a 1986 ETSU graduate and military veteran, wrote to Noland that it was his “fervent prayer” community members can learn “despite any differences we may have, we are first and foremost brothers and sisters with more in common than we may believe.”
Dr. Theresa Lura, a retired cytopathologist from ETSU’s Quillen College of Medicine, wrote, “Until we recognize the division already existing in our community (and university) and act to bridge those divisions, we cannot build true community.”
Noland, meanwhile, sent a response addressing the division to numerous people who had emailed him saying they longed for respectful communication.
“I deeply regret the anger, animosity, and lines of demarcation that have emerged across our region,” Noland wrote in response to multiple people who had written him.
Noland wrote that the region had thought more about issues of “diversity, equity and inclusion” as a result of the incident “than it may have in a generation.
“I am hopeful that from this tension will emerge healing, tolerance, understanding, and empathy.”
NRS hoping to lend a hand
NRS cut its teeth doing “restorative justice” in Judge Sharon Green’s juvenile court in Johnson City. That involves people charged with an offense meeting with the person they’ve harmed in a way that holds the person accountable but restores the relationship.
Director Ramsey McGowen said the concepts can apply to any type of conflict, and create opportunity for everyone who participates to feel respected and heard.
“Any time there’s a difference of opinion, a difference of perspective, a point of contention, a conflict or a wrong, a restorative approach can allow all voices and all perspectives to enter into the conversation about what we need to do,” McGowen said.
She said it’s not difficult — it’s easy, in fact — for anyone to see things from just one perspective. That approach can leave people on either side of an issue, including one tied up in both patriotism and race relations, “blind to the fact that other perspectives are grounded in moral values and belief systems and personal experiences.”
McGowen’s colleague, Colin Hoover, said “recent events have shown we’re not great at listening to one another.”
He said a well-done listening session can take several hours and involve more than one trained facilitator. But it can result in groundwork being laid for further communication between people who may previously have written one another off.
The process does require participants to “listen not with the intention to respond but with the intention to understand,” Hoover said. That gives everyone a equal opportunity to speak and to listen and to be heard.
While he and McGowen would love to see some of the primary players in the controversy around a circle — state senators, ETSU administration, players, boosters, high-profile community members — Hoover said they’d be happy with any facilitated dialogue.
“For members of the community to understand one another better is always valuable,” he said.
Obviously change comes from certain places in the community, but anyone in the community who has been affected by an event is a stakeholder and we all have opinions, we all have experiences, we all have perspectives and any time another human can understand and listen to the perspective of someone, another human who’s different from them is valuable.
“It’s really hard to fear or dismiss or dehumanize someone whose story you know.”
Different ‘lived experiences,’ same willingness to talk
Jonesborough alderman Adam Dickson is an NRS board member and serves on the new ETSU Equity and Inclusion subcommittee. Hays is an admittedly somewhat right of center veteran who thinks the players could have chosen another path.
Like Dickson, though, Hays wants to see some kind of dialogue — and he hopes, subsequent progress toward understanding.
Hays said some of the onus should be on ETSU. He’s watched as Noland has released statements about this being a “transformative” time, and said he received at least one response to his emails — but he thinks concerted action is needed.
“I’d really like to see the university reach out to people and begin the discussions,” said Hays, whose son is a student at the university.
“They’re a member of this community just like I am and I really think it’s important that we begin that dialogue.”
Dickson said he thinks the issue reached “a boiling point” partly because large segments of the community “are in denial or … don’t wish to interact.”
He said it takes “a measured hand” to deal with the issues and manage to be “respectful and yet relevant.”
Hays used a strikingly similar description of what he’d like to see.
He said he’s passionate about the issue, but that he realizes “being passionate isn’t always going to solve a problem.”
“It’s a great start but you need to be measured in your response,” Hays said. “If you turn people off to begin with they don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
Hays realizes it’s only been a few months, but said ETSU’s statements so far haven’t been interactive in his view. He thinks the summer break is a perfect time for ETSU to change that when it comes to an issue that inflamed many people.
“It’s impacted people in crazy ways,” he said. “We talked about passion. Think about what our state senate did. That was an emotional response – I don’t agree with it.
“I kind of get it because being a member of the military you lose some of your rights when you put on a uniform, but this is a First Amendment right and these guys aren’t in the military.”
Hays’s openness to facilitated conversations doesn’t mean he’ll change his opinion about athletes kneeling during the National Anthem. NRS’s McGowen said that’s not the point of such efforts.
“People don’t necessarily change their belief system, but they have a better understanding of what some of the other perspectives are,” McGowen said. “That allows us to have a richer, more comprehensive approach to the problems we face.”