Sherry Watt was looking for a way to navigate difficult dialogue around cultural difference, topics like race and religion that can start dangerous fires. “I needed a way to approach these contentious issues in the classroom without being consumed by it,” she said.
Courage & Renewal gave Sherry a framework for changing the classroom into a space where students could think about their differences together instead of against each other. “The Courage work helped me see that I don’t need to make something happen; instead I create a container and hold a space for people to explore a difficult topic.”
As an associate professor of higher education and student affairs at the University of Iowa, Sherry teaches the next generation of educational leaders—graduate students who will go on to serve in the roles of administrators and student affairs practitioners in higher education institutions. Sherry’s courses on multiculturalism equip students with powerful strategies to engage difference in learning settings and beyond.
In Courage & Renewal, ‘Third Things’ are a device, such as a poem, song, or story, that inspire us to reflect on our personal experiences through the lens of universal themes. It occurred to Sherry that something like racial inequality could be a Third Thing through which students view themselves.
Instead of setting up an adversarial relationship between people of color and white people, she could invite everyone to tell the truth as they experience it and learn from others’ truths. With careful facilitation, such dialogue might build toward a collective understanding of what it means to live in a racialized society, how we can make that change.
“Or in the case of my students,” Sherry said, “How can they go into the world and create environments that nurture college students?”
When difficult dialogues aren’t conducted well, there’s a lot of guilt and shaming, Sherry points out. Controversy and marginalization dominate the conversation.
“This has the greatest impact on the people who are part of marginalized groups, but it affects all people, including those of privilege, who interact within the institution.”
And in the world at large, when people feel like they don’t have a voice, we see cultural clashes like what has happened in the protests over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
“Using the Circle of Trust Touchstones, I introduce a kinder, gentler way of engaging around something that’s very ugly,” Sherry said.
In the case where a young man’s life is lost like in Ferguson, there is little consolation.
“These topics feel very personal to students. They want to target each other, or they want to target me. When I introduce the Courage principles, it shifts that target. It helps us find more productive and less volatile ways of engaging. It facilitates a sense of being in it together.”
For example, Sherry recalls this past semester when religion was a source of polarization in her classroom. There were many students who were passionate about their beliefs and others who felt oppressed. Before diving into another dispute, Sherry put the Touchstones on the table and lightly refreshed them.
- Give and receive welcome.
- Be present as fully as possible.
- What is offered in a circle is by invitation, not demand.
- Speak your truth in ways that respect other people’s truths.
- No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other.
- Learn to respond to others with honest, open questions.
- When the going gets rough, turn to wonder.
- Attend to your own inner teach.
- Trust and learn from the silence.
- Observe deep confidentiality.
- Know that it’s possible to leave with whatever you need and that the seeds planted here can keep growing in the days ahead.
A student opened the conversation. She said she was sorry that her religion—something she loved so much—had hurt so many people.
“It was a beautiful moment where she wasn’t taking responsibility for her whole religion, but just expressing her sorrow. And the other students noted how expressing her sorrow opened up a space for them to heal a little bit of the hurt they had experienced,” said Sherry.
“There are so many different ways to apply the Courage work,” Sherry said. “It has value for transforming how people engage around tough topics—not just race and religion, but other tough issues as well. It has the potential to help people think together. It creates space that supports their authentic self-development.”
Sherry Watt has been a Courage & Renewal facilitator since 2007 and has worked at a number of higher education institutions. Sherry finds her calling in designing and leading educational experiences that involve strategies to engage participants in dialogue that is meaningful, passionate, and self-awakening. Contact Sherry Watt.