Holding Space for Race


In my professional hat, I’m a social worker and leader working with those who’ve survived or witnessed domestic violence. Part of the role I love the most is training new staff, volunteers, and student interns. In part, training is about the ropes: where to find and who to ask for what, policies and procedures, the “what, when, why and how” of daily operations. Boring, but necessary.

What is more interesting, but also so much more challenging, is teaching folks how to sit with someone in extreme pain, overwhelming anxiety, profound confusion, consuming grief, and intolerable anger. This, I tell them, is the tough stuff.


Our fix-it culture likes to offer solutions or distribute blame. It is so much easier than sitting across from someone who lost their mother to murder, or their sister or brother. Sitting with them without answers, meeting intense emotion with compassion and a deep willingness to listen, takes incredible practice, strength, and humility.

We use a lot of terms for this space we ask folks to create. One of my great professional mentors used to call it “holding someone gently.” Often, social workers will refer to it as “holding a space.” We hold a space for the feelings, voices and experiences of others. Ideally, it’s without judgment, without rushing, without pressure. Ideally it is with patience, compassion, and open-heartedness.

Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) said “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”   Many of us do that in our professional and personal lives alike, we plan our rebuttal or we plan to join and ditto.  True listening doesn’t plan.

I worry that in our rush to judge, blame, solve or refute, we neglect to hold a space for the voices, experiences and feelings of others around race.

Many moons ago, I worked with a black family with three children.  One day the youngest disclosed being hit with a belt, and a sibling confirmed.  I called child protective services, as I was trained to do.  The parent was so angry and betrayed she pulled her kids out of services, “Yes, I hit them with a belt.  I am trying to keep them alive.”

As a mother of a black son, I now know the fear of “keeping him” alive.  Then, all I knew was her feeling of betrayal, I could not grasp that terror.

Noah 10.15 2

Later, I worked with a teenager pulled over by police in a larger city for, by his account, “running while black.”  Finding nothing illegal on him, they performed an illegal body cavity search, in daylight, on the street, in front of his peers and various motorists.  Then I could grasp his feeling of violation, but the feeling of suppressed rage, injustice and resignation I couldn’t quite hear.

Perhaps if I knew more then, I would have better held a space for their stories of racism and trauma.  Perhaps in our quest for non-judgment, we can all find a place for these stories to coexist.  We can make and hold the space.  We can listen to truly understand.  We can offer, simply and powerfully, our hearts, compassion and acceptance.

4 comments on “Holding Space for Race”

  1. Sharlene, this is so powerful. Amen on all you said. It takes such presence and restraint and compassion and mindfulness to “hold that space” and “not to plan.” As one minister to another, for you too are a minister, YES! And being on the other end of deep listening is immensely liberating. I dare say that we’ve both been on both ends…. And to understand outside of our comfort zone, whether that zone is defined by the privilege of race, education, physical ability, whatever, is listening with finding spaces in ourselves. You are a person of many spaces, Sharlene.

  2. Soooo hard for lawyers to do. We think everyone wants us to be Batman, and fix things right away. You are right when you say it takes practice — lots of practice. Still trying to get it right. Thanks for this insightful piece.

    1. Thanks so much Randi! I think we’re all still trying to get in right in many ways. The trick is to just keep trying, an let a voice other than our own lead the way!

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