This article explains why your participation will strengthen your empathy muscle and help create an inclusive, hopeful future for central Minnesota.

I recently talked with James Alberts, who is leading the St. Cloud Safe Spaces Conversation Project. I wanted to find out why Patrick Kennedy of the St. Cloud Times is hopeful that this initiative is going to move many people from being merely spectators in community, into building the kinds of relationships that make us a “community.”

I came away from that conversation feeling genuinely more hopeful that we really can build the kind of inclusive community that so many of us are committed to shaping, and that the St. Cloud Safe Spaces Conversation Project can effectively help us reach that goal.

What is the St. Cloud Safe Spaces Conversation Project? 

Safe Spaces is an initiative and website/app designed to help guide and implement the community vision for a just and safe St. Cloud. Its aim is to cultivate connections and understanding through conversations. Connections and understanding are a necessary part of making that vision a reality, and having open, deep, brave conversations with each other is one of the best ways to create connections and increase understanding. 

James Alberts explained, “In response to the overt racism that has become apparent over the past several years, in the shadow of the Chauvin Trial and in the wake of Dante Wright’s killing in April, central Minnesota leaders gathered to try to come up with something to address the anxiety, fear, and trepidation of these times.” 

70 leaders including St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis and Chief William B. Anderson, area Public School Superintendents, Presidents of local colleges and universities, Directors and presidents of non profits, faith leaders, and business executives signed a letter stating their commitment “to securing a deeper understanding of the problem [of racism] and creating solutions that lift us all.” 

While thinking about Action Step 1 of that letter, “Create a Safe Space for Brave Conversations,” It came to Alberts that we need to be in fellowship. He’s talking about friendly companionship, the state of being comradely, people on the same team working for a common good.

In the twenty-five years that he has been living in St. Cloud, he has seen successful fellowship at work in the St. Cloud Community Policing Agreement, where “numerous discussions and good-faith collaboration between the St. Cloud Police Department and members of the St. Cloud community.” Fellowship helped outline “important procedures regarding Fair and Impartial Policing and the Complain Process, and built better community relationship between the Department and the community at large. 

Alberts has also seen fellowship at work in organizations that bridge communication gaps, “by getting to know one another beyond the generic, being in a relationship that says we have each other’s phone number we can call each other.” 

He says, “Safe spaces brings that to the masses. We want to have intentional conversations about uncomfortable situations. To learn about each other. Not to convince each other. Not to convert each other. To change the paradigm of what it means to be in central MN. Not White Cloud. Not In the Sticks. We want to create a narrative that is self determined and self actualized by the community we want to be.”

Is this possible? James Alberts believes it is. “I’m not after 100%; I’m after a majority. Can we get a majority? I think we can.”

I asked what constitutes a safe space for open, deep, brave conversation and what is the goal of these conversations? 

“In my mind a safe space is a nonjudgmental space,” he said, “where 2 or more people can converse about the topics they have determined or deemed necessary. The goal is not to have convinced anyone of anything, but to have added to your knowledge outside yourself.” 

Leaders of the initiative have already had several hundred conversations that they can count. Now they’re working on the tooling and the technical aspects that will allow them to keep track of information. The measurable objective of the initiative is to hold 5,000 Safe Spaces Conversation in central Minnesota between now and June, 2022. 

5 Good Reasons to Participate in the St. Cloud Safe Spaces Conversation Project

1) Safe Spaces Conversations Develop Curiosity

Studies show that curiosity makes our lives better. Having curiosity primes the brain for learning, keeps us active and alert, increases the quality of our relationships, and provides experiences of happiness and meaning. 

The Safe Spaces Guide to One-on-One Conversations says, “The best conversations are the ones where you let your curiosity guide you…. when we ask the next, deeper question we learn the most about other people.

2) Safe Spaces Conversations Help Us Become a Better Listeners

Good listeners generate respect and trust, solve problems more effectively, help people on both sides of an issue remain cool, and make fewer mistakes. This generates high self esteem and boosts confidence. 

Hosting Safe Spaces Conversations is an agreement to practice deep listening, to ask questions, to learn what makes someone else tick. Because being a deep listener doesn’t only benefit you; it’s a win-win that also benefits the person you’re with and strengthens community connections.  

3) Safe Spaces Conversations Help Us Embrace Our Vulnerability

Do you know about the power of vulnerability? Have you seen Brené Brown’s Ted Talk on why living with vulnerability helps us create a strong sense of worthiness—of love and belonging? If the concept of vulnerability as power is new to you, this Ted Talk will help you understand why we need to embrace our vulnerability. 

Embracing our vulnerability is at the heart of the Safe Spaces Conversation Project. It’s risky to offer an invitation that might be rejected. But, as the conversation guide explains, these conversations only build connection and understanding if we make ourselves vulnerable and “allow the other person to decide if this is something they want to be a part of. It is important to respect it when someone declines, and don’t take it personally…taking the risk to make the invitation shows that you value them and what they have to say even if they say no” to your invitation. 

4) Safe Spaces Conversations Teach Us to Be Uncomfortable

Wait—what? Why would I want to make myself uncomfortable? It’s true that being uncomfortable is not exactly enjoyable, but Forbes has reported that feeling uncomfortable is the key to success. When you let new things and new conversations happen, “your body creates brand new neural pathways that fuel your creative spark and enhance your memory.” 

“Putting yourself in new and unfamiliar situations triggers a unique part of the brain that releases dopamine, nature’s make-you-happy chemical. Here’s the mind-blower; that unique region of the brain is only activated when you see or experience completely new things.” 

It’s likely that at some point in a brave conversation, both parties are going to suffer a little bit, feel somewhat uncomfortable. But, James Alberts said, “If we suffer together, we succeed together, we grow together. Therefore we are closer.

“For example, football teams and military are aware that suffering together binds us together. That place of existence — if we do this together, though it be hard — it will create a relationship, moving into the future. We create an opportunity for us to develop a familia relationship. We can no longer say that we are strangers.”

5) Join Safe Spaces to Strengthen Your Empathy Muscle

Curiosity, good listening skills, embracing vulnerability, and being okay with feeling uncomfortable are characteristics that empathetic people share in common. And having empathy is the vital first step that motivates us to work for the well-being of others. 

Empathy is our ability to connect to one another by understanding the similarities of our emotions. When empathy leads to moral action, it is a radical force for social transformation. 

The business of Lyricality is to foster the art of empathy through poetry and story. We realize, however, that empathy is only a first step in being our best selves and creating a humane society. Empathy is useless if it does not lead us to take ownership, to take actions that change unethical situations. 

Doing the right thing—making the moral and ethical choice—requires awareness, hope, and courage.

Please join this initiative. Start by visiting the Safe Spaces website/app to access the conversation guide and begin to hold your conversations and help create an inclusive, hopeful future for everyone in central Minnesota.

7 Steps to Hold a Safe Spaces Conversation

It’s not difficult to initiate and participate in a safe spaces conversation. Just follow these 7 steps. 

1) Invite someone you know and would like to know more about.

Invite a neighbor, coworker, someone in a group you attend, or even a family member or old friend. We never know everything about a person, and these conversations are designed to help us learn about each other in ways that uplift our community.

2) Be respectful.

Tell the other person that you are inviting them to a participate with you in the Safe Spaces Conversation project, and you’d like 30 minutes of their time so that you can listen and learn about what is important to them. Let them know you will report that you had this conversation, but you will not share anything personal about them. Ask them where they would be comfortable meeting and what their preferred Covid protocols are. 

3) Be intentional.

When you meet, skip the small talk and dive in with a question from the list of sample questions on the safe spaces website, or come up with a question of your own.

4) Be open.

In addition to being curious, listening well, embracing vulnerability, and agreeing to be a little uncomfortable, engage in this conversation with an open mind. The 1:1 Meeting guide on the Safe Spaces website says, “Your role is to ask questions, go deeper, and practice empathy and deep listening.” Don’t gossip, Don’t give advice. Don’t judge. Try to let the other person talk 80% while you listen 80% of the time and talk no more than 20% of the time.”

James Alberts said it this way. “I I come into the conversation already believing you’re wrong, the best we’re going to do is 50% [of the truth] because I’ve cut off half of me. This is about being open while asking for opening. 

5) Set aside your opinions.

and simply listen to learn what you share in common with this person. Ask yourself, How are our emotions similar? And if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, try to understand how this person came to their views. Try to find the stories beneath whatever is making you uncomfortable. 

6) Share.

Track your conversation using the Safe Spaces website/app on your smartphone.

Why Track? Leaders of this initiative are tracking conversations to celebrate the increasing number of brave conversations happening across St. Cloud; and to learn from themes in these conversations about how we can work together to create a stronger community.

7) Follow up with gratitude.

Send a card, text, or email, thanking your conversation partner for summoning the courage to meet and to share.  

If you would like more support or practice before you initiate your first conversations, the Safe Spaces team is working to schedule training sessions. These will be announced on the site in the near future.

How to Involve More People in Safe Spaces Conversations

To involve more people, follow the seven steps, but this time expand your connections. Ask the person you met with if they know someone they think you should meet with. Invite an interesting person you recently met at a meeting, a social gathering, or even the grocery store. Invite a person you know from online engagement, or post on your social media that you’re having Safe Space conversations and ask if anyone in your network from Central MN is willing to grab coffee with you. 

And if you have, or know someone with the gifts of hospitality and organizing, gather a small group for discussion. Use this conversation guide with a suggested agenda and conversation topics.  

Why Safe Spaces Conversations Matter

Shared communication is essential for civilization because it allows the infrastructure necessary for technology, trade, cultural exchange, and government to be developed and shared.  Helping people to communicate empowers them to recognize important issues and find common grounds for action, and builds a sense of identity and participation in order to implement important change.

70 of our community leaders signed a letter in April. They made a commitment to take action, saying, “This is our community! We have all the talent and expertise needed to bring about and maintain substantive change for our children and families.” 

Now it’s time for all of us to commit to taking action to bring about change. Safe Spaces Conversations will empower individuals to create a new narrative for St. Cloud and central Minnesota. You can help tell a better story about who we are becoming, strengthen your empathy muscle, and help create an inclusive, hopeful future for central Minnesota. 

Please participate in the St. Cloud Safe Spaces Conversation Project.