About BenRoberts

Among many other things, Ben is a volunteer working group member of the National Dialogue Network. He is the creator of the Conversation Collaborative and is a member of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

Race, Poverty, & Wealth — Insights From a Virtual Conversation


Submitted by Ben Roberts: Throughout the months of September and October, 2013, I hosted a national conversation “experiment” on the subject of Poverty and Wealth in America. The overall purpose of the conversation (in cooperation with the new National Dialogue Network) was to generate valuable insights, explore initiatives that might have positive impact, connect people to one another in meaningful ways, and experiment with new approaches to large group dialogue.

Approximately sixty people participated through a combination of online, in-person, and phone-based conversations. All of these various discussions were connected and coordinated via the online platform “hackpad.” Here is a link to the welcome page, from which you can access all the other “pads”: www.bit.ly/povwealth.  The dialogue took place in three “rounds,” each focused on a particular set of questions.

In Round One, we asked the following:

“when you imagine a national dialogue about poverty and wealth in America, what question(s) would you most like to explore with others?”

Our various conversations generated a long list of questions that covered a number of themes. A list of resources was also compiled based on participant suggestions.

The diverse array of themes and questions identified in Round One led to a challenging decision about how to focus the conversation going forward. There were many compelling possibilities, as well as the option of pursuing more than one line of inquiry. Meanwhile, one participant who joined the conversation at the point where we were reviewing the notes from the first round’s discussions observed that the subject of “race” had not come up at all.

This omission is indeed striking since, according to Census data, the percentage of Black, Latino, and Native American households that fall below the poverty line is roughly three times higher than that of Whites, while the average wealth of White households is six times that of Blacks and Latinos. And so in Round two, we asked:

“how do you explain these statistics?  And how might an exploration of the relationship between race, poverty and wealth in America help us to examine our own beliefs, understand those of others and discover new possibilities together?

The Round Two conversations were challenging. In the process of wrestling with these questions, a second set of resources was complied from participant suggestions, and I consider this list to be one of the most valuable outcomes of this round and of the “experiment” as a whole. Still, it seemed that, as this round drew to a close in mid-October, there was still much more to explore in this terrain.

For Round Three, we stayed with the race theme, but changed the questions, making them more directly personal:

  • What is the story about race, poverty and wealth that you hear yourself most often telling? The one that you are wedded to and maybe even take part of your identity from?
  • What are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story?
  • What is your attachment to this story costing you?

A number of stories were complied and discussed in this round. We also brought in Barry Spector, author of Madness at the City Gates, as a special guest conversation starter on one of our interactive conference calls. Participants found it especially challenging to address the questions about payoffs and costs.

By our concluding call on October 31, 2013, a core tension had emerged in our exploration of the race theme. On the one hand, it was clear to most (if not all) participants that racism, both past and present, has taken a terrible toll on the communities of people of color. On the other hand, there was a strong  concern around the possibility that any focus on race leads to division, and that the causes of poverty extend well beyond that single factor.

Thus the dilemma: how do we address the issues that remain unresolved in terms of race in this country in a way that also support our moving forward together as one nation? 

We did not come to any consensus on this final question, but I believe our dialogue moved us forward by calling it out so clearly.

Ben Roberts
Conversation Collaborative

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