RC: Wow, this is such a great question! AG and Meera spoke to a piece of this conversation three weeks ago in a post about reducing sexual assault here at Harvard, but I always love the opportunity to think about the variety of ways we can all contribute to creating a community that is more accessible for all people. When thinking about this, it helps me to use the Social Ecological Model (SEM), which basically posits that individuals and their well-being are impacted by the various spheres or levels through which they move (relationships, communities, and society) and they, likewise, impact the well-being of those around them.
On an individual level, we can all strive to be intentional about the language we use and the way we interact with others around us. It can be really hard to know when and if we have hurt someone, especially in a place like Harvard, where people have so many different identities and ways of expressing themselves and their feelings. Because of this, I find it’s really helpful to consistently practice checking in with those around me; we know that neural pathways become strengthened the more we use them.
AG: Basically the more you try to check in with the people you’re interacting with the easier it becomes to do so without it feeling totally forced or awkward. Checking in, and checking in regularly, can give you such a better sense of how your actions and words impact those around you regardless of what your intentions might have been.
RC: For example, one of my friends grew up in a place with a lot of traffic and gave up on being punctual long ago. For them, being respectful means it’s ok to be a little late, as long as they get there. I, on the other hand, grew up in the Midwest, where being on time meant you got somewhere 10 minutes early. For me, being respectful means being super punctual. We would constantly be in conflict if we didn’t check in with each other about when it matters to be on time and when I can practice being a little more flexible.
AG: In this example, it gives both people an opportunity to check in and see how the other feels about either meeting right at a set time or having that be a little less rigid. This might seem like a super trivial example, but little things can build up and impact relationships if they don’t get a chance to be addressed. Sometimes these smaller things can be easier to check in about, and then when something bigger might come up, you can be more comfortable and skilled at having those conversations.
RC: Another key piece of this is taking ownership when you realize that something you did hurt someone else, whether you meant to or not.
AG: I like to think about this as kind of a series of steps. First, it’s important to validate their feelings, even if at first you don’t know why your actions would have had the effect that they did. Then, just like Ramsey said, you can try to understand their experience and then take ownership of your actions. Once you have a better sense of how something was interpreted, you can start working to make amends and then to incorporate their feedback moving forward.
RC: When I think about moving outward across levels of the SEM, I find that reducing harm often involves creating systems of accountability and intentional group norms: how can people call each other out; how supportive are the leaders in groups when that happens; what are group understandings (explicit and implicit) about what is and isn’t acceptable.
AG: We know that all of this can be really hard. But honestly, by starting with the little things we talked about earlier like checking in and taking ownership, it already becomes easier to have these conversations and understandings with each other. With this though, it’s also really important for group leaders to have meetings at the beginnings of the semesters and talk about all of this frankly. Often a clear discussion like that is great at setting norms and helping people feel empowered to carry them out.
RC: This process can sound daunting; like AG said, starting with check ins about the small things can be a good way to develop the skills and confidence so that when the harder conversations or conflicts arise, we each are more equipped to receive feedback, validate other people’s experience, take ownership for our part, and learn. All of this goes a surprisingly long way toward reducing harm.
Community Advocate, OSAPR