Read The Room

Something has swept the room and the training hasn’t even started.

Folks are looking at their phones with frustration and muttering to each other as I’m encouraging them to grab coffee and a morning snack before heading to their seats. The volume of their chatter isn’t decreasing, and I’m wondering what is going on. Then I realize. And I remember who is in the room.

18 year old Mike Brown was killed. I’m in a room full of social service workers and case managers. They work with kids like Mike Brown every day. It’s also just a few months after Eric Garner was killed in our very own NYC, with protests hot and heavy for weeks, and everyone is exasperated.

We’re gathered to talk about financial security - financial coaching, credit scores, savings accounts… Not social justice (beyond the overlap with the financial system).

My normal approach is to do a little “song and dance” kind of introduction, and I like to get folks laughing and pumped up before we get into the nitty gritty details of a credit report. This time, I’ve read the room. I encourage everyone to get seated and call out the elephant in the room, saying something like this:

Another black man has been killed by police. I understand, especially in the light of what’s happened this year (2014), that this is more disturbing news. I also understand if you need to take some time to deal with this information. I invite you to use the hallway to make any needed phone calls, email checks, or self-reflection time that you might need to do, and will do my best to make a mental note of filling you in if you do need to step out. With that said, today we have an opportunity to learn information that will make a difference for your clients, for the individuals you’re working with that are fighting for financial equality in a rigged system. I hope that today we can cover information that you can take back to your clients to help them improve their lives.

Read the room. Address the issues. Tie it in to the work you’re doing. It won’t always be something heavy like a national emergency or another school shooting, but your participants are bringing their own experiences and emotions into the room, and you’re more likely to keep them engaged if you acknowledge those important aspects of their humanity upfront.