“If it is not led by people of color and immigrants, if it doesn’t have fighting racism and xenophobia at its core, and if it is not mobilizing white people to lead other whites to choose multiracial solidarity over fear and hate—then it’s not a revolution.” -Becky Bond, “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything

Online tools have made it possible to communicate easily with friends and family around the world, sell and purchase goods and services, enrol to vote, raise billions for charitable causes or start-up businesses, and even hail a ride or meal to your front door. We live in an incredible time.

The downside to this unparalleled information exchange and connectedness is that the internet also provides a powerful and relatively cheap way for groups and individuals to spread hate, fear, abuse and mis/dis/mal-information across time and space, and without transparency.

In response to this, ActionStation has run two pilot programmes over the past 12 months that trains volunteers to engage with strangers who leave racist comments online to see if they can facilitate more caring, thoughtful and informed dialogue.

The programme is called Tauiwi Tautoko (which means non-Māori acting in support of Māori) and runs for 10 weeks, weaving together online training and in-person gatherings to provide volunteers with the tools, community and courage to participate in online conversations about race with evidence-based listening and messaging techniques.

“Tauiwi Tautoko has given me so much hope by seeing from real practical work that with small acts of compassion we can overcome the hate.” -Amy (2018 participant

Research shows that ‘calling people out’ can limit their capacity for reason, empathy, and self-reflection. Yet call-out culture is prominent online, increasing polarisation. Research also shows that fact-checking and myth-busting does not work for shifting hearts and minds.

Furthermore, having privilege or social advantage results in: insulation from other ways of living and thinking (resulting in blindspots and misunderstandings), insulation from history (resulting in asymmetrical understandings of our past) and insulation from challenging encounters (resulting in oversensitivity or white fragility).

Because of all this, the techniques used in this programme are informed by experts in restorative justice, values-based messaging, and active listening. It has also been informed by Māori values of aroha (love, breath of god), manaakitanga (the act of uplifting someone’s mana/spirit, generous hospitality and care), whanaungatanga (relationship building) and whakarongo (intentional and reflective listening in the spirit of peace).

The programme is a work in progress, but our volunteers have surfaced important insights into what works and what doesn’t in these online interactions:

  • Learn to recognise and differentiate the folks who are trolling from the folks who are persuadable. They require different responses and do not equally deserve your precious energy and time. Report people who leave bullying and abusive comments.
  • Keep in mind that even if someone who leaves nasty comments isn’t persuadable, the readers are. More people read comments than leave them.
  • Longer, thoughtful responses might not always persuade, but they do successfully calm the tone of a conversation down.
  • Simple questions and responses that don’t aim to address everything in one go work better for keeping conversations alive.
  • Approaches that lead with common ground or empathy receive responses much more frequently than direct questions that risk coming across as patronising.

For anyone who wants to build a similar project, here’s how we’re doing it.

Get clear on your values

The programme is guided by the following principles:

  • We listen before we impart knowledge.
  • We ask questions and approach everyone with curiosity and open heartedness.
  • We will not be defensive but we will recognise the reason behind other’s defensiveness.
  • We lead with aroha and care for the person and see their whakapapa.
  • We seek common ground for our conversations.
  • We are aware of our own privilege and power.
  • Our work is not about fact-checking or myth-busting.
  • We agree to “pick our battles” (e.g. end a conversation if no common ground is found).
  • We embrace discomfort and support one another in moving through it.
  • We will call each other into conversations when and where we need support and we will show up for one another.
  • We will share our own stories and journeys with race, power and privilege if we feel comfortable enough to do so.
  • We are not experts but we are committed to learning always.
  • We are unafraid to admit when we don’t know the answers.
  • We recognise there are multiple worldviews and experiences.
  • We are strategic about where we have conversations to reach the most people.

We train white people to have these conversations in order to lift some of the burden of dismantling racism off the shoulders of indigenous folk and people of colour. Our target audience isn’t always the person we are speaking to; sometimes our focus in on the people who read the comments but don’t participate. We want to model a better way of being online.

Design your curriculum and training calendar

Tauiwi Tautoko runs for 10 weeks, during which volunteers are asked to do the work of promoting love over hate online for one hour per week, while increasing their skills and impact through training.

The programme’s format can be broken down like this:

Week 1 – 3: Building a community of courage and trust

  • Training focuses on role play to practise listening techniques and getting volunteers started by having them work together in comments sections on Zoom or in person.

Week 4 – 6: Un-learning the response to fact-check and myth-bust

  • Training focuses on the power of āta whakarongo (intentional and reflective listening in the spirit of peace) and operating from a place of aroha (love).

Week 7 – 10: Learning best practices of values-based messaging

  • Training focuses on examples of great messages and counter narratives.

The programme begins with a full-day training (e.g. 9am – 3pm). Then each week participants are asked to read a piece of research or watch a video that deepens their knowledge and practise.

Participants are also asked to attend a 45-minute weekly Zoom meeting that is scheduled in advance to reflect on their work and learnings. We recommend breaking this up with at least one in-person gathering around Week 5, 6 or 7 to keep building relationships kanohi ki te kanohi (face to face).

The programme ends with a final half- or full-day gathering focussed on reflection, evaluation and encouragement of self-organising further action beyond the 10 weeks.

Develop your training materials

As part of the programme, we put together training materials (e.g. articles, videos or pieces of research) that help volunteers to be more effective.

It is important to work with people with lived experience of whatever issue you are training volunteers to dismantle (racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.) when developing materials. You don’t want to unintentionally cause more harm by training an army of well-meaning folks who say problematic stuff.

For our programme, we worked with Māori educators, advocates and researchers with expertise in listening and messaging. We also sourced materials from existing work. Here are a few examples:

We also provided volunteers with an A4 poster they could put on their wall to remind them of our approach while they are doing the work.

Because our approach is based on listening for understanding before imparting knowledge, the resources we have developed are around supporting people to unlearn their default responses of fact-checking and arguing.

Here is an example of a series of conversation openers we would provide to volunteers:

Conversation Openers

Ask questions to better understand the person’s perspective, experiences and whakapapa.

  • Can I ask what experiences have led you to think that?
  • What do you mean by [a term, e.g. Māori privilege, political correctness, etc.]?

Seek common ground based on shared values leading with curiosity over judgement.

  • It sounds like [a shared value e.g. fairness] is really important to you. For me, that means [e.g. everyone being able to celebrate their culture and language in a way that feels meaningful to them]. What do you think about that?

Reframe their claim(s) as personal perspectives, not absolute truth.

  • That may be true/That feels important. It also feels important that/It’s also true that…
  • It sounds like we have had really different experiences. My experience has been…
Alternative Narratives

Introduce your own perspective leading with vision and values.

  • I want to live in a world where…
  • My experiences have led me to believe/think/feel…

Name some of the barriers and agents blocking your vision.

  • But unfortunately today, some politicians/corporations want to divide us…
  • Some people in power want us to believe…

Unite the people. Highlight a solution. Be specific.

  • I think we need to join together with people from all walks of life to…
  • In the past people have come together to create changes such as (e.g. 40 hour work week, nuclear free New Zealand) and I think we can do it again.

As part of the work you are asking volunteers to do, you may want a specific set of counter narratives or messages to be disseminated. For an example of great counter narratives, we recommend checking out the reports Race/Class: Our Progressive Narrative and Messaging For This Moment.

Define roles and recruit volunteers

There are three volunteer roles in Tauiwi Tautoko:

  1. People who keep an eye out for threads and comments sections that need intervention and then alert the group.
  2. People whose job it is to observe the conversations that are happening online and reflect back to the rest of the volunteers what they are seeing is working and what isn’t.
  3. People who spend 1-2 hours per week directly having conversations with people online.

We recommend introducing these different volunteer roles at the first training event.

To recruit the volunteers you need to:

  • Set up a volunteer sign-up form that asks people why they want to join, how much learning they have done about the issue, and how they would respond to some examples of comments commonly found online.
  • Put the call out for volunteers through your mailing list, social media and any collaborator organisations or influencers who have the audience of people you are trying to attract into the work.
  • Narrow down the list of folks who you think are best suited to this work based on their responses.
  • Give each person on your shortlist a call to better understand their disposition, motivation and time commitment. This is also an opportunity for you to tell them more about your expectations in the work and mitigate drop-off.
  • Send the invite to the successful volunteers for the first training. We recommend no more than 30 in a cohort to enable relationship building between volunteers.

Make purpose, approach and priorities clear

The first training event should be focused on relationship building and roleplay. We have found that it is important to achieve understanding on the following while there:

This approach is evidence-based: Fact-checking, argument, and head-on opposition do not change minds, when strong values and identities are involved. Enabling someone to feel heard diffuses anger and creates openings.

This is one among many forms of action to address racism: This approach complements and is not meant to replace other forms of activism, including more oppositional or disruptive forms of public challenge, or choosing to shut down a conversation. This is not always the most appropriate approach, but when we want to soften resistance and shift views it can be powerful.

We are ‘connecting for purpose’: This is not connecting with people for its own sake – we hold in our minds the aim of transformation, even if we are not ‘forcing’ certain changes. This affects how we show we are listening and connect.

We are speaking to more than the individual: It may feel futile to engage a racist person, or easy to feel the issue is a particular racist person. But this approach is based on the idea that we are speaking to more than that one person. This is because (a) we are leaving responses that will be read by countless readers, and (b) that individual comment is expressing a more broadly held view, that comes from a specific history and society – expressions of that ‘spirit’ are opportunities to address it, and how it continues into the future.

Empathy/listening is not endorsement: It can feel very strange to ‘lean in’ to racist views. We are not endorsing these views in doing so – we are helping calm the ‘fight or flight’ response so that listening is a possibility. It is the beginning of an exchange, not the end.

Take care of yourselves and each other: The first weeks can be a bit of a shock if you aren’t used to hanging out in the comments section or directly engaging with racism. The programme is designed to ease into, prepare for, and support volunteers in this difficulty, and volunteers find that doing the work – and doing it together – helps. But it is important to also take care of yourself (i) by technical steps (changing privacy settings on your Facebook) and (ii) emotional/physical steps (spreading out the work, eating and sleeping well, talking with friends)

Shut down and report comments that are downright nasty: Sometimes you won’t find common ground with someone and that’s okay. If someone is being abusive, bullying or just plain nasty then report, block, mute.

Evaluate and iterate as you go

Most of the volunteers will be those who have conversations with people online, but a small number will take on the role as ‘reflectors’. Their job is to look at the conversations and assess them based on a range of criteria, such as asking did the volunteer:

  • Ask questions that demonstrate curiosity over judgment?
  • Reflect back what the commenter said and seek common ground?
  • Reframe their claim(s) as personal perspectives, not absolute truth?
  • Introduce their own perspective leading with vision and values?
  • Name some of the barriers and agents blocking their vision?
  • Unite the people and share a solution?

In Week 6 or 7, we recommend running a session where the reflectors share their observations with the rest of the volunteers. It’s important for the focus not to be on individuals but the broader themes that are emerging through the work and what seems to be making a difference. Reflectors should bring examples of successful interventions to the wider group for discussion and dissecting too.

This reflective practise enables volunteers to see the impact of their work, reflect on it in real-time and adapt.

This project is a work in progress and therefore not fixed as an approach. If you have any questions, please get in touch with info@actionstation.org.nz. And if your organisation ends up running anything like this, we would love to hear about it and learn from your experience.

Laura O’Connell Rapira and Ann Cloet

Laura O'Connell Rapira is ActionStation's Director, and Ann Cloet is Volunteer Coordinator.