One by one, they open their eyes and wait in silence for someone to speak.
“Hi, my name is Kay,” one of them finally said.
“Hi, Kay,” everyone else said.
“I’m pissed off,” Kay told them. “And I’m fed up.”
While Bloomington resident Kay Johnson shares what has made her upset, those sitting in the circle do not show any signs of agreement or sympathy.
The Get Real About Discrimination meetings at 6 p.m. every Friday in the Persimmon room of the Indiana Memorial Union are not about feedback, Johnson said.
They’re about voicing opinions, and being heard. Without judgement.
The members of the circle don’t nod or put their hands on Johnson’s shoulder. Nor do they shake their heads in disagreement or anger. Even Johnson’s partner, junior Chris Kase, refrains from displaying emotion.
Everyone remains still and as indifferent as possible because those are the rules.
“People, to some degree, feel ashamed or not allowed to speak about what’s really on their mind because, ‘Oh my God,’ someone might get upset,” Johnson said. “You can’t create places that are safe to share but also safe to listen. It can’t happen. It’s either one or the other.”
At GRAD meetings, sharing is for the sharer’s benefit, she said, not the listeners. Someone can talk about anything and not worry about the reaction.
“People are aware that they might hear things they don’t want to hear that might trigger them,” Johnson said. “Things that might make them feel uncomfortable.”
The meetings, which are sponsored by National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals at IU, range in size from as few as two to upwards of 14 people.
The format is strict, with Johnson adhering to a script for every meeting. But that’s what helps make GRAD be a safe place to share, Johnson said.
“You know exactly what you’re getting with each meeting,” she said. “You know what
Kase, president of IU NOGLSTP, said the group’s definition of discrimination is not so strict.
“People are discriminated against every day, and they just don’t realize it,” Kase said.
The meetings are open to everyone, and they can talk about anything that is on their mind, provided they make it personal through using what Johnson calls “I language.” Observers are also welcome to simply sit to the side and watch the meeting take place.
Kase said the freedom of sharing and the lack of feedback can be rewarding.
“I realize that I have become much more empowered about owning who I am, what I think, what I believe, what I feel, because I’m not getting feedback,” Kase said. “Every week I feel like I am becoming a more honest person.”
Johnson, a transgender and authenticity advocate, created GRAD while she was a graduate instructor at Purdue University.
She attended several area diversity and anti-discrimination groups and found, to her dismay, that many of them did not necessarily practice what they preached.
“It’s like kids in high school joining groups like Students Against Destructive Decisions because it looks good on their college application,” Johnson said. “But really they don’t give a crap about SADD. These groups were like adult versions of the same thing. They’re not interested in doing anything, just patting themselves on the back.”
Because Johnson said she felt discriminated against at discrimination meetings, she decided to create her own group, one that addressed issues of both sharing and listening.
Now, as the meeting comes to a close, Johnson is telling everyone in the GRAD circle to stand.
They join hands and begin singing “This Little Light of Mine.”
“I’m going to let it shine,” they sing. “Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.”
The sharing has now concluded, and Kase feels free to offer some feedback.
“Hey,” she said. “That was pretty good.”
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