What I learned about ‘calling people in’ for conversations on equity & justice

Last year I was listening to a parent talk about the local school’s policy on the length of girls’ dresses. They said:

“School skirt lengths are just part of the rules. The school has some responsibility for the girls’ safety when they are out in public.”

I shifted in my seat, feeling uncomfortable about these restrictions on women. What could I say in this moment that might make a difference? How could I shift this attitude without ending up in an argument?

These can be challenging moments. Our inner voice is telling us to say something, but we might not always have the confidence or skills to speak up or ‘rock the boat’. 

In 2019 I completed WIRE’s Lead for Change training — a workshop which aims to equip people already doing social change work in their communities with the skills they need to have transformative conversations.

I’ve done a lot of self-reflection since the training and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to put my skills into practice, both in my work and personal life. I’ve had conversations in my community about everything from the safe injecting rooms in Richmond, to racism sparked by COVID-19 media reporting and respect for a community member ‘coming out’ as a trans woman. Here’s what I learned:

You don’t have to wing it

In WIRE’s Lead for Change workshop, the conversation structure I learned is:

  1. Listen and ask questions
  2. Acknowledge the person’s issues and feelings
  3. Affirm your shared values and feelings
  4. Reinforce equity and justice
  5. Expand the conversation and connect it with broader issues

In the conversation about girls’ school uniforms I could have stood up and spoken about gender discrimination. But this time I saw an opportunity to have a much deeper conversation. I started asking questions and listening carefully for the answers:

“If those are the rules to keep girls safe, what are we keeping them safe from?”

“Why does the school feel responsible?”

“What about our community — do you think they have some responsibility?”

Having these conversations is not about ramming your opinion down someone’s throat. It’s about sharing the journey. The first step in that shared journey is deep listening. When we listen carefully and ask open ended questions, we show the other person that we respect their point of view and that we aren’t looking to fight or one-up them. It builds trust.

I affirmed women’s concerns about the safety of their children (“I’m worried about that too”), and from there, we were able to connect our shared values: the right of all girls to feel safe and supported in their learning environment and their community, and our concerns about girls being sexualised from a young age.

We talked about gender equity and sexism — that girls should be given equal respect and freedom to boys. Eventually the conversation morphed into a deeper discussion about the murder of Courtney Herron in Royal Park, and whether women should be safe to walk home late at night. 

Before the Lead for Change training I wouldn’t have had the confidence to dig a little deeper.

Look for an invitation or signal

I am always listening for invitations now. Rather than charging in and having a major argument, I’m on the lookout to have a conversation with people in the ‘moveable middle’ — those with shared values who are open to having their perspective shifted.

You’re not going to change anyone’s mind in one conversation, but you will sow a seed that you and other community members will nurture over time.

Sometime pre-COVID I was at a wedding seated next to a fairly high profile businessman, making small talk. He made a comment about how women leave their careers to have babies. An invitation to have a conversation.

You might find yourself relating on a deeper level 

When talking with the businessman at the wedding, I used questions to open up the conversation and talk about what he’d seen as a senior leader in his organisation. I connected the conversation to shared values by asking what he might want for his own daughter, who was also at the wedding and early in her career at the company. 

We talked for an hour, and he reflected on what he might be able to do or influence with the power that he had in his senior position.

This is what I mean about relating on a deeper level. Being comfortable having these conversations will often push you past what might be polite small talk into meaningful and reflective conversations with people in your community.

We all have issues that challenge us

I am a middle aged woman who grew up with second wave feminism. I am no expert on the issues we grapple with today, and I don’t know the answers. But I do have the power to have a conversation.

Social change work doesn’t only happen on a large scale. It happens on a small scale too, in everyday conversations in our suburbs.

Humbling myself means understanding that we all have issues that challenge us, and doing this work as a part of my community, not as the voice of authority. It means working out ways to support people in my community so we can grow together.


Nicole is a community services support worker who attended WIRE’s full-day Lead for Change workshop. You can learn more about the Lead for Change conversation model by downloading WIRE’s Gender Equity & You conversation kit here.

Respect is having conversations about gender equity in your community. This blog post is funded by Respect Victoria, as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence.


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Download a copy of our Gender Equity & You conversation kit


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