'Difficult Conversations' sparks different perspectives

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Hannah Colligan
  • 23d Wing Public Affairs

We’ve all been there: the “volun-told,” mandated Air Force training that you begrudgingly attended. These training sessions are intended to leave a person feeling enlightened and positive that any necessary changes will happen soon and swiftly. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case for today’s Airmen.

Prior to commissioning, I served six years on the enlisted side and routinely completed countless hours of morale, health and welfare training. The delivery varied from something as simple as computer-based training to an all-call or even a small group discussion with my peers, but it always resulted in the feeling of simply “checking the box.”

Recently, as a brand new second lieutenant, I sat in on a professional development education seminar, “Difficult Conversations,” given by 23d Wing commander, Col. Daniel Walls. Wing Staff Agency chiefs and squadron commanders from Moody Air Force Base gathered in a conference room, where they sat ready and willing to explore ways they could go about decreasing and further preventing the Air Force’s problem of racial disparity in their units and spark a subsequent ripple of conversation in other squadrons.

During this particular briefing, I heard my boss, a seasoned field grade officer, say, “We don’t have the answers.” These words resonated with me.

Over the years, I’ve consistently watched the Air Force respond to institutional concerns, with well-constructed speeches and actionable solutions, leading me—rather naively, I admit—to assume that my Air Force always has the answers.

But the hard truth is: If we had the answers, we would not be where we are right now, facing the issue of racial disparity present in a military force that proudly proclaims to be a team of diversity and inclusion.

Responding to such a major problem with uncertainty rather than solutions can cause unease, but I believe admitting that we simply don’t have the answers right now is the first step in the right direction.

Col. Walls later mentioned trust as being at the center of a solid team. A team built on trust is one that breeds safety, empowerment, inclusion and connectedness--all things that are paramount in cultivating a positive environment where members thrive as individuals.

As a previous security forces Airman with the 820th Base Defense Group, I was afforded the opportunity to meld into a group of diverse individuals, with skin color being just one of our many differences. As members of the 824th Base Defense Squadron, we had a unique job in which we trained to rely on one another in possible life-and-death situations, should we encounter them while downrange. 

At the root of our team was trust. Without it, we simply could not perform. This is true for all Air Force units. Members don’t have to be placed on the battlefield to exercise their capabilities as a trusting team. Sometimes the most crucial battles take place on the home front, and we need to learn to trust each other before it's too late.

Fortunately, trust is an aspect of your team that you can control, because it is considered a part of your culture. Col. Walls expounded on the importance of this during the PDE, opening and ending the training with the aspects of our environment that we do and do not control. He explained that, while you don’t control your mission or the members you’re given to work alongside, you do control your culture.

A saying often heard throughout our organization is, “the standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” This statement holds significance now more than ever. Every Air Force member has a moral obligation and responsibility to hold themselves and their peers accountable for their words and actions. This accountability is a necessary step toward change, and it requires everyone, from the most junior Airmen to the highest ranking officers, to speak up—even when it’s uncomfortable. This is a comforting thought. In a time when so many things feel out of our control, we are reminded that we do, in fact, have the power to initiate and influence change through the simple act of accountability. 

Needless to say, I left this particular training session feeling everything other than having “checked the box.” At this moment in time, we are witnessing the Air Force humble itself as an organization. Leaders are accepting shortcomings, admitting to failures, and taking full responsibility for immediate change. As a brand new leader, I understand that being a part of this dialogue is paramount.

The foreseeable future of the Air Force rests in the junior leaders’ hands—enlisted and officers. It is up to us to create a culture of connectedness where every member feels safe to be themselves. It is up to us to be empathetic leaders, to engage with our peers and value the individual strengths that each member brings to the team. It is up to me and you to sow seeds of trust throughout our teams that take root so deep they will last well into the future.