Denise Swain Interview

Volume 19 | May 2020

Group Leader Newsletter

by Christine Garcia, VP Program Development, Contracting and Group Leader Services

Group Leader Flourishes in the Heart of DixieRoad Scholar’s Inaugural Civil Rights Conference
Last Feb. 4, before the coronavirus shuttered our ability to move freely in public spaces in America, Road Scholar Group Leader Denise Swain and nine other Group Leaders greeted 230 Road Scholar participants in the Heart of Dixie. The location was Montgomery, Ala., and the occasion was the unveiling of the highly anticipated “Conference on Civil Rights: A Road Scholar President’s Program.” Denise and the Group Leaders brimmed with excitement for the week ahead.
But let’s scroll back about a year. Road Scholar Senior Vice President JoAnn Bell and Program Development Director Elaine Chu were the program architects. They thought they’d imagined a powerful and pivotal educational experience, and during their first visit to Montgomery and its Civil Rights landmarks the previous April, they felt humbled — and exhilarated.
“As much as I had envisioned what I thought it would be like,” JoAnn said, “it blew me away how much history there was. And how much what I envisioned paled in comparison to what I actually saw and the people I met.”
That sentiment was articulated time and again to Denise Swain during the eight days of learning in February. And, as a Group Leader, she felt especially confident and prepared with history swirling around her — from appearances at the conference by Carolyn McKinstry, survivor of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, to Sheyann Webb-Christburg, who, at age 9, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 on “Bloody Sunday.” Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, was keynote speaker on the heels of the movie based on his book, “Just Mercy.”
There was a reason Denise felt so prepared to elaborate on the history and iconic people around her. In 2019, she earned her International Tour Management Institute certification and completed a class called “Signature Master Class: Civil Rights Trail.”
We’ll let Denise take it from here in a revealing Q&A that illustrates how a thoughtful approach to Group Leading can leave participants enthused and a Group Leader heartened.
RS: How did “Signature Master Class: Civil Rights Trail” prepare you to lead the “Conference on Civil Rights” in Montgomery?
Denise: I had previously experienced 90% of the stops on the “Signature Master Class: Civil Rights Trail” class, but my immersion was as a tourist, not as a Group Leader. What the class unveiled to me as a Group Leader was not hearing the story of the stop, but how to effectively convey the story of the stop.
Experiencing the venues as a Group Leader was entirely different. Familiarity does not equal a strong narrative. A strong narrative is built by conducting research and considering key points that visitors need to become aware of: context, significance, purpose, accomplishment.
RS: Tell us how you were able to tie together a cohesive story of the Civil Rights Movement?
Denise: I had the privilege of sitting beside Road Scholar program visionary Elaine Chu during one of the program dinners. People at the table asked Elaine why she did not include certain local aspects within the program. Elaine acknowledged there are so many stories to tell, but said it’s impossible to tell them all. Some stories must be left out. It is critical to craft the best narrative — one that is digestible, memorable and portable.
The biggest challenge for me was deciding on the best, digestible narrative. I mean, really, how do you summarize 400 years of social injustice? Consequently, I deferred to Road Scholar’s “Best Practices” — discuss the current situation, discuss the key people, share a timeline, deliver key bullet points.
Several participants reached out to me and said they appreciated a digestible narrative. Just enough, but not too much information. Several of them said they needed time to process the information that was being shared. I appreciated their feedback and will continue to work on what I call “small bites” — just the right amount of information.
RS: What was the most impactful moment you shared with participants?
Denise: The Reflection Room on Sunday afternoon was, by far, the most impactful moment shared by me, a fellow Group Leader and the participants. The room was set up in a large circle so everyone was facing everyone else. We had several discussion [techniques] that kicked off in-depth conversation. As Group Leaders, we were transparent and the participants felt extremely comfortable making statements and asking questions. Some participants were in tears, some were highly emotional, and some, who had not been vocal in previous days, were now taking a stand with their views. Several participants reached out to me in the following hours and days to express their appreciation for the Reflection Room.
RS: What was it like to work with nine other Group Leaders on this educational program?
Denise: I feel so privileged to have worked with this phenomenal team. Everyone brought their own perspectives, and their own stories and experiences. There was always a subject-matter expert nearby. When we were in Tuskegee, it was so refreshing to end my commentary with, “Now if you want to know more about the Tuskegee Airmen, you can reach out to Group Leader Joe Caver, who has written a book on the subject.”
For me, it was OK if you didn’t know all the details; there was always someone nearby who could add more to the story.
Road Scholar participant named Paula said the Civil Rights Conference was extraordinary, especially the preparedness of Denise Swain and the other Group Leaders, as well as the living historians’ passionate descriptions of what they witnessed and experienced.
Said Paula, “There is no way to even begin to fully understand the Civil Rights Movement without being there, listening to the stories of the people who went through it, walking in their shoes. And to experience this with 230 open-minded people was extraordinary. We have all been forever changed and will, I believe, take this change back to our homes and communities.”
One of the Civil Rights Conference’s emotional moments came when participants walked over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, scene in 1965 of “Bloody Sunday.” Here is video from the Road Scholar program:
The Civil Rights Conference also received broadcast coverage from the local network affiliates. To see the impact on both our participants and the local communities, go to:
Photos: Road Scholar Group Leaders including Denise Swain (center)