Engagement for Change
Fostering Dialogues on Race and Religion
"Dialogue is about empathy and compassion-building—about stepping back and being transformed by someone else's story." So spoke Dr. Liliana Rodriguez, new Vice Chancellor for Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence at the University of Denver, as she introduced the April 28 panel on new structures of engagement through dialogue. An impressive panel of speakers spoke from their vast experience about the necessity of dialogue—now more than ever. Rhonda Fitzgerald, the Managing Director for the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, pulled from her experience with students, faculty, senior administrators in building lasting structures for inclusion on campuses and developing civic competency in college students nationwide. Christopher "Kit" Chalberg, a Conciliation Specialist for the Community Relations Service (CRS) of the US Department of Justice and CRI alumnus, spoke to the importance of developing local mechanisms and agreements as alternatives to coercion, violence, or litigation, and taking proactive measures to reduce racial and ethnic tensions in communities. Harold Fields drew from his experiences as the founder of Multi-Racial Families of Colorado, the facilitator for the Second Tuesday Race Forums (a monthly, citywide racial dialogue that was initiated during the Clinton administration), and as a board member of the national initiative "Coming to the Table," which brings together descendants of former slaves and slave owners for dialogue, reconciliation, and healing.
How do you define dialogue, and what does it look like? Why is dialogue important now? How have you seen communities transformed by dialogue? Is dialogue ever the wrong choice? Together, the panelists responded to these questions, wrestling with impact of the current American political and cultural landscape on the work of dialogue. Fitzgerald defined dialogue as "listening close enough to be changed by what you learn," and Fields spoke of dialogue as the realization that our experiences are incomplete: "we are each just one piece of the puzzle—we don't know what the picture on the box looks like—but through dialogue, we can begin to connect the pieces." Chalberg distinguished dialogue from other forms of communication, such as debate: while debate is about influence, power and demonstrating the superiority of your position, dialogue is about developing mutual understanding.
In response to the question "Why dialogue now?" Fields stated that America is undergoing an "ontological transition"—one that centers on questions of identity and meaning: who we are, and who we are becoming as a nation. It has become increasingly clear that the forces that serve to fracture and separate us are no longer serving us, and that dialogue is a more effective way of "being with each other." Both Fitzgerald and Chalberg pointed to the increased diversity in America as an impetus for dialogue opportunities: "America is a nation without shared experiences," Fitzgerald began, "and the old ways of doing things have become increasingly ineffective."
When is dialogue the wrong choice? Fitzgerald observed that often, in the wake of trauma, there is a clear chasm between groups and it may be wiser to convene caucus dialogues instead of intergroup discussions. Chalberg recalled an instance where he had a sense that motivations were to harm, and that certain participants were not joining in good faith.
The panel members outlined the transformative capacity of dialogue in many contexts. In reflecting dialogue as a catalyst for change, widen the lens: think about not only how we can be transformed as individuals, or as an institution at the University of Denver, but also how dialogue can impact change in our city, in the state, in our country and in the world.
-Samantha Haas, MA '17