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Speaking Up in a Safe Space

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Emma Atkinson

At the University of Denver, students participating in the Conflict Engagement and Resolution Initiative get a chance to share their views and values without fear of judgment or retribution.

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Two male students walk along a campus path.

Speaking up in class is hard, whether you’re a nervous fifth grader or a mature college student. It’s even harder when the subject is controversial or contentious—students might be afraid of seeming uninformed or contradicting their professors in front of their peers.

And now, in the face of rising global issues like climate change and human rights, civil discourse on tricky topics is more important than ever.

At the University of Denver, students have a unique opportunity to engage in tough discussions away from the classroom. Thanks to the Conflict Engagement and Resolution Initiative (CERI), DU students have access to a safe space to speak about current affairs without the pressure of a faculty member being present.

“In the past, we’ve had deliberations on immigration policy, we've had dialogues on solidarity and women's abortion access and things of that nature,” says Hastin Crosby, a second-year graduate student studying human rights in the Korbel School of International Studies. He joined CERI in January 2023.

“A lot of times, there aren’t great spaces for students, especially, to discuss these issues outside of classrooms,” Crosby says. “We want to be that space.”

Deliberations and dialogues

CERI’s programming revolves mainly around two types of events: deliberations and dialogues.

Dialogues are meant to get participants to think about their stances on hot-button issues—like abortion access, as Crosby mentioned—and to better understand the foundations of their own beliefs and the beliefs of participants who feel differently than they do.

“A dialogue is very specifically about your own experience,” Crosby says. “It’s supposed to be each individual's experience with an issue, not like, ‘Oh, I saw this on the news.’ Moderators are trying to keep them from speaking for someone else or speaking about someone else’s experiences. If you don't have this knowledge, if you don't have this lived experience, then you can only understand it so much.”

Crosby recently facilitated a dialogue centered on abortion access, during which he witnessed a student share a very personal experience.

Students gather in a classroom as part of a CERI event.
Students gather during a CERI event about the Israel-Hamas conflict. Photo courtesy Hastin Crosby.

“I actually had a participant come forth with her story about her experience with abortion,” he remembers. “I think it was a very powerful story for me and for everyone at the table to talk through what [abortion] looks like in reality, what this means to people, how hurtful, how damaging this can be, but also, how this individual moved forward from that.”

Deliberations, on the other hand, focus on discussions around policy issues like immigration. Moderators present the issue at hand to participants and identify three different common stances on the issue before splitting them into groups and asking them to deliberate on the pros and cons of each policy stance, with the goal of coming to an understanding of why the participants may agree or disagree with each stance.

“We still get students to talk about their personal feelings about things, but I think it's a little bit more policy focused,” says Olivia Daigle, also a second year Korbel student studying human rights. “It can be just a different way to talk about important issues from less of an emotional perspective and more from a factual or a policy approach.”

A unique approach to civil discourse

Neither a dialogue nor a deliberation is meant to be a space for arguing, Crosby and Daigle say.

About dialogues, Daigle says, “We make it very clear: You're not here to debate. You're not here to convince people of your opinion or to proselytize; we're here to understand each other better, to try to come together on something that—whether or not you agree—is an important issue for a lot of people.”

While there are generally no faculty present at CERI events, the group is headed up by Korbel professor of conflict resolution Tamra Pearson d'Estrée. She says creating a space for measured, honest discussion is central to the group’s mission.

“You want people to be able to engage it in a way that they're feeling safe enough to share what is important to them and what matters to them,” Pearson d'Estrée says. “You want people to be able to actually be honest, because otherwise, you're not learning from each other.”

She says CERI’s focus on student-only events relieves participants from having to consider an authority figure’s reaction to their thoughts and perspectives.

“If you think about it, when you have a professor in the room, the students are going to be more reluctant,” Pearson d'Estrée says. “Most students would be reluctant to not just challenge a professor's differing experience or view, but they might not even be willing to voice something that's different.”

The future of CERI

CERI also helps to prepare students to discuss their perspectives and values outside of a higher education setting, Daigle says. She says after she graduated from her undergraduate program, she struggled to reconcile her personal beliefs with beliefs of her colleagues and peers that were at odds with her own.

“I didn't feel like I knew how to deal with that,” Daigle says. “I think CERI gives students those skills, or it helps at least prepare students for the world that we live in, where not everyone agrees. You're going to encounter people who you disagree with, especially right now, and here's a way that we can talk about hard things in a respectful way.”

Crosby and Daigle say they’re currently trying to get more students to participate in CERI events, and they want to stress that everyone—regardless of their point of view or opinion on an issue—is welcome.

“Sometimes I think people can ‘self-select’ out because they think it's not going to be a welcoming space,” Daigle says. “But we try our hardest to make sure that it is. And I know that these conversations are hard. It can be scary. But we want this to be a space where people can feel supported to have this conversation, so if you've ever thought about attending, you should come and just kind of see how it is.”

CERI’s next event is a deliberation about the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese Americans in camps during WWII. CERI is offering “a deliberation on policy proposals that seek to right the injustices faced by these individuals and their descendants.” The event will be held on Thursday, May 16, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in room 1150 of the Sie Center building. Participants must RSVP here.

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