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Dialogue and Empathy: Necessary Skills in Civic Engagement

Civic Engagement LEAD Initiative
January 30, 2015 Dr. Art Munin University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Illinois State University

Dialogue and Empathy: Necessary Skills in Civic Engagement

            Early in my career I remember hearing the longstanding adage in community service, “Service without reflection is just work.”  This struck a chord with me because it so simply encapsulated the crucial work we all do in helping students make meaning of their civic engagement.  I had done traditional community service work in high school, but it often felt empty because it lacked this crucial time for reflection.  Being part of initiatives that make reflection, discourse, and discussion central has been transformative and taught me a vital skillset.  This experience taught me how to talk to people about difficult subjects and it developed my sense of empathy.

These discourse and empathetic learnings I hold parallel to the events of fall 2014 throughout the United States.  I will name specifically Ferguson, Missouri, but the incidents expanded beyond this single locale.  Furthermore, these incidents are nothing new in this country but, due to a variety of factors, they captured national attention.  Responses on college campuses ranged from nonexistent to significant protest.  The former is a shame.  The latter can be an effective mechanism to bring upon social change.  However, there is a third option that all college campuses should seek to cultivate.

On September 24, 2014 Illinois State University hosted an event entitled “Is Ferguson Normal? Could This Happen to Me?”  The “Normal” in the title is a play on words with Illinois State University (ISU) being located a town named Normal.  On December 3, 2014, after the indictment decision, ISU hosted a second event entitled “Is Ferguson Normal? Part II.”  These events partnered with colleagues across the Division of Student Affairs and Academic Affairs.  The events’ purpose was to give a venue for students to express their thoughts and feelings regarding Ferguson and talk about what personal and collective power they held to create social change.

Events such as these are excellent opportunities to teach students how to have such difficult dialogues.  For each event we broke into small groups and a facilitator guided the conversation, provided opportunities for open reflection, and challenged students to participate.  These facilitators not only moved the conversation along, they were teaching students how to sustain a dialogue, even when it is difficult to do so.  This skillset is invaluable as we seek to build community broadly on campus, not just amongst those who already agree with us.

Additionally, the event moderator and small group facilitators provided moments for students to develop empathy.  Our societal empathy gap is a significant hurdle to overcome when seeking to battle longstanding and deeply rooted social issues.   Sharing stories and experiencing the reflected emotions of others can be incredible developmental moment for a student.  I led one of the small group conversations at the event in September, and I had three White students at my table who were present only to get extra-credit in class.  Ninety minutes later these students were expressing that they had never before heard stories from fellow students like they heard that evening.  A year from now they may not remember the specifics of the stories shared, but I hope the practice at employing empathy endures. 

In conclusion, learning reflection skills and dialogue, while developing a sense of empathy, are crucial factors in any civic engagement initiative.   Without these, we are just putting students to work.