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Does Dialogue Make a Difference?

December 1, 2016 Spencer Long University of Illinois at Chicago

Diversity has been and continues to be a point of pride for the University of Illinois at Chicago, a campus with no racial or ethnic majority among its students. 41.9 percent white, 18.8 percent Asian, 18.6 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 7.9 percent African-American. Specifically, for undergraduates 37.8 percent white, 24.7 percent Hispanic/Latino, 22.4 percent Asian, and 7.8 percent African-American. Designated as the fifth most diverse campus in the nation UIC also maintains the largest Muslim population of any university in the city of Chicago, with 15 percent of the 30,000 students identifying themselves as such. I only provide these numbers as I feel they are important in developing the context for the remainder of this blog post.

Over the last semester, and really the last year, in working so closely with our students around civic learning and democratic engagement I have developed a new appreciation for dialogue as not only a way to exchange ideas, but also a way to help heal communities. Whether a conversation started by registering a student to vote for the first time or having a conversation with an undocumented student on why they aren’t eligible to vote learning and understanding happens in many different forms. It’s for these reasons I am so grateful for the commitment our campus has made to keep dialogue on the forefront of our university values.

In 2009 a group of leaders from UIC traveled to the University of Michigan to take part in the National Institute on Intergroup Relations. The institute focused on intergroup dialogue as an educational approach to promote engagement between people from different social identity groups. After having the opportunity of reflecting on the experience, and our student population, a group from student affairs and academic affairs came together to create the UIC Dialogue Initiative, https://dialogue.uic.edu/. This effort really is working to offer opportunities to increase meaningful interactions amongst our widely diverse community. Since its inception, this curricular and co-curricular partnership has seen the creation of three campus courses and numerous co-curricular workshops and programs.

Looking back to this last political season having this partnership has proven to be critical to our community as much of our community has needed a space to process the election both before and after November 8. The creation of a monthly series from the Provost Office on Civic topics as been one such way for this to take place between faculty, staff, and students (https://provost.uic.edu/campus-conversation/). Additionally, since the election having a team ready and available to help host events across campus has proven to be critical to our campus community.

So, I want to get back to my original question asking if dialogue makes a difference. For our community it has. Over and over our students are able to have civil, respectful, and fruitful conversations and dialogue because of the efforts taking place on our campus. Either through formal classroom training or out of the classroom workshops, having these spaces educates students on ways to conduct themselves in a way that is open to hearing thoughts that are different than theirs while understanding how to express their thoughts in a meaningful two-way conversation. Working with leadership, service, and civic engagement programming at the university having this as a resource is something I continue to be grateful for having. I would challenge each of you to find ways and push for the resources to have dedicated professionals on your campus to create this space for your students, faculty, and staff.