Engaging to Understand: Integrating dialogue into curriculum

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Benjamin Williams

July 6, 2018

In the summer of 2016, I was sitting in a room at 1:30am with a group of facilitators for a program where I was a small group facilitator. There were tears, there was anger, and there was hurt. A group of students had taken to a Facebook group to post about a facilitation experience and the impact rippled through the program. Some students agreed, others did not and for me as a facilitator I was left with more questions than answers. The biggest was what role do leadership educators play in to supporting across identity as a key piece of leadership development.

Fast forward and a colleague and I take over as Program Leads and decide we are going to face this issue head on. We drafted curriculum to provide an opportunity for students to reflect on how we can engage with others to understand their perspectives. The need was to help a group of 160 students from across the country engage with people who had never heard about pronouns or interacted with someone of a different race or gender identity. The approach hadn’t changed, but public discourse absolutely had.

Listed below are 4 tenants of dialogue we adapted for the curriculum.

  1. Creating an Environment for Dialogue: Honest and meaningful interactions allow us to engage with each other in new and different ways. It is important to have conversations about who we are, what we need, and what we hope to accomplish. An environment for dialogue respects
  2. Situating the Dialogue: Our conversations and experiences are all part of a larger social world. We situate the dialogues in the experiences of those around the table. Understanding that identities influence how we experience the world, giving grave when we don’t understand, and beginning to explore the impact of who we are on how we experience the world.
  3. Exploring Conflicts and Multiple Perspectives: Conflict is a part of life and pushing ourselves to understand each other in new ways will come with the challenges. As a community, we will be pushed to explore comments, to build on the response of others, and try to understand the experience of others. We will embrace multiple perspectives and listen to understand instead of listening to respond.
  4. Moving from Dialogue to Action: The challenge now rests with you. As we move through these steps you have a choice. A choice to listen to understand or to listen to respond. The experiences of others or a choice to dismiss the experiences you don’t understand. Finally, you have a choice on how you leave an impact on your campus. Will you leave it as a better place for all community members or maintain the status quo?

The day to day work of a leadership educator looks different on each campus. The responsibility, in my opinion, is that each and every one of us can support our students and communities working diligently to engage more critically with those who have different perspectives. While you can find a variety of resources and trainings about intergroup dialogue, the biggest take away is that you can impact change.

Benjamin Williams  is the Associate Program Director for the Student Center at Georgia Institute of Technology and is the Sponsorship Coordinator for the Student Leadership Programs KC.

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