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Racism and Anti-Racism in America

Dialogue in Action

This video illuminates one strategy for working toward social justice: dialogue. Although the focus is on dialogue in education institutions and systems, the approach has broad applications.

Excerpt From


Hi, my name is Qiu Fogarty, and I'm a common ground graduate intern with the program on intergroup relations. I'm really excited to be here today with Roger, who'll introduce himself. I am really excited to talk a little bit about what dialogue is and why it's so important, some benefits, and some risks of dialogue. I am Roger Fisher with the Program on Intergroup Relations and also with the Youth Dialogues Program in Metropolitan Detroit. So this conversation I think that is so prevalent on higher education, communities but education in general. What's the difference between dialogue, debate and discussion as communication forums? Even more importantly, how does that contribute to social justice? What does that contribute to the overall conversation about building community? So what what's your thoughts on those differentiations? Yeah. I think for me, dialogue is really distinct just because of how oriented it is for change. So for me dialogue is really special because it's not really outcome-based. It's not about finding really quick solutions but it's really about finding understanding and seeing people as humans and then finding commonality and common values within that. So I think it's a little bit distinct because in a discussion, you might be sharing a lot of perspectives and ideas, but you might not really be taking in what the other person is saying as deeply. So it ends up being a surface level conversation sometimes. I think within debate, we're very focused on our own point and being right, that sometimes we're not really listening to the other person as well. So I think dialogue is really unique in creating a space, where we're able to hear each other and learn from each other in a very unique way. Absolutely. To build on that, I find oftentimes trying to express that for folks that they can actually participate in dialogue could be so difficult, because most of us are trained either for discussion or for debate. So thinking about what are the essential skills, what are the things that really help to create dialogue. What are some of those things that you think are most important? That's a great question. I think there are some things that I feel are really essential for dialogue, such as having some mutual investment. So I think it's really important that the participants who are there care about each other to a certain extent and not to say that they're going to leave being friends, but that there is some common agreement that we care and that we're here to engage in this journey together. I think that's one thing that is very essential when I'm thinking about dialogue. I also think a lot about risk and vulnerability. So I think dialogue requires a lot of giving of the self and really opening up and sharing things that you might not be as comfortable sharing or is used to sharing as he pointed out, I think. So those are some things that I think are really essential. What about you though? I'm curious to hear that. I agree totally with what you've shared already. I think what's hardest I think is what you mentioned about outcomes and not be an outcome-driven but being very much process-driven, and the dialogue needing to represent social justice as a process, but not just as a goal. So how do we think about building the space for dialogue which actually does have shared power, that really has as a goal, creating more justice, creating peace beyond just the understanding peace, because I think that's also a threat in dialogue work that we see nationally. These dialogues that are built on intercultural or multicultural understanding and that work can drift into normalization or actual workday might support unfair practices, exploitation of certain cultures and ultimately could support systems of oppression. Yeah. I think when you say normalization too, I think that's so key and I wonder if you could expand a little bit on that. Sure. So in dialogue work, there's the possibility that if we organize known principally as ways to create multicultural or intercultural understanding, the conversation could relay a goal of improving the relationships between the individuals who are participants to that dialogue versus how do we actually get people to cooperate with one another to actually work together to create change. So if in a dialogue process what we do is really just focus on the interpersonal relationships without raising questions of inequality or systems, it could actually undermine the social justice goal and in fact make the status quo more palatable to both parties. I think that's so important when we think about the intentionality of dialogues and I think that's something that I think is so key. So I think one thing that I'd loved to share or talk about a little bit more is the stages of dialogue and the journey that participants would move through in a dialogue. Right. So I think about when we do dialogue often, the stages that we talk about. They're four that we move through in that we see participants move through in their experience and that we intentionally try to create those opportunities for them to move through these stages. So I thought maybe we could share a little bit about those and I can share maybe the first two if you want to. Absolutely, yeah. So I think one of the stages, the first stage is setting up of dialogue that is really critical and foundational is that first part, which is very much starting to come up with a shared meaning of dialogue and really understand the investment of participants in that space and the commitment to justice and taking that opportunity to learn together. Then participants really start moving into that second stage, where they start talking about similarities and differences, and I think that is so critical in social justice when we think about how separated people can be and how much information there is. So really allowing people to have that face-to-face interaction, where they can see and talk about those similarities and also some of the differences in their lived experiences and identities. Absolutely. I think if and only if those first two stages has been productively addressed, then you can move on to those last two stages where in the third stage we're talking about those contemporary and maybe historical issues where there's real conflict, there's inequality, there's differences of power, there's asymmetric power. There may be instances of oppression and discrimination that might be discussed, and that's where we know the real conflict is going to suffice, both the individual conflict in terms of dissonance, but also that intergroup conflict that we're actually organized to discuss. If we can move successfully through that third stage, then there's the possibility of the last stage, where we talk about action. What can we do individually in terms of promoting justice and seeking peace? What can we do collectively? Is there the possibility for coalition-building? Is there the possibility for allying, being a co-conspirator? What's the possibilities for change and how committed are we to change in the short-term and the long-term? Absolutely. Thank you so much Roger for coming and having this conversation with me. I know I learned a lot and I really appreciate having this dialogic exchange and being able to deepen my own understanding of dialogue. [inaudible] Thank you, and thank you all so much as well for watching. We hope that this was really informative and that it helped you learn a little bit too.