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What Do We Mean By Action?

The dictionary definition of the word action makes it clear that, technically, doing anything at all can be considered to be taking an action. But this is not what dialogue leaders are referring to when they discuss moving from talk to action or taking action in the local community. These dialogue leaders are talking about action that leads to change. Opinions on what should be considered as meaningful change vary tremendously, however, and sometimes it seems as if everyone has a different take on what kinds of action and change dialogue groups should pursue.

Different dialogue groups are encouraged to take action steps that vary greatly in their scope and influence. Many dialogue leaders feel strongly that engaging in dialogue itself is a powerful action, while other leadersand many participantsfeel that dialogue without attempts at concrete community action is just talk. To make sense out of the various kinds and levels of action that come out of dialogue efforts, we have attempted to categorize action based on who is doing it, and what is being done.

Types of Action Taken

Action that stems from intergroup dialogue is taken on an individual level, a small-group level and a large-group level. All of these levels can cause significant change, whether it is a single person, a household, a neighborhood, or a city that is being impacted. In researching the kinds of actions that have been taken as a result of dialogue, we found repeated instances of the following 13 types of action. (For descriptions and examples, click here for a complete list or select from the list below.)

Personal action
Interpersonal action
Direct service
Expanding the dialogue program
Prejudice reduction and relationship-building
Conflict resolution and prevention
Community building and capacity building
Symbolic action
Policy advocacy
Institutional change
Providing services

Dialogue has led to all of the above kinds of action taking place, in small rural communities and large urban communities and everything in between. Some efforts spanned over a period of years and others took place in under an hour. Many change efforts have met with great success, and many have failed to make much of an impact.

Although dialogue efforts have led to all of these types of action being taken, and many dialogue leaders and participants view dialogue as a means to taking these kinds of action, as mentioned above, many dialogue leaders also believe that engaging in dialoguein and of itselfshould be considered a significant form of action.

Dialogue helps people build a variety of invaluable skills. Dialogue participants learn how to speak in a non-confrontational manner from their own personal experience. They learn how to suspend their own judgment of others, how to listen actively and effectively, how to be more conscious of the assumptions they make, and how to let go of the need for a specific outcome.

Some consider the rippling changes that occur in and around peoples lives as a result of their acquisition of these skills as having a significant impact. Others believe that, in addition to the process, the content of the dialogue has a great impact since "at the very least, participation in [a dialogue] makes people better informed, more understanding of other viewpoints, and able to vote more intelligently" (Leighninger 1995).

Tommy Lee Woon, Assistant Dean of Students and Multicultural Educator at Stanford University, stated a similar view in his correspondence with Sandy Heierbacher: "I believe dialogue is action. Detaching dialogue from action subtly undermines the value of dialogue as important action. Dialogue that changes hearts and minds and leads individuals to stop oppression wherever they find it is the most important outcome we can produce through dialogue. We have already learned that changing laws, legislation, and policies have not by themselves changed hearts and minds."

Woons opinion of the desired outcomes of a dialogue touched on some of the types of action listed above, but also included such things as consciousness raising, sustained involvement in intergroup dialogue, leadership development, and breakthroughs in cross-cultural understanding. Other interviewees mentioned similar outcomes: shared understanding; increased awareness of history, other cultures, and current issues; lasting meaningful relationships; personal responsibility for our behavior; and increased understanding of self.

According to Matt Leighninger of the Study Circles Resource Center, the most easily observed outcomes of dialogue are changes in individual attitudes. "Organizers often hear from participants that the experience has given them new insights, a greater understanding of views different from their own, and a renewed hope that problems and conflicts can be resolved. This is especially apparent in [dialogues] on race relations because people rarely have the opportunity to hold candid conversations on race with people of different racial backgrounds" (1996).

It is clear that engaging in dialogue can make significant changes in peoples individual lives, affecting their attitudes, opinions, world views, and relationships with others. But it is also clear that dialogue effects more than that. As Brown and Mazza attest, "We dont change peoples minds. We change their hearts with personal stories of discrimination&. [And] a personal story is a powerful tool to effect change" (1997).

Dialogue gives people hope that things can change for the better, and makes them and their communities more able to foster such changes. Although dialogue may be a powerful form of action in and of itself, dialogue also paves the way for people to take additional action in their communitiesaction that has much more potential than any action they might have taken before the dialogue.

The Dialogue to Action Initiative and www.Thataway.org are ?2001 by Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke. ?
Last changes added on Saturday, December 29, 2001 4:35 PM ?
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