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The Problem: Dialogue Leads to Action&Or Does It?

Dialogue participants want to take action in their communities based on what theyve learned, and dialogue can be a very powerful means to community change. But through her research with the Corporation for National Service and the Center for Living Democracy in 1998 and 1999, Sandy Heierbacher discovered that despite the fact that dialogue leaders widely agree that effective dialogue leads to collaborative community action, many dialogue groups are having trouble integrating talk with action effectively.

Nearly 70 percent of the survey respondents considered the transition from dialogue to action to be a positive move for a dialogue group to make, many following up their answer by noting that it was, in fact, natural for the groups to want to take action based on their dialogue experience. (Only one percent felt strongly that moving to action was not a good step for a dialogue group to take.) Unfortunately, many of the leaders admitted that their groups were just not having much success taking action in their communities, attributing this to such things as their lack of time or staff to devote to this step, or their lack of experience and knowledge in this type of community action.

Heierbacher's research question was "How can participants, facilitators, and organizers of U.S. race dialogue efforts more effectively initiate action for positive change in their communities?" It is a question that is on the lips of many people in the dialogue movement, and it is a question that needs answering. The answer is not a simple one. Every dialogue group is, after all, different. Every region of the U.S. has different intergroup issues, different needs, and different assets. But Heierbacher wanted to find out if there was some formulasome set of guidelines or practicesthat would help dialogue proponents lead their groups to effective community action.

She conducted a thorough review of the various materials (newsletters, manuals, websites, videos, etc.) that are available within the dialogue field, and in the general field of U.S. race relations. In order to determine whether dialogue proponents were fully utilizing proven strategies and theories in the related fields of conflict resolution, community building, and social change, she conducted an extensive review of recent literature of those three fields as well. (Download Heierbacher's thesis for the entire literature review.)

Through structured surveys, qualitative research into the views and experiences dialogue leaders have on integrating talk and action was also conducted. Heierbacher surveyed eight dialogue leaders, asking them each to answer the same series of questions in hopes of seeing some similarities in answers and gaining new insights not found in her literature review. The questions included in the survey were designed to get the interviewee thinking critically about what the outcomes of their dialogue efforts are (and should be), and what kinds of strategies have obtained positive results for their groups. Click here for information about the respondents and a list of survey questions.

Notable research was also conducted in 1998 and 1999 through Heierbacher's position as National Service Fellow for the Corporation for National Service and a research position she held at the Center for Living Democracy. Through a telephone survey of 75 leaders of organizations that run intergroup dialogues, she asked these leaders about their dialogue strategies and needs; the kinds of participants they attract, and whether they had problems recruiting and retaining particular groups; and their views on the then-culminating Presidents Initiative on Race. Click here for the results of this survey.

What are the Problems Dialogue Groups Have With Taking Action?

Even dialogue leaders who believe that dialogue is a significant form of action, in and of itself, agree that dialogue leads participants to want to make positive changes in their communities. Why, then, do so many dialogue groups fail to take action successfully as a group? There are many reasons that individual groups action strategies failor that they never make it very farbut Heierbacher found three barriers to successful action that are experienced by most dialogue groups.

Whites and People of Color Have Different Needs and Motivations

In 1998, the Presidents Initiative on Race released a report on the state of race relations in the U.S. It stated that Americans of different racial backgrounds hold different views of race and racial progressto the extent that one might conclude that whites and people of color "see the world through different lenses." By people of color, we are referring to people who identify themselves as having a racial or ethnic identity other than white or European American.

African Americans and white Americans, especially, see issues such as racism very differently. Whites general belief that racism is primarily a thing of the past, and blacks perception that race and racism are still (and have always been) central to Americas existence, show that Americans are far from seeing eye to eye on racial matters.

Because of these differences in language and worldview, blacks and whites often talk past one another, just as men and women sometimes do. Heierbacher first noticed this in her classes, particularly during discussions of racism. Whites locate racism in color consciousness and its absence in color blindness. They regard it as a kind of racism when students of color insistently underscore their sense of difference and affirm their ethnic and racial membership (Blauner 1994, 20).

Few white people think of themselves in racial terms. Although they know they are white, their whiteness holds little meaning for them, aside that of meaning that they are not black, not Asian, and so on. "In part, race obliviousness is the natural consequence of being in the drivers seat" (Dalton 1995, 109). People are much more likely to disregard an aspect of themselves that causes them little problem than one that seems to limit their options. Also, no one likes to admit that a characteristic they were born with is at all responsible for their success in life.

Since whites see race as an insignificant factor in their lives, they assume that it is also an insignificant factor in the lives of people of color. This inability of whites to get race brings with it a host of negative consequences. It makes it very difficult for whites to understand, for instance, why many blacks develop a sense of group consciousness that influences the decisions they make individually. The attention and energy blacks put into matters of racial identity confuses whites, and even angers them. Whites are blind to the fact that their lives are shaped by race in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways: the opportunities they perceive themselves to have, the things they feel they are entitled to, the kinds of people they regard as heroes, and so on.

The whites who participate in a dialogue generally have a lot more work to do than the non-white members. Whites must first realize that they are members of a race before they can even begin to understand and acknowledge the privileges that their white status brings them.

This means that whites may needand wantto engage in dialogue longer than non-white group members. People of color can learn a lot about themselves, their community, and their fellow participants by engaging in dialogue, but tend to be ready to move to action long before the white members of their group are ready. This can be a serious problem for a dialogue group, and it is important that the facilitators know what to do when some participants are ready to move to action and others are not.

While administering the survey of 75 dialogue leaders in 1998 and 1999, Heierbacher discovered that dialogue groups quickly lose participants when they get to this stage. African Americans, in particular, tend to leave dialogue groups early out of frustration at the lack of action (one out of every five of my respondents noticed this, and after Heierbacher began asking about this directly, well over half agreed that this happened). According to dialogue leader James Fails, one of the respondents of the 2000 survey, "Dialogue provides enough mutual aint it awful and why arent others as enlightened as we are and mea culpa to salve the middle class white conscience without the discomfort and effort of action. Minorities get fed up with being told to wait and be peaceful and tactful, so they quit."

African Americans, most of whom have talked and thought deeply about race all of their lives, primarily join race dialogue groups in the hopes of initiating change in partnership with a group of people who share their concerns. Whites, on the other hand, join race dialogue groups for all kinds of reasons: to build relationships with people of other races, to learn about others experiences, to feel as if they are doing something about the race problem, to get past feelings of guilt and fear that they have, as a means to community change, and so on.

According to many of the dialogue leaders interviewed, people of color tend to join race dialogue groups in order to take action on the topic that is up for discussionrace and racismbecause it is something that affects their daily lives in immediate and important ways. Dialogue often makes whites want to make changes in their communities, too, but their desire does not usually have the urgency and immediacy that it has for people of color.

The fact that whites and people of color have different needs in terms of learning about race and racism, and different motivations when it comes to joining a dialogue and taking action, is complicated by the next problem that dialogue groups face: the fact that dialogue is a slow process, and action can be taken too soon.

Dialogue Takes Time, and Action Can Be Taken Too Soon

In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, dialogue participants need to become comfortable enough within the group to take risks. Any group of people can talk about race and racism, but to speak honestly and openly from their own perspectives and experiences, people need to truly feel safe. They need to trust that the group will not turn on them, no matter what they say or feel or have done in the past. People also need to feel safe before they can listen openly to others whose views and experiences contradict their own.

The trust that is needed for people to be able to talk about racial issues at this depth is where the power lies in dialogue. It is this depth that induces personal transformation and the collective desire for action within dialogue groups. Getting to this depth in the conversation takes time, however. Even with a great facilitator and solid ground rules that have been embraced by the group, it is impossible to reach this depth during the first dialogue session. Good dialogues begin with easier, less risky sessions, in which participants are asked to share things that tend not to involve guilty feelings, such as why they decided to participate in a dialogue or when they first learned about race. Reaching the depth at which participants feel safe enough to take risks often takes several sessions.

It is clear why David Campt, one of the respondents of my 2000 survey, stated that "pushing people to action too quickly is not productive." How should dialogue groups handle the two very important, yet conflicting, facts that some group members may want (and even feel that they need) to take action now, but that meaningful dialogue takes time? How are they to prevent action from being taken too soon, while also preventing people from giving up on the dialogue process?

Dialogue Leaders & Participants are Inexperienced at Social Change

Although over half of the dialogue leaders surveyed in 1998 and 1999 claimed that their groups eventually move to an action phase of some kind, their efforts at taking action were not always successful. Many stated that they did not have the time to help organize action strategies for or with their groups. Many had other jobs, and were organizing dialogues in their spare time.

But even those who were employed full-time leading dialogue efforts admitted that they did not have the knowledge to really help the dialogue groups make the kinds of long-term community changes they desired. Leaders of dialogue efforts are (or soon become) knowledgeable about dialogue, communication skills, conflict resolution, and community building, but most do not have a strong background in social change methods.

Five of the eight respondents to the 2000 survey admitted that they had not been involved with any dialogue groups or efforts that made the transition to action very effectively, despite the fact that all eight felt that action was an important aspect of any dialogue effort. James Fails stated that "being total amateurs at activism" is one of the things that have prevented his dialogue groups from taking action successfully.

None of the respondents' organizations provide training in social change methods for their facilitators, or for their dialogue groups which choose to take action in their community. Danny Martins organization provides training in partnership-building, negotiation, and decision-making skills, but none of the respondents organizations provide training in policy advocacy, direct service, institution-building, or any of the other types of action dialogue groups tend to take (refer to the About Action section for more info on this).

Martin noted that his dialogue groups which include people who are at a more advanced level of training tend to be more successful at taking action that results in community change. Why, then, are leaders of dialogue efforts not providing their participantsand facilitatorswith the kinds of training they need to be more effective social change agents?

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 5:14 PM ?
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