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Strategies For Integrating Dialogue With Action

Here are nine strategies which can help dialogue organizers to integrate talk with action more effectively. Some of these strategies are more difficult to implement than others. Some are effective for community-wide dialogue initiatives, while others can be applied to the smallest of dialogue efforts. But all of these strategies have been proven to be highly effective in the dialogue, community building, conflict resolution, or social change fields.

Make action a clear goal from the start.
Plan for action.
Involve the right people.
Share ownership of the program.
Retain the dialogue method and principles.
Communicate within the group, and within your local community.
Treat your dialogue effort as an organization.
Recognize those who deserve it.
Train participants in social change methods.

Strategy 1: Make action a clear goal from the start.

Race dialogues are organized for many different reasons. A college might organize dialogues on race as a way for students to learn about race relations, communication skills, community building, or dialogue itself. A church might organize a dialogue as a way of building community within the church, or increasing understanding and building relationships among church members. A council of churches may organize inter-congregational dialogue as a way of building interracial and interreligious understanding in the community. A high school may organize dialogues as a means to reduce conflict and prevent violence among student cliques.

Dialogues on racewhen done right, with a good facilitator, solid ground rules, and a committed groupcan fill all of these different needs. But dialogue organizers must be ready for the unavoidable moment when one of their participants asks "So what are we going to do about all this?" Not having a strategy in mind to handle this moment in a dialogue group can be catastrophic, with members dropping out of the dialogue group like flies, orperhaps just as badwith everyone agreeing to move to action before they have had a chance to really benefit from the dialogue.

The purpose of the dialogue must be made clear to participants from the beginning, whether it is to develop intergroup understanding, learn about racism, build communication skills, build community, take more effective action, or all of these things. If action is not a goal, dialogue leaders must make it clear to the group that they are free to organize for action after the dialogue process has been completed, but not during the dialogues themselves. They must make participants understand and value the other goals of the dialogue.

If, however, action is one of the goals or hopes of a dialogue effort, that fact must also be made clear to participants from the start. If action is a clear goal, the facilitator may respond to early requests for action by explaining how the dialogue itself is valuable, and how it takes time to build community within the group, but that once community is sufficiently developed, any action the group decides to take will be much more effective and informed. When the time for action strategizing has come, the facilitator may also press those members who are reluctant to leave the safety and comfort of the pure discussion by reminding them that action was a clear goal from the start.

In addition to helping the dialogue group stay together and helping action be taken only after dialogue has sufficiently built community within the group, a clear action goal can help organizers recruit participants for their dialogue effort. According to the Study Circles Resource Center, "many of the people and organizations you involve in your program will take part because they hope to make a difference on the issue" and when action is a clear goal of the dialogue effort, the groups dynamic is more constructive (Leighninger and Flavin-McDonald 1998).

Another idea is to engage participants in a one-time community service project sometime during the dialogue process, before participants are ready to move to action. Dialogue groups which participate in such a project could benefit in a number of important ways. First of all, a one-time community service project (painting a house, assembling boxes of groceries at a food bank, etc.) may temporarily satisfy the need for action that many dialogue participants are experiencing, thereby preventing people from dropping out of the process early. According to Danny Martin, one of the dialogue leaders who participated in the 2000 survey, "a group needs to have the experience of some quick results in its process together or it runs the risk of losing momentum."

The activity would also encourage all group members to start thinking about the various possibilities for action they may want to take, and it would give the group a common framework for approaching a discussion about action ("I had fun when we painted that community center, but I want to work on something that deals with the root of the problem&"). In addition, group community service is known to help develop relationships; specifically, to build trust and teamworkcharacteristics that are needed in a group that may eventually try to tackle major problems in the community. And finally, such projects may help increase dialogue groups visibility in the community and help the groups develop potential community partners. Click the Community Service dialogue bubble for more information on how to utilize community service in your dialogue effort.


Strategy 2: Plan for action.

Grassroots dialogue programs have proven that significant progress can be made on an issue when dialogue organizers plan for action early, and well. Many of the dialogue leaders interviewed in 1998 claimed that action efforts often failed partly because they lacked the time to organize that phase of the dialogue process. According to the Study Circles Resource Center, however "organizers who plan for action from the earliest stages find that it is not only possible, it strengthens the entire program and benefits the whole community" (Leighninger and Flavin-McDonald 1998).

SCRC has a list of suggestions for dialogue organizers who want to pave the way for their initiative to lead to effective action. One of the ways to ensure that planning for action starts early is by forming a diverse action committee among those who initiate the dialogue effort. The committee is charged with creating conditions that help participants organize for action.

SCRC also suggests that organizers reach out to groups that are already working on the issue, whether it be education, race relations, crime, youth violence, or any other issue. These groups should be told about the dialogue process and what it involves, and that dialogue participants are likely to leave more informed and energized about the issue and ready to get involved. Organizers should ask the groups how they could use volunteers, which initiatives of theirs specifically need help, and where citizen input might be most valuable.

One of the Study Circles Resource Centers most important contributions to the dialogue field is the success of its action forum. Each round of community-wide study circles (ideally) culminates with a large-group action forum. Not only are dialogue participants, facilitators, and organizers invited to the action forum, but so are representatives from related organizations, community leaders, the media, and the general public. "Combining the citizen energy generated by the study circles with existing assets in the community, many of these task forces (or action committees) have made real progress on longstanding and difficult problems" ("Big Wheel, Keep on Turning" 1999).

At the action forum, people are given the opportunity to become involved in task forces addressing the themes that came up repeatedly throughout the dialogues. Dialogues on race have launched task forces for reducing hate crime, improving race relations among youth, and improving police-community relations, among many others.

An action forum can strengthen a dialogue effort in a number of ways. Participants at the forum can vote on resolutions and begin working on major institutional changes that seemed impossible to overcome during the small-group dialogues. Organizers can obtain well-deserved and much-needed media attention, since reporters can observe firsthand the strong effect dialogue had on participantsand the powerful effect the program can have on the community. Everyone in attendance can gain a sense of collective faith in the groups potential and hope for the future of the community. The action forum also provides an opportunity for people to celebrate the dialogue programs achievements andperhaps most importantlylets people experience what it feels like to be part of a community that is capable of solving its own problems.

Another way to plan for action is to provide dialogue groups with lists of possible action steps they can take. One of the respondents from the 2000 survey, David Campt, who has worked for President Clintons Initiative on Race and other top-level dialogue initiatives, highly recommends giving participants a menu of possible actions, letting them decide whether to individually or collectively carry some of them out. Campt feels that dialogue participants need a list of possible actions for whenever they are ready, because "sometimes the full impact of the new understanding may not motivate people until well after the dialogue experience."


Strategy 3: Involve the right people.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of an intergroup dialogue on any topic is inclusiveness. Dialogue groups should involve individuals of various races, classes, genders, occupations and social circles, ensuring that "the group itself reflect the ethnic [and other] diversity that is going to be the topic of discussion" (Dialogues for Diversity, 1994). The involvement and support of racially diverse leaders from various sectors in the community is also "essential for encouraging dialogue in the larger community" since they help determine whether or not the people from their segments of the community will get involved (McCoy and Sherman 1994).

Diverse membership can strengthen the power and potential of dialogue groups considerably. Not only can inclusive dialogue groups arrive at an increased number of fresh insights and ideas due to the varied perspectives and increased information, but they are also in a more comfortable position of power and influence whenand ifthe time comes for them to take action. Ensuring that a variety of perspectives are present within the dialogue group also minimizes the misrepresentation of those who may not be involved and draws a more accurate picture of the issues being discussed. Heierbacher found this to be true in a dialogue group she participated in when, due to the lack of representation of police officers and other public officials, that segment of the population was quickly latched onto as the perpetrators of most of the racism in the community.

Involving local decision-makers in dialogue efforts is one of the best ways to ensure that any action that the dialogue groups try to take will not be thwarted. The mayor does not need to participate in a dialoguealthough that would be terrificbut she should be one of the major supporters of a community-wide dialogue. Among collaborating groups, Barbara Gray claims that "implementation [of agreements] increased from 67 percent to 85 percent when someone with authority to implement the decision was involved&from the beginning" (1991, 65).

Himmelman expresses this concept more bluntly: "Those using collaborative strategies to resolve these issues must recruit holders and gatekeepers of power into processes that move them, with as little violence as possible, from domination and control to sharing power" (1996, 25).

The Washington, D.C.-based Faith and Politics Institute has worked wonders for the dialogue field by involving Members of Congress to engage each other in dialogues on race and religion:

"Although Members of the House of Representatives often exacerbate divisions when the focus of discussion is on federal legislation, this initiative gives them an opportunity to use their official position to bring people together. As conveners of study circles and other dialogues, they can play a nonpartisan, non-advocacy role, building relationships and developing strategies for local community action.

Congressional Representatives have a unique ability to bring together community leaders and other citizens from different backgrounds, races, and points of view. They have unequaled access to the many different types of people who live in their district and can easily accomplish the firstand often most difficultstep in organizing successful interracial dialogues: getting the right people to come together to work toward a common purpose" (Tanner 1999).

Springfield, Ohios story, however, is more easily replicatedand more typical of public leader-initiated dialogue efforts. Springfields mayor sent out a letter to nearly 300 community organizations and groups, asking for people to get involved in organizing and facilitating race dialogues. Many community leaders then went through facilitator training and soon became the initiatives best supporters. The Springfield initiative involved hundreds of residents in their 1998 community-wide study circles program.

But leaders and decision-makers are not the only stakeholders that need to be involved in a successful community-wide dialogue effort. Nor are representatives from every ethnic group and economic class in the community and representatives from as many professions as possible. People who are on the fringes of societywho rarely participate in community effortsshould be recruited, as should the people who are tough sellsthe individuals and groups that seem to have the greatest reluctance to participate.


Strategy 4: Share ownership of the program.

One principle that is echoed throughout the community building, conflict resolution, and social change fields is the need for organizers to share ownership of the project they are working on. Sharing the responsibility, accountability, recognition, and passion for a project helps ensure its success and longevity. The more people who feel ownership of a projectthe more stakeholders, organizations, and leaders who commit themselves to a projectthe more effective any action the group takes is going to be.

Ideal dialogue organizers embody a new type of leadership that embraces the concept of broadly sharing ownership of important projects: "They are collaborative, facilitative leaders, constantly mobilizing new people and organizations. Rather than defending their turf, they welcome new allies, and find ways to bring them into the common work of engaging citizens. This kind of leadership helps the coalition move forward in a spirit of whole community ownership" ("How to Keep it Going and Growing" 1999).

Orford, New Hampshires successful dialogue effort exemplifies the strength of sharing ownership of a project. Having the school system and the taxpayers associationtwo longtime adversaries in the state of New Hampshirecosponsor dialogues on education showed residents that the project would not be dominated by any single agenda, and that it had the necessary buy-in and leadership needed to generate effective action (Leighninger 2000).


Strategy 5: Retain the dialogue method and principles.

If a group is to strategize for action in a collaborative manner, utilizing all of the resources the various stakeholders bring to the table, it cannot abandon the dialogue principles it worked so hard on establishing and upholding. Two of the respondents in the 2000 survey made statements supporting the need to retain the dialogue method and principles throughout the action phase. Tommy Lee Woon felt strongly that "dialogue should continue throughout the action steps" because successful, sustained action must spring from the kinds of relationships that are developed through dialogue. Samuel Bryant stated that people "must move from talk to action [and] from action to talk."

Continuing to uphold ground rules (even if some new ones need to be established) such as listening actively, seeking to understand, giving everyone the opportunity to talk, and trying not to interrupt, ensures that groups continue to welcome a range of viewpoints during their search for effective solutions to problems. Retaining the use of a facilitator can help ensure that the ground rules are maintained and can help clarify themes and ideas.

Retaining the dialogue method and principles throughout the action phase is also important if new members are welcome to join action-oriented task forces and committees. Since some of the old conflicts surrounding an issue could reemergeand new issues are bound to come updialogue principles can help participants to work through these issues in productive and inclusive ways ("Big Wheel, Keep on Turning" 1999). And as Barbara Gray points out, "coordination must be accomplished laterally without the hierarchical authority to which most managers are accustomed" (1991, 9).

Dialogue leaders speak often about moving from talk to action, but this phrase is deceptive, since dialogue is a quite significant action in itself, and since action, if it is to be impactful and sustainable, needs to include dialogue. Community-wide dialogue efforts are powerful because they combine dialogue and action. It must be made clear to participants that the act of dialogue is meaningful and transformative, and that any action that comes out of the process needs to retain the dialogue principles which foster open, honest, equal communication.


Strategy 6: Communicate within the group, and within your local community.

Good communication is key for any successful action strategy. The committee addressing the need for improved education must be informed about what the committee tackling intergroup violence is doingand vice versa; local leadership needs to be aware of the initiatives actions; and the community at large must also be aware of any action that is going on and about any opportunities to participate.

Dialogue initiatives that want to be seen as strong forces to be reckoned withor better yet, strong forces to be allied withneed to establish themselves as problem-solvers. Organizers can help ensure that a reputation for problem-solving is built in a number of ways, including utilizing local cable and public television to highlight their efforts or recruit volunteers, writing editorials about their efforts for local papers, and getting newspapers to cover their events by sending them press releases and establishing personal contacts with reporters and editors.

Members and others can be kept informed through monthly newsletters. Having a volunteer develop a website for your effort can be an effective way to recruit young people and keep people informed of what is going on. Some dialogue efforts have also experimented with the use of listservs (email discussion lists) to keep their members connected. And participants can help get others involved in dialogue by making presentations about their dialogue experience to various sectors in the community.

Strategy 7: Treat your dialogue effort as an organization.

The more a dialogue effort is treated as a true organization, the more likely it is that the effort will be well-attended and well-respected, and the more likely any action efforts which arise from the dialogue will be successful. A dialogue effort can be treated like an organization in a number of impactful ways.

First and foremost, a dialogue effort should have a memorable and descriptive name. It should have a central contact person (even if the initiative is led equally by several people) with a title. And, if at all possible, it should have its own office. According to SCRC, "the best-sustained study circle programs have established a nerve center for their efforts," which provide the coordinators with a stable home for their work ("How to Keep it Going and Growing" 1999). This is necessary for managing the numerous day-to-day coordination and communication tasks organizers need to stay on Top of.

Many dialogue efforts are run out of organizations with larger purposes, such as YWCAs, Governors offices, Human Relations Commissions, and school systems. "A mayors office or a city agency is especially well positioned to encourage the involvement of the public and community organizations in dialogue, since public officials have high visibility" (McCoy and Sherman 1994).

Having the ability to pay at least one full-time staff member is especially beneficial. Although many dialogues are initiated and run on a completely volunteer basis, obtaining funding for a coordinator can help establish the strong hub that is necessary for a long-term, impactful program. "Building a strong, lasting, and staffed organization alters the relations of power. Once such an organization exists, people on the other side must always consider the organization when making decisions. When the organization is strong enough, it will have to be consulted about decisions that affect its members&." (Bobo 1996, 8).

Hundreds of dialogue groups have been run without any funding at all. Groups have met in church basements, in classrooms&even in diners. And the participants in such groups have benefited a great deal, and even made some positive changes in their communities. But to develop and sustain a community-wide dialogue effort that truly leaves its mark on the community, funding is needed in order to obtain committed, professional staff; recruit stakeholders from all sectors; reward people who deserve it; obtain additional training and materials needed by participants, facilitators, and organizers; and publicize their efforts fully.

Another way to treat a dialogue effort as an organization is, of course, to make it an organization. Gaining 501(c)3 status and establishing a Board of Directors can help stabilize and support a dialogue effort. Official non-profit organizations have more funding options that unofficial community groups, and obtaining influential Board members can increase an efforts credibility and influence.


Strategy 8: Recognize those who deserve it.

As with any effort that is run mainly by volunteers, recognition is an extremely important motivational factor. Recognizing people through incentives, awards, gifts, and praise helps them feel that their time has been spent wisely, and gives them the motivation they need to sustain their efforts.

Providing certificates for facilitators and participants, awarding outstanding volunteers, recognizing supporters during interviews, publishing peoples names and contributions in the newsletter, taking people out to thank-you lunches, and organizing recognition ceremonies are all excellent ways to show appreciation. Another way to show respect for people and appreciation for the work they have done is to ask them to speak at conferences and other events. And, it must be said, that the simplest way to recognize peoples efforts is to simply say thank you.


Strategy 9: Train participants in social change methods.

In Creating Collaborative Advantage, Himmelman (1996) suggests that organizers of collaborative efforts provide their members with training in such areas as group process, conflict resolution, and cultural diversity and inclusiveness. Dialogue automatically trains participants in these things. Participants eventually internalize the ground rules, gaining invaluable skills in listening openly to others, suspending judgment, welcoming and respecting different perspectives, expressing disagreement in a non-threatening manner, and providing space for everyone to contribute.

This is not an easy feat. After all, "our current attitudes and behaviors are the result of years of training and coaching from parents, teachers, peers and other models; they have worked for us in the past, and changing them does not happen overnight" (Schoene 1994, 67). And yet, dialogue can be very effective at changing peoples attitudes and behavior. But neither dialogue facilitators nor dialogue participants tend to be provided with training in one of the main things dialogue leaders most strongly profess the dialogue process to cause: community change.

At the very least, dialogue participants should be made aware of the wide variety of actions they can choose to take. One of my interviewees, David Campt, who worked with the Presidents Initiative on Race and now does consulting for Hope in the Cities and other major dialogue efforts, provides his dialogue participants with an action worksheet that "allows people to ponder things they can do themselves, things they can do with other individuals, and things they can do with institutional backing." Participants should be made aware of the thirteen types of action described earlier which have been tackled by dialogue groups, and they should be made aware of what direct action organizing is, and under what conditions it is most effective.

Training in collaborative problem-solving, consensus building, and community building are also appropriate for dialogue participants. Dialogue itself is a form of community building training, but this should be made more explicit to participants. Group awareness of their progress in the community building stages can help the group progress through the stages with less stressperhaps preventing some people from dropping out of the dialogue process early.

Increased knowledge and skills in community building, collaborative problem-solving and consensus building would also clearly help dialogue groups as they plan for action. Training in asset-based social change, which utilizes local resources and skills, would also enable participants to initiate more effective and sustainable community change.


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 5:42 PM ?
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