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What is Dialogue?

Intergroup dialogue is a process which enables people from all walks of life to talk deeply and personally about some of the major issues and realities that divide them. Dialogues are powerful, transformational experiences that lead to both personal and collaborative action. Dialogue is usually deliberative, involving the weighing of various options and the consideration of different viewpoints for the purpose of reaching agreement on action steps or policy decisions.

People are leading deliberative dialogues across the globe in schools, in churches, in workplaces, and in virtually every other venue imaginable. They are encouraging people to engage in dialogue about issues ranging from race relations in their communities and violence in their schools to how to handle the buildup of nuclear waste or the rapid rate of development in their region.

People are organizing dialogues in order to resolve conflicts, to increase citizen participation in governmental decisions, to educate, to help people build self-awareness, to improve communication skills, to strengthen teams or build coalitions, to stimulate innovation and to foster effective community change.

A dialogue is a facilitated small-group discussion created for the face-to-face exchange of personal stories, values and perspectives regarding how one is affected and has been affected by a particular topic such as racism, violence, lack of community, police-community relations, or immigration.? Dialogues can be extremely powerful, transformational experiences that lead to both personal and collaborative action.

In our field, there exists a bewildering array of overlapping terms and concepts. The dialogue process itself goes by many aliases. Here are just a few: civic engagement, public participation, study circles, community conversations, public discourse, honest conversations, deliberative discourse, community cafes. Some of these are 'brands' that are developed and promoted by particular organizations, and some are terms that are used within certain constituencies. We use the term 'dialogue' throughout this site because it seems to be the most inclusive and understandable term (albeit probably too vague), and because it is the way we were first introduced to the subject.

Dialogues are sometimes called ?‘interracial?’ to reflect the racial diversity of participants.? Many feel it is more appropriate to use the term ?‘intergroup?’ to describe dialogues whose participants are diverse, since most dialogues include people from many groups (racial, religious, gender, sexual orientation, income level, etc.), and since ?‘race?’ is an scientifically-questionable social construct that some groups want to eradicate altogether.? ?‘Intragroup?’ dialogues involve participants who are from the same social identity group (all Asian, or all Jewish, for example) and can be powerful tools as well.

Elements of DialogueWhat Does a Typical Dialogue Look Like?

Dialogues are as diverse as the communities and groups which engage in them.? Everything varies from dialogue to dialogue:? the number of participants, the purpose of the dialogue, the topics being discussed and questions that are asked, the characteristics (ethnicity, age, gender, expertise, etc.) of its members, the length of each meeting, the number of sessions?…everything.? But there are some guidelines that most dialogue groups adhere to, or at least consider. Click here or on the 'Elements of Dialogue' button to learn about what makes a group discussion a dialogue (the ground rules, the stages of discussion, the number of people involved, the level of commitment that is needed, etc.).

Why is it Important to Engage in Dialogue on Race?

Through dialogue, individuals of every background have had the opportunity to come together in small groups in order to do the one thing that people of different races have never really been able to do in the U.S.:? talk to each other.? They have talked about issues we usually don?’t bring up in ?‘mixed?’ company:? racism, violence, interracial relationships, privilege, prejudice, discrimination.? How we feel about these things, and how they have affected and continue to affect our lives and our communities.

Too often, in this country and many others, we avoid topics relating to race and ethnicity in mixed-race settings and, if we do address these issues, we rarely speak from our own personal perspective.? Instead, we tend to take a political or academic perspective (?“Affirmative Action is wrong because?…?” or ?“the definition of institutional racism is?…?”) or a defensive position (?“Actually, I don't even SEE color...?”). Talking this way leaves us in just about the same place we started, with little to no additional understanding of ourselves or those who are different from us.

Beyond promoting honest communication, cross-cultural learning and relationship-building, intergroup dialogue has the potential to impact the future of our country in a number of critical ways.? According to the Study Circles Resource Center, people who participate in intergroup dialogues ?“discover common ground and a greater desire and ability to work collaboratively to solve local problems?—as individuals, as members of small groups, and as members of large organizations in the community.?”

The dialogue process can empower individuals of all racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds to make change happen in their communities.? According to an Honest Conversations Project (run through the National Conference for Community and Justice), ?“dialogue allows us to collectively look at some of the barriers to change, and to develop action steps to address the issues of prejudice, stereotyping and other discriminatory practices that block us from having a respectful, inclusive community.?”? Dialogue encourages people to build partnerships with people of all backgrounds and increase their own skills in creating community change.

The Dialogue to Action Initiative and www.Thataway.org are ?2001 by Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke. ?
Last updated Sunday, March 31, 2002 5:22 PM ?
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