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Frequently Asked Questions

Do we really need a facilitator?
Why dialogue about race? (What about other important topics?)
Can any group dialogue, even if they?’re not diverse?
Should certain people be excluded or excused from engaging in dialogue?
What kinds of training will enhance the dialogue?

Do we really need a facilitator?

One of things I heard over and over while surveying dialogue leaders across the country was the importance of good facilitators.? ?“The facilitator can make or break a dialogue group,?” people told me.? If you are interested in getting your participants to dialogue on race or any other subject, obtaining an experienced facilitator (or two) or training someone well to facilitate the dialogue is the most crucial step you need to take.

The rules of dialogue are very different from our normal rules of communication.? In dialogue, you can not allow someone to dominate the conversation.? You need to prevent people from debating facts or positions, and to quickly intervene when someone starts name-calling or accusing.? The ground rules that are set before the dialogue begins must be internalized by the facilitator, almost to the point that a rule being broken is detected automatically, without thinking.? Ground rules allow for the kind of communication that leads to real understanding and trust, and it is the facilitator?’s job to enforce those rules.

In addition, facilitators need to be able to determine when it is necessary to intervene, and when it is best to let the group continue.? They need to know when and how to clarify what is being said, summarize a discussion, shift the focus from one speaker or topic to another, and utilize silence.? They need to be able to stay neutral?—a skill that is more difficult than it sounds?—and to use body language to communicate a variety of messages.

According to the Study Circles Resource Center, good dialogue facilitators:

?• are neutral; the facilitator?’s opinions are not part of the discussion
?• help the group set its ground rules, and keep to them
?• help group members grapple with the content by asking probing questions
?• help group members identify areas of agreement and disagreement
?• bring in points of view that haven?’t been talked about
?• create opportunities for everyone to participate
?• focus and help to clarify the discussion
?• summarize key points in the discussion, or ask others to do so
?• are self-aware; good facilitators know their own strengths, weaknesses, biases and values
?• are able to put the group first
?• have a passion for the group process with its never-ending variety
?• appreciate all kinds of people
?• are committed to democratic principles

As you can see, there is a lot involved in facilitating a dialogue.? If you prefer to have someone from your organization?—yourself, an AmeriCorps Leader, a staff member?—facilitate the dialogue process, please be sure that they:

1. Read over this website and some other examinations of the dialogue process.

2. Attend at least one facilitator training session (find trainings by contacting the groups mentioned in the Organizations to Contact for Assistance list in the Resources & Perspectives section of this website).

3. Read at least two publications of the Study Circles Resource Center (I recommend the Guide for Training Study Circle Facilitators and Facing the Challenge of Racism and Race Relations).

4. Are able to be neutral with the participants in the dialogue and can be perceived as neutral by the participants.

An experienced outside facilitator is a good investment for your group to make, although you might find one in your community who will do it either very cheaply or free of charge.? Finding a facilitator is a little tricky, though.? You could try contacting the national organizations listed in the Resources & Perspectives section of this website.? You could also utilize the Western Justice Center's online database of organizations working to prevent violence, resolve conflicts and promote intergroup dialogue and cross-cultural collaboration. The database is located at www.westernjustice.org/orgs.cfm.

Why dialogue on race?? (What about other important topics?)

Many dialogue participants admit that because so little meaningful communication occurs in the U.S. among members of different racial groups, their first session marks the first time they actually hear a person of another race speak candidly about a personal struggle they had as a result of racism.? For whites, it may also be the first time they are exposed to such realities as liberal racism (also called modern racism), institutional racism and internalized oppression?—things that affect their non-white colleagues every day.? Since, as a columnist from the Detroit Free Press wrote, ?“it is virtually impossible to have healthy relations with people you?’ve stereotyped through a lifetime of bad information,?” dialogue opens the door to interracial relationships among people who have been unable to form them in the past.

Dialogue allows people to acknowledge personal feelings such as hurt, anger and guilt.? As the former Mayor of Richmond, Virginia once remarked, ?“The mentality of victimhood or guilt-ridden shame anchors us in inaction and diverts time and energy from the search for solutions.?”? Dialogue allows these feelings to be brought out into a safe space, where they can be talked about and validated, and then carefully set aside.? These feelings which served as barriers for years?—barriers to communication, to self-love, to relationships?—are finally able to be brought to the surface and then, slowly, surpassed.? Dialogue allows people to move on?—often to collaborative community action.

Sometimes, national service programs with limited time for training will shy away from diversity training options that seem to only address one important area (race, in this instance, when there is also sexual orientation, ability, age, gender, nationality, class, etc.).? It is important that you realize that dialogues can be held on any of these issues and if, say, your participants are all one race, or if sexual orientation is an important issue within your group, it may make more sense for you to dialogue about something other than race.? Since race and racism are such major issues in almost all parts of the country, however, and since real communication among different racial groups is so rare, I decided to focus primarily on race dialogues.

No matter what you decide is right for your group, do not be tempted to organize a dialogue on ?‘diversity?’ and allow the discussion to span several of the topics mentioned above.? In order for real learning and real understanding to take place, one issue must be the primary focus.? Related topics will come up in a dialogue on any topic, but the participants must know that the focus of the dialogue is race (or violence, or sexism...).? Open, honest communication about such topics naturally opens the door to open, honest communication about other important subjects.

Another important reason to engage in dialogue on race is that the racial climate in America is shifting at a rapid pace.? According to the President?’s Initiative on Race, the U.S. is currently 72.7 percent European American, 11 percent Latino, 12.1 percent African American, 3.6 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 0.7 percent American Indian.? Statistics indicate, however, that in 2050, the population in the United States will be approximately 53 percent European American, 25 percent Latino, 14 percent African American, 8 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1 percent American Indian.

Tomorrow?’s leaders need to be able to relate to, communicate with and understand people from a variety of racial backgrounds.? These kinds of interracial competencies, however, are not often developed in this country.? Since national service programs are more successful at reflecting the ?‘face of America?’ than most U.S. organizations, they should maximize their diversity by providing their participants with this opportunity to develop important leadership and interpersonal skills.? National service programs have the potential to show the rest of the country just how successful interracial groups can be when they put their heads and hands together.

Can any group dialogue, even if they?’re not diverse?

Dialogue is an ideal tool for small, multiracial groups.? If the members of the group are expected to work as a team, dialogue can help build a stronger, more effective team.? Dialogue can be used effectively with groups of people who have never met before, or groups which have worked together for years.? Dialogue can be used for groups which are in conflict about racial or other issues, and groups that show no outward signs of conflict.

If one or more conflicts have occurred within your group that you believe may be race-related, it is even more important that your facilitator is well-trained?—in conflict transformation as well as dialogue.? The dialogue process can be a very effective way of addressing conflict among your members, but only if the facilitator can ensure that the participants interact according to the ground rules.

Very diverse groups can engage in rewarding, meaningful dialogue, but so can homogenous groups.? If the participants in your program are all white, for instance, a dialogue on race can still be a unique and unforgettable experience.? Imagine a group of your white members sitting and talking about what race means to them?—what being white means to them?—and what it means in the communities they work in.? White people are so rarely asked to see themselves in relation to race that just one intra-racial dialogue on race can make them more understanding of other perspectives.? Sometimes, too, people need to dialogue about race and race relations with members of their own race before they feel comfortable or confident enough to talk about those issues with others.

It must be said, however, that it is all but impossible to have a truly homogenous group. Ask the members of your 'homogenous' group what their religious backgrounds are, whether their parents are divorced, whether they have children or not, what their economic background is, what their interests and future goals are. Ask these kinds of questions and it will be clear that a wealth of diversity exists in within your group.

Should certain people be excluded or excused from engaging in dialogue?

It is helpful to consider racial identity stages when discussing dialogue.? Since most people who engage in dialogue choose to do so, it is safe to say that most participants feel ready to engage in dialogue.? They may feel ready for a dialogue experience because they have reached a particular stage in their racial identity.? Some scholars believe that people tend to go through a number of racial identity stages, ranging from naive and acceptance stages to the internalization stage, during which whites no longer see members of their race as ?‘normal?’ and others as ?‘different,?’ and which People of Color recognize that although their racial identity is a critical part of them, it is not the only significant part of their identity.

Since all participants in a particular national service program may be expected to participate in a dialogue on race, they may not all feel ?‘ready?’ for such an experience.? Making the dialogue optional is one way to address this issue, but developing an understanding of racial identity stages is another.? Educating your members on the stages is also an option.

Individuals who are at any stage in their racial identity can benefit from a dialogue on race.? People who believe that since whites are more successful than people of other races, they must be superior (acceptance stage) will begin to realize through the dialogue that there are many other factors involved, such as discrimination and inequities in education.? Similar changes will happen to people at other stages who participate in a dialogue.? People who are at later stages in their racial identity development may develop a better understanding of what their racial group membership means to them.

Because each participant enters the dialogue process at a different place, expect them to each leave the dialogue at different places.? Try not to be disappointed if certain individuals seem not to have been enlightened by the experience?—they probably were effected quite a bit.? Create opportunities for those involved to take action in different ways.? One participant may want to start a new committee to recruit more diverse members, while another may just want to journal on their own.

To learn more about racial identity stages, read Beverly Daniel Tatum's excellent 1997 book entitled "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And Other Conversations About Race or the following articles:

Hardiman, Rita and Bailey W. Jackson. 1992. "Racial Identity Development: Understanding Racial Dynamics in College Classrooms and on Campus," Promoting Diversity in College Classrooms: Innovative Responses for the Curriculum, Faculty, and Institutions.

Hardiman, Rita. 1994. White Racial Identity Development. In E.P. Sallett & D.R. Kaslow (Eds.) Race, Ethnicity and Self: Identity in Multicultural Perspective (pp. 117-140). Washington, DC: National Multicultural Institute.

What kind of training will enhance the dialogue?

Dialogues are not intellectual discussions or debates, but the dialogue process can sometimes be improved when the participants all have knowledge of certain concepts.? When all of your participants are equally aware of such concepts as institutional racism and white privilege when they begin the dialogue, there is less of a tendency for some dialogue participants to try to educate others about such intellectual (but very real) concepts.? It is also less likely for some participants to feel left out of a dialogue that becomes too intellectual.

With a good facilitator, however, neither of those scenarios is likely to occur often enough to cause problems.? Plus, some dialogue leaders say that it is best to just allow the participants to work with what they already know, and hope that they come up with some of the same realizations that you would have hoped for them to have if you had taught them about these concepts.

It seems both sides have merit.? Regardless of whether they are introduced before or after the dialogue process, however, national service participants should be made aware of important realities such as white privilege, institutional racism, internalized oppression, and liberal racism.? Whether you choose to make sure your participants have a shared vocabulary when they begin talking about race, or you choose to introduce those concepts after they have been discussed in generic or specific terms during the dialogue, these concepts should be introduced to your members.

If the issues surrounding racism and race relations are completely new to your participants, you will also need to make sure they go through a basic diversity training as well.? Such a training will ensure that they understand the concept of oppression, the existence of inequalities, and the definition of racism.

Training your participants in conflict resolution techniques is another option for either before or after the dialogue.? Since dialogue is a form of conflict resolution, the dialogue could follow a basic training in conflict resolution as a way to delve further into that important field.? Alternatively, participants may be more receptive of the various methods of resolving and transforming conflict after they have participated in a dialogue.? The two trainings will enhance each other considerably, regardless of which one is held first.

Another option for pre-dialogue training is to focus on communication.? The dialogue process adopts a unique set of rules for communication.? These ground rules prevent people from feeling threatened, encourage people to share personal things about themselves, strengthen relationships and build trust.? You could have your participants consider how modifying our norms of communication can allow people to take risks and truly hear others.? Following a training about such communication with a dialogue could be a fun and powerful learning experience, and the participants would be more likely to follow the ground rules.

After your participants have engaged in dialogue, they are likely to want to take action based on their experience.? If they choose to take action as a group?—or even just individually, providing training on such areas as community building, social change, policy advocacy and dialogue facilitation could be very impactful.

The Dialogue to Action Initiative and www.Thataway.org are ?2001 by Sandy Heierbacher and Andy Fluke. ?
Last updated Thursday, December 27, 2001 12:55 AM ?
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