The Time is Now: Transforming Community Through Dialogue

By MARLENE K. REBORI

Marlene K. Rebori, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) and the Community Development Specialist with Cooperative Extension. Marlene is the Founding Director of the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement (OSLCE) at the University of Nevada, Reno Campus.

I remember one of my father’s strict rules for guests while I was growing up, “No talking politics or religion.” As a child growing-up I often wondered why my dad, who was a veteran of both WWII, serving in the Pacific theater, and the Korean War, would make such a hard-fast rule. I assumed it was because he witnessed enough conflict both politically and ideologically in his lifetime that he did not want his home to be a hotbed for political discussions. Perhaps he realized one person would never change another’s opinion or ideology. Although this was a strict rule my father enforced with guests coming to our home, it was not a rule that he followed when conversing with his family.

Growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I learned from both my parents about being aware of current news events, and most importantly, learning how to discuss current events. Our family conversations taught me how to engage in dialogue. At the time I did not realize we were engaging in dialogue, coming from a traditional Italian family we had some very lively family conversations. But in retrospect, it taught me how to talk and listen with others. Now, as a community development professional I understand from my own research, as well as others, the significant impact parental values and habits play toward influencing a child’s connection to their community and the skills needed to engage in the community. Parental habits are one of the strongest predictors influencing youth engagement and developing the skills for involvement in one’s community. Second to parental influence, educators have an enormous impact and responsibility in nurturing and enhancing student civic skills both in the community and in the classroom.

One of the core principles of democracy is that of collective problem solving, working together to solve the problems that we face collectively as a community. Some scholars have referred to this collective ability as “civic capacity” or more broadly “civic engagement” which often involve a “broad set of behaviors that link individuals to others in their community and serve to enhance community life” (Pancer 2015 p.20). In my opinion engagement is about doing with others, not doing for others. This involves listening and talking with others as well as engaging in activities with others. Through the practice of talking and listening together we create shared meaning, we create community. Community is about shared circumstance, it is the glue that binds us together and serves as our learning laboratory for democracy and collective problem solving.

Now more than ever, our nation and our communities are divided and polarized with people displaying highly charged emotions with vitriolic rhetoric. I consider passion and emotions to be positive community attributes because it tells me people care about the community and the issues in question.

However, passion and emotions often create barriers that block the ability for people to engage in dialogue. Dialogue, as eloquently described by Bohm (1996) is a transformative process that flows through people and works to create shared meaning among a community or members of a group. Dialogue is not about debate, nor is it focused on defending one’s assumptions or opinions. The objective of dialogue is a free-flowing group conversation to reach a new transformative understanding. Engaging in dialogue is not intended to analyze, nor to win an argument, nor share opinions. The purpose of dialogue is to suspend your opinions and others, to listen to everybody’s opinions fully and equally. When this thought process occurs it leads to a new and deeper understanding among the group and builds trust and relationships.

These are not easy tasks for any person, even the most kind-hearted neutral student. Human nature and experience informs us that in a dialogue individual assumptions and opinions will emerge and these assumptions tend to lead to the root cause of conflict both politically and ideologically. In dialogue, the strategy is to recognize individuals will share assumptions, but the dialogue process begs us to ‘suspend our judgment’. Suspending judgment demands discipline and practice. It implies one does not suppress his/her assumptions; one neither believes nor disbelieves the assumptions. Rather assumptions are held in suspension in front of each other. To suspend judgment asks that individuals do not react, nor display neither anger nor excitement. Dialogue is a thought process that allows us to examine and reflect. If we can see what all of our opinions mean then we are sharing a common content, not that we agree on those assumptions, but we can then begin to transform individual opinions into a transformative collective understanding. Dialogue enables us as residents in a community to re-learn how to listen and talk to each other, not by shouting at each other or dominating over others. It allows us to learn about our own assumptions while we learn about the assumptions of others. This starts the process toward rebuilding trust and re- relationships in our community.

Much of the conflict we experience in our communities comes from gaps in our communication and our inability to listen and talk with each other. A wealth of tools and processes are available for educators to freely access from seasoned practitioners and colleagues that offer sound advice and guidance on leading dialogue sessions with students and community members. Many schools and communities have experimented and led sessions on how the Art of Dialogue can transform students and communities as they work to rebuild relationships and trust. A helpful set of ground rules has even been developed which can easily be applied with your next group of students and can be referenced here: http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr15/vol72/num07/The-Art-of-Dialogue.aspx#el201504_guidelines Patricia Romney[1] from Animating Democracy explains the application of dialogue in the arts community. “Dialogue is focused conversation, engaged in intentionally with the goal of increasing understanding, addressing problems and questioning thoughts or actions. It engages the heart as well as the mind.” (p.2). Rather than trying to convince the other person on the validity of your views, dialogue is more about developing a relationship with participants and learning more about a specific topic or issue.

A learning opportunity awaits us as educators. We can begin the process of re-building bridges toward trust and communication in our communities. We can lead the process of engagement by involving our students in working with others to enhance our community life. We can reinforce the foundation needed in the skills of listening and talking, especially given students reliance on text messages over face-to-face communication. In what ways are your students engaging with the community, and more importantly, in what ways can students engage with others to enhance the community and gain valuable skills?

Relationship building and trust are the first step to learning how to work together. We need to know each other before we can work together to solve problems. Practicing skills for active listening and dialogue do not come easy for students, or adults. Our students need to practice and refine their skills in dialogue, both talking and listening to allow them to find their voice. Let’s rekindle the art of dialogue within our communities with our students. The time is now, the opportunity is ripe, and the need to build civic skills for how to talk and listen must begin by first building meaning through dialogue.

As an adult with my own family, I respect and understood my father’s rule of “no talking politics or religion” however it’s not a rule I follow in my own home. Our home serves as a venue for talking and listening, engaging and learning whether its about current events or community issues. Our communities need educators to reinforce these time-honored skills of democracy to teach the next generation how to talk and listen with each other and within our community. If we begin this journey, we can begin rebuilding relationships and trust, the bedrock of a healthy community.

[1] (http://animatingdemocracy.org/sites/default/files/documents/reading_room/art_of_dialogue.pdf)

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