ENGAGING IN CIVIL DISCOURSE

In 2016, David Derezotes, professor of social work director and director of Peace and Conflict Studies in the College of Humanities, was given the opportunity and a two-year grant to develop a program through the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence that would support university faculty and staff in working with diverse student populations. The program, Transforming Classrooms into Inclusive Communities, offers diversity training to help faculty and staff provide community-building approaches in their classrooms, programs and offices.

Why did you start Transforming Classrooms into Inclusive Communities and what is it?

Perhaps more than ever, students who graduate from the 21st century university need the knowledge, values and skills necessary to effectively live and work with people who are different from them. We are in an era where the differences that divide our local, national and global communities threaten our very existence, as we struggle to collectively deal with threats such as global warming, over population, preparations for war, mass casualty terror and deterioration of natural resources. These threats challenge us to bridge our divides and develop more inclusive local and global communities. In our increasingly diverse families, institutions and societies, students will also be challenged to find ways to work and live with relatives, neighbors and colleagues who have different intersecting racial, cultural, sexual and class identities.

TCIC trainings are largely experiential, with two key components, dialogue and psychodrama. Dialogue is a basic relationship-building approach in which participants listen for understanding and speak respectfully. In contrast with debate, which many students have studied, dialogue is not about winning an argument but is about bridging the differences that divide us. Successful dialogue requires not only interpersonal skills, but also the self-examination of one’s own thoughts, emotions, biases and motivations. Dialogue can be used in diversity trainings to help foster inclusive communities, where individual differences are respected, conflict is recognized as an opportunity for transformation, and all voices are heard.

Psychodrama enables us to role play the classroom and office scenarios that emerge out of the dialogues, as we act out the conflicts that we have encountered and then role play possible approaches that faculty and staff can take to transform these conflicts into opportunities for transforming campus spaces into inclusive communities.

Who are your partners working with TCIC?

TCIC currently consists of a diverse group of 26 fellows. We selected people from across campus who not only are excellent group facilitators, but who also have caring hearts and a commitment to diversity work. We also have partnered with administrators and other leaders in units across campus, who help us plan and facilitate trainings.

Why is this training critical in today’s society?

We can look at the recent events in Charlottesville as an example of what is going on in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world. Many of our communities (and campuses) are divided by differences across race, gender, sexual identities, religion, politics, class, etc. Our students are growing up in an environment where such divides are apparent, and they often feel helpless and powerless in the face of these trends and events. We (faculty and staff) can be models for students, and offer them new skills, values and knowledge they can use for their rest of their lives. We can encourage them to empower themselves, and to heal these divides and replace hatred and violence with positive responses and pathways to socially just and inclusive communities.

What are some of your guidelines for participating in the training?

Do

  • Listen for understanding
  • Speak respectfully
  • Speak for yourself
  • Offer amnesty
  • Wait at least three turns before speaking again
  • Own your own biases judgments projections

Do not

  • Interrupt
  • Make negative gestures
  • Make others wrong
  • Engage in side talk
  • Teach and preach

What happens during a training?

We now have developed three kinds of trainings:

  1. Diversity dialogues

One way to teach about diversity is to model a real dialogue that faculty and students can observe and participate in. For example, we offered two campus wide dialogues, open to all staff and faculty, immediately after the 2016 presidential election. We also co-conducted with Environmental Humanities a campus and community dialogue on the Bears Ears National Monument. Over 100 American Indians, legislators, ranchers and land owners, community members, students, staff and faculty were in attendance.

  1. Diversity trainings

Each diversity training includes the the following parts:

  • Re-minder of the core mission
  • Introductions
  • Explanation of dialogue ground rules
  • Small group dialogues
  • Large group dialogue
  • Psychodramas of difficult conversations
  • Summary, check-outs, evaluation
  • Debrief
  1. Student-led dialogues

Another model that emerged recently used student-led dialogues to do trainings. For example, the School of Medicine approached me this summer to lead trainings for first year medical students. The college had created a diversity committee, consisting of a group of second year students. I trained these students in dialogue facilitation and then these student peer-facilitators led small group dialogues with first-year students during their orientation, as part of a diversity and conflict resolution training that I facilitated. A few School of Medicine faculty and staff also attended this orientation.

What has been the response from campus?

This summer, our TCIC evaluation committee did a largely qualitative evaluation of our first seven trainings. Responses were overwhelmingly positive. Participants report they especially like the role plays, where they can learn new skills they can quickly adapt to their teaching. They like the diverse TCIC teams that come to do the trainings, and tailor the work to fit the individual needs of each unit we work with. The most common criticism was that participants wanted more training time. Although most of our trainings have been one-time events, usually 90 minutes to two hours in length, we think that the best training programs are ongoing.

What is your advice on how to engage in civil dialogue with those who have opposing viewpoints?

Maybe start with the dialogue ground rules. We have found that people usually come up with similar rules if you give them a chance to think and talk about dialogue. Perhaps the bottom line “requirement” is an open heart. People tend to find that, although dialogue often initially feels uncomfortable, it feels good to listen to others, speak respectfully and develop relationships with people who at first seemed so different than us.

Click here to read more advice on how to navigate difficult conversations with those who have opposing viewpoints.

For more information about Transforming Classrooms into Inclusive Communities, please contact David Derezotes at David.Derezotes@socwk.utah.edu.