doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed
citizens can change the world.
Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Students leave legacy of building
relationships and improving race relations
Photo by Michael Bailey
Parker (left) and Jackie Switzer, who founded Sustained
Dialogue at U.Va., drew on their experiences with biracial
heritage and living abroad. Parker will work for the International
Institute for Sustained Dialogue in Washington, D.C., this
By Anne Bromley
The impassioned efforts of the U.Va. students who established
a program called Sustained Dialogue provide a shining example
of Margaret Mead’s words.
Distressed by the racial tensions and separateness they saw at U.Va., Priya Narayan
Jackie A. Rodriguez Switzer founded Sustained Dialogue in their second year
to improve the climate for diversity on Grounds. As these two young women and
of other participants graduate May 16, they leave to the University a transformative
organization, firmly rooted and thriving, that has brought students together.
They are calling it a new social movement on campuses. U.Va.
is the second university to implement Sustained Dialogue,
Princeton the first, but about
a dozen other
colleges have begun their own groups.
Harold H. Saunders, a former deputy secretary of state, first
developed the communications process 20 years ago to help
ethnic factions in Tajikistan
Now director of international affairs for the Kettering Foundation, Saunders
has established an international institute to help other community organizations
and colleges in the United States and worldwide form Sustained Dialogue
Priya Parker, a political and social thought major, found out
about Sustained Dialogue from her mother, who heard Saunders
talk at her workplace, the World
“I’d learned that here at U.Va., if something’s missing, you
can create it,” Parker said, referring to the University’s emphasis
on student self-governance. She enlisted Jackie Switzer to help, and they spent
fall 2001 making preparations.
Parker and Switzer joked that they’ve led parallel lives — both were
born in foreign countries where their parents worked, both have white fathers
who went into the Peace Corps in Africa and later married women from other countries
(Parker’s mother is Indian, Switzer’s is Mexican), both ended up
moving to Northern Virginia. Both came to U.Va., where they met first year and
soon became close friends.
shared our mutual aspirations to somehow reach out
and bridge a greater sense of understanding between
groups at U.Va.,” said Switzer, a foreign affairs
Now they share the success of making a difference
at Thomas Jefferson’s
university. With several other U.Va. students, they went through training to
become moderators, and the first four Sustained Dialogue groups got under way
the following spring. They have seen the organization grow to 15 groups, involving
more than 240 students this year. More than 40 moderators have signed up to facilitate
even more groups next year.
has shown me students can change the culture, the racial climate
here at U.Va.,” Parker
told the Board of Visitors at a presentation in February.
The two students wrote to about 30 administrators and professors
to let them know what they were starting. Parker also was one
of the students
to serve on the University’s current Commission on Diversity and Equity, which
used her senior thesis on student racial climate at 10 universities in its research.
Angela M. Davis, co-chairwoman of the commission and associate
dean of students, summed up the success of Sustained Dialogue,
saying, “Our students lead
What makes this organization unique is the emphasis on “sustained,” Parker
said. She’d often heard other students complain that efforts to foster
a wider understanding of diversity didn’t seem to last. Instead of having
just one meeting or two to talk about a problem or react to an incident, where
people are apt to leave angry or upset, the Sustained Dialogue process regularly
brings together people in strained relations in a “safe space” for
Meeting biweekly over the school year or longer with two
moderators, the 10 to 12 participants go through a five-stage
and confront issues of diversity (or any other problem).
During the first stage, groups get organized and members
agree to ground rules that stress listening to and respecting
other’s points of view. Next,
members discuss the overall environment and identify problems, such as students
self-segregating along racial or ethnic lines in their extracurricular activities.
They discuss their personal experiences in relation to the problems, rather than
jumping into political debates and opinions. They consider how the problems fit
into the larger context of community relations and decide which problems the
group should tackle (stage two).
As they continue to meet and share their personal experiences,
in the third stage, they explore how changes might
be made. The final
what course of action to take and carrying out their
plans. For some groups, just becoming friends has been
“It’s a personal and emotional process,” said Parker. “You analyze
problems the group identifies, but it’s not intellectual.”
It’s also important for the organization’s executive board that selects
moderators, among other duties, to make sure a good mix of individuals from different
backgrounds will be facilitating the groups.
was really the first time I confronted issues of race,” said vice-chairwoman
Evita Byrd. “I had to look at what I had internalized.” Byrd, who
grew up mostly in Chester, Va., said she went through a period of being angry
about being black, but she has become more comfortable with her identity through
thought people didn’t understand, but they did, even if they weren’t
black. Some people had different experiences but similar emotions,” said
Byrd, a Spanish major who will teach English in Istanbul next year.
Dialogue has become a key to developing greater understanding
among students of different races and ethnicities,” Vice President for Student
Affairs Patricia Lampkin said. “It has been extremely gratifying to see
the mix of students who are involved and the level of conversation they are willing
to take on — all voluntarily. I hope to support the program as it grows
and becomes part of the culture, and at the same time allow student initiative
and dedication to lead it forward.”
co-founders and moderators talk about other
skills they’ve learned — developing
an organization, writing a constitution, delegating
activities, working on public relations and
facilitating the groups.
feel like I am able to apply everything I’ve learned from my dialogue
groups. … I’ve completely altered the way I interact with people
on a daily basis. I apply my moderating skills constantly,” Switzer said.
But more importantly, Sustained Dialogue
has made her and the other participants
people and cultures
from their own. “Since
the beginning, I know Priya and I had a lot of faith in the process of Sustained
Dialogue,” Switzer said, “but I never imagined it could make such
a difference for so many people.”
peace with her heritage, promotes communication on Arab-Jewish
Photo by Lincoln Barber
Katnani, second from left, proudly wears her Sustained
Dialogue T-shirt at
a gathering in the Kaleidoscope Center.
Other members: top left, Jessica Fox Garrison, Katnani,
Carlton Wilson, Neela Pal, Clark Herndon, Priya Parker;
bottom row, Kim Morris, Jessica Fowler and Courtney Childs.
Herndon, Pal, Fowler, Childs and Wilson are next year’s
By Anne Bromley
Foreign affairs major Samar Katnani has seen the power
of Sustained Dialogue change her life. Katnani, who
is part Lebanese, part Palestinian, grew up in
Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Having internalized the negative stereotypes of Palestinians,
she “grew up reluctant to tell anyone the truth — I was Arab,” she
wrote in an article for the Sustained Dialogue magazine, Stereo Type.
The Sept. 11 bombings forced her to come to terms with
her identity. “I
was shattered. I would say it was the most difficult time in my life.” To
heal emotionally, she joined the Arab Student Organization.
Also, Priya Parker, who co-founded Sustained Dialogue,
heard Katnani speak at a teach-in after Sept. 11, and
although the two had never met before,
called her to join the budding organization. Katnani subsequently became
one of its
first moderators and vice-chairwomen. She also moderated two different
Sustained Dialogue, we first focused on being students, and
as people, talked about our experiences with prejudices,” Katnani said.
also needed my classes and professors to complete my understanding
of being Middle Eastern, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
and eventually, race and power
relations. Extracurricular activities provided personal experience
and human experiential knowledge.
provided academic and theoretical grounding,” she
Besides learning a lot from the classes of politics professor
and former vice provost for international affairs William
Quandt, Katnani credited
associate professor of politics David Waldner with further sparking
her interest in
science and with becoming a mentor, encouraging her not to give up
when her spirits flagged.
conversations during his office hours with his genuine and
candid advice and opinions gave me strength to continue in
learning about the world and in
struggling for the things I came to believe in,” she said.
Katnani decided to launch a pilot program for better Jewish-Arab
communication. Those first meetings, before they used the Sustained
soon degenerated into political arguments, with the students yelling
at each other,
was frustrating to see such poor relations between Jewish
and Arab students. I thought we should be able to come together
and talk about this rationally and
personally,” she said.
Lisa Arenson, now director of the Center for the Study
of Mind and Human Interaction, came in to help facilitate
Following the Sustained
turned things around. The students talked about their different
of events, making them more personal. Katnani credits the program
with opening the lines of communication and helping the students
“It’s been amazing. … Others have said they can’t believe how
we’ve grown to respect each other,” she said.
Katnani sees educational inequality and the curriculum
as the root of most of the problems in America, she
in New York City to better understand that inequality and
its socioeconomic context.
fact that minorities have different, and essentially negative,
experiences [compared to] whites, and for the most part have
poorer education is something
that should be addressed much earlier,” she said.
Believing in Jefferson’s idea that education should prepare individuals
to become active citizens, Katnani plans to go to law school eventually and work
on changing the education system.