May 14, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 9
Back Issues
‘Our Students Lead Us’
Sullivan Award-winners
Part of the fabric of University life
Curiosity drives Mitman’s pursuits
Sustained Dialogue
‘Reverend Nurse:’
At 52, Valley minister feels call to care for the whole person, spiritually and physically
Leap of a lifetime:
Athlete Kim Turko jumps a formidable hurdle — life-threatening illness
He’ll be back:
Adult education graduate studies adult education
‘Hungry to Help:’
Student refugee wants to improve the lives of Burma’s forgotten children
Revitalizing Main Street:
Jill Nolt’s plan for her hometown high school makes front-page news
Peace Corps bound:
Business major trades fast lane for slow pace on Tonga
First in her family:
Angela Caldwell, a Native American, overcomes community attitudes to become lawyer
From Crane’s love of the cosmos comes new era for stargazers
A history of Finals
Sharlotte Bolyard is flying high
A ministry of medicine

Bombay bound:
Darden grad to apply best U.S. business practices to family company in India

Peer educator looks beyond educating:
Health advocacy is next step for Alyssa Lederer

No ‘cookie-cutter’ solutions:
Family expert Charmaine Yoest says creativity, flexibility are keys to resolving work/family issues

Reflections on the road to enlightenment:
Thirteen years, one class at a time, but who was counting?

‘Connecting communities:’
Presentation on African-American history at U.Va. gets students thinking, talking
Sustained Diaologue
Sustained Dialogue

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

Students leave legacy of building relationships and improving race relations
Priya Parker (left) and Jackie Switzer
Photo by Michael Bailey
Priya 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 fall.

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 Parker and
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 dozens 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 resolve conflicts. 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 groups.

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 Bank.

“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.

“We 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 major.

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.

“It 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 invited 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 us.”

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 meaningful discussion.

Meeting biweekly over the school year or longer with two moderators, the 10 to 12 participants go through a five-stage process that enables them to explore 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 each 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 two stages focus on deciding what course of action to take and carrying out their plans. For some groups, just becoming friends has been the most worthwhile result.

“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.

“It 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 Sustained Dialogue.

“I 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.

“Sustained 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.”

The 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.

“I 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 more willing to seek out people and cultures different 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.”

Arab-American makes peace with her heritage, promotes communication on Arab-Jewish issues
Sustained Dialogue
Photo by Lincoln Barber
Samar 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 group leaders.

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 groups.

“With Sustained Dialogue, we first focused on being students, and as people, talked about our experiences with prejudices,” Katnani said.

“I 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.

Classes provided academic and theoretical grounding,” she said.

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 political science and with becoming a mentor, encouraging her not to give up when her spirits flagged.

“The 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 Dialogue process, soon degenerated into political arguments, with the students yelling at each other, she recalled.

“It 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 the group. Following the Sustained Dialogue process turned things around. The students talked about their different understandings of events, making them more personal. Katnani credits the program with opening the lines of communication and helping the students to build healthy and respectful relationships.

“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 said. She will join Teach for America next year in New York City to better understand that inequality and its socioeconomic context.

“The 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.


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