Dialogue: Students Leave Legacy Of Building Relationships And Improving
May 6, 2003 --
Distressed by the racial tensions and separateness they
saw at U.Va., Priya Narayan Parker and Jackie A. Rodriguez Switzer
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.
are calling it a new social movement on college campuses. U.Va.
is only the second university
to implement Sustained Dialogue,
Princeton being the first, but about a dozen other colleges have
begun their own groups.
H. Saunders, a former deputy secretary of state, first developed
the communications process 20 years
ago to help ethnic
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
a political and social thought major, found out about Sustained
Dialogue from her mother, who heard
about the process
at her workplace, the World Bank.
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 Switzer to help, and
they spent fall
2001 making preparations.
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
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 major.
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.
two students wrote to about 30 administrators and professors
to let them know what they were starting and to get their support.
of the student members 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.
M. Davis, co-chairwoman of the commission and associate dean
of students, summed up
the success of Sustained Dialogue,
saying, “Our students lead
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
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
to and respecting each other’s points of view.
Next, members discuss the overall environment and identify
such as students self-segregating
along racial or ethnic lines in their extracurricular
activities. They focus on getting to know each other
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 try to tackle
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 continuing their discussions
been the most
worthwhile action in itself.
a personal and emotional process,” said Parker. “You
analyze problems the group identifies, but it’s not intellectual.”
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
Evita Byrd, one of the first moderators and vice-chairwoman. “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 her involvement
in 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.
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
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
more importantly, Sustained Dialogue has made her and the other
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.”
Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861