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Sustained Dialogue: Students Leave Legacy Of Building Relationships And Improving Race Relations

May 6, 2003 -- 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 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.

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.

Parker, a political and social thought major, found out about Sustained Dialogue from her mother, who heard Saunders talk about the process 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 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 and to get their support. Parker also was one 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.

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 focus on getting to know each other by discussing 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 (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 continuing their discussions and becoming friends has been the most worthwhile action in itself.

“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 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.

“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.”

Contact: Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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