Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Courageous Conversations at Southwestern College

My colleagues and I organized a Courageous Conversations dialogue program recently for all three of the multicultural learning communities here on our campus: Bayan, the Filipina/o American focused learning community; Puente, the Latina/o learning community: and Umoja, the learning community focused on African and African American students and issues. 

We, along with the professional development office  on our campus, wanted to create a space for dialogue about human relations issues that our students face - race, gender, criminal justice issues, internalized racism, colorism, and class to name a few. And we wanted to broaden the circle of safety that naturally develops in a learning community to a wider circle.

We used as our inspiration the book Courageous Conversations About Race by Glen Singleton and Curtis Wallace and a version of a discussion protocol called “conver-stations” from the Cult of Pedagogy website. In addition, I was inspired by a workshop I attended in Spring presented by the San Diego Area Writing Project, revising their program for a student audience. I'm grateful to all our sources for their intellectual generosity! 

Participants at the SDAWP workshop ( K- 16 teachers, professors, and administrators) rotated through three rounds of conversations ranging from sexual orientation and diversity to social justice activism to institutional racism. Each conversation took place at a table with about ten (10) people and a facilitator. After the workshop leader welcomed participants and reviewed communication agreements, facilitators at each table asked participants to introduce themselves and to briefly (ever so briefly!) state their investment in the issues. Then, each facilitator took a brief moment to either share short readings or share a set of provocative questions to get the conversation going. 

The goal was not for participants to come to a consensus or agreement about their particular topics. Instead, it was our opportunity to engage in dialogue, which especially for topics such as these, cannot be solved in a single conversation. Yet, there is value in having these kinds of dialogues - to share, change, and sharpen perspectives.

For the college student version, we kept with the three rounds of concurrent discussions. In addition, we prepared for the dialogue on three separate occasions prior to the program, attempting to do the same thing in all three communities. About ten days before the event, we introduced the concept of courageous conversations to the students and polled the classes to see what students felt were important issues to discuss . A few days later, we reviewed communication agreements and anticipated what it would be like talking with the students from the other communities. And a few days prior to the dialogue, we we asked students to select their top three choices on the menu of topics we collected before.

And then the great shuffling! At the SDAWP event, participants self selected in the moment. For the college program, we wanted to assure that each table a healthy mix from all three communities. So we did our best to assign as diverse a roster per table because we wanted students to lean into conversations with others - conversations they might find themselves having in other classes. Our event gave students a facilitated foretaste of being in situations where they may be asked to speak on difficult issues - in a multicultural/inter-racial setting they are bound to find themselves in their other classes. 

The topics students came up with were racism, gender issues, sexual orientation, bullying/peer pressure, being mixed race, immigration, language diversity, racial profiling, Black Lives Matter, colonial mentality/colorism/internalized racism, and inter-religious understanding. 

We had to accommodate multiple rounds for high-interest topics such as racism, racial profiling, gender issues, and bullying/peer pressure. And we also tried to offer at least one session for the other topics. Not everyone got all three topics they requested, but we did our best to make sure everyone got at least two. 

The two other differences (not counting that our program was three hours long and the SDAWP version was 90 minutes) was that we were able to serve lunch, which allowed folks to talk informally, and our closing. We had enough time for participants to jot down a simple action plan vis-a-vis the event: What information do you need to deepen or broaden your understanding about the issues you spoke about today? With whom do you need to speak in your own classroom community within the next three days about one of the issues? With whom in your "outside world" might you want to dialogue about any of these issues?

After lunch, we asked students to share possible answers to their “action plan” and to poster sample responses. The director of professional development made some encouraging closing statements and we announced several ongoing and follow up activities that have already been in the making: a Black Lives Matter series and an off-campus retreat to name two.

Response was phenomenal. The biggest complaint was not having enough time (agreed!). The second most repeated comment was to have more activities like this one (you bet!). Here are few comments students from Umoja and Bayan communities wrote in their reflections on the day: 

  • When you had announced the activity we would doing on Thursday, and before the class had even started that day, I was already nervous and anxious because we were going to be with two different learning communities with new people, and we had to talk to each other about current issues.

  • At first, I thought the program would be an orientation where we would basically get to know one another, or so I thought. Then the title actually made sense to me Aha! 
  • What I got from [the event] was a sense of awareness of diversity and how our differences don't exactly draw us apart, but bring us together.
  • This exercise made me step out of my comfort zone and really think outside of the box [which] I typically don't do. 
  • It was funny how I learned that a lot of my table members from the other two communities said they rarely if not ever experienced racism as often as me and my classmates from the Umoja community because “they don't see color.” [They said they] were raised to see everyone as equal. I found it hard to believe because surely that couldn’t have been true. 
  • I wanna know more what other issues [the other communities] are struggling with and to  be aware to what is happening to the society . . .  I could do some research using social media because everyone is using this and maybe this will get me thoughts about their lives. 
  • I really liked that we all come from different areas and backgrounds and had different life experiences and were able to be open about real problems that most people kind of tip toeing around. I didn’t think I was going to share as much as I did but I actually felt pretty comfortable talking to the people in my groups.
  • Talking about this issues at the time kind of made me feel like taking action. I liked talking about these issues because otherwise [they] would just fly over my head. Talking . . . is a great way to spark up interest and have someone take action. I know one person in the whole group is going to take action because of what they were talking about today.
  • I think that was a pretty cool and interesting thing to be apart of. We did get to know one another from different communities, we saw/heard other point of view’s on different topics, and I actually enjoyed it. People who are usually quiet (including myself) voiced our opinions and it felt great. I’d like to do this again with different topics. 
So what should we, the organizers, do differently (because you know we are going to do repeat and revise this process)? I like how we had a couple of preparatory meetings prior to the actual event. I’d like that prep to be a little bit more formal, perhaps including more directed discussion (oral language development). Perhaps include a preliminary,low-stakes writing "event" (What do you expect or hope will happen? What are the benefits and risks of enlarging our conversation? Which of the communication agreements do you think are most important? What do you hope to find out about yourself and each other?). Perhaps we could craft the prep set writing events to lead to a full-on writing project. I suspect stronger prep sets that included more than merely polling and reading over guidelines would be more effective.

Thinking about a "full on" writing project, I wonder about providing short readings to students prior to the conversation - perhaps fact sheets, statistics, and short informational references pieces on our topics - would help generate stronger conversations. Doing so may help make the point that while their subjective experiences are important that even a small amount of context may help illuminate the issues. I also wonder about a stronger post activity debrief - perhaps something a week or two after to ask students, perhaps in our respective communities, what they think and feel about the event now.