Watson, a SESP junior, was a member of a task force created by Lesley-Ann Brown, director of campus inclusion and community. Last spring, Watson and other task force members piloted five groups in the Sustained Dialogue model. This Fall Quarter, nine groups, including one designed for members in Greek life, meet weekly to discuss diversity-related issues at Northwestern.
What is the Sustained Dialogue program?
Sustained Dialogue is a group on campus that is part of a larger, national network that is on various other campuses. The idea of Sustained Dialogue originated with a peacekeeping process. The founder of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue was a government official who developed this system where people from different backgrounds would get together on a regular basis and discuss issues of difference that affected them.
Over time, because of that prolonged interaction with each other, you build trust, you break down barriers and you move to action at the end from people who wouldn’t normally interact. It was used as a peacemaking tool in foreign policy and later to create the Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, which Northwestern is now a part of.
What can participants expect from the dialogue groups?
We bring together eight to 15 students who meet once a week for an hour and a half with two student co-moderators. The idea is, you talk to people you would normally never interact with on campus.
Sustained Dialogue operates with the “big eight of identity,” which are ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, ability and religion. Most of the things we discuss will fall in those categories, but we don’t set it up to say “today we’re talking about race.” We try to tailor it to the experience of people in the group. We touch on all of these issues, but in a way that is central to Northwestern.
Why bring the program to Northwestern? What need did you see Northwestern could fulfill?
My freshman year, two years ago, there was a barrage of racial and bias incidents on campus. I asked myself where do I talk about issues of diversity? In the Black House, with other black people. Do you know what I mean? Northwestern is a very self-segregated campus, we tend to talk with people who look and think just like us. We saw a need for a controlled but open space for students to discuss hard issues. We did some research about different spaces on campus, and there weren’t any for students to talk who don’t normally do so…. There was no place where you could have someone from Interfraternity Council, Panhellenic Association, South Asian Student Alliance, For Members Only, Associated Student Government and Dance Marathon all at the same table discussing issues about our campus.
You attended the Sustained Dialogue National Conference at Harvard University last year. What did you learn from that experience?
A lot of schools in the Sustained Dialogue Network are having very similar issues to Northwestern. We all have these very bright students who don’t know how to talk to each other. Going to Harvard was [a chance to see] we aren’t alone. The schools with established chapters showed us change is possible. Princeton and Harvard have documented data of progress from students with regard to interacting with people from different groups.
After my freshman year, dealing with everything, there were some times where it felt really hopeless to be on this campus. I have no problem saying that. But, this is something that makes me really hopeful for Northwestern.
What are your hopes for the program?
I think a lot of Northwestern students are not anti-diversity or anti-inclusion. I think a lot of the reason we don’t talk about these issues is we think we’re past them and we’re an enlightened university who doesn’t have problems like these. People don’t have the language or the space to discuss these issues. Sustained Dialogue fills a need for a place to express any feelings students may have in a safe and controlled space. Hopefully, they will go home and talk to their roommate about it. It has the potential to change the campus climate.