Round Table Dialogue: A Retrospective

A month has passed and this is not the first time I attempt to articulate and summarize what happened amongst a small group of 12 diverse participants who took a risk, flipped a switch, traveled to Harlem, 125th Street to talk about working together across race and class for change. Several things went wrong and yet the end result was extraordinary. It was a surreal experience that left each of us with the thirst for more. What does it mean to dialogue, this open ended inquiry that for no other purpose is to delve into the unexpected task of searching for truth, a group endeavor of sorts, as worthy as a treasure hunt albeit left incomplete?

In spite of staggered arrival times and an over ambitious task of sorting through several dense readings written from four different perspectives, the conjuring up of historical spirits to start set the tone for what would result in a curious, but tentative dialogue that in the very least managed to highlight some essential truths and critical questions. Since the process is of equal importance as the topic at hand, I will list the findings and divide them into two categories: “On the Art of Dialogue” and “On Working Together Across Race & Class for Change.”

On the Art of Dialogue

  1. While it has been well documented that “it is natural for groups to first experience a dialogue as a slow and inefficient way to discuss important issues,” the actual experience of this phenomena is by far more unnerving than expected especially if we compare dialogue to traditional modes of professional group activities, such as conferences or workshops. In the latter, conversation is dominated by explicit linear outcomes, time frames and data driven goals. Dialogue is non-linear, abstract, open-ended and is driven by intent and curiosity.
  2. Dialogue takes time, a mutual commitment to starting and ending on time, a safe space that respects flexibility when necessary.
  3. Connecting personal experiences in pairs before engaging in a whole group dialogue can facilitate trust.
  4. Grounding dialogue in a shared piece of literature is a powerful tool, however the selected piece can delimit the discussion if not chosen carefully. Participants should focus on one selection and should have plenty of time to digest the material before engaging.
  5. Face to face dialogue has purpose and value in our work and while dialogues can include on-line formats, it is essential that people commit to coming together in a shared physical space.
  6. It is a rarity to have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with such different people.

On Working Together Across Race & Class for Change

  1. It is worthy to mention that class was the dominant variable in the dialogue. Are we more united by class experiences rather than race & cultural experiences?
  2. The question of whether activism is a luxury was raised: Who can afford to be an activist these days? Who has the time to sit around and “contemplate” the green movement, for example?
  3. Sustaining activism and change movements are historically expensive. Movements differ depending on who is leading the movement – marginalized people or the upper class? If we are to change education policy, how can we unite public and private interests?
  4. Who is ultimately responsible for the state that we are in with regards to our environment? With regards to a faulty education system? Do the poor and disenfranchised have equal responsibility in fixing up the mess that “they” have imposed on them? What about capitalists and corporations?
  5. We need “ordinary people” to be part of any movement if it is going to really change things. Can “ordinary people” afford to participate? We need to re-think what it means to be part of a movement.
  6. People have a tendency of grouping people together under labels – the rich, the poor, Asians, etc. How can we identify key patterns of inequality while also understanding there is inter-group diversity?
  7. Change is contingent upon the majority of people feeling directly impacted by a problem. How does the education system directly impact the majority? Do we need the majority if a small group of private interests dictate policy and have the advantage of capital?
  8. “Survival” is at the heart of any big movement for change. Is it survival of the fittest or is it survival of our species?

Several people have contacted Real World who would have wanted to participate in the dialogue but could not make it out to New York City. Others have since contacted me regarding scheduling another dialogue to keep the momentum going. The experience is new and inviting and the participants unanimously agreed that it was only a first step and that the topic is worthy of further exploration.

Towards planning the next dialogue, whether it be on line or at a location in NYC, please contact info@realworldpd.org if you are interested in registering. Please specify if you would be interested in a session in the late Spring 2009 or the early Fall 2009 and if you would consider registering for a dialogue on line. Real World is in the process of moving so please be patient over the next couple of weeks for the website to be updated with further information regarding this planning.

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