John Alexander, associate director of the University of Virginia’s Sciences, Humanities and Art Network of Technological Initiatives – better known as SHANTI – wrote the winning entry in the Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest, co-sponsored by the Fetzer Institute, in the Faculty/Staff/Administrator category. His essay, “A New, Completely Unfamiliar World,” was published last month in the Huffington Post.
Alexander wrote about attending a YMCA conference in 1968 when he was 17 and finding out how complicated the civil rights struggle really was.
“The YMCA conference opened with a presentation by the young, energetic and idealistic organizers working in the Y branch in the heart of a poor neighborhood in D.C.,” Alexander wrote. “And I, like the 40 other young attendees, eager, white, middle-class, were inspired by the stories, the rhetoric, and the sense of progress as these folks made a concrete difference for the working poor, struggling to improve their lives.”
The conference youth were so inspired, they asked to go to the site and see the community firsthand. The people there, however, did not appreciate their naivete and insisted that the group leave.
“I was in a new, completely unfamiliar world,” he wrote. “I am grateful to those community members, empowered and furiously angry, who cared enough to deliver that surprising, scary, gritty truth through their hostile, penetrating stares.”
There were three other categories for writers: for students of Sustained Dialogue, for the program’s alumni and “Dialogue at Large.” Each winner received $500, was honored at last month’s Sustained Dialogue Campus Network Conference and had their essays published on the Huffington Post.
The Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, an initiative of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, develops everyday leaders who engage differences as strengths to improve their campuses, workplaces and communities. The Fetzer Institute works to investigate, activate and celebrate the power of love and forgiveness as a practical force for good in today’s world, according to its website.