U.Va. Group Learns About Transformative Power of Dialogue

This July, a half-dozen University of Virginia students and their faculty adviser went to a special kind of summer camp, where they were challenged to “listen deeply enough to be changed by what you hear.”

That’s the motto of the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue, which oversees a network of campus groups that seek to tackle social issues by meeting weekly for results-oriented dialogue aimed at building relationships around topics such as race, class, gender and faith while simultaneously addressing pressing needs in their communities.

U.Va. has been a member of the institute’s Sustained Dialogue Campus Network since 2001, only the second university to join the fledgling national organization. The group intends to spread the word on Grounds about what they learned at the program held at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

U.Va. was one of 14 schools invited to participate in the inaugural PULSE Institute, a college retreat designed to explore identity, leadership and inclusion and sponsored by the national institute. PULSE, which stands for “perspective, understanding, leadership, sustained and exchange,” is the latest addition to Sustained Dialogue’s work on campuses to shape lifelong leaders and problem-solvers who will help build more inclusive environments on their campuses. The hope is that it will also prepare the students to tackle the challenges of a global 21st century beyond college.

The Sustained Dialogue Campus Network engages more than 40 campuses in seven countries, with 4,500 students and 4,000 alumni participating each year.

Lital Firestone, a second-year foreign affairs student, worked as a Sustained Dialogue intern and trained to be a PULSE coordinator before the July 20-25 retreat, which she said was incredibly rewarding.

“Not only did I truly learn how to embody SDI’s motto of ‘listening deeply enough to be changed by what you hear,’ but I also gained insight into the power of embracing someone else’s story and using that connection to rewrite my own,” Firestone said. “Participants were pushed to engage in constructive dialogue over sources of oppression and levels of privilege across several dimensions, including race, sexual orientation, gender, ability and socio-economic status.” 

She said the moderators built trusting relationships in smaller groups, “creating a safe space to debrief and begin a journey of self-exploration.”

Kate Travis, a fourth-year environmental sciences and economics double-major and Jefferson Scholar, has been active in Dialogue Across Grounds, a similar program started in 2010 by members of the U.Va. community that involves students, faculty and staff.

“I went into the institute with a mind to identify tools that would be useful in U.Va.’s Dialogue Across Grounds initiative, but unprepared for how compelling and transformational the experience would be,” she said.

“One of the most important parts of the conference was the safe, open space the moderators and directors set. Oftentimes, feelings of isolation arise from the simple and pervasive perception that one’s identity or thoughts aren’t welcome, and dialogue is a powerful way to change that. That’s something I want to emphasize in Dialogue Across Grounds this year. That, and the sharing of personal narratives.”

The U.Va. contingent’s faculty adviser, John Alexander, associate director of the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Technology Initiative, or SHANTI, and a member of Dialogue Across Grounds, said the U.Va. attendees will plan a retreat based on the PULSE model for facilitators and leaders of Sustained Dialogue and Dialogue Across Grounds, “so that we take the pulse of U.Va. and deepen our commitment to dialogue as a way to re-animate” the U.Va. dialogue programs.

Fourth-year student Mary Ann Robertson, who’s majoring in government and religious studies, joined Sustained Dialogue after hearing about it a few years ago from Travis and another member, Blake Calhoun, also a fourth-year student and a sociology major. Sydney Shivers, a graduate student in the Architecture School’s Urban & Environmental Planning program, also joined the students at the PULSE Institute.

“I was not only looking for a way to interact with other people in the community,” Robertson said, “but also I was looking to be more expressive of myself and my identity in an environment that I knew would be filled with empathy and great discussion.”

Harold H. Saunders, a former deputy secretary of state, first developed the Sustained Dialogue communications process 40 years ago to help ethnic factions in the former Soviet Union resolve conflicts. Saunders established the international institute to help other community organizations and colleges in the United States and worldwide form Sustained Dialogue groups.

“The PULSE retreat followed by the Sustained Dialogue process builds on our strengths at IISD and within our Campus Network,” Saunders said. He said the retreat aimed to galvanize relationships among the students and prepare them for making change back on their campuses. Current research, he said, demonstrates that an intense, immersive experience followed by sustained engagement is the best way to create attitudinal and behavioral change.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications