People in conversation

Conversation Starter: Difficult Dialogues Initiative

Jessica Weaver
Libby Roderick

Libby Roderick is an internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter, poet, activist, teacher, and lifelong Alaskan. She currently serves as the Director of the University of Alaska/Alaska Pacific University Difficult Dialogues Initiative.

1. How did you become involved with the Difficult Dialogues initiative?

In 2005, in response to tensions on campuses following 9/11, the Ford Foundation invited all accredited U.S. universities to apply for “Difficult Dialogues” grants. Ford’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative aimed to promote academic freedom and religious, cultural, and political pluralism on college and university campuses in the U.S. I became the Director at the University of Alaska Anchorage, largely due to my earlier career as a teacher and singer/songwriter touring the country offering concerts and workshops on issues related to social justice, diversity, and environmental awareness and action.

Presently, I serve as Vice President of the Board for the Difficult Dialogues National Resource Center, a nonprofit committed to advancing meaningful difficult dialogues practices in higher education in the U.S. Our first project at UAA was dedicated to equipping faculty to successfully introduce controversial issues into the classroom, including the launching of a “books of the year program.” We also received funding to introduce non-indigenous faculty to traditional Alaska Native “best practices” for teaching and learning as well as key difficult dialogues between indigenous and academic communities.

2. What are some of the dialogues you’ve been a part of through this program?

Because of the global nature of the Difficult Dialogues work, I’ve been involved in quite a wide variety of dialogues, including gun control, racial equity, gay marriage, evolution vs. creationism, climate change, indigenous issues, free speech on campuses, limiting the size of sodas, energy policy, the Patriot Act, and the unionization of state workers. Never a dull moment! In my next career (or lifetime), I plan to sign up for the Simple Monologues track. ☺

3. Where do you see the greatest need for difficult dialogues in higher education today?

From where I’m standing, the greatest need for difficult dialogues in higher education today revolves around the climate emergency and the future of our biosphere. Universities champion, promote and defend the importance of science to the outside world and recognize the teaching of logic and critical thinking as central to our mission. But when it comes to environmental issues, you’d almost think we were incapable of critical thinking ourselves.

And in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence that indicates an urgent need to educate our students in systems thinking, environmental literacy, renewable energies, and how to live in ways that will ensure their own survival, we’re continuing to function as if science (and the threats to life on earth) barely existed. We’ve got to find a way to quickly and effectively engage these issues on our campuses.

4. What have you seen work, or not work, in creating inclusive campus environments?

One of the things I have seen work in creating inclusive campus environments is diversifying university leadership. It’s very difficult to create truly inclusive environments for our students if most administrators and/or faculty come from a relatively homogenous group (similar race, age, class, gender, and so on). People see things very differently based on their position(s) within society, and diversifying the leadership helps universities perceive and address a much wider range of important issues affecting our students and communities. A diverse body of academic leaders and faculty can far more quickly identify and help transform discriminatory policies and practices in our institutions, as well as serve as role models for students, diversify the curriculum, and enlarge the institutional perspective on all issues. We obviously need to do far more to ensure that diversity truly moves into full equity and inclusivity, but this is one good step.

Questions for Everyday Conversations

1. What is your favorite tip/tool for promoting more open, constructive conversations?

My primary suggestion is one used by most dialogue facilitators: agree beforehand on how you will conduct the conversation. Agree to treat each other with respect, and to a few other simple things that clarify what respect looks like on the ground: e.g.: everyone gets roughly equal time to speak; criticize ideas not people; speak to be understood and listen to understand, and so on.

2. What in particular do you wish our society could have more constructive conversations about?

The climate emergency, ocean acidification and our relationship in general to our ecological life support systems. I also wish these conversations could be held with a deeper understanding of indigenous ways of being and teaching. Those frameworks are so revelatory, so filled with the shifts in consciousness desperately needed by those of us raised in the modern western capitalist paradigm. We urgently need to start examining and transforming our relationship to the earth because, as author and activist Naomi Klein says in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate, “natural law always trumps economic law.” Learning from and honoring indigenous frameworks, cultures, and attitudes can help us save ourselves.

3. What would you be most likely to be overheard in conversation about?

In my professional life, the conversations are mostly about equity and inclusion, indigenous issues and perspectives, faculty bullying, gun control, and other social issues. In my personal life, they tend to be about the creative process (which I view as an expression of spiritual development and which, as a singer/songwriter, I adore). And where we can find the best sources of comedy, theater, dancing, and music so I can get a break from thinking about and working on the climate emergency and keep myself in balance!

4. What’s the best conversation you’ve had this year?

What comes to mind is a conversation I’ve had recently around the question asked by “vulnerability” researcher and TED expert Brene Brown. She asked a wide range of people, “Do you think, in general, that people are doing the best they can?” This question interests me for many reasons.

I resonated deeply with Naomi Klein’s repeated question about humanity: “What is wrong with us?” Why, she asked, in the face of evidence suggesting a need to take immediate action to protect our biosphere, do we so often instead either bury our heads in the sand or, amazingly, accelerate our damaging behaviors? With any of our seemingly intractable social issues, why do we humans so often behave in self-defeating ways? I’ve spent years trying to figure out the answer to this question in order to shape more effective strategies for promoting life-affirming change.

Are we smart, creative, loving, innocent, inherently powerful creatures doing the best we can but unable to respond effectively? Or are we self-centered, weak, greedy? My own view is that we are inherently innocent and good, but burdened by generations of unacknowledged trauma and violence (from wars, dangerous migrations, poverty, etc.), which we are compelled to repeat on ourselves and one another until some kind of intervention releases us from that compulsion. And that we suffer from a profound experience of disconnection that can only be healed by actions based on courage, vulnerability, and love.