People in conversation

A Personal Practice

Chloe Berwind-Dart

Nigeria is not neutral terrain. The Nigeria I know is the people I care about, over a dozen of whom recently gazed back at me from their seats in a hotel conference room. Muslims and Christians, women and men, participants converged from across the country, looking interested, curious, nervous. This was the final phase of a professional exchange program I'd originally helped coordinate during grad school. Public Conversation Project's own Dave Joseph invited me to co-lead a final workshop for the group here in Abuja. Topic: designing and facilitating interfaith dialogue.

There was only one problem. My confidence was faltering. Just days before our workshop, violence ripped through the city of Jos again, unrest believed to be partly faith-based. The very real responsibility that arrives with all my grad school training settled around me like gravity.

Does every budding practitioner have this moment? There are no more practice rounds just as you're gripped by the certainty that what you need most is more practice.

Facing our Fellows, I blinked, and something unexpected happened. My own uncertainties were supplanted by those written all over the faces of participants gazing back at me.

From the look of it, Dave and I had a lot of questions to answer.

So for two days, we created space for workshop participants to help each other find their own answers, a task complicated by layers of concern and tension that arise in a conflict context. Intergroup wariness is resurrected with remarkable ease despite cross-faith friendships. And basic disagreements, such as the precise role of religion in a particular dispute, take on new urgency.

Almost inevitably, impatience sets in. Shouldn't we be discussing politics, poverty, unemployment? Leaders, they're so powerful. What can someone like me really do? Maybe we don't have time to talk about talking unless this dialogue model can guarantee good outcomes. What results can this model promise?

As Dave and I managed the workshop, I remembered that answering every question wasn't my job. Neither was being an expert. The expert in the room was the dialogue model and only our time together would determine its promise and offer us answers.

Still, as we moved among participants those two days trying to let the process speak for itself, I hoped that participant experiences reflected some of what I saw.

I saw people practicing positive engagement. I saw a diverse group of young professionals managing their emotions, thoughtfully framing questions, listening to understand, finding a path to resilience through dialogue where there was once only a blind alley of frustration.

However profoundly personal Nigeria may feel to me, I'm a guest in this house, as fortunate to be trusted with the moments of impatience as I am to witness even the smallest shifts toward resilience.

For my workshop colleagues, this is home. It's shared space crisscrossed by opportunities to divide and opportunities to connect. We chose to spend two days connecting through dialogue. As responses go, that strikes this guest as pretty inspiring: you are the answer you seek.


Chloe Berwind-Dart is Director of the Cherish Foundation, Katsina, Nigeria