Scaling Just Mercy Dialogues from the High School to the Community
“Reflective Structured Dialogue is such a powerful and effective tool. All these people were able to engage in conversations about a topic that is pretty divisive in our community—but the structures and the design allowed them to do it with respect, with dignity, without compromising their own values and perspectives. There’s nothing else like it.”
Lynne Cote, School Librarian
Moved by the national conversation sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the Fall of 2020, Lynne Cote wanted to create a space for difficult conversations in Newburyport, MA, a predominantly white, mixed-income community where she serves as the high school librarian.
In some towns and cities, the magnitude of an undertaking like this would make it nearly impossible. Who would lead these conversations? Who would be invited to participate? How would the conversations be structured? Luckily for Lynne, the Newburyport Public School system had prepared for a moment like this.
Educators and students at both the high school and middle school had participated in a number of Essential Partners workshops, beginning in 2018, where they learned to design and facilitate dialogues across differences.
“One of the most important things I took away from this experience,” said Lynne, “was how important it is to have these skills and tools in your repertoire before something happens. If we had been starting from scratch, I don’t think we would have been able to create the large-scale community impact we did.”
Working with school administrators, teachers, and community partners, Lynne launched a community read initiative within the high school that spread across the entire town, inviting residents to read the popular book Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, and then come together for dialogue about the book, its topics, and their community.
A Conversation Led by the Schools
Leaning on the work she had done with Essential Partners, Lynne carefully designed six advisory lessons, 20–30 minutes each, that used a standard structure, communication agreements, and a single dialogic prompt followed by several other questions. For each unit, Lynne included a short video that aligned with the themes in the chapters covered as well as slide decks, guides, and lesson outlines for teachers.
At the high school, all students were invited to read the book and participate in advisory period dialogues. Students were given three options on how to engage with the story: read the original book or an abridged version adapted for young adults, listen to an audio book, or watch the film adaptation. Lynne also worked with teachers at the high school in each subject area to support a lesson connecting their subject to themes in the book delivered at the start of the event. Then, every two weeks, the school’s advisory period was devoted to the book.
“This is an incredibly important and consequential book for our community to be reading at this time,” said a Newburyport High School teacher. “I am extremely happy to see so many young people seriously engaging with Bryan Stevenson's work and the issues he is trying to shed light on. This has been a great journey so far—for me as well as my students.”
Teachers at both the Nock Middle School and the High School were eager to engage in a structured dialogue about the book as well. For them, Lynn and EP together produced a self-facilitated dialogue resource, allowing educators the flexibility to meet and discuss the book according to their availability.
After a successful series of school-based dialogues, Lynne hoped to move these conversations beyond the classroom so that students would be able to engage with educators, caregivers, business leaders, and trusted adults in the broader community about the book and its complex themes.
Scaling to the Larger Community
Lynne invited teachers from the middle and high schools to serve as the facilitators for a community-wide series of dialogues about Just Mercy. Eight local community groups supported the effort, helping engage a broad swathe of adult residents.
“It's amazing how vulnerable we all were willing to be with this group, sharing our personal experiences, thoughts and feelings,” said one participant. “You are to be commended for opening up this dialogue throughout the community. Thank you so much.”
Another participant made note of the Reflective Structured Dialogue tool itself. “The dialogue certainly exceeded my expectations. The facilitating system you used was spot on. It gave us time to consider the prompts, to write down our answers, and think about what others were saying. It was handled very respectfully and thoughtfully.”
Among the participants for that initial dialogue was Newburyport’s mayor, Donna Holaday. Impressed by the experience and sensing a greater potential for the format, Mayor Holaday requested that the town’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Alliance lead a broader program.
“I think we need to continue this work and these conversations,” said one educator. “Using a [dialogue structure] is so important and was very helpful.”
When the community read was finished, Lynne collaborated with the high school principal to offer a dedicated time for teachers to connect with each other about the experience. She called upon Essential Partners to help her design a dialogue process and questions for that purpose. Meanwhile, teachers at the elementary and middle schools who had participated in the community read contacted Lynne. They wanted help organizing a dialogue for teachers, in their schools, who had read the book as well.
Community-Led Innovations for Sustained Impact
At Essential Partners, our goal is to equip our partners with the tools they need to meet the needs of their community and to innovate and adapt the approach to new contexts.
Lynne exemplifies that ethos. Drawing on her training and supported by expert thought partnership when needed, Lynne was able to incorporate elements of Reflective Structured Dialogue throughout the community read program, creating a container that reduced the pressures of this polarized topic and invited people to truly hear one another.
“Reflective Structured Dialogue is such a powerful and effective tool,” said Lynne. “All these people were able to engage in conversations about a topic that is pretty divisive in our community—but the structures and the design allowed them to do it with respect, with dignity, without compromising their own values and perspectives. There’s nothing else like it.”
Newburyport’s Just Mercy initiative illustrates perfectly how EP’s Community of Practice can take ownership over their own programs and how RSD adapts to meet different needs.