Image via Northeastern University Honors Program

Students Explore Global Citizenship Through Dialogue

The Challenge

For years, Northeastern University has been focused on educating its students in the ways of global citizenship. But what does it mean to be a global citizen? For the Center of Spirituality, Dialogue, and Service, the definition hinges on promoting engagement across differences and identities – within the Northeastern community, in Boston, and across the world. To accomplish that ambitious goal, Northeastern wanted to educate its own community about how to communicate across differences.

From 2014-2015, Public Conversations and Northeastern developed a program called “Navigating Difficult Dialogues,” which offered students and staff the opportunity to incorporate dialogue and facilitation skills into their academic and personal lives. In the past, Northeastern – like many large diverse schools around the country - had struggled with conflicts around Israel/Palestine, religious pluralism, and American involvement in the Middle East. A university with a significant Muslim population, staff had been facilitating discussions between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as other conversations bridging religious and racial identity. As the opportunity and need for constructive conversations around difficult issues continued to rise, Northeastern committed to fostering more fruitful conversations on campus across differences.

The Action

Public Conversations trained facilitators for two days, leading staff and administrators through a structured dialogue process and teaching them techniques for inviting curiosity and self-reflection. The training covered how our own neurobiology, habits of interpersonal communication, and dynamics of community polarization create breaches in relationship that structured dialogue helps knit back together. Part of the training leads the group through its own dialogue about inclusion and exclusion in their community, giving people a chance to try on these new forms. The group then quickly put their skills to use getting to experience the role of a facilitator in introducing and setting the frame for a dialogue, learning how to design and test dialogue questions, and intervening when participants veer from the agreements.

Following that initial session, the group brainstormed other issues in need of more constructive dialogue on campus. Practitioners John Sarrouf and Liz Lee Hood also trained almost 250 Residential Advisors (RAs), who occupy a unique campus role in guiding underclassmen through conflicts and other challenges with transitioning and adjusting to a new environment. Thanks to the training, RAs, the eyes and ears of the community, could identify circumstances where dialogue would be useful. As conveners, the training positioned RAs working with students to recognize the need for and possibility of dialogue as a change mechanism in their community.

The Shift

The training evolved into a key component of Northeastern’s emerging Difficult Dialogues program. Since first working with our partners at Northeaster, Public Conversations has offered follow-up training and helped key administrators strategize about how to address emerging conversations on campus, including topics such as around socioeconomic class and whiteness. Said one resident assistant (RA), “As a pharmacy major, I do not receive much training on how to handle difficult or controversial conversations. I think that this training will help me not only in my duties as a resident assistant, but in discussing medications and therapies with future patients when the conversation becomes difficult.

A student: “The workshop introduced me to new ways of thinking about dialogue… The most significant thing for me was learning how to ask for more information rather than trying to persuade a person to think differently. I also learned helpful dialogue tips, which are more effective during difficult conversations…. If I encounter a difficult dialogue with any of my residents, I plan on using the techniques I learned in this workshop to facilitate those talks.”

Echoing what is at the heart of Public Conversations’ work, an RA added, “The most significant thing I learned was how different ways of approaching conversations can make a big difference.”

Practitioner perspective

What was most exciting about this project for me as a trainer was the wealth of skills and variety of places in the university that this work is being located. The team at Northeastern has pulled together folks from residential life, diversity, spirituality, and others to build as widespread a program as possible. This work thrives when it is embedded as core practice and can make the biggest culture shift when students experience it multiple times on multiple topics.

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