For a weekend this past November, I got to do a very meaningful thing. I got to run a dialogue program in Arkansas.
My history with the state is complicated. I was born there, but moved when I was two. I have visited most years of my life, but only really engaged with my family while there. That changed during the weekend in November. I learned more about the state where I was born, I learned more about its people, and myself, and this practice with which I am deeply in love: dialogue.
My reunion came about when Seeds of Peace partnered with the Clinton Foundation for a two-day workshop at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. The intensive workshop was just the first part of the larger “Ideas Matter” program. Fifteen high schoolers and 15 educators came together to explore difficult issues they face. Through dialogue sessions, this group built meaningful relationships across lines of difference and learned new skills to help them create more inclusive communities. The 30 participants will soon gather again to identify the discussion topic for the inaugural Ideas Matter Student Forum, which will take place in March.
I want to share two moments that stuck with me about this brave group of people—and what those moments say about how we can come together to navigate conflict.
The first was early in the workshop, when the youth participants pulled together two tables that initially broke them apart to make one giant youth table. It always feels like a miracle to watch a community form. We live in a moment where our relationships are extremely mediated: by social media and the internet, by TVs and movies, by bureaucracy, by corporations. There is something ancient and holy about a group of people sitting in a circle and talking about things that are real and that matter in their community.
Tapping into this part of ourselves ignites something in us. It feels exciting and disorienting to suddenly find yourself feeling seen and heard and cared for by a community that did not exist the previous day. This, ultimately, is one of dialogue’s primary sources of power. Communication is unmediated in a way that feels both totally foreign to the world we live in and, somehow, inexplicably, like home.
Of course, the participants started out conflict-averse and nervous, especially in the joint educator-student dialogue sessions. That’s normal for groups forming for the first time. It’s nerve-wracking to agree to navigate uncharted waters with people you don’t know. These nerves were heightened by the riskiness of engaging in honest, vulnerable dialogue across the very explicit power dynamic that exists between educators and youth.
The second moment that moved me was the group’s grappling with how to allow the teacher-student relationship to shift in the ephemeral space we created, knowing they would return to the adult-youth power dynamics inherent in each of their schools. Eventually, their nerves gave way to brave and deep sharing, both in the joint adult-youth space and separate adult- and youth-only spaces.
At first, the joint group was faced with a seemingly intractable decision: stick to their old roles and rules or be completely open with each other. They settled on two group norms to guide the dialogue session: first, to lean into the discomfort and, second, be honest about their limits. By taking this step back and discussing what needs they were trying to meet together, the group opted not to try to decide on a solution, but instead to hold the tension. Rather than try to resolve that tension from the outset, they acknowledged it and codified it into their group norms.
And this leads to an insight on how we all can better navigate conflict. It can be tempting to over-determine what a given solution will look like and then, when faced with opposition, to declare the conflict intractable and the relationship unworkable. But this example shows us it’s possible to begin moving through conflict even as the solution is being worked out. We don’t have to agree on a solution to begin working together, to begin exploring the sources and impact of our conflict, to begin searching for a way out, together.
The participants came with a lot of different expectations for the workshop. At the end of it, some told me they were surprised by how emotional the dialogue sessions became, and that they were now more aware of how emotions motivate decision-making. Some people said the workshop showed them that they weren’t as alone as they thought. One person called it a revelation.
I hope something they all took away was an affirmation of what brought them to the Clinton Center in the first place: the strong sense that coming together to form a new community, to work through so many lines of division, and make a space for true dialogue, is transformative—and that they don’t need to know the answers to start the conversation.
Greg Barker is the Manager of Facilitation Programs at Seeds of Peace. For more information about our partnerships and services, contact Kyle Gibson at firstname.lastname@example.org.