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"˜Difficult Dialogues' and Communication for Social Change


As the discussion guide of the communication for social change process following this essay shows, development depends on our talking openly and honestly, even about controversial issues. These issues may be so sensitive that they create tension and sometimes even pit people against each other. How can we find common ground, a place to start airing our differences, listen respectfully to each other and begin working together to solve problems? Recently, Heidi Larson, a Consortium senior adviser, along with Consortium consultant Jim Hunt, facilitated a "Difficult Dialogue," one in a series taking place on university campuses across the United States. Larson writes about the process.

I envision a social welfare state and democracy that"˜s not profit striving. It cares about people's wellbeing rather than privatising people's wellbeing.

Student at Clark University to the question:
"What kind of place do we want to live in?"

Recently, communication for social change was the topic for a session that was part of a Clark University "Difficult Dialogue" programme. Clark is one of 27 academic institutions in the United States that received a Ford Foundation grant to run a two-year programme of training and events to encourage dialogue across differences. The purpose of the Ford grant was to address a climate of perceived growing "separation and silence" about differences on campuses across the United States.

After the students and faculty in the session learned about the principles of communication for social change, they chose two areas to focus on for dialogue. One group talked about AIDS, particularly the issue of HIV testing. The other group focused their dialogue on governance issues.

The larger group decided on a set of norms for the discussions. They agreed that respect and trust were two key principles. Other norms were "sharing the time," "saving space for those who talk less," "letting go of your own views" and "listening."


I sat in the governance group, where the focus was a result of its timing"”the day before the U.S. midterm elections. Their concerns included endangered civil liberties, lack of government transparency and an increasing stifling of differences of opinion opened the discussion. One student captured the current political environment in the United States as distinctly "un-American," characterized by silent dissent. Others commented on the lack of accountability by government in such areas as healthcare, where it "passes the torch" to insurance companies.

The environment was another area in which the group said the government should be supporting rather than draining. "What are the priorities?" one asked. "The choice seems to be oil over the environment."

Others were frustrated by financial realities, such as many students' inability to afford law school or medical school. "If you want to go to law school or medical school, to go into a more humanitarian or non-profit career, it's almost impossible," one student complained. "You almost have to go into corporate work for awhile, just to be able to pay back your graduate school loans."

The question: "Who leads the government?" emerged as another area of concern." It shouldn't be only those who have a lot of money (and can afford to campaign for elections). It should be a more open process of participation."

A number of models of participation were explored, from the Native American model of "counsel," in which community members sit in a circle, to the Ba'hai model, in which people take a consultative, consensus-based approach to governance. "In short," one student concluded, "power structures need to be flipped to be more community-driven."

Who Participates"”and How?
Having established the importance of a community-driven, participatory process, two questions emerged: "Who should be participating?" And "What are the best media for capturing and sharing people's voices?"

"Participation needs to be encouraged in areas where it tends to be ignored, such as among the poor and homeless," was one comment. "People need to be engaged at all levels," said another participant.

But how?

The comments ranged from: "[We] need to use as many media as possible," to: "The national media have too much power and control. [We] need grassroots media" and "[we] need to start at earlier ages, make [communication] courses available from high school, even middle school."

In addition, one participant said: "Someone needs to call the shots. It can't all be consensus."

But, then again, isn't that the reason for developing a capacity for difficult dialogues?

Communication for Social Change? Or Dialogue Only for Dialogue's Sake?

When the two dialogue groups rejoined each other and looked back at the difficult dialogue process, there were mixed views.

The question was raised, "Did we articulate a vision (for change)?"

The AIDS group felt they had failed to come up with any conclusive actions to take, but at least they had created a space for discussion on a difficult issue.

The governance group had shared their views on what they envisioned as good governance and had an opportunity to vent some frustrations, but they also did not wrap up with a consensus on specific actions to take.

One participant pointed out that the CFSC model is driven by a motive for social change and needs a groundswell of people rallying around a common cause, while the difficult dialogue process is particularly important in situations where there are different goals and visions that must be negotiated or shared but may not have a social change motive.

The question then arose as to whether dialogue necessarily needs to be outcome-oriented.

The answer was summed up in an exchange between two students. One commented that, in the dialogue on AIDS, "We talked about a lot of issues, but it was too muddled."

On the other side of the room, another student concluded, "It's okay to be muddled. Dialogue is about different views."

In the end, the "difficult dialogue" evolved into a question of where to draw the line between dialogue "for the sake of dialogue" (among those who, otherwise, would be silent), and dialogue for the sake of change.

But, ultimately, all open and inclusive dialogue, by its nature, is bound to produce social change.

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