A new program has emerged at Harvard with the goal of engaging students from across campus in open communication concerning diversity and individual difference.
Sustained Dialogue, which launched last month, is composed of six groups of 10 to 12 undergraduates who signed up early in the semester to meet every week for an hour to talk about how issues such as class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality affect people at Harvard and beyond.
Harvard’s Sustained Dialogue board co-director Carola A. Cintron-Arroyo ’12, says that students have worked with administrators this year to start the Harvard branch of the national Sustained Dialogue Campus Network, which already includes 13 colleges and was started in 2002 by the International Institute for Sustained Dialogue.
“Sustained Dialogue is a student-led initiative to help people become aware of the campus’s social climate and challenge it,” says Cintron-Arroyo, who is also an intern at The Harvard Foundation. “We aim to break down barriers that people are often uncomfortable approaching.”
THE PROGRAM’S BEGINNING
The program began in response to Community Conversations, a required small group discussion during freshman week in which first-years engage in dialogue with peers and faculty on assigned readings that address key themes of identity or diversity, according to Assistant Director of The Harvard Foundation Loc V. Truong.
“We were hearing from a lot of freshmen who said having that kind of conversation during the first week is very intense, but that’s the only time ever that the college organizes for students to sit and have these conversations,” says Truong, who spearheaded the program with Assistant Dean of Harvard College for Student Life Susan B. Marine and Director for Freshman Programming Katherine W. Steele, along with support from Deans Suzy M. Nelson and Evelynn M. Hammonds.
“We hope that the skills that students learn through their participation in Sustained Dialogue will be carried to their communities and workplaces post graduation from Harvard, and as a result, we will transform society into a place that is centered on open dialogue,” Nelson writes in an email.
BRIDGING DIFFERENCES, BREAKING STEREOTYPES
Truong says the one of the goals of Sustained Dialogue is to give people who are often stereotyped the opportunity to talk about how it feels to be pigeonholed into a certain label.
“There’s an opportunity for everyone to share the experiences and knowledge of what it feels like to be cast a certain way,” he says, referring to the weekly meetings. “Putting a real person to the stereotype is a powerful thing to make people change their minds.”
Sustained Dialogue participants represent a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, says Jessica M. Ch’ng ’12, a member of Sustained Dialogue and an intern at The Harvard Foundation. She notes that the program’s leaders have made an effort to recruit people with a range of experiences and opinions, but clarifies that participants are not expected to “represent” anybody or any particular social group.
“We realize that the labels we try to stick onto people never really adhere nicely or neatly, and that the stereotypes according to which we position, differentiate, or measure ourselves are more like myths anyway,” Ch’ng says. “As student leaders—and moderators and participants—we each increasingly find our own preconceived notions challenged.”
SPREADING THE MESSAGE
In addition to creating spaces for groups to interrogate stereotypes and engage in discussion amongst themselves, leaders of the program express their hope that Sustained Dialogue’s intent of promoting open communication will gain campus-wide reach.
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