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Sustained Dialogue Develops Campus Presence

By D. SIMONE KOVACS, Crimson Staff Writer

Conversations turn to action with the student group Sustained Dialogue, part of an international organization that encourages discussions at 16 college campuses worldwide.

Harvard’s chapter of Sustained Dialogue was started in 2010 in response to Community Conversations, small group discussions held for freshmen during Opening Days that address themes of identity and diversity.

Since the Harvard network was founded, about four groups of 8 to 12 people have met each week to talk about their personal experiences and views on issues, such as identity, race, sexuality, and mental health.

In the past year, Sustained Dialogue has expanded its presence on campus by co-hosting events with many other organizations as well as implementing their own action projects, intended to turn conversations into concrete change.

LEADING THE DIALOGUE

The umbrella organization for Sustained Dialogue supports the Harvard campus network by training two moderators for each group.

The moderators are taught to guide their group, synthesize what has been talked about each week, and make sure that dialogue does not become combative.

“We go through great lengths to distinguish between debate, dialogue, and discussion. We push people to speak through their experiences,” said Ekene I. Agu ’13, one of the founding members of Harvard Sustained Dialogue.

The moderators are trained during Labor Day weekend for two days, eight hours a day. They learn to ask good questions, to encourage productive dialogue, and to teach their groups key phrases that will help them remember to let everyone speak.

“We have certain phrases. You don’t necessarily have to use them, but, for example, ‘Step up, step back’ is one of them,” said Ari M. Albanese ’15, a moderator.

‘Step up, step back’ means that people in the group should speak up, but should also be conscious if they are talking too much and should let others speak, Albanese said.

“It’s basically just a little phrase to help people remember to share the floor, but also participate,” Albanese said.

Because of their trained moderators, many campus organizations have reached out to Sustained Dialogue to help them moderate conversations between different student organizations.

During Harvard’s second annual Sex Week, Sustained Dialogue co-moderated an event about the relationship between race, culture, and expectations of sexual behavior with Sexual Health and Education Advocacy throughout Harvard College.

A FOCUS ON MENTAL HEALTH

While the groups have talked about everything from racial clustering on campus to students’ socioeconomic statuses, the topic of mental health has become central in a number of dialogues.

“A huge thing that comes up every semester is mental health—people feeling very isolated on campus and feeling a lot of pressure and being unable to identify where the pressure is coming from,” Agu said.

Agu said at Harvard students feel pressure not to show stress or weakness and instead to maintain a busy schedule like many others do.

“[Mental health is] tied to so many things,” said Judy Park ’14, a co-director and moderator. “It gets down to what Harvard culture is.”

Gabriella R. Malatesta ’13, the publicity co-chair for the organization, compared the atmosphere at Harvard to the Stanford duck syndrome, which compares Stanford students to a duck that looks calm on the surface of the water, but underneath is frantically paddling to stay afloat.

“There can be an atmosphere here in which everyone is saying ‘I’m fine’ and everyone’s really busy and we’re all kind of stressed, but, if you do express that to other people, do you feel awkward doing it?” Malatesta said.

She said that that dialogue comes up often in her group and noted that this type of dialogue is how Harvard’s social atmosphere can be changed.

“Every single day, you learn something personal about the people in your group,” Malatesta said. “It’s great that the change builds out of that.”

INSTIGATING CHANGE

After a couple months of dialogue, each group hopes to plan and implement an action project to put in place before the end of the semester. The action project is meant to address some issue that has come up in the course of dialogue and initiate change.

Last spring, one group did a “Destereotype Me Day,” in which they wore shirts that said a stereotype on the front and a statement that challenged that stereotype on the back.

For example, one participant wore a shirt that said “I am a legacy” on the front and “I am on financial aid” on the back.

Another group last semester organized a mini project during finals week. They hosted a study break and had students write anonymous words of encouragement on note cards. The cards were then placed in a box in Mather dining hall with a sign that read “Stressed? Take one.”

While this semester’s groups have yet not begun talking about what they plan on doing for their action project, Herman K. Bhupal ’16, a first year participant said she would like to see her group do a project relating to identity and first interactions.

“People assume so much about someone when they meet someone, but they don’t really get to know them,” Bhupal said.

Bhupal envisions a project that would deconstruct the image of meeting someone by asking them non-standard questions.

“Instead of asking ‘Oh, where are you from?’—anything that would dig deeper into that, getting people to connect right off the bat as opposed to a verbal factsheet,” Bhupal said.

Albanese said that regardless of the projects, the dialogue that the organization provides creates an important space on campus for these types of conversations.

“Talking, even if you don’t get an action project, is really important and healthy,” Albanese said. “I wish there was more of an emphasis put on that in this community.”

—Staff writer D. Simone Kovacs can be reached at dkovacs@college.harvard.edu.

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