Talking it Out
Students undergo a transformative experience through a retreat focused on dialogue and understanding
Riding a bus to scenic Estes Park, all sophomore Scott Romano could think about was the feeling of pulling out his fingernails.
Even that had to be less painful than the retreat he had signed up for and now somewhat dreaded.
“I came in thinking, ‘oh, God, what are we going to talk about? Am I going to have to share feelings?’” says Romano, an economics and international business double major. “There was a lot of tension. A lot of, ‘I’m not going to be able to open up to these people and share.’“
For the 27 students on the inaugural DU DialogUes retreat, insecurity and uncertainty seemed to be the only things they had in common. But they were prepared to spend the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend sharing, listening and understanding one another.
Over the course of the next 72 hours, the students of all backgrounds grew closer, laughing and crying together as they engaged in what is known as sustained dialogue. The task? Tackle 15 of the most divisive and most uncomfortable topics in society today – things like race, gender, religion, privilege and oppression. And do it without data, statistics or arguments.
You have to understand the person you’re talking to first and you have to understand you’re both equal no matter what. The opinions you hold are from experiences. And even if you value your experience more highly than someone else’s, you still have to understand that experiences, in a sense are all the same.
“It’s not your opinion about something, but what’s your life experience on a particular challenge?” says Erin Saxon, a program manager with Inclusion and Equity Education in the division of Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence (CLIE). “It’s great that you have this background or this coursework or a strongly worded opinion, but what is your living experience?”
Reaching a point where it was comfortable to share those experiences took time, says Rosie O’Connor, a student in the Graduate School of Social Work who served as a facilitator for the weekend. But when that moment happened, it was transformative, even for a more experienced dialoguer like herself.
“There is this trust and vulnerability there,” she says. “I think there was acceptance and support in my group, not competitiveness. It was: ‘I see you, I hear you, that’s your experience, that’s OK.’”
When a student of color on the retreat described the need to work harder than white students for similar success, “I was personally changed and moved by that perspective,” O’Connor says. “And it was because I had a deep, committed relationship to this person. It was so impactful for me that now I see in a way that I had not.”
For the first time, O’Connor was witnessing the concrete results of sustained dialogue: the relationship building, the stories and the experiences.
Still, many students left the retreat feeling unsatisfied, their conversations unfinished. Erin Saxon in CLIE says that’s the point. The dialogue is to be left open and continued.
DU DialogUes wants to keep that conversation going, with new events designed to carve out a different kind of space for talking. Beginning Monday, Feb. 12, different groups will convene to discuss ability, mental health and immigration. No expertise or even prior knowledge is necessary.
One of the greatest strengths of sustained dialogue is it’s not about what you can teach someone. It’s about how you live and what you’ve experienced. The thing that I feel like is so forefront about it is relationship building. It’s less about getting to a place where I’ll change your mind or you’ll change mine. We’ll get to an understanding.
It will likely feel different from the typical academic discussion or debate, Saxon says. There are no “winners.” Nor is the goal to convince anyone of anything or bring them to a particular side of an issue.
Scott Romano, the once-uncomfortable student, feels a sometimes-siloed campus could use the transformation he underwent.
“The things I learned, so many people can benefit from,” he says. “I think we have to break down the tension and animosity to realize that we’re all still students and we all have passions and we want to make the world a better place. There’s a place for everyone at the table. We have to recognize we’re all in this together.”