An Independent School • Grades 5-12
Using dialogue to connect across difference

by Jamie Asaka, director of equity and inclusion/director of student and family support

If you follow the news, it’s pretty clear that Americans today are having a harder and harder time talking across difference. But being able to engage with people who hold different identities — genders, ethnicities, national origins, sexual orientations — is of deep importance. When it comes to topics where values are at play, there is an extra element of challenge. It can be especially tough for students to navigate because they are still defining their values and practicing articulating them to others.

As educators, we have a responsibility to intentionally model and teach students how to talk across difference. It’s particularly important here at Lakeside, because there may be fewer natural opportunities, located as we are in a politically and socially progressive city. Through the Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism (AIM) that we completed in 2015, we heard from students that talking across difference was challenging at Lakeside, especially related to differences of religion, politics, gender, and sexual orientation. That finding, and others, worked its way into our equity and inclusion initiative, Our Work Together. Goal three of Our Work Together is that “students, employees, and families are empowered to bring their full selves to Lakeside School and actively build relationships with people who are different from themselves.”

This past summer we started a new project related to this work: a training program for administrators, faculty, and staff focused on facilitating intergroup dialogue. It’s critical to understand the difference between dialogue, discussion, and debate. In the training, we defined these three words in the following ways:

  • Debate is oppositional. It assumes that the goal is to win, and that there is one right answer. A participant listens to find weaknesses and amplifies differences. Debate solidifies self versus other.
  • Discussion sees one’s view as one of many and assumes an “equal playing field” with no attention to identity, status, or power. A participant listens to be able to insert their own perspective.
  • Dialogue is a collaborative effort, where participants are working together for a common understanding. Engaging in dialogue means a participant is listening for understanding and is open to change. 

In a traditional academic setting, we often use debate and discussion to explore topics. But through the training, we learned how dialogue is critical to creating a culture and climate of inclusion. In a June training, and in a second training in October, we grew our understanding and developed our skills facilitating intergroup dialogue. Coming up, our trainers will be working with the history and English faculty at both the Middle and Upper schools. 

This type of work can be implemented quickly in the classroom. A few days after the October training, Upper School English teacher Mal Goss shared with me, “I got to use some of those new skills in class … I taught my 11th grade class just after Jackson Katz's talk, and it was clear they were itching to debrief. Thinking about reflecting back to them what I was hearing and checking my body language in response to what students were saying was definitely on my mind as I facilitated, but I felt like the students came away feeling like they'd gotten a chance to voice their opinions and everyone felt heard (though it definitely got a little heated in the room!).”

At the Middle School, teacher Yvette Avila has been sharing intergroup dialogue facilitation techniques with her fellow personal development faculty. “Each meeting we unpack some of the concepts I learned at the training,” she shared with me. “How did we respond when a hot spot [things that people say or do that overwhelm you with negative emotions] came up in the classroom? How do we become aware of our ‘cold spot,’ or blind spot — something we do that affects others negatively without knowing or intending it, because you’re inconsistent in your awareness of your own set of privileges?” Among the people we’ve trained, there is agreement that using the techniques is a way to get to know each other better, listen more actively, and strengthen our community. 

Students will experience facilitated intergroup dialogue in our new Upper School interfaith and spirituality affinity group, which just launched with 28 students. With the support of faculty/staff advisors Todd Kresser and Zinda Foster, they’ll be using dialogue skills to explore religious identity and difference.

My hope is that students will begin to feel the impact of having facilitated dialogue and get to practice engaging across difference in a way that builds understanding, relationships, and trust. It’s also my hope that Lakeside can provide opportunities for our entire community to practice some of these skills so that we can model how to engage across difference in a healthy way.

In a healthy democracy, we need to be able to participate in intergroup dialogue — to respectfully listen, learn, question, and respond. As we fully move into an election year, there are some fascinating topics to discuss: health care, homelessness, immigration, and climate change are just a few. All things that our students care about and that touch their lives. For each topic, there are so many different lenses with which to view them. We have a lot of opportunities for our kids to explore topics and potentially come up with new ways of thinking about them and creating a new way of life. Maybe in one of these conversations a seed might be planted that could change the world.