“The world may be flat as Friedman (2006) wrote, for the corporate elite, but for the rest of us— the -workers, the teachers, the wage-earners, those of us without stock options, lobbyists—the world is as round and inhibiting as ever.” Paul Gorski
In 2009, I hosted a Round Table dialogue in Harlem which brought together a group of educators to discuss the question: How can we bring together people across race and class to work together for change in education policy and practice? The dialogue included a reading and text-based discussion about an article written by Van Jones, Civil Rights Advocate and winner of the 2008 Puffin/Nation prize for Creative Citizenship. I was very interested in how this diverse group of people from various social networks would interact with each other in this unique space with an open-ended, exploratory task in front of them. Several insights surfaced as a result of this dialogue that I’d like to revisit today. Perhaps you might find these points salient in your own work as you try to build authentic professional relationships when conflicts rooted in race, class, religion & equity are hot topics found daily on the front page.
One of the first insights is grounding conversations about diversity and equity in a text is a powerful tool. Responding to a piece of research or literature keeps participants focused on the key issues and it provides an outside voice. This outside voice becomes a resource from the field that can offer a different perspective that the group might otherwise miss but is critical to the topic at hand. Even with the best intentions, dialogues about diversity and equity can easily go astray without the right grounding.
Second, taking the time out to have a face-to-face dialogue has purpose and value especially now when it’s so easy to meet on-line. The digital age can make the world feel small and accessible but it can also create socio-emotional distance and a false sense of neutrality. There is no such thing as neutrality in authentic dialogues about diversity and equity because this topic involves our sense of self, our understanding of the world and others and equity is about the unequal distributions of resources. That means, authentic conversations of this nature will inevitable result in a visceral response. Trust is required in order to get at the real issues that drive diversity and equity policy and practice and participants need to feel that they can disrupt the silence and declare the elephant in the room. This messiness is necessary which is why we call them courageous conversations. It was Nietzsche who said, one must have chaos in order to give birth to a dancing star. Face-to-face dialogue communicates a deep commitment to the work because it requires more time and investment from the participants and the sponsor of the dialogue itself. It also creates the the conditions for non-verbal energies to be shared. Although not impossible, this important element of authentic relationship building can be tricky to manufacture over the computer.
Thirdly, the coming together of a really diverse group of people spanning different networks, fields, titles, races, classes, ages, genders and so on, is a rare and valuable experience. More often than not we interact with those who have a similar world view, work status, field of study or social group. How often do we have the opportunity to talk intimately around a table with a group of folks who only have that one purpose (the dialogue!) in common? If you can create this mixed group, you will see a powerful dynamic emerge. But beware. People bring their identities into the room and often we err on trying to ignore or downplay these unspoken political alliances, privileges or affinities. In order for mixed groups to engage authentically for a common purpose, each individual needs to explicitly acknowledge his or her role in society and how that might impact how they see the world and their relationship to others in the room. Doing this alone can help the group transcend real world roles and engage authentically.
It has been seven years since that round table dialogue and unfortunately, I’ve not seen much change with regards to equity in the field of education. Some might even argue that things have gotten worse. Segregated schools & communities are the norm in most states which translates into egregious conditions for some and extreme wealth and access for others. Thankfully I have noticed a growing body of scholarship that speaks out on the need to focus on the process rather than on content. In other words, it’s not what you know, it’s how you communicate with others and develop innovative ways to solve problems. If we are ever going stop this cycle of disparities in education, we need to engage with each other differently in the work place. It’s the everyday practices that define us and give us insight into what it means to be conscientious in today’s society. Educators are hungry for authenticity. Paul Gorski describes our current state of being as something of a continuum between compliance and complicity. If he is correct, then there is an urgent call to be daringly different.
 Gorski, P (2008) Good intentions are not enough: a decolonizing intercultural education. Intercultural Education, 19:6, 515-525