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College seeks to promote dialogue

| Thursday, November 7, 2019

Dialogue can be difficult to manage while still maintaining respect. However, by replicating the format of Conversation Cafes, an organization started in Seattle, Saint Mary’s has sought to find a way to engage students and promote productive dialogue. The President’s Council on Inclusivity and Multicultural Diversity along with the help of director of the Center for Women’s Intercultural Leadership, Mara Derakhshani and others helped to make this opportunity possible.

“Our hope is always to encourage mutual understanding and dialogue across difference to create a more welcoming and inclusive campus,” Derakhshani said.

There are specific rules and formats of Conversation Cafes designed to help make it successful. In the first two rounds of conversation every participant is welcome to talk, however participants pass around a talking object and are asked not to interrupt one another. In the last round, discussion is opened up to cross conversations for anyone to talk and share their opinions.

“In the Conversation Cafes, we are hoping to create a safe space where everyone feels free to express their perspective and feels listened to non-judgmentally.” Derakhshani said. “The goal is to foster respectful civil discourse and create a welcoming community for all.”

Director of the Office for Civic and Social Engagement Rebekah Go has advertised and helped students preregister for this event. This year there are around 70 participants: a mix of faculty, students and staff. The conversations take place on November 6 and 7 at four different time slots throughout the day.

“What we really want is a mix of people whose experiences are different, so we did try and place people in different groups given their preferred time slots,” Go said. “We generally kept groups to nine people or fewer plus a facilitator.”

Faculty and staff will participate as well as serve as facilitators throughout the conversation, making the purpose of the event known while enforcing rules and guidelines.

In the 2017 and 2018 cafes’ success was found through the controversial topics such as the potential divisions caused by the 2016 election and the overall inclusivity of the campus.

“The last two rounds of Conversation Cafes encouraged participants to discuss ways in which the campus was welcoming and inclusive generally,” Derakhshani said. “This year, we are focusing more specifically on the Catholic identity of the College and hoping that participants will share what it means to them to be/work at a Catholic college and how that impacts their lives.”

This year’s Conversation Cafes prompt focuses on the College’s Catholic identity.

“Speaking from your own personal perspective and identity, what does it mean to you that Saint Mary’s College is a Catholic institution?” the prompt reads. “In what ways does the College’s Catholic identity enhance, or perhaps limit, your experience here? In what ways do you believe the College’s identity affects how welcoming a community Saint Mary’s is?”

The current conversation originally was brought to attention by the Better Together clubs’ interfaith conference in the spring of 2018.

“We want to discuss how our Catholic character on campus and how that can feel inclusive or exclusive to people of other faith backgrounds,” Go said. “Anytime we increase dialogue on difficult or controversial topics that is a good thing, but I would hope that people from these conversations are also able to understand perspectives they hadn’t previously thought of and able to then integrate that new learning into how they relate to people and their peers.”

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