Inaugural cohort of Tisch dialogue fellows promotes critical discussion, lived experience, activism

Professor Jonathan A. Garlick leads a discussion for his class, "Dialogue, Identity & Civic Action" in the Rabb Room on Nov. 7. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily)

In response to the need for students to discuss important, difficult and divisive topics that grip Tufts campus, the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life has implemented a new Tisch Dialogue Fellows Program.

According to Jonathan Garlick, a senior fellow at Tisch College and creator of the program, he hopes that the program will serve as a way to deepen student understanding of each other’s lived experiences.

“The goal is to respond to the need to build understanding through conversations that provide people with an opportunity to reflect on issues like identity formation [and] ways that they can think about engaging in conversations on divisive issues,” Garlick said.

Currently, the program is a year-long fellowship that trains students in how to create and facilitate a dialogue, according to Garlick. He described the ability to facilitate dialogue as something that requires a specific skill set.

“Being a dialogue facilitator requires a high level of skill, awareness and attunement to making sure that the dialogues unfold in a way that students feel safe and protected,” Garlick said. 

The word “dialogue” is used intentionally to refer to a specific form of structured conversation, Tisch dialogue fellow Maya Pace said. Pace learned about dialogue while interning with Essential Partners, an organization that the Dialogue Fellow Program partners with, this past summer. According to its website, Essential Partners offers “training, facilitation, and consultation” to give communities tools for constructive dialogue around difficult topics.

“It’s basically a really structured conversation, there are several questions and each person gets the same amount of time to speak,” Pace said. “There’s a facilitator who’s holding the container and making sure that people are agreeing … It’s totally voluntary … Once you are in the circle you can pass, always.”

“Holding the container” is a dialogue term used to refer to the way a facilitator creates the space in which a discussion can occur, Garlick explained. In order for students to learn the complexities of this particular form of dialogue facilitation, Garlick described the fellowship program’s three-part training.

“The first is that there’s a course that’s part of the fellows program called Dialogue, Identity & Civic Action, that’s structured as a half-credit course, and what they do is they discuss dialogues they’ve facilitated and plan new dialogues” Garlick said.

Aside from Garlick’s course run through the Experimental College, which will also be taught this spring semester, fellows also go through intensive trainings to acquire the skills necessary to lead a dialogue. The final part of training comes when fellows get a chance to practice their skills and lead a dialogue themselves.

“At Tisch College, there’s an initiative called Civic Science, and what Civic Science does is it allows divisive and polarized civic science issues to be brought into our civic lives,” Garlick said. “The dialogue fellows participate as dialogue facilitators in those Civic Science Roundtable dialogues, and they are scheduled about every month at Dewick.”

Not only are dialogue fellows meant to serve the community in events like the roundtable discussions, Garlick said, but they are also meant to be a resource that can be called upon any time tensions rise on campus.

“The most important function is to conduct dialogues when there is a need to intervene, to support difficult conversations when the campus community is ready for it,” Garlick said.

Pace echoes this sentiment — she feels that often, not having a designated mediator has caused tensions in different spaces on campus to rise quickly. She hopes that the dialogue fellows will fill this role as designated mediators to call upon when a group feels their presence is needed.

“In various organizations that I’ve been a part of, at some point things have gotten really tense and things have started to fall apart because people are feeling unheard or not part of it,” Pace said. “I think that the dialogue fellows could be a really important tool at that point.”

Aubrey Fleming, another Tisch dialogue fellow and a current sophomore at Tufts, agrees that dialogue has the power to positively impact Tufts campus. After experiencing dialogue in Garlick’s first-year seminar, science and the human experience, she realized it can serve as a catalyst to get people talking constructively about controversial issues.

“Through taking the class and dialoguing about controversial and polarizing scientific topics, I realized how dialogue can serve as a safe means to open up conversations that should be happening within our community,” Fleming said.

According to Garlick, the purpose of these structured dialogues is not to find a solution to these problems or to persuade people to alter their opinions in any way.

“Dialogues enable asking questions of curiosity, not questions of persuasion, not questions of problem solving, but finding ways to create a space where people can be genuinely curious about each other’s lived experience,” Garlick said.

However, while dialogue seems to be a promising response to tensions on campus, creating a space for people to be curious about each other’s lived experiences inherently puts pressure on those with lived experiences outside of the dominant narrative to be the primary storytellers. Garlick spoke about how dialogue may cater to dominant voices by creating an environment where those with marginalized identities inherently have an unequal burden placed upon them.

Pace shares some of the Garlick’s concerns — she still struggles with the aspect of dialogue that places more burden on those with more intense lived experiences.

“Something I’ve been thinking about is the ask — if we are having a dialogue about something that impacts some people in a more personal, intense way than other people, what does it mean to ask them to be in that space?” Pace said.

Fleming recognizes that while the program isn’t perfect, the inherent structure of dialogue can help alleviate the intense pressure marginalized voices may feel in a conversation about an issue that impacts them directly.

“The facilitator lets the group know before the dialogue begins that they have the option to ‘pass’ or ‘pass for now’ and can opt out of answering any or all of the prompting questions,” Fleming said. “Because of this structure, it helps ensure that no participant feels they have to ‘carry the conversation.’”

Pace agrees that the voluntary nature of the structure of dialogue can help balance out its issues, as it can provide a platform where people from all identities are required to listen to each other.

“I think that for folks with identities that often get silenced by the dominant narrative, this can be a place of mandatory listening,” Pace said. “I think that because everyone gets a chance to speak and a facilitator can intervene if someone starts to say something harmful, it creates a space where the sharing of that story might be held a little more carefully than it potentially would in other spaces.”

Ultimately, Pace believes that the Tisch Dialogue Fellows Program can be unique in its goal to support and promote activism rather than silence it.

“Something I really appreciate is that this model isn’t meant to silence activism and it isn’t meant to replace activism, it’s meant to be a complement to activism,” Pace said. “I actually think that activists and folks who care about engaging in change are able do their jobs better if they are more aware of how other people are thinking about these issues.”